If you are a wanderer, if you travel solo, or you still find yourself forced to fight against gender stereotypes, then you absolutely must know the story of Ida Pfeiffer. A travelling woman definitely ahead of her time, who met queens and cannibals as well, and was also the first European lady to cross the island of Borneo.
Ida began traveling late, after turning 40, after a failed marriage, and after rising her children alone. See? It’s never too late!
Her first trip took her from Vienna to the Black Sea, then to Syria and Egypt. She crossed the Suez Strait and went back to Vienna through Italy. She also had to lie to her family in order to be able to go, but this didn’t stop her leaving gain. Ida’s second trip took her to Scandinavia, where she also met the Queen of Sweden.
In 1846, Ida Pfeiffer left for her first round-the-world trip, which began in Brazil. She sailed around the dreaded Cape Horn to reach the beautiful Valparaiso, in Chile. Afterwards she went to Tahiti, and from there to China, moving through countries where the presence of a white woman was such an extraordinary event that she often found herself in challenging situations. Not that any of this could possibly scare her. From India, in fact, Ida went to Mesopotamia and Persia, she visited Baghdad, crossed the desert with the nomad caravans and saw the ruins of Babylon and Nineveh. Passing through Armenia, Turkey and Greece, this extraordinary woman finally returned to Vienna. Of course already planning her next trip.
When she left Vienna once more, this time headed to Cape Town, Souht Africa, Ida was 54. This time her compass took her to South East Asia, where she met, and survived, cannibal populations. She then moved to California, crossing the Pacific Ocean, headed to South America which she had to leave soon due to the area’s political instability. Moving north again, till the Niagara Falls, finally Ida reached London and went back home.
Not having seen Australia yet, Pfeiffer left one last time in 1856. She reached Mauritius and then Madagascar. Here, at the outbreak of political riots, she was accused of espionage and imprisoned. Sick, and escorted by the army, Ida had to walk for 53 days through malaria-infested swamps to reach the coast and return to Mauritius. Unfortunately her Australian dreams wasn’t meant to be. Due to malaria, Ida was in fact forced to return to Vienna, where she died.
Her books made her pretty famous and gave her an income that founded her travels, but she still started on a very low budget, and traveled like that all of her life. She’s the perfect role model for all of us backpackers!
Now, since we’re pretty much allowed to at least move around Europe, what better time to kickstart ourselves out of the door with this amazing lady as a source of inspiration?
I’m really glad to be back blogging about travels, today, since this was the original, and main purpose of this blog. Despite covid-19, the lockdown and all that jazz I still want to travel. A lot. Of course not right now, but hopefully in August.
Everything is still confused here in Italy, nobody knows when we’ll be able to move around the country, let alone the world, so it’d be unwise to plan a two months trip to Madagascar right now. Living in the south of Italy, anyway, has its perks. The three small islands of the Gulf of Naple surely is one of them. Anyway, Capri is a wonder of nature, but definitely pricey, Ischia is usually crowded, so this leaves me with Procida. Let’s be clear, it’s not a makeshift! Procida is an absolute gem, totally underrated and sort of secluded from mass tourism, thus worth a vist or ten.
Its colorful, still tied to tradition, and the scent of lemons is everywhere. Il Postino by the late Massimo Troisi was shot here, among its narrow streets and almost desert beaches. Btw, it’s a wonderful movie, I strongly recommend it.
Marina Grande is Procida’s main harbor. It’s a village of multicolored houses crossed by a network of alleys full of restaurants and artisan shops. On everything stands the walls of a 12th century building, and the baroque bell tower of the Church of the Pietà. Another lovely medieval village is Terra Murata, right in the heart of the island, it offers a wonderful panoramic view because it’s built on the top of a hill, and just like the previous village it’s made by .a labyrinth of narrow streets. The third small village you just can’t miss is Marina Corricella, a mix of Italian and Arab architecture, with domed roofs and balconies closed by masonry arches, that are reflected in the crystalline sea. The last time I went there I was just a little girl, but I remember the fishermen repairing their nets, and the smallest, most lovely restaurants ever. It’s not that I’m against progress, but I hope that charming atmosphere is somehow still there.
It nothing changes drastically, I doubt I’ll be brave enough to go to the beach. Not that Procida doesn’t have a few amazing corner of paradise, it’s just that I don’t think that keeping a reasonable distance on a beach (in August) is possible. Anyway, there’s another way to enjoy the nature, and that way is definitely Vivara. Basically it’s what remains of the crest of an ancient volcano, as of today it’s a moon shaped islet connected to Procida via a bridge. Most importantly it’s also a magnificent protected area. You can truly be in contact with nature, dive to admire the underwater archaeological finds or even do some whale watching. Dolphins are pretty common in the area too, actually it looks like one of the most important colonies of the Mediterranean Sea lives just nearby. I just hope that the unavoidable crowd of the summer doesn’t scare them too much!
was a middle winter evening and I was driving in the sunset, deep in
the green heart of Tuscany, looking for a tiny village called San
Gimignano. I was almost the only one on the road and I was feeling
lonely, so I turned the radio on. Don Hanley started to sing Hotel
California right when up
ahead in the distance, I saw some shimmering lights, and
I had to laugh at the coincidence. I was also glad that my
destination was in sight, so I
could finally stop for the night.
lights of the small town stood out at the top of the hill like a
crown on the head of the King of Giants, guiding travellers like a
swarm of shooting stars. I still took the wrong turn and ended up
driving inside the city walls. It was forbidden, of course, but it
was an honest mistake, one that happened often enough to tourists who
trusted the GPS too much.
so I’ve been told.
I still had that song in my head when a kind guy welcomed me. He’d waited long enough in the cold, right outside San Gimignano’s medieval walls, to lead me to my hotel. He laughed indulgently, though, when he knew why I was late.
This is how my trip began, at the end of a quiet January day, when the fuss of the Christmas holidays had calmed down and there were only a few tourists around.
I’d planned to have dinner and bury myself under a pile of blankets, so I could wake up early in the morning, but the excitement of finally being there again, together with the burst of energy that only fresh air can give me, brushed away any trace of sleep and tiredness.
I went out again, I’d missed that place and I didn’t even know it. The first and only time I was there I was still a little girl who wasn’t even allowed to cross the road without holding her parents’ hand. I remembered only narrow uphill roads and the tall stone towers for which San Gimignano is famous. It’s strange to see how everything seems to shrink when you grow up, it always catches me off guard. The climbs of course were still there, but they didn’t seem so steep any more and the towers were still imposing, but they didn’t seem so high. It was a bitter-sweet feeling that made me vaguely nostalgic, so I did what I usually do when I need to clear my mind and lift my mood: I walked. I went all around the village, simply strolling without a destination, curious to discover the most remote corners and the most unusual views, and planning to leave the main attractions for the following day.
San Gimignano’s night was silent and peaceful, almost mysterious and therefore, perhaps, even more fascinating. The light from the street lamps gave the illusion that the walls of the buildings were made of amber instead of simple stone, and only rarely did I meet other passers-by. We greeted each other with a nod and kept going with our noses buried in our scarves.
I wandered like that until I reached the walk on the walls where, according to the map, there was supposed to be an amazing viewpoint. It was there, obviously, but it just hadn’t occurred to me that nothing would be seen after sunset, except the great ocean of darkness in which I had travelled until a couple of hours before. At least the starry sky of that cloudless night was a sight to behold. I stood looking at it for a long while despite the cold that turned my breath into thick clouds of smoke, in the company of a stray who refused to be petted, but stood there with me the whole time.
I salute you, my surly companion, I hope life is treating you well.
The next day started with a crispy air and a sparkling sun, courtesy of a particularly mild winter. With one cappuccino too many in my stomach I went back more or less the same way of the previous night. Under the daylight San Gimignano looked different, not better or worse, but certainly different. There were more people, of course, and the shops were open, but it was still low season so I was able to enjoy the walk through the narrow streets of the 13th century in perfect tranquillity. Even the shopkeepers were less stressed and more inclined to chat, an occupation, this one, always held in the highest regard in Italy, especially in small towns. I love it, some of the best stories I’ve ever heard came from perfect strangers, and they were probably invented, but that’s never been an issue for me.
Tuscany in particular seems made for this, enjoying the sun which makes the green hills of Chianti shine, and stop from time to time to talk to the locals. All of it without any hurry, as if time were meaningless.
I wasn’t asking for anything better, by the way. I had fled the big city, whose chaos amuses and entertains me most of the time because I needed a break, I needed human contact and in addition I love craftsmanship and I love food. From this point of view, but also from many others, San Gimignano was basically the promised land. One can very well imagine how long it took me to go the short distance from the main gate in the walls to the main square. It was a line-up of pretty, small shops; some of them were the classic tourist traps, I’m sorry to say, but others were true Italian artisan shops, where I filled my eyes with wonder and tasted the thousand flavours of the incomparable Tuscan cuisine.
I’m a big fan of the red wine of Chianti, of the typical cured meats, and of the sweet panforte as well. This time, however, my shopping was of a completely different nature, thus gave my trip a completely different meaning, but I’ll be back on this topic in a while.
There is so much to see in San Gimignano, especially considering how small a village it is. I started with Piazza del Duomo, one of the most important squares, which hosts the Cathedral with its outstanding cycle of frescoes by Ghirlandaio. Right in front of it stood Torre Rognosa, the clock tower and one of the highest in town. Between the two of them there was the Town Hall with the sacred art museum and a large loggia where some not so charming plastic chairs had been made available for those who want to stop for a sandwich, or simply to contemplate the beauty of the place. I preferred to keep on walking, so I headed to Piazza della Cisterna, a bigger square with an octagonal stone well in the middle, and a few Christmas decorations still in place. Those two squares are considered the main attractions of San Gimignano, but in my opinion the intricate network of stone-paved alleys is absolutely not to be missed. They go up and down the hill and eventually lead to another awesome church, Sant’Agostino, famous for the sculptures of Andrea della Robbia, among the other things.
That day I was finally able to enjoy the fantastic panoramic view too. When the air is clear and there’s no fog on the horizon the view extends for miles and miles, along the green velvet hills and the tall cypresses. Most definitely another must see.
As it turned out, my favourite place in San Gimignano, although not far from the centre, was actually outside the walls.
It’s called Fonti Medievali, Mediaeval Fountains, and the previous night I’d completely missed it because the public lighting didn’t reach so far. I stopped at the top of a very dark and very steep road and it almost felt like being on the edge of a precipice, so basically I cowardly turned my tail and went back on the main street. During the day the feeling wasn’t very different, though. I’m telling you, the way down is really steep. Luckily it didn’t snow and the ground wasn’t icy, otherwise it’d have been quite the task to go back up again. Provided that one had managed to get down in one piece.
The Fonti were made of big rectangular stone basins dugged into the side of the hill, almost completely covered with soft moss. They were separated by arches and columns which reflected in the still, clear water. Everything was perfectly proportioned, everything conveyed a sense of balance that wasn’t meant to surprise but to enchant with its grace. In the icy water a few large carps swam, apparently very hungry. In a place like that I wouldn’t have been surprised to spot a few fairies too.
Sadly, that was my last stop, my trip had to continue to Volterra, which wasn’t bad at all and totally worth my time, also thanx to the dear friends I met, but San Gimignano conquered a special place into my heart. I’ve been told that people stay there for half a day, mostly, but in my opinion it deserves so much more. One whole day and a night weren’t enough for me. The art masterpieces just need to be enjoyed regardless of the clock, and it’s nice to stop here and there to take pictures of the umpteenth stone door, or of the tiny balconies, or even of the wrought iron lampposts. I, for once, also had fun daydreaming in front of some amazing abandoned houses. There are things that just can’t be rushed.
I mentioned before one thing that made my trip a little more special, so here it is. When I first came to San Gimignano with my family my mum bought me a small marble owl. In those days, for some reason, marble owls, together with marble eggs, were extremely popular in all the souvenir shops of Tuscany. As it turns out, they still are. Too many things changed since then, but decades later I still have the owl my mum bought me, so now I wanted another one. Why, exactly, I don’t know. In a hurry, just a few minutes before the time scheduled for my check-out, I entered the very fist souvenir shop I came across. So much for not rushing things, I know, but when I left with my acid green, funky little owl, I felt happy, and somehow accomplished.
Horribly late again, I know that. In my defense I’ve to tell you that so far my 2020 has been pretty turbulent, both in a good and in a bad way. Let’s go back on topic anyway.
The first thing I did in Tivoli was run! One of the main reasons for me being there was Villa d’Este and I knew the garden would close pretty soon, plus on New Year’s Day basically everything is closed. It was more or less a now or never situation. Despite it being pretty cold I arrived at my B&B literally drenched in sweat because not only did I run, I run on a steep climb which turned out to be the wrong one. So after that I had to run some more, this time on a flight of steps. Since apparently I can run faster than I thought, I arrived before the owner, who I couldn’t call on the phone due to total lack of signal, so I had to ask a nearby bar where a kind guy pointed me to the owner’s mum’s house. I forgot to be shy, rang the bell and finally had my room in the prettiest, cozyest B&B ever!
When I arrived at Villa d’Este I realized my phone was almost dead, so I had to limit the pictures, which I hate on one hand, on the other hand I’ve to admit it wasn’t bad at all to simply enjoy the place without a camera always in my hand. Ah, the charm of traveling old style! After all I still managed to take a few nice pics so I’m satisfied. The interior of that beautiful, ancient house has some amazing ceilings, but is pretty much empty, infact for me the best part is the garden. It’s huge, with many many fountains, one more outstanding than the other, baroque sculptures, and panoramic views. I’m sure that by night, with the lights on, it must look like a dream. They allow visits by night only during the summer, anyway, what a pity. Not that I’m complaining, I had the luck to be there in a wonderful, sunny winter afternoon, and let me tell you, the sunset was so beautiful I almost cried. About that, there’s a roof terrace where you can enjoy a 360° view. Try to be there in time for the sunset, you won’t regret it!.
There are other two villas and an ancient temple to see in Tivoli, but they’re closed during winter holidays, so I could only see them from the outside. Anyway the town’s historical center is small and pretty and one can simply stroll around the narrow lanes and just enjoy being there. For some reasons it looks like the locals are very fond of pizza. I mean, sure, that’s Italy for you, but I was still impressed by the number of pizza places I came across. I tried a few and I was pretty satisfied with my purchases.
After that I spent the most important midnight of the year in the main square. There was music, people, a small ice rink and a friendly, lively atmosphere. I didn’t stay very long because I had a small trekking planned for the next day, besides it was really cold, at least by my standards. The trekking proved to be a little disappointing, though, probably because I was simply tired from the night before, but the sun shone bright and I stopped to bask in it for a while on a big, square, white rock. It was worth it, in the end.
An advice for myself now. Small towns like tivoli tend to keep all of their attractions closed on the main holidays, so it’d be wiser to go on normal week ends.
As usual I find myself starting this story from afar, but I’ll try to keep it short. Well, a long time ago, when I was a teen ager, I loved last year’s celebrations very much. I didn’t go to clubs and I didn’t spend uncanny amounts of money in fancy restaurants, I usually had a very abundant dinner with my enlarged family, then went out with my friends after midnight. This was more or less the italian tradition. Time passed by and we all get a bit older, which was even better because it was dinner with friends and a party at home soon after. As it happens, yet more time passed by, so friends were tired an started to claim they wanted to go to sleep right after midnight, then some of them had children and all that jazz. I found myself associating boredom, loneliness and depression with one of the holidays I used to love the most. For a period I told myself, give it a rest, this is just how life goes! Then I changed my mind. I started to tell myself I’m still alive, I want to do things, I want to be happy now! So what saved me from all this decay? As usual, the solution is within ourselves, it only takes a small act of will. I truncated that sort of umbilical cord that tied me probably too tightly to my friends, people I still love more than my own life, with whom I don’t have so much in common anymore, and I started reorganizing myself, for myself, by myself. You should never, ever, delegate your happyness to other people, not even in small things such these.
Well, last year I found a small agency that organized dinners and parties for people who never met each other before. It was fun! I made some new friends and got the chance to wear my favourite dress, the dinner was great and we partied almost all night. This year, tho, I find myself running out of the necessary amount of energy to interact with brand new people. I’m basically an introvert, so making friends doesn’t always come naturally to me and I decided to do what I always do when in doubt. Travel!
My first step will be the little, lovely Tivoli, near Rome. Easy to reach by train from Tiburtina Station, not too expensive and surely equipped with some amazing gardens and ancient villas to see. I honestly don’t know why I never went there before, there’s so much to see and I even found a lovely apartment to rent. I’m almost more excited about that than all the things I’m going to see! Soon after I’ll go to San Gimignano, Tuscany, where I’ll even meet two friends I didn’t get to see since last year. Now, San Gimignano is really, absolutely a must see if you happen to be in Italy. It’s probably on every, single travel guide and if you go there you can see why. It’s a small medieval town, with stone towers, narrow streets and amazing art hidden inside the churches. The last time I went there I was a little girl of maybe ten, so I remember almost nothing, but I still have a small, marble owl my parents bought me as a souvenir. The only flaw, maybe, is that the ancient burgh is not immediately linked to Florence. You can still get there by train+bus, so this is not even a real problem, and probably it’s even easier to reach if you’re in Siena.
Well, of course I’ll be back on this topic probably at the very beginning of 2020 and hopefully with some nice pic to show you. Let’s hope the weather will have mercy.
And let me tell you, I couldn’t be more satisfied because finding new friends with my same passion for travels is one of the purposes of this blog.
So, long story short, HERE you can find my first, but not last, contribution to Food and Travel Guides, an awesome blog about, guess what? Food and Travel 🙂 I decided to talk about my home town, Naples, because I’m just in love with it.
I’m also right in the middle of planning my first 2020 trip and I’m super excited! It’ll be Italy again because I can’t leave for too long, but I’m looking forward to red wine, delicious food and a touch of Middle Age! I’ll be back soon with more details.
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