Thursday, May 28, 2015

Italy 2015 - Roma

The Spanish Steps

This is post number seven about our Italian trip. The previous posts are:

  1. Milano
  2. Venezia
  3. Firenze
  4. Bagnoregio
  5. Assisi
  6. Orvieto

OK, life got in the way of the Italy blog posts. We left off in Orvieto on the way to Rome...

As always, click on the image to go to the photo gallery.

By the time we got to Rome we were all looking forward to it. Not just because Rome has so much great history to see, but also because we had been moving around a lot and we were looking forward to six nights in the same B&B.

Upon arrival we needed to return our rental car near Roma Termini, the main train station in Rome. We had a little drama trying to find the car return. It was on the top floor of a 7-story parking garage with no signage whatsoever. But we found it.

Then we headed for the Metro to get to our B&B. It was rush hour and the Metro was absolutely packed. A followed me onto one train but Carol and C couldn’t fit. We waited at our destination station for them to emerge from the next train.

We navigated easily to our B&B and found it to be quite comfortable. It had a kitchen and there was a grocery store nearby. We were pretty tired of eating in restaurants so A and I went shopping and bought ravioli, sauce and salad and then found a nearby bakery for bread.

Funny story: I asked a stocker at the grocery store which of the jarred sauces was his favorite. He pointed one out but also tried to tell me that this sauce “is not ready”. I thought he meant I needed to cook it. Duh.

Once we were eating it I realized what he meant was that it was plain tomato sauce, not “pasta sauce”. I don’t know if they even sell prepared pasta sauce in jars in Italy.

We enjoyed our dinner regardless of the lack of seasoning in the sauce. It was nice just to eat “at home”. Then we relaxed and went to bed early.

Our friend Kelly from Seattle, who recommended that we visit the Leonardo Museum in Florence, also highly recommended that we reserve an 8am tour of the Vatican Museum. The museum doesn’t open to the public until 9am, and the 8am tours get to enjoy the galleries at a leisurely pace. The highlight is a much less crowded and rushed visit to the Sistine Chapel.

We had reserved such a tour for our first morning in Rome so we got up early and made our way to the Vatican by 7:30.

Kelly was right: that 8am tour is The Bomb. We loved it. Worth every penny.

Talking is not allowed in the Sistine Chapel. We used our phones to type our thoughts, then we’d pass the phone for the other person to read. Here are some of the messages we typed to each other:

I love the colors. Her orange dress. Pretty. I like the white dress

See the guy wrapped in the snake above the door we entered? He was a guy that didn't like the painting that Michelangelo was doing. He got painted Into the picture as a jerk with the snake biting his crotch.

The top of this church is flat right? True. A vault. But there are no beams. That part is called tromp l’oeil. It is also curved.

Adam and eve...the snake winding up the tree turns into a person.

Other than the Sistine Chapel, the highlight of the Vatican Museum was the Room of the Masks.

In the center of the room’s floor are four mosaics of theatrical masks that are made of tiny tiles. They are referred to as “worms’ work”. Quite beautiful; and not accessible to the general public.

In the evening we headed out to the tourist highlights: Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Tivoli Fountain and the Spanish Steps. The Tivoli Fountain is undergoing heavy restoration but the rest of the sights were great. Of course we enjoyed a tartufo at Tre Scalini in Piazza Navona. Along the way we also ducked into the Church of St. Louis of the French which was beautiful.

We lounged on the Spanish Steps a bit and then decided to get dinner. Right at the top of the steps we found the American Bar. Have I mentioned that most evenings our choice of restaurant was determined by whether they featured ravioli on their displayed menu? A wanted ravioli every night of the trip and we strove to oblige.

Sunday our destination was the catacombs, of which there are several. We chose the Catacombs of St. Callixtus because they were easily accessible by city bus.

We needed to catch our bus at Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, which was very near our B&B. We stopped in the basilica on our way. San Giovanni is the actual cathedral of Rome (not St. Peter’s) and it is the church of which the Pope is the pastor. Predictably, it is spectacular inside. We visited it twice during our stay. We also visited its lovely cloisters.

We got to the catacombs well before they opened, so we wandered around the park and visited the church of St. Sebastian: more modest than San Giovanni, but very pretty nonetheless.

The catacombs themselves were very cool. Photos were not allowed but I turned the screen off on my phone and took some discreet photos from waist level. They even look like secret camera photos!

We were finished with the catacombs by 2pm. I had been tinkering with the idea of renting a scooter and taking the girls for a ride around Rome. Carol had no interest in trying to drive a scooter in an unfamiliar city. I figured Sunday afternoon was a perfect time, while traffic was calm. We caught the bus back into central Rome and made our way to the scooter rental shop.

I was obviously concerned about safety with my most cherished people on the back. At first I drove like a car, waiting in line at traffic lights, etc. But I soon decided that “while in Rome, do as the Romans do” was the best philosophy and I started following other scooters through stopped traffic. It was quite fun, and in fact felt very safe.

A and I made a grand circle of the city. In fact, the first time we circled the city twice because I kept missing the turns I wanted. Central Rome is full of one-way streets that are very long, so if you miss a turn you go a for a long trip out of your way. Fortunately the scooter rental agent had given me a paper map and drawn some key points on the route back to the shop, so we found it right on schedule and I picked up C for her tour.

Monday we went to Pompeii and Naples, which I’ll write about in a separate post.

On Tuesday we decided to visit the core Roman historical sites: Palatine Hill and the Forum and Colosseum. That was a bit of a death march for the girls as it was fairly warm and constant ruins aren’t very exciting. We tried to get them to imagine the victory parades down the Via Sacra but their imaginations were on the blink that day.

We ended the visit with a lovely lunch at a very nearby tourist restaurant where Carol drank a gallon of beer (well, a liter; and I helped).

Then guess what? We had had so much fun on the scooters on Sunday that we decided to do it again. In rush hour! This time C went first, and I finally managed to find my way to Trastevere and up onto the Gianicolo - a large hill west of Rome that affords a great view. Now that I knew my way I of course came back on my tour with A.

Riding in rush hour traffic was even more fun. A started egging me on: “C’mon, Dad! You can fit through there!”

Those scooter rides were one of the highlights of the whole trip for the girls.

We went back to our room to rest a bit. Then we dressed up and called a taxi to take us to Trastevere for dinner. It’s the part of Rome that is famous for romantic restaurants with outdoor seating.

We wandered a bit and found ourselves watching a very charming performance by a young guy with shadow puppets on his homemade stage. After a bit more wandering we found a nice looking restaurant with ravioli on the menu. Then we strolled some more before catching a taxi back home.

On Wednesday we started at the Colosseum. The line had been too long the previous day but on Wednesday we went earlier. Carol and I tried to re-enact a few photographs from our honeymoon and we took some photos of the girls holding the Melrose Free Press.

Then we hopped on a open top bus tour to see the city tourist style.

We hopped off at the Vatican. After the Vatican Museum tour on Saturday I had bought some shirts in a local men’s shop, but one was the wrong size. We found the shop again and made an exchange (although too quickly, because I came home with a shirt whose size is even more wrong!).

We intended to visit St. Peter’s but when we returned to the piazza the entry line was all the way around the perimeter! We didn’t have the patience for that. We hopped back on our bus and did the remainder of the open top tour.

We were departing Rome at 10am Thursday morning on a train to Pisa. St. Peter’s opens at 7am. Wednesday night I took our bags to the train station and checked them at Left Luggage. Thursday morning we got moving early and we were in line at St. Peter’s by 6:40.

That worked out well. We had St. Peter’s to ourselves, with only a few tourists. The main people in the church were visiting priests saying their souvenir mass at the numerous altars (and then sneaking their phones out from under their vestments to take photos of each other).

After the church we did my favorite activity in Rome: climb to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s.

We took the elevator up to the roof, then walked over to the base of the dome. The climb of the dome is cool because the roof slopes more and more as you go up, making the stairs feel like a fun house. The girls thought it was very cool.

The early morning view over all of Rome was a great way to say goodby to the city. Then we descended, made our way to Roma Termini, and were on our way to Pisa.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Goodbye, 1970s Basement!


Ever since we bought this house six years ago we've wanted to refinish the basement.

It was finished in the 1970s with shag carpet and panelling. It was quite dark. Plus the basement has had water issues so we were sure there was rot and mildew and probably mold under the carpet and in the wall insulation and framing.

That project has finally made it to the top of the list. We've gotten bids from a few contractors, but it was hard to envision a new space while the old walls were in place. We just wanted to clean the slate so we could imagine the full range of possibilities.

Today a demolition company came and removed the 1970s from our basement.

We're not going to do anything fancy. It will mainly be a TV/recreation room with an electronics workbench in the corner for me and some kind of art and craft area for Carol, plus some partitioned-off storage in the rear portion. We are hoping to add a 3/4 bath (we currently only have one shower, and we'll soon have two teenage girls), but we'll see how much that costs. Plus finish out a laundry room and enclose the boiler and water heater. Keep it simple.

Having the dark, musty surfaces removed has made us happy today.

Saturday, May 9, 2015


This morning Audrey announced, "Today I want to do two things: bake something, and go on a bike ride with Dad."

We accomplished both goals. Audrey and Carol made the cupcakes and the custard and set then aside to cool. Then we went on a long bike ride and stopped in to visit some friends across town. After we returned home she filled and glazed the Boston Cream cupcakes.

Now it's time to eat them!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Italy 2015 - Orvieto

Duomo di Orvieto

This is post number six about our Italian trip. The previous posts are:

  1. Milano
  2. Venezia
  3. Firenze
  4. Bagnoregio
  5. Assisi

On Carol and my honeymoon in 2001 we visited many hill towns - that would have been exhausting for the girls so we picked just a couple. One of my favorites was Orvieto, and it happens to be both very near Bagnoregio but also near the autostrada to Rome. I was excited to show it to the girls so the morning we checked out of our lovely Bagnoregio apartment we stopped in Orvieto on the way to Rome.

One of the coolest things about Orvieto is the funicular one rides to access the old city. The girls loved it.

The highlight of Orvieta is its Duomo. The striped pattern in its stone construction is striking, as is its dominating presence in its piazza.

The interior of the Duomo is not bad, either. It has gorgeous frescoes that even captivated the girls. And it’s huge. We had told the girls how big St. Peter’s would be and in Orvieto we could say, “See how huge this church is? St. Peters is a lot bigger!”

After visiting the Duomo we were hungry so we looked for a lunch place. We didn’t feel like a sit down meal. Then we stumbled upon a casual pizzeria. The very nice lady who spoke no English dished us up a variety of tasty slices.

Before boarding the funicular for the trip back down to the car we explored the Albornoz Fortress. It has dramatic views of the cliffs that protected Orvieto, and of the well-defended old approach road.

Then it was off to Rome!

Italy 2015 - Assisi

Rocca Maggiore - the castle in Assisi

This is post number five about our Italian trip. The previous posts are:

  1. Milano
  2. Venezia
  3. Firenze
  4. Bagnoregio

We rented a car for the portion of our trip between Florence and Rome so that we could enjoy exploring the hill towns.

I love driving in Italy because the roads, the signs and the rules all make sense and drivers consistently follow them. The roads in the hill country of Tuscany and Umbria are curvy and fun, and the small cars (with manual transmissions!) handle well and are fun to drive.

Of course, curvy roads and dad having fun driving on them aren’t necessarily compatible with girls who get car sick. But we survived.

I had a loose plan to visit Perugia. None of us had ever been there and rumor has it that it is a lovely town. When we told our B&B host Marta in Bagnoregio that we would visit there her father suggested we visit Assisi. Assisi and Perugia are very close together so I thought we might visit both. We headed for Assisi first.

Assisi’s main claim to fame is its basilica with frescoes by several artists but most notably Giotto. But before we got to the basilica we explored the town.

The first thing I noticed is that the tufa that Assisi’s buildings are made of is a distinctly different color than the other hill towns I’ve visited. It’s lighter.

We had fun exploring the town. It’s very picturesque.

We could occasionally see a the castle on the top of the hill but it looked far away and I wasn’t sure if the girls would make it that far (it was a warm day). We kept wandering, going generally upward, and next thing you know we were approaching the castle.

It’s called Rocca Maggiore. It turned out to be the only castle we visited during our trip and it was a pretty good one for the girls’ first castle since it had a tower, tunnels, interior rooms and secret passages: all the components that make a castle cool for kids! (And for me!)

After the castle we made our way back down into the town and then to the basilica at the far end.

Those frescoes really are beautiful! Unfortunately no photography is permitted but in the photo album I included two photographs of postcards we bought.

The afternoon turned into a comedy of errors. It felt like a long hike the length of town between where the car was parked and the basilica, and the girls were hot and tired. We split up, and I went to get the car with a plan to meet Carol and the girls at a parking area near the basilica while they stayed put. My first trip to the car I managed to go without taking the keys, which were in Carol’s bag. Back I went. When I finally did retrieve the car and attempt to drive around the town to the other parking area, I was thwarted by police officers blocking the main road out of town. I found a tiny road through vineyards, only to discover that one cannot then drive to the destination parking area. So back around town I went, blocked again by police at a different intersection (so back up the tiny vineyard road), parked again and hiked back to the girls.

Side note: when we arrived in Italy we discovered that Carol’s phone was in fact not unlocked like I thought, so we only had one working phone and no way to contact each other.

The whole thing took more than an hour. I expected to return to a very grumpy family. I was grumpy! But when I found them at the designated parking area they were happy as clams. They had found a swing set, some feral cats and a cat lady. They were relaxed, rested and happy. Phew!

By now it was late in the afternoon and we were hungry and an hour away from our B&B. So we found a little bar with a view, had a snack, and then drove back to Bagnoregio. Perugia will have to wait for the next visit to Italy.