Dose of Awesome # 234

I’m back in Kuujjuaq after an amazing vacation in Italy and Austria. Starting with two days in Venice, my vacation took me from the tourist-ridden canals of Italy, through the Dolomites and up into the Austrian Alps before returning back to Venice and flying to Montreal for a day of pampering, shopping and all you can eat sushi with a friend.

My vacation was relaxing, challenging, refreshing, productive and a lot of fun – everything I needed!

5Venice canal from the Rialto bridge.

1. Awesome are mountains, and the opportunity to hike approximately 160 kilometres on steep mountain terrain (think: 1000 metre ascents and just as crazy descents) over the course of the last 3 weeks.

After a few days in Venice (which I explored, but did not take very many photos of because I’d been there and done that already, two years ago), I went to the mountains.

First, I hiked alone on the trails of Domegge, to a rifugio where I drank a tiny, yet delicious caffe americano while watching cattle frollic in the fields surrounded by a panorama of the tallest, most rugged mountains I’d seen to date. I continued my hike to another rifugio where I had an amazing mountain lunch of meats and cheeses, and complimentary shots of grappa with the hosts.

11View from the dining room at Albergo Adelia – the albergo where I stayed during my solo time in Domegge.
9Trail marker showing the way to the rifugio, on my solo hike.10Rifugio Padova – where I drank coffee and watched cattle run on my mid-morning coffee break.

Then I hiked 120 kilometres – from Cortina to Bolzano – with a group of people I did not know. Like the Tour du Mont Blanc and the Camino Inca, I booked the trek through G Adventures, so as to enjoy the expertise of a mountain leader, and the ease of having all accommodations and most food taken care of for me.

For the duration of the trek, life was like this: wake up, pack up, eat delicious gourmet mountain rifugio breakfast, set out on a 7 to 10 hour day of hard, steep hiking, arrive at next rifugio, shower, relax over beer/wine/coffee with new friends, read, relax some more, eat fabulous 3- to 4-course mountain rifugio meals, sleep, repeat. It was wonderful.

16Lake at our first rifugio.19Rifugio Croda da Lago and its fantastic view – where we slept on our first night.24Foggy second day of hiking.15My favourite parts were the ascents (this was at a little flat bit of a big ascent).
29Amazing view at our second rifugio – Rifugio Scoiattoli.

33Beautiful view of the valley.40Another beautiful view of another beautiful valley.
43The group, trekkin’ away.
13Lunch break!
35The views just kept getting better and better.
44The group, just before the rain came.52The group at the summit – the highest point of our trek.

After the trek, I continued my trip with more solo hiking – once up the Alpe di Siusi, from Seis to Compach, and another time up one of the mountains in the Austrian Alps near Innsbruck.

2. Awesome was sightseeing in a new city.

I spent three full days at the end of my vacation in Innsbruck, Austria. For the first two days, it rained, and though I did go on a hike during one of the rainy days, I took this also as an opportunity to spend lots of times in museums – including the Alpine museum (a museum dedicated entirely to alpine mountain climbing and hiking).

57Part of the alpine museum in Innsbruck, Austria.
58Cool houses across the river in Innsbruck.
59Innsbruck’s old city.
62View of the city of Innsbruck from the top station of the Nordkettenbahnen cable car.

3. Awesome is a productive day of getting ready to return to the north, in Montreal. My list of things to do included getting a haircut (a priority, since my last one was last December and my hair was growing large and out of control), get a pedicure (after 3 weeks of trekking in the mountains, this was also a priority), buy some new clothes, and see a friend or two. I only had one day, and was very lucky, as it turned out to be a holiday and things very well could have been closed, but they weren’t.

In one day, I managed to cross everything off my list, and then some.

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Awesome # 362: Going Somewhere Unfamiliar

I think this post of awesome has written itself between July and now. As those of you who have been reading already know, I spent half of my summer vacation in unfamiliar places. So, for the sake of reducing redundancy, I’ll just make a list of the unfamiliar places I’d been in 2012. In 2012, I went to:

1. Paris, France.
2. Chamonix, France.
3. Courmayeur, Italy.
4. La Fouly, Switzerland.
5. Champex, Switzerland.
6. Trient, Switzerland.
7. Geneva, Switzerland.
8. Venezia, Italy.
9. Firenze, Italy.
10. Cinque Terre, Italy.
11. Roma, Italy.
12. Napoli, Italy.
13. Pompeii, Italy.

In all its fascinating, humbling, rejuvenating glory, going somewhere unfamiliar is a resolution that I more than accomplished this year.

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DSCN4919Paris

DSCN5212Chamonix

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DSCN5500Courmayeur

DSCN5581Champex

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genevaGeneva (not my photograph)

DSCN5704Venezia

DSCN5840Firenze

DSCN5930Cinque Terre

DSCN6059Roma

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DSCN6183Pompeii

Awesome # 361: Experiencing Something Humbling

I’ve been an ethnic and linguistic minority for the better part of the last 2 and a half years. Between the moment I landed in Shanghai in February of 2010 and now, I’d gotten so used to being lost in translation that I’ve come to barely notice it anymore, or perhaps I’ve learned to just naturally work around it.

In the past 2 and a half years, I’d experienced enough culture shock – in Shanghai, in Perú and, a bit to my surprise, even in Tasiujaq – that by the time I landed in Paris to begin my month-long European adventure last June, there was a part of me that felt immune to the discomfort, the frustration, and the feeling of incompetence of the experience. And for the most part, culture shock didn’t effect me for approximately the first 20 days of my travels. In France, I was able to adapt my beginner-level handle on Quebecois français to the faster and more formal Parisian dialect without issue; I had little trouble navigating – be it on the streets or on Paris’ intricate metro system and rural trains; and I had no trouble functioning adeptly. Things stayed this way from Paris, through the border of Switzerland, to Venezia, all the way to Firenze’s Santa Maria Novella station.

It was sometime between the moment that my train pulled into Firenze’s Santa Maria Novella station and the moment I stepped off the train with the hopes of easy navigating to the monastery at which I was staying, that the culture shock hit me. In that moment, I was slapped in the face with the humbling experience that is being a solo Canadian non-Italian speaking tourist in Italy.

Firenze smelled of hot leather and sweat. All around, people yelled, pigeons flew and motorcycles sped by – it was loud, aggressive and rough, and it reminded me of a modern, Italian ‘wild west’. In Venezia I was sheltered by a façade of congeniality; I was protected by the tourism industry and the city’s endeavour to maintain it’s romantic Venetian feel (however inauthentic). In Venezia, Italy held my hand. In Firenze began a whole other story.

Emerging from the train at Santa Maria Novella, I was thrown without warning into the raw, searing cobblestone streets of Firenze and, what I came to understand from my experiences over the next several days, real Italy – or at least Italy for a solo Canadian non-Italian speaking tourist – in all its inhospitable, impatient, chaotic intensity.

As I argued with a bus driver who refused to even look at the directions to the monastery (written in Italian by the kind owner of the hostel at which I’d stayed in Venezia) and who eventually kicked me off of the bus for not speaking his native language adequately, I experienced, for the first time in my life, being utterly unimportant.

Fortunately, Firenze was much smaller than I’d initially thought, and my accommodations were easy enough to find on my own (thankfully, as the heat was unbearable and my backpack heavy). Exhausted and flabbergasted by excessive travel and the slap in the face that was the shock of Firenze, I showered, ate, and sought desperately for a remedy for my initial negative impression of the city. Fortunately, I was able to find some solace after I’d met a family from upstate New York as I stood in line waiting to get into the Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiore – with whom I’d toured the cathedral and afterward, shared lunch at a nearby self-serve panini bar in the piazza. Overall, however, the novelty of the city wore off quite quickly, and I even saw right through the most charming of street vendors. After just one day, I looked forward to escaping the city and its rough personality, and spending a day in Cinque Terre, on the Italian Riviera.

My trip to Cinque Terre allowed me to reassess the situation, and prepare mentally for much the same experience that I was to face in Roma. I’d returned from the Riviera ready to let go of my ego and all of my expectations as a Canadian tourist and succumb to my experience in Italy for what it was. It was either that, or hate every moment remaining of my time there.

From that point forward, I was fazed by nothing.

As I awaited my train at Santa Maria Novella early the next morning, I received my first-ever ass grab from an old Italian man who made no effort whatsoever to hide his big, meaty hand as he reached blatantly for my rear end (a gesture that could have either been an attempt at flattery, or to pick my pocket). This happened a few times more since then. I was refused service in restaurants; I was kicked off another bus in Roma for kindly asking the driver to inform me when he got to the piazza close to the monastery at which I was staying; I was told to “go away” by a panini stand vendor outside the Colosseum for asking in my extremely broken Italian if he had any chicken panino (despite the fact that I stood there with 10 euro – more than enough – in my hand, ready to pay); and, I was told to “get out of Italia” by the old curmudgeonly man running a small convenience store/internet point at which I’d checked my email, after I refused to pay the double the internet service fee that he tried to charge just because (as he shamelessly informed me) I wasn’t Italian. During the last few days of my travels, I heard more irritated “ciaos” than I could count.

But oddly enough, rather than depart from Italy at the end of my travels with a bitter taste in my mouth and completely disheartened, I’d grown used to it. I’d even become intrigued by the humbling experience that I had there, as it was an adventure in and of itself. Being a solo non-Italian speaking Canadian tourist in Italy not only taught me a little more about who I am, it taught me to appreciate a little more who I am – and this is why experiencing something humbling is awesome.

DSCN5849Firenze
DSCN5797Firenze
DSCN6069Roma

Awesome # 358: Seeing Something Breathtaking

In 2012, I saw all kinds of something breathtaking.

From dancing aurora borealis,
northern
to the sparkling Tour d’Eiffel at night,

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to the majestic Aguille de Midi from the heart of the town of Chamonix, France,

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to every beautiful inch of the Tour du Mont Blanc,

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to ancient Roman ruins.

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to the most picturesque backyard in existence (Courmayeur, Italia).

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to the beach, at night,

Parleeto fiery arctic morning sunrises,

Sunriseand almost as fiery arctic tundra,

Tasiujaq 4
It’s definitely been a year of breathtaking awesomeness.

Awesome # 219: Last-Minute Openings

On my second day in Firenze, I woke up much earlier than the rest of Italy to walk to Stazione Santa Maria Novella, where I was to meet with a group of people with whom I was doing a “day-hike” in Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre is a rugged portion of the Italian Riviera in the Liguria region of Italy, and its villages, coastline and hillsides comprise the UNESCO World Heritage site, Cinque Terre National Park.

Prior to my arrival in Italy, Cinque Terre was one of the places I wanted to go. However, with the impression that it was much further away from any of the cities I’d planned to visit, as well as an already jam-packed itinerary, I’d put no effort into including it into my plans.

It was during my first day in Firenze, in line at the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, that I’d learned from the American family in line behind me, about Walkabout Florence Tours and the “day-hike” to Cinque Terre. As we scrambled together to the top of the duomo, they told me all about their experience the day before on the same tour and, after lunch together at a nearby self-serve panini bar, they showed me how to get to the Walkabout Tours office to look into booking a spot the next day.

I was very surprised, as I was doing this very last-minute in the height of tourist season, to find that there was an open spot – ONE open spot due to a recent cancellation – on the tour.

We began with a 3-hour bus ride to the small coastal city of La Spezia, during which our tour guide Stefano told us of the history of the places we’d passed by, and tales of the villages we’d yet to see. Then, upon arrival in La Spezia, we hopped on the rural train to our first of five villages – Manarola.

From Manarola, we walked up a crowded, yet scenic 3824 steps to the second village – Corniglia. Here, we sat down, drenched in sweat from the coastal humidity and the jaunt up said steps, to a delicious lunch of insalata mista, fresh Mediterranean seafood and reputedly the most authentic basil pesto pasta we’d ever experience.

After lunch and an espresso, we set out on our hike to our third of the five villages – Vernazza. The prettiest and most characteristic of the five, Vernazza was where we had the most time to just wander and experience Cinque Terre on our own. I wandered the steep narrow streets in search of photo opportunities and something beautiful to buy in one of the local artisan shops, and then joined two Canadian women who were also on the tour for a gelato and some conversation in the main square.

From Vernazza, we took the 4-minute train ride to the next village – Monterroso. There, I split off from the group, who had decided to go swimming in the sea (I neither had a bathing suit, nor knew how to swim) to “hike” up to the monastery and its accompanying look-off. Meeting an hour later, we crowded onto the small ferry boat, which brought us to our last of the villages – Riomaggiore. From Riomaggiore, we walked along the cliffs hanging high above the sea, back to Manarola. There, we caught  the train back to La Spezia, from where we concluded our tour with a sleepy 3-hour bus ride back to Firenze. 

Thanks to last-minute openings, I got to experience this unique piece of Italy, and then some!

Manarola from the trail.Interesting coastal plant.Rugged coast – from the look-off.
Beach in Monterroso.Manarola from the ferry.

Awesome # 218: The Venezia Experience

As I’d written in a previous post, I enjoy getting lost in a foreign city and finding my way again. I like to just put away my map and wander for hours, full of intrigue and discovery. But, in my recent travels, there was one particular city that posed a navigational challenge beyond that which I’ve experienced in any other city – and that was Venezia. There, I had the Venezia Experience.

Venezia is a city full of narrow alleyways that start, end or change names or direction on a whim. It’s full of unmarked bridges over unnamed canals over which you’re forced to cross as you reach dead end after dead end. To make matters more challenging, the majority of Venezia’s more notorious landmarks are clustered in one spot on the Grand Canal in Piazza San Marco, and this left me, while I was there, with not much else with which to establish a feel for my relative location among things. Thus, unless I was standing smack dab in the middle of the piazza itself, I found myself disoriented within moments if said landmarks were not in sight.

In Venezia, I found that there was little point in using a map. If I was able to pinpoint my location within a map at all (which was rare), I often lost my bearings instantaneously as I took my eyes off of the map to continue on my way. I’ve concluded that unless you have a GPS, it’s better to just wander and hope for the best. It’s an island (and a small one at that), so there’s only so “lost” you can get.

As frustrating an experience as this sounds like, this particular navigational challenge was THE awesome of my time in Venezia. I was in the City of Bridges for 2 full days – the first of which I’d dedicated to simply getting lost. I started my day early with a lift up to the top of la Campanile di San Marco (the bell tower) for an “aerial” view of the city and a feel for what I was getting myself into. Then, for the next several hours – approximately 7, if you include a lunch and a dinner in one of a slew of Italian restaurants scattered throughout the city, as well as a brief stop into Stazione San Lucia, upon which I’d literally stumbled, to buy my train ticket to Firenze for a few days later – I wandered. I wandered with not even an ounce of direction, though I doubt I could have had it if I tried. Especially seeing as this was my first true day in the city.

Having no true destination in mind left me feeling more free to just stop and look at whatever it was along the way that interested me – be it a little souvenir shop, a gallery, a unique canal, interesting Venetian architecture or colourful and beautifully arranged confectionary shops. I was more in tune to my surroundings, and I was more involved in the Venezia Experience.

Here are my favourite of my photographs from that day:

Gondolas on the Grand Canal.
Pasta in a little confectionary shop.
Fruit market.
Dead end.
Windy canal from a random bridge.
Venetian windows.

Awesome # 216: Really Old Churches

Their architecture is intricate, and their history is ancient and intense. Really old churches are awesome for their sheer beauty and the extent to which they intrigue me. Here are some photographs that I’ve taken of some of the most beautiful really old churches I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to visit in various countries:

La Cathedrale de Santo Domingo, Cusco Perú.

Cathedral de Notre Dame, Paris France.

Basilica di San Marco, Venezia Italia.

Cattedrale di San Maria del Fiore in Firenze, Italia.

Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano, Roma, Italia.