Vernazza, Italy- a tribute to the salad days

18 years ago, PB finished business school in Chicago and we packed our bags for a 7 week European adventure. During parts of the journey we had family and friends meet up with us. So many fun trip memories.  I refer to this time period of our marriage (pre-kids, living in Chicago and the nomadic trip to follow)  as the "salad days". Light, carefree, youthful, inexperienced- and it felt so right. One location of that long-ago trip, offers my mind a vivid snapshot of what the "salad days" looked and felt like- Vernazza, Italy.  

Think pre cell phones, caveman email, non-existent social media, hotel reservations made by a phone call or fax and an Italian seaside village barely brushed by tourists. We were visiting the Italian Cinque Terre area (5 centuries old seaside villages strung together by rugged walking paths) for a few nights by word of mouth.  We camped out in the unairconditioned attic rooms of  Albergo Barbara  in Vernazza with Joe and Marilyn.  We hiked along the Ligurian sea, weaving through vineyards to visit the neighboring villages. It was enchanting and like magic the homemade focaccia and lemon granitas kept us fueled.   

In the middle of my then and now, a devastating mudslide hit the village of Vernazza on October 25, 2011. Thirteen feet of mud slid down the hills created by heavy rains. The mud filled every crevice. Paralyzing heartache. I remember hearing the news. You can find video footage from it. Slowly over time, the town cleaned, rebuilt and reopened. They have many photos throughout the shops and train station. There's still debris and even rusted metals scattered along what's now named, "the new beach". It's mildly barricaded off, but one waiter asked if I went there to look after we had a conversation about life in Vernazza pre-muslide. Intrigued, the kids and I climbed trough the tunnel and climbed around for a few minutes before the sensation of feeling unsafe hit all of us. 

I am certain that I've always dreamed of going back. Living in Nice placed me within close proximity.  So, I emailed the same hotel. Got a 2 night reservation for 2 rooms- one room in the attic and the other for the girls and me. We took an easy 4 hour multi train journey on Thursday and hiked all day on Friday. We blazed 10 miles of coastal trail fueled on cappuccinos, focaccia and lemon granitas. Our group was blissfully happy. Carefree and breathing fresh air- it felt so right. My hippie child (I won't use names) was in her own youthful world. She was barefoot, dirty, making homemade bows and arrows, and spears for fishing. It quickly became a happy place for all of us and I am satisfied knowing that they now have the same love for Vernazza planted in them. 

Interestingly, there's been an active American expat group helping with the restoration projects. Have a look if you're interested

Right in the center of the first photo, you can see the attic rooms and our room with the green shutters opened.

Under the Dome, Florence- ver. II (Wilson's story)

Question: What do tourists do when they see a massive structure?

Answer: They are willing to spend money and wait in long lines just to climb it.

When you look out over the skyline of the historic city of Florence, Italy, the innumerable towers, churches, and other historic buildings from the Renaissance are all dominated by one of the greatest and most important architectural structures ever. This cathedral, so iconic and important that it simply goes by Il Duomo, or the Cathedral in English. The reason for this building's importance, however, is not its beauty, or scale, or location, or even the Renaissance artwork created by masters such as Donatello, Michelangelo, and Ghiberti. The Duomo is important because of the massive dome that sits on the colorful marble sourced in the nearby mountains. When construction on the original gothic cathedral began in 1296, Europe still had both feet in the dark ages, but as construction moved forward, so did the continent. The architects had created a beautiful basilica that evolved over the one and a half centuries as Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance slowly crept out of the shadows; the Florentines wanted to cap off their masterpiece with a beautiful dome. There was just one problem- a dome had not been built since the fall of Rome almost 1,000 years before. Luckily, Florence was home to some of the greatest minds that the world has ever known. Even without the knowledge the Romans had accumulated over centuries, an architect, named Brunelleschi, reinvented how to build a dome. Now Brunelleschi's dome is a beacon of knowledge, faith, and the Renaissance that thousands of tourists visit every year. Naturally, they all want to climb it, and of course I was in this majority.

While my family and I were walking enjoying gelato and other Italian fare we noticed one peculiar thing: the usually long line for the 463 step climb to the Cupola Santa Maria del Fiore, the official name for the apex and viewing platform of the dome, was nonexistent. Quickly realizing that now was our best chance to make the climb, my Dad, Paul, my sister, Abigail, and I headed through the side entrance of the cathedral while my mom, Kelly, and my other sister, Anne Lois stayed on the ground. The climbers made it partially up the first series of stairs and part of a spiral staircase before being impeded by a slowly moving line that moved single-file up towards our goal. When we emerged from the spiral staircase into a small room, we started to wonder how high we were and how much further we had to go. We were about to find out. That room led onto a three-foot-wide walkway that wrapped around the interior of the famed dome. The stone walkway is supported by ornate stone beams that were not very convincing. With only a railing and a plexiglass wall that prevented you from falling, but still allowed you to see the entirety of the dome, and a little less fortunately, it allowed a clear view of the cathedral floor. We made our way confidently around the walkway until suddenly we came to a halt halfway between the two doors that cut the dome in half. The delay was not all bad though- it allowed us to admire the frescoes and stained glass overhead; but, they could not hold our attention forever. Eventually, my eyes slipped down to the dizzying gap between us and the horde of tiny tourists that swarmed like bees on the cathedral floor. My eyes quickly snapped up but even the ongoing battle between demons and angels above could not distract from the long drop to the floor below. Inching back, I hugged the wall and glanced over at my dad who empathetically looked back as he came to the same realization. A nerve racking twenty minutes passed by as we wished the line would continue to move forward. Finally, the line moved forward and we stepped safely through the portal that bestowed a renewed sense of security to those who passed through. We then endured a slow second half of the climb because from that point on there was only one path for both up and down. Finally, we completed the last portion of the climb where the stairs were more related to a ladder. Coming out of the trap door on the cupola, we witnessed the breathtaking view of the surrounding city. I knew without a doubt that it was well worth the climb (time spent under the dome included). Not only the view but the inner passages and architectural features of a building that were never meant to be seen by the public eye were amazing to witness. Without a doubt, the Duomo is an architectural marvel and a treasure. 

photos by Wilson and Paul

Florence- version I (Kelly's photo share)

My version of Florence is best told by my favorite photos. A return for all of us, we stayed in a well located and nicely furnished apartment. It had a beautiful terrace on the front that faced a preserved church from the middle ages. 6 days, 5 nights. We took the relaxed tourist mode instead of our usual cram-it-all-in mode. The kids got school work done in the mornings and we'd set out for sight seeing in the afternoons. The Italian food was YUMMY! That was definitely a highlight of each day. All of us have a Florence story to share. Stay tuned for the next few blog posts and enjoy the share from the Kelly's view. 

train stop in Pisa

This week has been our Spring Break Week in Florence, Italy. We journeyed early, in the dark before daybreak to the train station in Nice on Monday. Early in our trip planning, I made a request to PB that we make a visit to the Leaning Tower. PB had been as a little boy. Other than that, it was a first and he was seeing it with fresh eyes.

Pisa once was a major sea port player in the medieval times. It was close to the Mediterranean and had the protection of being upstream by the Arno River. The city used its wealth to build it's few landmarks including the tower. Eventually, the port silted up and it left Pisa in the dry. 

The tower was built over two centuries (starting in 1173) by several different architects. It started leaning at the start and somehow with each architect's turn to fix the problems it has successfully stood un-toppled. It leans at a 15 foot vertical axis angle. In 1990, it was closed for a massive restoration and head-scratching ground strengthening attempts. Because of their success, it is open now for climbing and the city is happy because it relies on its tourists $'s. The tower's neighboring cathedral is stunning. Galilleo was born in Pisa and it's chandelier is said to have inspired him on astronomical theories while watching it swing in the church. 

Our stop off was easy and quick. We left our luggage in the luggage check at the train station, took a cab to the tower area, walked around, visited the cathedral and all but mom walked up the tower. In the next to last photo you can see the family waving down to me as I sat with the backpacks- someone had to watch the stuff! We sat down for a lunch then chugged back to the train for a 30 minute ride into Florence.