A Letter of Hope to Florence

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I came with the best of intentions, the greatest of hopes for your city, with dreams of marveling at world-famous art, strolling the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, and eating my weight in gelato on my 19th birthday. I envisioned classy Italian women going about their daily business, young locals sitting along the riverside, and throngs of tourists with eyes wide open in wonder.

I wanted to love you, to bask in sunlight perched upon the Piazzale Michelangelo and stare down at all of what you had to offer. I wanted to soak it all up: every sight, every sound, every taste and smell. To feel what the breeze felt like, would it be different than other places? You were romanticized in my mind by every word I heard spoken of you, every story I had read.

But what my heart felt didn’t match up with my expectations. Don’t be put down, you were every bit as beautiful as I had imagined. Boutiques lined the street, the Ponte Vecchio lit up every evening, lighting the way and I did get gelato on my birthday (and a very lovely cake and lighter-as-a-makeshift-candle combo).

Sunshine was a far off notion as the rain beat down day and night, chilling us to the bone. I awoke with creepy crawlies on my pillow, inching towards my face, and the Duomo, one of your most beautiful cathedrals, was mostly obscured due to construction. What was supposed to be a blissful time in a blissful city was lackluster. Mark it as a spot of bad timing, the moment not being quite right — isn’t that always the way it happens?  — and a bit of traveler’s exhaustion, but our days didn’t feel as inspired as I had expected. I never wrote about you much here because I didn’t think I had many inspiring things to say and I didn’t want to discredit you.

I thought I had made up my mind about you, Florence. That you and I weren’t meant to be, that you were just one of those places that I didn’t hit it off with. But I have hope for you yet, as you creep into my thoughts every now and then. One day, when I do step foot on the pavement along the Arno, I hope that all of my notions of a romanticized Florence come rushing back. That the sun shines down and that the breeze feels differently.

Until then.

The Things I’ve Done For Luck.

If you’ve traveled anywhere, I can guarantee you have been told that by touching something, swimming in a certain body of water, or doing some odd activity will bring you luck and good fortune. I was thinking about a few things I did on a recent trip to the Caribbean that was supposed to be healing for the body and it reminded me of all the things I have done since beginning my travels in 2010, some silly, some scary, and some just plain gross. So I thought I would compile a list of the moments that stand out for me in terms of doing something because it was considered lucky or “rejuvenating”.

The Gift of the Gab

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The land of the Irish is filled with stories based around luck and good fortune, leprechauns hiding their pots of gold and fairy rings that should you step inside the ring, you’ll be cursed by fairy protectors or transported to a land of supernatural beings or forced to dance until exhaustion and death (nice things, fairies, aren’t they?). But most importantly, and often boasted about, they believe in the gift of the gab. The ability to talk your way out of anything or being a smooth talker. For those of you interested in being blessed with such a gift, you can take a ride on up to a town called Blarney, just north of the city of Cork.

Here, you’ll find Blarney Castle and the famous Blarney Stone, or the Stone of Eloquence. Up the tower you climb until you get to a human-sized hole. It’s in this whole, a rough back bend down, that the Blarney Stone sits in the stone wall. At 90ft. above the concrete, I lay on my back and put my life in the hands of a grey-haired old man. With his hands gripping my calves, I leaned my upper body backwards and down into the hole, hanging on to the bars mounted on the stone wall. With a quick glance at the concrete below, I kissed the Blarney Stone and shot back up to safety.

Eternal Beauty

On the Isle of Skye, Scotland, there is a particular river that I’ve forgotten the name of. Flowing under a bridge, we pulled up beside it and sat around listening to a legend of the most beautiful girl in the village. Many, many years ago on her wedding day, this girl was riding her horse across the river when the horse lost her footing and down tumbled the bride-to-be, smashing her face on a rock with a pointed tip. A gruesome event, the poor girl had an eyeball hanging from its socket, her face mangled. No longer was she the most beautiful girl in the village. Determined to be married, she popped her eye back in place, though not well, and hid her face behind her veil. I Do’s were said but when the groom pulled back her veil to kiss the bride, he recoiled in disgust and, being the superficial man that he was, refused to marry her.

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Humiliated, the girl ran back to the river, where she met a leprechaun.. or perhaps a fairy. After hearing her story, the leprechaun told her that all she had to do was dip her face in that very river for no less than 7 seconds and she would be eternally beautiful. As you can imagine, we quickly lowered ourselves down and dunked our faces into the ice cold water and counted to 7.

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Clear Skin in Trinidad

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Many bodies of water around the world are said to have healing properties, rejuvenating qualities, etc. On a recent trip to Trinidad, we stopped at Pitch Lake, a “lake” filled with pitch. All of the major highways around the world use the asphalt from this lake and every time, the lake renews itself, filling again and again with asphalt. Black and smelling of tar, you can walk on the lake as the top layer is hardened, a slightly squishy surface. Certain areas of Pitch Lake are filled with small pools of water, some green in color, others black as Coca-Cola. Locals come to the pitch lake to bathe in one of these small pools as it’s said to aid in healing psoriasis and arthritis due to its medicinal properties.

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Another pool of water in the Pitch is said to be safe to drink a small bottle cap-full once a day as it’s said to keep the skin clear from acne. After playing in the water a little bit, two of us were brave enough to fill up our bottle caps and shot it back.

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The Sai Sin Bracelet

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Thailand has more symbols and amulets for luck than anywhere I’ve been. You ask any vendor on the street what the symbol on a ring, image, or other piece of jewelry means and they’ll tell you it’s for luck. You can often tell a backpacker in Southeast Asia by the collection of bracelets adorning their wrists and ankles, but there is one bracelet in particular that is said to give the wearer great luck. The Sai Sin bracelet. Up on Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I knelt before a monk and a shaman as he blessed the piece of white string before tying it to my wrist and was told that it would bring me luck in my travels, my health, and my prosperity. Whatever you do, don’t cut these bracelets off. Rather, they must break naturally from your wrist when the time is right. If you do cut it off, all the luck it was supposed to bring will be gone.

Three Wishes at the Trevi Fountain

On our very first night in Rome we found ourselves at the Trevi Fountain. There’s a number of legends about the fountain, which started many years ago. It’s said that originally, tossing in a coin or taking a drink from the fountain would ensure good health. Today, the Trevi Fountain has become a mecca for tourists from all over the world. We were told by a traveling family that you could make three wishes, on three different coins, of three different currencies. Swapping coins with one another, we each had three coins of different currencies and, with our backs to the fountain, tossed them in over our left shoulder, one at a time. Each coin had a different wish and, though I’m sure you’d like to know my wishes, they will forever be a secret.

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The Cursed Tomb of Alexander Stewart

Despite all the things I’ve done for luck, my reckless self also did something that is said to curse the individual for as long as they live. In the small Scottish town of Dunkeld sits a cathedral. Within that cathedral, is the resting place of the Earl of Buchan in 1812. After leaving his wife and six children, he was excommunicated and, as a result, he burned two towns to the ground. They say that anyone who touches his tomb will be cursed with bad luck for the rest of their lives. Whether this is true or not, perhaps the many things I have tried for good luck outweighs the curse. Either way, whenever I get a bout of unluckiness, particularly without explanation, I blame Alexander Stewart.

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These are just a few stories of the things I’ve done around the world in the name of luck and beauty. For more stories, you can read about swimming in Tobago’s Nylon Pool for rejuvenation, rubbed Juliet’s breast for luck in Verona, and doused myself in mud in St.Lucia for soft skin and healing properties.

A Dip Into The Sorgeto Hot Springs

This isn’t the first time that I’ve written about Ischia. As mentioned in that previous post, Ischia was where I first had the opportunity to soak myself in a volcanic hot spring. Earlier that evening, seven of us crammed ourselves into a tiny mini van that managed to squeeze itself at a ridiculously fast pace in and out of the narrow alleys.

After a huge Italian meal with new friends, we all made our way to Sorgeto Bay at the suggestion of our hostel staff. To reach the beach itself, you need to walk down about 200 steep, stone steps. If you are coming with somebody who cannot make the trek up or down these steps, you can also reach the springs by water taxi during the day.

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The Sorgeto Springs are comprised of a number of different thermal pools, each one fluctuating in water temperature due to the natural heating of Ischia’s volcanic activity. Once we had stripped down to our bathing suits, we tiptoed carefully into the water, the smooth stones of the hot spring floor slippery beneath our feet. Luckily for us, we had the entire springs to ourselves and, at 2AM, the water is still comfortingly warm, with the odd areas of cold and scorching hot. If you come during the day, be sure to note the signs warning you where not to venture because some areas of the spring are inaccessible due to the overwhelming temperatures. It’s been said that some people even bring eggs to boil in the hottest areas of the springs!

If you’re seeking a luxurious, spa-like activity, these thermal springs should be at the top of your list. Oh, but there’s one more little tidbit of information that will give you no excuse to miss out — access to the springs is free! So even if you are a penny-pinching backpacker, you can still take advantage of what the springs have to offer. If you ever find yourself on the island, I would highly recommend stopping in to the Sorgeto Hot Springs. I can’t say personally what it is like in the daytime, but I know very well the beauty and fun to be had in the late hours of the night (preferably with some wine!).

Casa di Giulietta

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee,

The more I have, for both are infinite.”
— William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

I recently shared a photo that I took four summers ago in Verona, Italy. Seeing that photo reminded me of what a charming place Verona was and, although it was four summers ago now, I remember it like it was just yesterday. Everyone knows the famous Shakespeare story of Romeo and Juliet. It has been told and re-told, played and re-played time and again and is considered to be one of the most famous love stories of all time.

Traveling with two girlfriends from the North to South of Italy, our main decision for stopping in Verona was to see Juliet’s balcony and have an entire day dedicated to Romeo and Juliet. As we walked through the arched entrance of Juliet’s balcony, our eyes were met with thousands of colorful notes and letters stuck to the wall that is known as Juliet’s wall. After taking a few moments to scan them over, it is clear that the majority of the notes on the wall come from young girls and women from all over the world. And, not surprisingly, the majority of them are love notes.

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I thought this one was cute.

Despite the house being quite old, the balcony has no connection to Juliet and was actually added on to the house and declared Juliet’s balcony in the late 1930’s. Juliet’s balcony has become a popular tourist attraction after being deemed the balcony of Juliet. Nevertheless, myself and many others swarm to the balcony to take photos, leave notes on the walls, take a touristy photo of grabbing one of the boobs of Juliet’s statue for luck, and even write a letter to Juliet and send it in the post! Apparently, volunteers actually respond to some of these letters but I’ve been waiting four years and have still had no letter back.

statue of juliet -- touch her boob for luck in love!

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You can even pay a small fee to go explore inside the house and stand out on the balcony for yet another touristy photo. Budget traveler bonus? Coming to Juliet’s balcony is free unless you want to go in the house!

Despite the lack of true connection to the real Juliet, taking a trip to see “her” balcony and explore “her” house would make a nice activity for you Romeo and Juliet fans or those of you that are just die-hard romantics. As much fun as we ended up having that afternoon, if you’re not a Romeo and Juliet fan or you simply don’t feel like you have the time, skipping Juliet’s balcony isn’t a huge loss. I found it to be a bit over-rated and basically just another tourist trap. But, if you are a fan of that sort of thing, it gives you butterflies and warm fuzzies for the rest of the day!

Sunday Snapshot: Lovers in Verona

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This shot was taken in a park in Verona, Italy. After having spent the day getting lost and then finally discovering Juliet’s Balcony, we had ended up winding down the afternoon in this little park. We saw the couple featured in this photo and it had totally encompassed our romance-themed day.

Do you have a photo you would like to share for Sunday Snapshot?
Submit it to whirlwindtravel@hotmail.com to see it here the next week!