Europe 1.0

How do you begin to tell anyone about travel in Europe? I truly don’t know how to start – it was that wild. Jesse and I didn’t exactly haul huge packs on our backs everywhere and traverse across the entire continent. Our trip was fairly contained. Three countries, eight cities, twenty-three days. And two very inspired and satisfied people. Well… satisfied until about a month later when we started thinking about Central Europe and all the places we’ve yet to visit! We truly had an incredible time. There is no way I can possibly write down everything we did, saw, ate, and drank. But I can write about the moments that still linger in my head, strong and bright and vivid.

It’s safe to say that we are hooked on travel. I did everything I could to save money and now feel much more equipped to plan an efficient and budget friendly trip again sometime soon. It feels important to do so. It feels expansive, meaningful, and inherently valuable. Travel to these countries carries so much more value than I could have ever imagined and I don’t want to only do it once. I read somewhere once that if travel is a priority for you, it often takes a great deal of sacrifice to make it happen. I anticipate this sentiment will be a constant tension for Jesse and I as we move through different phases of life that typically include certain “milestones”.

Now, I’ve said it many times before and I’ll preface this post by saying it again: I really don’t believe in seeing the world’s greatest places through the lens of a camera. If I want a really great photo of Notre Dame or The Sistine Chapel, I’ll find a professional one online or buy a postcard – neither Jesse nor I feel any need whatsoever to take a photo in front of every monument we visit in life as proof that we were there. When we visited these amazing places, I didn’t bother with too many photos. I wanted to experience our trip with all of my own physical senses. The photos here are many of the thousands of little “moments” captured and I am so excited to share them with you all! That said, I won’t pretend that these photos are like, incredible. I’m not posing as a photographer here. They’re special to us and hold so many memories but to be honest, the whole internet/technology thing was a big problem for me tonight and I may have thrown the laptop into a pile of dirty dishes sitting beside me on the couch, released an epic sigh/swear/noise, and stormed off to the bathroom to pout/cry while Jesse looked on helplessly. I did not have the energy to edit these photos for your viewing pleasures. Enjoy them in all of their imperfections!

The first order of business on our trip was a delightful but far-too-short stop in the UK. As many of you know, my mom moved to Canada, away from her family when she was just 19 years old. Apart from my grandparents, seeing my UK fam has been more rare up until the last few years. It was a treat for Jesse and I to spend time with them on their turf. After a highly drugged plane ride to Heathrow, we hit the ground running, full of adrenaline and ready for a wee bit of a pub crawl with my cousins, Will and Ed, and my Aunty Wendy (whom I haven’t seen in EIGHT years!!) in Witney. They treated us royally that first night and we loved running around their gorgeous town. I have always delighted in English homes and hidden pathways and the romance of it all and I think I must have excitedly pointed out to Jesse every old barn, pathway, and stone house we passed by that evening as we moved from pub to pub! It was surreal to share this part of my life with him. The next morning, we began our first full day in a Cotswolds village called Burford. If you haven’t had a real British fry-up yet, you have not lived. Here would be a perfect place to try one!

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We spent the day meandering through Oxford, running into Jamie Wiebe (!), enjoying the side streets and popping into pubs. Book shops and cobblestone abound here and there are plenty of historic buildings, castles, and churches to visit as well. This day came to an end bittersweetly as we parted ways with two thirds of our company and made the drive to Derby to see Nan and the rest of the gang. The next few days were so special to me – I can’t talk/think about them without tears in my eyes.

Grampy passing away was one of my first true losses thus far in life. I hadn’t even considered when we booked our trip that it would be one year exactly since his death. I have tried for weeks to put words to the feeling of visiting the gravesite of someone you love. It is this: what a strange and empty feeling, to look at a mound of dirt where they lay in the ground, searching for a memory of the last time you saw them, inhaled their scent, felt their presence. What a heavy heart pain, to look at their resting place and feel anything but rest. To know that you didn’t know it would be the last time but it was. It was the last time. And that is your grandfather lying there beneath the earth. Distance may be one of the few select circumstances that make death harder than it already is. I said goodbye and I told him that I loved him, finding peace in the knowledge that whether he could hear me or not, he knows I love him. The beautiful cemetery was a tangle of greenery and the wild bluebells were blooming bright. I didn’t ever want to walk away from him but oh how I took comfort in leaving him behind in a place so rich in tranquility and lightness. That evening we ate Wastie Curry and I knew it would be, in recollection, a most sacred day of our trip.

We spent the next day exploring the glorious Chatsworth House and Grounds with the family, giving Jesse a taste of the English countryside that I hold so dear to my heart. It’s as I said. These days were not long enough. I had baby cousins to tickle and kiss and so much catching up to do but alas, we eventually hopped on an early coach to London.

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London was an interesting one for us. An interesting dynamic as we navigated trying to visit places that held interest for both of us. My parents have taken us to London a few times, the most recent being around age 15. It was surreal being there without them! Jesse and I agreed to visit at least one grand English church and Westminster Abbey was my pick! After all, I needed to walk the grounds where my spirit animal, Kate Middleton, stole my breath in her lace gown and became a real princess. I figured if we visited, we would be practically sisters and there would also be the added bonus of increased chances of a marriage to Prince Harry. Unfortunately, I am still married to Jesse and no royalty in sight but all hope is not lost. I will press on.

During day one and two, we also enjoyed Covent Garden, Trafalgar Square, and general meandering through the cool Soho district. One of my favourite parts of our time in London, as it always has been, was sitting atop the double decker tour bus in the open air, driving through all areas of the city. There are several companies with tour busses, all with comparable prices. I’ve been on the busses with a live tour guide as a teenager and they are so entertaining and enjoyable! Sadly, Jesse and I did not have a bus with a live guide but we still enjoyed a nice slow ride through the city. My mom and dad always pay for a tour and love it every time – they typically do a big loop on the basic route, and then go back through a second time, hopping off whenever the urge strikes! We did the same and would probably do it again! The Original Tour was well organized and accessible. Another favourite memory for me was pausing to hear the grand Abbey’s church bells ring jubilantly – a sound so foreign to us Canadians. It filled my heart up to the brim.

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Day three was also really fabulous. We made a short trek to The Design Museum (heaven for Jesse, essentially) and finished the day at Old Spitalfields Market. We had an early dinner of the best fish n’ chips from Poppie’s Fish and Chips (for real the best) and ended our time in London with a second dinner at Dishoom. The food here was out of this world. Bombay Indian food with a modern twist. We loved this meal and will make a point to come again next time.

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One of the best elements of our time in London was our accommodations. We found a stunning little room on AirBnB and fell in love with the owner’s flat. Given that Jesse is very proficient with public transit, we decided to save a bit of money by staying a short bus ride outside of London’s core. The room was far more beautiful than what our budget would have allowed downtown and our host was helpful and flexible – especially when I realized I booked us for one night less than we needed… oops! There was fresh baked raisin bread every morning which Jesse declared to be the best bread he’d ever eaten. Challenge accepted my love ❤ Would highly recommend Katie’s place!

Jesse loved this little radio playing in the kitchen each morning while munching on said bread.

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After a whirlwind few days in London, we boarded an early plane to Pisa – our entry point to stunning Tuscany. It’s worth mentioning here that if your travels have you jumping large distances in Europe, a short plane ride is often cheaper than the popular train travel option! While traveling on the train is probably less stressful, the plane cuts down on quite a bit of time when you’re hopping around countries. If you book well in advance and carefully read through the small airline’s luggage guidelines, you can save quite a bit of money on cheap flights. Oh and don’t expect the leniency of a large airline with carry on luggage. They will scrap you for every inch your bag is oversized. We learned that lesson the hard way and we have a hefty luggage bill to prove it!

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Florence was our first stop. To be honest, I didn’t have Florence on my list just because there are so many other places I would have liked to visit but it was a means to an end – that end being the Tuscan countryside. All in all, we enjoyed our two days in Florence, particularly an evening walk up to the Piazza Michelangelo that included a full bottle of wine from plastic cups, chats and advice from some Toronto “bros” we met, and the most glorious sunset you could possibly imagine. I remember saying to Jesse how if there was ever a way to know God truly exists, it would be in looking at that sky. How the colours shine and change, never once the same. After my 500ml share of the wine, I started to tell him how I thought it was so grand, the way those colours could never all be accounted for on the colour wheel – we could never name them all from day to day. They were too fluid, in constant motion as the clouds shift and change each night and the river moves beneath them, reflecting light and shimmering tones. It was stunning.

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Now, how to describe Tuscany. The best and only way to explore this utterly holy countryside, in my opinion, is by car. If you stay outside of a little village on an agriturismo, the busses are really limiting and inconvenient. We payed a reasonable amount for a tiny FIAT and knew within minutes it had been the right decision. Jesse loved whipping around those mountain roads and we were able to take the long way from Florence through Chianti region, soaking up all the green. We stopped for lunch at Bar Ucci in Radda and munched on fresh sliced meats and cheeses and tomato crostatas. I think this was one of the moments where we truly felt as though we were living in a dream. The owners were authentic, joyous, generous people – they were larger than life. I almost can’t put this little stop into words. It was a welcome to Italy like none other, nestled in the rugged mountains of Chianti. If you want to know what Italy is all about, make this your first stop.

From Radda, we weaved our way through vineyards and farms until we reached a small town called Montepulciano. We stayed at Agriturismo Le Caggiole where the owner, Giacomo, manages to maintain the authenticity of a rugged working farm with the elegance you hope for on vacation. Agriturismos really are hit and miss in this area (mostly hit). Some are operated purely with tourism in mind, with all the modern amenities and luxuries you could hope for. Others are trying to keep their farms viable and running. Their families have worked the land for generations upon generations, and taking in guests is a way to avoid selling the land they have nurtured and loved for hundreds of years. While the agriturismo was one of our “splurges”, when you see a rugged old stone house that has been standing since the 1300’s, it became meaningful for us to put our money towards a family that truly values tradition, hard work, and family legacy. Giacomo was a gracious host and we would definitely return! We spent many hours curled up on the terrace with a glass of red and a book, breathing in the freshness of a valley filled with vineyards and olive trees. Rosemary and sage grew wild on this farm and the birds fairly beamed their morning song. Giacomo’s mother served fresh pastries and fruit each morning and we would stuff our faces with deli meat on ciabatta for lunch. Agriturismo Le Caggiole was our home base for exploring the medieval-like stone walled village of Montepulciano and for venturing out to horseback ride for three hours through the Tuscan countryside.

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We partook in the two hour cooking class, learning how to make fresh pasta from scratch and following along as we prepared herb and garlic crusted guinea fowl – slow roasted to crispy perfection – and decadent tiramisu. The meal was stupendous and we came away with a recipe book for all our fares and a hearty ragu that Giacomo had had simmering for hours. Giacomo was also really deliberate in sharing his only strict rules for cooking passed on from his Grandmother: use fresh, local, good ingredients and choose organic whenever possible. I’ve always loved to bake but since we’ve been married, I have developed a deep love and passion for cooking. I absolutely adored this class and took away a great desire to pass on such a rich tradition of food to my own children and grandchildren one day – in the same way that Giacomo has embraced the legacy passed on from his family. These simple principles for cooking stand alone in the sea of online cooking how-to’s and advice out there these days. They stand the test of time! We’ve had such a busy time since our trip, given that we came home to summer, that I haven’t yet had an opportunity to try my hand at these recipes. Soon! Oh and I might also mention that watching a couple of engineers from San Francisco separate eggs for tiramisu was a real treat in and of itself!! Anyway… We enjoyed the meal with wine, more meat and cheese, and two other couples from the states! All of us were of different ages, stages, and walks of life but we sat and talked and laughed for hours and came away knowing it was one of the most fun evenings on our trip. The next evening, all of the couples decided to meet in town at Pane vino & Zucchero for another stupendous meal. Monica and Marco were endearing, attentive, and modern in their style of Italian food. Jesse and I each enjoyed an appetizer of fresh pasta and had salty, juicy, steaks for entrees with tender roasted vegetables. We shared a few desserts amongst ourselves at the table and there was plenty of wine! I think once we split the bill, Jesse and I only paid 70 euros total… just over $100 CAN. I was so impressed with the food and atmosphere created by the owners that the experience felt like a complete steal! This area of Italy was definitely reasonably priced for food and we felt as thought we truly got a taste of the highest quality local fare. This restaurant will be high on our list when we one day return to Italy! Based on Monica’s delightful demeanor and their incredible food, we would even consider staying at their own agriturismo one day.

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Tuscany was healing and invigorating. We left feeling fulfilled in so many different ways and eager to return one day.

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That feels like a wonderful place to stop for tonight. I’m on vacation this week so Europe 2.0 should be up sometime in the next few days! Rome, Positano, and Paris all to come… and a few of the best travel decisions and purchases we made!

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