Travels at Home

One of my favorite routines during our year in Italy was packing a bag on Saturday and heading into a new town for the night.  Even though we arrived feeling disoriented, after a long walk and a good meal, we would begin to settle in and recognize the patterns.  While each place has its own traditions, history and culinary specialties, there were also similarities: there was the central piazza, the cathedral, the landmark fountain, the Renaissance masterpiece  and the acclaimed cafe.  With guidebooks, a map and notes in hand, we would hit the highlights.

Bevagna, Norcia, Siena and Assisi

Bevagna, Norcia, Siena and Assisi

We were missing the accessibility of weekend adventures until it dawned on us that we can travel and explore from our home in Washington. So last week, we bought a local guidebook on Pacific Northwest road trips and ticked off two from the list: Tom headed to Lake Chelan with some friends while Matt, Ray and I drove up to Mt. Rainier for wilderness hikes and sub-alpine scouting.  Meticulously following the suggested route of our book, we were often surprised to encounter parallels with a typical trip in central Italy.

Before we even entered Mt. Rainier National Forest, we followed the advice of our guidebook and stopped in the town of Elbe (pronounced like the Tuscan island!)  The towns claim-to-fame is an old church (of all things).  The on-site caretaker, Dick, showed us around and provided some history.  It turns out, this is one of the smallest churches in the world!

Before we even entered Mt. Rainier National Forest, we stopped in the town of Elbe (pronounced like the Tuscan island!) The town’s claim-to-fame is an old church (how familiar). The on-site caretaker, Dick, showed us around and provided some history. It turns out, this is one of the smallest churches in the world.

Meticulously following the itinerary of our Lonely Planet guide, we stopped in Ashford for espresso at Whitaker’s Bunkhouse.  We declined the tempting daily special written on the blackboard behind us, “Bacon Brown Sugar Latte.”

Next stop: Ashford for a shot of espresso at Whitaker’s Bunkhouse. We declined the tempting daily special written on the blackboard behind us:

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Italy isn’t the only place full of ancient beauty.  This tree was born in the 1200s.

The nature museum at Longmire.  Italy isn’t the only place full of old stuff; this tree trunk was born in the 1200s.

We picnicked on mozzarella salami sandwiches at Richsecker Point in front of a goose bump view of Mt. Rainier.

We picnicked on mozzarella salami paninis at Ricksecker Point in front of a goose bump view of Mt. Rainier.

While Ranger Anne didn't hold a candle to the engaging Signor Luciano of Rome, she did provide an interesting lesson on ancient history (albeit geological).

While Ranger Anne didn’t hold a candle to the engaging Signor Luciano of Rome, she did provide an interesting lesson on ancient history (albeit geological).

We never made it to Terni's famous waterfall Italy, but the cascading waters of Narada were spectacular.

We never made it to Umbria’s famous cascades in Terni, but the Narada waterfall under Mt. Rainier was spectacular.

There were also many moments that could never be duplicated in Italy.  Ray climbed trees on a hike at Longmire.

Singularly Washington.

Protest Murals

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Our days on the beaches in Sardinia were some of the most restful of the whole year.  We kept it easy.  During that time, we didn’t visit a single church or museum.  We didn’t explore the streets, stores or restaurants (in fact, we hardly saw the towns at all).  It was all about the beach and sun.

But when it was time to leave, we chose to mix things up a little and take the long route through Sardinia’s interior. Known for mountains, wilderness, shepherds and bandits, we felt we were venturing into Italy’s wild west.  We only had time for one stop so we chose Orgosolo.  This village has a history of Robin-Hood-style outlaws, government revolts, kidnapping and protest.  Earlier in the week we met a man from there.  We asked him to tell us some stories.  He just shook his head and said, “I see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing.”  It sounded like a great movie setting.

It was the winding, narrow road up the Supremonte mountain range that proved to be the most challenging part of the excursion.  The last 10 miles were some of the sharpest curves we’ve ever driven, literal hairpin angles.  It was fun for us in the front seats, but the boys in the back got carsick.

When we arrived at Orgosolo, we parked the car, locked our valuables in the trunk and told the kids to stay close.  While there haven’t been many bandits or kidnappers in the last 10 years, we still wanted to be careful.  As it turns out, Orgosolo was tame and non-threatening.

In fact, it’s bright and lively and covered in paint.  The town is like an outdoor museum with over 200 murals on the houses and storefronts.  It started in the 70s when the townspeople took to painting their frustration and outrage.  These pictures are full of passion and energy and somber reminders of human suffering.  We spent all our time just walking the streets and looking at all the stories.

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We left Orgosolo after a big Sardinian lunch.  Then after one night in the region’s capital of Cagliari, we caught a plane back to Perugia. This was the last trip we will take.  In five days, our year in Perugia is over and we will be returning home.  I’m full of emotion now.  There are so many feeling running through my mind. I’m stressed about packing, sad to say goodbye to the Italians, depressed about leaving this awesome apartment in the center of town. I’m curious about returning home, and I’m also so excited to see our friends and our families.  But I feel fear about our big transition.  It’s hard to believe this is all going to be over so soon. I don’t know what to expect when we get home, but I keep thinking about something my uncle told me after his three weeks in Perugia, “You will laugh and breathe freedom when you get home and miss Perugia for the rest of your life.”

If I could paint protest murals, one of them would be against the frustrating inflexibility of time.  I just hate when things I love become only memories.

Cala Gonone . . . Wow

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We’ve seen beauty everywhere this past year. Whether in marble, bronze, gold, fresco or oil, images of heaven have been depicted all over Italy; but none have been as stunning as the natural scenes made of sand and water in Sardinia.

After two days in San Teodoro, we traveled down the eastern coast to Cala Gonone, a town situated between rugged mountains of isolated wilderness and the cleanest, clearest water I’ve ever seen.

The nearby beaches are accessible only by water, so each morning, after packing sandwiches and a cooler of drinks, we rented a motor boat for the day and returned only after the sun had set behind the steep cliffs.

The farthest beach was only a 43 minute boat ride.

The farthest beach was only a 45 minute boat ride.

With her experience on sailboats, Stacia gets lots of practice tying knots so she was in charge of fastening the anchor.  Then Matt would pull up next to the beach and let us off before dropping the anchor 100 yards from shore and swimming in.

With her experience on sailboats, Stacia gets lots of practice tying knots, so she was in charge of fastening the anchor. Then Matt would pull up next to the beach and let us off before dropping the anchor 50 yards from shore and swimming in.

Cala --- the first beach we visited.  There were only a few other people there.  We found rocks to climb and deep water to dive into.

Cala Sorgente, the first beach we visited. There were only a few other people there. We found rocks to climb and deep, jeweled water for diving.

Stacia takes a leap.

Stacia takes a leap.

We also stopped at "Venus's Pools", a deep, green swimming hole away from the beaches.

We also stopped at “Venus’s Pool,” a crystal clear swimming hole offshore.

Cala Mariolu, with great jumping cliffs and another spectacular beach

Cala Mariolu, with great jumping cliffs and another spectacular beach

Matt on the edge . . .

Matt on the edge . . .

Tom's descent

Tom’s descent

While we were playing on the beach at Cala M, someone offered to take the boys on a mini scuba diving adventure.  They put on all the equipment and went for a short and shallow dive.

While we were playing on the beach at Cala Mariolu, someone offered to take the boys on a mini scuba diving adventure. They put on all the equipment and went for a short and shallow dive.

After leaving Cala Gonone, we met a proud Sardinian who shared his thoughts with us.  He said that when God created the earth, he was content, but then he created the island of Sardinia and was completely satisfied.

After leaving Cala Gonone, we met a proud Sardinian who shared his thoughts with us. He said that when God created the earth, he was content, but then he created the island of Sardinia and was overjoyed.

Sardinia, First Stop, San Teodoro

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Sardinia is the Italian island-region just off the western coast of the mainland.  Its jagged shore weaving in and out of the Mediterranean Sea creates hundreds of small, sandy coves.  These secluded beaches make Sardinia famous, and with the weather in the 80s, lots of Italians are taking a ferry or catching a cheap flight and coming over for a visit. It was hard to decide where we wanted to stay first.  Each seaside town seems to overlook spectacular shades of clear, turquoise water. But after seeing a postcard hanging in a restaurant in Umbria last month, we chose to visit San Teodoro.
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We found the hotel on the internet: “close to the beach . . .good for families . . .wifi available . . .breakfast included.”  And the website offered a discount for paying in advance.   As we drove up, Tom took one glance at the bouncy house and said, “This must be a five star hotel!”
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We entered the reception area at 9pm to loud music from the pool area.  They enthusiastically told us that there was dancing every night until midnight right outside our room.  As we walked past the grassy common area and to our little hut, someone stopped us and listed off the activities for the next day.  There would be games and more dancing and competitions and kids’ crafts and themed evenings.  It sounded like a Carnival Cruise.
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But by 10 the next day, we were all on board.
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Most of the guests at Hotel Hexagon were seniors.  All were Italian with the majority from Naples.  They kindled an endearing, energetic, sometimes brash, southern atmosphere during our stay.  The first day, several of the older guests broke out in traditional Italian dance.  By the second night, they were timing those same steps to “I Follow Rivers” by Audiogroove.
a pre-lunch dance party.  Ilaria taught new dance moves every day at 12:00

Pre-lunch dance instruction

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Matt and Tom entered a two-day bocce ball tournament, and came in third place.Matt and Tom entered a two-day bocci ball tournament, and came in third place.

Matt and Tom entered a two-day bocce ball tournament, and came in third place.

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Our friend Stacia took anther break from her Sardinian sailing job to hang out with us.

And our friend Stacia took another break from her Sardinian sailing job to hang out with us.

Even though we only stayed two nights, saying goodbye was pretty hard.  We all regreted our plan to continue south to Cala Gonone.  We no longer wanted to see “some of Sardinia’s most beautiful hidden beaches and grottos.”  We wanted more pool side dancing and bocce ball.  So as fate would have it, we did get to return.  Half way to our next destination, we realized we left a bag back at Hotel Hexigon.  We made a u-turn and got to see everyone back in San Teodoro for another goodbye.
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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.)

Spello, Luke’s birthday and a couple personal cliff-hangers

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There was some kind of unexplainable, weird energy enveloping us this weekend that began once we set out on our trip to Spello.  We found ourselves constantly torn between feeling cursed and somehow protected.

We chose to visit Spello because of its acclaimed Infiorita, an annual flower festival in which the town stays up all night carpeting the streets with intricate mosaics made entirely out of flower petals.  This year, the Infiorita fell on Luke’s birthday. On Sunday, he would have been 14.  After looking for something special to do in honor of our son, we decided that a city covered in flowers would be a safe and sweet setting for our love and sadness.

On Friday, we packed our bags and headed out. First I wheeled my suitcase to the post office where I mailed a letter.  Then I met Matt and the boys for our drive.  We arrived in Spello nearly an hour later.  That’s when it began. Matt started unloading the car and then portentously asked why my suitcase wasn’t in the trunk.  I could feel my heart sink.  As I retraced my steps I realized I must have left it sitting in the post office.  I pictured it there, all by itself with my computer inside (loaded with every digital picture I’ve taken since we arrived) and also packed with several other material possessions with which I’m attached.  We had no choice but to immediately go look for it.  The ride was grueling as I tried to come to terms with my stupidity and the loss of my belongings.  I imagined the rest of the year without writing emails or a blog. I dreaded having to buy a new computer.  The questions ended when we entered the post office and saw my black suitcase standing in the middle of the room right where I left it.  It had apparently remained untouched for two hours.  We marveled at our astounding luck before once again driving to Spello.

That night in our hotel, after we were all sound asleep, my phone rang.  It was the landlord of our next-door neighbor in Perugia.  She said her tenant had just called because he was worried; our apartment door has been wide open all day.  He had finally decided to shut it, but was wondering if we were okay.  In my foggy haze, I imagined robbers had forced their way in and were emptying our cupboards and drawers in search of  something valuable.  I woke Matt and we assessed the likelihood of a break-in.  We considered the timing and the difficulty of getting past our thickly bolted door at the top of our six story building.  We decided it was most probable that one of us (me) accidently left the door open on our way out and that there was no need to hurry back to Perugia.  Needless to say, sleep was elusive.

There would be more suspense; but first, the beautiful flower mosaics of Spello:

Saturday was full of activity.  In the evening, teams of artists began constructing their pictures.  Many groups set up long tents over their work and hung electric lights inside to illuminate their progress through the night.  The streets were lined with children, parents and grandparents sorting flowers by color and cutting petals into different sizes.

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Visitors from all over Umbria and beyond crowded the space to see how the garden art was made.  The designs were first drawn on paper, which was stuck to the ground.  Flowers were then arranged on top according to the color that was specified by the artists.  As the night went on and more and more petals were laid out, unbelievably detailed scenes emerged.

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By 8am the next morning, only the finishing touches remained.  Finally once the tents were removed, everyone could see the stunning work that was created during the night.

Pope Francis and St. Francis

Pope Francis and St. Francis

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The disheartening aspect of this tradition is the bishop’s procession.  Just three hours after the mosaics are complete, a holy entourage exits the church of Santa Maria Maggiore and gets to walk over all the pictures.  With these footsteps, the painstaking work is ruined. Even though this procession is all part of the festival, it seemed such an appalling demonstration of disrespect.  It was upsetting to watch even though the mosaics were made for that purpose.

The bishop and his entourage entering the streets of Spello

The bishop enters the streets of Spello

Another image of power dominating beauty

power dominating beauty

It was around this time that the four of us separated.  Matt and Tom went to get a coffee and play cribbage while Ray and I toured the streets.  When we rejoined, Matt gave me a disparaging look and told me his phone had been stolen.  He had left it for a few minutes on a cafe table, and then it was gone.  He asked around, but had no luck.  We immediately tried calling his number, but there was no answer.  Next we sent texts to his phone in both English and Italian asking whoever had it to please, please, please give it back.  Before admitting defeat, we returned to the cafe, at which point, one of the servers brought it to us saying it had just been turned in.  We couldn’t believe it.

Afterwards, we sat to a long lunch outside in the sun.  We considered staying another night but decided to go home and check on the apartment.  On our way out of town we passed the disheveled mosaics and shook our heads at the scattered pedals.  You could see the imprint of the shoes that walked all over the mosaics.  Matt and I both commented that it reminded us of the picture on the infinite “Footprints” cards we received after Luke died (the ones that talk about the single set of footprints in times of difficulty because God must be carrying you.) But instead of prints left on sand, these were on the flowers of Spello.

It did seem symbolic; we admitted to having the most incredible luck here and couldn’t help but feel the presence of something protective.

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Back in Perugia, Matt and I entered the apartment first and did a quick scan of the rooms.  It seemed as if no robbers had busted in and that every instance of this weekend’s suspense resulted from our own distraction and negligence.  It provided for the perfect kind of excitement – a little danger and uncertainty followed by a positive outcome.

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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