Holidays in Venice

Friday morning we had a very early wake-up, as we wanted to be on the road by 8am.  We were driving the rental car from Tuscany to Venice, with a stop in Ravenna along the way.  Originally we’d planned to travel to Ravenna from Venice as a day trip, but a bit more research revealed that the train trip was about three hours each way… so we decided a stop en route to Venice would make more sense.

With only about three hours in our stop-over, we hit the ground running in Ravenna—heading straight for the two major sights: the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Basilica di San Vitale.  The former building, completed in the 5th century, when Ravenna was one of the capitals of a declining Roman empire, has been described by UNESCO as “the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments, and at the same time one of the most artistically perfect.”  The mosaics are extraordinary—even having seen pictures online, I was bowled over when we entered the small space. 

The small curved dome of the ceiling, the side panels, the lintels—every space is covered in images that seem to glow.  The windows themselves are alabaster, like the cathedral in Orvieto—but much darker, more opaque slices.  Visitors are allowed only five minutes inside the building, both to accommodate the number of visitors and to preserve the mosaics themselves (95% of which are original). 

One of the most famous repeating patterns—gold stars against a lapis lazuli background—is repeated throughout the ceiling.  Later in the day, I would find a small version of one of these gorgeous stars in a mosaicist’s studio… and that one is now safely stowed in my suitcase.  🙂

After spending our allotted time inside the Mausoleum, we walked over to the Basilica di San Vitale.  The size and splendor—the sheer volume of the Byzantine mosaics inside—are difficult to describe.  It’s simply amazing.  I spent my first few minutes inside admiring the floors: done in a style that echoes the mosaics we saw in Rome and Naples.

Having postponed the walls and ceilings, I now turned my attention to this delayed gratification.  What a riot of color and symbols. 

Apostles, birds, Jesus, flowers, an emperor, and angels—all vie for your attention.  I was particularly struck by the portraits of Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora—note that Justinian has both the worldly crown of the emperor and the halo of a saint—an interesting pair of symbols for one man (and of course very much on purpose, as he wished to consolidate power by this conjunction).

Our guidebook noted that “San Vitale can be seen as the last of the ancient Roman art and the first of the Christian era”—and that change can be clearly seen in the two versions of Jesus on this same ceiling—the beardless shepherd and the bearded Christ, just across from one another.

The rest of our time in Ravenna was divided between finding lunch, ducking into several small mosaic studios, and seeing a few more churches, each decorated with mosaic (though none as lavishly as the two described above).  But I was a happy traveler indeed—Ravenna was definitely the crown jewel in my tour of Italy’s mosaics.

And so we returned to our Fiat, ready to drive the final two and half hours to Venice.  We arrived just in time to return our car to Europcar… but none of the garages were clearly marked—and we had no directives from the rental company about where to go.  After making several wrong turns, we wound up re-crossing the bridge back to the mainland, then coming back to Venice and parking the car on the tenth floor of the first garage in the Piazzale Roma (which is as far as wheeled traffic can go in this lagoon town).  By this time, the rental agency had closed, but we gathered our luggage and dropped the keys in the overnight slot.  Fortunately, no penalties seem to have applied.  Phew!

Since we had wheeled luggage, our AirBnB host had recommended taking a vaporetto (the city water bus) from the Piazzale Roma to the stop nearest our apartment.  While bridges connect all of the city’s many islands, most of the bridges have steps (and no ramps).  So we wheeled our bags aboard a city boat and off we went (with me half-enjoying the initial sights of the Grand Canal and half-wondering how many tourists fall in every year). 

Our apartment in Venice was one of the very best we’ve had so far—it was newly renovated, with wonderfully thoughtful touches throughout.  And the location was terrific—just steps away from lots of restaurants and a grocery store in a converted theater—but very quiet, since it was tucked away down a little side street.  

We spent the rest of the evening settling in to our final Italian home.  Venice is our last stop in Italy, and we are looking forward to spending the Easter holidays here (along with Penelope’s birthday!).

On Saturday morning we were up early, heading back to Piazzale Roma to meet with my dad and Penelope.  Handoff complete, my dad headed back to the Venice campground so that my folks could drive to Croatia later that day.  We’ll be seeing them again in a few weeks—in Paris!  Until then, they will be on the move: Croatia, northern Italy, and southern France.

We walked back to our apartment, hearing from Penelope about her week away with the grandparents, eating lunch, and settling in a bit more.  After lunch, we decided on the tour of Venice via the Grand Canal cruise.  So we boarded vaporetto #1 back at Piazzale Roma, and listened to Rick Steves’ audio tour as we cruised from the beginning of the Grand Canal all the way down to St. Mark’s Square.  A gorgeous day on the water!

Upon arrival, we opted to tour the Correr Museum and tool around St. Mark’s Square.  The Correr is a great, underrated museum—which also means it’s much quieter and more sparsely populated by tourists than the Doge’s Palace or St. Mark’s itself.  We wandered happily around the rooms of art, artillery, and archeological finds for a few hours, then took a break in the museum café, which had a wonderful view of the cathedral across the square.

When Penelope realizes she’s in a ballroom…
…continuing her dance moves in the Square…
…ending up on the back of a giant lion.
The Bridge of Sighs.
The golden hour in Venice… a beautiful end to our first full day.

By 6pm or so, we decided we ought to head to the grocery store to fully stock our larder for the next few days… most grocery stores would be closed for Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, as both are national holidays here in Italy.  All of Venice had the same idea, so the store was, not surprisingly, a madhouse.  But we made it out in one piece, heading home for some well-earned rest.

Easter Sunday was a lovely day!  Penelope was especially excited to celebrate in an Italian fashion—instead of baskets, children here receive absolutely enormous chocolate eggs (often with toys inside) and share in a Colomba, a dove shaped cake.  While Penelope was with her grandparents, we’d secured both of these items and stowed them away to surprise her.  And delighted she was!

After a delicious brunch, we decided we’d tour the Doge’s Palace and then walk back to our apartment—seeing a bit more of Venice on land this time.  I’d expected the streets to be, if not empty, perhaps more sparsely populated, given that the day was a religious holiday in a very Catholic country.  But in fact, the opposite was true.  St. Mark’s Square was even more crowded than on Saturday, with masses of people everywhere you looked.  Almost all of the tourist stores were open, the restaurants, and many of the tourist sites as well.  So we dove into the crowds and made our way to the Doge’s Palace.

Inside wasn’t nearly as crowded, and our pace slowed as we explored the many rooms therein.  Beautiful frescoes, paintings, and architecture abounded. 

We particularly enjoyed crossing over the Bridge of Sighs, which we’d seen from the outside the day before, and exploring the dungeons.

Penelope lets loose a wistful sigh…
Artsy shot from the Bridge.

We ended our visit in the gift shop, where Penelope decided (once again) to enlarge her jewelry collection.  Fortunately, her savings have kept pace with her acquisitions… and she reminded me that every piece will have a “memory of these wonderful places, Mama!”  A fair point.  🙂

We walked home the long way, getting enjoyably lost a few times, finding our way again, and savoring all of the sights and sounds of this city in the lagoon.

Monday was Pasquetta, Easter Monday.  A day of museums for us: both the Accademia and the Guggenheim were on the agenda, along with some mask shopping and a gondola ride.

We began the day at the Accademia, home to Venetian Renaissance painting.  It’s a relatively small museum, and undergoing some renovation, so we spent relatively little time there—though the small temporary exhibit on Bosch and da Vinci was a lovely surprise. 

Afterwards, we decided on lunch at nearby Al Vecio Marangon, a small neighborhood restaurant.  There we relaxed and enjoyed a delightful meal of small plates (known in Venice as cicchetti), all freshly prepared and wonderfully seasoned.   Thus fortified, we now prepared ourselves for an essential Venetian outing: mask shopping. 

Since Penelope’s birthday is on the road this year, she’s received a few monetary gifts in lieu of the usual books or toys.  Bolstered by this unusual largesse, she decided that she would buy a mask here in Venice with some of that birthday money.  We’ve been stopping in and out of various mask stores over the past few days, but today was the day.  At Ca’Macana, one of Venice’s most well-known mask stores, she narrowed her choices from the delightful myriad to some final contenders.

Her parents also joined in the dress-up—though, alas, their choices were not purchased.  Though I do think the pirate hat really suited Jeremy. 

Ca’Macana is one of the few mask shops that allows photos, which is lovely.  I think it encourages people to stay longer (and makes the shop owners seem less forbidding).  But I can understand why others prefer not to have their wares used but not purchased.  After quite some time, Penelope settled on her final choice…

…and we’ll figure out how to get it home somehow!

Next it was off to the Guggenheim, where we spent the first forty-five minutes in the gardens.

Initially we circulated, admiring the sculptures, but soon Penelope was deeply engrossed in games of tag and red light/green light with a French girl just her age.  She had, as always, a delightful time playing—and was hard-pressed to enter the museum and start looking at the art.  But eventually we coaxed her inside, where from time to time we ran into her new friend again.

We finished our time at the museum (having very much enjoyed the eclectic modern collection after weeks of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance art), and set out on our final adventure of the day: a gondola ride!

We’d promised Penelope a gondola ride in Venice for her birthday, but since the forecast promised rain on her actual birthday, we’d decided to go today instead.  As we left the Guggenheim, we peered down several side canals, and spotted a likely looking gondolier.  As we stepped down into the boat, it shifted ominously… but we were quickly and professionally ushered to our seats and were soon afloat. 

As you can, I was initially in the so-called “love seat” with Jeremy, but Penelope hastened to point out that the ride was for her birthday, so she asked for a spot in the primo viewing area… and I ceded my claim.

We started on the Grand Canal, then drifted down some smaller lanes, and emerged into a much larger body of water—the Giudecca Canal.  Here much larger boats were creating substantial waves, and the lighter gondola was sent into a series of tumultuous moves—and Penelope loved every minute. 

It was a lovely half an hour floating around the canals, and we were so glad to share this experience with our birthday girl.  As soon as we disembarked, she asked when we could go again.  A happy kiddo indeed.

Tuesday was our second major holiday in Venice: Penelope’s 8th birthday!  After a breakfast celebration and a few small gifts at home, we headed out into the rain to do some exploring.  Penelope had requested no museums for her birthday, but she wanted to show us St. Mark’s cathedral (which she had seen earlier in the week with her grandparents).  When we emerged into the streets near our apartment, she was over the moon to realize that the canal waters were splashing over the edge of the embankments.  While it wasn’t Aqua Alta, there was definitely some flooding—and all day long, Penelope proclaimed, “It’s flooding!  For my birthday!” in tones of delighted triumph.  But before we headed for the Cathedral, we first stopped at a gelateria for a birthday treat.

When we reached St. Mark’s Square and joined the queue for the cathedral, we found that we were indeed on the elevated walkways Venice keeps handy for just this occasion.  While we weren’t in any danger of real flooding, it was still quite interesting to see this dynamic evidence of the ways in which Venice is sinking (and the sea is rising), year by year.

You’ll have to imagine Penelope exclaiming, “It’s flooding!! This is amazing!” while jumping up and down on the elevated walkway.

The cathedral itself was lovely, if very dark on this rainy day.  But what we could see of the mosaics was quite wonderful.  The best part was perhaps the museum upstairs, which offers great views from the balconies (where the women worshipped in the earliest days of this Church), a chance to see the famous horses up close, and many other original statues and mosaics.

After our rainy afternoon, we headed to dinner at a nearby pizzeria, as Penelope had asked for a pizza dinner to celebrate.  We happily obliged.

While we might have wished for better weather for Penelope’s birthday, she was radiant with happiness all day long.   It was a joy to see her so delighted with this traveling birthday—I hope it’s one she’ll remember for a long time.

Wednesday, our last day in Venice, dawned bright and sunny.  We’d decided to head over to another island, Murano, to see a glassblowing demonstration and the various glass shops there.  After a quick ferry ride across the lagoon, we soon arrived.

As we were browsing the shops, one of the shopkeeps in a particularly fine gallery suggested we might enjoy touring a glass factory nearby.  After exchanging a few words about timing and location, she offered to walk us over—and so, to our surprise, she locked up the shop and we were off.  We’d had the good fortune to be offered a tour of the Massimiliano Schiavon Art Team’s factory—and it was amazing to see the artwork being created there.  The family there is the sixth-generation of glassblowers, and their work was astonishing in its color and variety.  We watched a few of the artists at work, while our guide offered explanations.

Then we toured the seemingly endless galleries, gazing in awe at the chandeliers, vases, frames, and mosaic art.

After an hour at the factory, we wandered back to the main square, enjoying the sights—from a giant glass tree in the piazza to tiny glass gnomes in windows.

At one store we passed, Penelope noted that the artist inside made glass necklaces to order.  She decided then and there that she would purchase one, and stepped right up to discuss her ideas with the artist.  She asked for the letter P, made of blue and purple glass, in a fancy style—all of this delivered in a no-nonsense, authoritative tone.  She may be only newly eight years old, but she negotiates and orders like nobody’s business.  (side note: I don’t even like making phone calls.  Clearly, this skill isn’t an inherited one.)

Watching the artist at work… then realizing I was snapping an unauthorized photo. Ha!
Modeling her new necklace on a nearby bridge.

In the late afternoon, we headed back to Venice and toward the Rialto Bridge to explore a bit more before heading home to pack.  We wandered down main streets and side alleys, taking in the final sights of Venice. 

What a wonderful stay we’ve had in this waterlogged town—despite the occasional rain, it was a lovely place to end our time in Italy.  And now—on to Paris!

Tuscany for Two

On Sunday, my dad arrived at our Florence apartment early in the morning to pick up Penelope for her solo vacation with grandparents.  Penelope was quite excited for this side trip, and her parents were also looking forward to a few days together in Tuscany.  🙂

So Penelope headed off to the grandparents’ camper… and on to Lucca, Pisa, Padua, and Venice, while we finished packing up the rest of the baggage and went to pick up our rental car.  We’d reserved an adorable Fiat 500L, which was surprisingly roomy.  After securing our bags in the trunk, adjusting all the mirrors, and reviewing the directions, we were off!  From Florence to San Gimignano, our first stop.  It took several tries to leave Florence though—we kept taking slightly wrong turns and heading back into the city instead of out to the countryside.  But eventually we made it to the open landscapes around the city. 

Unfortunately, by the time we arrived in San Gimignano, it was pouring rain and the normally beautiful views from the hilltop were obscured by clouds.  We pulled into the parking lot anyway, to decide what to do next, and as we attempted to park, the car started sliding… and sliding… and would.not.stop.  Finally, about two feet away from a parked BMW, we came to a stop—but only with both the parking brake engaged AND Jeremy’s foot on the brake.  The combination of rain, slick cobblestones, and grass underneath had combined to make the situation somewhat… difficult.  I didn’t start really panicking until Jeremy said we’d have to call for a tow.  Given his normally optimistic approach to problem-solving, this statement felt particularly ominous.  I got out of the car and walked over to stand under a nearby olive tree, scanning our rental agreement for the right number to call. 

At that point, the family who owned the BMW suddenly appeared, and were, quite fortunately, both English and incredibly helpful.  The dad ushered his kids into the car, the mom came to stand with me, and then he somehow managed to squeeze past our precariously balanced vehicle to put their car at a safe remove.  Then he encouraged Jeremy to try reversing again—and our Fiat rolled forward once more.  By now another party of locals had stopped to help, and with three men pushing the Fiat uphill while Jeremy floored the car, they managed to get the car on safer ground.  Then they all quickly and quietly dispersed, while I (now soaking wet) rejoined Jeremy in the car.  We parked nearby on more level ground, gathered our wits, and decided it might be best to tour San Gimignano another day. 

We drove onward to our next AirBnB, west of Asciano.  En route, we stopped at one of the few grocery stores open on Palm Sunday, just outside of Siena.  The store was located inside a small mall, and it was fun to see this slice of suburban life.  I was particularly impressed by the escalators in the mall, which had been designed to hold grocery carts at an angle.

We finally arrived to the top of a hillside in Tuscany, up a cypress-lined drive, to our new temporary home.  And what a view.  The rain had cleared, and the birds were singing, and it was just perfectly beautiful.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening settling in and enjoying long stretches of companionable silence.  And then went outside to the patio at sunset…

Ahhhh, Tuscany.

On Monday, the weather was clearer, but still cold, so we opted to take The Heart of Tuscany driving tour outlined by Rick Steves (forever our trusty tour guide).  On the way toward our first small town, we stopped to take a picture of our Tuscan home. Pretty amazing.

We spent about four hours on the road, soaking in the gorgeous views near and far, and stopping in different hill towns during the day.  Our longest stop was a good long wander around Montepulciano, which was a lovely hill town, complete with fortifications, huge cliffs and walls, and gorgeous views around every corner.

That evening we relaxed at home—and I even watched a movie! without interruptions! I’m pleased to report I very much enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody, and I’ve had Queen songs running through my mind in the days since.

Meanwhile in Pisa… Penelope and my folks had arrived to see (and climb!) the famous Leaning Tower.  My mother stayed on the ground, since her knee has been more painful than usual of late.  They sent along these great pics.

Tuesday morning dawned sunny and gorgeous—look at these flowers in the garden!  I don’t think I captured any of the enormous bees swarming around the blossoms, and you can’t hear the ever-present birdsong, but trust me when I say the scene was positively pastoral.

With such gorgeous weather, we decided to tempt fate and return to San Gimignano (stopping en route at a pharmacie in a nearby town to find some allergy meds for Jeremy, who appears to be somewhat allergic to Italian pollen).  There we spotted one of the strangest public murals I’ve ever seen.

Hmmmmm…. not sure what the message is here.

After about an hour’s drive, we arrived back at the very same parking lot—but the skies were sunny and we had no trouble at all this time.  Climbing the hill up to the center of town, we soon spotted the towers for which San Gimignano is justly famous.  We spent the next few hours walking around, turning down side streets, enjoying both city sights and sweeping views from the overlooks.

Note the obviously quite necessary stoplight.

Inside one shop, we found a wonderful scale model of San Gimignano, circa 1300—along with the interior architecture of one of the towers.  Loved this idea—and it was a great aid in thinking about how these towers were actually used.

At the top of the hill, we spotted Dante himself, reciting the first lines of the Inferno from memory.  My Italian is almost non-existent, but I immediately recognized those first lines: “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, / ché la diritta via era smarrita.”   A wonderful performance! 

After we finished our afternoon in San Gimignano, we headed back home to our little home on the hillside, just in time to enjoy another beautiful sunset.

On Wednesday we were off to Orvieto.  Realizing our tank was getting low, we stopped for diesel somewhere between Asciano and Orvieto. 

Deep thoughts while fueling small vehicles.

About an hour and a half later, we arrived in Orvieto and bought our tickets to ride our funicular up to the historic town centre.  Orvieto, like so many of the hill towns in Tuscany, is a fortified town on an actual hill.  In this case, Orvieto was built at the top of a nearly 1000ft outcropping of tufa.  So most tourists park at the large parking lot at the base and take the charming three-car funicular to the top.  As we waited to depart, I asked Jeremy to snap a selfie together.  Results were not quite what I planned… but still true to form.

We reached the top and then boarded the city shuttle for just a few minutes, arriving at the cathedral and the heart of town.  And the cathedral was simply gorgeous.  Like nearby Florence, Orvieto chose to decorate the outside of the Duomo with lively marbles and mosaic, and the effect is quite stunning.  But even more impressive is in the inside.  The windows are a combination of stained glass and alabaster, and the latter bathes the church interior with a warm glow.  The effect is one of soothing welcome, and that feeling is bolstered by the bright frescoes and golden glow from mosaics and painted ceiling stars.

We spent an hour wandering around the interior, marveling in particular at the Chapel of San Brizio, painted by Luca Signorelli.  The frescoes contain scenes from the Last Judgment, beginning with the preaching of the Antichrist (often thought to portray Savonarola) and ending with the Damned being tortured in Hell while the Elect enjoy Paradise.  While it’s a familiar series of scenes, the paintings themselves are gorgeous—and quite realistically painted.  And just below these larger frescoes, portraits of Italian artists and writers—these were two of my favorites.

Love the way he’s leaning out to see the ceiling frescoes!

Next, we toured the nearby museums, including a bit of the open vaults under the cathedral, a modern Italian sculptor’s work, and some of the original frescoes and statues from the church. 

Paul has some serious side-eye for rock’n’roll Jesus.

My favorite spot in the museum was definitely the Libreria Alberi, the beautifully decorated room that housed the personal library of Archbishop Antonio Alberi.  The frescoes are from the same time period as the Chapel of San Brizio, so they are mostly like by Signorelli and his assistants—but here the subjects are secular.  Around the walls are portraits of authors who were contained in this library, in the fields of law, philosophy, history, poetry, and more.  But best of all was the creature perched on a window nook: a reading monkey, complete with glasses. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling through the streets of the town, from the center to the cliffs, enjoying the sunny day. 

And that same day, in a campground near Venice, Penelope celebrated her upcoming birthday with her grandparents—and they gifted her with a beautiful charm bracelet, with charms for this amazing adventure we’re on: the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower, and a gondola.  They’ve promised to add an Eiffel Tower when we’re in Paris.  We’ll have to find a Kiwi bird when we get home!  As you can see, she was positively thrilled with this wonderful present.  🙂

On Thursday we were off to our final Tuscan hilltown, Siena—just twenty minutes from our rental home.  We spent a lazy morning at home, arriving in town in time for our noon reservation at La Taverna di San Giuseppe.  The restaurant—in a 3rd century BC Etruscan home (!!)—is also Michelin recommended, so we knew were in for a treat.  And what a meal it was—eggplant starter, beef pappardelle, steak and duck entrees, and finally, the hazelnut soufflé for dessert.  Delizioso! 

Don’t miss the generous bowl of ice provided for American clientele… and the tiny chairs next to each table, for one’s purse or bag. 🙂

After lunch, we turned to Rick Steves for our walking tour of Siena, exploring the central piazzas, side streets, and cathedral along the way. 

And finally, back home to our own Tuscan hilltop, for our last sunset.  It’s been a wonderful vacation-within-our trip!


Florentine Adventures, Part Two

On Thursday we had reservations for an afternoon at the Uffizi.  My folks—who enjoy spending all day at museums—were planning to arrive at 10am.  Since we have Penelope in tow, we usually aim for around four hours… maximum.  But the Uffizi is enormous, and more crowded than others in Florence, so we reserved at 12:15pm timeslot, hoping we’d find ourselves with plenty of time.  And despite the crowds at the outset, we enjoyed our visit very much.  The stars here are Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Raphael, da Vinci, and Caravaggio—plus, of course, the building itself, and the beautiful views of the Arno out of the windows.

Gorgeous view of the Ponte Vecchio from inside the Uffizi.

By the end of the afternoon, Penelope was getting a bit punchy, and, accordingly, amped up her art imitations.  This one was perhaps my favorite.  🙂

After we finished our time at the museum, we emerged into a rainy afternoon.  Jeremy headed back to the apartment, while Penelope and I walked over to the paper marbling/book binding shop I’d seen on my artisans’ tour, Alberto Cozzi.  There we found ourselves some wonderful souvenirs: a picture frame, stationary, and tiny pill box for Penelope, and a journal and some stationary for me.  Their wares are simply extraordinary, and it was difficult choosing just a few!  They wrapped our purchases well against the still drizzling rain, and we walked back home.

My parents soon joined us at our apartment, and we all relaxed a bit before a family dinner at Trattoria Bordino. 

My truffle steak was quite excellent, and Penelope and Jeremy both enjoyed the salmon.  My folks shared the bistecca alla fiorentina, which they enjoyed (but said their favorite restaurant in Florence did it better).  We had reservations later in the week, so time would tell!  After dinner, we walked back over the Ponte Vecchio, admiring the wooden security barriers of the gold shops and pausing for a family photo. 

We then continued toward the main pedestrian drag in town, Via dei Calzaiuoli, stopping en route at Il Porcellino to rub his nose and wish for a return to Florence. 

To cap the night, we indulged in a delicious round of gelato at Venchi.  Though it’s a chain, it’s also pretty dang good!  Penelope and I were happy girls as we ended another day in beautiful (if rainy) Florence.

Friday morning dawned sunny once again—overall, we’ve been so lucky with the weather!  After visiting the workshop of the mosaicists, I’d decided we should make a quick stop at Florence’s museum of that art, the Opfcio Pietra Dura.  En route, Penelope spotted a positively dizzying window display of hair decorations, and we nipped inside to survey the options and select a new headband.  She opted for one encrusted with both pearls and crystals.  #allthesparkles

On we continued, to the Opfcio Pietra Dura.  It’s a small museum—just a dozen or so rooms—but so many masterworks on display!  A definite recommendation if you enjoy this kind of art.

It’s hard to capture, but the artist here chose a semi-translucent pale white stone for each grape–so they both seem to glow and have depth in this piece. Amazing.

As we were leaving the museum, Penelope spotted an art supply store just across the street.  Inspired by all of the art she’s been seeing, she decided to use some of her savings to purchase watercolor pencils, a brush, and a watercolor art pad.

Two petite masterpieces painted later that day.

We then walked across town to another beautiful church, Santa Croce, and spent some time admiring its sculptural masterpieces and quiet cloister. (I also admit that, like any child of the 90s, I immediately started hearing an Indigo Girls song in my head while in front of Galileo’s tomb.)

Realizing we were close to the mosaic workshop I’d visited on Tuesday, I brought Penelope and Jeremy to see Mosaico Lastrucci, and they enjoyed the same interactions with the artisans at work there. 

After a few hours at home—reading, art, and schoolwork—it was time for our final Florence workshop: a cooking class featuring pizza and gelato!  Jeremy had again opted for a quiet evening at home (are we sensing a pattern?), so Penelope and I walked over to the Piazza della Repubblica to meet our chef.  As we waited, it became clear that this class was especially popular with families—by the time we’d all gathered, I’d counted 25 participants, 14 of whom were under the age of ten!  Penelope was in heaven, especially since most of the children spoke either English or French.  With the chef in the lead, we walked about ten minutes to the kitchens. 

What a fun evening!  We made the dough from scratch, learning how to mix and knead and stretch—then we chose our toppings from a dizzying array of choices. 

While the dough was resting, we gathered round and watched as the children combined the gelato ingredients into the delicious chocolate gelato we’d eat later.  Before the mixture went into the machine, we each had a spoonful of the hot gelato.  Equally tasty, I must say.

And at the end of the night, we were rewarded with two tasty pizza pies, followed by equally scrumptious gelato.       

Saturday was our final day in Florence, so we’d planned to visit as many places as we could!  We started with the Medici Chapel… where the lines stretched (I kid you not) two blocks long.  We decided we’d have to save the Chapel for our next trip to Florence, and continued walking toward the Santa Maria Novella, which my father had declared one of his very favorite churches.  And I could see why he appreciated it—the cathedral is chock-full of beautiful pieces of art, and especially vivid frescoes.  Given how many of the frescoes we’ve seen have been weathered and aged, these were a delight. 

After the church, we walked back toward the Palazzo Vecchio, where we thoroughly enjoyed even more glorious frescoes throughout the palace.  At this point, however, Penelope was reaching the end of her interest—so she could often be spotted reading her Kindle on any convenient steps in the room.

Or we’d play I Spy with the frescoes… can you spot the giraffe, the man with open-toe boots, and the pooping dog?  🙂

Her interest was momentarily revived in the Penelope room, however.  A gorgeous ceiling indeed!

It was now nearing mid-afternoon, and Penelope and Jeremy headed home for an afternoon of relaxation at our apartment… while I returned to the now-open gold merchants of the Ponte Vecchio, toured the San Lorenzo leather market, and finally visited a well-reviewed leather shop.  A lovely afternoon of solo shopping!

Our last evening in Florence was definitely our best meal (though we’d also really enjoyed the overflowing panini at All’Antico Vinaio, thanks to the recommendation of another former student—thanks, Gabby!!).  We met up with my folks at All’Antico Ristoro di Cambi, where they’ve been feasting on bistecca alla fiorentina for something like 20 years.  And it was just as good as they’d said.  We had delicious antipasti, shared more than two kilo of amazing steak, and ended the meal with cheesecake, crème brulee, lemon gelato, and an espresso for my dad.  You know it’s a great meal when you forget to take pictures!  Simply amazing—one of the best steaks I’ve ever had.

And so ended our wonderful week in Florence… but I can’t end this post without sharing some of the other art we saw during our time here.  The street art here is terrific: inventive, colorful, and—most of all—playful.  Here are a just a few of my favorites. 

Up next: the beautiful hills of Tuscany!

Florentine Adventures

On Sunday we once again boarded the Circumvesuviana train to Naples, this time to catch our connecting train to Florence.  Both of our longer trips (Rome-Naples and Naples-Florence) have been on the Italo trains, and we’d definitely use them again.  Comfortable, spacious seats—and on each of our trips we somehow ended up in very quiet cars. 

On our arrival in Florence, we took a taxi to our new apartment… and met with the host/owner, who let us in…. and up and up and up.  Somehow I’d managed to book us into a 6th floor apartment with no elevator.  (Later I’d look at my email exchange with the owner, who’d claimed it was on the 3rd floor.  This seems… a stretch.)  But once we were inside, we found a spacious layout and a lovely Florentine house-top view out of our kitchen window.

Our apartment is in a neighborhood with many churches, and the church bells are curiously unsynced… causing sequential rather than simultaneous hourly bells.  A fun experience at 4pm.  We were less enthusiastic later that night at 11pm and midnight.  I suppose locals just tune them out altogether?  The rest of the travel day was spent in the usual way: finding our nearest grocery store and laying in supplies for the next week. 

Monday, after a schoolwork morning and an early lunch at home, we set out on Rick Steves’ Renaissance walk, as a way to cover ground and introduce ourselves to the various wonders of Florence.  We turned the first corner and stumbled upon the Dante museum, with a curious sculpture outside.  Was it made of… ice?  It was!  A very cool installation.

We made another detour at the Bargello Museum, just a few minutes’ walk from our apartment.  The Bargello was wonderful, filled with all sorts of sculpture—both small and enormous—and all historically and artistically significant.

After an hour or two at the Bargello, we resumed our walk through the city, leading us from the Duomo to the Piazza della Reppublica, where we indulged Penelope with several rides on the lively carousel.

From there it was on to the Palazzo Vecchio, to stand in the very spot Savonarola was burned, to the Uffizi and then ending on the amazing Ponte Vecchio.  Except for the Bargello, we didn’t go in to any of the sights—but the walk was, as usual, a wonderful way to get our bearings in a new city.

Tuesday morning I had booked a special treat for myself: a walking tour of artisan workshops with a local guide.  Jeremy and Penelope spent the morning at home, while I met with Maria, who led me to half a dozen wonderful workshops.  Maria has lived in Florence for more than 20 years, but she’s originally from Sweden.  After years as a graphic designer, she recently started her own business as a tour guide and personal shopper (I found her tour via AirBnB Experiences).  When I showed up at 9:30am, I found that I was the only person to have booked the tour, so it was a private outing—lucky me!  We started with a mosaic workshop—in the Florentine style of pietre dure—and I was immediately blown away by the experience.  We chatted with the various artists, including the maestro himself, Bruno Lastrucci, as Maria showed me around the workshop and translated my questions for the artists. 

After spending nearly thirty minutes in the small workshop and gallery, it was time to move on.  We visited a custom shoemaker, a goldsmith, a woodworker who specializes in wood inlay, two different leather shops, and ended the tour at a bookbinders/paper shop. 

At each stop, the artisans were friendly, engaging, and happy to spare a few minutes to show us their current projects—and it was so wonderful to see these artists at work!  I can’t recommend Maria’s tour highly enough—and I’m so glad I decided to go early in our stay in Florence, as now I have a chance to return later in the week for potential purchases.  🙂

After the tour ended, I returned home to our apartment to have lunch with Jeremy and Penelope, then we all headed out to meet with my folks, who’d arrived in Florence the evening before.  We met them for an early afternoon drink at a café near the Duomo, catching up on news from the week before, when we’d been traveling in different areas.  They left to walk around the city a bit while Jeremy, Penelope, and I headed into the Duomo museum.

After touring the museum, we walked over to the Baptistry—wonderful mosaics on the ceiling.  I loved all of the gold especially—and Penelope was keen to point out scenes she recognized from the Old Testament. 

By then it was almost time to queue for the climbing of the Dome.  Leery of heights, Jeremy had happily surrendered his spot to my dad, so my mom headed back to their camper and Jeremy and Penelope went home to our apartment while my father and I waited in line for our turn to climb the 463 steps to the top of the Dome.  Just inside the cathedral, I spotted Dante.

In preparation for our Florence travel, I’ve been reading Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King.  It’s quite a wonderful book, but I have to say that King’s portrayal of Brunelleschi as a temperamental and all-too-human architect made me rather less confident than I might have otherwise been in climbing to this dizzying height.  But we set off nevertheless, climbing first into a very narrow ledge inside the Dome itself.

And then after quite a few more flights, each narrower and more canted than the previous…

…we emerged, blinking in the sunlight, to the topmost perch.  It really was quite something—coming up that final ladder and seeing all of Florence and the hills around spread out beneath me.  We circled round, taking in all of the views—and taking a few selfies too, of course.

A lovely end to a wonderful second day in Florence!

But Wednesday had something even more fabulous in store… a paper marbling workshop!  I’ve been wanting to try my hand at this ancient art for years—really ever since my first trip to Florence when I was in high school.  The paper in Florence is simply exquisite, and Penelope and I were delighted to join a workshop to make our own.  🙂

We met our teacher, Francesca Vannini, in her art studio in the Santa Croce neighborhood, just a ten minute walk from our apartment.  Francesca is a wonderful, patient, and super organized teacher—and within a few minutes of her demonstration, Penelope and I were already making our own papers! 

Everything we needed was at hand, and we each created ten different designs.  At the very end of our time, once the papers had dried (helped along by a hair dryer), we learned how to make bookmarks and pencils out of the paper too.  I can’t say enough about how wonderful this experience was!  And it was so fun to make art with Penelope.  She’s been such a trooper during all of our museum and church visits in Italy, and I think she’s genuinely enjoying those sights… but it was terrific to indulge in something hands-on for both of us.

After lunch at home with Jeremy—and the chance to show him all of our gorgeous creations—the three of us walked over to the Accademia.  Timed tickets are recommended/required for many sights in Florence, and this time of year there are positively dozens of high school field trip tour groups at each sight.  But once you move beyond whatever the main attraction is, the museums aren’t too terribly crowded.  At the Accademia, David is the star (and was, predictably, a mob scene)—but nearby galleries had more breathing room, and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.  I especially enjoyed Michelangelo’s Prisoners, and Penelope spotted a few fabulous instruments in the Musical Instruments Museum, attached to the Accademia.

After a stop at a local grocery store, we were on our way home to cook dinner and plan the second half of our stay in Florence… the Uffizi, Santa Croce, bistecca alla fiorentina—and, of course, more gelato!

A Bit of Southern Italy: Naples, Pompeii, and Sorrento

On Wednesday it was time to bid Roma a fond farewell.  After a frenzy of last minute packing of all the things, we headed in a taxi to the train station to board our train to Naples.  Penelope was delighted to ride the train—a new adventure!—and Jeremy and I were both impressed by the smooth ride…at 300 km/h, no less. 

We arrived in Naples in short order, but our attempts to board the local Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento were… less successful.  After missing two? three? trains in a row due to crowding (and pushing) passengers on the station platform, we surrendered to the inevitable conclusion that we would need to find another way south.  With all our bags in tow, we headed back to the main Naples train station, just upstairs, and in short order had reserved a private car via the same Blacklane service we’d used from the Rome airport to our AirBnB.  And so we finally headed south to Sorrento in a fancy black Mercedes, having spent quite a bit more money than planned… but very comfortable!  And if that’s the worst travel mishap we have, then we’ll call it a great trip.  🙂

We arrived in Sorrento, checked into our small but lovely AirBnB, and went in search of a nearby grocery store.  As has been our more-often-than-not practice, we made dinner at home that night.

Thursday morning it was back to Naples.  In reviewing the forecast, Thursday was the rainy day, so we opted for an afternoon at the Museo Archeologico, a huge museum dedicated to the archeological treasures of the region.  This time we hopped on the Circumvesusiana without any problems, as the last/first stop on the line is Sorrento.  We all immersed ourselves in our reading, heading along the coast to Napoli.  While the roads afford great views to those traveling along the coast, the train goes in and out of tunnels all along the route, so we only saw the sea in brief glimpses—and on a rainy day, not much of it. 

We arrived in Napoli Garibaldi and headed for the Metro, traveling to the area where the museum (and lunch!) awaited.  Since we were only planning one meal in Naples, it had to be pizza.  We had a fairly tasty lunch, with Penelope delightedly ordering once again her beloved margherita pizza.  But Dar Poeta in Rome still has my prize for best pizza in Italy… so far.

After lunch—and having dried out a bit from our rainy walk to lunch—we were off to the museum.  When Pompeii was rediscovered in the 18th century, the then king of Naples is reported to have said, “bring all the best finds to me!”  And so the archeological museum in Naples is truly a treasure trove of sculpture, mosaic, and fresco.  We started on the ground floor, exploring the larger than life statues of all the usual suspects.  Penelope wandered into one my pics (below)… note her “mains de gallerie”—hands clasped behind the back when in a museum, something she learned on her school field trips.  A most excellent practice for small children!

We then headed upstairs to the real stars of the museum (at least for me): frescoes and mosaics.  And it was truly a wonderful collection of mosaic: floors on floors, floors on walls as hangings, columns.  Some of my favorites:

I’ve always been enamored of mosaic, but ever since reading The Sarantine Mosaic books by Guy Gavriel Kay, I’ve been a wee bit obsessed.  The main character in this duology is a mosaicist, and it’s loosely based on the 6th century Mediterranean world.  After reading hundreds of wonderful pages about mosaic and tesserae, the art form seems even more alive to me now.

The last room at the Naples museum was the so-called Secret Cabinet, wherein are gathered all of the pieces of erotic art from Pompeii and Herculaneum.  The gallery has been around since the early 1800s, but until the year 2000 was available only to scholars  (and, apparently, male visitors willing to bribe museum staff).  The gallery is now open to the general public, but there is a warning on the door that the rooms are not recommended for children under 14.  Ha!  Heeding this recommendation, Jeremy and I toured separately, so that Penelope would remain blissfully oblivious to the giant phalluses (phalli?) that lurked within these rooms.  As a respectable middle-aged woman, I took very few photos… but couldn’t resist capturing these two pieces.   Yes, that’s a set of wind chimes—and note the bulge in the toga. 

After the mosaics, we headed to the frescoes, where I was delighted to see Girl with a Stylus and Tablets—often called Sappho, from Pompeii.

And, in a nearby room, Penelope found her namesake, and, imitating the pose, asked for a photo.  I happily obliged. 

As at every other museum, we finished in the gift shop, where Penelope dipped into her savings for a lovely blue necklace.  Then it was home via the Circumvesuviana train.

On Friday we had another day trip in the cards—a bit closer to Sorrento, but even older.  We were off to Pompeii!  This destination was one of Penelope’s main requests for our Italy trip, and the primary reason we’d decided to come south from Rome.  She’d read a variety of historical fiction (and non-fiction) about Pompeii and its destruction, and so was eager to see the town for herself.

The weather had turned absolutely gorgeous, so we spent a sunny day walking around the ruins.  Unfortunately, about half of the locations on the main guidebook tour were closed for restoration (the baths, various villas), so we didn’t see as many intact frescoes or mosaics as we’d hoped.  But even the buildings themselves are truly impressive.

And we loved our last stop: the Greek amphitheater, carved into the hillside, where we climbed to the top to enjoy the view of the stages as both the Greeks and Romans who lived in Pompeii would have done. 

We hopped back on the now very familiar Circumvesuviana train, to dinner and an evening at home.

Originally we’d planned a day trip down the coast for Saturday, to see Positano and more of the Amalfi coast… but we also realized the only sights we’d seen in Sorrento were two different grocery stores.  So we opted to save the coast for a future Italy trip, and to stay put in Sorrento for the day.  Absolutely the right decision!

We had a lazy morning at home, and after brunch, went out to follow our guidebook’s short walking tour of Sorrento. 

That stroll ended at a beautiful park overlooking the smaller of the two harbors, with beautiful views across the bay to Naples and Mount Vesuvius.

After soaking in some sunshine, we stopped at a nearby photography exhibition.  Raffaele Celentano had an exhibit of black and white photography called The Italians, captured over the last two decades—mostly here in southern Italy.  While a few were posed, most of the photos were street shots, capturing everyday life: markets, festivals, and laundry day.  My favorite was a photo of three older women sitting on the sand at the beach, laughing with a contagious joy.

Best of all was the title: Tre Fieri—the Three Graces.  I absolutely adored this piece, so I decided to bring a print home.  I know it will make me smile—and think of Italy—every time I see it on our wall.

Two final recommendations from our afternoon walk: Raki Gelato, which is perhaps the best we’ve had so far—or at least tied with Fatamorgana in Rome.  Penelope and I both had the Zesty Lemon Cream and Jeremy ordered Hazelnut.  Both flavors were amazing—rich, creamy, but not too sweet.  And don’t miss the cookies and chocolates (and everything else they generously offered us as samples, from limoncello to truffle honey) at Nino and Friends, just across the street.  Delicious.

The rest of Saturday was spent in browsing the shops and then, later, packing up for our next destination: Florence! But we so enjoyed our brief sojourn in beautiful Sorrento.

Bella Roma

Saturday morning we headed back to the Vatican, this time for a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica.  As soon as we arrived, we were immediately accosted by “tour guides” and “information agents” who asked with urgency, “Do you already have your tickets? You don’t want to wait in that two-three hour line only to have no tickets!”  Even as an experienced visitor who’d read her guidebook, I had a pang of doubt… but, bolstered by my surety that we didn’t need tickets to visit St. Peter’s, we joined the impressive queue.  Only 17 minutes later, we arrived at the front of the line, passed through security, and headed inside.  The lines do look daunting, but they really aren’t that bad.  Just inside, Penelope and I paused to take a picture looking down the nave.

Jeremy opted to listen to the Rick Steves’ audioguide (there’s a great free app, with all of his walks and tours narrated), while Penelope and I strolled together and I read aloud selections from the paper guidebook.  The church is simply enormous—hard to process just how big, even when standing inside.  Having just finished reading the children’s Bible, the newly-acculturated Penelope was quick to identify many of the images around us, from Noah’s dove to Mary holding Jesus after his death (aka Michelangelo’s Pieta).  It was fun to see her so excited when she recognized these symbols—the great joy of understanding cultural allusions.  🙂

After we finished touring the church, we headed back outside to queue for the Dome—my favorite part.  Being so close to the amazing dome mosaics is such a privilege, and there’s something so wonderful about being able to look both up and down at all of the art that really thrills me. 

We took the elevator back down to the ground, walked across the square, and stopped at one of the many small fountains to have a refreshing drink of water.  Having forgotten our water bottles, this involved some wet shoes as well.

In need of refreshment, we headed north to a nearby pasticceria, the aptly named Dolce Maniera (recommended by Italy connoisseur Lydia).  We picked out several pastries by sight alone, and sat down on a nearby sidewalk to indulge. 

Thus fortified, we resumed our plan for the day and headed to the National Museum of Rome.  While there were many marble busts to admire (and a fun Classico Pop! exhibit), the real star of this museum for me was the top floor: mosaic and fresco.

By the end of the day, we were ready to put our feet up, so we opted for dinner at home and some family reading time.  I finished Robert Harris’ Pompeii, which, though it wasn’t great literature, definitely added some human elements to the great destruction of 79AD.  Looking forward to our visit there next week.

On Sunday my folks had planned to come back into the city for the day, so Penelope and I met them in the morning at the positively enormous Trastevere Market.  By far the largest temporary market I’ve ever been to—a wonderful mix of antiques, clothes, knickknacks, household goods, and junk.   Penelope found two necklaces on various 1 euro tables, while I purchased three scarves from two different dealers.  Penelope announced that I now have enough scarves for a lifetime.  I demurred, suggesting I might now have an adequate number for this trip.  I could easily have spent several more hours browsing the stalls!

Spotted in the market: a rather creative use of colored vs white marble…
Cool light fixture.
One end of the Trastevere Market: the Porta Portese.

After the market, we went our separate ways, and I left Penelope with her grandparents while Jeremy and I met up for our tour of the Borghese Gallery.  The number of visitors is strictly limited and the tickets are timed at both entry and exit—you have two hours to complete your tour of the palace.  But wow, was it fabulous.  Such a pleasure to see art in its original habitat—in some cases, in the very rooms for which the sculptures were designed.  Mosaics, trompe l’oeil, marble sculptures, paintings—this museum has it all.  Some of my favorites:

A pile of sleeping putti. Adorable. Also almost life-sized.
Wonderful trompe l’oeil painting of satyrs on the ceiling.
This. Is. Mosaic. Thousands and thousands of teeny-tiny pin-sized pieces. Amazing!
An artsy shot of my favorite sculpture: Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne.

Afterward, Jeremy and I rambled through the gardens surrounding the Gallery, stumbling upon a picturesque statue of Byron, and snapping a quick selfie.  And on the way home, we stopped in for pastries at our local pasticceria, Roscioli.  Amazing, amazing treats—best we’ve had so far! 

We all met up again at the apartment, where the grandparents were wilting (being a few days behind us in jet lag adjustment).  They soon departed to their camper in the burbs, and Penelope, Jeremy, and I opted to eat out.  Thanks to a recommendation from a former student (and now colleague!) at Castilleja, we had an excellent choice in mind: Dar Poeta.  A lovely sunset view across the Tiber as we walked to dinner, and it was Penelope who identified the dome in the distance.  🙂

Dinner was amazing.  We all ordered pizza, though I proclaim mine was the best: diavola con salsiccia.  Jeremy, after sampling a slice of my pie, concurred.  Penelope did not, sticking firmly to her own classic choice: margherita.  Dessert, as recommended by Elke, was the absolutely enormous nutella and ricotta calzone.

Penelope’s hand for scale. Also note that we ordered the “small” calzone.

Stuffed to the brim with breaded delights, we rolled our way home to bed.

Monday we had plans to see the Colosseum and the Forum, so we walked from our apartment over to the Colosseum, taking in the sights of the Trajan’s Column and Trajan’s Forum along the way.  We arrived at the Colosseum in time for our reservation, wading through the crush of people and lots of tour “guides” offering information.  Most of our time in Rome hasn’t been too bad in terms of crowds, but the Colosseum was really something else.  A complete zoo—I can’t even imagine what it’s like during high season here.  But we managed to find the right line for our online reserved tickets and were soon inside, touring through both the Colosseum itself and the exhibits describing its long history.  I particularly enjoyed learning about its use in the Middle Ages: homes, workshops, stables.  A medieval apartment complex, of sorts.

After climbing on top of as many pillars as possible, we left the Colosseum and walked just a few steps over to the Roman Forum.  This time we decided to all listen to the audioguide, with Penelope using one of my AirPods.  She was quite thrilled by the chance to listen like the grownups, and we all really enjoyed the tour of the Forum.  And the just-blooming wisteria were absolutely lovely.  A definite benefit to touring these ruins in the spring!

On the way home, we were entertained by a number of street performers—these two were my favorites.

We also stopped by a store in our neighborhood that I’d been eyeing: stationery!  Always one of my favorite kinds of shopping.  I chose a gorgeous leather pencil case, and Penelope dipped into her savings to buy a lovely blue feather pen and ink set. 

Then it was home to dinner and some well-deserved rest!

Tuesday, our final day in Rome, Penelope and I went out in the morning for one final stop at our favorite fruit stand in Campo de’ Fiori, then home to start packing.  By lunchtime, we were joined by my folks, and we treated them to a belated birthday lunch on the nearby piazza.  While the food wasn’t fabulous, it was lovely to enjoy a meal with them on a sunny spring day in Roma. 

After lunch, Jeremy headed back to the apartment for some computer time, I headed out for an afternoon of solo exploring (and shopping), and Penelope headed out to do some sightseeing with her grandparents.  I wandered from area to area, in and out of jewelry shops and leather goods stores, eventually walking for about three and half hours. 

Street scenes from my stroll, including a corner of poetry (translated into French, Italian, and English) and beautiful micro-mosaics.

In the end, I decided the purse I liked best of all was back at shop just around the corner from our apartment.  When I stopped back in, I asked about the bag in a different color, and the owner/artisan said, sure, we can make that for you.  Tomorrow?  Thursday?  A bit stunned, I said we’d be leaving town tomorrow but perhaps my folks could come by later in the week.  But when I stopped by the next morning on our way to the train station, just to check in, my bag was ready!  A lovely dark teal color, with bright leather rounds to accent the front—perfect for summer.  I have to say I still feel so tickled to have a purse made just for me! 

Meanwhile, during that afternoon of walking and shopping, Penelope and her grandparents were visiting the Bocca della Verita, the Circus Maximus, and the Basilica San Clemente.

Rome has been simply wonderful—a perfect introduction to the sights, sounds, and—perhaps best of all—tastes of Italy.  And now we head south!

Roman Holiday

After a long but uneventful flight to our connection in Frankfurt, then a lengthy wait at the Rome airport for our luggage, we finally arrived in Roma!  We’d ordered a Blacklane car service (so fancy!) for our pickup and transport to the AirBnB, and Penelope was super impressed to see the driver holding up a sign with my name on it when we walked into the international arrivals hall.  🙂

We settled into our delightfully spacious apartment and decided to make a trip to the local grocery store for dinner and drinks.  When we arrived at the Carrefour Express I realized how spoiled we’d been in New Zealand—we spent half of our time in the store google translating packaging!

Tuesday morning we all slept late, unpacked, ate lunch at home, then ventured out into our neighborhood.  We are about a block from Campo de’ Fiori, which to our delight turns out to have a market six days a week.  Mostly fruit and veg, which is perfect for our stay. 

The front door of our apartment building.
The mosaic in our entryway…
…which side is right side up?
Morning market scene.
Penelope’s favorite fruit stand.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring our neighborhood, finding a (slightly) bigger grocery store, and capped the day with dinner at Ristorante Campo de’ Fiori, one of the restaurants on the piazza.  While the meal was mostly good, one dish stood out: my caramelle pistache i pere, a pasta dish with pistachio and pear.  SO DELICIOUS.  By far the best pasta dish I’ve had in my life.  Little pouches containing the pear and pistachio blend, white sauce, thin slices of pear cooked to perfection, sprinkled with pistachios.  I’m still thinking about it a week later.

But we couldn’t head home without indulging in a bit of gelato… so we ducked into a gelateria close to our apartment, Fatamorgana.  Another treat!  Penelope opted for strawberry and milk chocolate, Jeremy had the prince’s kiss and carrot cake, and I had the prince’s kiss and crema agnese.  All were delightful, and we decided we’d definitely be back.

Wednesday the jet lag was really hitting us all hard—Italy (eight hours ahead) is proving a much more difficult transition than New Zealand (21 hours ahead).  But we suspected it would be, so we’d scheduled an extra two days in Rome to accommodate for this shift.  We spent a lazy morning at home (though Penelope might beg to differ, as she started schoolwork again.  After lunch, we headed out to do Rick Steves’ Heart of Rome walk.  The walk conveniently begins at the Campo de’ Fiori, then continues to the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, and ends at the Spanish Steps.  At his recommendation, we added three churches that were along the way.  It was a great walk, and a terrific introduction to Rome for Penelope and Jeremy. 

A gorgeous day at the Pantheon.
Very cool: the trompe l’oeil dome at Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola. When you run out of money to build the dome… just paint one instead.
Trevi fountain, where we all participated in the traditional ritual of tossing in coins to wish for a return to Rome.

Thursday we opted to spend the day at a museum, so after lunch at home we headed to the Capitoline Museums, via both an incredibly impressive local church we just happened to pass by and some of the many Roman ruins that seem to spring up on every corner.  This time it was the Theater Marcello, a nice preview of the much larger Colosseum we’d see later in the week. 

The gorgeous alter at Santa Maria in Campitelli.

Then it was up to the hill to the Capitoline Museums, which I’d never visited (even though this is my third trip to Rome!).  They were well worth the uphill climb.

The Capitoline museums had a fantastic children’s audioguide, narrated by Marcus Aurelius and his horse. Penelope thoroughly enjoyed the four hours we spent there!
Some of my favorite sculptures.
Under Constantine’s big toe.
Our first view of the Forum!

After a most enjoyable afternoon at the museums, we walked just a few minutes to the Victor Emmanuel monument, where we climbed up and up to take in a lovely view of the city before sunset. 

And on the walk home, Penelope spotted her first Roman cats, coming out to prowl in the ruins closest to our apartment.

Then it was home for dinner—and to await the arrival of my folks, who were planning to stay one night at our apartment before heading out to their camper (in storage) the next day.  Although we aren’t traveling together during our time in Italy, our paths will occasionally intersect, which is lovely.

Friday morning the cold that had been threatening me had set in in earnest, and I was grateful that we’d packed various relevant medicines.  We had brunch at home with my parents, then they set out for the Roman suburbs and Penelope, Jeremy, and I headed for our entry reservation at the Vatican Museum. 

Another collage of favorites.

What a day! It’s truly an amazing collection. And they again had a terrific audioguide for kids, though Penelope said it wasn’t as funny as the one at the Capitoline. After finishing at the always-astonishing Sistine Chapel, we closed down the museum and had to be ushered out by the guards.   A quiet evening at home rounded out the day, and we all headed to bed in hopes of shaking off the last of our jet lag (and my cold).

From Middle Earth to Middle California

We spent much of March at home in California, relaxing from the hustle and bustle of travel and attending to all of the tasks of everyday life: dentist appointments and oil changes—exciting stuff.   But amidst the mundane, we found lovely moments with friends and family—and had a few adventures here in the Bay Area.

Shortly after arriving home, I was surprised by this perfect gift from my good friend Lydia, who knows me all too well.  As a proud #introvert who hates cold weather, I must declare that this sweatshirt couldn’t have been more spot on.  Five stars—will wear again.

Penelope was equally delighted by her visit to a two-story Target in San Jose, where she encountered the exotic sight of a shopping cart escalator for the first time…. who needs to travel abroad to find such wonders?  🙂

Seeing friends and family was one of the best parts of being home—and in their company we enjoyed hiking, running errands, tea parties, and sleepovers (that last one was Penelope). 

A great visit with Joy, who was visiting town for a few days!
Penelope and Sophie, both deeply immersed in books while driving to dinner. 🙂

I also had the chance to participate in one of the best parts of my sabbatical so far: the Best American Short Stories class, led by Ellen Sussman.  I first met Ellen through her daughter Sophie, whom I taught at Stevenson lo these many years ago.  Seems just like yesterday!  Sophie’s fabulous mama is a novelist and writing teacher, and she runs an annual class devoted to the Best American Short Stories anthology.  We gathered on weekend afternoons and mornings to discuss these twenty stories, and what, as writers, we could learn from them.  Surrounded by writers, talking about writing—what could be more wonderful?  I love talking about craft, about what works and what doesn’t—and, most of all, the vibrant disagreement and collective wisdom of smart folks who love stories.  Magical.

Penelope was also lucky in her time at home, as her wonderful grandparents had suggested a trip to Southern California to visit with my Uncle Bob… and to spend a few days at Disneyland.  So off they went!  Ears were donned, Dole Whip was eaten, and my mother reported three days of 20k+ steps as they pinballed between the Magic Kingdom and California Adventure.

In addition to the happiest place on earth, Penelope and her grandparents also visited the California super bloom.  Jeremy and I duly noted the super bloom of weeds in the empty lot in our neighborhood.  Perhaps slightly less amazing… but the golden hour is always a lovely time for a selfie. 

As you can see, Jeremy and I were happy to have a break from full-time parenting (and home schooling) after our NZ travel.  In addition to neighborhood walks, much child-unfriendly TV was watched.

In our final week at home, we headed north to Mrs. Grossman’s Sticker Factory for the tour (and gift shop!!).  I’ve been an avid sticker collector as long as I can remember—and seeing the factory had been on my bucket list since I moved to the Bay Area thirteen years ago.  Mission accomplished!

I’m delighted to report that the Mrs. Grossman’s sticker operation is both impressive and wonderfully varied, and I deeply enjoyed the gift store at the end.  Penelope was astounded by my willingness to add sticker sheets to our shopping basket, but hey—if you can’t stock up when you visit the motherland, when can you?

The next day we took Penelope’s grandparents to the Exploratorium in San Francisco, where we all enjoyed a great day inside and outside the museum.

And then it was time to buckle down to packing for our next journey.  In the midst of considering jacket options and finding Penelope’s Italian phrasebook (proudly purchased with her allowance), we made time for a mani-pedi at the salon.  Penelope was thrilled to have a foot bath just like Mama and Grandma—but hastens to add that she was the only one offered a special flower design on her pedicure.  🙂

Ahead of us are the wonders of Italy: gondola rides, the Amalfi Coast, the towers of San Gimignano, the Sistine Chapel, and best of all: So. Much. Gelato. Can’t wait!

Homeward Bound

Thursday morning we woke up, finished last minute packing, left our lovely AirBnB, and headed to the airport. 

Auckland has, hands down, one of the best airports I’ve been to; from the security process to the moving artwork, everything has been designed with the traveler in mind.  Even the bathroom had family stalls—containing one regular-sized and one toddler-sized toilet. 

Also spotted: a life-size Gandalf made of Legos. Penelope was quite pleased, since I think she was expecting more Tolkien-inspired statuary (as seen at the Wellington airport).

After lunch and some final souvenir shopping, we boarded our first of two flights, bound for Fiji.  An uneventful three hours later, we arrived for our lengthy layover.  Fortunately, as a perk of our credit card, we have access to swanky airport lounges… so we checked into the Fiji Airways Premier Lounge, where we enjoyed comfy chairs, a kids’ entertainment area, and a delicious dinner.  And as if that wasn’t enough… Jeremy and I both spent half an hour in the Lounge Spa, indulging in the “Stopover Chair Massage.”  A most civilized way to travel.  🙂

So this is the last post of our New Zealand trip… and what a trip it has been.  I told Penelope on our outward bound flight that I’d been dreaming of coming to NZ for twenty years (and she duly repeated that fact to nearly everyone we met).  But it’s certainly true that this trip was the culmination of years of dreaming and planning—and I felt like the luckiest woman in the world to share this adventure with my family.  Not every day was as peak awesome as Hobbiton… but every day was still New Zealand—and that meant it was pretty much all wonderful.  This picture from last week is a fairly accurate representation of me during my time here.  Happy, happy, happy.  And definitely the tannest I’ve ever been.  Ha!

I’ll leave you with some excellent outtakes from the North Island. 

Much of the packaging and advertising here is in this vein. Love it.
Riding high in Windy Wellington.
Seriously. I love the Kiwis.
Did you know there were golden kiwi fruits?? Equally as delicious as the green ones.
Spotted in Russell, which is actually quite a historical-type place.
Also in Russell. One of many rather interesting lawn ornaments/mailboxes.
We seriously considered importing these. But we’ll be in Venice for Easter this year. Poor us! 🙂
If this car existed in the US, I would immediately buy a white one and name it Shadowfax.
All time favorite NZ snack food. Thanks, Megan, for the recommendation–these are delicious!
Often the gorgeous street artwork featured one or more of NZ’s spectacular birds. Spotted this pillar in Auckland.
Auckland harbor.
Okay, you have to imagine Penelope reading this out loud over and over and giggling. Perfect.

Farewell, New Zealand.  I hope we will be back soon!

Kauri and Kiwi and Auckland Too

Our final stop before Auckland was the Kauri Coast Top10 Holiday Park, located in Trounsen National Park.  It’s the best place to see the ancient kauri trees—and perhaps spot the elusive kiwi in the wild.

So on Saturday morning we packed up and headed southwest, choosing one of the three routes Google Maps proposed for our consideration.  Unfortunately, Google did not indicate that our selection was a logging road, unpaved, and would remain unpaved for most of the drive.  The views—forest and hills and lots of sheep—were much appreciated—the road was… not.

But the back country also afforded us the chance to see not one but several Eastern Rosella birds—and they were magnificent! 

Not my photo… wasn’t able to grab my camera in time. But they looked just like this amazing specimen. Absolutely gorgeous!

We finally arrived at the campground in the early afternoon, unpacked, and then headed out for a walk in the nearest stand of kauri.  These trees have particularly shallow root systems, so the Department of Conservation has built boardwalks throughout the park, allowing visitors to see the kauri relatively close—but not to trample their roots.

Some of the textures of the kauri forest. And a hidden Minion, spotted by Penelope.
Catching raindrops falling from the tree canopy.

Although it showered off and on through the afternoon, we very much enjoyed our first walk through the kauri forest.  That evening Jeremy cooked us a lovely steak dinner, and we started planning our time in Auckland, just around the corner.

Sunday we had a break in the rain in the afternoon, so we seized the opportunity to drive south to a different part of Trounsen Park—to see the very largest kauri.  First was Tane Mahuta, Lord of the Forest, which is believed to more than two thousand years old.

And then, about 2km up the road, the Four Sisters and Te Matua Ngahere, also known as the Father of the Forest. It’s hard to convey just how massive these trees are in photos… but here are my attempts!

My attempt at a vertical panoramic photo… the trees don’t actually bend that way!

After dinner that night we’d signed up for a nighttime forest walk, in hopes of spotting the nocturnal kiwi.  Along with seven others, we joined a local guide and headed back into the forest for a two hour walk.  He led the way with a large red flashlight, and we trooped along behind him, as quietly as possible.  Spoiler alert: two hours later, we’d seen… zero kiwi. 

We weren’t too terribly surprised not to see any of the birds, as the tour advertises about a 50% success rate.  We did hear several kiwi, both male and female, identified by the guide as he listened to their warning calls to one another.    

The walk was still quite amazing, especially since we spotted tons of glowworms along the trail.  They’d taken up residence in the exposed root systems of fallen trees, and they glowed quite brightly along the trail.  And the stars were absolutely amazing to behold, as there was almost no light pollution.  Probably the best stargazing we’ve been able to do the whole trip. 

Penelope was a bit disappointed not to see a kiwi, but I reminded her that it’s just one more reason we’ll need to come back to New Zealand.  🙂

Monday morning we were up bright and early for our drive into Auckland.  We were due to return our rental car to Apex, but we had just enough time to stop at New World grocery store in Wentworth for a long-sought-after prize: the elusive scallop mousse.  Jeremy first tried this seafood rillette somewhere on the South Island, and he’d been searching high and low ever since.  But despite following the recommendations on where to buy from the product’s website, we’d had no luck.  But the winds changed at last, and he was victorious:

Also purchased: an oyster version and several traditional pork rillettes as well.  Penelope tried a bit of one of them, and declared it hers, demanding that she too have a pork pot for lunch.  And while “pork pot” doesn’t sound quite as classy as a “rillette,” it does have a certain alliterative appeal. 

Greatly pleased by his shopping success, Jeremy drove us on to Auckland, where we dropped off our bags at our new and lovely AirBnB apartment on Queen Street, and then drove across town to return our rental car.  And it was during that short stretch of city navigation that someone (cough, Jeremy, cough) made the only real driving mistake of the trip.  It’s true we stayed on the left, but went a bit too far to the left, entering the bicycle-only lane…. Fortunately, we were able to correct the mistake after a short (but harrowing) city block.  I’m sure the locals were amused.

Having returned our rental car, we walked home and settled in to our final New Zealand home.  We’d made dinner reservations at a Brazilian steakhouse on the harborfront, and I was keen to explore a bit before dinner.  So while Penelope and Jeremy relaxed at home, I walked down Queen Street, browsing in various stores and taking in the sights.  We met up for dinner at Wildfire (very tasty!) and then hit a grocery store before heading home for the evening. 

Tuesday was our first full day in Auckland, and we began by staying home to take advantage of some of the apartment complex’s amenities.  Penelope and I went for a swim at the indoor pool while Jeremy used the gym.  An early lunch at home, and we were off to the Auckland Art Gallery.  What a wonderful surprise that turned out to be!  We expected the New Zealand art, and the Maori moko portraits—but they also have a small, jewel-like collection of European pieces as well.   A few of my favorites:

My favorite piece from the contemporary New Zealand floor of the museum–even more vivid in person.
A painting based on one of the ballads I teach in AP Poetry–fun to spot this one.
This one was the best surprise of all. Waterhouse is one of my all time favorite painters, and I’d never seen or heard about this version of Lamia, based on Keats’ poem.
And one more–a wonderful little tonal piece.

Penelope particularly enjoyed the special exhibit, entitled From Pillars to Posts: Project Another Country, which invited visitors to participate in the building of an enormous miniature city.  We spent some time admiring the amazing works of the artists and visitors alike, then set to work on our own masterpiece. 

After a stop a neighborhood café for a drink and a chance to sit down, we walked over to the SkyTower and paid to ride the elevator up 51 flights in 40 seconds.  Did I mention that the elevator floor was partially glass?  A dizzying effect, but very cool!

Once at the observation deck, we gazed out and down at Auckland, taking in the views all around.  Penelope was impressed by the glass floor panels scattered throughout—and though she was initially nervous about standing on it, she soon began walking back and forth across glass and concrete and steel alike.  And we all paused to watch the live feed of the grandmother who was about to do the SkyJump—an impressive feat!  Maybe I’ll be brave enough when I’m in my seventies.  🙂

After the Sky Tower, we walked back to our neighborhood to have an early dinner at Tanuki’s Cave, a yakitori restaurant just a block from home.  Two thumbs way up—fabulous food!  Then Penelope and I were ready for our girls’ night out: we had tickets to see the musical production of Aladdin.  Penelope had really wanted to see the musical when it came to San Francisco last night, but the prices rivaled those for Hamilton, so we’d opted not to go.  While in Wellington a few weeks ago, Penelope caught sight of an ad for the Auckland production, and I’d checked the prices… and they were so much less expensive that we decided it’d be a fun night out for our final days in New Zealand.

What an amazing show! The Genie was fabulous, with great singing and a wonderful delivery of all the best lines—and of course lots of great Kiwi references thrown in as well.  All of the cast was just wonderful—but it was the overall production that really wowed both of us.  The dancing, singing, and the costumes!  The lights and the fireworks and the streamers falling on us during one of the musical numbers!  A fabulous evening.  Am I slowly becoming a musical theater convert??  Hmmm. 

On Wednesday Jeremy opted to stay home while Penelope and I explored a few other neighborhoods and find souvenirs for friends and family.  We started at the Auckland Museum, which had an amazing gift shop—and is in the middle of the Auckland Domain, a beautiful wooded area, capped by the museum at the top of the hill. 

After the Museum, we walked down the hill, through the forest, and across a small stream, emerging in the adorable neighborhood of Parnell.  There we visited a few shops, had a delicious lunch at a local pizza place, and continued our walk around Auckland.  I’d promised Penelope a sweet treat on our last day in New Zealand, so we Googled “best ice cream” in Auckland and struck out for Giapo, about a 20 minute walk away.  I was imagining a simple gelateria, a lovely preview of our time in Italy in April… but that’s not exactly what we found.

I’ve since realized that Giapo is quite a famous ice cream shop, but we really had no idea.  We walked up to the store, got in line, and were soon ushered to a small table, where a young woman treated us to samples and stories about every single one of the nine flavors available.  After we were done sampling each in turn, we then moved to a description of “different ways to hold” the ice cream, including a cone topped by a giant chocolate squid, wearable tiny cones shaped to fit on top of your finger, or served inside a sweet Yorkshire Pudding.  I swear I am not making any of this up.  It was an absolutely extraordinary place.  Penelope opted for the NZ Hokey Pokey and I decided on the “Kiwi as” Afghan Cookies—both in regular waffle cones, thus demonstrating some admirable restraint.  🙂  Toppings are complimentary and complementary, designed by the chef to enhance the chosen ice cream flavor.  And the cones are quite enormous, even without a miniature SkyTower of chocolate added to the top.

After finishing as much as we could of our ice creams, we took a taxi to the Ponsonby neighborhood and spent the next hour or so strolling around its shops along the main road.  And then we returned to Queen Street and our apartment, after finding a few new items for my sister’s NZ candy sampler.  

While Jeremy took Penelope swimming at the apartment pool and cooked dinner at home for the two of them, I headed back out to dinner at Papparich with one of my Castilleja alums, class of 2009.  Rebecca just moved to Auckland for a new job about a month ago, embarking on an expat adventure, and it was so fun to catch up with her!  We spent a lovely hour together, chatting about our mutual love of New Zealand and life since Castilleja, all the while enjoying a delicious Malaysian dinner.  Since it’s my wonderful Casti sabbatical that allowed me to take this trip, it felt very fitting to spend my last night here with one of my former students. 

And then it was home to the apartment for… the PACKENING.  I wish I’d snapped a photo of all of our stuff spread hither and yon across the apartment as I gauged whether or not it would actually all fit in our various suitcases.  Alas, you’ll have to use your imagination.  Around 11pm I declared a temporary retreat and abandoned the task, deciding we’d sort it out in the morning. 

[spoiler: it all fit, but one bag was overweight by 1.7kg.  fortunately, we had a sympathetic airline employee at the bag drop desk.  no excess weight charges.  lucky us!]