Firenze

Our final stop on our new adventure in Europe was the grand city of Florence, or “Firenze” in Italian. We spent several days in this incredibly historic and important city. It was an interesting transition from a nearly untouched medieval city to one of the most important cities of the Renaissance.

Firenze

Firenze

Firenze

Firenze

Firenze

While in Firenze, we stayed in a nice little apartment on the south side of the Arno river in a wonderful little area. We ate in several different restaurants (and gelaterias) across the city in our time here, but our little neighborhood managed to outscore all of the other areas. We found the best gelato here along with the best restaurant, the best pizza and the best little local “cozy” bar where Deb and I often got to unwind at the end of the day while the young adults relaxed in the apartment.

We started our tour of Firenze with the Medici Chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo. It was fitting as the Medici’s were arguably the most powerful and important family at the height of the Renaissance in Florence. The Medici Chapel not only holds their vast family crypt and hundreds of reliquaries of various saints’ relics, but also two very stunning Michelangelo sculptures.

By this point, Nev and Aidan understood the importance of saintly relics to the church. As we wandered through the chapel, it was both eerie and shocking to see how many the Medici’s had collected over several hundred years. We talked about the wealth of the family as we neared the main chapel area and then we all saw the beauty and opulence of their family crypts.

Medici Chapel, FIrenze

Medici Chapel, FIrenze

Medici Chapel, FIrenze

Medici Chapel, FIrenze

The Medici Crypts

It was a little overwhelming to all of us to see the fortune invested here. It’s really hard to imagine the modern day equivalent – perhaps Bill Gates. And as Bill Gates is the benefactor of the Gates Foundation, so the Medici’s were of many of the most important Renaissance artists and writers.

Michelangelo sculpted two incredible works for the important tombs of Lorenzo and Giuliano Medici. What makes this area particularly interesting for Michelangelo aficionados like Deb and I is that he also was involved with the architectural design of the crypt. His two sculptures depict their entombed namesakes but they also add some allegorical relevance through the additional depiction of dusk and dawn on Lorenzo’s tomb and night and day on Giuliano’s.

Michelangelo Sculpture, Medici Chapel, Firenze

Michelangelo Sculpture, Medici Chapel, Firenze

Michelangelo Sculpture, Medici Chapel, Firenze

Michelangelo Sculpture, Medici Chapel, Firenze

Michelangelo Sculptures in the Medici Chapel

In the middle of all of this, Aidan said, “This is cool.” This is what Deb and I were yearning to hear. Being here in the middle of all of this was finally hitting the young adults. You just can’t get this view of history from a book or even pictures.

This would hold true throughout our visit in Firenze. Descriptions don’t do the sculptures, the paintings, or the history justice. It is so easy to skip through a written description, or even nice pictures, quickly and not really reflect on what you are seeing. It is difficult to face a great cathedral or an exquisitely detailed sculpture and not give it more than a cursory glance. Bringing this home to Nev and Aidan while they are young was a key unschooling goal of ours in this little “field trip.”

After our first historical deep dive in Firenze, we took a little time to do some shopping in the famous Firenze market.

Firenze Maket

Firenze Maket

The Firenze Market

We found some wonderful leather items, of course, including an incredible leather jacket for Deb with a hood. I wouldn’t have expected to find a “hoodie” here, but the Italians make it work in an elegant way. While we had a fun afternoon browsing the stalls, we couldn’t help compare it to when we were last there fifteen years ago. The market has gotten a little more kitschy, a little more commercial, and, sadly, a little less special.

The next day, Deb and I went out and took a grand walking tour of Firenze together. We enjoyed several our many cappuccino’s and walked from our apartment south of the Arno river across the Ponte Vecchio and around the main area north of the river, scouting “locations” for the next several days.

cargile01580

Fountain, Firenze

Fountain, Firenze

Ponte Vecchio, Firenze

Ponte Vecchio, Firenze

Scenes Along Our Walking Tour

Our next big visit was to the Uffizi Gallery. We wanted the young adults to see some of the many important pieces of artwork and sculpture of the Renaissance up close and personal. We kept our visit short though to maximize impact and minimize that sort of daze you can get into in museums after seeing so many things. As with theater, “leave them wanting more.”

Botticelli's Venus, Uffizi, Firenze

Botticelli’s Venus, Uffizi, Firenze

Uffizi, Firenze

Uffizi, Firenze

Uffizi, Firenze

Uffizi, Firenze

Caravaggio's Medusa, Uffizi, Firenze

Caravaggio’s Medusa, Uffizi, Firenze

 

The Uffizi Gallery Treasures

Leaving the Uffizi Gallery, we saw stunning “living statue” of Leonardo da Vinci sitting near the statue of Machiavelli.

Living Statue Near the Uffizi, Firenze

Living Statue Near the Uffizi, Firenze

Piazza della Signoria, Firenze

Piazza della Signoria, Firenze

“Statuary” Outside the Uffizi Gallery

We then emerged into one of our favorite places for art, the Piazza della Signoria. This plaza holds the replica of Michelangelo’s David. It also holds the Loggia dei Lanzi which holds some truly incredible sculptures by Cellini, Donatello, Giambologna, and more. We spent an enchanted hour or more just sitting and appreciating the stunning artwork. Aidan also appreciated one of many cups of gelato.

Rape of the Sabine Women, Piazza della Signoria, Firenze

Rape of the Sabine Women, Piazza della Signoria, Firenze

Piazza della Signoria, Firenze

Piazza della Signoria, Firenze

Sculptures in the Loggia dei Lanzi

Our next day we made a “pilgrimage” of sorts to Dante’s house (and museum). Aidan and Nev had both become interested in Dante and the Divine Comedy (especially Inferno) in our travels and learning more about Dante was in both their lists of things they wanted to do in Firenze (an unschooling assignment).

Dante's House, Firenze

Dante’s House, Firenze

Dante's House, Firenze

Dante’s House, Firenze

Dante’s House

While here, I spotted what I’m sure is a secret passage, though we couldn’t access it to explore more. There is a small section of wall between Dante’s house and the tower of his family clan next door. I measured the offsite of the wall to the floor plan and there looks to be a three foot difference, which would allow about a 2-2.5 foot passage after taking into account the brickwork present.

Secret Passage

Secret Passage

A Secret Passage Spotted

Next up was a visit to the very famous Duomo, or the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, and its surround. It was as picturesque as I remembered it from my two previous visits.

Duomo, Firenze

Duomo, Firenze

 

Giotto's Tower, Firenze

Giotto’s Tower, Firenze

Aidan and a Living Statue, Firenze

Aidan and a Living Statue, Firenze

The Duomo of Firenze

On this trip I got to do something that I hadn’t had a chance to do before. We visited the cupola of the Duomo. It was a fun adventure covering 467 steps up to the very top and back down, through passages between the walls.

Duomo, Firenze

Duomo, Firenze

At the Top of the Duomo Cupola, Firenze

At the Top of the Duomo Cupola, Firenze

The Cupola Excursion

A highlight of this little trip, in addition to the stunning views, was the chance to see the frescoes of the dome up close. What’s hard to appreciate from the photos is just how large they are and the way in which the artists used perspective on a very large curved dome to make the murals appear correctly from several hundred feet below. I also had never realized that, like the Duomo in Orvieto, there were scenes of the last judgment and apocalypse, though we still favor Signorelli’s.

Duomo Cupola Detail

Duomo Cupola Detail

Duomo Cupola Detail

Duomo Cupola Detail

The Frescoes of the Dome

As we visited the various structures around the Duomo and stood in line to get into the cupola, I noticed that this church is far less coherent in its outside architecture than many. I love noticing details in the architecture, sculptures, gargoyles, etc. For example, the four main columns in the Sagrada Familia depict the four evangelists (Mark, Matthew, Luke and John) and their symbols. In Orvieto, we saw the same four symbols across the front of the church in the form of statues. In both of those cases, the sculptures reflect the nature and architectural message of the church.

The Duomo of Firenze was a little different in its details. For example, there are four key entrances on the sides (north and south). Over two of them are sculptures of lions (symbol of Mark). On the same side but in a corner, there is a bull (symbol of Luke).

Duomo Statue South Side

Duomo Statue South Side

Duomo Statue South Side

Duomo Statue South Side

Sculptures on the North Side of the Duomo

On the south side, there is no corresponding corner statue and above the two main portals are some frightening sculptures of men that look more like zombies.

Duomo Statue North Side

Duomo Statue North Side

Duomo Statue North Side

Duomo Statue North Side

Sculptures on the South Side of the Duomo

I’m curious to look into this a bit more. It could be that over time, sculptures were moved or damaged, but this seems more intriguing than that.

We took a taxi back that night. It was one of those classic Italian cab rides that feels a lot more like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Our driver was the definition of fast and aggressive as he jinked and jerked through the heavy traffic, cutting off drivers and pedestrian alike. Another classic memory of Italy J

Our final day in Firenze was much more lightweight. After all, we had to get up at 3am the next day to leave. I had wanted to do a secret passage tour at the Palazzo Vecchio, but the company through which I booked it managed to mess that up, leaving us without the ability to go on the tour.

Instead, we all walked from our apartment towards Palazzo Vecchio. Along the way, we discovered a Games Workshop store that showcased a strategy game called Warhammer that was similar but more involved than the old Dungeons and Dragons. Aidan and Nev got an introduction and were both very interested. It’s very rare that they like the same thing and so we immediately grabbed a starter set.

We spent more than an hour watching a street artist near the Mercato Nuovo. She was pretty amazing. She used pastels on the large black stones forming the street to create a Renaissance style piece of street art. Only in Italy.

Firenze

Firenze

Street artist

We had to go touch Il Porcellino nearby, of course. The legend is that if you touch the nose of Tacca’s sculpture then you will return to Firenze one day. It’s a fitting thought for our last city in our last few days of our year-long adventure.

Il Porcellino, Firenze

Il Porcellino, Firenze

Il Porcellino

It’s sad to see our adventure end. But, really, it isn’t the end of our adventure. It’s just the end of the year we took off. We love doing and trying new things. There are so many things yet to do both in unschooling and in the area where we will be returning – Seattle. We’ll simply move from culture, language, art, history, and religion now to math and science. There are a ton of adventures awaiting us there!

As Deb and I drive north with all our luggage, our dogs, and our new cat, we are taking back more than just “stuff.” We are all returning with experiences and memories that are far more valuable. We are bringing home some of the cultures we lived in for awhile. And in the end, that’s more than we could hope for. Pura vida.

PS: More pictures – culled from several hundred if you can imagine!

Firenze

Firenze

Cuppola of the Medici Chapel, Firenze

Cuppola of the Medici Chapel, Firenze

Medici Chapel, FIrenze

Medici Chapel, FIrenze

Michelangelo Sculpture, Medici Chapel, Firenze

Michelangelo Sculpture, Medici Chapel, Firenze

Sculpture, Medici Chapel, Firenze

Sculpture, Medici Chapel, Firenze

Firenze

Firenze

Piazza della Republica, Firenze

Piazza della Republica, Firenze

Firenze

Firenze

Uffizi, Firenze

Uffizi, Firenze

Piazza della Signoria, Firenze

Piazza della Signoria, Firenze

Uffizi, Firenze

Uffizi, Firenze

Deb, Piazza Signoria, Firenze

Deb, Piazza della Signoria, Firenze

Piazza della Signoria, Firenze

Piazza della Signoria, Firenze

Duomo, Firenze

Duomo, Firenze

Aidan in the Duomo Crypts Looking Assassin's Creed

Aidan in the Duomo Crypts Looking Assassin’s Creed

Duomo Angel Support Statue

Duomo Angel Support Statue

Duomo Cupola

Duomo Cupola

Machiavelli, Uffizi, Firenze

Machiavelli, Uffizi, Firenze

 

Orvieto City Gate

Orvieto City Gate

 

Orvieto

The next stop on our new adventure was one of our favorite cities in Italy: Orvieto. It is a small medieval town on a plateau between Rome and Firenze (Florence). We were last there 15 years ago and very little has changed. It’s not saying much; I don’t think much has changed in several hundred years.

Piazza, Orvieto

Piazza, Orvieto

Orvieto Main Piazza

Fortunately, one of the many things that has not changed, is the shop with the best gelato on the planet: Il Gelato di Pasqualetti. Nev and Aidan, after two days of very scientific examination of a small sampling of other gelato shops, several visits to Il Gelato di Pasqualetti for research purposes, and studious comparisons with other gelato they’ve had around the world, have reached the same conclusion as us that this is indeed the best gelato on the planet.

Best Gelato in the World, Orvieto

Best Gelato in the World, Orvieto

The. Best. Gelato. On. The. Planet.

To get up to Orvieto from the train station, we had to take a funicular. It was our second on this trip (the first was in Montserrat).

Orvieto Funicular

Orvieto Funicular

The Funicular

One of the most impressive things about this amazing city is its Duomo. In fact, this church is the reason we first wanted to see Orvieto and the reason we wanted to bring the young adults.

Duomo, Orvieto

Duomo, Orvieto

Duomo, Orvieto

Duomo, Orvieto

The Duomo, Orvieto

The Duomo is a stunning piece of architecture in its own right. It certainly takes the top spot in both Deb and my lists of beautiful buildings and churches, and that’s pretty amazing given the churches we have seen on this trip. Every view is breathtaking. The attention to detail and the coherence of the symbology is so complete – even more so than the Duomo in Firenze. It is majestic in its simplicity.

Duomo, Orvieto

Duomo, Orvieto

Lion Statue, Duomo, Orvieto

Lion Statue, Duomo, Orvieto

Gargoyles, Duomo, Orvieto

Gargoyles, Duomo, Orvieto

Some Details of the Duomo, Orvieto

The beauty of the church wasn’t the original draw for us, however. It was Luca Signorelli. Signorelli was an Italian painter who predated Michelangelo. In fact, the way Signorelli depicted the human form served as an inspiration to Michelangelo.

You may not have heard of Signorelli much though. His masterpiece was the series of frescoes in the Duomo of Orvieto depicting the end of the world. Essentially, in one of the chapels, Signorelli painted scenes of the apocalypse, the last judgment, the preaching of the antichrist and the resurrection of the dead.

While biblical, this theme is certainly a rarity among Catholic churches. Even more so is the devotion of a whole chapel to it. It is not lost on us that to find this art, you have to travel to a church isolated on a plateau in a fairly out of the way place. This would have been an incredible undertaking at the time. Now add in the fact that you are limited to 15 minutes of viewing time in the chapel (one in which we saw very few visitors). We’ve never seen this in any other church we’ve visited – even the most crowded. Another interesting observation is that several areas of the chapel need restoration work, which is something that seems to be going on to one degree or another in every other church we’ve visited except for this one. Conspiracy theorists might conjecture that there are things the church might not want you to see.

Regardless of your views, the artwork is truly incredible. Imagine devoting a large part of your life painting a subject that you know would push boundaries and not put you at the top of the popularity list. We admire Signorelli’s chutzpah. Sadly, we couldn’t take any pictures but there are plenty of good ones on the internet.

Beyond the church and Signorelli’s work, Orvieto is a wonderful, tranquil, picturesque place. Deb and I just loved walking at night in the city. Even Aidan claimed Orvieto to be his favorite place in Italy. We felt very at home here, strangely. We’d love to come back and live here for a bit, perhaps volunteering to help with archeological work.

Orvieto

Orvieto

Orvieto

Orvieto

Orvieto

Orvieto

 

Orvieto

Orvieto

Andy and Deb in Orvieto

Andy and Deb in Orvieto

Orvieto Magic

The area around Orvieto, which you can see from the outer cliffs and walls, seems fairly untouched by the centuries. You see monasteries, castles, farms and vineyards. It’s very peaceful to just sit and take it all in.

The Area Around Orvieto

The Area Around Orvieto

The Orvieto Surround

We found a new detail about Orvieto this trip and a new little adventure. It turns out that the city is built on a system of tunnels. The plateau is actually built on volcanic ash. It is soft to work with and there are a series of tunnels under the city originally started by the Etruscans. They were digging for water since the plateau had little in the way of natural water. Over time, these tunnels became pigeon farms, olive oil production facilities, underground shelters in WWII, and now parts of people’s basements. If you own a building in Orvieto (around 600 years old), you own the tunnels under it. The tunnels don’t connect, but evidently there are over 450 of them.

Orvieto Underground

Orvieto Underground

The Orvieto Underground

We can’t leave Orvieto without telling you about a (new) favorite restaurant, Gallo D’Oro (sorry, it has no web page). There must be something about golden restaurants for us on this trip. Our favorite in Rome was Leone D’Oro. This was another “mom and pop” restaurant that was very simple but which had incredible pasta. It beat the “fancy” restaurant we tried in Orvieto hands down.

Debbie, Orvieto

Debbie, Orvieto

Debbie at Gallo D’Oro

Orvieto was a refreshing break in our Italy journey. It felt like returning to the familiar for Deb and I, something we didn’t really expect. This time we added more magical memories of the town, some with our two young adults. For us it’s a special place. Pura vida.

PS: More photos of course

Orvieto

Orvieto

Orvieto

Orvieto

Orvieto

Orvieto

Orvieto

Orvieto

Duomo, Orvieto

Duomo, Orvieto

Duomo, Orvieto

Duomo, Orvieto

Duomo, Orvieto

Debbie, Orvieto

Debbie, Orvieto

Rome Train Station

Rome Train Station

 

Rome

After our harrowing evening in Genoa, we made our way safely to Rome on our new adventure, looking forward to the historical treasures we’d find there.

We ended up getting to Rome only about 12 hours after we were originally scheduled to on the overnight train. It’s a good thing we got out of Genoa quickly. The flooding continued and even derailed a train.

By the way, many trains have graffiti, but it is really creative and artistic. It seems to get better the closer you get to Firenze. It was nice taking a moment to appreciate that without the accompanying torrential rain!

Italian Train Graffiti

Italian Train Graffiti

The Trains and Graffiti

Our first evening in Rome was full of laundry, resting and recuperating. I washed my cashmere sweater by hand 7 times and was still finding sand in it. My cashmere jacket was thoroughly soaked and it took 3 days to dry. Deb did some magic on the white clothes we had, all of which had turned muddy and dingy. Otherwise, we were pretty lucky once again on the clothes front.

The next morning we all started our day with something that would become a staple for us in Italy: cappuccino!

Cappuccino!

Cappuccino!

Cappucino

Our first day in Rome we took our only tour so far. We visited the catacombs outside Rome, the Basilica of Saint Clement, and the Cappuccini Crypts. We figured the mix of ancient history, religion, caves and dead bodies might get Aidan and Nev geared up for some “live” unschooling. It did work to a point even though none of us are fans of tours or tourists (some of whom were assaulting Deb’s sense of smell). Sadly, we couldn’t take pictures in most places – except our starting point: Piazza Barberini and a gorgeous Bernini sculpture.

Piazza Barberini

Piazza Barberini

Piazza Barberini

The catacombs themselves are an incredibly old set of tombs where Christians buried their dead in the early days of Christianity. They had cleared the catacombs of remains (helped along through the ages by grave robbers, the church, and several other groups). The tour in the dark (and nicely cool) passages was interesting enough, but it was the conversations we had with Aidan and Nev that were the highlight for Deb and me.

Deb and I learned some new insights on the transition between paganism and Christianity. I hadn’t realized that the concept of Elysium as a form of afterlife in early paganism was reserved for heroes, emperors, and the rich. The draw of Christianity was that heaven was accessible to anyone regardless of station. That was the intense draw for many, particularly women. It explains the early makeup of Christians.

The tour guide did a good job of introducing topics like this and then we would all talk on the bus or later about things like the way a conquering religion adopts the traditions of a previous religion in order to ease the people into the new one. Traces of this are physically evident throughout Rome.

As with any historical review, there is always bias. We saw it in subtle ways and overt ways. For example, all pagan religions throughout time were lumped together and represented a “primitive” time before Christianity. We had a great conversation about other civilizations that predated Christianity and Rome that had incredible science. There are three civilizations, for example, that discovered the concept of “0” which is necessary for higher mathematics. This included the Mayans. Rome and Europe were not among those more primitive civilizations thanks very much. J

Next stop was the Basilica of Saint Clement. It is an incredibly ornate church, and like so many others, very beautiful. It’s easy to admire the art and workmanship of Catholic churches.

We went to this church because it is the only publically accessible place in Rome where you can see four different centuries of history up close in the layering of the building. I wasn’t expecting, though, that the history discussion would continue here.

The mosaics in the basilica show various early Christian martyrs, including San Lorenzo. We learned that early Christians were hunted and had to meet in pagan temples. If caught, they were usually put to death. San Lorenzo was a brave soul who stood up to the Romans and was evidently fried on a grill (grid iron) and in the mosaic, he was depicted with his saint halo sitting on a grill. This caught Aidan’s attention in particular. While it was truly odd seeing essentially a barbecue in the ornate mosaics inside a church, it underscored the violence that is perpetrated in the name of religion. According to legend, he said during his “grilling” that he was done on this side and they should turn him over. This led to him being the patron saint of comedians/comedy.

As we descended in the church, we saw that the church, like most of all Rome, was built on the foundation of something else, and then something else before that. In this case, the basilica was built on a pagan temple, which was built on a market and then that upon an apartment building. All of this spanned four centuries, not including the basilica on top built in 1200. The 60 meter descent exposed more years of history than our entire country. This is one of the key reasons we came to Europe. It’s hard to get this incredible sense of history from a book or pictures. This theme continued throughout Rome and the rest of our trip.

Our final stop was the Cappuccini Crypts. The Cappuccino were a branch of the Franciscan order of monks. They believe that upon death, the body is just a vessel. They have decorated their monastery with the bones of their deceased brothers. I had seen it on a previous trip but the others had not. Words cannot describe either the beauty or the macabre nature of the decorations. There are many images on the web to see for yourself. Of course, Nev and Aidan thought it was cool. It was a nice end to the tour.

We found a great Italian restaurant that evening, Leone D’Oro, and had some amazing pasta. Gelato followed of course, as it must, every day, in Italy, the land of gelato!

The next day was Gladiator School. I had been looking forward to this more than anyone, I think, and it did not disappoint. The School is run by about 140 living history enthusiasts – similar to the folks who reenact the Civil War. The place is small but every person there is warm and excited to tell you all about gladiators!

Sadly, Deb had a crushing migraine the night before and didn’t feel up to going and Nev wasn’t interested, so they stayed home.

I expected fun. I hadn’t expected one of the best history lecture I had had in a while. Aidan actually agreed. It wasn’t just about gladiators. It was about Rome, their main focus on living history.

Our guide started with a map of Rome at its height. It covered about the same area as the United States. It also included all territory surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, so interestingly, they didn’t need a navy because there was no one to fight on the water.

We learned about all of the incredible civil inventions of the Romans (including their aqueduct system) and then we turned to military history. I had no idea how inventive the Romans truly when it came to war. Of course I knew the history, but the details were things that really brought home why they were so dominating. The inventions included big things like the Roman catapults that employed twisted rope and could fling projectiles 600 yards – 400 more than typical catapults. There were also very subtle things like heir spears, which they threw when the enemy was about 20 yards away. They invented a clever way to have a destructive, yet disposable, tip that after first use, no one could throw the spear back at them.

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator School – the History Museum

Detail brings history alive. More so when you get to touch and feel it. Aidan and I had the best 60 minute history lesson on Rome and gladiators I could imagine. And then, we got to practice.

We got to wear and wield some of the equipment the different types of gladiators used. The heavily armored ones used really heavy equipment – about 40 pounds. And by the way, those gladiator helmets, which I always thought were way too cumbersome, were designed to make it hard to see and move in. That explains a lot.

We then went out into a sand arena and did some gladiator warm-ups, including running, push-ups, and moving through swinging bags of stones without getting hit!

We learned the five basic attacks with a gladius (sword) and the five basic defenses. Like most martial arts (including kickboxing, which Deb and I used to do), the basic moves were pretty simple but you combine them all in many different ways. After individual practice, Aidan and I got to “fight” each other in a ring after that using padded swords. It was an unseasonably 90 degrees Fahrenheit and by the end, we were pretty tired when we headed back.

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator School – Getting Real

After a good meal (but not as good as the previous night), and gelato once again, we headed “home” and chatted about the next day, modeled after Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.

I mentioned previously that we had tried an experiment to get the young adults a little more tuned up and interested in Rome. We had them watch the movie version of Angels and Demons. The story takes place in Rome and involves a secret society “Illuminati” ostensibly murdering priests on different “altars of science” hidden in plain sight across Rome, because of some bad things the church did to scientists several hundred years ago.

We were interested in using this as a tool because while the story was fiction of course, the locations were all real and of deep historical and artistic importance. There was a path to follow based on the story and that’s what we had planned to do.

Each location was highlighted by an Egyptian obelisk and had some Bernini sculpture involving angels and one of the four ancient elements of science: earth, air, fire, and water.

We didn’t end up following the exact order of the story as we travelled through the city, but it didn’t matter; Nev and Aidan remembered everything. We walked from our apartment through the grounds of the Villa Borghese to the Piazza del Popolo.

Villa Borghese, Rome

Villa Borghese, Rome

Villa Borghese

At Piazza del Popolo the weather was partly sunny and I managed to get a pretty eerie photograph of the obelisk against an interesting, perhaps diabolical, cloud shape. It was a good start to our little recreation of the story.

Piazza del Popolo, Rome

Piazza del Popolo, Rome

Piazza del Popolo, Rome

Piazza del Popolo, Rome

Piazza del Popolo

At Piazza del Popolo, we found the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. This was the “earth” alter and we had hoped to see the Chigi Chapel where Raphael is buried along with a statue of an angel, Bernini’s Habakkuk and the Angel, pointing the way to the next “altar.”

Nev and Aidan had to find all the plot ingredients in the church. Sadly, they were restoring the Chigi Chapel and so we couldn’t see the “demon hole” or the Egyptian pyramid above Raphael’s tomb. We did get to see the sculpture from afar and indeed, it was pointing (although slightly off).

It was incredibly interesting though to watch the restoration painters restoring the artwork in the chapel. Nev even asked how you get to be someone who does that.

Santa Maria del Popolo Church, Rome

Santa Maria del Popolo Church, Rome

Santa Maria del Popolo Church, Rome

Santa Maria del Popolo Church, Rome

Santa Maria del Popolo

Our next stop should have been Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican, but we were near there last night and Deb was still a little tired so we skipped it. The third stop was the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.

I really wanted to see Santa Maria della Vittoria because it contains the Bernini sculpture The Ecstasy of Santa Teresa. Not only is it an incredible piece of work and it is the angel statue in the storyline painting the way to the next “altar” (fire), but it would have also made a connection to earlier in our trip. Santa Teresa is the same Santa Teresa that grew up in Avila and was its “patron” saint, and Avila, the walled city in Spain, was one of our previous destinations. Unfortunately, the church was closed.

We regrouped and had a snack and then proceeded on to the final “alter” (water) at Piazza Navona.

Piazza Navona is home to three incredible fountain by Bernini, including very large one with an obelisk extending from it. The piazza is huge but has no cars and few streets connecting to it. We wandered around appreciating the sculpture for a bit and then had gelato. This was the last of the “altars” and the end of the storyline path. However, nearby, there was a building that was a false start in the storyline and something we very much wanted to see.

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona

The Pantheon was a 10 minute walk through narrow streets filled with carabinieri for some reason. The millennia old building stands distinctly in a piazza filled with more modern (read only a few to several hundred years old) buildings.

It was both marvel to see in person for all of us as well as an instigator for more discussions around history and religion. The Pantheon was a Roman temple dedicated to all gods and religions (pan-theis). It was turned into a Catholic church around 600AD. Inside, while you can see the altar of the “new” church, you can easily see that it was repurposed. It was yet another good example of structures evolving over time as different civilizations and religions come to prominence.

Pantheon, Rome

Pantheon, Rome

The Pantheon

After the Pantheon, and the requisite gelato, we hopped in a cab and went back to the apartment. We got the young adults some nice arancini for dinner and Deb and I went out for date night.

We started by shopping for a little bit. It had been more than a year since we really bought clothes! I got to model a number of pairs of pants, several of which Deb, in cahoots with the young woman helping us, convinced me to get. Italian clothes fit me a lot better. At least, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

We talked about trying a new restaurant, but in the end went back to the wonderful small place (Leone D’Oro) we had found the other night and had another great meal.

The next day, we said goodbye to Rome. There were so many things we didn’t see, but Nev and Aidan said they enjoyed it and Aidan said he was sad to leave. We accomplished much of what we wanted to do in unschooling and so we felt the timing was perfect. As they say in theater (and good business presentations), “Always leave them wanting more.”

Writing this now and rereading some of the other posts, I am quite happy that Nev and Aidan do seem to be getting a sense of history and religion. Even with what we have seen so far, I don’t think they will think about places like Rome the same way they might have just reading about it.

History has a different feel when you can see it directly and touch it. When you add to that things like having to have archeologists present when you build a new subway station (as they do in Rome) and how everything stops when something new is found – which is often – you feel that history is something to be cherished. Perhaps, it may help us remember it better and not repeat mistakes of the past, but that still remains just a hope.

We didn’t give Aidan and Nev a ton of information to read and study – or simply pretend to read and study – as they might get in school. They learned a few important things and a number of smaller, scattered details. Our hope is that in a few years, they might retain those memories and perhaps even ignite some new interests. Maybe we will too. Deb and I are already talking about doing a volunteer internship on an archeological dig somewhere in the world at some point later. It’s never too late for adventure. Pura vida.

PS: Once again, more photos.

Gladiator Camp

Gladiator Camp

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Piazza Navona, Rome

Pantheon, Rome

Pantheon, Rome

Raphael's Tomb, Pantheon, Rome

Raphael’s Tomb, Pantheon, Rome

Rome

Rome

A Harrowing Evening

With any adventure, there is always a bit of danger or risk – otherwise it wouldn’t really be an adventure. On our way to Rome as part of our new adventure we got a little more on the danger side than we expected.

You might have seen or heard about the flooding in Genoa or maybe saw images of it – at least it is all over the news here. Rightly so. We were caught in a flash flood there.

On our way to Rome from France we had a stop in Genoa. Our train was leaving at midnight and it was a sleeper train (something we were all looking forward to). When we arrived, it was pouring rain. It was the kind of tropical rain we were used to from Costa Rica actually. We dashed to a restaurant close to the train station and ate. Then, with a few hours to kill, in a lull in the rain, we walked a long block to a nice hotel and had some refreshments in the lobby.

The rain picked up again and we laughed at how hard it was coming down about 10:45pm as we were planning to head back to the train station. Aidan pointed out where the water was moving along the gutters and splashing up. We bit the bullet and decided that it was unlikely to let up and so we’d have to get wet to get back to the station.

The hotel was about 200 yards diagonally across from the train station. There was a complex set of streets intersecting in between, creating a huge, almost continuous intersection. The closest street was about 20 yards wide followed by an equally wide grassy median, and then a street going the opposite direction, also about 20 yards wide.

On the way across, Aidan was with me and Nev was with Deb a few yards behind. We got split up. Here’s where we’ll give you two views of what happened next.

Deb’s Story

By the time we reached the median, Aidan and Andy were ahead of Nev and me by about 10-15 yards. Nev and I were in the median when Andy and Aidan started crossing the second street. Just as they hit almost midway and we were nearing the edge of the median heading into the second street, a huge river of water, at least 2 feet deep, came rushing down the street. It really did happen in a flash.

Nev and I watched in horror as Aidan was swept off of his feet, getting carried with the water. He managed to recover for an instant and then lost his footing again as the water seemed to get deeper. Andy went lunging after him to grab him by the back pack. With a good bit of work, Andy managed to get them to the other side and behind a bus stop “wall” as a “barricade” from some of the water. The median was slightly elevated from the street level so Nev and I were not hit as hard by the rushing water.

There was much yelling back and forth but not any hearing of coherent words over the din of the rushing water and the pelting rain. I knew that Nev and I could not make it across safely. So the first thing to accept was that we were separated for the foreseeable future from Andy and Aidan.

We couldn’t make it back to the place we started because the road behind us was the same. I also knew that we couldn’t stay out in the open where we were in case the water rose. The first thing was to get behind a large chunk of concrete that held some type of flag pole or something or other. Then we climbed up on top of it and hung onto the pole for further safety.

Once we were up and safe I could take a better look around. Down the street roughly 100 yards or so was a pedestrian overpass and there were some stairs that led up to it from the grassy median. It appeared that the water was roughly the same depth along the median to the stairway. After much waving of arms and strange gesticulating I felt that I had communicated my intentions to Andy. Nev and I hopped down from our concrete block and ran as fast as we could through the water to the stairway.

We arrived at the stairway and ran up without incident but the price was no longer being able to see Andy and Aidan at all due to the lack of street lights (power outage) and the sheets of rain. Unfortunately, the covered overpass had chained and locked doors so while we were safe from the flood waters, we were still standing in the cold rain. Fortunately, I had asked everyone to pack their headlamps. Nev took one out of a pack and used it to signal/mark our location for Andy. It was a relief to see Andy’s light shortly after.

While I felt I did the right thing by making sure that Nev and I were safe, it was very frustrating to not be able to do anything of significance to help Andy and Aidan. I wanted to see if there were stairs that lead to their side of the road (it would make sense) but I couldn’t see any from where we were. I saw some people in orange jumpsuit things that looked like they were some type rescue people. I knew we were all pretty invisible in the dark and in dark, drenched clothing. I started whistling very loudly to get their attention. After a couple of minutes of whistling, they located us. I yelled and pointed and tried to explain where Andy and Aidan were and that they needed help.

Eventually, some of these folks broke the locks on the doors to get into the pedestrian walkway and then come over to our door, broke that and we were able to get out of the rain. I then convinced them to go over to the other end and see if they could reach Andy and Aidan. The headlamp communication is how they knew where to go. By this time the rains had let up a bit and the water was not quite as high – but certainly not at a level yet for going into the street. Andy and Aidan were able to make it to the other end of the pedestrian overpass and meet us up there.

After much hugging, we made back to the hotel via the pedestrian overpass and then walked through rushing water – though this time only about a foot deep. This was somewhere around 00:20-00:30. We sat on the leather sofa, put down our rain soaked backpacks (which of course held all of our clothes, technology, etc.) and the hotel people handed us blankets, towels, and bottles of water to drink. The hotel was full. We had missed our train and, of course, still had no way to get to the station even if our train had not already come and gone.

Andy bravely went back out to check on a little pensione we had noticed earlier in the evening. I was too cold and too focused on trying to keep the kids from shivering so much they cracked their teeth to even bother being worried about him out on his own. In the end, the pensione had a room for us which was dry. It had a hot shower to wash off the flood gunk, clean sheets, and warm blankets. There was no electricity, but we got by with the headlamps. We managed to piece together a few bits of clothing that were mostly dry to wear. We laid out some clothes to (hopefully) dry for the morning and tried to dry out our technology, then we showered and fell into bed.

Andy’s Story

Heading out, my biggest concern initially was getting all of our feet wet and having to dry out our shoes. It was the only pair for some of us. I had checked the street already and the water was flowing a few inches deep and so it was clear we’d be soaked.

The rain was really coming down as we started to cross the first of the two streets. We were all laugh-groaning as we hit the water. It would make for a good story, right?

There were still a few cars driving around the intersection in the very muddy water, but fewer than earlier.

Aidan and I crossed the first part of street running and crossed the median as Deb and Nev hit the median. It was hard to sprint quickly since we were all wearing our heavy backpacks. The water flowing down the next part of the street was a little deeper and we started running across.

As we made it about two-thirds of the way across, the water started flowing a lot faster and in a few seconds it was about two feet deep. Several things happened at once.

I realized this was no longer water flowing down the street. It was a flash flood (even though I had never actually seen one). Aidan fell and was getting quickly getting pulled down the street. Then the water rose a bit more.

As Aidan fell, I dove for him and grabbed for the loop at the top of his pack and fortunately caught it. I as I grabbed him, the water rose about another six inches and it was nearly up to my waist. I started to trip on one of a number of pieces of debris under the water. Aidan’s feet weren’t on the ground any longer; he was in the “river” of muddy water and I was dragging him through it by his loop.

We had started crossing at the corner. Once I had his loop, we were about 10 yards away from the corner. There was a bus stop shelter and I moved to get behind it. The water was rising and I remember thinking that we had to get to high ground. We couldn’t get trapped inside the shelter but it would block the water flow for us. We made it to a bench just behind the shelter. It was up on the curb. Aidan sat down and the water was flowing just under the seat.

I looked back and the street was a raging river of muddy water and debris. I saw Deb and Nev and tried to motion them to go back. Very fortunately, they hadn’t attempted to cross the street.

Aidan was really scared. I was in one of those creepy calm states where you can think very clearly and it does indeed seem like things are moving more slowly (time dilation). The thing I remember most at that point was deliberately speaking very slowly and calmly to Aidan, telling him that he was doing a super good job and that I was very proud of him – all the while looking for a way to get out of there.

Getting to the bench gave us a few minutes to collect our thoughts. Aidan was very worried about our electronics. I expected that they were all toast and told him it was all just “stuff.” Stuff can be replaced. We were very lucky. Despite being wet and cold, it could have been a lot worse.

Aidan was cold so I gave him my cashmere sweater to keep warm. I had a t-shirt, but by that point the cold was the least of my worries. And for some reason, I, who am perpetually cold, was actually somewhat warm. It’s strange what you remember.

I checked on Deb and Nev. They first jumped on top of a large concrete block. They couldn’t hear me and I expected that my phone in my pocket was gone since I had been submerged.

The water seemed to be rising much less quickly, but it was still rising and the level was rising above the bench where Aidan was sitting with his feet up. I knew we couldn’t stay there. Beyond the street on our side was what looked like a park. It was all underwater and the water was flowing very fast still. I had no idea how deep it was and couldn’t chance it with Aidan.

Fortunately, we were a few feet from a tree. Aidan was shivering and couldn’t move his legs well, so (still not having let go of his backpack loop), I told him we were moving to the tree and pulled him to the end of the bench. The water was still mid-thigh. I pulled us to the base of the tree and told Aidan we were going to climb it.

The branches started about 6 feet up. I got his pack off and held it over my shoulder as I pushed him up. I have no idea how I was able to do that with the weight of two packs but the little dude grabbed the branches and locked himself in.

It was a fairly small tree and there was no way I could get up there easily with the packs. The water wasn’t horribly strong and so I stayed at the base. I clipped Aidan’s pack to the branches. Then I remembered that I had my headlamp in my pack and so I pulled it off carefully and retrieved it. I also remembered that I had a light rain jacket in my back and gave that to Aidan as well.

I flashed over to Deb and Nev and they had a headlamp too. It looked like they were heading down the median toward an overpass, which was great. I flashed to them and to the street “SOS” a few times (not really expecting that anyone could get to us yet). There were a lot of branches hiding us though so I started ripping them all away from the street side. Poor tree. I think it will look odd for awhile.

I kept talking to Aidan the whole time. There was an ambulance stuck nearby and an older man sitting in his car pretty safely, but asking for help. I told Aidan I wasn’t leaving him. That’s when my phone alarm went off.

The alarm was telling me we had missed our midnight train J I pulled it out and thought for a second I could contact Deb. I texted but the phone said there was no SIM card and so I put it into Aidan’s bag.

At this point, the water was holding steady and not rising much. The rain was letting up and we were safe where we were – although we were soaked to the bone and cold (I was feeling it by then). The whole time I was looking for where to go next but the best option if the water rose was still our tree.

Shortly after midnight, I saw two people with flashlights and neon emergency gear walking toward us across the park field. It turned out that the water was really only a few inches deep there. I got Aidan out of the tree and we walked with them over to the overpass that crossed the street back to the hotel.

We met Deb and Nev halfway across that overpass in a very emotional reunion.

We then headed back to the hotel lobby. They were really nice and brought us towels and blankets, letting us get warm. Unfortunately, though, they had no rooms available (and no power). I tried to have them call a nearby hotel at the other end of the train station, but no one was picking up. I just wanted to get us someplace dry so I went out looking for a place to stay.

I walked to the other side of the train station where I had spotted a few small hotels earlier. The rain was falling lightly and as I trudged through the water and mud I saw a number of stalled and flooded cars. It looked like rescue crews were out in force now. The far side of the train station looked like it actually had gotten hit worse than the side we were on.

I found a small hotel that also had no power but it did have rooms and quickly returned for Deb and the young adults. We made it to our hotel room still soaked but very happy that we had a warm, dry place to stay for the night. We’d sort everything out the next day.

On the way to the hotel, I got a chance to reflect a bit on what happened. It was scarier than I’d like to admit, especially since Aidan was with me. I’ve been in scarier situations in high school, but it’s very different when you are with your kids. It was also really stressful that we were not all together. I knew Deb and Nev would be just fine – at least rationally. It was painful though not to be able to communicate in any way and I was sure that they were terribly worried.

That night I slept little – or at least, it wasn’t restful sleep. I think I dreamt of every negative scenario that could have happened, from Aidan not having a backpack on that I could grab and having him swept away to getting completely separated from Deb and Nev and not finding each other afterward. On the lighter side, I also dreamt of the zombie apocalypse and seeing all the zombies washed down the street. We all had a good laugh at that one. They are all still pretty vivid to me even now.

The next day we managed to each get a set of clothes that had dried overnight. Most everything else was wet – or wet and muddy in the case of Aidan and me. We made it to the train and on to our Rome flat without incident. We dumped all of our clothes into a wet soggy pile and cranked up the first of many, many loads of laundry.

On the technology front, I was astounded how little we actually lost, especially given the swim Aidan and I had. I did indeed lose my phone, along with my mouse. Aidan’s laptop was dead. Nev’s phone also died.

Very happily, my PC made it through, tucked into my Tortuga backpack laptop pocket. My Kindle made it as well, also reasonably protected by its neoprene sleeve. Aidan saved his phone and iPod because they happened to be in a Ziploc bag. Deb’s Mac and phone were fine, as was Nev’s laptop. They really only had hammering rain and so only the stuff on top was lost.

Now, a few days later, in some ways it feels like this event happened ages ago. When it’s rained since then, even lightly, I do think about it. And times like this are good at putting all the other minor challenges in perspective.

One of my favorite quotes has always been Nietzsche: “That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.” I think it has. I was extraordinarily proud of how Nev and Aidan handled the whole situation. We can argue and get on each others’ nerves, but we are still a family and I think this is something that has brought us a bit closer. I’d like to think our whole adventure this last year has as well. I can certainly say that the rest of our adventure was far less dramatic. Pura vida

Some Kudos

I have to give a few shout outs after this event. A big thanks goes to the Starhotels President Hotel in Genoa for generously taking care of us after we made it back. Once again, I have big kudos for my Tortuga backpack. I’m not sure how the laptop sleeve kept my PC alive when it was mostly submerged, but I am certainly happy it did! And thanks to the designer at Lowe Alpine (Aidan’s backpack) who thought to put an easily grabbable and strong loop on top of the bag. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if I couldn’t have grabbed it.

Bonnieux en Provence

We left the Spanish stage of our new adventure and moved into the French stage. Welcome to France! We stayed three days in the country, in Provence, in a wonderful little town called Bonnieux.

France, and Provence in particular, are the land of great pastries, great wine and wonderful stinky cheese (as Deb puts it). This was sort of the middle of our European adventure and after two weeks in Spain travelling among the cities and sights, we decided to step back and relax a bit in the country. No heavy agenda or travel, just relaxation with the young adults.

Our ride into France started a trend of great train karma. Travel was easy. Even leaving France today, we have made two connections simply by walking to the next platform. In one case, we only had 7 minutes (or an hour) to catch the next train and we smoothly caught it in 5. We hope this train karma lasts through Italy!

We arrived from Avila, Spain to Avignon, France, late Sunday and so spent the night in a hotel in Avignon. We didn’t get a chance to explore much but the young adult were up the next day bright and early for our hour car ride to Bonnieux.

Avignon

Avignon

Nev and Aidan Ready to Go

Deb found us a lovely old house in Bonnieux on Air BnB. It was centuries old but recently renovated, sitting 3 minutes from the town or a wonderful 20 minute walk.

According to our landlords, Ridley Scott shot part of his movie, A Year in Provence, in our back yard – which happens to be a vineyard. We actually didn’t know that until we arrived. It turns out that it was a TV mini-series and I couldn’t find any references to Ridley Scott. Nevertheless, now we have to see the movie.

Bonnieux House

Bonnieux House

Our House in Provence

All around the house are amazing vineyards and centuries-old waking paths. The weather was warm with a little bit of chill at night – almost like Seattle in September.

Bonnieux

Bonnieux

The Grounds Around Us

We also had a few additional residents at our house. Just so you don’t think that I can’t like some cats, here are Cleo(patra) and Pumbaa. Nev took about 30 photos of the cats and here are two of the best. Nev’s

Cleo(patra)

Cleo(patra)

Pumbaa

Pumbaa

Cleo and Pumbaa

The town of Bonnieux is several centuries old as you can see by some of the architecture. It’s one of those marvelous European cities where walkers outnumber cars and most everyone seems to be carrying a baguette. Really. You should taste the baguettes here.

Bonnieux

Bonnieux

The Town of Bonnieux…

Like tourists, we walked along the car streets at first – a long, winding, one-way, uphill road. Then we discovered the system of stairways and paths all criss-crossing the town, creating shortcuts and “secret passages” everywhere. We knew most of them by the time we left.

And in walking all of these stairs and passages, we discovered some charming rustic details. We could have taken photos here all day. Or just sat and sipped wine and read in an outdoor café. Or eaten wonderful French pastries. Wait, we did all that.

Bonnieux

Bonnieux

Bonnieux

Bonnieux

Deb and Andy in Bonnieux

Deb and Andy in Bonnieux

…and Some of its Details

Across the way from Bonnieux is the town of Lacoste. There is a castle there that I wanted to explore, but then I learned that Pierre Cardin owns it and often lives there. He also owns half of the town evidently.

Lacoste

Lacoste

Lacoste from Afar

We did a lot of lounging and relaxing the few days we spent in Bonnieux. Deb and I heard about a path leading to town and we had a great walk to get there. We didn’t know the way; that was half the fun. The path we followed must have been built by the Romans. It was very, very old and so were the walls lining the paths at points. If we didn’t see ancient walls or buildings, we saw many vineyards.

Path to Bonnieux

Path to Bonnieux

Deb on the Way to Bonnieux

Nev spent a lot of time taking pictures and learning photography. Deb and I read a lot. I taught Aidan how to play poker as well. We graduated quickly to Texas Hold ‘Em, which he likes a lot.

We also spent some “unschooling” time prepping for Italy. We’ve been trying to find inroads to get Nev and Aidan interested in the history and art available in Italy. One of our tactics, which worked (as if Michelangelo, Galileo, and Leonardo Da Vinci weren’t enough!), was having them watch Angels and Demons, the Dan Brown novel turned movie with Tom Hanks set in Rome.

Part of the plot involves a number of specific locations across Rome featuring places like Castel Sant’Angelo, the Pantheon, Saint Peter’s Square and the Vatican, Piazza Navona and more. It also featured a number of sculptures by Bernini and buildings by Michelangelo and Raphael. In the story, angels (statues) lead you from one place to the next. Part of what we will in Italy is follow that path, thereby hitting almost all of the key sights. Now the young adults are excited.

It has been a bit challenging really getting Nev and Aidan to understand how incredibly old and important Europe is. Unlike Seattle or even Costa Rica, there is nothing seeing art or buildings or even roads that are centuries, or millennia, old up close and personal. Spain certainly whet their appetite. I already see at least Nev having a different perspective on history. It is one of our goals for this trip and hopefully we can really immerse in Italy. This is sort of a “field trip” after all.

We expect to have a busy schedule in Rome, Florence and Orvieto and so that’s one of the reasons we wanted to relax for a few days before all of that in Provence.

I can’t leave Bonnieux without talking about the food a bit. As you might imagine, it was fantastic. Mostly. We thoroughly enjoyed the bread, the pastries, the wine, and especially the cheese. We tried some wonderful local dishes like duck with honey sauce. I even made dinner one night. There was one restaurant that was disappointing. Really disappointing. And it looked to be mostly locals there. We had various overcooked meats swimming in thick, unappetizing gravy. Our cure was going back to one of the other restaurants we found, ordering an entrée and several desserts!

Our time in France came to an end all too quickly. Deb and I, at least, could have stayed there a lot longer. It was completely relaxing and exactly what we had hoped for.

We are on the most complicated train journey now from Avignon, France, to Rome, Italy. It involves a 3 hour train ride, a 45 minute local train ride, another 3 hour train ride, and then an overnight in a sleeper car from Genova to Roma. We get in super early but plan to have a leisurely first day in Roma. And then the real adventure will begin.

We are hoping that among the secret passages, gladiator schools, catacombs, and churches that we find something truly incredible: a spark of an appreciation for living history from two digital natives who are still just beginning to explore this amazing world of ours. Pura vida.

PS: Stay tuned for a very different post next time: A Harrowing Evening.

PPS: Once again, more photos.

Bonnieux

Bonnieux

Bonnieux Details

Bonnieux Details

Bonnieux

Bonnieux

Bonnieux

Bonnieux

Bonnieux Resident

Bonnieux Resident

Deb at the Bonnieux House

Deb at the Bonnieux House

Nev in Bonnieux

Nev in Bonnieux

Avignon Train Station

Avignon Train Station

aidan path

 

 

 

Avila

The next stop on our new adventure was the historic walled city of Avila in northern Spain. The city has grown a bit beyond the original walled city which is around 1300 years old and is regarded as the finest walled city in all of Europe. It sports the famous nine gates wall comprising 87 towers. In our trip planning, Debbie discovered this intriguing city and so it easily became one of our stops.

The ride to Avila from Sevilla ended up being a bit of an “Amazing Race” adventure in itself. We started on the high-speed “AVE” train in Sevilla. It would take us to Madrid, where we would take a “short train” from the long distance arrival train station (Atocha) to another train station called Chamartin to catch our medium range train to Avila.

Arriving in Madrid, we had 45 minutes to get to our Avila train. It was the only train out to Avila with seats available. We were told it was plenty of time and that the ride to the Charmatin station was free. This might have been true if we actually knew the train station.

After we exited the train, we made the mistake of going into the main terminal area, which then made us have to buy tickets again to get to Chamartin station. That would not have been too bad, but signage was unclear about whether we could take the metro or a local train (it was actually both). I made a guess and got us 4 local train tickets.

Once on the local train we had another bit of a panic as to where to get off; there were 4 stops with “Chamartin” signage. We got help from a local and found the stop, no problem. We exited in Chamartin station and had about 10 minutes still left to get our train. We found it after a bit of searching on one of the various train boards but there was no platform marked.

The Madrid train station is pretty long and has 18 platforms (like gates in an airport). We came up in the middle. The board had our train number and “REG EXPRESS” next to it, but no platform identified even after a few minutes. We thought perhaps that “REG EXPRESS” meant that it left on a specific platform. I saw destinations lit up above each platform entrance and so I started running down the north end of the platform reading each one, hoping that one would be ours. We had about 6 minutes until our train left. Deb and the young adults followed closely enough in case I found it but not too far so they didn’t have to run to the end.

The north end was a bust so I ran to the south end. It would have been a lot more fun except that we are all wearing our Tortuga backpacks (thank goodness for those). Mine weight about 30 pounds and when I ran I didn’t exactly have a narrow profile. I got to be the blocker though for the others 🙂

The south end was no better and when I saw that our gate was not down there and that we had one minute until our train left, I expected that we’d be left behind.

Deb looked at the big board one more time and saw that our platform number had been posted! Of course, it was number 13. We all sprinted to the platform entrance, down the walkway and into the train just before it took off. While it was super stressful, it was a great, and successful, “Amazing Race” moment. Without the stress, I don’t think you get the excitement. But, we would probably have just settled for boring when it comes to catching the last train in a foreign country with two young adults in tow.

We arrived in Avila without any problems and it was a short walk to our hotel. Deb and I let Aidan and Nev relax while we scoped out the town and a place for dinner. We took a long walk all the way to the walled city part of Avila, next to the Church of San Vicente.

Avila - Church of San Vicente

Avila – Church of San Vicente

Church of San Vicente

We found what we thought was a good restaurant next to a helado (gelato) shop and went back for the young adults. On the way back to the restaurant we had chosen, we happened upon what we thought would be a better restaurant choice. We were really hoping for some great food after our experiences in Sevilla and we were not disappointed.

Avila is out in the country and there is evidently a lot of farm-raised beef. We had some of the largest and best steaks we’ve ever had (and that’s saying a lot since Deb is from Kansas). We all had great meals and our bad luck food streak was over.

The next day we went out to see the amazing walled city of Avila.

avila walled city

avila walled city

Avila Flying Buttresses

Avila Flying Buttresses

Model of Avila

Model of Avila

Avila

We started with a walking audio tour of the ramparts (the ledge up on the wall). It was a pretty interesting setup for an audio tour. As we walked by different areas, we would hear details about those areas specifically.

Walking the walls was not only fun but really gave us insight into defending a castle or walled city. This walled city was interesting in that about every forty yards or so there was a tower which jutted out from the wall.

Avila Front Gate

Avila Front Gate

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Towers

These created more “surface area” for defense and gave defenders the ability to protect the wall better. The walls were all rock, about three feet thick. Despite a few areas where the wall had been repaired over the centuries, it looked like it wasn’t going anywhere.

The wall is named the “nine gates wall” because there are nine gates or portals around its circumference. Some are very small and a few are pretty large – car or carriage size. Two of the larger ones were on the sides and one of the smallest was at the very back end of the walled city.

The patron saint of Avila is Saint Teresa of Jesus. Santa Teresa founded the Carmelite order of nuns – a very secluded order of nuns. I had actually visited a Carmelite convent when I was in Catholic high school – at least I visited the door to the convent.

After the wall tour, we explored the interior of the walled city. They tried to keep the original layout and architecture as much as possible while allowing for modern conveniences like cars.

As you’d expect, the streets were very narrow and so all roads were one-way. It must be a nightmare maze for cars (good!). The streets were all cobblestone and many of the buildings were the original stone.

Avila Inside

Avila Inside

Avila Inside

Avila Inside

The Streets of Avila

Inside the walls there is of course a great church. We didn’t get an explanation of why this church wasn’t Santa Teresa’s church. It was gothic and was a really interesting shade of uniform gray rock. There was a large basilica on one side, flying buttresses, and a spires. The gargoyles seemed pretty worn but it had wonderful lion statues surrounding the church.

Avila Cathedral

Avila Cathedral

Avila Cathedral

Avila Cathedral

Avila Cathedral and Lion

Avila Cathedral and Lion

Avila Cathedral

After a day of touring the inside, we walked back to our hotel. It was a great walk as we got to walk along the walls of the city. There was a green area between the walkway and the walls and you could almost get a sense of what this walled city looked like hundreds of years ago.

There were many rocky areas near the walls, which Aidan enjoyed climbing. We had a lot of fun in the late afternoon sun sitting on the rocks, taking pictures, and just enjoying the environment.

Fun on the Rocks of the Avila Walls

Fun on the Rocks of the Avila Walls

Fun on the Rocks of the Avila Walls

Fun on the Rocks of the Avila Walls

Deb and Nev

Deb and Nev

The Walls of Avila

That night we walked back to Avila and found another wonderful restaurant. The steak was fantastic once again and so was the duck. They had twenty entries under “sherry” and Deb and I enjoyed a fine sherry from the region for dessert. Nev and Aidan had to suffice with lava cake.

We left Avila the next morning. It was a short, but wonderful trip. Evidently, though, we switched our “bad food luck” for “bad train luck.” Our exit wasn’t nearly as exciting as our entry, but we had some stressful moments.

Our (original) train was to leave at 10:05 and take us to Madrid, Chamartin, where we had so much trouble before, and then catch a short connection to Madrid, Atocha for our next leg to Barcelona.

We arrived at 9 and Deb found an earlier train that could take us directly to Atocha without the confusing inter-city transfer, so we gladly hopped it. At 10:05, it stopped at one of its stops in El Escorial. It seemed like many other stops, although we noticed a number of people getting off. Then, they turned the train off.

The people who got off took another train. We were there alone. Based on what Deb heard, this train went all the way to Atocha. Well, we learned it did not. We had to catch another train to get there.

We were stuck in El Escorial at 10:20. We had to catch our train to Barcelona at 1:10pm and then our train from Barcelona to Avignon, France at 5:30. There wasn’t much time between the trains. So our “Amazing Race” stress started up again, but this time we couldn’t run or do anything. Frankly, I’d take running versus sitting any day of the week. At least you feel like you are doing something.

Everything worked out though. There was another train coming in an hour at 11:15 and it would get us to Atocha by 12:25 – plenty of time to catch our high-speed train at 1:10pm. The little snafu didn’t hinder us – as I write from our high-speed Ave train comfortable cruising to Barcelona at nearly 300 kilometers per hour – but it did tell us to be wary of trains near Avila in the future.

Traveling by train is at once more comfortable and more hectic than traveling by air. We hadn’t traveled by train in Europe much before and so hadn’t really appreciated this. Booking trains can be confusing. Transferring between trains can be stressful. Sitting in the comfort of a high speed train is indeed a wonderful experience.

The AVE trains, at least in Spain, have these most amazing bocadillos (sandwiches) with serrano ham and manchego cheese on a grilled baguette. Pure heaven. These have become a highlight of our travel. In fact, we now call the high-speed AVE trains the “sandwich trains.” We all were looking forward to the sandwich trains from Madrid to Barcelona and then from Barcelona to Avignon.

I think we have the rail system down now. The young adults now have a feel for what travelling by rail should be like (unlike rail in the Pacific Northwest). We’re not sure what “curve ball” we might find in the next stop, France, but we are ready for it. We are looking forward to more great adventures, interesting discussions with Nev and Aidan, and amazing places to see. Stay tuned. Pura vida.

PS: More pictures!

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Avila Cathedral Tower

Avila Cathedral Tower

Details Inside Avila

Details Inside Avila

Details Inside Avila

Details Inside Avila

Walls of Avila

Walls of Avila

Avila

Avila

Sevilla

Following our fun side stop in Portaventura on our new adventure we went to the city of Sevilla. It is a city alive with history and flamenco. You might also have heard that it had a barber 🙂

We got in late our first night and had to stay in a hotel called the Petite Palace. It was high-tech as advertised and was a good place to get settled before we moved to our apartment for what we thought would be three days.

The next day we found our apartment and settled in. It was a beautiful place in the area of Triana, across the river in Sevilla. The apartment was perfect and had everything we needed, including a washer and dryer.

Sevilla Apartment

Sevilla Apartment

Our Apartment

Nev had come down with a bit of a cold and so on our first day in Sevilla we took it pretty easily. Nev rested, Aidan hung out, and Deb and I did some chores interspersed with some lovely outings to local bars and cafes.

One thing we had to do was start booking travel and accommodations. We didn’t book any places or trains before we left so we could keep our itinerary pretty flexible – which was a very good thing. We worked with the young adults to see what sounded most interesting and set our schedule accordingly. The down side is that it took some time, especially Debbie’s, to figure what trains we needed to catch, when, and where to stay. Our most complex part of the trip was coming up and so we had a good bit to do.

Essentially, we spend a few days in Sevilla and then take a rain to Madrid and then to Avila for one day and night. We wanted to stay a little longer but there is a huge festival there at the time we are and we were lucky to find a place. Right after Avila we have to take 3 trains to Avignon, France and then a car into the interior of France.

Deb and I did get to explore the city a little that first day. Unlike Barcelona where the buildings in the area we stayed were all very old, Triana had a mix of very old and very new buildings. The new ones stuck out a bit like sore thumbs. However, the older ones were lovely, as you might expect.

Triana, Sevilla

Triana, Sevilla

Sevilla - Triana Bridge

Sevilla – Triana Bridge

Sevilla – Triana Area

Nev was feeling better on day two after healthy doses of vitamin C, ginger and garlic (an immune booster). We all took similar doses as a precaution.

Day two was spent primarily in the Alcazar Palace. It is in the center of the city in the El Arenal area, near the Cathedral. It is one of the few actual palaces in the world where the royal family still stay. Sorry, no royal sightings for us. However, it was scheduled to be closed a couple of days later for Game of Thrones filming. No Game of Thrones actor sightings either.

The palace is an incredible mix of very old Moorish architecture, medieval architecture and newer gothic architecture and it is immense. As you walk through the many rooms, gardens, and areas, you see the fusion of all of these influences. It was hard once again not to want to explore the whole place and take pictures. But, the young adults only have so much patience and so we spent a few hours exploring and then did something else.

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

This is probably a good place to talk about the food in Sevilla. It was, well, not the experience we had in Barcelona, sadly. We tried a number of tapas restaurants here, including the one our landlady said was her favorite, but sadly the food was at best only mediocre. On one occasion, I got a plate (solomillos de cerdo) with a few pieces of pork swimming in a lake of melted butter. At a sushi place (where the sushi itself was good), Nev ordered potato salad and got this horrible dish that looked like a plate of fluffy marshmallow sauce. It tasted worse.

Our final night in Sevilla, though, we got a great recommendation for a place called 3 de Oro and that almost made up for the other experiences. Aidan and I shared arroz con langosta (rice with lobster). It was sort of like a risotto but more brothy and very, very tasty!

On our second night, Deb and I wandered around looking for a flamenco club. We found one and it started up about midnight. There was a crowd of folks who were clearly regulars and about 12:30 the music started. It was really great watching the local dancers. It was particularly ammusing to watch one local man teaching teaching some other men by explaining the the high hand movement was like reaching up and turning/changing a lightbulb. Flamenco is to Spain as samba is to Brasil, salsa is to Mexico, and tango is to Argentina. We watched for awhile and then decided to try it out.

In flamenco, it seems, there is almost no touching. There is a lot of hand movement though. Deb and I found a song that was much more salsa-like and we did sort of a fusion of salsa/swing and flamenco. We had a blast.

The next day we started with a shock. The folks who rented our place showed up about 11 to check us out! We expected to stay another day. The owners lets us have another 30 minutes and we quickly found another place to stay and packed everything up. It took only 20 minutes. Then we were back on the road again to the Petite Palace for our final night. Too bad. We loved the apartment. It was a really good thing though. We had thought about going to Cordoba for a day trip that day, leaving early and returning late. What a fiasco that would have been!

Once settled, we recovered by taking a little tour of the El Arenal area in a horse-drawn buggy. Our horse, Romero (Rosemary), was quite the character and loved being petted. The young adults wanted to try it and it was a great way to see many different areas.

Sevilla Military Building

Sevilla Military Building

Sevilla - El Arenal Area

Sevilla – El Arenal Area

Sevilla - El Arenal

Sevilla – El Arenal

Sevilla – El Arenal Area

After our buggy ride, we visited the Cathedral of Sevilla. It is the third largest church in the world (after the Vatican and St. Paul’s in Britain). The church is about 500 years old, but it was built on top of a mosque dating back a thousand years. The bottom third of tower of the Cathedral is actually part of the original mosque and the upper two-thirds are Catholic gothic architecture. The cathedral is the definition of gothic architecture, however.

Cathedral of Sevilla

Cathedral of Sevilla

Cathedral of Sevilla

Cathedral of Sevilla

Cathedral of Sevilla - statue

Cathedral of Sevilla – statue

Cathedral of Sevilla

Cathedral of Sevilla

Cathedral of Sevilla

I was excited because by this point I had learned that our Sony Cybershot DSC-RX100 is a truly incredible little camera. It has a surprisingly good zoom capability and the pictures are so high resolution that you can capture great deal from far away. This cathedral had some really interesting details, especially gargoyles, that were hard to see from the ground, but were great to see when we reviewed the photos later and zoomed in. I love gargoyles and so had to crop some of them into their own photos. I’m sure they won’t be the last.

Cathedral of Sevilla - gargoyle

Cathedral of Sevilla – gargoyle

Cathedral of Sevilla - gargoyle

Cathedral of Sevilla – gargoyle

Cathedral of Sevilla - gargoyle

Cathedral of Sevilla – gargoyle

Gargoyles at the Cathedral of Sevilla

After our daily enrichment of helado (gelato), we returned to our hotel and then prepped for dinner and leaving the next day. We wanted to see a flamenco show and watch the experts but it was sold out. Fortunately, Nev was feeling much better and we ended the day with a great meal.

Overall, we enjoyed Barcelona more than Sevilla. Sevilla had some wonderful features, but the combination of food, sights, and events in Barcelona much better.

It’s the nature of travel. Sometimes you have a magical experience in one place and a mediocre one in another. Meanwhile, others have the opposite experience. The thing about us when we travel is that we remember the great things and forget the rest. We will fondly remember dancing at 1am in a small flamenco bar in the middle of Sevilla, the surprisingly magical gargoyles of the Cathedral, the amazing architecture of the palace and our wonderful little apartment in the Triana area.

We are off to Avila on the train now. It’s the home of the nine gates wall and evidently wonderful game dishes including pheasant and quail. It’s a good time to remember the fun of Sevilla and look forward to our next adventure. Pura vida.

PS: Once more, in case you like photos, I’ve included a lot more below.

sevilla tower

sevilla tower

Sevilla - Triana Area

Sevilla – Triana Area

Sevilla - Triana Area

Sevilla – Triana Area

Fun with Cameras

Fun with Cameras

The Pigeon of Alcazar Palace

The Pigeon of Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace - Ceiling

Alcazar Palace – Ceiling

Alcazar Palace - Dragon Balcony

Alcazar Palace – Dragon Balcony

Alcazar Palace - Deb

Alcazar Palace – Deb

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace

Sevilla Military Building

Sevilla Military Building

Sevilla - El Arenal Area

Sevilla – El Arenal Area

Sevilla - El Arenal

Sevilla – El Arenal

Cathedral of Sevilla

Cathedral of Sevilla

Cathedral of Sevilla

Cathedral of Sevilla

Cathedral of Sevilla

Sevilla - El Arenal Area

Sevilla – El Arenal Area

Fun with the Camera

Fun with the Camera

Alcazar Palace

Alcazar Palace