Saturday, May 24, 2008


Our vacation in Italy was amazing. Since we returned two weeks ago, everyone has asked us the same two questions: (1) Did you bring your kids?, and (2) What was your favorite part? Answers: (1) Are there people out there that actually bring their 5 year old and 2 year old kids with them on a whirlwind trip through Italy? I don't understand that; I love my kids, but I think you'd have to be a little crazy to bring them on a trip like this. (2) I can't even begin to guess what my favorite part was, but I will say the places I most want to go back to are, in no particular order: Rome, Riomaggiore, and Lake Como.

Day 1: Paris

We boarded our Air France flight at 2pm in Seattle and a relatively painless 10 hours later (thank you Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones, thank you private seat back entertainment system, thank you roomy coach seats and delicious airline food) we landed in Paris at 8am. (What wasn't painless was the fact that it felt like midnight and we were getting sleepy.) We started off our sight seeing with Notre Dame. At the time, Notre Dame seemed like a really interesting church, though looking back now it pales in comparison with St. Peters and the cathedrals in Orvieto and Florence. We attempted to admire Notre Dame's flying buttresses but had to focus more on not taking flight ourselves -- it was cold, very windy and very wet. The weather couldn't have been much worse.

Notre Dame (and Ma Dame)

Next came the Eiffel tower. We hiked up the tower on foot to avoid the elevator line, but started to wonder about our choice about half way up -- not because the climb was difficult (climbing the first two platforms is pretty easy) but because it started hailing, and then because of the lightning. I've never sat through a lightning storm before while sitting on one of the largest lightning rods in the world, but it turned out okay. The view from tower was nice, but next time I'm going all the way to the top.

We headed over to the arc du triumphe to finish off our excursion and then headed back to our hotel completely exhausted, having been awake for about 30 hours straight.

Days 2-4: Rome

Aahhh... It was 80 degrees and sunny almost every day we were in Italy. What a welcome change after Seattle and Paris. Our first day in Rome was supposed to be a visit to the coloseum and the Roman forum, but it was a national holiday and despite assurances on various Italian government and tourist websites that everything we wanted to see would be open, it was all closed. It turned out just fine though because we spent the day wandering the city, mesmerized by the incredible array of piazzas, churches, Roman ruins, quaint cobble stone streets, obelisks, statues, fountains, bridges, pizza shops and ice cream shops that is Rome. Rome beats Paris any day of the year (especially May 1). The ice cream was delectable (I ate Hazelnut, Pistaccio, Mixed Berry, Chocolate and Peach gelato on the first day alone) and the smell of the baking bread in the air in Trastavere was mouth watering.

The Trevi fountain

The Tiber River

The Pantheon

Our second day in Rome we visited the Vatican. We started off with St. Peters. St. Peters is a behemoth. I've never been a building with a more impressive scale; it almost feels like you are outdoors. We were lucky enough to participate in an underground tour at St. Peters which took us into an active archeological site called the Necropolis underneath the basilica. It turns out the basilica is built on top of an older, smaller church (the floor of which is now the floor of a crypt under St. Peters that holds the Popes' coffins), which in turn was built on top of a street full of houses on a hill in ancient Rome. This is hard to imagine when you are standing in the piazza outside of the basilica, because it is flat, but when they built the basilica, they put up a giant retaining wall at the bottom of the hill and then cut a huge chunk out of the top of the hill and used that dirt to fill in the bottom. What is amazing about the Necropolis, was that they didn't bother to tear down the houses that were on the hill when they changed the grade of the hill and built the basilica. They just buried them and, if they were too tall, trimmed off their roofs. Thanks to that, we were able to walk on the original hill past the original homes, which still have their original mosiac tile floors. (Dan Brown wrote about this in his book Angels & Demons.) After the Necropolis we climbed to the top of St. Peters' dome, which features a really cool staircase that winds through the dome at an angle requiring you to lean way over side ways while you walk up. We finished off the day with a 45 minute sit in the Sistine Chapel staring at Michelangelo's masterpiece.

View from dome of St. Peters

Our last day in Rome we visited Palatine Hill, which is an active archeological site where they are excavating Augustus Caesar's palace. The palace still has some frescoed walls that are in tact from 2,000 years ago. We also saw the Roman Forum and the Coloseum, which were both amazing.

The Roman Forum (click on this and other pictures to get a larger view)

Remains of a Roman Imperial Palace on Palatine Hill

Day 4-5: Orvieto

We rented a car (a Fiat Grande Punto diesel that didn't seem to use any gas) and drove out of Rome. They say all roads lead to Rome, which if you think about it makes it darn near impossible to leave Rome because any road you get on leads to Rome. Somehow we made it out of Rome though and headed an hour north to the small Umbrian hilltop town of Orvieto. Driving in Italy was an adventure. I had memories of crazy drivers when I was a missionary in southern Italy, but it is an entirely different experience driving among them. I knew it was a bad sign when we found out our credit card, which offers free comprehensive rental car insurance everywhere in the developed world except for two countries, did not offer coverage in Italy (the other country was Israel ... who knew?). It was a worse sign when we found out comprehensive insurance would more than double the cost of our rental. So, we decided to go without. We ended up okay, but it may have been worth the peace of mind to buy it.

Orvieto is stunning. The town is perched on top of a large hill surrounded by sheer cliffs on all sides. On top of the cliffs are stone walls. We had to park our car at the base of the hill and take a funicalar train up to the town. Orvieto is famous not only for its amazing setting, but also for Etruscan ruins from pre-Roman times, and for what many consider to be the most beautifully ornamented church facade in all of Italy. To me, it is also famous for delicious Lemon gelato too. We spent the night in an old farm house called Locanda Rosati a little ways away from the town. We knew it was a nice place when half of the people staying in the farm house with us (it has 6 or 7 rooms) were Italians from Rome on vacation.


Orvieto's cathedral

Locanda Rosati

Day 5-6: Civita; Sienna; San Gimignano; Volterra

Civita di Bagnoregio may very well be more dramatic than Orvieto. Like Orvieto, it is situated atop a hill surrounded by cliffs, but the fact that the town is slowly falling off the cliff because of erosion (and the fact that its nickname is "the town that died") makes it more intruiging. In one place the facade of a house is standing, but there is nothing behind it because it collapsed into the valley below. Civita also has an amazing tunnel you can walk through that passes through the rock under the village. The tunnel was part of the village's original fortifications.

Panorama of Civita

A building in Civita (notice the sky through the windows)

After seeing Civita, we drove out of Umbria and into Tuscany. Our first stop was Sienna, another hilltop town, which is famous for its mideval buildings and a piazza called "Il Campo" where they stage a violent horse race called the Palio twice a year. It also has a church that is only half built because the town was decimated by the plague in the middle of its construction and they were never able to finish. Sienna was nice, but it didn't quite live up to the guidebook hype.

San Gimignano, also a hilltop town, came next. The town is like a mideval manhattan with dozens of towers popping up over its mideval walls.

San Gimignano

Our final destination of the day was Volterra, which, of course, is a hilltop town. The main entrance into the town is through a gate built by Etruscans in 500 b.c. On the opposite side of the town is a Roman ampitheater from 100 a.d. The town survives on its production of alabaster, which is absolutely beautiful. We purchased an alabaster vase, an alabaster chess board, and some alabaster pears, which we've really enjoyed since we returned home. Volterra was especially nice because it isn't very touristy. We actually laid down for 5 minutes in the middle of the main square and looked at the stars and no one was around to notice or bother us. Our hotel in Volterra was nice and had great views of the Tuscan countryside.

View from our hotel room in Volterra

Roman Ampitheater in Volterra

Day 6-7: Pisa; Cinque Terre

Pisa is a dump. We knew in advance that it was really run down and that we only wanted to stay for 30 minutes to see the leaning tower, but I was still struck by how unbelievably seedy and touristy the town is. The tower is really cool and definitely worth a stop, but it is amazing what unbridled tourism greed can do to a town; 30 minutes was enough.

The Cinque Terre is a series of five fishing villages on the southern end of the Italian riviera. The villages are collections of colorfully painted houses stacked on top of one another on cliffs along the sea and are now an Italian national park. We stayed in the southern most town, Riomaggiore, and hiked/took a train from there to two of the other towns - Manarola and Vernazza. We had an amazing room in Riomaggiore which was both at the top and at the middle of the town at the same time. The town is so beautiful that it really was hard to leave the next morning.

View of Cinque Terre from above

View of Riomaggiore from our room and terrace

Panorama of Vernazza

Day 7-8: Florence

I had modest expectations for Florence after seeing a plain Sienna and a seedy Pisa, but Florence was wonderful. Apart from the insanely difficult streets to navigate to get into town (you have to avoid certain streets that aren't clearly marked or you get fined), I liked everything about the town. The city is full to the brim with amazing works of art. I was impressed by the artwork I saw elsewhere in Italy, but no other town has sculpture like Florence. We saw the famous statue of David in the Accademia gallery. We toured the Uffizi art gallery and the Medici family's palace and gardens. We gawked at the bronze doors Ghiberti created for the town's baptistery, and we ate what Laura considered to be the best gelato in Italy. We saw the opera Carmen at Florence's opera house and discovered that in Italy you can get a plate of pasta at the opera during intermission (and we did -- yum).

Ghiberti's bronze doors on the baptistery

Day 8-10: Venice; Murano

Someone once said that Venice is an elegant state of decay, and that about sums it up. We spent most of our time in Venice riding on the vaporetto boats in the canal, getting lost in the streets, checking out the Doge's palace and St. Marks basilica, and shopping for glass (we bought a really cool red glass bowl in Murano).

Day 10-11: Cortina; The Dolomites; Castelrotto; Bolzano

Only an hour north of the shallow muddy waters of the Venetian lagoon, the alps rise up into some of the most jagged, rocky mountains I've ever seen. We drove to Cortina first and had some pizza, and then proceeded to see how far you can push a Fiat before it explodes or whimpers its way to an early death. We drove through a stretch of mountain passes (we crossed over at least 6 passes) and valleys called the Dolomite range, on a road known as the Great Dolomite Road. Words don't do it justice, so look at the pictures. Passo Sella was probably the best of the bunch. At the far end of the road we came upon the town of Castelrotto, where locals still dress up in traditional attire. We then drove to a hill 9 kilometers above Bolzano and checked into Gasthof Kohlern, which wins the award as the nicest hotel we stayed at. We had a corner suite with a bathroom covered with marble and huge views of the alps out of every window (and it wasn't very expensive!). Staying in Bolzano was a lot like staying in Austria (in fact, it used to be part of Austria until 1919). Everyone spoke German first and the menu at the inn's restaurant was full of dumplings and streudel.

Panorama of Cortina d'Ampezzo

Passo Sella

Passo Sella (nice sandals Laura)

View of Sasso Schlern from the road near Castelrotto

View from our room in Bolzano

Day 11-12: Lake Como

Our little Fiat started out the day as the little engine that couldn't. About half way down the hill to Bolzano, our brakes started smoking and we had stop the car and let them cool off. We then proceeded through the mountains and over several more mountain passes, past several ski resorts (one of which was still open) to Lake Como. Driving that morning was intense. The roads were skinny and windy, and motorcycles were passing us into blind turns. We had to swerve numerous times to avoid accidents. We made it to Lake Como by early afternoon and promptly boarded a ferry boat (on foot) from Varenna to Bellagio. Bellagio was nice but very small. No, we didn't see George Clooney while we were there. We had a picnic on the shore of the lake and enjoyed the views of the alps surrounding the lake.

View from our picnic spot in Bellagio

Day 13: Fly home

We flew Milan to Paris to Seattle. It was a wonderful trip.