Travelogs & Reflections > Therese's Travelog > Italy


May 20-21, 2006: Milano

We traveled all over creation trying to find decently priced accommodations here in Milano. Steve, Carrol and Paul had already checked into a hostel when, at 10 p.m. Peter and I and another couple coming from the train station, struck a deal at a really nice hotel with breakfast included for less than what we were paying without breakfast! We managed to weasel out of the hostel and trek on over to the other hotel back near the central train station. The next morning we first stopped at the tourist information office and then set off to explore Milano. Our path took us through the public park and eventually on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, a main esplanade heading to the duomo. It was Saturday and there was a street fair, with booths from a variety of community organizations. I believe it was the Lion’s Club that was giving away free bread and we got a loaf for lunch. Even before we arrived at the duomo, we began to sense the presence of this mammoth cathedral, looming over the other buildings, modern and ancient, that surround it. Capable of seating 40,000, this church is more on the scale of a futebol stadium! This Gothic duomo that was started in 1386 and only completed 600-odd years later, however, is exponentially more enchanting than any stadium I have ever seen. Its massive stone foundation erupts like an elaborate firework in the sky—a storybook façade of hundreds of thousands of lace-like spires and pillars, many housing statues of various religious characters. The inside of the church is so cavernous that we lost Steve temporarily in the church. Checkering the walls around the perimeter of the church are small stained glass windows depicting various scenes of Jesus’ life and Peter, Paul and I each chose three different scenes to interpret. We passed through the magnificent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele which reminded me of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and Ponte Vecchio in Florence: Not only are the shops predominantly jewelry, you keep walking because the prices are prohibitively expensive.

We purchased the makings of a picnic in an overpriced market and ate our lunch on the steps of Piazza Carmine with the church of the piazza’s namesake to set the stage. The pigeons, the resident fowl of all piazzas, vied for the extra crumbs from our meal. Weaving through unassuming side streets, we suddenly came to the grand semi-circular thoroughfare, Foro Buonaparte, that encompasses the entrance of Castello Sforzesco, a formidable fortress of a castle. Having successfully traversed this first line of defense, we came to the next layer, Piazza Castello, and finally crossed the moat, now lined in a blanket of green grass, across the drawbridge and into the grounds of the castle. After some exploration, Peter, Paul and I split off to catch a bus to AC Milan. We tried our scam of boarding the bus at the rear and getting a free ride to our destination. The problem was that our stop was at the end of the line and by the time the stadium was in sight, we were among the last passengers on board. We got off a few stops before the stadium to avoid any uncomfortable direct encounters with the driver and followed the perimeter walls of the stadium what seemed like a mile or two to the entrance gate. Inside the gift shop, we looked for cheap souvenirs that unfortunately were nonexistent, but the sales clerk took pity on these young futebol enthusiasts of meager means and emerged from the back of the store with a couple of programs from last season’s games and gave them to Paul. With treasures in hand, we walked around the stadium, looking for a way to sneak and catch a glimpse of its interior and Peter even tried to sweet talk a guard at one gate in Italian, but the perimeter was well-secured and we didn’t see anything except the concrete towers! We made our way back to Stazione Centrale on a couple of bus lines without paying a single fare—a pretty inexpensive outing after all! Back at the train station, we hurried across the street to avoid a fight that had erupted among the rough crowd that train and bus terminals across the world seem to attract. I grew quite alert when the pursuer broke a bottle on a light post and ran flailing his deadly weapon in pursuit of the culprit of the outbreak. This was one instance when I didn’t feel compelled to practice my mediation skills! Keeping an eye on the pursuit as we headed back to our hotel, it appeared as though it dissipated without incident.

The next day, we went to mass at a church near our hotel. It was a special mass for the homeless. A large choir performed and a whole entourage of clergy was in attendance and I think the parish priest was so nervous in the presence of all these dignitaries that he initially forgot the beginning benediction and had to start the mass over again! After mass, I visited the chapel of St. Joseph to the right of the church’s altar and kneeled in prayer for my godchild, Joseph Sondag. At the back of the church as we were leaving, we were greeted in English by a woman whose daughter lives in Canada.

May 19, 2006:

Friends, food and futebol

Our time with Lina and Paolo and family has been rich with good company, good food, excellent wine, and spectacular country. We are deeply indebted to this generous family for the warm hospitality they showed us. For the entire week, Piero loaned us his family van to use and Paolo surrendered his Alpha Romeo to Piero (which Paolo pointed out was the "real sacrifice"). In the meantime, Lina and her colleagues at the cantino at ICOP fed us all manner of wonderful Italian food, although my favorite was the vegetable tuna salad, risotto with greens, Margarita pizza, and Italian sweet bread.

I had my first platter of risotto when we went to Piero and Chiara’s house one evening. I had two to three helpings before I realized there was another course. It was a delicious meal and engaging conversation about quality of life here in Italy, as compared to the United States and other western countries. A political analyst by the name of Jeremy Rifkin had just visited Udine the past weekend and his thesis was that the United States is in a period of decline as the European Union eclipses the United States as the new economic super power. Piero and Chiara have a wonderful library and we really enjoyed their collection of books about many of the artists we have become acquainted with during our stay in Italy. Peter and Paul were very excited to see Giacomo’s room, filled with futebol memorabilia, and to play some hoops down in the driveway.Another night, we convened at ICOP for another soccer match and then barreled into cars and caravanned to a local pizzeria in Udine to watch the champion’s league finals, FC Barcelona vs. Arsenal. Paul was so engrossed in the game he barely remembers ordering or eating his pizza! FC Barcelona was victorious, winning the European champion’s league cup! Ronaldinho as per usual delivered a spectacular performance, fending off multiple defenders, all the time with a smile on his face!

Lina herself gave us a tour of the winery. The grapes are first sorted and crushed in large aluminum equipment outside. When it’s ready to ferment, the wine is stored in cool aluminum vats. Finally, the wine is bottled, the label adhered and the bottles of fine wine shipped across the world. Lina gave me the name of a distributor in Portland to contact for our supply of Petrucco wine when we return!

May 16, 2006

The canals of Venice

I have always wanted to go to Venice, so as we walked out of the train station and there were the beautiful canals of Venice, it was a surreal experience. We immediately caught the public ferry that indicated the most stops and were soon venturing out into the canal thoroughfares of Venice. At the first stop, we were at the mouth of the Grand Canal. I was so excited to be here at the gateway of the town of Venice, but, when we left the depot, we started going in the opposite direction and in fact leaving the heart of Venice. I wasn’t sure what was going on because we had boarded a line that was supposed to go to Piazza San Marco, the famous and largest of Venice’s plazas, but, as we continued, we realized that we had taken a line that goes around the perimeter of the island and drops into to Piazza San Marco from the other side. Instead, we got a view of the cargo boats transporting goods to and from the island and a bevy of monstrous cruise liners and nothing of the Grand Canal. Thankfully, we were able to correct our mistake quite easily: When we got off, we merely caught another line that sailed through the Grand Canal all the way back to where we started.

Sailing the Grand Canal

Oh, how magical is Venice, such a lovely quarter of the old world. Each building exudes its own unique charm and there was one magnificent sight after another. I was struggling to keep up, following the guide book that Lina’s son and daughter-in-law had lent me for our tour. Immediately at the tip of one of the fingers of the island is a lovely monument of two men in bronze holding up a golden globe—what looks like the earth—on their backs, while a graceful figure of Lady Luck pirouettes on the top of the globe and holds out what looks like a gold kite, perhaps an offering to the gods of the sea for good fortune for the voyages of the seafaring people of Venice. Next to this monument is Santa Maria della Salute, a huge Baroque cathedral built in 1630 to commemorate the blessed ending of the plague that beset much of Europe. Along the canal we passed one palazzo after another, again each one imparting its own unique style, Veneto-Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and neoclassical, yet each blending seamlessly with the next to create a marvelous architectural mosaic. There was Palazzo Contarini Fasan with its white lace stone balconies and trim and Palazzo Salviati with its regal mosaic in the middle of its façade and palazzos Grassi, Moro-Lin, and Garzoni with their multiple rows of arched windows. Palazzo Garzoni is now a university campus as well. Oh, how I’d like to study art history from this campus! And, there is Casa Foscari (1437), another palace that now also serves as a university campus, with its banks of arched windows in the center of the façade that form two grand balconies overlooking the canal. My guide book was in Italian so, as I was trying my best to keep up with the steady stream of architectural sights, I was also trying to translate what we were seeing as best I could for Peter and Paul. A local man next to me became amused by my delighted exclamations and began to assist me in identifying the attractions. He basically confirmed what everybody says of Venice: There’s no way you can rank the attractions so the best way to experience Venice is to meander its winding cobblestone streets. You can’t really get lost because sooner or later you run into the Grand Canal or the open sea or some other distinctive landmark. Near the Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge) is the Palazzo Bembo, painted in burnt Sienna with white stone reliefs decorating the façade. We also passed a couple of marketplaces. One of them is a fish market, La Pescheria, inside an open promenade on the bottom floor of a two-story building overlooking the canal. Next door is an open air produce market as well. Amidst the palazzos were the occasional church and monastery. San Stae (Saint Stae) was built in 1709. It’s a relatively small church but an angel heralds glad tidings to all those who enter the front door and more sculptures sit in naves and on the points of the triangular roof, as well as, on the columns on the side of the building. Finally, we come to San Simeone Piccolo (1738), another church with a grand bronze green dome.

Venice by foot

Crossing Ponte Scalzi, one of the three bridges that traverses the Grand Canal, we ambled through the streets, loosely following the signs to San Marco but taking plenty of detours to see piazzas tucked away in between buildings or along the shores of a tributary canal. The canals were called rios instead of vias but they are Venice’s road system. People park their boats instead of their cars outside their homes and some homes even have canal garages. Doors lead out to the canals and one front door we found at a dead-end was at the end of a small bridge. In total, there are160-odd canals and 400 bridges interconnecting approximately 118 islands! As we wove through the interior of this island, we encountered at least that many churches and squares. There was a church in every square, called piazza for mid size or larger, and campo for small square. I wandered down one small alley and found two women sitting, chatting on a lone bench in one small campo, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the other squares. Venice is famous for its own Carnevale. An artist in one mask shop explained Venice’s carnival to me (though he confessed that the celebration is nothing compared to Carnival in Rio in Brazil): There are certainly colorful festivities; people dress up in elaborate costume and don ceramic masks, painted in imaginative, original designs, and there are many people in the streets, but most of the festivities take place in the palaces of Venice, ala the ball where Romeo and Juliet met, and are formal, admission-only affairs. With the grandeur of old Venice as a backdrop, I am sure that Mardi Gras in Venice is a spectacular event!

We stopped at a local pizzeria to grab a slice of pizza for 1 Euro and settled ourselves down to eat on the steps of one church where a crowd had gathered to listen to an extremely talented local opera singer. With a tape recorder providing accompaniment, his voice swelled to remarkably high octaves, filling the atmosphere with glorious ions and sealing the Venetian spell.

Every church in Venice contains fantastic pieces of art—sculptures, paintings and frescoes. The altar at San Moise church was most unusual. It was a depiction of Moses on the top of the mountain receiving the 10 commandments from God. The mountain looked real—rock in relief, while Moses, the 10 commandments, a crowd of Israelites and angels were all painted on a smooth segment of the rock. The altar caught the attention of another visitor who began making inquiries about it too. The man at the information desk was very friendly but didn’t speak a word of English so we didn’t find out any details about its origins. To the left of the altar in a small chapel was an oil painting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well that he befriends, a scene I have not yet seen depicted in our travels.

Talking politics in Venice

One costume shop had swatches of fabric on display, and Mom and I went in to ask the clerk about getting a piece for Mom’s quilt. It turned out that the woman at the register was the store owner and she spoke perfect English. She was from Chicago and was raised in the U.S, but returned to Italy as an adult. We talked politics and once again, we heard what is definitely prevailing opinion the world over—How could the American people have elected George Bush? He really is viewed universally as an incredibly inept leader, basically a bozo who doesn’t have any knowledge about or expertise in global relations, and whose policies are motivated by self-gain. Everybody in the rest of the world seems to realize that Bush’s policies are about oil and power, all pursued under the guise of the war against terrorism. Nobody we met since we’ve been on this trip supports the American-led war in Iraq and the subsequent chaos that has ensued. And, of course, all this reflects poorly on the American people as our fellow global citizens just cannot comprehend how our populace elected such a buffoon, not once but twice. Having had exposure to the BBC on this trip, I really think our skewed media is to blame, that and our geographical isolation from the rest of the world. This woman’s perspective was interesting. She sees Bush and his old-boy politics as a dying ideology and is hopeful for the dawning of a new way of thinking across the globe, including from the newly elected president of Italy.

Moorish domes

We finally arrived at Piazza San Marco, a huge square full of pigeons, lined with ornately carved stone and dominated by the five-domed cathedral of San Marcos. The domes are strikingly Moorish and I wondered if this square might bear some resemblance to the skyline of Red Square in Moscow. From the upper echelons of the basilica, a gold statue of St. Mark and his patron animal, the lion, flanked by bronze horses, greet all those who visit the square and cross the threshold to the basilica. The actual St. Mark is buried under the high altar of the basilica. Also punctuating the edifice are fanciful spires while the façade is stunningly arrayed in inlaid marble. Inside the vast basilica, this theme is continued on floors, walls and cupolas and further embellished with jewels and gold trinkets, looted from the lucrative pirating that occurred off the shores of Venice. The floors are puckered permanently in the pattern of the shifting tide from centuries of water damage caused by flooding. (San Marcos is the lowest point in Venice). The central cupola rising high in the rafters aptly depicts Jesus’ ascension. From the top of the cathedral, we could see the cathedral’s Gothic neighbor, the Ducal palace, once the seat of the republic’s government.

The birds!

We had another snack on the steps of San Marco square, throwing a few scraps of food to the pigeons and watching people employing various creative strategies to attract the pigeons. One guy lay down in the middle of the square and sprinkled himself with pigeon feed. The pigeons descended upon him, like an episode of Hitchcock’s The Birds, and he before long, he looked like he’d been tarred and feathered! Peter and I went out in search of a restroom in a 5-star hotel. The first one we tried had its own private dock and as soon as we walked in, we were targeted as suspicious interlopers on the premises. Once again I feigned ignorance, picking up a magazine on an end table in the lobby and pretending to read it. I was promptly approached by hotel staff and politely but decisively escorted from the premises with an embarrassed Peter in tow. We re-evaluated our strategy and decided that a larger hotel, preferably with public facilities, like a restaurant, would not be as hyper vigilant about visitors. We found a hotel that fit these specifications and were successful in our mission of infiltrating the premises and using the restroom! Peter emerged from his fancy restroom with a few souvenirs, towels and soap, bearing the hotel’s mark!

Island hopping home

On our way back to the train station, we first visited the Ponte dei Sospiri, Bridge of Sighs, from where the moans of the imprisoned could be heard emanating from the nearby dungeons of the Ducal palace. Hoping to visit the Punta della Dogana at the tip of one of the main islands, we caught the ferry across the Grand Canal from San Marco square but found the point blocked off and the Church of Santa Maria della Salute closed so we walked the streets and canals again to the next major bridge, Ponte dell’ Accademia, to meet Steve. Enroute to the train depot we traversed yet more canals and bridges. In one canal, a gondola driver was lounging in his boat, muscles bulging, a living advertisement for the experience of a gondola ride. We discovered that many of the souvenir shops sell a calendar of Venice’s top 12 gondola driver hunks. They also offer another calendar featuring Italy’s other commodity, attractive priests! Passing along one cobblestone street, we noticed a restaurant’s storefront window was filled with corks. The attendant invited the boys to take what they wanted, and Peter seriously augmented his collection! One of the last stops of the day was Campo San Giacomo dell’ Orio. XXXX

May 14, 2006

Life at the vineyard

Paolo left today to go back to Sudan to discuss another prospective engineering project. As we set off for mass at Buttrio’s neighborhood church, Lina left to attend the wedding of a cousin. This church’s peculiar feature was its clock. Though the time is accurate, it is upside down! Apparently, the construction team installed it that way on purpose because the clients had withheld payment for the work. After mass, Steve and Mom went to the store, and Peter, Paul and I walked back to the house. Lina had taught us how to scale the fence if we couldn’t open the gate so we did just that and settled in to draw inspiration from this idyllic setting for our direly overdue travelogs and use the Internet at the vineyard’s office.

In the afternoon, we took a walk through the vineyard, Lina and Paolo’s land and neighboring vineyards as well. Apparently the best wine is harvested from grapes grown on gently rolling hills, like Lina and Paolo’s vineyard. We visited the pond or, according to Lina, "lake," at the base of the hill and sat quietly on its shores waiting to get a good look at the family of birds that have recently settled there. Unfortunately, they were very shy and we only caught glimpses of them sidling in and out of the reeds on the other side of the lake. With Steve’s telephoto lens and Paul’s expert wildlife observation skills, Steve and Paul were able to identify the species for Paolo—they’re little grebes!

Further down the path, we passed the palace on the hill, where an engineer lives all by himself. You could see the grand courtyard this palace encloses. At the top of this hill, we climbed a rickety fire observation tower for a panoramic view of the surrounding, rolling hills, draped in vineyards. I went up to the top with Peter and Paul, part of my therapy for overcoming my agoraphobia, but when Peter kept shaking the unstable structure, Paul and I decided to abandon ship! On our way back, we stopped at an old abandoned farm house to check out the property. Great location but it was pretty much gutted out; as we rounded the corner, we realized only the shell of the house remained.

May 13, 2006

Tour through Slovenia, northern Italy, Alps

Since Paolo was scheduled to leave the next day for a business trip to Sudan, he took us on an outing to the Adriatic Sea and the northern Alps. Passing romantic castles on the coastline, we stopped for a stroll in the seaside resort of Trieste, where one of Paolo’s sons lives. Here, we trailed through the streets to sample the best gelato in town. With gelato as fuel, we power-walked back to our car and bee-lined it to Slovenia as we were trying to touch the soil of three countries that day, Italy, Slovenia and Austria. We were all amazed by the beauty of Slovenia, a coastal Alpine country, bordered by Italy, the Adriatic Sea, Croatia, Hungary, and Austria. Somehow I had lumped Slovenia in with the rest of the former Yugoslavia and expected to find a half-gutted country. But, as Paolo explained to us, Slovenia is ethnically more related to Italy, Austria and Germany than its Yugoslavian neighbors.  In fact, many Slovenians speak fluent Italian as well as German and English. Also, before 1999 under Tito, all Yugoslavians were required to know Slovenian (and all its many dialects), Serbian and Croatian, as well as Russian, and all these languages were taught in school. Paolo was impressed with the Slovenian’s seemingly genetic facility for acquiring languages. At lunch we saw this in practice as the waiter spoke with us in Italian.

We had lunch at a restaurant along the Isonzo, or Soca (in Slovenian) River, painted green from the limestone found in these hills of the euchenic period. The river is apparently very clean and rich in nutrients, supporting a healthy fish population. We were to find many outdoor sporting outfits across Slovenia, capitalizing on the first-class fishing, hiking, climbing and skiing opportunities that abound in this spectacular country. We tried a typical Slovenian dish, cevapacici, a delicious entrée of grilled meat, vegetables, and potatoes with a paprika sauce.

Further into the lush Slovenian countryside were idyllic villages, each with their neat church steeple and chalet-style homes, and verdant vineyards thriving in the morrainic zone, also rich in nutrients. Our last stop was at Paolo and Lina’s ski chalet in the Italian Alps. The kids had been clamoring for snow and Paolo delivered. We stopped at a field of snow and we all scampered in the snow among the white crocuses, Peter and Paul ambushing us with snow balls at every opportunity. Paolo joined in the fray, launching some snow bombs of his own. Peter and Paul reluctantly returned to the van with various frozen limbs and extremities, one of Peter’s legs fell all the way through the ice!

By the time we arrived back home, Piero’s sons, Luigi, Giacomo, Nicola, and Paolo, were waiting to meet the American visitors. Luigi was scheduled to take an exam in English soon, and Lina was eager to get the boys together so that Luigi could practice his English. We set them up in the living room to talk and get acquainted but before long, they were playing futebol in the front yard! We enjoyed them and Piero and Chiara who joined us later for dinner, soup, salad and strawberries with whipped cream!

May 12, 2006: Northern Italy

Villa Petrucco

In a small village in northern Italy is the village of Buttrio, a small mountainside hamlet blanketed with vineyards. Here also is the villa of a wonderful couple we met on our last night in Nairobi at the Catholic hostel, Flora’s, Paolo and Lina Petrucco. They were in Nairobi with their family enroute to southern Sudan to christen a bridge Paolo and his sons and their engineering firm had constructed. (The Italian government gave this community in Sudan the temporary bridge that had been erected by Paolo’s firm in Italy after a bridge had collapsed when a river flooded. Paolo’s firm as well as other Italian companies donated materials, transportation and expertise. Over 50 containers were shipped to Sudan and Paolo and Lina, as well as others from the firm, spent two months in Sudan helping to construct a permanent bridge for this community last winter. It was a very gratifying project as all of Africa is desperately in need of improved infrastructure, as well as, basic facilities.) Paolo and Lina sat at our table our last evening in Nairobi and we began talking about Italy, our trip and their project in Sudan. By the end of the evening they had invited us to their home! Since then, we have looked forward to coming here, to their vineyard. Today our dream came true. When we arrived at the Venice-Mestra station, we found a table at the cafeteria in the station, and Steve and Mom scurried off in different directions to take care of various business, while Peter, Paul and I got one of those delicious cappuccinos Italy is deservedly famous for (decaffeinated and more latte for Peter and Paul). Around the time our train was scheduled to arrive, I began looking for Paolo or Lina and found out that the train that we should have been on (we came on an earlier train because the other train was sold-out) was early, in fact had already arrived. I went to look for Paolo or Lina at the platform where the train had arrived but didn’t see either of them. As I emerged from the tunnel to the front entrance of the station, there was Paolo at the top of the stairs. We immediately recognized each other and I ran to greet him. We were both very glad to see each other. Paolo was beginning to worry that we had gone to the wrong train station. We packed our bags in his van and were soon off on the auto Estrada to his and Lina’s home in Buttrio.

As we wove through the center of Buttrio, we came to one intersection and there was a sign to their house. It read "Petrucco acienda agricola" (Petrucco agricultural villa) because they live on and own a vineyard. We wound up the hill past other vineyards and villas and a castle until we reached the gates of their villa. As we drove into their property, the vineyard spread out before us on one side and their sprawling villa, a converted farm house, on the other. The top of the vineyard is decorated with a rock wall planter box filled with colorful annuals and the yard is a green bed grass with clusters of flowers. Lina was waiting for us with a lovely lunch, a tuna salad with all kinds of fresh vegetables and homemade bread. Paolo excused himself after lunch to return to work and a couple of hours later, we joined him at the office for the baptismal celebration of the baby of one of the engineers at the firm. I managed to converse either in English with fluent English speakers or Italiano-Spanish with the steady line-up of people we were meeting—Paolo’s sons Vitoriano and Piero and the father of the baby, who I recognized from Nairobi. I particularly enjoyed talking with the mother of the baby, Barbara, who was very fluent in English even though she hadn’t spoken the language in a very long time. She obviously has a facility for languages because she speaks English, Friolano (the dialect in this province of Italy), Italiano, and a couple of other languages as well. After cleaning up in the conference room, Lina and I walked over to the soccer field at the plant and watched the boys play some rough futebol. I cheered for Paul’s assists, Steve’s still lively bursts of energy, and Peter’s control of the ball, as well as a couple of goals by Paolo (even though he was off-sides big time because he just stayed down at the goal waiting for an opportune pass!) and his grandson Giacomo’s showmanship with the ball. Now there’s another futebol fanatic to match Paul’s fervor for the game! Poor Luigi, Lina and Paolo’s oldest grandson, left the game after a collision with Peter and I hoped he didn’t have a concussion! (I often remark that Peter’s head is made of a supernatural material, possibly titanium. Even when he was little, he seemed undaunted by major bangs on the head!)

May 11, 2006: Florence

Head to the hills

While Peter, Paul and G-ma headed to the Galleria to see the original Michelangelo’s David, Steve and I set off to explore the countryside of Florence. Crossing the Ponte Vecchio again, we paused to enjoy the Arno by the morning light and headed back into the old neighborhood of San Niccolo. This time the church of Santa Felicita, built on the site of a late 4th century early Christian basilica, was open and we were privileged to see a brilliant fresco, the Deposition by Pontormo (1525-1528). I stand corrected in my earlier assessment of Pontormo as being crude. This painting is amazing—it literally explodes in luminosity and vividness of color, as if those in the scene are already aware that Jesus’ death will end in triumph. Traveling up the hill along the quiet, narrow Via San Leonardo, we ambled hand-in-hand through sleepy villages and country villas on the outskirts of Florence, overlooking the pastoral hills, ripe with oranges and other fruits of the land. We eventually merged with a major boulevard, heading in the direction of Piazzale Michelangelo.

Favorite fresco

We came to the basilica of San Miniato al Monte and climbed up the double staircase to its square. A group of young people were sprawled along the wall drawing, chatting and enjoying the fantastic views of Florence from this plateau. The basilica and surrounding buildings used to be the bishops of Tuscany’s quarters. Over the centuries it changed ownership several times and not recognizing the value of the art it housed, literally white-washed lovely frescoes. It is now a Benedictine monastery and slowly the basilica and its associated buildings are being restored. From the rather modest entrance to the church, I had no idea how big and majestic the church is. Immediately upon entering the church to the right were giant frescoes of saints parading down the wall. In the main nave, there is a tri-panel iconographic altar in the center of the church. The main altar was situated behind this smaller altar and elevated to another level. On either side of the Holy Spirit in the center panel were stained glass windows resembling fire. In the morning light, they were brilliantly ablaze, conveying the fervor of the Holy Spirit. Though I was separated from the altar by a fenced enclosure, I was mesmerized by this effect and felt the Holy Spirit infuse my soul with thanksgiving. I couldn’t wait to tell the rest of the family about this sacred place and bring them here to experience its majesty and grace. On either side of the central altar were stairs leading to yet another level of the church. It was here tucked in a corner on one side I found my favorite fresco I have seen on this trip—and we have seen a lot of frescoes, especially in the stone churches in Capadoccia in Turkey. This lovely fresco offers a beautiful glimpse of the special and intimate relationship Jesus and Mary shared. They have their arms around each other in a tender embrace. There’s no cross but it appears as though the scene takes place somewhere on the road to Golgotha because I think Jesus is wearing the crown of thorns (the top of the fresco is destroyed). I stayed with this piece for quite awhile. Eventually I tore myself away to explore the rest of this recessed level of the church but found myself coming back to that special fresco. Near it was another lovely fresco of two angels, as if these celestial beings were accompanying Jesus and Mary in their sorrowful journey to Golgotha, lifting their sagging spirits and lending them strength. As far as I was concerned, this basilica is a treasure in the rough, one of the lesser-known jewels of Florence. Steve and I were both drawn to explore this place further. We entered the compound and walked around to the back and other side of the church, where Porte Sante, an extensive cemetery, wrapped around the basilica. This cemetery was a living museum in its own rite, containing elaborate and unique tombs, statues and small mausoleums. Over one grave was a very unusual cross in which parts of Jesus’ body are excised, the most conspicuous gap being in the area where his left set of ribs should be. Could this have something to do with God taking one of Adam’s ribs to make Eve? Are parts of his body eaten away because he continues to offer himself as sacrifice for our sins and transgressions?

David on the top of the world

We picked up the pace in the more modern section of the cemetery and got back on track to see Piazzale Michelangelo. We kept looking around the corner but, because of the big hill of San Miniato, we couldn’t see it until we were actually upon it. We were instantly awed: The bronze statue of David, standing in the middle of the piazzale and overlooking the city of Florence, takes your breath away. I found myself following David’s lead and gazing out across the sweeping panorama of Florence. Yet, I also wanted to admire David himself and sit at his feet and feel the grandeur of this presence. What a fitting tribute to Michelangelo: simply David and the best view of Florence, the city he loved.

Smelling the roses in Florence

Instead of taking the staircase marked by the Stations of the Cross, we meandered through a public rose garden located down the hill on one side of the piazzale. Though it was an indubitably remarkable setting, this rose garden doesn’t come close to our beautifully maintained and cultivated Owen Rose Garden in Eugene. On our way back, following the southern bank of the Arno, I saw the most unusual sculpture of St. John the Baptist I have ever seen. It is almost a skeletal representation but he is identifiable because he is wearing his characteristic cloak of animal skins.

I love Florence

Meeting up with Peter, Paul and G-ma, we again grabbed a slice of pizza for lunch and went to sit on the steps of one of the many churches in Florence to watch the ever pulsating sea of humanity pass by. I don’t usually like to brandish the banner "I <heart> [insert name of city]" but I’d do it for Florence! I really loved this city. Klatches of students are everywhere, many of them American, collect in the streets, chatting about their lives in this enchanting city, meeting for coffee or gelato, studying or discussing their studies. The atmosphere is charged with the excitement of learning in this cradle of the Renaissance. I found myself wanting to join their ranks—to return to study art history. Who cares that I’m 45 years old? You’re never too old to participate in the pursuit of knowledge, right?

We finally made it to the Florence’s duomo, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, one of the most cherished monuments in Italy. Its enormous octagonal dome, designed by Brunelleschi in 1420, was the first of its kind since antiquity. This distinctive dome, the graceful bell tower, and red, green and white marble façade of the cathedral contribute to the uniqueness of the Florence skyline and architectural landscape. Inside the cathedral at the front altar is a fresco of the Last Supper and along either side are stained glass windows that nearly span from floor to ceiling, created by an impressive roster of Renaissance artists, including Donatello, Paolo Uccello and Lorenzo Ghiberti.

Peter, Paul, Steve and I set off to see sunset at Piazzale Michelangelo by way of Piazza della Repubblica. While reading our brochure about this piazza, which houses the center of government, we met a couple from Florida with their young son. They had approached us and asked if they could join our "tour group" to hear about the features of this impressive square surrounded by old stone houses of political repute and an obelisk in the center of the square. We began talking and before long were telling them about our trip and the motivations for embarking on this adventure. When I expressed my desire to spend more time with my kids and experience the world with them, the mother’s eyes welled with tears and she began to tell us the trials they had suffered these past 10 years trying to have a child. Their baby, now sleeping soundly in his stroller, was truly a miracle. After several miscarriages and intensive fertility counseling, she was able to carry him full term and he was born, a healthy, ruddy boy. To stimulate his recollection of this trip, she was purchasing him little souvenirs, like a little statue of David, and he apparently was readily identifying these mementos. Before we parted, we gave them our website and encouraged them to visit it and drop us a line.

Watching the sunset fall over Florence from Piazzele Michelangelo was a fitting close to our cherished chapter in Florence. On our way back down, we met another couple from Japan who were trying to find their way up to Piazzale Michelangelo. We were able to show them the scenic way through the rose garden. They were most delighted to find this enchanting passage and thanked us, in typical Japanese custom, profusely.

May 10, 2006: Uffizi, Florence, Italy

Medieval golden austerity

We were in line to get into the famous Uffizi by 7:30 a.m. Already a line had formed but we were in good position. We talked with a couple of Dutch women who have visited Florence on several occasions and never tire of this alluring town. When the doors opened we were ushered in and soon walking into our first gallery. The first few rooms, dedicated to the medieval art of the 13th and 14th centuries, were filled with icons stunningly arrayed in gold. Several were massive pieces, having occupied the entire altar in a church. On the whole, the characters in these works of art are more formal and angular, their expressions severe and almost judgmental and their gazes piercing, as if seeking out the character flaws in the viewer. In The Annunciation by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi (1333), Mary looks frightened, almost admonished by the angel. Peter and I carefully perused and studied these galleries with our guide but in the end, we just were not as enamored with this style and period. We did pause to examine the Four Stories from the Life of St. Nicholas by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1330-1332), as we visited this saint’s home in Myra, Turkey, and were familiar with the stories depicted in this tempera on wood—the miracle of the grain in which St. Nicholas convinced the merchants to leave the starving city with a supply of grain, assuring them that God would reward their generosity and replenish their inventory, and St. Nicholas’ trademark of secretly dropping bags of money to poor youth. Also depicted is the consecration of St. Nicholas as Bishop of Myra. Though there are intriguing elements in these paintings, like the angel in a golden aura striking the possessed child with two piercing rays and the angels in indigo blue robes pouring grain onto the ships from the sky, the scene looked more Florentine than Turkish. Of course, all these Mediterranean cultures do share a common heritage in their Byzantine and Roman roots. In the Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Farbriano, dated 1423, nearly 100 years later, the expressions are beginning to soften, ushering the early Renaissance period. This tempera on wood is particularly striking because of the way it portrays the epic journey of the magi, culminating in the grand procession through the town of Bethlehem to the humble manger, and highlights details in the scene in gold, including the harnesses of the horses, the fabric of the headdresses and robes, the halos of the Holy Family and crowns of the kings, and finally the star of Bethlehem illuminating the night sky.

Birth of the Botticelli

Botticelli provides a segue between the Gothic and Renaissance periods in his religious pieces. Many of these paintings contain elements of iconoclastic style, the crown of Mary or the halo of the angel outlined in gold. His depiction of the Annunciation became my favorite in this museum because of its intimacy: Mary and the angel are reaching out to each other and their hands nearly touch as the angel delivers the miraculous message that Mary will give birth to the son of God. For me, this painting beautifully evokes the sacred feminine of this divine encounter in which a woman is commissioned as the vessel of God’s most precious gift to humanity. After viewing many more Annunciations, Peter and I returned to this one and Da Vinci’s to admire and compare the two splendid but radically different works of art. Also lovely is the Madonna of the Magnificat (1481-1485) where a stunningly beautiful Mary is holding Jesus on her lap, while flanked by children. Like paintings of the late medieval era, the fabric of Mary’s robes, her crown, the small sun that radiates its blessing upon the scene, and the children’s locks of hair are tastefully accented in gold.

Adjacent to these religious scenes are the famous Birth of Venus and Primavera, in which Botticelli seems to fully embrace the bold humanity and sensuality, characteristic of the Renaissance style. We spent some time contemplating these canvasses, rich with intricate interactions and interpretations. In Primavera, the goddess of spring, Flora, is bedecked with flowers, while the Three Graces, clothed in transparent, chiffon gowns, dance in flowing choreography and the goddess Venus, in the center of the painting, a red cloak draped over her arm and legs, bestows her blessing in a gesture of regal approval. The flowers in Flora’s garlands and the wild flowers that speckle the garden represent nearly 200 species of flowers, many of which grow on the hills of Florence in spring. We found, Zephyrus, the springtime wind, amusing because he is always chasing the nymph Chloris (he apparently eventually marries her, giving her the ability to germinate flowers) and has a permanently blue hue, presumably because he is always blowing air to create his springtime currents! The whole scene is enclosed in an arbor of orange trees, laden with fruit.

Though both paintings are stunningly beautiful, Peter and I’s favorite was the Birth of Venus, I guess, because of its airy quality. The colors that are used to create this soft seascape are pastel-like, the aqua of the water, light blue of the expansive sky, and rose of the flowers falling from the sky, very different than the brilliant and solid colors used for the Primavera. Botticelli created this purposeful effect by using a mixture of diluted yolk and light tempera. The airy quality is also conveyed as Zephyrus, no longer blue though he has a slight tinge of rose in his cheeks from his exertion, is gently blowing Venus to the shores of a lush island, possibly Cyprus. You can see the gentle stream of air coming from his mouth. In addition, Zephyrus, clothed in billowing indigo blue robes, and Aura, both winged creatures, are flying above the water beside Venus and intertwined in a tender embrace. Aura is looking on with a look of awe upon her face. Venus at the center of the painting emerges from a gigantic clam shell. Portrayed as the Chaste Venus, she exudes serenity and pure beauty, her long golden hair blowing in the breeze and draping across her supple, naked body. A maiden on the shore, perhaps one of the Three Graces, wearing a cream-colored silken gown embroidered with flowers, welcomes Venus, holding out a rose colored cloak, also embroidered with flowers, to wrap around her.

Da Vinci’s perspective

We finally came to Leonardo Da Vinci’s gallery, where the Baptism of Christ, the Annunciation, and the unfinished Adoration of the Magi and St. Jerome are housed, All of these paintings are as enigmatic as the artist himself. The Baptism of Christ is disconcerting because of the incongruent styles evident in the painting, Jesus is a soft figure, John the Baptism is harsh; the palm tree and rocky outcrop in the foreground on either side of the painting is stark while the background landscape is soft. Apparently, many hands worked on this piece, including Verrocchio, Da Vinci’s teacher, who purportedly abandoned painting because his pupil had surpassed him. Only one angel, the soft mountain landscape fading in the distance behind Jesus and the smoothly finished Jesus are actually attributed to Da Vinci. Though it was interesting to learn about the history of the painting, I didn’t really like it for this reason. His Annunciation is similarly problematic. If looked upon head on, the perspective is skewed, Mary’s outstretched arm is too long and the angel’s shadow seems too dark and her body tipped at an unnatural angle. But, this is inconsistent with Da Vinci’s meticulous attention to detail and reproduction of the precise physics of the human body. It is now thought that this painting was meant to be viewed from the right, from Mary’s perspective as she greets the angel Gabrielle. Though all of this contributes to the genius of the painting, for me it lacked the intimacy of Botticelli’s portrayal of this scene. Mary is separated from the angel by a lectern, a grey stone fortress rises behind her and the angel is bowing to Mary in deference; all this lends an air of reserve and distance to the main characters in the painting. The other two paintings, though rich in symbolism, are almost indecipherable, partly because they were never finished and partly because of the varnishes that were added over the centuries in an effort to preserve them but that rendered them monochromatic. You can however detect the destruction of the Greek temples in the Adoration of the Magi, symbolizing the fall of paganism, and the mirage of the cross in the rock in the depiction of St. Jerome in a barren desert setting.

Angels and Madonnas

Next in the tour was the Tribune, a beautiful octagonal gallery. This special room symbolizes the cosmos and its elements—the Oriental crystal windows, air; the marble floor inlaid with precious stones, the earth; the red velvet walls, fire; and the mother-of-pearls shells of the cupola, water. The light from the tip of the cupola and the windows on each face of the octagonal that is oriented to the outside creates a beautiful environment in which to admire my favorite Madonna and child, by Guilio Romano and Pippi. Again what I liked about it was the natural, almost playful, depiction of Mary and the baby Jesus. So many of the depictions of Mary, Jesus and other religious characters are so formal, making them less accessible for the ordinary person. This painting exudes the humanity of Jesus and Mary and the relationship of a mother and child. It’s as if the artists "caught" Mary in the privacy of her own home, simply delighting in the company of her baby, without the heavy subtext that he happens to be the son of God! Another of my favorite paintings is of a sweet, little angel lulling herself to sleep while playing an antique, guitar-like instrument. You want to run your fingers through her soft locks tinged in gold. Though I recognized this painting—it is very famous and prolifically reproduced, especially as Christmas ornaments, I had no idea of it origins. I was glad to discover the artist’s identity—Rosso Fiorentino.

Museum recess

We emerged from the first corridor of the Uffizi, reeling from this dazzling array of beauty. It was nice to turn our gaze to the fantastic view of the Arno river and its successive Roman bridges, including Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence, from the second floor of this grand palace. The Uffizi Gallery was in fact a palace, created for the royal Medici family, who ruled Florence for three centuries. It was conceived as the family's Magistrature, the central administrative and judicial offices, a noble building with two wings, "along the river, almost floating in the air," and was later augmented with an elevated gallery which connected this seat of governmental power to a passage over Ponte Vecchio to the church of Santa Felicita, which housed a private chapel for the Medicis. More importantly, it was the Medici family who filled these hallowed galleries with one of the world's most impressive collections of art; in fact, they were responsible for the creation of many of these works of art as they were one of the most prolific patrons of art during this period!

Steve and I left Peter in the next corridor sitting among Michelangelo's Holy Family, the Doni Tondo, and other paintings by 16th century Florentine artists in order to go and make an important phone call. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take the short cut back to the lobby through the entrance and had to weave through the whole rest of the museum, including the extensive special exhibit about Leonardo Da Vinci. It took us a good half hour to return to Peter but by that time, we knew the layout of the vast Uffizi compound and invited the by now erudite young man (Peter) to tea and a mid-day snack at the cafe in the upper courtyard of the museum. Refreshed after our recess, we resumed our walk through four centuries of artistic masterpieces!

The fleshiness of the Renaissance

Michelangelo's Holy Family is indeed robust with sensuality. Mary is sitting on the grass, leaning on St. Joseph's knee while Joseph squats behind her and hands the baby Jesus to her. The Holy Family is flanked by a congregation of several young nude men, recessed in the background, and a toddler John the Baptist with his dress of animal skins looks toward Jesus in adoration.

Also in this gallery is a beautiful oil painting of the Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth, the Visitation by Mariotto Albertinelli. I was very drawn to this painting as it embodies the incomparable friendship between women and is the symbol of MOMS, my women’s faith sharing group back home When my dear friend Susan Sondag was pregnant with her fourth child, my godchild, Joseph, our dear friend Kathy Baron created an iconic painting of this encounter for her from all of us. As we prayed over her just before she gave birth to Joseph, we incanted Martha’s exclamation, "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb." A very unusual oil painting of a mask on a dark background bid us a provocative farewell—"Sua cuique persona," "To each his own mask"—as we exited this gallery.

Art critics

Peter and I carefully studied the works of other Florentine painters of the 15th century. We found Pontormo a little too morbid. Many of his figures appear to have black eyes, like their mascara smeared, giving them a sinister quality. Peter has been tracking symbols in our journey through the ruins of Western civilization since reading The Da Vinci Code again recently and noted the symbol of the "eye" that hovers above Pontormo’s depiction of Jesus when he appears to the apostles in Emmaus. Parmigianino displayed his own eccentricity. The Madonna of the Long Neck is noted for the exaggerated length of Mary’s neck, but as far as I’m concerned all of his figures seem to have this odd trait, as if this artist gave birth to a special breed of human, though, because of Mary’s pose, it is particularly noticeable in this painting. Having met the long-neck people of northern Thailand and southern Laos and seen giraffes in East Africa, this was a real curiosity for us. You could actually distinguish the rings of the vertebrae of her neck! We also encountered a rather shocking and palpably graphic collection of paintings by Caravaggio, qualitatively different in the subject matter they portray than the Deposition of Christ we saw in the Vatican Museum. Retaining the near-photographic quality, there was the famous Bacchus and the gruesome head of Medusa. Bacchus, the young god of wine, exudes debauchery with his ruddy cheeks, moist lips, partially nude body, gaudy headdress overflowing with plump grapes and grape leaves of autumn colors, and delicate goblet of red wine. We turned to other side of the room and were instantly struck with the frightening image of Medusa. With dark red blood spurting from the base of the decapitated head and snakes writhing from her scalp, she is oddly and disturbingly alluring, confirming the validity of the warning, "Run, for if amazement draws your eyes, she will turn you into stone." Peter and I heeded these ancient verses and, after a few furtive glances, ran for our lives!

Sex education at the museum

Peter recognized The Venus of Urbino by Titian as he had studied her in his World History class in 7th grade. The young woman in the painting, who is not Venus but rather a young woman about to be married, is lying completely nude on a chez lounge, presumably mentally preparing for her impending "deflowering." One hand is covering her pubic area and some say this is a gesture of modesty but others say and I agree, it looks more like an invitation! As far as I am concerned, she looks extremely confident, poised, and I concur, this qualifies as one of the most subtly seductive and erotic portrayals of all time, a cultural icon, and once again, the best kind of sex education for our young people, boldly and openly portraying youthful sexuality without all the prohibitions and censure often associated with the subject. (I am grateful for the many opportunities Peter and Paul have had to receive a more natural, joyful portrayal of sexuality from the graphic carvings of the Hindu temples of Khajaraho to the nude statues of the Greeks to the fleshy paintings of the Renaissance!) In the young woman’s other hand is a bouquet of posies, a flower that became widely known from the song "Ring around the Rosy, a pocket full of posies," but that derived its real fame from endowing the holder with immunities from the black plague, an epidemic that killed hundreds of thousands of people during the middle ages.

Da Vinci’s memoirs

We were lucky that there was a special exhibit about Da Vinci during our visit to the Uffizi. It was fascinating to learn more about this extremely enigmatic and prominent figure of the Renaissance. In this exhibit, we were introduced to his laboratories where he explored the physics of nature and applied them to the human body and psyche in his art and philosophical ruminations. In a self-portrayal in pencil, you can see the intensity of his soul in his piercing eyes. In his volumes of notes, he records his observations about the precise geometry of the human body and all other living organisms for that matter, meticulously applying what he coined as the four fundamental powers, motion, force, weight and percussion, derived from Aristotle’s philosophical four elements, earth, wind, fire, and air. In portraying a centaur, for example, he first reproduced a dynamic model of an actual horse and fused it with a perfectly equilibrated human body. According to the exhibit, he was "obsessed with equilibrium" and his portrayals were "quintessentially dynamic." Peter was better able to interpret his equations than me and listened to this exhibit several times, scribbling down notes of his own. With his own genius in math, you could see the gears of his mind whirring as he delved into Da Vinci’s theories and explications. I was excited for him because he shares with Da Vinci a genius in mathematics and art and it was evident that this exhibit had ignited his curiosity in Da Vinci and the further exploration of the subjects Da Vinci had so passionately pursued.

An orchestra of motion and emotion on canvass

Da Vinci was above all a prolific thinker and it was obvious why many of his paintings remained unfinished. In his studies of nature, he first deduced the mathematical principles behind the natural elements, for example, the heliodal coil of a wave crashing on a beach or the interior of a conical shell. In this exhibit, they showed how he broke down the construction of the wave and reproduced it faithfully in his paintings, taking footage of an actual wave and superimposing an electronic image of one of his paintings of a wave. The likeness was remarkable! They also showed an electronic simulation of his famous Last Supper in which the "quintessentially dynamic" nature of Da Vinci’s paintings is made gloriously manifest. What Da Vinci sought to capture in his portrayal of the Last Supper is the precise moment when Jesus makes his shocking announcement, "One of you will betray me," and a "kaleidoscope of motions and emotions" unfolds. With this subtext, each apostle reacts according to his own unique personality—rash Peter, quick-witted Bartholomew, impetuous Jacob, and contemplative John—his emotions triggering a corresponding physical effect, in a wonderful orchestra of motion and emotion on canvas. Fantastic! This same effect is also beautifully portrayed in his painting of the Madonna and Baby Jesus. Jesus is leaning toward St. John as he seeks to fulfill his mission, Mary is holding him back, reluctant to let him go, and St. Anne, Mary’s mother, is pointing skyward, reminding her daughter of Jesus’ destiny.

Firenze fantasia

We only left the museum at about 3 p.m. in the afternoon, a full 8-hour-plus day of inspiration. We hurried back for a quick slice of pizza from a corner pizzeria and headed back to the charismatic streets of Firenze, Steve, Peter and me to explore and Paul and G-ma to shop. On our way back to the Piazza della Signoria, across from the Uffizi, we took a detour to see Dante’s house and a church dedicated to him. In the church, Dante’s unrequited love of Beatrice is openly portrayed in paintings. At Piazza della Signoria, we introduced ourselves to none other than Michelangelo’s David. O.K., it’s a copy—and a fine replica at that—but the original used to stand here. The actual statue is now protected from the elements in the Galleria dell’ Accademia. Also in the vicinity is a courtyard lined with columns that contains many sculptures, most of them depicting various bloody scenes of Greek or Roman conquest, and I was a little overwhelmed with the violence. We crossed the famous Ponte Vecchio and eavesdropped on a tour group from somewhere in the southern United States, from their distinctive accents. Dating back to the 14th century, Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge in Florence to survive the bombing of WWII, making it the oldest bridge in Florence, though it and its surrounding environs have taken a pounding over the centuries from various floods as well. The bridge is lined with shops. Originally they were butcher shops but when the Medicis built their walkway from the Uffizi to the church of St. Felicita on the other side of the river, they wanted to create a more aristocratic decorum as the noise and commotion associated with the slaughtering of the animals and the environmental pollution from the carcasses that were thrown into the river were unseemly. They ordered that the butchers relocate and replaced all the shops with gold and silversmiths’ shops. In keeping with this tradition, the bridge, to this day, is lined with jewelry shops.

The other side of the Arno

Crossing Ponte Vecchio, we explored one of the oldest neighborhoods in Florence, San Niccolo. These relatively quiet cobblestone streets lined with ornate wrought iron lamp posts meander through neighborhoods that literally exude old world charm. We traveled through old archways of brick, tunnels of successive stucco arcs cracked with age, and by the grand portals of palazzo after palazzo, etched with medallions of the coat of the arms of the royal families that once lived there. Interspersed liberally among these royal residences were neighborhood churches and small altars usually stone reliefs of Our Lady or other saints, which reminded me of the Buddhist spirit houses of Thailand and the Greek Orthodox altars we saw at every block in Greece. On the way to Fort Belvedere, we actually passed the home of Galileo at no. 17/19 Costa San Giorgio! We huffed and puffed up the steep narrow street along the ancient walls of Fort Belvedere, built at the end of the 16th century for Ferdiando I de’ Medici, but, when we arrived at the front gate, found it closed and, being the formidable fortress that it is, there was no forcing our own entry! We walked back to the Porta San Giorgio, crossed its grand threshold once again and made our way back to Florence proper. As soon as we crossed the bridge, we were back in the throngs of people again. With gelataria after gelataria, it was hard to resist those luscious mountains of creamy delights and we finally found the most alluring and indulged in a scoop of what has got to be the finest ice cream in the world!

May 8, 2006: Roma: Vatican museum

Head-spinning works of art in the Sistine Chapel

We arrived at the gates of the Vatican early, hoping for a relatively uncrowded encounter with the Sistine Chapel, but, even though we were at the front of the line, we still ended up winding our way through the hallways and passageways of the Vatican with a thick vein of people, racing by fantastic works of art by Raphael and other masters of the Renaissance, directly to the Sistine Chapel. Nothing, with the exception of a snooty tour guide who shushed my enthusiastic ruminations with Peter and Paul only to begin her interpretive discourse with her group, could diminish the impact of the Sistine Chapel. The guards try to enforce the quiet decorum of the chapel but it is difficult to suppress the murmurs of awe that the paintings evoke, and periodically a recording is broadcast to remind visitors to remain quiet and to refrain from taking pictures. You are surrounded by head-spinning works of art; Peter, Paul and I got dizzy trying to focus and orient ourselves in this magnificent chamber, the private papal chapel created in 1473 for Pope Sixtus IV. Finally, though, our furtive gaze rested upon the Creation, by Michelangelo, in the center of the ceiling. In this glorious fresco, God extends His hand to create Adam. You can almost feel the electricity that emanates from the fingers of God and Adam as they touch in this divine act of creation. Encompassing the Creation on either side are other scenes from Genesis and Exodus, Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Great Flood. However, you cannot deny the Last Judgment the attention it is due for long. Along the entire front wall of the chapel is the last fresco to be completed in the chapel. Also painted by Michelangelo, it depicts the Last Judgment with a luminescent Jesus in the center, surrounded by those who are ascending to the heavenly realms. The ruddy figures in this part of the painting seem to emanate an ethereal quality, illuminated by an intense blue background and buttressed by angels in their heavenly ascent. This blue, however, gradually gives way to the darkness of the unfathomable depths of hell, and, at the base of the painting, are the grotesque figures of the damned, writhing in the eternal fires of hell. I wouldn’t be surprised if this graphic representation of hell provided Dante with the requisite inspiration for his Inferno. On each side, concluding in the rear of the chapel, are a series of frescoes, painted by other Italian greats, Botticelli, Rosselli, Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio, Piero di Cosimo and Luca Signorelli, depicting the lives of Jesus and Moses. One painting represents the temptation of Christ and Peter, Paul and I studied the painting until we cornered the devil trying to lure Jesus to the dark side in a half dozen or so scenes cleverly hidden, like the devil’s cunning, in the painting. We were reluctant to leave but, after a while, the sheer grandeur is overwhelming and you need a break. Walking back to the entrance of the museum, we were able to express our many impressions, unrestrained by the quiet environment of the chapel.

Ascensions, assumptions, annunciations

The 15-minute journey back to the entrance provided us with a respite before we began exploring the Picture Gallery of the Vatican museum, which contains another astounding collection of paintings from the 15th to 17th centuries. We witnessed one amazing Madonna with baby after another, along with the always sentiment-rich deposition of Christ, graphic crucifixion of Peter upside down on the cross, pastoral birth of Christ, solemn death of Christ on the cross, Jesus’ ascension into heaven, Mary’s assumption into heaven, and Mary’s annunciation, in which the angel Gabriel announces to her that she will give birth to the son of God—each remarkably unique and eliciting a different nuance of emotion. Caravaggio’s Deposition of Christ was particularly striking. Of near photographic quality, the use of lighting is masterful. The faces of the characters facing the viewer, including that of Jesus, are perfectly illuminated to reveal every nuance of expression and crease in the face. One woman’s hands are held above her in a gesture of appeal to the Almighty. In Caravaggio’s impeccable use of light, her hands look incredibly life-like, revealed as if in relief against the black background, each finger and even the veins and fleshy part of the palm of her hand remarkably discernable. The body of Jesus too, draped in the arms of the apostles John and Peter, is also incredibly real, the concave depression of his sternum, the shadows cast by his ribs and underarm, and the outline of his veins, especially in his forearm and calve, and his muscles of his arm, thigh and calve. The others in the painting, including the Mother Mary, are looking down, only part of their faces are illuminated, their presence lending a lovely delicacy and humility to the painting. In honor of Peter and Paul, we found the triptych by Giotto, in the iconographic style, representing Christ on a throne surrounded by angels on the central panel and the crucifixion and martyrdom of Saints Peter and Paul on the side panels. We paused to sit in the Raphael room and fully absorb the three magnificent paintings housed in this gallery, The Coronation of the Virgin, The Madonna di Foligno, and The Transfiguration. Each character in Raphael’s paintings appears unique of visage and expression. In The Coronation of the Virgin, Jesus is tenderly placing a crown upon Mary’s head, while angels play violins, harp and tambourine and the apostles stand near the empty tomb from which white flowers spring, looking skyward in amazement. The scene exudes feminine softness and tenderness. The Madonna di Foligno was commissioned by Sigismund de Conti in 1512 as an offering of thanksgiving to the Mother Mary for saving his house after it was struck by lightning. The event is portrayed in the center of the painting, right above the cherub that holds a tablet, which records the miracle. As in many of Raphael’s paintings, the client is portrayed in the painting, kneeling and being presented by St. Jerome. Looking skyward towards Mary, his hands are clasped in prayer and written upon his face is an expression of humble reverence. St. John the Baptist, portrayed in typical attire of the skins of wild animals, and St. Francis of Assisi are also present. Presiding over the scene with the sun as a throne and surrounded by soft billowing clouds is the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus. Though the figures in The Transfiguration wear Raphael’s characteristically vivid expressions, this painting is harsher, communicating the drama, confusion and wonder of this fantastical event. Completed by Raphael shortly before his death, it is considered one of his masterpieces. Jesus, dressed in white robes, is translucent in a heavenly aura between the ancient prophets Moses and Elijah, while Peter, James and John lie cowering on the ground, nearly blinded by the luminosity of the transfigured Christ and the realization, albeit fleeting, of his divinity. Below the mound are the other apostles and standbyers, distracted by a possessed child, eyes rolling in his head, whose demons are fleeing from his body in the presence of the living God, each person wearing a different expression, including concern, horror and amazement.

Epic encounters with Raphael

In our haste to see the Sistine Chapel that morning, we had skipped several other Raphael masterpieces so after lunch in the courtyard of the Vatican, we headed back to where these paintings are housed—in what used to be papal private chambers. Most of these paintings encompass an entire wall, giving an air of grandeur to each of the chambers. The first parlor is the Stanza di Constantino, the first emperor to establish Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and vanquish the worshiping of false gods. Included in this gallery is the Baptism of Constantine, Constantine kneeling to receive this sacrament of initiation into the church, and the bequeathing of Rome to Pope Silvester. Raphael captures the grandeur of this epic events on his gigantic canvas, not neglecting a single detail in the portrayal. In both paintings, Paul and I were able to figuratively walk into the scene and really feel the glory of the emperor and his impressive entourage and the significance these events for the course of Christianity. The next gallery is the Stanza d’Eliodoro, once a secret antechamber to the papal suite. Of particular note is the painting of The Meeting of Leone Magna with Attila, in which Attila the Hun, after witnessing a miracle, was convinced to refrain from ransacking Rome. Again, Raphael recreates this epic encounter by painting recognizable landmarks of ancient Rome, the elaborate details of the stand-off between these military outfits, known for their fierceness in battle, and the XX. Originally the study and library of the pontiff, The Stanza della Segnatura ultimately became the seat of the judicial tribunal, thus the room’s theme of law and justice. The famous painting, The School of Athens, features all the great philosophers and scientists of the Renaissance in the halls of Plato's Academy, located at the end of the road that originated at the ruins of Kerameikos that we saw in Athens. Plato and Aristotle are in the center of the painting, having an animated discussion. Paul and I enjoyed spotting Raphael on the outskirts of the painting, near his teacher Perugino, and Ptolemy, the great Greek astronomer and geographer. The painting reflects Raphael’s passion for scholarly pursuit. You can see from his avid expression that he is thirsty for knowledge and eager to be in the company of the great thinkers of the time. Not only was he influenced by other great artists, like Michelangelo and DaVinci, he fraternized with the greatest in all disciplines, expanding his mind and artistic prowess through these fertile engagements. It was also interesting to see The Debate of the Sacrament depicted in a monumental painting, a council of men earnestly discussing the issue of transubstantiation, the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, a matter at the core of the split between the Protestant and Catholic Christian theologies. In another painting, this issue was resolved when, during mass, the host bled during the consecration and this miracle was witnessed by the pope. It is evident from the expressions of shock on the faces of the priest and other clergy present that, until then, doubts in the transubstantiation were widespread. All are leaning in toward the phenomenon, which is at center stage on the altar and the painting, causing me and Paul to lean in closer ourselves to verify what we were seeing. I had never heard this story before so I found myself intrigued by this miracle, brought so beautifully alive by Raphael’s portrayal, especially since it finally put to rest this most contentious issue, at least among Catholic theologians. It was as if we, viewers of this painting over the centuries, are invited to participate in the debate and verification of the miracle through these paintings.

A mother’s love

The time had finally come to visit St. Peter’s. We were immediately drawn to the Pieta, by Michelangelo, located in the backmost chapel on the right. Being in the presence of this amazing sculpture, my maternal instincts were ignited and I was compelled to reach out and hold my boys. I found Paul and we pressed our way through the masses that constantly surround the Pieta to the railing where we could be as close to it as possible and try to block out all the surrounding madness and be in the company of Mary, tenderly holding her crucified son. I whispered to Paul about how this sculpture speaks of the mysteries and multi-faced nature of the love of a mother for her children and told him that, no matter what, he would always be surrounded by this abundant love. In fact, Michelangelo, who was only 24 years old when he created the Pieta, drew inspiration for this work from his experience of his own mother’s love; apparently, the Mother Mary does indeed bear the resemblance of Michelangelo’s own mother. We sat in rapturous silence, meditating on the beauty of this timeless creation. Every contour of her embrace enfolds Jesus in the incomparable love of a mother for her child. I was overcome with emotion in the presence of this masterpiece, tears filled my eyes as I empathized with Mary’s unfathomable grief, and I lifted up a fervid prayer for my boys, that they might manifest their gifts all for the glory of God.

Meditating on Peter at St. Peter’s

St. Peter’s is a mammoth structure. Originally built by the Emperor Constantine in about 320 AD on the site where Peter was buried, the church was redesigned and enlarged by Bramante. The building, which constitutes the largest church in the world, stands at 136 meters with the diameter of the cupola, created by Michelangelo, measuring at 42 meters. The entire building encompasses a total of about 22,000 square meters. Undeterred by its grandeur, I kept moving around the perimeter of the basilica, gazing at the many chapels, naves, and adornments. I stopped in one ornate chapel to pray. The altar was shrouded in gold and angels decorated the altar like garland. Further up to the right of the main altar was an amphitheatre of confessionals, blocked off now to the public. In the middle aisle of the basilica just before the main altar was the statue of Peter, made of black marble. He sits in his throne, holding his keys, but he exudes an accessible aura and people are lined up to touch or kiss his feet. His bare feet are now worn smooth, the left more than the right. The central altar was built over Peter’s tomb and stairs lead directly from this offer to the catacombs to his final resting place. I was riveted by the stained glass window of the Holy Spirit at the altar at the far front of the church. The Holy Spirit is represented as a dove in white. Radiating from the dove were glorious rays of gold. All the elements were outlined in black, creating the effect of the spirit emanating out to bless the masses. I was reminded of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles in fire and wind and they were filled with ardor for God and began spreading the good news in multiple tongues. My thoughts naturally were filled with my Peter as I was called to name him Peter when I was pregnant with him. In my third trimester, I bought a bible that I dedicated to him and used the technique of opening it at random and contemplating the scripture that I encountered in these random selections. Over and over again, I was guided to scripture about Peter, and, as I began journaling, it became clearer and clearer that God was bestowing upon him the spirit of the Apostle Peter. Time and time again as he has developed his gifts and matured as a young man, I marvel at his likeness to Peter. Perhaps one of the most salient similarities is his impetuous nature, and I always chuckle when that quality surfaces in scripture, and with the Apostle Peter, that is frequent! Though Peter was an uneducated fisherman before he met Jesus and became one of his followers, he possessed a keen innate intelligence and, though Jesus sometimes reprimanded him for not getting it, Peter was in the end the apostle that fully integrated Jesus’ mission, though this knowledge came painfully through his betrayal of Jesus, and arose to lead the early Christian church. My Peter possesses a similar intellectual and emotional style and I know in my heart that his future holds bright promise, albeit born of hard lessons. My comfort lies in the knowledge that God is with him, guiding him and always returning him to the path of truth, light and goodness. As I walked through St. Peter’s, I had the need to commission Peter in this church and began making a checklist of photos to take with him, him and his parents and him and the whole family. So, we got in line to touch Peter’s feet again and took pictures of him touching St. Peter’s foot and Steve, Peter and I standing with St. Peter. We also took photos of him and the whole family at the front-most altar, the stained glass window of the Holy Spirit bestowing its graces of zeal of faith upon him and his family. In the middle of the church, a shaft of light was radiating from one of the domes and we took photos of him, him with Steve and me and him with the whole family, bathed in this heavenly light. In one of the many remote chambers of the church was a list of all the popes over the centuries beginning with Peter and we took a picture of this as well with Peter standing beside it. Quite a distinguished roster! While I was waiting to congregate the scattered flock, as at one time everybody had gone there separate ways to explore this mammoth church, I hitched on to a tour guide being led by a young priest in English. I learned that the middle aisle was reserved for statues of the founders of religious orders, popes were relegated to the aisles on either side of the cathedral, as it was acknowledged that the founders of orders had more directly impacted the spiritual and temporal needs of the masses. There were several statues dedicated to popes who had influenced the church in a particularly profound way. Pope Pius was instrumental in establishing the very simple but contemplative Gregorian chant in order to engage the people in the mass. He also lowered the age for children to be eligible to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion to the age of reason in an effort to engage young people earlier in the central sacraments of the church. Benedict XV, after which our current pope models his shepherdship, was the pope during WWI. His memorial depicts Jesus wearing an olive branch. This pope led the Catholics worldwide in praying for peace and renewal. He was also the founder of western monasticism as a way to achieve enhanced spiritual enlightenment. The current Pope Benedict is following in his footsteps, urging Catholic followers to resist secularism and to seek greater spirituality.

Paul had been tracking Swiss guards around the Vatican compound all day and finally found a couple otherwise unengaged at the exit to the catacombs beneath St. Peter’s. Unfortunately, when Paul ran down so we could get a photo of him with one of them, they wagged their fingers and sent him back up the steps of St. Peter’s. Apparently when they are on official duty, especially as important function as guarding the exit from St. Peter’s tomb, they can’t be distracted by such trivial matters as photo ops. We did however find an exhibit of the Swiss guards in honor of their 500 years of service at the Vatican and Peter and Paul, because they were free, toured the exhibit and emerged with lots of trivia about these peculiar, but colorful, fellows that bring color and character to the otherwise grey stone compound of the Vatican! I didn’t realize that their distinctive uniform was design by none other than Michelangelo*! These sentries of the Vatican are clothed in blue, black and red striped uniforms and pantaloons, hats punctuated with black plumage and knee-high socks and buckled shoes. The docent there also told us to try a couple of Swiss guards at a lesser post in a parking lot around the corner who might be game for a quick photo op! They were only slightly more amenable, allowing Paul to stand a distance in the foreground for the picture.

*Michelangelo’s brilliant legacy is pervasive in the Vatican from the Vatican Swiss Guards to his masterpieces—the Sistine Chapel, the Pieta, the graceful dome of St. Peter’s, and the heart of St. Peter’s Square.

May 7, 2006: Roma

An audience with the Pope

The next morning we headed back to St. Peter’s to pray the Angelus with the pope at 12 noon. This time, St. Peter’s square was packed with people, eager for an audience with the pope. There was much speculation among our family about where the pope would appear and how to orient ourselves for the best view. In the end we tried to cover all likely configurations and were glad when the pope’s press secretary began setting up the projection equipment directly across from us. Sure enough, the pope came out on the last veranda second row from the top of a long building that extending out along Bernini’s columns. When he did appear punctually at 12 noon, the masses congregated broke out in thunderous applause and hoots and hollers of support. Several lay religious groups had come from different parts of Italy and other countries to participate in the 500-year anniversary of the Vatican Swiss guards, and they were prepared to present their offering to the Holy Father and the throngs of faithful. They added to the chorus of support by beating on their drums and in unison shouting their greetings to the pope. The pope acknowledged this show of support for a few minutes and then held up his hand to silence the crowd. The scripture from this Sunday’s gospel was about Jesus as the good shepherd. As we stood among this diverse flock, it was amazing to feel this scripture in action, all these sheep responding to the call to follow Jesus: "I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep… they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd." (John 10:11-18) As the pope led this flock of several thousand faithful, I dwelled upon this one spirit that unites us as the body of Christ. After the formal prayer, the pope greeted us in seven different languages, including Spanish, English, Polish, French, German, as well as Italian, welcoming us to St. Peter’s and blessing us in our native tongue. After bidding us farewell, the crowd broke out in celebration, several groups performing band and marching numbers and displays with colorful flags. The group closest to us was from a town in southern Italy, I believe. Dressed in costumes of green and brown, resembling Medieval attire, they hurled colorful flags into the air in choreographed sequences while drums and other instruments provided musical accompaniment. We watched them for a while from our post near the obelisk in St. Peter’s square, the columns of Bernini and St. Peter’s basilica providing a stunning backdrop for their spirited act.

Rivers of fountains

Our trail took us back to Piazza Navonna to see Bernini’s famous fountain, four fleshy god-like hunks depicting the origins of the most famous rivers of the four corners of the world, the Nile, Danube, Ganges, and Rio de la Plata. This fountain is especially rich in symbolism as each of these deities brings life-giving water to every quarter of the earth, the landscape surrounding them erupting with a bounty of lush vegetation and fruits of the land. We studied each scene, especially those with the rivers we visited on our trip, the Ganges and the Nile, identifying distinctive features of each region. Our most intimate encounter was with the Ganges (see India travelog), though we crossed the mighty Nile and admired it from afar while traveling in Uganda. Palm trees, fertile plains, and exotic fruits populate these scenes. Another distinctive feature of the scene with the Nile is that the god’s face is shielded because at the time of the sculpting, the source of the Nile was not known.

Gigantic geometry

Meandering through the narrow streets and rounding the corner into Piazza della Rotonda, we were confronted by the massive Pantheon, a huge hemispherical dome resting on a cylindrical base of equal height and weight. Before diving into the throngs of tourists constantly streaming into this amazing temple, we admired it while eating lunch at this square’s famous fountain, designed by Giacomo della Porta, and studied our literature about what is considered the best-preserved building of ancient Rome. The temple was originally built in 27 BC by Marcus Agrippa, son-in-law of Emperor Augustus. His name remains inscribed over the entrance to the temple. The temple, with its natural planetarium—the dome opens to reveal the sky, was originally dedicated to the planetary gods. Because of its massive proportions, the dome is considered one of the most notable achievements of ancient Roman architecture. Over the centuries, the Pantheon has remained remarkably intact and eternally stately, despite sea changes in political and religious regimes and being plundered for its valuable materials; an emperor of the eastern empire removed its gilded-bronze roof tiles and Pope Urban VIII took its bronze ceiling and had it melted down to create the canopy over the main altar at St. Peter’s and 80 cannons for Castel Sant’ Angelo!

A history lesson in the Pantheon

The first king and queen of Italy are buried here, as well as the famous Italian painter, Raphael. Shortly after we began mulling around this grand edifice among the throngs of other tourists, Paul stopped to sign the guest book. I looked to my left and was drawn to the impressive black marble tomb with the inscription, "Vittoriano Emanuele II," and exclaimed, "Aah, here’s the tomb of the first king of Italy." A guard who was standing nearby suddenly became very animated, asking us where we were from. He was quite surprised to learn we were from the United States because, he told us, most Americans know nothing about Italian history. Sensing his eagerness to engage in conversation about his country, we began showering him with questions. Giving us his credentials—he was the first in his class in history—he began giving us a condensed Italian history lesson. He was so enthusiastic about having eager pupils, he completely abandoned his post, grabbed his journal from his satchel and began drawing us a map, illustrating the unification of Italy by King Emmanuel in the late 1800s. A passing colleague asked him what he was doing and he summarily dismissed him with the retort, "Why I’m giving a lesson in the history of Italy," you dolt, as if this was a regular part of his duties!

Our Italian friend explained that Pantheon means "to all gods," an appropriate name given that it has served as a sacred space for many religions over the centuries. Most of Italy was unified between 1860 and 1870, including, much to the pope’s dismay, the Vatican. The pope tried in vain to capture the international community’s attention, claiming he was a prisoner in his own home, but the dispute was not resolved until 1929 when the sovereignty of the Vatican was internationally guaranteed in negotiations with Italy’s then ruler, Mussolini. Mussolini ruled from 1922 to 1943 and was highly respected by reputable leaders worldwide until he also allowed power to cloud his judgment and entered WWII as an ally of the Nazis. Hitler won Mussolini over by stroking his ego, hailing Mussolini as the greatest leader of the time and his personal mentor. Italy had its first referendum in 1946.

Enchanted by Trevi

From the Pantheon, we walked briskly to our next, long-awaited destination—Trevi Fountain. As we got closer, we could hear the rushing water, as if we were approaching the 5-star rapids of a grand river. Then, all of a sudden, the small, modest walkway ends at this fountain that nearly encompasses the entire piazza, and the waters of life erupt from this magnificent fountain in a kind of baptism of the senses. Charging from the heart of the fountain is Neptune’s chariot, led by tritons and sea horses, arising from the source of all water, the ocean, the greatest body of water on earth, and bestowing upon the earth these waters of life. These waters "sustain" nearly 30 species of plants, sculpted among large boulders of rock. The fountain, designed by Nicola Salvi in the 18th century, was built on the end of the course of an ancient and extensive aqueduct, whose history is depicted in reliefs in the upper section of the façade of the fountain.

Even from the upper rows of steps, you can feel the spray from this exuberant fountain but for the full effect, we sat in the front row, leisurely savoring our afternoon treat of a scoop of gelato. Sure enough, this famous fountain cast its spell and we all submitted to the ritual, one by one, standing with our back to the fountain and throwing first one coin with our right hand over the left shoulder to ensure our return to Rome and throwing a second coin and making a wish of our choice. Paul, as per usual, was eager to tell me his wish, which I think had something to do with getting to Barcelona in time to see Ronaldinho play!

Stairway to heaven

Proceeding on our tour of the fountains, we headed to Piazza di Spagna. Merging onto a large continuous piazza, we came upon a small memorial to Our Lady, in which a gold statue of our lady sits on the top of a monolith, Scenes of her life are depicted in relief on all sides of the monument. In the distance, we could see a dense concentration of people, marking Piazza di Spagna, where Romans and foreigners alike have congregated in great numbers over the centuries. We first came upon the famous fountain, created by Pietro Bernini and his son Gian Lorenzo, that depicts a partially submerged boat. Peter boarded the sinking vessel, vicariously experiencing the peril of the scene and, in typical Peter style, threatened to enact its final demise! He emerged, however, relatively dry, and we faced yet another dramatic spectacle, the magnificent staircase that leads from the square to the church of Trinita dei Monti, currently covered in scaffolding, and the old neighborhood that surrounds it. The steps and square were designed by the French in 1725 but were dubbed "Spanish square and steps" because they were built after the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See. On either side of the staircase are lovely, old houses whose thresholds open to the steps, and brilliant bougainvilleas and plump, green shrubs decorate both sides and the center aisle of the steps. Replace the steps with a crooked street and the resulting effect is reminiscent of Lombard Street in San Francisco.

At the church of Trinita dei Monti, and again in my broken Italian, I asked where we might be able to catch mass on this Sunday evening. A kind young man, working at the church, gave me directions to a church in the vicinity, Sant’ Andrea delle Fratte. With only a few additional inquiries, we found it. Thinking it was just a local parish, we were very surprised to find that we were sitting among Bernini marble sculptures on either side of the altar, the lovely Angel of the Cross and the Angel with the Crown of Thorns! The angels were originally created for the St. Angelo bridge but, once completed, Pope Clement IX deemed that they were too lovely to be exposed to the elements, and they were eventually placed in this church at the chapel of St. Francis of Paola, in a grand procession of these celestial creations. We were to discover that nearly every church in Europe for that matter, but especially in Italy, is a museum in its own right with great works of art because, though many of the works of art in the world’s most famous museums come from a church, there are still plenty left to be appreciated in their original locations.

Returning to Trevi Fountain for another glimpse of this magical fountain by twilight, we returned home and settled down for a long night’s nap while visions of Neptune and the waters of life danced in our heads!

May 6, 2006: Roma

Roman ruins

We were fortunate to encounter fellow travelers from New Zealand who recommended the home of a friendly Italian family just around the corner from the train station, who had inexpensive rooms for rent. We didn't waste time getting settled. Rome was calling! We immediately caught the subway to the Coliseum and as soon as we emerged from the station, there it was in all its glory. I don't know how I missed this part of Roman history but I didn't realize that the Coliseum was the site of blood and gore. Here, wild animals were hunted, and gladiators, often prisoners, fought to the death. The colossal amphitheatre, which could accommodate a bloodthirsty 80,000 spectators, was often filled with water and maritime battles were staged here. Eager to put this history behind me, we walked through the grand arch of Constantine to the Roman Forum. As inconspicuously as possible, we hitched onto an English tour group of young people and still another to learn more about this archeological site.

According to legend, Rome was established when the brothers Romulus and Remus retreated to Palatine Hill, now the site of a grand palace, and waited for a sign from the gods. Romulus’ vision of 12 herds of vultures trumped Remus’ of 6. Romulus killed Remus and the poor she-wolf, who reared the twins, and Roma, derived from its patron Romulus, was founded in 753 BC at 12 noon.

The forum constituted the downtown of the city of Rome 2,000 years ago. This political, commercial and religious center was covered by other buildings until only 200 years ago, when Napoleon Bonaparte initiated the excavation of this historical site in the 1800s. Lining both sides of Via Sacra, Sacred Way, were political offices, palaces of justice, libraries, shops, and until Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion in 320 AD, temples to many Greek gods. As in Athens, grand processions traveled down Sacred Way. The big difference is that the Greeks were performing a sacred pilgrimage to the Temple of Athena while the Romans’ procession was raucous celebration of one of their numerous victories in battle, during which their booty, which included prisoners from the conquest, were promenaded down the street—and oftentimes directly to the Coliseum where they were sacrificed in the lethal gladiator contests.

While overlooking the busy intersections of the forum, we heard the stories of the great dramas that unfolded here. It was here that Julius Caesar, like many great rulers, allowed power to cloud his judgment and declared himself Rome’s lifetime ruler. In Rome, emperors were self-elected; however, there were finite terms, and Julius Caesar broke the rules by nullifying this criterion and declaring himself ruler for life. Feeling invincible, another symptom of power gone awry, he disregarded the warnings of his soothsayers and his wife and attended a meeting arranged by other political leaders on the ides of March, where he was stabbed in the back. When Mark Anthony announced that Julius Caesar had been killed in his famous speech beginning with "Friends, countrymen, etc…," hysteria broke out. In an effort to appease the masses, Julius Caesar’s body was brought out and burned and he was hailed as a hero. A public tomb, Tempio di Giulio Cesare, was erected to him in the middle of the forum on the site where the speech was made and his body was cremated and loyal followers still place flowers on his tomb.

Roman arches are ubiquitous throughout the forum and Rome proper. Each commemorates a specific Roman conquest and the emperor or emperors associated with that campaign. The Arch of Titus tells the story of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in the Dark Ages in 70 AD. Because the arch depicts shackled Jewish prisoners, it is now apparently blocked off to pedestrian trespass in an acknowledgement of the atrocities that were committed in this battle. At the other end of the forum is one of Italy’s major triumphal arches, the Arco di Settimo Severo. XXX

The remains of the flood control and sewage system, built by Emperor Faustus in 1670, can be easily detected and it still provides flood control for the forum today.

Another building with a lasting history is Palazzo Senatorio on Capitol Hill, Rome’s city hall for the past 2,000 years. Originally only the formidable stone building that forms its lower half, it was augmented with a pale yellow palace and bell tower built by Michelangelo 200 years ago. Many famous people—Princess Diana, President Clinton and even Hitler—have overlooked the forum from its lovely arched balconies. The mayoral building forms one façade of Piazza del Campidoglio, a prominent square perched atop Capitoline Hill, while the elegant Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo, now museums, form the other sides of the square. In the center of the square overlooking its main entrance and a sweeping panorama of the city is a bronze statue of Marc Aurelius of a horse. Our walking tour suggested taking the new passageway that connects the piazza to the Vittoriano to see a spectacular view of the city, but, since we couldn’t find the route, we instead went down the majestic expanse of stairs leading to the piazza and back up the stairs of Chiesa di Santa Maria d"Aracoeli, next door, to admire the view from the highest point of Capitoline Hill. This church was built where legend says that Tiburtine Sybil told the Emperor Augustus of the coming birth of Christ.

Standing in the background of the forum is the youngest building in the vicinity, the Vittoriano, or otherwise known as "The Wedding Cake" because of its ornate trim. This building was completed in 1911 to commemorate King Vittoriano Emanuele II, the first king of Italy, who unified the diverse states in the 1870s. On each side of the roof of the building are gigantic, beautiful bronze chariots, which fast became one of my most favorite architectural visages. Even from a significant distance, they appeared so real it was as if they were capable of picking up this lovely building and carrying it across the skyline of Rome.

Swiss guard reunion

Because this weekend was the 500 year anniversary of the Vatican Swiss guards, we caught a bus outside of the grand states building dedicated to King Vittoriano Emanuele II to St. Peter's and the Castel Sant’ Angelo, the former residence of the pope. Unfortunately, the event at the castle was sold-out (and cost 90 E/person anyway). Not to be deterred, Paul and I positioned ourselves on the boardwalk on the river with a group of other curious onlookers to people watch. A cast of characters streamed by—bishops and cardinals in their black robes with fuscia accents in their headdress and belts, priests of various orders in black robes of different styles, numerous brotherhoods sporting their pompous hats and garb, and other event goers in elegant attire. (When we saw my Uncle Gene and Aunt Nancy later in the trip, they helped us identify the origins of several of these participants. The men in green and brown Medieval garb are of the order of St. Gregory the Great, an honorific order. Members of this order are dubbed knights because of their exemplary service to the church. Uncle Gene thought that the young men in blue suits with red trim may be Swiss Guards in formal attire. Another group consists mainly of Italians who volunteer at the Vatican.) We were very excited to spot, through Paul's video camera, some sort of royalty emerge from a side entrance, resplendent in a gold gown, white gloves, and dazzling crown. At regular intervals, the Swiss guards performed in the ramparts of the castle while bands provided accompaniment. We could see their multi-colored flags as they flung them into the air.

When the crowds arriving at the castle began to thin, Paul and I headed over to Piazza Navonna to find Steve, G and Peter. We found them at a small restaurant off the main square where we all indulged in the specialty of Italy--the Margherita Pizza. We scurried back to the castle for our date with the pope—According to a couple security personnel Paul and I met while we were watching people file in to the castle for the evening’s festivities, the pope mobile was supposed to pass by this gate enroute to the Vatican down the street at about 9:30 p.m. after the event. Unfortunately, that did not happen but we did get to see a magnificent fireworks display over the River Tiber, and, from one vantage point, you could see the fireworks over the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. We couldn’t resist a quick trip to St. Peter’s. Even by night, St. Peter’s was an awesome sight, especially since, with the exception of a few people strolling by, we nearly had the whole square to ourselves. Designed by Bernini, the four rows of columns that sweep around the girth of St. Peter’s grand piazza seem to direct the eye in a kind of drum roll to St. Peter’s basilica, Christianity’s most revered church. Illuminated along the top of the columns are the naves in which gigantic statues of the major saints are housed and preside over this sacred realm. In the middle of the square is an Egyptian obelisk. That evening, a choral group was performing in the middle of the square for an intimate audience. We joined the gathering, closed our eyes and breathed in the sacred presence of this place. When I opened my eyes, the grand cathedral and square seemed to swell with grace and grandeur.

Going to the bathroom in style

It was nearly midnight when we made our way back to the subway station near the Vatican. Several of us had to go to the bathroom so I dodged into the nearest nicest hotel as inconspicuously and swiftly as possible to find the facilities. This has become my modus operand us when we’re out and about and desperately need a restroom and it’s become a kind of sub itinerary as it has been fun to "tour" the elegant restrooms of 5-star hotels across the Mediterranean, plus you get the added bonus of the guarantee of glistening clean toilets! (I only started this practice more regularly in Turkey as 5-star hotels were not as widespread in the other countries we visited!) Unfortunately this time, it was quite late and the receptionists at the front desk were being very conscientious about preventing anyone other than their guests to wander in off the street. I kept my gaze straight ahead and though I heard some murmurs, I kept heading into the lobby. Unfortunately, the stragglers in our party were accosted by the staff and caught up with me and Peter just as we had nearly reached the entrance to the restrooms. They were quite ruffled but reluctantly allowed this delinquent family to use the facilities, as ultimately these family-revering Italians just couldn’t deny a family with two children and a senior. We thanked them cheerfully as we quickly went to the bathroom and made our exit! When we arrived at our subway station, we were confronted with a locked metal gate across the entrance—it was closed!—and we had to figure out how we were going to get back to our place. I met up with a small group of people I had met earlier on the street when I was asking directions to the station but they didn’t know which bus we had to take. After asking a few other passers-by to no avail, we finally met an English-speaking couple who had confronted this same situation the night before and knew which bus to take back to the main train station, where we needed to go, and we followed them to the bus stop and back to our neighborhood.

May 5, 2006

Drama on the Amalfi Coast

Today we bid Amalfi goodbye and caught the early bus to Sorrento. The ride was full of spectacular vistas of the Amalfi coast…

• villas growing right out of the cliffs, many of them equipped with swimming pools, now, not filled, their light blue interiors (some languishing with iridescent green algae) stand out against the grey backdrop of the rocky cliffs;

• several stone castles and towers perched on rocky points jutting out from the shoreline lined with cliffs;

• dramatic rocky formations sculpted in funky shapes, like arthritic digits pointing defiantly skyward to the forces of nature;

• our bus navigating these narrow streets hugging the sides of the cliffs, while cars lined up patiently waiting for our unwieldy bus to swing wide and round hairpin turns;

• verdant gorges of many shades of green, thick with trees, plump, ashen green olive trees interspersed with tall, straight, forest green evergreens.

Penalty: U.S.

Directly across from the bus station was the train station and within minutes, we had caught the next train to Pompeii. On the train we met a young man who worked in a local hotel and knew English quite fluently. We talked about the fiercely proud Italian people and their valiant efforts to preserve their traditions and heritage amidst the tide of globalization. He is a student of economics so naturally we also talked about American politics and once again, what we have heard echoed across the globe, he expressed his incredulity about the American people electing Bush. It seems that Bush’s blatant ignorance of foreign affairs and his skewed economic policies is recognized the world over.

At the ticket office at Pompeii, we found out why American students are now paying full fare to national monuments in Italy. Apparently, the Italian prime minister and Bush do not get along and of course, like most of the rest of the world, the Italian government does not support the war in Iraq. So, as a form of sanctions against the U.S. government, American students are not eligible for discounts to national sites. I tried to claim we were from Portugal (as I am eligible for dual citizenship) but I guess I wasn’t convincing because the woman at the ticket office asked for our passports. Because of my attempted scam, I had to leave the line, let some time pass and then send Steve through another line to purchase tickets. Peter and Paul ended up paying full price but, though it was hit on our budget, we supported the Italian government’s bold stance against the U.S. government. We wish other countries would exert this kind of pressure as a united bloc against the U.S.’s distorted, self-serving policies across the globe. Still, I did appeal to staff at the information booth about the policy and explained that we do not support the Bush administration but they said unfortunately, there was nothing they could do to waive this sanction for us.

Ancient city unearthed

Pompeii, one of the most extensive archeological sites in the world, was unearthed only a couple of centuries ago, nearly 1,700 years after it was covered in ash from a volcanic explosion. This is a major attraction and not surprisingly draws hoards of visitors. We haven’t seen these throngs of tourists since Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We arrived at around 11 a.m., purchased an audio cassette and plunged into the sea of other tourists streaming into the site. We followed the three hour itinerary but ended up spending a good six hours exploring this site and could have spent days.

As we passed through Porta Marina, the main gate of Pompeii, it was as if we had entered another world. Unveiled before us was a remarkably intact city on a plateau, grids of undulating walls and pathways of rock and brick extending out in all directions. This area was originally settled in the 7th century BC but only became a thriving Roman metropolis after the 5th century BC and was richly embellished during the reigns of emperors Octavian Augustus (27 BC-14 AD) and Tiberius (14-37 AD). Its heyday was cut short when a violent earthquake struck the whole Vesuvius area in 62 AD. Reconstruction began immediately but all this effort was in vain because on August 24, 79 AD Mt. Vesuvius erupted and completely buried the city in ash and rock. In our audiocassette guide, we heard an account of an eye witness of this horrific catastrophe. He very dramatically describes the thunderous roar of the mountain and the blackness that descended upon the land as a thick layer of ash fell upon the earth and obscured the sun. Throughout our visit of Pompeii, Vesuvius loomed ominously in the background, reminding us of its ability to reshape our world instanteously. It is prominent in many of the photographs we took and is certainly indelled in our memories, along with its smoldering relations in the Mediterranean realm, such as the volcano of Santorini.

Check your sundial

Our first stop was the Temple of Apollo, the most ancient sanctuary in Pompeii (575-550 BC). In the background, Mount Vesuvius looms as a living reminder of the terrible wrath of nature. The central podium is accessed by front entry stairs while the core of the temple is surrounded by a colonnade of columns. It reminded me of the Buddhist temple of Doi Sutthep outside of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand because at this temple, the faithful walk around the central altar three times or more in meditation. Presiding over this grand temple are the graceful statues of Apollo and Diana, depicted as archers, their arms outstretched as if poised to release an arrow. Apollo is the protector of artists, and Diana is the protector of hunters. There is a sundial in the middle of the front court to the temple, and Peter immediately discovered that the sundial was accurate as it cast its shadow on the notch of high noon. It was Julius Caesar who harmonized the calendar with the seasons and the lunar cycle and created the 365 day year.

Roots of law

Our next stop was the basilica, which meant king’s palace in Roman times but was later co-opted by Christianity to denote principal or kingly churches. The Roman basilica was the seat of administrative and judicial proceedings. It is from this form of governance and rule of law that the basis of modern western jurisprudence was derived. The complex is a vast arena of a rectangular layout, enclosed in massive stone walls, lined with a decorative brocade border at the top, and filled with monuments, of which only a field of brick pedestals remain. At the front of the complex, judges sat on an elevated stage lined with slender, stately columns, denoting their elevated status and, on a practical note, protecting them from disgruntled parties. There was a second level on this tribunal which was lined by a more diminutive set of columns. I was particularly excited for Peter to be in this ancient place of justice and draw inspiration since he has expressed interest in law. As we sat on the perimeter of these fantastic halls of justice and the birds swooped around us, as if carrying messages from another era, we imagined all the decisions and rulings that wise men and women designed and dispensed in this forum. Aah, you could almost feel the ions of this atmosphere, still charged with higher thinking despite the passage of time!

Downtown Pompeii

From the relatively quiet basilica and public administration buildings (including the prolific public works department), which like many administrative buildings of any age were the most boring structures in town consisting of rectangular rooms, we entered the bedlam of the central plaza of Pompeii, where all paths converge and where we lost G-ma (we were only to link up with her at the end of the day at the entrance of the site; it’s easy to get lost in Pompeii). Thousands of tourists poured into Pompeii’s main square, endowing this ancient forum with the look and feel of the all-pedestrian center of ancient Pompeii (cart traffic was wisely forbidden here, as it should be in all city centers to encourage casual gathering of the citizenry, eh?). In the center of the forum was the Temple of Jupiter, the father of all the gods; his head is all that remains of the statue that was prominently erected on the high podium. A cell inside holds a more recent addition (from 80BC), when an altar was created to the Capitoline Triad, "The Three Gods," Jupiter, Juno and Minerva (interestingly, this triune theme is repeated in Christianity with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit representing the One God). The forum is surrounded by religious, commercial and political buildings:

the building of the priestess Eumachia, with its grand Roman portal. An inscription in delicate, but large, Latin script at the top of this portal recounts the glory of the imperial family that funded this building;

sanctuary of the Public Lares. Paul lay prostrate on the grass, recording his thoughts, before the sacrificial altar of this temple that was thought to have been built after the violent earthquake of 62 AD which wrought widespread damage throughout Pompeii in an effort to placate the divine ire of the gods. Apparently the gods were not appeased because 17 years later, the town was obliterated completely when Vesuvius erupted.

Macellum, the city’s main market. In the center of this marketplace was a circular courtyard with the stone foundations for the wooden poles that supported a conical roof, a cool patio for shoppers to congregate and socialize. Along the perimeter of the marketplace were the shops that sold fish, meat, and vegetables. Frescoes on the walls depict the hustle and bustle of this marketplace.

In the neighborhood

We ate in the front yard of a house in a quiet neighborhood off the main square, asking permission of the ancient inhabitants telepathically across the centuries and enjoyed conversation, as perhaps the family that owned this house once did. Back on the streets of Pompeii, we visited the House of Faun, the largest house in Pompeii encompassing an entire city block! At the entrance of the house is a mosaic threshold, a symbol of the wealth of this family, and an atrium/pool in which rain water was collected for use in the home. In the center of the pool is a small bronze statue of a faun, a sprite-like figure reaching out as if extending a kindly greeting to all those who cross the hearth. It is after this delicate, whimsical figure that the house was named. Together, we "discovered" the kitchen, bedrooms, parlors and I even christened one remote chamber as the "bathroom," since when "ya gotta go, ya gotta go!" This family had two courtyards to which to retreat, each surrounded by columns or pillars and adorned with fountains, benches, gardens, sculptures, and reliefs, providing ample inspiration for the contemplation of the idle rich!

In another mansion, the House of Sallusition, one of the most ancient homes in Pompeii (3rd century BC), the main part of the house is illuminated by an ancient sky light, revealing a series of frescoes and reliefs on the walls. Its most distinctive features were the small patios in the back of the house. One corner garden patio was equipped with a brick fireplace, very much like what Steve envisions for our backyard, a place to fry chapatis, Indian flatbread, roast marshmallows and keep the oral history of our family alive, recounting stories over a campfire! In another secluded patio is the depiction of Actaeon being attacked by the watch dogs of the goddess Diana when he was caught spying on the goddess when she was naked.

A visit to the countryside

Outside the city walls, we passed assorted necropoli, or tombs, which apparently lined nearly every road entering the city, on our way to the famous Villa of the Mysteries. We got lost in this beautiful country estate overlooking the sea, scampering in and out of the many rooms, as if we were guests from the city, delighting in the spaciousness of this country residence. We entered the estate through a stone bridge over the family cemetery. Along the wall on the bottom level were the servants’ quarters. Beyond the portal and decorative sitting parlors, the house opened out into a courtyard. All the bedrooms and living rooms had a view of the sea and were decorated with lovely frescoes. One of these frescoes mysteriously depicts a woman's initiation to marriage. Her head rests in the lap of an older woman, perhaps her mother, who is gently caressing her, while another woman looks down on her with an expression of concern and a nude woman dances in the foreground, draped in a lovely olive green scarf flowing in the wind, as if a muse luring the young woman from the protective harbor of her mother's lap into the arms of her new lover and mate. It is a portrayal full of dynamism and emotional juxtaposition, distress and lightness of being, discord and gracefulness, regret and anticipation. The villa derives its name from the mysterious nature of this portrayal.

Back in town, we visited yet another mansion, the House of the Ancient Hunt. Apparently this house had just been remodeled when the volcano erupted, reflected in the vividness of the frescoes found in nearly every room. Most of the frescoes depict various hunting scenes from the exotic to the locale. One, located in an alcove off the center garden, provides a glimpse of what happened next to Actaeon when he glimpsed the goddess Diana naked while on a hunting expedition--he was changed into a stag! A fitting retribution: from the hunter to the hunted. Another hangs above the pool in the center of the villa, and the blue of the pool blends with the blue of the Arabian sky as cherub hunters pursue their prey across a Nile landscape.

We stopped to make some imaginary bread at Pompeii’s bakery. Romans began to use bread pervasively in the 2nd century BC, a tradition that has lasted over the centuries! This facility was remarkably well-equipped for our machinations with millstones to grind the grain, flat surfaces to knead the dough, and wood-burning ovens, very similar to those used today, to bake those sumptuous loaves. All that was missing was the aroma... and a sales counter (it is thought that this bakery sold bread wholesale and/or through peddlers).

The Stabian Baths were Pompeii’s exclusive country club. Its large courtyard served as a small track field and along the perimeter were pools and spas for the rejuvenation of athletes, celebrated in ancient Greece and Rome for their physical prowess. The bathing rooms came in cold, tepid and hot options. The hot baths provided total immersion as hot air produced from the wood-burning furnace was funneled into the space underneath the floor (the floor was supported by brick pillars) and through ducts in the walls, completely enveloping the room in warmth! The ingenuity of Roman facilities has been very impressive to see. After walking the streets of Pompeii for the last several hours, I was definitely wishing this facility was still operational. I think I would have been a regular at this spa, though I probably wouldn't have been able to afford it! One bathing room had a domed ceiling that was painted in black and accented with gold highlights, depicting the sparkling stars of the night sky. We and another group of American tourists peered up at the globe together, alternatively exclaiming our praises of the magical effect, undiminished in the light of our imaginations! On the walls were frescoes of athletes and their feats, Pompeii’s own Hall of Fame!

We found an afternoon repose at the Great (capacity: 5,000) and Small (capacity: 1,300) theatres. Like other Roman theatres we have seen, the front seats were made of marble and were reserved for distinguished guests, members of city council, corporate sponsors, and donors. However, because of the expert design of these ancient amphitheatres, there really wasn't a bad seat in the house. Though the Great Theatre had an impressive stage of red brick walls and columns, we preferred the more intimate theatre, where musical performances and poetry readings were held. This small theatre had box seats on either side of the stage, a little nest isolated from the rest of the theatre goers, perfect for a romantic evening for a pair of lovers. At the base of all the aisles were winged lions of stone, and the stage was made of white inlaid marble. For the full effect, Peter, Paul and I played recitations of poetry of that era on our audiocassette guide. We were quite amused when a very tragic reading about a man who was lamenting that his children loved his brother more than they loved him was abruptly interrupted with the incongruous exclamation, "Somebody stole my pot!" Talk about comedic relief! We cracked up! Not sure we had gotten that sequence right, we listened to it again. Sure enough, on and on he moaned but was distracted by this outrage that somebody had stolen his pot! Forget that his children's affection had been squandered on his brother, aah, the fiend, the scoundrel, that stole his pot! We were in stitches.

Throughout the ruins of Pompeii were glass cases of casts of skeletons, unearthed from the ash remarkably intact, several centuries later when excavations began in the mid 1700s. I was sure that I could detect expressions and gestures of horror, a mouth agape or an arm raised as if to shield from the impending doom, but my children thought I was exercising considerable creative license in my interpretations!

To round off our visit to Pompeii, we paid our last respects to this impressive civilization at the temples of Isis and Venus. Isis, the Egyptian goddess of nature and feminine fertility was especially popular among the lower classes. This temple was smaller than the rest but offered many rooms for worship for the large flock of this cult, including numerous altars and a purgatorium, a water basin that contained sacred water from the Nile River and was used for purification rituals. As we bid Pompeii farewell, we passed through the remains of what may have been Pompeii's grandest temple, the Temple of Venus. Built on prime real estate on a hill overlooking the sea and the River Sarno, only a few elegant columns and marble and other stone debris remain, a mere reflection of its previous grandeur.

May 4, 2006

Stepping through time

In the early afternoon, we set off on another expedition into the valley on the other side of Amalfi, toward the old stone church that we could see high up on the top of one of the highest peaks surrounding Amalfi. Once again, we ascended another stone path that crisscross the entire Amalfi coast, passing the quaint stone farm houses and orchards we had seen and admired from the other of the valley yesterday until we arrived in the village of Pogerola. In this sleepy, little mountain village, a local café was advertising free Internet so Peter, Paul and I stopped to check email and Rome tourism online and printed a walking itinerary for our upcoming tour of Rome. Still in search of the old stone church, we set off again and finally discovered it. Unfortunately, it is now closed but a few locals sitting on the stone wall along the path enthusiastically invited us to visit the newer chapel that had been built to mark its older counterpart. We all kneeled in prayer and then chatted with our new friends before proceeding down the 1,310 steps back down to the coastline. We were the only people along this walkway, lined with ancient houses. In one turn in the bend, we greeted an older woman leaning on her front gate. She seemed delighted with the company, and we exchanged a few words. She explained that she doesn’t get out much as she has to traverse steep stairs in either direction! We nodded in empathetic support and bid her a warm "Arrivederci." Peter and Paul, now futebol fanatics, played their game of rock futebol, which consists of Peter, as Samuel Eto’o, and Paul, as Ronaldinho (both FC Barcelona stars), passing a rock to each other and scoring imaginary, but spectacular, goals off the side of the path! Back down at sea level, we could see the steep cliffs that house the many caves that dot this seaside, several of which have been converted into sacred altars, or grottos. We traveled along the upper boardwalk back into Amalfi. While Peter, Paul and I were waiting for Steve to catch up, we met Marco, a young Italian man from Amalfi who works at Grotta dello Smeraldo, the largest grotto in the area and a popular tourist destination, and is always eager for an opportunity to practice his English. The conversation eventually came around to futebol (as it usually does amongst Europeans!) and we began talking about the upcoming World Cup. Naturally, he is an avid fan of AC Milan, one of the premiere Italian teams and hailed Italy as a prime contender in the World Cup. He predicted it will come down to Italy and Brazil for the championship. Paul was reluctant to ignite this passionate young man’s fury by admitting his allegiance to FC Barcelona and Ronaldinho from Brazil but eventually I breached the subject. What ensued was a hilarious exchange where he admitted Ronaldinho’s superb talent but, in all loyalty to Italy, couldn’t resist smearing him a little too, remarking that he really is funny-looking with that broad, buck-toothed smile! That broke the tension and we all laughed heartily. We promised to keep in touch and urged him to email us through our website.

May 3, 2006

Old world charm

Amalfi and all the towns along this dramatic coastline are picturesque villages that exude old world charm. Most of the houses here are made of rock and reinforced with concrete or stucco. Everything has an antiquated feel—mildew stains the walls and the paint is peeling and splotched, yet all this is part of its charm and lure.

Today, we ventured through the cobblestone paths high into the hills and surrounding villages. We were amazed at the homes tucked away along this circuitous path with no other road access. The residents of these paths must be in tip-top shape just to commute to and from their homes! And how did they construct the walls that enclose the citrus groves that checker the town?

We met a gentleman on his way home and had a conversation about our route because unfortunately the trails were not marked and there were many spurs in the path. Using our walking trail map and our Spanish-Italian blend, we managed to communicate and determine that we needed to continue to head up in the direction he was going. We accompanied him up the stairs until he reached his home and bid him an "Arrivederci" as we continued up the path. At one junction in the path was a small altar to our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in tile on a stone wall. From what I could gather from the inscription, it looked like it marked the site of an apparition of Mother Mary. Climbing the steps higher, we passed villas tucked in alcoves along the cliffs and, looking out across the valley where Amalfi is nestled to the glistening aquamarine waters of the Mediterranean, you understand why this has been the chosen seaside retreat for Roman emperors and has remained an exclusive resort community through the centuries. Though there are some new hotels, most of the buildings are restored and modernized ancient mansions, retaining their inimitable old world charm, while the ruins of ancient castles, churches and haciendas pepper the landscape, like a rich seasoning.

In the small town of Polene, we traveled through the town square, past Giovanni de Baptiste church, and further up still to the magnificent ruins of a cathedral from the 11th century. All that remains is the façade of the altar facing the sea but you can see its impressive silhouette from sea level. When we arrived, we found the gate locked much to our disappointment. A group of young travelers from UK, who were staying in Ravello, arrived shortly after us. They too were disappointed because the attendant at the tourist office had recommended this site and had assured them it was open to visit. I had greeted a very handsome young man who was working on a house across from the entrance to the cathedral when we arrived so I went back to inquire about getting access to the church. I asked him in Spanish with an Italian accent if the church was open and must have looked sufficiently dejected because he smiled with charming appeal and said "Un momento," and I caught a flicker of hope in his eye for me! A few minutes later, he reappeared with his father, leaning over their front porch. With a wry smile, his father told us it was locked but he had the key! We said pretty, please, could he let us in (in Italiano as best we could) and he smiled and disappeared again. I returned to the group while we waited for him to return. They were very impressed that I knew Italiano and I told them I was definitely faking it with Spanish. We chatted for ten minutes or so but still the man did not reappear and I began wondering if I had misunderstood so I went back to the house and hailed the young man I had originally talked to and said, "Aah, so no es possible?" But, he said, "Yes, my father is going to get the key, un momento." Sure enough, just a few minutes later, his father appeared with the key and unlocked the gate for us for our own private viewing of this lovely 11th century basilica. Its distinctive altar was in the form of a panel of three apses, the tallest one in the middle, flanked by one on either side. On the upper portion of the central apse was a carved medallion with a beautiful design outlined in red fresco, and at the heart of the central altar was the remains of an altar and Peter, Paul and I reenacted the celebration of mass in this grand setting. Rabble rouser that I am, I cast myself as the priest and Peter and Paul as my altar servers! Only the shell of the church remained, the altar and its walls and down below a veranda that may have served as a rectory or gathering hall for parishioners. Whatever it was, it had a splendid view of the rugged coastline slipping into the Mediterranean sea!

Our next destination was a tower on a rocky crag closer to the sea. We approached it from behind, losing sight of it as we made our way down and then up the back of the cliff. We finally came to an observation point and looked over the edge. It was a sheer drop-off and there well below us was the tower we were trying to reach! We decided to eat lunch here from our perch high in the sky and imagined God creating the world and giving us dominion over this awesome creation. We made our way back down and over to the front face of the lower cliff to the tower where apparently a duchess was imprisoned and later died, Amalfi’s own Rapanzelle story. The castle consisted of this tower, now completely sealed to human habitation and haunted by its violent history, and a deck overlooking the beautiful sea. The water, its color so vibrant, looked very inviting from our look-out. It was a hot day and we had exerted ourselves meandering around the villages of the surrounding mountainside. Now we traversed more steps over and down, merging with our initial path back into Amalfi, passing the familiar landmarks of the villa for sale (at a particularly dramatic corner), the stretch with a view of the next gorge south, the tile altar dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. This time though we took a detour and followed the sound of rushing water and found the waterfall I had seen from the trail high above the gorge. Beside it was a memorial dedicated to a beloved local priest, Father Pio. Back in town, we decided to change and check out that inviting water. Unfortunately, the beach was not as pristine as it looked from our viewpoint on the cliff. The sun had slipped behind a cloud and I was appalled at the amount of trash that littered the beach. The beach was made of black and white pebbles. While Steve performed our obligatory dip in our behalf, Peter, Paul and I collected smooth specimens for Paul’s collection. Shortly thereafter, we were heading back to the main piazza to order our afternoon gelato. I sat down in the town piazza to enjoy my gelato and watched the setting sun illuminate the gold on the cathedral of St. Andrew, the village’s main church or duomo, and the people flocking to the fountain in the town square for a drink of cool, refreshing water. The water poured from the mouths of bronze angels and the basins they were holding. There were also sculptures of busts of women whose nipples were water spouts but these were inactivated! The fountain attracted enough attention without these running! Walking up the expansive steps of the cathedral, the full glory of the church’s façade, resplendent in iconic gold in the setting sun, rose up before us. The church, of Eastern Orthodoxy architecture, was lined with chapels adorned with grand statues, paintings and icons but for me the focal point was a striking statue of Christ lying on a wooden cross on the front altar. We lit a candle on the altar to the left of the main altar while the chanting of evening prayers wafted over us from the small congregation in the altar on the other side of the church.

May 2, 2006:

Italy lies over the sea

We caught a ferry to Italy from Patras, Pelopponesia by the skin of our teeth. Within a minute of boarding the stern was raised and the ferry prepared to set off across the Ionian and Adriatic seas en route to Brindisi, Italy. We sailed through the night and, because we couldn’t afford a compartment, were relegated to the lounge which converted into a discoteque at about 10 p.m. We didn’t get much sleep and were slightly dismayed by our first glimpse of Italy. Brindisi is an industrial, commercial town, cluttered with buildings of the typical, nondescript architecture of the 50s. Once in the center of town, making our way to the train station, some of Italy’s charm began to break through with its old world cobblestone promenades and piazzas. Peter, who has been faithfully studying Italiano for the past couple of weeks, was very eager to test out his skills and we were cheering him on. He approached a man on the street with a Bon Giorno and successfully asked where the train station was. Then, when we arrived at the train station, he helped me purchase tickets and conducted all the transactions at the café, carrying on a fairly lengthy conversation with the attendant about the different types of sandwiches and other food and beverages available. It was very impressive to watch him very effectively communicate.

Once aboard the train and well into the countryside of southern Italy, we were dazzled by the majestic mountains, crystal clear rivers, and kilometer after kilometer, of cultivated fields, many of an other-worldly green, perhaps a grass used for grazing. We got off in Salerno and went in search of lunch. Steve spotted a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria joint and we ordered large slices of pizza for 1 Euro and an eggplant parmesan sandwich for 2.50 Euro. We were in heaven! A young Filipino woman and her daughter were sitting at the table in front of us. They had been living here for several years and loved it but said that that the cost of living is very high and everyone must work to make ends meet and that it’s hard.

We collected maps and literature at the tourist information center while waiting for the bus to Amalfi. Also waiting for the bus was a couple from Australia who had just been to Roma. An hour along the windy and dramatic Amalfi coast and we arrived in the town of Amalfi. Steve and I set out on a mission impossible—to find budget accommodations in this seaside community that has been a popular resort destination for the rich and famous over the centuries. Even Julius Ceasar retreated here for R&R! In an effort to seek out local contacts for accommodations, I approached a woman in a small shop. After stumbling through introductions in Italiano, she, much to our surprise, broke out in a brazened New York accent and gave me the low-down on accommodations in Amalfi. When I told her that we had found an apartment for all five of us overlooking the center of town for 110 Euro at L’ Antico Convitto, she, who had been raised in Connecticut for 10 years before her father moved the family back to Italy, immediately told us that this hotel was run by her cousin and that she had given us the best price in town (and this was later confirmed by a local travel agent as well who had helped us look for alternative, lower cost accommodations). When we returned to L’ Antico Convitto and told Gabriella, the manager, that we had met her cousin Delphina, she discounted the room even further and we settled in to prepare a lovely meal of pasta and salad in our beautiful, fully equipped apartment overlooking the center of town, an old stone bell tower, neighboring stone dwellings, and the narrow cobblestone passageways through a large picture window in the living room.