Category Archives: Italy

Southern Italy

(Naples – Assisi, 5-16 April 2014) Our deep dive through southern Italy was interesting. Fabulous in many respects, but challenging to the senses in others. This is likely to end up a long post, but there is much ground to be covered, and not just geographically. Southern Italy is amazing and we loved it; however, the full story includes several layers. Italy is a complex society, one of puzzling contradictions, and also one currently showing signs of significant distress. Too often, the shadows cast by monuments to a glorified past cast their shadows upon desperate beggars living on the streets. Based on what we heard (and witnessed), the Italian government has lost all trust of its people and lurches from one scandal to the next. Meanwhile, tourists (like us) still come in droves seeking an Italy that may exist best in myth and romanticized perception.

Jessica and I were a traveling duo once again after saying good-bye in Rome to Mallorie, Brandon and nieces, LeAnne and Mickaela. After their departure, we would first journey to Naples where we engineered a five night stay at a hotel using points accumulated through our credit card. After the accelerated pace of the previous two weeks, we knew a planned slowdown was in order.

Additional destinations weren’t known to us at that time, but at least we’d given ourselves five days to figure out our next moves. That is one of the awesome luxuries of traveling in the style we’ve adopted. It’s great knowing exactly where you’ll be when, but not knowing invites exploration that can lead to wonderful discoveries.

Tennis Anyone?

Using credit card points to book our hotel was free but risky. There were a limited number of hotels to choose from in our particular rewards program and none were centrally located to Naples. A commuter train was required for the 40 minute trip to the outskirts where the Tennis Hotel (seriously, that was the name of it) was located.

Too cheap (and stubborn) to pay a cabbie 20 euros ($30) for the 3 km lift to the hotel from the train station, we hoofed it. Not only did we not know at the time that practically the entire hike was uphill, we hadn’t fully appreciated just how far outside the touristy circles we had come. We were nowhere near the monuments, statues and souvenir shops. We were where the everyday people of Naples lived and worked. Although enlightening, it was not a pretty sight.

Our directions had us turning left from the main street and onto a one-way industrial road that was full of trash. Not just a few bottles and cans strewn here and there, but full-on trashed out. We said out loud how glad we were that Mallorie and the others weren’t with us now. Their image of beautiful Italy would have been tainted forever.

As we approached the hotel and saw the half-dozen tennis courts out in front. Then it clicked- we were staying at a tennis “resort.” Interesting, but that’s not the most notable part. Our hotel was situated only a few hundred feet away from the vent of an semi-dormant volcano called Sulfuerous, named so for the sulfuric gasses it exhales. The smell from these gasses wafted over our hotel like a hot fart from a sleeping giant.

The room was clean, large and appointed with standard stock hotel furniture. Not bad and all….but the foul smell was inescapable.

Naples- Grit and Pizza

Naples itself was jam-packed with places of interest. To see and learn about some of them, we boarded the hop-on, hop-off city tour bus. From our perch on the upper deck, we took the photos you’ll see below.

The best part of the tour for me was the pre-recorded audio. It not only explained what was coming up on the left and right (in the language of our choosing), it also incorporated music and commentary about Naples that was refreshing in its honesty. In advance of coming to Naples, we’d heard it described as gritty and less refined than either Rome or Florence. This was perhaps true, but if so, only by a few small degrees. (They’re all a little gritty.) The audio tour alluded to this as well, but managed to turn this theme into a reflection of the resilience and determination of the Napoli people. The music swelled to a crescendo as the narrator read passages from an inspiring poem someone had written about Naples. I was sold. Naples had won me over. (Jessica heard the same audio guide as me, and, though she liked Naples plenty, it didn’t have the same effect on her.)

This is one extra castle-y looking castle.

Some domes are just prettier than others.

This is hanging out in Naples.

Supposedly, Naples is where the world-wide phenomena that is pizza first originated. For this reason, I wasn’t going to leave Naples without sampling a slice or two. We paused at a street cart displaying IHOP-pancake-sized pizzas behind a glass case. I pointed to show the vendor that I would like one. In a flash, he grabbed the small round pie, folded it in half once, then repeated the motion to fold it a second time, creating something that resembled a flattened drinking cone like you might find at an office water cooler. I wanted to yell, Hey, what are you doing to my pizza?! His movements flashed by so quickly, however, that no syllable had a chance of escaping.

Mama mia! My folded-up, over-priced, room temperature “pizza” was surprisingly good. The pizza sauce made it. It was fresh and tangy enough so that the scarcity of cheese and basil on what they were calling a margarita pizza didn’t seem to matter. We were in Naples, Italy and I was eating pizza. Beautiful!

[I sure would have thought we took a photo to mark this grand pizza occasion. We have so many pictures of us eating food, but sadly, not this one.]

The Unique Story of Pompeii

Not far from Naples lies the ancient archeological site that once was the thriving Roman city of Pompeii. The close proximity made it easy to visit with a day-trip by train.

By the time Jessica and I were touring Pompeii, we’d already spent many hours walking through several of the best-known, most well-preserved, Roman ruins in all the world, including the Ancient City of Jaresh (in Jordan) and Ephesus (in Turkey). Regardless, Pompeii was bound to be unique.

The story of how life ceased in the city of Pompeii may not be known to everyone. Here is a brief summary: On the morning of 24 August, 79 AD, Pompeii’s nearby companion, Mt. Vesuvius, violently erupted launching hot volcanic ash and stone into the air and down on top of the city. So much material fell in just a few hours that the entire city was buried to the point that single story houses were hidden entirely from view and only the upper part of two-story dwellings remained visible. Later, earthquakes connected to the eruption demolished what remained of the second stories. Most of the city’s residents managed to flee their homes before being killed, but far from all of them. It is estimated that 2,000 people died in the event; many of them were the rich people that chose to stay in their expensive homes for fear of losing everything….which obviously, they did anyway.

The streets doubled as drainage channels for water run-off and sewage. Hence the “crosswalks” that allowed for feces-free street crossings. (The stench must have been awful.)


The degree of preservation of the streets and buildings of Pompeii is remarkable. We entered restaurants, stepping over the same thresholds crossed by ordinary hungry Pompeii citizens so many centuries ago. Some houses were cramped and simple, while others were large, sprawling and clearly lavish, with internal courtyards and even garages for the chariots/wagons. Paintings adorned many of the houses we saw. Though, in those days homeowners did not hang paintings on their walls. Instead, paint was infused directly into the plaster walls through the technique known as fresco.

Photo taken from inside one of the bath houses. I bet this was fancy-shmancy in its heyday.

Exploring Pompeii was both fascinating and emotionally weighted, imparting the kind of melancholy one gets from visiting an old box of memories stored in the attic for decades.

Train-Ferry to Palermo, Sicily

Sicily is the island that looks like it’s getting kicked by Italy’s boot. We heard it said that Sicilians like to think of themselves as being a whole separate country from Italy, but the truth is that Sicily embodies what most people in the world think of as “Italian.” The Cosa Nostra, the Godfather, Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros….these are all exports from Sicily, Italy. In other words, when you think of the animated Italian with the burly chest, thick mustache, exaggerated gestures and sing-song accent…that is the personification of someone from Sicily.

Within Sicily we chose to visit Palermo because it appeared on several lists of must-see places in Italy. To get there from Naples, we took the train. Even across the strait between Sicily and the mainland of Italy, we took the train. How does a train cross a strait when there is no bridge connecting the two? On a ferry, of course. As strange as it sounds, that’s exactly what happened. They split our train into two pieces and rolled it onto a boat. We never imagined such a thing existed, but there we were:

Palermo was a cool choice. More credit card points were used to make our hotel stay free. However, this time we were smarter and read a few hotel reviews before booking, leading to much better results. With the exception of the beach, which required a ride on a city bus, all of the coolest sights of Palermo were within walking distance.

Oh Great…Another Church

It would have been interesting to count the number of churches we have entered since our trip began. 30? 40? 50? Who knows? Should we count the many churches we have approached and looked at, but for one reason or another did not enter? We’d surely bust through 100!

Churches (and mosques) stand out. They are wonders of artistry and architecture. Whether looked upon positively or to the opposite, they are amazing achievements for ALL they represent. Nevertheless, it is possible to reach a saturation point. Speakly solely for myself, Ladies and gentleman, the thrill has left the building.

With that as a backdrop, we visited a chapel in Palermo that brought back the wow in an instant. What made this church pop were the gold-laiden mosaics that adorned every corner of the church… both inside and out. The mixture of cultural styles were unique– patterns and designs of Sufi Islam blended easily with standard Christian themes. We’ve seen a lot of churches, but never one like this.

It is rare to find such an intricate blend of classic Christian symbols interspersed with Arabic stylings. Every bit of the church’s interior is mosaic.

I would love to make a floor like this.


Biblical scenes leap from the walls in gold mosaic.


The chapel’s exterior face was also created tile by tile.


She’s Got A Ticket to Ride…Or Does She?

We kept hearing about Palermo’s fantastic beaches, about a 30 minute public bus ride away from where we were staying. It sounds simple enough, but Italy’s public transportation infrastructure is a bit of a mess, especially when compared to so many other places we’ve traveled. We waited close to 45 minutes for our bus to the beach.

Perhaps they would have more money to improve the bus service if they had a better system for charging people. The way it works now is that riders buy a ticket from a machine sitting next to the bus stop. The machine prints out a little receipt that shows you have paid. Great, but here’s the odd part, you don’t have to present the ticket to the driver. Instead, you simply board the bus. To enforce compliance with the ticket requirement, a transportation official will occasionally get on the bus and ask everyone on board to show their tickets. Not having a ticket means you could be fined…..or you could simply get kicked off the bus.

To the surprise of exactly no one, it appeared to us that many people frequently ride the buses without paying.

Unexpected Beach Wear

After finally making it to the beach, we found it fabulous. The water was too harshly cold for comfortable swimming, but wading into mild surf was totally doable. It remained surprisingly shallow as I marched away from the beach and deeper into the Mediterranean. Jessica was frustrated to no end, because some how she’d come to the beach unprepared. She had no bathing suit or towel. Exactly how this happened we are not sure. Our last couple of beach visits didn’t involve entering the water….still too cold.

At least I was prepared with my frisbee so Jessica and I threw it back ‘n forth a bit. Bodies were strewn about the sand, but we found a little pocket big enough for us to throw. At one point, a woman I’d guess to be in her early 30’s walked cluelessly close to our parlay. A throw I made to Jessica flew a little wide, striking the woman in the right thigh. She went off!

I immediately began apologizing as did Jessica, but this woman was having none of it. She ranted loudly saying who knows what (because it was all in Italian) until any sympathies Jessica and I had for her turned into a mockery of her behavior. Her reaction was comically disproportionate to the event. Did she think she’d been hit by a truck? C’mon, lady, you’re going to be okay. Even after she’d walked past us she was still complaining to everyone who would listen about how she’d become a victim of those crazy Frisbee-throwing Americans.

Jessica Finds the BLAM!

Walk down any shopping district in Italy and high fashion will meet you on the sidewalk. Large retail windows burst with mannequins dressed in the latest. On the sidewalk, image-conscious locals dress to impress regardless. The northern Italian city of Milan is known the world over for its contribution to the fashion industry, but truly…it’s everywhere in Italy.

One particular corner clothing shop near our hotel caught Jessica’s eye and she dove in for a look-see. I had wandered away in search of a grocery store at that moment and vowed to catch up with her a few minutes later. This was her moment to shop!

Clothes-shopping is always a challenge for Jessica. Finding the right print, style, design, color, fabric, cut, etc. If only she had a fashion consultant to help her out.

Enter Iriana, one of the sales staff at the store. All smiles and energy, Iriana approached Jessica and offered to help. Jessica played it off with a casual wave, but Iriana was undeterred and sprung into action, first sizing her up and then seizing a few items from the racks for Jessica to try on. Jessica’s first thought is that she doesn’t know me and how hard it is for me to find the right clothes…but I’ll humor her.

Iriana wasn’t offering Jessica a mere skirt or top, she was loading her up with complete ensembles. AND IT WAS TOTALLY WORKING! Jessica stepped from the dressing room, looking fabulous. Iriana kept nailing it over and over again. By the time I arrived to the store from the supermarket, Jessica was beaming in front of the full-length mirror. Check her out!



Poor Iriana didn’t have a clue about why Jessica wouldn’t be buying all of the fine clothes she was clearly loving. Our circumstances weren’t going to allow it and no amount of desire would change that. In the very end, Jessica bought a good-looking pair of jeans from the store, but left the trench coat, dresses, shoes, shirts, scarves, sunglasses, belts, purses and other bling behind.

What Jessica learned from her experience with Iriana is that the possibilities are far greater than she had imagined with regard to what outfit potentials there are in the world.

Italy’s Split Personality

Italy was the 14th country visited on our trip. In none of the other 13 countries that we’d been did we observe so many joggers/runners. It wasn’t that we never saw any joggers in other countries, only that in Italy they seemed to be everywhere. Staying fit and healthy was clearly a priority for a lot of Italians.

In stark contrast to the above observation, Italians sure smoke a lot. We’d just come from Greece and Turkey, so we were used to seeing nearly a cigarette per person. Nevertheless, the smoking culture was still especially striking in southern Italy. A walk down the busy sidewalks of Palermo, Sicily was a fight for pockets of fresh air.

Further contradictions were in evidence on the streets where the distance between rich and poor begged for mercy. Extreme fashion and fancy cars cruised past regular people that were clearly in a state of struggle. In our travels, we’ve been directly asked for money on many occasions; however, nowhere were we approached more often than in Italy. We started the year with $205 set aside to give away- $100 was from our own pockets and another $105 I collected from friends and coworkers prior to leaving. Point being, we are inclined and ready to give away money when the moment feels right. Handing over money to someone just because they asked almost never feels right.

Making a buck is hard and people do what they need to do to survive, we get that. People who had no say in where they were born and under what circumstances sometimes just need some good news. On arriving to Italy, we had about $80 left in the give-away fund. Before leaving Palermo, I gave (the equivalent of) $30 to an Bangladeshi guy working the intersection as a windshield washer. I observed him for a moment and saw that he was always respectful and never pushy in his approach to people as he asked if they’d like their windshield cleaned.

I walked up to him and asked him if he spoke English. He said, yes. But I think his response would have been yes to anything I uttered. He spoke no English. There was no way for me to explain why I was handing him 20 euros, but when I did, his emotions swelled up in an instant. He gave me a moist-eyed hug and may even have kissed me on the cheek. The moment came and went in a blur, but there was nothing about it that didn’t feel right.

Former Colonial Subjects Coming Home to Sell Handbags

The Bangladeshi man was just one of many immigrants we spotted in Italy. A large number of them were immigrants from northern and eastern African countries; specifically, those countries that were once Italian colonies. At nearly every tourist site we visited throughout Italy, a cluster of African men were hawking knock-off watches and handbags. I really wanted to hear their stories, but found it difficult to engage myself in conversation with them. Guess I should have feigned interest in a Rolex.

Since witnessing the phenomenon of African immigrants in Italy first hand, I’ve seen several stories in the news about how the Italian coast guard has rescued thousands of Africans from drowning as they try to cross the Mediterranean in dilapidated ships. The Italian government claims the rescue missions cost millions of dollars it doesn’t have, and wants the other European Union countries to pitch in money to help the humanitarian effort. It’s a bit of a mess.

I cannot fathom the level of desperation that must exist for someone to board a rusty old boat and embark on a weeks-long journey across the Mediterranean to a foreign land.

The Amalfi Coast

Have you ever heard of the Amalfi Coast? It is where Italy’s rich and famous go when they need to take a break from it all. Many celebrities, rich politicians and corporate elites have vacation homes along the Amalfi Coast. It is a little bit out of the way and probably reached most conveniently by yacht. Yet, we aimed to go.

We left Palermo via the same route we had arrived– train-ferry-train –and proceeded to the town of Salerno where we stayed for four nights. Salerno is near, but not on, the Amalfi Coast. Our choice to stay there was determined solely by price. Staying in one of the picturesque villages that dot the Amalfi Coast was painfully far out of our price range.

Salerno is a coastal working town most famous historically for having the first medical school in the world with origins dating back to the 9th century.

For us, Salerno served as our gateway to the Amalfi Coast, offering both a ferry and bus to get there. We chose to experience both. In the morning we boarded a small ship that cruised up the rocky coast until docking at the tiny town of Amalfi, the original town that gave the entire coastline its name. In the afternoon we returned by bus on the swervy road that links Amalfi to its neighboring villages and eventually back to Salerno where we started. The ferry was way better, by the way. The bus kept having to stop and let oncoming cars squeeze past it whenever the cliff-hugging road narrowed to one lane.

The Amalfi Coast is home to a dozen picture-perfect towns like Amalfi. Common to all are classic Italian architecture, outdoor art, sidewalk cafes, clothing and souvenir shops, and, of course, lots of gelato stands. At the center of Amalfi was the grand Amalfi Cathedral with its dramatic stepped entrance.

As we wandered through the streets of Amalfi, we kept hearing rushing water. We saw no rivers or streams running through this tiny village, so where was the sound coming from. Eventually we walked over a grate in the street and figured it out. There was water flowing underneath the streets! Fresh water from the mountains for everyone! Our stroll to the far edge of town finally brought us to the puzzle-picture-worthy source.

There are quieter, less touristy sections of Amalfi.

Each of these coastal towns has its own protected boat dock and a small beach-fronts.

Of Assisi

Even though at this point we’d been ricocheting around Italy for several weeks, our next stop would prove to be a true gem in the gold mine that Italy is- the small town of Assisi -best known as the birthplace of St. Francis. Assisi wasn’t even on our radar until good ol’ Boris made the recommendation. So glad he did.

20140909-222453.jpg Unlike Venice, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Palermo and the Amalfi Coast, Assisi is practically silent by comparison. It’s located in the broad middle of everywhere, but not along any of the main highways or rail lines that connect the larger cities. Small farms and villages dominate the generally flat landscape though small hills bubble-up here and there. Assisi was built on one such raised part of the Earth giving it plentiful views of the Italian countryside from every angle.

At the mound’s highest point, a castle was built in The 12th century. Stone walls, turrets, ramparts, courtyards…it was the classic medieval castle.

Mannequins wearing medieval dress provided the entertainment.

We walked through the castle walls to the southernmost turret.

The castle offered great window seat views of Assisi and the grand countryside below.

Headline: UNESCO Stifles Growth

By all appearances, Assisi was frozen in time. How easy it was to imagine feudal lords and fiefdoms, knights and wizards, princes and peasants. (Kings and queens rule from afar.) One reason for Assisi’s lack of “progress” is its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Once a site gets annointed with that label, all new building stops. Renovations are allowed, but only if they conform to the historical record. [The running joke between Jessica and me is that they give out this designation far too easily. We once pointed to an old park bench and wondered if it too is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In our travels alone, we have visited probably 40 such sites…so far.]


Assisi is clean and pretty throughout, almost (dare I say) Disney-esque. Cafes and shops straddle the narrow streets that seem only to exist for connecting one church to another. For being such a small town, Assisi sure has a lot of major churches. To be expected, most of Assisi’s churches have some connection to St Francis of Assisi. Either he went there, had a vision there, or it was built to honor him after his death.

Though there aren’t many, the cars that drive over Assisi’s streets make a strong hum as tires roll over the cobblestones embedded in every winding and narrow street. There are stone-cobbled sidewalks for walking, too, but these were too often not wide enough to hold the throngs of tourists (and large groups of school-kids) that visit Assisi each day.

Having a Moment

It has already happened many times on our trip. We find ourselves suddenly flooded with emotion when the grandness of our unique circumstance hits us. Standing before a particularly beautiful or personally meaningful scene can trigger this feeling. We continue to question it as if it isn’t really happening. “Can you believe we’re doing this?” “Did you ever in your life think you’d be in fill-in-the-blank. “Can you believe we are here?” We’ve been at this for eight months and the magic has hardly diminished.

Often times it is just one of us that gets flooded with the emotion that causes water to pool at the bottom of the eyes. One of us might say to the other, “I’m having a moment.” On occasion, it hits us both simultaneously.

Jessica and I shared an unexpected moment in Assisi while simply strolling through the town on one of its quieter streets. It was later in the day and there were only a few other tourists around. Within earshot of us was a man walking with his wife, their two young children close by. Sounding thoroughly American, we heard him say, “I would really like to go to Petra some day.”

His sentiment affected us immediately.

We’ve been to Petra. We’ve wandered past those magnificent ancient ruins and felt the awe and wonder they inspire. It wasn’t that long ago, in fact….it happened, not during some distant vacation, but during this one, simply unbelievable, year. We will not have any unfulfilled desires to ‘go to Petra some day,’ because now we’ve been there.

I cannot bring myself to say we are “blessed,” though undeniably that is sometimes how it feels. We are fortunate. So extremely fortunate that our lives will forever include this amazing year.

[Oh great. As I write these words and then read them aloud for Jessica….we relive that “moment.” yet again.]

The sunsets in Assisi were pretty spectack!

Good Ol’ Italian Cooking?

Assisi is expensive, especially the food. It’s the classic tourist trap in every sense. Jessica and I survived mostly on granola for breakfast and peanut butter sandwiches for everything else. One of the few times we “ate out,” we chose a small corner cafe and shared a delicious-looking (from the menu’s picture) tortellini dish. After waiting at our table about 10 minutes, the “cook”/waiter brought our meal. He struggled at first to remove the plastic seal that covered our (formerly frozen) entree’s container. He finally succeeded with a flourish before handing us each a plastic fork and wishing us, Bon apetito.

Okay, it WAS delicious, but still not what we would have expected from an Italian restaurant in Italy. How easily he could have fooled us just by transferring the “TV dinner” to a plate prior to serving it.

My theory is that businesses in Assisi are so tightly regulated that getting a license for a restaurant kitchen is almost impossible, and that microwave ovens occupy a loophole in the laws.

Despite the above incident, we both agreed that of all the places in Italy we have visited so far, Assisi emerges as a favorite. It’s just so dang pleasant, peaceful and pretty. Thank you, Boris, for suggesting it to us.

North vs. South

After Assisi, we went to Rimini, Italy where I played in the Paganello Beach Ultimate Tournament (separate blog post). Next came our visit to Cinque Terre (also a separate post). From there we traveled east to the Northern Italian city of Padova (closer to Venice).

This post is labeled Southern Italy, so no, our time in Padova technically does not belong here. It does, however, give me an opening to define what is meant by Southern Italy and it’s probably not what you think. All but the most learned and sophisticated of outsiders is unaware of the stark historical and cultural differences between Northern and Southern Italy. As a matter of geography, it’s not difficult to define Northern Italy- it’s the swath of land across the top of the boot; the part bordering the Swiss Alps. What should come as a surprise to most is that everything else is considered (by those in the north, at least) to be Southern Italy. Even Florence (and the whole Tuscany region), as far north as it looks on the map, is considered by norther Italians to be part of “the South.” These distinctions are less about geography and more about character. (Think about how the Yankees and Southerners in the US feel about each other.)

In the eyes of northern Italians, those from the south are an embarrassing source of all classic Italian stereotypes- from hands that do the talking, to the emotion-filled and affected “Italian accent,” to the thick black matching eyebrow and mustache set…that’s Southern Italy and northern Italians would be better off without them.

Ever Heard of Enchiladas?

Padova was our last stop before leaving Italy and we were there primarily to pause a few days at the family home of everybody’s good friend, Boris. On the day we arrived, only Boris’ sister, Micol, was at home. Boris has been living in Perth, Australia for more than two years now and his parents just happened to be at the tail-end of a vacation to see him at the time we arrived to their house.

I had been to Boris’ home once before (in 2006). It’s a large, but modest two-story house built on a couple of acres of land. Enough land for raising chickens and planting a variety of vegetables. With the parents away on vacation, Micol was left doing all the chores, including shucking a big tub of freshly picked peas. Grateful for the free accommodations, Jessica and I (mostly Jessica) contributed to the pea-shucking effort, too.

We also got to know Micol’s boyfriend, Marco, during our stay and liked him a lot. He visits often and helps Micol out as needed. Together, they prepared dinner for us and treated us far too well. As a return gesture, I volunteered to make enchiladas for them. At the grocery store, Jessica and I found that they sold tortillas, but they were crazy expensive. For example, a package of three tortillas was the equivalent of about $4.00. Jessica kidded that I should just make ’em.

I’d never in my life made tortillas, but with that little comment, I was off to the races. Somehow I did it and they turned out okay.

The chicken, the cheese, the sauce…it all came together and the enchiladas were a hit. At the dinner table, I asked Marco if he’d ever eaten enchiladas before. His reply was, No. Then, to my shock, he also said he’d never even heard of them before! Whoa!!!

A Happy Rosie

For Boris’ parents, their trip to Australia would mark the first extended vacation they have been on in literally decades. One side-effect of this vacation-less life was that Rosie, the family dog, had almost NEVER been left alone. Now, she faced days home alone with the parents gone and Micol working her day job at a bank.

What a joyful reunion it was when Boris’ parents returned. Here is Boris’ father greeting Rosie after being away for two weeks.

Here we are with Boris’ mom, sister and Rosie.

Both a marathon and International food fair were held in Padova’s main square on the days we were there. This square is notable for being the second largest in all of Europe. (Only Red Square in Moscow is larger.)


The largest paella skillet the world has ever seen!

This is my last post on Italy. (Or is it?) We criss-crossed the country for almost six weeks and absorbed hundreds of new and fantastic experiences. And still we realize there is so much more to see and do. Of course, that can be said about all of the places we have traveled. Sometimes the hard truth feels like a curse- you can’t see EVERYTHING. We remain thankful and humbled by what we are doing. So few in this world will have the opportunity to spend two weeks in Italy, much less six.

From Italy, we travel to Slovenia. (That post went up previously.) Hope you are still with us.

Italy and the Gang

(Venice, Florence, Rome – 4 April 2014) I don’t want to talk about it. It is a travel misstep so egregious it pains me to relive in the telling. Bare in mind, Jessica and I were not just responsible for ourselves now. Mallorie, Brandon, LeAnne and Mickaela were traveling with us, thus compounding the gravity of every travel decision we made. [Mallorie is Jessica’s daughter, Brandon, her boyfriend, and LeAnne and Mickaela are Jessica’s nieces.]

As travel days go, we knew this was a big one. We started in Mykonos, Greece, flew to Athens, caught a second flight to Milan, and then hopped a train to Venice. That last leg is the one that went awry.

Venice is thought of as an island city. And it mostly is. It only fails the island test because of a narrow manmade causeway that connects it to the mainland. The tricky part for travelers is that Venice (the island) belongs to the larger, “Province of Venice.” Meaning that a substantial portion of what is Venice exists on the mainland side of that causeway, too. It’s the non-tourist part of Venice that nobody outside of the area knows or understands; the part in which real people live and work and play. This is only important to our story because each of the two connected “Venices” has its own train station. One is called Venice- Mestre (that’s the one on the mainland side) and the other is Venice- Santa Lucia. We know all of this now, but didn’t at the time we purchased the train tickets.

So here’s what went down. When our train arrived to Venice- Mestre- the destination printed on our tickets -we assumed that was it. We all disembarked the train, smiles and excitement in tow right along with our luggage. But then we exited the train station and looked around…. confusion set in. The directions to our Venice apartment didn’t match-up with our surroundings. It struck me first, “I think we got off too soon.” Jessica chased down the nearest railway employee and showed him our ticket. He gestured and pointed while speaking only Italian. Jessica did the same, while speaking only English. Who knows what each thought the other said? When they were done, Jessica urged us all to get back on the same train we had just hopped off.

It was a mad dash back to Track 5. Or, was it 6? Maybe 4…? In the end we half-guessed the right track and were happy to see our train had not yet pulled away. As a final check that we were getting back on the correct train, Jessica showed two uniformed attendants our tickets (or should that be, “uninformed?”). The train whistle blew short. We had to hurry! One giant awkward pause later and one of the employees finally motioned for us to board. Whew! We’d made it back on with no time to spare. The door closed behind us and the train started rolling.

Feeling good that we’d realized our mistake and corrected course before getting ourselves into trouble, we were all high-fiving and full of self-congratulations, until….

Welcome to Trieste?

Using my iPhone, I watched the pulsing blue dot that represented us slowly move northward on the map. We needed it to be going east. I expressed my sinking feeling to the group by saying, “I don’t think this is right.”

We saw a train employee onboard and double-checked my hunch. It was true. We were securely trapped on a train carrying us further away from where we wanted to be. Our roller coaster of ups and downs just went way down.

To the Italian city of Trieste we rolled. The apartment we’d booked in Venice would remain empty that night. It was already after 10 pm and no trains would be returning towards Venice until the morning.

By the time our trained pulled into the Trieste station it was past midnight. An additional hour was spent walking the streets of Trieste in search of an affordable hotel for the night. What a debacle! In the end, we settled on a hotel that was miles more expensive than we could afford, but by that time we were all out of patience, energy and options. Getting some sleep at all costs rose to the top of everyone’s priority list.

Venice- Truly One of a Kind

We finally arrived to Venice approximately 12 hours later than planned, but once we did, all was forgiven. The sky was a brilliant blue, the air was clean and filled with the energetic sounds of Venice in high gear. Our gang of six was infused with new enthusiasm.

The little Venice apartment we’d rented couldn’t have been more perfect. Peer out the bedroom window and see boats on water passing on the “street” below.

Oh yes we did. We had to, right? Of course, the gondola ride! Not cheap, but we split the cost six ways and piled into the boat. It’s such a cliché thing to do, but a thrill nonetheless; one of those pure magic moments you wish you could bottle up and keep around for whenever you need a lift. Our gondolier’s name was Andrea (In Italy, this is only a man’s name). He didn’t sing for us, but he did manage to kill a large rat (made of rubber) that somehow climbed into our boat. I asked him if he’d given rides to any celebrities during his many years at the helm. Bruce Springsteen and Robin Williams were a couple of names he dropped.


Fun video. Short and sweet!

Most of our time in Venice was spent wandering around aimlessly and happy. St Mark’s Square, the Riatta Bridge, the gelato (lots of gelato), we soaked it all up as much as time allowed.





Our final morning in Venice, Jessica and I went for a quiet early morning walk. Have you ever seen the streets of Venice like this?



Florence, Italy is known for having more than its fair share of great works of art. Michaelangello’s David is undoubtedly Florence’s most well-known single piece of artwork, but that’s only a beginning. Practically every corner of the city contains some world famous statue, fresco or painting. Most of the buildings are adorned with statues and ornate fixtures. Too bad I’m a genuine knucklehead for art. I look at art like a cat watching a card trick.

This huge church, referred to as the ‘Duomo,’ is the centerpiece of Florence. English speakers will understandably interpret duomo to mean dome. This is surprisingly incorrect! The name il duomo is a shortened term for “house of God.” (Think of the root of the word domicile.)

Its grand dome could even be seen from our Florence apartment.

While all of our time in Florence could have been spent rambling from one museum to the other, we decided to choose one art museum only- The Uffuzi -and then divide up our non-museum time among random pursuits. Fortunately, a few members of our group have studied a bit of art-history and a couple (Mallorie and Mickaela) even possess some talent for it themselves. Many artists are drawn to Florence. Walking around the city, we often saw young people with artist pads sketching away.

Everything we saw in Florence was accessed on foot. We had no car nor any need for one since there was plenty to see within walking distance. However, it did leave me wondering what we might have missed. I don’t really know where I got this image, but I pictured Florence to be more full of grassy parks with white marble statues sprinkled about. Not what we found by any stretch. Did we ever see a single blade of grass, much less a tree? I hope I’m exaggerating, but… at least in the part of the city we saw it was bricks and concrete surrounded by more of the same.

Florence had some pretty sights in the evening, too. (Hey, is that grass I see?)



At Home in Rome (and the Vatican)

Rome was our home for four days and nights. We “lived” in a quaint, 3 bedroom apartment, walking distance from the grocery store, dozens of cafés and restaurants, and the metro stop. It felt like a sampling of what it must be like to live in Rome.

So much to do. So much to see. And so much walking. Let’s get started.

Our first walk was from the apartment we’d rented to Vatican City, about 10 healthy blocks. There we saw the oval-shaped St. Peter’s Square, and the largest church in all the world– St. Peter’s Basilica. Quite a sight. And made all the more interesting by the Rick Steve’s audio guides we’d downloaded to our smart phones in advance.

Inside the behemoth church that is St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s cavernous!

We also paid our respects to the famous Sistine Chapel, where we heard Michelangelo spent some time with a paint brush. What an ordeal that was. So many people!!! And the circuitous route one must take to get there is worse than a rat’s maze. All visitors to the Sistine Chapel begin their journey at the Vatican Museum. Call me a simple-minded bore if you wish, but I honestly struggle getting into viewing items on display at museums, historic and amazing or not. Jessica is much more in-tune with high art.

Room after room we shuffled with the flow of the crowd. Through corridors, up stairs, down ornately decorated hallways. Hall after grand hall. We would sometimes stop to gawk at a grand and famous painting or two before rejoining the flow of humanity.

Finally, we entered the Sistine Chapel. The room was floor-to-ceiling artistry and wall-to-wall people. There is bench-seating around the perimeter of the room; all spaces taken. Wait! There’s a spot! A couple of people got up and Jessica and I dove for their slots. From there we queued up another one of Rick Steve’s audio guides and listened while Rick helped lead our eyes across the ceiling. No photos allowed inside the Sistine Chapel. Whoops! Did someone sneak one?

On another day, the gang went early to St. Peter’s Square for “an audience with the Pope.” Every Wednesday (assuming he is in town), the Pope makes a rockstar-like appearance in the middle of St. Peter’s Square. Hundreds of seats are set up for the crowd that swarms in for a glimpse.

Right as he first appeared he came rolling towards his fans in a modified, topless, SUV-looking vehicle. The people screamed his name, whistled and applauded. Pope Francis stood up in the back and leaned out towards the people while rolling slowly around the perimeter of chairs. You’d have thought it was Justin Timberlake (wearing a beanie) based on the cheers. To really get the masses excited, Pope Frances would periodically remove his hat and toss it to the crowd, only to put another on his head seconds later so he could repeat the stunt.


The Roman Coliseum and Forum

Of course, we all went to the Coliseum. Such an amazing and formidable structure it was (and still is). Again, we used another of Rick Steve’s audio guides to help liven up our visit. [A brief word about these guides: They’re informative and free.] In learning about what went on at the games, one thing is for sure, man had an incredible appetite for gore and brutality. And then to call it entertainment….




Adjacent to the Coliseum is an area known as the Forum– essentially, it is what remains of “downtown Rome” from back in its heyday. We walked through the rubble with another of Rick Steve’s audio guides and learned more stuff (we’ve since forgotten).


Ticking Off Rome’s Landmarks

We were intent to tick off more of Rome’s famous landmarks so naturally we had to pitch a few coins into the Trevi Fountain.

The Spanish steps were next. We’d heard eating and drinking were not allowed on the Spanish steps. If true, enforcement of this rule is non-existent; there was gross trash all over the place. It was even hard to find a clean spot to pose for the perfunctory photo.

I think they said the Pantheon is the oldest surviving continuously used building in the world. Its function and usage has changed many times since it was built some 2000 years ago, but the building itself still looks strong. It was originally built to honor the many hundreds of Gods worshipped by the Romans. Hence the name, Pan is latin for many, and theo was their word for god. Pantheon! (See, I did remember something.)



A Gelato A Day (Sometimes Two)

It was hard not to eat gelato everyday. Gelaterias were everywhere. And as soon as one person wanted one, everyone else had to get one, as well.


Many of our meals while in Italy were purposefully done on the cheap. Meaning, we would buy food at the grocery store and fix stuff at the apartment. Doing this enough times eased our minds about eating out. Food is expensive in Italy…at least for us. The problem really the unfavorable dollars-to-euros exchange rate. 10 euros for them is 14 dollars to us!

I think everybody from our gang had good eating experiences while in Italy. Mickaela ordered eggplant parmasean three consecutive occasions from different restaurants. It worked out perfectly, though, since she reported that the first one was excellent and then each that followed was even better than the last. One of our best “discoveries” in food was a something called an Arancini. It’s an Italian fried rice ball! None of us had ever heard of such a thing before, but it was dee-ee-lish! Seek them out. Eat them up. Arancini!


Other fun pics:




Back To Our Groove

The two weeks that Mallorie and the crew were traveling with us flew by so fast! For Jessica and I the pace of travel definitely accelerated while they were around. It had to. Our intention was to fill their two-week vacation with as much goodness as could reasonably fit– Athens, Mykonos, Venice, Florence and Rome. May their experiences sustain them for a while as they return to their normal lives.

Seeing them depart for home, made us think of that day when our year-long journey will come to a close. We have such mixed emotions about it, too. I hope to find a chance to say more about that in a future post. But for now, Jessica and I are plunging headlong into the next phase of our trip- more of Italy. We’ll be going to Naples, then traveling all the way to Palermo, Sicily. Stay with us!

Cinque Terre

(Cinque Terre, Italy – 22-26 April 2014) There are many picturesque coastlines in the world, but perhaps none hold the same magical appeal as Cinque Terre. Literally meaning “five lands,” this stretch of high-cliffed and rocky shoreline sprinkled with quaint villages has become a magnet for tourists since some really smart visionary decided to link five of these beautiful towns with a walking path.

The towns are also connected by train and a regular ol’ highway, but that’s not what brings people like us (and thousands more) to Cinque Terre. The walking paths take visitors from one charming sea-side village to the next, through backyards and vineyards, above the surf, and sometimes through the woods, too. Paths start and end at whichever authentic Italian gem you come to next. The walking distance between the five towns varies from about an hour to almost two. This means it is possible to complete the Cinque Terre trail in one day. Though why anyone would have that as their goal is beyond me. The whole point of the Cinque Terre experience is…. well, the experience.


A Cabin in the Woods

Jessica and I could not afford to stay in any of the five Cinque Terre towns. Those $250+ per night rooms were for honeymooners and richy-riches only. Instead, we stayed in a small cabin at a campsite about 15 minutes away (by train and shuttle) from the northernmost Cinque Terre town. This put us away from the action, but what a fine choice we had made. So quiet and peaceful it was that our first night in the cabin we both slept for 11 straight hours.


The bathroom and showers were communal at the campgrounds, but our cabin had a little kitchenette so we enjoyed preparing our own meals. Which brings me to a topic that may spark intense controversy. The pasta dish I made in the cabin may have been better than any we’d eaten yet in Italy. It was simply Barilla brand pasta sauce (basil) from a jar over sautéed onions and bell peppers on penne pasta. The Italian food we’ve been eating in Italy has been good, but not quite as outstanding as I was expecting.

Ready for my complaints about Italian food? Well, here I go anyway. Italian pasta dishes don’t use enough sauce. The sauce is the best part so why not load it up? (That’s why my pasta dish in the cabin was better.) How about the pizza? Relative to other choices the pizzas here were not expensive. Which means, we ate a lot of them. But here’s the problem. A pizza “ristorante” can be found on every corner of Italy….and each one just as identical as the last. No creativity. Once upon a time, someone must have created the first pizza restaurant menu, and then passed out copies of it to every other restaurant in the country. We saw the same exact list of pizzas (e.g., Napoli, Capriciosa, Margherita, 4 Formagio (4 cheese), Siciliana, and about eight more) over and over again with no variation. The fact that there were 15 or so pizzas to choose from was okay, my complaint is only that every parlor served the same 15 pizzas.

Every pizza was thin-crust and they all came in just one size–> medium. Almost never were they cut into slices either; you had to do that yourself at the table. Awkward! Another thing that bugged me was that if your pizza had olives on it, they weren’t pitted. C’mon, people! Would it kill you to put olives without pits on your pizzas? And finally, the concept of build-your-own pizza does not exist here.

In conclusion, Italian food is good, but doesn’t match the hype it generally receives.

Trail Closed, No Entry

The five towns that make up Cinque Terre are: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Riomaggoire. I have listed them in order from west to east only because that is the direction we hiked. Now for a little womp-waahh– not all of the trails between the towns were open while we were there. We were still able to walk from one town to the other because there are multiple paths- upper and lower -linking them together. The Monterosso to Vernazza lower path was perfect, but several of the other lower paths (the ones that you see in all the travel magazines) were closed for repair.

This meant that between Vernazza and Corniglia we hiked the longer and more challenging trail that climbed up and over the high hills dividing them. While it would have been nice to have all of the lower trails open, that hardly diminished our good time. Walking the upper-trails was extremely rewarding, too. From on high we gained spectacular vistas of the town we’d just left, and the next one we were approaching, (sometimes even the next two).

More views from the upper trail.


A short ways out to sea, small sailboats trade places, east and west. Though it looks like the one in the photo below is a resting speed boat.

Corniglia had a mesmerizing set of stairs that led to/from the train station. This is awesome!

From Manarola and Riomaggoire, the high trail was knee-achingly steep. For that leg, Jessica chose the train over hiking. We said our see you shortlies and headed off in independent directions. So close together were these two towns that I zoomed up the trail, over the pass, and down into Riomaggoire all in about 45 minutes. Weirdly, that was about the same amount of time it took Jessica by train, inclusive of her 40 minute wait before the train arrived.

For us, Riomaggoire was the last town in the series. For most, however, it is where the five-village hop begins. For that reason we found the place at the beginning of the lower trail where lovers place their locks on the railing. So romantic! It was clear we’d found the spot for many a marriage proposal. (Jessica and I were amused, but not swayed.)

We also found a spot for lunch.

Our lunchtime scenery.

Different spots along the path.


Our enduring good memories of Cinque Terre will be split between the expansive, breathtaking views our eyes captured from the trails and the peaceful, cozy time spent in our little cabin at the campsite. We could live like this forever, we thought.

Our final stop in Italy was the home of our good friend Boris. The same Boris that we traveled with in New Zealand. The same Boris that lives in Perth, Australia. His home city is Padova, Italy. Though he won’t be anywhere near there, his family has welcomed us and there we will stay for a few days before heading to Slovenia. Stay with us.


(Rimini, Italy – 17-22 August 2014) From way before we left Austin, the one fixed date in our year-long itinerary was the Paganello Beach Ultimate Tournament in Rimini, Italy. It was many years ago when I first heard other Ultimate players talking about Paganello. Each year a handful of Austin Ultimate players would travel all the way to Italy just for this legendary tournament. Paganello is famous for being the largest (>50 teams) Beach Ultimate Tournament in the World and for having some of the best Ultimate parties ever.

Jessica and I arrived to Rimini by train from Assisi, Italy. I am typically not as demonstrative as Jessica when it comes to showing excitement, but the closer we got to Rimini, the more I started to “light up.” It wasn’t just the chance to play some competitive Ultimate, it was also the anticipation of meeting up with friends from Austin that we hadn’t seen since starting our trip.

Playing in the Sand

The Austin-based team I played on was named Texas Mustache Rides (“TMR”); you will easily see the logo on our jerseys.

All but a couple of our guys sported the best mustache they could manage. Seen chasing the disc below, I thought Joel’s stash was clearly the strongest.

Another look at Joel’s fine stash (front-right) at one of our fun team dinners. Did you spot Jessica and me?

On our way to the last tournament party. Jessica is such an outlaw!

The 5th Element

The sand we played on was fine-grained and super soft. Easy on the feet, but it sure made running a chore. Some players complained that their arches were taking a beating. I personally felt more soreness in the front part of my hips, a result of the different stresses put on my leg muscles….from running like a lizard across the sand, I guess.

We played a total of 10 games over four days, 4 on the first day, 3 on day two, then just 2 and 1 on days three and four. Of those 10 games, we won exactly half, but I guess we chose the right ones to win because we ended up with 5th place overall (out of 17 teams in the Mixed division).

One of our games was played in what they were calling The Arena– a pitch of sand surrounded by stadium seating and about six cameras to record the action. If you want to see the game, here is the link:

Contributing Factor

What I’ve found to be true is that even more important than whether your team wins or loses is how you as a player feel you contributed to your team. After 10 games on TMR, I’m feeling good, but not great. I played very conservatively on offense to the point at which my throws were coming out soft and weak. Not what you want on a windy beach. If you watch the game at the link above, you’ll see me throw a sure backhand score into the sand. Ugh!

The rule of thumb is that if the disc touches your hand, you should catch it. By this standard, I caught all but one pass the whole tournament. I had that going for me, but my lack of quickness in the sand meant that I wasn’t getting open as often as I would have liked.

Defensively, I had a medium-strong tournament. I’m generally better at covering the short cuts and get beat with greater frequency if my opponent cuts long…which they did all too often. I made up for some of the damage with a couple of highly visible and dramatic defenses. It feels good when you find yourself in a crowd of players all scrambling for an errant disc…and you come down with it in your hands. This happened once for me at Paganello and I’ll take it.

My biggest struggle was simply meshing with my team. Every one of my Mustache teammates plays ‘above my level’ so it was my challenge to gain their confidence. I’ve been playing with or against many of them in Austin for years, but being on the same team with so many of them at a competitive tournament is fundamentally different. I was intent on holding my own and I’m not entirely sure I succeeded, but at least I feel I came close.

I came close to this one, too, but didn’t quite get it.

Italian Elvis

Paganello’s opening night party featured an Elvis Tribute Band. They rocked that main stage like a 50’s sock hop. The singer (who resembled Kneau Reeves far more than Elvis) couldn’t match Elvis’ moves, but that was okay. His singing was solid and the variety of songs they played (more than just Elvis) had the crowd up and dancing.

The following night’s tournament party was located further away from where we were staying and only one or two from our team ended up going. Our good times were found hanging out and drinking in one of the rooms at the team hostel.

Each year the Paganello tournament chooses a theme. This year it was Abba vs. Aliens. (Yeah, I don’t get it either.) 20140606-105830.jpg

Having a tournament theme not only influences the music played between games, but it also dictates what people wear to the parties. One crazy team from England painted their faces and bodies green and stuck a large fake eye on their foreheads, literally mimicking the aliens from Toy Story– “We are eternally grateful….”

Other teams dressed in glittering Abba-era jumpsuits.

Jessica pauses her own dancing to snap a photo of Rebecca and me.

Our team went pure cowboy!
[team pic]

Paganello Tournament. Check!

At nearly 50, I am clearly in the latter stages of my Ultimate “career.” To be invited to play at Paganello with a team from Austin was huge for me. For many years I’ve been carrying around (in my head) a short list of big tournaments that I’d like to play in before the day comes when I can play no more. Paganello was high on that list. I reserve the right to add more tournaments to that docket, but for now, only Poultry Days (annual tournament in Versailles, Ohio) remains.

After saying our good-byes to our Austin friends, Jessica and I turned to each other in quiet acknowledgment that it would just be us again. That’s okay. We’ve been having quite literally the time of our lives and there was no reason to believe that would not continue to be the case. Our next destination is Cinque Terre and one of the world’s most famous hikes that hugs a beautiful portion of the Italy’s northwestern coastline.

From top left to bottom right;
BJ – broke his arm in the first game of the tournament
Joel – currently living in Toronto, Canada
Dave Street – may have played his best tournament yet
Elliot – currently lives in Geneva, Switzerland with Hannah*
Allen – currently lives in Germany with Nat*
Pickens – loves Ultimate as much as anyone else alive (addiction)
Rebecca – great all-around player and more importantly, best dancer on the team!
Michelle – was certainly the leading scorer on the team (don’t get in her way when the disc is in the air)
Emily – always wins the award for fewest turnovers on the team
Gary – got two compliments on “my look” (sunglasses matching hair)
Tina – has better throws than Scotty B.
Steffi – currently lives in Germany and has the cutest little boy

* Hannah and Nat played on a Women’s Team called Super Hot Pot. They won the tournament in that Division.