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

Barcelona

We are officially off now on the second stage of our new adventure – Europe for 5 weeks of fun, unschooling and new experiences. Our first stop on this journey is the city of Barcelona.

We had a long, two-legged flight to get here which included a full dash between two very far gates at Schipol airport in Amsterdam. It started our travel journey and warmed up the young adults to five weeks of travel. Fortunately we settled into our nice apartment in Barcelona and recovered fairly well from jet lag.

Getting to our apartment, we got a reminder of how important security is here with all of our stuff. We had 4 locks on the door, three of which were multiple bar deadbolts. Barcelona, like many cities, has a number of opportunistic thieves as well as regular break-ins of uninhabited apartments.

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Our Apartment’s Door Locks

This prompted two of the first key discussions with the young adults about travelling. The first was how important it was to always keep your bag (backpack) in sight and even if you are sitting with it, to wrap a strap around your ankle. They got that one down pretty quickly. The other one, which they are still working on, is that in travelling, everyone is responsible for their own bag and their own stuff. So, for example, I won’t magically know where someone’s socks are. J

We spent the first few days recovering and exploring the city and its wonderful restaurants. Barcelona is an amazing city – a fusion of old world Europe and modern Europe. We stayed most of our stay in the older area known as El Born, which I highly recommend. The buildings were almost a century old and the narrow streets, fountains, and open spaces were wonderful.DSC00029

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Some Elements in El Born

Tapas are a highlight of Barcelona and “Chef” Aidan was very interested in trying all of the different tapas. We started with Double Zero, a sushi tapas place. It turned out to be one of the best places we’ve tried and where we had the most incredible, and well-deserved, dessert medley. This prompted Aidan to come up with an idea of creating a dessert tapas restaurant. We think it’s a good one!

Asian Albondingas Double Zero Dessert Sampler

Double Zero and its Amazing Tapas

We had another memorable experience at an Argentine grill.

Squid Ink Risotto

Our Argentine Grill Experience

I personally was very excited to rediscover Patxaran. It is this wonderful liqueur that is distinctly Basque. I had a good friend from Barcelona who once brought me a bottle. He said it was very hard to find outside Northern Spain and extremely rare in the US (at least a few decades ago). I had tried to find it a few times without success. Somehow I managed to remember the name (and exotic spelling) and found it here! Everywhere. What a treat. Patxaran is a liqueur created with various herbs blended with anise.

The Spanish timetable was very different from Costa Rica. Everyone seems to get up later. Most shops don’t open until noon and when they are not open, they all have these roll-down panels that are covered with graffiti. All of the graffiti has a creative flair and some are spectacular from an artistic perspective. Here’s just one example (some better ones didn’t make it).

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Graffiti on a Shop Roll-Down Door

At night, it is almost as if you are in a different city. The shops open after noon but stay open until very late. All of these roll-down steel doors turn into fantastic shop windows, restaurants, pubs and heladerias (ice cream shops). The streets become a hive of activity. There are lots of people wandering around and the energy is palpable. They city stays this way late into the night. The most crowded dinner times are 9-10m and that’s when you see the peak of activity. We adapted fairly quickly to the Spanish way of life though – getting up later, eating late, and staying out late. This actually served Aidan and I well for a side adventure after Barcelona which I’ll tell you about another time: Portaventura.

One of our favorite things about Barcelona is the ability to get around. Without cars. Like most European cities, they have a good and well-organized metro system within the city and an excellent train system between cities and countries. It’s a dominant form of travel for Barcelonans. The bus system, which we did not try, seemed very ubiquitous and simple. The surprise though was the system of bikes. They have a whole “subscription” bike system that is somewhat similar to the various emerging “subscription” car systems in various US cities like Zipcar. They have “banks” of bikes at most major intersections and you swipe a card, grab a bike, and then return it to another bank. The bikes have special bars that “plug in” to a simple locking system. I’ve not seen a better version of this implemented.

Deb and I had several logistics-related things to do when we first got here (like getting Eurail passes validated, getting train tickets, trying out the metro, etc.) and so Aidan and Nev had more time to hang in the apartment and “study up” a bit on Spanish history, the city of Barcelona, Gaudi and Montserrat – all things we planned to include in our Barcelona “curriculum.”

What became clear to us pretty quickly, though we should have anticipated this based on Nev and Aidan’s history/religion project this summer, was that like most kids and young adults, reading about history was boring for them. Indeed, that’s why we wanted to come here – to see some of the incredible historical places of Spain and Italy. It was a bit like digging a deep splinter out trying to get Aidan to read about Sagrada Familia and other places we would explore. Deb and I would be in lines for tickets and Aidan would text us about how much more he had to read.

We settled on having him find some YouTube videos while we were away. He tends to learn better when he can hear and see vs. read. What was pleasantly surprising, though, was that both Nev and Aidan liked it better when we would tell them things about history orally.

We had some great discussions about religion, especially Catholicism, organized religion, and even what a saint is. I noted for the record that Brazil is rightly affronted because they only have two saints and tens more in the queue for review.

We also had some great related discussions about why people value gold (which is a tough one to really get into as it is not obvious indeed), why currencies are based on it, and also supply and demand economics. These weren’t incredibly deep or thorough by any means. But they were engaging and that was more important to us. Nev even said that one of Deb’s descriptions of Roman history was clearer and better than anything anyone could read in a boring textbook.

In the end, we all have been learning a lot about learning history here, but more importantly, I think we and the young adults are learning about how to learn about history. Nev and Aidan are clearly digital native. They learn differently and have different experiences of learning based on the technology and other tools they are exposed to. We even had a great discussion in a cab about this.

I basically said that if they have kids, their kids will probably be experiencing holographic information and “shows” the way they watch YouTube and Deb and I watched TV in our day. They noted that we are tech savvy and “get” YouTube, but I pointed out that even so, one tends to fall back on what’s comfortable – the media one grows up with. It was a surprisingly insightful conversation, like one we might have at a tech conference. This all “counts” as unschooling in our book, by the way.

After a day of logistics, Deb and I stopped at a Catalan wine festival. We love wine, especially Spanish wines, and so it was wonderful to experience Catalan wines. We had some amazing, and generously-poured, wines and some incredible cheese. It was a fantastic date night.

Catalan Wine Festival

The Catalan Wine Festival

Arc de Triomf (Barcelona)

Arc de Triomf (Barcelona-Style)

This brings up another interesting thing about Barcelona, the heart of Catalonia. As you may know, Catalan wines, like much of Catalonia, is similar but very distinct from Spain. The Catalonians take very definite pride in this. Catalan, as a language, is similar to Spanish, but then again about as different as Portuguese and Italian are from Spanish.

When we arrived, all of the signs had as a primary language Catalan. The secondary languages were Spanish or English. Everyone speaks Catalan first and many seem to prefer English to Spanish. It took us a bit to adjust but we can begin to read Catalan now. Mostly. As we travel to Seville, I expect our Spanish will be more useful.

What’s pretty amazing about Barcelona and Catalonia is the intense national pride – Catalonian, not Spanish. You see Catalan flags everywhere, hanging from balconies, on cars, and on futbol jerseys. Of course, FC Barcelona is here and you really can’t go anywhere without seeing a store or a person sporting FC Barcelona clothing. While very European, and certainly similar to Spain, Barcelona definitely feels like a different country. We may be wrong; we’ll see shortly as we adventure to Seville.

We took a wonderful little trip to Güell Park in Barcelona. It is a work of Antoni Gaudi, the famous architect of La Sagrada Familia which I’ll get to later. Tickets to the sculpture park were sadly sold out, but we took a stroll through the grounds which he also designed. It was an enchanting experience. We sat and listened to harp music and then explored the structures he created. It gives you some insight to the way he integrated nature into his architecture.

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Güell Park

After the young adults had studied up a bit, we took a day trip to Montserrat, the famous monastery up in the mountains. Wow. The monastery and mountains were incredible. I’ve never seen that type of topography before.

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Montserrat

Monserrat

The trip to Monserrat involved a train, a tram, and a funicular. It was a bit of a trip, but well worth it. I’m not sure if I was stunned more by the mountains or the monastery. The monastery was beautifully minimal from the outside. True to most Catholic churches, it was beautiful and opulent inside.

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Montserrat Monastery

The mountains were mesmerizing to me. They were so natural and yet so alien given the sedimentary rock composition and the very organic forms the mountains took. The architect Gaudi, whom I’ll mention more in a bit, must have been inspired by these mountains, especially as he was an aficionado of nature. I could have spent all day just in those mountains taking pictures.

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Montserrat Mountains

On our final day in Barcelona we visited one of the most magical places I have ever been – La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s masterpiece. That is saying a lot given that it is a church and given that I have had the fortune to see many magical places.

I truly don’t know where to begin, so I will begin with Gaudi. He started this architectural feat in 1882 when he was 30. He died in 1926 and had several generations of craftsman following his legacy since then to complete this great church. It should be complete mid-century. When you see the images, you’ll not only see why it has taken so long, but also what a genius he was, particularly given that this was started in the 1800’s.

La Sagrada Familia

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La Sagrada Familia

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Constant Construction

I was certainly impressed with the architecture, which took inspiration from nature as you can easily see.

Tower Stairway

Tower Stairway

Columns Inspired by Trees

Columns Inspired by Trees

Interior Columns

Interior Columns

Natural Inspiration

I was even more impressed with Gaudi’s command of math and geometry, which is also nature at its best. Imagine the columns in components ranging from 6 to 12 vertices. Now twist each of these components (e.g., an extruded – or “3D’ – dodecagon) 30 degrees. Now create a mirror image of it and superimpose the two. That gives you the geometry of one section of column.

The stained glass (a Barcelonan artists created these), statues (a Barcelonan sculptress created these), architectural details (such as the tree of life or the apostolic symbols), were all incredible. I could have spent days wandering and exploring here.

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Seal of Marc

Seal of Marc

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Turtle "Gargoyle" Sculpture

Turtle “Gargoyle” Sculpture

Architectural Elements

I was never a huge architecture geek. I was never ever moved by architecture or much else created by people. I was here.

La Sagrada Familia was a perfect end to our Barcelona adventure. Thousands of miles away we started our journey in Costa Rica, where the locals have the term “pura vida” which I’ve mentioned often. I get the sense Gaudi would appreciate that sentiment. As would much of Catalonia I expect. Pura vida.

PS: In case you like photos, I’ve included a lot more below, especially of La Sagrada Familia, Montserrat and the mountains.

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Montserrat Basilica

Montserrat Basilica

Montserrat

Montserrat

Montserrat

Montserrat

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St George

St George

Looking Down a Tower

Looking Down a Tower

Turtle Column Pedastel

Turtle Column Pedestal

Spire Tops

Spire Tops

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Guell Park

Guell Park

Gaudi's House

Gaudi’s House in Guell Park

Guell Park

Guell Park

The Passion Facade

The Passion Facade