Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Sunday, May 31, 2020

bologna, italy...a pilgrim's journey towards faith and food

"Bologna is a city of porticos. They are our bridges, which unite and facilitate encounter and journeying." - Archbishop Zuppi

As I lean against the stone wall which encircles the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca, located on a hilltop just outside of Bologna's city cenre, I notice a small, elderly woman on a bench close to me, hunched over a worn leather book. I couldn't tell what book it was, but her dedicated, focused manner makes me guess it was the Bible. She was no tourist. She was a regular here...this place meant something to her.


This is, afterall, a site devoted to the Madonna, who not just tens of thousands of travellers a year pilgrimage to, but also locals...some weekly, some monthly, some yearly.


The way here is beautiful. One of the most serene and special I have ever had the pleasure of taking. The sanctuary is linked to the historic old town by the Portico di San Luca, one of the world's longest covered walkways, at almost four kilometres long.


A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Portico di San Luca has 666 vaulted arcades, symbolizing the devil, and Mary's ultimate protection from him, encompasing 15 chapels along the way, dedicated to the Mysteries of the Rosary.


Now, I'm not Catholic, so I can't really go into much detail about these mysteries, sufficed to say that stopping to take note of the weathered artwork on the walls, behind the metal protective grates, the notes and flowers, the burnt-out candles on the ground and the drawings afixed onto the bars, made me acutely aware of the significance this path has for some.


Since 1433 dedicated folk have walked here, carrying the icon of the Madonna with Child to and from Bologna's Cathedral of San Pietro, and I wanted to walk here too.


This got me thinking about my journeys, pilgrimages, if you will: the journey towards a sacred or special place. I did very intentionally plan for this particular walk, from one of Bologna's twelve gates of its ancient wall, the Porta Saragozza, to the hilltop church, wanting to take the time to reflect on the path in life I was taking, and what changes or decisions I needed to be making.

It was an incredible afternoon guided by the faithful expanse of rolling forests and fields which surround northern Italy's gorgeous Bologna. I can't say that I solved all (or any) of my problems that day, but the decision to make this journey, and following through with it, gave me the confidence to embark on further journeys that were to come. And, allowed me to reminisce on where I had been...


Just over 20 years ago, I spent a summer in the Austrian Alps taking incredible days-long journeys up mountains, down into caves, and towards a better understanding of who I was and wanted to be. The process of reaching the destination each evening, as much as we revelled in reaching the warmth and promise of a great meal the mountain huts gave us, was the part that stands out as most special in my mind. I did a lot of growing on those tough craggy trails and klettersteig climbs...figuring myself out in the aftermath of a young marriage and super-young divorce, how to forgive and heal and look towards the path ahead, while looking down from cross-adorned peaks. The work that is done on your heart and mind when you're enduring the tough journey, that is what builds character and definition. But, the choice to take the journey is surely just as important, because without that decision there is just netflix and chill...nowadays anyways.

But, what about the regular, dedicated journeys that we make, or should be taking, in our 'normal' lives - not just the big, exciting Camino di Santiago-type pilgrimages? For example, I have a dear friend who almost daily walks up his suburban, tree-lined street towards a large, mostly empty church, just to sit in silence and think. He's a great teller of stories, and I'm sure it is because he deliberately  and intentionally, with care, takes the time to ponder the state of the world he lives in and his place in it, so that he can put down in words in such illuminating ways what he sees and feels.

I have come to two conclusions:

That it is this making-of-space for thought and reflection and silence, whether on an empty church pew, or in a field of grass, or on a mountaintop, that is definitely important in creating a sense of calm within our incredibly distracted lives, and in figuring out who we are and who we should be in this ever-strange world we live in together...a destination we should all be so lucky in reaching.

But also, that the decision to take the journey (any journey), and actually faithfully putting one foot in front of the other, as we embark on the path, trusting in ourselves that we have packed everything we need in order to go forward; whether it's towards a new relationship, towards healing an old one, towards a new career path, or towards getting to know our neighbour or community, or towards healing ourselves and finding calm, the decision to take the first step and continuing each day is surely the vital part of any journey.


As far as destinations go, Bologna is a great place to trek to. It is a city which, firstly, esthetically, looks different from other Italian cities (not that the others all look similar, of course, but this one stands out).  Bologna is painted in a patina of rust-coloured red, including the Due Torri (two towers) which are visible from almost every vantage point.


People are friendly here. They have been used to travellers and visitors since basically the beginning of time. The city is the centre of pretty much all major crossroads in Italy; between Venice and Genoa, between Florence and Milan, and lies directly on the path northwards from Rome to the rest of continental Europe. Bologna has always been a very important trade city, and one of the wealthiest in Italy due to its vital role in agriculture, finance and industry.


It is one of the oldest cities. Period. Bologna's historic old town is Europe's second largest - for that alone it's worth the trip! But, it is also home to, some say, the oldest university in the world, although a local I had dinner with here implied that Ferrara's university, an hour away, should actually hold that title.


Nevertheless, Bologna's oldest university building, the Archiginnasio of Bologna is incredibly beautiful, and houses the anatomical theatre and municipal library, which was originally created to hold the books collected after Napoleon ordered the closure of all religious orders.


Bologna is the capital of my favourite Italian region, Emilia-Romagna, also known as Italy's 'bread basket' because it's the origin of some of the world's best food (IMO). Bolognese sauce, Parmigiano Reggiano, Prosciutto di Parma, balsamic vinegar (Modena!), to name a few, and a whole host of delicious pastas, including lasagne, cappelletti and stuffed tortellini.


Driving or training (that's how I did it) on a food pilgrimage, beginning in Parma, through Modena, and ending in Bologna, will give you a tasty journey like no other. Wander through narrow streets lined with small shop fronts filled with hanging salami and mortadella and counters of freshly-made pasta, or sit in a cozy trattoria and eat what the locals eat. Try ordering a plate of parmigiano reggiano when you first arrive, which will be served with a small pot of honey and Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena, to get into the gastronomical groove for your tour...that's what I did, and oh my...


For a truly authentic faith and food pilgrimage, try treking part of the Via Francigena from the Swiss Alps down to Rome...like the Romans did. Along the way, you will have much time to reflect on your life's journey while also passing directly through Emilia Romagna. You can taste test your way through Italian favourites...it's on my list!

I hope that by the end of my life (though hopefully it won't be take me that long) I will have found the dedication and thoughtfulness to not only go forth on the big journeys, but like the old woman on the bench, or my friend in the empty church, to embark on the smaller ones. To take the time in my day to read and reflect and think...to make the decision and to follow through with it like a ritual or pilgrimage. And if, like the old woman, my path leads me under a long, beautiful covered walkway, protecting me from the elements, I hope that I will never lose faith and will trust, as the Bolognese do, that something, possibly Mary, is always there watching over me.


Italy, especially the northern regions, has been heavy on my mind the past few months, as they have been one of the worst hit areas of the Covid-19 pandemic. I'm thinking of you, bella Italia, as you begin to heal and recover, and I look forward to visiting again soon. You are a special place.

(borrowed from an ad seen somewhere in Emilia-Romagna)

If you go:

Watch the incomparable Anthony Bourdain's great Emilia-Romagna episode...and drool.
https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5wyx3h

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Saturday, March 7, 2020

leaving...the most beautiful place I've called 'home'

This post is far more personal than what I usually write, harkening back to the beginnings of my blog...which is kind of ironic actually.

Bingen am Rhein, Germany
Me on a castle...where else?
Because I'm leaving. I have left. This home. The Rhine. After 9 years, of living in Bingen, a small city on the banks of the Rhine River, I have moved back to Canada. To Alberta. To family.

Dad and I in Banff
 And, I want to share with you my 3 favourite things about this place I've called home.


But first, that begs the question: Where is home? I've asked this here before, is home where your family is? Where your stuff is? Where your love is? Where your puppy is?

Sammy getting to know the neighbours
Or does it have nothing to do with any of these things really, but is where you grew up, where you feel yourself and what is familiar? I'm not sure, but maybe you can have more than one place that meets the definition of 'home'...at varying times in your life. And, sometimes you just know when you need to leave.

Honestly, I have felt without a home for quite a while now...or maybe the better description would be, without a place to belong. I have felt for some time that I should be somewhere else, even though where I have been living since December 2010 has been one of the most beautiful, exciting, and inspriring places...full of wonderful people and experiences, and one very special puppy. I have made the choices to come and now to go, and am fully aware and grateful for the blessings I have been given: dual citizenship, parents who led the way to travel, explore, and move, and the gifts of opportunity, which are not given to everyone...especially not every woman.

One of the coolest bachelorette parties ever...drinking, horses, castles, and more drinking!
My time on the Rhine has been an ever-changing mixture of hopefulness and heartache. My hopes...the dreams I had when I moved here, two very specific ones, did not materialize. At all. Life is like that sometimes. Not everyone gets everything they want. But, I'm lucky in so many other ways, and am thankful that I have a fairly hopeful disposition and have been able to take in the many, many positive things in my life and be open to those experiences. I remind myself daily of the blessings of people, places and puppies (puppy!), not to mention work, that I am surrounded by. I have had a rich time here. But, I will continue to hope.

As a boy...
...and a man (well, more of a teenager, really)
There's a German saying, "hope dies last". Is that also an English saying? Might be.

I'm moving towards family, due to circumstances beyond my control. But, the decision to move now is mine, and I know it's the right time. I'm moving towards new work, while still enjoying my old work (my company didn't want to let me go and I didn't want to let it go). I'm moving towards old friends, blessed that new friends are already excited for the time when I'll be back in Germany again to work. I will continue to travel, and experience the richness of the diversity and sameness among all of us. And, I will be with family. All good things. And, I will continue to hope.

My favourite Alberta thing...pub night with my peeps!
My favourite co-worker :) Budapest, our office away from the office.
The Mädels...my wine and travel buddies on Rhine
Living beside the Rhine for 9 years, spending much time on it, and riding over it many, many times, has been an inspiration. At any time of day, or year, this incredible river is a force, a lifeblood, a road, a beauty, and it has been a privilege to join the millions before me who have made it their home.


I have benefited from the incredible vines that the river nourishes on its sun-kissed banks in Germany's largest wine region, Rheinhessen, and its steep cliffs along the Middle Rhine Valley. Here, where tourists flock to, I have lived and loved. Here, where blood used to flow as men fought for control of this vital waterway, and erected castle upon castle displaying power and might, I have taken a zillion photos, planned weddings (not mine), and toured visiting friends. I've been blessed.

A wedding at Burg Reihenstein (Reihenstein Castle) - Trechtingshausen
A wedding in a park on the riverbank
...and reception high above the Rhine
One bridge which I've crossed hundreds of times, almost every single day twice, brings me to a standstill regularly. Whether it's because the water and trees are gleaming, or because the fog hangs low above the river, letting only the church steeple and castle tower peer out from above, there is history. At the back of the scene is always the stone bridge anchoring the view, the Drususbrücke, Germany's oldest, still standing, still-at-work bridge. 


This bridge has a mystical history. Built in the 1100's, close to where the Romans also had a stone bridge crossing the Nahe River, just before it flows into the Rhine, the Drusus Bridge was a gateway into the unknown. In the Middle Ages, it led into the dark and wild forests on the other side of the river. A small chapel built into the stone archway below the bridge, on the Bingen side, allowed travelers to say a prayer of protection and blessing before heading across into perilous territory. Nowadays, the chapel is only open on 'Tag der offene Denkmals' (Heritage Sites Open House), but it sure is a treat to enter, and the bridge a privilege to cross.


And, that brings me to my 3 favourite things about this area, the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, beginning at Bingen am Rhein.

1) The Castles

I always say to Canadians who are planning to come and visit, "only come if you like castles and wine...if you don't like either then you're wasting your time."

At the beginning of the valley, the Rhine Gorge UNESCO World Heritage Site, just around the corner from Bingen, the first castle is Burg Rheinstein. My mother loved this castle, called herself the 'Burg Prinzessin' (castle princess), dressing up in a long gown with flowers in her hair to get her photo taken here (no joke). So, I love it too.

Burg Rheinstein - Trechtingshausen

And, at the end of the valley, approximately a 50-kilometre stretch of winding river and high, vineyard-covered hills, you will find the imposing Marksburg Castle. This is the only castle remaining which was never destroyed and never fell into disrepair. It is the perfect place to learn about the actual day-to-day runnings of a castle from the 1100's, with a fascinating tour explaining idioms which we have from the Middle Ages, such as 'caught you red-handed' or 'get off your high horse'.

Marksburg Castle - Braubach

2) The Wine

You can't go far here without seeing sprawling vineyards, stumbling across a family-run wine tavern, or bumping into a sun-soaked wine festival. The folks who live here know their vintners..they are neighbours and friends, and often provide the liquid courage and cozy ambience in the locals' favourite haunts.

Historische Weinwirtschaft (Historical Wine Tavern) - Oberwesel

Wine also goes a long way to helping create the crazy days of carneval, sustaining Germany's longest-running wine festival (Bingen's!), warming the hearts and hands of Christmas market revellers, and is most often the catalyst for friends to gather and enjoy a glass on a Rhine terrace, backyard or while watching fireworks (Germans love their fireworks!).


Wine can also be enjoyed directly among the vintner's own vineyards, for example, along the Rheinsteig, one of Germany's famous hiking trails. The route goes up and down along the Middle Rhine Valley, a route consisting of 21 stages along 320 kms. Among some of the vineyards through which the trail leads, there are wine stands where weary hikers can take a rest, insert some coins (and ID) and have a glass or share a bottle. Coming from Canada, I thought this was just the best thing since sliced bread!


And, if you are interested in hitting one spot where you can taste-test the wines from both sides of the Rhine here, then there's no better place than the Rhein Weinwelt at Rüdesheim. Here, you buy tokens and then go through various rooms, where the local vintners are displayed along with their wines. Insert a token, pour yourself a sip from the dispenser, and enjoy! It really is quite fun.


3) Boating & Biking

As I've mentioned, I have spent a lot of time either on the Rhine or riding along side it. I commuted to and from work for 6 years, riding along the gorgeous Rhine bike trails. It's been 8 days and I already miss it.


The views change each day, each season...always dynamic. Sometimes the waters rise too high, or get dangerously low, but the Rhine is never boring. The freighters are a constant, carrying everything from John Deere tractors (a sight which always reminds me of the Canadian prairies) to metal trash to oil, with entertaining names like 'Enjoy' and 'Patience'.


Coming here for a day or a week, the best thing to do is to get on the water. I booked a boat tour every day the first time I visited Bingen. There are hourly or day tours, and obviously also multi-day river cruises, heading down this stretch of the Rhine.


For many years, we would take our little motorboat to our favourite watering hole along the river bank. And, on hot summer days, we would jump in the boat and throw the anchor on the far side of the Mouse Tower island, and go swimming. It felt like a holiday every single time.


During my 9 years on the Rhine, I have been blessed to get to know some great forever friends...some furry, some German, and even one Canadian, who I oktoberfested with, laughed with and even touched Merkel with. #goodtimes

Canadians...on beer
And, I've seen much more of the world than I thought I would. There are so many corners to explore, near and far. I would encourage all of us to start or continue to go beyond our own neck of the woods...get to know each other, listen to each other's stories, and learn the lessons of the past. There are so many roads that have been traveled, and they so inspire me.


Now, I'm here, in Alberta, surrounded by snow and sunshine. And, if not for the coronavirus, last week I would have had an airport greeting like this one a few years and one nephew ago. So much love.


But Germany, I'll be back...there's lots of carneval, wine and Rhine to still celebrate...work to do and a puppy to visit. Home.


For now, I will look forward, focus on family, new work and the mountains. And continue to hope.


If you go:

Bingen is just 45 minutes west of Frankfurt, by car or train, in the middle of Germany. It is close to the Belgium and Luxembourg border, and sits at the beginning of the Upper Rhine Gorge.

Train Info: https://www.bahn.com/en/view/index.shtml


Bingen am Rhein - https://www.bingen.de/en/

Rhine Gorge (Middle Rhine Valley) - https://worldheritagegermany.com/upper-middle-rhine-valley/

Castles:
Reihenstein Castle  https://www.burg-reichenstein.com/en/
Rheinstein Castle https://www.burg-rheinstein.de/
Marksburg Castle  https://www.marksburg.de/en/

Hiking:
Rheinsteig Trail https://www.rheinsteig.de/en/the-rheinsteig/stages/
Rhine Castle Trail (Rhein-Bürgen-Weg) https://www.romantic-germany.info/things-to-do/hiking/long-distance-hiking-trails/rheinburgenweg-trail/

Boat Tours: https://www.bingen-ruedesheimer.de/en
Wine Tasting: https://www.rheinweinwelt.de/en/
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