Travel

flying out

I’m sitting in a gray Milano airport.

They’ve tucked this flight at the very end of the corridor, B41 of 44. I’ve halfheartedly followed hallway after hallway, conceding to the passages and the paths that force me farther, farther from Florence. The lines drag me forward; the signs push me onward; the conveyor belts lift my lingering feet ahead. I’ve been inspected and approved and stamped and signed off on. Now I’m wrapped up in my pilly Italian sweater, set for seat 30H to New York City.

I’m shipping out of this country.

I have one more hour with my feet on definitively Italian ground. But this airport isn’t Italy, or at least my Italy. People greet me with a polite Buongiornohello. Automated voices announce that “the door closes; the elevator goes up.” My beloved shots of caffé are listed on bar menus as espresso. At some point, I’ve left my adopted language behind to be replaced with something that isn’t quite English. Italian can only be found in the margins for me now, as I hover in the fringes of conversations between attendants and aides. When they turn to me, we’ve switched to a new dialect that doesn’t exist in Italy or at home: “Prego, buongiornohello.”

This little corner of the corridor is set in some space between here and there. It’s not Italy, and it’s not America; either way, it isn’t home. For now, I sit in this little corner in a hollow gray inbetween.

I’m watching out the window, staring at the snow-scribbled Alps. There’s an endless void between them and me, the interminable stretch of ashy concrete where my airplane waits. In one hour, it will lift these lingering feet off of not-quite Italian ground, carrying me for arrival elsewhere.

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oh, como

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Buona Pasqua, Como 🙂

A post shared by Gabriela Riccardi (@griccardi) on

For weeks, I had been trying to plan my long Easter weekend as a last hurrah. After many frustrations trying to finagle a visit to the Amalfi Coast — senza car, senza bus schedules, senza any kind of online map showing the bus stops or ferry piers — I finally tucked that dream away for an undetermined future. At this point, I had feathered away time to the point that I had four days to the weekend. Life in Italy, the fantastical place where you can determine your European adventures just hours in advance.

The reports were undivided: rain, rain, rain. It looked like my long-hoped-for weekend by the water would not happen. So I set my sightline on Milano, where I had spent a day with my mother and been innamorata with the city. There are stories upon stories in itself of our rainy days in the city: burrowing up in our adorable apartment, a gem mined from AirB&B; shivering in the drizzle for a Klimt exhibition, then discovering how worth the wait was when I came face-to-face with his utterly flooring Beethoven frieze; strolling through endless aperitivi at the onset of evening, ordering cocktails served in pineapples.

I hadn’t even seen pictures of the lake before, but acted on a whim that had served me well before: blind recommendation. Just days before, I had called my mother in exasperated tears, convinced that I wouldn’t be seeing and experiencing anything new during my last potential weekend to travel Italy. Her answer was quick: go back to Milano, the city you love. Go to the Alps, the mountains of your family. Go to Como.

Through the first days, my friend Rebecca and I debated which day would be best for a quick side trip to Lake Como.  When we woke up on Easter to a shining sun, we knew we’d chosen well.

And here we are — Como is a dream.

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I’m a type-A organizer, impossibly controlling and nauseatingly high-strung. Traveling has kicked my penchant for planning into overdrive: when leaving for a weekend, I itinerize every step. I plotted out every inch of train, bus, and plane transportation to London with times and back-up plans. I decided I wanted to eat Prague schnitzel and picked two restaurants to try before I even arrived in the Czech Republic. I’ve stopped just short of scheduling when to kick back and explore on my spring break, though I have mapped potential places to eat and see in Barcelona with a suitcase while I wait for a few friends to arrive. Some of the best experiences I’ve had abroad, though, are the ones I haven’t planned. When the to-do list is out of my hands, my trips are often a gorgeous surprise — dazzlingly so.

I met my grumpy anthropology class at 7:15am on Friday to board a teeny-teeny-tiny bus and ride out three hours just to poke around some holes in the ground left behind by the long-gone Etruscans. We were depleted before we even left.

I had no idea where we were going or what would be there. My professor had been mentioning these names — Cerveteri, Tarquinia — all semester, but I only knew that they were ancient Etruscan cities that housed some artifacts. And I wasn’t excited to go. I had been on one other class trip this semester for a different course, where we sprinted through five cities in two days to cram in as many museum exhibitions and churches as our budget would allow. It was not my idea of a weekend getaway.

Tired and cranky as I was, as the bus began to shuttle through the Italian mountains, I had to perk up at the craggy skyline and the long stretch of hills. It turns out that we were heading into the south, and Italy was heading into spring. Grass spread from the road to the horizon, dotted with tufts of white sheep. Walking into this valley, I thought, one might never find its end.

And then we pulled up at its edge.

This was Tarquinia, blue-sky Tarquinia, and an ancient City of the Dead. My professor met us at the bus door as we dismounted, and he led us through a funny little one-roomed museum to enter the gated vast field. Stone roofs poked out of the ground at strange angles. Pot-shaped boulders scattered in the grass. These were the buried urns and frescoed tombs of the Etruscans, nearly 2500 years old. We spent the next hour descending into the mouthpieces of these roofs, which protected underground rooms decorated with dancers, gladiators, and priests. These were scenes of the Banquet of Eternity, the Etruscan funerary celebration that was celebrated by both the living and the deceased. We glimpsed portraits of the tombs’ original inhabitants, reclined on their clime and feasting in the frescoes. Then my professor unleashed us to sprawl in the grass and take in how a dead city could feel so alive.

After a brief stop in Tarquinia’s city museum to see what had been unearthed in these tombs, we boarded the bus again to move on to Cerveteri. Again, we pulled up to a seemingly untouched field with greenery abound and few visitors to be seen. But this couldn’t be Italy anymore. We were in the Lord of the Rings.

In Cerveteri, there are these idiosyncratic tumuli, or dome-shaped tombs that are carved from tuffa stone — now covered in moss and grass — that housed underground rooms and rooms of urns and bodies. We circled these massive structures stacked in the hills, scaled their sides and climbed to their entry doors, and crept down into the catacombs to see where the dead used to reside. This was a fantasy world.

After an hour or two of scrambling through thousands-years-old domes, we set out for Norchia to climb into more caves at dusk. It was once a gridded city, now crumbled in the side of a mountain, that we looked on from across a stream. The scene was abandoned. Our professor’s son shouted to the ancient city — “Echo!” — and his words bounced faithfully back to us two, three times. Three ancient worlds in one day, untouched by people or planning.

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excavating etruscan tombs

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This city was pure magic. In a last-minute impulse decision, I booked a trip (an arm and leg’s worth) to Prague to meet up with my best friend Marisa and her London flatmates. Prague had always hovered towards the top of my travel wish list — and much like the other places on that list, I didn’t know much about it, except that I’d been told it was beautiful.

Beautiful is too small a word for the colors of Prague. There’s a richness in this city that resembles absolutely nothing I had seen before, probably because it was my first time out of Italy. Eastern Europe dresses itself in absolutely vivid art and architecture.

In Italy, each city commands a color. In the Czech Republic, Prague asks, “Why wear just one?” The dollhouse buildings of the Old City Square are shaded in cheery pastels; the soaring structures of the New City Square shine in silver. And some of Prague’s most iconic settings are absolutely technicolor. Inside St. Vitus’s Cathedral, the Gothic aisles glow with glass-stained light. The hues of the John Lennon wall change from day to day, even hour to hour, as visitors spray their colorful contributions. This city made for the most vibrant of memories.

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weekend in praha | prague

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I fell in love in the hills of Assisi.

Every city is said to have its own color in Italy depending on the natural resources nearby. Florence, for one, is hued in saffron and beige, its buildings made of crackly stucco and rough pietra forte. Pulling into sleepy, drizzly Assisi in a bus full of classmates, I was immediately enamored with the serene, sandy bricks that cover the town. That was until we turned the corner to see what Assisi overlooks.

I think that the landscape, too, changes colors from city to city. In my family’s little village settled on a mountain, the surrounding Alps are a tranquil gray. Down the street from my apartment in Florence, the mountains in the distance fade to misty blue. But from the cluster of buildings that make up Assisi, the mountains steep down into rich green hills. Though we were perched on the cliff of February, the peaceful little town was verdant. Hold your breath in stillness of the air, and maybe you can hear new roots pushing up from the soil. Assisi is lush in the most quiet of ways.

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day trip to assisi

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