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Italy

Old Destination, New Frontier

My first trip as a group leader for student travel

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This will be a whole new type of travel for me. About a year and a half ago, EF Tours contacted me and asked if I'd be interested in leading student educational tours abroad. I had been kicking the idea around in my head since I became a school teacher five years ago. The logistical planning always deterred me, though. How would I know which hotels, buses, guides, etc., to trust? And what about liability? Yikes! So, when EF Tours gave me a chance to do what I wanted -- the chance to open my students' eyes to the world -- without having to worry about the logistics, I jumped at the chance.

So, here I am, more than a year later, getting ready to take a group of 10 students, along with 10 parents or grandparents, to Italy for just over a week. Another experienced traveller teacher is going along, too, in our group. Since we have only 22 total, EF Tours is combining us with two smaller groups. Both are of high schoolers, one from the Chicago area, the other from Houston. My kids will all be going into the 7th, 8th, or 9th grades. We will be the "younguns" of the combined group. Hopefully, I've prepared them well on what to expect and what we will see. Am I nervous? Strangely, no. Maybe it is the more than 1:1 ratio in our group of adults to students. Maybe it is that the adults going along, and to some degree the students, are experienced travellers themselves. And of course, this will be my fourth trip to Italy.

So, follow along with me on my blog over the course of the next week. See what happens when Worldwidemike takes middle schoolers abroad. Hopefully, it will be an amazing, positive, and even life-changing trip for my kids. For now, it is time to say "Arrivederci!" As I finish up those last-minute errands before a trip...

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Posted by world_wide_mike 07:30 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Bell'Italia: Leading Students on an Educational Tour

Our First Three Days

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Rome's most famous site, the Colosseum

Despite this being my fourth visit to Italy, it was a first in a number of ways. I was taking a group of middle school students and their parents as part of an educational tour. One additional teacher, 10 students, and 10 parents and grandparents made up our group. We had booked the trip through EF Tours, the leader in educational travel. They handled all the money, logistics, and guides. We had a local, Italian tour director who accompanied us from start to finish. EF Tours also arranged local, onsite guides for just about every day of sightseeing. My job would be to help coordinate things for our group, make sure all of my travelers were where they were supposed to be, and fill in the holes on our free time.

Sound simple? Well, everything went smoothly, but it was a lot of work. Since our group filled up only half a bus, we combined with two smaller groups to make roughly 45 travelers. Both groups were high schoolers, one of mostly boys from Houston and another of mostly girls from Des Plains, Illinois. Instances of drama between the groups were rare. My group got along with the Houston boys really well, and did okay with the Illinois girls, for the most part.

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The travel group ready to board our flight: 2 teachers, 10 students, 10 parents/grandparents

Day 1: Flight to Rome


Our group gathered at Port Columbus about two hours before our initial flight to Detroit. Two of my adults had designed tour T-shirts, so we all showed up matching. An experienced group leader had recommended this as a way to make it easier to keep together in the airport, through security, and so on. Everyone seemed in high spirits for a week of sightseeing in Italy. Of course, can you blame them? I had picked this tour because it visited some of the highlights of Roman, Medieval,,and Renaissance history that I taught them in 7th grade. All five of my 8th graders were my former students, as was one of my 7th graders. Throughout the trip, I would quiz them and review what I'd taught them. It was gratifying to see how much they remembered of my class.

Our layover in Detroit flew by fairly fast, and before we knew it, we were lining up to board our flight to Rome. Delta treated us great, allowing us to board as a group right after their first class and priority flyers. Our Boeing 767 had a great selection of movies with screens in the setbacks, so most of the kids and adults occupied themselves watching movies. Most of us tried to sleep. Most of us were about as unsuccessful as I was. Despite having my earplugs and eye mask, I couldn't sleep one minute. I watched a movie, tried to sleep, gave up, watched another movie, read some, and generally passed the time as uncomfortably as I usually do on planes. Despite the lack of sleep, most of my travelers were excited and seemed fully awake as we deplaned in Rome.

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Ostia Antica, Rome's ancient port on the Mediterranean Sea

Day 2: Arrival in Rome


We went through passport control and reclaimed our luggage without a hitch. We were met by an EF Tours Rep immediately, We had known for a couple weeks that we would be the first of the three groups arriving. The second group was scheduled in two hours later, and the third three hours after us. We also had known for months that our first day in Rome was a "free day," with no scheduled sightseeing. In our monthly meetings leading up to our departure, we had cobbled together a list of sights we wanted to see that were not part of our tour. I had finally heard back from our local tour guide, Elvira, a week prior to departure. I let her know in no uncertain terms we did not want to start our week in Italy sitting around in an airport for three hours after having just spent the previous day sitting around on planes and in airports! The EF Rep said that we would have to wait for the other groups, though. I insisted she contact Elvira and that this plan was not acceptable to us. She called Elvira and we went back and forth on the phone for a bit. She finally agreed to pick us up and take us somewhere at 11:00, which meant everyone had about 45 minutes to change clothes, grab some food, or change money.

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The Roman bath complex at Ostia -- check out the great mosaic floor of the tepidarius (warm room)

Elvira and I picked out Ostia Antica -- the Mediterranean port for Ancient Rome -- as our sight to see while we were waiting for the others to arrive. The Rome airport is only about 10 minutes from the site, and it would be a nice introduction to Roman antiquities. As it turned out, the second group was running late, so we would have an hour of wandering around the sprawling site before we had to be back on the bus. Elvira said she was not permitted to guide us through Ostia, so we made do with reading the signs, and wandering amidst the ruins. I felt I could personally have done so much more to allow my students to get more out of it if I'd been given a chance to prepare for the visit. As it was, most were impressed with their first, up-close look at 2,000 year old ruins. The theater and Roman baths impressed them the most, I think. It was hot and sunny. You could see the vitality draining out of them by the end of our hour. Although I could have wandered there for hours, more than a few were happy to get back into the bus' air conditioning. Everyone said they enjoyed the visit, though, and were impressed with Ostia.

After swinging by the airport to pick up the Houston group (the girls from Illinois had missed their connection and were still in Madrid), we headed into Rome. As we drove through the city, Elvira pointed out the sights. We saw the city's ancient walls, the dome of the Vatican, and a number of churches. We stopped outside of the sprawling, brick shell of Diocletian's Baths. The frigidarium, or cold bath, was converted into a Christian church in the 1500's by order of Pope Pius IV. Some of the combined group went inside the church to check out its frescoes, while those whose stomachs were growling sought out one of the restaurants or cafes for dinner. From there, we headed to the hotel to check in. After dinner, I organized a search for a local gelato place based on the recommendation of the hotel desk. The placed ended up being closed, and a couple dozen students trekked back to the hotel disappointed. I assured them it had not been an elaborate trick to tire them out so they would sleep!

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The Vatican and St. Peter's -- simultaneously the smallest country in the world, yet the largest church in the world

Day 3: Rome


The next morning, after breakfast, we began our exploration of Rome. First, it was off to the Vatican. We met our local guide and were introduced to the Whisper technology EF Tours would employ. Each student was given a cellphone-sized receiver to be worn on a lanyard around their neck. Ear buds would allow them to hear the guide, who would speak into a microphone he or she wore. In theory. Unfortunately, the device was not perfect. Sometimes, we could hear the guide well enough. Other times, it was distorted. I'm not sure if some guides were better at knowing where to wear the microphone than others, or what. Our Vatican guide often sounded like Charlie Brown's teacher, "Whant, wah wah wah..." We urged the students who had the most difficulty to stick close to the guide so they could hear her voice without the earbuds.

As an aside, I want to take a moment to praise the 10 students I brought on this trip. They were excited, engaged, and eager to learn from our guides. Sure, from time to time, some would get tired, worn out or cranky. Heck, most adults would struggle to stay focused on the long days under the hot, Italian sun. Our kids persevered like champs, though. All of the adults who went along on the trip praised my 12-14 year olds over and over. I was so proud of them. They did a great job representing their school and parents.

An interesting insight for me was comparing the kids' experiences with my own. Often, their novice traveler eyes were open with wonder, while my own veteran ones looked at a situation differently. Our Vatican tour was the prime example. Many kids considered it a highlight of the week, while I mentally picked out ways it could have been better. After assembling outside the gates and bypassing the several hour line (score one for EF Tours), our guide led us onto a rooftop terrace where she explained what we would see. She then led us into the Vatican Museum, which was a crush of people. We would spend the next 20-30 minutes elbow to elbow, weaving our way through the museum's corridors towards the Sistine Chapel. Our group of 40+ was slowly stretched and intermingled with the mass of humanity all seeking to glean something from the works of art we were walking past. I stayed near the back to make sure no one got left behind, which stretched the range of the Whisper Device. The audio cut out as she rounded corners. Eventually, we were ushered into the Sistine Chapel. All the guides stopped talking and visitors were shushed as everyone gazed upward in awe at Michaelangelo's masterpiece. It was inspiring to see, even though it was my second time.

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The fountains in St. Peter's Square, designed by Bernini and Moderno in the 1600s

Next, our guide led us into St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church in the world. Here, the crowd was much less oppressive, and we gathered around her as she pointed out the sights. I was surprised and pleased to see Michaelangelo's La Pieta, which I teach the kids about in my Renaissance Art lesson. I posted it out to students, reminding them of the lesson, and letting them drink in the glory of his work. His ability to render emotion in Mary's face and feeling in his depiction of Jesus' drained, lifeless body as he is cradled in her arms, is stunning. After the church, we entered the vast and impressive square of St. Peter's. Unfortunately, the guide hurried us through this architectural masterpiece, giving little time for pictures. Everyone scrambled after her, but you could see in their eyes and body language that they wanted to linger and take photos. I was furious when we reached the destination of her frantic march: a gift shop. I laced into Elvira who was awaiting us there. I told her it was unacceptable for us to be rushed past one of the world's wondrous sights to get to shopping. We were then given an hour and a half to shop, eat lunch, or (like I urged students to do) return to the square for photographs.

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Designed to hold 50,000 spectators, the Colosseum is one of Rome's most amazing sights

We reboarded the bus and headed next to the Colosseum. There, we would have a different local guide for our visit to Rome's most famous sight and the Forum. Our guide led us inside the amphitheater and found a secluded corridor to give the kids a 25 minute review of Ancient Rome. I wasn't convinced of the need for this and would have rathered she jumped right in to talk about the Colosseum. This guide was better, though. She varied her pacing, spiced it up with questions to the kids, and made it more engaging than the last. She then led us up stairs and pointed out how the Colosseum was used as a quarry for building material through the centuries after the fall of Rome, during the Middle Ages. Finally, we ascended a final set of steps and Rome's greatest amphitheater -- and the inspiration for modern stadiums today -- was laid out before us. The kids were suitably impressed, and snapped and posed for pictures at a rapid pace. I unrolled the vinyl banner with the words "Orange Middle School" I'd had made and the students lined up holding it for a shot with the Colosseum in the background. You could tell the kids enjoyed the Colosseum through their smiles and wide eyes.

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The travelers pose in front of the panorama that is the Colosseum

Next, we were led into the Roman Forum for an abbreviated, introductory tour, with 45 minutes of free time afterwards. I offered to take the OOMS group on a continuation of the tour, and they all accepted. I pulled out my DK Eyewitness guidebook for reference, and then launched into a half hour exploration of Rome's downtown district. I ended with a visit to the House of the Vestal Virgins, one of my favorite places in the Forum. The peristyle garden lined with statues of various priestesses of Vesta is a quiet, atmospheric place that allows visitors to picture what life may have been like.

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The travelers listen to our guide talk about the Roman forum

After a delicious pizza dinner (a description I consider to border on redundant), we drove towards the Piazza Navona. We disembarked and walked towards the Piazza di Spagna, and the nearby Trevi Fountain. Unfortunately, it is under reconstruction. There is a small fount for visitors to toss their coins over their shoulder in hopes of a return to Rome. It was getting late, which meant by the time we arrived at my favorite Roman building, The Pantheon, it was closed. I talk to my students extensively about what I consider Rome's greatest engineering marvel, so this was a true disappointment. We took pictures outside, but nothing can compare with a visit to the inside and staring up at the largest concrete dome the world had seen for 2,000 years. I felt bad for those who had been my students as they clustered looking up at, wanting to be inside. If there had been a guard instead of merely locked doors, I would have offered him hundreds of dollars to open it up to them. Finally, we walked to the Piazza Navona where Elvira pointed out the best gelato shop. Our group took advantage of it, assuaging any disappointment with excellent, Italian ice cream.

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The Pantheon -- believed by many to be Rome's greatest architectural achievement

Our sightseeing was capped off with our first "add on." All three groups had agreed to a night tour of Rome at the cost of 10 Euros each. We boarded our bus and whipped around various parts of Rome, taking in the sight of the ancient and medieval sites illuminated by floodlights. I pointed out Trajan's Column to the kids as we passed it -- another monument I talk about extensively in class. We disembarked only once, to get a picture of the St. Peter's lit up at night. Finally, our long day of drinking in Rome's ancient glory was over. We headed back to the hotel to rest up for our next day.

we embarked on our first "add on" to our tour

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:46 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The 13th century Basilica of St. Francis

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:26 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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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Beautiful Monterosso is a lovely place to stroll around

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

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)

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?"

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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)

Italy's Grand Finale: Venice

The Most Beautiful City in the World

sunny 87 °F

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Spring in La Sernissima

Easter in Venice

semi-overcast 58 °F

Have you ever taken a roundabout way to get somewhere because it is cheaper? Like a LOT cheaper? Well, with only a week plus a few days for spring break, time is a precious commodity when you're traveling internationally. I really, really wanted to see Croatia. In fact, I've been wanting to visit the coastal Eastern European country for decades. Looking at airfares, they were all $1,400 or so. On a whim, I checked the fare from Toronto, because every city I looked at departing from in the U.S. had ridiculous prices. Half price...less, actually! Would I be willing to drive 5-6 hours to Toronto to fly to Croatia? You betcha!

So, now you're saying how does Venice fit into this picture, you big cheapskate? Well, it was even cheaper to fly into Venice and simply drive to Croatia, which isn't far away. So, the trip would start off with two nights in Venice, and end the final night there, as well. To me, Venice is the most beautiful city in the world. This would actually be my fourth trip there. Last year, I led a group of 22 students and parents there as part of an educational tour. If I can save money by traveling through Venice, I'll seize the opportunity and chance to visit one of my most favorite places in the world. So, it was slightly groggy from 6 hours in a car from Columbus to Toronto, and another six or so by air to Paris, and finally to Venice.l

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Hello, Venice, my old friend....

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Here's how you park your "ride" in Venice...

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Public transport in Venice...

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Near the Rialto Bridge

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Venice's beautiful churches, like this one -- the famous St. Mark's cathedral

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:03 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Why I Love Venice

A Photo Love Affair

sunny 60 °F

"La piu bella citta del monde" -- the most beautiful city in the world, is how I have always described Venice. It is an artist's dream. Every corner is picturesque...a blend of pastel-colored Renaissance era buildings, quaint arching bridges, and panoramas of sky and sea catching your eye at every turn. No traffic sound of horns, gargling engines, or holed mufflers. Just the swish of the water and the dull throb of boat engines moving people and products about this bustling city.

Venice does not have a "laundry list" of sights to see like its older sister Roma does. Instead she unabashedly flirts and shows off her loveliness at every turn of street and canal. This little sister took over and flexed her muscles as her elder declined, becoming one of the medieval era's most powerful cities. She was rich beyond the comprehension of her dowdy European cousins, Paris, London, Bruges. She inspired a love amongst her citizenry that made them fiercely defend her against Christian and Muslim Turk rivals. History slumbers on every corner as you walk through Venice.

So, without further ado, this History teacher and former art student presents you with his pictorial dissertation on why he loves Venice....

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A misty start to an early morning...

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Churches reign regally on the seascape that is Venice...

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The Queen of queens, St. Mark's Cathedral...

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Dusky, gold-flecked, mysterious...the sonorous interior of La Serenissima's greatest church...

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Brought back as booty by the callous veterans of the 4th Crusade, this bronze four-horse chariot team, is a 2,000 year old masterpiece of Greek style art...

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The sun strikes a rosy glow from the pink stone of the Doge's (Duke's) Palace, next door to St. Mark's...

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The gilded interior of the Ducal Palace, that sumptuous tribute to the world's most unabashed oligarchy, where the rich rule...

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The armory inside the Doge's Palace, replete with weapons used to defend the Republic from the bladed medieval era to the days of gunpowder

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The Bridge of Sighs, that passageway from the Ducal Palace to the prisons, that elicited an outburst of longing for that last glimpse of their beloved city from condemned prisoners...

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Your vehicle of choice if you live in Venice is a boat...it can be overstated enough how soothing a city's sounds can be when no automobiles are around...

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The modern jostles elbow to elbow with the past in this panoply of energy, commerce, and beauty along the seacoast of northern Italy...

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I hope my visual dissertation has swayed your heart to consider Venice for a visit, one day...yes, it is expensive...yes, it lives and breathe to make euros, those modern day ducats...but it is a rare glimpse of the poetry that was the European Renaissance, and is well worth a visit...

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:41 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Italy's Amalfi Coast - the most beautiful in the world

Plus the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculanaeum, and centuries-old hilltop towns

sunny 80 °F

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Gorgeous Positano on the incredible Amalfi Coast

I don't think I'd be able to go back and write a travelog for this trip, which I took more than 15 years ago. It was my only solo trip to Italy, so far, but I think it was probably my favorite. I flew into Rome, then took a train to Naples, and the local Circumvesuvia (named after Mt. Vesuvius, which looms over the countryside) line to Sorrento. There, I rented a moped and spent a week exploring the south of Italy. I made it all the way south down to Metapontum -- the sole of the "boot" of Italy. I took lots of wonderful photos, some of which I have scanned and uploaded onto this page.

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Street scene in Pompeii - one of the most interesting ancient cities in the world to visit

===Pompeii===

One of the main reason I came to Southern Italy was to visit Pompeii and Herculanaeum -- two Roman cities that were destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Sorrento is a great place to base yourself out of to visit them (and the Amalfi coast, below). It is a pleasant, tourist-friendly town with seaside views and plenty of nice hotels.

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The Theater in Pompeii

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A Roman villa excavated in Pompeii

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Pompeii's arena, or Colosseum

===The Amalfi Coast===

In my opinion, this is the most beautiful coastline in the world. The road clings to dramatic hillsides whose cliffs sometimes dive deep down into the blue-green sea. Coastal towns seem to rise up from the sea like multi-colored wedding cakes. Castles and forts guard the rocky coastline. It seems impossible to drive without stopping every mile or so to admire the breath-taking views and drink in the amazing panorama of land, sea and town. Exploring its sights on a scooter was a perfect way to do it. It was easy to pull over and take pictures whenever something caught my eye -- which as every 50 yards or so!

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Approaching Positano along the road clinging to the cliffside of this gorgeous coastline

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Rocky beaches, tiny towns, medieval fortifications and the blue, blue sea are all part of the scenery, mile after mile

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A medieval fortification clings to a rocky point along the coast

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Sunset strikes a red hue on the hills bordering this spectacular coast

===Herculanaeum===

My last day in Italy, I visited the Roman town of Herculanaeum. Where Pompeii was covered by Mt. Vesuvius' ash, this town was covered by lava flow. It is equally well preserved, if less well known. Wandering its streets was like a dream. So many relics of the ancient days stood there under the hot sun, ready for the visitor to touch or run his hands along. The colors on the murals were vibrant, more than 2,000 years later.

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The interior of a Roman villa -- a wealthy noble's country home, with its colorful frescoes and mosaics

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I will never forget the striking colors which lay covered by lava for almost 2,000 years

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The spout of this fountain seemed to be smoking a cigar with its dry pipe projecting from its mouth

===The Southern Italian Countryside===

Rural, southern Italy is full of photogenic charms, everything from Graeco-Roman ruins (the Greeks colonized Southern Italy before the Roman conquest) to hilltop medieval fortifications to quaint villages basking in the sunshine. The week I spent zooming along the road in a moped was one of the most scenic I'd spent anywhere in the world. Each day, my command of Italian became better and I could converse easier with the welcoming, easygoing inhabitants. When I reached the Mediterranean coast in the far south, I knew I had to turn around. It was a long way back to Sorrento, and my time was running out.

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The rugged, hilly countryside of southern Italy is cut by rivers and gorges

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Visible from miles away, hilltop temples or monasteries decorate the countryside

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An ancient mode of transportation on a modern roadway greets the visitor to Southern Italy

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Terra cotta rooftops and a village church spire warmed by the afternoon sun in a Southern Italian town

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:50 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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