Chiusa, Italy: Small town with a big view

Chiusa, Italy - view of monastery

Chiusa and the serendipity of travel

Discovering some unknown (to you) place on your own is one of the great joys of travel. No one has recommended it to you, guidebooks may barely mention it and yet, once there, you wonder, “Why have I never heard of this place before?”

Most people head to the Dolomites – that craggy region of northern Italy – to hike amid its jagged peaks in the summer or to ski in winter. But throughout the region lie many charming towns and villages that deserve a closer look. One such place is the small artists’ town of Chiusa (Klausen in German). In much of this area known as South Tyrol, more people speak German than Italian since prior to WWI, this region was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Chiusa - view of city

Chiusa lies about 18 km (12 miles) north of the larger city of Bolzano, or 60 km (40 miles) south of the Austrian border. But this combination of Italian and Germanic influences gives Chiusa its distinct character. You may never have heard of it before and you could cover the highlights of Chiusa on a short visit as you’re passing through the region (it’s conveniently right off of the autostrada. You can see an elevated section of the freeway to the rear of the photo above). But spend a bit more time to linger and wander and the wonders of this lovely town begin to reveal themselves.

The town itself

Chiusa, Italy - a view of the streets

As you enter town, look for the signs to the “Altstadt” (old city in German) or city center. Just driving through on the main road will leave you wondering about those castle-looking buildings on the hill, but otherwise underwhelmed. You have to make your way to the small central area and begin exploring to discover the full beauty of this place.

If you arrive on a Sunday, as we did, you’ll find most of the shops closed. But you can still enjoy a meal at one of the restaurants or cafes that line the town square. You may be fortunate enough, as we were, to come upon a wedding outside the town’s main church, the Chiesa di Sant’Andrea, where you’ll behold a choir in traditional garb sing a beautiful song a cappella to the attendees.

Chiusa, Italy - Choir singing

On a weekday, if you like to shop, you’ll find a wealth of intriguing boutiques and quaint stores along the main street selling handmade wares and locally crafted gifts. Chiusa has always been a town that attracted creative types, especially poets and artists such as Albrect Duerer who is said to have visited and sketched the city in 1494.

Heading uptown

The town invites exploration so after strolling along the main streets, wend your way through narrow passages, eventually ascending a set of stone steps that mark the start of the Via Cruxis, the Way of the Cross, up the hillside behind the town.

 Chiusa, Italy - Main shopping street

Along the way you’ll pass by works of religious art set in small shrines that mark the way, and mostly, fields of grapes. Vineyards line many of the surrounding hills. Visit in the fall and you’ll see plump clusters of grapes dangling in the sun along the entire route.

Chiusa, Italy - Walkway through vineyards to monastery

The small castle seen from below, Branzoll Castle, is privately owned (nice digs) and thus not open to the public. So continue up the hill, stopping frequently to take in views of Chiusa and the valley below you.

Eventually you’ll approach the top of the rocky outcropping on which sits the Sabiona (or Saeben, in German) Monastery, one of the oldest pilgrimage sites in the region.

A building of some kind has been on this site for over a thousand years. However, it wasn’t until the late 17th century that it became a Benedictine monastery. Shortly after that, it turned into a convent. A few nuns still reside there, but they stay mostly out of sight in private areas.

That frees you to explore the first courtyard which contains a cistern with potable water above which stands a modern bronze relief. Pop into the chapel then, after paralleling the monastery walls, pass through a tunnel to arrive at multilevel courtyard area near the top.

You don’t even have to knock

It’s easy to assume all the doors there are locked. Don’t. At the very top lies a foreboding black iron door. Open it and walk inside.

Chiusa, Italy - inside locking mechanism on  black iron door

When you do, you’ll discover the largest of the four churches, the Church of the Holy Cross and its impressive frescoes. On a sunny afternoon, the interior fills with warm light and all the colors from the highly decorated walls and ceiling. You can spend a fair amount of time in the monastery just absorbing the quiet presence of the place.

Chiusa, Italy - Inside the Church of the Holy Cross

Chiusa,  Italy - church ceilingContemplating beauty and the divine, however, can be parching work. Thus, once you’ve explored the nooks and crannies of the monastery, head back down the hill and follow signs through a vine tunnel that lead to the Restaurant Pizzeria Torgglkeller.

Chiusa, Italy - heading back down to town

Pizzerias in this part of the world are as ubiquitous as fish and chips stands in the UK or poke places in Hawaii. If you don’t like pizza, your food options diminish significantly. However, you can try your luck at other choices inside sitting in one of the old wooden barrels to dine (see photo below) or head outside for a beer or a light snack.

Chiusa, Italy - dining in a barrel

Getting out of town

After relaxing, you can head out to one of several nearby valleys for stunning views of the surrounding mountains. A close and popular option is to visit Val di Funes (Villnoess Valley) to capture a quintessential Dolomites image, that of the church of Santa Maddalena (St. Magdalena) with the Odle mountain range in the background near sunset.

Val di Funes near Chiusa, Italy

You can actually take a gondola (two, to be exact) up from nearby Ortisei to reach another often-photographed area of the Dolomites, Seceda, which sits at the top of this range.

Seceda near Chiusa, Italy

Each of these lies only about a half hour drive away from Chiusa. In short, Chiusa makes a fantastic base for venturing into some of the most gorgeous areas of the Dolomites.

More surprises along the way

If you spend the night in Chiusa, you can dine at one of the many restaurants you walked by earlier. We had a surprisingly good dinner at Gassl Brau. You’ll recognize it for by the huge copper vats seen inside used for brewing their own beer. I had one of the best salads of our trip. Pizza I expected in northern Italy. Such a wonderfully fresh salad, no.

Chiusa, Italy - mountain bikers outside restaurant

It was just one of the many unexpected aspects of Chiusa. We were there for three nights and we wished we’d had more. The best part is that other villages like neighboring Velturno (Feldthurns) and even the much larger city of Bressanone (Brixen, shown above) just north of there, all have their appeal. In short, a trip to the Dolomites doesn’t have to be just about the mountains and their trails. Visiting a small town like Chiusa allows you to have the best of all worlds: the adventure of mountain adventure along with the charm, comfort and romantic appeal of a beautiful European village.

Chiusa, Italy - window at night

If you go

  • Travel Types
    • Adventurers will appreciate the hiking, skiing and discovery possibilities that abound in the surrounding mountains and valleys.
    • Creative Travelers will love that Chiusa is known as “The Artist’s Town.” It’s been inspiring creatives for centuries.
    • Learners can dive into the rich history of the place or take classes or guided tours that explore local crafts or traditions such as cheese or wine making.
    • Connectors have the perfect backdrop for spending time at the charming cafes or getting to know the locals, many of whom speak good English.
  • Timing and Rhythm
    • A few hours will suffice for the sights. But Chiusa makes an excellent base for a multi-day stay and allows a more leisurely appreciation of its charms.

 

Different types of curiosity

Different types of curiosity: curious cat

They say curiosity killed the cat, but both parties here look equally curious and very much alive.

Different types of curiosity

Did you ever think that there are different types of curiosity? Likely not. Why? Because curiosity is usually more a means than an end. Rarely do we think, “Hmmm. I’m curious about what I’m curious about.” We tend to focus on the object of our curiosity, not curiosity itself.

There are likely as many types of curiosity as there are people. But to help us understand how we can enhance our own curiosity and use it to our advantage, here’s a starting framework on how to think about types of curiosity:

Who?

“Who curiosity” is for people curious about other people. This can range from fans wanting to know more about the secrets of certain celebrities to people who love biographies to highly relational types wanting to keep up with every latest occurrence in the lives of their friends.

What?

People curious about “what” tend to be life-long students, individuals who pursue learning for the sheer joy of it. What happened? What more is there to this? What does this relate to? These are all good “what curiosity” questions. “What if…?”—the mainstay question of innovators—fits in here as well as do a whole range of other “what” questions.

Where?

Ever wonder what’s around the next corner or over the next hill? Are you immediately attracted to maps and curious about what it might be like in other places? “Where curiosity” is the domain of the adventurer, discoverer and explorer, those people who not only want to know where something is, but actually go there and find out for themselves what it is like.

Why?

Issac Asimov once noted that the phrase most commonly used by scientists when making a discovery isn’t “Eureka” but rather, “That’s curious.” Scientists, detectives, philosophers, theologians and four-year-olds tend to have a relentless need to know why things are the way they are and to pursue answers to life’s biggest mysteries.

How?

“How curiosity” is the realm of engineers, tinkerers and inventors. “Why” may be a motivator as well, but the “how curiosity” tribe strives to know how something works and how it might be done better.

When?

Apart from historians, efficiency experts and statisticians, most of the people I know that ask the “when” question aren’t curious; they’re either simply impatient or seated in the back seat of the family car on a long road trip or, likely, both.

Which types of curiosity fit you best?

Next time, we’ll explore why knowing your curiosity type matters, particularly for travel. But for now, just think through the above list and see which one(s) most align with how you think and the questions you ask. We are all curious in all of the above ways – sometimes. But you likely gravitate toward one or two types most of the time. And in the next entry, I’ll explain how knowing this can make a bigger difference in your life than you might imagine.

Doesn’t that make you just a little bit curious?

 

Discover hidden worlds in your own neighborhood

Discover hidden worlds in your own neighborhood like this scene from Seattle's Chinatown

A chance discovery led me to this scene in Seattle’s Chinatown of a store-by-store ritual involving firecrackers and elaborate dances…

How do you discover hidden worlds in your own neighborhood? As we saw last time, part of it means being open and paying attention to what goes unnoticed even around your own house or backyard. You can also take this one step further and discover other neighborhoods that you’ve either not known about or ignored for years.

Such was the case for me with Seattle’s Chinatown and International District. I’ve never felt like I really understood the place.

So when I read the Seattle Time’s article about guided food tours in this neighborhood, I was intrigued. What better way to discover a hidden world in my own neighbor than to go with a local guide who knows all the best places?

Taylor Hoang is such a guide. I’ll explain more about her next time and tell you my story of discovering the secret gems of the International District. For now, let me share with you some ways that you can discover hidden worlds in your own neighborhood. Let’s look at some reasons why we don’t explore these close-by places and what I’ve learned to do about it.

  • You discount the place because it seems irrelevant. To get beyond that, I tell myself that it may not seem relevant, but how do I know unless I explore it more? Don’t pass by a place and never even give it a chance. Drive through. Or better, get out and walk or bike the area. That’s the best way to discover what might be there that could end up being quite meaningful to you.
  • You never even knew it was there. The food tour revealed places in the International District, some just one block away from streets I’ve wandered along many times, that were revelations to me. One strategy is to look more thoroughly by getting off the main drags and exploring the side streets. Another is, as we’ll see next time, to find a guide who knows the hidden places. Yet another is to read up on the place. Get a guidebook of your own city. Read the local papers and magazines that talk about openings, tours, festivals and events. Or go online and check out these sites/apps:
    • TripAdvisor City Guides with user insights and ratings for key sites in some of the largest cities around the country…and around the world.
    • Here.com (or even Google Maps) which may not give you tips on sites to see, but shows points of interest and even street-level views of certain neighborhoods.
    • Sosh.com — This social networking site provides great insights and connections for a few major cities including Seattle.
    • Vayable.com — Probably the best of the bunch for finding local guides, Vayable offers access to people who know their neighborhoods and key sites in major cities all over.
  • You don’t know the good from the bad. This one is tougher. You almost need a guide or recommendations from locals. So do what we often do. Build on your connections. Meet a nice shop owner or person at the local museum. Ask where they’d recommend for lunch. Once there, ask the waiter about good places to buy food or other items. Once there…you get the idea. Sure, you’ll get subjective responses. But these are still more informed than your own limited knowledge of the place. Besides, they give you “next steps” for further exploration and you never know what that will lead to…including the simple delight in meeting all these new people along the way.
  • You feel like an outsider. Especially in ethnic neighborhoods, you can really stand out. Great. It’s good practice for traveling abroad. And in many cases, it helps you empathize with how people in these neighborhoods must feel interacting with the majority culture around them. Plus, you may quickly discover that your own curiosity and excitement about the place is contagious. In most cases, people respond well when they know you’re genuinely interested in the neighborhood where they live and work. Talk to a few locals, get some next step recommendations and soon you’ll feel like a native (or at least comfortable enough to continue).
  • You don’t know what to look for. You can simply explore and see what happens. I did this once in a park next to Seattle’s Chinatown and International District. I had no plan, just an hour to kill waiting for my son at baseball practice. But then I heard a sound like gunfire and I went a few blocks to discover a ceremony going on complete with dragon dance and fireworks. So just exploring may open up opportunities. Or make a quest: Look for a certain kind of food or product or type of store. Seemingly silly “games” or “treasure hunts” of your own making can help you discover hidden worlds within the hidden worlds in your own neighborhood.

So give these a try. But most of all, follow de Botton’s advice and simply develop an attitude of receptivity, being open to everything that comes your way. You may soon discover more hidden worlds in your own neighborhood — literally and figuratively — than you ever imagined.

The myth of the unique travel experience

Workers at the Eiffel Tower, a unique travel experience

So what if millions of other people have been to the Eiffel Tower before you. It’s still a unique travel experience FOR YOU especially when you see it in a new way as with these workers silhouetted at dusk.

You travel far off any known tourist map to encounter what you believe will be a unique travel experience. No one there speaks your language or appears to have ever encountered a Westerner before. You learn enough of the local language which, combined with gestures worthy of Marcel Marceau or an Academy Award, get you by.

You come home from this seemingly unique travel experience. You post stories and photos on your Facebook page. Tweet about it. Tell everyone you know about your unique travel experience.

Then one day, a friend sends you a link to someone else’s travel blog. You read about her unique travel experience. Maybe it was to the same place you visited. Or maybe someplace completely different. But the emotions she felt, the wonder she discovered, the authenticity of the culture, the change in her perspective – her very life – it all seems uncomfortably familiar.

In fact, her unique travel experience sounds just like your unique travel experience. The one you now realize may not have been so unique…

Dealing with disappointment

At one point in my life, this realization would have really bugged me. I used to feel that if my trip wasn’t a unique travel experience, then somehow, it was diminished. If I ran into other travelers, especially other Americans, then the “authenticity” of the experience took a hit. It simply wasn’t as special.

I used to also believe that if someone else didn’t say “Goodnight” after I did as I went to bed, monsters would get me in the night. You might be surprised at the effort it takes to ensure that your “Goodnight” isn’t the final word.

Thankfully, I outgrew the “Goodnight” fear around age ten. It’s taken me a bit longer with the obsession of having a unique travel experience.

But here’s what did it.

I’ve come to realize that while a completely unique travel experience may seem to be a myth, the reality is this: It doesn’t matter.

Why?

Why the idea of a unique travel experience makes no difference

  1. The very term “unique” implies some kind of comparison. And comparisons, at least of experiences, rarely help or add any value. What do you ever gain by comparing your trip to someone else’s?
  2. The fact that others have similar emotional responses to their trips that you had to yours isn’t a downer. It’s a cause for celebration. How cool is it that deep down we share a common humanity that enables us to enter into a mutual experience? If you see your unique travel experience as a form of community and not a competition, it enhances rather than detracts from the experience.
  3. Discovery is personal. This is one of my pet maxims about travel. You can visit some place like Angkor Wat, the Eiffel Tower or the Great Pyramid, places millions before your have seen, and guess what? It’s still a discovery for you. It is and always will be a unique travel experience because there is only one you. Others may have similar responses, but they’ll never be exactly the same.

So enjoy your unique travel experience. Or rather, don’t even think about it as such. Think about it as a meaningful experience. To you. And if others have had similar ones, great. That just gives you one more topic you can enthusiastically dive into with that couple you share a train compartment with on your next trip. Because it is likely you share so much more.