In the heart of it all

Revitalized by my time with Eli, I was ready to get back to the solo travel life. Eager to get out of the big city and find “the real Italy,” I booked a series of near week-long stands.

Something that became very clear in my time with Eli was the very real difference between “Vacation Mode” and “Bryce Life.” While Eli is the most chill travel partner, there was still pressure to do and see at all times. That’s what I would call vacation mode, when you have a constant feeling of “doing” and it is exhausting.

I’ll be curious to see how I hold up later this month when my sister visits and we visit three regions in 10 short days! For now, I was very much ready to downshift into the middle gears towards my pace of travel.

Heading south from Milano, my first stop was the Emilia-Romagna region and the town of Modena. The region is considered by many to be the culinary heart of Italy. It is the spiritual birthplace of some of my favorite Italian items … parmesan, prosciutto and balsamic vinegar.

Modena stole my heart immediately upon arrival. The classic narrow, cobbled streets, a small yet charming old town, and restaurants and cafes galore, all provided a true to Italy vibe. The city itself is deceptively large with about 190,000 people. The old town and all its piazzas can be covered in just a few hours.

Struck by the Italian-ness of the city, I made sure to take things slow. I tried a different cafe every morning, found my gelato spot tucked into a quiet neighborhood and spent plenty of time soaking in centuries of history in the piazzas. I even stumbled upon a "jazz in the park" night while imbibing aperitivo.

Sandwiched between my days in Modena were days trips to both Parma and Bologna. Parma took the Itali-o-meter to 11. More piazzas, more churches, more cobbled streets … more of everything! I was filled with the feeling of Italy and starting to envision myself staying here forever.

Bologna, on the other hand, didn’t grab me nearly as much. There’s no good reason for that, just wasn’t my jam. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed it and am glad I spent the day there, I just didn’t fall in love as I did in Parma and Modena.

What I did enjoy was meandering through the oldest university in the world. You read that right, IN THE WORLD! It was interesting to juxtapose that history against the vibe of the young students.

Interestingly, Bologna is (or was) the city of towers. At its height, the city once boasted close to 180 towers. Today less than 20 remain. It's also worth noting that while Pisa gets all the pub for its leaning tower, Bologna actually has two, the Due Torri.

My favorite parts of the city though were all the porticos. In the historic city center, there are over 24 miles of porticos. At one point, I had to audibly tell myself that 50 pictures were plenty and to stop photographing them!

Separate from my day trip to Bologna, I made the journey to the city just to catch another calcio match. Europe is my sports wonderland, as every weekend I have the opportunity to catch a match if I so choose. I had hoped to catch my first Serie B match with Modena FC, but they were on the road the weekend I was in town. So instead I took the train to Bologna for their Serie A clash with Hellas Verona.

While I found Modena relaxing, all these day trips made me feel like I was still in vacation mode. Both days in Parma and Bologna felt high-strung and slightly stressful. Knowing I only had one day gave me anxiety. It makes me go faster than I normally would and doesn’t allow the time to catch a vibe.

Instead of the Flory boy’s style of wandering to get lost, I found myself googling, “what to do in …”, dropping pins on the map and then crossing those off the list. All that was missing was the Lonely Planet guidebook.

I ran into this strange situation in Parma. I had pre-booked my return train and had time “leftover” after completing the sightseeing checklist. An overwhelming sense of helplessness and indecision hung over me, like the dust cloud over Pigpen. This same scenario befell me back in Brussels as well.

The indecision also crossed over into meal times. When you only have one shot to eat in one of the gastronomical capitals of the world, how do you possibly choose where to eat? Obviously, you toss out the Michelin-starred spots since there’s no chance of a seat. So which highly rated yet affordable trattoria do you choose? Even typing this sentence gives me anxiety.

With it becoming clear that vacation mode doesn’t suit me, I swung the pendulum across the spectrum, looking to slow down and enjoy life.

From Emilia-Romagna, through Tuscany to the region of Umbria, and the city of Perugia, I traveled. While, technically, I did book two shorter stays (four nights each), they were both in the same area and the transition between them took less than an hour.

The journey to Umbria should have been pretty straightforward. A couple of hours on the train with a couple of changes along the way. Perhaps I should have been weary of the dubious nine minutes line change along the way, but I digress.

Given it was in a small town, I figured it couldn’t have more than a few platforms. I was correct in that assumption but didn’t plan for the delay that would happen in the bigger station in Firenze. This threw me off course as we arrived more than 20 minutes late for the change.

Arriving late in Terontola-Cortana, the best option was a bus leaving an hour later. I informed my host of the change in timing, and he insisted on coming to pick me up instead! Twenty minutes later, he arrived and we were at the apartment before the bus would have even left the station.

This first location was a guest house in the countryside outside Perugia in the quaint village of Castel del Piano. I was craving downtime and solitude and the location provided it in spades. Plenty of chill time was interwoven with bike rides in the countryside and walks to the cafe. It's been a minute since I had the chance to cook, so I took the opportunity and made several dinners.

Being in the area gave me a good feel for life in the region. Cafes were packed each morning as the locals made time to enjoy one another. Markets closed around 8 pm, so you had to be prepared. Evenings were spent on balconies enjoying aperitivo.

Such was my enjoyment of this lifestyle, that I was apprehensive to move into Perugia proper. The 30-minute bus ride into town was quick and easy, and my new apartment, while small, was a perfect spot to enjoy the town for the next five days.

Perugia itself is one of those quintessentially idyllic towns you dream of when you think of Italy. Set high on a hill overlooking the surrounding landscape. The old town is well preserved at the apex of the hill and the rest of the city fans out around it.

One of the unique features of Perugia is a Roman aqueduct that runs through town stretching about 2.5km. Most of it is underground, but a portion sits above the city and is now a walking path, providing some unique views of the city.

My time in Perugia was a perfect blend of chill and exploration. This was partially by design but also helped along by the daily thunderstorms that rolled through the area. These storms also helped to provide some stunning sunsets, visible from Giardini Carducci.

Still very much loving my time in the Italian heartland, I decided to seek out more of it. I moved a bit north, up into the Tuscan countryside, booking a room in the self-described “Rustic home.”

Located about 30 minutes south of Firenze, outside the tiny little village of Rignano sull’Arno. Set on a hillside approximately 5km from town, surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, rustic is an understatement.

When I booked the room, I wasn’t paying that much attention to the details of the place. I was caught up in the fantasy of living in the Tuscan countryside. I figured I’d enjoy the slow life with walks in the Tuscan hills and maybe a few day trips into Firenze.

When my host, Tiny, offered to pick me up from the train station, I was happy to accept. It wasn’t until we started driving to her home that I realized why she had made the offer. The 5km is about a 45-minute walk into town at my pace. Downhill into town but very uphill on the way back.

Upon arrival, I was wowed by the views and rusticness of the villa. But after being shown my room and decompressing for a moment, I truly started to realize a few things.

The distance into town was certainly a challenge, but it became even more daunting when I realized I had access to almost nothing at the house. I had my room and a bathroom, but no kitchen. How would I cook meals, let alone get groceries?

A mild case of panic set in, as I had booked in for an entire week. While my room is more than comfortable, the thought of spending the entire week in this room felt limiting. I also felt I was wasting an entire week in Italy. Sure, I could make day trips to town, the 45-minute walk wasn’t that bad until I thought about having to make that walk twice, once in each direction.

I did a quick review of the listing and realized that most people booking here come by car, giving them easy access to the surrounding area. This realization sent me spiraling downward even further.

At about this moment, Tiny messaged asking if I’d like a glass of wine. SI, PER FAVORE!!

As I sipped the crisp white wine, in the beauty of Tiny’s garden, I slowly climbed out of the dread. Tiny then offered to take me to the market in town and I eagerly accepted.

As that first day faded into evening, my dread faded with it. By the time I was imbibing my Aperol Spritz in the garden, the mood swing was complete. This is what I had been seeking, what I hoped for. I reminded myself of something I’ve found myself telling others lately … don’t waste time worrying about what isn’t, and enjoy what is. Be here now.

And in that moment, what was was the glorious Tuscan countryside where the only audible sounds were the birds and the bees. The setting sun imbued the puffy clouds with splendid pinks and purples. The slow life, that was the life I sought, and here I had it. Enjoy it.

The next couple of days were spent lazing around, working on various projects, taking leisurely afternoon strolls through vineyards and olive groves, and finding castles and monasteries perched high on hillsides.

That brings us to the present moment, where I am sitting writing this post with a view of the valley below out my bedroom window. I am at ease in this valley that seems so removed from the rest of the world.

In discovering my way of travel, much has become clearer and decisions are easier. I am comfortable in this skin. There are still moments of discomfort and anxiety, but I now process them with calmness and serenity.

I do enjoy a bit of vacation mode, it has its time and place. but I now know a slower style is what fills me with happiness and energy. The ability to “be here now” continues to grow within me. I've come to realize I've been seeking the serenity it provides for a long, long time.

These last few weeks have helped recalibrate my vision for my life. I’m excited for the coming weeks, as I get set to reenter vacation mode with this new understanding. I’ll be curious to see what happens in October when the ultimate slow travel reaches me and I settle into one place for the entire month.

Until then, I'll continue to take each moment as it comes. To be present, happy to be experiencing life in this way ... to be choosing this adventure.