Roads to Rome III

And so we come to the final installment, I hope you’ve enjoyed your tour of Tuscany. Please remember to take your belongings with you when you exit the ride, and enjoy the rest of your life at the Conspiracy of Happiness.

Day 7 – It was sad to leave I Greppi di Silli today. It’s such a peaceful place. However, as they say…all roads lead to Rome. So we sallied forth and made a stop in Orvieto on the way. Orvieto is perched high atop ancient Etruscan caves…and I do mean high. I took some photos and I think I got most of Europe in the photograph. Plus, it was extremely windy in Orvieto. A great place to fly a kite in my opinion. Anyway, the cathedral (atOrvieto Cathedral the top of Orvieto) is probably the most ornate façade I’ve ever seen. After seeing the cathedral, we all split up. T. and I went off to tour the caves, but the tour time was too late. We stopped to get some lunch, I believe they were wild boar sandwiches…seriously, boar is like the THING in Italy. But, since we didn’t tour the caves, we wandered the streets of the city and came upon a public park which was really nice. We reconvened at the cathedral and loaded up to go to Rome.

Okay, the first thing about Rome is, don’t drive into it. Let the professionals take care of it. Rome’s citizens can turn any 2 lanes into 6 lanes at the blink of an eye and they’re not shy about turning any space, be it sidewalk, cross street or lane of traffic into a parking space. Also, as with all the signage in Italy, it’s confusing and, while visible, not really all that helpful. At one point, T. and I considered following a hot chick on a scooter to her destination regardless of where it led us. Still, we managed to get to our apartment, mere blocks from the Colosseum. I mean, dude, it’s possible that gladiators stayed in our apartment.

There were some grumblings about the apartment (one bathroom, musty smell, poor decor), but honestly, we just slept there. I came to see the sights of Rome, not the apartment. So it was fine for me. That said, I can sleep anywhere, except on an airplane.

Day 8 ColosseumWe gathered at the Colosseum on a rainy morning to discuss our plan for the day. It was decided that we would utilize the hop on/hop off method of tour buses in order to see the things we wanted to focus on the next day. It sort of worked like that, except we really only hopped off once at the Vatican (where there is a Latin option on the ATM) and the rest of Rome was seen from a rainy bus window. Not to be deterred however, we did make our way to the Vatican Museum and I can check off another country on my list. The Vatican museum was packed. It was like a cattle call, and we were on this tour with a guy who was literally talking a mile a minute, although he was very knowledgeable of what were seeing. Still, with all the people it was hard to enjoy any of it. That said, our main goal was the Sistine Chapel. This was P.’s third trip to Italy and she still had not see the Sistine, so we were determined to make that happen. So, we got to the chapel at the end of the museum and there are signs saying to be quiet (it is a chapel after all) and no pictures (of any kind.) We walked in and it was like a high school reunion, chattering people taking flash photos of anything and everything. Five guards wading through the sea of humanity trying to stop both violations. Oh, and by the way, giant works of art on the ceiling and walls. But honestly, it was kind of small…and dark…and while it was impressive to be there and understand how it was created, it was hard to see anything in detail. Actually, it was hard to see anything. After several minutes of craning our necks to see the ceiling and mumbling in hushed tones, we left the chapel. May I recommend this website as an alternative to this process.

Now, more impressive than the Sistine Chapel and possibly anything else in Rome was St. Peter’s Basilica which is the largest church in Christian world. It’s like the size of the blimp hangar, or possibly two blimp hangars. There are marks on the church floor that show where other churches would fit inside it. I can’t even begin to explain how massive this church is and how opulent the papal monuments are inside. Even the pictures I have don’t begin to really show the scale. You just have to see it, and even then, you won’t believe it.

Of course, by this time, the rain had really set in and we got on the bus and just saw the rest of the tour from the bus window. Which was not all bad. By this point in the trip, we’d done a lot of walking and the time on the bus was nice. After we made the complete trip, we got back to the apartment and went out for dinner. Dinner was a riot because we sat around drinking beer and watching MTV Gold on Italian television. Nothing like singing 80s music with your family after a few beers. We stumbled home in the rain and slept off the day.

Day 9 – The rain really caught up to us today. However, given the outstanding weather we’d had, it was only fair. Again, we started out at the Colosseum and our viewing of the inside was interrupted on several occasions by a driving rainstorm. It was about 45 degress and the wind was blowing through the arches. Naturally I was wearing shorts and a thin jacket, so I was shivering by the time we were finished there. Still, it’s an awesome structure to behold and definitely worth your trip. We wandered the Forum during breaks in the weather. The Forum is just so incredible, to think that people lived there thousands of years ago. And, the birthplace of some of our political system at the Senate, which is still intact. Trevi FountainBut, you can only look at ruins for so long without some understanding of what they are so we headed on to see the rest of the sights.

Our travels took us to the Spanish Steps (huge staircase, but otherwise, what’s the point unless maybe you’ve seen movies with this particular attraction), the Trevi Fountain (which is an amazing sculpture/water feature, plus a coin toss guarantees a return trip to Rome), and the Pantheon (with a hole in the top of the dome that allows rain in, which drains through holes in the floor). I know that I just covered 3 major sites in a span of one sentence, but that’s about how quickly we saw them. C. and I were done by this point and we took the opportunity to head back to the apartment.

Unfortunately, our time in Italy was quickly drawing to a close. We packed up and in the morning took a wild ride to the airport. Seriously, our driver seemed like a meth addict in the witness protection program. He was fidgety and silent the entire time. He chewed off enough fingernails for 4 people. Too much espresso I guess.

That’s all folks. We’ll return to normal programming now. See you in the funny papers!

Roads to Rome II

And so, we continue the exciting saga of our trip through Tuscany. I wish I had a cool scroll like on Star Wars to sort of set the stage for this episode, but I don’t, so you’ll just have to deal. Speaking of Star Wars, how in love was I with Miranda from Grey’s Anatomy when she was talking to the “concrete kid” about Star Wars? If you didn’t see it, you should look for that on reruns…it’s brilliant. Anyway…on with the story:

Day 4 – We set off for new territory today. Our destination was Pisa, but we stopped in a tiny little village called Montelupo to experience some of the ceramic art available in Italy. It’s not a very picturesque town in the sense that it’s not really that old…but we were able to meet an artisan and purchase some very niceLeaning Tower of Pisa ceramics. C. bought a couple of cool pieces, one with poppies and one with lemons. Afterward, we set off again for Pisa. Pisa is somewhat of a disappointment. Sure, there’s the tower and it certainly does lean…but other than that, there didn’t seem to be any reason to go to Pisa. You can go up into the tower for €15 but that’s roughly $43,000 USD, so it might not be worth it to relive the Galileo experiment. So, my advice, skip Pisa and buy a postcard of the tower somewhere. Or just use my picture, at right, for your own slide show.

Not to be disappointed, we set off for Lucca. Lucca is a walled city, not all that far from Pisa, but miles apart in charm and beauty. You can’t drive into Lucca unless you live there and even then it’s a challenge. This was the beginning of visits to towns where the streets are nearly too narrow for vehicles. Anyway, one of the highlights of Lucca was a wonderful lunch. Nice relaxing meal near a town square with a public fountain. It was the kind of day you look forward to. From there, we wandered the streets in search of Giacomo Puccini‘s birthplace. Found it! Rather nondescript, but as I heard someone say yesterday: “You don’t know that you’re making history, you’re just hanging out with a bunch of guys doing what you love.” I’m sure Puccini didn’t realize he was going to be a big famous composer when he was born, otherwise he might have decorated the outside of the house a little more, or put up a bigger sign.

However, even with all this, I think the big hit of the day was dinner in Mercatale. We met the chef of this small restaurant and he shared his passion for Tuscany. We also ran into some folks on a cooking tour from our town which is a serendipity I can barely comprehend. I also had the roast pigeon on a bed of cooked spinach. Delicious! The evening was spent sharing a bottle of wine with family back at the farm.

Day 5 – Our destination was San Gimignano today. After a tour of I Greppi di Silli, where we learned all about the wine and olive oil production, we headed for the “Manhattan” of medieval Italy. San Gimignano is home to 13 towers, the remnants of more than 70 towers in this city. Naturally, I had to climb the tallest one to prove to myself that I’m not really afraid of heights. This is so not true! All the way up there was a challenge because of the “open, modern staircase” consisting of metal mesh stairs. Down was pretty challenging too. Anyway…I made it to the top and was rewarded with some amazing views of the city and the countryside. However, let me tell you the reason to go to San Gimignano. It’s for the gelato. The GELATO, people! The gelato in San Gimignano is the best in Italy. They even have a banner telling of their award winning prowess. Simply put, you will not find better gelato in Tuscany. How do I know? Between the five of us, we tried 31 different flavors of gelato over the course of 10 days…so we’re basically experts. Which flavors, you might ask…

  1. Peach
  2. Cherry
  3. Chocolate
  4. Hazelnut
  5. Pineapple
  6. Coffee
  7. Pistachio
  8. Creme Caramel
  9. Crema
  10. Lemon
  11. Melon
  12. Mango
  13. Strawberry
  14. Mars® Bar
  15. Orange Chocolate
  16. Fruits of the Forest
  17. White Wine
  18. Grapefruit
  19. Blackberry
  20. Dark Chocolate
  21. Yogurt all’orancia
  22. Mint
  23. Kiwi
  24. Green Apple
  25. Banana
  26. Chestnut
  27. Watermelon
  28. Tiramisu
  29. Blood Orange
  30. Toffee
  31. Adorabile

So, there you go. I had the Grapefruit and White Wine flavors in San Gimignano and I would fly back there Street in Sienatoday for those very same flavors. It was that good. I don’t think I can express enough how good this gelato was. Okay, enough about the gelato (for now!)

But, the day was not over. We drove to Siena via a long meandering route through Poggibonsi which is nothing. The signage in Italy is prolific, but not always useful. Also, when you get to Siena, it is not a walled city. THAT is a Medici fortress…Siena is across the ravine. And it is beautiful. It is probably the quintessential Italian city. We had a wonderful dinner on the Campo as the sun set slowly on the clock tower. I can’t say much for Siena other than that. We got there fairly late in the day, so it was difficult to see much.

Day 6 – This was a rest day…so to speak. J. and T. coaxed me into a bike ride from the farm to Greve in Chianti. Not a long ride, just 18 kilometers round trip. That’s about 612 miles. Anyway, we set off around 10 a.m., just after the rain had passed. This is what people come to Tuscany for — a bike ride in the hill country beneath a sunny sky. It was a wonderful ride downhill almost all the way to Greve (note, I said downhill and sunny.) We stopped and had lunch a wonderful little family-owned shop. We watched a few of the road rally cars zipping out of town, old and new vehicles. Some of these cars were ancient, and some looked like rocket ships. Anyway, after lunch, we started our ride back to the farm. J. and I led the way with T. following. Well, about halfway up the hill, J. calls out that we’ve gone the wrong way. Well, the two of us anyway. T. apparently knew the right direction and was well ahead of us at this point…although, he probably figured he was way behind since we were not in sight. So J. went to catch up with him and I found myself touring Tuscany on a beat up mountain bike with clouds forming in the distance. I made my way to the right hill (remember it was downhill on the way there) and started the climb. For those of you who don’t do a lot of biking, just because you’re on a mountain doesn’t mean that a mountain bike is the ideal tool for riding up. Cedar Trees Also, if you have a desk job and have become fat and lazy over the course of the last few months while rehabbing a broken ankle, biking up a mountain might not be a good idea. Consequently, the picture to the right is my view from about halfway up the hill headed back to the farm. I took the picture because I honestly thought I would just die right there on the side of the road, and I wanted a photo to remind everyone of the last thing I saw on earth. I like the cypress trees…they’re pretty! Also, note that in this photo that the sun is fairly gone. Yes…the rain started about here and continued all the way to the farm. At one point, I got off the bike and walked faster than I was capable of pedaling. Finally, I arrived back at the farm after a couple more wrong turns. I was wet, tired, and my ass was killing me, still it was a really great bike ride.

However, the best part of the day was the meal that evening. A little restaurant about the size of my office where we went in and sat down and the guy just started bringing us food…plates and plates of it. We didn’t order, he just kept bringing us food. At some point, we finally said enough and so he brought us a huge plate of dessert. It was some of the best food we’d eaten in Tuscany and I savored every single morsel. It’s a good thing I went on that bike ride earlier, otherwise, I’d need bigger pants. The food and wine was a fabulous Tuscan memory.

Thus ends this second chapter of our trip to Italy. Final installment, Rome, tomorrow (hopefully!) and then we’ll get back to regular blogging. Hope you’ve enjoyed it thus far.

See you in the funny papers!

Roads to Rome I

I have been remiss in posting about my vacation for reasons, not the least of which is, that I didn’t want it to end.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to be home really from a country where I don’t speak the language, but it was really beautiful and I really didn’t want to come back to work.  Really! Yet, here I am…and I’m now going to avoid the piles of paperwork and tell you all about Tuscany.

Day 1 – We flew out of the U.S. on Mother’s Day and into Rome.  It was me, C., her brother J., and their parents T. and P.  We packed all our belongings into a Renault Scenic and headed for Florence, or very near Florence.  We were staying at an agritourism farm called I Greppi di Silli.  Of course, by the time we got there, I was exhausted and not feeling well given my well-documented dislike of air travel.  Plus, the hills of Tuscany are no joke and the car ride made me a little nauseous as well.  So, I sacked out in a hammock between two olive trees and napped for a while.  After dinner at a nearby pizzeria (there was a LOT of pizza in Italy), we settled in for the evening.  I awoke sometime in the middle of the night with the worst headache I’ve ever had.  The kind that has you laying on the tile floor hoping that the cool hardness will somehow alleviate the pain.  Eventually I woke C. up and she got some Excedrin for me from J. which did the trick.

Day 2 – A breakfast of bread, cheese, fresh fruit and espresso started a beautiful sunny morning inPonte Vecchio Mercatale Val di Pesa.  We drove to a city nearby and took the bus into Florence.  The bus system in Italy is on the honor system at best.  At worst it’s a free for all.  I think the idea of bus tickets is a tourism scam.  Nobody who lived there bothered with the ticket machine.  Anyway, after some gelato, a quick carousel ride, and a walk across the Ponte Vecchio we headed to Palazzo Pitti.  The Pitti Palace is a large art museum that used to be a residence for the Medici family and a power base for Napoleon.  However, behind the Pitti is Boboli Gardens.  I have always loved European gardens and this one was no exception.  Always neatly manicured with various ways to get lost inside; filled with sculptures and antiquities that would look positively out of place in my backyard.  We had a wonderful tour of both and following that we ate lunch at a little place along the Arno River.  Mmm, panzanella and ribollita are both highly recommended.  And, of course, no meal would be complete without a gelato.

Following lunch, we journeyed to Santo Croce Chiesa, a church that holds the remains of many famous Italians.  Among them, Galileo, Machiavelli, Fermi, Marconi, Michelangelo and several others.  Then, it was on to the Accademia, another art gallery, famous for its housing the sculpture David.  Oddly enough, they don’t allow pictures of David.  I don’t understand why you can’t photograph sculpture.  I understand I Greppi di Sillipaintings, but not sculpture.  Anyway, it is as awesome as you might imagine it to be.  As we discussed among our small band, there was no bad angle from which to view him.

Later, back at the farm, we were treated to a wonderful home cooked meal featuring many of the farm’s own ingredients, including wine, olive oil, and honey.  A five course meal that was absolutely tantalizing in every respect.  Plus, we were able to meet the owners, the Alfanis, and several of the other guests.  The meal lasted well into the evening and I was sated and exhausted by the time we turned in.

Day 3 – Today was another gorgeous day in Florence.  Our first stop was San Lorenzo, another one of those gorgeous churches that Europe has going for it.  But the main stop was the Uffizi Gallery which, like theGiotto's Tower (Campanile) Louvre, holds entirely too much art to enjoy properly.  Still, we made our best effort, enjoying all that we could and I must say that Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and “Primavera” are scintillating in every sense of the word.  Unfortunately, Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” was on loan in Tokyo and was not available for viewing.  After lunch (and more gelato), we enjoyed the Duomo and the Campanile (Giotto’s Tower).  J. and T. opted for climbing up the Dome…after several viewings from the floor, I decided that my mind would not allow my body to do that.  However, I did journey to the top of the Campanile which was much more closed in, all 414 steps.  I did find, however, that it’s very difficult to take pictures when you have a death grip on the rail with one hand and the hand holding the camera is shaking uncontrollably and there’s only enough space for two people to walk around the top of the tower.  So crouching in the fetal position along the wall wasn’t necessarily the best option.  I think I did get some nice pictures though (all of which are available on the photo site to the right) and it was good for me to test my limits.  After I came down, I visited the Baptistry with the infamous Ghiberti Doors.

Okay…so that’s three days.  I have nine actual days, so I think I’ll split this up into small chunks so you don’t get Italy Overload.  Plus, it’s been so long since I’ve written that I wonder if I even have readers anymore.

See you in the funny papers!

Graduation Day

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise;

Regardless of others, ever regardful of others.

Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,

Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse, and stuff’d with

the stuff that is fine.

From A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Today is graduation day.  I’ve found that I’m anxious, but not excited.  Thrilled and relieved, butCollege Graduate underwhelmed by the need to be happy.  It’s not that I don’t want to be a graduate, I just don’t want to have to be joyful about it.  It’s simply something whose time has come and now, soon, it will be over.  I will, of course, be smiling and probably tearful because emotions don’t always do what we want them to do; or even what we’re prepared for them to do.  Yet, today I will be a college graduate and nothing can take that away from me.

I want to thank my family for believing in me, for pushing me when I needed to be pushed and chiding me when it was necessary.  Their ever constant pride and hope in me was always there to lift me up.  Their continued support and love has made this day possible.  I want to thank my wife for her love, her unwavering faith in my ability, even in the face of my stubbornness, and her constant support…she is the heartbeat of my existence and I think the sun rises and sets with her very smile.  I want to thank my friends for putting up with my nearly unending quest for this day.  Their patience and understanding during times when I needed to put them off is unparalleled and I thank them for their continued support and friendship.  And thanks, to all to those who in some unseen way made things possible for me.  I may not have known or acknowledged your leadership or inspiration, but obviously, it has shown through.

Off to get ready, today is your day.  Your mountain is waiting.  So off on your way!

~Theodore Seuss Geisel

See you in the funny papers!

Oaks Day Blues

Here in Louisville, KY, we’re in the midst of an event that takes three weeks to prepare for and 2 minutes to occur. We spend millions of dollars on fireworks, create crazy events to foist on townies and out-of-towners alike, and only about 0.5% of these people actually see the Kentucky Twin Spires at Churchill DownsDerby in person. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if many Louisvillians have never actually seen the Derby live. It’s really a visitor’s event. It also seems to be for rich people, since even tickets to the infield are $40 and you have to spend the day dodging drunk college students and belligerent rednecks. The day before is Oaks Day which is much more an event for city people, but pretty much the same as the Derby, only it’s cheaper.

But, I’ve come to write about working on Oaks Day. There’s no reason for it. The office has been empty most of the day. The occasional straggler student (usually from out of town) wanders in and wonders where everyone is. The poor hourly workers (like myself) are stuck here to keep an office open for no one in particular. Also, an email is rumored to have been sent out to unknown persons recommending that offices close in staggered fashion starting at 2 p.m. No one in my building apparently got that email as we’ve been told nothing about it. In addition to all that, it is now starting to rain…the beginnings of what NOAA says will be two days of thunderstorms…and I’ll have to bike home in it. OUT-FRACKIN-STANDING! I’m gonna refrain from blistering the university administration here, because the rules for blogging are as follows:

  1. You do not blog about your job.
  2. You DO NOT blog about your job.

I pretty much stick to those rules…only violating them in vague terms so that it could really be any job.

In other news, my brother-in-law J. (C.’s brother) got married last week. I’m happy for him. I also realized that I now have two brothers-in-law whose first initial is J. and they both married an initial A. So that won’t be confusing in this blog at all. Try to keep up.

See you in the funny papers!

It’s official!

The Letter A

That is the grade I got on my final course.  It came through yesterday and I tell ya, I couldn’t be happier.  This makes it all official now and I think I can relax through graduation.  In honor of my B.S. in Geography, I would like to present this video of my favorite geography song…enjoy!

So that’s really all I have to say.  I hope everyone has a wonderful Oaks and Derby day.  Remember, I picked Cowboy Cal to win the Derby, so when he comes in first, you heard it here…straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

See you in the funny papers!