Thursday, December 27, 2012

Cinque Terre-- hiking the hill towns



Our reason for going to the Cinque Terre was twofold.  First and foremost, I saw a program (thank you Rick Steves) on the Cinque Terre many, many years ago and knew immediately that it was one of my bucket list places.  It was the Italy I dreamed of—not Rome or Venice.  And secondly, after the terribly flooding in 2011, the Cinque Terre needed visitors to help them restore their economy.  We felt if we ever wanted to visit, now was the time.
 
When the sun rose on our second day, we got up early, went to the bakery  and  bought some delightful cornetti—Italian croissants filled with many different fillings. I had no idea what was in each one, so we bought several! And yes, they were ALL delicious. After we grabbed our pastry, we stopped in at Burgus for our morning coffee—cappuccino for me and an Americano for the Dutchboy.  We took our coffee to the harbor, with the promise to return the cups and had our picnic breakfast. This would be our ritual for the days we stayed there.  In hindsight, those quiet mornings at the harbor nursing espresso and croissants were some of my favorite memories of the trip.

Hindsight, indeed! Truth be told, that morning I was probably too excited to appreciate it the way I should.  We were going to hike the trails I had dreamed of! We would see this part of Italy for ourselves. So we set off to the train station, walking sticks in hand, to buy our park permits (you can’t hike the trails without paying a small fee and having a “pass”) and catch the train to the far end of the Cinque Terre and hike back to our home base of Vernazza.

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Waiting for a train that would take us five minutes further down the line to Riomaggiore.

Like everything else in this area, Riomaggiore is built on a mountain. So it goes straight up! But going straight up, you pass along the main street with all the little shops and markets.
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A glimpse into a focacceria—great for a quick breakfast or snack.
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See? Straight up! Looking down Main street Riomaggiore
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Riomaggiore from the Harbor
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Looking towards Monterosso, the path we walk to Manarola is visible along the Cliffside.
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The beach of Riomaggiore.  Lots of rocks, not sand. And people didn’t seem to mind that at all. The train tunnel is above, in the alcove.  I loved Riomaggiore—it’s small and quaint.  It’s quiet without being sleepy.  Next to Vernazza, it was my favorite city we saw in Italy! But there was more hiking to do. The next town awaited us!  This part of the trail is known as the Via dell’Amore (“Pathway of Love”). It’s a kilometer long, paved path that connects Riomaggiore to Manarola. It’s an easy walk, and lovers lock padlocks to the fencing that holds back the rock.  No, we didn’t declare our undying devotion with a padlock, but we did hold hands while we strolled towards  Manarola, Town number two on the Cinque Terre circuit.

Well, held hands until we encountered this friendly native. Who was too friendly for my liking.
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Lizards seem to find me on every trip. I’m cursed with some pheromone that summons lizards.  Ironic that it should happen on the Via Dell’amore, right?

By this time, I was getting a bit peckish, and the smell of focaccia beckoned. So we bought a nibble or two and walked again towards the water.
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Lunch!! Foccacia—one with anchovies and one without!
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Lekker!
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This was our view during lunch.
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Or we could look the other way and see this! Manarola, the lady herself.

After lunch, we started hiking the second leg of our trip, but were thwarted. The path was blocked by a gate—it was closed due to a landslide.  We could have taken a different path, but we didn’t realize it at the time. Instead we walked back through Manarola and took the train to Corniglia, where we could continue onward with our trek back to Vernazza.

The thing about Corniglia—it’s on top of the mountain. There’s no harbor access to it. The train station is at the BOTTOM. You have to walk up almost 400 (felt like 4,000) steps to get to the top. Of course, there’s a shuttle to take you up, but where’s the fun in that???

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Corniglia—narrow quiet lanes.

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And stairs. Always with the stairs. Everywhere  you look.

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Looking back to Corniglia, hiking towards Vernazza.

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This hike takes you past lovely mountainside vineyards.

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A sweeping vistas of the Mediterranean.

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The path ahead.

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And the path that was behind us.  The road to another town is above the pathway.

This path seemed to wind on and on forever. But in an hour or so, the town of Vernazza came into view!
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This photo is deceptive, though. Vernazza was still quite a bit down. Straight down some steep hills and equally steep stairs.  But the rewards were sweet. Great views, lovely memories, a sense of accomplishment and…

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Gelato!! Really, really amazing gelato.

Followed later by a lovely dinner at Gambero Rosso. I had Tegame di Vernazza  (fresh anchovies baked with potatoes and tomatoes) and Dutch opted for Spaghetti al ragù di carne alla Bolognese (pasta with a Bolognese sauce).

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Dutchboy’s dinner.  The photo of my anchovy dish didn’t turn out. It was dark and we were dining al fresco, harborside.

The wine was excellent, too. Wine of the region is white, dry, and very very good.
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Cheers!

After dinner, we strolled through town, enjoying the warm evening. Music spilled out of cafes, and people were out, taking in the scene. It was easy to be there.

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We ended the night, once again at the harbor. The lights of Monterosso, the last town of the Cinque Terre, beckoned us. Tomorrow we would hike the last portion and see the magic behind those lights in the distance for ourselves. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Méditerranée, zo blauw, zo blauw*...



Once again, it’s weeks after my return, and months since my last posting.  I’m very bad at staying current, but invariably something happens that foils my plans to post daily to the blog while on vacation. This time? A wonky network card that wouldn’t connect until I was so behind on my postings, that I gave up. That, and I was too busy having fun to stop and futz with html.   But!! I’m back and it’s time to get caught up!

We flew out of Charlotte early on September 12th.  Absolutely NO PROBLEMS. My fear of getting bumped at JFK didn’t come to fruition and everything went off like clockwork.  One day I’ll stop fretting about delays.  But who wouldn't fret and worry after months of planning and years of dreaming of hiking in Cinque Terre-- those five little towns crowded on the mountain slopes over the Mediterranean, with their pastel houses, stepped vineyards and olives groves. I HAD to get there on time. I had reservations!! I'm pretty sure that made me the most important passenger on that plane!!

So, nice flight, no turbulence, decent airline food. Way to go Delta, getting me there on time!!  We landed in Milan bright and early Thursday morning—and the first hurdle to get over was catching a train at the station. Being a (paranoid!) researcher by nature, I knew the train station/connections I needed. I just didn’t know how best to get the tickets. I assumed the guides were correct and speaking with someone in the ticket office was the answer.  Surely someone there would get me going in the right direction! WRONG.  Instead, I met the rudest station attendant I’ve ever encountered ANYWHERE. I walked up to the window, explained that I needed two tickets to La Spezia, via Genoa. HE looked at me slightly annoyed and exclaimed, “Milano Centrale!” very louded.  Dutchboy stepped up then, and said we needed to go to Vernazza. The man said in PERFECT ENGLISH, “I don’t know WHERE that is! MILANO CENTRALE!!! Twenty Euros!”  And he shoved the two tickets under the window. At that point, I should have yelled at him that I wanted to go to CADORNA  NOT MILANO CENTRALE!!!!!  But I was tired—almost nine hours of air travel had dulled my senses and frayed my nerves. I was intimidated. I meekly paid the 20 euros and left. This was a mistake that would influence our entire day.  The trip that should have taken three hours took over six hours.  Milano Centrale was a horrible connection for us, and on top of that, the train, like most trains in Italy, ran behind schedule, so we missed our connection in Genoa. Then, the Genoa train station was under renovation, and we had a terrible time finding the ticket office to get new tickets issued to La Spezia. It was another big delay.  By this time, I have to admit, my good humor and zest for travel was fading rapidly and  I was doubting the wisdom of my insistent choice of Italy.  The Dutchboy and I kept looking at each other on the last leg of our train journey saying, “We PAID to be this exhausted, tired and lost? Are we CRAZY?”  Indeed it seemed we were insane. After reminding me again he had warned me that Italy was a nice place except for all the Italians in it,  Dutch drifted off to sleep on the journey from Genoa to La Spezia, and I watched the world change. From countryside, to mountainside. From industrial grime, to elegant old. Monasteries and towers started appearing on the mountaintops. My thoughts shifted away from my exhaustion. Or maybe I was starting to be delusions. Maybe Dutch was wrong and it wouldn’t be so bad. When the sparkle of light on water came into view, I felt renewed even if we did have another hour and half on a train.

But no, my faith wasn't misplaced, our luck was indeed changing.  We encountered a lovely elderly Italian gentleman with a gift of gab, who helped figure out that the train would stop in Monterosso well before it stopped in La Spezia. If we got off there, we could catch the Cinque Terre train to Vernazza. Else, we would ride well past our destination and have to backtrack, and might possibly have a layover waiting for a train that only runs every half hour, versus the Cinque Terre trains that run every ten minutes between the five towns. What glorious news!  Good fortune, indeed.  Then the Mediterranean flashed brilliant blue outside the train. And nothing else mattered.

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At last, we arrived in Vernazza. What can I say about it?? It’s tiny. It’s beat-up. A massive storm brought a deluge of water down the mountainside, flooding the town. Its harbor was in ruins, three townspeople died in the flood, washed out to sea, their bodies washing ashore later in St. Tropez. The Cinque Terre is fighting to recover from this tragedy.  Behind the town’s main street, you can see the rebuilding is still going on-- trying to prevent such a tragedy in the future.
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But the town came together, rebuilt their harbor and patched up the holes. As I said, it’s rough. But it’s still somehow, completely PERFECT. Friendly people, one main street.  Mediterranean pounding at your doorstep.  We stayed at the Albergo Barbara, on the Piazza Marconi.

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There are many, many stairs up to the room, in our attic. Like 81 steps. And the last flight  is very steep, and twisty, with a rope banister. 
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 But once you arrive at this top, if you’ve procured an attic room like we did, you’re greeted with this view out of your window.
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See their tiny harbor?
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It’s ringed by a few restaurants and bars—pounding surf and amazing views while you dine on the fresh caught anchovies and hand-rolled pasta.  (Didn’t take a picture of dinner that night!! WHAT WAS I THINKING?!!)
This is the view from the harbor, looking back into town.
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And the waves crashing against the seawall.
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It’s a beautiful jewel of a town, quiet without being sleepy. Cozy. Definitely cozy and inviting, with the one main street keeping things centralized and intimate.
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 With the sun setting over our first day in Italy, I was exhausted. But so in love already with this town that I knew leaving in a few days would be difficult.  The arrival in Italy got off to a rocky start but it finished with glorious color and a feeling of anticipation that the Cinque Terre would be everything I had hoped.
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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Packing Panic!! So lets blog instead.


Well, the time has come. The last minute crunch-time when all the plans come together and I panic over what remains to be done before I leave.  In fact, my panic is so bad, I've resorted to that old trick of making lists. Sure, I COULD have done some of the things on the list rather than making the list and subsequently blogging about it. But then you would be left out of the excitement and that's just not fair, is it?? Let's be honest with each other: You have a burning desire to know every detail of my life, no matter how mundane (MOI!?!? MUNDANE??? HA!) or minute. Since I have a generous spirit, I'm willing to share it with you in excruciating detail.  So without further ado, my to-do lists.  

TO-DO list:
1.      Dye Hair – OMG GRAY IZ BAAAAAAAAAAAAD.
2.      Bathe Allie.
3.      Allie’s heartworm and flea medication.
4.      Wash all clothes
5.      Iron, as necessary (Remember Ton’s work clothes for Monday & Tuesday)
6.      Gather medication and make sure we have saline/medication/toiletries
7.      Final decision on clothing (AAAAAAAAAAARGH)
8.      Dry packing run to make sure bag isn’t overweight. If it is, purchase extra weight for easyjet.
9.      Find Messenger Baggallini
10.  Make Passport copies (3 of each – all Italian hotels need them or they hold passport)
11.  Print all confirmations.
12.  Print directions to Hotel Canada in Milan from Cadorna Station and from the Duomo!
13.   Make sure to add funds to OV Chipkaart
14.  Clean the fridge
15. Confirm Milan Hotel (OMG how did I forget this until now!?!?)


Final Morning To-Do list:
1.      Finish packing toothbrush/razor/saline/contact cases/makeup
2.      Make sure you have passports/tickets/confirmations/copies of passports/credit cards.
3.      Make sure you have American money AND Euros.
4.      Wash any dishes.
5.      Make bed
6.      Take out the trash.
7.      IS THE FRIDGE EMPTY OF PERISHABLES?? POUR OUT ANY MILK!!!!!!!
8.      Turn off A/C.
9.      Leave NO LATER THAN 7:00AM (6:30 would probably be better!) 


Now, if that's enough to convince you of my neurosis, I'll even give you a peek at my packing lists. 
General Packing List
Camera / Camera Cards
Cell Phone
Laptop/ Power Supply
Mum’s Ipad
Adapter Plug
Hair dryer
 
Little Umbrella
Alpine Walking Sticks
 
Underwear (7 pair of underwear each/3 bras )
Socks  (8 sets)
Shoes (1 extra pair )
Clothes   / PJ’s
Coats  (Wool coat or Trench????)
Cross body Purse
 
Razors
Aspirin / Medication
Blister packs / Band-aids
Makeup
Hair Gel
Hair Brush
 
Contacts / Contact cases
Saline / Eye drops
Eyeglasses/Sunglasses
 
Toothbrush
Dental Picks/Dental Floss
Tooth paste
Mouth piece
 
Documents/Credit Card/Cash
          
Before you ask, I'll go on and answer all those questions.  YES. I have a packing list saved on my computer and I use it for every trip, with minor adjustments, of course. Yes,  it is necessary as I've I've forgotten important things my hairbrush and OMG had to buy one that sucked so bad. I've had to  add to the list over time because of this stupidity. Yes, I check things off as they're packed. Then I check again. And double check the double check. And if that's not enough, I'll do it again. I don't allow Dutch to add things to the bags because it throws me off. If I don't put it in, it doesn't get checked off.  It confuses the system if you contaminate it with Dutch germs.  Me?? Obsessive/Compulsive control freak?? You'll have to get more creative than that to insult me. 

Allie’s Packing List
Dog Food Pedigree and Prescription EN food  (28 days worth)
Pillow/Blanket
Frisbee/Chew Bone
Doggy Prozac
Water bowl / Food bowls / Food mat
Dog Treats

YES, my dog has her own packing list. YES. She has her own pillow and her own yellow Keith Haring blankie. And YES. She has doggy prozac in case she freaks out without her mommy. SO??? Doesn't mean she is crazy. She just has separation anxiety, which is normally calmed by her morning serving of bacon and a daily massage.   Oh, right. Like you don't do that with your dog. I'm the crazy one. RIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGHT. 

The countdown continues....5 days to take-off!


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The mood has passed...

My snit of last night has faded upon the realization that at this time, in two short weeks, I will be lifting off from JFK heading towards Milan and my first glimpse of Italy!!!!

The excitement is back!! 

*Squees* Albergo Barbara, here I come!

 Pictures of Albergo Barbara, Vernazza
This photo of Albergo Barbara is courtesy of TripAdvisor


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

OCD Vacation Planning for Dummies

The thing about vacations is that we view them as the holy grail of our lives, moments of pure pleasure, our chance at luxurious escape and drive ourselves crazy in the attempt to achieve this nirvana. Or that’s the way it is for me anyway. I dream, I plan, I revise, adjust the calendar, obsessively count and confirm. Every day I tell myself, “Get through today, you’re one day closer!!”. Eventually, though, I hit a wall. I reach a point of saturation so complete, that even one more syllable will make me explode. Usually it happens about a week before the trip, and I get so stressed out that I wonder why I ever thought I liked travel and if I even REALLY want to go.

Such is my headspace right now. I have procured the necessary Euros. I have confirmed my reservations with the hotels and the airlines. I have contacted the credit card company and the bank and placed a travel alert on the cards. I’ve found all the necessary cards, passports, and papers. I’ve done two dry runs packing and wheedled down the clothing selection. Tonight, we started looking at the calendar to firm up all the dates. What looked like a long, leisurely trip suddenly isn’t long enough to get it all in!!!! And Dutchboy, he’s the most laid back person I’ve ever met. His travel philosophy is, “Don’t worry!! It works out! It always works out!!” So things I feel should be planned early on, don’t always seem that way to Dutch. And bless his big ol’ heart, he is so bad with dates. He can’t keep them in his head. He tries but then…SQUIRREL!! It’s gone. And I will repeat the dates so he can email friends he should have emailed a month ago to make arrangements, but then …TEA! WE MUST HAVE TEA!!! And he’s off again. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

I know. I know. It’s a luxury problem to have too many friends, too many choices for adventure and not enough days. And I’m lucky to have a man who is patient with my outbursts and suffers me dragging him through hell and half of Georgia. But tonight none of that seems to matter. I’ve officially hit the wall. I’m tired of planning and sorting and thinking about it all. I just want to go and get it over with. Or not.

Tomorrow will be better. I’ll be excited and counting down again. I’ll be eager to get going. But tonight, if anyone says “trip” just once more, I’ll go in the house and slam the door.

Monday, August 13, 2012

It's that time of year again....

The countdown begins for the fall travel season!!! This year, our trip will be an extended vacation of almost a full-month in Europe. And it begins with a flight from JFK to Milan, a train trip from Milan to La Spezia station for a train change to the Cinque Terre town of Vernazza*.

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I know, beautiful, right???

Three night in the lovely Cinque Terre, hiking, eating and drinking. IF that ain't heaven, don't tell me. We then return to Milan, spending the night and almost a full day in the city before flying into Schiphol, hopping on a bus and arriving at Dutchboy's parents. The rest is a bit up in the air--so stay tuned! Italy!! FOOD! WINE!! Me, sweating up the steep inclines of an idyllic Italian mountain pass! Me, gazing at the vistas of the Ligurian sea with longing! Me, face forward in a bowl of ligurian pesto! Me swilling the local wine and then having to climb the 60+ steps to our rented room!!!! OH, and if that's not enough enticement, remember if it's Milan, it must be fashion! They're throwing a week long party for our auspicious trip to Italia! Okay, okay, so it turns out our night in the Milan is the beginning of fashion week (in my HONOR). We all know that NOBODY knows fashion like a girl raised in the trendsetting epicenter that is downtown North Wilkesboro. Yes, those Italian women teetering around in six inch stilettos live in fear of me and my cutting wit and comfortable shoes. You KNOW you don't want to miss any of that.


30 days...the adventure begins.







*Photo is NOT mine but was taken from Il Pirata website. We're not staying at there, it was booked. We're staying at Albergo Barbara, Vernazza.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

"I'm going back to dignity and grace."* Well, we were going home, at least.

Our last day in Charleston dawned not as hot and muggy as the previous mornings, but we were both slightly melancholic at the thought of leaving Charleston behind. It’s always a great trip when you don’t feel the pull of home so quickly. If you’re anxious for your bed, your couch, your HOUSE, then maybe the place you’re visiting isn’t for you. Charleston wasn’t as magical as Richmond for us, but it had SOMETHING. Maybe it was the food (most likely it was for me), or the lowland feel of the place (I think that was it for Dutchboy) but we both wanted to linger for a bit, to extend for a few precious minutes and to most likely return again, someday.

I had tried before arriving in Charleston to get even a brunch reservation at Husk, and was denied on even that attempt to eat there. So, I had thought we would wander the city and happen upon a brunch option. But we were too early, and breakfast WASN’T really an option anywhere. We had passed The Bakehouse Bakery Café, on East Bay Stree, during our ramblings and I had read good things about it. We decided to drop in and pick up a picnic breakfast/brunch. Standing in line for our food, I noticed a framed article, in which Anthony Bourdain rated them as one of the most UNDERRATED places in Charleston! Foodie fortune had serendipitously smiled on us again. We picked up a couple of HUGE biscotti, a huge soft chewy ginger cookie, two yogurt parfaits, and two mochas and headed down to Waterfront Park.

Ahh. Finally. Breakfast!
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And what sight would greet us at Waterfront Park?? A HUGE cruise ship, in dock to pick up passengers and set sail that evening. Charleston’s Maritime Center has become Home Port for the Carnival cruise ship Fantasy – the starting point for a cruise to the Bahamas.

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The photo really doesn’t do justice to how big the ship really is—and how it dwarfed everything around it. It ate up the landscape, truly. 2056 passengers, 920 crew and 855 feet in length. Yeah. Big seems like an understatement.

With breakfast done and photos taken of the ship, we were running out of time. Dutchboy, in his infinite wisdom, saw the bronze plaque with the map of Charleston and decided we needed a portrait taken with the city in front of us and the harbor behind us. You see, the thing about Ton is he LIKES TO PLAY WITH THE CAMERA. And play. and play. We have quite a few photos of him running to stand beside me, of me making horrible faces at him, and of me complaining. He finally did manage a decent shot though. I guess for all his little boy ways, he comes up with a good idea once in a while.

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We decided to spend our final few minutes on a swing, enjoying the harbor views instead of oogling a man-made monstrosity or fighting with the camera. In an odd coincidental sidenote, a kind lady who turned out to be a contractor that worked with Lowe’s in Mooresville, offered to take our photo and capture our final moments in Charleston, and the beginning of our eighth year of marriage. I suspect she witnessed the self-portrait attempts and took pity on us!!!

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With that, it was time to share a final anniversary kiss and return to the car to begin the trip back to the daily grind. Charleston lingers though, with thoughtful grace and laid-back charm, searing heat and the mnemonic whiff of confederate jasmine on a shady side street. Probably the greatest thing about traveling is you never really leave a place behind. It leaves it mark, its own passport stamp on your psyche. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is bad, but it is always an experience that opens you up to different possibilities.





*Title quote from Gone with the Wind: "I'm going back to dignity and grace. I'm going back to Charleston, where I belong." (Rhett Butler)