- Map of Italy, with the portion we visited. 2. Our travel portion enlarged. 3. More details of the area we traveled. 4. The walking route.
Our fabulous Italian vacation was held over 29 days from May 5, 2022, to June 2, 2022. We visited Rome, Florence, Montefioralle, Impruneta, Badia a Passignano, Tavarnuzze, San Gimignano, Volterra, Montepulciano, and Pienza, apart from other small villages and hamlets. During that amazing period, we walked for 6 days in the Umbria region, Italy’s green heart, from Assisi to Spello, to Bevagna, to Montefalco, to Trevi, to Campello Alto, to Spoleto. We walked 52 miles (84 kilometers), climbed in aggregate 5,170 feet (1,576 meters), and descended 5,182 feet (1,580 meters). It required 167,244 steps and 40 hours of energetic walking to accomplish that invigorating task. On our vacation, we used planes, trains, buses, a rental car, Ubers, and taxis.
In Rome we visited the Borghese Gallery, the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museums, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and attended a Papal blessing for Mother’s Day in St Peter’s Square.
In Florence we visited Galleria dell’Accademia housing the statue of David, San Marco church, and the Uffizi Gallery.
In Assisi we visited the Papal Basilica of St. Francis with a massive lower and vast upper basilica, and yes, the one built above the other, and the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli.
In Spoleto we visited the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta.
These were just a few of our highlights while touring Italy. I provide additional details in the calendar sections below. I took more than 1,600 photographs and selected a few to share below. An additional observation was the number of children who had school outings to visit the sights of Italy.
I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, a country that was first colonized by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. We moved to the United States of America in 1986. The Spanish were among the first Europeans to explore the New World and the first to settle in what is now the United States. By 1650, England had established a dominant presence on the Atlantic coast. The first colony was founded at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Contrasting that four-century history with Italy, we find that the earliest Etruscan (Lazio, Umbria, Tuscany) inscriptions date back to the eighth century BC, although some historians suggest the ancient civilization existed more than 3,000 years ago.
What is striking visiting a country steeped in a much longer history than we are familiar with, is how different the communities are, and what they have needed to do to accommodate modern conveniences such as vehicles, electric power, and other technologies within their ancient buildings. Old structures have been remodeled to facilitate what are considered essential standards of modern living.
Hilltop towns with castles, churches, and apartments in massive old buildings built close together requires walking, cycling, and driving on very narrow roads in hamlets, villages, towns, and cities, to accommodate vehicles is but one challenge. Getting to understand Italian customs and conventions, so different to what we are accustomed to, makes for an exciting and educational travel experience.
Cape Town, my birth city, is rated as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There is no doubt in my mind that Tuscany and Umbria with its rolling hills, and valleys displaying breathtaking magical green pastures must rate equally as the most awe-inspiring vistas to be found anywhere in the world.
Italy operated as a series of states until unification in 1861 which was mostly completed in 1871. Complete Italian unification took place on November 4, 1918. History helps us understand why each region was self-governed with its own churches and social and political governments. Prehistoric Italy began with the Etruscan civilization between 12th to 6th century BC. Ancient Rome covers the period from 735 BC through 476 AD. In brief, Italy evolved over time through wars and rulers culminating in today’s existence. This helps explain why many towns are located on hilltops for protection from marauding enemies and constructed with thick, solid walls.
When I arrived in Italy, I was delighted to see all the yellow and blue banners and flags in support of the Ukrainians being attacked by Russia. When we started our walk, we saw signs with a yellow “T” or Tau, (representing the cross that Jesus died on) and yellow and blue paint on signboards and trees. We later learned that it symbolized the paths that St. Francis traveled during the early 1200s to carry out his missions and now used to guide hikers along his walk.
The road signs are placed in a way that will allow you to travel along the St Francis’ Way in both directions, from North to South and in reverse. In Umbria, the yellow-blue trail signs and the yellow Tau appear, placed carefully in both directions along the trail, and act as a reassurance sign that you are on the correct path.
The history of St Francis is fascinating, and if you wish to read a brief story to develop a better understanding, read here.
I have been fortunate to travel extensively. Born in South Africa I toured the country widely, including visits to Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. We moved to the United States of America in late 1986 and since toured to more than half the 50 States, including Hawaii. We have traveled to Canada, and business took me to Mexico, Denmark, and India. As a family, we have travelled to England, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain, Germany, Puerto Rico, and St. Thomas in the Caribbean.
None of that travel prepared me for our month-long trip to Italy. When you see buildings constructed in 600 BC, and others through the later years 1200 to 1600, it is hard to understand how these magnificent and grand structures were built. Equally mindboggling was the extremely high Roman viaduct used to carry water. We visited castles and numerous churches, all magnificent and awe-inspiring structures. The marble statues and painted frescos that adorn these churches with their magnificent, vaulted ceilings look like the ultimate engineering and artistic feat.
In visiting Rome and Florence, we saw many buildings, built close to one another resulting in narrow streets that could hardly accommodate a vehicle, especially with people and bicycles occupying the same space presenting innumerable challenges. Many castles were converted into apartments to accommodate people wishing to live in the center of town. Outside the towns we saw two to six floor apartment buildings that had been constructed in more recent times. This surprised me as I thought suburban life as I knew it from South Africa and the US with a single dwelling unit on a lot, fenced in did not exist. With our six-day walk through Umbria with its farmlands and areas far away from the large cities, I did see single family dwellings, multigenerational units, and some that I would classify as town homes that are the choice of many families. I had to smile when I saw fenced in properties with dogs barking until we passed by their premises, reminiscent of life in South Africa.
Food habits are different to our rituals in the US. Breakfast in hotels may be served starting at 7:30 am, although 8:30 am is more common. Dinner, especially at restaurants, is not served before 7:30 pm, or later. Tipping is not expected. If you pay for a meal using a credit card, there is no place to add a tip, but some restaurants and bars add a cover charge. If you pay with cash, and if there are coins returned as part of the bill payment, then leave those coins as a gratuity.
With all the showers that I encountered in Italy, they had a pull sting, usually inside the shower or immediately outside the shower. My first thought was that it activated an extractor fan, but that did not exist in any shower except the Marriott we stayed in on our last night. The cord was to summon help if you had a medical emergency. Yes, I did pull it once, the first time I saw it, but that did not trigger an alarm.
During our visit to Italy, the Euro, and US$ currency was virtually on par. What shocked us, was to see how everything in Italy is so much cheaper and affordable than the US. It is not difficult to understand. In America extremely large corporations control prices and with inflation they hike prices with little concern for how the population can afford to pay. The net result is that those corporations churn out huge profits. In Italy, most businesses are owned by mom-and-pop family businesses and the make a living without gouging their customers. Before we returned to the US, we stayed at a Marriott hotel in Rome near the airport. All the other hotels we stayed at on our trip were family run businesses. Their service was always superb.
According to Forbes 500 largest global companies in 2009, Italy features eight companies: Eni—oil and gas (17), Assicurazioni General—insurance (47), UniCredit—banking (58), Enel—electric utility (62), Fiat-automotive (64), Intesa Sanpaolo—finance (137), Telecom Italy (166) -Poste Italiane—logistics (339).
The top six corporations in the US are Walmart—retail (1), Amazon—retail (3), Apple—consumer electronics (6), CVS Health—pharmacy retail (7), and UnitedHealth Group—insurance (8).
Motor cars in Italy are significantly smaller than those in the US. However, when you have travelled on very narrow roads, it makes sense that larger vehicles that we are familiar with in America would have a tough time navigating these tiny alleys. For the record I did see several vehicles with scratches on the side.
We made liberal use of information at Rick Steves website . Rick is well known in the US for his European travel programs featured on PBS our public TV channel. With a team of one hundred located in Washington state, they offer tours, and produce travel guides, videos, maps, audios, merchandise, and everything to allow your trip to be a success. Rick offers recommendations of where and when to travel, and many suggestions to allow tourists to make sensible decisions.
I would be remiss if I did not clarify that Linda spent an inordinate amount of time planning our trip, and dedicated hours learning Italian. We were joined on part of the vacation with Kenneth and Jennifer Brink, our local friends from Wisconsin, and Jenny’s sisters Maureen, and Heather from South Africa.
If this is appropriate, my greatest disappointment in Italy was seeing the number of young girls smoking cigarettes or vaping. And yes, guys did it as well, but somehow, they were not as noticeable. It is not a situation that I have encountered in the US. Then too I was surprised by the number of motorists using cell phones while driving, especially challenging on the narrow roads.
June 22, 2022, update. We watched this story on CBS 60 Minutes. If you live outside the US, I trust that you can watch this. Roman parking garage excavation uncovers Caligula’s gardens.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 1, Thursday, May 5, 2022
As we set out on this trip it was not necessarily with our usual excitement. I have travelled extensively having crossed the Atlantic on a minimum of 30 return trips. Aside from numerous trips to South Africa, I have been fortunate to visit several countries in Europe and one trip to India. We have gone through a period of grave concern with the Covid virus impacting our daily lives and within the next few days we are about to recognize one million Americans that have died from Covid. As we depart, Covid cases, deaths, and hospitalizations are up in Wisconsin, and the USA. We had one surprise checking on to our Delta flight. The boarding agents were very thorough in inspecting our COVID vaccination cards to verify our two Pfizer regular vaccinations and two booster shots. It is possible that they needed to verify this as it may be a requirement to fly into and visit Italy. The concern about getting Covid added to the anxiety of our travel. With hindsight, we had nothing to be worried about as we returned home a month later hale and hearty.
Our condominium neighbor, Sandy Witt, was gracious and caring to drive us to Milwaukee’s General Mitchell airport leaving home at 7:30 am. Delta required us to be at the airport three hours before our departure time of 11:00 am. Checking in went smoothly and passing through security was a nonevent. The biggest surprise of the day was receiving an email from the CEO of ItalRail (the train company in Italy) where he offered us a complementary walking tour of Rome. We purchased a few train tickets from their business to support us on our travels in Italy. The bad news is my weather app alerted us to rain in Rome over the few days when we will be in the city planning to sightsee. (It hardly rained at all).
Our flight to Boston was on a CRJ900 (9E) regional jet, operated by Endeavor Air on behalf of Delta Airlines. Built by Bombardier, seating 90 passengers. In 2013 the plane cost $32 million. The flight time was 1 hour 40 minutes. The flight was nearly full. About an hour into our flight, we experienced strong turbulence. The pilot had warned us on takeoff as they had experienced unstable air on the flight into Milwaukee.
Some 40 years ago, Linda and I had an interesting experience. Boston’s Logan International Airport was changing their toll system. With the “old” procedure motorists wishing to access the airport had to pay a toll. When leaving the airport required another toll to leave. On the day we were to catch a flight they were changing to system to only pay a fee to gain access to the airport and no payment when leaving. On the change taking place there was a large backup of traffic. By the time we got to our gate to board the flight, the aircraft had already left. We faced the prospect of purchasing another ticket to South Africa since we were at fault for arriving late. Then we got lucky. The aircraft had a mechanical issue and returned to the gate. We were able to board. That flight was to take us to JF Kennedy airport in New York for our onward flight to Johannesburg. Here too we cut the connection exceptionally fine but had many hours to calm down and relax for the long flight to what was our home at that time.
We decided that for safety reasons to wear our face masks all day as an added precaution from contracting Covid. The trip to Italy cost us several thousand dollars. Why would we risk getting sick and adding to our expenses to quarantine and miss tours? Consequently, I decided to not wear my hearing aids. I find that taking my mask off often unhooks my hearing aid. I needed to purchase a new pair after losing one due to removing my mask and not realizing the aid dropped on the ground as we walked during a tour in San Francisco this past Christmas. Then too I had an added benefit with a one-year-old boy sitting and screaming behind me. The absence of a hearing aid helped dull his cries.
Arriving at Logan International Airport in Boston was not exactly fun. We landed at terminal A, gate 1. That should tell you we were at one extreme in the airport. The Delta app informed us that we would depart for Rome from terminal E, gate 7. The challenge was the total absence of any information as to how to get to E. So, we started walking. Not finding anything helpful I asked a pilot if he could direct us. He recommended going downstairs where we might get directions. After walking around for 20 minutes we saw our first sign board. If you will believe it, we had to go all the way back to gate A1, and then hike some distance to the correct terminal. What was so incredibly stupid was that if you walked away from A1, there were no signboards. Once you turned around walking towards A1 direction signs were everywhere.
The next shock was the need to go through security again. Since Boston was the originating airport of the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center bombers, they are obviously taking security very seriously. What is also strange is that normally if you are in transit, you do not go through security again. The lines to get through security were incredibly long. After all that we had two hours to relax before our trans-Atlantic flight.
We had one pleasant surprise. At the boarding gate for our flight to Rome, they had set up a party scene with a huge display of colorful balloons, lots of snacks and soft drinks open to the public. Always great to get something for free, we enjoyed some of their treats. Later I learned the reason for the celebration. We boarded the first direct flight in two years to Rome after Covid. Our plane was an Airbus 200/300 accommodating 234 passengers. Flying time 7 hours 33 minutes.
The food served on the flight was exceptionally tasty. We ordered a chicken dish. What was unique is that the cutlery consisted of a spoon, knife and fork all made from wood. A notable change from plastic to a better product to recycle and support the environment.
I watched the movie “12 Years a Slave.” It is a true story about a freeman who was captured into slavery. As a slave he tried to sue the white men who captured him, but the law in the US did not allow a black to sue a white. I’m always amazed, shocked, and disappointed at man’s inhumanity to man. Slaves were not people; they were commodities purchased to serve at the will of their owners. The ongoing beatings metered out to slaves, separating children from mothers to be sold to different slave owners. Ongoing lynching for any infraction, many fictitiously contrived.
It is little wonder that Republicans do not want school children to know of America’s shameful history, banning all books that allude to its white supremacy. White slave owners raping their slave woman was not uncommon. I compare this to what Putin is doing in Ukrainian, destroying the infrastructure, bombing indiscriminately and devastating residential areas, hospitals, and community centers. Russian soldiers raping Ukrainian woman. Regrettably so much of these actions are justified on Christian principles.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 2, Friday, May 6, 2022
The day started innocently enough with the flight attendant serving us a snack and liquid refreshments. We passed on the egg McMuffin but enjoyed apple juice. Our flight was scheduled to land on time at 7:15 am local time in Rome. Overnight I doubt that we got more than an hour’s sleep, the seats felt awfully hard over so many hours. Our excitement came thick and fast. After deplaning we had to pass through customs. They had an automated process whereby a machine read your passport, a scanner then took a photograph with your mask removed, and finally they required a fingerprint. It may have been a smooth process, but Linda started getting her passport ready before I had done all I needed to do, and the gates locked until we could get help to be freed.
We needed Euros, found an ATM, and drew money from our US Bank account without incidence. Next, we had police view our passports, then we collected our luggage off a carousel and departed the airport passing through “nothing to declare.”
Now outside we were looking for a taxi. A hustler targeted us, asked where we were going, and encouraged us to use his service with a guarantee that he would only charge us 50 Euros, the going flat rate for a taxi. We were requested to stand nearby where he collected three other couples. His driver arrived and we all traipsed off to his eight-seater Mercedes van. I’m not sure if the driver was Juan Manual Fangio, but that van could move. There was no feasible way that the driver was traveling at the speed limit with us passing everyone in sight. It must have been about a 40-minute ride, and Linda and I were the first to be dropped off.
Over Christmas we spent time in San Francisco, and in my blog, I commented about all the roads lined with cars as there is no other option for motorists to park. As impressive as the Bay Area was, it pales in comparison to what we witnessed in Rome. Picture an island used as a divider between the road separating traffic flowing in opposite directions. Now picture motor cars tightly packed and parked on this median. Understand that most vehicles in Rome are small, so they can park nose to nose or parallel on the divide. The side streets are another story, every inch is used to park vehicles. Then we have our taxi driver Fangio who races past these parked cars with millimeters to spare.
Linda arranged our apartment through Airbnb. We stayed at Joy Apartment 2, Trastevere, Via Garibaldi. Our host was Marco Marrazza Palladio. We learned that he has two apartments available and is acquiring a third. The apartment is very well situated, and we were able to walk to the tourist spots such as the Colosseum, St. Peter’s, and the Roman Forum. The apartment is located on the second floor, one of six in the building, with our unit occupying two floors. The lower floor comprises a kitchen, lounge, dining room, and upstairs a bedroom, bathroom, and sitting area. The apartment is tastefully decorated and extremely comfortable.
We frequented the restaurant across the street on a few occasions and walked around to the local square with more restaurants and other entertainment. We felt very safe at this location. My only caution was the narrow staircase to get upstairs, I found intimidating. To get to the apartment from downstairs requires walking a flight or two of stairs but being lazy we used the elevator that can only hold three people, or in our case two plus luggage. I must praise Marco for the help that he provided. He met us on arrival and was available to answer questions. He lives 30-minutes away, so requires a text or email with adequate warning to get to the apartment in time. We found a small grocery store nearby where we bought fruit and beers. We would highly recommend this apartment to anyone looking for a convenient and affordable place to stay.
This is an old part of Rome, but the unit has been thoroughly modernized. Some of the electronic support amazed me. When you wish to enter the apartment building from the street, you dial a telephone number on your iPhone, and the entrance door is automatically unlocked to allow you to enter the building. We have a separate key code to open our unit. The only challenging part for us was navigating the narrow and steep staircase taking you to the bedroom and bathroom from the entry lounge area.
- Rome in the heart of Italy. 2 Rome showing Trastevere. 3. Trastevere. 4. Via Garibaldi in Trastevere.
Located in the heart of the historic Trastevere district, the apartment is the ideal place to enjoy the sights of the historic center of Rome. Here we are immersed in the daily life of Trastevere. The apartment is classy, refined and equipped with all the necessary comforts. The Trastevere area is very lively with restaurants, pizzerias, pubs, bars, etc. Easily accessible from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport by public transport.
Airbnb described the unit as follows: Joy Apartment 2 is a beautiful 80 square meter apartment, located on the second floor of a historic building in one of the most characteristic streets of the Trastevere district. The apartments are accessible by a small elevator. Spread over two levels, connected by an elegant wooden staircase. Upon entering you are greeted by a large living room with a double sofa bed and a dining area.
Going up to the second level leads to the sleeping area, equipped with a wardrobe, a small lounge for relaxing and a small studio overlooking the living room on the lower level; from here you go to the sleeping area with a double bed and a private bathroom with a bidet and a sensory shower. Guests will have independent heating, air conditioning, hair dryer, washing machine, dishwasher, iron and ironing board, and Wi-Fi. The refined furnishings and complete supplies allow up to four guests to stay in comfort, making the experience of visiting Rome full of joy!
The apartment is entirely available to guests. To ensure maximum health protection for our guests, all apartment cleaning routines have been updated with the introduction of specific products for disinfection of bacteria and viruses and the cleaning of all frequent contact points.
Marco provided us with the following history.
Trastevere derives its name from the Latin “Trans Tiberim,” beyond the Tiber. In fact, up until the time of Augustus this area remained outside the proper city; only later buildings and houses inhabited by workers and small traders lived there.
In the imperial age, the area was transformed into an immense district: potters lived in it, leatherworkers, ivory workers, cabinetmakers, millers, porters of the infinite warehouses, brick factory workers in the Monte Vaticani.
The neighborhood preserved an appearance and a character of property and provisionally over the centuries that distinguished it from the rest of the city and that characterized its buildings and road structure: a disorderly cluster of houses and huts distributed in a tangle of streets and lanes oriented on the Tiber River and, in the middle, the primitive churches of Saint Maria in Trastevere and of St Crisogono, which rose above the other buildings. This popular character remained intact for centuries: in fact, Cardinals did not reside in Trastevere, there were no lavish churches nor were places of the great papal aristocracy created.
Overtime, to overcome this disorder and improve the organization of Trastevere, some popes built straight roads (via della Lingala —via della Scala, via della Lungaretta, via di die S. Francesco a Ripa) that converged on the Piazza di S. Maria in Trastevere, which thus became the heart of the neighborhood. Trastevere was named X111 “Rooney” (district) of Rome on May 18th, 1743, by Pope Benedict XIV.
After the unification of Italy, significant changes occurred in the organization of the district due to the Cisalpine culture of those decades. The most important intervention was, in 1886, the opening of Viale Trastevere, to join, via a new bridge (Ponte Garibaldi), Via Arenula with the railway station. Trastevere emerged distorted by the construction of this avenue, which alone altered the entire orientation of the area and divided it into two parts that would never be welded again.
Joy Apartment 1 is at the center of this history.
The Villa, seat of the Galleria Borghese, was built in the early seventeenth century on the family’s estate outside the walls to house the extraordinary art collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, with its central portico (porch) and two towers.
We purchased tickets at home to tour the Borghese Gallery. We planned on a session beginning at 5:00 pm thinking that after a long day we would want to rest in the afternoon. That did not happen. We elected to walk from our apartment, and it took us just over an hour. The gallery comprises twenty rooms on two floors. To climb to the upper floor took 104 steps. I mention that because at this stage we had not slept for 36-hours. The main floor is dedicated to artists from the first to second century AD. There are so many sculptures and paintings, one more magnificent than the next, that to single out any work would be insulting to the other artists. Seeing many portraits made one realize that this was an era before cell phones could snap at will.
On our walk to the Borghese, we experienced Rome in all its glory. We saw firsthand the roads where the buildings are so close together that streets were assigned one way as it would be impossible for two cars going in different directions to pass each other. Then too with these restricted roads, they need to be shared with pedestrians. More correctly, pedestrians take their lives in their own hands competing with vehicles for available room. We saw one tragic situation where medics were attending to an elderly woman who had been knocked over by a motorist.
But more fun was awaiting us. The weather forecast for today through May 8, was for heavy rains. Thus far it stayed away and did not spoil our outing. When we came out of Borghese the rain started lightly. We decided to go home by taxi. Our driver was even more insane than the one we experienced the day before. There was no gap small enough that he could not steer into, there was no distance where he could not use maximum speed. He informed us that the traffic was chaotic because they had to shut a few roads in the inner city due to a protest supporting Ukraine because of the Russian invasion. The protesting Italians wanted the money invested in them, and not the Ukrainians.
We got taken for a ride. On arrival in Rome, we withdrew cash from our US Bank checking account. The money was disbursed in 20- and 50-Euro denominations. The taxi driver said the ride would cost us 38 Euros, so I gave him to twenties. He promptly responded that I gave him too little money and showed me a twenty and a five. I took the five and gave him another twenty. The net result is that the ride cost us 55 Euros. So, I was taken for a sucker. I could have caused an international incident but let the situation go.
On the personal side, we discovered that we were dehydrated, and tired. Needing an early start in the morning, we got to sleep early. I must admit that staying in this apartment without a television is quite a treat, not that I could understand Italian.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 3, Saturday, May 7, 2022.
We woke early and started walking at 6:30 am to the Vatican. It took us 35 minutes to arrive at our destination. Our first surprise was the lack of people out walking at that time. The second surprise, which reinforced what we had experienced before was the poor condition of the sidewalks, and cars parked in every inch of available space. Growing up in South Africa when Jan van Riebeeck settled the country in 1652, and now living in the United States, Christopher Columbus settled in 1462, and we contrast that with Rome that has been inhabited since 1000 BC. The result is that buildings, especially apartments, are built close together resulting in very narrow roads not able to support two-way traffic. Roads and many sidewalks are made with small cobblestones, after so many centuries it is not surprising that it is in disrepair in places. The only parallel I could draw was my visit to Bangalore (now Bengaluru) in India where the sidewalks were in disrepair, and in all fairness in much worse shape than Rome, and both cities had an abundance of trash in the streets.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Vatican is one of the most impressive buildings I have ever had the privilege to visit. Following Rick Steves recommendation, we purchased tickets to tour the Vatican before we left home, and selected an early morning tour at 7:30 am, needing to arrive long before that time to get registered. Our guide was a French lady who worked as an archeologist for the Vatican. She knew her subject and shared the information with enthusiasm. Being knowledgeable and experienced she made sure that we were the first of many tour groups to begin our tour, thereby allowing us to view everything without hordes of people.
We were all handed a device to hook onto our ear and hear the information she shared with the group. Two hours later we were served breakfast in the garden. Quite honestly the breakfast was not the best, but it was some sustenance. The tour guide asked each of us where we were from. I was interested to find a mother and daughter from South Africa. I approached them and spoke in Afrikaans. They turned out to be the first two of five South Africans I met touring in Italy. We arrived home tired and spent the late afternoon sleeping. Please understand we were still experiencing jet lag. While there we wanted to visit St. Peter’s Basilica. The lines to get access, without exaggeration, were miles long with thousands of people in line to visit. We elected to not join the masses and walked back to our apartment.
Vatican City, a city-state surrounded by Rome, Italy, is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s home to the Pope and a trove of iconic art and architecture. Its Vatican Museums house ancient Roman sculptures such as the famed “Laocoön and His Sons” as well as Renaissance frescoes in the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel, famous for Michelangelo’s ceiling.
Vatican City is an independent city-state and enclave surrounded by Rome. The Vatican City State, also known simply as the Vatican, became independent from Italy with the Lateran Treaty (1929), and it is a distinct territory under “full ownership, exclusive dominion, and sovereign authority and jurisdiction” of the Holy See, itself a sovereign entity of international law, which maintains the city state’s temporal, diplomatic, and spiritual independence. With an area of 49 hectares (121 acres) and a population of about 825, it is the smallest state in the world by both area and population. As governed by the Holy See, the Vatican City State is an ecclesiastical or sacerdotal-monarchical state (a type of theocracy) ruled by the pope who is the bishop of Rome and head of the Catholic Church. The highest state functionaries are all Catholic clergy of various national origins. After the Avignon Papacy (1309–1377) the popes have resided at the Apostolic Palace within what is now Vatican City, although at times residing instead in the Quirinal Palace in Rome or elsewhere.
The Holy See dates to early Christianity and is the principal episcopal see of the Catholic Church, which has approximately 1.329 billion baptized Catholic Christians in the world as of 2018 in the Latin Church and 23 Eastern Catholic Churches. The independent state of Vatican City, on the other hand, came into existence on 11 February 1929 by the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Italy, which spoke of it as a new creation, not as a vestige of the much larger Papal States (756–1870), which had previously encompassed much of central Italy.
Within Vatican City are religious and cultural sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Vatican Museums. They feature some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures. The unique economy of Vatican City is supported financially by donations from the faithful, by the sale of postage stamps and souvenirs, fees for admission to museums, and sales of publications. Vatican City has no taxes and items are duty-free.
For dinner, we ate at Trattoria de Gli Amici. We elected to share an antipasto misto for starters and again share a ravioli dish as a main course. Linda had a glass of wine, and I had a beer. Total cost 42 Euro. Frankly, I am still confused about tipping. Since I paid with a credit card, they did not request a tip, and I did not give one. Again, life is so different to what must happen in the US. It was early to bed for us with another attempt to get over jet lag.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 4, Sunday, May 8, 2022.
We slept late and had to wait until 9:00 am for a nearby restaurant to open. We were lucky because most restaurants did not open until Noon. Our plan is to walk back to St Peter’s and wait for the Pope to appear at Noon to bless the throng of people outside his balcony. We purchased a cappuccino and donut each and timed it perfectly to get a table outside to enjoy our breakfast. The total cost 10 Euros. During our stroll nearby, I was horrified to see the trash that had been dumped on the streets after the revelry the previous night. While enjoying our coffee we saw a street sweeping vehicle drive by to rid the street of trash.
It is not just the sermon; it is the crowd size.
We attended the Papal blessing for Mother’s Day in St Peter’s Square, together with thousands of other people. We had to go through security much like at the airports, and to then wait for 30-minutes for the pope to start his 14-minute blessing precisely at Noon. I only videotaped the first 3-minutes because I could not understand a word of Italian.
We stopped in Trastevere for lunch. We shared a salad and pizza that cost us 23.50 Euros. We thought that was very reasonable. The restaurant is across the corner from our apartment. We set off to the Colosseum for yet another tour.
Taken from the upper level
The Colosseum met all our expectations. We had purchased entry tickets at home before our trip, but once inside the structure, we realized that it would be more helpful to get a guided tour. We bought a device that plays audio in your ears together with video. It was helpful, but not as good as having a real person showing you the ropes. The signage was not the best, so we struggled to figure out where we needed to go and how to get there. As I joked on my Facebook entry, the Romans were very thoughtful to include an elevator/lift to help us get to the upper floors. It is staggering when you reflect on how many centuries ago this structure was erected. Interesting too is how much excavation is taking place to uncover more relics from the past.
Updated July 19, 2022. Why this update? If you read my July 18, 2022, update below under my entry for Day 8, Thursday May 12, you will see my reference to watching the Netflix show, Medici The Magnificent set in Florence. Each time they show the Medici family visiting Rome in the 1400s, they use as a backdrop the partially collapsed Colosseum. I was puzzled why a movie set in the 1400s would show the broken building. The Colosseum is an elliptical building 189 meters (620 feet) long and 156 meters (512 feet) wide, covering an area of 24,000 square meters (258,334 square feet) with a height of over 48 meters (157 feet). It has about 80 inputs and could accommodate 50,000 spectators. In 1349, Rome was profoundly devastated by a tragic earthquake and, sadly, the Colosseum was seriously harmed. All its south side collapsed, and the Amphitheatre assumed its “characteristic” look that we still admire today.
Next stop was the Forum. As a side note, when I emigrated to the US in December 1986, it was to join a company The Forum, Ltd., owned by Terry Schultz. His logo included the pillars from the Roman Forum. Here too it was amazing to see the expanse of this creation. We visited several of the buildings, again appreciating the workmanship that had gone into the buildings.
On our way home we stopped in at a small market store to purchase provisions for our dinner. I see that we had walked 6 miles or 10 kilometers. Tomorrow will be another early start, so it will be an early night for us again.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 5, Monday, May 9, 2022.
We had an early start to the day, following Rick Steves recommendation to get to the tourist spots early before the masses arrive. We walked to St. Peter’s Basilica, arriving at 7:30 am, toured the inside of the largest church in the world, then took the elevator to view the inside of the church from the impressive dome. Linda visited St Peter’s previously with her parents when she was 18 years old. Back in the day Linda was able to touch Michelangelo’s Pieta, a sculpture of Jesus being cradled by his mother Mary, after the crucifixion.
Today the sculpture is protected by shatterproof glass. The most substantial damage occurred on 21 May 1972 (Pentecost Sunday), when a mentally disturbed geologist, the Hungarian-born Australian Laszlo Toth, walked into the chapel and attacked the sculpture with a geologist’s hammer while shouting, “I am Jesus Christ; I have risen from the dead!” With 15 blows he removed Mary’s arm at the elbow, knocked off a piece of her nose, and chipped one of her eyelids. Bob Cassilly, an American sculptor, and artist from St. Louis, Missouri, was one of the first people to remove Toth from the Pietà. “I leaped up and grabbed the guy by the beard. We both fell into the crowd of screaming Italians. It was something of a scene.” Onlookers took many of the pieces of marble that flew off. Later, some pieces were returned, but many were not, including Mary’s nose, which had to be reconstructed from a block cut out of her back.
One cannot be anything but struck in awe by the magnificence of everything in this church.
St. Peter’s is a church built in the Renaissance style located in the Vatican City west of the Tiber River and near the Janiculum Hill and Hadrian’s Mausoleum. Its central dome dominates the skyline of Rome. The basilica is approached via St. Peter’s Square, a forecourt in two sections, both surrounded by tall colonnades. The first space is oval and the second trapezoidal. The façade of the basilica, with a giant order of columns, stretches across the end of the square and is approached by steps on which stand two 5.55 meters (18.2 ft) statues of the first-century apostles to Rome, Saints Peter, and Paul.
The basilica is cruciform in shape, with an elongated nave in the Latin cross form but the early designs were for a centrally planned structure, and this is still in evidence in the architecture. Central space is dominated both externally and internally by one of the largest domes in the world. The entrance is through a narthex, or entrance hall, which stretches across the building. One of the decorated bronze doors leading from the narthex is the Holy Door, only opened during jubilees.
The interior dimensions are vast when compared to other churches. One author wrote: “Only gradually does it dawn upon us – as we watch people draw near to this or that monument, strangely they appear to shrink; they are, of course, dwarfed by the scale of everything in the building. This in its turn overwhelms us.
The nave which leads to the central dome is in three bays, with piers supporting a barrel vault, the highest of any church. The nave is framed by wide aisles which have several chapels off them. There are also chapels surrounding the dome. Moving around the basilica in a clockwise direction they are: The Baptistery, the Chapel of the Presentation of the Virgin, the larger Choir Chapel, the altar of the Transfiguration, the Clementine Chapel with the altar of Saint Gregory, the Sacristy Entrance, the Altar of the Lie, the left transept with altars to the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, Saint Joseph and Saint Thomas, the altar of the Sacred Heart, the Chapel of the Madonna of Column, the altar of Saint Peter and the Paralytic, the apse with the Chair of Saint Peter, the altar of Saint Peter raising Tabitha, the altar of St. Petronilla, the altar of the Archangel Michael, the altar of the Navicella, the right transept with altars of Saint Erasmus, Saints Processo and Martiniano, and Saint Wenceslas, the altar of St. Jerome, the altar of Saint Basil, the Gregorian Chapel with the altar of the Madonna of Succour, the larger Chapel of the Holy Sacrament, the Chapel of Saint Sebastian, and the Chapel of the Pietà.
The Monuments, in a clockwise direction, are to: Maria Clementina Sobieski, The Stuarts, Benedict XV, John XXIII, St. Pius X, Innocent VIII, Leo XI, Innocent XI, Pius VII, Pius VIII, Alexander VII, Alexander VIII, Paul III, Urban VIII, Clement X, Clement XIII, Benedict XIV, St Peter (Bronze Statue), Gregory XVI, Gregory XIV, Gregory XIII, Matilda of Canossa, Innocent XII, Pius XII, Pius XI, Christina of Sweden, Leo XII. At the heart of the basilica, beneath the high altar, is the Confessio or Chapel of the Confession, in reference to the confession of faith by St. Peter, that led to his martyrdom. Two curving marble staircases lead to this underground chapel at the level of the Constantinian church and immediately above the burial place of Saint Peter.
The entire interior of St. Peter’s is lavishly decorated with marble, reliefs, architectural sculpture, and gilding. The basilica contains many tombs of popes and other notable people, many of which are considered outstanding artworks. There are also several sculptures in niches and chapels, including Michelangelo’s Pietà. The central feature is a baldachin, or canopy over the Papal Altar, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The apse culminates in a sculptural ensemble, also by Bernini, and containing the symbolic Chair of Saint Peter.
Traveling up to the dome via an elevator, we were able to see the church from high up. The walkway is protected by a high fence to stop anyone from attempting suicide or to throw trash to the lower levels. Security is strict to enter the church, requiring everyone to pass through a screen, and handbags, coats, and other carry-ons are all passed through an X-ray machine.
After walking back to our apartment, we treated ourselves to a cappuccino and Danish, and rested up for the afternoon in preparation for another tour in the late afternoon courtesy of ItalRail.
Twenty-five people joined the ItalRail two-hour walking tour. The lady who led the tour was extremely knowledgeable and did an outstanding job. The narration was in English, and my only complaint at the end of the tour, when we had to walk back to our apartment, was that my feet were killing me after a long day on my feet.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 6, Tuesday, May 10, 2022.
Today we headed to Florence via the high-speed train. My sister just informed me that Florence experienced an earthquake. We do not have access to local news so this is a surprise. A Google search revealed the following. The last earthquake in Florence occurred 1 hour ago: Minor magnitude 1.5 earthquake – 12 km south of Florence, Tuscany, Italy, on Monday, May 9, 2022, at 11:50 am (GMT +2). We were ready to call an Uber at 8:30 am for a ride to the train station. The 145-mile journey takes 37 minutes.
Frecciarossa high speed train. Rome to Florence. Depart 9:50 arrive 11:27. Since we arrived at the airport early, the lady at the information desk placed us on an earlier train. Our original departure was at Noon. An overhead screen showed the speed of reaching 249 km/hr. (155 mph).
The Tuscan countryside is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Little islands of cypress trees surrounded by seas of green, rolling hills; fortified farms; medieval hill-top villages with their ancient towers and churches reaching out to the blue Tuscan sky. When people imagine Italy, this is what they dream of.
Driving alongside an expressway it was interesting to see how much faster the train was moving in comparison to the vehicles.
The company is Trenitalia. The ride was extremely quiet, and a pleasure to be on this trip. The scenery on route was interesting. We saw many vineyards, some with young vines. I was surprised at how many solar farms we saw. The seats were comfortable. The quiet of the train had to be experienced to appreciate the technology or engineering they employ. The young lady across the way purchased a coffee and a sandwich from the cafeteria. Without question the countryside is spacious and green in contrast to the city in Rome. We also passed through twelve very long tunnels. Service is fantastic, we were provided fruit juice, sparkling water, and two different snacks.
Ken Brink met us at the station, he guided us to our apartment, we walked to see the sites, had lunch, and later dinner. It was a touring day.
Linda booked our apartment through Booking.com. We have a room on the fourth floor of a 15th century building. It is the second time in a row that we have been accommodated in an old building, like the one we had in Rome. I find it quite amazing how they can retrofit these buildings with electricity, showers, elevators, and other modern conveniences such as toilets, showers, and windows with easy opening features. In our Florence apartment, we have two buildings alongside ours that are being worked on. They are both at least four floors, and the workers have ripped out the windows and doors and rebuilt them with new materials. One small negative for us is on one occasion we decided to take a break from touring to see and hear all that was going on. The one construction worker had a leash attached to himself while working on the roof to catch him should he fall off.
The other fascination is to see how people and vehicles share the very narrow roads, hardly wide enough between the buildings to accommodate single lane traffic. The noise levels are quite high at times especially when the motorcycles and scooters are accelerating when they find an opening. How more people do not get knocked over is a mystery? In fact, it is surprising that vehicles do not get damaged as they make turns to a different narrow road. Many roads bar vehicular traffic unless they have permission to access the area such as delivery trucks. In the brief time I have been in Italy I have not seen a single 18-wheeler. Most vehicles are tiny compared to those we see on US roads. Then too they must find a place to park, and larger vehicles would create an additional challenge.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 7, Wednesday, May 11, 2022.
As I woke up this morning, I have a goal to learn more today. These apartment buildings we stay in are centuries old, but they have all been retrofitted with electricity, running water, and in at least two examples I have experienced, elevators. These elevators are small providing enough room for one or two people with a limited amount of luggage. The good news is they provide Wi-Fi, which currently is unavoidable. In our current apartment they provide a TV in the room, but alas I do not speak Italian, so it was not worth my time channel surfing.
Today was an enjoyable day. It is the first day this year that I can wear a short sleeve t-shirt and shorts. The weather is to die for. I woke early, since we will be meeting Ken Brink who is also staying in this Bookings.com apartment complex. The rate includes breakfast, supplied by a nearby restaurant. Breakfast consists of a cup of coffee and a croissant. Immediately thereafter we are going to see Michelangelo’s “David.” Our first stop was the Galleria dell’Accademia where the statue of David is housed. We arrive early. Our tickets permitted us to be of the first that entered at 9:00 am. Each group of entries are limited to keep the traffic down. However, an hour later the number of people crowding was unbelievable. Had I not taken the photograph of David when I did, I would never have a clear shot with all the crowds an hour later. Each of the museums we visit displays an unbelievable collection of statues, paintings, and relics. One can only marvel as you see that these creations date back to the 1300s.
By 10:30 am we were of the first into San Marco church. The most remarkable was a basement area where you can see some of the excavation that took place to understand what had happened prior to this church being built upon the ruins of an old church. We saw on display the tombs of several people that had been buried in the former church. One amazing display was of a 30-foot (10 meter) tapestry with the most intricate artwork.
The morning became lunchtime and we stopped in at one of the numerous restaurants to eat a calzone with a bottle of water. We returned to our apartment to rest up before heading out for more sightseeing.
From Rick Steves: While construction on Florence’s massive cathedral began in 1296, by the 1400s, there still was no suitable roof. The plan was always to top it with a dome, but the technology to span the 140-foot-wide hole had yet to be invented. Non c’è problema — the brash Florentines knew that someday someone would come along who could handle the challenge. That man was Filippo Brunelleschi.
Brunelleschi had a plan. He would cap the church’s octagonal hole in the roof with a round Roman-style dome. It would be a tall, self-supporting dome as grand as that of the ancient Pantheon — which he had studied. He used a dome within a dome. What you see is the outer shell, covered in terra-cotta tile. The inner dome is thicker and provides much of the structural support.
Built in only 14 years and completed in 1436, Brunelleschi’s dome was the wonder of the age — and it became the model for many domes to follow, from St. Peters to the US Capitol.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 8, Thursday, May 12, 2022.
The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy opened in 1581 and attracts more than two million visitors a year. There are collections of Raphael and Botticelli , as well as works by Giotto , Tiziano , Pontormo , Bronzino , Andrea del Sarto , Caravaggio , Dürer , Rubens , Leonardo da Vinci, and others. The museum houses a collection of priceless works of art, deriving, as a fundamental nucleus, from the Medici collections, enriched over the centuries by bequests, exchanges and donations, among which a fundamental group of religious works deriving from the suppression of monasteries and convents between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Divided into various rooms set up for schools and styles in chronological order, the exhibition shows works from the 12th to the 18th century, with the best collection in the world of works from the Florentine Renaissance.
Walking the streets of Florence is a study of humanity and traffic. There is no question that this is a major tourist spot where people and traffic share the narrow roads to visit numerous churches (duomo), galleries, and restaurants. The throng of people needs to be experienced to believe it. As is our custom, we were up early and arrived at the Uffizi Gallery early and had an opportunity to visit what was available to see before the masses arrived.
Surprise number one required us to walk up four flights of stairs. The exhibition begins on the top floor and migrates to the lower floors. Surprise number two is the size of this building. It comprises a massive U-shape along exceptionally long corridors with rooms leading off along the way. In all honesty the art works comprising statues and paintings at the same time felt quite overwhelming, with one display being more impressive than the next one. Displays are logically arranged by year and artist. The works spans mostly the 1500s to 1700s, with a couple of works even from the last few years.
Our Florence apartment.
Update June 29, 2022. A few years ago, we watched the 3 season Netflix “Medici The Magnificent” series. https://www.netflix.com/title/80152118 After our trip to Florence we decided to watch it again. The scenes were so familiar. It was filmed in Florence, Pienza, Montepulciano, Rome, Tivoli and Bracciano, particularly in the Palazzo Vecchio and the Basilica of San Lorenzo.
July 18, 2022, Update: To clearly understand the sequence of events. 1. We watched the Netflix series, Medici the Magnificent, set mostly in Florence. 2. We toured Italy including Florence. 3. We returned home and re-watched the Netflix Medici series. 4. I was so caught up in the narrative that I bought a book on the history of the Medici family. Christopher Hibbert authored The House Of Medici: Its Rise and Fall. It was a dynasty with more wealth, passion, and power than the houses of Windsor, Kennedy, and Rockefeller combined. It shaped all of Europe and controlled politics, scientists, artists, and even popes, for three hundred years. It was the house of Medici, patrons of Botticelli, Michelangelo and Galileo, benefactors who turned Florence into a global power center, and then lost it all.
Christopher Hibbert MC (born Arthur Raymond Hibbert; 5 March 1924 – 21 December 2008) was an English author, historian, and biographer. He has been called “a pearl of biographers” and “probably the most widely-read popular historian of our time and undoubtedly one of the most prolific. Hibbert was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the author of fifty-five books.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 9, Friday, May 13, 2022.
Today was truly an unlucky Friday the 13th. We were up early, packed, and ready to go. We had breakfast at the restaurant where our meals are served as part of our daily rate provided by the apartment where we stayed. The restaurant opens at 8:30 am, and we were the first customers. We were served coffee and two Danish each. We returned to the apartment bidding farewell to the managers and dragged our luggage through the streets of Florence for 20 minutes to Avis to pick up our rental car. When we left home in the US, I forgot to take my driver’s license. I had contacted my son to photograph a copy and email it to me. I did remember to bring my international driver’s license. I explained my dilemma to the agent at Avis, but she decided to handle the situation without any compassion or humor. Her recommendation was to courier service the license to me, but with additional reservations in other cities in Italy, that option-was out of the question. We could not hang around in Florence, waiting on a courier service to deliver my license, lovely as the city is.
Plan B was to allow Linda to rent the car in her name. Our original vehicle that we reserved was a typical tiny stick shift/manual gear shift vehicle that roams the streets of Italy. Linda hardly drives anymore, so requested an automatic. The only option the Avis agent had was a Mercedes B180 diesel sedan. The argent had warned me that if I drive and a police officer stops me wanting to see my license, they will impound the car for three months, and Avis would charge us for that rental fee. So reluctantly Linda reserved the car in her name, and we set out for Impruneta.
I am not sure how adequately I can describe our situation. The back roads we had to use could barely allow two cars to pass with each going in a different direction. On top of that the roads were very windy, so you had to keep your wits about you to stick close to your side of the road, especially with the many twists and turns. The drive was only 30 minutes away with slow speed limits. Then too, never having driven these roads before, we had to make use of Google Maps with my help to navigate to our destination.
We arrived at the house we rented, and our luck changed. It is a four-bedroom, four-bathroom, home in an idyllic setting with green rolling hills, farmlands, trees, and everything strikingly green. Lorenzo, the agent who met us, gave us significant guidance to explain the must-see villages where we should travel, and what to see in this magnificent part of Tuscany. The owner of our house lived next door with his family. The owner, a retired dentist is a handyman and invested his time to modernize our home with all the home comforts one would expect. Then too we can enjoy the verandah with its chairs and tables where we can relax and enjoy the vista.
After unpacking we drove to a nearby grocery store to pick up provisions. Linda bought pasta that was a quick and easy meal for our dinner.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 10, Saturday, May 14, 2022.
I woke today in this magnificent setting after the best night’s sleep I have had since arriving in Italy. We do not have any dramatic plans for the day, other than to visit some of the sights nearby. Our first stop was at Montefioralle, a castle village with a church. Our goal was to visit the two places. The church was closed, and the castle converted into several homes. One mother proudly announced the birth of a son with decorations outside her entrance door. Outside the castle was a steep road that took you down into the valley. The road was very narrow. It was controlled by a traffic light set for three-minute intervals. When you had a green light you could descend slowly, when the other side got a green light, they could ascend slowly.
The is no doubt in my mind that some Italian motorists are plain crazy or irresponsible. We were driving along one of the narrow roads at just above the speed limit, a full-size bus was irritated that we were not going fast enough and barreled past us crossing the solid white line. For motorcycles, it is standard operating procedures. Please appreciate that on many of these roads you have pedestrians walking single file along the road, so while driving you need to pay attention to them as well.
Our second stop was in Impruneta at Carrefour for grocery shopping. We are having our meals at the house now, better than going to restaurants while saving a fortune. They have an interesting process if you wish to use a grocery cart. You need to insert a one Euro coin to retrieve a cart. After shopping, if you return the cart to the place where you got it originally, your coin is refunded. This store is huge, and choices are unlimited. Linda believes that all groceries are cheaper than what we pay in the US.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 11, Sunday, May 15, 2022.
I follow Rick Steves on Facebook and got a surprise today. He has a photograph of a sculpture known as Laocoon, of a father with his two sons wrestling with snakes. We were at the Vatican, and when I checked my photographs, that is one I did not take. Then again out of a thousand statues and paintings, how was I supposed to know that one was particularly famous. Michelangelo had assembled it from four pieces or sections of marble and added an arm. It was at the climax of the Trojan war. We live and learn, but never enough time to study and know it all.
We woke to another perfect day. Initially we sat outside enjoying the sun and all we could hear was a variety of birds, each with their contribution to the beautiful harmony of the day. We dedicated this day to relaxing and discovered how to use the dish washer.
We drove to the tiny village of Badia a Passignano to visit a church, castle, and monastery. It is a 30-minute, 20 kilometer (12 mile) one way drive. The Abbey of San Michele a Passignano is a monastery of the Vallombrosan Congregation of the Benedictine Order. The monastery is situated in the Commune of Tavarnelle, in the Diocese of Fiesole. The monastery was founded in the year 890. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times. It looks more like a castle than a monastery. The complex is enclosed by fifteen-century walls with corner towers.
The church is normally closed but we entered with a small tour group who enjoyed learning detail from a Benedictine Monk, naturally in Italian. After his presentation he spoke to us in English. I saw one unique feature. Normally in a Catholic Church you have an opportunity to light a candle. Here you plugged a candle into a socket to see it glow brightly for whichever cause you prayed. We donated 10 Euro to the monastery for the book I took. I was interested to see a film crew set up ready for action. We encountered many elderly people hiking along the narrow streets outside of town.
The drive along very narrow roads had its terrifying moments. In one situation, as we approached a village, we had a vehicle overtake across a solid white line and fly through a stop street at high speed. Some of the motorcycles overtake at breakneck speeds going into a blind corner where they have no hope in seeing oncoming vehicles. All quite terrifying. As we drove through Il Ferrone, we saw several brick manufacturers, a product that this area is famous for.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 12, Monday, May 16, 2022.
We woke to yet another gorgeous day. Today Jenny Brink and her two sisters arrive from Norway, and we will be driving in the direction of Florence for Ken to take a bus into the city, collect a rental car and drive them all back to our house. In these bucolic surroundings, it is hard to believe that there is a real world out there. Seeing the headlines on my iPad I am reminded about the shootings and gun violence and killings in Buffalo, New York; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Houston, Texas; Winston Salem, North Carolina; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Laguna Woods, California to name a few from the past twenty-four hours. The Los Angeles Times reported 123 people were shot dead in the past 72 hours. Will this madness ever stop?
We drove to Tavarnuzze where Ken could catch a bus into Florence. We had lunch at Risto Bar. The food experience is always a treat in that you are not sure what exactly you are ordering, but it is always wholesome food. We shopped at the local grocery store. In every situation when Linda compares prices, she is fascinated how much cheaper everything is compared to US prices. Appreciate that currently the Euro and US$ are almost at par.
We read several books and watched videos in preparation for this trip. Rick Steves is a great resource with his information. Rick warned that when you drive, motorists will sit on your rear bumper a few inches away. To say that it is unnerving is an understatement. As a rule, Italians do not respect speed limits, and usually consider them to be a minimum speed. I appreciate too that we are talking about incredibly narrow and winding roads alongside rolling hills between villages. Then too, overtaking on the solid white line is part of the kamikaze driving technique.
Having been so critical about motorists’ driving skills, one needs to balance that against the incredible beauty of the lush green rolling hills. The setting in this part of Italy is beyond description for its beauty.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 13, Tuesday, May 17, 2022.
We have a large group today. Our plan is to drive to San Gimignano and nearby Volterra. Linda and I will be joined with Jennifer and Kenneth Brink, Jenny’s sisters Maureen and Heather, and Heather’s Italian friends Danielle and husband Renato.
Tuscany is known for its rolling hills and striking beauty. Driving presents an interesting challenge. The road is forever climbing the hills, or dropping into the valley, with twists and turns resulting in no section of the road being straight. In addition, we drive on a road with traffic going in two directions at extremely close quarters due to very narrow roads. Danielle lives near Venice and assures us that the roads we traveled today are significantly narrower than where they live. What alarms me are the impatient motorists who feel the need to overtake us on solid white lines because we are traveling at the speed limit. Motor cyclists are even more crazy, overtaking us while accelerating into a blind corner.
San Gimignano was our first stop at this hilltop community with its seven towers. It is recognized as a tourist trap with numerous tiny shops selling specialist items, plus a wide selection of restaurants. The streets are extremely narrow, only accommodating one car at a time, if the road can accommodate any vehicles. The ancient buildings, built like a fort, are sandwiched together.
Our second stop of the day was another hilltop village, Volterra. Here too every building-built fortress style goes back centuries. The village is less commercial, but fun to visit to see how people lived centuries ago, and how the community adapted to living in modern times. We found it particularly interesting to see the old Roman ruins together with the seating for an amphitheater. Volterra is famous for its alabaster, with shops selling small white figurines made by local artists.
Know too that it is necessary to park our vehicles prior to walking into town. If you are lucky, you get parking nearby, otherwise you may have a long walk. Parking spaces fill up quickly. Some places offer free parking, and with others it is necessary to prepay for parking and display the ticket inside your car.
I find it interesting that all over the parts of Italy that we have visited, including the two hilltop towns fly gay pride flags.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 14, Wednesday, May 18, 2022.
Today we set out on a longer journey, driving 90 minutes south to two hilltop villages, and an organic farm. When we arrived in Italy, visiting Rome and Florence, I was surprised at the lack of large 18-wheeler trucks, or any large vans. We drove on the autostrada (like our interstates in the US) and got the surprise of my life. The quantity of large trucks amazed me. Motor cars have a speed limit of 130 kilometers per hour (80 mph), whereas trucks are limited to 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph). The large trucks in effect make up a massive convoy, with numbers greater than I have ever seen on say I94 between Minneapolis and Chicago. Mostly they stay in the right or slow lane, and only use the left lane to overtake. Motorists on the other hand, especially BMW owners, appear to set new land speed records. One surprise was the total absence of motorcycles, and I can only assume they are forbidden to use these roads.
The drive along the rolling hills is truly magnificent with the green valleys of farmland and pastures. Turning off the autostrada to access the village is dramatically different with the very narrow roads hardly wide enough to accommodate two vehicles passing in different directions, especially with pedestrians and cyclists sharing the space. Traffic circles line the roads in these small towns that were never laid out by street planers but go in all directions to accommodate the hills and buildings. One must keep remembering that most of the development is a few thousand years old.
Chiesa Di Santa Maria Dei Servi. Dating back to the 1300s, but extensively renovated in its interior during the 18th century, it has a gabled roof and a regular ashlar façade made of travertine. The bell tower was built at the beginning of the 18th century. The interior houses the Madonna della Sanntoreggia, a fresco of the Sienese school dating back to the 1400s, and a Madonna and Child, attributed to Ugolino di Nerio (1300s), a pupil of Duccioi di Buoninsegna.
Our first stop was Montepulciano. In these small towns, we are fascinated by the narrow streets, and magnificent views of the valleys, since these buildings are high on the hill. The walls of these buildings are very thick, many constructed to withstand invading forces. Prior to Italy being formed as a country, each town was a city state with their own rules and regulations and the reason they each had their own church and monastery. Italy became a unified country in 1861. It happened after Sardinia-Piedmont and France defeated Austria in the Second War of Italian Independence. Two smaller Italian regions were added to the unified Italy in 1866 and 1870.
Our second stop was in Pienza. Here too we visited the cathedrals and coffee shops for treats. Our only achievement here was to go sightseeing, enjoy the views from high up and enjoy gelato/ice cream.
For our third stop we visited an organic farm, Podere Il Casale in Pienza, to learn how they manage sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, vegetables, wheat, a vineyard, cheese production and run a farm to plate restaurant. The family originally from Switzerland have owned the farm for thirty years. The owner’s son gave us a tour of the farm providing fascinating details. While having dinner he fetched his cheese head, to the delight of the four of us from Wisconsin who were dining. It is a symbol representing our dairy state and worn at sporting events or parades.
The son, who never gave us his name, said that his father decided to relocate his family to a different country. After looking at several options they decided on their farm where they now live. The previous Italian farmer wanted to retire as he was in his seventies and working seven days a week was no longer providing the enjoyment he desired. When the father purchased the farm and had no knowledge of farming. The previous owner, the elderly Italian, visited the farm daily to teach the Swiss what need doing.
They have two hundred sheep that require milking. The father used to milk by hand until he started suffering with arm muscle problems and now, they have equipment to milk the animals. They process three hundred liters of milk daily in their cheese making facility. Covid had a negative impact on their business as they stopped the tours, and more importantly closed their restaurant. The son manages the restaurant and is one of the ways they retain a positive income since the vertical integration of products produced on the farm and served in their restaurant allows them to stay viable. They use a nearby winery to produce wine from their vineyard.
Pigs eat the whey from the cheese process and restaurant waist, plus other by-products from the vineyard. The son told us that the field on their farm has a high concentration of clay in the ground, and that contrasts with the more arable ground in the neighboring valley. The son explained that their farm falls under the authority of UNESCO.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites are places of importance to cultural or natural heritage as described in the UNESCO World Heritage Convention, established in 1972. Cultural heritage consists of monuments (such as architectural works, monumental sculptures, or inscriptions), groups of buildings, and sites (including archaeological sites). Natural features (consisting of physical and biological formations), geological and physiographical formations (including habitats of threatened species of animals and plants), and natural sites which are important from the point of view of science, conservation, or natural beauty, are defined as natural heritage. Italy ratified the convention on June 23, 1978.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 15, Thursday, May 19, 2022.
Today marks two weeks since we started our travels and touring in Italy. We decided to stay in the house to relax ahead of our hiking trip next week. Jenny and her two sisters spent the day touring Florence, so we enjoyed a quiet day. The weather was perfect, warm, and without any wind. We walked down the valley and up the steep hill to our house from the road leading to our home. It is a challenging walk.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 16, Friday, May 20, 2022.
Another restful day preparing for our trip tomorrow. Visited the nearby town of Impruneta, a 5-minute drive from our house. Enjoyed a coffee and Danish, shopped at the farmers market, and purchased medication at the pharmacy. Linda used the translation app on her iPhone to understand the directions. For dinner tonight, for the first time in my life, I ate an artichoke, together with pasta and a salad. We packed our bags ready for an early start in the morning to get our rental car back to Avis and get to the train station for our trip to Assisi.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 17, Saturday, May 21, 2022.
I have never been so happy to return a rental car, and without any damage. We left the house and Google Maps told us to turn right as we got to the main road. After a few miles it requested that we take a traffic circle and go back the way we had just come. We went past the turnoff to our house and kept going. Today we had to drive into Florence to hand the rental back, but the drive required us to travel along small villages with the narrowest roads we have encountered and shared with other vehicles bicycles, pedestrians out for a walk, but most scary are the busses that require more than their fair share of the road. These narrow roads had huge, massive stone walls on both sides of the roads in some places, and I had visions of us wiping out along some of these walls.
We arrived safely at the train station in Florence and needed to wait two hours for our train. We used the time to find a coffee shop to get refreshments. Sitting at a window, we saw the Brinks come past and they joined us. Needing a toilet, we had to pay one Euro for the convenience. The train we are taking today is not a high-speed train, but no slow coach, and we could not reserve seats.
Traveling along the countryside with more rolling hills and valleys with castles on the hilltop, I came to another realization. Living in South Africa and America, suburban life was a single-family dwelling on a plot, separated from your neighbor. As we crisscross Italy, I get the impression that most people live in apartment buildings with 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 story buildings. The newer complexes offer dwelling units with a balcony. That said, the retired dentist who owned the house we stayed at in Impruneta, lived in a single dwelling alongside our home. Another point of interest on the train ride from Florence to Assisi was the number of castles built on hilltops with homes surrounding that structure. One more time we saw the magnificent green hills and valleys with vineyards, wheat fields, and other crops. It was evident that there was a drought due to a water shortage.
Our hotel is on three floors. The reception is on the top floor, and we had to walk down two floors to get to our room.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 18, Sunday, May 22, 2022.
When we purchased our condominium 15 years ago, the salesman was not honest enough to inform us that we bought a handicapped unit. With our ensuite bathroom, we had a bath size shower to allow wheelchair access. In short order we had the shower rebuilt and now have a huge and extremely comfortable shower. In this hotel, and the home we stayed in in Impruneta, the showers were extremely tiny. In the hotel shower this morning, if I moved at all I would either turn the shower off or turn the water to hot or cold.
Linda’s friend Des Bonfiglio who lives in Italy will be joining us today. Walking to town, and back again is a frightening experience. The roads are narrow, and there is barely a sidewalk. So, you experience high speed vehicles roaring past you only inches away. Then you see that we are sharing the road with cyclists, and they need to get space as well. So far, our walks have been incident free.
We met with a Swedish national who has a home in Assisi as well. Petra handed us a wad of documentation that explained in detail where we would be going on our daily walks, and how to get to our destination each day. Petra provided common sense recommendations on what we should do to be successful.
Linda, Des, and I decided to go into Assisi and tour some of the many attractions. Rather than walk the route to the city, we decided to use a bus. We bought tickets at the hotel reception and duly were on our way. We enjoyed a great meal in the city, and after walking until we were tired, caught the bus back to our hotel. One feature of buses is that if you wish to use your bus ticket a second time, you can do that if you use it within 90 minutes. A prime example might be that you go into town to grocery shop, and then return home with all your bags filled with food.
I have written about the crazy drivers in Italy, but our bus ride back to the hotel was an extreme experience. The buses are not that big and can only accommodate about a dozen passengers. Our driver had a death wish, and it would be insulting to maniacs to call him one, as he outclassed them every inch of the way. The bus vibrated on each pothole along the way, and as the bus swayed as we zigged and zagged around every twist and turn. The scariest was how he managed to not smash into every oncoming vehicle. The good news is that we arrived alive.
Visiting the Papal Basilica of St. Francis with both a lower and upper basilica was a unique experience.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 19, Monday, May 23, 2022.
When I went to Bangalore, India several years ago, I woke early in the morning and decided to shower at 6:00 am. There was no hot water. I later learned that the hotel did not start the hot water until after 8:00 am because nobody in India woke that early. For the balance of my stay, they turned on the hot water at 6:00 am. The thought came back to me in the hotel this morning because at 6:00 am I had to run the water for an exceptionally long time until I got warm water. I just hate to waste water like this.
Linda, Des, Heather, and I set off by bus to the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli. The basilicas are built with an incredible amount of care. The size of these structures is overwhelming, and one is constantly puzzled by the engineering feat, bearing in mind that these were built in the 1200s. The statues and frescos must be seen to be appreciated.
Returning to our hotel, we all enjoyed a wonderful ala carte dinner. We collectively decided on an early night to pack. We planned an early morning breakfast at 7:00 am.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 20, Walk Day 1, Tuesday, May 24, 2022. Assisi to Spello.
We said goodbye to Des Bonfiglio today. Des arrived Sunday after a long bus ride across the country. Des needed to wake at 4:00 am to catch her bus before 6:00 am and only arrived in Assisi at 9:30 am. Des caught a bus to meet Linda as they had been friends since their high school days. Des is fluent in Italian and was a fantastic help in navigating menus and other details as we toured Assisi.
At breakfast we took an apple, and a treat that did not need refrigeration. Rice cakes filled that need. We had to label our luggage with special tags so the porter would recognize where to take the luggage by taxi to our next destination.
To drive from Assisi to Spello takes 16 minutes covering 11 kilometers or 9 miles. Our walk took us up the rolling hill of Mount Subasio. The walk to our hotel took 5 hours, and had we not stopped to rest along the way, we could have walked it in four hours. We covered 12 kilometers or 7.5 miles. We were about halfway up the hill when the initial tarred road turned into a narrow dirt road comprising pebbles, stones, and small rocks. This made for a slippery walk, especially on the downhill sections. In fairness most of our walk was uphill, and sometimes with a very steep incline.
This is a beautiful walk amongst olive groves with astounding views. Spello is built, like Assisi, on the slopes of Mount Subasio. This small town has Roman origins, as several features remind us of the porta Venere and porta Consolare town gates, the Roman Mosaics, and the remains of a Roman theatre. We got to admire the colorful frescoes by Pinturicchio in the church S.Maria Maggiore.
We purchased special hiking shoes to support our feet on these challenging walks. Our luggage was carried by taxi as part of the service provided by the tour company that we arranged the deal through. We carried a backpack with ample water as in this hot weather we became dehydrated very quickly. Since we were walking in forested areas, we were provided with detailed directions as to where to walk and what landmarks to look out for.
I appreciate that there are numerous side roads used by the farmers in this area. For most of the walk, we had dense forest on the uphill slopes alongside us, and never-ending olive groves on the downward slopes. Being this high up on the hill provided us with many opportunities to take photographs of the magnificent towns and views below.
Spello is not a typical town on the tourist route. Consequently, most of the people we see are locals. Our thoughts always turn to food, and as we walked the town, we discovered that most restaurants open at 7:30 pm. During the day, many businesses close in the afternoon for two or three hours. Quaint.
For our dinner we decided to eat at a restaurant that had tables down one of the many very narrow alleys. They had a structure that could accommodate three sets of tables in a single file, each with two chairs that could comfortably accommodate the six of us. This was Linda and my first experience of eating any meat in Italy, ordering lamb and vegetables. It was a treat.
I see a common pattern in each town and village where they have a few churches, many built several centuries ago. Our hotel deserves special mention. A family run business that was started fifty years ago. The owner interacted with us pointing out several towns from his balcony situated high on a hill. Hotel Il Cacciatore is set in the heart of Umbria’s Roman past with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. The Cruciani family own and manage the hotel. The family owns a second hotel in town, Alberto del Teatro. Without any doubt the service they provided was exceptional.
On May 24, 2022, 18-year-old Salvador Ramos fatally shot 19 students and two teachers and wounded 17 others at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, United States. Earlier, Ramos had shot his grandmother in the face, severely wounding her. Law enforcement initially gave incorrect reports that the shooter was engaged before entering, but later corrected that, after firing shots outside the school for approximately 12 minutes, he entered Robb Elementary armed with a rifle and handgun without encountering any armed resistance. Ramos locked himself inside a classroom, where he killed his victims over the course of an hour, before being killed by a U.S. Border Patrol agent. Law enforcement officials attributed the delay in breaching the room to a lack of manpower. Police first responders received widespread criticism for their handling of the shooting. The gun violence in the US never stops.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 21, Walk Day 2, Wednesday, May 25, 2022. Spello to Bevagna.
We left the hills for a while and descended into the valley ‘Valle Umbra’. Walking on quiet little country roads we arrived in Bevagna, which unlike most Umbrian towns isn’t built on a hilltop, but at the confluence of the rivers Timia and Topino. During Roman times, Bevagna was a prosperous town, as it was positioned along the busy trade road, the Via Flaminia, which connected Rome with the Adriatic coast. Particularly characteristic are the 2 km of 13th to 14th century town walls, which are draped around Bevagna’s historic center. The heart of this town is the square, ‘Piazza Silvestri’, with its beautiful fountain and two Romanesque churches.
Our Italian Vacation, Day 22, Wednesday, May 26, 2022.
We are blessed with a quiet day to recover from our walk. We have some disappointment with our hotel room but made the best of it. We arrived in a heatwave and the air conditioner did not work, and to get fresh air opened the window without any screens. The small refrigerator stored in a cupboard generated so much heat that it caused a heatwave in the room. We unplugged that unit. As the night came, the heat dropped and all we had to do was to welcome uninvited mosquitoes. My ritual is to wake up at 6:00 am, but breakfast is only at 8:30 am. I decided that I needed an award for being able to shower in a micro shower, so small that it was nearly impossible to turn in the available space. Our room overlooked one of the typical very narrow streets, where at bedtime we could hear the revelry.
The hotel served breakfast with a variety of treats. The orange juice was red, so I assumed it was made from blood oranges. The coffee was terrible, tasted like instant coffee. All the other items were welcome.
We spent our day walking the village viewing quaint shops and purchased fruit for our journey tomorrow and lunchtime today.
There is little doubt that Bevagna will rate as one of the most liked villages on our tour. I met a young lady who spoke perfect English having lived in London for eight years. We visited the Roman museum learning about the original times. We saw a small bed that was used by mom, dad, and two children under eight years of age. Alongside it we saw a cot used by children over the age of eight. We saw a working machine from Roman times. It was used to mill grain with the wheel turned by water. It also pounded wool to support the dying process.