Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Beauty and Pesto in Cinque Terre

Pictures are worth a thousand words, they say. In that spirit, and given the scenic nature of Cinque Terre, this post will mostly be captions. Though, perhaps you've noticed I like to explain the picture before I show it, so these captions will be above the picture instead of below. 

We went to four out of the five towns that give Cinque Terre its name. We stayed in our first stop - Manarola - long enough only to get a coffee and our bearings. We then took a train from Manarola to our next stop, Vernazza. Train stops in Cinque Terre may be slightly different than what you are accustomed to. Not a bad place to wait.

When in Italy, or anywhere in Europe I would say, climbing always is worth the energy (spoiler alert: our best climbs and resulting views on this trip are still yet to come). In Vernazza, a brief survey of a travel guide mentioned a small historic site that required a climb: Castello Doria, a 15th century castle built as a lookout tower to protect the village from pirates. The views of the coastline are stunning. There also are some wild fresh herbs up there.

See Katie in the bottom left?

There she is again. Whatcha doin' sweetheart?

Our longest stop was in Monterosso al Mare. Churches on the water are my favorite.

Surprisingly, the famous tour guide Rick Steves is as good at explaining history as he is at advising on travel tips. I will say as a qualifier, though, that such a statement about him is actually a compliment and a criticism. In any case, one particular detail of history he mentioned here in Monterosso was very interesting to me:

"During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church offset the rising influence of the Lutherans by creating brotherhoods of good works. These religious Rotary clubs were called, 'confraternities'.... Look up at the ceiling to find the symbol of the confraternity: a skull-and-crossbones and an hourglass - death awaits us all."

I do not have a bucket list, but if I did, dipping my feet and skipping rocks in the Mediterranean would have been on it. Check.

Meat and cheese spread (and much more actually), Italian beer, and homemade pasta with pesto, with a view of the Mediterranean. I'm not even sure what kind of noodle this is, but it absorbed the pesto like you wouldn't believe. By the way, pesto was discovered in the Cinque Terre. This was the birthplace of pesto. Did I mention that? Pesto!

Cinque Terre is for real. We hope to be back!

Which brings us next to Florence. Sigh. There are no words. But this is a blog recap so I need to muster some!

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Miracles of Pisa

Pisa (not Pizza) is known for a certain tower that was built before the invention of a level. What it should be known for is everything else - although the tower itself is amazing and it really does lean. We couldn't straighten it with our hands from a distance like so many tourists try to do in their pictures (actually we didn't even try that or take the cliche picture). What Pisa should be known for specifically is the entire Piazza dei Miracoli, or, the Field (technically "Square") of Miracles. It was called this by an Italian poet in the early 20th century because of his personal experience visiting it, and the four breathtaking sites within it, and the enduring miraculous effect it had on his senses.

First, there is the Camponsanto, or "Holy Field".

I always find cemeteries to be very peaceful, but this place was so beyond description. It is said to include sacred soil brought from Golgotha during the Crusades. The specific tombs and grave-markers are unique and sobering. It once contained a large collection of Italian sculptures and frescos, only a few of which still remain. One of which, The Triumph of Death, is indeed terrifying, and allegedly at one time included mirrors that allowed visitors to see themselves in the picture being tormented. Yikes.

Second, there is the the Baptistery.

The acoustics in this building are unmatched, and on the hour a staff-member sings a brief song to show off the echo. We were lucky enough to be inside during a rendition. Impossible to explain. This amazing structure includes a couple other aspects of architecture that were particularly memorable to me. One was the screaming figures at the top corners of the pillars, and the other was the pulpit:

Third, there was the Duomo. 

Not to be confused with the Duomo or the Duomo. As I explained in Siena, it just means cathedral. But when you know it as Duomo, that usually means it is awesome. Pisa's Duomo does not disappoint. 

And speaking of pulpits, are you kidding me with this thing? Unreal. Notice the lion and animals being crushed symbolizing man's superiority to the beast.

Last (and perhaps of these four sites the least, to be honest), there is the tower. You know all about this. 

This tower is the campanile, or bell tower, of the city. You can read about the reasons and extent of the leaning on the internet (the one with email). One thing perhaps you didn't know is that as recently as the 1990s, the tower was closed because the lean had gotten so bad that they were concerned that it actually was at risk of tumbling. So, they spent more than 10 years reinforcing the ground underneath it with concrete. Allegedly, it is now good to go. (Thumbs up emoji). Here is some visual perspective on what is going on with this thing at ground level:

Next up: Cinque Terre. Five beautiful towns on the coast with colorful houses, stunning views. and pesto. Yes, pesto.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Lunch in Tuscany, Gelato in San Gimignano

From Florence (we'll get there later) during our four nights there, we had scheduled two day trips into the heart of Tuscany and Cinque Terre. Siena was our first stop (previous post) on this first day trip, and from there we headed to a winery and organic farm in the Chianti region for a tour and lunch (with views of San Gimignano - tiny skyline in the background of the picture above). As you can also tell from the picture above, just in time for beautiful views of the countryside, the sun started to peak out and reveal a perfect blue sky and cloud mixture.

The Tuscan countryside is amazing. Getting to see the inner workings of a family owned organic farm and winery was forever memorable. Having a homemade pasta with bruschetta lunch and wine pairing at a long table with dozens of other happy tourists - the ones sitting next to us from Iowa but lived for a time in Fishers believe it or not, which we found out before she spilled wine all over him (I digress) - was delightful. Huge bushes of bay leaves for the taking: priceless.

San Gimignano. Gee-mignon-oh. Like Filet Mignon. I think I've got it. But you wouldn't know because this is a written blog (Katie can vouch for my pronunciation skills). Anyway, this small, rustic town is referred to as the "Medieval Manhattan", or "The Town of Fine Towers". It is known for its medieval towers that have (mostly) lasted through the ages and gives it a noticeable skyline, unlike other Italian cities.

There was an intense Italian feel about this place. This image of six Italian men shooting the breeze and watching the tourists admire their town will be etched in my memory. Oh to have pulled up a chair and joined their conversation (and to have known their language)!

Like anywhere else in Italy, there is much history and art baked into the buildings and towers. Simply being in the midst of it is an incredible experience. 

This unique town is also famous for its gelato. Here, you will find the "World's Champion" gelato. I'm not talking about the "World's Best" gelato, which is also here. No, best means nothing. The "World's Champion" gelato has actually won tournaments and such. The owner greets all of the guests as they wait in line, and we did not catch his name, but I think my brother is right that his name has to be Luigi. Has to. We took their recommendations on flavors and got the saffron and pine nut, and rosemary baby. In combination they make one of the best flavors imaginable.

Now to Pisa, the town known for its questionable architectural design, but actually containing some of the most memorable sites I have ever seen. That tower though.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Siena Rain and Shine

As I understand it, there are some who say that Siena rivals Florence in beauty and splendor, and does so in part because it is smaller. I will not dispute those folks except to say that we didn't give it that chance. To begin with, it was the first stop in a day bus trip into the larger Tuscany region, and we only had a few hours. Additionally, our arrival was accompanied by steady and significant rainfall. The first item on our agenda was a walking tour. Well, as you can imagine, at this point in the adventure, we did not care for Siena much. Luckily, our main tour guide was kind enough to break from the group - leaving them with the local guide - to lead those of us that were unprepared to purchase umbrellas, which helped a little. 

I believe somewhere along the way we saw one of the oldest banks in Europe. I am not sure about that though. What I am sure about is that probably at the same time that was happening I was realizing how clutch it would have been to pack an extra pair of socks. Then we made our way out of the rain and into the Duomo. Not to be confused with the Duomo. See why Florence and Siena are such rivals? Actually Duomo simply means Cathedral, and for whatever reason certain Italian cities don't specify beyond that and probably don't have to because of the splendor of these churches. Especially Florence (but I'm not allowed to say that because right now we are talking about Siena). In any case, if there was ever a magnificent place to come in out of the rain, it was inside this building; domes, pillars, artwork, mosaic floors and all:  

And wouldn't you know, when we came out of this beautiful cathedral, the sun was creeping out behind the clouds. The facade of the cathedral was equally breathtaking. 

Also in Siena is the unique Piazza del Campo; a town square shaped like a shell. Among other things, this is the site of the famous Palio: an insane horse race right in the middle of everything. I won't try to explain. Take 10 minutes to watch this feature video on ESPN, or skip to the 9:00 minute mark to see the insanity. 

All in all, I would like to come back to Siena. Our trip was too quick and too wet. But we were in Tuscany, on our way to a Chianti winery for lunch, so complaining was not really in the cards.

Onward to the Tuscan countryside, a winery lunch, and San Gimignano (the Medieval Manhattan).

Sunday, June 12, 2016

When in Rome

Thus begins my attempt to capture our wonderful trip to Italy. At the outset I must admit I feel inadequate for such a task. Actually, I think it will be easier for everyone if my wife and I just head back there and leave this recap until later. Ciao!

Alas, not yet. 

Here is my plan: one post on each city or town we visited. In some cases I will be defining city or town the way that is convenient. For example, Cinque Terre is five towns, but I will cover in one post. Also, I am going to combine Tuscany in general with San Gimignano, which is a little confusing at this juncture. I will explain. I guess we are looking at seven posts:

1. Rome
2. Siena
3. Tuscany and San Gimignano
4. Pisa
5. Cinque Terre
6. Florence
7. Venice

First up, Rome! Oh goodness.

Rome is beautiful. Rome is chaotic. Rome is overwhelming. Rome is a historical wonderland. Rome is really old. Rome is worth the hype. There is no place like Rome. From my experience (only 3 days!), here are three things to do when in Rome.


Some of the awesome things are obvious. Some need spontaneity. For example, on our first day, after essentially flying through the night (because of the time change) we hit the ground running upon arriving. Our main goal was to walk by and see the Spanish Steps (they were closed) and the Trevi Fountain (which is kind of a mob scene). In between we stumbled into two lesser known churches that on the inside looked like this:

The inside included masterpiece works of art covering the entire ceiling and walls, carefully inside the solid gold trim and intricate sculptures everywhere. Already on the first day, I felt like both a productive tourist and also an energized history buff anxious to learn more about what I just saw; the paintings, the buildings, the saints who have worshiped there over the centuries. That is, I think, the only way to experience a place like Rome. Oh, and not to forget heart-shaped pizza and a calzone the size of your head for lunch in a small little place that does pasta-making classes in the middle of the day for public viewing. That too.

The history of Rome is fairly simple, but also very extensive, mostly because it is so old. Basically, it started on a hill when two guys were born from a she-wolf or something. Then this fella named Caesar inadvertently turned an otherwise peaceful republic into an empire that ruled the civilized world with force. Eventually, the influence of Christianity, first through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then through the ministry of the apostles like Peter and Paul who were ultimately martyred there, and then through the influence of the Emperor Constantine who established Christianity as the religion of the empire, resulted in the "conquering" of the pagan world. That only gets us to about 400 A.D. Like every other empire since creation, eventually it fell.

The rest is history. Well, the other stuff was history too, but my point is that history goes deep and wide, and even though you can say the history of a place was this or that, the truth is that there is so much history in that place you can hardly tell it all at once. So I won't try. Visiting Rome enlarged my perspective on the depth, complexity, and age of history, and I hope in the end led me more towards the who of history and not the what. Which is Jesus Christ. And in Italy, Jesus is everywhere. It is interesting to think of how present he is in places it appears not so, and sadly how absent he may be in places where he is used as the main decoration.

For example, the Pantheon. Walking around a quiet street corner after enjoying a cappuccino and cafe americano Italian style, at one of the coolest cafes in the world, and seeing a building that is 2,000 years old is as it sounds. Surreal.

What originally was a pagan temple is now a functioning church. Can you imagine having a church service in a building that was built in the 2nd century? One of the oldest man-made structures on the planet that is still standing is a place where God is worshiped regularly to this day. Remarkable.

Then, there is the Colosseum. I really enjoyed this place. We did it right: walked by it first, admired the size and the scale and smiled at the masses in line, then bought our tickets at the less-crowded Palatine Hill and backtracked through the Roman Forum, stopped for a perfect lunch, visited a couple more churches (perhaps the two best on our entire trip to Italy), and then finally entered the Colosseum after the mid-day crowds had moved on. The whole sequence before, during, and after our journey through "Ancient Rome" for us was extremely relaxing and reflective.

The Colosseum is probably the most popular tourist site in Rome, maybe the world. It is featured in blockbuster movies. Still, it really is as cool as they say. What seems to be lacking from the popularity though is the significance of this place in Christian history. Think of how many times the heavens opened around this arena to receive into glory those who spilled their blood for the sake of the Name. 

The presence and influence of Jesus and the Christian church is everywhere. I fear this is too commonplace to be experienced as it should. Though in some cases the posture of people visiting is extremely encouraging. Sometimes, the authenticity of certain artifacts or relics is questionable (more about that in Venice), but the approach to them is still very respectful and I think honoring to God. 

Think of it: are these really the steps that Jesus ascended while on trial with Pontius Pilate, brought to Rome in the 4th century by St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine? These devout pilgrims or tourists are climbing them on their knees one at a time:

What does the Almighty God think of this famous Arch commemorating the siege and "spoils" of Jerusalem by Emperor Titus in the 1st century (can you see the menorah)? 

Where are these saints sculpted on the top of the beautiful Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano pointing?

Rome is truly a historical wonderland. I venture to guess that the most brilliant historian is like a first grader in the context of such history, most of which points directly to Jesus.


Here is what happened. The first day, as I said, we planned a few touristy things, and our goal was to explore and relax. The second day was for Ancient Rome. It went perfect; I wouldn't have changed a thing. Our final day in Rome was reserved for Vatican City in the morning and early afternoon, and then down to Trastevere for the evening and dinner. Long story short, we spent our time at the Vatican Museums which were amazing. Especially the Sistine Chapel. Our plan to get into St. Peter's Basilica failed. Disappointed, we pressed on and found a homemade pasta to-go place (delicious and cheap!), and then made the final decision to avoid the mob inside St. Peter's Square, and head down early to this quaint little neighborhood I had heard so much about. Best. Decision. Ever. After a beautiful walk along the Tiber River, we sat outside, had some vino, and watched the world go by. Then we headed into the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere and just sat, read the Bible, and relaxed. At some point we stopped for some gelato and affogato. Finally, we walked around and happily got lost on the cobblestone streets; all before settling in for a local dinner. It was fabulous.

What I'm trying to say is, when you go to Rome you have to go to Trastevere. It is where Roman culture is at its best, it is where (presumably) the earliest Christians settled, and it is delightful in every sense of the word. 


A recap of any place in Italy is not complete without a description of the cuisine. I went with a desire to specifically have carbonara - a Roman classic with pasta, eggs, pancetta, and black pepper. Funny story: here in the States I prefer it with peas, though I didn't used to like peas. As it turns out, the classic Roman dish does not include peas. How about that. Another funny story: the only place I got carbonara for my main course (I had some of Katie's another time) was on the last night. While ordering, the owner/chef called my bluff on getting a full order. After ordering a huge spread of mussels, charceturie, and caprese salad for our first course and Katie's main (cantaloupe was included in there somewhere), I wanted the carbonara. She said, "That's going to be a lot of food." I thought to myself, "Isn't this Italy?" But before a final decision was made, they put together two tables for us to accommodate the initial spread. Then, not until we had every bite consumed of our other items did she ask again if I truly wanted a full order of her famous carbonara. I said, in partial defeat, "No, just the half. Thanks."

But there is more than carbonara in Rome. While good, this last meal I described was not my best. The milk-braised veal after homemade papperdelle with asparagus and pancetta was hard to top (Katie had the papperdelle bolognese as pictured below). Artichokes were in season, so even on the side that made one meal . And when in Rome, never underestimate the quick places that offer homemade pasta to-go for 3-4 euros (as an example) or the fresh croissants at classy coffee shops. Really, everything everywhere is good. Take a look!

Next up, Siena; a smaller town in Tuscany well worth at least a day trip (even in the rain).