Sharing in the groove

dolomites

After spending a quiet, reflective week in the Tuscan countryside, I was on the move again.

It’s an interesting situation I find myself in these days. I talk so much about slow travel and taking my time, yet here I am bopping around Italy every few days. I can say that I am very much looking forward to settling down and spending a month in Bari.

Ready to ebb back towards a bit of extroversion, I was looking forward to my friend Johnny arriving to visit. While this would mean switching to vacation mode, I was excited about that.


Siena

I had been wanting to visit Siena ever since my parents visited several years ago and raved about it, stating they enjoyed it more than Firenze. I so greatly wanted to be able to have conversations with them about our shared experiences in the town.

For much of the time here in Italy, it wasn’t looking like that was going to work out. I was finding the cost of accommodation more than double my budget. While I was looking for my next move, I came across a listing that was close enough to my budget that I could fulfill that wish.

A short train journey had me arriving in Siena in the early afternoon. I’m not sure the saying, “you get what you pay for" applies here, but my booking was nothing more than a tiny room in an apartment. The apartment was clearly converted from something much larger into 7 separate single rooms. All that mattered was I was in Siena!

After a short rest, I headed into the old town. Much like Perugia, Siena is that quintessential Italian hilltop town. Perched on top of a hill, overlooking the surrounding valley, with steep fortress walls, the old town was full of charm.

All roads lead to the main attraction, the Piazza del Campo. I’m not sure I’ve seen a more impressive piazza! A large, crescent-shaped courtyard slopes down to the Palazzo Pubblico and La Torre del Mangia. Stunned by its powerful beauty, I had no choice but to find a seat in a cafe and imbibe a few Negronis while taking it all in.

For the next couple of days, I languidly wandered through churches, parks and walled gardens. Each day drew to a close back in the piazza for aperitivo.


Verona

My journey from Siena to Verona felt like one giant game of “whack-a-mole.” The original itinerary called for a total of three trains and two changes. Most of these changes were 15 minutes or less.

Many people rave about how efficient the train systems in Europe are, and for the most part, that’s true, but not on this day. The very first train was late in arriving in Firenze, which left me scrambling and making some rash decisions. Each successive late arrival had me finding the next best option to get to Verona. I eventually arrived but my train count rose to five with four transfers.


Ahh, Verona. Fabled home to Romeo and Juliet. This city oozes romance. From my first walk around town, I was in love. My romantic side kicked in immediately and I was hooked.

With the sun starting its evening descent, I headed out to find a quick meal. I picked up a delicious focaccia sandwich and a beer, sat in the main piazza, and watched all the people go by. It was the perfect tonic for an exhausting travel day.

There seems to be a common thread running through the places that tickle my fancy … foliage. I noticed in Verona that I was loving all the balconies overflowing with lush greenery. Thinking back on other places I’ve fallen for, they were all full of plant life.

I was also loving how the Adige river meandered through the city, creating beautiful vistas of the old town from many vantage points. I strolled along the river banks from both sides, upping the charming vibes each time.

On my second day, I hiked up to the Santuario della Madonna di Lourdes, which sits above the city and provides a gorgeous panorama of the entire city. Seeing Verona from this vantage felt like a time machine. Transported back hundreds of years, I gazed out over the old town hugging the Adige.

That evening I took a funicular up to Castel San Pietro for sunset, where the charm and romantic levels reached epic proportions. The castle sits lower and closer to the city than the Santuario. This positioning allowed me to capture some beautiful photos of the sun setting over this timeless city.

On the final night in town, I met up with Johnny. We enjoyed some wonderful pizza and a nice wander through the old town. But after 48 hours of travel, and the adventures we had ahead of us, he was definitely in need of some sleep.


Dolomites

What to say about this alpine wonderland that hasn’t already been said? It’s easily one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful places I’ve ever been. Simply breathtaking.

Our train ride up to the city of Bolzano provided a hint of what we were about to experience. Johnny has no problem falling asleep anywhere and was napping within minutes of leaving Verona. About 30 minutes into the journey he awoke and about fell out of his seat at the unexpected sight of the first wave of the Dolomites revealing itself out the window.

The original plan for our week together was to do a little hiking here and then head to Genoa for some time on the water. But upon arrival in Bolzano and checking into our wonderful apartment, it was immediately decided we should spend our entire time here.

The region of South Tyrol is a beautifully confusing place. Technically part of Italy, but you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in Germany. The region is Italy’s northeastern border with Austria, and for most of its history was part of that country. As such, everything is predominantly Germanic. Everything was in German first, Italian second. Quite surreal.

The town of Bolzano (or Bozen in German), is a wonderful alpine town, nestled between stunning peaks all around. The area is also home to more cable cars than roads, and getting anywhere in the region requires taking them.

On our first full day in the region, we decided to hike to the Seceda ridgeline, one of the Dolomites signature locations. From the town of Ortisei you can take a cable car up to the peak in about 15 minutes, but where’s the fun in that? Instead, we opted to continue past Ortisei to the tiny town of Santa Cristina Valgardena. From here we began our eight-hour, round-trip hike.

The challenging, but not strenuous, climb had us ascending through quintessential Alps scenery. Think rolling green hills, mountain chalets and craggy peaks.

As with other hikes I’ve documented on this adventure, I’m not going to give the play-by-play and will let the images speak for me. (I highly encourage you to view these full size)

At the apex of the hike, we took our time enjoying the 360º view of the breathtaking Italian Alps, which had Johnny doing backflips of joy. Extra time was spent in awe of the signature view of this hike, the ridgeline meadow with Monte Seceda towering behind it.

backflips

My comfort zone was acutely challenged on the descent, which ironically had us going up for a large part of it. As we started to make our way down, the trail had us heading for another ridgeline. Upon approach, I could tell it was something that was going to cause vertigo and send my acrophobia soaring. But with a storm approaching, and the minutes ticking down to reach the day's last bus, I had no choice but to push on through.

There were moments of sheer panic, as illustrated by my audible, child-like whimpering. But with Johnny’s encouragement, I was able to overcome my fear and scale the ridgeline. In an effort to make it end as quickly as possible, I employed a “gun it” mindset. I scaled the intimidating peak in record time, not stopping for a second to give my mind a chance to realize what was happening.

Only upon reaching the summit did I take a second to catch my breath and look around. The epic view had me shouting primal and euphoric hoots and hollers in defiance of my fears. We took a moment to snap a few photos then began the final descent off the ridgeline and down to the end of the trail.

the mighty dolomites

Back in Bolzano, with depleted bodies and tired minds, we wandered aimlessly looking for dinner. So empty were our brains, that we looped the tiny town square no less than four times before finally settling on the first place we had looked at.


The next morning, we took a wonderful journey deeper into the mountains to our next apartment. The cable car out of Bolzano went straight up the mountainside to the village of Soprabolzano. From there, we boarded the cutest-ever alpine tram to our final destination of Klobenstein.

We spent the rest of the day relaxing in recovery. An afternoon stroll ended at Cafe Lintner, where we read books and soaked in the alpine vibes. Our quiet enjoyment punctuated with pastries, coffee, cocktails and gelato.

For our final day in the Dolomites, we decided to do one of the hikes leaving from Klobenstein. What was listed as an easy hike felt hard on our still weary bodies. Eventually, we gave in and took the cable car to our destination. The views from the peak, Corno del Renon, were magnificent, but so were the winds. Too tired to fight it, we made our way back down and hopped a bus back to town.


After seven wonderful days together, the next morning Johnny and I parted ways. He had a plane to catch in Milano. I had a few days to kill before my sister arrived and I decided to head to Genova.

In that moment, making the decision to head to Genova, I recognized that I was truly and completely in the groove and have been for some time. I am taking each day, really each minute, as it comes and finding the joy in every minute. It was amazing to share in that groove with a friend. Long may it run.