Tag Archives: Amy Hofmann

Rubies, Emeralds, Aquamarines

The region along Italy’s west coast is so spectacular, so stunningly beautiful and exceptional that when asked what it’s like, it’s hard not to sound like your IQ is dangerously nearing single digits.

“So it’s a beach town,” the skeptic says.

“Right, except it’s built into a hillside!” you exclaim.  “There are century-old buildings and houses on cliffs!”

“So it’s crowded?” they continue.

“There’s no cars!  You can’t access it except by train or boat!  And you can walk between the five towns!”

“So it’s a beach you can’t get to, it’s overcrowded, and I have to walk everywhere?” they say, turning away.

“…….(sigh in defeat),” say you.

This was a little of our dynamic the day we took the train to Cinque Terre from Lucca — it was Kelly, Amy and Brian’s first time, and the rest of us were trying to describe the majesty of the place, but failing miserably.  Finally we decided to let it speak for itself and we settled back in our seats to read on our Kindles, or in Brian’s case, rescue the princess on his Gameboy Color.

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The train ride there is largely uninteresting, with slightly shabby towns pockmarked across stretches of fields.  There is no evidence that soon one will be on the Mediterranean, much less in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

We switched trains in La Spezia and rumbled through tunnels, the last of which ended with a split-second view of the water making everyone gasp and dive toward the window.  We knew we were close and became giddy at the thought of the day ahead.

After getting off the train and purchasing our return tickets, we walked down the stairs from the station into the first town — Monterosso.  The sight stopped us in our tracks.

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It was even more spectacular than I remembered — rich colors filling every inch of the landscape, enormous emerald hillsides reaching out of cobalt waters like cathedral ramparts, tanned Europeans lounging under brightly striped umbrellas, relaxed tourists sipping wine and licking gelato before noon.  It was paradise.

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We were so overwhelmed we didn’t know what to do first.  Erin and I walked around to re-familiarize ourselves with the place, while Brian lead Amy, Mike, and Kelly  to the nearest tropical drink shack to celebrate our arrival.  Soon we all had handmade smoothies, some with booze, some without.  I made a quick pronouncement.

“Let’s make every effort to eat and drink in every town.  Yes?”

I got signed contracts from everyone in the form of happy grins.

Erin, Mike and I had extremely fond memories of a particular bruschetta restaurant in Monterosso, and we were determined to return.  After exploring the town a bit more, we headed off in search of the perfectly toasted bread, tomatoes drenched in olive oil and basil, and the perfectly proportioned dusting of sea salt.

When we found it, right where we’d left it three years earlier, we shouted a little for joy.  When it was even better than we remembered, we felt appropriately validated.

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Kelly, who avoids gluten, was beside herself at being able to savor this treat with abandon.  It turns out that Italians don’t modify their wheat the same way we do stateside, so even those who can’t eat gluten can eat it in Italy.  As if Italy weren’t perfect enough?

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Next we hopped on the train for village number two, also known as Mike’s favorite: Vernazza.

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As we walked through the quaint town of small shops, we saw a large poster commemorating the disastrous mudslide that rocked the town a year ago.  It was hard to believe that 18 feet of mud covered where we now stood.

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When we reached the center of town lining the beach, it was like stepping onto a movie set.  It was so colorfully radiant, so decadent in leisure, and so unaffected by tourism; if this place were almost anywhere else, there’d be cheap carts set up everywhere with key chains and towels and hats with I’VE BEEN TO CINQUE TERRE printed garishly across the front.  Instead, it seemed perfectly untouched, as if we were the first to discover this European heaven.

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We wandered off to take pictures, enjoy the view, and walk along the rocks in the water.  Before I knew it, Amy came up behind me and made a little announcement.

“Brian went swimming,”  she said.

“Wha — he didn’t bring a suit!” I replied.

“Apparently that’s not a problem for our Bri Bri,” she said.

And it wasn’t.  Up walked Brian, dripping wet in the 90 degree weather, wearing the expression of a child with a free unlimited tickets to Disneyland.

It took about two seconds for Mike to light up like a rocket, a bigger explosion of excitement than if he’d seen a dozen puppies.

“I’m going in, too!  YES!  THIS IS AWESOME!” he hollered.  At first I was aghast at the idea of my husband running around in public in his underwear, but then I remembered I was in the Italian riviera, and people were changing in and out of swimsuits in broad daylight.

Amy wasn’t far behind, having made the wise decision that morning to select undergarments that were both black and very swimsuit-like.  Kelly, Erin and I were not as lucky, so we agreed to hold clothes and take photos.

The joy radiating from their faces in the water was contagious.  It was a moment that made us stop and recognize what was happening: we were all together in Italy, swimming in the Mediterranean, living a day most people can only dream of.  We were so, so grateful.

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The good people of Vernazza kindly provided a hose to rinse off the salt, and the swimmers rinsed while we found a table for a glass of wine and refreshing Pellegrino.

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We stopped at the next train station, for Corniglia, but when we were told it was a 400 stair climb to the town, we immediately got back in line for the next train.  It was blazing hot, we had two towns to go, and hiking up a hillside sounded laughably unappealing.

When we arrived in the fourth town, Manarola, we split up to explore and take photos.  The girls combed the town, pointing out buttercream yellow buildings and hundreds-year-old churches.  We posed for pictures by terraced vineyards so steep we marveled that the grapes were able to be harvested.

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We eventually found the boys exactly where we’d expected: having a cold lager on an outdoor deck.

We walked to the water’s edge and saw dozens of people swimming among the rocks, some climbing dangerously high to free-fall into the aquamarine waters below.  We couldn’t believe how high the cliffs were, and it made my palms sweat to watch them stand at the edge and dither about whether to jump.

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It wasn’t two minutes before Brian was again casting off clothing and descending the stairs into the water.  We all watched nervously as he disappeared behind the black rock, with Amy calling for him not to kill himself.

When he finally appeared at the top we held our breath, laughing nervously as he hollered words in English that were thankfully lost in translation, like “Here goes the salt water enema!”

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He flew through the air and we cheered when his head bobbed back up to the surface.  His earlier prediction hadn’t been far off, for the landing ripped his shorts in half.  Luckily he still had his clothes to throw on, so all was well.

Our last destination was Riomaggiore, or as we nicknamed it, Rigamortis.  The path along the hillside to walk there is called Via dell’Amore, or The Way of Love.  It’s a famous place for lovers to walk the kilometer-long road and take in the spectacular view and dedicate their love by putting a lock into the fence (Sam and Aaron did this on their walk with Dave and Nancy).  Mike and I took a photo there in 2009 and decided to recreate the moment in 2012.

2009:

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2012:

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We semi-forced Amy and Brian into the same thing, which they only found mildly cheesy.

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In our final quest for food we were hoping for a real meal, but truly came up short in ways we couldn’t have thought possible.  We found the most stunning location, a restaurant high on the hill built into the rock, overlooking the ocean so forcefully it was hard to look away.

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But the food.  My word, the food.

To say it was appallingly bad would be like saying Honey Boo Boo is a little tacky.  It was inedible.  We quickly discovered how bad it was going to be when we saw little asterisks on items of the menu that signified “frozen meal.”

We ordered as best we could, and made up for it with glasses of white wine, but there was little that could be redeemed.  It was completely obvious that there was no kitchen in the establishment, just a bar down a steep flight of stairs that presumably held a freezer full of frozen entrees and a good stock of booze.  The entirety of the restaurant’s appeal was its location.

But honestly, there would be no true complaining from any of us.  We knew we were sitting on top of the world on one of the best days any of us would have as long as we lived, and a thawed panini wasn’t going to shave an inch off our ecstasy.

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I could tell you that our day in paradise ended with missing a train connection in La Spezia and having to spend 100 euro on taxis to get us all home.  I could, but I won’t.  With a day like that, even with an ending that makes a tightwad like me want to light my hair on fire, I will never regret a second.  Doing so creates a person who wins the lottery only to whine about the taxes.

Le Cinque Terre, a place so magical you’ll be filled with envy on behalf of every other place in the world that calls itself beautiful.

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The Griswolds Drive Through Tuscany

On our second full day in Italy, we decided that we’d like to visit some ancient hilltop towns, the kind that idyllically appear in the distance over rolling hills of vineyards.  We pictured the cliché images of a Tuscan-themed Barnes and Nobel calendar coming to life before our eyes.  We imagined driving dreamily through the countryside as Bocelli sang in the background.

And then we actually started driving.

Our first mistake was to caravan.  There were twelve of us, split among three toy cars.  When not one of you knows where you’re going, it doesn’t help to caravan.  It also doesn’t help when an error is made and all three cars have to U-turn in the middle of a freeway.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We decided to visit two famous hilltop towns, San Gimignano and Volterra.  Allow me to illustrate.

You can see that there is not a major expressway one can use to glide thoughtlessly to either town.  That may be why our route ended up looking like the way taken by little boy Billy from the Family Circus.

We headed south from the villa around 10AM, with Dave and Nancy taking the lead.  They, along with my father, had done some brief map work earlier that morning and felt fairly confident.  After forty minutes of winding through single-lane roads that were being used as double-lane roads, we pulled over.  I ejected myself out of our car from nausea.

After a brief powwow, we got back on the road with cheerful outlooks that all would be well.  And then we reached the freeway.

“Freeway” is an interesting term here, because one doesn’t realize one has entered until it’s too late.  One minute we were driving country roads, then a whip-fast roundabout and a wrong turn later and suddenly we’re supposed to be going 120 KPH.

The funny thing about Italian roads is you need to make four decisions in a span of ten seconds, any of which could be horribly incorrect.  You leave the roundabout, hoping you took the right exit, only to be immediately presented with a fork in the road with twelve signs accompanying it.  After that harrowing close call, the road splits again, with both signs pointing to the same town.   Pretty soon your nerves are shot and you’ve lost your caravan.  Oh, and they hate you.

This is more or less what happened all the way to San Gimignano.  We were very lost, so our fearless leader, Dave, pulled to the side of the road in the middle of a highway.  Italians must expect this of us, because they have built little pull-over areas along the major freeways.  The problem with this is not the exit from the road, it’s the reentry.  There is absolutely no, and I mean not a smidgen, of on-ramp.  You must watch a thousand cars race past you at 130 KPH and try to jump into their flow from a stopped position.  And bonus!  You must do this with a stick-shift toy car.

The real talent comes in blocking out the terrified screams of your passengers, at which I must say, Mike excelled.

At this point in our journey, at least seven of us had vowed never to travel by caravan again.  The rest simply vowed never to travel again.

Only once did we completely lose each other, and it happened so fast none of us actually knew what happened.  We exited a roundabout as a group, then Dave got on one freeway and suddenly realized it was wrong.  Like I explained earlier, immediately after getting on the freeway there was another fork in the road ahead of him, and he had no idea which one to take (none of us did), so he pulled up to the fork and stopped.  In the middle of the freeway.

Several expletives escaped the mouths of those riding in my car, and Mike quickly realized there wasn’t enough room to pull over behind Dave so with one glance he pulled a U-turn across a freeway that shaved fifteen years off the lives of his passengers, not to mention his mother-in-law in the car behind him.

Despite the danger of this activity, my father quickly followed suit, and we met up in a safer area back by the roundabout.  After several phone calls, we realized Dave had continued on the main road, so we got back on the freeway (after three attempts) and found him.

When we at last arrived at San Gimignano, no one even wanted to be there.  We were so frazzled and fried from the journey that the destination only held our contempt for drawing us there in the first place.  Plus, there was no parking.

We exploded out of our cars, airing our grievances and shouting at the sky “I’m not mad AT anyone IN PARTICULAR, I’m JUST MAD!”  Things of that nature.

Finally my mom made the call: let’s skip this and go straight to Volterra.  Even though the idea of getting back in the car was suicide for most of us, we agreed that the sooner we got somewhere less insane, the better.

On we went, and things were fine — right up until a semi truck rolled up behind us.  Our caravan was moving along, minding the speed limit like good little Americans, and then the truck driver reminded us, by forceful use of his horn, that this is not how things are done in Italia.

“This truck is ON MY ASS!” Mike hollered, while the rest of us turned in horror to see a truck, literally inches from our bumper, that was so big we couldn’t see the driver.  The monstrosity of this truck made our car look like one of the car game pieces in The Game of Life.

He blared his horn and revved up behind us as we screamed.  Mike yelled for me to get on the phone to the lead car, and tell my dad to GO FASTER.  LIVES ARE AT STAKE.

My mom answered.  “We can’t go any faster.  We read somewhere that there are cameras on Italian roads that capture you breaking the speed limit, and then fine you,” she explained.

I told her if that were true, why were all the other cars speeding?  She said she didn’t know, but she did know “your father will not go any faster.”

I politely told her which songs to play at the funerals of Brian, Amy, Mike and Abby, and hung up.

Shortly after the truck turned off of our road, we were still venting our frustrations and railing against the difficulty of getting around a foreign country, when Brian said, “Guys.  Are you seeing this?”

We looked out our windows and gasped.  That cheesy Tuscan Barnes and Noble calendar?  It was live in front of us.  Bocelli?  He started to sing.   Our eyes took in miles and miles of vineyards, olive groves, undulating hills made golden by the sun.  And some astounding hilltop villas, just to send us over the top.

And we got it.

“Ugh,” we said sheepishly.  “We’re the worst, aren’t we?  I mean perspective, yes?”

“This is blowing my mind, honestly, LOOK AT THIS,” he added.

“Take a picture!  Where’s my camera?!” Amy chimed in.

“Mike – not you!  You keep your eyes on the road,” I instructed.

The same reaction must have been happening in the other two cars, because soon my dad was pulling over, and this time it wasn’t the side of the freeway, it was a winery.  Hallelujah.

We were the only people there (wine tasting at noon might have something to do with it) and we tasted their homemade olive oil and wine, purchasing several bottles to enjoy later that evening.  We were revived by the wine and by forgiving each other’s driving, we were climbing our way back to sanity, and soon enough, we arrived in Volterra.

We had a fabulous time exploring the medieval city, and the journey home was absolutely painless.  Later, over the bottles of wine we bought, we agreed that perhaps the morning was our crash course, and now we were weathered masters of the Italian roads.

It’s also possible that victorious sentiment was inspired less by actuality, and more by our second glass of hard-earned wine.

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To Pisa, One Way or Another

As our plane touched down at JFK a few weeks ago on our way to Italy, I was excited that our first leg of the journey was over, and I was about to see Amy and Brian.  We had coordinated our flights brilliantly, with them joining us at JFK from Philly to take the flight to Pisa.

I turned on my phone to text her that we had landed, and instead saw a text that read, “We’re not coming to JFK.  Our flight was cancelled.”

I showed Mike the text and rolled my eyes.  “She should know me enough to know I hate these types of jokes.  They’re not funny.  I’m not laid-back enough to think these jokes are funny.”

Another message popped through, this time from Brian, showing a picture of Amy apparently crying.

“Sheesh,” I said, “they really like to take these practical jokes all the way, don’t they?”

To put an end to this comedy hour, I called Amy.

“Ha,” I said when she picked up. “Ha. Ha.”

“I’m not joking,” she said with a meekness that could only come from crushing disappointment.  “Our flight is canceled so we’re not flying with you.  We are now booked on a flight to Paris, getting into Pisa about the same time you are.”

I looked at Mike with my hand over my mouth.  I was so shocked and sad I didn’t know what to say.  We discussed how we were both completely deflated from the burst bubble of flying to Europe together, and slightly anxious about having to find each other on the other side.

I consoled her and told her this was the most infuriating cancellation, but we both agreed there wasn’t anything to do but maybe drown our sorrows in a few brewskies.

The rest of the gang was getting ready to deplane so I did the awkward cross-aisle-mouth-words-and-half-speak to let them know Amy and Brian would not be on our flight.  They all sagged in disappointment as well, but said, hey, it’s not like they’re not coming on the trip at all — get a grip!

So we did — we had some lunch and drank a couple of beers to pass the five-hour layover.  Kelly and I led Erin and Sam in a brief barre workout along a terminal wall that had handrails.  We boarded our flight, took melatonin/Ambien/red wine to help us sleep, and eight hours later we landed in Pisa.

While the rest of the group went to retrieve our tiny toy rental cars, Kelly and I waited for our diverted travelers to arrive.  About 45 minutes later I got a text from Brian that only said, “We need address.  No bags.”

“Unbelievable,” I said to Kelly, while also noting in my head that responding to his text would cost me fifty cents.  Rather than replying we tried to find the baggage service area, and instead found a jail.

“Oh my gosh, that’s Bri!” I yelled when we saw him.  He couldn’t hear us; he was inside the little prison.  We saw his head through a window that looked like a teller window, with double-pane glass and a tiny open slot for paper and exchanging words.  The door to the room was a cylinder, which couldn’t be rotated from the outside.  Amy looked over at me with a mix of helplessness and rage as she tried to communicate with the baggage lady.

I slipped a piece of paper with the villa address on it under the window to Brian who handed it to the woman.  She asked a series of nonsensical questions like “Is this a real address?” and “What is the cell phone number of the owner?”  Amy gritted her teeth and said, “You don’t need the cell phone number of the owner of the house.  You need MY cell phone number and I’ve already given it to you.”  Kelly and I astutely observed that this was not going well.

When they were finally released from San Quentin, they came barreling out of the room with a level of frustration only known by those who have had a canceled flight and lost luggage in a foreign country.

It occurred to me then how laughable my original vision was of Kelly meeting Amy and Brian — everyone at JFK cheerfully meeting for a fabulous flight to Italy!  Instead, Amy and Brian were yanked around, luggage-less, and anything but excited.  Kelly would later admit to Brian and Amy that she was slightly afraid, given the thundercloud of anger hanging over their heads, but of course, who could blame them?

This is also why no one minded in the least when, an hour later, we were all standing outside of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Brian, Amy and Mike looked for ten minutes and then said, “People, we need to eat.  Peace.”  We all said please, do whatever you want, you deserve an award, please have a drink on me, etc.

However, my mom, Erin, Sam, Aaron and Kelly were not quite ready to leave.  We walked up to the Duomo and decided to go inside (the shade from the 95 degree heat was motivation enough).  It was stunningly beautiful, and we spent about fifteen minutes exploring the interior.

The building across from it was the Baptistry of St John, and we entered and were instantly somewhat underwhelmed.  It was still large and beautiful, and deeply impressive for a building completed in 1363, but it was very plain, with little adornment of any kind.

There were signs for silence throughout the circular room, and Erin nudged us that the ticket-taker was walking into the room, presumably to shush us.  He entered and gave a “shhhhh” that was practically deafening, and then he mounted the baptismal font to stand in front of everyone.  We had no idea what he was doing, and then without warning his voice rang out in a clear, deep tenor.

“Ooooooooooooooooooooooooh, ooooooooooooh, oooooooooooooooooooooooooh,” he sang, going deeper with each note.  He held each note about three seconds, then would change to a different key.  The most incredible thing happened: his voice never stopped.  He was showcasing the baptistry’s acoustics in an astonishing way — as he sang, each note lasted far longer than he held it, building on one another until it sounded as though a hundred men were singing around us.  It was spellbinding.

Kelly looked at me with eyes as wide as the font, and mouthed “I have goosebumps.”  I did too, so I gripped her arm as we listened together.  I closed my eyes to amplify the sound, which so filled the room it was as if we could see the music.

Just as simply as he entered the room, the man exited it.  Everyone stood there in stunned silence, unable to move.  Finally we burst outside and exchanged exclamations about what we’d just heard.

When we reunited with Mike, Amy and Brian back at the car, they were as refreshed as we were — the lunch and beer had treated them well.  We felt like we had been traveling for days, and we had — two plane rides and a tourist stop and we were feeling the wear and tear.  We all agreed we couldn’t picture anything better than getting to the villa for a swim, so we piled in the car and headed on our way.

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