countdown to christmas, Hallmark Movies... In Real Life

Hallmark Abroad…Christmas in Rome

 

As I reflect back on the year, it’s clear that Hallmark has spread its wings, and therefore, so have its fans—traveling abroad to France, Italy, and the Irish countryside through the dazzling locations of several beloved movies. Together we visited Paris with Jen Lilley and Dan Jeannotte as they participated in an international wine competition in Paris, Wine & Romance. We visited Rome with Italia Ricci playing an unknown actress selected to star in a remake of Roman Holiday, and Peter Porte, the American journalist chosen to shadow her for a magazine article. More recently we traveled to Ireland with Merritt Patterson and Jack Turner as they reconnected at an Irish inn with Hallmark’s Forever in My Heart. And this weekend, we will once again travel to Italy for Christmas in Rome with Lacy Chabert and Sam Page.

In Real Life, I, too, am spreading my wings, and although I’ve traveled a lot and have even had the pleasure of visiting Paris, Rome, and many locations throughout Ireland, I took my first solo vacation to Italy this past summer. I got tired of waiting for friends and family to have the same schedule as me to take a trip, or for “the perfect partner” with whom I could share a great adventure. (Truth be told, my boss also told me I needed a vacation and even my staff were encouraging me to take a break.) Rather than continue to wait and let life pass by (slash work myself to the point of burnout), I decided to treat myself to a vacation that I’ve always wanted to experience in an area of the world I’ve always wanted to explore.

I have always wanted to see with my own eyes the vibrant blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the part of the Mediterranean Sea off the western coast of Italy, while visiting Amalfi, Positano, and Capri. I wanted to walk the Path of the Gods and take in the clifftop views of the Mediterranean as I hiked the trail between Bomerano and Nocelle (the town above Positano). I wanted to taste pizza in its birthplace—Naples, Italy—and I wanted to explore the ruins of Pompeii. But most of all, I wanted to embark on a solo adventure to prove to myself that I can not only survive it, but enjoy it and thrive doing it. (Admittedly I cheated a little, because I ultimately joined an organized tour with G Adventures, but I still took the risk of taking a vacation alone and left it up to chance that I’d be paired with a nice roommate and make new friends!)

Because I didn’t travel to Rome on this trip, hiking the Amalfi Coast was as close to Hallmark’s Rome in Love and Christmas in Rome as I could get. To be honest, the more appropriate comparison would be to Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat Pray Love, because I 100% ate my way through Italy, prayed to keep my footing while hiking atop the ridges of cliffs (I’m terrified of heights, but I love the scenery too much to stay away), and fell in love with solo travel . . . but this is a Hallmark journey, so let’s stay focused.

In a Hallmark movie, the lead character would find love. I am keeping an open mind to love, but I didn’t go to Italy looking for it; I went to Italy for me. Plus, despite signing up for a tour group that had the potential to be co-ed, out of 16 people, 3 were male: 2 were traveling with their significant others, and 1 was the tour guide. Needless to say, this trip was not about romance.

This trip was about adventure and embracing new experiences. I arrived in Naples, Italy, with the normal disorientation of entering a new environment, compounded by the complexity of not speaking the local language, but I had almost two full days on my own before I was scheduled to meet the tour group.  Once at the hotel, I dropped my bags, washed my face, changed clothes, and was out the door. Armed with a map and a recommendation for the best pizza in the city, I headed out on foot, intent on moving with the sunlight for as long as possible in an effort to reset my body clock and get on the new time zone.

Stepping foot into an Italian street is like playing chicken. Unlike in the U.S., there are no road rules. Cars, motorbikes, and buses are literally whizzing by everywhere, and you are in danger of getting run over at any minute. Paper map in hand, I began walking in the wrong direction before I remembered that technology has advanced since my days of backpacking across Europe as a college student. I own an iPhone!

With my GPS leading the way, I was on a mission to locate the famous Sorbillo’s Pizza.  Although I eventually did experience the deliciousness of Sorbillo’s, the line was too long, and I was too hungry to wait. My first Napoli pizza experience was a little hole in the wall with no line where I sat myself down for a margarita pizza and a beer. Maybe it was exhaustion or the exhilaration of being somewhere new, but this pizza was the best I had ever tasted. After tasting a lot of pizza throughout Naples I think it’s truly that Naples pizza is extraordinary. It’s simple with fresh ingredients, including fresh mozzarella cheese, basil, and olive oil. It tends to have more sauce then cheese, and the crust is a perfect combination of chewy and crispy. (Just thinking about it makes my mouth water!)

With a belly full of food, I had renewed energy to tackle the city. I explored Naples underground, a labyrinth of tunnels and caves 131 feet below the city that contain historical structures ranging from WWII air raid shelters all the way back to remains of the Greco-Roman aqueduct. I stumbled upon a pop-up exhibit of the artist Marc Chagall, toured the Royal Palace, visited Castel Nuovo, and wandered through the Naples National Archaeological Museum. I recommend it all, but the highlights of those first two days on my own, apart from the mind-blowing pizza, of course, were visiting the Veiled Christ in the Sansevero Chapel, enjoying a cappuccino and Sfogliatelle at Gran Café Gambrinus, and aimlessly wandering the streets of Naples where  Italians were just going about their regular lives.

The only souvenir I purchased in Naples was a cornicello, which is Italian for “little horn” from the famous Via San Gregorio Armeno, known to tourists as Christmas alley. Along this street, artists’ hand-carve nativity scenes called presepio. (Included among the nativity scene characters like the shepherd, you may be surprised to find figurines of political leaders or celebrities, but this is very normal.) It was on this street of famous artisan works that I found the red horns that symbolize good luck. Of course, I didn’t buy it for myself—buying one for yourself will bring you bad luck—but it’s the perfect gift to bring back for a loved one.

At the end of the second day of my trip, it was time to make some new friends and join the tour group. We turned out to be quite an eclectic bunch! At least half of the group was comprised of solo female travelers from as far away as Hong Kong. I was one of three Americans, there were three Australians, one woman from Poland, my roommate Connie hailed from Germany, and the largest demographic was from Canada. Our first full “guided” day began with a local walking tour of Naples before we left the city.  On our way to the Amalfi Coast, we stopped in Pompeii—a city that was buried under volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79. I could write a whole blog on that experience alone, so I’ll just say that if you ever have the opportunity to visit Pompeii . . . go.

After Pompeii we traveled to Furore, a town on the Amalfi coast, where I had the pleasure of spending six nights at the Agriturismo Sant’Alfonso. If you wish to enjoy exquisite views of the ocean, five-course homemade Italian dinners every night, cooking demonstrations, and a warm family home atmosphere (because this is literally also a home), then you too will enjoy this spot. The grounds even have a chapel to host weddings and baptisms, which there are a lot of in Italy!

The next week was a whirlwind. My days were filled with hikes to nature preserves, beaches like Atrani, and towns like Ravello. Each day was better than the next, with hiking the Path of the Gods topping my list of favorite adventures. By the end of my trip, I felt refreshed and reenergized to return to work and my Real Life.

Traveling abroad with Hallmark through their movies is a fun escape, and I hope they continue to explore more beautiful destinations. Meanwhile, I’m grateful for the Real-Life adventure. My Italian jaunt assured me that I can have fun traveling solo and as part of an organized group—and I look forward to doing both again in the future!

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