When I was a young girl, it seemed every Italian restaurant had paintings and/or murals entitled “Views of Palermo.” Often done by the spouse, mistress, or cousin of the owner, these works tended (at best) to look like this.
Naturally I grew up thinking of Palermo as having faded colors, blurry edges, and not much going for it beyond a pretty harbor. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered, stepping off the early morning ferry from Sardinia, that Palermo is a bright and bustling city, rich with ancient monuments, zany street life, and very, very good pasta.
On the downside, we had left Italy’s tourist-free zone. Indeed, in one small trattoria we were thoroughly overshadowed by a group of tall, blonde Swedish women in their early twenties; they arrived after us and yet for some reason were served instantly and with fawning attention while Rich and I cooled our heels and begged repeatedly for beer. But such moments were a small price to pay for the many delightful and surprising views of Palermo that awaited us.
One of my first discoveries was the Biblioteca Privata Itinerante (Private Itinerant Library) of Pietro Tramonte, a retired accountant and “impromptu poet” known for his love of books. Yes, actual, old-fashioned paper books; for those who love to read, he says, “the paper material is like cheese on macaroni.” Today, his labyrinth of tarp-covered shelves in an alley off Piazza Monte Santa Rosalia contains (he says) upwards of 45,000 volumes, which he parts with in return for cash, trade-ins, or sometimes nothing at all. “If a kid around here is asking me for a dictionary for a task at school, what should I do? Do I not give it to him?” Pietro does stock English books, but sadly my commitment to traveling light with my Kindle meant I could not buy, beg, borrow, or barter for any of his wares.
At the suggestion of our Airbnb landlady, Rich and I bought tickets to La Cenerentola (Cinderalla) at Palermo’s gorgeous Teatro Massimo, the largest opera house in Italy. In the late 20th century it was closed for decades, as the financing of needed repairs became plagued by corruption and in-fighting worthy of the Godfather saga — which, coincidentally, filmed its final scenes there at the Massimo. I kept looking for fake bloodstains on the floors.
We didn’t see anything quite that gruesome, on or off the stage, unless you count the way the artistic director of Rossini's classic opera butchered the plot, characters, and setting in a misguided attempt at extreme originality. Luckily he restrained himself from altering the music, which soared magnificently through the vast space, showing off the opera house’s famously flawless acoustics.
But it was the funky side of Palermo that really appealed to me.
Rich and I had planned a week in Palermo, followed by a leisurely train ride to Napoli to meet friends, then a flight from Rome to California to deal with a family matter. But fate had other ideas. On Monday morning I received word that the family situation now required our presence more urgently. Within hours, we’d arranged to fly out that night from Palermo to Rome, and then take a 6:00 am flight to Paris, with a connection to San Francisco that had us there by lunchtime on Tuesday.
As you can imagine, my head is still spinning from all the pivoting and dashing about.
I’ve found that there are certain kinds of places, such as airplanes and hospitals, that have a strange sense of timelessness; the empty hours become less trackable than ordinary time. Today I am feeling a similar sense of placelessness. In the last month I’ve traveled from California to Seville to Italy and finally back to California, which I'd not expected to see again for many months. I awoke this morning feeling utterly displaced in my own bed. When and where am I? Did I or did I not actually leave California four weeks ago?
Luckily, I have only to review my photos to remember all the small, wonderful adventures I’ve enjoyed in the last month. Like those restaurateurs I remember from my childhood, I can hold on to fond memories of my past with my very own “Views of Palermo.”
Have you visited Palermo, or other parts of Italy that resonated with you? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.
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“If we don’t find something open soon,” I said to Rich, “I’m not going to have much to write about on my blog.”
We were standing in front of the massive locked doors of the cathedral in Cagliari, Sardinia, which an online search had assured us was open continuously from 7:30 am to 8:00 pm. It was nearly lunchtime, and it didn’t look like we had a prayer of seeing the interior any time in the foreseeable future. The 13th-century Cathedral of Saint Mary and Saint Cecilia was one of a long series of closed churches, palaces, and museums we’d visited under the auspices of our online self-guided walking tour. Don’t get me wrong; we were having a perfectly lovely time meandering around the narrow streets, pausing to admire the gorgeous old buildings and spectacular harbor views, fortifying ourselves from time to time with cappuccino or freshly squeezed orange juice. But my plans to write about Cagliari’s charming points of interest were fading fast.
“What’s with this town?” I added. “You’d think they didn’t care about tourists.”
“Why should they?” asked Rich. “There aren’t any.”
He was so right. We’d been on the island of Sardinia for four days, visiting its two largest cities, Sassari and Cagliari, and the total number of tourists we’d spotted was somewhere south of twenty. Maybe south of ten. True, this was the offseason; no doubt there were plenty in the summer months to fill all those great hotels, B&Bs, and trattorias dotting the landscape. Everyone we’d met had been incredibly warm and friendly but without the slightly forced charm of those who cater to foreigners for a living. Now, looking around the serene, sun-drenched plaza, I realized why the cathedral wasn’t surrounded with Starbucks and souvenir stands: this was a place of worship, not an attraction.
“There’s your story,” Rich pointed out. “We’ve actually managed to find a place in Italy that is totally and completely off the beaten path. People here arrange things to suit themselves, not the whims and habits of tourists.”
Obviously I had been feeling for the pulse of this city in all the wrong places. Sure, Cagliari is an ancient city whose roots go back 5000 years to the Neolithic era. And its strategic location in the middle of the Mediterranean attracted occupying forces from just about every seafaring nation in the Old World, creating a rich landscape of gorgeous buildings, some dating back to pre-Roman times. But Cagliari is no museum, no theme park paying homage to its own past. It’s a vibrant city with plenty to say about living in modern times.
As a travel writer and photographer, I’m always trying to get a bit further out there on the road less traveled so I can develop a fresh perspective on the world. I find it enormously disconcerting to take that unique, once-in-a-lifetime photo — only to turn around and discover that six other visitors are standing behind me snapping precisely the same image. And I have learned the hard way that crowds of sightseers in shorts and sneakers milling about in front of monuments rarely do anything to improve the romantic atmosphere I’m trying to capture. (To be fair, I’m sure many of them have cursed me for inadvertently ruining their photos, too.) So as you can imagine, my camera and I are having a field day here in Sardinia. Take a look. Can you find a single tourist in any of these shots?
Tomorrow, Rich and I are taking a long walk to the Shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria (Fair Winds), built to house the statue of the Blessed Virgin that washed up on shore in 1370 under mysterious, possibly miraculous circumstances. Considered the jewel in the crown of Cagliari’s many ancient religious structures, the complex includes a basilica, a sanctuary, and a monastery for the Mercedarian friars who have watched over the site since the 14th century. I want to light a candle to the Virgin in hopes she’ll arrange for us to have fair winds and a smooth passage when we take the night ferry from Cagliari to Palermo on Friday.
The website assured me that the shrine is open mornings and afternoons to welcome visitors and celebrate mass. But of course, I am fully prepared to arrive and find the doors closed and locked, the candles out of reach, and all the friars away on vacation. No matter. I can still say a prayer to Our Lady of Bonaria, asking her blessings on our journey and on the good people of Sardinia, whose island remains one of the most warmly welcoming and delightfully tourist-free places in modern Italy.
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“When it comes to adventures,” I wrote in a 2013 blog post, “the only thing you can really count on is the unexpected. You go on an ordinary high school field trip and get bitten by an irradiated spider, giving you special powers. You’re running for shelter from a tornado, and the next thing you know, your house is dropping on a witch. You’re starting a typical day with the family, and flesh-eating zombies overrun the planet. We’ve all been there.” The post then went on to explain why we had to postpone that year’s big railway trip, the one that eventually took us over 6000 miles through 13 countries and became my memoir Adventures of a Railway Nomad: How Our Journeys Guide Us Home.
And now — what are the odds? — it’s happened again.
Over the past few days, as Rich and I were happily ambling around Seville shopping for toothpaste and a few other final sundries to pack for our Balkans-to-Baltics railway journey, a series of worrying emails began to arrive. Rich and I read them with increasing concern and soon it became clear that family matters required our presence in California — not immediately, but soon, and for a while. The train trip would have to be postponed.
I felt as if someone had dropped a house on me.
But then I remembered what Rich says in moments like this: “Breathtaking changes are to be embraced, not endured.” After that there was no more time to linger over philosophical musings; the logistics of shifting gears demanded our full and immediate attention. Our San Anselmo cottage had been rented to friends for the month of April, so the first week of May was the logical time to return. While I sent off a flurry of emails, Rich began to research plane fares.
On top of everything else (and I know that this pales in comparison to a family crisis, but still…) we had already paid for two overnight ferry berths and two hotel rooms. We like to travel spontaneously but had felt it was safe (and wise in light of infrequent ferry service) to make these few advance bookings. Over breakfast this morning Rich was gloomily outlining what had to be done to see if we could get even partial refunds. And that’s when our houseguest (readers of Dancing in the Fountain know him as L-F) said, “So why don’t you go?”
“Go? Go where?” I asked blankly.
“On the first bit of your trip. Leave Friday as planned, take the train to Barcelona and the ferry to Sardinia — have a little fun before you go back. Otherwise you’re just going to sit around Seville for two weeks being depressed and grumpy.”
Rich and I looked at each other in awe. My God, the man was a genius! Or at least able to state the overlooked obvious, which often amounts to the same thing.
Rich began to nod. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, that could work.”
And with a speed so dizzying I still have mental whiplash, Rich and I changed course yet again. We jumped into final travel preparations with renewed frenzy. The apartment began to echo with shouts of “Where’s the — oh, here it is!” and “What did you do with my — ” and “Why aren’t there any clean socks?”
Barring a zombie apocalypse or the bite of a radioactive spider (at this point, nothing would surprise me), Rich and I are now planning to leave Friday morning as originally scheduled. We'll head for the Seville train station taking our little roll-aboard bags, tickets to Barcelona, and ferry passes to Sardinia and Sicily. At the end of two weeks, we’ll meet up with digital nomad pals in Napoli then hop a flight from Rome to San Francisco. With luck we'll arrive in California feeling rested, refreshed, and ready for what is shaping up to be a very long summer indeed.
As far as I’m concerned, Friday marks the real start of our Balkan-to-Baltics railway journey. Like all great adventures, it’s beginning with bumps, detours, and a tornado blowing the plan radically off course. And that, of course, when things tend to get exciting.
I’ll let you know what happens next.
Ever since Rich and I announced our intention of traveling for four to five months without a fixed itinerary or end date, people have been asking us, 1) “Why?” and 2) “How?” and 3) “Are ya nuts?”
The why part is easy. Years ago, Rich and I decided that we didn’t want to spend this phase of our lives sitting around waiting to crumble. Instead, we decided to go places and have interesting adventures; crumbling is very much on the back burner, at least for now. Internet memes constantly exhort young people to live their travel dreams, but it’s people over the age of 50, 60, or 70 who should be listening. Because really, if not now, when?
Knowing why helps us figure out how to go. Rich and I are clear that we’re seeking adventure but intend to maintain a reasonable degree of comfort. We want to cover a lot of ground without feeling hurried. And we hope to encounter people and places that make us sit up and say, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming!” — if possible, in a good way. For us, our upcoming Balkans-to-Baltics rail journey seems like a good bet for meeting most of those goals, most of the time.
So, are we nuts? Maybe. But not because we’re about to embark on a long-term, spontaneous, open-ended rail journey. Done right, this kind of travel is tremendous fun. The first step is getting free of popular myths and misconceptions.
Myth 1. If I don’t make hotel reservations weeks ahead of time, I won’t have a place to sleep and will wind up spending the night on a park bench. Not going to happen. While our definition of "spontaneous" rules out long-range reservations, it allows booking lodgings a week or so in advance. Since we received our residency cards on Monday (YAY!) we’ve booked a hotel room in Barcelona and berths on the two overnight ferries needed to reach Sicily en route to Albania. On trips we organize ourselves, we rarely arrive anywhere without a place to sleep; when it has happened, we’ve quickly found someplace decent to stay. Seriously, you are not going to sleep on a park bench.
Myth 2. If a restaurant isn’t in my guidebook, the food will be terrible and probably make me ill. Rich’s nose for good eats (nicknamed “the Sniffer”) takes us into obscure cafés everywhere. We’ve enjoyed countless delightful culinary surprises; the occasional ghastly misstep such as tripe soup or pig’s ears gives us a good laugh before we order something else. Yes, we have occasionally gotten ill, but usually in a fancy tourist place where we were assured everything was safe.
Myth 3. Going abroad is dangerous. Bad things can happen anywhere, of course, and you’ll want to be sensible. But long-term travelers often comment on the astonishing amount of honesty and goodwill they encounter. For more, see my post Can You Still Rely on the Kindness of Strangers?
Myth 4. I'm overwhelmed by foreign environments. The thing to remember is that what’s terrifyingly unfamiliar to you is the most comfortable, homey place on the planet to others. For more, see my post DON’T PANIC! It’s Only an Unknown Country.
Myth 5. I’ll never meet anyone; I’ll be lonely. Not if you reach out! For instance, sign up for a group tour, a night at a hostel, the expat social network InterNations, a cooking class, a congenial Airbnb location, or a group dining experience.
Myth 6. There’s no way I can pack enough clothes for a long trip. Sure you can! I’m heading off for months with a single roll-aboard measuring just 21 x 13 x 7.5 inches. The secret? Buy practical travel clothes and do laundry constantly. For more, see my Packing page.
Myth 7. I don’t know the local language; communication will be difficult, embarrassing, and futile. Write key phrases in a notebook (with pronunciation notes) and add some pantomime; you’ll be surprised how well that works. I find online translators cumbersome, but others love them.
Myth 8. If I get sick or injured, I won’t be able to find competent, professional help. Health care quality varies tremendously, as you've no doubt observed in your own community. I’ve had good medical care in Spain, Mexico, and the Republic of Georgia. But of course, it pays to do research and advance planning. Like what? See my post The SOS File: Be Prepared for Medical Emergencies on the Road.
Myth 9. Something will go wrong and the trip will be ruined. If the benchmark is perfection, every trip is going to fall short occasionally; a simple delay at check-in can leave you feeling cheated and disappointed at the “failure” of the trip. But these moments make for the best stories; our infamous departure imbroglio is all anyone remembers about my Cuba trip. And every encounter with the unexpected is a gentle reminder from the universe that we are not, in fact, in control of everything, or even a small portion of it. Which is frankly a relief for people like me, who have a hard enough time managing our email accounts, let alone the course of human events.
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I'm an American travel writer currently living in California.
My weekly updates contain tips for keeping our mental equilibrium and living more authentically during these turbulent times.