Favorite Travel Destinations: Where’s Your ‘Happy Place?’

Long ago, a friend of mine referred to Colorado as my “spiritual homeland.” I frequently jest that I’m spiritually bankrupt except when it comes to the outdoors, and she was referring to my long-held love affair with the Centennial State.

My friend was right. There are parts of Colorado that are my “happy place,” where I immediately feel I can breathe more deeply, shelve my neuroses and just live in the moment. Places like Aspen’s Maroon Bells, Telluride, and Clark, near Steamboat Springs, are my cure for existential angst. I love the mountains and rivers, but when combined with shimmering aspens, wildflower-festooned meadows and crystalline skies and alpine lakes, it’s pure magic.

There are other places in the world that have a similar soporific effect on me: Hanalei, Kauai; almost anywhere in Australia; Krabi, Thailand; Atacama, Chile.

I’ve been in Colorado for work the last two weeks, and have devoted a lot of thought to this topic. Everyone, even if they’ve never left their home state, must have a happy place. Not a hotel or spa, but a region, town, beach, park, or viewpoint that melts stress, clears the mind and restores inner peace.

I asked a few of my Gadling colleagues this question, and their replies were immediate. Check them out following the jump.

Pam Mandel: Ruby Beach, Olympic Peninsula, Washington.

Kyle Ellison: Playa Santispac, Baja, and Kipahulu, Maui.

Grant Martin, Editor: “Happy place number one is a fifth-floor patio in the West Village with my friends, and a few beers. A garden and a quiet spot in a city surrounded by madness. Number two is at the sand dunes at Hoffmaster State Park in Muskegon, Michigan. Hop over the fence in the large camping loop head up the hill and towards the lake and you’ll find the quietest row of sand dunes in West Michigan. It’s a great place to camp out and gaze over lake, and also a good spot to take a date.”

Jeremy Kressman: “There’s a tiny little park buried in the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona – one side of it is flanked by a Roman wall and there are balconies all around. It’s far enough off Las Ramblas that there’s not a lot of tourist foot traffic and the little side alleys off it are lined with little tapas bars and fire escapes thick with little gardens. I’d like to be there right now!”

Meg Nesterov: “Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. My family has a 100-year-old cabin on the lake with very basic plumbing and a very wonderful view. I’ve spent many childhood summers there and honeymooned there, like my parents did 35 years ago. I travel a lot to find great beach towns, but few match the bliss of bathing in the lake and eating fresh blueberries from the forest.”

Jessica Marati: The banks of the Tiber just outside Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome.

David Farley: “I grew up in the Los Angeles suburbs where the gridded streets were flanked by nearly identical houses and the stripmalls were dominated by the same chain stores that were in the next town (and the next town and the next ..). Few people walked anywhere. The civic planning implicitly left little room to stimulate the imagination.

So when I moved to a medieval hilltown near Rome, I felt like I’d found the place – my happy place, the spot I’d been looking for. Calcata, about the size of half a football field, is a ramshackle of stone houses, a church and a diminutive castle that sits atop 450-foot cliffs. There’s only one way in and out – which is not even big enough to fit an automobile – making the village completely pedestrian free. I would often stroll its crooked cobbled lanes or sit on the bench-lined square thinking that I was literally thousands of miles, but also a dimension or so from my suburban upbringing. I don’t live there anymore but I’ll be going back later this year to participate in a documentary that’s being made about my book (which was set there).”

Melanie Renzulli: The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Chris Owen: “Predictably, mine would be at sea, on any ship, completely surrounded by water in all directions as far as the eye can see.”

Jessica Festa: Sydney, Australia.

McLean Robbins: Telluride. “Descending into town on the gondola, in the middle of falling snow and pure silence, felt like heaven.”

Alex Robertson Textor: “My happy place is La Taqueria, at 2889 Mission Street in San Francisco.” To which I add, “Hell, yes.”

Where’s your happy place (keep your mind out of the gutter, please)? Let us know!

[Photo credit: Maroon Bells, Laurel Miller; Ruby Beach, Pam Mandel; cabin, Meg Nesterov; Calcata, David Farley]

Support blogger David Farley’s documentary film

We’re blessed and proud to have David Farley on our team, a seasoned New York Times writer, contributor to AFAR Magazine, travel blogger, teacher and all around good guy. Among his myriad talents, one of David’s claims to fame his most recent book, An Irreverent Curiosity: In search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town, a tale of searching through one of Italy‘s most scenic, vivacious towns in search for Christ’s holy foreskin. It’s a great book if you haven’t picked it up, and one that will surely inspire the traveler in anyone.

Perusing the internets last week I was surprised to learn that there’s a small indie effort collecting together in an effort to turn the book into a documentary film. Directed by Bram Mengelers and following the path of Mr. Farley himself, the project is just starting to build funding over at indiegogo, and if they can raise $8,000 by the middle of October the project will officially launch.

David never mentioned this to me, which I think is pretty great, so I think that the least that we can do is mention it at Gadling.

Take a look at the indiegogo fundraising page. If you’re compelled by the effort or story, take some time to donate. As a perk, you can get anything from postcards from Mr. Farley’s journey to an all expenses paid 5 day trip to Rome and Calcata. Either way, you’re supporting a great cause and a great writer.

A New Globally Inspired Italian Cuisine? Not Just Yet.

I was sitting at the bar of one of Italy’s most bizarre restaurants in one of Italy’s most bizarre towns about to watch a confrontation between a diner and a chef. A well-dressed man in his mid-30s had just wrinkled his nose at the menu and shrugged, murmuring something about not being able to recognize anything on the menu “You know what’s wrong with this country?” asked Pancho Garrison, 59-year-old Texas-born chef, who has lived in Italy most his life. The man shrugged again. “Italy is a country of mama’s boys. You’ve got the best cuisine in the world,” added Garrison, “but it’s time that you move away from your mama and start trying new things.” Then, as he usually did, he told the diner that he would bring out a procession of menu items for him to try and would not stop until he ate something he liked. On the house.

Sadly, the Grotta dei Germogli, located in Calcata, a medieval hill town about 30 miles north of Rome, recently shut down (but hopefully that’s just temporary). But if you were lucky enough to eat there, you wouldn’t have been wrong to think that Garrison was on a mission, that diner by diner he’s trying to change the way Italians eat. Watching Garrison work (and seeing people’s reaction to his cooking) was a thought-provoking exercise into the mind of the Italian eater. Thanks to people like Garrison and others in Italy who are actively trying to make the cuisine more progressive things are slowly changing in Italy. Is this going to be part of a revolution of a globally inspired Italian fare? Until very recently Italy was a country where the definition of “fusion cuisine” hardly went beyond mixing basil from Genoa and tomatoes from the Neapolitan countryside; where staunch Roman eaters considered northern Italian cuisine “foreign”; or digging up a baseball-sized truffle was easier than finding a non-Italian restaurant, eating outside the canon of Italian cuisine was nearly unthinkable. And, like at the Grotta, serving Italian-inspired dishes that included ingredients like peanut sauce, coconut milk, and curry to Italians seemed down right radical. But let’s not jump to conclusions. There are a lot more people who are perfectly satisfied the cuisine is lodged where it is.

But this night I was at the bar watching Garrison argue with the diner just another night. It’s perfectly fitting, though, that the Grotta was in Calcata, a hill town known as the “paesi dei artisti” because of the respected artists who moved here after the village was nearly abandoned in the late ’60s (among them are famed architect Paolo Portoghesi, sculptor Costantino Morosin, and painters Giancarlo Croce and Romano Vitali).

Garrison, who’s also an accomplished mosaic artist (he did all the work in the restaurant), said his menu worked because Mediterranean cuisine is so flexible. “It’s versatile enough,” he said from Grotta’s open kitchen, “that you can tweak it in ways that will change it just enough, but still keep its form.” Like the taglietelle with a coconut-tomato-basil sauce. It looks like it could be a standard tomato sauce, but then you try it and it’s like nothing anyone’s mom ever made. Or the gnocchi with almond pesto. To top it off, he would pair his menu with top-shelf (but surprisingly affordable) bottles of Italian vino.

And that diner who wrinkled his nose at the “unusual” menu? He said “buonissimo,” with the first thing Garrison brought out, curried meatballs on a bed of organic whole-wheat rice. He loved it. There’s one more convert.

Talking Travel: David Farley, Author of An Irreverent Curiosity

Striking a balance between being informative and being entertaining is one of the most difficult aspects of non-fiction writing. And when it comes to travel writing, it becomes even more challenging. The author needs to educate readers about people and places while also keeping them engaged in his own personal story. Thankfully, travel writer David Farley has done just that and managed to go the extra mile of writing a truly enjoyable, educational and funny chronicle of his time in Calcata, Italy searching for Jesus’ foreskin. Yes, you read that correctly. He was searching for the lost foreskin of Jesus and details it in his new book, An Irreverent Curiosity

Along the way, he met a wide array of locals, each quirkier than the last. He deceived priests at the Vatican, befriended a woman who talks to birds and managed to put a tiny village back on the map. I recently sat down with Farley at a bar in New York City to discuss his adventure, how he ended up being called Gary Coleman and what it’s like to be known as “the foreskin guy.”
Mike Barish (MB):
I’m sure everyone asks you this, but it’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. So why Jesus’ foreskin?
David Farley (DF): Why not Jesus’ foreskin? Who had actually thought of Jesus’ foreskin until you heard of it the first time. The first time I heard “Holy Foreskin” with those two words in succession to each other I thought it was some sort of foreskin fetish magazine.

MB: At the beginning of the story you talk about how you wanted an adventure, but you didn’t know exactly where you wanted to go. What made you want to uproot yourself, head to a tiny Italian village and search for the lost foreskin of Jesus Christ?
DF: Just out of habit of not really staying in one place at one time. Before that in the last 10 years, I had moved around so much from Santa Cruz, Prague, San Francisco, Paris, Rome, and a few years in New York. I just started to get antsy again, so my wife and I both were thinking about moving somewhere for awhile but didn’t know where. She had been reminding me about Calcata because we went there on a day trip when we lived in Rome, and it was such a fantastical place with all these crazy bohemian types there. It looks like a classic medieval Italian town, but once you start wandering around, you see that there is an absurd amount of art galleries and people are dressed in saris. You start talking to people and they start speaking about this weird energy that comes from the rock and stuff. Then I came across the story of the Holy Foreskin, and that’s when I realized that it was interesting enough.

In towns of that size [Author’s note: Calcata has app. 100 people], you often encounter two types of people: those who are very excited to have an outsider and those who are incredibly distrustful of the interloper. Overall, was Calcata inviting or suspicious towards you?
DF: I expected it to be really distrustful, especially because I was coming there to speak about a relic that I thought was a taboo subject. It wasn’t taboo at all, and Calcata is really welcoming. Pretty much everyone there was really welcoming of me there and really curious about me at the same time. It really went beyond my expectations. I really thought that some guy from New York showing up who claims to be a journalist, is mentioning writing a book about his time there; I thought that a lot of people would be really suspicious of me. Maybe they were, but maybe I just didn’t realize it.

MB: You were confronted by some priests at the Vatican while you were attempting to research the Holy Foreskin. When they asked for your name, you panicked. Why did you tell them that your name is Gary Coleman?
DF: Because, first of all, I was just talking about Gary the night before with an actor who spends his weekends in Calcata and who was in the Italian production of Avenue Q, which in Italy is called Viale T. He was just telling me that there is this part where they say, “I’m Gary Coleman,” and that’s one reason. I thought that was really funny. Then he told me when Diff’rent Strokes aired in Italy in the 80s, and if you were of a certain age everyone knew who Gary Coleman was and the famous phrase: che cosa stai dicendo, Willis (What you talking about, Willis?). I thought that was really hilarious. I even thanked him in the first book that I co-edited, Travelers’ Tales Prague and the Czech Republic: True Stories. He’s in the acknowledgments and gets a big thank you.

MB: Some of my favorite parts of the book are your interactions with the Vatican and other scholars and how you always tried to come up with a diplomatic way to bring up the Holy Foreskin so as to not be laughed out of the room (or aggressively dismissed from the room). On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being Martin Luther and 10 being Martin Lawrence, how much of a sense of humor does the Vatican have?
DF: From my experience it would have to be a 1. They are an ancient institution that is having trouble keeping up with the modern world. So you get people like me coming in asking questions about this ancient relic that used to be part of the institution of Catholicism and the church, and they don’t know how to deal with it. If it were 500 – 600 years ago and I came in asking about the Holy Foreskin, they probably would have invited me in to lounge on their sofa and ask all the questions I wanted to about the Holy Foreskin. Now, of course, things have changed.

MB: In your recent WorldHum article, you talk about how there were mixed reactions to you writing an New York Times article about Calcata. Now you have a whole book about the town. Are you persona non grata, persona quasi grata? What is your relationship with the town and the town’s people now?
DF: Some people won’t be happy with it. I didn’t say anything intentionally bad about anyone in the book, but you never know how people are going to react to the way things are mentioned or characterized in the book. I think Calcata is a special case because the village was abandoned and the people there who still live there, these artists and bohemian types, felt like they saved the village because they did have it taken off of the condemned list. They feel really protective over it. So it is particular to Calcata that anything you write about, people are going to kind of react to in a certain extreme way just because it’s like they’re looking after their child or something like that.

MB: Part of
the story is that a German soldier during WWII had the foreskin, brought it Calcata, and that’s how it arrived in the village. The only real interaction that people have with Nazis and Catholicism up until now is in Indiana Jones. Were you at all concerned that had you laid eyes on the foreskin that your face would melt?
DF: That wasn’t my concern, but my concern would be that my hands would become numb, because if you remember from the story, that everyone was trying to untie the sack that held something in it and their hands would become numb. They needed a woman of complete purity to open it, and they found a seven-year-old girl named Clarice, to do it and she opened it. So not being a man of complete purity, I think that I wouldn’t have much of a chance of touching the Holy Foreskin without my hands or another part of my body becoming completely stiff.

MB: To me, one of the most wonderful parts of the book is that it is about you wanting to shake yourself out of your comfort zone and go on an adventure. What advice would you give to people who are maybe thinking about uprooting their lives? How do you break that inertia and say I’m going to do it?
DF: Right. I actually don’t have any practical advice for that except just to say the annoying answer is just to say that you have to do it. I’ve done it 3 or 4 times in my life already where I’ve just moved somewhere for that reason just to welcome the unfamiliar, uncomfortable. At times it sucks but in the end you become a much better, wiser person for that. You really just have to have the courage to do it. Changeability changes your world.

MB: J.D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye and never released anything after that. He’s known for The Catcher in the Rye, which not a bad way to be remembered. Now, heaven forbid writer’s block attacks you or no story catches on the way searching for the Holy Foreskin does, have you come to peace with being the Holy Foreskin guy?
DF: No, I haven’t. I was at a party a few months ago on the Upper West Side and somehow it was at one point where the topic of circumcision came up. As soon as it did, everyone looked at me, and I said, “What?” I knew why they were looking at me, but it was just kind of funny that just circumcision, nothing to do with historic circumcision or Jesus’ circumcision, but just circumcision in general made everyone look at me. So it would be nice in a weird way to write something else that I might be known for other than Jesus’ foreskin. I hope that I do, but until that happens, I will just be Mr. Holy Foreskin, I guess.

David Farley’s travel writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post and National Geographic Adventure amongst other publications. He also once showed Gadling what’s in his pack. His new book, An Irreverent Curiosity, is in stores now.

Day trip drive: Calcata, Italy

When I browse the photos in Gadling’s photo pool to look for a “Photo of the Day” post, inspirational, lush, funky and interesting shots are aplenty. It’s hard to choose between them. Yesterday’s choice, David Farley’s shot of the restaurant, La Grotta dei Germogli gives a hint of the pleasure of being there which is one reason it caught my attention. It left me intrigued, prompting me to find out more about it. Oh, my goodness! This is a reason to head to Italy.

Calcata, where the restaurant is located, is a medieval village in the hills, 30 miles from Rome, thus a day trip suggestion. The town, over the years, has been taken over by the artsy crowd. When the government condemned it back in the 1930 because officials worried that the volcanic rock cliffs that it sits on would crumble, people moved out. But, the 1960s happened and hippies and artists moved in turning the town into a happening place.

I came across this New York Times article that details Calcata’s path from ghost town to groovy. It has something to do with the positive energy the village exudes. If you’re going to be in Rome, this looks like a terrific gallery and eatery filled spot to mellow out. There’s the blue chair folding chair on the balcony overlooking the hills with your name on it. It’s at the La Grotta dei Germogli. If you go, the gnocchi with almond pesto sounds delicious.