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.
Rome is one of the oldest and biggest cities in all of Europe. It is the capital of Italy. It is crowded with tourists, residents, ruins and a whirl of streets, stores and steeples. One of my plans this year was to be able to visit without getting lost. Because Rome’s airport brings in most of our guests, we’ve made several trips to the eternal-ly confusing city. I have sometimes gone through two maps while I’m there. The first can become threadbare after just one long walk.
However, I love Rome. It might be my favorite city in all of Italy. When I’m there I feel happy and energetic and inspired. I always leave wanting more. After each trip, I feel like I’ve just begun.
This week was my fifth extended stay. I met my friend Stacia who arrived Sunday to begin a summer job sailing around Sardinia. During our three days together, we walked down miles of ancient alleys, past innumerable fountains and impromptu piazzas while frequently stopping for drinks and Roman artichokes along the way.
It was a perfect little vacation. The temperatures soared into the 80s; the monuments glowed; the Romans were good to us; and we never got lost. What a great feeling to finally grasp this place.
I kept my sense of direction by trying to visit familiar sights while keeping track of Il Vittoriano along the way. This giant, centrally located, relatively modern landmark is an unfortunate sore spot among Romans. They snidely call it “the wedding cake” or “the typewriter” and remark that the monstrous, snow-white facade is incongruent with the true Roman style. And furthermore, they complain, it blocks the view of the Colosseum. I’ve tried to not like this building because I thought it might help me fit in, but I’ve finally resigned to the opinion that it’s stunning (and easy to find.)
One of my favorite tourist stops in Rome is the glass elevator ride to the roof of the Vittoriano. From there, you can see everything. Stacia and I spent time up there taking photos and getting a lay of the land. Since Rome can often dwarf the wide-eyed tourist, we counteracted by playing “optical illusions” with the camera.
Later, we branched out from the safety of the beaming structure to mingle with a few more of Rome’s defining iconic anchors. We circled Bernini’s sculpture in Piazza Navona, ate gelato in Campo de’ Fiori, walked past the president’s palace at Piazza de’ Quirinale and then, after a look at the crumbling Teatro di Marcello, we ordered the best artichokes ever in the Jewish Ghetto. While we didn’t make any time for museums, some artists are hard to miss. Michelangelo, for one, is everywhere. We visited his Moses masterpiece in San Pietro in Vincoli and also climbed the steps to one of his architectural creations, Piazza del Campidoglio. Then we continued on to more picturesque moments in Rome:
On Tuesday afternoon, we packed up. After parting ways at the train station, I headed back to Perugia. Somehow Rome lingers. I know our traveling days are numbered so I immediately started planning another visit later this month, a quick 24 hour embrace; just one last time to touch the familiar and find something new.
Last week we met one of our favorite families for our first and only trip outside of Italy. We stayed together in a stable-turned-apartment near Hyde Park. During our four days, we boated down the River Thames, spent a morning in Kensington Gardens, spun a loop around the London Eye, took a peek at the Crown Jewels, and ate at several pubs with names like “The Dog and Duck,” “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese,” and “The Queen’s Arms.” We also rode a double decker bus over the Tower Bridge and past Big Ben.
The most memorable excursion was an evening at the Arsenal vs. Everton soccer match. After an all-day search and a shady rendezvous with a scalper, we finally held what we hoped were eight tickets to the sold-out game. We rode a packed subway and arrived at the stadium full of fans wearing red and white. The weather was good, and we were in England watching real football.
Despite the final score of 0-0 and the surprising calm of the crowd, this was a fun night. We bought Arsenal scarves, we cheered, and we ate dinner in our seats. At 10 minutes before the end of the game, we decided to get a head start on the return trip. As we left the stadium we were surprised to join throngs of others running to the entrance to the Tube. The urgency was contagious. We each grabbed a kid and took off sprinting. It was pretty exciting, and at one point, Grace said, “It feels like we’re running for our lives!” Eventually finding a pocket of space to stand on the subway gave us the feeling of victory we had been looking for all night.
The next day we left London (several hours before Margaret Thatcher’s funeral). Our apartment in Paris was hilarious. There were just two rooms, each with a tiny loft. There was a kitchen too, but it was in one of the bedrooms. We decided right away that privacy was not much of an option. We put the kids in one room and the adults in another. The tight quarters were the basis for much of the humor during the rest of our stay.
Paris was all about short stops at big sights during the day and long dinners in small restaurants at night.
The most fascinating aspect of Paris, and the one that left the biggest impression (especially among the kids) were the pickpockets. In fact, the week before, the Louvre unexpectedly closed for a day because the problem was unmanageable. We were further warned by many: Always hold your belongings close. Watch out for people holding a “petition” and asking for signatures because while you peruse the paper and write your name, hands will be busy underneath the clipboard empting your purse. Sure enough, on day one, in the middle of a busy square, we encountered a hoard of young women looking for unsuspecting victims. Our tour guide, Jacques, spotted them first and reminded us to be careful. We watched the attempts from a distance. Later, Jacques showed us all his protective measures.
During the rest of the day, the kids tried to weasel belongings out of the adults’ bags and pockets. I was horrified when they later offered me back my wallet, my lipstick and my sunglasses. The only defense I had for being such easy prey was that I allow my kids closer than I would a stranger. Still, Matt said he would be more comfortable carrying my valuables.
The last morning in Paris started at 3am when we all woke up and caught rides to the airport for an early morning flight. The Halls returned to Seattle and we came back to Perugia. The first thing we did when we got home was stop for a gelato where some of the other customers were speaking French. Later that afternoon, we noticed a new crepe stand on the street outside our apartment. And for dessert, we ate meringues. It felt good knowing that some of Paris followed us home.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
written by guest blogger Tom, Jill’s uncle
I’m Jill’s uncle. My wife and I live in Oregon on a hazelnut farm. When Jill and Matt invited us to visit them during their year away from Seattle, we were honored. Even though the price of gasoline had gotten pretty high and Pullman, Washington was a full day’s drive from our farm, we thought, why not? It can’t be more boring than waiting for the leaves to fall.
The Four Square Church folks are really sweet, and they let Jill use the old theater prop department down in the basement for her blog anytime she wants. Right away, Tom and Ray were excited to give us a tour of the place, “Wait ’til you see the Moon Room!” Turns out this is where NASA filmed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin when they “landed” on the moon in 1969. With a resource like The Cordova, Matt and Jill figured Pullman would be the perfect place to spend their year in “Perugia”.
Good old apartment #25. Heidi and I are renting their Bonus Room/Laundry Closet for the next three weeks which is a win-win because face it, there’s no money in farming, and Matt and Jill are unemployed for at least a year.
After an Italian breakfast last Sunday, I went with Jill to the basement of the Cordova to watch her work on her blog. She is amazing. Her camera skills are only matched by the rabbits she pulls out of hats with Photoshop. Look at what she did with the picture I took of her family in downtown Pullman.
Get a load of that caption! It’s sounds so Italian it hurts. It’s pure misdirection, like a good card trick. You see the photo, you read that text and “fish on,” you’re hooked.
I’m just so proud to be Jill’s uncle, and I’m especially proud that she included me in her trip to Italy. Here are the two of us at the Colosseum:
Thank you so much Matt, Jill, Tom and Ray for being the best neighbors in the world. After the cops left.
Twenty-three years ago, I spent my junior year in Florence. This week I took a few days by myself for a little reunion with this incredible place.
Every hotel in Florence claims to be centrally located. This dense city is tightly packed with a wealth of paintings, architecture, food, history, sculptures, craftsmanship, fashion and tourists. I can’t imagine a greater concentration of art and admirers anywhere in the world.
During the two-hour train ride from Perugia, I wrote down a list of all the things I wanted to do in Florence. It quickly became apparent that three days is not enough time to get it all done. It was time for an honest talk with myself. Could I return from a stay in Florence without going inside the Duomo? How shameful would it be to walk by the walls of the Uffizzi without going in to awe at Bottecceli’s Birth of Venus? Could I possibly pass up the chance to see the David in person? The answer was yes, because when it gets right down to it, eating, shopping and aimless walking sounded like so much more fun. (I can’t believe I just admitted that.)
Before setting out, I tried to look up some of the best streets to window shop. As luck would have it, I found the website of Maren Erickson, an American woman offering shopping tours of the finest in Florentine leather, silk, paper and gold. I met her at Piazza Santa Croce. We hit it off immediately. It turns out she is from Seattle but lives here six months out of the year. (In fact, her daughter worked at my husband’s real estate company last year.) Bottom line, we had a blast. She took me to some of the most incredible stores where I met some people who have worked in the trade all their lives. It was so fun to breeze by all the tourist traps of mass-produced, cheap goods and find the best that Florence has to offer.
After a couple hours, we stopped for an apertivo and decided to meet later for dinner. So after a long walk through familiar streets and nostalgic piazzas, I met Maren on the site of an ex-prison converted-into-trattoria where we enjoyed a long, long dinner. It was one of those nights where the problems of the world were solved, and I felt sure that I was in the company of a wise philosopher (and at times was one myself). I’m sure it was due in no small part to the bottle of Chianti that we ordered, but nonetheless, we had such a good time that we made dinner plans for the following night.
Big meals were sort of the theme of my stay. The next afternoon I planned my day around a solo lunch at Zeb. A friend from Perugia told me that it’s one of the best spots in town. I was the first to arrive at this tiny place and sat at on one of the 15 stools surrounding part of the kitchen. Behind the counter was Alberto and his mom, Giuseppina. They were super sweet to me and called me “tesoro” (treasure) when they dropped off a new plate of food. I went completely Italian on them and ordered every single course offered (pasta, meat, vegetables, dessert, coffee). I managing to finish every bite, more out of appreciation than out of hunger. I loved it all. The best plate was the pici al pesto.
Before dinner with Maren, I took my stuffed self to a couple alternative museums. The Salvatore Ferragamo museum had a really cool Marilyn Monroe exhibit featuring all the shoes she owned by the famous Italian designer. I also learned a couple things about Ferragamo himself. For one thing, he studied anatomy so he could know how to build the perfect shoe. Then I headed to Palazzo Strozzi to peek at a 1930’s art exhibit. I don’t know much about designer shoes or 1930’s Italian art, so both made me feel a little clueless. Then I took a long walk up to Piazza Michelangelo which looks out over the entire city. And who should I see but a copy of the David! I got a little Renaissance art after all.
The next day I had to pack up and head home.
I left Perugia kind of nervous about traveling solo. Sometimes I feel self-conscious when I’m walking around by myself, or especially when I go out to a restaurant alone. There’s no one with whom to share the new experience, and there’s no one to look at when I eat. Sometimes I had to fight the urge not to think of myself as a bit of a loser.
I decided there are two virtues I’d like more of: courage and confidence. The past few days taught me that courage is a choice. I can identify my fears and consciously face them. (This trip offered some opportunity for that.) Confidence, on the other hand, is not a choice, but is a result of acting courageously. In other words, self-assurance was earned once I confronted my fears.
There have been a couple spontaneous decisions during this little trip, one of them being our final destination. When we asked for suggestions before leaving Bellagio, the waiter, hotel manager and pool guy unanimously agreed we should visit Mantua (Mantova in Italian.) So we set off. Before today, all I knew about Mantua was that Romeo was forced to move there after killing Tybalt. But now I also know that roast donkey is the local specialty. And I know what it tastes like, too.
As soon as we arrived, we booked a tour with Daniele. He’s a guide we found on the internet. The first stop was the Cathedral of Sant’ Andrea. This is a pretty big church for such a small town. But there’s a good reason. Daniele explained: Back when Jesus was nailed to the cross, some drops of blood fell to the earth. They were later collected in a jar and brought to Mantua. This church was built to house the holy relics. Unfortunately the containers were lost over the years. But fortunately, they were found again in a different area in Mantua. And so another cathedral was built.
We didn’t get to see the blood because there was an earthquake last May and many of the rooms which display art and artifacts are under renovation. But we’ll be back because this was one of our favorite Italian towns so far. I loved the tiny winding streets, the four interconnecting piazzas, the pumpkin tortelloni, the sparking red wine , and the lady who owns the hotel where we stayed. Our one-night excursion turned into two. But I would have liked to stay for a week.
On Sunday evening, our northern Italian trip ended. We arrived home to find a dead bat on the living room floor. Later that night, the power went out. Matt was able to find the fuse box on the ground floor while I stayed in the apartment. We communicated with text messages until the proper switch was flipped. And after hiking back up six flight of stairs, it went off again. It was definitely time to open that souvenire bottle of lambrusco we brought back from Mantua.
Perugia was feeling empty. Many stores and cafes are closed till September. August is the month when Italians pack up their bags and head to the beach. So we thought we’d take a little vacation too (even though we are already on vacation). Avis gave us a good deal on this Fiat 500, so we rented it for a month. It’s like a minivan in many ways. Deciding on an itinerary was hard, so we limited our destinations to northern Italian towns in Emilia Romagna and Lombardy. With a couple guide books, our GPS, and the camera, we set off for a five-day trip. (That was seven days ago. We’re still not back.)
Our first stop was Bologna, birthplace of . . . bologna! Yes, the ubiquitous pink lunch meat was invented here under the name “mortadella.” (However, I think that after the introduction to America, it underwent some unfortunate modifications.) Curious to sample the real deal, upon arrival, I ordered a plate of mortadella and Parmesan cheese. It was . . . actually, I was a little let-down. The Parmesan, however, was wonderful. It’s made nearby in Parma.
Bologna has several other specialties as well, one being tortellini. They are on the menu of every restaurant. The most common preparation is tortellini in brodo, a simple bowl of ricotta stuffed pasta in a rich, clear broth. The origin of tortellini is actually pretty interesting. It turns out that hundreds of years ago (maybe thousands) Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, took a summer vacation to Bologna. After she checked into her hotel, she decided to have a little nap. The chef of a nearby restaurant heard that the famous goddess was staying, so he thought he’d introduce himself. But when he arrived at her door, he got nervous. Instead of politely knocking, he took a little peek through the key hole. Venus was asleep on her bed (naked, of course). The chef caught a glimpse of her belly button and was inspired to commemorate this delicate feature for his dinner. Thus, tortellini was invented.
Besides eating, which we did a lot of in Bologna, we spent time sight seeing. We visited the Duomo, a massive unfinished church that was originally going to exceed the the size of St. Peter’s in Rome. However, the church leaders decided to use the money to build Europe’s first university. But their motives were not entirely scholastic. The Pope was nervous about the scientific teachings that were taking place in the homes of the local professors. So the university was built as a way to monitor the lessons and make sure that no courses on astronomy were taught. (It was scandalous to consider that anything other than Planet Earth was the center of the universe.) As time went on, however, perspectives evolved. The university’s reputation expanded, and it became a prestigious center for learning. One of the most famous rooms in the university is the dissection room. In here, one can sit around the table where dead bodies were opened up and studied.
Among all these restaurants, markets, and famous buildings sit the two main piazzas in Bologna: Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nottuno. Here we admired the famous fountain of Neptune and his mermaids. And here, Ray raced across the huge open square trying for a personal best. His record was 10.4 seconds.
After two regretful days at the chilly and drizzly beach in Porto Santo Stefano, we are finally back in Perugia. And it’s never looked so good. However, on the way home, we took a little detour to see the Duomo of Orvieto. Somewhere I read that this is one of the best cathedrals in Italy. Truly, we concluded, this church is magnificent. It took 30 years just to plan and another 300 to build. It’s giant, colorful and packed with frescos about doomsday. All of that is stunning, but the most inspiring aspect is The Magical, Miraculous Cloth of Blood that is kept under a sliver monument in the Duomo chapel. After we listened to the explanation with our audio guide, Ray said, “Wow! That makes me believe in Jesus and God even more.” The story goes like this: There was a priest near Orvieto who was having some doubts about his job, especially the Eucharist part. So he decided to take a pilgrimage to Rome. On the way, he stopped at a church and asked if he could say mass. While he was going through the motions of turning the bread into Christ, he noticed blood dripping from the host. He made the obvious conclusion that it was Jesus’ blood. The miracle obliterated his doubts. And the cloth on which the blood spilt was quickly gathered and soon taken to Orvieto, where it now rests (out of sight, unfortunately.)
On our way out of town, we climbed the famous tower called Torre del Moro. It’s in the center of town and promised a sweeping view of the city. We hiked up 243 steps to the top. Tom took one look and said, “Rewardless.” Matt, Ray and I disagreed; we hung out for a while as Tom began the descent.