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.

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

Matt on the edge . . .

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.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.

They say 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.

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.

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

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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.

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. 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 in a positive outcome

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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 exhibition 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.

 

 

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Conquering Rome

Girls weekend in Rome.  This is Stacia on the steps of the Vittoriano

Girls’ weekend in Rome. This is Stacia “holding the flag” on the steps of the Vittorio Emanuele Monument

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.

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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.)

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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.

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These enormous statues on top of the monument don't look so enormous anymore.

These enormous statues on top don’t look so enormous anymore.

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:

San Pietro in Vincoli: Just as many people visit The Chains that bound St. Peter as Michelangelo's Moses.

San Pietro in Vincoli: Just as many people visit The Chains that bound St. Peter as Michelangelo’s Moses.

High fivin' Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Piazza del Campidoglio

High fivin’ Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Piazza del Campidoglio

Besides many guide-book worthy

Besides the many guide-book worthy landmarks, we toured past other quintessential Roman details.  Fountains:  there are over 200 in this city.  Some are purely decorative, but many can be used for filling up water bottles or drinking straight from the source.  In ancient Rome, there were at least nine aqueducts that channeled water into the city for its inhabitants.  Some of them are still in use.

Because of all the protests, demonstrations and churches, Rome is full of cops and nuns.  The crowds of milling police are less intimidating than the groups of nuns.

And armed men: Because of all the protests and demonstrations, Rome is also full of cops.

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.

Piazza della Rotonda and the towering Pantheon

Piazza della Rotonda and the Pantheon

My Two Days (written by Ray)

by guest blogger Ray

Sitting by Lago Trasimeno

Last Tuesday, Tom went with his class to Pompeii.  (It’s a city that was buried a long time ago from ash when Mt. Vesuvius erupted.)  So for two days, it was just me, Mom and Dad.

Waving goodbye to Tom's class

Waving goodbye to Tom’s class

Tom left on a bus at 7am, and I went to school like usual from 8-1.  I like school. I’ve made lots of new friends this year.  Some are boys and some are girls.  My least favorite class right now is Italian.  We just finished a unit on journalism.  Italians don’t have a “W” in their alphabet, but they still use “the 5 W’s” when studying newspaper articles.  They pronounce it like, “oo, wat, were, win and wyee.”  We had to read and write lots of articles.  I’m glad we are finished.  My favorite class is Math.  I got a 9 out of 10 on my last test.

Anyway, after school my parents took me to Lago Trasimeno.  This is a huge lake in Umbria that’s close to Perugia.  When we got there, we found a little pebbly area near the water and skipped rocks for a while.  I can skip a rock four times.  My dad can skip a rock at least eight times.  But my mom can’t skip at all.

Me and Dad skipping rocks

Dad and me skipping rocks

We drove further on until we got to a restaurant called Faliero.  This is a popular restaurant.  Sometimes you have to wait more than an hour to order your food.  We got there at 7:30 which is early for Italians, so we only waited 10 minutes.  This place is famous for its “torta al testo” which is a triangular sandwich filled with sausages.  That’s what I ordered.  My mom and dad split one and had a plate of gnocchi too.

Torta al testo

After dinner we drove home and watched an episode of Modern Family that we bought on iTunes.

The next day after school, we took another trip.  This time we went to a city called Città di Castello.   This is a small city about one hour away.  First we went to a museum that was in an old tobacco drying warehouse.  The whole building was full of paintings by an artist named Burri.  He was an Italian captured in WWII by the Americans and put in prison.  That’s where he got the idea to do art.  His paintings are big and very different than other paintings we have seen in Italy.  Most of them were very plain.  None of them looked like anything I could recognize.  We tried to find faces and heads in the paintings.  One of the paintings looked like a human and the face of a dog, but it was hard to tell.

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After the museum we started to walk around the city.  First we went to a church.  Then we walked past an old hospital.  Next my legs started to get tired so we got gelato.  My favorite flavor is still chocolate.  Then we went to another church.  It was more interesting than the last one because they had some candles to light.  Right outside the church I saw a park and I played there for a while.  I liked the swings the best.  But my favorite part of the city was climbing the bell tower.  There were a lot of stairs and a view on top.  We were the only ones there.

At the top of the bell tower

We had dinner in Città di Castello and then had to drive back to Perugia to pick up Tom.  His bus got in at 10:30 at night.  I liked the trips we took.  It was fun to see the lake and another city.  But one of my favorite parts of Tom’s field trip was being able to use Tom’s Husky plate while he was gone.

Go Dawgs

Arsenal and Pickpockets, London and Paris


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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.

Build for the 2012 Olympics, the Eye of London is a half hour Ferris wheel ride high over the city.

The London Eye is a half-hour Ferris wheel ride over the city.

Ray and the Tower of London

Ray and the Tower of London

The kids with Peter Pan.

The kids with Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

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.

Outside the gates

waiting for a goal

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.

Lynn find a place to sit on our bed while Deac finds space on the ladder

Lynn find a place to sit on our bed while Deac hangs out on the ladder

Paris was all about short stops at big sights during the day and long dinners in small restaurants at night.

Another great view of the Eiffel Tower

Another great view of the Eiffel Tower

Joining hundreds of others to glimpse the Mona Lisa

Joining hundreds of others for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa

Starting off another French feast with a kir royale

Starting off another French feast with a kir royale

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.

Jacques has two cell phones and a wallet chained to the inside of his long jacket which covers his pants' pockets.  He only uses the cheap phone when in a public area in Paris.

Jacques has two cell phones and a wallet chained to the inside of his long jacket.

If things get ugly, he also has this for protection.

If things get ugly, he also has this for protection.

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.

Ray tries unsuccessfully to rob Deac.

Later, one of the kids tries unsuccessfully to rob Deac.

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.

A Tuscan Cemetery

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  “Ipogeno dei Volumni” with family in December. 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  Raphael Sanzio and two Italian kings.

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.

 Pope Benedict XI’s tomb in the Basilica of San Dominica in Perugia. 

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

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.

Dino and Ida, among others

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. 

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

This was our favorite – the exhausted mourner draped over the coffin in absolute surrender.

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.