Exploring the Italian Alps in Valley D’Aosta

Italy’s smallest region is packed full of incredible mountain vistas, rewarding hikes and historic castles, and it is definitely worth the visit.

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OK, so you’ve heard all about Rome, Venice and Tuscany. Possibly, you’ve even had the pleasure of seeing why these are the most popular tourist destinations in Italy. When you’re ready for a whole different take on la vita bella, however, I suggest the small, mountainous region of Valle d’Aosta. Tucked into the northwestern corner of Italy, with France and Switzerland (geographically and culturally) hugging close by, clusters of castles lining the valley floor, sweeping Alpine vistas everywhere and enough hiking or skiing to keep anyone busy outside, Valle d’Aosta is a rejuvenating divergence from city life.

You can still get view of the Roman Empire in the regions capital city: Aosta, Parco Gran Paradiso – the first national park in Italy – is filled with unique wildlife, and blocking the end of the valley is the monstrous Monte Bianco: the tallest mountain in western Europe.

Whether you want to wander historic cities, take a week-long trek or sample the hearty mountain food of the region, this off the beaten path destination will keep you busy. Here’s a run down of the must-see stops and attractions in the area from our four day weekend in October.

Forte Di Bard

As you enter Aosta from Piemonte, highway E25 makes a 90-degree, westward turn into the main valley. As the road twists through the mountains, suddenly the impressive stone Forte Di Bard rises before you, guarding the entrance to the strategic valley. Napoleon’s encroaching armies were held up by the castle’s defenders for more than two weeks, a resistance which frustrated him so much, he destroyed the entire structure after finally winning it.

Luckily, it has been rebuilt to it’s former glory, and it’s possible to climb the road through the charming Medieval town of Bard, then up the winding side of the cliff the fort perches atop. Alternatively, there is a modern, glass elevator you can ride up to visit the various artistic and historical exhibits throughout the many halls of the fort.

Castle in Fenis

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As you continue your drive through the valley, castle spotting becomes almost too easy. There were times when up to four castles could be seen at once along the road side! It’s hard to know which to take the time and stop for.

If you are looking for an easy answer it’s the castle in Fenis village. With turrets, guard wall and surrounded by cattle pens, there’s something quintessentially Medieval about this structure that made my heart sing. We missed the timing for a tour, but it’s possible to go inside and explore for 7 Euros.

Aosta

The largest city in the center of the valley is full of easily accessible Roman ruins, colorful houses and good food. When we walked into the central piazza of Aosta, I turned to The Fiance and said “I feel like I’m in Torino .” Beyond the fact that we happened to be visited durring the annual chocolate festival, Aosta has a similar sense of refinement and elegance, the mountains just happen to be a lot closer. There’s plenty of shopping here, and the historic center is easy to wander in a few hours.

For dinner, stop into the Osteria dell’Oca for traditional Aostian fare which is rich, hearty and perfect for a winter’s evening in the mountains.

After leaving Aosta, I recommend staying off the highway because though you’ll be traveling a little slower, the main road leads you through long, dark tunnels and you’ll start missing many of the incredible vistas.

We stayed near the village of Aymavilles, which allowed us to easily reach all of the following valleys easily and head back to Aosta for dinner every night, while still enjoying the mountain serenity we were looking for.

Valnontey, Gran Paradiso & Rhemes Notre Dame

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Entering Parco Gran Paradiso

With thick larch forests, dramatic glaciers, lots of wildlife and picturesque villages, Parco Gran Paradiso should be high on the bucket list for anyone who loves mountains. We took two drives into the park from the main valley of Aosta: towards the village of Valnontey at the more popular entrance of the park then towards Rhemes Notre Dame on the western side of the park, which we slightly preferred, perhaps because it was a little less touristy.

Both drives took under an hour, were filled with beautiful vistas that made me increasingly happy I don’t know how to drive a manual transmission car and could just look around me and were filled with hiking trails to branch out onto. From Valnontey, we climbed a few kilometers up the side of the mountain, spotting Alpine Chamois, past a waterfall and towards incredible vistas at the mountain summit.

Just past Rhemes Notre Dame, we walked on a more even-graded path along a river bed, through the brilliant fall colors of the larches.

No matter what, in solid European fashion, you are certain to find cute cafes to enjoy an espresso as you savor the views while considering your next move.

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The tiny village of Rhemes Notre Dame, where we seriously considered just buying a cabin for a lifetime of weekend getaways.

Mont Blanc

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No matter the language you’re discussing this impressive mountain in, the color descriptor is on point. Mont Blanc/Monte Bianco is the tallest mountain of the Alps, is situated in both France and Italy, and features some unique choices for traversing its imposing position. There is a 7.2-mile tunnel running directly through the mountain if you’re in a rush, as well as an incredible cable car which you can ride up and over the glacier that spreads across the wide summit, eventually touching down again in France (get in line early! Wait times can be tedious.)

Alternatively, the Tour do Mont Blanc (TMB) is an 170-kilometer, 11 day trek, passing through villages and mountain refuges across France, Switzerland and Italy, circling the entire mountain. It’s officially on the Bucket List for a future summer.

The city of Courmayeur is a little pricey – being a haven of ski resorts – but there are more valleys to the north and south along the imposing line of peaks along the range before you that offer plenty more hikes where you can spot glaciers and stop for a hot chocolate at a mountain refuge. We had hoped to go south to Val Veny to see what are some apparently amazing glaciers and lakes but the road was closed for the season. In the end, we were not disappointed by turning north and the hike to Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, which took a little more than a hour to reach from the valley floor.

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Looking south to the peaks of Monte Bianco from the hike to Rifugio Walter Bonatti.

Even if you only have the time to drive through the spectacular Valle d’Aosta on your way to France or Switzerland, this tiny Italian region provides a unique divergence from the more traditional Italian tour, and you will certainly be rewarded for your divergence from the beaten path.

Valle d'Aosta (2) 

 

What I had all wrong about Italian food

Mention Italy to just about anyone in the world and if the first thing they’re thinking about isn’t food, it’s probably a close second. At least in the western world (and possibly all around the world), I would venture to guess that Italian food may be some of the most recognizable and most replicated. And all of the hype is utterly merited. Not only are meals, and thereby the food consumed, cherished and celebrated here, one will find a rich historic culture of craft behind the myriad of foods, wines and espresso enjoyed up and down the boot-shaped peninsula. Exploring Italy through your taste buds is one of the many highlights of la dolce vita.

I speak as someone who has held a life-long passion for pasta in it’s many forms. When I was around 5 years old I told my parents that when I grew up I was only going to eat spaghetti, screw them and their chicken breasts and hamburgers and vegetables. I believe my mom said “Fine. When you grow up you can do that if you want, but for now you need to eat chicken.”

Well, challenge accepted. How do you like me now, Mama? (For the record, I also eat chicken from time to time as an adult.)

It’s par for the course that America has, well, American-ized Italian food and in my first days here I realized that many of the things I assumed about my favorite food genre were a little off base.

I’m actually a little terrified to make any claims when it comes to Italian food, since it’s so important culturally, and I’ve probably managed to misinterpret something. I truly hope not to offed any Italians in the writing of this post, I’m still just learning after all.

What I didn’t know about Italian Food

(note: this list continues to grow)

The pasta is just the beginning. Literally. Though I imagined huge dishes of spaghetti, lasagna or risotto being the highlight of the Italian meal – perhaps with a side of vegetables or a salad course to start – it turns out this is misguided. In fact, the primo or first course is the starchy pasta dish, which may mean any of the above variations or a million others. (Probably, you’e already had the antipasto, or appetizer, of course.) The primo may be about as much as I would normally eat for an entire dinner back home, but don’t get carried away and accept too many of the extra helpings which will certainly be offered. You’ve got a lot more food on it’s way.

Next comes a secondo, which will feature meat or fish and usually a side of vegetables and that salad Americans tend to eat first. This is the main course or highlight of the meal (though I’ll admit I still relish the pastas the most). Once you’ve managed to clear that plate – which by now is feeling like a bit of an achievement of willpower, no matter how good it all tastes – the fruit, cheese and nut course comes around, followed by (if you’re lucky) desert before coffee or limoncello or other late evening top-offs to aid in digestion.

Also, don’t embarrass yourself and order a cappuccino after lunch! If you prefer a little milk in your espresso, get yourself a caffè macchiato.

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I didn’t think to snap a photo before I started, but join me in relishing the aftermath of true traditional ragu sauce in Bologna.

Nearly everyone who is lucky enough to be a guest in an Italian home has their own version of the story where they are increasingly shocked as each continuous course arrives before them. Mine includes actually drifting off to sleep at the dinner table after being overloaded following a long hot day of Sicilian tourism. There’s no way to prepare for it, and nothing to do but embrace and relish it all, because it is truly a gift from whoever your chef may be.

Everything is hyper-localized, and you’re best off sticking to what’s regionally made. I’ll admit I was a little scoffish when my boyfriend was surprised that I said I might want to try a carbonara at the osteria in Monreale, Sicily. “But,” He said, “We are nowhere near Rome…” (which is where carbonara is traditionally made.) “Well, we’re a lot closer to Rome here than Minneapolis is!” I argued back and went ahead and ordered it.

It wasn’t very good. Nothing compared to the delicious Sicilian dishes I’d been enjoying for the last week, and nothing compared to the carbonara I ate 7 months later when we visited Rome. Because down to the village or neighborhood, there’s a local kind of pasta, a different way of preparing the sauce, a very specific specialty that you really should try because they’ve been perfecting it there for centuries. Even when we were in Trapani, on the western side of Sicily, the boyfriend hesitated to order pasta alla norma, an eggplant based dish originating in Catania on the eastern side of the island. Instead we opted for a noodle very specific to the city we were in, with a fish sauce. And it was fantastic.

So, though you can find pesto (typical of Genoa) or tagliatelle al ragù (kind of what we call spaghetti Bolognese in the states) basically anywhere in Italy, when in doubt, go for the most localized specialty and you won’t be disappointed.

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From January 2015, my first trip here. At the time, I labeled this photo “that one night in Tuscany”

Your meatballs don’t belong on top of the spaghetti! This one kind of disappointed me, because, oh, how I love a good, cheesy spaghetti and meatball dish. But as described above, you’ll find your pasta serving first, then the meatballs will be served with sauce and a side of veggies, but without the bed of starch. (Though if I’m home alone at lunch time and the boyfriend’s mom has left a dish of her incredible meatballs in our fridge, I will admit to cheating and putting them right on top of my spaghetti.)

Speaking of meatballs, I read in the wonderful travel log and cultural exploration Seeking Sicily a fantastic description the Sicilian meatball and the many reasons you won’t find them in a restaurant, paramount among them being Sicilian’s general distrust. When I asked the boyfriend if this is true, he said “Well, of course.” But why, I wanted to know. “Because they can put anything in a meatball, all the bad meats and horrible things.” But, why would they? They want their food to be good, I argued. “Oh, but they probably could do this,” he said. “It’s better just to eat my mom’s meatballs. I will ask that she makes you some.”

Can’t argue with that.

“Alfredo” sauce isn’t a thing here. I’ve enjoyed watching many Italians gasp and ask me to repeat myself when I tell them about it. “A sauce? No, Alfredo is my uncle!”

And while we’re talking sauces, many of the top American brand names make no sense; Prego means “you’re welcome” and Ragu is a meaty tomato sauce typical of the city of Bologna.

The street vendor pizza tastes exactly the same: greasy. Better just make your way to Napoli and get the real thing rather than expecting to find incredible pizza on every corner.

You can put tuna on a pizza! And, provided you are a tuna fan, a tonno alla cipolla (tuna and onion) pizza is actually super delicious.  (These are once again things I found first in Sicily. Have I mentioned the boyfriend’s family origins are Sicilian?”)

Most amazing of all: I have yet to gain a million pounds. I remember when a good friend of mine was on her honeymoon in Italy and she sent me a message one afternoon describing the tiny Italian woman she sat across from in a trattoria in Milan. She watched in wonder as this woman ate a plate of risotto, then a veal milanese with potatoes, as well as three glasses of wine, for lunch. “How do they stay so skinny?!” She implored, as if the boyfriend had let me in on the secret.

I have no real answers for this, though I have some theories. The food is all incredibly fresh, and I’d venture to guess filled with a lot fewer preservatives and gunk that you find in American food. I tend to get very upset stomachs when I eat out in the USA, but have yet to have a similar reaction in Italy, even to things which set me off at home. I also walk everywhere when I’m here, averaging about 6-15 kilometers per day.

Whatever the reason, I’ll go with it and relish all of the incredible gusti until my body tells me otherwise.

 

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Don’t be fooled by any stuffed cannolo (the singular of cannoli) that’s in a display fridge: the real treasures will be filled with the ricotta and sweets after you order them. 

Even if expectations are not entirely what you get, sometimes is a good thing to be surprised, even culinarily.  It probably goes without saying I’d recommend Italy, and Italian food to anyone. After all, you couldn’t possibly understand this place without relishing in the food.

Chin Chin!

Second Impressions: Springtime in Milan

I can’t be sure if it’s the spring time, the daylight or the fact that I have not been visiting other European cities for the last six months and over-saturated myself, but I am finding that I like Milan a lot better the second time around. The first time I was here, it was January 2015 and The Boyfriend and I spent just a few hours one dark evening in the Piazza del Duomo and surrounding streets. I wasn’t expecting much, and left without much of an impression, headed toward grand sunsets over the Dolomites, extravagant Venician bridges and the rolling hills of Tuscany.

For a while now, in fact, I’ve felt pretty meh about Milan, without being entirely sure why. Probably the amount of Italians and other travelers shrugging when mentioning the industrial and fashion powerhouse in the flat, fertile flat lands below the Alps has damped my expectations. And it’s true, Milan doesn’t have the picturesque, colorful houses, the seasides, the vineyards, the hilltop charms most people jump to when they think of Italy. When I think about moving here in August, I’ve been reminding myself of how central to the rest of Europe the city is, how comparatively easy it is to fly into from the states. I think about the multi-national nature of the city, the large University and the language schools which will provide me a place to begin looking for a community. I’ve been optimistic, though cautiously so.

But it would be hard not to find delight in any city within the first weeks of spring, especially coming off a Minnesotan Winter, which drags it’s heals and throws last fistfuls of snow at you throughout March and April. And spending the last two weeks roaming around the different parts of the historic center of Milan has proven to be much more fruitful than expected.

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Side street near the fashion district

I can’t put a pin into what makes Milan Milano yet, in the way other cities’ essences have planted themselves immediately into my consciousness. It stands apart from all the other spectacular Italian villages and cities I’ve wandered through in the last year, feels foreign and outside of my experiences in this country. At one moment I feel as though I’m in New York City, then Madrid, then London. Then I turn another corner and of course I’m in Italy: look at the scooters, look at the laundry and flowers hanging from balconies, smell the espresso!

There is, of course, the spectacular Gothic Duomo, the fifth largest cathedral in the world, dripping upwards with hundreds of spires holding saints who peer down, and more than 3,000 statues along the naves and every level of the church to admire. There is the Castello Sforzesco, an impressive fortress which is perhaps the closest thing to the image I had of a castle before I came to Europe. There is the fashion district, which houses all of the stores you imagine it does, has tuxedo-wearing doormen and possibly too-artsy window displays (shoes and handbags in a fake crate of raw fish, Dolce and Gabbana? Really?). Given a few more days to take my time in the city, I’ve appreciated more and more details of Milan. Wandering through the many grey, slightly grungy metropolitan side streets, suddenly one find’s herself  upon an elegant, tree-lined  boulevard, filled with cafes flowing out onto the sidewalks, flower shops and newsstands. In the distance, you can see the sun glinting off the sleek skyscrapers rising above the historic old town. As you pass under the slightly parted curtains of luxurious flats, suddenly you get a glimpse through an opened garage door into a spectacular garden, tucked within the courtyard of one of these finely detailed buildings. Here are ancient canals, certainly no Venice, but surrounded by bars and buzzing with night life. And hidden behind the most bland exteriors are spectacularly painted churches, chapels made with the bones of pauper graves and Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, if you know where to look.

Milan is a city of smells, but not the typical, deeply human stenches of other major cities. No, Milan is scented in the most spectacularly fabricated way: everyone who walks by you is wearing their own perfume or cologne, while cigarette and cigar smoke floats from every corner and doorway. It’s not exactly a food haven, like so many other Italian regions, but you can’t go wrong with risotto, and, heck: it’s still Italy.

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From the spectacular terraces on the roof of the Duomo, you can get a Saint’s-eye view of Milan.

Maybe the reason I cannot put a finger on the essence of Milan is that it is so different than my assumptions and predictions. Just like the first time I showed up on Hollywood Boulevard, wandering the streets of this metropolis did not turn out to be the overwhelmingly glamorous, opulent stroll through gold and diamond encrusted streets (in a manner of speaking) that I imagined would make me feel exposed as a kitschy, silly Midwestern American girl. Rather, it is a city, like any other, with normal cement side walks, stupendously fancy Italians and everyday people going about their lives, dodging tourists with selfie sticks. At the same time, it is robustly elegant, glamours and perhaps in need of a good wash down in some corners. It doesn’t have all of the sorts of charms one expects from Italy, but entirely it’s own.

Like Los Angeles, Milan is one of the last places in the world I ever thought I would be living – even visiting. But that last twist in the road I thought I was walking lead to three of the best years of my life in Southern California, and I am optimistic about the way home will continue to shift and change as I settle in here.

And luckily, by the looks of things, I have a lot of time to try to nail this city down.

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The opulent galleria just beyond the Piazza del Duomo.
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Castello Sforzesco is an impressive fortress, leading into generous public gardens.

The long way around Sicily

In some ways, it feels like too much time has passed since I visited Sicily last August to write about it now. I certainly planned to. Lots of people have asked me when I’ll write about it. I’ve started a dozen times. The time has passed though, and I realized that there is something to be said about picking things up again a few months later. I’ve been working on a (new!) big project lately, which involves a lot of memoir travel writing, and (with a healthy dose of help from my journals from the trip itself) I’m enjoying the process of living these moments again, of seeing the culmination of emotions, the way that events shape and fold into each other, have ultimately lead me to bigger things. Both in re-writing them for myself and in sharing them with others, the adventures live in. And in the coldest months of Minnesota, adventure can be especially good for the soul.

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Stunning cliff faces in north-western Sicily, near Palermo.

One of the reasons I’m a little overwhelmed by writing about Sicily is that it’s a loaded topic, in general and, increasingly, for me personally. I’m not going to even attempt to crack away at the actual history or tangled cultural roots of this region at the center of the Mediterranean in this blog post. There is truly so much to tell, even from what little I do fully understand. I feel like the place to start, though, is with the most common association people have with Sicily: the Mafia. When I first met my boyfriend Gabriele, and he told me he lived in Milan but his family is Sicilian, I said something offhandedly about the Mafia. His face clouded and he explained to me his frustration that this is all most people know about his homeland. I can understand having a swift and poignant frustration when everyone’s first reaction to your home is “Oh, I can see why you wanted to get out of there!”, and the more the told me about Sicily, the more excited I was to see the region. In fact, having been there, it’s shocking to me that this is not one of the top tourist destinations in Europe, given what it has to offer.

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Our hotel along the lush foothills of the heart of Sicily: the Etna volcano.

On our first day, as we drove from the Palermo airport to our hotel near Trapani, Gabriele described the landscape as a mosaic of agricultural activities. This is absolutely true – astoundingly so: I saw deserts, pine forests, vineyards, olives, and pistachios, in just a few hundred kilometers – but what struck me as we traveled was how much of a mosaic the island is in every other way. With it’s location at the center of the Mediterranean and it’s relative fertility, Sicily has been home and prize to generations of conquerors and cultural influences. From Greeks, to Arabs, to Romans, to Spaniards, to Normans, to a major front of WWII, you can see bits of each of these groups everywhere, and in a single day visit an archaeological site from each era. Like most of Italy, it is also a mosaic of mouth-watering cuisines and extraordinarily local specialties. I was told in the northern central part of the island that I should probably not eat any pasta norma, because that’s typical of Catania, about 150 kilometers away as the crow flies, and won’t be very authentic. (Don’t even ask about when I wanted some carbonara, which is from Rome of all far-flung places!)

The ruins of two Greek temples at Selinunte, one in crumbles and the other standing.
The ruins of two Greek temples at Selinunte, one in crumbles and the other standing.
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One of the last traditional salt works in the Mediterranean, where salt water is concentrated, evaporated and salt harvested by hand.
The gold mosaic-decorated courtyard of Monreale
The gold mosaic-decorated courtyard of the Duomo in Monreale, completed in 1182 by the Normans.

Gabriele and I are doers when we travel. He wanted to share with me as many of the millions of sides of Sicily as he could. So looking back, I can’t begin to describe every city, village or historical site we went to and why they were all fascinating. Maybe later a few highlights of the more than 2,500 kilometers we criss-crossed are in order, but not today. (Considering it’s less than 350 kilometers across the entire island, you might get an idea of how much we drove in 2 weeks.)

The overall experience of Sicily, though, was something I felt deeply and resoundingly. Before I came, Gabriele would almost nervously try to explain things to me, as if apologizing in advance for the ways in which which this place would be different from Northern Italy where we’d traveled before. Granted, I’ve traveled in a lot of places that are not Western Europe, so I wasn’t horrified by the country streets which were sometimes lined with garbage, or the gradual appearance of decay in a lot of the cities. The description he gave me which fits best is, “Sicily is the most Italian place you can go, in all of the best ways and in all of the worst ways.” You can truly go from some of the most industrial, or just plain ugly sites to the most spectacular vistas in a few meters. There is a rich tapestry of culture, history and modern intrigue, but it’s also an economically poor place – made clear by all of the “For Sale” signs hanging from windows in every city center. Honestly, if I did not have a tour guide and a car at my disposal, I cannot imagine being a tourist here: most people speak Sicilian, which is distinct from Italian (and very few speak English), there are poor train and bus systems between even the major cities, and hardly any easy tourist infrastructure in the center of the island. Not to mention nearly every roundabout is a mess of street signs pointing to villages and cities, including the least direct routes, that would take even a local a pause to decipher.

The other comment that seems to capture the spirit and difficulties of Sicily in my mind is when we were discussing what we’d do and I asked if we’d spend time in Palermo or Catania, the largest cities, and Gabriele said “Well, we could, but they are so full of interesting history, museums and things to do, we’d never see it all in the time we have. Also, I don’t want my car to get stolen.”

The winding streets of Cefalù, mid-day.

Right now, Sicily remains a warm, fast moving mosaic of sensations in my mind. Cities made of the lava of Etna, cities who’s white and narrow architecture transplants one just across the channel to Northern Africa, villages carved into cliff sides. The tastes of real canoli, granita (lemon flavored shaved ice) on a hot day and greasy arrancini from a street vendor. Churches studded and covered in gold, cathedrals build upon the ruins and columns of Greek temples, where you can pray to statues of Saints between the marbles pillars which certainly saw very different worship in their younger years. Counting the crumbling towers which line the coasts of the island. Layers upon layers of salt water and sunscreen across my skin. Walking hand-in-hand in the hot afternoon sunlight, when no one else was out, through twisted alleyways under balconies heavy with laundry. Then evening would come and the town square would fill for an elaborate talent show-like concert for all of the locals.

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The main road to the central square of Gabriele’s town.

Gabiele’s mother’s family is from a small town (about 10,000 people) in the south eastern part of Sicily, near Ragusa. Though his father was also of Sicilian origin, they still have a home on the same street where his mother was born, in a row of similarly unpainted homes that seems desolate and imposing in the middle of the day, but where every neighbor waves from behind their barbed wire fence and waves “buonasera!” to you by name as you pass once it’s cool enough to be outdoors. Most of the residents of the village work early mornings and late evenings in the kilometers of green houses with surround the city, and, as of recent years, a growing number are Tunisian migrants. Once the mid-day sun has stopped hitting the central square directly, it fills with local men, mostly over 50 years old, who sit on benches or pace in groups. Sometimes they talk, sometimes they appear to be thinking deeply. No women are present, and you get the distinct feeling that if one showed up, or an outsider decided to walk through, it would throw off the equilibrium of the village.

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The Duomo of Ragusa Ibla, the old quarter of the regional capital.

Ragusa province felt to me like it was on the cusp of something. It’s apparently called the “stupid province” because there is no Mafia presence there – though this may not be the worst thing in the rest of the world’s eyes. Close to the provincial capital, the city of Ragusa, are Scicli and Modica. You could spend days in these two spectacular Baroque cities, admiring stone carvings along buildings and eating chocolate in the traditional way the Spanish brought from South America when their kingdom included Sicily – an art still kept alive at a very fancy chocolate shop where you can sample all you want. Nearby is the city of Noto, another Baroque jewel, and Siracusa, one of the most elegant Sicilian cities and one of the many incredible sites of Greek ruins on the island. I can’t say for sure, but I could see tourism taking off and sticking here, if the right people start showing up.

For now, it remains cheap, sleepy and incredibly real, which I’ll admit, are three things I long for when traveling.

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Scicli, an amazingly detailed Baroque city in southern Sicily.

This trip was different for me than any other I’ve taken. On the one hand, I didn’t feel any of the rush I usually do when traveling: the need to not waste a single moment on the road, to see everything I possibly can because who knows when or if I’ll be able to be back. In Sicily, I felt utter confidence that I’d be back, and many times in my life. So it did not feel like a loss when we didn’t go to Agrigento’s cluster of incredible Greek temples, or I didn’t feel totally present in Siracusa – which people tell me is one of the most amazing cities in Sicily – because of the hot Scirocco winds blowing up from the Sahara, topping the temperatures at over 100 F in the incredibly powerful sunlight. I feel so much confidence – and excitement – that I’ll be back, that this place will continue to expose itself to me, shape me and become a part of my own story.

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Overlooking the hillside-covered houses of the city of Modica

The other reason this trip was so different was that it was truly an experience of learning about another person, one whom I happen to be madly in love with, through the exploration of a place. One of the things Gabriele and I realized about each other early on was that we share not only a love of maps as home decoration tools, but a similar passion and appreciation for the place where we each grew up. Being able to explore Minnesota with him is such a gift to me, because I can truly see his understanding of me growing by seeing my home, and it was the same for me in Sicily. There may not be two more different places in the world than deeply southern Italy and Northeastern Minnesota, we would laugh as I wilted in the heat, but there is something below the surface of the wild differences that ties us together, turned us into two people who could see and love one another so deeply.

I hope to be one day knowledgeable enough of the places and particular histories to write with confidence about how this incredible place has become what it is, and I hope that I can also in my life bear witness to some of the economic and political changes that would make Sicily a better place to live and explore. But I feel lucky for the intimacy with which I was able to begin this journey, and the knowledge that I will be back to witness and learn more.

I believe this to be the most Sicilian photo I took the entire trip, and I'm not sure how to explain why, either.
I believe this to be the most Sicilian photo I took the entire trip, though I’m not sure how to explain why.