A glimpse of Infiorata…or; is it better to plan, or to experience travel?

28 Jun

Entrance to Campagna di Roma

There is a mystical ideal balance to seek in traveling (or even just living, for that matter) between planning and serendipity.

I used to be a meticulous planner, pouring over well-loved Lonely Planets (in the days before TripAdvisor, Yelp and Rick Steve’s audio podcasts).  I would read Lonely Planets for the next country on the agenda whist still in another (although somehow never ever actually made hotel reservations in advance).  It’s not that I am terribly organized (I can just hear friends and family chuckling now), just that I loved the anticipation of imagining and envisioning a trip. Yet it’s pretty contrary to be reading a guidebook for cities in Malaysia, while you are lying on a beach in Thailand.

I came by this trait genetically.  My parents just wrapped up a 4-week trip of Europe, and my mother essentially now has a PhD in trip planning for France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.  Got a question about any of those places?  I know Mom would be happy to dig into her 2-inch reference binder to recommend you to reasonably priced but exquisite B&Bs, unique restaurant experiences, alternate routes between destinations featuring scenic routes, fastest routes, routes with the fewest tunnels (newly appreciated as a vexing road feature after a drive across the alps) and routes with the optimal mix between tolls and speed.

But somehow, I evolved (degenerated?) into embracing a much more laid back and unstructured form of travel.  Maybe it was by a lifetime of discovering that things rarely go according to plan, and that it is the unexpected and unsought moments that create the greatest joy.  Like the time a local thief stole my camera in the hills outside of Kathmandu, and I ended up on a chase across the foothills of the Himalaya with a monastery full of child monks to retrieve it.  Or, when I was supposed to meet one guy for a spontaneous rendezvous in Rome; and when the cad failed to show up, I met my Roman soul mate.

Certainly a more go-with-the flow attitude is beneficial in Italy.  Last Sunday I was still suffering from sun exposure on Saturday so we needed a plan that would allow us to be covered up.  Alessandro had heard that there was an antique market in a medieval little town called Campagnano di Roma so after a lazy morning at home we made our way there. Arriving at 2 PM, the town was literally a ghost town.  No one was on the streets and certainly if there had been a market it was over.  Considering that the temperature was 37°C, this was a smart move on the part of the Campagnano di Romans, although disappointing to us.

Although there were no people to be found in the town, there were a lot of flowers and leaves strewn on the streets.  Wait…there seemed to be some sort of pattern.  Through the hazy heat of the afternoon, we realized that the flowers and leaves created tapestries of devotional pictures, and stretched from one end of town to the other. In addition to flowers and leaves, it looked as though cornmeal and coffee were also used to create the designs. Having no idea what all this was for, we wandered delightedly along to appreciate its length, surreal in the fact that no one was there to appreciate the beauty in the wilting heat.

Later, we stopped off in another town called Anguillara Sabazia, and discovered more of these colourful creations lining the streets.  We began to suspect some sort of unifying theme, although the Anguillara Sabazians used coloured sawdust with floral accents. Finally Alessandro remarked, “Oh yeah, it’s Infiorata.”

Infiorata is a 2 century old annual flower art festival that actually takes places in many towns throughout Italy on weekends in May or June, to celebrate Corpus Domini (a Catholic holiday I am not confident in explaining).  In searching images of Infiorata you can find displays that are far more impressive and elaborate than those we saw.  In 1834, even Hans Christian Andersen wrote: “The whole street is a carpet of flowers…. Not even a breathe of air moves and the flowers lie on the ground as if they were heavy precious stones…“.

Clearly we had missed out on the most impressive Infiorata celebrations by not planning in advance.  But I appreciate the magic of stumbling across such a beautiful and unusual display.  Somehow, it makes the discovery belong more to us.

So, what was your best memory of unplanned travel experiences?

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