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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Easter (and Easter Monday)

Easter Sunday with my parents in the courtyard of San Pietro

Together last weekend with my parents in the courtyard of San Pietro

Easter lasts for two days in Italy.  There is Easter Sunday (Pasqua).  And then there is Easter Monday (Pasquetta) which is equally important as far as holidays go.

This was my second Easter in Italy.  The first I spent in the region of Campagna 23 years ago with my dad and brother.  I remember it well.  That afternoon as we were walking throught the streets of Naples, a moped sped by me and ripped the backpack off my back.  (It contained our passports, our train tickets and all my money.)  I was able to hold on to the strap and run after the driver for a little ways before using my last ounce of strength to yank it back.  The force of my pull knocked the thief off balance. He started to topple before letting go of the backpack and speeding away.  I had rescued our goods.  It was my first ever sensation of bad-assness.
This year was also memorable but in a much less dramatic way. In fact, by Perugian standards, we had an ordinary Easter.  But that was my goal: to celebrate with local traditions.
We started Saturday night with a little visit to the nearest church.  We brought lots of food because Perugians get their Easter meal sanctified before eating it.  When we arrived, the priest was busy in the confessional, so we decided to bless the food ourselves.  Since my mom knows the most saints, we figured she should do the honors.  Using the holy water and wand from near the alter, she sprinkled a prayer and benediction on our groceries.
Here's my mom with priest tools giving our cheese bread a proper hallelujah

My mom uses the priest tools to give our cheese bread a proper hallelujah

The next morning, we arranged the spread.  Once a year, Perugians sit down to more than just a coffee for breakfast.  On Easter, tables are filled with capocollo (a cured meat), hard boiled eggs, cheese bread, wine and a cake called ciaramicola.
picture:  once a year, Perugians sit down to more than just a coffee and cigarette for breakfast.  On Easter morning, tables are filled with capocollo (a cured meat), cheese bread, hard boiled eggs, wine, and a frosted dessert called a ciaramicola  The boys also ate a giant chocolate egg with a toy surprise inside.

Breakfast

The boys also got giant chocolate eggs with a toy surprise inside.

The boys also got giant chocolate eggs with a toy surprise inside.

Then, of course, we joined the Catholics and went to mass.  Out of the 20 or more options in downtown Perugia, we chose the Church of San Pietro, an ornately decorated cathedral near the edge of town.
My mom and I spent the afternoon preparing lamb and artichokes.   Not quite sure how to cook lamb, I decided to fry it.  The Italians say that even the sole of a shoe tastes good when fried.  It worked.
My mom talked Ray into trying lamb.

My mom talked Ray into trying lamb.

The next day was Pasquetta.  Our friends Milena and Sergio invited us to their house in the country.  They wanted to meet my parents and introduce us to some of their relatives.  We joined them for a grand lunch starting with champagne, capocollo, cheese bread, wild asperagus and pecorino cheese.  This was followed by two platters of cannelloni, four types of grilled meats, artichokes prepared two ways and another big ciaramicola.  
A walk on the rolling, green, olive-tree-covered hills of Umbria

A walk on the rolling, green, olive-tree-covered hills of Umbria

Milena's mamma serves cannelloni.

Milena’s mamma serves cannelloni.

My parents pass around a bowl of meats

My parents pass around a bowl of meats

"Ciaramicola" - the rainbow sprinkled, meringue frosted Easter specialty of Perugia.

“Ciaramicola” – the rainbow sprinkled, meringue frosted Easter specialty of Perugia.  It’s red inside because of the bright liquor used to color it.

We ended the day with a walk gathering wild asparagus from around the trunks of olive trees.  Pretty cool.

For the first time since 2007, I’ve been enjoying holidays.  Distancing ourselves from past traditions, we get to peer into those of the Italians and participate as students of culture rather than as emotionally rooted members.

It’s true what they say about holidays being the hardest days.  When you lose the person with whom you celebrated, you lose the meaning as well.  Holidays have really sucked since Luke died.  Our family’s traditions faded away, yet we were still surrounded by everyone else celebrating the same old way.  This year, the physical distance from our culture’s customs, as well as having the distraction of another’s, has brought objectivity.  Discovery has replaced menacing compulsions; novelty has replaced stagnant etiquette; and the freedom to experiment has replaced the sense of obligation to assimilate with past traditions. Instead of running from the holidays, this year, I feel more inclined to step into them.

Spring Break

Biking in Lucca

Biking in Lucca

The boys completed another week of character building at their respective schools.  They finally made it to Easter Vacation, a ten day break.

Unfortunately, after school, I was called in for a conference with Tom’s math teacher.  I knew it was going to be a doozy, so I asked Signora Paola, the boys’ tutor, to accompany me.  As a teacher herself, she is part of the inner circle of Italian educators.  Beyond that advantage, she is intelligent, fair, and understands Tom.

We wait in the halls of San Paolo Middle School.

We wait in the halls of San Paolo Middle School.

By 1:15, we entered the meeting.  We got an earful, and with it, I gained a greater understanding of Italian culture, something I should be grateful for, I guess.  The good news is that Tom got the highest grade on his math test that any 6th grader earned all year.  But he still didn’t show his work, which she didn’t like.  And he complains about the uniform, which she also didn’t like . . . among other things.

Oh well, he still gets three more months to adapt.

That afternoon, we caught a train to Pisa and began our vacation.  As it turns out, it was New Years Day in Pisa.  (They celebrate once on January 1st and once on March 23rd.)  Completely by accident, we reserved a room on the second floor of a hotel overlooking the Arno where the grand firework display was held at 11pm.  We seriously had the best seats in town, especially considering the pouring down rain drenching everyone below.  It was a spectacular show with music and two barges (one on either side of our windows) blasting off fireworks for 25 minutes.

A room with a view

A room with a view

The next morning, we walked to one of Italy’s most famous monuments, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  We circled around, climbed to the top, and joined hundreds of others in assuming unoriginal poses in front of our camera.

Leaning . . . just like the tower

Leaning . . . just like the tower

Trying to straighten the tower

Trying to straighten the tower

Pisa is big and festive and famous all smashed into one town.  I loved it, but after one day, I was ready to leave.  It’s like a party and hangover all in one.

Next we went to Lucca, a sweet, soft, small, walled Tuscan town.  Not only the name of the city reminds me of Luke but the streets too.  They were full of pink bikes.  One of my favorites was similar Luke’s first bike.

The bike-renter's son owned this one.  I wanted to tell them about Luke.

The bike-renter’s son owned this one. (I wanted so much to tell them about Luke.)

Another pink bike I liked was owned by a woman who gave us an impromptu tour of the outside of Puccini’s house-turned-museum the day we showed up after closing.

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However, not all of Lucca is gentle.  We visited The Museum of Torture which I thought sounded entertaining, but turned out to be a huge bummer.  While it was a well-done exhibit, it left us all sick to our stomachs and hopeless.  It’s hard to believe that humans were (and still are) so capable of such psychopathic brutality.  It made my thumbs and tongue hurt, as well as my shoulders, bum and boobs.

A couple showcased devices from the first room

A couple showcased devices from the first room

We tried to calm the disquietude by heading, yet again, to Trattoria Gigi, maybe the most charming little restaurant we’ve met.  In three days, we ate there three times.

This afternoon we left Lucca.  After stopping in Florence for a few hours to look at Michelangelo’s house, we caught a train to Rome and met my parents at the airport.  They are spending the second half of Spring Break with us as well as two additional weeks.  In preparation for Easter, we are planning on soaking up Catholic monuments including the Sistine Chaple and tons of churches.  This Sunday we will return to Perugia for a traditional Perugian Easter celebration which includes an unusual breakfast of hard boiled eggs, cake with rainbow sprinkles, and red wine.

Gramma and Grandpa with the kids here in Rome

Gramma and Grandpa with the kids here in Rome

Immersion

Milena and Tom study their lottery ticket.  If they win, they'll split 50-50.  It's a big one.  The numbers are drawn on Epiphany.  If Tom wins, he and Heidi will buy the apartment next door to us.

The Italians have their eyes on the BIG ONE tonight.  Here Tom and Milena are studying their lottery ticket.  They’ve decided to share the winnings 50-50 in the hopes that Tom and Heidi can move here perminantly.

We have just two days left before my aunt and uncle return to the States.  I really wish that all our guests could stay for so long.  They’ve been here nearly a month.  We’ve had so much fun without ever feeling rushed.  We’ve had time to show them all of Perugia, several Umbrian towns, and then two extraordinary spots in northern Italy.

An afternoon at Perugia's San Pietro Cathedral and medieval gardens

An afternoon at Perugia’s San Pietro Basilica and medieval gardens

Visiting the art and antique fair in Arezzo.

Visiting the art and antique fair in Arezzo.

New Year's Eve in Venice.  We joined thousands in Piazza San Marco for the countdown.  The crowds were so great needed to hold hands so as not to get separated.  Even so, we lost Matt.  New Year's is crazy.  Over 350 people were injured in Italy.  And two deaths.  We returned to our hotel by 12:30 and watched the chaos from the window.

New Year’s Eve in Venice. We joined thousands in Piazza San Marco for the countdown and the shower of champagne. The crowd was so massive we needed to hold hands to stay together. Even so, we lost Matt for a while. New Year’s is crazy, so much so that over 350 people were injured in Italy. We returned to our hotel by 12:30 and watched the chaos from the window.

By now, Tom and Heidi have been here long enough to meet Italians and experience true Italian livin’.  They have made friends with our friends.  In fact, everyone who meets them wants to hang out.  This week Signora Paola, the boys’ tutor, invited us over for dinner.  And no experience is more authentic than eating a meal in an Italian’s house.

We showed up at 8pm, which is customary since Italians like to eat late.  Paola and her husband live outside Perugia on a small farm.  They have olive trees and a big garden.  As we arrived, Paola’s entire family was waiting for us.  We met everyone including her husband, two sons, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.  The table was full of drinks and appetizers, so we sat down immediately.  Paola’s husband, Willy, poured his homemade hot pepper apertif, which was made from infusing garden-grown peppers in alcohol for several weeks.  (We liked it so much that they later sent us home with a bottle.)  Then platters were passed and we filled our plates with chicken liver crostini, pieces of pork head, fennel and grapefruit salad, anchovy and egg crostini, pecorino cheese with an assortment of homemade spreads, and potato chips.  We were all full before the official first course.

The huge table filled the entire kitchen

The huge table filled the entire kitchen

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Then Paola served plates of mushroom pasta while explaining that her mother-in-law foraged the mushrooms out in the woods herself.  New bottles of wine were opened.  Knowing the boys weren’t mushroom fans, Paola offered a meat and tomato pasta for them.  The next course was wild boar with a side of broccoli rabe.  We were stuffed before the first bite; however, each dish was so good, we continued to eat and eat and eat.  Next came a plate of oranges drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepper.  One bite and I was convinced that this is the best way to enjoy a slice of orange.

For dessert Paola and Willy offered five different kinds of cookies and three home made after-dinner-drinks.

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It was a feast.

It’s like this every weekend, Paola said.

Before we left, Paola's son performed some magic tricks

Before we left, Paola’s son performed some magic

Tom got to be the magician's assistant, but still couldn't figure any of the tricks

Tom got to be the magician’s assistant but still couldn’t figure out any of the tricks

While I would never have enough courage to cook an Italian meal for Paola, I asked if she would consider visiting us in the United States.  She agreed, so  maybe  someday we can return the favor.

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Christmas Chickens, Hats and Hunchbacks

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

It’s Christmas Day.

We celebrated in the morning with the annual routine:  wake up excited, open presents and then play.

Puzzles from Santa

Puzzles from Santa

Then the afternoon focused around local traditions.  As with every holiday in Italy, it’s all about cooking and eating. Months ago I started consulting friends and store owners and anyone I could talk to.  We found that three dishes comprise the traditional Perugian Christmas dinner.  Each recipe was described with swooning detail and passion.  I tried to listen carefully and take notes.  Each one sounded difficult, and they all required hours to prepare.   So we started early.  The past several days were full of visits to the butcher, the grocer and the vegetable market. This was followed by prep sessions in the kitchen.  Together with Matt, Tom and Heidi, we faced a handful of obstacles and put our heads together when problems needed solving.  We moderated recipes and finally made a delicious Perugian Christmas feast.

Preparing vegetables and meat for a stock

Preparing vegetables and meat for a stock

1.  Capelletti and Brodo  (little hats in broth)

I practiced making this one back in September.  I wrote the recipe in a post on pasta.  It’s the easiest of the three Christmas courses.  While the broth takes about three hours to cook, it can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator.  And with Cristiano down the street, I can skip making the capelletti by hand and just watch him make them.  (It felt like cutting corners, but everyone else is doing it.)   So this afternoon, we started with a bowl of capelletti and broth; our first course.

2.  Galantina (Christmas Chicken with a cup of gelled broth)

The chicken skin: ready to fill.

The chicken skin: ready to fill.

This dish is considered very Perugian.  Armando at the grocery store assured me that it’s so provincial that you won’t even find it served in nearby Assisi. Basically, it’s a whole skinned and deboned chicken that is then ground with veal, prosciutto, pistachios, eggs, parmesan cheese, salt and nutmeg. Then all the ingredients are wrapped up in the chicken skin and sewed up with a regular needle and thread before being boiled for two hours, pressed under a heavy weight for another hour and then chilled overnight.   People looked at me skeptically when I said I was making it.  “It’s very difficult,” they reminded me.  Rinaldo, the butcher, walked me through it.  He deboned my chicken and removed the skin in one entire piece.  He ground all my meat for me and explained the process.

Stuffing the skin

Stuffing the skin

Tom sewed like a surgeon

Tom sewed like a surgeon.

3.  Gobbi Parmesan (layered hunchback with meat sauce and cheese)

“Gobbi” means hunchback in Perugian dialect.  In Italian it’s “cardi.” In English it translates to “cardoon.”  It’s a member of the artichoke family.  When it’s ready to be picked, it falls over a bit, resembling a hunchback.  Anyway, I made the meat sauce for the dish several days ago.  Then yesterday I went to Marcello’s vegetable stand to get my gobbies.  But there were none left.  Apparently, no one waits until Christmas Eve to start preparations on this bad boy.  There was one produce seller with a couple boxes left, but they were wilted and brown.  So I decided to make eggplant parmesan instead.  In doing so, I bypassed hours of gobbi cleaning, stripping, and boiling.  And the final product looks similar.

the word in Italian is "brutto"

Wilted, brown and tired.  The word in Italian for these boxes of gobbi  is “brutto.”

Heidi fries the eggplant

Heidi fries the alternative: eggplant

The eggplant parmesan assembly:  layers of meat sauce, fried eggplant, mozzarella cheese, and parmesan cheese.

The assembly: layers of tomato meat sauce, fried eggplant, mozzarella cheese, and parmesan cheese.

It all came together this afternoon.  We poured prosecco and toasted to being together and our attempts at creating an authentic Italian Christmas dinner.

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A plate of galantina and meat gel.  Trust me, it was great.

A plate of galantina and meat gel. Trust me, it was great.

The evening is winding down.  Aunt Deanne and Uncle Richard gave us the six Star Wars movies for Christmas.  We are already on the second one.

Tomorrow we are taking a road trip to the Italian Alps for a week.  We hope to end up in Venice on New Year’s Eve.

Merry Christmas and lots of love from Perugia.

Lights, Penguins and Baby Jesuses

Perugia's Fontana Maggiore with the city's brightest Christmas tree

Perugia’s Fontana Maggiore with some holiday lights

We don’t have a Christmas tree (or any decorations for that matter).  The only sign of December inside our apartment is the freezing cold.  We bought two more blankets yesterday.

Lavendar. It was the last color in stock

Lavendar. It was the last color in stock.

But outside it’s so beautiful.  Every street in downtown Perugia is illuminated with big hanging lights.  Even on the most rainy and windy nights, we make time to take a walk.  It feels so festive and winter-wonderlandy.

A view down Corso Vanucci

A view down Corso Vanucci

One of the things I love most about Italy in December are the nativity scenes.  They are everywhere.  All the churches have one.  Many of the stores too.  Even the banks.  There seems to be no limit to how grand, gaudy, quirky, confusing, unique, extravagant, or detailed these displays are.

Tonight, Ray and I walked down to Sant’ Antonio Church to see for ourselves what Perugians call the best nativity scene in the city.  It was kind of a long walk from our apartment.  But as soon as we entered the back room of this church and saw the extravagant display, my throat constricted and I kind of felt like crying.  The nativity village was animated with sounds of thunder clapping, a fire crackling, a baby crying, and soft lullabies – all the sounds you might expect from that legendary night.  Then after several minutes, everything changed.  A rooster crowed and the “sun” rose.  The entire scene changed from night to day.  Many of the tiny figurines came to life.  A woman started baking bread.  A man cast a fishing line into the river.  And two friends started playing cards.  Ray and I stayed for three or four “days” continually finding more hidden details in the scene.

A small corner of the city's largest nativity scene at Sant' Antonio Abbate

A small, but important, corner of the nativity scene at Sant’ Antonio Abbate

A game of poker occurring simultaneously with the birth of Baby Jesus.

A game of poker occurring simultaneously with the birth of Baby Jesus.  (The arms of these figures move!)

A woman baking bread in an oven that really flickered.

A woman baking bread in an oven with flames that really flicker.

As we left, the attendant thanked us for coming and encouraged us to return when the snow machine is working and the village gets a blizzard.

Another hallmark of a Perugian Christmas are the penguins that line the street on Via dei Priori.   These penguins are all designed on cardboard.  They stand alone or nestled in groups among window displays.  This “Invasion of Penguins” is based on a story about Perugia where all the citizens disappear as penguins fill the streets.  It’s cute and kind of fun to look for hidden penguins.  But today I talked with a shopkeeper on Via dei Priori who admitted to not liking the story because of its subtle racist undertones.  So I picked up a copy of the story to try and figure out what he’s talking about.  I’ll let you know.

A few penguins at the bookstore.

A few penguins at the bookstore.

Another in the middle of Bar Accademia Pasticeria

Another in the middle of Bar Pasticceria Accademia

While our family is bringing very few holiday decorations and fanfare to the season, we are really looking forward to December 25.  However, it feels like Christmas will officially start this weekend when my aunt and uncle arrive followed by Matt’s sister and brother-in-law.  We are planning big Italian feasts, dreamy winter walks and tours of the nativity decorations.

(This is a photo of one of my favorite people in the world.  It was taken several years ago when we celebrated Christmas together.  I can’t wait till she gets here on Saturday!)

(This is a photo of one of my favorite people in the world. It was taken several years ago when we celebrated Christmas together. I can’t wait till she gets here on Saturday!)

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.