A Chilly Graduation Trip

Back at the end of January and beginning of February Paige and I took a quick trip over to Edinburgh for a few days. Paige has always wanted to go, particularly because of all the Harry Potter related landmarks around the city, and since we were able to get on the flights and found a wonderful, historical Airbnb right in the Grassmarket by the castle…it seemed like a great, albeit really, really cold, time to go!

After arriving, we bundled up and hiked up to check out Edinburgh Castle. Then we wandered around Victoria Street (which was literally only about a 5 minute walk from our flat). Victoria Street was the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books…and we look wandering around the cute shops.

We also found Elephant House, and Spoon, where J. K. Rowling wrote the first few Harry Potter books…

Right there by Elephant House, in the same neighborhood, is the George Herriot School and Greyfriars Kirkyard. J. K. Rowling could see the Herriot School from Elephant House as she was writing, and it was the inspiration for Hogwarts. She would frequently take breaks and walk through Greyfriars, which also provided inspiration in the form of some familiar names….

We took a day trip to Stirling one day, and wandered around the town and toured the castle…

We also did a history-comedy-walking tour of Edinburgh…which was fantastic!

And finally, we toured Holyrood Palace and Holyrood Abbey. We walked around the Scott Monument, we traversed the Royal Mile, and explored Mary Kings Close. We shivered a lot, it’s true (we’re Florida girls!) but we loved every minute of our chilly Scottish, Harry Potter adventure!

When in Rome (part 2)

In part 1 of our Rome adventures, I briefly mentioned the hordes of tourists. I’ll mention them again, here. There were hordes of tourists in Rome. We did our best to avoid them, but it was time to take a deep breath and dive into the hordes. Because, when in Rome you have to…

Do the Coliseum…

And Roman Forum…

Rome, where you don’t take breaks on benches…but on toppled marble columns.

Circus Maximus

And Palatine Hill. (Only 30% of visitors to Rome visit the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill!)

The next day we really jumped into it. We went here…

We saw these guys…

And toured the Vatican Museums (including the Sistine Chapel, where we were not allowed to take photos, but…😍)

(I must have a tiny bit of a “floor fetish” because every single place we went in Italy I was obsessed with the fabulous, amazing, mosaic tile floors!)

The mosaic tile floors were incredible

Those peacocks are 1,900 years old

Flemish tapestry showing the assassination of Julius Caesar

The giant pinecone is 2000 years old!

The crowds though, y’all. While the Sistine Chapel was absolutely breathtaking and astounding, the crowds and the body odor and the pushing and….ugh. We shuffled along in the mass exodus….shuffling…shuffling…and eventually made our way to St. Peter’s.

I’d love to show photos of the Pieta. I’m sure St. Peter’s is an amazing church.

But I’m sorry to say that we shuffled along in that huge body of odiferous tourists, and walked into St Peter’s…

I quickly snapped this photo, said, “yeah, yeah another church. This is freaking insane. Let’s get out of here.”

And we left.

And just like that, I was ALL OUT OF PATIENCE and I decided I DID NOT LIKE PEOPLE and OMG I HATE TOURISTS and WHAT FRESH HELL IS THIS GET ME OUT OF HERE!

Then Tim fed me “lunch” (it was 4:30) and that helped, but I still am pretty much over tourists. I mean…really, y’all DON’T NEED TO PUSH!

Typical lunch for us- insalata!

On the way home that evening, we stopped off for a hot chocolate with a view!

Roman Holiday (part 1)

We arrived in Rome on a rainy, windy afternoon. After checking into our Airbnb apartment, we located the closest supermarket (right around the corner 😊) and stocked up on baguettes, coffee, and salami for the week. (Italian essentials!) And then we set out to explore…

Our apartment was only a block away from Piazza Navona, and a few minutes walk from Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon…

The next day the sun came back out and after a bit of investigation we realized that Largo di Torre Argentina was only 5 minutes away from our apartment. We had to go see where Julius Caesar was assassinated! (And also, we wanted to see “Caesar’s cats!” Torre Argentina)

We decided to adopt a cat!

This is Brutus (it seemed fitting- “et tu, Brute?”). He’s blind, and deaf…probably un-adoptable. 😢 We spent some time petting him (he purred and loved the attention, sweet boy) and then filled out the paperwork.

And we did a lot of walking. Just…walking. Exploring. We walked along the Tiber, and we found cute little alleyways to explore, and we just meandered and tried (as much as possible) to avoid to hordes of tourists…

Spoleto (1)

Walking the streets of Spoleto is a constant delight for a history lover such as myself. I drive Tim crazy by constantly stopping to take pictures of the lovely old doors…

…or the charming old fountains…

…or squeal when I see picturesque alleyways. And then we get distracted and wander down the alleyways, or stairways, just to see where they lead. (And often get lost!) That’s the charm of Spoleto.

But eventually you get where you’re heading…in our case, yesterday it was first to the Duomo.

I’m going to be honest. I wasn’t really excited about visiting another church. Let’s be real- we’ve seen a lot of churches at this point, right? But…holy cow. This church? Wow!

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, or the Duomo, is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen. The Cathedral, which was apparently rebuilt at the end of the twelfth century, took the place of the ancient building of Santa Maria del Vescovato (8th-9th century), which had replaced a primitive Christian temple.

I don’t know how old the mosaic tile floors are…but they’re old. And they’re beautiful.

There is a magnificent fresco painted by Fillipo Lippi (he is also buried there.)

The Duomo also has a fragment of a letter written by St Francis of Assisi (!!!). It is kept in a reliquary of the church. It is actually only a fragment of a letter, written on goatskin, estimated to have been written around 1225 when St. Francis was nearly blind and suffering the effects of stigmata. It was written to Brother Leo, one of his earliest and closest followers. But STILL…Saint Francis!

Also, look at how the afternoon sunlight reflects the gold leaf on the fresco outside the church – isn’t that breathtaking?

We then took the amazing travelators to the top of the hill to see the Ponte delle Torri, an ancient Roman aqueduct which was rebuilt in the fourteenth century. It was a splendid day, with perfect weather and we enjoyed the walk immensely. The views were superb, and the leaves were just starting to turn…it was gorgeous.

We then climbed a bit further still to the Rocca Albornoziana or La Rocca, which was built in the fourteenth century as a residence of the Pope. It was designed as both a residence and a fortress. Lucrezia Borgia also apparently resided at La Rocca. From 1817-1962 it was used as a prison.

There are remnants of lovely frescoes remaining on the walls today.

Rocca Albornoziana

Arrived in Spoleto

When we arrived in Italy, we had only the vaguest of plans of where we would go and where we would stay (after Milan.) Our plan was, basically, to be vagabonds – albeit, middle-aged vagabonds. We had a loose plan of trying to fit in a few days in Venice, Florence, Rome…and maybe Siena in Tuscany.

Obviously, our plans have changed a bit. We decided on Spoleto in Umbria rather than Siena in Tuscany, for several reasons. First, haven’t you heard? “Umbria is the new Tuscany.” Or so they say. But seriously, Siena is supposed to be great, but I started researching Spoleto and fell a bit in love with it. And after the overload of tourists in Florence (we loved Florence, we did! But next time we go will be in the middle of winter, rainy season, with few tourists!) we decided to cut Venice out of our plans. We just couldn’t deal with yet another crazy, tourist laden, city where you can barely walk. So we’ll plan another trip in the off season to visit Venice.

But, in the meantime, here we are in Spoleto. Spoleta is an ancient city in Umbria in the Apennine foothills. The Roman name was Spoletium. The first historical mention of Spoletium is the notice of the foundation of a colony there in 241 BC. After the Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BC) Spoletium was attacked by Hannibal. The inhabitants fought back fiercely and sent Hannibal and his elephants packing! During the Second Punic War the city was a useful ally to Rome…and there are reminders of Rome everywhere.

Roman arch, first century BC

Column from old Roman temple, first century AD

Teatro Romano

Firenze, part 2

It’s an odd thing, to finally get the chance to see works of art that you’ve seen in books, that you’ve studied and analyzed and talked about in classes all your life. It almost feels surreal.

It felt a bit like that when the kids were young and we took them to Paris and went to The Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa. That one was, honestly, a bit of a let down. It’s so small in real life. The best part of that experience was how kind the guards were – seeing the children and coming and getting them, and letting them go in front of the crowds and the rope and right up in front of the painting so they could see.

So, when Tim said he’d booked tickets for Galleria Uffizi and Galleria Accademia, I was excited and also a bit nervous. Would the original David also not live up to the hype? And of all the Renaissance painters I’ve studied, most I’m just “meh” about (Rubens? Whatevs. I mean, Leonardo…sure, fine.) But. BOTTICELLI? Y’all. I love Botticelli. Those faces. The colors. The details. The faces.

We started at Accademia and our tour guide was Rosa, an adorable, tiny Italian lady who held up a red rose (she was so short it was the only way we could locate her in the crowds of people!)

Rape of the Sabine

The David. It was magnificent. It was powerful. It was beyond words. Michelangelo was a genius.

We then commenced the walking portion of our tour through the medieval part of town, learning more about the Medicis and about Dante Alighieri.

Palazzo Vecchio

And finally we went to Galleria Uffizi, where we saw many Renaissance masters…

Rubens

Caravaggio

Leonardo da Vinci

There were lots of statues, all collected by the Medicis…

But…of course, y’all want to know about the Botticellis, don’t you?

Oh. My. Gawd.

They were incredible.

Sure, Birth of Venus is there, and of course it was AMAZING to see this masterpiece in person! But, honestly, it’s not my favorite.

Oh sure, allegory, symbolism, blah blah blah. I know. But, I like art for the way it makes me feel. And…I don’t really feel much with this one. Sorry. I’m not an art expert, I’m just me.

Those are better.

But these…

Look at those faces!

But this is a favorite…

Or maybe the one above it. Oh, I just love Botticelli.

Anyway, it was a great day. The museums themselves were gorgeous. Every ceiling was painted, each itself a work of art. Amazing.

(As you can tell, clearly the art, the museums, the history were just too much for me. It was an amazing, wonderful day. And, truly…gazing upon the angelic, serene, radiant faces that Botticelli painted left me without words…)

Firenze, (part 1)

After leaving our hotel in Cadenabbia, we took the ferry across to Varenna and then took a regional train to Milano Centrale. Milano Centrale is huge – it’s akin to an airport, really. We had about an hour an a half to wait before our train left for Florence so we went to one of the numerous eateries and grabbed lunch before we tried to figure out where our train was…(more on that in a later post)

It was late afternoon when we arrived in Florence, and once we found our (rather charming) Airbnb apartment near the Duomo (dating from the 1500’s!), and ran to the supermarket, and unpacked…we were exhausted.

The next day we wandered a bit around the Duomo, saw the crowds, said “nah”….and headed over to Palazzo dei Pitti And Boboli Gardens. I’ve always been fascinated by the Medicis, so this one wasn’t a hard sell for me at all!

The next day we wandered around for a bit before hiking up the hill to Pizzale Michelangelo.

After that big expenditure of energy, we needed a reward! Now you see it…

Now you don’t!

(Florence, part 2 coming soon…featuring Botticelli 😍)

Lake Como

We left Milano Centrale for Como, and from there got on a ferry boat (car ferry) which went up the lake to Tremezzo/Cadenabbia; our stop. We had made reservations at a hotel, per our last Milan Airbnb host’ recommendations. They told us the ferries made frequent stops at this town and it was a very nice hotel. They were correct.

We arrived on a cold, rainy, foggy day and it was still breathtakingly gorgeous. The surrounding mountains were shrouded in clouds, mysteriously, and there was a stillness and an air of quiet that was very restful after the hustle and bustle of Milan.

Our hotel offered us a free upgrade when we arrived, and we had a huge terrace overlooking the lake, which was a wonderful surprise!

We decided to immediately get to work investigating the lake (cough cough, looking for George Clooney, cough cough), and walked down to the ferry pier to cross the lake to Bellagio.

The next day we awoke to clear blue skies. If I thought the lake was beautiful on a cloudy, gloomy, rainy day? It was unimaginably spectacular on a clear day! We decided to buy the “day pass” which means you can get on and off the ferries between Tremezzo/Cadenabbia, Bellagio, Varenna and Menaggio. We started in Varenna because I’d read that it had a medieval part of town, and I was intrigued. Varenna did not disappoint. We LOVED Varenna!

And then we went to Menaggio, another cute little lakeside town…

Saturday morning was our last breakfast in the hotel, and last views of the lake….

We thoroughly enjoyed our brief sojourn on the lake, exploring the charming lakeside villages and traversing the lake via ferry. The scenery is stunning. But I must admit to a bit of disappointment- I never did see George Clooney.

Milano

We started our Italian adventure in Milan, and decided to stay at an Airbnb because why not? We’ve never done it before, but we know lots of people who have, and decided to give it a try…

The apartment wasn’t ready when we arrived (we were early), but our host lived in the building also and told us to come to her apartment to leave our luggage. When we arrived (bedraggled and jet lagged, and in desperate need of caffeine) she had espressos waiting for us, and recommendations for good restaurants in the neighborhood while we waited for the apartment to be cleaned.

The apartment was wonderful, we had a lovely nap, and the next day we were ready to explore Milan.

Right around the corner was the Santa Maria delle Grazie, the Church where the refectory has the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. We tried to get tickets to see it, ( I mean, y’all, it was literally a 5 minute walk!) but we found out you need to purchase tickets in advance. Like, 3-4 weeks in advance, at least. Oops. Planning ahead when traveling, not something the VK’s do well.

We went to the Duomo. It was beautiful. It was big. It was crowded with crazy tourists.

But then, we walked to another church I had read about, San Bernardino alle Ossa. The Church has an ossuary, a small side chapel, which is decorated with human skulls and bones. It dates from the Middle Ages when, apparently, they ran out of room in the graveyards due to the numerous plague victims. I know it sounds macabre, but honestly- it wasn’t. It was sad. But there was a somber, reverential feeling to the arrangement of the bones. It didn’t feel macabre or creepy; simply respectful. And, it was…lovely? I don’t know the right word. But I found it fascinating, and it was one of my favorite things in Milan.

After that we walked to see the Colonne di San Lorenzo, which is a group of ancient Roman ruins. I realize we’ll be seeing a lot more of those soon enough, but I never get tired of old stuff.

And finally we finished the day by walking to the Navigli, or canal area, where we had a gelato before heading back to the apartment and a lovely dinner in the neighborhood.

:

The last day in Milan we intended to go to a museum. We had directions on the phone and left , thinking it was a 20 minute walk. An hour later we were still walking. We were hot and thirsty and annoyed and confused. The roads kept changing names. There was road construction. The map app kept refreshing and giving different directions and different arrival times. Finally we found the damn place. And then I swear to God we couldn’t find the freaking entrance! We walked around that building I don’t even know how many times. I was about ready to spit.

So…long story short, we did not go see the Leonardo exhibit at the Museum of Science and Technology, as awesome as it sounded. We gave up.

But!

We did have dinner and a cooking lesson, sort of) with our new friends, M & A at their apartment that evening, where they taught us (tried to, anyway!) to make Risotto alla Milanese and Cotoletta alla Milanese (veal cutlets.) it was a lively evening filled with fun conversation, fantastic food, good wine, and new friends! Grazie mille!

Final Day – Nations Unies

Our final day in Geneva we wanted to catch a train to Montreux…but we still hadn’t done the United Nations tour, and that was, after all, one of the main reasons we came to Geneva! (For anyone who doesn’t know, Paige is majoring in International Affairs and French, and taking a class in human rights violations next semester, so this was something she really wanted to do.) Also, the nasty little bug she picked up was really wearing her down, so we decided to do the U.N. tour, walk around town a bit, and then retire early and get packed and ready for our early start the next day. 




We thoroughly enjoyed the tour and learned so much. We learned about the history of The Palais des Nations. It was built after World War I to serve as the headquarters for the League of Nations. The grounds are quite lovely. It’s located in Ariana Park, which was bequeathed to the city of Geneva in 1890 by a man named Gustave de Revilliod de la Rive, on the conditions that the park always be open to the public and that he be buried there. Geneva honored his conditions. His grave is grave is there, and we saw (and heard) several peacocks strolling by. 

We had the opportunity to walk through a couple of the assembly and conference halls, and were even able to observe a conference on human rights, poverty and access to seeds (I think?) 
We learned about the sculptures in the park, as well. The central piece is the Celestial Sphere, which was donated by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. (President Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his efforts to promote and establish the League of Nations.) The Celestial Sphere gilt has eroded and it no longer turns, but it’s still quite impressive. 


Behind Celestial Sphere is Rebirth, three circles of 193 stones representing the 193 member states of the United Nations. The design is supposed to represent the infinity sign, and the three circles represent the worlds of nature, technology, and a world where people can work together to promote peace, bridge differences, find sustainable development and create dialogue. 

There are other sculptures throughout the park, including one dedicated to the conquerors of space and one for Ghandi, which was a gift from the Indian government. And of course, there’s the famous Broken Chair.


The tour was fascinating, inspiring and heartening. It is a bit embarrassing though, as an American, to hear that we still do not have an Ambassador in Geneva. Or Paris…Brussels…well, basically anywhere, really. One would hope, after several months in his new job, that our president would have realized the importance of diplomacy and of the State Department and the United Nations. 

And the U.N. is important. The dialogue between the member states is critical. The work they do on human rights, sustainable development, disarmament, and gender equality are admirable. We’re so happy we did this tour.