We’ve been in the beautiful coastal town of Ascea for two days now. Been too tired or too busy to post before now. We got a late start once we landed in Rome since one of the planes taking half the group had realized autopilot wasn’t working, turned around, landed, fixed it and then flew to Rome…four hours later than the scheduled time. That meant the rest of us had to sit there and wait for them in the airport on 0-2 hours of sleep. Figures that although my luggage and I arrived safely and promptly (my main concern), major problems still got in the way. Oh, well.

Ascea looks like a movie set, like someone created it specifically to fit stereotypical perceptions. Three-story houses line the street, with laundry strung across the porches to dry in the wind. Light-up holiday decorations hang from a wire between houses at every cross street. If you turn right down an alley off the main road and walk about two minutes, you run into beach, cobbled with wave-washed rocks. At the end jagged cliffs and rocks are too tempting not to climb. Mountains tower up into the sky, their subtle shades like painted brush strokes against a clear sky. It’s paradise.

It’s the offseason so there’s not very many people, but the ones who are here stare at us like we’ve trespassed on their property. Granted, we are the epitome of annoying American tourists, walking around in a huge group speaking horrible Italian and taking pictures of everything we see, twice. I never wanted to be that kind of traveler, but there’s not much we can do to avoid it.

We’re not in town much anyway. Yesterday, we took a 10-mile hike up the mountains and then explored the beachfront cliffs. Years ago, residents built two tunnels through the mountains for the railroad, but they were too unstable and parts kept collapsing. Now, they just lead to rock-strewn grottoes made up of treacherous rocks stacked uneasily on top of each other. When I walked through the tunnels, they were so dark I couldn’t see the people next to me. Yet I realized why the phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” is so accurate, as the sunlight streaming into the end was always the relieving force that brought us out into the open again.

We celebrated New Year’s at a bar owned by the same adorable family that runs our hotel. There were drinks (drinking age is 16 here), food and music, and we all loosened up and had a good time. Fireworks erupted over our heads, and firecrackers deafened our hearing, continuing long into the early hours of the morning. Despite the fact that I’m missing a friend’s annual party, it was one of the best celebrations I’ve had.

Today, we visited the ancient city of Velia, originally founded by the Greeks and then settled by the Romans. The foundations of buildings and even the tile floors of the baths still stand along with impressive arches, a castle and a 12th century church. The ancient roads, made up of uneven stones and sloping up at ridiculous angles, aren’t in the best condition, but nobody injured themselves despite some close falls. The trip back got even more exciting, when our professor decided to literally take the path less traveled and attempt to go down the other side of the mountain we’d hiked up. We eventually found our way with side effects of scratches due to thorns and aching joints.

Although we were only there for the morning, we’re all incredibly sore, probably from yesterday’s trek compounded with today’s hilly terrain. The mile count is at 19 now, and it’s only day 2. Hopefully, my muscles stop yelling at me soon. Off to read a guide book in preparation for a visit to another archaeological site. Before that though is our trip to a farm, where we can milk cows, eat sustainable food and cuddle with puppies (hopefully; they were there last year apparently). For now, I say Buon Anno! (New Year) even though we all think it sounds more like “banana” than good tidings.

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