Monthly Archives: May 2014

saratreetravels… Over The Hill!!!

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Congratulations, dear reader.

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You have stumbled upon the fiftieth saratreetravels post. In recognition of this momentous occasion, be the first to leave a comment of EXACTLY fifty characters (no cheater comments, like fifty zeroes in a row) and you will be rewarded with an authentically European video tribute.

Thanks for following! 🙂

Sara & Josh

Piccolo Città, Grand Impression

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While I’ve always considered myself a city person (I’ve never quite recovered from my first year of college, which was spent living in dorm in a pig farming community where the “nightlife” consisted of going to the Timmy’s in Steinbach), I’ve never loved big cities. I guess my small village/farming ancestry goes too deep to be ever completely rooted out of my system. Traveling has convinced me and Josh that we prefer to pay homage to cities for a day, but then escape again to small towns or even smaller communities. A city has never been as beautiful, as engaging, or as connected to me as nature is.

Which was why I was astonished when the city of Florence first took my breath away, and then captured my heart.

Florence is a piccolo grande città, a little big city. It is the ancient stronghold of the Medici family, the great patrons of the Renaissance who supported (politically and financially) the careers of the artists, scientists, theologians, economists, and architects who inspired a new culture of awareness and knowledge (read more about the House of Medici). Modern beliefs of science nerds being “uncool” would have been laughable during this time: a classy night out included demonstrations of scientific principles (such as the “electric soirées” that literally shocked attendees), and scientific instruments were symbols of culture and social status. Are you starting to see why I love the Renaissance?

High society essentials: The barometer walking stick and the “Lady’s telescope” (equipped with an ivory cosmetic box)
High society essentials

This revolutionary perspective of treating science and art with equal reverence has created in Florence an incomparable tapestry of elegance and innovation that is visible even today in the graceful lines of the bridges, the talent of the street musicians, and the overwhelming number of geniuses and inventions birthed in this duchy (including Donatello, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Dante, to name just a few).

Galileo’s finger and thumb at the Museo de Galileo:
Galileo digits... ?!

The beauty of the first thermometers, invented by scientists and crafted by artisans:
Science & art fusion

We arrived in Florence and commenced the quest of tracking down our hostel. Josh is a travel agent extraordinaire, and put the wifi in his Gillam apartment to good use by finding us the absolute cheapest accommodations in the absolute best locations. However, these accommodations are generally not the ones known by information booths, so we are usually left to our own crafty devices in tracking them down. At first, we thought our Florence quest would be the most straightforward yet – we made our way directly to the street, traced the numbers down… and found ourselves at the entrance to a 4-star hotel. While I wanted to trust Josh’s travel agent prowess, I was a bit skeptical that two scruffy backpackers would even be allowed in the lobby of such a place, let alone afford to spend a week there. One bemused conversation with the receptionist and several phone calls later, the mystery was solved, kind of. Our hostel was not actually a hostel, but a dorm room in a language school located in the same building as the hotel.

Silly us, why didn’t we think to look for our room here?
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Clean and spacious, with lovely staff and an incredible location, Iris Florentina, aka Sprachcaffe Language School, was by far the most amazing place we have stayed. Our only complaint is that we didn’t know it was a language school, otherwise we would have absolutely stayed longer and taken an Italian language course!

Walking a mere five minutes around the corner brought us to il Duomo, a gorgeous Florence cathedral containing the largest masonry dome on earth.

il Duomo

Five minutes around the other corner brought us to Ponte Vecchio, the “Old Bridge,” the only bridge in Florence to survive the WWII bombing raids. It is also the only bridge to contain not only houses and shops, but also a secret passageway built in 1565 above the shops on the bridge. The Corridoio Vasariano (Vasari Corridor) allowed the Medici family to safely travel from the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river Arno without running into any of their subjects. It also connected to the private Medici balcony entrance of their church, Santa Felicita, one of the oldest churches in Florence.

Ponte Vecchio

Buena sera, Ponte Vecchio

We learned about this and other gems of Florentine history from Pierro, an elderly gentleman who saw us trying to take a selfie on Vecchio and offered to take our picture. He then began enumerating points of interest and the history behind them, keeping us mesmerized by his stories for the next half hour. “This is my city and I love my city!” he declared, and this love was evident in the passion and generosity with which he shared his city with us, two strangers. Florence became alive to us through Pierro’s stories. Both the beautiful, as he proudly gestured to the green cradle of hills surrounding the city that prevented urban sprawl, and the terrible. As he pointed out the Corridoio Vasariano, I jumped in with a tidbit I had heard about treasures being hid in that same passageway to protect them from the WWII bombing. Suddenly, Pierro’s face went grim. “The war… That is a different story, a terrible story.” For Pierro was there during the bombing, a child who remembered only the terrible fear of the bombs and the Nazi soldiers who filled his lovely town.

As the sun was setting, Pierro sketched out our route for the rest of the day (“You must go to this church, it is 1000 years old, and the maker of Pinocchio is buried there!”) and gave us a handshake goodbye, which quickly turned to exuberant kisses on both cheeks for both of us. His obvious delight at finding people who wanted to love his city as much as he did was only matched by our delight at finding someone willing to let us see their beloved home through their eyes, which, after all, was our whole hope for this trip .

Enchanting San Miniato al Monte cemetery:
View from San Miniato

Piazzale Michelangelo offers the most breathtaking views of the city:
Piazzale Michelangelo

Pontes from the Piazzale

Pierro’s Firenze, cradled by hills:
Florence's high green hills

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And then a different part of Florence that equally took our breath away: The Food.

Beauty for the tastebuds

Cappuccini at the Porta Romana

Shout out to Kaya: We thank you, from the bottom of our stomachs, for introducing us to this place.

Mouth-watering foccace (porcheta and black truffle cream, where have you been all my life?) and €2 self-serve wine… Yes, we went back two days in a row.
Porcheta, tartufo, and €2 wine... Wha?!

Where’d All the Good People Go?

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…to Cinque Terre, apparently.

5T: Good days made even better!

Almost a year ago, when this trip was just a twinkle in our eye, my good friend Jamie Pierce told me about this magical heavenly place he had hiked called Cinque Terre. Jamie is not one to go off on long soliloquies too often, so the way he raved about this particular Italian destination made us seriously consider it.

The train spat us out in a sleepy, palm tree lined town called La Spezia. Rome, in all its eternal glory, is also an eternal throng of people and vehicles all trying to squeeze through impossibly narrow alleyways and navigate chaotic roundabouts. Quiet, tiny La Spezia, with the smell of the sea so close once again, was a welcome change.

‘Cinque Terre’ refers to five towns on the Mediterranean coast, each separated by a small mountain and connected by winding trails. The entire place is a national park, and has become something of a pilgrimage for those who appreciate natural beauty.

We set out early the next morning to find the trail. Classically, the goal is to reach all five towns in one day, but we had decided not to rush it and just see how far we could get.** This was a particularly good approach when, an hour in, we had still not found the beginning of the trail. Our instructions told us to climb some stairs by a church, then turn left at the castle (oh, Europe). Church, check. Stairs, check. Castle…none in sight. How do you hide a castle? (We rapidly learned not to trust the Italian sense of direction.)

Instead, we found some new friends who became an inseparable part of our Cinque Terre experience. Sarah and Alicia had recently finished a two-year term with the Peace Corps in Senegal, and were now looking for the same imaginary castle. We decided to stick together, and ended up doing so for the whole day, and the next one as well. Along the way we picked up Stacy, who was traveling Europe between teaching English in France and studying the history of women’s rights in Morocco. Definitely some of the most interesting and inspiring people to spend a couple of days with!

And this is what we saw:

Town #1 – Riomaggiore.
Riomaggiore

We quickly realised that “trail” was a loose term that could involve ridiculously steep dirt paths up a mountain, vineyards, or crumbling stone steps:
Steep steps!!

Vineyard paths

They're a lot steeper than they look!!

Town #2 – Manarola.
Manarola

Necessary swimming break in Manarola!
Freezing cold beautiful Med!

Directions to the trail continued to arrive in the most surprising forms:
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Stretching break between Towns #2 & 3:
Stretch those quads, ladies!!

Town #3 – Corniglia.
Mountainbound Corniglia

Sometimes, it’s just as important to know where you’re not:
Dorothy, I think we're not in Vernazza anymore...

Town #4 – Vernazza.
The fortress of Vernazza

Supper & swimming break in Vernazza:
Vernazza supper & swimming

Necessary refreshment break* between Towns #4 & 5:
Limonata fresca!!
*We were making our way down the trail through a vineyard, when a burst of radio music and cries of “Limonata fresca!” stopped us. The owner of the vineyard had set up a little hut on the side of the mountain, from which he hawked his wine and freshly squeezed lemonade from the surrounding lemon trees. A gregariously rakish old man, he had not only heard of Manitoba, he knew about Morden’s Corn & Apple and used MB flour in his pizza. “Normal Italian flour, it makes dough like old woman’s skin. Tough! Special Manitoba flour, it makes like young woman’s skin!” I will not try to describe his accompanying hands gestures here, but ask me next time you see me 😛

A truly Italian experience to hike down a mountain drinking from a bottle of wine!
Towards Monterosso (credit to Stacy for the photo)

Town #5** – Monterosso al Mare.
A beautiful end to a beautiful day
**We hadn’t planned to do all five towns in one day, but we had just enough time to make it to Town #5 and be rewarded with a sunset that felt like a worthy prize for our accomplishment.

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We had only 20 minutes to catch the last shuttle of the night, but we were starving and stopped at a pizzeria to see if it was possible for a pizza to be ready. “20 minutes?” mused the owner. “Si, e possible!” (As the bemused chef behind him shook his head and mouthed, No, it isn’t!) With enough encouragement (read: getting slapped on the head by the owner), the pizza prevailed and we made our shuttle!
Pizza never tastes as good as after 10 hours of hiking!

The joy of small towns: running into our new friends at the beach the next day. More supper, swimming, and sunsets!
Rock art and calamari cones

To Sarah, Alicia, and Stacy: Thank you for making a beautiful place an even more beautiful experience! This world is so small, we know we will run into you again one day. And remember: Festival du Voyageur is in February, and then you’ll definitely still have time to make it to Mendoza for Vendimia! 😛 Arrivederci, amici…

Modern Mennonite Visits Vatican

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Being somewhere foreign often makes you reflect on where you come from yourself.

I come from the twentieth century, where Church and State are oil and water, and faith is a deeply individual and personal issue.

I come from North America, where churches are functional to the point of shunning anything too aesthetically pleasing. (How often is the phrase ‘church basement’ used to imply unappealing interior decor?)

I come from the Anabaptist tradition, which is opposed to anything connected to war, empire, and nationalism.

As such, stepping into the Vatican felt like stepping into the belly of the beast. My head was a swirl of amazement, skepticism, evaluation, and re-evaluation. So without further ado, let’s start with the tragic and work our way to the beautiful.

I don’t know if there is a treasure trove on Earth as full and rich as the Vatican museum. Artifacts from around the world, from 2500 years of history, are displayed in every nook and cranny. For many centuries, new buildings were commissioned every few decades to house the newly accrued treasures (and we thought Canada’s spending scandals were bad! At least our senators aren’t claiming any divine appointment!).
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I know that frustration against this hypocrisy is easy to find, so I won’t beat a dead horse, but what truly broke my heart was this:
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The power of the cross destroying the riches of the Earth. Yet those riches are still on display here, in what much of the world perceives to be God’s capital city. This gap in thinking is by no means restricted to the Papacy, and is something that anyone claiming any form of spirituality must be keenly aware of!

It’s also worth noting how the museum completely omits any of the darker points of the Church’s history. How much respect could the Church (or anyone, for that matter!) gain simply by taking responsibility for past actions. This is something we are starting to grasp as Canada deals with its colonial history, and hopefully this movement will only continue to grow.

On a less critical note, I found my reaction to the paintings change as we moved through the museum. At first even the pictures of the Nativity seemed foreign, as if I had no personal connection with them. As they go on, however, a familiar story starts to emerge. While many of the paintings are heavily influenced by history, politics, and superstitions, Christ’s love for humanity is never doubted. Misunderstood, yes. Ignored, yes. But whenever He reappears in the story, it is with compassion for people living in a broken world.

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Finally, regardless of a twisted history of corruption and biased interpretation, individual conviction is still expressed. The wall of the Sistine Chapel exemplifies this best. The man holding a suit of lifeless skin is St. Bartholomew, the martyr believed to have been flogged beyond recognition. Obviously he has shed his old, demolished skin in a dramatic display of new life, but the dead face was painted by Michelangelo as his own self-portrait. The honesty of this man, to portray himself in such a gruesome way, was to me the most powerful display of individual conviction amidst centuries of institutionalized corruption.

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We also had the opportunity to be part of the 60,000+ spectators that listened to Pope Francis’ blessing. He has certainly proven to be, like Michelangelo, an individual who is sincere in his own personal faith, and my prayer is that he would continue to influence other individuals to do the same.

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Being in the Vatican may have been the most out-of-place I’ve ever felt (and this is coming from someone who walked into a Messianic Jewish commune in the middle of a minha without realizing it was Yom Kippur!), but the pitfalls of the Catholic Church are no different than the pitfalls of which we all must be conscious. And the convictions, when everything political is stripped away, are the same as well.

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Bellezza e quiete

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I have been to Italy once before, an impetuous and unforgettable whirlwind week through Rome with my cousin. Since that time, I have been captivated by the country and the culture. However, I’ve always wondered if I’ve embellished my memories of Italy. After all, I was only there for a week, and furthermore, it was my first truly independent trip away from home. It couldn’t possibly be as enchanting, as mysterious, as indescribably beautiful as I remembered.

But as it turns out, it could be.

After two solid days of delayed flights, missed connections, and lost luggage, we landed in Naples and immediately boarded a bus south to Vietri sul Mare. We were travel worn, jet-lagged, and bewildered by trying to communicate in Italian (it is NOT just like French and Spanish, FYI!) Yet our first glimpse of the Italian coast captivated us as thoroughly as I had anticipated.

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Vietri is little more than a tumble of bright houses nestled in the mountains along the Amalfi Coast. It is renowned for its ceramics, which are evident everywhere from the tiles lining the boulevards to the ceramic pots crowning each block on the highway overpass. The air is lush and fresh with the smell of salt, jasmine blossoms, and freshly baked bread from the caffeterias in the town’s one piazza. Shops open late and close early – maybe because it wasn’t yet high season, or maybe because the town knows that they’ve been around for hundreds of years, and they’re not about to change their schedule drastically for tourists now.

The view from our apartment window:
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Ceramics, ceramics, everywhere…
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The crazy ceramics warehouse? museum? shop? (we never quite figured out what it was!)
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These little guys were always scurrying underfoot!
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The larger town of Salerno is just a bus ride away, and Josh and I dutifully went one day, and then wondered why we did. There is something ingrained in us that when there is a city centre, one needs to check it out! If there was something specific we were interested in seeing, that would have been a good idea. But I finally realised that city centers for the sake of city centers – shopping, different restaurants, the possibility of a show – don’t actually interest me that much.

For me, the beauty of Italy lies in its eternal beauty, in a golden landscape and an ingrained sense of reverence for all things lovely and elegant. It is a country where one can thoroughly absorb the culture merely by sitting still and quietly observing. “Doing Italy” can be accomplished by drinking espresso in the sunshine in the town’s piazza, talking about travel (in the most simple sentences possible!) with the bartender, and being silently overwhelmed by the ancient hills cradling you. It is accomplished by slipping through waves in the Mediterranean, then digging your toes in the sand as you review the Italian for “I would like” – necessary for ordering dinner that night; which, incidentally, is another way to “do Italy” …especially when a dinner location is chosen based on which waiter takes away the menus and simply tells you what to eat (“Pizza? Non! We are on al mare! You eat from el mare!”) and then proceeds to bring you roses as you dine, serenading you all the while.

That last one may be my favourite way to do Italy 🙂

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I’m sure there will be other towns where we will throw ourselves into the fantastic madness of the city. Vietri, however, was the perfect way to begin not only our time in Italy, but this trip in general. It reminded us that sometimes, the best way to travel is to simply sit still.

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There’s an adventure…

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When we last left our hero (hereafter referred to as Joshua Tree), he was adrift in a sea of permafrost and Cree pysanky, slowly making his way back home. Our heroine (hereafter referred to as Sara) now rejoins the scene, emerging from the mire of second year Nursing exams and her final weeks as a health interviewer. After nearly three months apart due to Josh’s Northern adventures, we were reunited in a flurry of unpacking, repacking, saying hello to friends, saying goodbye to friends, and preparing to do what saratree does best: travel!

A bit of backstory: Almost as soon as we arrived home from Argentina, we started plotting our next grand voyage. While we have loved setting up our little apartment in Osborne Village and working towards ‘real’ jobs, we have also loved realizing how essential travel has become to our life and worldview.

In true Josh & Sara fashion, it wasn’t enough to merely plan a 3 1/2 month backpacking trip across Europe. No, in the week before we left, we also had to finish exams, go to Ottawa, finish practicum, drive 13 hours home from Gillam, celebrate Josh’s graduation with his Bachelor of Education, pack up our apartment, and, in the hour before leaving for the airport, record a CD to give to our European hosts.

And then the fun really began! I’m sure so many of you heard us bragging about how perfect our Winnipeg-Chicago-Munich-Naples flights were. “At such reasonable times of day! With such comfortable amounts of layover time!” Saratree Travel Rule #1: When travel plans seem too good to be true, they probably are. We tearfully hugged my mom goodbye at the Winnipeg airport and proceeded to stand in line.

And then we stood in line.

Yep, an hour later, still just standing in line.

When we finally got to the front of the line, we were told cryptically by the most helpful United staff that the flight to Chicago was delayed.

“Why?” we asked.

No answer from helpful Ms. United.

“How long a delay?” we questioned.

Ms. United remained mysteriously silent.

“Will we miss our connecting flight?” we queried.

Ms. United was mute.

We sat in Winnipeg for 3 hours, with no United staff even present at the gate.

Finally, at 8 pm, when we should have been finishing our chocolate malts at Johnny Rockets in the Chicago airport, we finally boarded our first plane.

The flight attendant, while still unapologetic and uninformative, was at least concerned about us missing our connecting flight, so made an announcement to the rest of the passengers that there were “two customers on board who needed to meet their family in Munich” (?? I’m not really sure where she got this information, but it won us sympathy, so we let it slide!) so to please let us off first.

Our poor family in Munich must still be waiting for us, because we missed that flight (although we literally ran through the airport to try and catch it, which was exciting!) We ended up in a Chicago hotel for the night, with $7 each for dinner (United apparently missed the memo regarding inflation).

Which brings us to Saratree Travel Rule #2: Mishaps are always adventures, just sometimes cleverly disguised 🙂

Enjoying local beers with our $7 vouchers:
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Not enjoying the irony of the hotel restaurant’s advertising:
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The adventure continued when our flight out of Chicago was delayed yet again (we’ve still got some angry emails to send!). We insisted, we cajoled, we got out our firm voices, we even broke out in Spanish. In the end, we were put on stand-by and made it on a flight to Washington, which got us to Munich in time to finally catch a flight to Naples, only 24 hours later than planned!

Except that our bags forgot to catch the flight.

Our bags eventually made it (only 60 hours in the same clothes, not too bad!) But what this ridiculous beginning to our trip proved yet again is that no matter how chaotic life gets, no matter how stressful or uncertain situations may be, the most important thing is to have someone you can count on by your side. Whether you’re in Italy, in Winnipeg, across the pond, or down the road, I hope this summer is a time of discovering new friendships and strengthening existing ones. We’ll keep you posted on how that’s going for us over here!

Arrivederci, amici… 🙂