Exploring Assisi – The Unintentional Pilgrimage (Part 1)

Me and my preggo bestie Trin, at Katie's wedding reception. It was a misty day, but we're actually on top of a mountain, overlooking the sea, in Lovran, Croatia.

Me (right) and my preggo bestie Trin, at Katie’s wedding reception. It was a misty day, thus hard to see much of the background, but we’re actually on top of a mountain overlooking the sea, in Lovran, Croatia.

In the summer of 2012, I went to Europe for a best friend’s wedding. Before I left, I quit my job of four years. I’d hated working there pretty much from the beginning, and had just been holding on until a better job came along. One never did. So it was with a mixture of trepidation and elation that I gave my notice. Jobs were scarce; what would I do for money? But the promise of an entire two weeks in Croatia and Italy, not a moment of which would be spent thinking about my gut-twisting, heart-palpitation-inducing job, filled me with a longing that I couldn’t ignore. I briefly imagined a long vacation, wasted with worrying about a pointless job back home, and realized that my limit had been reached. I called up my boss and resigned my position immediately.

From the moment my flight landed in Trieste, I was in heaven. My American girlfriend was marrying a Croatian sailboat captain, and two of his best friends drove into Italy to pick me up at the airport. On the way back to their hometown of Lovran, one friend spoke in Croatian and the other translated into passable English (much better than my Croatian): “What music is favorite of yours?” “How like you our country?” “You are best friend of Katie, yes?” The radio dial fluctuated between German pop music and Italian power ballads, interesting roadside attractions were pointed out, and one of the guys measured me up as a potential bridesmaid “score” – THAT look is universal.

In Croatia, I met up with my two best friends. One was getting married, and the other announced to me on the spot that she’d just found out she was pregnant with her first child. We celebrated that first night together with about a gallon of happy tears and another of freshly-made gelato. It was odd, because I was intensely sad to be being left behind, but also so happy to see my friends getting all that they desired. It was the kickoff of what was to be an emotional vacation; maybe it’s my nature as a Scorpio, but I can’t think of a better way to spend a couple of weeks in two of the most beautiful countries on earth than exploring the complexities of the soul.

Luckily, since I was with two of the people who know me best in the world, I was given the perfect mixture of alone time vs. together time in Lovran. I had time to explore the town on my own, sit on the beach, and drink espresso in the local internet cafe. But I also had the important honor of helping the bride Katie’s mother steam creases out of her wedding gown on her wedding day. I also felt beyond loved when Katie invited her best girlfriends to spend a few precious moments drinking champagne with her as she got dressed, put on makeup, and tried to relax before meeting her intended at the traditional pre-wedding party. At and after the ceremony, Croatian relatives who had never met any of Katie’s friends from the US knew me on sight, called me by name, and hastened to give hugs and make conversation, but no one was clingy or expected too much. When I was worn out from talking, there was a beautiful mountain-top balcony where I sat and had a glass of wine, enjoying the murmur of conversation in the background while a cool breeze from the ocean comforted me, the last of the unmarrieds, feeling a little melancholy at the end of the night.

The night after the wedding, I was back in charge of my emotions and decided to take full advantage of being relatively young and able to party. I went out with Katie’s younger twin cousins and some of their new Croatian friends, drinking beers and conducting a singalong down at the marina, then moving our party to a local late night bar. It was a raucous time, until I realized it was almost time to pack up and leave town in two hours…oops. At 6am the next morning, an extremely hungover and sleep-deprived Anna caught a ride back to Trieste, where I caught a bus to the train station, where I then caught a train to Venice. It was a good five hours of hating my life and hoping not to puke on my fellow passengers. But then: Venice. My eyes fill with tears just typing it. There’s no need to wax poetic. Let me just say that it’s one of my favorite places on earth. It never disappoints, and always draws me back. I’m always living for my next visit; the smell of salt water, the sound of music floating over the canals.

A wonderful meal on the island of Burano. House-made clam linguini, crusty fresh bread, and the restaurant's own house white, enjoyed al fresco on a drizzling day.

A wonderful meal on the island of Murano. House-made clam linguini, crusty fresh bread, and the restaurant’s own house white, enjoyed al fresco on a drizzling day.

After a too-short stay in Venezia, another train ride (this one much less hungover, thank goodness) conveyed me to unfamiliar territory: Perugia. Before visiting this Umbrian gem, the city honestly wasn’t even on my radar. In fact, I’d chosen to visit Perugia primarily because it was a short bus ride from my intended target: Assisi, home of Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, otherwise known as St. Francis. I didn’t spend enough time to have any great stories about the town, other than being awestruck by the massive Etruscan Arch (dating from the 3rd century BC), and falling in love with the tradition of a late night espresso and gelato at my local gelateria. In hindsight, I have no idea how I slept on that vacation. I think I had an espresso every time I passed a cafe, I never turned down a glass of wine (which should be a rule on any good vacation), and I know I ate gelato at least twice a day for two weeks!

The Etruscan Arch in Perugia, Italy.

The Etruscan Arch in Perugia, Italy. The photo doesn’t do justice to how imposing this 3rd century BC construction is in person. It seems indestructible.

My second morning in Perugia dawned bright and cool – perfect weather for a day trip to St. Francis’ hometown. I didn’t know what to expect. Before leaving the States, I’d decided that since I’d have a full week on my own in Italy, it would be a good idea to spend some of my time just shopping and eating (two of my top favorite pastimes), and the rest checking out architecture and religious relics. Assisi seemed like a fairly obvious choice, given my time constraints and an extremely basic knowledge of St. Francis – that he was an animal lover, displayed symptoms of what might today be concluded to be mental illness, and wasn’t too keen on fashion. Most of all, though, I was excited about visiting a town that hasn’t changed all that much through the centuries. Assisi is a walled medieval city, set against a stunning backdrop of rolling, verdant hills. I’d never seen anything like it in person, so why not? Francis would just be the icing on the cake.

Little did I know that this trip would set something in me on fire. Stay tuned for more on my awakening in Assisi, tomorrow…(Click here to read Part 2)

Basilica Papale di San Francesco, as seen from a street higher up in the town (it might have actually been someone's private courtyard, but no one told me not to stand there).

Basilica Papale di San Francesco, as seen from a street higher up in the town (it might have actually been someone’s private courtyard, but no one told me not to stand there).

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Have Kicks, Will Travel

Anna Harris Converse Tower Bridge 2005

Tower Bridge – London, 2005

Anna Harris Big Ben, 2005

Big Ben – London, 2005

Anna Harris Versailles 2005

Statue of Louis XIV – Versailles, 2005

Anna Harris Paris 2005

Eiffel Tower – Paris, 2005

Anna Harris Arc de Triomph 2005

Arc de Triomph – Paris, 2005

Anna Harris San Simeone Piccolo Venice 2005

San Simeone Piccolo – Venice, 2005

In November of 2004, after a particularly difficult year, I travelled to Europe for the 2nd time. In July of 2005, after a particularly wonderful six months (and by happenstance, directly before the start of the hardest period of my life thus far), I travelled once again to Europe. The routes went something like this:

November 2004 – flight from New Orleans to London, immediate train from London to Cologne, immediate train from Cologne to Vienna, day trip by bus from Vienna to Bratislava, bus back from Bratislava to Vienna, flight from Vienna to London, then back to New Orleans. The trip was about 14 days in all, including my birthday, and the majority of it was spent in Vienna visiting my friend KT. It was amazing, and just what I needed right then to get me through the sadness of the last year.

July 2005 – flight from New Orleans to London, train from London to Bruges, train from Bruges to Vienna, train from Vienna to Venice, train from Venice to Nice, train from Nice to Paris, train from Paris to Chartres, train from Chartres to Paris, train from Paris to Versailles, train from Versailles to Paris, train from Paris to London, then back to New Orleans. This trip was also about 14 days in all, including the 4th of July (spent along the Danube, drinking imported American beer and listening to Credence Clearwater Revival on a little radio). The premise of the trip was to visit my friend KT in Vienna again, but this time my other friend Trinity was also in Europe, and the trip was magical. After visiting Vienna, Trin and I left for Venice (not so great), then we parted ways. She went on to explore the rest of Italy, while I went to sun on the beach in Nice, then hang out in Paris for a couple of days before heading back to London.

My trusty black Converse low tops went with me on both trips.

They accompanied me to six different countries. They were there when KT and I missed our plane to see The Decemberists in Berlin for my 23rd birthday. They were there when I prayed in the catacombs of Stephansdom. They were there when I saw how rowdy a bunch of Irish kids can get when U2 comes on at the pub. They were there to see the great cathedral at Cologne, and to witness the soul-aching beauty of Notre-Dame de Chartres. They were there to see the Eiffel Tower sparkle, and to fall in love for just a second with a fellow tourist in Versailles. They (and two heroic Swedish backpackers) were there to help me run away from a knife-wielding lunatic in the dead of the night outside of Paris Nord, and to help me find some amazing Indian food just down the street from the London Eye.

I loved those shoes, and took photos of them all over Europe. In the end, I was wearing them to wait tables in 2006 (yes, they were also there to escape Hurricane Katrina with me) when I accidentally spilled bleach on them. I was so upset that the manager had to take over my tables while I went into hysterics in the back store room. Now, they live in a box. I wore them until the soles began to wear out, then didn’t have the heart to throw them away. One day I mean to frame the stinky old things in a shadow box, along with a map of their travels. I’ve been through two more pairs of black Converse low tops since then, one of which went back to Europe with me in 2007. They just aren’t the same, though.

Last summer, in 2012, I went back to Venice, and to Croatia, Perugia, and Ancona for the first time. I wore TOMS. They were much more comfortable than my Converse. Not as sturdy, though. Not as emotionally fulfilling.

Vacation Retrospective – Day #5: Burano & Venice

My biggest regret from Day #5 of my vacation was not thinking ahead and charging my camera battery, thus not getting any good shots or videos of Burano. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought back on the hazy memories of those gorgeous little houses, and then mentally kicked myself in the butt for being such an idiot. I had TWO camera batteries with me for just such a moment, yet I didn’t charge the spare and I lost out on some of the most visually striking moments of my entire damn vacation. Argh.

Being me, and knowing that I’ll figure out how to get back to Burano some day soon-ish, I keep telling myself that next time I’ll be prepared.

I was also more bummed about the rain in Murano than I let on in my post. It was cold and icky, and though I did have an umbrella, it was all a bit irritating. Not at all what I was expecting of summer in Italy, that was for sure. Besides being cold, I also ended up wandering around what were probably the “back streets” of Murano for quite some time. I couldn’t get oriented on the map, and ended up walking to the opposite end of the island from where I needed to be. It was a wonderful experience, though, and I wouldn’t give up a second of it, despite the aching feet at the end of the day.

That night, after getting back to Venice, I went out dinner: cuttlefish cooked in its own ink, served with polenta and a spinach and ricotta dish that seriously blew my mind. I drank some wine with dinner, then eager not to lose a minute of time, spent the next couple of hours just wandering around Venice, down through Piazza d’ San Zaccharia to the lagoon, around through San Marco, and back through all of the little side streets, down dark alleyways where the only people that I met were restaurant workers, bringing out the garbage.

Finally, I ended up walking by several high-end mask shops, still open at almost midnight. I passed them by, then stood on a little footbridge and looked out over the canal. Eerie music wafted towards me on the wind, directly from the door of one of the shops (Ca’ del Sol), drawing me back to take a look. I wandered in and was stunned at the beauty of the masks of all shapes and sizes, all hand-painted and much more intricate than anything I had seen so far in the junky tourist shops that litter the Venice landscape. The shopkeeper was the best thing about the store, though. He was wearing a beret, little wire-rimmed glasses, a painter’s smock covered in paint, and a bushy moustache that made him seem both scarily eccentric and utterly harmless.

Although I was still feeling very angry with The Man for not coming along on this fantastic adventure, it struck me that if I was going to buy him anything, it should be from this beautiful place. After 20 minutes or so, I decided on what the shopkeeper laughingly exclaimed was “El Diablo!” – the face of a horned, gap-toothed man, maybe the devil, maybe just a satyr. I asked the shopkeeper to wrap it very, very well, and I carried this swaddled mask with trepidation and love for the next 9 days. It’s one of the best things I bought, and though The Man didn’t adore it as much as I had hoped, I love it every time I see it. It’s all black, with gold accents at the horns, eyebrows, and beard, and something about the exotic eyes reminds me a great deal of Japanese theater masks.

Vacation Archives – Day #5: Murano

A huge glass sculpture in a Murano piazza.

This is an entry from the Vacation Archives, a somewhat tardy report of my adventures in Croatia and Italy. On June 4th, 2012, I spent the day exploring Murano and Burano, two of the islands in the Venice lagoon. Both islands are famous for artisanship, with Murano being the historic home of fine glassmaking, and Burano (once) boasting some of the finest lace in Europe. 

So my plans from last night fell prey to laziness and a poor sense of geography. Overall though, I had a lovely day.

I woke up very late this morning, and didn’t leave the hotel until 12:30. It was raining, so I took an umbrella and set out to catch the water bus to Burano. When I got to the bus station, I found that there was no direct bus line to Burano, and that I’d have to go to Murano first. I caught the bus, and loved every second of the trip to Murano.

All day long, the first thing on my mind has been that I’m incredibly lucky. At some point I realized that I’m not lucky, exactly, or at least not in the way I had thought. I’m actually just a cool person, with a vision for who I want to be, and travel is just something I do to be me. In other words, I guess I’m saying that I’ve worked at getting to be the girl who sees the world. It didn’t just fall into my lap, by any means. It feels good to realize that I’m kind of awesome.

Anyway, it rained all day as I ducked in and out of glass stores and the museum of glass. I saw some gorgeous, sparking, delicate jewels, things that I had no clue humans could make. Some of the things in the museum were from the first century AD, and were much more delicate and sweet than any modern pieces I’ve seen.

I also bought myself two handmade necklaces, one simple and modern, the other elaborate and a little ethnic. The first necklace was in a little shop owned by the artist, and lots of his pieces are a beautiful matte finish. I ended up buying a large, faceted green bead on a waxed cord. The other necklace is crazy, with one huge central pendant that was created by a local artist who immigrated from Japan and incorporates Asian techniques in her work. It’s a very detailed pendant, and then the necklace itself features more beads tied in place, and a leather piece that hangs under the pendant, with even more beads dangling from that. It’s more ornate than my typical taste, but I loved it at first sight.  In addition, I bought a necklace for The Man’s mom with Murano glass and Swarovski crystals (she loves bling) and some tiny, delicate glass pigs and swans for my own mom. Oh and a tiny owl for me. It was only 3 Euros, and so cute, though what I’ll do with another owl, no clue.

When it was raining hardest, I stopped into a restaurant called Trattoria ai Frati for a bite to eat. I sat outside along the canal, and the canopy kept me dry, though not warm. I started with a fresh octopus salad, then had spaghetti with clams. I ordered the local wine, and was surprised that 7euro bought my own 1/2 liter bottle of an unmarked white wine, very fruity with a little oak on the back end and a buttery mouthfeel. I guess i should note that really I was more surprised at how big 1/2 liters is, being be typical stupid American.

Octopus Salad

The octopus was wonderful, no seasonings to overpower the flavor of the meat. I was surprised at how succulent it was, and ate every last tentacle. As for the pasta, I don’t recall ever having so simple a dish that I enjoyed so much. The sauce was clam juice, white wine, a little olive oil, and basil. I couldn’t taste any other herbs, and there was no garlic, or if there was they did something magical to it since I didn’t get sick (I’m allergic).

Spaghetti and Clams from Trattoria ai Frati

I was so happy throughout the meal, and while I was finishing up, this tiny, very bold sparrow flew down, perched on my plate, and ate a noodle! I guess it could tell I was amused, or else it was used to getting its way, so it came back a few times to snatch more noodles and some bread crumbs. I couldn’t believe how much it was able to eat.

Bird on Table

Bird Eating Noodles

After lunch I tried to get to the ferry to Burano, where I planned to visit Trattoria di Domani, a restaurant Anthony Bourdain talked about on one of his shows. Through a series of mistakes and a side trip to the Basilica dei Santa Maria e Donato, where I saw the mummified remains of Danieli Urgispache, I ended up on the other side of the island, and it was after 6:45 by the time I got on the ferry. By the time I ended up in Burano, dinner service was closed, and only drinks were being served at pretty much every place on the island, from what I could tell. I walked around a bit, consumed with the quaint beauty of the local houses, neatly painted every perceivable shade. Many had window boxes with little flowers in bloom, and there were handsome cats everywhere. Most doorways had curtains of fabric or beads hung in front of the actual door. I’ll have to look that up when I get home.

Burano Houses

Burano’s candy-colored houses line one of their canals.

Now I’m on my way back to Venice. I believe I’ll look for a new restaurant for my dinner, maybe in a different neighborhood than where I’m staying. Then I’m going to look for a show of some sort. Maybe there’s a play or a rock show or something memorable.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be checking out early and heading back to the train station, then on to Perugia!

Vacation Archives – Day #4: Venice

This is an entry from the Vacation Archives, a somewhat tardy report of my adventures in Croatia and Italy. On June 3rd, 2012, I left Croatia with about an hour’s sleep, after a night of drinking and singing, and caught several modes of transportation toward Venice, Italy. This was written after settling in for the night at my room at Hotel Tiepolo.

I’m one insanely lucky bitch. I’m writing this from my lovely little hotel room in Venice, Italy. Today has been one of great highs and lows.

Last night after dinner, I went to a little party down on the waterfront in Lovran, just a few locals, Katie’s brother in law, and Katie’s twin cousins, Zachary and Ian. We drank, sang, Ian played guitar, it was an awesome couple of hours. When the rest of the kids decided to go off to a party at another town, Zachary and I went to a local bar to get some beers and listen to a Croatian rock band. We had so much fun making friends with some locals at a nearby table, and talking about music and dancing and life.

Zachary (right) and our new Croatian friend. He didn’t speak much English, and we didn’t speak any Croatian, but we still managed to share some laughs.

Our new friend, dancing to a popular song.

Things went a little sour after I accidentally closed my finger in the bathroom door, then was accosted by a big guy who kept asking me if, since I was American, I dated black people. He actually used the n word, though, and was extremely offensive in badgering me about this weird question, probably because he was just a jerk, but possibly also because I kept feigning that I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. It was just such a weird and pointless thing to ask, and also the language he was using was so hurtful that I just froze, mentally, and was concentrating on escape rather than setting him straight. I was close to tears by the time I managed to escape him (I was physically trapped in a corner since the bar was so full). Soon after, Zachary and I left and went back to our apartment house, where we sat up having grappa and talking on the patio until around 4:30.

Cute sign in the bar’s women’s bathroom.

I took a short nap, then caught a ride to the Trieste airport with Katie’s brother and family. From there I caught a bus to Trieste, then a train to Venice. As you might guess, I was pretty hung over and very tired, and felt like puking for much of the trip. No fun. I was proud of myself for not missing any connections, though, and I managed to catch a fitful nap on the train.

My original plan on reaching my hotel was to walk from the train station here. However, I was so tired that I caught a water bus instead. A much better option, considering that when I got to San Marco, I found that the street address didn’t match up with my map at all. I couldn’t find an Internet cafe to use my iPad, and I ended up wandering for an hour before giving up and calling the hotel. It turns out that the “street” is actually a dead end alley measuring about 30 feet in its entirety, lol. Once the clerk gave me an idea of the area to look for, I found my way with no difficulty. Lucky, actually, because I had been in a five block radius of my destination the entire time and would never have found it on my own.

But I got here, and that’s the big thing. The hotel is tiny, and much nicer than I expected. I’ve got two windows that open out to the street, where there’s a great night breeze and it smells all kinds of yummy from the restaurants out in the square in front of the hotel. The streets are still bustling, which is neat since its 10pm on a sunday. The room has a big bed, wood floors, wood beamed ceilings, a mini fridge stocked with sodas, a personal safe, and my own private bath, complete with hair dryer, bidet, and really great water pressure in the shower. In the morning there’s free breakfast, too!

After taking a short nap, I put on a cute outfit and went out to explore and find food. It felt very safe to just wander about, unencumbered by my pack. I walked in every direction I could, then back, and chose the next direction. I now know how to find my way here from San Marco and San Zaccharria, so I don’t think I’ll lose my way tomorrow. I went to San Marco to take photos and do some people (and pigeon) watching, and heard some lovely bands playing to the diners in the square. Weird but true, the first song I overheard was a great favorite of mine to sing, Besame Mucho, and then the next band I encountered was playing another of my all time favorites, All Of Me. It felt fateful, somehow.

I had dinner at a crappy little snack bar run by a sweet Chinese couple. The food was just ok, but I hadn’t eaten in 12 hours and was tired of inspecting menus, and they had photos and cheap prices. Plus, I tend to be less intimidated by Asian proprietors. Yes, I know that’s weird. At least I was still eating Italian food.

There’s a purse at a store next door that I will probably buy tomorrow. Right now I’m going to eat some chips, read a bit, then catch some shuteye. Tomorrow I want to go out to Murano and Burano. One of the restaurants in the square is playing the soundtrack from Last of the Mohicans. Beautiful, but odd to hear from my hotel room…

Update: after I stopped writing, the restaurant started playing the Godfather soundtrack!