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Epic Trip to Italy The Tosteruds take 2 babies, 1 teenager and a mother-in-law to italy for 2 weeks

In the fall of 2016 our family took a trip to Italy. This was our “Two weeks in Italy” trip that spanned the last week of October and first week of November. Although not considered the high season for tourism, it was toward the end of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy for the Catholic Church, and there were a lot of people there on religious pilgrimages. Being Catholic, we were there as pilgrims, but we did a lot of touring as well.

Putting up with me for the trip were my wife Heidi, Heidi’s mother Valerie, 13-year-old Gabrielle, 20-month-old Tommy and 10-week-old Claire. That’s two babies in car seats and diapers. To afford such a trip neither baby had ticketed seats on the flights; they were both lap-infants. Did you know that you have to pay a tax on lap-infants when coming back into the US? You do. It was about $180 per kid, and they still didn’t have seats.

At her age, Claire didn’t require a ton of attention; she basically just ate and slept and eliminated waste. Tommy, on the other hand, was always the wildcard. He’s traditionally been a pretty good traveler, but this was, obviously, the oldest he’s ever been and by far the longest journey. He did great, but, you know, there were challenges. It seemed like the holier the site, the more rambunctious he wanted to be.

I’ll mention now that we only stayed in VRBO places in Italy – no hotels. You get a lot more bang for your buck with VRBO. We basically stayed in home-like settings (an apartment, a farmhouse, a villa – that kind of stuff) for a LOT less money than hotels. But there were trade-offs, certain inconveniences we had to put up with at each one: Things like not having enough toilet paper, tiny showers that only kind of worked, no paper towels or coffee, and the eccentricities of the proprietors. Weird fees and regulations plagued us at each location. Still, it’s definitely worth it to go this route. The amenities far outweighed the annoyances.

It was an epic adventure for sure. There was no down time. We packed every day with incredible experiences. There were some tears, and a little blood, but I wouldn’t change a minute of any of it.

The images I’ve included here are only a fraction of those captured on this trip. I hope you’ll be interested enough to visit the full gallery of pictures from Italy.

Like any journey for us, the first thing we had to do was get off Vashon Island. We loaded up the Odyssey with car seats, the stroller, and all our luggage and drove onto the ferry. The decision to drive to the airport was a last-minute one. We also debated taking the huge jogging stroller and car seats, but we ended up being glad we did all those things. Valerie was travelling on non-rev airline passes and had to work out her own flights. She left for Rome one day before us, so I think she was already there by the time we began our adventure.

This image of Vashon Island from the air was taken on a different trip, but since I haven’t shown one photo yet in this supposedly photo-centric story, I thought I’d sneak it in.

We drove to the Sea-Tac airport in Seattle and dropped everyone and everything off. Heidi took the minivan to her work parking lot nearby, so we wouldn’t have to pay for parking, and then came back to us. We boarded our first flight and left for Philadelphia. This was the only segment where I got to sit in first class with Tommy. He would be on my lap for all our flights and was an absolute trooper throughout the trip. He slept for half of the way to Philly and was very well-behaved for the other half. That was a 5 ½ hour flight.

Tommy looking out the window from his First Class seat. We began the trip with bags of snacks and toys for the kids and everything that might be needed to make travelling with infants go smoothly. By the time we returned, we were lucky if they were wearing pants.

The flight from Philly to Rome is, wait for it, an international one. Because of this, we had to collect all our bags in Philly and then bring them to the international terminal and re-check them. We switched carriers from Alaska Air to American Airlines, and this meant a very long walk from the D terminal to A at Philly International. Heidi stayed inside security with the babies for this, and Gabbie and I had quite an ordeal getting everything back together for the second flight. In spite of having a three hour layover, we barely made the plane to Rome. A very helpful gate agent in Philly got us an entire row (on a 757 – we had 7 seats!) to ourselves. This was an awesome perk for us and made the 7 hour flight to Rome much more bearable.

We left Seattle at 10:00 in the morning on Friday and landed in Rome at about 9:30 am on Saturday. We were tired and stressed and totally unprepared for our first (and, thankfully, worst) nightmare of the trip – the landlady Lucia and the apartment on Nicolo III.

View from the street in front of our apartment in Rome. Some of us spent quite a bit of time down there on the street.

Saturday, October 22nd (Rome)

We had some difficulty with the local ATM's and the landlady of the apartment we stayed at in Rome. It took some time, but eventually we got things straightened out.

Gabbie and Tommy killing time while the adults sorted things out. I was with these two, down on the street.

In spite of the rough start, we enjoyed a beautiful, spacious apartment near St. Peter's square. It was in a great, historic building that felt centrally located to everywhere we wanted to go.

View from the stairwell of our apartment in Rome

The elevator in this old building was a bit of a novelty. You had to manually open and close a set of gates and doors, and the pulley system was completely exposed. Tom was fascinated by it and almost always yelled “Yay!” when it went up and down. It was so small and rickety and slow, though, that it got old. The novelty wore off. Not for Tommy; he loved it the whole time.

To keep us from falling asleep right way, we had a walking tour of Rome booked for that evening. We barely made it to the meeting point on time, but off we went to walk around Rome for a few hours after flying overnight and arguing with a wicked landlady.

The walk from the area of St Peter’s Square to Piazza Navona is not insignificant. We were the last people to arrive for the Sunset Walking Tour of Rome, and they had been waiting for us. It was during this tour when Tommy was first called Tomassino, and it stuck.

An unplanned capture of Ponte Sant’Angelo, which spans the Tiber river, with Castel Sant’Angelo on the left. It was unplanned in that I didn’t set out to get it; we just happened to be walking across an adjacent bridge. I think the clouds and light cooperated nicely to give an interesting view of this oft-photographed scene.

We met at the Brazilian Embassy and then walked around Piazza Navona . We saw and discussed the Fontana dei Fiumi and the obelisk on top of it. We admired Sant’Agnese in Agone and a lot of other amazing buildings. I heard names like Bramante and Bernini and wondered what it must be like to live around this ancient architecture where the structures are many centuries older than the entire country in which I live. We saw and did a lot of things that evening, but the highlights include:

  • The Chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena (which was gorgeous in the sunset light)
  • The Pantheon (it was crowded)
  • The Spanish Steps (lots of people there)
  • Trevi Fountain (TONS of people there)
Chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena in sunset light

I think Valerie and Gabbie did the throw-a-coin-over-your-shoulder thing at Trevi Fountain, but I can’t be sure. There were so many people there that they were just absorbed into the crowd. We ate gelato (which was actually part of the tour), and our guide told us how to drink out of Roman water fountains like locals. They have really good water in Rome. Coming from the Pacific NW, I’m used to good water right out of the tap (water snob?). Rome has that too.

Icons like this are everywhere in Rome

By the time we were done, it was dark, and we were really tired. Because of this, we took a taxi back to our apartment. This was our first taste of a really Roman taxi (the trip from the airport was more of a hired shuttle). Getting a taxi would soon become an unpleasant stress point for us. One of the first Italian phrases I learned was “Quattro adulti, due bambini.” Upon telling the drivers that we had two babies with us, at least half of them would shout, “Impossibile!” gesture wildly, and then drive off. Of the ones who agreed to take us, we still had the challenge of fitting the big stroller in the (often small) vehicle somewhere.

Sant’Agnese in Agone

Every taxi-getting event was stressful, but it was just something we had to put up with. You’re not required to put babies in car seats in taxis in Italy. Perhaps we’re bad parents, but we didn’t want to drag the seats around with us everywhere we went and install and uninstall them in every cab. Tommy loved facing forward from the backseat and often said “Wheeee” while we drove.

Peeking out from a Roman alley

Driving in Italy is INSANE. At least, from the perspective of my American experience, it’s insane. I’m talking about the big cities here, like Rome, but there is an element of craziness everywhere we went. It’s every person for them self, and people drive as fast as they can all the time. Plus the streets are much smaller than in America. But no matter how small the street is, no matter how much it seems like it would be for pedestrian traffic only, there will be people driving on it. And just when you think it can’t get any tighter, you’ll discover that it’s actually two-way traffic . . . and cars will be parked on it.

Here there be Motocicli (and tiny Roman cars in the background)

Motorcycles are everywhere. They’re not the big, loud Harley-Davidson-style bikes we see in America, but there weren’t a lot of scooters either. They’re kind of an in-between size, and these drivers are the craziest of all. It’s like they have a death wish. They drive a million miles per hour and pass cars on either side, at any time. But car drivers aren’t much different. If you want to turn left, across an on-coming lane of traffic, you don’t wait for an opening. You just go. You turn right into the on-coming traffic that is going at-speed, and people will make an opening. And that’s the thing – this crazy, death-defying system of driving works because everyone plays by the same rules. I didn’t see any accidents or pedestrians getting hit during my time there. Of course, I also had my eyes covered some of the time while riding in taxis (not kidding).

Sant’Agnesse and the Obelisk of Fontana dei Fiumi at Sunset (contrails neither added nor removed in Photoshop)

Another thing we found out quickly is that most people do not speak English, even in a big city like Rome. The next time someone tells you that “They speak English everywhere,” ask them if they’ve actually been to the country in which they claim English is spoken. We occasionally came across servers in restaurants who spoke pretty good English, but for most people the best they could manage was only a few words. To that end, Google Translate was my friend. I leaned on this app heavily, and for the most part it came through for me. There were a few times, though, when Google’s translation was a bit too literal, and this made for some amusing (at my expense) exchanges.

I asked a local where a store was that I could buy diapers at. Perhaps something was lost in the translation because this place wasn’t even open.

Everybody was interested in Claire. Strangers everywhere we went asked how old she was, so I had to learn how to respond to that. “Dieci settimane,” I’d say (and gesture wildly with my hands), to indicate she was 10 weeks old. During the trip she transitioned to being 11 weeks old, but I wasn’t going to learn a new number.

Claire – Ten weeks old for two weeks

Sunday, October 23rd (Rome - The Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum)

We started the day with a walk to the Vatican, which was just a few blocks from our apartment. Along the way, we stopped at a café for a typical Italian breakfast of coffee and croissant. It was like I’d never eaten a croissant before this. They were that good – fresh, warm, buttery and perfectly flaky. It’s hard to describe just how incredible this simple pastry was. It’s also surprising how long we lasted on this humble breakfast. One croissant and a tiny cup of espresso (I’d order espresso doble after this, so I'd have more to sip on), and we were set all day. We came back with a taste for this Italian-style breakfast and became even greater coffee snobs than we were before (which isn’t easy in Seattle).

Tomassino waiting for his coffee and croissant. All he needs is a scarf and a man-bun, and he’d fit right in. Wouldn’t Tommy look delightfully ridiculous wearing a scarf?

We walked into the Vatican through a mob-like security line. We learned that there is airport-level security at all the important locations in Italy, especially the major religious buildings and historic sites. Some of this happened after 9/11, but most of the increased security is because of the 2015 Paris attacks. There is an armed military presence everywhere, but it doesn’t feel intrusive. Between the Polizia, the Carabinieri and the military I felt safe, not burdened. Still, there’s men with machine guns all over the place, and you better not think about taking pictures of them.

The central pediment and statues on top of St. Peter’s Basilica. The tympanum features the Crown and Keys symbol of the Roman Catholic Papacy. Also, I figured out a way to casually use the words “pediment” and “tympanum” in the caption.

We didn’t know that there was an Angelus scheduled for that morning (check out here and here for what was said). We couldn’t understand why there were so many people gathered in St. Peter’s Square until we heard Pope Francis start talking. My wife wants me to point out that she knew there was an Angelus scheduled and that I was just ignorant.

Travel is not for everyone, and this was not the only small child I saw in St. Peter’s Square who’d had enough.

At one point during the blessing, the Holy Father asked for a moment of silence. And you know what? It was freakin’ silent for that moment. The only single person I could hear talking (out of hundreds of thousands) was a volunteer coordinator. We heard the Pope speak but didn’t actually see him from our location. We were going to go to Mass at St. Peter’s basilica, but that didn’t work out due to time constraints. We had some other things scheduled but would be back to St. Peter’s on another day. This first view inside the walls of the Vatican was an impressive and inspiring preview.

A small part of the line to get into St. Peter’s Basilica. Waiting in massive lines would be an on-going theme during this trip, but we got to meet interesting people.

Our scheduled tour this day was for the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. All of it was incredible. Coming from such a young country, it’s enlightening and humbling to be around so many ancient structures. You see a lot of these places on TV and in movies, but to be right there is something else entirely.

You already know that the underground area was used to stage gladiators and animals, but did you know that it is two stories tall, had working elevators, and could be used to flood the Colosseum to recreate naval battles?

Did you know that the Colosseum is actually a double amphitheater? The term Colosseum doesn’t refer to the structure’s size or shape; it means that it stood next to a colossus. There used to be a giant statue of Nero in front of the building, and that’s where the name Colosseum comes from. Being such a large and famous Colosseum, the term came down from the ages and morphed into what we call coliseums today. But originally it just meant a building near a colossus.

It’s hard to find an angle on the Colosseum without a ton of people in the frame.

Palatine Hill is right across the street from the Colosseum. This is said to be the first hill of the city of Rome, the location where the empire started. The apocryphal story of Romulus and Remus is well-told, and Romulus’ hill is Palatine Hill. Regardless of the authenticity of that tale, the Hill is pretty much the center of Rome and the site where the emperors built their palaces.

At the entrance to Palatine Hill, you’ll find what used to be the servants’ quarters for those who maintained the palaces. I believe one of these pictured here is for the guy who kept the WiFi up and running for Augustus.

Most of the ancient sites we visited in Italy had some amount of modern art installed on the property. In Pompeii, modern trappings were everywhere. On Palatine Hill, modern intrusions (my opinion) into antiquity were limited, but somewhat baffling.

Modern art installed in the emperor’s old walking track. Or, how I can’t go anywhere without being reminded of my station in life.

That image above is no joke. Well, maybe it’s a joke, but not one perpetrated with Photoshop. That sign is really there, and it’s call art, loser. Our tour guide explained to us that Italians have always been concerned with their digestion (this is also not a joke). The walking track above was for the emperor to get some exercise after meals.

This is someone’s old courtyard. It would have been a water feature, as evidenced by the blue flowers that are maintained there now (blue flowers now means water feature in antiquity - that's the code).

I’m not sure if it was because of the time of year we were there or not, but the days in Italy were very short, and the sun set quickly. On this particular day, however, the cloud cover extended twilight by quite a bit. We transitioned from Palatine Hill down into the Forum in this extended twilight.

View from the Forum. This isn’t so much of the Forum as from standing inside it.

I wonder how many of our great buildings will be around 2000 years from now. I’m guessing not many, or at least not as many as from this epic era in Western Civilization.

The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina

The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was probably by favorite structure in the Forum. Although much smaller than the great basilicas we’d visit on this trip, it is still a very imposing edifice. Notice the green door up there, which is huge by the way. This was originally a pagan temple that was later retrofitted into a Christian church. Not all of the building elements have survived to this day, and there is about a 10 foot gap between the steps and that door. For some reason, this added to the other-worldly nature of the place for me.

The remaining three (they’re huge) columns of the Temple of Castor in the Roman Forum

We walked around the city that night, looking for a place to eat, when we stumbled upon a smallish church (the name of which unfortunately escapes me) where Mass was about to start. Since it was Sunday, and we hadn’t been to Mass yet, we took advantage of the opportunity. This was our first Italian Mass.

Tommy got a little rambunctious during the service, so he and I had to wait outside.

After that, it was dinner and another taxi ride. I asked the driver if he knew how to get to the “Piazza di San Pietro,” and he laughed at me and said “Si.” That would be like asking a NYC taxi driver if he knows how to get to Times Square (something about practicing?). This was one of the few pleasant drivers we had.

Monday, October 24th (Rome – The Major Basilicas)

We walked to the Vatican again and had the same breakfast at the same place as the day before. Getting into the Vatican was easier without the Angelus happening, but we had to stand in a tremendous line (there were always tremendous lines) to get into St. Peter’s basilica. With our big stroller and the Italian style of standing in line like a wild mob, it was not fun. We made it through though and again developed a bit of a bond with the people who endured it near us.

A Swiss Guard at the main entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica. All of the Holy Doors were open while we were in Italy (but this is not actually one of them).

WOW! My mind was absolutely blown. Words can’t describe the beauty and grandeur and sheer awesomeness of it. Even the portico at the entrance is awe-inspiring, and that’s before you walk in the building. To enter, we passed through the Holy Doors, which are normally seal (with concrete) for 25 years at a time. They were open when we were there during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy and became the first through which we passed during this trip.

The first dome you pass under when entering St. Peter’s Basilica. This isn’t the main dome, or even a centrally-located dome. It’s just one of many.

The first thing you encounter is Michelangelo’s Pietà. It is behind bullet- and bomb-proof glass, but that doesn’t diminish its humbling magnificence. People go to school to learn about things like this, so we won’t go into detail about all the incredible art you’ll find inside St. Peter’s Basilica. I'll mention, though, that if you look closely at the Pietà, you'll see that Mary's bare hand never directly touches Jesus' bare skin.

Michelangelo’s Pietà. I still can’t believe I was actually there and saw this in person.

A person could easily spend hours walking around and taking everything in. If they let us use tripods I could have spent days there taking pictures. If we could somehow remove all the people, I could spend weeks. Verily, I was blown away (in spite of the bomb-proof glass).

Ceiling above the nave in St. Peter’s Basilica. If you line up that ray of sun with an amulet on top of a staff that’s exactly the right length, it will show you where the Arc of the Covenant is located.

It’s difficult to convey the scale and shear magnitude of this building in pictures or words. It was filled with people when we were there, but we still felt tiny compared to the grandeur of the architecture. This was my first major basilica, and I was unaware of how every square inch of space is filled with amazing, masterful, awe-spiring art.

This is as close as people could get to the front of the main alter. It should give some sense of scale for the building, at least this one small part of the building.

Another thing I didn’t know about basilicas is that, in addition to the main nave and alter area in the center, there are usually several chapels along the sides. Although physically smaller than the main area, each one is still ornately decorated and filled with tradition and symbolism.

The Altar of Immaculate Conception in St. Peter’s Basilica

While researching all the captions for my photos, I found this useful and interesting guide to the floorplan of St. Peter’s Basilica. I wish I could find something like this for every place we visited. After St. Peter’s Basilica, we went out for our scheduled tour of the other major basilicas in Rome:

The facade of St. John Lateran. We saw a lot of facades on this trip.

Although smaller than St. Peter’s Basilica, St. John Lateran is no less impressive. We entered through the Holy Doors, during which time photography is not allowed. You can take pictures outside and inside, but video and photography is not allowed while actually walking through the doors. Upon entering I was once again struck by the massive scale and all-encompassing artwork.

The apse and cathedra in St. John Lateran. That's the Pope's seat.

St. John Lateran is the ecumenical mother church for Roman Catholics. The Pope is also considered the Bishop of Rome, and Rome, like all parishes, has its own cathedral. Although located outside of the Vatican-proper, this is the Pope’s church and houses his ecclesiastical seat. That's what a cathedral is - a church that houses a cathedra, the Bishop's seat.

The wooden sculpture Mary Mother of God, donated by Pope Francis to St. John Lateran.

At one point we were at the Chiesa Rettoria San Lorenzo in Palatio, which is across the street from St. John Lateran and the place where you ascend the steps on your knees like Jesus did. It wasn’t a super religious moment due to all the construction and traffic noise, and we didn’t really have time to scale the Scala Santa properly while on a guided tour. We saved this for another trip.

The painted ceiling of the staircase NEXT to the Scala Santa

We had to hop on a shuttle bus to get to St. Paul Outside the Walls. It’s “outside the walls” in that it is located beyond the Aurelian Walls that encompass the Seven Hills of Rome. We passed through one of the gates on our way to the basilica, but you’d never feel like you were outside of modern-day Rome.

The portico surrounding the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. A couple days later, this was cracked from an earthquake.

I realize I sound like a broken record, but the interior was, once again, enormous and ornate. A portion of the portico was damaged by earthquake one or two days after we visited. We found out about the damage later in the week when we read a newspaper in a cafe in Montalcino.

The dome above the alter at St. Paul Outside the Walls. There’s no way to convey how massive this is. The Apostles depicted along the bottom are probably at least 10 feet tall.

In 1823, much of the building was destroyed by fire, so what we see today is “new” since then. Surviving elements (already 1400 years old at the time of the fire) can be seen throughout the property.

Elements of the original basilica of St. Paul, before the fire of 1823

This was a lot to take in in just one day and only the third of the four major basilicas we visited. After St. Paul’s, we hopped back on the shuttle and headed back inside the walls on our way to the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

The facade of Santa Maria Maggiore

All of the Papal Major Basilicas are located in Rome, but Santa Maria Maggiore is more tightly situated within the city. It was difficult to get a shot of the exterior without the intrusion of a busy metropolis. The interior, however, was just as majestic as anything else we’d seen that day.

Just one of the domes in Santa Maria Maggiore

Under the high altar is the Crypt of the Nativity. Recalling the manger scene, a crystal reliquary holds wood from the actual crib in which Christ was born outside that famous inn. You can look down into this crypt, but it was so dark that none of my pictures turned out very well.

The dome over the high altar at Santa Maria Maggiore

The famed architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini is buried inside this basilica, with a very humble tomb marker next to the altar. He’s responsible for much of the look-and-feel of Rome but rests quietly within this grand space.

Behind Santa Maria Maggiore

This was the last stop on our Major Basilicas tour. Remember, we started the day standing in line at St. Peter’s in the Vatican, and that wasn’t even part of the actual tour. We were hungry and tired, but hungry, so eating was our next priority. Our tour guide suggested we walk to the Monti District and pick out one of the restaurants there, but we didn’t make it that far. Keep in mind that we always have two babies with us. The place we ended up eating at turned out to be one of our favorites in Rome. It was also the first time they brought us free liqueurs after dinner. Not being drinkers, we had to decline, but not without noticing that there was a glass offered to our 13-year-old Gabbie.

I almost captioned this by saying it’s Heidi, Claire and Gabbie at the “Italian” restaurant.

Tuesday, October 25th (Rome – The Vatican Museums)

The Vatican Museums. We can I say? These were incredible. I’d received advice to get in as early as possible, and we booked a thing where we got to into the museums two hours before they opened to the general public. The first hour was taken up with breakfast, and we couldn’t leave that area until 8:00, one hour before the museums were open to the rest of the world. That one hour was enough.

The Gallery of Maps – almost empty of people

One of my white whales of photography has been the spiral staircase in the Vatican Museums. I did my homework and knew right where to find it. Many thanks go to Scott Kelby for unselfishly sharing information on this that helped me make it happen. As soon as we were released, my group headed to the Sistine Chapel with everyone else who came in early, while I moved quickly to the gift shop at the exit. I found the staircase, bereft of people. I walked around it to look at the angles and then got my shots. I consider this a huge win for me and something I can check off my photographic bucket list.

The modern Bramante staircase, in the gift shop of the Vatican Museums. Notice that it's a double helix; there are actually two staircases.

After the staircase shot, I caught up with the family in the Sistine Chapel. They don’t allow photography in there, and there’s nothing I can say that would come close to describing the awe I felt at being inside this great hall with its incredible artwork. I mainly remember the guy standing on a platform, occasionally saying "no foto" to people who fail to heed the warning about not taking pictures.

Not in the Sistine Chapel.

I can’t recommend enough getting early access to the Vatican Museums. We weren’t on a guided tour; we just got in early. Since most everyone goes to the Sistine Chapel first, and we had already been there, we stayed ahead of the massive crowds for awhile. Eventually the masses caught up to us, and we were enveloped in an ocean of people. That’s how it is – it gets super busy there really fast.

Fifteen minutes later, and you’d hardly be able to move in this area.

Even up on the second floor, in nearly empty galleries, you just have a sense when 9:00 comes around that the museums are open to the general public. Imagine walking through the Gallery of Tapestries when you pause because something is just . . . different. They’re here. A tremendous horde of people are rushing into the building.

I took a lot of pictures of a lot of ceilings during this trip, but never more so than in the Vatican Museums.

We spent about six hours total throughout the museums and I would go back in a second. The whole place is incredible, but if you’re curious, my favorite areas (besides the Sistine Chapel, where photography is not allowed) were the Gallery of Maps and the Raphael Rooms.

At this weird angle you can see a couple of walls and the vaulted ceiling. Every inch of the Raphael Rooms was covered like this. And this is just one corner of one room.

That evening we went to Santa Susanna, an American church in Rome, to see Fr. Gregory about getting our passes to the Papal Audience the next day. When he asked how many were in our group I got to bust out the “Quattro adulti, due bambini” I knew so well from the taxis. We had another fabulous dinner, and I think it was the third time I ate spaghetti alla carbonara.

Another ceiling in another gallery in the mind-altering Vatican Museums

Wednesday, October 26th (Rome - Papal Audience)

This was the day for the Papal Audience where we would definitely see Pope Francis. We tried not to get our hopes up too much, but we thought about what it would be like for our baby Claire to actually be kissed and blessed by il Papa. During the Major Basilicas tour we met a guy from California who had been to a Papal Audience at the Vatican already. He gave us some tips about where to position ourselves in relation to the barricades and said to show up early.

Papal guard asks Heidi if she wants Claire to be blessed by Pope Francis

We arrived at the gate to the Vatican about three hours prior to the scheduled appearance of the Pope. Security is pretty tight, and everyone has to pass through a metal detector under the watch of armed soldiers. Gabbie wasn’t feeling well, so she and Val stayed back at the apartment. Heidi had Claire wrapped up, and I pushed Tommy around in the stroller.

Holding Claire over the barricade looked, to me, like when they hold out cups of water for people running marathons. Luckily the Pope did not splash his face with our baby. Were there a lot of people? Well, that hand you see on Heidi’s back does NOT belong to the read-headed woman in the black top.

Standing in line in Italy is a mess. Courtesy and respect as Americans think about standing in line don’t exist. It’s more of a mob than a line, and it’s everyone for themselves (like driving). I guess you wouldn’t really say this is rude, but rather a cultural difference. There’s a lot of pushing and shoving and cutting going on with people you would otherwise talk to and be nice with. Our progress to the gate was measured in inches, and the stroller was a big hindrance. At one point a recently married couple ended up behind us. She was in her wedding gown, and they had a special seat for the event. It turns out they’re from Seattle. How about that? Of all the hundreds of thousands of people there, of all the mobbish lines and gates, we stood right in front of people who live near us. We talked with them for awhile in line, but there was an issue.

At one point a man who was probably in his 50’s walked right up to the front of our mob and stood there on the side to get in. He was right next to us and attempted to just walk in front of Heidi. She was trying to not let him do this, and he pushed her. This guy actually pushed not only a woman, but a mother holding her infant baby. It was surreal in a bad way. What was I supposed to do? Knock an older guy out while waiting in line to see the Pope? Because of how the people were packed in I wasn’t actually that close to them, and Heidi handled it herself. It did, however, put a bit of a stain on the day. On the plus side, I think the people around us wanted to show their support and gave us a couple inches to get the stroller through. Eventually we got through security and were inside the Vatican.

We walked to one of the less crowed barricades, but even that early there was already one row of people standing there. We wouldn’t be right on the barricade. Providence, my friends. For some reason, we gravitated toward a small group if ladies who identified themselves as “The Military Wives”, but a prayer intentions card they gave us later identified them as the Military Council of Catholic Women. They were very friendly and helpful and pleased with us to stand next to them. They were sure that they could help us get Claire blessed, and that would mean that they would also be very close to the Pope.

Our baby Claire being kissed by Pope Francis

These women were so helpful and friendly. We hung out with them the whole time, and they gave us tons of advice and support. The square started to fill up, and Heidi started holding Claire out over the barricade. As the Pope drove around (we couldn’t actually see him until he was right by us), people started crowding the barricades. Old ladies were standing on rickety plastic chairs. People were becoming hysterical, overwhelmed with emotions and crying. It’s what I imagine Beattlemania being like only on a bigger, holier scale. No, The Beatles were not bigger than Jesus.

When is a blurry image, partially obscured by someone’s head, your favorite out of thousands from an epic trip? When His Holiness The Pope; Bishop of Rome and Vicar Of Jesus Christ; Successor of St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles; Supreme Pontiff Of The Universal Church is kissing your baby girl.

At one point one of the security guards (might have been a Carabiniero) came over to us and asked if we want our baby blessed. He told us to stay where we were, and that’s when I thought that this might actually happen. Sure enough, Pope Francis drove up to us and stopped. A man came and took Claire and handed her to the Pope. People were going NUTS all around us. Pope Francis held and kissed Claire. He blessed her and us, looking Heidi straight in the eye. He couldn’t have been more than ten feet away from us. For a moment, he held Claire’s foot, which I think means something. Then the guards handed Claire back to us, and the Pope moved on.

This wasn’t the end of things. Once we got Claire back, people – total strangers from different countries – waited in line to honor our baby.

Total strangers waiting to honor our baby

People kissed her. People touched her head and prayed over her.

People waiting to kiss Claire

One person even held and kissed the foot that the Pope had touched. There were a lot of people around us, but it didn’t feel like an unruly mob. It was respectful and reverent. After that was over, during the rest of the address, many people in the crowd gave us knowing looks like we were special. We stayed for the address. It started to rain.

Kissing Claire’s feet (this is a Military Wife) while Tommy looks out for miscreants

Standing in light to moderate rain is no big deal for us Pacific Northwest people. I’m not trying to imply that we’re somehow hardier than other people; we just don’t care about rain that much. So Heidi and I had no trouble standing there without umbrellas. We didn’t even really think about it, but other people noticed. A couple that was sitting way over to the side from us noticed, and the man came over and gave us their umbrella. They gestured madly to indicate that we should keep it. After the audience, one of the Wives (who didn’t realize that the couple wanted us to keep their umbrella) took it upon herself to return it to them. Through the crowd of people, the man with the umbrella came back over to us a second time to say, no really, you keep this. That green umbrella will be a treasured gift for us forever.

A rainy Papal Audience

At one point during all of this, someone handed us a card with instructions to go to the official Vatican photography office – Servizio Fotografico – because the Vatican has its own photographers who were documenting the occasion. We got to walk into a place where most people aren’t allowed in order to review the pictures the official photographers took and order prints for ourselves. I think Official Vatican Photographer would be a job title I could get enthusiastic about.

Apparently Gabbie and Valerie made it to the audience, but we didn’t hook up with them until afterward. We met them at a restaurant where we ate our first mediocre meal in Rome.

We were completely unaware at the time that an earthquake had hit Italy that afternoon.

That night Heidi woke up to use the bathroom and asked me to hold Claire. It was dark and quiet, and I was half asleep. Suddenly Heidi shrieked and ran out of the bathroom. “Didn’t you feel that?” she asked. “We just had an earthquake.” Turns out it was an aftershock from the main quake in Sellano. I was the only person in the household who didn’t actually feel what everyone else described as a strong quake. Since this was the day that Claire was blessed by the by the Pope, and I was holding her at the time I didn’t feel an earthquake, I looked at her with some amount of reverence. Whoa, I thought, she has powers now. I told you I was half asleep.

Thursday, October 27th (Orvieto and the Tuscan Countryside)

Leaving Rome – we arranged for a taxi to take us to the train station that is kind of on the edge of the city. We would be driving in Italy from this point forward and felt that starting on the edge of town would mean we wouldn’t have to deal with the craziness of Rome driving that much. We were wrong.

I realized while walking from the train station to the rental car garage that it was going to be tricky to get back. The guy who took me to the car was kind of a greaseball who was immediately mad at me because I didn’t have some piece of paperwork the lady at the counter was supposed to have given me. Still, it was a bit portentous when he handed me the keys and gave me a full-on, two-arm hug as a parting goodbye. Unfortunately his directions back to the train station were somewhat dubious, and I got lost. I had to drive around Rome for about 40 minutes in a gigantic Mercedes-Benz Vito, which is a 9-passenger van. We’ll call this thing The Beast from now on.

Heidi opted to request the automatic transmission, a decision with which the lady at the rental car counter seemed to take exception. It was a good choice, though, because I often needed my right hand to wipe the terror sweat off my face. To say this was stressful is an understatement. I’m proud that I kept from panicking at any point and eventually made it back to pick up the family without getting into or causing any accidents. It was a trial-by-fire that I’m sure paid off later in the trip.

There was a bit of a snafu with a chocolate café before we actually headed out of town. Valerie really wanted to go there, so I won’t go into detail about how I thought it was a bad idea. Eventually we got on our way to Orvieto, where we would spend most of this day.

Freeway driving in Italy is a lot like it is in America. You might even say that it’s safer and more relaxed than driving on freeways in, say, Southern California. There wasn’t much traffic, so it wasn’t a bad drive at all. We got to Orvieto early in the afternoon, and the sun was shining bright. It was cold up there on the hill though. This would be the first of several hill towns we visited. It’s windy and chilly on those hills.

The back of the Orvieto Cathedral. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this for a different striped cathedral that is in Siena.

First we ate lunch. I had a fantastic polenta with some fine, aged balsamic vinegar that was like syrup. Gabbie took a chance and ordered the roast pigeon dish. She loved it, and it would not be the last pigeon she ate on this trip.

Gabbie and Tommy walking the streets of Orvieto

After lunch we walked around the Duomo di Orvieto, the Orvieto Cathedral. This is where the Corporal of Bolsena is kept so we made sure to check that out. Be sure to read up on that miracle.

Pietà in the Duomo di Orvieto

I could have used some clouds that day in Orvieto, when I was taking pictures of the town. But, oh well.

Duomo di Orvieto – The Facade

After several hours in Orvieto we drove on to our farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside, just outside the town of Buoncovento. It was also way up on a hill, but it was dark by the time we arrived, so we didn’t see much. The accommodations were spacious and lush. It was a beautiful place run by a wonderful and friendly family who still work their olive tree farm. In fact, they were harvesting the olives while we were there. After the phone-booth-sized shower at the apartment in Rome, the larger bathroom at the Tuscan farmhouse was most welcome.

I’ll get this out of the way now – Every bathroom in Italy has a bidet. No matter how small it is, and they are all small, there will always be a bidet right next to the toilet. Even some of the public restrooms had a bidet available. There, now you know that.

Friday, October 28th (Tuscany, Montalcino)

I got up bright and early to catch some shots of the Tuscan farm valleys at sunrise. Although the sun had just come up, the proprietor of our VRBO was already busy picking saffron. Safron petals laying on the hill in morning light was not a scene I was expecting.

Saffron petals on a Tuscan hillside at dawn

While everyone else was getting ready for the day, Tom and I spent some time playing around and getting to know the local chickens.

Tommy and the Chickens (was the name of my garage band in high school?)

Our first Tuscan excursion was to Montalcino. Here’s another town on top of a hill, and it was even colder than we were expecting. We were all freezing so Gabbie got a big shawl, and Tommy got a new sweatshirt. These we got from street vendors because there was a marketplace setup through a lot of the town that day. It would have been nice to get some sort of Italian-looking sweatshirt, but all they had was a Spongebob Sqarepants thing and the Born to Ride one we ended up getting. It actually says "Bornride" on the back for some reason.

Inside, we showed all the employees pictures of that one time our daughter was blessed by the Pope.

We had some excellent coffee and croissant at a café in the square of what looked like a small castle and then visited the humble Chiesa di Sant’Agostino.

Interior of the chiesa di Sant’Agostino in Montalcino

At the other end of the town, we went into the Chiesa della Madonna del Soccorso. It was during our visit here that I had the leave the family in quiet contemplation to return to the car to pay for more parking.

The chiesa della Madonna del Soccorso as seen from across the street

For lunch we found the place recommended by a woman from Tennessee who was staying at the same farmhouse as us in Buoncovento. Also per her recommendation I had the risotto with cinghiale, which is wild boar and a word that is harder to pronounce than it looks. The dish was fantastic. To go along with yet another great meal, we sat directly over an ancient well on top of which the ristorante was built. It was cool but a little disorienting to walk over it. After lunch, we walked around Montalcino Castle.

I guess this is the front of the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo because it’s where the entrance is, but it seems like the back.

On the way back to Buoncovento we visited the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo, a 9th century Romanesque abbey that was, at one time, a Benedictine monastery. It was beautiful inside and out. It was also very quiet and almost empty. I don’t know if we got there between tour buses or what, but the place almost felt desolate.

And I suppose this is the back of the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo even though it looks to me like it would be the front.

This was a shorter day than most of the others, and we got back to the farmhouse in time for the sunset and some swimming out back. I constantly had the song The Fool on the Hill stuck in my head but with the lyric “the pooool on the hill . . ." A few cups of coffee by the pool made this a very pleasant evening. After the sunset swim, we drove back into Buoncovento to shop for dinner.

The farmhouse we stayed at in the Tuscan countryside and the pool behind it. This was a very nice evening.

On the way back to the farmhouse, along a small, dark road, I turned onto the wrong gravel road for our farmhouse. It was close, but one too early. Sitting at a closed gas station were two Carabinieri. I don’t know if they were stopping everyone or just us because of my wrong turn, but the officer motioned for me to pull over, and he started talking to me. You can look them up online, but the Carabinieri are like the super police in Italy. In additiona to supervising the general population, they have authority over the regular police and the military. And they’re so cool looking. Their cars are cool, their motorcycles are cool, and their uniforms are super sharp. They are named after the weapons they carry – carbines.

Buonasera,” he started out. “Buonasera,” I replied. He then said something in Italian, to which I replied “Io non parlare Italiano (I don’t speak Italian).” In spite of nodding his understanding, he proceeded to ask me a long question in Italian. Because I picked up on the Italian word for “where” (because I know how to ask “Dove e il bagno?”) and the context of the situation, I assumed he was asking me where we were going. Claire was screaming-crying at the time, right behind my seat, so that added to the ambiance. Fortunately there was a sign right in front of us that pointed to the road I should have turned on in the first place. I pointed at it a few times, and eventually he let me go. That’s the story of how I was stopped by the Carabinieri on a dark road at night in Italy. Awesome.

Sunset over Tuscany

That night, I cooked dinner. Granted, it was just two kinds of pasta, a ragu sauce and a pesto, but still – I cooked an Italian meal with local ingredients in the kitchen of a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside. Mark that one off my list.

Saturday, October 29th (Tuscany, Siena)

On Saturday morning, we got up early to drive to Siena. We took the scenic route and stopped along the way to admire the, well, scenery. This includes checking out a hillside full of sheep. The small road was empty, so I was taking pictures from inside the van. Everything seemed okay and bucolic for awhile, but . . .

A hillside full of sheep

I guess we lingered too long because all of a sudden the sheepdogs attacked us. They jumped right over their fence and challenged our big van. I started to drive away (slowly, so I wouldn’t run over them) and they kept chasing us for a while. Eventually they gave up, but check it out – I kept taking pictures.

One of the dogs that attacked us for looking at his sheep

Siena is amazing. We parked on a tiny side street in a place that may or may not have been a parking spot. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were at the extreme southeast end of the city. Our first stop was at the Basilica of Santa Maria dei Servi.

Parking The Beast in Siena

Next we made our way to the big Piazza del Campo and purchased tickets to walk up the enormous tower, the Torre del Mangia (which literally means Tower of the Eater).

Our entry point into Siena

We had some time before our ascent, so we ate lunch at a place on the square recommended by a friend back home. His only directions to this particular ristorante was a picture he had taken from the restaurant. So we walked around for a bit until we had a view that roughly approximated what he showed us. Also, he mentioned a good-looking server. Our server was reasonably attractive so we convinced her (in Italian) to let us take her picture and post it to my friend’s FaceBook. This really happened, but apparently she was the wrong person.

An apartment building in Siena

After lunch, Gabbie and I climbed the 487 steps to the top of the Torre del Mangia (literally “Tower of the Eater”, which I know I've said twice now, but it bears repeating). It was brutal. The stairs were narrow and made of stone. Frequently we’d have to stop and figure out a way to get the down-coming traffic past us. Just when you think you’re at the top, you’re not; there’s more steps. We finally made it to the actual top and, as you’d expect, the view was spectacular.

View from the top of the Torre. The main feature is the Siena Cathedral, our next destination.

When we got back down to the bottom I let fly the joke I’d been saving about leaving my passport at the top. No one laughed, not even Gabbie. I was hot and tired, sweaty and thirsty. So we got some gelato.

Part of the Tower of the Eater stairs

Our main destination in Siena was the Siena Cathedral (Duomo di Siena). It’s actually a massive complex with the cathedral itself, the piazza, and several other structures and parts of the main building. You can see the back of the facade in the view from the tower above.

Duomo di Siena – the facade

We purchased some tickets (to get into a church!), but I’m not really sure what they bought us. We checked out the interior of the cathedral and the Libreria Piccolomini therein.

Interior of the Siena Cathedral

If you ever go, make sure to not miss the library. It’s not stacks of books. One of the centerpieces of the cathedral is the pulpit, but this was being restored when we were there and completely hidden behind a screen.

The fescoed walls and cieling of the Libreria Piccolomini

Under the cathedral is the crypt. This is also not to be missed. It’s still being excavated as they find more tombs and artwork. Once you’re under the church, you can look up through some windows they built in to see the church above. It’s pretty cool. Then you notice that even this level has an open level below it. So this massive stone church is built over an open crypt, which itself is built over some other open space.

View from the crypt. It’s probably best not to think about just how much church is positioned over your head.

Behind the cathedral is the baptistery (Battistero di San Giovanni). Although a much smaller space than the cathedral, it still sports vaulted ceilings covered in frescoes. The baptismal font is really something special to see, and, as with many of the major religious sites we visited, you will eventually discover that you are walking on the final resting place of several historical figures.

The Font in the Baptistery of the Siena Cathedral

There are several tombs marked below the marble floor.

The tombs below the floor. I found that, wherever you go in Italy, you are never far from dead people.

The house of St. Catherine of Siena is a quieter affair. Her birthplace is now a sanctuary with a church, and no photography is allowed inside. Failing to notice the sign at the entrance, Valerie got a talking to from one of the employees. “Signora, no fotos!

Playing soccer (or something like it) in front of the Basilica of San Domenico

The Basilica of San Domenico is a severe Gothic cathedral in Siena where St. Catherine’s incorruptible head (yes, her head) is kept enshrined and on display. Photography is not allowed inside this space either, so I have no images to share of this.

The Basilica of San Domenico in Siena

Sunday, October 30th (Asciano and Assisi)

We left the farmhouse early, and started driving to Assisi. We made a detour into Asciano to go to Mass at the Basilica di Sant’Agata. We had just enough time to make it to Mass, but Google Maps took us to the Asciano Train Station instead of the church. We parked, got out and then walked to that wrong place. Even though we were fairly close to our intended destination, the station had us trapped in. We had to load up the van again (kids, stroller, you know) and drive to the church and secure parking again. We made it and attended another Mass in Italian. After some time spent getting Claire under control, we were on our way to Assisi.

The Basilica di Sant’Agata in Asciano, where we attended Sunday Mass

As luck would have it, this is the day that Daylight Saving Time ended in Italy, but not in the US, so the time difference between here and home changed. Up to this point, we were 9 hours ahead of Seattle time in Italy. Starting the morning of October 30th, we were only 8 hours ahead, and this confused us. Our devices that don’t automatically update the time based on location (like my Kindle) now showed a different time difference. And, of course, the clocks in the VRBO’s we stayed at weren’t changed. We never really figured out what happened until we got back home. Of course, we landed back in the US on the day that DST ended in America, so there was still some confusion.

The Facade of Chiesa Nuova in Assisi at Sunset. I waited forever for that woman to walk away, but she wasn't budging.

We reached Assisi in the afternoon and walked the length of the town. We stayed just outside the south end, below the Porta Nuova. It’s a long, tiring walk up that hill to the gate. Assisi itself is pretty hilly, and there were a lot of stairs to navigate with the big, heavy stroller. At Porta Nuova, you are at the complete opposite end of Assisi from the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi. We walked to that other end because Valerie would not be staying with us for this portion of the trip. Instead, she had a room at the Instituto Beata Angelina, which is a convent directly across from the Saint Francis of Assisi Basilica.

This is probably the prettiest taxi stop I’ve ever seen. It’s across the street from the Basilica of St. Francis, and I was waiting out there right at sunset.

We had a fabulous dinner in Assisi that night, but not right away. Literally none of the restaurants in Assisi open for dinner until 7:00 pm, so we had to wander around awhile.

View of the basilica di San Francesco from a hill on a side street in Assisi

We were cold and tired and hungry, but we eventually got sat in a back room that we had almost to ourselves. Joining us in that room was a large baptism party. Their table setting, their fancy clothes and the people in general were all beautiful.

Table setting for someone’s special baptism celebration dinner

Tomassino, trooper that is was, was so tired at dinner he fell asleep on my arm as I reached across to give him something to eat. Gabbie ended up carrying him out of the restaurant. We parted ways with Valerie that night and made the long walk back down to our apartment.

Gabbie carrying a very tired Tomassino out of the restaurant

Monday, October 31st (Assisi)

I got up crazy early (long before dawn) to get some shots of an empty Assisi. Also, I was hoping for some sunrise shots or at least shots with sunrise light. I walked up the hill to Porto Nuova, and then turned to walk up another hill toward San Rufino.

The San Rufino cathedral in the early morning

I thought I might make it all the way to Rocca Maggiore, but that was not to be. In the dark, even with a map, I couldn’t tell which of the endless side streets would take me all the way to the top. That’s probably a good thing because I didn’t realize at the time how far up the “top” really was.

An empty Assisi street before sunrise

I skirted the top of the town-proper, below the Rocca Maggiore hill, and came back down at the St. Francis basilica. While I was lining up a shot on the tripod, I heard my named called and turned around to see Valerie at her window at the convent. She had some convent-related things to do that morning, so we parted ways. The sun was up by this point, so I walked back down to the house to collect the family.

Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi at Dawn

We went to the San Damiano church, which is (surprise) down a big hill from Assisi-proper. It’s a nice little church and monastery where St. Francis (when he was simply known as Francesco) received his vision and word from God to rebuild the Church. The actual cross of San Damiano is not located here, though. There is a replica, and the real one is in the basilica di Santa Chiara back up the hill. Why is the cross of San Damiano kept near the church of San Damiano, but not in the church of San Damiano? I didn't know how to ask that in Italian.

One of the replicas of the San Damiano cross located in San Damiano’s

We went on a nice tour of San Damiano and learned more about St Francis’ experience and life in general at the monastery. However, this is another one of those places we visited that don’t allow photography of any kind inside. Tommy was making a bit of a nuisance of himself, so I sped through the stops and waited outside for Heidi and Gabbie to catch up. We hadn’t yet reconnected with Valerie (back at the convent on the other side of Assisi), so she missed this one.

Statue of St. Francis at San Damiano. He would have been looking into the valley of Perugia from here.

Leaving San Damiano, we had to walk up a longer and even more strenuous hill to get all the way back to the Porta Nuova. Gabbie and I actually had to take turns pushing Tommy in his stroller because it was such a steep and long incline. As was always the case, Heidi was carrying Claire.

The flying buttresses along the side of the basilica di Santa Chiara. Color contrasts courtesy of early morning sunlight.

This was most appropriate because we stopped at the basilica di Santa Chiara (St. Clare). Our baby Claire was born on the feast day of St. Clare, and we had a heck of a time explaining this to a group of nuns to whom we showed the picture of Claire being blessed by the Pope. We made such a fuss over Claire to these nuns that one of them took the time to give Tommy his own little blessing right there in the street. Tommy has joined Gabbie in the “Precious-too” club, but that’s another story.

View of Assisi as seen from the road to Rocca Maggiore. On the left is the San Rufino cathedral; in the center is the St. Clare basilica (Basilica di Santa Chiara).

We reconnected with Val in front of Santa Chiara where there was some kind of youth activity going on. Several dozen exuberant young people were dancing in a circle to, what I assume was, modern Christian pop music; it was all in Italian, so I don’t really know for sure. It was a sight to see all these teens and 20-somethings with ripped jeans (as is currently the style in Italy) basically line dancing alongside friars in brown robes with no shoes on. Yeah, it was a scene.

Rocca Maggiore and another cloudless sky

After Santa Chiara, we headed up to San Rufino for my second visit there that morning. The family allowed me to walk all the way up to Rocca Maggiore, so I ended up making it there after all. This is the main fortification that defended Assisi back in the day against the rival town of Perugia. St. Francis was even a soldier for Assisi at one point.

A side street on the way down from Rocca Maggiore

At one point we visited the small Chiesa Santo Stefano. What struck me here was the donation box for restorations. The place looked fine to me. Sure it’s old and crumbling a bit, but it’s a historically significant building with fine character. I’m not sure I support the idea of restoring it beyond making sure it’s safe to inhabit.

Chiesa Santo Stefano

Tommy never really got it together this day. I guess he needed a little bit of a break. Can you blame him? We’d been dragging him around Italy for a week and a half; there’s only so much a 20-month old can take. So we called it an early day.

Here’s Tommy looking pretty cute in front of the Cattedrale di San Rufino. That’s the Born to Ride sweatshirt we got in Montalcino.

Tuesday, November 1st, All Saints Day (Monte Subasio and Perugia)

Halloween must exist in Italy because we saw fliers in Rome for costume stores and parties (at least, I think that’s what they were for). All Saints Day on November 1st, however, is definitely a holiday. It’s an actual national day off, and plenty of people do real things to celebrate. For the Catholic community worldwide, this is a Holy Day of Obligation that requires attendance at Mass. We were in Assisi. What else were we going to do? In spite of our efforts to find an English Mass, we ended up celebrating another Italian Mass (which is fine; don't get me wrong). This time, it was at the Papal Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. That’s pretty cool, I think.

Walking the streets of Assisi in the early morning

For afternoon activities, we lost Gabbie due to tiredness. The rest of us drove up to the top of Monte Subasio. This is where St. Francis is said to have meditated and contemplated life while overlooking the deep valley below. Remember, this was on a national holiday, so we saw plenty of people along the drive enjoying picnics and just having family fun.

Simply a decorative corner along the streets of Assisi

There are lots of animals at the top of Monte Subasio. There’s plenty of cattle (we even saw a couple getting amorous) and horses. These aren’t regular-looking horses, though. They’re HUGE work horses. They’re so stout and wide, in fact, that they look like miniature horses from a distance. I mean, their proportions are unusual. But trust me, they’re huge. I think that I stood up to about one’s shoulder.

Two of the horses (we think a mother and foal) on top of Monte Subasio

There was another treat at the top of the mountain too – paragliders. A group of these guys just happened to have an event going on at the same time we were there. We saw them setting up on the side of the hill, and every once in awhile they’d just run off the mountain and glide around. It was pretty neat. They’d run down the hill until the wind caught and scooped them up, sometimes almost running right into a line of cows. This didn’t seem to faze the amorous cows though.

Paragliding off of Monte Subasio

Driving down from Monte Subasio, we headed into Perugia. We had some excellent panini for lunch and then walked over to the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (no photography allowed inside). Although situated in the town of Perugia, the basilica is considered to still be a part of Assisi. It's called a frazione (or, fraction) of Assisi. It’s yet another huge, ornate and beautiful basilica in Italy. This one, however, boasts a somewhat unique feature. The Porziuncola church is completely contained inside.

Papal basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in the province of Perugia at sunset, as we were going in. The Porziuncola church is completely contained inside – the basilica was built around the church.

You see, when St. Francis got the call to rebuild the Church (with a big “C”), he misunderstood and took the directive literally. He set out to rebuild churches (little “c”) physically, like with bricks and mortar and things. God eventually corrected him, but this Porziuncola is one of those churches he built. So there’s this small church – a complete building with four walls and a roof – standing there, and they built this massive basilica around it.

Here’s what Santa Maria degli Angeli looked like when we came back out. It was deep into golden hour by then.

While we were inside the church, inside the basilica, one of the Franciscan Friars gave a special blessing to our family. It was an intimate affair just for us.

The dome of the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. This was taken from a side street behind the building.

Wednesday, November 2nd (Monte Cassino and the Amalfi Coast)

We left Assisi in the morning and made the longish drive toward the Amalfi coast. At one point we were traveling the wrong direction on the autostrade, but we don’t need to talk about that. We stopped for a visit to Monte Cassino along the way.

The vineyards on Monte Cassino, just outside the abbey

The town of Cassino, over which the Monte is perched, is a sad little place. It’s a small town that seems like time forgot. There’s some kind of factory looming over it and lots of angst-ridden graffiti around. Perhaps it’s because we drove through it on a gloomy day, but honestly, I just wanted to get out of there. Once we got through the town and made our way up the hill, things looked a little better. The monastery was quiet and more pleasant.

The central courtyard of the abbey at Monte Cassino. The statue of St. Benedict that survived the Allied bombing is down on the right side of this picture.

Hopefully I don’t need to go into detail about how the abbey at Monte Cassino has been destroyed multiple times. Probably the most significant is when it was bombed by the Allies during WWII. That basically leveled the place, but not everything was destroyed. In particular, the main statue of St. Benedict, whose relics are kept under the altar, remains intact in the central courtyard of the abbey. The whole statue survived the bombing that destroyed the monastery around it. The fact that the St. Benedict relics also survived is another miracle. In the literal sense.

The statue of St. Benedict at Monte Cassino, one of the very few things to survive the allied bombing during WWII.

Inside the cathedral, one may note the empty spaces along the ceiling that would normally be filled with sumptuous frescoes. As part of the ongoing rebuilding and restoration work, those ceiling frescoes have yet to be painted.

The interior of the cathedral at Monte Cassino, showing empty spaces for future frescoes.

One striking bit of artwork that is complete is in the crypt below the church. The entire ceiling is done in a beautiful and intricate mosaic.

Mosaic ceiling in the crypt under the cathedral at Monte Cassino

It’s down here that we see the actual final resting place of St. Benedict.

The crypt at Monte Cassino. The ceiling is entirely mosaic.

After touring the abbey, we headed back down the mountain and through the sad, little town, on our way to the Amalfi Coast. I don’t know what town it was where we entered the “Amalfi coast area” but there was definitely a demarcation point where we started driving on the infamous Almafi coast road. If driving The Beast in Rome shored up my confidence, driving on the Amalfi Coast aged me. It aged me hard.

The Beast contemplates the Amalfi Coast Road at a rare quiet spot.

The road is narrow. It would be narrow for a one-way alley, but, honest-to-God, they drive in both directions AND park on it. It goes up. It goes down. There’s blind curves. There’s dumb and blind curves. It’s got more twists than a Chubby Checker sock-hop. And we were apparently there in the down time. We missed the busy season when you’re not even supposed to attempt this drive. If that was the easy version of the drive, you can keep it. The Amalfi Coast is something to see. It’s pretty and all, but I’ve done it now. I don’t need to do it again.

The coast is a series of small and medium-sized towns built into the shear face of a tall, rocky cliff. We often speculated on what the first settlers were thinking when they decided this would be a good spot for a bunch of towns. This was not stroller country, and that piece of hardware remained in the vehicle.

A stretch of the Amalfi coastline

Upon arrival at our villa in the town of Praiano, on somewhat shaky knees, we entered a wonderful and spacious apartment with a magnificent view of the sea. Somehow, with several responsible people standing right there in the living room, Tommy managed to climb onto a chair and then fall off of it straight into the corner of a coffee table. He was hurt. He lost a chunk of skin right next to his eye, but if it had been just an inch closer we would have been spending time in the hospital. He recovered quickly but was a little dinged up for the rest of the trip.

Arrived in Praiano just in time for sunset

Walking around Praiano that evening, we went to the local grocery store, which is a bit of a town meeting place. In front we met a salty gentleman named Genarro who negotiated with Valerie to take her to the airport the next day. Val would be leaving our group in the morning and needed to secure the ride. Genarro ran the town taxi company and seemed like a very friendly individual. The following afternoon we found out from Val that he was very friendly indeed and looking for some amore. I guess his hands were all over my mother-in-law during that ride, but she made it safely to the airport and eventually got back home.

We had dinner that night at the restaurant Genarro recommended, which, oddly enough, was called Trattoria San Gennaro. The food and staff were both great, and we would eat there again more than once during our short stay.

Tommy takes a rest at our villa on the Amalfi Coast. His eye is a little dinged up after an incident with a coffee table.

Thursday, November 3rd (Amalfi)

Praiano is about 10 km from the actual town of Amalfi, and that was our destination on this day. We loaded up The Beast and set out along the Amalfi Coast road, otherwise known as Strada Statale 163. It’s no better east of Praiano. We did luck out with finding a parking spot in Amalfi. Not only was it centrally located and easy to get in and out of, but it was also right in front of a café. We had coffee and croissant and experienced the inverse law of tourist food – this place was high on price and low on quality. They did, however, offer free WiFi (which was non-existent in our villa), so we got to check in with the Internet for a few minutes. We discovered there had been more earthquakes in places we'd been earlier in the trip.

Part of the town of Amalfi, as seen through the portico of the cathedral

While we were sitting outside, in front of the café, Tommy picked a flower off a bush and held it out for a young (12 maybe?) girl sitting at the next table. He stood there like a total boss and just held the blossom out to her. I’m not sure what she was thinking, but without saying anything, she just shook her head “no”. Perhaps it was the gnarly wound under Tom’s eye.

Duomo di Sant’Andrea Apostolo in Amalfi

From the café, we walked up to the main square where there are lots of cool shops and things. We went up the stairs and into the Amalfi Cathedral – the Duomo di Sant’Andrea Apostolo. There’s a museum located in the original cathedral, a pretty cloister and the ancient Basilica of the Crucifix. The guard at the museum seemed taken by Tommy and got a few high-fives out of it.

The interior of the Amalfi Cathedral

Of course there is a crypt under the cathedral. It is a grand affair with vaulted ceilings and amazing artwork. This is where the relics of Saint Andrew the Apostle are kept.

Stairs leading out of the crypt under the Amalfi cathedral

The weather was kind of rough this day. It was stormy and did rain a little bit, but there were cool sun-breaks that lit up the cathedral beautifully. I couldn’t stop looking back at the Cathedral, especially the tower.

The tower at the Amalfi Cathedral. The sun shined through a break in the dark clouds directly on the church.

Back in Praiano, we went to our favorite family ristorante – Genarro’s – for lunch. After lunch we toured the small church of San Luca Evangelista, which was directly under the balcony of our villa.

The chiesa di San Luca Evangelista in Praiano. Genarro's, the restaurant we liked, is on the cliff to the left (with the closed umbrellas).

Upon exiting the church, we were treated to this:

It’s a damn waterspout right there in front of us. We couldn’t believe it. For some reason, people usually ask me if this happens often there. Does that really matter? For the record, no, it does not happen often, and the locals were just as eager as we were to get photos and video of the phenomenon. Gabbie got to show it to her science class back home at school.

The great Praiano waterspout of ’16

We ate dinner at a different place (not Genarros’s) called Brace (BRAH-cheh). I thought the service and food was even better than Genarro’s (our server was really nice to Tommy), but my companions were only, like, meh. Perhaps it was a post-waterspout low.

Back in Amalfi, here’s a shot of the photographer and his son

Friday, November 4th (Pompeii)

For our last full day in Italy we visited the ruins of Pompeii. We got on a bus (two babies, plus the stroller) in Praiano and rode it to the train station in Sorrento. There we got on the train to Pompeii. As soon as we got on, a couple guys boarded and started playing music on their saxophone and accordion, accompanied by recorded percussion.

I thought it was pretty cool and gave them a euro when the cup went by. A couple stops later, a woman got on playing the same music, but on a radio - the exact same song as the previous guys. She just walked up the aisle with this radio playing and sent her kid around with a cup for money. Some of the magic was lost.

Some of the modern art installed at Pompeii

Pompeii was destroyed by volcanoes multiple times. You can read the whole history of it online. The way that the last big eruption of Mount Vesuvius happened, a lot of the town (and people) were neatly preserved. Of course, everyone was killed, and everything not made of stone was burned away, but the city itself was pretty much frozen in time. It was nice to walk around with our tour, seeing the city and getting the details, but you never really see just ancient ruins.

Gabbie walking up the steps of the Pompeii amphitheater

It’s an active archaeology site, so there is signage and scaffolding and other modern implements everywhere. Also, there’s a ton of modern art installed throughout, so there’s that too.

It’s a bread oven in (probably) a market of some sort. Pizza wouldn’t be invented until tomatoes were brought back from the New World.

It was still a good experience, and there’s a lot to see, but it really feels like a tourist destination.

A modern statue guarding ancient Pompeii

Mount Vesuvius still sits in the distance. I remember when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, and that was a pretty big deal. Down in Portland, Oregon we were scooping up ash and cleaning up for days. A few people did lose their lives, but it was nothing compared to Pompeii. Here’s a website that compares volcanic eruptions throughout history. At first that chart confused me until I realized that MSH has erupted more than once. I wasn’t around for the 1900 BC event.

Mount Vesuvius today (well, November 4th, 2016)

Back at the villa, we were treated to an amazing sunset over Praiano, and that’s how our last night in Italy ended. We still had one more Italian adventure ahead of us.

Sunset over Praiano, along the Amalfi Coast of Italy

Saturday, November 5th (Paris)

We left Praiano in The Beast at 3:30 am. We left at 3:30 in the morning. We thought the Amalfi drive would be a little easier at that hour, and it was, but it was still twisty and turny. Tom, poor guy, had to go through all the turns in the dark facing backwards in his car seat. He got sick. Messy sick all over himself. It’s not like we could just pull over anywhere on this ridiculous road, so we had to drive until we found a spot big enough to stop. We cleaned up poor little Tom and threw his clothes away. The car seat would smell like very strong hard cheese for the rest of the trip, and we had a ways yet to go.

We got to the Naples airport and returned the car. So long, Beast – you served us well. It was a bit of an ordeal to get the kids and luggage and stuff to the terminal, but we made it and checked in and everything. I don’t know what the baggage people thought about the smell of the car seat. We flew from Naples to Rome and then from Rome to Paris, France. Because, hey, if we weren’t totally wiped out yet, why not include another country for just one day?

We landed at Charles de Gaul and tried to collect our things. The stinky car seat came out with everything else except . . . Gabbie’s bag. It was gone. I mean GONE, gone. The baggage people, who thankfully spoke perfect English, didn’t even have a record of it in the system when they scanned the tag. Poof. Gone. All of Gabbie’s clothes and souvenirs and things. She was bummed. Heidi and I probably could have been a little more sympathetic about her not having a change of clothes (or underwear) for the next day, but we were all tired, the car seat smelled, and we just wanted a little bit of a break. We got one.

I’ve maintained all along (haven’t I?) that VRBO is the way to go for a trip like this. I still believe that, but for that one night in Paris we stayed at the airport Marriott. We needed it. We checked in with probably the friendliest front desk staff I’ve ever encountered at a hotel and even got into our two adjoining rooms a few hours early. Housekeeping agreed to wash the car seat liner for free, and we finally had a nice, big, hot shower. It was tempting to just lounge in the rooms forever, but we still had some adventuring to do. This was our only night in Paris. We recuperated for about an hour and then headed out again.

Tommy took it upon himself to spruce up the inside of the train He just grabbed a wipe out of the diaper bag and went to work.

We had to take the hotel shuttle back to the airport and then get on a train into downtown Paris. Charles de Gaul is a confusing airport, and I don’t just mean because of the language difference. Most signs are translated into English, and we’d recently navigated multiple Italian airports (meaning, the Paris airport shouldn’t have been so tricky). There’s just something about CDG that kept getting us twisted around. Eventually we found the train. It takes about 30 minutes of very un-scenic riding to get into town.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité at the Palais de Justice

We had two main goals for Paris on this trip – Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame Cathedral. We accomplished both goals, but we failed to attend Mass at Notre Dame like we’d hoped. We never even glimpsed the Eiffel Tower.

The stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle

Sainte-Chapelle is the place where the entire upper half of the building is stained glass. It was difficult to get a decent hand-held image of that, and it’s nearly impossible to adequately capture the magic of the space.

Facing the rear of Sainte-Chapelle

Notre Dame was, well, Notre Dame. Inside and out, it’s breathtaking.

Notre Dame glowing in the evening. This is the shot I need to go back and take with a tripod.

But, speaking of breathtaking, once we were done with Notre Dame, it was cold and dark and starting to rain. I think at that point we’d pretty much had it, so we descended back into the subway and got on the train back to the airport.

After some time wandering lost in CDG again, we made it to the hotel shuttle place and back to the Marriott. Blessedly, the Marriott hotel restaurant was excellent. It would be a shame to visit Paris and not get a decent meal. I don’t know how much better the food might be outside of the hotel, but it was pretty darn good inside that one. And our server was a quirky kind of interesting. He really took care of us and Tommy especially. That was our last night in Europe.

Born to ride

Sunday, November 6th (The journey home)

We started with the breakfast buffet at the hotel. Again, amazing, but the coffee was awful. Perhaps our standards are higher now and Café Americano just doesn’t cut it. Shuttle to the airport. Checked bags. Car seat still smelled a bit.

To cross the Atlantic for the almost 8 hour flight, we were given two entire rows on an A330. Heidi and Claire had 4 seats to themselves; Gabbie, Tommy and I had 6. Tommy slept for half of that flight while Gabbie and I shared a massive Lindt chocolate bar.

Six adjoining seats for Gabbie, Tommy and me

Back in the United States, we had a four hour layover in Philadelphia. It took us almost that long to get through customs (mainly because we kept showing pictures to everyone of Claire and Pope Francis). We had time for Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches (airport versions anyway), and then got on a 737 to Seattle. That flight was no picnic. The seats were small, and the plane was full. Tommy was still on my lap, and the two of us didn’t really fit. It was uncomfortable for everyone.

We got back to Seattle, and Heidi raced to go get the Odyssey so we could make a certain ferry to Vashon. It was pretty close because my bag didn’t show up. Turns out that TSA decided to give it some extra inspection, and it missed our flight. It came in on the next flight from Philly to Seattle, and we screamed out of the airport.

We made the boat, saving us from having to wait an additional hour and a half at the dock. Short drive from the dock to our house, and we were . . . home.

Addenda

  • I got a call from Delta Airlines (Delta? We never flew on Delta.) on the Wednesday after we got back to say that they had recovered Gabbie’s bag. It was here in Seattle, and they shipped it to us the next day. So, Gabbie got her stuff back.
  • All of us (except Claire, because she has special powers now) came down with little colds that lasted a few days.
  • We have a renewed interest in high-quality coffee and croissants and are insufferable as we go around telling people how the local coffee and croissants are not up to our standards. Gabbie now drinks black coffee.
  • It took the writing of this narrative to begin to get my head wrapped around everything we did and saw and experienced during this trip. I’ll probably be processing photos into next year, but that’s just another way to relive how awesome and epic travel adventures can be.

Ciao!

Photos and words by Steve Tosterud, 2016

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Steve Tosterud
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