At the start of this project, my goal was to create community with people on the trail in an effort to bring the world just a little bit closer together. To be honest, that hasn’t really happened: partly because we don’t see a lot of people on most of our hikes, and partly because the demands of making sure two toddlers stay safe, fed, and hydrated while outdoors can make it hard to even notice when anyone else is around.
Though we’re almost 10 months into the year and we still haven’t made an on-the-trail connection, this project has not been a loss. My goal of hiking 10 trails in 10 different countries over the course of the year has brought us to some amazing places, and delivered us to some wonderful people.
This summer my family and I embarked on a month-long road trip through Italy, France, Andorra and Spain. It was the trip of a lifetime, and we were pumped to have the opportunity to share so many lovely places with our children. After crossing through Austria, we began our trip in the Dolomites in Italy. Though we only had one night there, we had high hopes for spending the first afternoon and most of the second day on the trail.
Unfortunately the winding mountain roads were too much for my two-year-old’s stomach and our plans were squashed by quite a bit of vomit cleaning, consoling, and clothes changing. We still managed to get in a quick hike near our Airbnb and both boys came out of the forest with grins on their faces after getting to let loose and run wild in their comfort zone.
Home Stays During Vacation Make a Huge Impact
We spent several days driving south to the heel of Italy. The ride had highlights like Venice, the Ferrari museum, and Alberobello. But the real highlight of this portion of the trip was the family with whom we stayed in Villa Castelli. I cannot say enough good things about them. They were open and friendly and loved the children who made themselves right at home. We were even invited to the homeowner’s birthday where we were warmly welcomed by their large family. Everyone was so kind and loving. They treated us like we belonged there and not like strangers who booked a room on Airbnb. This was the first time during our travels through Europe where we really felt pulled into a community, and all of the logistics it took to get us to that tiny town were more than worth it.
We proceeded to cross to the west side of Italy, and travel north to Naples. We booked a room in Pompeii simply because it was close to the historic ruins. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was immediately stressed by the traffic. Crossing every intersection felt like a game of Russian roulette – we saw five accidents in four days. I was grateful that my husband had lived in this part of the world before and was used to driving here.
Taking Time to Build Community in Pompeii
Nestled in the midst of the chaos was a home that was a calm reprieve from its surroundings. From the outside, you would never know that around the corner was a garden that had been planted by the woman who ran the property and her late husband years ago.
We formed a special relationship with this lovely person almost immediately. Despite a seemingly insurmountable language barrier, we communicated. It took some extra time having to translate everything, but the conversation was worth the effort. We learned about each other and bonded deeply. This woman gifted us a book of poems written by her late husband and was brought to tears when we immediately started reading and translating the poems. We talked about how much she missed him and the amazing times they had. Family was at the center of every story, and she made us a part of hers.
When it came time to leave, it was hard to say goodbye. There were lots of hugs, and both boys cried. We sent her photos of the kids playing in her garden and eating the fruits she showered us with daily. I couldn’t help but cry when her daughter sent us a message saying what a light we were to her mother, and that she would wait for us to return to Pompeii.
After leaving Pompeii we had about two weeks left of our trip. We spent a few more days making stops in Italy before crossing through France. I fell in love with Andorra – a true gem of a country. We had some of the best meals of our lives in Spain, and I finally got to see Gaudi’s grand architecture in person in Barcelona.
Reconnecting with an Old Mentor
The last four days of our trip were spent in Sorède, a tiny village in south western France. For eight years I had stayed in touch with my high school French teacher. We just so happened to be passing by her hometown while she was there. We had the opportunity to spend the remaining four days of our travels with her, and it was lovely.
Again we were warmly welcomed and brought into a community. We learned about the local dance and food and saw beautiful places. Each day brought something new and filled us with immense gratitude for the people who went above and beyond for us to make sure we left with an understanding of their culture and home.
We managed to hike a few times on our trip, and the trails were fantastic. Each ascent felt like an emotional reset when the demands of traveling with two young children were making us antsy. We each have a favorite hike, a favorite town, and a favorite meal. However, there is no debate that the highlight of our travels was the people who made our time special, and who made us feel at home in an unfamiliar place. We formed community on our vacation, even if we hadn’t planned to.