Furore, Italy

From Rome the first three hours of driving to Furore were a piece of cake, basically four lane highways with minimal slowdowns due to one lane being closed for construction. The fun ended once we hit the mountains.  The switchbacks were challenging and seemed to go on forever.  Ella and Rachel complained about car sickness.  Marcia was feeling a bit queasy too.

The final road to the apartment was essentially a single lane road with occasional spots where two cars could pass.  Bottomline is that we made it without putting a scratch on the car.  After being in Rome, Furore is a significant change of pace. The entire mountainside is terraced and planted with olive trees, tomatoes, lettuce, berries, and lemon trees.  Sitting on the deck , occasionally we can hear chickens, and two mules.  The mules communicate with each other.  The one directly below us will bray and then the one down the coast to the south will answer.

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View of Amalfi Coast from our apartment in Furore. Negotiating switchbacks by car it takes about 25 minutes to arrive at the coast.
There is no shortage of churches in Italy
Bell tower of the church, Amalfi, Italy

Instagram magic

We had just extricated ourselves from the crowds around the Tivoli Fountains and found a quiet restaurant to grab a quick lunch. Sarah noticed there was free wifi.  Marcia checked her instagram account and her niece Madeline had posted a picture of herself in front of the Tivoli Fountains. IMG_1087The timestamp said it was posted two hours ago.  Madeline is studying in Copenhagen for the semester.  She had visited us several weeks ago in Paris.  With no prior planning, it seemed unlikely that we would be at the same fountain about an hour or two apart. Marcia contacted Madeline via Facebook Messenger.  In disbelief, we traded messages and arranged to met later that night for dinner.


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Jack and Marcia at the Tivoli Fountains – an hour or so after Madeline was here

In the interim, we headed to the Colosseum. This time we opted to skip the line and get a guide.  Although we were a few euros lighter, it was a good decision.  It took a few minutes to get through security, but the guide was excellent. The girls listened intently to descriptions of the brutality of the Romans.  There 80 arches that surround the  Colosseum each served as an entrance gate.  The said that 50,000 spectators could exit within 15 minutes.  DSCN1599 (1)

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Team Oklahomies – Three girls from Oklahoma State competing in the Red Bull Challenge

Outside the Colosseum, were three girls dressed in togas.  They were being photographed by a couple of guys with high end camera equipment.  I just had to ask what they were doing.  It turned out that they were completing the first day of the Red Bull challenge. 165 teams from 50 countries, each team started with 24 cans of Red Bull, and no cash. Their challenge was to get from city to city in Europe trading cans for rides.  The three girls of Team Oklahomies were able to get from Florence to Rome by trading three cans of Red Bull for 3 train tickets.  A lady from Phoenix said buying them tickets was her good deed for the day.  More info see Team Oklahomies.

It took us a while to find the restaurant where we were to meet Madeline.  Google.maps let us down.  We walked past the restaurant, and then walked in circles.  It was worth the extra 30 minutes of searching.  We agree with the Lonely Planet,  “Freni e Frizione draws a young spritz -loving crowd that swells onto the small piazza outside to sip well-priced cocktails.” By buying one drink, the buffet was free.  Marcia posted the picture in Instagram and a number of people mentioned that Britney (sitting between Marcia and Madeline) certainly looks like one of the family. It was a fun get together.

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We met up with Madeline and her friend Britney, who is also from the University of Wisconsin and studying in Copenhagen.  The restaurant was not the white table cover place that Marcia hoped for on her last night in Rome wanted, but turned out to have a great vegetarian buffet. Sarah jumped up to take the picture.  Ella was ready to leave.

At about 10:00 we walked along the Tiber River to return to our apartment.  Fortunately at one point in the journey, Sarah said, “Dad, that would make a great picture.”

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Vatican, Sistine Chapel and St Peters Basilica

The word was to get to the Vatican before 10:00 am.  Our goal was to be out the door by 8:00 and be in the queue by 8:30.  Well, best laid plans…  I think we arrived at the queue by 9:15. Everyone else had the same idea.  When we entered the line, Rachel started her stopwatch and let us know how much time had passed at multiple points.  Even before we reached the queue there were many tour guides saying we could skip the queue with a guide.Eventually after 1 hour 10 minutes we passed the security screening (as timed by Rachel).

Once inside the line for tickets took maybe 2 minutes.  With tickets in hand we proceeded to follow the arrows.  At one point there was a fork in the road.  To the left up stairs was the short path to the Sistine Chapel, to the right was another arrow to the Sistine Chapel.

Perseus with the head of Medusa

The short way had the most people, so went to the right.  The right arrow took us to gallery after gallery starting with with mostly structures of Roman gods and occasional Greek gods, e.g., Hera shown with Marcia below.

Marcia and I had the same reaction upon entering the Sistine Chapel. “Is this it? It seemed smaller than the immense buildup given by Rick Steves and the various guidebooks.  We stood there near the center of the chapel and craned our head upward.  It took some time to find the panel with god’s finger about to touch Adam.  Eventually we found it but after 10 to 15 minutes standing and looking up, our necks were reaching the uncomfortable point.  Michelangelo spent four years on scfolds looking up and working quickly before the plaster dried.  The colors were vivid and we were glad we saw it after the restoration/cleaning that was done from 1990 to 1994.  As a New York Times article mentioned the result were richly hued frescoes.
IMG_1403 The entire floor of the chapel and benches on both sides were full.  Even standing one’s personal space was a bit tighter than comfortable. Photos within the Sistine Chapel were forbidden.  Appropriate for a place of worship there were multiple signs requesting silence.  Unfortunately, neither request was honored by the crowd. We honored the requests by not taking photos, we could hear shutters clicking left and right.  To calm the voice volume, the guards would occasionally yell to be quiet. The above photo is Marcia in front of Hera.  Hera is the god of matrimony and wife of Zeus.  Three years ago I drove up to Ann Arbor, Michigan to pick up a small sailboat.  It was a gift from Jack to Jack, but since it was the day before Mother’s day, I sent Marcia a picture of the boat and said, “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Next up was St Peter’s Basilica. If the size of the Sistine was smaller than we expected, St Peter’s was grander than either of us imagined.  Designed by Michelangelo, the dome is the length of a football field off the ground.  The scaffolding alone must have been an incredible engineering challenge.  Built 500 years ago without the help of cranes or motors.

The view from the top of St Peter’s Basilica

Below are two small sections of mosaics that are reached after about 300 steps up to St Peter’s dome.

The Pieta by Michelangelo
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Pope John XXIII in the wing of St Peter’s




The challenge of driving into Rome and finding the address of the apartment was significant.  The combination of the car GPS and Google maps on the cell phone got us in the vicinity.  Traffic was nuts.  Scooters and motorcycles fly by within inches on either side.  Somehow they zip between cars  and then abruptly cut in front of you. We knew we were close to the apartment so took the first space we found on a quiet side street.  Marcia directed effort from the curb.  It took at least 7 forward/backward moves to finally park it.  There was a most 6 inches in the front and 6 inches in the back. Even after we were parked the alarms for being too close in the front and in the rear were ringing loudly.  (Once parked I figured out how to turn off the alarms.) It was a big relief to have the car parked so we could find the doors to the apartment and get settled.

On our first outing we headed to the Spanish steps.  Since the girls had done some homework in the morning, we ran into the big afternoons crowds around the fountain at the base of the step. It was a beautiful day.  Since we were not to be in Rome very long, on the first day we decided to take a double-decker bus that allows you to hop on and hop off at 10 or so stops around the city.  They gave us earphones to allow us to listen information about what we could see at the various stops.  After several stops, the people who had the front seats on the second level departed.  The girls jumped to move to the front seats.  Marcia and I followed and enjoyed the 270 degree view.  The sun went in and it started to drizzle, making it a chilly ride.  The previous afternoon had been sunny in the ’70s, so the cold was not welcome. We had hoped we had left the cold behind.

Panoramic view from the top of the Spanish Steps

When I saw a Burger King sign, I suggested we go for some classic American food.  It was in part a gesture to the girls, but there was some self-interest involved as well.  It was a hoot eating amongst a crowd of Italians in a Burger King.  I think we were the only ones in the place whose native language was not Italian. There were families with kids and couples on a date. In the second floor dining room almost every seat was full.

Ella always asks for catsup and the rest of us use too much salt so I had to return to the counter and ask for catsup and salt.  The girl at the counter said the catsup was 10 cents a packet.  With .5 eur we had 5 packets.  The salt was free.

Our second day coincided with the Rome Marathon. From the website we learned the runners were to pass directly in front of our apartment.

It was quite a scene with a continuous flow of thousands of runners.  From where we were standing I could not get a decent shot of the runners because of the strong sunlight.  The runners were backlit and it wasn’t until much later that I got to position to obtain a picture that you could actually see the runners.  As time passed the pace of the runners slowed and we headed back up to our fourth floor apartment (fifth floor in the US  because our first floor is floor is zero, not first).  DSCN1578After a quick snack we headed out to lunch. It was a challenge to get to the restaurant because we had to cross race course several times. Nevertheless, we arrived at Ba’Ghetto to have a grilled dish for two.  Excellent preparation.  As a late appetizer we had their speciality a grilled artichoke.

After the meal, the kids were not up for the museum that Marcia wanted to see. So we walked to a bridge that crossed the Tiber River.  We took the stairs that led to the river level on the island between the banks of the river.  There were a lot couples relaxing in the sun.  We walked the full circle around the island.  We sat for 15 minutes and watched the river.

When we walked back up to the bridge, there were the usual individuals selling knock off Prada and high end purses.  I made the mistake of being too obvious when looking at purses while walking by.  The salesman was polite when I shook my head to signal, no. No sooner than passed the another individual with purses for sale, two guys ahead of us who had been selling jewelry and purses gathered the sheets on which their goods were placed. With all their goods quickly scooped up, they ran to the edge of the bridge and tossed their goods over.  Then they disappeared as they ran off the bridge.  The were motivated by the presence of uniformed and plainclothes police.  The below picture shows the police below the bridge gathering up the goods.  We were not sure what motivated the police; selling without a license, failure to collect tax, or trafficking counterfeit goods.


Pisa, Italy

IMG_1402We were warned against staying in Pisa.  I think the warning came after we had already booked a two bedroom apartment a block away from the Leaning Tower.  It is another case where low expectations led to a pleasant surprise for the five of us.  Who would have thought looking at building with a 5 degree tilt would be amazing?  Tourists everywhere posing as though they were holding the tower up.  A few were posed to make the picture appear their finger was on top of the tower.  It was interesting to watch the communication between the picture taker and the one posing.  Only one couple was trying to get the shot of the wife pushing the tower over.  Their communication was clearly broken. The picture taker tried repeatedly to change the pose, without success.

Strangely, it felt good to be amongst so many tourists.  Unlike Albenga, in Pisa there were Brits, French, German, Chinese, and Spanish in family clusters and in big tour groups of 20 to 25.  We did not detect American accents.  It was nice to hear English with a Bristish accent.  We talked with a Londoner with his girlfriend.  He was a snowboard instructor in the Alps and talked about 900 eur tips and working with a high end clientele from Russia.  His girlfriend had worked on cruise ships for the past years.  They had to depart to board their cruise ship.  They mentioned it would have been nice to spend more time exploring and relaxing on land.

When locals asked us where we were from, they smiled when we told them the US.  With big grins they said, “Americanos.”  It is nice to feel welcome.  It is feeling we have had for the past six weeks.

Similar to Paris, there were guards with automatic rifles.  Unlike Paris, they did not have their fingers on the trigger guard.  They lacked the seriousness of those in Paris.  Of course the Parisian guards felt the proximity of the Brussels and the November terrorism. *Note the lack of a line to climb the steps.  The guide books suggested buying the tickets online.  Perhaps because it was April and not summertime, there weren’t masses waiting in the queue.
At the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Great view after negotiating very worn marble steps, all the while adjusting for the tilt. Going up was not as much of a challenge as going down.
View from the Leaning Tower.  It was a beautiful day, about 70 degrees, much warmer than we became accustomed to in Paris.


The Leaning Tower was designed to be a bell tower for the adjacent cathedral.  The Tower was started in 1173.  Due to the lean construction stopped after the first three floors were completed.  99 years passed and it was assumed the ground would have settled.  To compensate for the lean additional height was added to the side of the wall that was tilted.  The additional weight on that side increased the pressure on the base and caused further lean.  The weight on the base was calculated to be 14,500 tons.  For 900 years the tilt increased by 1-2 mm annually.  To avoid the eventual collapse in 1964 a team of engineers and historians gathered to come up with a plan to stabilize the tower.  They used an 800 ton lead counterweight buried in the ground opposite the lean.  More details at: www.leaningtowerofpisa.net.

Rachel stands at the base of one of the 24 largest pillars holding up the cathedral.  Each pillar is a solid stone that has a base diameter of about 4 feet.  They extend up approximately 30 feet high.   Imagine in the 10th century they were able to quarry, cut a single stone into a column, move it Pisa, and then stand it upright. For the main columns this had to happen 24 times, without one column toppling another.  I did not count the other supporting columns but there were at least 30 of those.  Amazing engineering.


Albenga, Italy

Originally, we were going to stay in Cannes.  We found an apartment on the harbor with a view of the marina full of sailboats.  The reviews on VRBO mentioned good restaurants a few steps from the door, and outdoor cafes for a drink.  The VRBO calendar said it was vacant during the three nights we wanted to stay there. I  submitted the request and assumed everything would be set, so we moved on to reservations in Pisa and Rome.  After our deposit was accepted in Rome, the word came from Cannes – not available.  After writing to at least seven different apartments in Cannes it was apparent that there was a big TV convention in Cannes during the weekend we expected to stay.  I learned that the apartments were open but the price was three to four times the normal rate.  They also wanted to charge $1,000 eur for deposit. Cannes would have worked out great because we were trying to keep driving from one place to another to a manageable four hours or less (based on the Google maps estimate).

Street scene, notice how the space between the buildings shrinks.  Entering that alleyway leads to a maze of alleyways and small squares.

Since we had a three day hole in our schedule and had to find a place east of Cannes, the search was on.  Nice was an option but prices were high, there was no washer/dryer, or one of the kids would have had to sleep in the living room.  We had never heard of Albenga, but the apartment had three beds, good reviews, and the pictures looked interesting.  The expectations for Albenga as a town were low.  I figured we would be nestled in a small town on the Italian Riviera.  As it turned out, the apartment was a relatively new structure built behind a wall that dated to the middle ages.  We were able to park the car in a reserved spot and easily unload the car next to the outer door of the apartment.

Going out very old and large wooden double doors at the back of the apartment,we entered a maze of alleyways that were too tight for a car.

The view out our apartment window.

Even a Smart car would have scraped mirrors.  The historic passages were surrounded by three or four story residences.  The ground floors were shops; restaurants, bakeries, and even a hardware store.  There were a few tourist shops sprinkled in the mix.  The alleyways were interconnected with small squares were a restaurants and tapas bars had outdoor tables and chairs.  The whole effect was charming.

Exiting the alleyways opened up to a city street that eventually led to a boardwalk.  By the time the girls finished homework it was 1:00 pm.  Except for cars buzzing about, it appeared the town was closed.  Even the restaurants were dark.  When we reached the boardwalk, all the shops and restaurants appeared to be closed for the season.  While walking the length of the boardwalk, Marcia talked to a high school, maybe college age, girl who was waiting for her friends to catch up her.  She had been jogging.  She explained that everything would be closed till 3:30.  We had read about offices closing down from 12:30 to 3:30, but did not realize how pervasive the closures would be.  Even the restaurants were closed.

At about 4 pm the shops opened.

It was nice to be in a town without tourists.  We did not hear English, French, Spanish, or German for three days.  While some of the waiters and waitresses spoke limited English, it was not like Paris where almost everyone had some command of English.  We managed to catch-up on the laundry, get some homework done, and have a relaxing three days.

Lilies blooming on one of the squares within the historic district of alleyways.
A service center with Total gas/diesel and one of the restaurant we had a pleasant lunch break.
Notice the mountains in the backround.  We were impressed with the highways in France and Italy.  Expensive but well maintained.


Normandy Cemeteries

I was surprised to see a large parking lot that was almost full of cars.  There were three or four high end tour buses parked in a special area.  The Omaha beach visitor center was large building with an long endless reflecting pool on the lower level.  The exhibits were were numerous and supplemented with multiple flat screens.  The Images of Omaha Beach and the cemetery frequently appear in the media.  President Obama’s 2014 visit for the 70th anniversary of D-Day resulted in much press coverage. Before arriving I had a clear image of what to expect, i.e., long rows of crosses, and a generalized sense of depression.

Among the thousands of crosses, it was rare to see the Star of David.  GIs reportedly had three options for religion on their dog tags; “P” for Protestant, “C” for Catholic, or “H” for Jewish (from the word, “Hebrew”), or (according to at least one source) “NO” to indicate no religious preference.

According to a letter to the NY Times,

Many Jewish G.I.’s omitted from their dog tags the indication that their religious identity was Jewish for the prudent reason that in the event of falling into German hands, their lives would be at greater risk if they were identifiable as Jewish.           PAUL LIPPMAN Hoboken, N.J., June 14, 1994

From talking to friends and family who previously visited Omaha Beach, I expected to feel much sadness.  In fact I felt more angry about the wasted lives than sadness.  Marcia reported sadness.

We also visited the German cemetery where 7000+ Germans were buried. We arrived to see three cars in the parking lot, no tour buses and no one staffing the small visitor center. Like the American counterpart there were crosses, but there wasn’t a one-to-one correspondence between a cross and a deceased soldier.  The actual grave markers were flat on the ground.

It bothered me that I felt more depressed at the German cemetery than at the American.  I also felt angry about wasted lives.  Based on dates it was not uncommon to see that teenagers were buried in some of the graves.  The feeling was exacerbated by the thousands of German lives that seem to have been forgotten.  

There was plaque at the base of the monument.  I noticed a family discussing the plaque, so I ventured a question in English. Of course they spoke English well. The dad was able to translate some of the statement.  The essence was that the graves were a testament to darkness of war.  Light and hope were represented in the crosses.  It turned out the couple was from Belgium and had the same reason for visiting the German cemetery as we did. They wanted their kids to see both sides. After talking to the couple for several minutes, we learned that they were from Brussels and that exactly one week ago the terrorists had struck the Brussels.  They described the whole city being shut down.  It was a Monday and people were stuck in their offices. We mentioned the Eiffel Tower was lit in the colors of Belgium and  many Belgian flags were hung on government buildings. Collectively, we lamented that horrors of war are still being felt by innocent citizens today in the middle east.

Rather than head back to the hotel we went on to Mont St Michel. The girls were not thrilled about driving 2 hours out of our way.  Despite their protests, their parents had the final say.  The girls retaliated by complaining for a at least 30 minutes.  They were relentless.  When we arrived at the Mont St Michel is was overcast and cold. As the kids were starving, we located a quaint restaurant that was warm and had nice ambiance with stone walls.

It was low tide when Sarah, Rachel and I walked back to the car.  At high tide the sandy area is completely covered.  Ella and Marcia took the bus.

After all the complaining, the girls had a good day climbing various stairways to get up and around the island.