As the fireworks exploded over the Piazza in Reggio Emilia, our group of friends exchanged hugs to officially bring in 2016. I hugged Jasmine, we gave each other an extra squeeze, and she said “I’m glad you are here.”
It had been about 5 years since I last saw her in the town we both lived in. One year before that, she had moved to Italy to chase an Italian man that she had fallen in love with in Canada. She was an English teacher there, and students arrived from all over the world to experience the Canadian culture and learn our language. One of them caught her eye, and her heart, and very quickly, she was off, chasing him across the globe.
I had been telling her for AT LEAST 4 of those years that I wanted to come and see her, and experience her new found life. I was incredibly proud of her for taking such a leap, and chasing her dreams. I marvelled at her courage, and her belief that across the world, she could carve out a better life for herself.
I was certainly NOT surprised to find that she had INDEED found the life of her dreams, but I was a bit surprised that she DEFINITELY is an old Italian soul at heart. I couldn’t imagine seeing her more happy, content, and at peace with her surroundings, as I experienced during our visit.
For many reasons, the original relationship that brought here there, was no longer. But she had found new love, and this I can see, is love that will last. She is now in very high demand as an English teacher, commanding a very reasonable wage in a country where the economy is definitely not what it once was. She has declared Reggio Emilia “her town”, and every where we went, she would hug and kiss and wave at familiar faces. One of her ex students we met declared her “the best English teacher in the city!” Her Italian is so flawless that friends she has had for years, are still just realizing that she is Canadian and her native language is English. Yes! I would say that she has found her groove alright!
We arrived in Milan, still reeling from our experiences in Greece, but feeling better after our 2 complimentary (small) bottles of wine on the plane. We are sure that the old Italian lady sitting next to us, was a little disgusted with our drinking at 9:00 in the morning, but we were certainly beyond caring about that. (I’m also realizing that by now, many of my readers are starting to see a trend in our behaviour. Yes, we do like to drink!)
We caught the train from the Milan airport that would take us to the Milano Centrale train station, where we would then catch the train to Reggio Emilia, a city of 170 000 people, close to the more major center of Bologna.
As we rode the train to Reggio (as the locals refer to it as), we were very aware of what time it was as we had noticed that nobody was announcing what station we are arriving at, during the previous stops. Therefore , we devised that it would have been very easy to miss our station, as we had no idea where we were or what we were looking at. A couple minutes past our scheduled arrival time, the train came to a stop. It was just a concrete platform a ways away from the station but we got off anyways, hopeful that it was the right place.
Sure enough, once we entered the station, we saw the familiar name on a sign and felt immediate relief. Jasmine (but I prefer to call her Jasi) was there to pick us up a few minutes later, and we were off to explore Northern Italy!
As it was December 30, Jasi and her partner Raffaele, or affectionately referred to as Raffa, were finished with work for the next few days, so we were able to do some exploring together. Her brother and his girlfriend were also coincidently visiting her at the same time, and the 6 of us rented a mini van together, to be able to have the freedom to drive around and see the sights. This would also ensure saving money on individual train tickets, and make our schedule more flexible.
New Years Eve we explored around Reggio, taking in sights and learning various tid bits about the city. For example, the Italian Flag was designed and made in Reggio, and the ever so popular, world renown cheese Parmigiano-Reggiano, or better known as Parmesan, was invented there, both of which bring great pride to its residents, fondly referred to as Reggiani.
The Italian architecture and beauty of the streets was something that we had been eager to see, and we were not disappointed. Within the city Center, where Jasi’s apartment was, there is very limited car usage, making it a mostly pedestrian friendly zone. In fact, in most Italian communities, you need to go through an extensive proof of residency to be able to actually get a permit to bring your car into the Center of the city. Of course, with many things in Italy, there is a fee attached, which likely deters lots of people who, thankfully, do not bring their vehicles into the ZTL (zona traffico limitado), and park them in one of the many parking lots dotting the City Center outskirts instead. Because of this, it was nice to wander around without worrying about tons of cars flying everywhere.
We meandered from Piazza (central gathering squares) to Piazza and marvelled at the sights as we went.
We had decided to experience New Years from one of the near by Piazzas, and then to mostly celebrate back at their apartment. We loved the local feel if it all. Families, the young and the old, counted down and then danced waltzes to the local 5 piece orchestra that played while fireworks lit up the sky and many bottles of champagne were uncorked and consumed. It was a wonderful cultural experience. We took it a little bit easy as the following day Raffa’s family was to host us for a traditional Italian meal at their home.
We arrived at the family home around 12:30, and were immediately welcomed with open arms. It was 2016, and everyone was in a festive mood. Although, we didn’t speak the language, Raffa’s relatives knew a bit of English, and Jasi translated for us when needed. (I’m bummed that I didn’t get any photos to remember is event.)
We had an incredible meal that lasted over 3 hours, several courses, and many bottles of wine. I knew that Italy in general had a bit of a thing for food, but I never really realized that it’s (Italy’s) actual THING IS FOOD!
Every Italian community has a specialized food item that comes specifically from their region. Certain types of sausage or cheese, and many times a whole dish, belongs solely to the community that invented it. We also learned that specific sauces go with specific types of pastas, and heaven forbid if you mix them up!
It just so happens that other than being Reggios best English teacher, Jasi is also, likely, Reggio’s most informed officianado on Italian food. She travels around Italy as much as possible and experiences each local dish as she does it. In fact when we were in Milan, we both had the Risotto Milanese, Milan’s specific risotto made with its own unique sauce. While we were there, I had pestered her to write an Italian food blog on her experiences, and I still hope she does it. (Hint hint if you are reading this!!)
Our meal at Raffa’s parents’ house was very special indeed. Being that I don’t eat wheat, his mom and sister, went out of their way to make me gluten free dishes, and also bought me some gluten free, freshly made baguettes, which are surprisingly available in a couple different bakeries around the city. Such a treat! There was so much happiness and joy, and even with language limitations, there was plenty of laughter as we exchanged stories and jokes all round. And Uncle Sergio, who with broken English told us many things, proved to us that he is QUITE the character.
We felt so lucky and thankful to have had a real Italian experience such as this! I have said it before, but it bears saying again. Travelling is such a wonderful way to bring people from different cultures together. It makes the world a smaller place when we take the time to talk with people from different backgrounds, and to experience their traditions and customs. It makes you realize that we really are just one, one unique being that walks the planet, however, all in different ways. It’s a beautiful thing!
We pretty much rolled out of Raffa’s families house, and all fell into heavy afternoon naps. We really only woke up for a small snack, and then hit the hay again to prepare for two full days of sight seeing.
Day one we were off early to Florence. We drove through rain and wet weather to get there, and unfortunately through plenty of fog, which meant that we didn’t get to see the famous rolling hills and fields of Tuscany, the province that contains Florence. Jasi told us that there really isn’t much to see in the winter anyways, and like most places we have been on this trip, we were told to come back in the summer.
Back in Canada, friends had informed us that Florence was really worth seeing, and they were not mistaken! In fact, Forbes has declared it one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982.
Known for its culture, renaissance art and architecture and its numerous monuments, it is home to approximately 382 000 people within the city limits. It attracts millions of tourists every year, and in fact, I could have sworn there were millions of people there that day! I’m sure half of Italy, and many other tourists, had decided that the Saturday after New Year’s Day, was the perfect day to visit this lovely city. We jostled around and bumped around with hoards of eager tourists ecstatic to see the fabulous sights it offered.
Despite the foul, wet weather, we managed to see many famous Florence sights, do a little shopping, and of course, had a wonderful Italian lunch. Our restaurant even had gluten free pizza and pasta! I felt completely spoiled all round.
I must admit that being allergic to wheat, had me quite concerned that there wouldn’t be much for me to eat in this famously wheat filled country. However, Jasi had informed me prior to coming, that there were plenty of gluten free offerings, and she was certainly correct. One just DOES NOT starve in Italy! This, I’m sure would certainly be the biggest crime against humanity in a place that worships food at every level. (However, as with every country in the world, I’m sure they do have their problems with those less fortunate, and I’m sure many may actually be starving, so please don’t take this too literally, or think that I take it lightly.)
At around 4:00 pm, we declared ourselves wet and sight see’d out (if that’s even a thing), and headed back to Reggio. We were all eager to get back by 7:00 for happy hour at one of Raffa and Jasi’s local watering spots Mexicana, where they offered half price drinks for happy hour. Their signature drink is the “Hurricane”, featuring 5 different types of rum and a bit of juice for flavour. They are definitely delicious, and they definitely make you feel like you have been hit by a hurricane after a couple!
It was a great day, but we knew there was more to come! The next day we were off to Milan, and then Bergamo, where we would be flying back to Bulgaria from, the day after that.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in Milan. Of course I knew that it was the home of much fashion, high end clothing, run ways, and shopping. I think I actually envisioned the city to be one, modern, giant shopping plaza, with the likes of Gucci, Armani, Louis Vuitton and Prada emblazoned on the sides of buildings. Although these shops did exist, I was delightfully surprised to find that the historic city Center, also has a huge history (duh), and features many spectacular sights itself.
The Duomo, a term for an Italian church, was absolutely mind blowing. In fact, while writing this, I was not surprised to find that when I typed Duomo into Wikipedia, to provide the link above, that the feature picture is in fact Milan’s Doumo. I certainly cannot imagine a more fabulous Cathedral than that building.
The entire structure is made out of marble, and bronze. The detail of which the carvings are done, are absolutely mind blowing, and I felt obligated to take a bazillion pictures to try and prove my point. Thank god for digital is all I can say!! Be thankful that you only get to see a few here, and believe me it is painstakingly difficult trying to pick just a few!
We also wandered around looking at other cool sights, including the Castello Sforzesco (Castle Sforza), that was built in the 15th century. We ate roasted chestnuts, and drank mulled wine from the street vendors, and floated along, lazily taking it all in. We had another wonderful Italian meal, and as stated before, Jasi and I ate Milan’s signature dish, Risotto Milanese. Delicious!
Unfortunately, we knew our time was short, and we needed to head off to Bergamo, so that Jasi and Raffa (her brother and his girlfriend had opted out on the trip to Milan) could get back to Reggio in time for another meal with his parents. We parted ways with much sorrow, but all so thankful for the absolutely wonderful few days that we had spent together. As Jasi told me, the Italians love to fuss over their guests, and never rest until they are sure they are completely happy and satisfied. I can attest once again to Jasi being an old Italian soul, because we both left feeling very satisfyingly fussed over!
Our Italian experience had gone by as quick as a wink! But we have both gotten a taste for more. Like most places we have been on this trip (except for the one certain island that I’m sure you can guess) we look forward to returning. Next time will be longer! I can imagine that Italy has so many more secrets to reveal. Thank you soooooooo much Jasi and Raffa for such a wonderful introduction to your exquisite country. WE WILL BE BACK!!
Next up, we are heading back to Bulgaria for our ski holiday in Bansko! Skiing in the Balkans, another great start to the New Year.