My first evening in Rome, I gazed starry-eyed out the hotel window. I saw green, rolling hills, a river in the distance, and sky blue sky. And a couple of highways. On paper, it was nothing too dramatically different from the terrain in the U.S., but after wanting to come to Italy for so long, the view looked magical to me. It was finally starting to sink in that I had really made it here. By myself.
The energy I felt was magnetic. It reminded me of looking out the window at the New York skyline from a hotel in New Jersey the first time I visited the city, and just knowing, YES. This place will bring me great joy and I’m going to be changed by it.
For my first trip abroad, still a total novice, I was glad I decided to do a Contiki tour. Our guide, Vinnie, was knowledgeable, sincere, and made the trip the enjoyable experience it was for our group of 40ish travelers (from the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, and Japan). With the combination of Vinnie’s passion for telling (often unpleasant, he admitted) truths about his country’s history and politics, along with my roommate’s navigational skills, so I rarely had to study a map, my time in Italy was the perfect introduction to a trip abroad.
In addition to all the must-see touristy stuff we did in Rome, Florence, and Venice (including climbing 400+ stairs to get to the top of the bell tower next to the Duomo in Florence, and the much easier elevator ride to the top of the bell tower in Venice to get stunning photo opps), we found other adventures as well. We walked an average of 7 miles a day according to Carina’s Fit Bit, went to a karaoke bar and sang 90s songs (thanks, beer, for getting me up to sing “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls), drank delicious wine, and ate some amazing multi-course meals. (One of which was high in the Tuscan hills. We literally overlooked the hills as we ate, and also witnessed a flaming pig come out from the kitchen for the carnivores of the group.)
But my favorite part of Italy, and to this day, my favorite place out of everywhere I’ve traveled, was the brilliantly stunning Cinque Terre. I had learned about it from my Italian professor in college, and drooled over google pictures of the five towns dotting the west coast of Italy ever since. I didn’t think I could make it there on this trip, since I was traveling with a group and every day was planned. But when I asked Vinnie if he had to choose between his only chance to visit Cinque Terre and the scheduled agenda (which was a tempting visit to a winery in Tuscany), he told me, Cinque Terre. And luckily, that helped to persuade Carina to go with me so I wasn’t left to navigate the multiple trains and buses to get there alone. AND it meant I had someone to speak to all day with my nonstop “oooohs” and “ahhhs” and outbursts of “Ohmigod, it’s soooo beautiful!”
If I’m able to go back (damage to the paths is increasing because of the multitude of tourists that visit each summer), I’ll definitely walk the entire track. Because of time, we took the shuttle train to four of the five villages. Each time I stepped off the train and looked up at the massive land formations with brightly colored houses stacked on them, with the blue sea as the cherry on top, I gasped, smiled, and held back tears.
Cinque Terre was a dream come true; it was like those idyllic Instagram photos that don’t look real, except it was real. And it only solidified my belief that no matter what I had to do to make it happen, I was going to keep traveling. The day after I got back, I started my contract as a school counselor, and when one teacher asked me, “One final trip before reality?” I corrected her and smiled, saying, “No, this is only just the beginning.”