Recently I visited Italy’s Marche region for the first time. The landscape in this tiny, unheralded area of the boot is astounding. To the west, the steeper eastern slopes of the Apennines bear down, while the gentle Adriatic eclipses the horizon to the east. Upon rounding each hair-raising turn on windy roads that ribbon the area, we were continually astonished by the authentic, rugged beauty that awaited. Despite all this endless grandeur, however, I was on edge the entire week, slightly stressed from jet lag and hairpin turns, yet something more nagged at me. The thrill of discovery was strong, yes, but my anxiety at the unknown held firm.
Our next stop was Montefalco, Umbria, a town we’d visited previously. Though “the balcony of Umbria” offers a lovely view of rolling hills blanketed with fields of vines, olive trees and wheat, it fails to capture the majesty of our previous stop. It’s not a knock. Simply an observation that not every region can offer snow-capped peaks of the glorious Gran Sasso and the pure blue of the Mediterranean sea, all within the same view.
Regardless, my mood changed almost immediately when we got to Montefalco. I was both more energized and relaxed. As the familiar sights and sounds enveloped me, I realized why: I was back.
In the US, going back is not a foreign concept. When we go to the beach, or the mountains, we’re typically visiting the same place. Maybe our parents took us, and now we take our own kids. There’s certainly something comforting about going back to that ice cream shop, restaurant, or beach house year after year. It’s an escape from day-to-day, life yet offers the stability and reliability of an old friend.
These places we go back, however, they tend to be close. Cape Cod, the Jersey Shore, the Outer Banks. The Ozarks, the UP. When we get more exotic in our vacation choices — traveling to another continent, for example, we’re less likely to go back. These trips are often once in a lifetime, dream vacations to a far off land. Where’s the comfort in that?
When I think of our time in Montefalco — the second visit — the places we visited or the things we did are not what comes to mind. It’s the people that stand out. The hotel nonna’s genuine smile as she exclaimed “voi tornato!” (you have returned!) An aperitivo with ex-pats we met last time, taking in the sights and sounds of the majestic main square. Happy hour with a group of winemakers, who initially served as tour guides and now sit side-by-side as friends. These are the experiences that transcend place or time, that stick with us forever.
It doesn’t really matter that we were in Montefalco, or even Italy, specifically. What’s relevant is that we found a place we connect with; not just the town and its buildings but the people that make them go. And while the exoticism of Italy is relative, the long journey and sacrifice to get there is certainly not misunderstood. Bring it all together, and it’s the perfect combination of adventure and comfort.