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Make it Our Last

I realize I haven’t been writing much in the passed few days. The hiatus coincided with our arrival in Venice. Late nights of generous bar patrons providing one last quart of vino coupled with early mornings of charm-laden strolls through the streets of this city have been mostly at fault for my lack of accountability to this blog. I likely knew that I would be able to sit on this last morning of our trip, in the shade of the statue of San Stefano in the square of the same name, to take in the quaintness that surrounds and attempt to capture the essence of the passed few days and the dying moments of our trip.

First there was the Gondola ride, and yes, it was one of the first things we did. Never would I have guessed that a rowboat provide such fun, and without a fishing rod no less. And like the good farmgirls we are, we came prepared. Would you believe it if I told you our rendition of “Santa Lucia” led way to applause from the bridges above? Our encore of the NHL theme song, not so much.

We have concluded over the last three days that Venice is a place of calm chaos. There is a vibrancy about the bustling crowds and the textures of the buildings, walkways, and bridges that are constantly in your peripheral. But the water that surrounds and the lack of vehicles that access the streets and consequential need for traffic rules provides a sort of solace that seems to balance everything out. Trying to capture all of that in a sketch from a rooftop was easily one of my favourite moments. Realizing that a Chanel dress can cost 6000 euros was not. The rest of our time has been filled with Vivaldi concerts, theatre productions, and afternoons in piazzas, watching local kids skipping rope, meeting and sometimes helping equally lost tourists, as we peruse this labyrinth called Venice. But most of all we shake our heads in disbelief that we are here.

So, as the marble gets cold under my seat, I must move from my new favourite spot, and consider what is to come. We knew it was time to shift our thoughts to home and Canada when we saw a man in a CBC t-shirt at the Peggy Guggenheim Art Gallery the other day. So, now the “lasts” must begin – the last time we have a first impression of a new Italian city, our last sip of a freshly-delivered cappucino, and allow ourselves to think back to the last time we saw our families and friends back home. As condemned men would cross the Bridge of Sighs and look back to get one last look at the glory that is Venice and all of Italy, we shall do the same.

Not that going home is condemnation of any sort. These two weeks were the right amount of time to miss and be missed. As a wise woman (a.k.a. Denielle) once said, “I came here with two members of my family, and I left here with ten.” So to the ladies with whom I shared this adventure, you will be missed. So, let this moment last because it was a good one.

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Stirred, Not Shaken

Somehow, we woke up this morning in a convent in Tuscany. I realize that may sound like either the beginning of a bad joke or one hell of a good story. In actuality, it is the Ostello Frediano, a rather large youth hostel that has twenty foot high ceilings in the common areas and great resonant sound for the singers in the group. Except for the brief period where there were actual youths living amongst us (the halls were teeming with what seemed like hundreds of teenagers on a Rotary Club trip slowing down the wi-fi but friendly nonetheless), it has been virtually empty for us to enjoy.

Our plan for today was no plan at all. Our various sub-groups wandered off in different directions with all sorts of intentions. Somehow, Cindy and Denielle ended up in a Torture Museum (they came out of that one just short of traumatized), but most of us opted for the more docile offerings of walking the walls of this medieval city. Trying to decipher “where the moat used to be” was challenging but pleasant. And just when we thought we were mastering walking on the cobblestones, throw dodging pigeons and pedal-bicycle riders in the mix and it’s enough to keep our hearts racing permanently. And for good measure, some of us climbed the Guinigi Tower where seven oak trees grow at its top. It was worth it for the view it provided, and for the celebration we could have on our descent for having survived it. Dawn held an especial appreciation, not only for the glass of wine in her hand, but also the ground beneath her very shaky feet.

Also, in celebration of this city that is birthplace to the composer Puccini, Brenda had wanted to take in an opera and since none of us want to miss any fun, we all followed along. So we spent an evening at the Oratorio di San Giuseppe Cathedral, in quiet reverence of two female sopranos singing stirring renditions of compositions by the great artist. As we left the steps of the church, the light rain that had been dampening the streets had disappeared and a pink sunset quietly took its place. The day did feel a bit like a cocktail – some sweet, some sour, but most importantly, it all blended together just right.

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The Best of the Best

Best… beach… ever… We were trying not to be sad this morning when we left Cinque Terre and the waterfront thinking we wouldn’t see the Mediterranean again. But a short drive later, we found ourselves at Viareggio on a beach that seemed to go on endlessly. We all got our toes wet and some pant legs too. And the adjoining marina and candy stand only provided more eye and literal candy to spare.

Best… Tiramisu… ever… This needs to be stated. Before getting to the beach, we stopped at Pietrasanta for a quick look at this quaint town, an actual mecca for artists as their more contemporary Art can be seen on practically every corner. And again, we scavenged for the perfect shot for our camera and the perfect dining experience. And some of us found it in an outdoor terrace – the wine, cappuccinos, tortellini, and the epitome of desserts in Italy, the Tiramisu. It was so good, it made us all want to vow to never order it again. Although that’s highly unlikely.

Worst… cameras… ever… Just a quick note about our overall picture-taking experience. At any given moment, you can look around at our camera-clicking group and this is what you see: we wander around a new corner, attempt to take in the new vista we just discovered through our lens. The first click-click’s begin to take place, until you hear the inevitable and disheartening “oh no” as one camera’s battery has gone dead. The person to her right is doing everything she can to not have her battery slip out of its casing, while MacGyver next to her has used a series of bandaids to do the job. Thanks God for photo sharing on Facebook.

Best… walk-about… ever… The beach and Pietresanta were only a short taste of what this region has to offer as the main attraction was yet to come.
We arrived at our new destination, Lucca, by mid-day and once we checked into the hostel, we met in a common room for a quick vino at the largest round table you could imagine. The walk was a virtual set up for the next day’s more fervent exploration. What it gave us was a hint of what was to come. And that included chocolate. What more could you hope for? Which led us to…

The best… truffles… ever… Natascha took us to the highly recommended Osteria Baralla for a typical Lucchese dining experience. You know you’ve been served well when even an antipasti like “bacon fat” makes your knees buckle. Another sign that things were pretty good is Rhonda breaking into sing-song-y rhyme to give a toast at the end of it all. And we never get tired of that.

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Living on the Edge

Today was Mother’s Day and I’m sure we would have done something more grand with it if (1), our being mostly from farming backgrounds didn’t already make us jaded about the event seeing as it always coincides with seeding, or (2), that we didn’t already feel like every day was special on this trip. I can’t speak for everyone else but know I allowed myself to order lobster at lunch and did not feel guilty one little bit, except for the fact that I was holding us up from continuing with our walk-about. So I crammed a few of those lobster legs in my purse and off we went.

I would like to say that most of our day was spent exploring every nook and cranny of the five cliffside villages that make up Cinque Terre. I say this with reluctance because in actuality, we spent a lot of our time on the various trains that were meant to take us from town to town. Don’t ask us how, but we would get on and while waiting expectantly for the train to slow to the next stop, it would tend to zip over and through the countryside all the way to the end of the line. At which we would collectively shrug our shoulders, look at each other apologetically like the good “Canadieze” we are, get off, and walk over to the other side to catch the next one going in the other direction, and start all over again. This mixed in with surprising whistle blasts from mischievous conductors never brought us down from the high of the day though. Following Bev’s Canada flag on her pack or her direction in humming “Sunshine and Lollipops” on the boardwalk was just the kind of leadership we needed in such times of crisis.

And thus, we proceeded with much caution through these cliffside towns. Although each had its own personality, a few things were consistent throughout. The clotheslines of washing belonging to the residents hanging above us and the impossibly steep inclines beneath our feet. The little old ladies with their head’s protruding from their apartments overhead watching the circus of tourists down below. The hoards of people wanting to catch a glimpse of such an existence, just like us. Of all that impressed, none was more so than the Sea itself. The further we climbed, the larger our access to the expanse got. We’re not sure how Italians can defy such gravity on a daily basis. All we know for sure is we lived on the edge for a moment, and it was pretty marvellous.

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By the Sea

Any sadness we felt this morning about leaving the comforts and relative ease of Florence could not linger within us long as our new destination lurked around the bend. And quite a bend it was coming into the town of Monterosso al Mare, the first of five villages that make up the whole of Cinque Terre. Up until the descent into this region, the geography had been open and spacious, and consisted of mountains in the distance, lush greens of every type in the foreground, and an occasional splash of red would streak across the whole as a Ferrari surpassed our mini-bus which, relatively speaking, was not so flashy but comfortable just the same. It got us to the Mediterranean Sea and that seems to be what matters.

The balconies off of our rooms at this seaside hotel provide an eye-full, and an ear-full too. To close your eyes, you might think the whooshing is a vehicle speeding by your window but it’s most definitely and consistently every wave breaking against the shore. Rocks jut out from the base of the sea and buildings in combinations of pastel hues fight for surface on which to perch. Our waiter at lunch generously shared not only the fact that this region is the birthplace of pesto but the recipe as well. And Lorenzo the liquor-maker (I’m sure there’s a more technical term for this position) provided us with just the right concoction of Limoncello to take home to our real lives. The tunnels and side streets and rows of steps and stairs provided the rest.

After an afternoon of traipsing about to get a sense of this new place and some down time to sit and take it all in as well, we all converged on the largest terrace we had amongst us to eat, drink, and be merry with the seascape as our backdrop. Our conversation had purpose this evening as the topic for tonight’s Zen Zone was the “Creative Process”. We had given ourselves a mission to contribute to a picnic meal and somehow, we managed to coordinate efforts seamlessly without much consultation. That might be also where we’re at with our group of newly trusted friends. Helen had pocketed some stones from the beach earlier today, creating a visual of all of us coming to this place to stop, look at the ground we’re standing on, and mark the moment with a souvenir for not wanting to forget.

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Waking From a Dream

It is morning, and I am sitting at a writing desk in front of an open window for one last time in Florence before we move on to the next. The cool morning air is the only indication that what I see out my window is real and not some sort of fantasy. Thinking back to our time here in Florence, particularly a day like yesterday, and it seems so surreal that I have to wonder if any of it actually happened. Until I look down and see the sleeves of my new leather jacket that I’m wearing over my pyjamas. Yup, it’s real.

Let me walk you through the dream-like sequence of events that we experienced yesterday. We began with an appointment at the Uffizi Gallery, one of the oldest and most famous galleries in the western world that essentially houses the collection of the Medici Family, who are the epitome of Art Patronage. Botticelli, Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Raphael – rooms and halls of Early Renaissance and Giotto to the Flemish painters, then a Goya in the Spanish space, and a hall of Nioban statues. And just when you feel you’ve seen enough to feel satisfied and thoroughly impressed, there is still a Caravaggio in one of the last rooms. You sigh, smile slyly, then start to giggle, and that’s when you know it’s time to leave.

The two hour lunch of shrimp salad, artichoke hearts, tortellini and a bottle of rosé lets you rest your feet, cleanse your palette, and fuel up for an afternoon of walk-about. Markets swallow you whole and spit you out into open piazzas surrounded by an architecture that seems unsurpassed. When your gaze finally comes back down to earth, you notice the coffee festival taking place or the carousel or the many open terraces for the many delectable restaurants. And then there are the people. Although there are no two alike, the homogeny of the group comes from the overall mix of skirts and sandals and heels and hats and fanny packs and even some cameras like our own. And everyone is happy, very allegro, which funnily enough, happens to be one of the first words we learned to say in Italian.

And finally, we come “home” to the pensione brimming with energy as it is the weekend and a wedding reception is taking place. In addition, prosecco is flowing for all of the guests as it is also the matriarch of the place’s 83rd birthday. As we chime in to sing in Italian, we prepare to stumble back to our rooms for much needed and enviable sleep. It has been like a dream. And the only thing shaking us back to reality today is remembering the fact that earlier, a pigeon pooped on Michaela’s head.

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I couldn’t possibly eat another bite

Today, on the menu is a delectable four course meal – an exercise in the execution of a perfect day, if you will. Taking a city bus into town delivered us to a world of goodness as we’ve discovered that the city of Florence had everything for everybody, and it looks like everyone took full advantage of its bounty.

First course: The anti-pasti. The morning started with a quick walk through the cities’ selected squares or piazzas that would lead us to an abundance of personal freedom come time to be let loose in the wild (otherwise known as shopping). But that wouldn’t happen until we stopped in front of and made our way into the Duomo di Firenze, a basilica that rivals the St. Peter’s of the Vatican in size, ambition, and admiration that it evokes. From the ornate facade to the Neo-Gothic interior to viewing the Last Judgement by Vasari, the climactic ceiling fresco that is worth craning your neck to see. Not a bad way to start a meal.

Second course: The pork with stuffed tomato and swiss chard. The serendipity of Helen and Brenda, our two resident writers, casually and rather innocently waltzing into a literary café for lunch, can almost compete with the shopping that pretty much all of us were able to experience. Strolling through streets of shops labelled Gucci and Tiffany’s and Roberto Cavalli lent a certain hauteur to what we were about to do but it was the leather market that delivered the goods. Purses, jackets, satchels, bound journals – Florence is one of the world’s leading providers of leather and its buttery goodness now drapes us all.

Third course: The light salad. Michelangelo’s David. It gave us all pause. To feel a connection between our present-day selves standing in the Academia Gallery and the 15th century Florentine villager who would have seen it for the first time was palpable. Sculpture as a medium surrounds us in Italy but if any one piece one could be truly grateful that it had been freed from the stone is David and we could not look away. Our palettes have truly been cleansed.

Fourth course: A choice of fruit torte, basket of fruit, or cheese platter.
And for dessert, a return to our oasis on the hillside. Our down time has been filled with manicures and pedicures, massages and jacuzzis. Some of us returned to our favourite spot to sketch or to write or to read. You could lie back in your chaise lounge overlooking all of Florence and hear the baby grand piano being cajoled into life by Brenda and you think…

… now that was a very satisfying meal.

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Lost in Translation


The creative juices have been flowing for a while but I have to admit the wine has had something to do with it. Now, I must clarify for all those concerned. Although white wine drinkers and red wine drinkers (and those of us who are bi-vino) make up the demographic of our group, this does not mean that any one amongst us is being exceedingly liberal about their overall consumption. We are being very good girls, very reasonable, and not exaggerating by any stretch of the imagination. If the worst we get is teary-eyed giggle fits about un-named members of the group making such deep proclamations as “it’s nice for a night”, which in their mind meant ” it is a nice night out at this moment,” well then, I must digress.

The reality is that we have moved on from Rome to a new domicile, the absolutely fabulous Pensione Bencista, a spa retreat on a hillside looking over the city of Florence, and our jaws have been on the ground ever since. I mean, it’s the type of place where just maneuvering to open a window is an event. This 14th century villa once belonged to famous Florentines who had connections to the Medici family and other owners who were once commissioner to Pope Clemente VII, and to Senators and freedom fighters who were ultimately beheaded. It was also once a convent. And for now, it will be our place of rest for the next three nights, barring any beheading or conversions happen while we stay here.

Which leads me to the topic of today’s conversation. As you can imagine, not being that familiar with the language of the place but imagining that you know more than you actually do can lead to some unsettling conversations. For example, when the manicurist noticed my friend’s rough hands, I don’t know why my explanation of her working with cattle all of the time led her to assume that my friend was my mother. Was it the cattle sounds I was making or the arm gestures of driving a tractor? And sure, Denielle did have to spend a large portion of her afternoon awashed with confusion as two of us innocently got to sit in the jacuzzi for a forty minute booking that was not ours. The point was we all ended up in the hot tub eventually, which is where we discovered the mix-up to begin with. Clear as mud. By the end of the day, our sides hurt and our cheekbones ached and we weren’t able to stress for the amount of relaxation that we were being forced to endure.

I realize that not much of this will make sense to the common man. I guess you know how we feel when things are lost in translation.

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For Whom the Bell Tolls

From the moment we arrived in Rome, it has become apparent that Catholicism pervades. Not in an invasive, obnoxious way, mind you. No one is trying to convert anyone on any street corners, unless you consider the vendors of toxic-looking toys and cheap sunglasses to have motives other than making a few Euros off of unoffending tourists. It is more so in the visuals that surround us and in the history that built this city and all of its layers.

On a daily basis we encounter priests and nuns in full habit, performing such menial tasks as parking a car, sitting at an outdoor terrace, or eating gelato. Then there is all of the papal merchandise being sold on the streets and in the shops. Who wouldn’t want to be greeted every day by Pope Francis’ face emblazoned on a mug as they sip on their morning cappuccino. And then there are the church bells. They can be heard from anywhere in the city at all quarter hours of the day. Similar to the trains in Fernie or the coyotes out on the farm, the sound of the bells evolved over the three days from unsettling and strange to commonplace and dare I say, almost a thing of comfort.

But for all of its omnipresence, the one place I didn’t notice religiosity as much was at the one place I expected to feel it the most – the Vatican. Having been raised Catholic myself, I truly did not expect this tour to be the Art experience it was. But it was, and it was perfect. All of the thanks goes to Natascha for procuring the tickets early, which helped us bypass hours of long lines, and for finding a really fantastic guide in Domi, an Italian woman who made us feel like all of the secrets in Art History were for our ears only (literally, as we did have headsets). She helped us meander through the museums and gallerias like the unabashed amazons she knew we were. By noon, we posed with conviction in front of the square with the apple Natascha had been carrying in her bag all along (technically, it was forbidden fruit as she did bring it into another “country”).

And then there was the Sistine Chapel. And Michelangelo’s Pieta. And St. Peter’s Basilica. All impressive for their ambition or place in history or ability to keep us awestruck and unable to exhale. We now seemed to understand what the bells were calling some of us to, reminding us of what surrounds us here in Rome. And so we contend as a group, partially in reverence to this great city and partially in celebration of it being our last night here, to hold communion – at least the wine part.

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A Day of Discovery

Picture it – a glimpse through the sky light reveals that the heavens are a solid mass of blue, a nice contrast to the pastel hues of the buildings that seem to hold it up en masse. We saunter dreamily down to the complementary breakfast being offered in the dining room adjacent to most of our rooms and across the courtyard. It is a place where many nations conglomerate, according to the languages being spoken at the various tables, over espresso and croissants, prusciotto and gouda, and pie apparently, which was a revelation to almost all of us as possible fodder for early morning fare. Waking up to such a lovely ambiance and receptive meal definitely makes up for the fact that Maximus kept us up for most of the night. Note that I am not referring to some random Italian man. Rather it is the name I have given to a rather large seagull who seems to be living on our rooftop.

Today was a day of discovery, as by walking the city over ten hours would almost always lead you to the same conclusion – you’re going to find a few things out and learn a few other things on the way. Our classroom was a large swath of the city of Rome and our “teacher” was a lovely girl name Kadi. After having crossed the Ponte Sisto over the Tiber River, we met her in a square in front of the Palazzo Farnese. She guided us through the Pantheon where amongst other things we saw the tomb of Raphael, showed us how to toss coins into the Trevi Fountain, and allowed us to rest on the Spanish Steps of the Trinita dei Monti. It was just the right mix of explanation and perspiration, as she pointed us in the right direction to whatever it was we wanted to find next. Not without sustenance though, which we found it the form of a cafe terrace and a margherita pizza.

On this, one of our first days in this iconic city, we all seemed ready to explore as much ground as possible and at all costs, even that of blisters from ill-fitting shoes. Most of us ended up heading straight to the ruins of the Roman Forum and of course, the Colloseum. This afternoon tour was kept to a more organic and casual pace, one that consisted of mostly gazing up in wonder and down in confusion on whatever it was we just tripped over. We snapped an endless stream of pictures in a seemingly futile attempt to capture what it was we were experiencing first hand, or at least until we each ran out of battery power in our various devices. Perhaps not the best day to forget the camera in the hotel room, as Dawn can attest. But it turned out okay, as Virginia swooped in and saved the day by taking her for a train ride through a garden and spotting a place where we could all buy cheap beer.

We ended this day with all of us congregating at a local pub (again, thanks to Virginia) to confer on matters that seem relevant to this creative retreat we’ve signed up for. We talked about our each of our individual creative outlets and matters of all things inspiring for our own Art. Paired with meals of ravioli and “best lasagna ever” as stated by a few, we seem truly ready to feast on whatever it is that this trip serves us. Buon appetito!