Sunday, December 18, 2011

Peace and Serenity in the Holy City of Assisi

Assisi was high on my list of places to visit from the day I arrived in Italy. Everyone I encountered informed me that Assisi was a beautiful city, but I was also curious to encounter the nature that inspired famous St. Francis. In fact, he is such a popular saint in Italy that it seems nearly half the country are named Francesco or Francesca in honor of him. Almost every Italian city seems to have a church of San Francesco which demonstrates his importance in Catholic history and doctrine. Another important part of this trip was just visiting Umbria. I recommend discovering this region of Italy for anyone traveling to the bel paese. Tuscany always gets the attention of foreign tourists for its history and excellent marketing. If I may make a comparison, Tuscany, in my opinion, is like Italian men. They have a reputation for being handsome, romantic gentlemen, and I know many women who would love to have one sweep them off their feet. The truth is that Italian men are not really better than any other, just different, but somehow they have established a reputation that serves them well, just like Tuscany. Umbria is just as enchanting as its northern neighbor. Perugia and Assisi are magnificent cities in their own right, and I have Gubbio still remaining on my list to visit in Umbria. Each of these cities are charming hilltop towns that one might picture when imagining traditional Italy, so don't let this region go undiscovered on your next trip to Italy.

Upon arriving at the station in Assisi, I decided to skip the buses and taxis that shuttle the arrivals to the city center. Instead, I set out on a four kilometer uphill hike on a single lane road through farmland. That brought me to the gate of the city, from which  it was another couple kilometers to the fortress crowning the hillside. My decision to embark on this route was influenced by the history of the famous Catholic saint. He had discovered God through nature, and I reasoned that I must digest the world that inspired his work. My lengthy odyssey up this unkempt single lane road facilitated serene contemplation in the true spirit of St. Francis. I reflected on the life of this man devoted to poverty in the essence of nature as I wandered the same tranquil countryside that inspired his life's work. There were no cars disrupting the scenic landscape. Only a single farmer toiled away on his farm. Birds were singing in a chorus of seemingly thousands, and my only other encounter was with a one-eyed black cat. I reached an almost never-ending walkway of bricks laid along the curvy ascent to the city above. Each brick engraved with the names of those responsible for this path coming to fruition. At this point, I was intensely aware of every aspect of my surroundings, so much so that I discovered a single upside down brick along this path of thousands.

I entered every church that I found, of which none allowed pictures in this truly spiritual city. The tourist shops are filled with rosaries, the Tao of St. Francis, crosses, religious tapestries and numerous relics instead of leather hand bags and t-shirts. The tourist economy of Assisi is based on religion providing an interesting contrast to the typical tourist consumer economy. Somehow, the city maintains a feeling of the 'natural' that is immortalized in the works of St. Francis. In his spirit of interaction with nature, I even befriended a feline. Never in my travels have I encountered so many vocal cats intent on engaging me in conversation. Determined to engage me, one pursued me beyond conversation until I knelt down to greet him. Seizing the opportunity, he leaped into my lap. As we scanned the panorama from the Rocca Maggiore medieval fortress, an Italian family approached to inquire whether or not the cat belonged to me. Truthfully, I was his until I finally put him down to part ways. Even then he followed me partway in my descent, and this moment reminded me of the exact reason that I came to Assisi in the first place.

The religious sentiment in this city struck deep within me. My religious beliefs are quite complex at heart but this trip brought me back to my Catholic childhood. I often entered churches in Italy but usually only for the purpose of exploration and photography. This was not the case on the day in Assisi. I found myself in the pews and prayer rooms of churches. The Cathedral of St. Francis evoked an even more profound emotion than possibly any other of my life. Franciscan monks are eternally in sight in the monastery and church belonging to the famous saint. Beneath the church, I entered into an inspiring room full of the relics of St. Francis. His torn and tattered outfits were on display with his worn out slippers, and even the white robe that he wore in his last year was preserved. There was a robe sewn together in patches to mend the rips and tears. The vow of poverty was powerfully present in each relic within this inspiring room.

The final room was the most inspiring of all. I entered the tomb of St. Francis without knowing anything about it previously. I mentioned that I've been in churches throughout Italy but never have I felt a room filled with powerful faith like this one. Pews were populated with people silently praying over the stone casket of the man who dedicated every ounce his life to the world that provided for him. Women knelt on the cold, hard concrete floor inches from his body engaged in deep prayer. Monks watched over the room to protect its atmosphere of integrity and spirituality. Faith permeated the air. Not even the Vatican had this sense of powerful emotion for me. Writing this now, I can still recall the emotions overcoming every inch of my body and soul in that room.

I knew in advance that I had to make this trip. I spent over 9 hours on the train in one day, with five transfers, just to spend 6 hours in Assisi. I'm writing this on the last leg of my journey from Firenze to Bologna because I felt it was best to write while the powerful emotions remained. I insist everyone planning a visit to Italy finds time for Assisi. It doesn't require devout religious belief to discover the perspective on faith that I found atop the countryside in Umbria. I will forever remember this trip because of its architectural, natural and spirtual beauty.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Se Fué a Granada por Silencio y Tiempo, Not Entirely

Sevilla made a powerful impression on me in my first trip to Spain. The three hour train ride south provided some welcome down time following a nearly sleepless night and days full of sightseeing. My time was shared between napping and intently scanning the alien countryside passing by my window to this undiscovered world. The warm Mediterranean landscape felt like a mixture between Italy and the Dominican to me until we encountered the contrasting, snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains. This was our cue that arrival in Granada was imminent, and I had no idea what to expect. For years I had wanted to visit Sevilla, above all other Spanish cities, after hearing of its beauty. Spanish friends described Andalusia radiantly as a region of beauty and welcoming people, but I wasn't really sure what to expect. Even Sevilla shocked me with its otherworldly beauty despite having previous expectations. Granada had a clean slate devoid of any expectation and proved to be a vastly different wonder to its Andalusian neighbor.

Granada is almost like a clash of distinct cities forced to mesh, but refusing to assimilate into one. Shopping and commerce crams into an area of multi-story metropolitan buildings. History resists time in a section filled with basilicas, the thousand year old Arab market and the cathedral. Ascend uphill to a whitewashed central sphere of buildings hundreds of years old and almost exclusively white. A white that is worn by centuries of overlooking the diverse city, and surrounding landscape below. Alhambra with its Arab gardens rests on an adjacent hilltop presiding over the same contrasting city but in an area full of color, in stark contrast to the white across the way, and the white of the snow capped Sierra Nevadas in the distance. The time and colors spatter onto the Andalusian canvas to create a captivating masterpiece.

A vibrant city of youth aid in regularly painting the town full of color. The 88,000 student university is one of the most important in Spain. Picture a city of just under 240,000 inhabitants housing a college community of that size. In Granada, you will discover a city of exciting life mixed with old, young and new, Arabic and Spanish.

I'm sure everyone got their fill of food descriptions from my time in Sevilla so I will spare some this time. In theme with the city itself, I consumed nearly every type of food known to man. Middle Eastern and African foods found their way to my stomach along with the inevitable fill of delicious tapas. Drinks were cheap as they were in Sevilla, so going out was convenient. Granada's nightlife separated it from any other place that I have ever been. Bologna is no slouch being home to over 100,000 students that crowd bar filled streets but I may never find another place that compares to this one.

Botellón is a phenomenon that serves to initiate the debate as to why Spain is one of the most fun places on earth. Any country that has a name for the gathering of young people in a large outdoor area for the purpose of drinking is a country you go to for fun. Starting around eleven to midnight, thousands take to the designated parcel of land to begin their night socializing amid liquor, wine and beer. American college students can imagine a pregame among the masses where meeting people is easy. Meeting masses of beautiful Spanish girls with their wavy, long dark hair was a simple task. All of this is a testament to how open and friendly the Andalusians can be. We partook in two nights of this outdoor activity and I discovered two new experiences. Both nights we were invited to join groups of girls for phase two of the night consisting of bars and clubs. The first new discovery was that the all night partying associated with Spain is not an exaggeration. As I stood outside the club in the packed street on the first night, I grabbed the arm of the lovely young Valencian girl who had guided me around for the night and told her I wasn't ready to go. The shocking discovery was when I glanced down at my watch to find that it was six in the morning. The street was brimming with activity and the bar was full. I can think of very few times in my life where I had no intention of crawling into bed at this hour, but neither of us were ready to call it quits. The Spanish party scene is rightly famous, and you can expect to find people in the streets at that hour nearly every night. The only experience that may be more shocking than that was the reaction of Spanish girls to social situations. My friend and I approached a group of fifteen beautiful girls the other night in Bottelon. Every man reading this knows what an invitation that is to be devoured, but it definitely wasn't in Spain. The people are extremely outgoing and friendly. The girls took us in and took turns trying to bridge the language gaps between Italian, Spanish and English. Maybe being foreigners gave us the advantage of being a novelty but I will never forget, and probably never repeat that experience in my lifetime.

Four of the best days of my life were spent in Granada. The nightlife, beautiful and open-minded Spanish girls, food and the cultural melting pot all colored this city with a special beauty. The gardens of Alhambra were enchanting. The sunset from above Granada was a sight on our to-do checklist. Three men of three different nationalities basking in a sunset over this unique treasure is true beauty. Each of us revealing our romantic sides of bringing a special girl to this special place. This city came together seamlessly for me. The ambiance of the calm scenery combined with the vibrant music at sunset to perfectly piece together the entire trip of history and chaos. The open culture of this gem will forever feel like a home I belonged to, and can't wait to return to.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Night and A Day in Sevilla

Buñuelos, churros, solomillo al whisky, ensaladilla, pan frito con jamón y salmorejo, croquetas, patatas bravas, cervezas, chupitos: this is the Sevilla I came to know. Tasting any single one of these dishes will make you a happier person, tasting all of them is ultimate satisfaction. My 24 hours in Sevilla were defined by savory food and the continuous flow of inexpensive drinks. It took no more than a day and night in the Andalusian capital to find myself in awe, in love and a changed man. Seven hundred years of Arabic influence mesh seamlessly with the Spanish city creating an inspirational combination of  architectural grace and vivid colors. The friendly people were even a capable match for this elegant city. My friend Carlos guided us through Spain, and his friends Guadalupe and Manuel were responsible for one of the truly great nights of food and drink in my life in the amazing city of Sevilla.

I had been looking forward to this trip for weeks Spanish music filled the air in my Italian apartment in the build up to the journey. I continually insisted that this trip would be one of a kind to my travel mate, and good friend, Alessandro. A smile came over my face the instant I departed the plane, and I expressed my feeling that this would be the best five days of my life to Alessandro like a jubilant child. Our long lost friend Carlitos greeted us at the airport and guided us by bus to our hostel in the very center of Sevilla. After checking in we wandered for a very short time before finding Guadalupe in a plaza in the center of the city. The bar we went to was a doorway with room for about six people inside where one Euro cervezas were served in order to be taken out into the plaza to drink. The thought of beer for one Euro was exciting enough but when Manuel arrived to show us the town, the night turned into a true dream of tapas and fun.

The list at the beginning of this post starting with solomillo and ending with bravas consists of some of the best foods that have ever graced my taste buds. Perfectly cooked Jamón and potatoes with sauces that I will soon have recipes for provided a culinary lesson. Alessandro and I adopted a new vocabulary word, "barquitos," which is the same as la scarpetta in Italian. Barquito is literally a little ship but it is used for the action of wiping your plate clean of every last drop of sauce with pieces of bread. The six delectable dishes ordered by Manuel were devoured and finished off by our five little boats. Ten Euros per person filled our stomachs, our glasses and the hearts of Alessandro and myself. One trip to Spain and you'll quickly realize why its party atmosphere is world renowned.

A wonderful night was already behind us but even more lie ahead. The medieval section of Sevilla known as Alfalfa is now home to numerous bars and clubs of all types. We had our first taste of local chupitos (shots) in run down bars of cheap liquor. Boys were boys roaming around the streets of Sevilla playing and clowning around. We represented the nationality of our choice between Italian or American as we mingled with groups of girls. The area is filled with European Erasmus students allowing us to interact with girls from Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and more. We called the night early relative to Spanish standards and headed back to the hostel. Unfortunately, our French hostel mates must have taken in the student section of Alfalfa as well. The difference was in that we only consumed alcohol rather than narcotics. A fight almost broke out at nearly five in the morning but our eventful evening finally came to an end as we waited without sleep to welcome our first full day of sightseeing.

The Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede and the Reales Alcázares de Sevilla were two of the first stops. Along with the Giralda, these sites were awe inspiring. The Gothic cathedral is the fourth largest church in the world near the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe in sight of the Moorish Giralda began our enchanting tour of Sevilla. We viewed the Torre del Oro as we crossed the city and the river to find more vividly colorful buildings. As we were approaching the Plaza de España, Alessandro and I found ourselves in a bit of shock. We couldn't turn our heads for a second without being amazed with the beauty. There was even a point where I threw my hands in the air as if I couldn't take anymore of the shock. The Moors left there architectural mark of occupation contrasting against the Catholic history of Spain but the stark contrasts are nicely pieced together like an elegant piece of art. The colors were marvelous throughout the city but maybe nowhere as much as the Plaza de España. This square is one of the most majestic creations that I've ever seen. The reds, oranges, blues create a majestic color palate in the impressive square. Horses still patrol the inside as fountains and fountains sprayed in the foreground of my colorful photos. The creation of this plaza was a true work of art among the likes of Picasso.

Anticipation filled my mind as we fled south to Granada in the afternoon. Sevilla was a city of riches leading me to believe that Granada could only bring more. I was prepared for nothing less than one of the best trips of my life. I could have even returned to Italy that day as a happy man for the one day spent in Andalusia, but there was still more to come. Do not let this southern belle be overlooked on any trip to Spain.

Coca-Cola=2euro, agua=1euro, cerveza=1euro

Thursday, December 8, 2011

International Music: Day 7

Sorry for the delay everyone. I was on one of the most amazing trips of my life to Sevilla and Granada in Andalucia, Spain. It's almost depressing to be back in Italy after 5 days of eating like a king, spending time with amazing friends, and meeting some of the most fun and beautiful girls the world has to offer. I'll start working on my posts for the trip in the coming days. I don't foresee it being easy because I could write about 10 posts on this trip alone. In the meantime enjoy some great Spanish music...

Muchachito (Spain) - Caraguapa

Thursday, December 1, 2011

International Music: Day 6

I said I would take it easy on everyone this time. Today's song is from the homeland so if you don't know it, I hope you enjoy it.

Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros (USA) - Home