Italian Beaches and “Wonderlust”

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As we near the end of January and I work on planning out my blog posts for the upcoming months, I decided that, rather than a travel post (because I have been very busy), I would post this reflection on the title of my blog – Wonderlust Writings.

But first, it’s January, and I’m  getting back to the grind in my classes, and I really enjoy reflecting on beautiful Italian beaches.  Now, of course, things are always better when you’re imagining them, but these were pretty nice experiences at the time they happened too.  Sure, I was somewhat concerned about the 10-page paper I was writing for one of my classes at the time, but not so much that I couldn’t think about how nice it was to lie on the hot sand with my feet in the waves and to know that I was in Italy and the sea washing against me was the same sea that once carried Roman triremes and later inspired one of my favorite Courbet paintings.

The Mediterranean is one of my favorite places both in real life and in myth.  Really, I think the majesty of it in legends and history is part of why I like it so much in real life.  It’s pretty amazing to sit on a beach just outside of Paestum (home to some of the best-preserved Greek temples in the world) and look out at the mythic locations of Scylla and Charybdis (The Odyssey)!

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Sunset in Riomaggiore

In real life, the Mediterranean is also amazing as it kept so many different people connected for so many centuries and has left its mark on our modern world because of that.  From armies and merchants to the debate over which country invented baklava, it’s all connected here.  For  more on this, I have to recommend the doorstop of a book The Great Sea by David Abulafia, which I don’t think anyone will be surprised to learn I read as a vacation book while at the beach (though unfortunately not at a Mediterranean beach).

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Grand Hotel Paestum

When I remember Italy, I do think about Rome and Florence and Orvieto and art, but I think my top two memories come from Paestum and Tarquinia.  Paestum is home to three Doric temples, which, because they were also used by Romans and Christians, were well-maintained when many other ancient sites were abandoned.  At the beginning of the trip, I came here with my study abroad group, which meant that we stayed at the elegant Grand Hotel Paestum, which was easily the nicest place I stayed in all of Italy.   (A tip for college students: On faculty-led study abroad trips, not only are the fees less than an exchange, there is usually at least one really nice dinner and/or hotel that is included in your tuition.)

From  the hotel, it was about a ten-minute walk to the beach, and I was desperate to dive into the Mediterranean.  Early in the evening in late May, it was nearly empty, and, with a few others, I swam out into Homer’s “wine dark sea” and floated in the sun-warmed water.  This was Italy at its finest – the perfect temperature, a calm sea, the laughter of new friends at the beginning of a beautiful summer, and the knowledge that after I exhausted myself in the waves, I would be dining on pasta and tiramisu and feeling completely immersed in such a magnificent place.

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Tarquinia

Coincidentally, my other favorite memory comes from the last weekend of the trip on a day trip to Tarquinia.  The educational reasoning for this trip was to see three thousand year old tomb paintings.  Tarquinia is not a huge tourist destination, though being in Italy, it still draws a crowd.   It is most famous as an archaeological site because it hosts two Etruscan necropoli.  These offer amazing insight into the lives of this pre-Roman civilization, especially because the Etruscans painted frescoes onto the tomb walls showing both scenes of everyday life as well as scenes that were more  religious or metaphorical.  Being underground, these were well-preserved, and today there is a museum in Tarquinia that lets the average person look at the highlights of the tombs without damaging the actual archaeology.

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Vernazza

After the museum, we were allowed to run down to the beach because these people have been around college students long enough to know that a museum of Etruscan death art has to be followed by a few hours of free time in the waves. If that first beach was filled with the promise of a summer in Italy and new friends, this one was the sadder pre-nostalgia of knowing it was the last time we would hang out together on a beach in Italy.  We spread our towels out and took turns wandering back to the paved road and buying ice creams and other sugary things from the stores there.  There were also rocks on this beach, including a small promontory that jutted out into the blue water and proved to be a great place to hang out without having to touch that fiery sand.

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After a wave

Going to Italy was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, and what I learned most of all is that it’s very rarely the big, exciting places that make the best memories.  In Italy, I was looking forward to Pompeii and the Vatican, and while I did absolutely love these, the best parts were not the ones I planned.  On the trip to Pompeii, I also fell in love with Paestum, and in Rome, my favorite part was actually just wandering around and getting a little lost in the Eternal City.  I knew before I went to Italy that I wanted to go to a beach, but the ones I planned to savor were going to be in Cinque Terre.  Instead, I loved these two beaches I hadn’t planned to see, and in Cinque Terre I loved the train and the colorful houses far more than the crowded little beach.

I call my blog Wonderlust Writings as a bit of a pun on Wanderlust (also I think that name was already taken when I made the blog).  As I’ve been making this into more of travel blog, however, I’ve also been trying to figure out what I mean by “Wonderlust,” which is a bit of an odd term.  I think most of all it’s a need to find places in the world that surprise me, places that make me wonder about them even after I’ve left, and most of all the places that leave me in a state of awe for one reason or another.  I love planning trips and imagining the future, but whenever I reflect on travel (or life in general), I find the best moments to be the ones I didn’t expect.  I’m looking for the moments and places like that in life, and I’m learning how to savor them since, it is, to an extent, the transience of these things that makes them so special.

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