Monday, October 8, 2012

The Prague Blog, Český Krum-Love, or How to Take Your Honey to Hallstatt

I'm not exactly a quick learner.

Consider that I recently replaced 16 rather expensive rotating sprinklers in my yard (all the while cursing the Hunter sprinkler company) before realizing that their lack of rotation was being caused by my long-neglected and thoroughly-clogged irrigation system filter.

Which, upon inspection, was so blocked by hairy algenous growth that it looked like a Chia Pet.

Then, after a year's worth of slow and deliberate chin scratching over the mysterious decline in my riding lawn mower's ability to cut the grass I did what any fine son would do—I gave it to my dad and bought a new one.

And it took my dad exactly 2 minutes of casual study to discover the problem with my old mower: I had put the new blades on backwards.

(And yes, I had cut my lawn for a year with backwards blades. John Deere should use this in their marketing: NOTHING RUNS LIKE A DEERE. OUR MOWERS WILL EVEN CUT YOUR LAWN AFTER YOU STUPIDLY TRY TO SERVICE IT YOURSELF.)

So when I say that I've learned something, I do so with a kind of astonished pride.

And one of the few things that I've learned is how to take my wife to Europe.

And therein lies my point:

You can too.

So sit back and drink in the wisdom of an ol' sage like me. 

Step 1: Decide What to Do with the Kids

The first rule of traveling to Europe is to get your wife to relax. Which means that you must find a baby-sitter that is willing to lie.

You'll know a good, dishonest baby-sitter when she smiles and gets all excited when you ask her to watch your kids for twelve days.

Honest people will actually avert their eyes and say things like, "Hmm...gosh...I do have a bad case of the bubonic plague...and unfortunately I have a business trip planned to the Straits of Magellen."

Quality baby-sitters will hide any conflicts they have and say things like: "Oh my goodness! I've been hoping for the past 3 years that you would ask me to watch your kids!"

Believe me, if you aren't able to find a good baby-sitter your wife will never leave the house.

A good baby-sitter will:
1) Cheerfully agree
2) Deny any scheduling conflicts
3) Send you the occasional text during your vacation saying things like: “Everything is going great!!!”, even if your little boys just led their little cousins into your neighbor’s pool…unattended.

Consider the quality of our baby-sitters: Lori's mom and dad.

Burt and Robin Bullock raised 8 children during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. While Burt was building a restaurant business, Robin ruled the house with a stout list of chores and the occasional midnight run for Slurpees with the requirement that all the kids (and herself) dressed in the craziest costumes they could find.

They’re the perfect babysitters.

To keep Burt happy while he’s babysitting just give him a good sofa and a stack of Louis L’Amours. He’ll occasionally look up from his reading to heckle the kids but he’s largely harmless.

Robin, on the other hand, is the Energizer Bunny personified. Any hour of the day or night she’s game for an adventure.

Pack up the kids in the Suburban and visit all the local fountains around?


Bake brownies with all the kids at 1:00 AM?


Snuggle and talk with a teenager in their bed until 2:00 AM?


Believe me…the babysitter is the key. Take care of the kids and you’re halfway to Europe.

Step 2: Save Yourself a Lot of Money

I imagine lots of people consider a trip to Europe is only for snooty rich folk. Which brings to mind one of those imaginary and remarkably detailed scenes that plays out in my mind on a far too regular basis:

I sit in the morning light of our sunlit breakfast room—left leg comfortably resting over my right. The drape of my cuffed, gabardine slacks is the perfect compromise between style and comfort. I've naturally chosen the amber cuff-links because they match my Burluti shoes.

Looking down, I tsk at a small snag in my handwoven Italian socks. I must remember to throw those in the rubbish bin at the end of the day, lest I (embarrassingly) wear them again.

Lori breezes into the room looking like the sun itself—smart (and a little sassy) in her tennis club whites. She coos over me as I read the latest racing results in The Yachtsman. She kisses me lightly on the cheek (lest she leave her lipstick on my lean, tanned face) and lovingly adjusts my cravat before bouncing out the door behind Topham, her driver.

One more bite of the exquisite quiche truffle prepared by Gerard (on loan from my father's estate, Whitman on the Moor) and I rise to my feet to meet yet another day.


Most mornings it's far more likely that I wander into our kitchen (destroyed by my teenagers the night before), feeling all muzzy-headed and looking a bit rumpled in my lunch-stained Dockers to grab a bowl of Cheerios. Meanwhile, Lori uses her mommy-megaphone voice to threaten the kids to hurry up already before they miss their ride to school.

So, no. Snooty we ain't.

And although I make a comfortable living, I'm a fan of a bargain as much as the next belly-bulging, middle-aged, hairstyle-stuck-in-the-fifties sort of guy. 

Which is why we've become fans of the American Express Delta SkyMiles credit card.

Yes, I said credit card.

Okay, whoa there.

Before you pick up your pitchfork, rouse the drunken villagers, and storm our house shouting, "BIG FINANCIAL MISTAKE!", let me ‘splain (as Ricky Ricardo used to say).

We never buy anything with our credit card that we don’t have the cash to pay for…and we never carry a balance. The card gets paid off in full every month.

Okay, are you feeling better?

(You can extinguish that torch now.)

Frankly, I’m not even sure why American Express lets us have a card…because they make almost no money off us. Sure, there’s an annual fee. But they don’t earn any interest.

Yet, after a few years of normal spending, Am Ex and Delta will give us two free tickets to Europe.

It's crazy.

We put everything we can on that card.

That means medical bills, groceries, gasoline, phone bills—you name it.

If we can pay for it with our American Express, we do.

If our mortgage company would allow us to pay the mortgage with our card, we would.

Why? Because every dollar we spend earns us another mile towards going to Europe again.

Think about it: If you can take the sting out your trip budget by knocking $3,000 off your total bill—that makes a big difference.

And yes, most roundtrip flights to Europe cost about $1,500 apiece.

So do yourself a favor and get a SkyMiles card.

Just make sure you pay it off in full every month.

Step 3: Relax. There's Plenty of Stuff to Do.

Together, this was our third trip to Europe. We've been to Scandinavia and Italy too. I won't blame you if you kind of panic and read every travel book you can find—and then over-plan your trip down to the smallest detail.

Been there, done that.

On our first two trips we knew that Rick Steves would be a great reference for things to do, where to stay, and where to eat...but that didn't stop us from buying lots of other publishers' travel books as well.

Ha! Silly us. We're much more relaxed now, thank you very much.

Buy Rick Steves' books and sift through the pre-trip planning sections. It's practical stuff about passports and international driving permits and safety. Then pick a few of his recommended hotels or bed & breakfasts and email them for reservations. (No worries, they read and write English.) Reserve a car rental. Bring the right clothes and travel accessories.

Go ahead and take a peek at all the cool stuff there is to do in the cities you’ve picked. Maybe come up with a vague idea of things that interest you.

But don't sweat it.

Just arrive in a town, take Rick Steves' book along as your guide, and start walking.

Step 4: Choose Prague

Lori and I touched down at the Prague airport on a sunny Saturday in June.

Waiting for us was the smiling face of Jan, the owner of a local bed & breakfast located in the embassy district of Prague. Jan loaded us up in his stale-cigarette-smelling car and chatted happily as he set the land speed record over rounded cobblestone.

When we can, we choose bed & breakfasts. After all, hotels tend to be insular—keeping a kind of professional barrier between the vacationer and the country. Choose a bed & breakfast and you're far more likely to get a good dose of the local people.

First, a bit of history.

Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic and our destination that day, is 1100 years old. It's known by the nicknames, "Heart of Europe", "The Golden City", and "Mother City," (just to name a few).

It's so beautiful that even Hitler refused to bomb it.

Unfortunately the Czech Republic has a czeckered history with Communism. Originally thought to be the saving grace from the Nazis, Communism gained power with its allure of caring equally for everyone. But that's just the glossy coat on the Communist brochure. The reality was neighbors spying on neighbors, getting shot in the woods if you tried to leave, and the forcible confiscation of businesses and property.

Fortunately, after 41 years of Communist rule, the people rejected it in 1989 through what they call the Velvet Revolution.

But 41 years is gonna leave a mark.

So as Jan demonstrated his NASCAR prowess in his Volvo, we flew past blocks of grey, melancholy, Communist-era apartment buildings en route to the "City of a Hundred Spires"—perhaps the most fitting nickname of all.

And maybe that's what makes Prague all the more stunning—because it tends to be sandwiched between the remnants of Communist Bloc lifelessness.

But soon we dropped down into the Prague Valley—and the wonders of the last 1100 years opened up before us.

There's simply too much of Prague to take in all at once.

In fact, a slow walk doesn't do it either.

You have to see it from all angles—looking up, looking down, looking behind you. It needs to be seen in different lights—under rain clouds, in the golden hour before the sun goes down, and at night.

You can be forgiven for standing dumbly in the middle of a tourist-packed Saint Charles Bridge trying to make sense of the spectacle of gothic, baroque, and renaissance cornucopia swimming before your eyes.

It's a cobblestone adventurer's dream.

And it's not bad on the wallet either.

Honestly, there was something about the Czech Republic that just made me giggle. Whenever I had to pay for something I was amazed at how cheap it was. Lori and I would have an incredible meal in a cozy restaurant and I’d think: Well, this will be about 60 bucks.

Nope.  $30.

Everything was exactly half the price I thought I should be paying.

Three hundred dollars for a three night stay in a charming bed & breakfast?

Nope. $150.

Are you kidding me?

We spent 2 days flying to and from Europe and 10 days "in country" and it cost us a total of $2500.

And 3 of those days we were staying in the more expensive Hallstatt, Austria.

But I digress....

We spent three days and nights in Prague exploring all the dusty corners we could find. We packed in all sorts of adventures in those three days—like walking the Jewish Quarter and feeling the century-old echoes of the shadowed synogogues, taking our first Segway tour through a light rain—and renting our very own motorboat to tool around on the Vltava River ($25!). We climbed towers and studied the Astronomical Clock, and laughed at weird gargoyles and peeing statues. We visited the famous Wenceslas Square where the Czechs and Slovaks rejected communism. We attended a classic blacklight theatrical show that tried hard to be entertaining—and then sat mesmerized by an hour-long concert by members of the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

And all the while my Nikon went click, click, click—because when it's all over—all we have are the photos and the memories.

Step 5: Drive to Český Krumlov

No trip to Europe can be complete without sluicing through the countryside buckled tightly inside a tiny European car.

Somehow my car-loving self just isn't satisfied until I've not only "been there and done that", but driven that.

So it was that we found ourselves encased in a bright yellow Fiat Panda zipping past endless fields of barley and winter wheat towards the 800 year-old medieval town of Český Krumlov.

But not before we entered the Bohemian Forest.  If there was ever a home for the characters from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, surely the forest surrounding Český Krumlov is it.
And the very impenetrable nature of it made our first look at the old, medieval town all the more surprising when we suddenly rounded a bend and there it lay below us.

The town is so perfectly entwined around a sharp S-curve of the Vltava River that it seems to grow from the very rocks and hills themselves. It’s like a pretzel—all bumps and curves and hollows.

There’s a broad castle—broodingly guarding the town—and a maze of twisted, cobblestone streets with a surprise around every corner.

My internal compass utterly failed me as we descended, climbed, and twisted right and left—then right again—attempting to find our bed & breakfast.

But getting lost is half the fun.

We finally found the B&B down a narrow alley—and it couldn't have been better—although my smattering of Czech phrases and words didn’t quite cover the language barrier between our host and me.


Soon we were hiking the cobbles doing what we do best—looking for something really good to eat. When we saw a sign for a restaurace, we walked into a building—then into an open-air courtyard—and backwards hundreds of years in time. There, standing over a roaring open fire was a loud, mustachioed, pot-bellied man throwing steaks onto his wood-fired grill.


I still dream about that steak snuggled in among the potato cakes….

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast, we walked to the river to begin our canoe trip down the Vltava.

Seriously…who gets to do a canoe trip down a storied river through the Bohemian Forest?

It was just Lori, the Vltava, and me…paddling along.

Oh, and a bunch of high school kids on a field trip. So we tried out our various “hellos” in Czech as the kids paddled by.


The man who owned the canoe business told us that we should stop and buy a hot sausage from a friend of his along the way. So, as we came around a certain bend in the river…sure enough—there was a Czech summer camp filled with kids, grilled pork chops, sausages and jaunty polka music.

Never ones to pass up a good meal, we waded in among the kids, filled our plates with delectables, and talked and laughed with the Czechs.

Step 6: Take Your Honey to Hallstatt

As long as you’re that close to Austria, you need to drive to Hallstatt.

And Hallstatt is the perfect place to slow down.

Let’s just say that Hallstatt is such a perfectly beautiful Austrian lake-side village that the Chinese literally built its clone in the Chinese province of Guangdong.

In fact, Austria itself is one, big scenic view.

It’s like a master gardener has trimmed and cut and sculpted every tree, leaf, and blade of grass. 

Crossing the border from the somewhat tangled Czech Republic and entering the beautiful and orderly Austria is something we’ll never forget.

The site where Hallstatt now sits—surrounded as far as the eye can see by the Austrian Alps—has been home to hard-working salt miners since prehistoric times.

Now it’s a peaceful, traditional Austrian village that clings to a steep mountainside over a deep, blue lake.

How can I describe the beauty of that little-known corner of the world?

The village is perched on the mountainside like a painting—there are houses of blue, gold, red, pink and age-worn natural stain. Pear and peach trees are carefully pruned and attached to the houses as living décor.

There is a whimsical quality to Hallstatt. It’s all cobbles and corners and stairways and steeples.

The lake literally laps at its footings—and it’s that kind of mysterious blue that looks deeply cold and clean.

We explored every stair and every alley while my Nikon clickety-clicked. 

We found a pastry shop and loaded up a brown paper bag with more pastries than any two people should eat.

We rented an electric motorboat and explored the lake—stopping at the lonely and empty Schloss Grub (Castle Grub) across the lake.

Driving around the lake, we challenged Lori’s fear of heights by taking a cable car up the steep sides of Mount Dachstein. Up on top—the Alps stretching to the horizon like rolling waves—we hiked the alpine tundra and hung suspended over the valley on an engineered overlook called the five fingers.

It was a perfect place to pause, slow down, and soak in the last few days of an incredible European trip.

It didn’t even matter that it rained the last few days—we just fired up some umbrellas and kept going.

Step 7: Pay Your Respects at a Concentration Camp and Stay Your Last Night in a Windmill

Unfortunately, dotting the map in this part of Europe are some of the remnants of the holocaust.  And we felt like we couldn't be this close without visiting one of them.

So on our long drive back to Prague, we stopped at Mauthausen.

Mauthausen Concentration Camp, not far from Linz, Austria, is one of the lesser-known camps run by the Nazis. Yet, with its quarry pit, “stairs of death”, and rows and rows of stark barracks, a visit there pierces your soul.

It was nearly overwhelming as we listened to the audio guide while walking from place to place throughout the camp—hearing the stories of cruelty and suffering that took place at that very spot.

But there is something about facing history in that way—standing where brutality stood and paying your respects to those who suffered—that is somehow both sobering and cathartic.


For our last night in Prague, we had chosen a very special place to stay. To call it a bed & breakfast simply doesn't do it justice. The Pension Větrnik is more like an old-world inn. First built as a chapel, then converted to a windmill, it is now a grand old estate in the middle of the concrete jungle of the (now) bad side of Prague.

But enter its protected walls and you are transported to another time and place.

The proprietor, Milos, is not only a great talker who will entertain you with endless stories, but he’s also an incredible chef.

Let him make you dinner as you kick back and enjoy the old-world charm of his hundreds-of-years-old house.

Oh, and don’t forget to let him make you breakfast too. 


So yeah...I may not be a quick learner, but I've figured out how to take my honey to Hallstatt. can do it too.

Find yourself a good babysitter, get American Express and Delta to pay for your flights, take along Rick Steves as your guide, and drop into one of those fascinating European towns.

Just don't let me touch your sprinklers or your mower.

To see more photos of our trip, click here

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Happy 4th of July

Through the window I can see Kelly Sobotka draping red-white-and-blue tablecloths over the folding tables in my backyard. As a baseball-loving father of five, he doesn’t seem the least bit self-conscious about doing the decorating.

As I step out of my house I’m enveloped by the smells of a perfect summer morning. The tang of dewy grass, sweet honeysuckle, and a scented cornucopia of blooming flowers.

We endured a long, cold, wet spring this year. But summer has made its long-awaited entrance and all that remains of spring is a memory.

It’s a bit overcast for the 4th of July.

But somehow the warm caress in the air promises the day will be just right.

Kelly’s the first one in my yard this morning—working quietly in preparation for a neighborhood tradition that was begun a few years ago by the Sobotka and Norton families.

While the rest of the valley is drawn to the flash and crowds of the Provo Freedom Festival—this little neighborhood chooses to do its own thing. 

Kelly protests as I sweep my patio. He tells me that I’m not supposed to do anything besides enjoy the day. But it feels good to pick up a broom and help make everything perfect.

Soon, the bishopric from our local LDS congregation arrives and begins firing up the grills. They’re in charge of the sausages and pancakes. Someone hands them floppy Uncle Sam hats (they look more like Cat in the Hat hats) but the guys are game and they put them on.

Stephanie Sobotka begins arranging food on the tables and soon there's a smorgasbord of fruit and breakfast casseroles laid out like an edible rainbow.

The Dyers are setting up their instruments on the far side of the lawn. They’re framed in the background by sagebrush and foxtail that are tinged with gold by a few rays of sun that peek through the clouds.

There’s clearly something different here this morning.

Perhaps it’s what happens when a bunch of people quietly pitch in to make something wonderful happen.

Or maybe it’s the collective thoughts of a neighborhood focused on something good. After all, we’re celebrating those quiet strokes of a quilled pen on July 4th, 1776.

To the Red-Tailed Hawk flying far above, I imagine my yard looks like an anthill. More neighbors are scurrying around making the final preparations for the arrival of the parade.

Yes, parade.

We have our own neighborhood parade—complete with a float for “royalty” (for any little girl who wants to dress up like a princess), a grand marshal (my 84 year-old neighbor, Lisle Loosle), and hordes of bicycles and lawn mowers festooned in red-white-and-blue.

And soon the parade comes around the corner.

Led by Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts carrying historic U.S. flags—they march with the perfect mixture of pride and solemnity.

Behind them comes David and Sharon Lay—dressed as Aunt and Uncle Sam.

Then comes Craig Bennett in his convertible, with our grand marshal in the passenger seat. I imagine that Lisle has been chosen not only because he’s a good man with a long history of service to his fellow men, but because his sweet wife, Maria, lies sick at home with cancer.

It’s the neighborhood’s way of saying, “We love you. We support you. We’re here for you.”

A truck pulling a flatbed trailer with our petite “Royalty” comes next. Each pretty little pixie is dolled up in a formal princess gown. Their average age is maybe 7?

Behind the royalty comes the chaos of a zillion bikes, 4-wheelers, lawn mowers, motorcycles, scooters, and carts. They turn the corner and descend upon my driveway with all the energy of a Sturgis biker rally. There are super heroes, karate kids, clowns, fairies, motocross riders, and every form of wheeled contraption imaginable.

I stand back, marvel, and shoot photos.

Soon the program is underway. Kids are asked to sit in front while our own Uncle Sam MC’s the event.

First the Cub Scouts present the historic flags: the Bunker Hill flag, the John Paul Jones flag, the 20 Star flag, the Fort Sumter flag, the 45 Star flag…and finally the 50 Star flag. A little tribute is given for each one.

Then Greg Wilder reads the hymn, “America the Beautiful”.

Our Grand Marshal is then honored by a short reading of his (and his wife’s) life history. It strikes me that one can hardly encapsulate a life well-lived in a few paragraphs—but it gives us a glimpse of their goodness and influence over the last 80 or so years.

Next, we place our hands over our hearts and sing the Star Spangled Banner.

And most of us know all the words.

And what Independence Day celebration would be complete without music? For the past 235 years Americans have been celebrating their independence with ballads, bands, and every noise-maker known to man.

And we want to make some noise.

So our very own next-door-neighbors, the Dyers (and Tom Smith), light up the morning with guitars, a fiddle, and a full drum set.

Yeah, we don't have the flash of the bigger 4th of July celebrations—but this one is all ours.

And we wouldn't have it any other way.

Happy 4th of July.

To view and download more photos, click here

Friday, December 3, 2010

That's Amore

So if you’re one of those people that had one of those super-romantic, exotic honeymoons to some faraway place, I don’t want to talk to you.

Our honeymoon consisted of driving along 1-84 and I-15 from Portland, Oregon to Highland, Utah—most of which passes through some of the most yawn-inducing landscape the West has to offer.

You know when the highlight of your honeymoon is staying at the Boise Red Lion Hotel you’re pegging the far end of the bland-o-meter.

We actually thought we were being scandalous by paying $110 for our first night in the historic Columbia Gorge Hotel. It sits surrounded by old-growth trees along the beautiful Columbia River in the heart of salmon country—something like the hotel in the movie Somewhere in Time. What could be more romantic, right?

We just didn’t know that our big-spending $110 per night would only fetch us a tiny room with a view of the parking lot and a décor that conjured up images of Granny in her bloomers—not exactly, shall we say…exciting?

I guess it didn’t help that we had chosen to get married during the long Presidents Day weekend in the middle of February—and mid-semester at BYU. So we really didn't have a lot of time for a romance-filled getaway.

Still, the sheer practicality of it had all the let’s party! of American Gothic.

And thus a tradition was born.

Every anniversary we would suit ourselves up in our best duds and dutifully go to dinner at a modestly-priced restaurant. If we were feeling particularly daring we would splurge and drive to Sundance to eat in the Tree Room’s more penny-wise little cousin—the Foundry Grill.


While others were celebrating their anniversaries with Caribbean cruises and San Francisco weekends we were requesting doggie bags after going on a P.F. Chang’s bender.

So when our 20th wedding anniversary rolled around I had had quite enough.

That’s when I shed the overalls, threw down the pitchfork, stamped my foot and said, “By gum, we’re gonna do this thing up right!”

And that’s also when I began studying a little Italiano.

Because, as everyone knows, Italy is the most romantic place on earth.

I had actually been there as a kid but apparently wasn’t cultured enough to appreciate its dilapidated charm. After being enthralled by the clean, Germanic order of Munich and Salzburg—my 16 year-old eyes only saw the decay of Italy.

But one guy’s decay is another guy’s charming.

And I’ve since turned into that other guy.

Yet February isn’t exactly the right time for a visit to Italy—so on Presidents Day weekend we suited up in our best duds and dutifully went to dinner at a modestly-priced restaurant…and talked about all the incredible things we were going to do in Italy in the middle of May.


Our first taste of Italy came in Chicago, when we boarded an Alitalia jet.

I have to admit that most of my flying experiences leave me feeling more like livestock than human. Often during a miserable flight I want to bellow out a hearty mooooooo. I'm cramped in a sticky seat, trying to sleep sitting upright—my head bobbing and mouth gaping.

Then, when the flight attendant brings me a microscopic bag of peanuts I cluck and coo like Wallace and Gromit over a nice Wensleydale Cheese.

But Alitalia was like no other airline we've flown.

Clean, colorful, professional—and with food that far exceeded the normal fare served on any U.S. airline flight, Alitalia was a glimpse of things yet to come in the land of the Italians....


We arrived in Rome at 8 AM on a Thursday.

Despite having done everything we could to get a full 8 hours of sleep on the flight, we were hammered.

They say you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your seat-mates.

Consequently no amount of Tylenol PM and earplugs could drown out the apple pie-faced glee club that was sitting (and singing) behind us. We had passed in and out of a tortuous sleep with visions of maniacally-smiling high-schoolers braying in our ears.

But we had arrived.

A bit dopey and bedraggled, but we were in Rome.

Our first challenge after retrieving our bags was to buy a ticket and board a train that would take us into the city.

And that is exactly where we discovered that during our trip planning stage, we had made two enormous mistakes.

That is, we were each toting a mammoth-sized bag.

Yes, against our better judgment—and despite having traveled to Europe before with more practical-sized bags—we listened to someone who told us that bigger is better.

That is so not so.

Especially when you’re competing against no-nonsense Italians who know that if they get on the train before you, they’ll not only get the best seats, but they’ll also have the pick of prime locations for their bags.

So we stood to the side of the train, blinking slowly, mouths agape, as Italians swarmed around us, pinning our bags to our sides, and leaving us to struggle with lifting 2 behemoth bags four feet up into the train car.

But thirty minutes later we were in the center of Rome.


The Roma Termini Train Station sprawls over acres and acres of Rome. To say it can be bewildering to two drowsy first-timers is an understatement.

I think we exited the station through a little-used maintenance door—I’m not sure. But somehow we ended up alone, outside the station, in an alley that appeared to be prime pickpocket territory.

So calling upon all my latent acting skills, I affected a confident posture and pretended that I knew exactly where I was going and that it was perfectly natural for an American couple to suddenly appear in an obscure Roman alley.


After stopping at our hotel we immediately headed out on our first, real foray onto the Roman streets.

Our first problem was: What to eat?

Mind you, it wasn’t because the food looked strange—just the opposite.

It all looked so good.

Straight away, walking southwest on Via Cavour, we passed shops piled high with multi-layered sandwiches, pizzas, calzones, ice cream….

As Italy newbies we began to panic, thinking we were walking past the best food in the city and that farther on in our walk there would be nothing. Surely we should grab something to eat here so we wouldn’t regret leaving it behind?

So we shared a sandwich, then an ice cream, then some pizza.

Then some more ice cream.

Ah, what novices we were.

Not to worry, folks. Italian cities are chock full of delicious foods! Go ahead and pass that ice cream shop. There’ll be another one even better around the next corner.

It’s a wonder more Italians aren’t obese.

We looked in vain to find anyone that might be described as portly, generously proportioned, or big-boned.

We decided they all must be bulimic.


If I was composing a personal ad for a traveling companion it would go something like this:

Seeking an adventurous female with great sense of humor for trip to Italy. Must love eating exotic food, be curious about what’s around the next corner, and be able to walk miles without complaint. Must be able to tolerate often-befuddled male and have patience with dumb jokes. Ability to pass multiple high-fashion clothing shops without stopping to look or buy is a plus. Acceptance of nickname “Girl” is important. Cute, slim, with deep-brown eyes preferred.

This is Lori to a T.

…Or maybe an L.

I wouldn’t agree to do trips like these if she wasn’t coming along. It’s been twenty years and the girl is still the greatest blessing in my life.


When in Rome, head for the Coliseum.

It’s where much of the famous Roman stuff is.

The Coliseum of course is the historical setting for some of the most inhumane and spectacular demonstrations of ancient Roman decadence.

Think gladiators, Christian executions, exotic animal hunts, and even a naval battle between full-size floating ships.

Surrounded by tourists and unofficially hosted by Gypsies in gladiator costumes, the Coliseum looks just like all the pictures you’ve ever seen. We had the strange experience of feeling like we’d been there before.

Is it interesting? Well, we’d have to say, mildly. But the area is one of the centers of activity and it’s fun to be there.

Just southwest of the Coliseum we stopped at the ruins of the Roman Emperors’ palaces on Palatine Hill.

Again, mildly interesting, and a picturesque place to visit.

Where Lori and I are really in our element is exploring, people-watching, and finding something yummy to eat.

So from there we walked northwest along Via Dei Fori Imperiali passing the Altare Della Patria and heading up the Via Del Corso.

But more importantly we bought a couple of really great pears from a street vendor, then found what has to be Rome’s best gelato.

The gelato deserves more than a passing mention.

Ah, gelato….

Along with Michelangelo’s David, Venice’s gondolas, and the wheat fields of Tuscany…gelato is an Italian national treasure.

Frankly, I’ve always wondered what exactly gelato is….

Is it a kind of Jello? Frozen Yogurt? Fruit Pudding?

No, it’s ice cream.

But calling it “ice cream” is like calling a Ferrari a car. It just doesn’t come close to telling the real story. Think of the very best ice cream you have ever had. Was it rich and creamy and flavorful?

Now it’s time to blow your mind.

Gelato is 10 times better.

I kid you not.

Sculpted into artistic heaps that stretch far above the stainless steel tubs that hold it, gelato is the creamiest, most intensely flavorful ice cream that will ever hit your palate.

With flavorful names that roll off Italian tongues like cioccolato, fragola, nocciola, cocco, fruitti di bosco, and stracciatella, (chocolate, strawberry, hazelnut, coconut, mixed fruit, and chocolate chip) gelato is as delectable as it sounds.

When learning some phrases in a foreign language one typically learns to say the most important things first. And that’s why I quickly learned how to say, Giorno! Vogliamo due gelati, per favore! (Hello! We want two gelatos, please!).

We were so enamored with gelato that it wasn’t unusual for us to get some at a street-side shop—then walk around the corner to another shop and get some more.

There were a few days when I had gelato for breakfast and for lunch.

To heck with pizza and pasta! Give me gelato!


When you plan a trip to Italy you have to make a lot of decisions. Everyone who’s been to Italy has a strong opinion of what you absolutely must do and see.

Some were adamant that we see the Leaning Tower. Some said we must go to the Amalfi Coast. Our Home Teacher said we shouldn’t miss Lake Como.

When it comes to Italy, you’ve got to pick your sage. In our case, we listened to friends, but settled on Rick Steves.

For those of you who don’t watch PBS, Rick is a travel geek.

And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

Watch his shows and get his books. He’ll tell you exactly where to find the best gelato, which sights are worthwhile, and which ones aren’t worth your time.

Rick Steves’ Italy 2010 was our bible—and he rarely steered us wrong.

So that night we decided to take Rick’s recommended Roman night-walk.

Starting at Campo de’ Fiori we made our way slowly through square after square of beautiful Roman fountains—with the finale being the famous Trevi Fountain, where late-night onlookers oohed and aahed over its classical beauty.


The next day was Vatican day—but not before we followed Rick’s advice and tramped all the way across the center of Rome to find the best wood-fired pizza that Rome has to offer.

I have to explain that we ran across all sorts of travelers in Italy. We chatted it up with Aussies, Brits, Americans, Germans—you name it. Most of them were on some kind of a wine-tasting tour. But, being LDS, alcohol is out of the question.

But by darn if we weren’t on a food-tasting tour!

Our trip could have been called Adventures in Gastronomy, or The Nutritional Benefits of the All Gelato Diet, or Going to Italy? Bring Some Bigger Pants.


When we finally reached the Vatican the line to enter the museum and see the Sistine Chapel was a quarter mile long.

I must now confess that we are not above paying good money to get to the front of such a line. So it didn't take us long to get suckered in by one of the “tours” whose main marketing point is the ability to bypass everyone and get right in the front door.

To their credit, they all try to warn you.

They'll tell you that you have to walk through a lot of different rooms before you get to the creme de la creme of the Vatican Museum—the Sistine Chapel. Just take a tip from us that when they say a lot, they mean A LOT.

In fact, it's such a hike, it's a good idea to drink plenty of water, keep some gorp handy and bring a backpack with overnight gear.

We are here to tell you that you will walk through what seems like hundreds of rooms full of religious art before you even have a hope of glimpsing the Sistine Chapel.

For those of you who are direction-challenged, you're toast.

If you can follow arrows and decipher some Italian in the form of Cappella Sistina, you might see the light of day once more.

Oh, and Rick Steves says that you should definitely do your little Vatican trip in the morning when there are far less people.

Whoops, we were there in the afternoon.

And it was, shall we say, bumper to bumper.

If you're direction-challenged and claustrophobic you're doubly toast.

So we walked through what seemed like miles of tapestries, paintings, busts, crosses, masks, and statues. Occasionally we remembered bits and pieces of long-forgotten Humanities classes and were able to vaguely recall the difference between a mosaic and a fresco.

It was all very impressive in its...enormousness, and fresconess and old-religiousness ...and holy-cow-they've-got-a-lot-of-old-art-ness.

Then, when we had just decided to set up our tent and settle in for the night, we finally came to the Sistine Chapel.

And now we must give Michelangelo his due.

We stood, mouths agape, staring up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where over 500 years ago the world's foremost artistic savant painted a masterpiece.

It was magnificent, and we felt privileged to be there and see it.

Just make sure you see it in the morning.


When we left the Vatican it was raining hard. Luckily, we had our rain jackets with us. But even luckier for us was the small army of gypsies that suddenly appeared—as if sprouted by the rain—to sell us two cheap umbrellas.

Lori will tell you that there's something magical about walking along in the rain in Rome. It was all splish splash, rushing traffic, and trying to avoid stepping in the big puddles. We found that storefront awnings were handy for temporary shelters...and maybe even to steal a kiss or two.


After the Vatican, being the wise travelers that we are, we gave ourselves plenty of time to make our way to the train station. You see, we had booked a private sleeping compartment on a night train to Venice. We figured, why use up a good day in Italy traveling on a train when you can simply sleep through it?

So we arrived at least 45 minutes early to ensure that we found that train.

Little did we know that we were already well behind the eight ball. Let me just say that making an assumption in Italy can cause a lot of problems.

Please allow me to create the picture for you.

Assuming that our train was at the Roma Termini Station, we casually walked into the enormous terminal-like building and stood in a line at a ticket counter. Thinking we had plenty of time we chatted it up with another American couple—never realizing that we were a breath away from missing our train and—having no hotel reservation for the night in Rome—were dangerously close to bunking up with sweaty Eurorail hippies in a forced stay at the local youth hostel.

When our turn finally came to talk to the ticket lady she said: “You're leaving from Tiburtina. You'd better hurry or you'll miss the train.”

Imagine my blinking and slightly puzzled look as I asked her how to get there.

“You'll need to go down the stairs and take the metro. Track B.”


I'm thinking the “metro” is some sort of shuttle out to a far-flung platform where we'll catch our train—so we walk down the stairs, lugging our mammoth bags, and find ourselves in what appears to be a subway station.

You'd think that something would be clicking by now, but no.

We then attempt to walk through the turnstile which, of course, is meant as an open gate for smart people with a ticket and as a barrier for stupid people with no ticket.

Now something's beginning to click—but it's very vague.

Take a subway to Tiburtina? How big is this train station anyway? I'm still thinking of the subway as a sort of shuttle that will take us around a quick bend and drop us off at the Tiburtina platform....

So suddenly I find myself asking anyone around us if they speak English and a kind Italian man tries hard to understand me as I show him our sleeper car ticket and ask him if that works as a sort of shuttle ticket for the metro.

And somehow, someway, that poor kind soul who speaks very little English suppresses his natural inclination to laugh at the two befuddled Americans and succeeds in making us understand that we need to buy a subway ticket from a machine standing by.

It's at that point that we realize that Tiburtina may be a lot farther away than we may have thought.

In truth, it was on the other side of Rome—as in Roma Tiburtina Railway Station—but we were still thinking it was on the outskirts of the Roma Termini Railway Station.

All it took was one glance at my watch for the anxiety level to now reach critical mass.

We had exactly 17 minutes to get to wherever Tiburtina was.

So stuttering with stress I attempt to decipher the Italian subway ticket machine. It looks nothing like I've ever used before. No big button that says “Tiburtina” with a slot for money. In fact, it looks exactly like something out of a science fiction movie that little scientists with huge cerebrums might poke and prod, while furiously writing on large clipboards and saying things like, “Ah, yes. Mmm, very good. Oh my!—that's unexpected!”

So I feed the machine a 10 Euro note and it spits it back out at me.

I smooth the bill and poke it back in—and the machine shoots it back out.

Imagine me doing this 10 or 12 times, wishing I knew some cuss words in Italian, because if we don't get moving we are definitely going to miss that train to Venice.

Then the miraculous happens.

At that very moment in time the Milky Way tips slightly in the time-space continuum which aligns the planet Saturn with our moon and disrupts the Earth's jet stream over Italy which sends a gentle puff of air that slightly tousles Lori's hair and suddenly—for just that moment—she is able to read and understand Italian.

“It says that you can't exceed the ticket price by more than 1 Euro.”


“You're putting in too big of a bill—it can't give you that much change.”

I look at her in wonder.

She then goes glassy-eyed, faints, and I catch her and hold her gently in my arms.

“What...what happened?” she says, blinking slowly.

“You were just reading Italian.” I say.

“I was?”

“Yes. And it was beautiful.”

She has never understood a word of Italian since.

So I shove a couple of Euro coins in the slot, poke a few science-fictiony buttons, and voilà! I have two subway tickets that will take us to Tiburtina!

In a flash we're through the turnstiles and standing on the subway platform, track A. And just in time—because we 're sure we can hear the next subway train coming down the tracks. A quick check with the Danish people standing nearby confirms that we are on the correct side of the tracks.

Or are we?

Didn't the ticket lady say track B?

At this point, all logic and reason—and all previous experience riding subways—desert me. All I can see is a yawning chasm of tracks separating us (standing on track A) from track B.

For a long second I consider jumping across.

But just before I am about to become a story on the evening news (“AMERCIAN TOURIST HIT BY SUBWAY TRAIN. WITNESSES SAY HE SUDDENLY WENT STUPID.”), something again clicks in Lori's head and she takes off running, yelling, “This way!”

Here now is a tip for all future Italy-bound travelers:

***When you find yourself on the wrong side of a set of tracks—before you go stupid—REMEMBER: there is always a way to get to the other side—and it's not only close, but safe.***

So with the rumble of an approaching train spurring us on, we clunk, clunk, clunk our ginormous bags down some stairs and hope the little wheels don't come flying off in the process. We then drag them up another set of stairs to arrive out-of-breath on platform B just as the next subway train arrives.

We jump on board, confirm that Tiburtina is six stops ahead, and resist the urge to completely wig, spazz or freak out because in another 11 minutes our sleeper train will leave toward Venice.

After what seems like a very long time we, at last, reach the stop marked “Tiburtina” and burst out of the train looking exactly like two desperate and panicky Americans.

Due to the post-traumatic stress syndrome for which I now take heavy medication, my memory of what happens next is, shall we say, a bit disjointed. But these are the little bits and flashes of memory that I have—not necessarily in order:

I am running around the station desperately asking puzzled Italians where Tiburtina is.

Lori is squeezing through a locked turnstile by virtue of her uncommonly small bottom.

I follow an Italian man's directions and run up a flight of stairs finding myself alone on a darkened Roman street.

We are running down a series of concrete hallways and find that we have circled back to the turnstiles.

I am trying to read the monitors but nowhere can I find anything that says Venice.

Lori is lugging her heavy bag up a gigantic stairway and I shout, “Every man for himself!” because mine is heavy too.

Somehow I finally realize that Tiburtina isn't a platform—it's a station—and we're in it. Asking the Italians “Where is Tiburtina?” is a bit like asking them “Where is Italy?”

Trying a different tactic I ask a janitor, “Which train goes to Venice?”

He replies, “Look for the train going to Udine.”

Ah yes. Of course.

That makes perfect sense.

When you want to go to Venice just take the train to Udine.

How silly of me.

Platform A4. The train to Udine.

Here now is another tip for all future Italy-bound travelers:

***Italian train station monitors only list the last stop of the line. Going to Florence? Look for the train going to Milan.***

One last lung-scorching , olympic-style run up a long flight of steps and we—as sweaty and wide-eyed Americans—join a casual throng of Italians waiting for the night train to Venice.

We had made it.

And with a few minutes to spare.

When we arrived in Venice at 5:30 AM it was a ghost town. Dark and deserted.

Our first order of business was to figure out, once again, how to get a ticket for the water bus from one of those science-fictiony ticket machines. Sleep-deprived, jet-lagged, and confused, I was quite pleased with myself for getting the job done in slightly less than 10 minutes.

As the approaching sun slowly revealed the Venetian world, we chugged along in the water bus wondering where all the people were. Sure it was early, but when do these people get out of bed?

Arriving near Saint Mark's Square, we stepped out onto the abandoned Venice street feeling like we were missing something—like showing up for a party on the wrong day. Expecting to see a bustling Venice morning routine we were instead presented with a vacant waterfront.

Following directions, we made our way sleepily through one of the hundreds of alleys towards our hotel.
Problem was, what hotel lets you check in that early in the morning?
The next six hours are a blur of drowsy memories:
A polite Pakistani hotel manager telling us we can leave our bags in the lobby but can't check in until 2 o'clock.
Walking away from our bags wondering if we will ever see them again.
Eating breakfast in a small cafe—not because we were hungry—but because we needed to sit down.
Sleeping, sitting upright, on a moldy sofa in a dank and dark “hotel” foyer hoping we wouldn't get kicked out.
Wanting, yearning, longing, aching to be horizontal.
Realizing that a 6 hour sleeper train doesn't save you a day of traveling—it merely exhausts you so you spend the next day sleeping.
Finally being allowed to check in to our hotel at noon, lying gratefully on the bed, and wasting away our first day in Venice unconscious.
By 3 o'clock in the afternoon we were ready to hit the town. Venice, by then, was fully awake and bustling.
Superbly confident in my directional ability I led Lori through one alley after another heading assuredly west toward the Rialto bridge. Just as I was sure it was around the next corner, we entered a familiar-looking piazza and realized that we had circled back to our hotel.
Sufficiently humbled, and cautious of the distinct possibility of getting hopelessly lost, we took note of landmarks and walked through the once-decadent, now-decaying piazzas and alleys, and over the hundreds of small bridges where the canals are an ever-present marvel.
In its day, Venice was an extremely wealthy city. Nearly every building is some kind of palace, mansion, or church. Built almost entirely of stone, the Venice of today looks similar to what it once was—however, now it has the well-worn patina of age.
And somehow that makes it all the better.
Gondoliers, in their trademark striped shirts, drifted through the backwater canals—inviting us to take a ride. We walked hand-in-hand, wide-eyed, stopping frequently to take pictures. It seemed like every inch of the cobbled streets offered an infinite number of award-winning camera angles.
Forgive me now as I wax poetic about the food.
It's an understatement to say that Italians do wondrous things with pasta.
It's as if hundreds of years of experimenting has perfected the multiple ways it can be prepared and dressed up to look and taste out-of-this-world.
Following Rick Steves' advice, we made a reservation at an infamous Venetian trattoria that even the locals recommended.
My primo piatto (first course) dish of seafood spaghetti looked ordinary enough—in fact it looked like nothing more than spaghetti slicked liberally in olive oil. But when I took a bite a burst of flavors assailed my tongue making it rank among the most delicious things I've ever eaten.
Eating in Italy, Lori and I were constantly having blissful gastronomical moments that can only be compared to scenes from Pixar's movie, Ratatouille. If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about. This or that ingredient is terrific by itself—but when combined, it's like fireworks to the palate.
And while eating such savory delights, one can't help but spontaneously burst forth with an unexpected “oooh” or “aaah” as if under the influence of some little known Italian Culinary Tourette's Syndrome.
Forget the fact that our honeymoon pegged the far end of the bland-o-meter. Twenty years later and wandering the streets of Venice on a warm Spring evening was worth the wait.
And nobody with even an ounce of romance in them can pass up a Venetian gondola ride.
So we interviewed several gondoliers—wanting to spend our $100 bucks on only the most personable, fun, and knowledgeable gondolier that we could find.
We shopped for the right person like chefs choosing stock for a special dish. We asked questions, inspected different gondolas, tested personalities, joked and requested a song.
We finally chose a sturdy, good-looking gondolier named Paolo with a fine, hand-crafted gondola used for Venetian weddings.
He told us he wouldn't give us a song but he'd give us something far more special.
So, skipping the Grand Canal, he took us into the backwaters of Venice. And with a sonorous, Italian-accented voice he told us of how Venice came to be, and how Marco Polo had obtained a lucrative trade agreement with Asia—thus spawning the wealth of the city.
With Paolo's soothing narration, Lori and I slipped into a dreamy hypnotic daze—passing under small bridges and floating by impossibly charming restaurants—their windows open to the night air—with the sound of soft laughter and clinking dinnerware playing counterpoint.
And then, suddenly, Paolo began singing. With a voice fitting the magic of the evening, he sang us a traditional Venetian wedding song.
So what if the the best night of our honeymoon was at the Boise Red Lion Hotel? This was bliss. And instead of two young kids who hardly knew each other, we now had 20 years behind us and 6 wonderful kids at home.
Sing on, Paolo.
My girl and I will sit right here and watch Venice slowly slip by.
For three days we wandered the streets of Venice—visiting all the famous spots including Saint Mark's Basilica, Rialto Bridge, the Correr Musem, Doge's Palace, and the Bridge of Sighs.
We got lost multiple times—in fact we purposely headed out into the Venetian hinterlands just to see what was out there.
Walking along a small street, far away from any tourists, we walked through neighborhoods where generations of Venetians have lived.
Passing over a small bridge I smiled and greeted an older gentleman in Italian. He immediately engaged me in a stilted conversation—his fluent Italian against my 200 word vocabulary. I introduced Lori and the old man greeted her pleasantly and then, after a few questions, he seemed to ask us to come with him someplace.
Did I understand him correctly?
Unsure of what he said, I nodded at him with a smile and whispered to Lori that he may have invited us somewhere.
Feeling a bit awkward, I decided I was wrong and we began to slip away down an alley.
But the old man followed us.
Matching my stride, he walked by my side as I wondered if he was simply walking in the same direction. Deciding to test it, I quickened my pace—and he quickly put a hand on my shoulder to slow me down.
Soon he stopped us near a door in the alley and pulled a key out of his pocket.
At that point, I sized him up.
It was clear the guy was leading us into a barren back alley where he would slam the door shut behind us, yank off his old man mask and shout, “Ah HA! I have you now you steenking Americans!” Then brandishing a long Venetian dagger, he would say, “Now geev me all your a'money or I'll cut your a'tongues out!”
But fumbling with the lock, he opened the door and invited us into a lush courtyard. He explained that his name was Alejandro, that he was a 5th generation Venetian, and that this was his home.
Instead of robbing us of our Euros he simply wanted to invite two lost Americans to see his secret garden.
It was clear that Alejandro and his forefathers had carefully and artfully created this garden oasis over generations. He was especially proud of several palm trees that were perfectly placed among the roses.
We spent 45 minutes with Alejandro—wandering through his garden, taking pictures, talking with him about his family and children. At one point he invited us into his house and offered us a drink of brandy—which, being LDS, we graciously refused.
It was a gem of a moment—an impromptu, spontaneous visit with a man who was open and unhesitating in his desire to spend some time with some friendly-looking tourists. We found him so warm and friendly, he was the very definition of the Italian saying, “Entri come amici, vada come famiglia.”
Enter as friends, leave as family.
We hope to visit him again someday.
Wistfully leaving Venice behind we next hopped a train to Cinque Terre.
Cinque what?” you say?
Cinque Terre. Five small fishing villages that literally hang from the cliffs in the northern Italian Riviera.
We had been told by many that the Cinque Terre (literally “Five Lands”) were some of the most charming little villages in Italy—and we wanted to spend some time there.
The beauty of the Cinque Terre is that cars or buses cannot go there. Within and between these little villages you either take the local train—or walk.
So we arrived, with much anticipation, in Vernazza—the fourth of the five—and stepped into a world that seems hundreds of years behind.
Everything was colors, stone steps, and impossible verticality.
Straightway we looked for Maria—who had a few rooms to let—and found that simply asking for her by name from any of the townsfolk led us directly to her.
Our room was up 60 stone steps from the street below and just beneath the shadow of Doria Castle—a structure that was built in the 1400s to protect the villages from marauding pirates.
Because they're fishing villages, Cinque Terre has a distinct seafaring flair.
And how could it not? They look out over the Riviera where the surf has pounded the cliffs for centuries and where the little villages are under the constant influence of the dramatic moods of the sea.
So with the air bright and cool we explored our temporary little home—getting lost in the maze of steps that lead unexpectedly to brightly-colored miniature courtyards—or through short tunnels in the cliffs leading directly to someone's doorstep.
Rimming the sea of Cinque Terre, the cliffs grow cacti, lemon trees, grapes, towering pines, and are the home of zipping little lizards.
There is a walking trail that leads from one village to the next—yet due to the precariousness of the cliffs, there is a sort of “trail police” that closes portions of it any time it looks particularly unstable.
Luckily, the portion between Corniglia and Riomaggiore was open. So we set out one late morning along the trail and walked along the cliffs, through vineyards and seaside forests, from one charming town to the next.
The stretch between Manarola and Riomaggiare is the Via Dell' Amore.
Up until the 1920s there was almost no contact between the villages. The stoic fishermen kept to themselves and the wild cliffs and tangled forest were an almost impenetrable barrier to the outside world. So, if your name was Gisella and you were looking for a husband, you'd gaze out over the lowly village boys (all 27 of them) and wonder which one of those frustratingly familiar faces you could possibly have an exciting romance with.
Is it Alfonso the dog-faced boy? Gino with the stinky feet? The stuttering Salvatore?
The choices were simply too limited.
So, after hundreds of years of head-scratching over the problem, somebody eventually had an “Aha!” moment that hatched the singular most novel idea to enter the human mind.
They would build a path between the villages.
Thus, the “Lover's Lane” was born.
Nowadays Italian lovers attach padlocks anywhere they can (symbolizing locked hearts??) and paint the tunnel and rocks with elaborate romance-inspired graffiti.
Unfortunately we didn't have a lock or we would have shamelessly followed suit.
But we did have a pen that Lori put to good use.
Some of our best memories of Cinque Terre include:
A fantastic seafood meal at the castle restaurant—our table overlooking the sea.
Getting to know Massimo (“Max”) the Sicilian, at whose restaurant we breakfasted daily on warm manicotti-filled pastries and fresh-squeezed, blood orange juice.
Riding a shuttle 6 miles above Monterosso al Mare and then hiking down to Vernazza through a beautiful seaside forest.
Searching for each village's little church and lighting a candle.
Finding an abandoned convent in the hills, surrounded by majestic, old oaks—with one of the most peaceful views of Vernazza far below.
It was time to pick up our rental car in Florence.
I'm a gadget guy, so you can imagine my geeky excitement when I got to combine a zippy little Fiat 500 with the first-time use of a GPS I had bought specifically for our trip.
Rental cars can range anywhere from depressing to giddily trip-enhancing. The Fiat we were fortunately assigned was definitely the latter. After all, who wants to drone around Italy in a Ford Focus when you can zip, zip, zip around in a blue-blooded, Italian-made compact?
Not much bigger than a Smart Car, the bubbly Fiat 500 seems to have a little smile on its face that says, “Ciao!” every time you approach it.
We were headed, by car, to Tuscany—an area in Italy renowned for its inviting vineyards, rambling villas, and art-inspiring wheat fields.
As we made our way out of Florence with the GPS pronouncing Italian street names in a comical, robotic, staccato—legions of buzzy motorcycles slalomed around us with only a few centimeters to spare.
If you plan on driving in Italian cities I would recommend a full medical workup on your heart before you go. I'm pretty sure I left permanent hand prints in the steering wheel knowing that I would certainly kill a full swarm of Italian motorcyclists if I so much as twitched a single inch to the left or right.
But once out on the open road, driving in Italy was a dream.
Our destination was San Gimignano—a medieval Tuscan town where we had booked a B&B in an old farmhouse.
To say that Tuscany is magical is an understatement.
To our eyes, it was one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
It's as if a master gardener following a grand design has artfully mixed great patches of perfectly-tended vineyards, olive groves, and wheat fields with the mysterious wilds of old-growth forest. With perfect whimsy, inviting villas perch atop rolling hills while ice cream clouds of impossible brightness contrast with a bright, blue sky.
The rolling hills—stretching for miles—are capped by endless shades of lazy blue haze and are cast in an ever-deepening shade of violet.
On our first night in Tuscany we rambled around the town of San Gimignano—walking its stone-cobbled streets under the shadow of its medieval towers until well after dark.
Walking back to our B&B along a winding dirt road we were surrounded on all sides by lush growth, trees, flowering bushes, and great stretches of olives and grapes. We were delighted to pass through wave after wave of intoxicating, evening-aged fragrances while stars shone brightly over the landscape.
Oddly, birds were in full chorus as if they too sensed it was an extraordinary night.
I jokingly commented to Lori that the only thing that kept the night from being perfect was a lack of fireflies.
And then, suddenly, there were fireflies.
Hundreds of them.
Blinking along the road and through the vineyards—it was as if the stars themselves had dropped down for a closer look.
We spent the next few days taking full advantage of our little Fiat and drove to the far reaches of Tuscany. We explored all the best Etruscan and medieval hill towns like Civita, Orvieto, Siena, Volterra, and Pienza.
In Pienza we stopped to taste their famous Pecorino cheese. Lori and I are adventurous eaters and we so wanted to feel drippingly sophisticated as we chewed our pecorino with little bits of pear and honey. But let's just say that the Pecorino tasted less like sheep cheese and more like what you'd find on the bottom of a sheep's pen.
Creme de la dingleberry with a piquant twist of bodaggit.
We meandered over hill and dale entranced by the fetching beauty of the Tuscan wheat fields and vineyards. We set our GPS on “shortest route” and were constantly surprised by the little back roads and lanes that it sent us zipping along. At times we were on little paths that were just wide enough for a diminutive Fiat—and we prayed that nobody was coming in the opposite direction.
But never once did our robotic-voiced GPS let us down.
Entering the maze of cobbled streets in Orvieto, we held our breath as the streets narrowed to within inches of the little car. With the medieval buildings towering around us, we twisted and turned and marveled that the GPS could still see the satellites.
Leaving Orvieto long after dark, we realized that we had meandered far from our little B&B and we needed some gas.
So finding a gas station with no attendants whatsoever, we puzzled, scratched our heads, rubbed our chins, threw our hands in the air, and said a little prayer to the Italian petrol gods to figure out how in the world to get that gas into our car. Luckily someone else came by to gas their car and I surreptitiously watched as they poked some buttons on a central payment machine to direct the gas to the particular pump they were parked by.
Some our favorite memories of Tuscany are:
Lori batting her eyes at the owner of the Etruscan caves museum in Orvieto hoping he'd let us in to see the caves after closing time. He did.
Eating at our favorite restaurant in San Gimignano overlooking the valley. Twice.
Getting the perfect bruschetta—toast with fresh tomatoes, garlic and drizzled olive oil—in Civita.
Searching for and eventually finding a little LDS chapel in Siena and attending sacrament meeting. Lori found it while I was hopelessly confused.
Stopping at a traveling market in Radda In Chianti and accidentally buying 2 kilos of apples when I only really wanted 2 (single) apples.
Me trying out random Italian phrases on a cute and laughing village shopkeeper in San Gimignano. “You have given us a great gift. You are my best friend. You are not hairy.”
Each place we visited in Italy seemed a little more difficult to leave.
So with only one real day left in Italy we regretfully left Tuscany behind to spend a day in Florence. We figured if we were that close to that famous city we should spend some time there. Besides, we had to return the Fiat.
So we drove back to Florence watching San Gimignano, the vineyards, and the easy grace of the Tuscan hills fade in the rear view mirror.
After all we had seen and experienced in Italy—the rush of Rome, the mystery of Venice, Cinque Terre, Tuscany—somehow a quick visit to Florence seemed a bit of a letdown. What could possibly be left in Italy that could move us?
Hadn't we already hit the conclusion of our little story? Weren't we settling into an easy happily-ever-after?
So feeling like we were about to roll the credits after a triumphant FINIS, we consigned ourselves to one more sight.
Far in advance we had booked a specific time to see Michelangelo's statue of David.
We must admit that at that time in our trip we were a bit tired and feeling ready to pack up and head home. In fact, we briefly discussed giving away our David tickets to some random tourists.
But feeling obligated, we rather unenthusiastically made our way across Florence to see that one last thing.
The museum that houses David seems small and nondescript. If it weren't for the crowds milling around outside, one could easily walk past it without any suspicion that it contains anything special.
Shortly after entering we immediately saw several statues. For just a moment we thought that perhaps one of them was “the” statue.
But no.
Then we saw others against a far wall and again, for a moment, we wondered if one of them was “it.”
Jostling with the crowds we turned a corner in the museum as a long corridor lined with various statues revealed itself.
And there—at the end of the hall—was unmistakably Michelangelo's greatest creation.
Standing 17 feet tall, the statue is absolutely stunning.
Under a dome that bathes him in natural light, David looks like he might at any time step off the pedestal and saunter out onto the streets of Florence.
There are few moments in life that are truly jaw-dropping but that was one of them.
We walked in slow circles around it and marveled at the detail, the grace, and the sheer beauty of it. We're here to tell you that no photo we've ever seen has come anywhere close to doing it justice.
Without a doubt, it's the most magnificent piece of art we've ever seen.
And well worth waiting 20 years for.