A Travellerspoint blog

Italy's Grand Finale: Venice

The Most Beautiful City in the World

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Venice's waterfront in the late afternoon sunlight

Out last day of sightseeing dawned, and it was another magical, sunny day in Italy. We loaded up on the bus from where we were staying in Treviso, and drove about a half hour down to the docks of Venice. We boarded a chartered boat which dropped us off at the Isle of Guidecca, where we would attend a demonstration in the art of Venetian glass blowing. Glass is one of the city's most famous souvenirs, and this place was justifiably famous as making some of the best. After the demonstration, we were ushered into the gift shop -- surprised? The glass here is very high quality, but also very expensive. A pair of wine goblets bought by one of my travelers was 150 Euros.

Beautiful, waterfront scene in Venice
We reboarded the boat and were dropped of along the Grand Canal, that backwards "S-shaped" waterway that is the main thoroughfare in Venice. There are no real streets in this city. No cars or trucks -- only boats of various sizes glide along the large and small waterways which are traffic web of Venice. Pedestrian walkways and alleyways run throughout Venice, crossing the water in quaint arches. This is an artist's city. Plop down your canvas nearly anywhere in Venice and you can paint a gorgeous panorama or lovely, little backwater street. I often categorize cities into "laundry list" cities (like Rome) where you have an expansive tally of places you want to see before you leave. Or I label them "experience cities," where the goal is to just absorb the vibe and color of the city. Venice is the second type, and to this day I still call it, "la piu bella citta" (most beautiful city) in the world.

Atop one of the bridges across the Grand Canal
We met our guide, who began his commentary about the city's layout and sights. He walked us along the Grand Canal past the Doge's Palace and St. Mark's Square, then plunged into the city's back streets and alleyways. He stopped at various churches and buildings and explained the history, art and life of Venice. He took us to some hidden spots that were definitely off the beaten path and very colorful. However, for my taste, he did not spice up his delivery with questions or pauses to make sure everyone understood. Unfortunately, he kind of pressed "Play" and began his lecture and continued it nonstop. After a half hour or so, I could tell he was losing some of the travelers. The Whisper technology's sound was always a bit shaky, and when you throw in the accented English with the nonstop monologue under the hot sun, the kids began to fade a bit. We retuned to St. Mark's Square, where the guide finished and handed it back to Elvira.

An iconic part of any Venice visit -- a ride on one of its gondolas
From there, we walked to where she'd arranged for us to hire gondolas for a ride through Venice's canals. The price of 20 Euros each was excellent, and all of my travelers took advantage. We gingerly stepped on board, six to a boat, and they began to pole us through the waters. We began along the bustling and choppy Grand Canal, then quickly ducked into the quieter side canals. Our gondolier did not sing (though apparently if we'd tipped him he would have, I found out later), but instead bantered back and forth with other gondoliers. Still, it is a cool experience to quietly float through the canals, passing beneath arched bridges as you watch people walk by overhead. Seeing the homes along the back alley canals is always atmospheric, too. It is as if you are getting a secret glimpse into someone's gorgeous, backyard patio.

Venice's Rialto Bridge along the Grand Canal
After disembarking, we followed Elvira through the streets to a square which housed a number of cafes. Everyone was hungry, so we scattered to check out menus, eventually splitting into several contingents. Once lunch was over, I collected most of our group and told them I would lead them to the Rialto Bridge, one of the most famous and picturesque of the three over the Grand Canal. I used the map Elvira had given each of us, supplementing it with the my iPhone's map app (which tracks your location with a moving blue dot). We stopped a couple times for souvenir purchases, but I was pleased to navigate us through the back streets to exactly where I wanted to emerge alongside the Grand Canal. Unfortunately, half of the Rialto Bridge was covered in scaffolding. So much for my postcard view I wanted to give them! At this point, our group splintered. Some wanted to take their time and shop, while others wanted to explore the city. I led the exploration group across the Rialto Bridge and we plunged through one of the city's markets. This led to frequent shopping stops. Some of the group began to worry about our pace. Our goal was to return to the meeting point in time to visit both St. Mark's Cathedral and the Duomo's Palace. We worked it out, though, and found a happy compromise. We even found time for a gelato stop in one of the squares. I was happy with my navigation, leading us into only one dead end. We made a circuit of the opposite side of the Grand Canal through the Santa Croce, San Polo, and Dorsoduro districts before emerging at the Accademia Bridge. We took numerous photo stops along the way, and I think my travelers got a good taste of Venice's beauty.

St. Mark's Cathedral, bathed in the golden rays of the evening sun
I left us with about about a half hour less time than I'd aimed for to explore St. Mark's and the Doge's Palace. We managed to get inside both, but for abbreviated tours. I had visited St. Mark's before, and love its dusty, golden glow of the mosaic and fresco-lined walls. There is a definite Eastern feel to the church. You can see and feel the Byzantine influences. This was my first time entering the Doge's (or Duke's) Palace. It was much more sprawling inside. Magnificent chambers stretched away before your eyes, decorated with the wealth and taste you would expect of one of the Medieval and Renaissance period's most powerful cities. The merchants of Venice showed off their riches by decorating their homes and buildings. The palace -- actually all of Venice -- is a testament to their proud role as patrons of the arts.

Exploring the back streets, canals, and alley ways of Venice
We had to cut our exploration of the palace short to reach our rendezvous with Elvira and the rest of the group. Previously, I'd made arrangements for any of the group who wished to extend their exploration of Venice to stay on with me and travel back by train. The rest could return to the hotel with her. I could tell that the long day in the sun had worn many of them out. They were ready to return to a shower in the hotel and relax in the air conditioning. Three students chose to stay on with me, though. We returned to the square for some photos, and then decided to take the elevator up the Campanile, or bell tower, for its views of Venice. The panorama of the world's most beautiful city laid out beneath us was exhilarating. I could feel it inject fresh life and energy into the kids and myself. When we first arrived top, one student pointed out the massive bronze bells above our head. They asked if they would ring while we were up there and I said I doubted it. At 6:30 pm, I was proven loudly and clamorously wrong. The ringing was deafening, but we were all laughing at the hilarity of the situation.

The Campanile, or bell tower, and my three travelers who took me up on the option of an extended, evening tour of Venice
The kids and I began a slow, evening tour of Venice. I had wanted to show my travelers what Venice was like after the hordes of day trippers and cruise ship passengers were gone. Our stated objective was to visit the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, but it ended up being too far of a walk from our starting point. We did explore quiet squares, bustling waterfronts, and streets shaded by the slanting sun of early evening. We enjoyed a dinner on a waterfront cafe, watching people cross the bridge or stroll along the streets. We then boarded our train, and headed off towards Treviso and the rest of our group. It was an extra taste, a dessert of sorts, to our grand finale of our tour of Italy -- my favorite city in my favorite country, Venice.

As the darkness descended on our ride back, I knew the memories of my students would forever be lit up by their magical week in Italy. Before I left, I wasn't sure how I would enjoy leading a student group overseas. Normally, I don't take guided tours and prefer individual travel, instead. True, we did not always get to spend as much time at every place I wanted -- nor to see everything I hoped to show them. Deep inside, though, I knew one of my goals was to open up their eyes to the world out there. I wanted them to get a taste of overseas travel, to experience a different culture. It was every bit the success I had hoped for. What I hadn't expected, though, was the warm glow it gave me to see their joy, wonder, and excitement light up their faces. Through them, my heart experienced the same magic they were feeling.

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:23 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Gentlemen (and Women) of Florence and Verona

A Day of Renaissance Splendor and Art

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A typical Florentine scene...light reflecting off the water and one of the city's bridges
Day 7: Florence and Verona
Our days were winding down, with only two days of sightseeing left. We started off the morning with a quick drive from the spa town of Montecatini, where we'd been staying, into Florence. We began our tour in the Piazza del Duomo. The soaring Gothic front of the Duomo was richly decorated with statues, marble carvings, and brightly-colored mosaics. Popes frowned down on the square which was thronged with visitors, locals, and the occasional truck that honked its way through the crowds, doubtless hoping to annoy some tourists while taking a dubious shortcut through the narrow streets of this Renaissance era city. Our guide collected us together and pointed out the important sights and details. The overwhelming facade is often called Neo-Gothic for its intricate patterns and detail. We then moved across the square to the smaller Baptistry building, whose doors are a masterpiece of bronze scenes from the Bible carved by Lorenzo Ghiberti. It is one of those oddities that what you see in Italy is sometimes a replica. What we were seeing in the square was a replica, and the originals that took Ghiberti 21 years to carve were safely tucked away in a museum. It is an odd feeling, as you wonder, "Should I take a picture or not?"

The Neo-Gothic facade of the Duomo
The guide then had us step off into a corner of the square to get a good look at the Duomo's crowning glory, it's brick dome completed in 1463 by Filipo Brunelleschi, and is the largest brick one in the world. Many thought he was insane for attempting to creat such a large, unsupported space. They were sure it would come crashing down, and that is unique system of an inner dome and outer one would not work. I teach my students a lesson about this achievement of Renaissance engineering, so it was inspiring to see it in person. In this case, Brunelleschi's dome IS the original...not tucked away somewhere like his arch-rival Ghiberti's accomplishment.

Brunelleschi's architectural masterpiece -- the largest brick dome in the world
From there, we walked to the Piazza Della Signoria, which was the heart of Florence during its transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The Palazzo Vecchio dominates the square, with its slender, castle-like bell tower rising from its front. The palace was completed in 1322 and sits in splendor amidst numerous famous works of art and bustling throngs of tourists. Here many of the Renaissance's most famous statues seem almost randomly placed. The Fountain of Neptune draws your eye, celebrating the naval victories of its rulers, the most famous of which were the Medicis -- those renowned patrons of the arts. Almost as an afterthought, you notice there stands Michaelangelo's David, looming aloof and satisfied in its perfection above the crowds. This is a copy, though, as the original reins in honor in the nearby Academia Museum. Many others tucked under the Loggia dei Lanzi are originals, including Jean de Boulogne's Hercules Beating the Centaur Nessus (1599), and his Rape of the Sabine Women (1583) -- which isn't nearly as X-rated as it sounds. Another teacher and I remarked on the Menelaus Supporting the Body of Patroclus, a nearly 2,000 year old "copy" of a Hellenistic era original.

Michaelangelo's David stands aloof above the crowds in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence
From there, we walked to the famous Ponte Vecchio, the only Medieval or Renaissance bridge to survive the devastation of WW II. A classic scene is Florence is of its bridges lined up and the glow of Tuscan sunshine reflecting off the water. Once again, there were throngs of tourists here and in all of Florence. Those who know me as a traveler recall that I do my best to visit places when the crowds are at a minimum. I felt bad that my students were getting a look at Florence only during school its most bustling time and not when it was quieter, and they could take their time and contemplate what they were seeing. But that is the nature of a tour. The more sights you can pack in, the more alluring it becomes. Besides, hadn't they tossed a coin in Rome's Trevi Fountain ensuring they will be back to visit Italy at a more leisurely pace? I would like to come back to Florence one day in the off-season, and spend more time savoring the places we only sipped at on our itinerary.

The interior of Santa Croce church
At this point, our group split to utilize the hour and a half free time as they wished. I made sure each group of students was accompanied by an adult. I tagged along with the last group to depart, a half dozen headed to Santa Croce, led by my fellow chaperone, Mr. Barkhurst. I had actually been here briefly on my one visit to Florence, decades ago. It was nice to take my time and pace around the interior of the 13th century church. Many, many famous Italians are buried inside, including Michaelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Ghiberti, and Donatello. The floor of the church is a mosaic of marble tombstones, and nearly everywhere you walk, a famous Italian lies buried beneath your feet. Although the altar and stained glass windows are beautiful, the focus of Santa Croce is on the tombs. All are beautiful in the simplicity or splendor. The vast, dimly-lit interior seemed empty compared to the thronged squares,and was a peaceful breath of fresh air in a frenzied day.

The tomb of Galileo inside Santa Croce
After lunch, we boarded the bus and headed northeast. Four hours away, our destination of Venice awaited. However, one of the other groups on the tour proposed a side trip to Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet. My group sportingly agreed to pay the 20 Euros for the excursion -- even after they had vetoes our earlier suggestion of a walled, hilltop town, San Gimignano. We ended up with about an hour and a half in Shakespeare's setting for his most famous play. Medieval walls and gates still surround parts of the city. It's streets are a colorful blend of Renaissance era palaces, churches, towers, and pretty pastel-colored buildings. After visiting the courtyard reputed to be the home of Juliet, and taking pictures of her balcony, the kids took turns being photographed touching the heart of a bronze statue of Juliet. The history of these sights is dubious, but as with all Shakespeare, it is the feeling that they evoke that is important. Once again, we fragmented for about 45 minutes of free time. The group I chaperoned made an obligatory gelato stop (my favorite flavor -- and a great word to say in Italian -- is Straciatella). After taking pictures in the atmospheric streets, especially if the 2,000 year old Roman amphitheater (the third largest, after the Colosseum), we reboarded the bus for the drive to the Venice area.

The streets of Verona are colorful and historic
It was hard to believe at this point that we had only one day of sightseeing left. My students had been wonderful. All the adults on the trip praised them for their behavior. You could tell they were equally amazed that our time had flown by so fast. Despite all the wonders and beauty we had seen, I assured them that Venice -- La Serenissima -- would be a fitting finale to our trip.
Is this really Juliet's balcony? Like Shakespeare himself, it makes a good story

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:32 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Me in Cinque Terre

I really was there!

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I am adding this intermediate photo to my blog because I accidentally un-clicked the Notify Subscribers button on my Cinque Terre post

Click here to read the Cinque Terre entry

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:45 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Sunny, Seaside Cinque Terre

A Small Group Heads for the Coast While the Others Visit Pisa

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The pretty harbor of La Spezia, from where we set out on our day trip to Cinque Terre

Day 6: Cinque Terre (or Pisa)

When I set up the tour itinerary, I had made Pompeii a mandatory excursion. Pisa I kept as optional, though. About 2/3's of the travelers signed up for it. The other teacher would lead that group, while I took responsibility of the rest. The Pisa group said they had a great time and enjoyed it a lot. For the rest of us, we had discussed what we would do on this free day. One proposal I made early on was to take a day trip to Cinque Terre -- a scenic collection of coastal villages. Hiking paths run along the hills above the villages, and boats cruise the coast. A couple of the adults were leery of the hiking, so we settled on a boat ride which stopped in all the villages. It was a hop on, hop off, ferry schedule. So, we could get off for awhile, check out the village, and then board the next one going up the coast. When we reached Monterosso, we could take the local train back to, where we began in La Spezia. I bought the train tickets the night before, and looked up the ferry schedule online to get an idea of what we were in for.

Cruising along the Italian seacoast
Everything worked like a charm. We caught our first train, and after an hour changed trains in Viareggio. The next one was shorter, and we were soon in La Spezia, the pretty port town where the ferry route began. The tourist information office gave us an updated schedule and map to find the docks. We bought our tickets, and after a short wait, boarded the ferry, the kids selecting the upper deck for the open views on all sides. The day was a beautiful, sunny one. The sea breeze cooled the warm day -- perfect weather for a boat ride!

Churchs and Castles -- or buildings that were a little of both, commanded the coastal hillsides
The cruise along the Italian coast was gorgeous, with steep, green cliffs diving abruptly down to translucent blue waters. Castles and towers staked out commanding views, as did churches. The villages were often hidden in the folds of the hills. As we rounded a corner, they would unfold colorfully in slow motion. Bright yellows, pastel reds and tans, and gleaming white buildings gave each village or town a unique, but related face. It was as if each were a cousin to the other, showing a clear family bloodline in its features, but recognizably different.

Portovenere, named after the Roman goddess of beauty and love, Venus
Our first stop was at Portovenere, a lovely village named after Venus, the Roman goddess of love. We disembarked and walked along the waterfront, looking for a quaint cafe with a breezy view to have lunch. We watched the locals and tourists amble along the walkway, the kids being scandalized by the skimpiness of fashionable Italian swimwear. The yachts of the wealthy caught our eyes, and we settled into our seats enjoying the relaxed pace of Cinque Terre.

Beautiful, Cinque Terre scenery on a sunny day
At the next stop, Riomaggiore, we decided to let the kids wade in the Mediterranean Sea. We followed the rocky path to the rocky beach, and the kids gingerly took off their shoes or sandals to wade in up to their calves. We took some pictures, wondered at how the sunbathers could lay out on rocks and boulders, and then packed up to catch the next ferry. The next village in line, Corniglia, has too steep and rocky of an inlet for the ferry, so we just took pictures as we sailed by. We also did not get off at Manarola, but decided to make a gelato stop at Vernazza.

Wading in the historic Mediterranean Sea
Vernazza was one of my favorites, but honestly, all Cinque Terre are quaint gems of towns. There is a tiny arc of muddy beach, protected by a rocky spit of land. Kids dive from cliffs into the deeper pools, while buildings cling precariously to every level space available. Towers sprout up here and there in town, and the buildings are bedecked in beautiful colors that vibrantly throw back the sunlight. All of the kids loved Italian ice cream, or gelato, and some set out to try every flavor, which necessitated multiple indulgences over the course of one day.

A stop for gelato in beautiful Vernazza
Our time in Vernazza ended too soon, and we sailed off to our final stop, the largest of the Cinque Terre, Monterosso. Since we'd been pushed along by the ferry schedule (always wanting to catch the next ferry after disembarking) we promised ourselves to take our time and linger in our final stop. We walked through the town, poking into black and white striped Genovese churches, checking out souvenirs, and buying refreshments. We saw frequent trains whizzed by on the hillside overhead, so we were in no hurry. It was a fitting end to a relaxing, beautiful day on Italy's sea coast. The sun shined brightly throughout, the breezes kept it from getting too hot, and the kids were wonderfully behaved. Their excitement at the sights amplified the pleasure the adults were feeling, too. After a steady diet of history on the tour, Cinque Terre was a tasty dessert for the eyes -- a whole new flavor of Italy for my travelers to sample.
Beautiful Monterosso is a lovely place to stroll around

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:25 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

Pompeii and the Pearl that is Assisi

Day 4 & 5: Tour Highlights on Back-to-back Days

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The kids enjoy the view from atop a tower in Assisi's castle, Rocca Maggiore

Day 4: Pompeii

We were on the bus early the next morning for our day trip to Pompeii. When I set up this itinerary with EF Tours, I made the Pompeii excursion mandatory for my travelers. More than a decade ago, I went to both Pompeii and nearby Herculanaeum, two Roman cities preserved by the ash or lava of Mt. Vesuvius' eruption. I remember wandering its Roman streets and wanted my students to have the same experience. On the ride down, I pointed out hilltop towns to my students, explaining how the chaos, warfare, and piracy of the Middle Ages had caused towns and villages to move up the slopes for protection. Elvira pointed out the mountaintop abbey of Monte Cassino. As she told the students about its tragic story during WW II, and the tremendous loss of life that happened there, I knew then she was a fellow history buff. Upon arrival, we had lunch before exploring Pompeii. More pizza! At least in Italy, pizza is local cuisine, so I can't be accused of dining American when I eat it!

Walking the streets of Pompeii, a Roman city buried by Mt. Vesuvius' eruption

Our local guide for Pompeii was my favorite of the trip. He was a funny gentleman who looked to be in his 60s. He was a veteran guide whose son was now a guide in Pompeii, too. He spoke with the right pacing to keep the kids interested and engaged with what we were seeing. He had humorous stories, interjected jokes and plays on words, and asked them questions. We began our our near one of the barracks for troops, and proceeded to the small Roman theater. From there, we wound our way along Pompeii's streets, as he pointed out the stepping stones for crossing the street, the ruts left by wagon wheels, and the row upon row of thermopalia -- Roman fast food joints. We explored the Roman baths, and our guide explained the various hot, warm and cold pools. He took us by the villas of weather citizens, pointing out the tiled mosaics still surviving at their entrances. We stopped by a drinking fountain, which archeologists hooked up again to provide water from aqueducts running from the hillsides. It was cool to watch the kids fill up their water bottles and think they were drinking from the same source the ancient Romans did.

Refilling a water bottle with water from the same source that Romans drank

The highlight was when we entered the Roman forum, with its temple to Jupiter. The row of columns stretching away on either side, along with the steps leading up to the temple, gave the students an idea of the panorama of a Roman town center. We unfurled the Orange Middle School banner and took pictures with the forum and Mt. Vesuvius in the backdrop. Unlike other guides, he sensed the group wanted to indulge in photography here and let us take about 10 minutes to get our fill of group and family shots, selfies, or pictures of the ruins themselves. Despite the heat of the day, the students' faces were bright with excitement. You cold tell they knew they were experiencing an important slice of history that day. Our guide walked us over to some gated off buildings that housed some of the famous plaster casts of the people who died and were buried by Vesuvius' ash that fell three feet deep. He explained that, over the centuries, the ash hardened to rock forming cavities in the shape of the person who lay there. He pointed out a cast of a person who had drawn his tunic up over his mouth in attempt to not be suffocated by the ash and poison gases. We saw the guard dog strangled by his own collar as the ash level rose past the length of his chain, his four legs frozen for centuries in mid-flailing. We saw the stack upon stack of plastic boxes that contained the bones collected from the more than 2,000 people who died at Pompeii. We finished our tour with the temple of Apollo, and then the stop at the obligatory gift shops. Many of the kids wanted souvenirs from this amazing site, so I kept my curmudgeonly instinct in check and indulged them.

Gathering for a group picture in Pompeii's Forum

Back in Rome, I was able to meet up with my friend Andrea, who lives about an hour outside the city. We had dinner and talked for a couple hours. It had been about five years since I'd seen him, so it was good to catch up.

Rocca Maggiore, Assisi's 12th century castle, looks above the scenic hillside town

Day 5: Assisi

As amazing as Pompeii was, many of the travelers would feel this one outdid it as the highlight of the trip. I had never been to Assisi before. I knew we were to visit the Basilica of St. Francis, but I had no idea what was here besides the church. Assisi is a picturesque medieval town town perched on a hillside, with a gorgeous view of the Tuscan countryside. It's winding streets are cobble stoned and snake up,and down hill past churches, towers, and buildings from ancient times, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. From the moment we passed through its arched gates, my group was taking pictures of the beautiful views and quaint town. Elvira brought us to the town square, gave us our bearings, and then cut us free for almost two hours to wander the town. She pointed out the highlights we might want to see, along with the location of good lunch stops.

The picturesque streets of medieval Assisi

I took a group of kids uphill to explore the medieval castle that overlooked the town. The view from up top was spectacular, and would only get better as we clambered around inside the fort's stone walls and ascended its towers. The kids had a blast exploring the castle, as I knew they would. What child doesn't dream about poking around castle dungeons, running up circular stairs to mighty guard towers, and finding secret passages to other sections of the castle? They were so excited they would break out and run from one place to another, and I had to hurry along to keep up with them. Their faces were flushed with joy and the pictures I have of them show that they were living out their dreams at that moment.

A steep climb led to every kid's fantasy: a medieval castle to explore!

Once we'd explored every foot of the 12th century castle, we headed back downhill through the medieval streets. We peeked inside the Roman Temple of Minerva, which was converted in the Middle Ages to a church. We decided to skip a full lunch and tided ourselves over with heaping servings of gelato. Some students bought souvenirs as we slowly wound our way along the beautiful streets to the Basilica of St. Francis. There we met the rest of the group and our local guide for a tour of the 13th century church built in honor of the saint who started the Franciscan order of monks. It is built on three levels, with the lowest containing the crop holding the friar's tomb and relics of his life. Frescoes on the walls illustrated the life of the saint, some from the Middle Ages, some from the Renaissance or later. We ended in the upper church where the soaring Gothic ceilings were bright with frescoes and the windows gleamed colorfully with stained glass. Our local guide did a good job of recounting St. Francis' life and pointing out the church's decoration and their meaning and significance. It was a happy group of travelers who filed back onto the bus. Assisi was a pearl of a surprise in the middle of our itinerary. As the week continued, more and more of the kids would say it was one of their favorite places we would visit.

The 13th century Basilica of St. Francis

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:26 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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