Lizzie Wannabe

Just as the wheels of the aircraft made contact with the asphalt tarmac, I could’ve sworn I heard the soft notes of “This is What Dreams are Made Of” begin to play from some unidentified source. And by the time we reached this final destination of Rome, I’m sure even Lizzie McGuire would agree—we had been living the ultimate dream.

If I could describe the city of Rome in one word, it would be dense. Dense with art; dense with history; dense with architecture and people and culture and life. While it wasn’t necessarily my personal favorite destination during our two-week adventures, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as the must-see location for someone who could only choose to visit one European city. Florence may have the best museums and collections of fine art, Venice may be the most enchantingly unique with its watery passageways, and Paris may be the most posh and classy metropolis known to man, but Rome?

Rome has it all.

Like our rentals in the other cities, the apartment in Rome just happened to be right outside a famous tourist attraction. But while the legendary Trevi Fountain sat just outside the living room window, I quickly realized that bumping into my Paolo and becoming a famous celebrity was never meant to be… The entire structure was under intense construction, which left disappointed visitors to settle for obscured snapshots of the exposed portions of the façade from a make-shift walkway.

I didn’t want to be Lizzie anyway.

The majority of our time in the historical city was spent in full-out exploration. And—as we soon discovered wandering through the streets forever thick with people, vendors, and curiosities of every kind—it was almost impossible to go a block without running into some random chunk of ancient ruins. Forget the Pantheon. Forget the Coliseum. Strewn all about Rome like discarded pieces of shrapnel are bits of millennium-old remains of buildings and monuments along with other miscellaneous parts of crumbling architecture.

Occasionally my nose would be buried in the creases of my tourist map and I’d practically trip over one of these random Classical artifacts.

And that’s Rome for you.

Of course while we were there, we couldn’t help but do all those typical touristy things… We visited the Coliseum. We climbed the Spanish Steps. We wandered through the ancient Forum. And we tried that classic, char-crusted pizza at a local diner where the giant pies measured larger than our faces.

All of these things, of course, were amazing. But then again, I knew they would be. Yet there was one popular Roman destination, however, that left an even greater impression on me than I ever could’ve expected.

That place was the Vatican.

Before visiting Rome, I knew about this Catholic capital, but to me it hardly registered as more than “the place where the Pope lives.” It wasn’t until we arrived in the world’s smallest country that I really began to comprehend it as a grand and expansive masterpiece.

St. Peter’s Basilica—the world’s largest church and most impressive piece of Renaissance architecture known to man—took center stage, of course. Its immense size alone is enough to bring a person to an awestruck, jowl-dropped state. Combine that with its magnificent columned façade, marvelously-crafted interior, and lavish sculptural decoration, and suddenly the Catholic shrine is more than just an overwhelming structure of worship—it’s a work of pure artistry. And apparently, the place is home to a few items of great importance as well…nothing too special, though…just a few dusty relics, Michelangelo’s marble Pieta, and the crusty remains of that one fisherman apostle Peter…

But what I discovered was that beyond the walls of that Catholic shrine lies far more than I ever had imagined. The Vatican museums—more like an extensive labyrinth of elaborately decorated rooms and hallways—rest behind the basilica’s mighty walls and boast of some of the world’s most celebrated sculptures and paintings. But just when you think you’ve seen everything that makes up the definition of pure beauty, you arrive at the Sistine Chapel in all its breathtaking glory. Upon entrance, there is nothing more a person can do than simply pause, breathe, and stare unblinking at the majesty of that ceiling. I remember picturing young Mike strapped up there in his self-fashioned apparatus—painstakingly maneuvering every brushstroke for four straight years to create the beloved masterpiece.

Michelangelo or Da Vinci? No comparison.

Before we knew it, our fairytale spring break adventures were coming to a rapid close. We had seen so many things and had been so many places in such a brief period of time—and not without a great physical toll either. By the end, all of us were tired, weary, and on the cusp of some grappling sickness. I’m pretty sure Carla was even coming down with a serious case of the consumption, and I was worried that if we would’ve gone even a day more, we would’ve had a cadaver on our hands…

But regardless of our weakened frames and exhausted souls, the approach to the end of our trip was melancholy to say the least. Though sapped of every last ounce of energy, the thought of boarding the plane one last time had us all in dismal states.

I hoisted that bursting pink backpack of mine closer and closer to security until it was time for us to go our separate ways. Once more, I was wrapped up in that sweet, perfumed mother’s embrace—a hug I’d come to cherish and would have to wait one month more before receiving again. Carla said goodbye. Mom said goodbye. I said goodbye.

I set my backpack on the conveyer belt.

Then I smiled to myself…this is what dreams are made of.

Italian Gosling

Before I could even protest, Ryan Gosling had snatched our camera and was squeezing between me and my mom with arm extended in an attempt to capture the perfect selfie.

Say cheese.

With the cotton-foamed shore against rugged bluffs as our picturesque backdrop, we thanked the heartthrob actor for the photos and continued on our hike.

So maybe our tour guide through the charming cliff towns of the Cinque Terre wasn’t actually The Notebook celebrity, but if his prominent Italian accent hadn’t been such a dead giveaway, I still would be questioning his true identity to this day.

During our stay in Florence, the three of us travelling damsels took a day trip to the coastal region of the Italian Riviera. Called the Cinque Terre, its title refers to the five small villages connected by the surrounding seaside hills. Most people give me questioning expressions when I try to describe this leg of our journey, but the minute I tell them it’s that super-popular Pinterest destination with those colorful cliffside houses along the shoreline, confusion immediately gives way to recognition.

Even though my family is generally not the tour type, we decided to book an all-day guided hiking excursion that would take us through each of the little towns on foot. I was truthfully pretty hesitant about the whole thing…especially considering how anything in a group usually turns out to be far more difficult and irritating than it’s worth and almost always leaves a person wishing they had opted to go solo. But in this particular tour comprised of about 35 members, I was pleasantly surprised to find how totally and completely hassle-free the whole day unfolded. Not a single thing went wrong, and each part of the day flowed according to our perfectly-balanced schedule. Absolutely no minute was wasted, there were zero hold-ups, and each and every person returned to the bus in one recognizable piece. Even the seemingly weak links of the group—the older and out of shape folk that would be the first to kick the bucket in the Hunger Games—proved their strength and resilience the entire way through.

Beginning the day with a pristine sky and a smiling sun, the weather was perfect for blazing the rolling dirt trails. The trek was fairly long and strenuous (making it even more surprising that we had no stragglers), but such difficulties only made the tour feel like more of an all-out adventure. Copper flecks of light glistened in the sea to our left, while the slender grasses and their purple-petaled friends practiced yoga among the stony crags. I remember becoming mesmerized by the sparkling froth that cumulated with every crashing wave into the gravelly shore—but only until the trail opened up again, and my attentions were directed to yet another rainbow mosaic. While each of the five towns possess their own unique qualities, a shared characteristic is their uncanny resemblance to colorful kaleidoscopes laden in the cliffs.

In these quaint, seaside villages, we enjoyed some of the grandest moments of our trip… We relaxed. We inhaled saline air. We let our skin simmer to bronze in the overhead rays. We sipped the regional white wine and nibbled on octopus and pesto.

And more than once, the three of us could be found tipping our heads back and chortling until our abdomens ached for no apparent reason.

In the Cinque Terre, all was bliss.

…Especially when you add Ryan Gosling to the mix…