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Pompeii and the Pearl that is Assisi

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

sunny 88 °F

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, looms 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

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