Manerba Rocca

​If you are staying on the southwest side of Lake Garda and looking for a light walk with a viewpoint, the Rocca of Manerba should be high on your list. Although a steep incline up to the first cliff, which holds the mediaeval and Roman ruins, your panting will last only a few minutes before you are greeted by the iconic (though honestly unsightly) metal cross that marks the peak.

There’s a car park at the immediate start of the official path: it is impossible to miss, and parking there saves you the incline of the roads leading up from Manerba centre. Of course, if your legs and stamina are up for it, feel free to get some more exercise, as these roads also provide some spectacular sights of the lake.

Though the highest point is by the noted eyesore of a cross, a walk around the fortress ruins that surround it will take you to a steep decline of a path which leads to the outer cliff, bordering the lake.

The views are largely the same, but with a slight zoom. However, despite the way it appears from the peak, the walk is fairly short – fifteen minutes to half an hour, depending on your fitness level and ankle strength (remember the “steep” decline? This is not a pushchair friendly path). Flat topped like the first hill, there are less ruins and more grass covered spots to allow for a perfect picnic area (seriously, bring a picnic. It was my biggest regret arriving there without one). You could easily pass an afternoon here, especially on out of season days when the tourists are few, as it is the perfect relaxation spot watching the surrounding mountains and listening to the waves tumble against the rocks below.

If watching the water is tempting you to go for a dip, the wooded area you pass through to reach the outer cliff also crosses paths that lead to the beach. As with all Lake Garda beaches, bring water-friendly shoes. Manerba’s coast is blessed with finer pebbles, but unless you have hobbit-like feet it’s still not going to be a pleasant paddle with bare feet.

So far I have focused largely on the natural beauty: my personal attraction to the Rocca. However, it should be noted that the motivation of many tourists is related to the huge amount of history to be found here. The subject of several archeological excavations, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, the site can be dated to the Copper Age and even Mesolithic settlements, as well as the clear evidence of the Mediaeval and Roman era found in the ruins today. There are several signs along the route to inform you of the findings of these archeological studies, and if you are looking for more information there is also a museum dedicated to this as well as the natural environment. All of the information is available in English, both on the signs and in the museum.

With an intriguing history of destruction and rebuilding, a brief but satisfying walk, and arguably one of the best views you’ll get south of the lake without climbing a mountain, the Rocca of Manerba has a lot to offer in natural and historical beauty. Although not often on the essential to-do lists for Lake Garda, if you happen to be nearby it would be a loss not to see it.

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5 Tips to Tackle Homesickness

Living abroad can be one of the most exciting and fulfilling experiences of your life: you are constantly discovering new things about the culture and location surrounding you, and your everyday routine becomes that of a self-discovery, motivational movie. That said, it is not the holiday that friends and family from home often imagine it to be. More than likely, you are working a full time job to pay for your stay, getting hopelessly lost when you do find time to travel (and with no phone data to save you!), and then struggling to communicate in a foreign language to get directions back to the station. When you finally do collapse on the train that you’re pretty sure will take you where you need to be, it is completely normal for a few pangs of homesickness to hit you – where was your best friend to laugh at you tripping up the platform stairs, or your mum to insist on taking a bottle of water for your now dehydrated self? Those few moments of pause between the general excitement will leave you craving all the simplicities of home life, wherever that may be.

Though it can be tempting to stay in a WiFi zone messaging your loved ones about just how much you miss them, this will rarely make you feel better, and often make you miss all the opportunities that your foreign life gives you. Instead, try these five tips when homesickness hits:

1. Find somewhere that reminds you of home. For me, this was an Irish pub in the nearest town. Sure, I may not be Irish, but they speak English there, serve beer and cider, and have a welcoming, traditional pub atmosphere. Yours may not be a pub, but in this international world there is sure to be something for you which has remnants of home life to fill that empty spot.

2. Find people who speak your language – literally and figuratively! I cannot encourage enough learning the local language, however there will always be those times when you are simply too tired to mentally translate, and need to relax by speaking naturally. I was lucky enough to find a group of Americans who live nearby (and even better frequent said pub). Look out for any opportunities to meet up with people of your native language. Try and, where people will often create events in certain languages – though it is generally for people to practise a second language, there’s almost always a couple of people who are mother tongues and can give you contacts. I highlighted literally and figuratively, because even if you are fluent in another language, there is often a humour and personality that simply cannot translate between cultures. Speaking in your own language with people from your homeland allows you to be your natural self, sarcasm and all.

Keep yourself busy. Not only to make the most of your time abroad, but also to give yourself less moments to think about home life. Fill up your timetable as much as possible, and say yes to every invite: the added motivation is that you will never receive the majority of these invites again. Every occasion is a once in a lifetime, so take advantage. And the busier you are, the less those pangs of homesickness will creep in.

Get involved in the community and culture. You will likely be the stranger of your community when you first arrive, sticking out like a sore thumb with your national traits (pale and blonde is something not generally found in Italy). In some cases you may even encounter some prejudice, but try not to take offence – instead, get to know the community a little better, and show them who you really are. Say hi to the neighbours, go to local events, and make your face a known one. The prejudice will lessen, and you will feel a little less like a stranger, and more at home (even if it is a different one).

-If all else fails, take those cheap flights home for a few days. This obviously depends how far you have travelled, but if you are still in Europe you should be able to find flights as cheap as train tickets (thank you Ryanair). Treat yourself to three or four days at home, hug your mum, go for a drink for your best friends, and take in all that you’ve missed. When your time is up, those homesickness pangs will be for your place abroad.

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So I now completely understand the age old expression that “life is unpredictable”. Having just read my last post from nine months ago (I know, nine months – let’s just skip the apologies of my lack of writing here and get back on track shall we?), I realise that there is no way I could have predicted the next year of my life…certainly not that I would be returned to my Italian life seven months later. So much for a “closed part of my history”.

If you’re curious, here’s a quick recap of all that I haven’t blogged about:

-I spent September in Berlin on a travel journalism programme by City Travel Review. Berlin was amazing, the work was great, but the programme overpriced and fairly disappointing (I have heard good things about their other programmes however, so maybe I was just unlucky).

-Thinking it was time to be an adult, on my return to England I got a job as an office assistant, which turned out to mean a sales, administration and customer service representative who took most of the responsibility for the office at a lowly wage.

-I heard from my Italian family that unfortunately their current aupair would have to leave early, and would I be interested in coming back – I handed in my notice at my overworked, underpaid office slave job a couple of weeks later and started counting down the days.

-In January I went adventuring with my fellow hiker, traveller and friend to Ireland – three days walking the Giant’s Causeway (stunning, even in the wind and rain), one day in Belfast (somewhere I need to go back to, as I’m convinced I’ve barely touched the surface of this city’s beauty), and two days in Dublin (interesting and exciting place, but honestly not up to the hype – or perhaps I was just too tired after three days trying not to be blown off the Causeway Coast).

-After a month of downtime, blocking the office work from my memory, and doing a few freelance articles (people pay you for writing, why has this not occurred to me before?!), March saw me reunited with my Italian life once more.

…And that just about brings us up to date – the last couple of months have been fairly routine for my Italian life: nannying and spending time with the family, aperitivos, and walks at the lake. Unfortunately a lack of time and money has prevented any travelling, but hopefully I can fix that soon.

In the meanwhile, it’s about time I made use of this blog: let’s say fortnightly posts? As before, I’ll be focusing on Italian destinations, culture, language quirks and tips, aupair life, and, well, anything else that pops into my head and might be relevant!

A presto.

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The Limbo Life: Returning Home.

Today marks my four week anniversary of arriving back to England, of saying goodbye to my Italian friends and family, and of finishing a period of my life that I know I will never forget. It has been a rather dull four weeks, if I’m honest: when you are taken from a life of sun and beaches, of constant activity, I think it’s almost impossible not to have a come-down. And I have. The first few days were particularly strange – much like when I returned at Christmas, there was an adjustment that I needed to make to my language and my home, once things so natural and easy, yet after months abroad so foreign. Thankfully, after two previous visits home in the last year, the adjustment is easier now, and on waking in my bed the second day, I was comfortable with the change. The greater obstacle by far, this time, is the understanding that that period of my life, my “Italian life”, is over. Unlike with my previous visits, I’m not returning to Italy in a few days to continue my time there. I will return, that’s for certain, but it will never be the same as when I was there before: just as on returning to my university town with university friends, there is a barrier to how much you can enjoy a place when it is a closed part of your history. But I guess that’s the way of life.

Of course, being in England leads to the question – what on earth will happen with this blog? Well have no fear. Though I intend to have England as my home until at least 2016 (unless there is a generous donation of money my way it’s time to take up one of those normal ‘job’ things for travel funding reasons), I still have plenty of things to say about Italy, and may also do some sightseeing in my home country – we have castles here too, that’s something. There is also a high chance that end of September will see some entries on Germany, thanks to a travel writing programme I’ll be attending that month: I will be writing for them, of course, but the articles will be published online and I can direct you their way, and if I do any extra more personal writing I will publish that here. If you’re curious, the programme is through City Travel Review – I highly recommend looking into them if you’re interested in getting some experience in travel journalism yourself.

I’m honestly struggling to know what to write to finish this article. You will notice I’ve taken my time to write it at all, considering it’s almost a month since I left Italy. Life seems to be on pause at the moment. With too little time to find work before Germany in September (most employers aren’t keen on hiring you when you have a month’s vacation looming in the very near future), I am left plenty of free time, yet somehow can’t bring myself to use it productively in terms of writing: a terrible sign of someone who considers themselves a writer, I know. I have ideas for posts, certainly. But writing about Italy seems difficult when I am still coming to terms with the fact that I’m not there. The parting with the host family was especially challenging, plenty of tears and a hug with the toddler which I never wanted to end. It rather feels like a break up, the whole “we will still be friends,” “we’ll see each other again”, but both parties knowing that it will never quite be the same and that we both have to move on: me to the rest of my life, and them to the next aupair. At least we know it was an unforgettable year, and however we move on, it will be remembered fondly.

For me, certainly, it was a beautiful experience, and one I would recommend to any and all. Almost a year ago I was sat on a plane, stuck between terror, sadness, excitement and curiosity for the life I’d left and the life I was about to start. I gazed in amazement out the window as we passed over Lake Garda, hardly believing it was to be my new home. A month ago, the same emotions were rekindled, the situations reversed. Just as on that plane, I am now stuck in a limbo world, between lives, unknowing exactly what I am going to into. But if it’s anything like last time, I will end up with friends from across the world, stories I’ll remember for a lifetime, and an experience I wouldn’t give up for the world.

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My Top 5 Places on Lake Garda

This was a difficult list to compile, since after almost a year here I have fallen in love with the majority of Lake Garda. Pretty much any town you visit will offer beautiful landscapes and culture, but I certainly recommend seeing more than one, since whilst you may see every village as one and the same, you’d be surprised how much difference there is. Being the biggest lake in Italy, Lake Garda spans through three different regions – Lombardy, Veneto and Trentino – each offering a unique beauty. Whilst the West side of the lake is most popular for its beaches, the Northern section, reaching into Trento, is identified by its mountainous roads overlooking the vast blue landscape below.

It is relatively easy to travel around – or indeed across – the lake. Travelling by car is especially enjoyable in the northern mountainous areas: between the tunnels are some beautiful panoramas. Do note, however, that road traffic on the weekends of holidays months is nigh impossible. Thankfully, there are public transportation options available. Bus routes run throughout the year, and more regularly in the summer. Be sure to buy tickets in advance, as they are often double the price to buy on board. Usually you can find them in a tobacconist’s, but if unsure check with your nearest tourist information booth (there is one in nearly every village surrounding the Lake). A more scenic option for public transport is the ferry boat: running from April to October, it has routes spanning across the entire lake, with regular times for the major ports and at reasonable costs. You can find more information and timetables here. Of course, if you want to go all out there is also the option of hiring a boat.

Yet I can say all this, and the point remains that you may arrive at Lake Garda, determined to see it in its full glory, take a map and timetable of all transportation and then be clueless at where, in fact, you should go. The lake is lined with both smaller, citizen villages and larger tourist towns, and if you haven’t researched the area, it can be daunting knowing which place name to pick for your day’s agenda. Though I am certain a simple close your eyes and point would result in a happy trip – as I’ve said, nearly every area of the lake is beautiful – I thought I’d help out any curious minds with a list of my personal top five places.

1. Sirmione. If you have done any research, or glanced through a guidebook, this name has likely already popped up. It is one of the most visited towns on the lake, attracting both foreign tourists and locals, and with good reason. Emerging from the central south end of the lake, it is a peninsula, consequently offering some beautiful panoramas from either side. The main town is towards the end of the landmass, and its history becomes clear as you enter this section via a castle drawbridge over the old port. The castle itself is open to tourists at a small price, further discounted if you are a student – or, if you want to play the system, an ex-student with a university card, since they don’t check the dates. The views from the turrets are stunning, but take your stamina with you, and beware if you have vertigo – there are plenty of steps, with the final set being extremely steep and allowing only one person at a time (causing long queues in the tourist period). After all the climbing, why not treat yourself to an ice cream? There are two gelaterias down a street next to the castle, famed for their portion sizes.

A particularly attractive one of me...this is a smaller size cone, believe it or not.

A particularly attractive one of me…this is a smaller size cone, believe it or not.

Though small, the town offers plenty of restaurants and bars with reasonable prices; a small, medieval church; plenty of tourist and fashion shops; and a panoramic walk which takes you past the natural hot springs, beaches, and finally to the rocky head of the peninsula. If you have time, I would also recommend walking further inland from the main town where there are fewer obstructions to the view, only to stand in the road and enjoy the fact that the lake is surrounding you on both sides (or is it just me who was so amazed by that?).

2. Manerba Rocca. Boasting slightly less pebbly beaches and pedallo’s galore, Manerba is nevertheless one of the lesser known places along the lake, since it is only a small, residential town. However, if you happen to be travelling north of Desenzano (a popular tourist residence), I would highly recommend stopping at Manerba Rocca for a short yet spectacular walk and some interesting history. The Lake’s prehistoric roots are emphasised here, with plenty of information available on the signs bordering the path that takes you to the “Rocca”; that is, the castle ruins. There is also a museum with free entry open throughout the warmer months, if you wish to widen your knowledge further. Yet history aside, the walk remains a must for the stunning view at the top. When you find the castle ruins, you can follow the path around to view the entirety of the southern side of the lake: a truly spectacular landscape.

The view from Manerba Rocca...a must-see on a clear day.

The view from Manerba Rocca…a must-see on a clear day.

3. Salò. A unique spot on Lake Garda, this small city is built around a large bay which breaks out from the Western side of the lake. This bay offers a unique viewpoint of the lake, and is aided by Italy’s longest promenade, which runs alongside almost the entirety of the shore, allowing tourists to view the beauty of Salò’s lakeside entertainment and amenities from afar. Picture. Though there are no beaches, its main boasting point is its dining and nightlife; in the summer months, you will find the promenade packed with both locals and tourists, ascending on the restaurants and bars to enjoy an aperitivo or pizza while admiring the spectacular view. I recommend researching events too: this summer, they have performers placed along the promenade and in the central piazzas every Thursday evening, creating a beautiful atmosphere.

4. Lazise. Another must see if you enjoy medieval towns with a slice of lake-side culture. Like Sirmione, the main town resides inside the city walls built centuries past, and while you don’t enter over a drawbridge, you do pass along a beautiful stretch of pathway and under the old city archway. On my first visit here, there was a wedding shoot taking place under this archway: a perfect example of the city’s romantic vibe. Though the historic walls can make it seem like a maze, the town is relatively small, and once through the first couple of streets it opens up onto the lake and porto vecchio: I’m fairly certain every porto vecchio on Lake Garda is beautiful, but Lazise’s certainly holds a unique beauty to it.  The neighbouring Church of St. Nicholas further emphasises the historic feel, and is a personal favourite church: unlike many other Italian churches, its age mean its style is far more simplistic, and rather than admiring the intrinsic embellishment, you can relax in the subtle beauty of the artwork.

The old port and St. Nicholas church on a September evening.

The old port and St. Nicholas church on a September evening.

Though there may not be enough entertainment for a day, Lazise is the perfect place to pass an afternoon or evening, to stroll through the streets and be taken back in time.

5. Limone. Taking us towards the north side of the lake, Limone is located in the more mountainous section of Lombardy, which passes into Riva and Trento. The landscape is therefore far different from the other destinations: you will struggle to walk half a mile without a steep ascent or descent. It is also distinguished by its namesake: “limone” is literally “lemons”, and it is clear in the approach to the town why it has taken this name. The countryside is taken over by thousands of lemon farms, its ascending hills split into several levels for their vines, the climate of the lake providing the perfect atmosphere for their growth. And if that wasn’t enough explanation, you will find every possible lemon based product in the many shops that litter the streets: lemon juice, liquor, soaps, perfume, cleaning products…you name it, they’ve got it. So unless you’re an avid fan of all things lemons, why visit here? Well I can vouch for the fact that you can enjoy the lemon-fuelled environment even without a liking for them (I personally hate the fruit, far too sour and it always ruins my coco-cola). If you can put up with the citrus smell, the lemon farms make for beautiful scenery. And if nothing else, you can enjoy the beautiful pebble beaches, some of the best I’ve found on the lake: the pebbles aren’t quite as sore on your feet, and the surrounding hillsides create a perfect sense of tranquillity.

A cloudy day, and still a beautiful view from Limone's beach.

A cloudy day, and still a beautiful view from Limone’s beach.

So that’s it, my top five! As I’ve said, this list was by no means easy to decide upon, and if you have a few extra days and would like to add on some others, the close runners up were Desenzano (for the old port and bars), Moniga (my home for the last year, with a long stretch of beaches and a few bars overlooking them) and Riva (the most northern point of the lake, with amazing reviews by friends, though I haven’t yet visited it). I should also point out that Verona – you know, the Romeo and Juliet place – is only a twenty to forty minutes’ drive from the more southern side of the lake, so adding that to your agenda is a good idea!

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Italian Mealtimes: Don’t Choke on Your Pizza.

Italians are often stereotyped, among other things, for their passion for food and dedication to family, and although I hate to perpetuate stereotypes these particular two have proved to be largely correct. It follows, then, that Italian mealtimes – providing a combination of both elements – hold such an important stance in their culture. The family meals are very much obligatory events for members, providing a chance to recount one another’s days and – of course – enjoy some home-cooked food (takeaways are a rare occurence). Yet to those new to the culture, they can appear confusing and even daunting events. But fear not. I have compiled a list of things you can expect, so if you ever happen to be taken in by an Italian family you know what you’re in for when you sit down for dinner.

  • Serve yourself. In most cases, there will be a few dishes placed on the table: a main meat or fish course, a pasta, various vegetables or salad and some bread. It is fully expected for you to dig right in, taking as many servings as you please – it will be taken as a compliment the more you eat. If you’re going to be correct about things, the pasta is the first dish, followed by the main and vegetables (often the places are laid with a bowl on top of a plate: the bowl for the pasta, to be removed when you move on to the main).
  • Make conversation. Mealtimes are often the social event of the day – rather than going out for drinks, it is much more of a custom to meet for food. Consequently, it is deemed proper to spend the seconds between each mouthful catching up with your table neighbours. If you’re struggling for something to say, complimenting the food is always a good start.
  • Eat quickly. Okay, this may seem bad advice – I’m not telling you to gulp it down so quickly you choke. For your health, it is obviously preferable to eat slowly. Yet when among Italians, you will quickly notice how you fall behind. I’m really not sure how it works, especially combined with the above point – you will be having a fully fledged conversation and suddenly realise the main speaker has finished their meal while you’ve barely had the chance for a few mouthfuls. They’re also quite proper and don’t talk with their mouth full, so it’s quite honestly a mystery I have yet to solve.
  • Stay sitting after the food. Generally, it’s polite to keep the conversation going for a few minutes after the meal, or at least until everyone has finished eating. If you’re lucky, there may even be some more wine and a cheese course to follow. And of course, coffee. The call for coffee is the call that the meal is coming to an end.
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5 Italian Expressions & Oddities

If you exempt the few frustrations in communication that occur in the first days (or even months), there are many fun things about learning a new language through living abroad. I specify living abroad, because while studying in your home country is rewarding, the focus is largely on tourist needs and grammar rather than general conversation and expressions. Teachers generally leave out the profanities and colloquialisms, since much like when we study our first language, they want their students to write and speak “properly”. The problem is that I have yet to meet an Italian who consistently speaks “properly”, just as I have spent twenty-two years in England without finding a correct speaker of English.

I also strongly believe that language and culture are tied closely together, with knowledge of one feeding into the other. Living abroad means you can take advantage of this intertwining: you are surrounded by culture, giving you a greater understanding of the language, and vice versa.

The stereotype of Italians being extremely passionate, for example, can be seen to extend to their use of language: I often find myself in situations where I am unsure if the people yelling at each other in profanities are about to start a fight or are simply having a friendly catch-up. But it is their passionate use of language which makes it so much fun to learn and speak. Whilst, thankfully, it is not so bound up in idioms and phrasal verbs as English (after attempting to teach English here, I now realise my language often makes no grammatical sense), Italian does have many oddities and expressions that would leave you very confused after a direct Google translation. I’ve included a few of my favourite examples:

Cavolo. Swearing in another language always holds a greater rush than in your own, and when done reflexively makes you feel rather in tune with the culture. Yet this particular vulgarity is actually quite innocent. In the same way we might say “fudge” or “sugar”, “cavolo” – literally translating as “cabbage” – is used in the place of more harmful vulgarities. Generally, it is said in cases of shock rather than anger. It is extremely fun to use, especially when you remember you are basically yelling “cabbage”, but do remember to pronounce the “o” properly – otherwise you could be saying “cavalo” i.e. “horse”, and wouldn’t that seem odd (does sarcasm work in writing?).

In booca al lupo. This is one of those expressions that probably held some reasoning when it was first created, but now makes little sense, remaining as an idiom. Its literal translation is “In mouth of the wolf”, and it generally requires the response “Crepi il lupo” i.e. “shoot the wolf”. I’d ask you to guess what it means, but without context it’s completely impossible. The closest expression in English would be “break a leg”: used before exams, important meetings, etc, it’s a way of wishing good luck. Not something you could guess from shooting a wolf, right?

Uccello. Let’s give some context on this one: a little girl points to the bird in the sky and says uccello – for which she is correct. But then we switch to another situation: some men are fighting and one calls the other an “uccello”, kicking things off even further. Why would someone be angry at being called a bird, you might be asking? Because, in English terms, he was just called the c word (the male one). Italians love double meanings. I would advise against using this one if you aren’t talking about the flying animal since – as with its English equivalent – it’s rather vulgar.

Piselli. Here’s some advice: if you’re with a group of friends, don’t say “mi piacciono piselli”. You could be perfectly innocently saying you like pease – they are a nutritious vegetable, after all. But since Italians apparently love doubling random words for male genitalia, you could be saying something else entirely. Rather than being a vulgarity, however, “pisello” (ending in “o” for singular, “i” for plural) is a colloquial term used by children. As with “uccello”, it’s all about the context. As my host mother put it, if whilst having dinner Nonna asks me “ti piacciono piselli?” (“do you like peas / penises), it should be assumed she means the former translation.

Sei una zuppa. Another idiom, however this one has some sense. Literally it is “you are a soup”, with the meaning that the directed person is heavy personality wise – much in the way of a soup’s thickness. Okay, so there’s the obvious contradiction that some soups are thing, but there’s at least more logic than the mouth of the wolf one.

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