Tag Archives: italy

Finding Home

I can think of only a few things in life that we have absolutely no control over. I’m sure there must be many more but there are only three that come to mind immediately. No matter what we do we can’t control who our parents are, what sex we are or where we are born.

 

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Maiori- Amalfi Coast

 

Our parents give us our genetic makeup, for better or worse, and have a lot to do with the development of our personalities. For most people, some of the strongest love we experience is from our parents and we return it wholeheartedly. Of course, that is not true for all but because we share so many common characteristics we probably find that our similarities will, at the minimum, allow us to accept our parents at some point.

For some, our sex is something much more complicated. There are great advantages to both genders and probably a couple of downfalls to each. Most people find that the advantages of their sex outweigh the negatives and they learn to accept themselves as they were born. Many others struggle with their gender, but thankfully the world is adapting and finally becoming more comfortable with allowing people to determine their own destiny.

 

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Atrani Storm- Amalfi Coast

 

Where we are born is completely random and based upon where our mother happens to reside when we make our first appearance. If you grow up in the area you are born, most will make friends, attend school and establish bonds that are intrinsically linked to their birthplace. They may learn to love the landscape, weather and local lifestyle. For others, it may not be so easy. As much as they try, they never become comfortable with their surroundings. The concept of home is never realized.

 

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Amalfi Fisherman

 

Of course one of humankind’s greatest motivators is the desire to fit into a group. These people who weren’t lucky enough to be born where they were meant to live will eventually begin the search to find a place where they fit. A place to call home. For some, the journey may be a short move to a nearby city. Others may have a long journey. Some may find it takes many moves and many years to find a place where they feel comfortable enough to call home.

We have spent the last 8 years traveling the world. While we have enjoyed nearly everywhere we have traveled only a few destinations have really given us a sense of home. These places have a special attraction and an undefinable quality that make us feel relaxed and comfortable enough to feel like we belong. Even if we possess minimal language skills and know no one who could qualify as a family, we still feel we fit in.

 

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Positano- Amalfi Coast

 

Italy is such a place for us. We have spent a total of six months in the country and continue to be amazed by each destination. Whether it was a tiny island in the Bay of Naples, a grand piazza in Rome, the history-filled canals of Venice, the beautiful hills of Tuscany or the tiny villages of the Cinque Terre region we immediately became enchanted by the magic qualities we found in each. Whether it was the landscape, architecture, style or just some unexplainable quality we never seem to be uncomfortable in this country.

One part of Italy we wanted to spend time in and had not is the Amalfi Coast. Thoughts of the tiny picturesque towns precariously perched over a crystal blue sea have invaded our travel dreams for many years. After a couple of months of aggressive travel in difficult places, the thought of a month in the uncrowded late winter/early spring days of southern Italy sounded wonderful.

 

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Ravello

 

After a one night stopover in Abu Dhabi, we arrived at the Rome airport the next afternoon. A beautiful and speedy train ride south through the shadows of Mt. Vesuvius brought us to Salerno, the southern gateway to the Amalfi Coast. Salerno lends its name to the bay along which the Amalfi Coast sits. The most famous part of the coast begins just north of town and is reached via a precarious road of a thousand turns. The road hugs the jagged cliffs that rise from the sea and snakes its way across bridges and through tunnels as it connects the tiny towns along the way.

The road is an engineering marvel of its time and its builders must have risked life and limb to construct it. It has freed the people of the coast from the island-like existence they lived prior to the road being built. It is narrow and slow and even in these cool winter months before the tourists arrive it can be occasionally treacherous. The driving here is best left to people who understand the nuances and unwritten rules of the road. Luckily buses run fairly frequently and these would provide us with the least expensive and most scenic way to travel the coast during our visit.

 

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Amalfi Sunset

 

We found our home in the village of Maiori on the ground floor of an attractive apartment house across the road from the beach. The building had a design that said “swinging ’60s” and was probably constructed sometime not long after jet age intercontinental travel became the rage. Maiori has the biggest strand of beach on the coast and is packed with summer beachgoers during the season. However, we found the pebbly beach deserted. The boardwalk promenade sprung to life daily with strolling locals out to catch the afternoon sun. Both young and old made full use of the warmth to shake off the winter doldrums of the previous few months and enjoy the last few days before tourist season begins again.

High winds, pounding rains and rough seas occasionally reminded us that winter was still very much alive. One day we were even surprised to see snowflakes outside our window. However, while we rarely went out without plenty of layers, the weather generally allowed us to be outside daily.

 

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Positano- Amalfi Coast

 

We filled our days with journeys to the towns that dot the coast. Each town seemed to have a character of its own that might not be apparent to visitors on shorter stays. Many of the tourist-oriented businesses were not open or had limited hours. Ferries rarely ran. Restaurants had shorter hours and limited menus. Outdoor cafes only had a few chairs available. No umbrellas marked territory on the beach. While some might find this time of year less than ideal, we find that having the squares, narrow streets and scenic views to ourselves easily makes up for anything we may be missing.

 

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Atrani- Amalfi Coast

 

High on a mountaintop with commanding views up and down the coast sits Ravello, a village we visited several times. Filled with 5-star hotels, tiny piazzas, beautiful churches, winding alleys, grand villas and tiny parks, Ravello might be the most exclusive village on the coast. Famed for its music festival and an impressive roster of resident musicians, writers and artists Ravello oozes class at every turn. We toured Villa Rufolo with its stunning views and 13th-century architecture. We found warmth and beauty inside the church on the main square on a windy afternoon. We found locations used by John Ford, Gina Lollabridgida and Humphrey Bogart when they filmed a movie here.

 

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Ravello- Amalfi Coast

 

Everyone loves Positano, which enjoys perhaps the most beautiful setting of any of the coastal villages. The colorful houses of the town rise steeply from the church that sits next to the modest size beach. The hills are so steep that only a couple of roads have been carved for automobile traffic. People transit the town on the narrow alleyways and steep staircases that pass expensive restaurants, classy boutiques and fine hotels. Workers still use donkeys to carry heavy loads as they make preparations for the upcoming arrival of international visitors. From almost anywhere in town the views are stupendous especially as the sun is setting and the lights of the village come up.

Amalfi itself is the touristic hub of the coast. Ferries to the island of Capri run from here and it serves as the hub for all bus traffic on the coast. The church on the main square is the most ornate on the coast. The beach is beautiful and the piers give the best perspective to view the dramatic setting of the town. Classic beachside hotels and restaurants line the wide pedestrian walkway that separates the beach from the town. From the pier, you can see the terraced mountains that limit the size of the town. This time of year the terraces are covered with bright yellow lemon trees and two monasteries are visible perched high on the stunning mountains that frame the town.

 

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Amalfi Sunset

 

One of the more photogenic spots is just through the tunnel from Amalfi. Atrani is tiny but looks gorgeous from nearly every angle and viewpoint. From the nice beach, you pass through the giant arches of the roadway to enter the towns main square. Smaller than the squares in other towns, it feels intimate and on quiet sunny days became one of our favorites.

Over our month we became familiar with each town and spent nice afternoons wandering many others. Cetara, Minori, Praiano and Vietri all offered scenic views of lemon filled rock terraces, perfectly positioned churches and stunning vistas of land and sea.

 

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Amalfi

Towards the end of our trip, we ventured further north to Sorrento. The incredible scenery made the two-hour bus ride well worth the effort. North from Positano, the road passes over the towering mountains of the peninsula that separates the Gulf of Salerno from the Gulf of Naples where Sorrento is located. Views of Vesuvius and Pompeii are amazing and Naples is easily visible in the distance. Sorrento itself is a bustling city that seemed especially active after the relative quiet we had enjoyed on the Amalfi Coast. We loved walking through the Old Town area and touring the wonderful churches of the city. Viewpoints from the parks that overlook the marinas were especially grand.

 

 

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Positano- Amalfi Coast

 

If a person travels enough, they will no doubt find places that they repeatedly visit. In some cases, it may just be a coincidence. Perhaps the location is a common hub that must be passed through to reach other destinations in the area. Others are not a coincidence at all. They are places we feel connected to in some way, even if we have never been there before. They make us feel comfortable, entertained and in the best sense, home. Italy has been that for us. Not our actual home but for the short time we have had the privilege to spend there, we have always enjoyed pretending that it is.

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Learning to be Lost

We were sitting on a bench in Campo Santa Maria Formosa, one of the larger squares in Venice, when a very stylish couple set down on the bench next to us. The man pulled out a map and began studying it intently. To make conversation, I mentioned to the lady that I thought I spent way too much time studying maps myself. She surprised me by telling me that she never bothered reading them at all!

Perhaps she didn’t have to be bothered with maps because her husband did most of the work, or possibly she had come upon a travel philosophy that I had not put into practice very often. After a few minutes, her husband folded the map up neatly and they generally walked off in the same direction as they had come from. They seemed to be content to know where they were, but weren’t much interested in where they were going.

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Venice Canals

 

I thought about it afterward and decided that Venice was the perfect place to try out this new travel strategy. Could you entertain yourself in Venice without having a specific agenda? Could you use your map just to identify where you were, and not where you were going to? Venice is an island and in truth if you come to the water you can simply turn around and go the other way. You really can’t get too lost.

We had already spent our first week or so in Venice making plans and setting out to see specific items along the way. Rialto Bridge, Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Market, the Arsenale, various museums or some of the beautiful palazzo on the Grand Canal. While we learn our way in new towns quickly and generally have a pretty good sense of direction, I can’t say getting everywhere went smoothly. Venice was a city that was set up to be transited by boat, not land. Traversing from one island to another through narrow passages, over bridges and across plazas with no clearly marked streets is how you get around. Having to consult a map every 5 minutes when you first arrive is normal routine.

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Venice

 

To be honest, it gets a little frustrating. I love the maze-like setup of the town. The small squares, beautiful churches and hidden courtyards create a magical ambiance that I have rarely seen elsewhere. However managing them easily is no small task. Perhaps letting the streets take you where they want and worrying less about the destination would solve the problem.

We packed a lunch one day and set off with not much more than a general direction to explore. Signs are conveniently found throughout town with general directions on them. “Per San Marco” or “Per Rialto” meaning the direction “for Piazza San Marco” or “for Rialto Bridge”. If you have a basic understanding of where the big landmarks are, you can wander toward them in a general direction and not get too lost. When you get tired of walking, simply head back towards home. Not too difficult for us, as we live directly between the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco, the two places with the largest amount of signs directed at them.

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Burano

 

This day we headed off toward the train station as a direction, “Per Ferrovia”. We knew that the old Jewish Ghetto was on the way. The art deco train station is an attraction in itself. The huge church of Saint Giovanni and Paolo was something to see. If we let our imagination go and curiosities guide us, what else might we discover?

It didn’t take long to discover Libreria Acqua Alta. In English, the High Water Bookstore. Venice has periodic flooding throughout the year known as Acqua Alta. Because the bookstore is located on the first floor of the building, the books are susceptible to water damage several times a year. The multi-lingual character who owns the store, Luigi, has organized his books throughout the store on shelving made of different types of boats. Everything from tiny model boats to giant full size gondola. He has created many humorous displays in his store that is full of well-fed, obviously spoiled, cats. While talking to him about Venice, I asked him if many famous people ever stopped in his store. He said, “Of course, all the time”. I ask him who they were and he informed me “I don’t know any of their names.” How did he know they were famous? He explained, “Everyone is famous“! A unique character and a most fascinating store.

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Venice Sunset

 

Later during our wandering day, we stopped in the quaint Campo Santi Apostoli to eat our sandwiches. The shops in the square were closing for lunch and workmen from the neighborhood were stopping to eat. Because the day was nice, many mothers and fathers were going for an afternoon walk with their young children. A man was playing an accordion for tips nearby. Many of the always present fur coat wearing older Venetian ladies were socializing in the square. Another man crumbled bread in his hands and gave a unique whistle sound. Small brown sparrows came from everywhere around. While the ever present pigeons were of course interested, the sparrows were going absolutely crazy. They seemed to encircle his entire body. I wondered how long it must have taken him to “train” the wild birds.

It is hard to be in Venice long without noticing the orange colored drinks that seem to be on everyone’s table each afternoon. We ask and found out they are called a Spritz. It is a mixture of Prosecco Italian sparkling wine, Aperol orange flavored aperitif and sparkling water. Normally served with an olive and a slice of orange, they are seemingly on every table during happy hour. We had never had one but promised we would try one before leaving Venice. After finishing our lunch in the Campo, we saw the perfect place to try one in.

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Burano

 

So many of the bars in Venice are really only meant for tourists. The prices are way above our means and frankly rather exorbitant for anyone. This was definitely not that kind of bar. One table for 2 in the front, 3 tables inside and the requisite standing only bar inside. Old pictures of Italian families and ancient sports teams decorated the walls. You got small plates of salami to go with your drink. Only one older man sat at a table near the bar. No music and no television present. We ordered and grabbed a table. 2 other older men entered and greeted everyone. They obviously knew the other man at the table and started a very loud, very theatrical and obviously passionate conversation in Italian. I have no idea what they were saying but to watch their conversation was as interesting as any play I have ever seen. Other customers or employees were immediately included in their show and we stayed thoroughly entertained while we enjoyed our drink.

We never really got to any of our planned destinations that day, but it really didn’t seem to matter. It was a wonderful day in Venice and it seemed that a new surprise was just around each corner. Travel and life will always be about schedules, appointments and staying on course. We are rewarded for being punctual, organized and efficient. Maybe once in a while we have to remember to just wander a little and see what can be discovered without a map.

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Grand Canal

 

We will be leaving Venice in a few days. It is hard to believe it has already been a month since we arrived. It has been one of our favorite places to visit ever. Everyone needs to put it on their list of places to see. The city itself and the surrounding islands of the lagoon at times seem to be a museum to some romantic moment forever captured in time. I hope it can always be here for everyone to enjoy.

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Choosing Sides in Jerusalem

Throughout my travel life I have always felt that it was important to maintain, as best as possible, an observational attitude towards the places I have visited. I don’t feel it is my place to interject my personal feelings towards the customs, culture or political and religious climate of the places I have chosen to visit. After all, I think one of the wonders of travel is seeing things that are different from your own world. It is what makes travel such a rewarding thing for me. Most travelers would agree that the world is becoming too generic. Inserting your own beliefs or customs can only alter the local culture and contribute to global sameness.

I say observational and not objective because it is not always possible to be objective. I know that some things are wrong. I have seen poverty, racism, class division and a host of other things that were uncomfortable to observe and at times outright offensive personally. I think that most people have an ingrained desire to help others that they perceive as less fortunate or treated unfairly. I understand the desire to help children or animals or anyone that is a natural underdog. However it is my belief that at some point you are practicing activism, not tourism. I often have to remind myself that I am an outsider and because I do not have to live with results of the actions that are taken in a place I am visiting, perhaps I should not interject my opinions.

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Damascus Gate

 

At the same time I have always had trouble with tourism that alters the reality of a place so that we don’t have to see what is really happening. It seems to take away the general purpose of travelling. I’m not sure that living in a gated community or staying in some fenced off all-inclusive resort that does its best to hide the reality of an area serves a visitor well. Frolicking in some white sand Margaritaville that was created solely based on some Disneyesque version of reality is not for me either. It is true there is an Eiffel tower in Las Vegas. It is attractive and fun to see, but you can’t be confused that it is the true item. I do understand that suspending reality for a few days could be seen as just taking a break from your normal routine. I enjoy a few nights disguised as a high roller in Vegas or a couple of nights of room service in an enchanted palace-like hotel pretending to be a Raj era sultan as much as anyone.

I find that by attempting to remain observational you often begin to see an issue from both sides. It has served me well and has created learning experiences from some unpleasant situations. It helped us get through and not feel overwhelmingly frightened in our last few days in Istanbul. We were involved in a tear gas incident near Taksim Square during a protest. A major suicide bomb attack that killed several German tourists happened literally 20 feet from a bench we had lunch on just a week before. I understood a good number of the reasons these things occurred which made them easier to comprehend. I still found them unpleasant and regrettable but because I understood the situation, these experiences gave me a unique opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. Because I stayed observational, I was better able to control the fear and panic that might have overwhelmed me otherwise.

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Mount of Olives

 

We arrived in our new city of Jerusalem after an adventurous, but short journey from Istanbul. Security was strong in Istanbul but even more so at the Tel Aviv airport. Guns are displayed everywhere in the airport. The wall that separates the Palestinian Territories from Israel is clearly visible along the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Much of the conversation between the tourists in the shared taxi (called a Sherut) was about the recent increase in terrorist attacks throughout Israel. I was well aware of ongoing troubles in Israel but, to be honest, I was not familiar with the recent stabbings of Israelis that have taken place almost daily in the last few months.

We found our new apartment just after dark after quite a search. The neighborhood is old and not well marked and locating our address in the fading light was not easy. We had not put too much thought into where we were going to stay in Jerusalem. We basically selected an apartment based on price and location within walking distance to the Old City. We live in the Musrara neighborhood about one block from the original division line between Palestine and Israel. The neighborhood was originally founded in the late 1800’s by wealthy Arabs who wanted to live outside the confines of the Old City’s walls. When Israel was founded in 1948 battle lines were drawn between East and West Jerusalem in this neighborhood and most of the original occupants moved out. Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war both East and West Jerusalem are one area under Israeli control. Many of the once grand houses have been transformed into apartments and the neighborhood has a bit of an art colony feel.

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Jerusalem Alleys

 

Walking through the neighborhood the next morning, bullet holes were clearly visible in some of the cement block houses near ours. Scars from the past no doubt. The ultra-modern tram line marks a clear line between predominantly Arab East Jerusalem and predominately Israeli West Jerusalem. West Jerusalem is much nicer developed with modern stores and apartment buildings. Sidewalks are wide and cafes are busy with well-dressed people enjoying their day. East Jerusalem is much poorer in appearance. Stores are smaller and cafes are less trendy. The streets are dirtier and the streets and sidewalks are not well kept. There seems to be a clear economic division between the communities.

We spent our days wandering the Old City. The relatively small walled area is holy ground to 3 major religious groups. We enjoyed visiting the highlights from each over our days. Visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, considered by many Christians to be where Jesus ascended to heaven was amazing. Seeing the Temple Mount where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque are located gave us a unique look into the lives of Islamic residents of the area. It was awe inspiring seeing the Jewish people worshipping at the Western Wall, which is as close to the location of the Solomon’s First Temple as they can be, and considered their most holy spot on earth. All of these areas are within a 5 minute walk of each other.

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Old City Walls

 

The Old City is divided between four quarters, Jewish, Armenian, Christian and Muslim. There are no signs to distinguish the different areas but they are easily identifiable. The Jewish area is nicely constructed with recently renovated buildings surrounding nicely excavated sites of Roman Era ruins. The Armenian area is smaller and mostly walled from tourists. The Christian area is filled with businesses and religious organizations. The Muslim area seems rougher and not as nicely restored with tiny alleys and tiny houses stacked in every formation on top of each other. The ancient markets are located here as well as most of the tourist souvenir shops.

The city is filled with soldiers at many corners. They are heavily armed and number in groups of 2 to 10. We saw our first uncomfortable incident when the soldiers grabbed a young looking Palestinian teenager and proceeded in roughly searching him. It was difficult to watch as it did not seem provoked and went on for some time. An older Palestinian man commented to us while shaking his head that “they treat us like animals”. The boy was sent on his way.

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Muslim Quarter

 

A couple of days later we were sitting outside the Damascus Gate enjoying the late evening sunshine with families and shoppers in the area. We went up the steps when suddenly many soldiers went running past us toward the gate. Sirens went off and it was apparent something had happened. We continued on our short walk home as more sirens blared as police rushed to the area. We looked at the news and saw that an Israeli teen had been stabbed by two Palestinians right in front of where we had been sitting just moments before. It was difficult to imagine such a peaceful scene getting so bad in only seconds after we had left. Luckily the young man was only slightly injured.

We were having our lunch next to the Western Wall on a sunny Friday afternoon. A local Jewish man was explaining to his visiting family that the reason so many soldiers were present was that the Muslim prayers were taking place on the Temple Mount and when they were through the worshippers needed to be “controlled” so they wouldn’t start a riot. It was disturbing because of the contempt that he said it with, especially since children were in his group.

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Old City

 

We have had many discussions in the evenings about the situations that we witnessed in the short time we have been here. It seemed like each day we witnessed something that left us feeling uneasy. The tension in the city seems palpable. People appear and act uncomfortably. Smiles and laughter are not common. We asked an un-busy cab driver we were talking to on the Mount of Olives when tourist season picks up. He told us sadly that it never gets busy anymore. The tourists don’t come now.

Yesterday was our worst day yet. At Jaffa Gate we decided to go on the Rampart Walk along the Old City walls. The route leads from Jaffa gate around to Herod Gate on the northern side of the walls. It was a pretty day and we were enjoying the excellent view from the top of the wall. As we neared New Gate we began to hear lots of sirens. We could hear gun shots followed by explosions from the direction we were going. Within second more sirens could be heard coming from nearly every direction. We continued on toward Damascus Gate. The roads outside the walls were being blocked and police and soldiers were everywhere. As we continued, it was apparent that that everyone’s attention was focused outside the gate. Guns were drawn everywhere and people were blocked from the area.

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Old City Graves

 

As we continued to approach we could see from our birds eye view the tragic scene below. 3 Palestinian youths were lying on the ground in pools of blood. A young female soldier was being rushed to an ambulance. Hundreds of police were everywhere and photographers were hurrying past us on the walls to get the best views. Hundreds of bystanders were gathering in the street below and curious residents were peaking from nearby apartment windows. To be honest, we didn’t know what to do. We stood and watched the scene from above. I can’t really say we were scared. It just seemed unbelievably sad. The three dead boys looked so young. They didn’t look evil. Later we learned that the soldier girl had also been killed. She didn’t seem old enough to be in uniform, much less to have lost her life.

I have read the story of what happened. I suppose the conclusions are different based on who is telling the story. I understand the issue from both sides. I feel compelled to pick a side. I am having a hard time being observant. What I saw was tragic and someone must be to blame. Someone must be right and someone must be wrong. What I do know is correct is that 4 very young people are not going to live full lives and that is very sad.

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Dormition Abbey

 

Much of the current troubles in the world seem to radiate out from this area of the world. I am trying my best to be a good traveler and stick to my goal of being observant. It is hard to be objective. I see wrong on both sides. It is difficult for me to see any good in any of this.

I do know that Jerusalem has a unique opportunity to set an example of how the rest of the world could live. If they could figure out how to get along within the tiny confines of the walled Old City then surely the rest of the world could use them as an example and find a way themselves. I know that the situation is difficult and we all feel as though we must pick a side. I hope for the young people here that the people in charge at least make an effort.

As I write this, many sirens are passing outside our house and are headed toward the old city again. It doesn’t seem as though they have figured it out yet.

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Jerusalem Old City

A Place Where Dreams Came True

There is a place where dreams are captured in real life. They drift inland on cool breezes across choppy turquoise seas tossing beneath pink clouded skies. They are captured by the rocky green hills that rise straight from the sea. The hills, worn by time and weather, stand as silent witnesses to a culture of hard work and dedication and a desire to create a visual masterpiece, a perfect mixture of nature’s harshness and man’s desire for not only sustenance, but beauty.

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Manarola

 

The hills are terraced as they tumble to the sea from high above. The mortarless walls of the terraces, built over centuries by masters of stone craftsmanship, are perfectly shaped to capture the soft morning light. The fertile earth yields everything necessary to not only sustain life, but to nurture it. The terraces are covered with ancient olive trees and carefully tended vineyards. Lemons and other citrus grow in small groups of fragrant color. The sweet smell of the bright yellow lemon trees fills the senses with hope. Basil and rosemary grow in small herb gardens, seemingly wild, their fragrance perfectly complimenting the freshness of the lemon.

A few small boats are tied to brightly colored buoys in the tiny harbor. The sea is rough today and most of the brightly painted boats have been removed from the water. The salt air is crisp, summer still a distant dream. Seagulls hover and dive aggressively above, testing the breezes and currents. They seem to fly for fun and not for food. Speeding with the wind, they bank sharply before hovering and lightly touching down in the chilly water. They are healthy and well-groomed from proper diets. No scavengers here. A fisherman mends a net nearby, his practiced hands neatly weaving the repair of a recent tear.

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Tellaro

 

A cobbled thoroughfare winds through the town from the tiny harbor that hides behind the stone seawall. It follows the path of the stream that provides fresh water for agriculture and people. The rush of water from recent rainstorms is clearly audible through grates along the path. At different points along the way, tiny waterfalls are visible along the exposed black rock. Carefully placed stonework channels water into glistening pools that feed the houses and gardens along the path.

The architecture compliments the land. Red tiled roofs cover hand-hewn houses with iron balconies and brightly painted shutters. The powerful salt air peels the pastel colored stucco walls, sometimes to the brick below, in perfect patterns from the multistoried buildings. The mottled result blends perfectly with the rough landscape. The houses cling precariously to the gorge that was carved over eons by tiny streams that flow from distant snowcapped mountains, unseen behind the terraced hills.

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Vernazza

 

Narrow passageways lead through shadowy gaps between the tightly packed buildings. Worn brick arches form magic gateways through which the townspeople make their way upwards. Unrailed staircases twist their way up the steep hillside. Tiny plazas, terraces and secret viewpoints await those who make the climb. Every open space is used for a purpose. Where houses can’t fit, gardens are built. Where fruits and vegetables won’t grow, flowers are planted. A few ancient trees grow behind natural stone walls that contain rare patches of greenspace.

On the thoroughfare, a tiny vegetable market displays its produce on tables placed along the street. Striped canopies extend above the brightly colored fruits and vegetables, many grown locally. The land provides the necessities of life, but not without incredible effort. Many vendors sell locally grown wine or olive oil. Fresh herbs from tiny gardens nearby fragrantly scent the air. An assortment of delectably aged local cheeses looks appetizing in a refrigerated open display inside.

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Corniglia

 

A small fish market across the way exhibits a wonderful assortment of the silvery catch of the day. Octopus, shrimp and a variety of shellfish fill out the display. They smell of salt water and sea air. Most were in the ocean just a few hours before.

A nearby bakery smells of sweet flour. The smell of heated sugar permeates the air. Colorful sweets are displayed in the small glass case near the window. An ancient espresso machine shines impressively behind the counter. The smell of rich coffee mixes with the aroma of sweetened fruit and demands a brief stop. It is one of few shops open for visitors in these last days of winter.

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Portovenere

 

The ingredients seem so perfectly paired that, when combined together simply, they create a cuisine so delicious that it could only have been created by nature itself. Tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil, fresh seafood, lemons and local cheeses. Focaccia, farinata and pesto were created here. Combined with wonderful local wines, a simple, deliciously healthy diet sustained the activity necessary to create this region of work and wonder.

Higher up the hill, a tiny church stands open for visitors. A bell in the tower rings out for all to hear. Black and white stones are equally spaced creating a striped façade which is unique to this area. Inside the hand painted statues are not gaudy or overly elaborate. They display a simple beauty that compares easily with the more ornate places of worship built by rich patrons in places far away. The design here suggests closeness to a faith formed by the recognition of how much man and nature depend on each other to survive.

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Portovenere

 

Three old women sit on a bench near the tiny square next to the church. They wear aprons and happily chat to everyone who passes. People greet each other heartily and with good cheer. No new baby can pass without everyone gathering around to make cooing sounds and wiggle a toe or tiny hand. A one eyed cat sits laconically on the tiny stoop. He seems to know that the sun finds its way here at this time every day. His face tilted upward to the beam of light, he seems to be content with his fate.

The cemetery at the top of the hill provides the perfect final resting place. Well-tended flowers mark the shiny polished white marble crypts. The view across the never-ending terraces, along the road through the town, above the colorful houses, further to the harbor and finally to the amazingly blue sea is amazing. The perfect place to spend eternity. A few boats are visible on the horizon. As if on cue, the sun peeks from behind the parting clouds. The rays of light that shine seem perfectly focused to highlight the achievements of people who have worked hard to create a place of amazing beauty and abundance. The natural curves of the land are perfectly complimented by the man-made additions of years of unending dedication.

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Vernazza

 

Smiling photos of the townspeople’s faces mark the graves. They show a handsome, humble people who lived a life of work and care. They are faces that look out over all they have created with all the satisfaction, achievement and contentment of a life well lived in a beautiful land where their dreams really did become reality.

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Portofino

Stranded on an Undeserted Island

What is it that inspires us to travel? What motivates us to leave our comfortably routine workaday life, cast off the lines and sail toward some unknown horizon? What far-off call beckons so loudly that we can’t quiet it without further investigating its source? How bright does the sunset at the end of the distant road or just over the farthest mountain have to be before we drive towards it in an attempt to make it last just a moment longer?

Perhaps we derive inspiration from colorful words arranged on a page in such a way that our wanderlust is aroused. We simply can’t live without seeing if the vision our mind created matches the scene the author describes. Perhaps the smell or taste of some exotic food carefully prepared in an ancient way by a well-practiced chef inspires us to follow our hunger toward the simmering pot of goodness that waits to be sampled in a faraway kitchen. Perhaps we harbor a secret doubt that the combination of colors captured in a photograph of a rainbow filled sky could actually exist in a distant land just beyond our own?

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Procida, Italy

 

How intense does our minds creation need to be before we decide to find out if there could be a reality that lives up to our imagination? How vivid do the colors, smells and sounds in our head need to be for us to cast care to the wind and follow that vision, no matter how long it may take to find? What do we need to visualize before we are motivated enough to deviate from our normal path?

What did we imagine?

Did we imagine crowded ferries quickly loading and unloading impatient passengers at busy terminals? Ferries that ride on choppy, aqua water destined for tiny islands with famous names. Islands that appear on horizons as small dots under large, darkening clouds. Larger ferries for cars and fare conscious passengers. Fast moving hydrofoils that carry tourists and those who think time is money. A group of skyscraper teenage models drink espresso and pick at pastries at a large table. Anxious photographers hover nearby, obviously having noticed the clouds that threaten their productivity and pocketbooks. A burning smell of your carelessly prepared panini drifts from the toaster as the indifferent young cook pays more attention to the models than your first food of the day.

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Santa Margherita Church

 

Did we imagine being greeted on arrival by a blinding rainstorm so strong that it didn’t seem possible that amount of water could be held in a cloud? Water that seemed to come from every direction, including up. Wind howled hard through nearby sailboat masts creating a dreadful moaning sound that seemed frighteningly human. A race with heavy bags to a nearby fisherman bar filled with a rough cast of characters straight from a Hollywood movie. Enjoying a well-earned beer from the self- serve cooler next to the bar. Listening to the sailors tell stories you knew were bawdy even though you couldn’t understand even one word.

Did we imagine cobbled roads that wind through peeling stucco buildings designed centuries before there were thoughts of modern transportation? Roads designed to carry wares between the two main marinas of the island. Tiny streets filled with pedestrians, scooters and cars competing for space at speeds that don’t feel comfortable to newcomers. The cars with side mirrors turned back or broken off entirely, surely from earlier battles with the well scuffed walls. The sides of the cars show scratches of many colors, no doubt matching a scratch on another car, somewhere else on the island. Feeling like you should be wearing white clothes and red bandanas in Pamplona as you hurry from tiny doorway to doorway to avoid the honking metal bulls. Your fear turns to embarrassment as you hurry past two young mothers with carriages casually having a conversation knowing that the cars have just enough room to pass.

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Marina Corricella

 

Did we imagine views of secret courtyards behind ornate wrought iron gates with designs of centuries past? Grassy yards behind 10 foot walls that surely keep the road noise at bay. Untended grape vines beneath waxy green trees with lemons so large they could be grapefruit. The fruit has wrinkled skin, thick pith and a sweet taste that is rightfully famous. Developed to keep the islands sailors healthy on long sea journeys of the past. A delicious lemon salad is served in most restaurants and homemade limoncello is popular at any local gathering.

Did we imagine living in a house on the highest point of the island? A terrace that sits above every other building on the island and provides 360 degree views of the entire 4 square kilometers of volcanic land below. Taking in distant views of Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri and Vesuvius as your laundry dries in the warm breeze of a late October afternoon. A nearby church that was founded 1000 years ago by monks and now has beautiful bells that sound perfectly throughout the day. A house that sits inside the oldest settlement on the island, surrounded by ancient walls. Walls built first to protect the religious and the wealthy from far away intruders. Later the walls held prisoners in the classic punishment of seeing all the lights of civilization from behind the bars of your drafty island cell.

Did we imagine strolling along the marina amongst the tiny houses built in a way that no mad architect could ever have imagined? Houses with such a vast pastel palette they appear to rise from the sea like scoops of fruit flavored summer gelato piled one on top of another. Ancient fisherman mending nets in the afternoon sun. A man, perhaps channeling his own Pablo Neruda, writing in a journal while sitting in the dockside inn made famous in the movie “Il Postino”. Stairways climb steeply from the harbor to the church above. Stairs so steep that they take your breath in equal parts from exertion and from witnessing the beauty of the view they provide over the tranquil harbor.

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Terra Murata

 

Did we imagine the everyday sunsets and sunrises so intense that it sometimes appeared the sky was on fire? Viewed from the lookout high above Marina Corricella or from the belvedere in Terra Murata the brightly colored clouds made each morning and evening something to look forward to.

Did we imagine the spine jolting bus ride through the narrow streets and up the imposing hill to our walled mountaintop villa? Cursing the rattling and bouncing ride we memorized each bump along the way. Climbing the steep hill to our house twice daily while the bus was being repaired for several days, making trips to the market into grueling, lung busting marches. Being ever thankful and promising never to criticize the bus again as it carried us up the hill after its return from repairs.

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La Corricella Sunset

 

It’s difficult to say if our month long journey to our tiny island in a faraway sea lived up to the vision we created in our imagination. This was never going to be the classic trip to the deserted island in an endless sea that many dream of. Far from that, it was a month spent in a place far from tourism. We lived as locals on a tiny island in the middle of an ancient land far away from our own home. While not everything we imagined, it will still be remembered as more than we should have hoped for.

 

A Love Affair Begins

It is easily noticeable that men stand a little straighter when they are in her presence. Women hold on to their husbands hand a little tighter when they are around her. She has a magnetism and allure that is unquestioned and feels fleeting, but can be quite attainable.

Perhaps everyone already knows her, but she was original to me. Of course, I should have been more familiar than I was. Her beauty and sophistication is legendary. Once you see her, her charms are obvious.

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Grand Canal

She has an accent that sounds familiar, but you can’t quite place it. Latin origins, of course. Italian tones, yes. Certainly European and privileged. She speaks many languages but doesn’t always use a voice to communicate. Her outward appearance may show a little wear, but her style is as classic and rich as it ever was.

She has secrets, but isn’t afraid to share them if you know how to ask. She has stories, and will tell them if you take time to listen. She has beauty and sophistication that is undeniable, but also a sense of fun just below the surface. In the soft light of morning by the harbor or in the fading glow of the setting sun by the canal, I find her at her most beautiful.

Don’t look too close, don’t stare for too long. See with your imagination, not just your eyes. You’ll find mystery around every corner and intrigue through every portal. Walk with her on an enchanted foggy morning through the piazza before anyone else can distract her attention. Sit with her in the tiny café drinking espresso with the gondoliers before the tourists arrive. Stroll with her early along the canal as the sky turns dark blue from black, while you still have her to yourself.

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Afternoon Stroll

Spend an evening, watching the sun set over the church, the water sparkling as the lights come on to light your way. Take the alleyways and secret routes home. Slowly cross the bridges, watching her reflection fade in the water as the night sets in. A mist in the air makes the lights seem brighter as her temptations increase. Follow your heart into the night with her.

I have found my new love…and it is Venice!

We have been in Venice for just more than a week. We have a small apartment (as always) in the sestiere (neighborhood) of Castello. We live down a narrow alley that necessitates turning sideways to pass someone coming in the opposite direction. From the alley we pass through a heavy iron door into our sun lit courtyard of many colors. Browns and oranges dominate, greens and yellows compliment. 300 years of paint has worn unevenly and beautifully, occasionally revealing the underlying brickwork as the sun passes above throughout the day. The courtyard is surfaced with ancient stone and each apartment that faces it has plants in their window boxes and shutters to keep the chill out. Our neighbors hang laundry to dry each morning on the elaborately rigged lines that spider-web across the courtyard in every angle. The bells from San Marco chime early and often, but the tones are muted and comforting instead of irritating.

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Carnevale

It is said that visitors should avoid Venice in the summer when it is crowded and hot and during Carnevale season. Being refreshingly chilly, it is definitely not summer, but it is Carnevale season. Carnevale (literally “no meat” in Latin) is the celebration held during the last couple of weeks before Lent. Carnevale is celebrated in Venice less aggressively than it is in Rio de Janeiro or New Orleans. Although crowded, it takes on a sophisticated ambiance that is more ballroom than rock concert. Carnevale was held in Venice much earlier than in those cities, as early as the 12th century. Outlawed during Napoleon’s time, it officially reappeared here in 1979 and now Venice hosts the biggest celebration in Italy.

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Carnevale

The crowds have increased daily as we get closer to the Tuesday night fireworks that will culminate the annual festivities. Every alley around Piazzo San Marco is filled with revelers from mid-morning until night. The normal three minute walk from our house to San Marco can easily take twenty minutes in the early evening as visitors fill the streets looking for food and entertainment each night.

Piazza San Marco is the center of the public celebrations. A stage is built for costume and mask contests. Fireworks go off a couple of times a night and many presentations are held during the day. Elaborately dressed revelers can be found everywhere in town and are experts at posing for the countless photographers who ask to photograph them.

A parade of boats goes down the Grand Canal and elaborate celebrations are held in the many ornate theaters, opera houses and upscale hotels in town. Many private celebrations are held in some of the many richly ornamented Palazzos found along the canals.

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Rialto Bridge

For the most part, we have spent our time away from San Marco and the crowds of Carnevale. Meandering walks through one of the other five sestieres has been more to our liking. Crossing narrow, sharply arched bridges from one island to another, discovering endless narrow passages, hidden courtyards or art filled shops fill our days.

Watching the many types of boats transit the canals that serve as roads is infinitely enjoyable. Produce, packages and people move with surprising efficiency through the intricate network of interconnected channels. No vehicles and no roads mean everything from firefighters and ambulances to trash pickup and package delivery must come by water.

Of course the gondoliers are the most famous of the boatmen. Masterfully weaving their intricately designed black boats through the canals powered and guided by only a single oar, they magically navigate their way through crowded waterways and under the tiny bridges. Their classic straw hats and traditional striped black and white long sleeve shirts make for an iconic image that represents Venice to the world.

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Masks

While adjusting to the time change after travelling here, I awoke early for several mornings before the sun arose. I made coffee and set out early to explore the beautifully lit streets and canals. I made my way one morning to Accademia Bridge near the Guggenheim Museum to watch the sunrise over the Grand Canal. The streets and piazzas were nearly silent as I passed through them with the exception of sweepers clearing the previous evening’s debris. The smell of sweet bread filled the air from some unknown café. The air was brisk and cold but fresh with the occasional breeze of the nearby ocean. I enjoyed broken English conversation with a couple of fellow early risers as we watched the sun slowly light the sky from the bridge.

Another morning I found myself standing alone in Piazza San Marco. To be alone in the magically and mistily lit square was absolutely surreal. Gazing through an arch toward the towering Campanile with the ornately designed Doge’s Palace behind, I was transported back to an imaginary world when Venice was the richest and most powerful city in Europe. In the muted light I saw two elaborately masked and costumed models slowing making their way arm–in-arm past the magnificent jewel box that is St. Mark’s cathedral. They appeared to be ghosts of a time of magic, beauty and intrigue that was Venice. Truly a beautiful moment and a travel memory that will be remembered forever and will always mark the beginning of a beautiful, new love affair.

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Gondolas

Just a Couple of Tourists living like Locals

We were sitting in the midst of the ruins of the ancient Trajan Market in downtown Rome on a recent sunny day, when a young lady approached us and asked us if we spoke English. She looked a little frazzled and seemed to be nervous about talking to us. We assumed she needed directions and noticed that we seemed to be kindly old people who probably spoke English and knew our way around town.
When we told her that we indeed did speak English, she began to tell us of a new tour company she had started that specialized in “seeing Rome like a local”. The tour involved taking a bus out into the country and tasting olive oil and sharing a pasta lunch and wine with a local family on their farm. The price, while probably fair, was way above our budget. We got a brochure and shook hands and said perhaps we might be interested later in our visit.

View from the Vatican Dome

After she left, we began to think about what had just happened. We had gone from thinking that we appeared to be wily veteran travelers who knew their way around to tourists who might be interested in getting off of the normal tourist route in the central city and actually meeting a “real” Italian. In some way it kind of hurt our feelings and made us feel as if we had been demoted to nothing more than a “normal” tourist.
I know that I can’t be the only one who has contemplated their rank amongst fellow travelers. At one end of the spectrum are the package tour folks, usually seen in groups of 40, anxiously following a fast talking guide with a 5 foot stick with some sort flag or pom-pom attached to the top so they can be easily spotted in a crowd of other tourist groups. They seem more worried about getting lost than actually learning or understanding anything about what they are being shown. They take pictures of things because everyone else is taking a picture and don’t want to think they won’t be able to show their friends at home something important. You see these groups mostly near large churches, squares and well-advertised landmarks (think Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps in Rome).

Trevi Fountain

At the other end of spectrum are the independent travelers, usually travelling in pairs, dressed in some sort of odd looking attire (pajama pants, excessive scarves and some form of odd shaped straw hat) that seem to be abnormally obsessed with fruit markets and music from strange instruments not found in other countries. We usually see them walking down the other side of the street in countries where we haven’t seen a white person (think El Salvador or Myanmar) for a week and would really like to speak English for a couple of minutes. We see them notice us and then look away as if they didn’t. Perhaps admitting that there are others travelers around might ruin their ability to brag to their friends at home that they only encountered locals and really “pushed the limits” this time. I don’t know why they look away, but I do know they saw me.

Rome Metro

Anyway, I guess we are really all just tourists of one sort or the other. Most of the locals I have met are usually just about like we are. They all work, spend time with their family, and struggle to make ends meet. They mostly shop in regular markets and watch lots of TV when they aren’t working or raising their families. They like sports and don’t care for their politicians. The biggest difference between “us” and “them” is language and that is what keeps us from knowing more about them.

Roman Aqueduct

Meeting the young lady made me think about how well we were seeing the “real” Rome. We live in a normal apartment building with only Italian neighbors. There are old people and couples with small children. No one speaks English. We shop in local grocery stores, wash our own clothes and cook most of our meals in the house. We cook and eat mostly Italian food (it’s cheap and delicious!). We take public transportation or walk everywhere. Basically with the exception of language, I guess we pretty much live like locals.

Isola Tiberina

We saw a good portion of the “must see” sights in our first 10 days in Rome. We began to think of things uniquely Italian that we could visit. Everyone here has a favorite deli, gelateria, or local pizza place. We had an opportunity to finally ride the Metro (very nice!) as we spent a long afternoon visiting the top ranked favorites according to Yelp. We first traveled to have Pizza al Taglio (by the slice) at a place called Pizzarium. It was ranked high on Yelp and was recommended by Tony Bourdain on his visit. We each ordered a slice that looked good and then shared bites. Pizza is in two types here, Roman style and Naples style. Surprisingly most people seem to prefer the Naples variety. Yum!

Pizza a Taglio

Then it was off to have a gelato. A highly recommended place was a metro ride away at Gelateria dei Gracchi near the Vatican. Made in house, no additive gelato of unique flavors. We enjoyed classic Pistachio and a more unique Creamy Pear. Both excellent and we could see why it was popular.
Our last gourmet day stop was Volpetti’s Deli in the Testaccio neighborhood south of town. There is a story of a young man who returns to Italy after some time and stops at Volpetti’s before home because that is what he misses the most while out of the country. I don’t know if the story is true, but it IS that good. We had slices of ham that were the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. It actually melted in your mouth. We made a few purchases and had a picnic in a nearby small park. Delicious.

Delivery Bike

We have also been watching quite a few old Italian films. La Strada, Bicycle Thief, Rome-Open City and La Dolce Vita are all famous and fun to watch. Most were shot on the streets of Rome long ago and it is fun to see Rome as it was generations ago. We spent one day touring some of the locations of La Dolce Vita which was mostly filmed along Via Veneto. Via Veneto is a large boulevard that was once the most popular location in Europe for the rich and famous. It was daytime and the famous have probably moved on to new locations, but the hotels and restaurants were still beautiful and VERY expensive.
In the opening scene of La Dolce Vita, a helicopter carries a giant statue past the famous aqueducts south of town toward the Vatican. The movie inspired us to spend a day visiting the aqueducts and the beautiful, non-touristy park called Parco degli Acquedotti where many of the best ruins are. The park was huge and full of families having picnics and playing sports. The aqueducts are enormous and as impressive as any ancient sites to remind us of what great engineering feats were accomplished by the ancient Romans. Unfortunately the weather turned and got quite stormy, but the park still made for an enjoyable day.

Via Veneto

We spent another day visiting a couple of less visited neighborhoods of Testaccio and the old Jewish Ghetto located near the river. Testaccio is a working class neighborhood full of interesting graffiti and the old Protestant Cemetery where many famous non-Catholics are buried. We saw famous poets Keats, Goethe and Shelley’s graves, all overlooked by the strange Egyptian pyramid located nearby. The old Jewish Ghetto had a fascinating history and is located just across the Tiber River from the more famous Trastevere area. It is artichoke season and a huge tradition in Rome to make your way to the Ghetto and enjoy one of their unique preparations. It was certainly different that my idea of a ghetto. It did not seem bad to live there anymore and certainly wasn’t the poor area of town.

Roman Forum

We have enjoyed our time of “living like locals”. I suppose in reality, like all of us, we are now and always will be just a couple of tourists, but for a short period of time it’s been fun to pretend for a while.

Palatine Hill