Wednesday, July 5, 2017: The grandparents on Cole’s graduation trip to Italy had only one “must see (and hear)” item: an opera at the Roman amphitheater in Verona.
We had our doubts about it, too.
We feared that a 17-year-old who plays Brad Paisley and the Zac Brown Band songs on his guitar might find four hours of Verdi’s “Aida” grounds for divorce.
Still, we were determined. We packed along a libretto of the opera and a quick-read summary of the story (captured princess has to decide whom to betray, lover, father, country, etc. and everyone dies tragically in the end, the usual opera stuff). We hoped they would give Cole a clue about what was being sung in Italian without subtitles. We explained, warned and talked how it is with acquired tastes. We hoped we had him convinced, or at least prepared.
We pulled into Verona on the hottest day of our trip – in the 80s when we found the car park near our Airbnb, an apartment near the Roman arena. Our accommodations, up four flights of narrow stairs, were doing a highly efficient job of retaining the afternoon heat.
At some point during our stay, some of the party went off to visit Juliet’s balcony, as in “Romeo, Romeo, where art thou?” That Juliet. It was almost right across the street from us, tourists flowing in and out of the entrance and me wondering if they knew Shakespeare’s play was a work of fiction. There’s no proof this was THE balcony (how could it be?), but the house was once owned by the Cappelletti family, close enough in name to Willie’s Capulets, the enemies of the Montagues.
I did bite my thumb at the whole affair and remained upstairs sweating in my underwear until it was time to get dressed for the opera.
In 1913, “Aida” was the first opera performed in the amphitheater, which has been around since the First Century A.D.
We had great seats straight across from the stage and the part of the arena used as a desert backdrop. This production started with a strange twist, having 20th Century archeologists setting up to dig and find the final resting place of Aida and the one she didn’t betray (if you don’t call being buried alive a betrayal). Then it launches into the ancient story of Egypt and Ethiopia.
My only disappointment: cardboard elephants. Probably best for the real things that they didn’t have to be dragged on stage as they have been in many productions of this opera, but I figured if there was ever a chance of seeing a full Aida boogie, this might be it. Not so. Animal lovers win again.
A mere four hours later and Aida and friend were safely tucked away and the temperature hadn’t dropped a bit. Crowds were still milling in the streets and around 1 a.m. we found an outdoor table at a plaza near our sweat box.
“That wasn’t half as bad as you guys said it would be,” Cole said over sandwiches and gelato.
I hope you took my advice back in October when I recommended 10 places you should visit before they died. If you wanted to see Bears Ears and Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monuments without oil rigs, you should have left for Utah last night.
A man who thinks wilderness is the long grass beside a golf fairway on Monday signed orders to slice these two areas into five separate areas and reduce their size by 85 and 46 percent respectively.
Lawsuits have already been filed to challenge this largest ever reversal on protecting national lands, and it is in the courts that the best – or the worst – outcome will be determined from today’s assault on the Antiquities Act of 1906, which brought our country’s national monuments into existence.
If the slicer gets his way, then you better make plans to get to the other national monuments that were on the original gift list for the oil, gas and mining industries.
Head to Arizona and stay awhile in the Grand Canyon-Parshant National Monument. Words on its website are calling you: “solitude, isolate, expansive landscape, natural and cultural history, undeveloped landscape, journey into the wild.”
On to California, perhaps on the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of storied Route 66, which is in the Mojave Trails National Monument along with Native American trading routes and World War II training camps.
Six of the monuments on the original slice list were in California, so plan on a long visit there. The Pacific Crest Trail Association is fighting to make sure two of these monuments remain intact since the 2,650-mile path from Canada to Mexico passes through them. Better grab your pack and make the 30-mile trek on the trail through the desert, forest and mountains of the Sand to Snow National Monument.
You’ll need more time for the 87 miles of the PCT through the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, and you’ll probably see more people because it serves as an escape valve for nearby Los Angeles County – reason enough to protect as much as possible to give these city folks room for healthful outdoor activities.
Urban and agriculture growth has taken over most of the grassland that once covered California’s Central Valley. The Carrizo Plain National Monument protects what’s left and should remain untouched to continue doing so.
Yuki, Nomlaki, Patwin, Pomo, Huchnom, Wappo, Lake Miwok and Wintum. Those are the peoples who thrived for 11,000 years in what is now California. The Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument website says the 330,780 acres under protection are “dense with cultural sites.” If Secretary of the Interior Zinke and his boss get to continue their giveway this monument would inevitably leave some of these sites vulnerable.
Stinkee Zinke (that had to be his schoolyard name) said he saw no need to destroy the following national monuments, but there is one good thing you can say about the former Navy SEAL: He follows orders. Gut the national lands other have preserved, orders the slicer-in-chief, and Stinkee guts them. If the Big Cheeto gets his way on Bears Ears and Escalante, nothing is safe.
So add this to your itinerary: Plan a paddle in Washington state in the Hanford Reach National Monument – 33 miles on the last undammed stretch of the Columbia River. It’s home to migratory birds, spring wildflowers, butterflies and elk. The Monument is across the river from the off-limits Hanford Site, which produced the plutonium for the atomic bombs dropped in WWII. Let’s hope this quote on the Monument website holds true: “Born of fire and ice and flood over millions of years, preserved through the war and conflict of half a century, now protected forever.”
Last stop is in Montana at the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument, which, the website says, has “remained largely unchanged in the nearly 200 years since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled through it on their epic journey.” Future generations of paddlers and wanderers should have the chance to see the White Cliffs and surrounding lands these early Americans wrote about.
The emphasis in the Trump order and Zinke’s comments has been on local control, allowing state and local officials more say on land owned by all Americans. The lands will be opened to private extraction industries such as timber or oil and gas interests, which is most obvious in the “review” for five marine National Monuments — Marianas Trench, Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, Pacific Remote Islands, Papahanaumokuakea and Rose Atoll. Trump’s order entitled this section “Implementing An America-First Offshore Energy Strategy” and gives the rubber stamp to the Department of Commerce (in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior).
Tuesday, July 4, 2017: Oh, to be that sophisticated traveler who passes nonchalantly by tourist attractions as if he or she has seen it all, has way more worldly experience to ever succumb to those ridiculous antics others perform because they think they must. As that sophisticated tourist, I’d like to have the Grand March from Aida as the mental background music as I breeze by without wasting a coin tossed in a fountain, never posing for a photograph as if holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, never salivating over the cars in the Ferrari museum in Italy.
Instead, I heard “From the Indies to the Andes in his Undies” in my corn pone head and posed (mostly unsuccessfully) for dumb pictures in Pisa and left my DNA for the carabinieri to collect from the hoods of the many cars I drooled over in Maranello, Italy. I resisted the temptation at Trevi Fountain but only because the crowd was so thick I couldn’t get close enough to wet a euro.
When we arrived at the tower of Pisa, we split up, with Kathy headed into the cathedral while Cole and I got in line to climb the bell tower – after taking stupid pictures, of course.
It’s 186 feet to the top of the tower, or 273 steps, which do not always go up because of the lean. The pitch is down and then up as you go from one side of the tower to the other, like climbing in and out of a bowl.
Construction of the tower started in 1174 A.D. and by the time it was halfway up, it was starting to lean. Efforts to keep it standing include adding lead for ballast. Glad it stayed upright while we were inside and on top.
From up there, you can see the entire “Square of Miracles,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose central feature (aside from the famous tower) is Il Duomo, the cathedral.
The cathedral features artistic and architectural elements from Classical, Byzantine and Islamic traditions. Note the Moorish influence in the black and white marble arches.
Massive but otherwise relatively unassuming on the outside, it is, on the inside, a marvel of marble, detailed mosaics, grand granite columns (68 of them) and stately sculptures underneath a soaring gilded ceiling, reports Kathy, our insider.
Among dozens of impressive art works stuffed into every nave and nook of this place is Giovanni Pisano’s eight-sided pulpit, considered his sculptural masterwork. Created in the early 1300s, its statues symbolize the virtues, and the intricate marble relief panels above depict scenes from the New Testament.
It’s interesting to note that not all the beautiful works in this place were acquired by, shall we say, honorable means. Loot from the Mosque of Palermo and other spoils of a war with Muslims in Sicily remain ensconced here. Pisa was into power, and the buildings here were meant in part to underscore its position as a major shipping and trading center. These days, it’s tourism that keeps the crowds coming.
Wednesday, July 5, 2017: From Pisa, it was on to Maranello to fulfill Cole’s only other specific request for his Italy trip (besides eating lots of good Italian food): Visit the Ferrari museum. That’s a place we never would have visited on our own, but we’re happy that Cole got us there.I believed deep down that I was so divorced from material wants and needs, from the constant coveting of more, more, more that I could walk through this resplendent display of $250,000 cars (minimum) without an envious whisper of “You should be driving one of these” echoing in my head.
Those whispers started in the first rooms of the museum as Enzo Ferarri tells his story through early designs and wood car models. The history of the Ferrari enterprise unfolds and Brigitte Bardot, Sammy Davis Junior and Jack Palance (born Vladimir Ivanovich Palahniuk) appear in photographs while seated in their sleek sports cars.
Then past row after row of polished automobiles, high octane racing cars, leather upholstery, chrome, bright shiny objects that shouted speed, style and sizzle.
By the time we got to the 166 MM, Barchetta Touring car from 1949, the theme from “Un Homme et Une Femme” was playing in my head and a voice was shouting, “This is THE ONE!” I was ready to hop in and drive it to Genoa for shipping back to Seattle. Alas, there were only 33 of these made, and they don’t go for peanuts. A cruise around the internet shows auction prices today hitting speeds of up to $8 million.
Reality started working its way into my fantasy, and I decided it was time for rubbery pizza (reasonable price) at the museum cafeteria before climbing back into the Citroen for the drive to Verona and Venice.
Sunday, July 2, 2017: Technology is such a boon to travelers – except when it’s not.
Praise to Garmin for getting us from Montepulciano to Castiglioncello on the Mediterraean coast of Italy. We sailed through small towns and around Siena and Volterra with our pleasant Garmin lady announcing every turn and roundabout. While eating fish and pasta on the main drag of Castiglioncello we turned to Booking.com to find the Residence Macchiaioli. We were attracted by its promise of a pool and free parking. It was a ways out of town, but we had the lovely Miss Garmin to aid us.
Then it came “when it’s not” boon time for technology.
The winding roads above Castiglioncello proved a challenge for that Garmin bitch. The “car” on the display never quite kept up with where the real car was on the road. In a tight spot with many twists and turns, the Garmin stutterer wasn’t always in sync with us. In fairness to her, I don’t always agree and tend to strike out on my own, like down a one-way street the wrong way, which almost resulted in a motorcyclist becoming a bug splatter on our windshield. This came during a grocery shopping trip that took way longer than anticipated – parking nearly impossible to find, identifying and/or finding the foods we wanted complicated by our ignorance of Italian and then spending a frustrating hour trying to find our way back to the condo on the hill above town.
Our rental car was a Citroen, a French automobile that only spoke German when we picked it up in Rome. But the dashboard icons were easy to understand — at least they were until they started to disappear. We missed the fuel gauge most of all. We could still see how fast we were going but had no idea of how far we could go.
The next day, we recruited help to recover the gas gauge. Celina, the gracious hostess at the residence, couldn’t figure it out, but she brought on an international board of consultants. A German woman dragooned from the pool could speak English to me but could not read the owner’s manual, which was entirely in Italian. A Polish vacationer, who now lived in England and spoke some German, brought three languages to the front seat of the car to puzzle over the dashboard. Her husband had only Polish and some English in his linguistic quiver, but language might not have been what hit the target. I had already tried random icon pushing, but he found the right combination and not only brought the gas gauge back to the surface but was able to give the Citroen an English lesson. That was especially helpful in keeping everyone calm (me especially) when the car’s many shrieking alarms sounded. Open a door without setting the parking brake produced the loudest and most disarming blare with the longest and least understood explanation flashing in orange on the German version of the dashboard. At least when it was in English, I knew what I had done wrong. I’m sure the German version emphasized the word “dummkopf” many times, thankfully not translated into English.
While the most modern technology brought the most frustration because of our lack of familiarity, this was a day when the old world piled it on as well. We never got the front door key to work and left a back door unlocked so we could come and go. The gas stove didn’t work until we found the main valve to turn on the supply to the apartment. The water shut off mid-morning, but by “signing” with others at the pool we learned that the problem was throughout the building, not just in our unit. Fortunately, water was restored in time to head off caffeine deprivation and before we had to pantomime toilet activities.
Despite the challenges, we loved the Residence Macchiaioli and stayed for two days, visiting the beach at Cecina, chatting with Celina and checking in with our Polish-English auto whisperer, who responded to a late-afternoon inquiry on how he was doing by answering, “A little drunk, but OK.”
Used to be that unless you had a condom full of hashish stuffed up your ass, you could move about this world without much stress or worry. Now anyone who tries to board a plane knows what it feels like to be a would-be drug smuggler.
The stuff might be in their shoes. Take them off. In your belt. Take it off. Your jacket, everything in your bag, your cell phone, tablet, laptop. Into the tray for X-ray. Put your feet on the footprints, hold your hands over your head for the full body scan. Might as well spread your cheeks.
Maybe making everyone feel like a criminal or an inmate at ADX is the price Americans pay to fly the non-so-friendly skies these days. It’s nice to be safe, especially at a time when everyone in the world has reason to strike out against lunatic-led countries such as North Korea, Iran and the United States. Who knows when some sane grandmother from Lichtenstein or Canada might strike out against this Axis of Weasels’?
Maybe the designated culprit will be disguised as a four-year-old, like our grandson who was pulled out of the boarding line for a second go-round with the Transportation Security Administration. The explosive might be disguised as raspberry jam, like the jar I tried to bring to a friend back home in Ohio. Or shoe polish, like that taken from Officer John, who had to wear scuffed shoes to a wedding. Or maybe in an inky jar of vanilla extract, like the one that beleaguered us as we tried to return from Mexico recently.
We cleared security as we left Oaxaca, Mexico, and again when we changed flights at the Mexico City airport. From Oaxaca to Seattle 12 hours later, we never went outside a secure area. None of that made any difference when we went through security for a third time at Salt Lake City’s airport. The TSA checkers found the three jars of vanilla extract we had purchased in the duty-free store during the stopover in Mexico City. The goods were put in a bag marked duty free and sealed with a plastic zip tie.
Not good enough, said the duty-bound rule enforcer. It has to have a tag on the zip tie that says, “Cross our hearts and hope to die, there’s no terrorist beyond this tie” or some such language.
The agent said he was sorry but he had to follow the rules.
Two choices: Surrender the vanilla extract or check another bag with it inside.
Door number three: Kathy, tired and grumpy, clobbers the agent with her handbag, sends him through the X-ray machine and starts hollering “Vanilla extract matters!” We spend the rest of our lives at ADX.
Time to step in before that door gets opened. I take the three bottles down to the Delta desk, rearrange my shoulder bag to fit them inside and check it through to Seattle despite being told it’s not regulation size. Then it was back through security for the fourth time that day.
You could smell my shoulder bag before it arrived on the baggage carousel in Seattle. One of the three bottles had broken but fortunately had not brought down the plane in flight. It did turn my faithful notebook into the “Vanilla Diaries,” now has a nice aged appearance.
We’ve been reacting to the “Liquid Bomb Plot” since August 2006 when three bottle-heads in London were mercifully stopped from carrying through on plans to concoct a bomb from chemicals carried aboard separately. All three are resting uncomfortably, we can hope, in British prisons for the next 30 or so years.
But can we please make some room for common sense? Give the TSA people a little leeway to make decisions on their own? Allow passengers to taste their raspberry jam, vanilla extract or shoe polish (?!) to prove it’s the real stuff as mothers carrying breast milk have been asked to do?
Besides, in the overall scheme of things, taking my shoes off at the airport has not made the world a safer place for many people. Showing off the holes in my socks did not save the 58 people killed and the 500 wounded during a country music concert in Las Vegas. It didn’t save the 26 people killed in a shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherlin Springs, Texas, or the nine shot to death at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Or the 49 dead at the Pulse night club in Orlando, Fla., or the 14 dead at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino. Or on and on and on . . .
We seem unwilling to do much to stop the terror within our borders while keeping everyone on high alert to keep out the imported variety. I’m not big on terrorism from any quarter and would cast a plague on all its sources: Akbar on your Ali-babi-ding-dong and same to our Iraqi-tacki bush wars.
Dump the fear-mongering and leave the pre-boarding jitters to those with their heads up their asses.
(Video caption: Drummers from the different contradas lead fans to Siena’s Piazza del Camp.)
Saturday, July 1, 2017: Clear the way, tourists. Stand aside, Siena residents not from il contrada Giraffa. Our drummers are headed for the Piazza del Campo. We are the champions.
Or so they were on July 2, 2017, when that parish/neighborhood in the Tuscan city of Siena won the Palio, reputed to be the oldest horse race in the world. The event attracts thousands of tourists leading up to the two summer dates when the races are held, July 2 and August 16. As for bragging rights in Siena, nothing else matters. The horses are blessed in the contrada churches. The place is packed. The odds might be stacked. The crowds go wild.
(Video caption: Enthusiasm rules the day at the Palio.)
We wanted to be in Siena for the main event on July 2, but the ticket prices ($1,000 for a bleacher seat) were out of our range. So we settled for July 1 and a preliminary race.
Nonetheless, it was a memorable day – and Cole and Kathy each added antics to make it so. And no day with a horse race can be a bad day in my book.
The drive from Montepulciano to Siena took way less time than finding a parking place. All the lots set aside for visitors were full. We finally lucked out when we stopped behind a car pulling out of a street spot. Then came a half hour of trying to figure out the parking pay machine with a Frenchman who had had similar luck and was similarly stumped. With four of us and two languages, we finally cracked the code.
On our way to the piazza, I bought two scarves like those race fans were wearing and immediately became a backer of the Istrice (porcupine) contrada. Then a shopkeeper told us that the neighborhoods represented by my scarves were not racing this year. This after wandering around the city trying to find the neighborhoods where “our” flags were flying. They weren’t. Only 10 of the 17 contradas race each year. Ours didn’t make it through the lottery that selects who will race.
But in our wandering, we visited the city’s most famous cathedral, did some shopping and jostled with the crowds in the narrow streets, which was nothing compared to what was to come.
I rushed us into the piazza about 90 minutes before the 7 p.m. race to be sure to get a good spot along the infield rail. The race is three times around the Piazza del Campo, which is converted into a dirt track between the free standing room in the infield and the bleachers up against the buildings surrounding the central plaza. The windows of the apartments around the piazza are probably the best places for seeing the race – and the most expensive.
In the next two hours, 60,000 or so people joined us inside the infield barriers. Fans are allowed on the track before the race. Restaurants set up tables for dining al fresco. Drinks are served.
We were in the shade, but it was hot. Anyone in the Palio infield should ”give up all idea of personal space,” travel guru Rick Steves writes in his guidebook. Little kids crawl under you and climb up the rail to sit on it right in front of your nose. People smoke, drink, shout, sing and carouse. But all seemed to be going well. Kathy, who has panic attacks in closed, crowded places, was keeping white-knuckle control on the situation. Cole was standing at the rail, anticipating the start of the race, and then he wasn’t. He just dropped out of sight into the crowd, which reacted to his fainting in very generous ways, clearing space around him, offering water, getting him into a sitting position and making him stay quiet until he regained equilibrium. I was trying to think how the call to his parents would go. Then he got up, more pale than the gray that would run later in the race.
“Everything was fine,” he said, “until I woke up and all I could see were people’s feet. Then I thought, ‘Oh no, I passed the fuck out again.’ ”
Thank you, Cole, for a concise rendering of events.
I had wondered how this dirt track, crowded with swaying drunks and laughing fans, could be cleared to make way for the horses. Then, on the other side of the circle from us, a phalanx of police started walking around the track, driving the rowdies before them. Where would those people go? There was no room in the bleachers for them. The infield would burst if one more person tried to squeeze in. Were they being swept into a drain at the end of the track?
In the short distance between the police and the cleanup crew that followed, Kathy’s panic attacked. She freaked, announced she had to get out of there, clambered over the rail and headed for the drain, breaking through the police line from behind and disappearing into the crowd.
A better man might have been angry, another man might have been hurt, but another man never would have let her go (thank you, Harry Chapin). I turned my attention to the race. It was post time.
The Palio races start with all the horses but one lined up behind a rope. The remaining horse is the starting horse (the movie “Palio” is great for explaining all this). None of the riders can start until the starter makes his break down the track and the rope is dropped. The trick is to have your horse facing in the right direction when the starter goes. That doesn’t always happen, and those not in positions trail the field. Negotiations with the starter before the race could be advantageous, I think. Just saying.We (Cole and I) were about halfway around the track from the start so we saw the horses and some of the riders blow by us three times for maybe 30 seconds total of close-up viewing. As they passed, every kind of camera equipment was hung out over the rail so close the jockeys could have snatched them away – and horse slobber on lenses was a very real risk.
I say some of the riders passed by. Others fell off. But that matters little since a riderless horse can win this race, which is what happened on this day. A tightly-packed muscular little black horse, sans rider, crossed the finish line first and some contrada somewhere went crazy. Actually, everyone in the city went crazy. Horses were paraded out of the ring by singing followers. More cheering and drumming as fans left the piazza.
We found Kathy through text messages. She had watched the race on a TV set up outside the piazza, which is where all the track occupiers had ended up, swept out an exit to try to find a place to watch the Palio, perhaps the best horse race in the world.
Friday, June 30, 2017: One of the dangers of having a helpful, English-speaking staff like that at the Hotel Grifo is that you will become an English-speaking chauvinist, expecting that everyone in the streets of a foreign country has bowed to your perceived prevalence of the lingo your colonial power spread. My fall into that linguistic trap was checked by the driver who took us from the hotel to the car-rental agency at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport. He showed up in an immaculate, navy blue suit that matched his shiny Mercedes. We got in and I told him, in English, where we wanted to go.
“My name is Luigi, mister, and I speak Italian,” he retorted.
Those were his last words in English, but we pleasantly gestured and pidgin’d all the way to the airport where we got the car, a Citroen with a dashboard display in German. Viva la diversidad!
The main event of the day came after we arrived in Montepulciano, checked into Albergo il Rondo (thanks for the recommendation, Robin) and followed the innkeeper’s advice that sent us to the restaurant L’Altro Cantuccio.
Fortunately, we were given a menu in English, or the hour we spent trying to decide among all the good items on it would have stretched out even longer. The plan had been to stop by one of the recommended restaurants, have lunch and then explore Montepulciano, a Tuscan hilltop town known for its red wine. But this rainy day turned into one of those shape-shifting travel experiences that make being away from home worth the jetlag, crowds and expense.
Each of us found multiple items on the menu that sounded good to us, which is when the dining pre-game becomes strategic: “If you order that, can I taste it? I’ll give you a bite of mine. Or you could order this, and I could order that and we could share.”
The young waiter appeared several times, answered questions, filled water glasses and disappeared back into the restaurant.
It was raining and we were outside but under cover. A few tourists and locals were climbing the street to the upper parts of the village. We were happy to sit and watch them until the finally-decided-upon menu choices began to appear.
For me, the best came first, and it was something I had never heard of and took some courage to order: A savory crème brulee. Not the sugar-crusted dessert, but a pecorino cheese souffle with a balsamic reduction and delicious mounds of blended capers and herbs. If I could choose a taste to have in my mouth for eternity, it might be this.
This meal would turn out to be the best of the trip, relishing each bite, sharing tastes as agreed upon and occasionally chatting with passersby looking for a good place to eat. We were happy to recommend the table next to us.
The main course brought me beef cheeks with Jerusalem artichokes served with caramel mustard fig. Cole had grilled lamb covered with house-cut potato chips and served with mint-spiked white beans. Kathy chose the Taste of Tuscany: a saucepan of fresh roasted tomatoes and garlic, toast with pate and a jar of “crispy panzanella” salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and croutons in olive oil and wine vinegar. I hate to rate any U.S. agricultural product as second best, but the tomatoes in Italy were consistently the freshest and tastiest, second to none.
Dessert (cheesecake di ricotta and white chocolate) and espresso, and it was now late in the afternoon, still raining and the top of Montepulciano could wait for another time. It was nap time.
Thursday, June 29, 2017: Peter and Paul probably did not intend for their feast day to be celebrated this way: Spending hours online trying to undo plans made weeks in advance of our two-week trip to Italy. But I blame them for keeping their holiday a secret within the city of Rome, and especially within the city-state of the Vatican, where the Vatican Museum – closed on holidays – happens to be located.
The Feast Day of Saints Peter and Paul was not a big deal in the Methodist Church of my upbringing and apparently something that slipped the mind of my fallen-away Catholic wife. So it wasn’t until the day before the holiday that we found out that our planned visit to the Vatican Museum fell on this saints’ day and the museum would be closed.
We had disobeyed this Roman commandment: Thou shalt make Vatican Museum online reservations weeks before you arrive.
Probably we’ll leave that to Cole to get it right next time he visits.
We tried to get a spot at the museum on Friday. No vacancies. We tried to rearrange travel plans to return to Rome a day early in the next week. That meant cancelling a night in Venice, which was a no go because our Airbnb reservation was a two-night minimum. In fiddling with Airbnb online I hosed up the app, probably made my credit card vulnerable and froze my cell phone. We may have messed up the car-rental agreement as well. We’ll find out when we go to pick the car up on Friday.
In the end, we left everything as originally planned, apologized to Cole for skipping the Sistine Chapel and hit the streets. It was noon by then, but we packed in a full day:
Spanish Steps: OK, they are beautiful and there are lots of them, but in the end they are just that: steps. Great place to hang out (lots of places to sit), wonder what it was like when Shelley, Keats and Byron lived nearby, watch people looking at steps and the church of Trinità dei Monti at the top of the stairs where there is a great view of Rome.
Capuchin Crypt: While the effort to make art out of human bones fails in my aesthetic opinion, you have to admire the faith and dedication these monks had. The bones were assembled there from the friars who died between 1528 and 1870 as a way, this website says, “of reminding themselves that death could come at anytime; one must always be ready to meet God. A plaque in the crypt reads: ‘What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.’” I loved that the sign leading into the crypt included a quote from the Marquis de Sade. As the website says, “Granted, the crypt was to his tastes.” (No photos allowed)
Hundreds staring at the Bernini sculptures and making it an Ichiro throw from right field to home plate to toss a coin in this fountain – and chances would be pretty good he’d poke his eye out on a selfie stick, which were at full mast all around. Still, it’s a beautiful creation and one that should not be missed.
Foro de Caesar:This night time visit to the Forum was my favorite in Rome: A great history lesson brought alive with modern technology. This audio (English available) and visual tour features projections onto the remaining stones of what it must have looked like in the time of Julius Caesar. The bare stones of the monuments look as though they would make for cold living and working quarters. But with the images shone on the stones, it’s easy to see what life would have been 2,000 years ago.
(Video caption: A street performer in Rome does her act when the light is red, then collects from drivers and pedestrians.)
Wednesday, June 28, 2017: This was one of those days when you can believe that millions of people from all over the world decided to gather in specific cities to bump into each other. Not in the sense of serendipitously meeting one another but as in physically rubbing, brushing, colliding sweaty bodies against sweaty bodies at designated spots around those cities, at the Vatican Museum in Rome, for instance. Who knew there were so many art lovers and/or Catholics in the world that day after day they would wind up and down the street in a line of perspiring humans waiting to to see Laocoon and His Sons (one of my favs), Perseus with the Head of the Gorgon or Apollo Belvedere? And, of course, the Sistine Chapel, the cherry on top at the end of the tour.
The bumping into each other isn’t confined to the line at the Vatican Museum. Any place with a Bernini statue or a mortared brick dating back 2,000 years or so can draw a U.N. General Assembly: American college kids, Japanese busloads, women in hijabs, women in revealing shorts and tops, well-dressed Romans coursing through the crowds to get to work or lunch, Africans selling selfie sticks, group leaders heading up lines of followers snaking through the throngs.
It took me a moment at the Forum to figure out the new tour groups – new to me at least. It used to be that the group leader carried a stick with a flag or hankie on top, or an umbrella, something he or she could hold up high like the company colors for her troops to assemble on. Then in front of some point of interest the leader would rattle off history, facts, myths, dates or figures to the listeners leaning in for something that might make the particular rock, smear of colorful oil or carved stone relevant to them.
On the Forum, I saw a flag-waving leader well ahead of her trailing charges and talking so that none of them had a whisper of a chance of hearing her – but for the receivers hanging from brightly colored lanyards around their necks. Leaders speak into a headpiece; followers hear through the little boxes dangling under their chins.
It makes the old ploy of sidling up to a group to hear some free explanation in English a bit trickier. At the Pantheon, my favorite building in Rome, I was happy to find a group of students from the University of Oklahoma doing it the old way. A scholarly-looking woman raising an OU pennant happened to assemble her group so that they surrounded me. Rather than stepping away to yield my spot, I decided I’d sooner stay and learn something. Did some college Joe or Jody really give a rip about the history of concrete? Having spent a summer and fall pouring concrete back in ancient times (1975), I did.
(Video caption: The ceiling of the Pantheon.)
Our group leader explained how the Romans did it back in about 120 A.D., dumping loads of ’crete over wooden forms to make the distinctive square patterns of the building’s roof. These “coffers” are stacked on top of each other in smaller concentric circles to form what can be considered a corbelled roof.
Our scholar added some information on when the Romans came up with their recipe for concrete, a bit about emperor Hadrian and the niches around the inside of the building that were once filled with statues of Roman gods who later gave way to Christian figures.
“I could not have brought you here on a better day,” she told us as rain started falling through the opening in the center of the roof (an oculus) and onto the drain in the marble floor.
Outside, the selfie-stick sellers were hawking umbrellas, and it was good to linger between the 40-foot columns holding up the vestibule roof before we made a dash to La Casa Del Caffe’ Tazza d’Oro across the plaza for a granita di caffe, a delicious concoction of heavy cream, a coffee snow cone and whipped cream – not a calorie in it, of course!
Luigi, who worked the night desk at the Hotel Grifo, advised us to arrive at the Vatican Museum at 1:30, lunchtime, when the crowds thinned out. The plan was to grab a quick lunch and then head for the museum. “Grab a quick lunch” and a good restaurant in Rome are two things that don’t go together. Quick lunch didn’t fit in with the two things Cole wanted most from this trip with grand parents: to visit the Ferrari museum (more on that later) and eat lots of Italian food. We made good on that latter request at our lunch after we walked through the Piazza Navona with its famous Bernini statues and fountains. We ate, we lingered, we watched a young couple eat, snuggle, argue and then eat and snuggle some more (they packed away more food than the three of us did). We had pizza, we had pasta, we had dessert, we watched people running through the rain in the narrow street outside. We didn’t get to the Vatican Museum until well after 1:30, and the lines were long and our patience short.
(Video caption: We did not get into the Vatican Museum but visited St. Peter’s Square.)
We’ll come tomorrow, we told each other, and stopped to get tickets. That’s when we found out about the holiday for Saints Peter and Paul, the founder and protector of Christian Rome. The museum would be closed tomorrow for the feast day.
We had a fairly well-scripted itinerary for our two-week visit, and now we were going to see if we could change one piece of it without the whole thing collapsing. But that could be put off until tomorrow in our effort to fulfill Cole’s food requirement, which we did with a scrumptious meal that night at Nonna Betta in the Jewish section of Rome. Highly recommend the restaurant and visiting the area.
I drove 4,974 miles across America, 1,392 kilometers around Italy, pedaled my bicycle 384 miles across Iowa, 391 miles across Nevada and paddled 85 miles on the Willamette River in Oregon – and never wrote a word about any of it.
The time of darkness has arrived in the Pacific Northwest and I’m trying to make time to reminisce about the Madcap Schemes of 2017. Let’s start with Italy:
Actually, let’s start at the Heathrow Airport in London with me bitching about what I hate about flying these days. Yeah, I want to be safe, but I feel captive to sixth-century fanatics who think blowing up people advances their fantasy/religion somehow.
So at Heathrow we had to go through the whole security humiliation again and the bloke at the X-ray machine scolded me for not having my “lick-quids” properly sorted.
“Anything you can drink, any lick-quid, goes into a plastic bag by itself,” he emphasized. So my lick-quid soap, which I would never drink, got a plastic-bag home of its own away from its deodorant, razor and toothpaste friends.
And then it was on to Rome.
Tuesday, June 27, 2017: No one slept past 5:30 a.m. as jet lag had its grip on all of us. So we got an early start on getting Roman passes (worth it) and heading to the Foro Romanum, where we spent four hours in the hot sun and 90-degree temperatures. But well worth it.
What remains of Imperial Rome serves as a reminder of how short-lived our American experience is – 200 plus years seems pretty paltry next to the 1,000 years Rome put up as the most influential people in their part of the world, which eventually spread from northern Europe into Africa, from the British Isles into Asia. They made it roughly 500 years as a republic and then came Julius Caesar, military dictatorships, Christianity and the coming apart of Roman dominance. I could not help but wonder if our current administration will mark such a turning point.
I did not carry my cell phone and its constant barrage of news flashes, message, etc. I read the Telegraph that I bought in London, mostly for the rugby news, and Trump was not mentioned once – what a delight. The trip made obvious the obsession I have with following the course of this administration and how opposed I am to all it is trying to do – and to the disruption that is causing in my being, in my mental and emotional “life course.”
Taking a Trump dump, expelling what had been binding up my mental and political digestive system, was a great relief, although I did take note of a few things: Europeans seeing the GOP health plan as failure of Americans to take care of their own. Then there was Johnny Depp’s comments on assassinating the president. That made me sad, or just SAD!, as the illiterate would tweet. Once someone is given the spark of life and has cleared the womb, I figure no one has the right to snuff it out. Natural forces seem to do just fine in that regard without our help.
After the Forum, it was time for lunch and naps. We were back at it late in the afternoon, heading to the Coliseum. The section of the audio tour (recommended) on the games held at the Coliseum gives an amazing account of carnage as spectator sport. At the opening of the Coliseum (80 A.D.), 5,000 animals were killed in hunts and fights. At one time, Emperor Trajan had 10,000 gladiators fighting and 11,000 beasts hunted, fought and certainly killed. Games started in the morning, lunch included executions as a warm-up to the fight-to-the-death gladiatorial matches later in the day. Gladiators could be slaves, who might win their freedom, or Roman citizens hoping for fame, fortune and possible advancement in society. Gladiators fought twice a year, according to the recording. Military deserters were snacks for wild beasts, and prisoners were normal fare for both animals and gladiators (not implying cannibalism here).
The audio guide said that at one time, the Romans had 170 holidays a year with “games” in the Coliseum on many of them. That might have been the inspiration for author Robert Harris to have Cicero, frustrated at how many days the court would not be in session to hear a case he was presenting, say, “For pity’s sake, does nobody in this wretched town do anything except watch men and animals kill one another?” Highly recommend Harris’ historical fiction, the Cicero trilogy.
It all raised the question of how Western society went from being so open about its real life violence to the voyeuristic violence of today where we have a great appetite for depicted violence in TV, movies etc. but would mostly be appalled (I hope) if, say, Trump reintroduced public executions, which would be a sure sign that our pendulum was swinging in the same direction as ancient Rome’s.
In the evening, we walked past the Circus Maximus, where chariot races were held (think “Ben Hur” where Charlton Heston gets white horses, doesn’t use a whip on them and still wins the day, as we explained to grandson Cole, who had not seen the movie) and on to the Travestre area for gnocchi and bruschetta at an outdoor café. It was a long walk home, but I was happy we found our way without using GPS, relying on good old paper maps and my own perfect sense of direction to get to a point where we turned a corner and there it was, the Hotel Grifo, our hotel, adding only an hour or two to the eight we walked during our first day in Rome.
From now on, Kathy announced, we would take a cab home after 10 o’clock at night.