On Sunday morning we got up early and took the train to Rome to pick up Chris. We were planning on spending a few days in Rome and didn't think there was enough room for all of our luggage, plus the cost of parking the car and driving in Rome was not altogether appealing either so that seemed the best way to go.
We arrived in Rome Termini station only to take another train out to the airport to meet him and then back to Termini where we had started and checked into our accommodations, a little apartment near the Spanish Steps we thought might work out better than a couple of hotel rooms. It turned out to be fine, if basic and the location was convenient. We checked in and then went about exploring the Roman Forum and the Coliseum.
Jessica had been to Rome on her honeymoon with Nick but this was Chris's first trip to Italy and we wanted to be sure he saw all the big sights. We got talked into taking a tour through the Coliseum, which we ended up ditching in favor of just wandering around by ourselves, enjoying that more. We had the absolute joy of seeing the Roman Forum as the sun was going down, bathing these ancient stones in golden light - a real treat for all of us. We had so much fun, all four of us with our cameras, trying to capture the light as it danced from one place to another. The weather was absolutely perfect, even a bit warm for those two who have now become accustomed to much colder weather than the Phoenix they left several years ago and sweaters remained tied around our waists or draped over our shoulders. We made sure he threw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, walked up the Spanish Steps and dined at an outdoor restaurant in Piazza Navona. We shared a lovely bottle of wine and the four of us toasted our good fortune at being together in this timeless place.
Knowing we could not make reservations at the Vatican Museum, we planned to get there around 7am to get in line and we were glad we had done that. We were still not the first ones in line and by the time we exited the Sistine Chapel the line to get in went all around the building almost to St. Peter's! We were feeling quite smug that we were able to enjoy this amazing place without wasting half our day waiting in line, when we reached St. Peter's and were greeted with a similarly long line to get in there! We were so surprised at the size of the crowds in mid-October, but glad we had planned it the way we did. We decided to do the same thing the next morning and arrived at St. Peter's before any line had begun to form and virtually had the place to ourselves. We saw priests in the all the chapels saying mass, some with only one or two people in attendance which I imagine had to be the highlight for those religious enough to appreciate that honor. We climbed to the top of Michelangelo's dome to a fantastic view over Rome. I had to do my usual "count the steps" to keep from becoming too claustrophobic in the narrow winding staircase but it is always worth the anxiety I feel, to look out over the rooftops.
We made sure he saw the Pantheon, that amazing marvel of Roman ingenuity and the fascinating Castel Sant'Angelo, built as a tomb for Hadrian and used through the Middle Ages as a castle, prison, and refuge for popes under attack. Bob and I had never visited this site, but thanks to Jessica and her research, she suggested we stop there and we were all glad we did.
We took the train home on Tuesday afternoon, napping during the ride and had time for a quick spin around Perugia and a pizza at a restaurant called Pizzeria Pompeii. This made us laugh because Chris had wanted to see Pompeii but unfortunately the driving distances made it not really feasible with his short week with us. We promised to take him their next year when we plan to be living closer to Naples, if he promises to come for a visit!
Wednesday we had earmarked as a Perugia day and we showed them the city and all the special places we enjoy here. We believe they were able to appreciate why we like this city and agreed that it was a good place for us to have begun our Italian adventure. I cooked dinner in the apartment and made some of their favorite dishes - a little pasta with my mother's tomato sauce and some chicken cutlets. Chris had started to come down with a cold and allergy symptoms and was pretty exhausted by the end of this day.
Armed with cold/allergy meds and many little packets of tissues we headed out on Thursday for Tuscany. Our plans were probably too extensive, but we spent the morning in Siena. Sadly the façade of the Duomo is completely under scaffolding but the main piazza is still lovely and we showed them where the palio is played and just walked around the city a bit, just a taste of it really, before making our way to San Gimignano. My friend Ted Nuttall (www.tednuttall.com) was staying there for a few days after having given a watercolor workshop nearby and so I split off from the family for a quick lunch with him while they went off exploring. It was wonderful to see him and catch up on the happenings in Phoenix and what he has been up to, which is creating incredible watercolor portraits. If I could paint like Ted I would be one happy person! His watercolors are so luminous and his handling of the medium is truly genius. He promised to keep in touch and we talked of getting together in the future when he comes back to Italy for future workshops.
Chris, Jessica and Bob had great fun just walking around and seeing San Gimignano, I believe it was the highlight of the day and I was sorry we hadn't planned for more time there. Its perfectly preserved medieval towers and streets are breathtaking to see as you arrive and feel that you have been transported back in time. The weekly market was in full swing with the entire main piazza covered in market stalls. By the time we left, it ended and the piazza returned once again to its quiet beauty. Of course we had to try the gelato, which was advertised to be the best in Italy (a claim I had to question, but it was very, very good) and were escorted by Ted to our car where I showed him my sketchbook and we said farewell for now.
The clock was ticking though and I had planned to get them to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower by 5pm. I have been told by several of my friends who have been there, when I complained at how much I did not enjoy Pisa, that I had not gone far enough into the city. I have to say once again, that I do not enjoy Pisa. I thought it was important for my kids to see it though and so we added the visit to our itinerary. The Leaning Tower and all the truly magnificent buildings on the grassy area are indeed wonderful. But for me, the surrounding area is so offensive, it is hard to ignore. My kids felt the same way and we did not spend enough time there to make the detour worth it. There are ticky-tacky souvenir stalls all along the streets directly across from the Tower etc. The entire area of beauty is completely separated from the rest of the city and you must walk the gauntlet between these tacky stalls and the city, which felt seedy and dirty. We are really disappointed that this symbol, this icon that represents Italy, is not treated like a treasure and that tighter controls are not in place to present it in a more respectful environment.
Onward to Lucca we traveled, to spend the night in this beautiful city not far from Pisa. We stayed in a small but comfortable hotel in centro. Lucca was a favorite of ours on past visits to Italy and it was nice to see it again, even for such a brief time. It bears more exploration than we were able to give but this day was all about giving Chris and Jessica a taste of the area, a sampling if you will of all the treasures that are in this part of the world and perhaps a reason for them to return for a closer look at the parts they found more intriguing.
We woke on Thursday, had a quick breakfast and drove on to Firenze where we had planned to spend the day. Florence (Firenze) deserves much more than a day, but again, you do what you can, and with limited time available we thought it would just be an overview and attempted to hit the highlights: The Ponte Vecchio, the beautiful bridge over the Arno with its shops and its views; the Duomo with Brunelleschi's great dome dominating the skyline; a look at Orsanmichele, originally designed as a grain market in the 1200s and unfortunately still under restoration. We had hoped to show him at least The David in the Galleria dell'Accademia and had not anticipated that huge crowds would still be visiting Firenze. The line to get in wrapped around the block and I volunteered to wait while they went about exploring the city. After about an hour of waiting, and expecting at least 1-1/2 hours more, we gave up the idea and decided to get back in the car and drive through Tuscany, stopping in wineries and tasting local wines, and simply enjoyed the lovely rolling hills and the fantastic views along the way.
This proved to be the next favorite part of their trip and we ended up spending the night in Rada in Chianti and had the pleasure of walking around this charming little town at night, with the city almost to ourselves. The little Chiesa di Sant'Niccolo was open very late that night as we walked around and went in to find the tiny interior lit only by candlelight and it was both eerie and delightful! After a bit of searching around we found a restaurant where we could sit outside and enjoy the beautiful weather, laughing together and talking for a long time, until the night grew colder and we were all exhausted. I provided a good laugh for everyone, having ordered the bistecca, which seemed like half a cow and proceeded to chomp on the very tasty (but bloody) bone! I felt like a cannibal but honestly, it tasted so good I could not resist!!
It turned out to be a great idea, to add this extra night because it allowed for a leisurely drive through the Chianti countryside in daylight and a more casual and relaxed experience. Our only time limitation was in needing to return to Perugia around 3pm before the insanity of the Chocolate Festival got underway, not being certain which roads might be closed in centro and not wanting to be stuck parking in the periferia (outside centro)! Luckily, since we have a pass that allows us to park in centro, and they had not yet closed the important streets we needed to access we were able to park where we always do, in the garden below our apartment.
(to be continued: Perugia and beyond)