A Little North of Umbria

Urbino:  The Duomo and Duke Federico's Palace

Urbino: The Duomo and Duke Federico’s Palace

The day after school got out, we left Perugia for our longest trip of the year.  This morning we’re in Ferrara, sleeping in after six days of heavy sight-seeing. Soon we will head to Sardinia for our second week.

We started in Urbino, our first visit ever into the region of the Marches.  This small town is where Raphael was born, and if you didn’t know it upon arrival, it was a hard fact to miss; many streets, restaurants and piazzas are named after him and his masterpieces.  His centrally located home is now preserved as a museam. There is also a large monument in his honor as well as many of his original and reproduced paintings around town.
There's Raphael with his paintbrushes

There’s Raphael – way up on top

Urbino also prides itself on the legacy of Duke Federico who ruled the city in the 1400s and is known for being a fantastic mercenary and true Renassance man.  We toured his palace and walked through the piazzas and courtyards that he commissioned.  His image has been painted all over.  (He is always viewed from his left profile because he lost his right eye in a duel.)
Piero della Francesca's famous portraits of the Duke and Dutchess of Urbino.  The original is in the Uffizi, but the town is filled with copies.

Piero della Francesca’s famous portraits of the Duke and Dutchess of Urbino. The original is in the Uffizi, but the town is filled with copies.

On the way north to the region of Emilia Romana, we cooled off at “Acquafan.” Not surprisingly, it’s been the best part of the trip for the boys.  There were 19 waterslides, a wave pool, swimming pools and granitas served in tall, take-away containers.  You could order up to seven flavors at once.
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Then we headed to Ravenna, one of the cutest towns in Italy.  Its pedestrian streets look like a movie set, and its churches are world famous for their 1500-year-old mosaics.  Present-day Ravenna has embraced the mosaic motif and created modern designs on nearly everything: garbage cans, planters, store fronts, and street signs.
charming Ravenna

charming Ravenna

our hotel's street

a street sign

Hundreds of thousands of pieces of colored glass make the ceiling of this centuries old mausoleum.

Hundreds of thousands of pieces of colored glass make the walls and ceiling of this ancient mausoleum.

This beautiful city has more that mosaics.  Tom was excited to visit the Duomo’s famous labyrinth said to absolve Christians of their sins.  However, once he saw how small and simple it was, he gave me a familiar look of disappointment.  I think he was hoping it would be made of hay.
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Our last stop out of town was to the Boarderline art exibit which featured famous works by 20th century artists on the boarderline of insanity and normalcy.  Many of the pictures looked like nightmares or crime scenes.  However, the museum cheered us up with more mosaics on the first floor.
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And now we are in Ferrara warding off mosquitos.  There is a castle across the street with the most swampy green mote I’ve ever seen (which satisfied our curiosity as to the mosquito population.)
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Looking forward to this evening when we visit the oldest wine bar in Europe, Al Brindisi. Copernicus drank here.

Looking forward to this evening when we visit the oldest wine bar in Europe, Al Brindisi. (They say that Copernicus drank here.)

The Ceri Races of Gubbio

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May 15th marks the annual ceri races in the Umbrian town of Gubbio (just an hour away from Perugia).  This is one of Italy’s longest standing celebrations.  Since 1160, this festival has taken place year after year uninterrupted.  The frenzy, the intensity, the color, the history, the dedication, the passion (as well as the insanity) of the Gubbian citizens are legendary.  We’ve been hearing about it since we arrived in July. Some have said it is the most spectacular event in all of Italy.  So, last Wednesday we joined the party.

Although the details of the origin are in doubt, the holiday is clearly recognized as a tribute to St. Ubaldo, Gubbio’s patron saint, who died in 1159.  Since the one-year anniversary of his death, the citizens have raced through the town carrying three mammoth pillars (representing ceri or candles) with statues of saints on top. The rules of the race are strict.  The two-mile trek begins in the center of town.  Groups of men run through the course carry the saints in formation.  St. Ubaldo must always be in the lead followed by St. Giorgio and then St. Antonio.  The whole point of the race is to get the three 600-pound ceri through the town and to St. Ubaldo’s church on the top of Mt. Ingino.  Speed and complete physical exertion are expected by the honored men who carry these statues.

The town divides itself into teams.  Citizens can choose the saint for whom they will cheer. Nearly every man, woman and child in Gubbio was dressed in the traditional color of their saint.  Yellow stands for St Ubaldo, the patron of masons (in addition to the patron of the whole town); blue is for St. George, the saint of craftsmen and merchants; and black is for St. Antonio, protector of farm workers.  Everyone is united in color by tying a red scarf around the waist and neck.

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While the actual race doesn’t begin until 6pm, the day is filled with pageantry and ritual.  We missed a couple of the highlights, but made it in time for one of the special events of the day, “the exhibition” which is the procession through town to visit all the people who are too old or tired or sick to attend the race.  The exhibition also passes by the homes of former ceri-carriers. Up and down the narrow streets, men display the ornate wooden pillars to the windows of the townspeople.  Crowds follow.

The people for St. Ubaldo leading their procession up Via dei Consoli

The people for St. Giorgio leading their procession up Via dei Consoli

St. Giorgio near the church of St. Francesco

The exibition rounding the church of St. Francesco

After a communal lunch, the athletes of each team meet in Piazza Grande.  At 6pm, the captains of the celebration ride horseback down the road signaling that the race will begin.  By now the race course is packed with spectators.  Thousands of people line the streets.  It feels exciting and dangerous.  The boys said that the pull of the crowds reminded them of an undertow at the beach.  It got the blood pulsing. There’s a fine line between curiosity and panic, and when you hit it just right, you feel completely alive.  That’s what this day did to me.

Moments before the St. Ubaldo’s team passed through, men in yellow came running ahead of the statues pushing any unlucky fan to the side.  While we witnessed no injuries or deaths this year, the runners and carriers are ruthless and single-minded.  This is no family parade.  Any careless mistake can get you trampled.

Moments before the St. Ubaldo’s team passed through, men in yellow came running ahead of the statues pushing any unlucky fan to the side. While we witnessed no injuries or deaths this year, the runners and carriers are single-minded.  Any careless mistake can get you trampled.

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Before heading up the mountain, the ceri make three turns around the flag

Before heading up the mountain, the ceri make three swift turns around the flag in Piazza Grande.

After the ceri pass, the crowd hurries through shortcuts to another viewpoint of the race.  It continues like this until the saints begin their assent up Mt. Ingino.  Everyone boarders the long narrow path winding up the hill.  We found a spot toward the bottom and watched these men run uphill with great speed and strength.

After the ceri hurry pass, the crowd makes their way through shortcuts to another viewpoint of the race. It continues like this until the saints begin their assent up Mt. Ingino. Everyone boarders the long narrow path winding up the hill. We found a spot toward the bottom and watched these men go uphill with great speed and strength.

The most impressive moments were when a fresh group of men would relieve the runners.  Without slowing down, the athletes hooked arms and transferred the ungainly 70-foot tall structure to new shoulders.  The pillar rarely tottered.

The most impressive moments were when a fresh group of muscles would relieve the runners. Without slowing down, the athletes hooked arms and transferred the ungainly 25-foot tall structure to new shoulders. The pillar rarely tottered.

After the saints passed us on the hill running towards the finish line, we made our way back to the town square then headed home.  However, the Gubbians told us that some of the most lively hours of the day begin after the races when the bars and restaurants and piazzas fill up all night with festivity.  We couldn’t stay; it was getting late, and we had to drive back to Perugia.

Before leaving, we did make a stop at the Fontana dei Matti which, legend has it, will give one the propensity for insanity (like the local townspeople) if circled counterclockwise three times while being simultaneously splashed by a Gubbian.

Ray decided to give it a try.

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My Field Trip to Pompeii (written by Tom)

by guest blogger Tom

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I just got back from an overnight trip with my class to southern Italy.  We left on a Tuesday morning.  I met my teacher and the other students at the bus stop at 7:00 am for a five-hour drive down to Pompeii to visit the ancient ruins.

My classmates were excited to visit a city together and stay overnight in a hotel.

My classmates were excited to visit a city together and stay overnight in a hotel.

During the bus ride down, kids listened to music on their phones to pass the time.  I played Uno with my friend Luca.  Halfway through the trip, we stopped at an Autogrill to eat lunch and buy a snack.  I bought two big bags of marshmallows.

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We stayed at the Hotel Vittoria near Naples.  We arrived around noon and checked in.  The hotel itself was good.  I shared a room with Matteo and Giovanni.  There were no teachers or chaperones in our room telling us when to go to bed so I stayed up until 1 am listening to music and watching a movie. Only one unfortunate thing happened while we were there.  I was playing with a toy that Matteo brought.  It was a squishy ball filled with powder that stretches into many different shapes.  When I was trying to twist it into a face, it suddenly exploded and sent white powder everywhere.   It was all over the beds, the chairs, the carpet and all over me.  It took forever to clean up.

Here's what the room looked like before the explosion.

Here’s what the room looked like before the explosion.

Unfortunately, the food wasn’t so great during the trip. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining room of our hotel.  Dinner was pasta with ragu, steak and potatoes and then gelato for dessert.  Lunch was gnocchi, potatoes, chicken and gelato.  For breakfast we were served a bagged croissant and a jar of pear juice.  (American breakfasts are so much better.) During the trip, we stopped for a gelato break three times.  Italian kids eat so much ice cream.

breakfast

breakfast

During our first afternoon, we went to look at the Pompeii ruins with a guide.  Pompeii is an ancient city that was buried by ash in 79 AD after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.  It was interesting for a little bit, but after a while it got hot and I became tired.  At the end of the tour, we  visited the museum  which displays casts of humans who were buried by the ash.  We also saw the houses and stores where those people lived and worked.  We spent most of the day in Pompeii and got back to the hotel around 8pm

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During the second day we visited Il Antro della Sibilla a Cuma which is a cluster of caves up in the hills.  These caves used to be the homes of fortune tellers during the time of the ancient Romans.  People could visit and ask the women (called sibyls) a question about their fate and the women would give them a vague answer.  We spent about three hours up there looking at the caves.  There were lots of plants and trees and geckos.  And there was a great view of the ocean too.

This is one of the caves we saw

This is one of the caves.

I saw this gecko climbing up the wall of the cave

I saw this gecko climbing nearby

Before we got on the bus to go back to Perugia, we stopped at another gelateria.  I got a popsicle shaped as a watermelon with chocolate for the seeds. Then, we headed home.  During the bus ride, we played “monkey in the middle” with a bottle of water, but after a while, the teacher told us to stop so we sat quietly until we arrived in Perugia.  My parents and Ray were waiting for me.  I went to sleep as soon as I got home, but I still felt tired for the next few days.

Mt. Vesuvius from the window of our bus.

Mt. Vesuvius from the window of our bus.

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A Tuscan Cemetery

The graveyard of Cortona

The graveyard of Cortona

It’s impossible to visit a city in Italy without facing centuries of death.  It seems that every town is filled with crypts, catacombs and necropolises.  Some of the most compelling sites in this country are the graves of illustrious Italians.  We’ve seen the tomb of Michelangelo, Julius Caesar, St Francis of Assisi and Galileo Galilei among many others.  Even when the dead aren’t famous, their graves sometimes are. They are everywhere.

We visited the underground “Ipogeno dei Volumni” with our guests in December.  This is one of the best-preserved Etruscan tombs in Italy.  It dates back to 200 BC

We visited the underground “Ipogeno dei Volumni” with family in December. This is one of the best-preserved Etruscan tombs in Italy. It dates back to 200 BC.

Inside the ancient Pantheon rests the body of Renassaince artist Raphael Sanzio and two Italian kings, Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I.

Inside the ancient Pantheon rests the body of Renassaince artist Raphael Sanzio and two Italian kings, Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I.

There are three popes buried in Perugia.  This is Pope Benedict XI's tomb in San Dominica.  His bones are in the box on the wall to the left of his monument.

There are three popes buried in Perugia. This is Pope Benedict XI’s tomb in the Basilica of San Dominica. His bones are in the box on the wall to the left of his monument.

Beyond the famous burial sites, Italy is filled with cemeteries.  There is a “monumental” cemetery in Perugia that Matt and I visited a couple months ago.  Some of Perugia’s most important families have erected ornate (and fanciful) mausoleums here to house their remains.

These small apartments can hold lots of bodies

These small apartments can hold lots of bodies

Yes, a pyramid tomb in Perugia

Yes, a pyramid tomb in Perugia

Last weekend we were in Cortona, Tuscany.  As we were taking in the view from the top of this small hill town, Matt saw a big beautiful cemetery in the distance.  We decided to visit it on our way home.

Italy does cemeteries well.  The grounds are bright and colorful.  Nearly every grave or slot on the wall is full of flowers, flickering electric lights and framed photographs.  There is nothing creepy or ghosty about them.  The atmosphere is soft and the souls seem tangible.  The people look at you from their pictures, and you can’t help but want to know more.  I can imagine them once living and eating pasta, making wine and gesturing.

We arrived through the main gate with my parents (who are here for a few more days).  Once we entered, the six of us separated and wandered through the rows.  During our visit we admired the old names and we admired the elegant photos. We tried to find someone who had lived for up to 100 years (with no luck). We found the most recent date-of-death (February 23, 2013). We saw graves of kids.  We saw tombstones for entire families, and we discovered many parents who outlived their children.

My mom and Tom figure out the age of someone in the wall.

A wall of past lives

Dino and Ida, among others

Dino and Ida (RIP), among others

"He lived for three happy years.  The son of Atilo and Ginetta.  He was Little Francis.  Now he is an angel."

“I lived for three happy years. The son of Atilio and Ginetta. I was Little Francis. And now I am an angel. December 3, 1913-January 12, 1917”

I just couldn't wrap my head around the fact that this couple had to bury TWO young children in their lifetime.

It was hard to wrap my head around the fact that this couple had to bury TWO young children in their lifetime.  Mario was eight and Lidia was just four

This was our favorite - the absolute surrender to the sadness and desolation of death.

This was our favorite – the exhausted statue draped over the coffin in absolute surrender to the sadness and desolation of loss.

We finally left the grounds when the wind picked up. Despite the sunshine, we were freezing cold.  As we drove away, we talked about the graves and the people who died. Tom and Ray both said that this cemetery was way better than a museum or church.

Then we talked about what we wanted to do with our own remains.  The boys are undecided about cremation or coffins.  Matt wants to donate his whole body to research, so do my mom and dad (then they want to be buried near Eugene or at their farm.)  I think I might want my ashes to be gently tucked away in an Italian cemetery like this one.

The Crisis and other Conversations

There are four topics that come up with nearly every Perugian we meet.

First there is the saltless bread, which I’ve mentioned before. During the Middle Ages, the popes staged a long and repressive reign over Perugia.  One of the many injustices was the exorbitant tax on salt.  So the Perugians just stopped using it, and to this day they don’t salt their bread.  Friends talk about it, tour guides note it, language teachers discuss it, and every summer, Perugia stages a production of The Salt War, a play which reenacts the events of the mid 1500s.

The cheerless underground city which was buried after the Perugians refused to pay the salt tax.

Pope Paul III’s army destroyed the wealthy sector of Perugia as punishment for the town’s insubordination.  This broody corridor is part of what is now referred to as the underground city.

They also talk about how dramatically their city has changed in the last 10 years.  They speak nostalgically of the past:  “The streets use to be full every night.  And on Saturday, you could hardly walk because it was so crowded.  Back then, we all lived in the historic center, but now it’s practically empty; everyone has moved to the outskirts.”  Having little to compare it to, we are always enchanted with the beauty and vibrancy of Perugia.  It’s charming. There are lots of Italians.  To me, Perugia feels authentic and alive.  But every time I share my feelings, the Perugians shake their heads and insist that in its day, this was once a fabled city; one of Italy’s best.

Then of course, everyone talks about the infamous murder of 2009.

The courthouse is just around the corner from our apartment.

The courthouse where the trials were held is just around the corner from our apartment.

And finally, they talk about la crisi, (the crisis) . . . Italy’s financial situation.  Some say it started as early as the 1980s when Italian companies began outsourcing the production of their famously well-made, high quality goods to China, Bangladesh, and India.  The subsequent loss of Italian jobs and the obvious downward spiral of “having less money/needing cheaper goods” is just one factor.  Others say la crisi is a result of the mafia and the corrupt government.  They point to the lying, cheating, stealing, sneaky politicians who make headlines but should really just be in jail. Even though new elections are scheduled for the end of February, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for change. We heard someone say that what Italy needs is to be CONQUERED.  There’s also the problem of taxes.  These days, Italians pay half of their income to Uncle Spaghetti.  And they explain that most of that money finds its way into the hands of the aforementioned politicians.  Finally, things really started to sink low for Italy after the global financial crisis of 2008 and the European debt crisis of 2011.

As visitors here in Perugia, we see (or hear about) the effects of la crisi.  Almost every family needs two incomes to support themselves.  Some teachers’ salaries have been frozen for seven years.  College graduates cannot find jobs. Family-run businesses are being replaced by sterile chain stores.  And two of our neighbors, both popular restaurants in the city, closed since we arrived.  It’s a challenge for guidebooks to keep current with what is recommended and what is still in business.

Gus:  This restaurant was featured in the NY Times last spring

Gus: This restaurant was featured in the NY Times last spring

But even amidst their troubling financial problems, Italians continue to dress spectacularly.  And compromises are never made when it comes to wine, food and coffee.

Two weeks ago we were taking a walk from our apartment down Via Alessi, and Matt pointed out a cafe that we had never noticed before.  We stopped in for an espresso and tried a little pastry.  We were impressed. This place was incredible. When we asked how long they’ve been here, they said the shop is brand new.  We commented on how rare it is to find a new cafe when so many are closing.  They agreed but are hoping to help revive this once busy part of town.  Since we first set foot inside, we’ve been here every day.  And each time, it fills up more and more.  It’s like a little celebration inside.

The owners, Benito and Pietro d'Andrea, are originally from Salerno.  They specialize in Campagna pastries and coffee from Naples.

The owners, brothers Benito and Pietro d’Andrea, are originally from Salerno. They specialize in Campagna pastries and coffee from Naples.

Signor Pietro mades cannoli downstairs in the kitchen.

Signor Pietro makes cannoli downstairs in the kitchen.

This is Anna who makes the coffee and explains the finer points between each pastry.

This is Anna who makes the coffee and serves pastries.

We’ve heard it said that despite the problems, Italy enjoys a high standards of living.  It’s evident.  Even with debt, unemployment and a bleak political future, Italians know how to create a beautiful, if brief, moment.  This is inspiring.  They take time for pleasure.  They respect daily traditions. Changing the system might be overwhelming, but they still exert control over the finer points of life.  And while they tolerate corruption, they don’t tolerate bad coffee.

Griffins

This copper griffin in the background overlooks Piazza IV Novembre and the  city's giant fountain.

This copper griffin in the background overlooks Piazza IV Novembre and the city’s giant fountain.

With the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion, the mythological griffin is found all over Perugia.  It’s the city’s symbol, its emblem, its mascot, and during a soccer match, its nickname.

Forza Grifo!

Forza Grifo!

The city chose this creature as its protector during the Renaissance because of its association with strength, courage and intelligence.  The wings give it speed; the claws give it ferocious power.  It’s a combination of the king of beasts and the king of birds. Around here the griffin is everywhere.  Small and large statues guard the entrance to government offices, museums and public buildings.   Pictures are found on napkins, coasters, wine bottles and chocolate bar wrappers.  Griffins are also painted onto the traditional ceramics of central Umbria.  This month, Matt and I went on a griffin hunt to find as many as we could around our apartment in downtown Perugia.  Here are some of our favorites.

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And just two hours ago, I took a picture of a griffin I hadn’t yet seen. Like the saltless bread, this statue represents the Perugian irreverence towards centuries of papal rule. In the clenches of the griffin’s right front claw lies the Pope’s hat.  (And in the right claw is a snake representing the Italian triumph over the fascist years.)

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But the griffin that is most personal to me is the one I wear every day.  For Christmas, my aunt and uncle visited a local jeweler and had silver griffin pins made for all of us.  They give us superpowers.  Without them, we’d probably still have the flu.

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Day of the Dead

The ruins of Ancient Rome

Italy sort of celebrates the Day of the Dead.  Not with the vibrant pageantry of Mexico nor in the reflective, communal way that our family has celebrated since Luke died, but it recognizes the holiday enough to give the kids a day off from school.  Combined with All Saints Day, this long weekend justified a trip to Rome.  So on Wednesday, we hopped on a train from Perugia.  We spent Thursday counting fountains, eating gelato and dodging rain.  When Friday arrived.  I felt nostalgic.  I knew if I were home I’d be hanging paper skeletons and lighting candles.  I knew our house would be full of friends.  It would feel warm, sacred and festive.  Instead, it was just the four of us way over here.  But I still wanted that lighthearted, irreverent confrontation with death and I wanted to feel a connection with those who have died, so we did our best to create an itinerary immersed in old bones.

In front of Julius Caesar’s tomb

It started at the tomb of Julius Caesar in the heart of the Roman Forum.  His burial site actually resembles a Day of the Dead alter; there are flowers and notes strewn on nearby rocks in honor of this Roman ruler who was killed 2000 years ago.  We listened to stories of his rise to power and his betrayal by his senate friends (ex-friends, I guess).  Later, we walked to the site of his assassination.  It’s adjacent to the famous Cat Sanctuary.  For a price, you can adopt real Roman cats which are believed to be reincarnations of the ancient emperors.

Hundreds of cats roam the ruins while a group of volunteers takes care of them. There’s a little yellow and white emperor under the temple.  Caesar was stabbed somewhere in this scene.

That evening, we jumped ahead 1500 years (and millions of dead people later) to the Capuchin Crypt.  The guide-book descriptions did not do this place justice.  It was way more edgy than we expected and perfect for our day.   I still don’t quite understand what happened and why, but apparently, about 400 years ago, when the an order of Capuchin friars relocated from their old monastery to the present one at the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione, they brought the bones of their fellow monks with them.  They didn’t have enough room to bury them all, so they used the bones to create intricate mosaics and decorations all over the walls of their chapel!  Seriously.  And it’s actually pretty.  Coffee colored skulls, femurs and pelvises from thousands of bodies are arranged artistically in four little white alcoves down a warmly lit corridor.  The chandeliers that light the rooms are also made of bones  (small ones, maybe vertebrae and fingers).    Some of the bones have been put together to form a complete skeleton.  Some are just neatly stacked.  Some are arranged in the shape of flowers.  There was a message printed as we peered into one of the rooms that reads, “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…

The lighting was much better in person: orangy and atmospheric (not that anyone could ever feel “cozy” in here.)  I wish you could see the entire ceiling in these pictures.

As we were looking around, someone told us the crypt was closing early.  She told us that once a year, on the Day of the Dead, a mass is celebrated among the bones, and we were welcome to stay if we wanted.  I couldn’t believe our luck.  Tom and Ray saw it differently, though, so they chose to get gelato and take a walk with Matt while I joined about 20 live Italians and 4000 dead monks for a short service.

Later on, after we returned to our hotel, I received several emails from friends at home who were making alters, remembering people who died and keeping the spirit of this holiday strong.