20 Years of Travel #6: Lucca, Italy

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with an obvious location, as it was our home for 3 years: Lucca, Italy (in the Tuscany region). This is actually a difficult post to write, because how can I put down into words how much Lucca has meant to us.

I’m going to start with the obvious….
Food/Wine

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My husband and I loved starting every day by going to our local cafes for our cappuccini

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and pastries…normally a cornetto or sfloglia. We would frequent Piccola Soave during the week and Da Sara on the weekends. It is worth mentioning that food shopping can be a bit different there. If you want the best vegetables, you go to the vegetable stands; for the best meat, you go to your local butcher (pictured on the right – preparing our turkey for our Thanksgiving celebration); and for the best “unsalted” bread, you go to your local bakery. The food there is so flavorful and fresh.

You can’t visit or especially live in Tuscany without having some wine! It is really hard to

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find bad wine there. Plus, for €3 you can get a great local wine that would cost 5x that in the USA. The nearby hill-town of Montecarlo has its own wine festival and is home to the well-known Fattoria di Fubbiano winery. However, the hills around Lucca provide some of the best wineries. We enjoyed our trip to Fattoria Sardi, but our ultimate favorite place for wine is the Fabbrica di San Martino. We’ve been there many times and never leave without cases of wine. Even my friend, who is not a wine drinker, found a wine she loves there.13055839_10153604589492986_7423048710852422585_o (1)

Favorite eatery options:

  • Risto-Bar il Caffe on Corso Garibaldi – was a favorite spot for lunch. I BIG hello to the owners: Roberto and Sabrina. I miss your food and company so much!!!
  • Trattoria da Ubaldo – it is possible that you may find a local comic book series that features the owner of this restaurant. He is an interesting character and a favorite with the locals.
  • Ammodonostro – provides a great sharing meal that includes bistecca alla fiorentina.
  • Osteria Miranda – located in Piazza Santa Maria is one of the few restaurants around that serves our favorite San Martino wine.
  • Trattoria da Leo – a favorite restaurant of the locals. Make sure to have the table wine and the after dinner refreshment of limoncello and grappa that is offered to you before you leave.
  • L’isola Che Non C’era – a great place to take a lunch break while your shopping on Via Fillungo.
  • Le Bonta – everyone in Lucca has their favorite gelateria (gelato stand) and this is ours. It is located right outside the Lucchesi walls.

Our second favorite thing about Lucca are the festivals, holidays and celebrations…

Festivals

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During the summer and fall, it feels like Lucca has a festival or celebration almost every day. Drums and flag throwing are included in many holiday festivities. These are some of our favorite celebrations:

  • Luminaria di Santa Croce – a candlelit procession takes place from the Church San Frediano to the Cathedral of San Martino (Duomo – pictured above). This processional represents the miracle of the Volto Santo (holy face crucifix) relocating 17011_10153061958712986_8573529136269828547_nfrom San Frediano to the Duomo.
  • Lucca Summer Festival – a large summer music festival that has brought many bands and musicians. During my time in Lucca, I got to see Stevie Wonder, Elton John, the Eagles, Backstreet Boys, the Script, Gary Clark, John Legend and Lenny Kravitz (pictured on the right).
  • Effetto Cinema Notte – a celebration of cinema with musical performances all around the town from movies like Grease, Labyrinth, Chicago etc.
  • Verdemura Lucca – a portion of the Lucchesi wall is set up to sell plants and flowers and other organic products. It always made me wish I had more of a green thumb.
  • Lucca Film Festival – where directors are honored for their work and cinematic features. David Lynch and George Romero were previous honorees.
  • Il Desco – a market to sell local foods and wines.

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Favorite Highlights of Lucca

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So many wonderful things to see and do in Lucca. If you like churches, there are more than a hundred of those in this tiny walled-city. Here are some of our favorite things to see and do in Lucca:

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  • The Lucchesi Walls – Lucca is a walled-city. These walls are more than 500 years old.13407250_10153717328072986_8324403784892229909_n The top of the walls have been converted into a park for pedestrians, runners and bikers to wander around the city. My husband and I use to walk the walls almost every night. My friends and I would also take a walk around the wall after enjoying a hearty lunch.
  • Cattedrale di San Martino (Duomo) – the main catthedral of Lucca. This is also where you can view the Volto Santo (mentioned above).10516688_10152228726137986_4388737566867241416_n
  • Home of Giacomo Puccini – Lucca is the birthplace of the famous opera composer, Giacomo Puccini. Puccini created operas such as Madame Butterfly and La Boheme. I highly recommend seeing one of the daily Puccini performances. The singers are just amazing!
  • Museo di Arte Contemporanea Lu.C.C.A. – This is the Lucca Center of Contemporary Art. I got to see a display of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, who was a famous French photographer. The museum did a good job displaying such a large collection.
  • Villas & Palaces – Within the city center, you can visit Palazzo Pfanner and Palazzo13466250_10153717336682986_5258876858347279934_n Orsetti. Outside of the city center, you can visit popular villas, such as Villa Mansi and Villa Torrigiani.
  • Torre Guinigi (pictured on the right) – This is a tower in the center of Lucca that has a botanical garden on the top. It is a bit of a climb but worth it.
  • Lucca Italian School – When I first moved to Lucca, I decided to take a two-week Italian course at the Lucca Italian School. While I was nervous at how intense the classes were, because I didn’t know any Italian at all, I was blessed with a great class filled with wonderful people that I still communicate with on occasion. This course includes classroom work in the morning and then an afternoon excursion (field trip to nearby location) or event (cooking class, movies, etc.). It was a great experience, 1932335_10151990359127986_922716397_nand one I would recommend even if you are just coming to visit for a few weeks. This is the best way to immerse yourself in the town and Italian culture.
  • The Anfiteatro (pictured on the right)- a piazza completely surrounded by apartments and restaurants.
  • Shopping on Via Fillungo – there are many popular and also boutique shops on Fillungo. However, my favorite place to shop is a leather store called Officina della Pella, located right off of Piazzo San Francesco.
  • Chiesa San Michele (see picture below) – This ornate church is located on what used to be the town square. It is nice to just sit in one of the nearby cafes that overlook this church, but on a side note: you will pay for the view.

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If you are looking to explore Tuscany a bit, I highly recommend using Lucca as your main hub, as much of Tuscany is accessible via train from Lucca. It is hard to really describe how much our time in Lucca meant to us, and I hope this post does it justice.

For more information about things to do and places to see around Lucca (mostly day excursions we took), see the following posts:

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20 Years of Travel #5: Berlin, Germany

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Next up on my 20 Years of Travel series is one of my favorite cities: Berlin. I first visited Berlin when Germany hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2006. I cannot even begin toBerlin Pictures 106Berlin Pictures 107 describe how vibrant and alive the atmosphere in Berlin was during this time. Welcoming us to Berlin as we disembarked the train at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof train station were crowds of Germans singing and cheering, for their team had just won their game. I knew right then that our time in Berlin was going to be a wild ride. We got to see the Brazil v Japan game, which was an amazing experience. I loved every minute from the energy of the city to all the friendly people.

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Things to see and do in Berlin:

  • Visit the Reichstag (see photo at the top of the page) – The Reichstag is the German Parliament building. On the right side of the building (if you are facing the front of it) is a moving memorial to all the political leaders who were assassinated for fighting against the Nazi party. You can reserve your visit to the Reichstag by visiting this page.
  • Berlin Wall – What remains of the Berlin Wall that divided Berlin into East and West 1780750_10151950832792986_1162444489_nBerlin after WWII has now basically become an art installation with displays of political statements, as well as statements of love and peace.
  • Brandenburg Gate – This monument was built in the 18th century and has since been the site for many historical and significant political events.

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  • Checkpoint Charlie – After WWII, Berlin was divided. The Soviet Union took control of East Berlin. This is how you can still tell if you are in East Berlin…check out the pedestrian traffic lights:
    The United States took control of West Berlin. They set up a border check called Checkpoint Charlie, which is now an outdoor museum display.

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  • Museum Island – This is a tiny island in the middle of Berlin that houses five museums, which are all worth a visit:
    • Altes Museum
    • Alte Nationalgalerie
    • Neues Museum
    • Pergamonmuseum
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  • Berliner Dom – This is a church that honors the reformationists of the 16th century, which include martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin. The Dom is located near Museum Island.
  • Gemäldegalerie – This gallery houses stunning artwork by famous painters such as Raphael, Rembandt, Caravaggio and Vermeer.
  • Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – One of the things that makes Berlin such an interesting and special place to visit is that it does not deny its horrific past. I believe the memorials, such as this one, represent a peaceful future where we learn from the evils of the past.

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  • DDR Museum – This is an interactive museum that represents life in the Soviet East Germany. It is located near Museum Island and is definitely worth a visit.Side trips from Berlin:

Day Trips from Berlin:

  • Dresden – The city of Dresden is less than 200km outside of Berlin and accessible by train. During February 13-15th in 1945, Dresden was heavily bombed and almost10830921_10152770679987986_4315638381600018905_o complete destroyed by the Allies. Almost every building was damaged or demolished. This includes the three sites we visited: the museum complex called the Zwinger, the Royal Palace (pictured below) and the Frauenkirche (pictured on the right). The Zwinger includes a picture gallery, a porcelain collection and the royal cabinet of mathematical and physical instruments. Fortunately, even though the Zwinger was destroyed, the collection was removed prior to the bombing and saved. The baroque architecture gives Dresden an ashen look, which I find fitting after the WWII bombings.

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  • Sachsenhausen – During WWII, this was the site of a concentration camp that held mostly political prisoners. During the war, this camp housed a few notableBerlin Pictures 082 individuals including Stalin’s eldest son, who ended up dying at this camp under uncertain circumstances. However, our guide leans toward the theory that Stalin was offered a trade – his son for two high-standing Nazi officials that had been captured by the Russians. The theory states that Stalin refused this deal, and his son was dead a short time later. Another individual that was held at Sachsenhausen, Martin Niemöller wrote the following quote that has been immortalized in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
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  • Potsdam – This town is a short train ride just outside of Berlin. It is home to the Sanssouci Palace. This was the summer palace of Frederick the Great, who was the King of Prussia from 1740-1786.

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As you can see, there is so much to do and see in and around Berlin. It is a city rich with culture and history. My husband and I have been to Berlin multiple times and each time we have an unique experience. This is a very special city and 100% worth a visit.

20 Years of Travel #4: Cuba

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My fourth destination on my 20 Years of Travel series is Cuba! As many of you know, as an American, this destination was not open to US visitors during my lifetime until recently. In 2015, Americans were allowed with some restrictions to travel to Cuba, so my husband, his parents and I jumped at the opportunity to visit. At that time you still had to provide an reason for being there, so we were on a People to People Excursion, which was also a photography tour.

I’ve never been on a photography tour like this before. It wasn’t just walk the streets and 10629491_10153326903992986_2203594805029205430_otake pictures. It was get up before the sun to learn how to take sunrise shots. There were no naps on the bus rides, because that was when you learned about your camera’s features and editing features by professional photographers: Brenda Tharp and Jed Manwaring. Then you get to have your photos critiqued (nicely…of course) by the other members in the group. It was a very intensive course, but I learned so much. I hope I am still using at least 10% of what I learned about photography during that week..

Trinidad

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I loved this town. It was comprised of vibrant colors and interesting people. We spent a lot of time wandering the streets here, getting a real taste of the Cuban culture. We found a few musicians, who were very talented. That convinced me that I should check out one12370645_10153326900147986_5447113127593441798_o of the Cuban salsa clubs in the evening, which was interesting and definitely not something I had experienced before. While taking a break on one of our daily walks, we found a man who was telling us about his daily routine of walking many miles down a hill outside of town to come and sell a few bananas for not even the equivalent of $2 US dollars. Then he would walk back up the hill every evening. His shoes were worn almost completely through, and it was a bit heartbreaking. Shoes that cost us $50 US dollars would cost Cubans 5 times that, since at the time they were imported from China. I really felt that I was gaining a huge understanding of basic Cuban life during our time in Trinidad.

Cienfuegos

If you have read Hemingway, Cienfuegos might sound familiar. It was featured in The Old Man and the Sea, which I read for the first time while I was in Cienfuegos. I thought it1933246_10153326904842986_8162388911926568875_o was quite appropriate. This town is located on a bay, so you will see a lot of boats – both yachts and fishing boats. While we did have some luxury time to indulge in some of Cuba’s famous liquor (see photo below), we spent a portion of our time at an art school. These young people were so talented. They just blew me away on how they could take any item and turn it into an amazing piece of art (see picture on the right where they were using just clothespins). They were so happy to tell us about their school and what art means to them.

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Viñales

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This part of Cuba was the biggest shock to me. The lush greenery reminded me of something I would see on a South Pacific Island. I wasn’t expecting this. As we headed 12366043_10153326907947986_173294949960655377_ointo the hills, we saw a lot of farm land and stopped at one such farm. This farm grows crops, raises animals like chickens, and produces coffee (see picture below). The owners of this farm were really welcoming. It was interesting to experience farming without the giant machinery, though it has to be such hard labor (see picture on the left). The land in this part of Cuba seems to get enough rain that an advanced irrigation system is not necessary at least. I felt a little bad for invading on this family during their work day, but they were so friendly and even brewed some coffee for us.

After getting a true taste of rural Cuba, we headed into the hills. If you enjoy biking there are some great biking trails in this area. The scenery is just amazing. While our hotel (Hotel Los Jazmines) did not produce the most comfortable night’s sleep, the views were just stunning (see below). I almost didn’t regret getting up before the sun to capture these amazing photographs.

Havana

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We ended our trip with a few days in Havana. It has been a dream of mine to see Havana12377523_10153326893612986_8703232530813394301_o since I was a little kid (thank you Guys and Dolls), so I was really looking forward to this. Havana is not just a great place to learn about Cuba’s history (though we did visit the Revolution Museum, which was great) and view it’s amazing architecture (see picture on the right), but the arts are prevalent in Cuban culture as mentioned in my Trinidad section. We started our exploration into their arts scene by visiting the studio of Compas Dance. They performed for us as well and just blew me away.

We also went to visit a Cuban ballet company, where they were rehearsing for a performance of Giselle.

I enjoyed this trip so much! It wasn’t about being a tourist. It was about exploring a culture that had been so unfamiliar to me. Cubans are such hard workers with so much passion. The people there opened up their homes and their hearts to us, and I just couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity to finally have explored Cuba.

Stay tuned for the next feature in the 20 Years of Travel series. Until then….

HAPPY TRAVELING!!!

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20 Years of Travel #3: Sahara Trek

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To continue with my 20 Years of Travel celebration, my third location feature is: The Sahara. In 2012, my husband and I decided to honeymoon in Morocco. This decision may have been completely inspired by the movie Casablanca, which we both love. However, while we enjoyed immersing ourselves in the cities like Casablanca, Rabat, Fez and Marrakesh, our favorite part of this trip was our trek through the Atlas Mountains into the Sahara, where we camped overnight.

Though the roads leading through the Atlas Mountains were windy and dangerous, the views were just stunning:

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Of course no Sahara trek is complete without a little bonding time with some camels!

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I really liked my camel. It was sweet to me (though a bit wobbly) – makes me almost regret eating that camel burger in Dubai a few years later…almost.

As we road a jeep into the Sahara, it was a roller coaster of sand dunes (see picture at very top of the post), and I prayed that the driver knew where he was going, because all I could see were miles and miles of hot hot sand with a few dust devils. I knew no matter how much I had my camera protected, with plastic bags and everything, there was no way I could avoid getting sand in it.

What seemed like at least an hour of driving we came to a tiny campground. How our driver found this place is still beyond me. There were just about seven tents total with a fire pit in the middle.

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That night I felt like this had to be the most peaceful place on earth. No noise except for a few individuals place music by the fire pit and no lights except for the fire in the fire pit. Thanks to a Reese Witherspoon movie I saw as a child called A Far Off Place, I was aware that deserts, while very hot during the day, get very cold at night, so I had brought my sweatshirt with me. Unfortunately, my husband had not and had a very cold restless night. I slept like a baby.

The next day was just beautiful, so we told our driver that we would like to explore the sand dunes a bit. He said he would meet us on the other side. It took us a good hour to get to him. Sand makes walking difficult. It was worth it though!

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It was one of the most amazing adventures I’ve ever experienced and would do it again in a heartbeat. I would like to give a shout out and huge thanks to the Naamani Groupe for organizing and guiding us on this part of our Moroccan adventure. You guys were the best!

HAPPY TRAVELING!!!

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Reflecting on the “Final” Move

After living in Lucca, Italy for three years, my husband and I will be moving back to the United States. My husband was offered a job in Houston, Texas. We are both excited and nervous about this next stage in our lives.

For the first time in my life, this may not be a temporary settlement. This is a somewhat scary thought for me personally. Previously, I lived in multiple states (Iowa – when I was a baby but I still count it, Wisconsin, Washington DC – technically a district not a state, Missouri, Maryland & Massachusetts); attended academic courses in England, the Balkans – mainly Serbia, & Switzerland; and lived overseas in Italy.

Actually the address I had in Lucca for three years was the longest standing address I resided at since I was seventeen years old. I’ve gotten quite use to this mobile lifestyle. You learn quickly not to collect “things,” as you will have more to eventually pack if you do. I’ve also never had much chance to be bored with my surroundings either.

However, the idea of a long-term settlement means that my husband and I can purchase a house. I am about ten years behind all my friends from school who own homes or have been working toward that for years. Having a home to us isn’t just a next step though but an opportunity to finally have all our belongings in one place. I have boxes I haven’t looked inside of for at least ten years. It’ll be like Christmas morning when my husband and I actually open every box and piece of luggage. It will also be nice to travel some place (yes…traveling will most definitely continue) and have a home to come back to when the trip concludes.

Plus, living a nomadic life has at times been very lonely. I’ve met amazing people everywhere I’ve been, and when it comes time for me to move to my next destination, we always say that we will keep in touch (along with maybe a plan to visit), but most of the time that does not happen. With social media being what it is today, I always expect that it will be so easy to stay in touch and am disappointed when it still does not happen.

I am currently at that stage, right before the move, where I get a bit weepy, as I reminisce on all the memories and moments I’ve experienced in that particular location, but this time it is different. I find myself worried about how I will adjust to normal everyday living in the States. I’ve only been living outside of the USA for three years, but I feel as though I’ve missed so much. Things have changed. American politics has taken an interesting turn, Game of Thrones is the television show of choice for many, and everyone seems to be addicted to Pokemon GO – all this while I’ve been wandering ancient streets and sipping cappuccini. I have faith that I can catch up on all the things I’ve missed, but how do I handle the knowledge that most people will not care about what I have been doing and what they have missed.

I’ve enjoyed a certain motto over the last few years: “Not All Who Wander Are Lost.” Does that mean that when you stop wandering, that is when you are lost? That is how I am feeling.

I know how lucky I have been. I’ve lived an amazing, adventurous life, and I’m only in my thirties. I was recently in a small-ish town in the Ukraine, where I spoke with another American woman who has lived around the world. She told me, “like all places you move to, there is an adjustment period.” She went on to saying that it may take longer this time to adjust, but that I will do just fine. However, she warned me not to lose who I am, being a  “a citizen of the world” as we call it. She stressed to me that I must take what I have learned from my time abroad and use it to strengthen myself both emotionally and intellectually. I hope to do just that. There is no fear. Only hope…

Arrivederci Italia!