Wednesday, September 30, 2015


Top of Mt. Vesuvius
We had decided that it would be a fun mini  trip to go south and visit Pompeii and the Amalfi coast. Caleb, Joel and Danielle had learned about Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii at school and we thought it would be a fun, full circle learning experience for them to be able to visit the sites that they learned about.  We headed to Naples and started our drive up to Mt Vesuvius.  Justin noticed some smoke coming from the mount and said he thought the volcano itself was sending out the smoke.  I started laughing and said it was just a factory or something like that.  The road was pretty sketchy, rather narrow and full of trash.  I kept asking Justin if this was correct and he kept telling me it was.  Eventually we saw several tour buses, so we knew we were on the right track.  I was surprised at how many homes and buildings along the way were completely  abandoned and vandalized.  We got to the parking and started heading up to the top.  The walk up is said to be 800 meters, which didn't seem too bad.  It is 800 meters but up a very steep and gravel slope.  The day itself was quite hot and combined with the hike we were all sweating and drinking lots of water.  I carried Eden on my shoulders for about 1/3 of the way up and Justin carried her the other 2/3.  When he put her down she started telling us all to hurry up and come on.  Once we got to the top we took in the enormous crater and the kids contemplated the ash and rocks shooting into the sky down to Pompeii below.  We continued to walk along the rim and again noticed smoke.  We then noticed a plane heading towards the smoke and dumped tons of water on it.  We walked over to look towards the hillside and saw that there was indeed a fire and that it was about 1km below where we were standing.  We proceeded to watch the plane fill his water tank in the sea and come back to dump the water on the fire.  We watched this for about 30 minutes.  I was completely surprised that they had allowed all these tourists, us included, hike up the mountain while there was a good size wildfire going on.  Apparently, concerns about smoke inhalation or the fact that the fire could move faster than expected was not on the minds of any governing agency.  Justin was right Mt. Vesuvius was smoking.    After watching the plane and fire, we continued around the rim and then headed back down the mountain.  You would think down would be easier but, wrong, wrong, wrong.  The gravel is very slippery and if you are not careful about where you step you can easily fall.

Looking into the crater at Mt. Vesuvius
Wildfire on Vesuvius with plane making a pass to dump water on a hot spot

Once back at the car we proceeded down the sketchy hill to visit Pompeii.  On our way there we saw several people throw trash out their car window.  Maybe this is what is contributing to the garbage issue?  We got into the city of Pompeii and started to walk around, and it really is amazing at how well the ash had preserved all of the structures and provided a very important view into the lives of the people living here in 79AD when Mt. Vesuvius erupted.  The first place we encountered was their colosseum, where they had a special exhibit set up.  Once inside the exhibit you got to see some of the casts of the people in the positions they were when they died. It was quite a sobering site.  We continued on our exploration and encountered a very nice guide, Giovanni, that proceeded to give us a private tour of some of the highlights of Pompeii.  We visited the home of a merchant, and oil producer, the baths, large amphitheater and small amphitheater.  We were impressed to see so many frescos that had been preserved under the ash and even the shopkeepers cases covered in marble tiles were perfectly intact.  He also brought us to a newly discovered area where they had found the bodies of 7 adults and 3 children trying to flee the city.  The bodies had been discovered in what would have been the garden of the home.  They had not made it very far because Giovanni explained to us that the toxic gases would have asphyxiated them in an instant.  He also explained to us that the ash that was falling was about 700 degrees Fahrenheit.   Giovanni explained also that once a body was discovered they made a hole in the skull cavity and filled it with a plastic that took 2 weeks to harden.  Once hard they then finished excavating the body.  If they did not do this process the entire body would crumble because there was nothing left inside the case except for some of the larger bones.  This process ensures that the person is preserved. They also use DNA testing to find out if the people found together are related.  The 10 newly discovered people were 2 different families.  We had a fantastic time visiting Pompeii and the kids loved being able to see firsthand a place that they had learned about in school.  Once we had finished we walked over to a gelateria and had gelato for dinner.  It was still so hot that no one was very hungry.  The man at the gelateria was so nice he gave Eden hers for free and kept calling her "bella, bella".  At this point we needed to find our apartment that we rented just for the night.  We put the address in our GPS Daniel and I started to drive over.  Let me tell you driving in Italy is one thing, driving in Naples is something completely different.  The roads are very narrow and there are absolutely no "rules".  It's do what you want, and let me tell you they do exactly what they want.  My favorite is honking when the traffic is not moving, like honking would somehow miraculously make the traffic start moving again.  Keep honking and maybe all the cars will disappear and the road will be perfectly clear.  I weaved my way  around cars, garbage and people and we finally made it to the apartment. The neighborhood was scary at best.  We met the husband, Aniello, who seemed nice enough and he let us into the courtyard to park.  Once we crossed the gate it was totally different. It was a nicely lighted, pretty garden.  Aniello and his wife Adele and their 2 1/2 year old son Luigi, let us into the apartment.  Eden and Luigi hit it off and started to play, they sat in the 2 large chairs and I made the comment that they looked like the king and queen.  Well, the kids liked that and were all smiles.  Adele and I took pictures of the kids.  We had a wonderful stay at the apartment and it even came with a great breakfast that Adele prepared for us.

Casts of some of the bodies buried in the ashes and later discovered

Serpent fresco

At the bath house

Performing Arts Amphitheater
Sitting in Amphitheater

Arcade in Pompeii with a great name!

Eden with new Italian friend Luigi

Tunnel from parking to Amalfi city center
After breakfast we were on our way to the Amalfi coast.  We decided to drive along the coast to get to the city of Amalfi itself.  Well, we encountered yet another fire, but this time it was burning on the hillside along the road.  everyone just kept on driving.  We literally drive over some smoldering wood.  I was astounded!  There was no police, no firefighters, nothing.  By all appearances there wasn't even anyone trying to put out the fire.  So here we are on a cliff-side, narrow road with fires, talk about crazy.  This was something neither Justin nor I have ever experienced, and to be honest once is enough.  Although it was worth the risk because the sights and views were fantastic.  So by the time we reached the city of Amalfi we encountered about 4 more fires within close proximity to the road.  Once in Amalfi Justin drove into the first parking garage we saw.  I was not happy because it looked like you had to walk along this crazy road to get to the city.  I told Justin that I was not walking along that road. Once we went past the gate a parking attendant told us that everyone except the driver had to get out.  Odd.  So we all got out and they sent us down a long hall to wait for Justin.  While waiting I noticed a sign pointing towards Amalfi center.  They have a whole system of tunnels that take you into the city versus walking along the sketchy road.  I must not be the first wife and mother that refused to walk along that hazard way. The kids were quite amused by the tunnels saying this was totally James Bond.  They even figured that an Aston Martin could fit for a pretty cool chase scene.  Just a suggestion United Artists. Once in the city we had a great time walking around the safer routes and taking in the amazing views.  The water is such a spectacular deep blue.    We walked all along the coastline and on to a pier.  On the way back we stopped for a gelato.  Then we headed back to get the car.  Again, only Justin was allowed to get the car.  We never really figured out why that was.  Justin said the garage was bigger then some and the cars were parked just fine.  Still a mystery.  We decided to take the up and over route instead of continuing along the coast.  At one point we headed into a national park.  I was disturbed to see the mounds of trash everywhere.  It kind of threw me that there seemed to be no regard for the environment, or even pride of where you lived.  They seem to treat it like one big garbage can.  Also, I noticed that the neighborhoods and homes are not maintained at all.  It was really unfortunate because it is a very pretty place if you can look past the shabbiness and trash.  On our way back north to Ficulle you really could see the place where the trash ends along the freeway.  You could see a very apparent line of where the next region began because it was beautifully maintained.  Once back in Ficulle we got to talk to Shana our host about some of our observations, fires and trash.  She said that the fires were probably set by cigarettes being thrown out and that no one reacts because it is so common.  She said that Neapolitans are almost in a country of their own, they don't go south and definitely not north.  She also said that is what happens when mobsters run the city.  She had a very interesting perspective.  Although Naples had its quirks we had a great time and it made all of us appreciate when people care for where they live.  The kids loved being able to see Mt. Vesuvius and Pompeii and we all had a great time seeing someplace so different.

Amalfi Coast

Amalfi Duomo

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Joel and Caleb at the Colosseum
We decided that our next city to visit would be Rome.  We had the kids figure the difference between driving and taking the train.  They compared cost and time, also taking into account parking and ease of travel.  The overall conclusion was to take the train, so that's what we did.  We also decided to book a place for a couple of nights in Rome, so that we could visit for a few days.  Everyone was excited to take the train.  The journey itself was only 1 hour and 45 minutes and it was quite pleasant. We arrived in Rome and dropped our bags off at the apartment and headed towards the Colosseum.  Once there the kids were amazed about the size and also surprised to see how much was still intact.  We wandered around the Colosseum for over and hour looking at each of the different areas and had a few discussions about what it would have been like to be a spectator, merchant, or gladiator.  It was interesting and cute to hear each kid's perspective on what it might be like.  At one point, I placed Eden on a pillar and asked her to growl like a gladiator. She totally got into it and soon had gathered a crowd who egged her on and took a few pictures.  Everyone was tickled by her show.   Also, quick interesting fact, merchants in the Colosseum sold seat cushions to spectators.  We all thought that was funny that even back then seat cushions could be purchased at a stadium.  After the Colosseum, we headed towards the Arch of Constantine, it was built to commemorate the victories of Constantine I over Maxentius.  We were approached by a group of middle eastern men that asked if they could take pictures of themselves posing with Eden.  So a few of them got around her stroller with one holding her hand and click, off went the cameras.  The kids thought this was hilarious.  I explained that they probably don't see many blue-eyed, blondes in the middle east so for them is it a novelty.  After Eden's photo shoot, we headed over to visit the ruins of the forums around the Colosseum.  Some were recognizable and some had disintegrated into almost nothing.  We had a guide book that contained drawings of each of the areas and is was very interesting to see what each structure would have looked like back in the time.  I was astounded by the shear size of each of the stones, how they had been cut and placed without the use of modern machinery.  It is truly amazing to see and I am again impressed by the ingenuity of people.  We continued our visit and headed to the Piazza del Campidoglio, which was designed by Michelangelo.  We headed down the grand stairs and around to Piazza Venezia, to see the Vittorio Emmanuele II Monument.  This immense building was built to celebrate the unification of Italy, and also holds the monument for the unknown solider.  It is so incredibly huge and gleaming white,  that it is astounding to see.  We wandered from here and found a gelateria and got some gelato.  Now for those of you not familiar with Italy it is very easy to "find" a gelateria, so lucky for us we can always "find" one.

Eden posing on a pillar like a gladiator
Colosseum Panoramic
Arch of Constantine
Vittorio Emmanuele II Monument

We headed over to the Pantheon and walked through it.  One thing the kids noticed was that 
there is a hole at the top of the dome.  We asked a guide what happened when it rained and he said that the rain comes in but that there are 22 holes in the floor that collect the water and funnels it outside.  We also found out that originally the dome was lined in bronze and that the bronze had been removed to be used at St. Peter's Basilica.  We walked over to the Trevi Fountain and as luck would have it, it was not on and there was maintenance work happening.  So for now I am 0 for 2 on the Trevi Fountain.  The first time I saw it 25 years ago ( when I was 3, haha), half of the fountain was covered in scaffolding.  At this point, we were all hungry and stopped at a restaurant for a bite to eat.  All of it was delicious.  It was really hard to pick so we got a few things and shared.  Everyone got to try some of everything and we loved it all.  We had pizza, seafood risotto, lasagna, and osso bucco. Yum.

Entrance to Pantheon
Trevi Fountain - Under repairs

The following day we had devoted to the Vatican City.  We took the metro and walked towards St. Peter's Basilica.  We were constantly bombarded by people telling us to get tickets to skip the line, or go to the Vatican museum first, because the wait was 3 hours long. We ignored them all and continued towards St Peter's.  We got in line and waited a full 5 minutes to go through the security check and dropped the stroller off into stroller parking and walked right into the Basilica, no special ticket needed.  Once inside we just all stood there for several minutes not moving, but just looking all around us at the immense size and beauty.  Both Justin and I had been to St Peter's before, but it still took our breaths away.  The kids took a hold of our camera and stated clicking away at what they thought was photo worthy.  I think we have over a hundred pictures of just the inside.  Danielle even commented that it was so pretty she couldn't decided what to look at first.  We walked around and headed towards dome and looked up.  It is so amazing to see the scale and grandeur of this dome.   We all just stood there for some time looking up and were dazzled by the beauty.  I was trying to imagine how each stone was placed with such accuracy. We stayed in the Basilica for about an hour walking around and enjoying its splendor.  The last thing we saw before we left was Michelangelo's Pieta, the sculpture of Jesus' body on the lap of his mother Mary.  This was a highlight for me.  We ventured back outside into the piazza, took a few pictures, and took in the view.  Then we headed towards the Vatican Museum.  On our way we stopped for my mandatory gelato and I got my new favorite flavor cioccolato arancione (orange chocolate), man this is soooo good.     We knew that with the 4 kids it would be impossible to be at the museum for an extended period of time, so we had decided to hit some of the major things to see.  We headed first to the Sistine Chapel. Well, this is a much harder place to get to then we had expected. They wind you through room after room of the museum and with the massive amount of tours going on it is very difficult to navigate. I had Eden in her stroller and I was surprised at how many people jumped, bumped and pushed the stroller just to get themselves one inch forward.  I finally lost my politeness and started to reprimand some of these rude people.  Most looked sheepish and apologetic once I said something to them, but not all.  Some people just blew past like it was normal. By the time we got to the Sistine Chapel we had seen a lot more of the museum then we had previously expected, which was very nice.  Once inside we stood in the middle  and looked at the paintings.  Joel noticed his name one one of the paintings.   He was very excited about that.  Danielle found the name Daniel and that pleased her.  We all had our favorite parts but by far we enjoyed "The Creation of Adam" the most. You see so many pictures of it and to be able to see the original piece, in its original setting it truly amazing and beautiful.  We even saw a security guard approach a couple who had taken a photo, watch as he had them delete it, and then ask them to leave.  After being in the chapel for some time, we headed back through the maze of the rooms and saw the rest of the items on our list.  We ended with Bramante spiral staircase.  I was told by security to take the elevator with Eden while the rest of the gang took this interesting staircase down.

St. Peter's Basilica
St. Peter's
Ceiling in the Vatican Museum

Custom Magnum Ice Cream
The next day we headed to Piazza de Spagna and walked down the main corso towards the Castle Saint Angelo.  It was quite hot, and along the way we found a Magnum store(as in the ice cream bars).  They custom make your ice cream bar.  Well, Justin is a huge Magnum bar fan, so we stopped and got him a custom ice cream bar.  It was great and it was fun watching him eat this treat.  We walked along the Tiber River and took in the sites.  We headed over to the Piazza Navona and watched a few artist and street performers.  We picked up a few souvenirs and walked towards the train station.  Along the way we had some lunch and again stopped for gelato, orange chocolate, yum.  Before getting to the train station we had one last stop at St. Maria Maggiore.  This church is the 4th largest in Rome and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  The entire ceiling of the church is gilded in gold.  We were all surprised to see how ornate the church was.  Not only is it gilded in gold but the artwork is all brightly colored.  It was so beautiful.  Once we finished our tour of the church we headed over to the train station to catch our train back to Ficulle.  We had a truly amazing and wonderful time in Rome.

In front of the Spanish Steps
Fountain in the Piazza de Spagna

Street Performers signing Opera

Castle Saint Angelo

Piazza Navona

St. Maria Maggiore

Couple of side notes:  There are a lot of street vendors in Rome selling anything from selfie sticks to flowers to these gooey balls for kids.  It is very annoying to be harassed every few steps.  Anyway, why would I need a selfie stick, I am traveling with 4 kids that could take a picture of ME in front of anything.

Also, I have discovered a new European diet, eat as much croissants, pasta, pizza, gelato, paella you want and walk 30 miles a week and you too will lose weight.  I have dropped an entire dress size and a few inches from my waist!  Woo hoo!

Lunch at Mami's enjoying pizza and calzones

Caleb next to his dream bike;  the Ducati Monster

Monday, September 14, 2015

Umbria, Italy

Caleb making sure the leaning tower
of Pisa doesn't tip over
We drove to Umbria, Italy on Eden's third birthday.  Along the way we took a small detour to Pisa to visit the leaning tower.  I tried looking up the tower on our beloved GPS, Daniel, as a point of interest.  Well as luck would have it you need to know the Italian name, which I did not.  Fortunately, while driving along the freeway into Pisa, I spotted it in the distance.  I tried navigating Justin towards a rough direction of the tower and due to Caleb's stealth eyes he spotted a sign indicating the direction to go.  We followed the sign until we encountered some street vendors who told us we could not park any closer, but showed us an open spot along the road.  Once situated we walked over to the square and visited the tower.  The kids were fascinated by the tilt.  We took the required "holding up the tower" pictures and ventured back to the car to continue the drive to Umbria.    Once we arrived the first thing Eden wanted to do was go swimming in the pool.  We all did.  We rented a place that is a few kilometers outside a very small town called Ficulle.  It is a country house with a pool.  In fact, the kitchen is located in a separate building.  I thought this might be inconvenient, in actuality it is not.  

For the next few days we took it easy and stayed at the house enjoying the beautiful weather and the pool.  At first Eden was pretty hesitant about going in (remember the Antibes beach incident) and over the next few days she became bolder, to the point that now she jumps along the steps of the pool and dunks her face in saying, "Mommy, watch me swim!"

Danielle at the Pool

Once settled into a routine, Justin and I started home schooling the kids.  We have a great daily schedule that includes math, reading, writing, phys ed, coding, cooking, and will soon add science.  The history part we have incorporated with the places we are visiting, having them read and learn about the different sites they have and will see.  They are learning a lot in this regard, they seem to enjoy being able to experience it firsthand.

Kids doing school work on their Microsoft Surfaces

Our first venture out was to visit the area closer to "home".  Our host Shana told us that she was planning on going to the large weekly market in Chianciano.  We followed her in our car and then explored the market.  After the market we went to a great restaurant, that again Shana recommended, called Frattoria Pulcino.  It has a fantastic view and the food was delicious.  We had amazing pasta and polenta with a savory meat sauce and garlic sauce.  Then we got some tiramisu and panna cotta.  All with great wine from the region.  Here is a tip that came from my dad and has been spot on everywhere; get the wine from that specific area it will always be awesome and affordable.  Very true all over Europe.  After our wonderful meal we headed towards Montepulciano, parked the car and wandered the streets after an encounter with the kids park.  Everywhere we go Eden always asks to go to the park.  Give the kid a slide or swing and she is on cloud 9 for the rest of the day.  The quaint streets are lined with shops and restaurants.  Of course, gelato was on the list of things to get and so we did.  It was amazing.  You can add this to Eden's cloud 9 list.  Parks and ice cream what else can a three year old want.  We visited a couple of churches and as we were walking back it started to rain.  Once we got to the car it was a complete downpour.  We had planned on continuing on to Pienza, again suggested by Shana, but decided to take a drive to Lago Trasimeno.  We had a great drive.  Justin braved the downpour to go out and look at the lake, the rest of us stayed dry in the car.


View of Tuscan Hills from Montepulciano at the Frattoria Pulcino restaurant

Alley in Montepulciano
Chiesa Sant'Agostino Montepulciano

A few days later we visited Orvieto.  I had done some research and saw that they had a funicular that you could ride up instead of trying to park in the small city.  Much to Eden's delight we rode it up and took the bus to the main square, Piazza Duomo.  We grabbed a quick bit to eat at a restaurant called Al San Francesco.  They had this beef and potato dish that was so savory and delicious.  Caleb, Joel, Danielle and I all got an espresso to round out the meal.  We took a tour of the underground caverns in Orvieto that had been constructed in 600 BC by the Etruscans.  The tunnels and caverns were in use and expanded upon until World War II.  We learned a few interesting facts and here are a few of the ones that the kids liked best.  Danielle and Joel -- If you buy a house in old Orvieto, it comes with its own cave, maybe even a few.  Caleb -- Some of the caves were used for raising pigeons, to eat not send messages.  This practice was stopped by one of the popes because the pigeon feces had gotten so high outside of the windows that he wanted to stop merchants from climbing up the poop towers and smuggling in goods without paying taxes.  Caleb wondered why they just didn't clean up the poop towers instead of stopping pigeon production?  Good question.  After the tour we headed over to the cathedral.  This cathedral has been dubbed the "Golden Lily of Italy" since the facade is so ornate.  After our visit we wandered around the city and walked along the charming streets.  Found a park and had gelato, Eden was thrilled.  It was a truly amazing day.  I love the views of the countryside.  This is a truly extraordinary place.  The vegetation is lush, with rolling hills and stunning sunsets.   It is absolutely perfect.

Cave in Orvieto
Caleb and Joel in cave.   Pigeon holes in the background
Orvieto Duomo
View of surrounding area from Orvieto
Our next adventure included Perugia, Assisi and Todi.  First stop Perugia.  I had Justin park the car in a specific place because I had read that you could take an escalator to the city while passing through an area called Rocca Paolino.  After frustrating directions Justin successfully navagated us to the correct parking lot.  I will say the first couple of escalators were rather disappointing and I was starting to lose hope until we got on the third escalotor and about midway through looked up and saw the underground city.  This place was used as a defensive place for the city.  It incorporated 4 churches 1 dungeon, and around 400 homes all connected by tunnels.  The entire city is underground.   Most of it was destroyed once the city united to become present day Perugia, but a small area still exists.  We walked through the tunnels and got to visit a few of the remaining structures.  It is incredible to see an entire city underground.  Once we completed this area we took one last escalator to the city above.  We walked over to the Piazza Republica and had lunch at Cafe Blu.  We walked over to the main Piazza and saw the duomo.  We wandered past over to an old aquaduct that has been turned into a walkway.  We walked along towards the university.  The views were great of the city itself.  So this whole time we had been gradually going down and there was a particular street I wanted to go back up.  Well, that street was closed due to road work.  We ended up taking the street over which Justin had to push Eden in the stroller up the steep, winding road.  Once at the top we celebrated his efforts with gelato.  We walked over to the square that we started at and over to the whispering walls.  I had read about this online and had kept this a secret too.  So what you need to do is have one person stand in a corner and the other person stand in the opposite corner, look up slightly and while facing the wall whisper your message to the wall.  The person on the opposite side should be able to hear the message clear as a bell.  Well much to our amusement it worked.  We all took turns trying it out.  The legend says that you are supposed to whisper words of love and if the other hears the love will endure.  Thank goodness Justin heard me.  Whew!

Underground city Rocca Paolino

On the old aquaduct in Perugia

View from a high vantage point in Perugia

Eden enjoying a daily gelatto (always strawberry flavored) under the "Hotel Eden" sign in Perugia
The whispering wall in Perugia

After we headed to Assisi since it is just a short car ride away.  We walked through the town towards the Basilica San Francesco.  We spent a good amount of time walking through the upper and lower church.  We read the story of St Francis of Assisi to the kids and were all surprised to find out that Brother Elias and his posse took St. Francis' body during the funeral procession and laid him to rest in the lower church were he still lies.  Brother Elias did this because he believed that St. Francis would not have liked the elaborate ceremony that had been planned saying that St. Francis gave everything of himself without ever wanting anything in return.  On our way back through the city we took a turn onto Via Montecavallo and saw the most extraordinary thing.  All along the street are white "sheets" hanging from lines, but these are not ordinary sheets.  These "sheets" are canvasses with the faces of different people on them,  We could not figure out what it was about even though we asked a few people, but it was one of the neatest things.  We all contemplated what it was about and came up with a few theories.  Thinking it was most likely one of two:  either the faces of people that lived on the street, or the faces of people that had been important in the city.  It was one of my favorite things.
Once back at the car we loaded up and headed to Todi.  We got there later then expected and grabbed some of the last slices of pizza at one of the few places still open.  The funny thing was that the husband of the couple who owned the restaurant had put a couple of margarita slices off to the side for his dinner and the wife was not happy about that because all that was left was potato and onion, which we were fine with.  Well, once we were sitting outside to eat the wife brought us the margarita slices free of charge.  I kind of chuckled because I could see that the husband was pretty upset about it.  We told her we didn't need them but she insisted.  All of the pizza was good and by the time we left Eden had charmed him and he was not upset anymore.  We walked around just for a little and headed back home.

Basilica San Francesco

White sheets with portraits on them lining a small street in Assisi