My writing dictionary lists a balm as, “something that has a comforting, soothing, or restorative effect.”

My Parents’ Home was Always Soul-Soothing

No matter what was going on in my life, their house was a blessing, a balm for my heart. In bed in my old room, listening to the winding-down sounds of them and the recognizable creaks of the house, my heart was comforted. Lying there, my brain would still, and non-sleeping me would sleep well. Now owned by the youngest of us kids, she has kept their warmth while creating her own unique, welcoming atmosphere. It feels good to be within those walls, even in our parents’ absence.

The winter I ran away to older sister Jackie’s house in Montana provided the same level of comfort to me. With her husband and the Airedales Lizzie and Gus, the setting embraced me. It was the right retreat from the life upheaval after the deaths of our parents and my quitting a soul-numbing boss. Their home and the generous way they live were succor to my aching heart. There’s something about being around for morning coffee and evening glasses of wine that encourages conversation and friendship.


Being Married at 53…

Getting married in your fifties can be tricky. You’re bringing together two people who have lived separate, alone lives for many years. Combining households and habits takes a blending not only of personalities, but of belongings. The items that have made each of your houses your homes have to find new places, fitting together like you do. Alex and I have made his home ours by planting flowers, bushes, trees and making the yard a color-filled place. We fill the inside with new colors and pictures and objects to make our house an oasis. Adventurous me loves returning to this hospitable setting. What was Alex’s home becomes our home–a balm for calming our lives.

The Familiar Versus the Unknown

These everyday settings embrace you and hold you tight, providing security and stability. Yet, isn’t there something we need from the new, the unexpected, that only comes from travel? It can be local—simply touring the opposite side of town from where you live can provide a change. We live in the south hills of Pittsburgh so a welcome change for us is the panorama of the city from Mount Washington. Instead of driving through town, we look down on it and marvel at the changes since we last gazed on the bridges and rivers.

I Find Solace in New Places

Traveling across Pittsburgh works, but going to a new country provides better consolation. One Italian town that struck the core of my heart and still resounds is Manarola in the Cinque Terre National Park. It is a setting of beauty and serenity.

Those connected closely to our family know that the fall of 2006 was difficult. There are not enough adjectives available to describe the rawness of our emotions at that time. 

That November, I flipped the page in my Italian calendar and discovered the village of Vernazza at my fingertips. In that moment, I vowed to go there the following spring. I planned to go alone—for about five minutes. Instead, I called Jackie and told her: my treat, get to Pittsburgh and the rest of it is on me. I don’t tell you that to pat myself on the back for magnanimity. It is to provide a sense of the circumstances we were in. Jackie could no more have thought about spending money on a trip than she could have planned an excursion to the moon.

Arrangements fell into place for a journey that evolved to celebrate Jackie’s 50th birthday—flights to Milan, trains to Genoa, sightseeing there, then the train to Manarola. Even the terrible B&B in Volastra that I can’t believe is still in business (new owners?) served a purpose. Standing strong and formidable against the proprietor, we left after two horrid nights. We were homeless for a day, then experienced elation in discovering La Torretta. The appeasement of anything that troubles you can be solved by one night in this charming hotel.

Balm of birthday pastries at La Torretta, Manarola, Cinque Terre
birthday treats from La Torretta

Why Manarola is a Soothing Balm for a Person’s Heart

  • The dog barking in time to the hourly church bells. He is discerning and ignores the half-hour one-bell chime.
  • Elderly people shouting greetings to each other into and out of windows high stories above. There is always much laughing in their conversations.
  • Visiting the 5 Terre Gelateria where the young female owner says: “Yes, it is my shop. I put all my love into making it.” She remembers us as we return daily for dessert. Jackie surreptitiously snaps her photo, the incongruity of her texting while sitting outside a multi-century’s old building is not lost on us. 
  • The Co-op food market bench invariably occupied by three elderly men with one standing nearby. What do they talk about as they watch the passersby?
  • On Jackie’s birthday, the man who sang to us at the trattoria near the mare. He recommended Caprese salad, which we loved from the first bite. We drizzled local olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the mozzarella and fresh tomatoes and just-torn-from the plant basil. It was as delicious as any five-course meal.
  • A woman—a resident of an apartment next door—offers yes, yes, use her terrace for a better view as I start to take sunset pictures. She wears a skirt, hose, and sturdy shoes. Her beautiful blonde hair is worn back in a twist, her wise face lined to show a life being well lived—the way I want to look as I pass the years of my life. The sun’s colors begin golden, turn silver and then vibrantly become black slammed with orange and red. What seems mere minutes later, we see her walking on the hillside across from us.
Orange and gold sunset in Manarola, Italy
Manarola sunset from La Torretta veranda


Such a Little Place Makes a Large Impact on my Soul

What it is about this town of 800 people with steep hills and intriguing crannies, challenging trails going from point A skipping to point M, and a ferry dock that gives the illusion of passengers having to jump from boat to shore? How could my second trip eight years later give me the tranquility of walking through the door of my parents’ home? I am amazed that it is possible to feel at ease in a place where I speak five words of the language. 

Finding a special spot that eases stress and alleviates anxiety is one of the smartest things we humans can do. Whether it is a hike through the Montana mountains, a walk through a park, or a yard that provides delight, relishing the splendor of place is a gift.

The trip of 2007 remains one of the most relaxing and heart-comforting journeys I have taken. It was traveling with my sister who has, over the years of our maturity, become the embodiment of a best friend. More, she is the other half of my heart and soul. Strange to write that when we fought like the proverbial cat and dog throughout our growing up years. Truly, our parents should have given one of us—me, no doubt—away.

But there Jackie and I were, captivated by La Torretta’s soothing tranquility, being cared for by the best hotel proprietor, Gabriele. We relaxed from our insides out, hiking every day up and down rocky paths, some easy, some difficult. (Me: Oh, come on, how hard can it be? Gabriele: You did WHICH hike?) At every turn a beautiful vista and often a Handsome Italian Man to exchange smiles with. We reached the point of redundancy with, “Did you see that H.I.M.?”

Embracing Place

Some days, we hiked to sheer exhaustion. Stuck at a desk every day for work, the using of my muscles—feet, legs, arms—felt empowering. Life affirming. My body was in movement and liked the feel of feet hitting ground, back sweating from the weight of my pack and the sun beating down. 

We ate well, consuming pasta to our heart’s content, drinking local wines, enjoying nightly gelato and never gaining a pound. Heaven. 

Going back to the Cinque Terre and La Torretta several years later with my husband was a scary venture. How would I feel if it wasn’t the same? Would there be angst if being there with him changed things so much that my enjoyment was gone? What if—horrors—it was better?

My fears were needless.

The Place was, Again, Balm for my Soul

Being on the private terrace of the same room Jackie and I stayed in, gazing at the vista of the town of Manarola and the Ligurian Sea in the distance, my entire being felt rested. What joy at seeing the same woman next door looking even more lovely. 

So much was like the first trip.

It flooded me with peace.

I want to go back.

Next year? Maybe next month? Oh to run away next week.

I want to return and rent a house for a month, sinking into the routine of life in magical Cinque Terre. Wouldn’t it be grand to chat with my neighbors about their good fortune living in such a place? I want to live there long enough to learn what is it about Manarola that makes my heart soften and open and want to spread joy to those around me. I want to discover how this place fills my soul with contentment.

New Places, New Peace

Since those Manarola journeys, I’ve discovered Wales. It is startling to find that two distinctly different countries can connect with something deep inside me. Wales, I can state, is because of an ancestral connection, a long line trailing from the Griffith family there to Griffith me, making me feel like I’ve come home when my feet touch the trails.

Yet Italy … Manarola … remains a mystery. Soul-soothing, serenity-providing … waiting for me to return.


Do you have a place like this? That must contain some magic because it hits just that spot inside your heart?

Read: Those chance encounters…