Hello, Chicago (Part II)

Ours is a household of picky eaters…or, perhaps I should say, particular eaters. Every single one of us has things we cannot stand, and these inedibles rarely overlap–a situation which drastically reduces the potential menu on any given day.

But traveling brings out the adventurers in us (somehow). We ate a meal prepared by Mayans in the middle of the jungle near Tulum, Mexico. We went on a food tour through Trastevere in Rome, Italy. And all 5 of us loved every moment of both experiences.

As such, when it came to planning our trip to Chicago, we immediately started Googling food tours. I read up on the “Best in Chow” tour through Chicago Food Planet and signed us up.

It was a slam dunk.

First stop, Lou Malnati’s. (Very important preface:  when one is about to embark upon a 3 hour food tour, one should probably not take one’s children to a huge breakfast. Live and learn.)

Lou’s was our first Chicago deep dish pizza ever (well, for 4 out of 5 of us). What’s not to like about buttery crust, stringy mozzarella and loads of chunky tomato sauce? Jack gave this a huge thumb’s up (even with a belly-full of breakfast…).

One good carbo-load deserves another, so our fantastic guide, Terry, walked us over to FireCakes for an old-fashioned buttermilk doughnut.

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I’m not the biggest sweet fan on the planet, but these were so terrific that I walked back to FireCakes on our last morning to pick up doughnuts and coffee for our last breakfast in Chicago.

Next stop: Al’s for tastes of an Italian beef sandwich–again, the first tastes for all but one of us.

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Clearly, Too. Much. Food. So much so that at our next stop, Theo asked for the leftovers to take with us and to hand out to folks we passed on the street who needed them.

Portillo’s is completely a Chicago legend, yet this is the one place where we did not eat a bite–but we did make some less fortunate Chicagoans very happy later on.

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Jack pretending to take a bite in order to save face with our group and our guide. A noble effort on his part, to say the least.

We walked a bit and then paused for some popcorn at Garrett Popcorn. Not sure how anyone was able to eat anything else at this point.

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The very last stop was the Cambria Hotel for a taste of the Palmer House Brownie–a dessert that made its debut at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. [Insert gratuitous plug for Erik Larsen’s outstanding book, Devil in the White City.]

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We would recommend the Chicago Food Planet’s “Best in Chow” tour in a Minnesota minute. Every single aspect of it was awesome. We rolled out of the Cambria Hotel a little after 2 pm absolutely stuffed to the gills and headed to The Field Museum.

My boys have always loved science museums. We’ve spent countless hours at the Fernbank here in Atlanta, and anywhere we go, we try to track one down (London’s Science Museum may be our all-time fave…). The Field Museum was pretty spectacular as well.

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We were stuffed and tired and sliding in to The Field with only a few hours left to explore, so we went on speed-mode.

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Inside Ancient Egypt. Tucker pretending to be a mummy.

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Underground Adventure. Going through the Shrinkerator, which shrinks you to 1/100th of your normal size and then plops you out in an underground world chock full of creepy crawlies.

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With Sue, the T.Rex.

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We wandered into the Hall of Birds somehow. (We are generally not birders…). Here, Tucker takes a photo with what Russ calls “the noblest of all birds”, the turkey.

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[Insert Fleetwood Mac/Stevie Nicks joke here.]

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We took a nice little break to see the 3-D movie entitled Waking the T.Rex. Then we entered Jurassic World, a special exhibition for which we’d paid extra.

While Jurassic World was indeed quite nifty, it was also very hot and geared for younger folks. Had we visited it 5 years ago, say, we might have been roaming the exhibit for hours. Instead, we sort of sped through it, ready to leave the heat and sit down again.

Because we’d certainly not eaten enough that day, Russ took us to dinner at Coco Pazzo. We took a much needed mid-length walk back to our hotel and settled in for the night.

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Check out Theo’s outfit. The dinosaur tube socks really pull it all together.

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We were up and at ’em on Monday morning, heading to the Sears Tower (which is actually now called the Willis Tower) in an attempt to beat the crowd.

We were not successful. The line length gave the boys ample opportunity to play the most annoying game ever invented in the history of the entire galaxy: Girl Power.

In Girl Power, my sons take turns covertly trying to touch me, and it absolutely makes me lose my mind. It doesn’t take long for the game to reach Chernobyl-levels of annoyance. Girl Power is something I’m sure we’ll laugh about at their weddings one day, but that’s a long, long time from now. About 5 minutes into it, I threatened to make the next person who touched me cry. That made the family in front of us in the line turn around, stare, and then shimmy themselves up as close to the people in front of them as possible.

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The top was shrouded by clouds while we were in line…

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This is just as creepy as it looks. Trust me.

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You could also feel the building swaying lightly. We had to wait in line for over half an hour to take the elevator back down, and by the time we stepped out of the building, I was officially motion sick.

From the Sears Tower, we walked over to the Money Museum, which was a surprise find online and also quite interesting.

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Tucker and a cube of 1,000,000 dollar bills.

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Theo atop $50,000 in coins.

The Money Museum is very interactive and has many educational–and fascinating–exhibits. We give it a big thumbs up.

We split up for a quick lunch and then cabbed it over to the Shedd Aquarium. The line to get in was absurd. Russ walked over to the Adler Planetarium to see if admission was any quicker there (which it was), so we ditched the long line and headed to outer space.

I love me some space.

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Quick true story:  When I was in 5th grade, our class was assigned a group project on the solar system. We were split into 9 groups, and each group sent one member up to front of the room to draw that group’s planet from a fishbowl. Our representative, Matt Davis, was specifically told “DON’T DRAW PLUTO.” Guess which one he drew?

Yep.

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(You have no idea how excited I am about August 21st.)

Both the planetarium and the aquarium are situated on a little jetty poking out into Lake Michigan. The view back in towards the city is pretty fabulous.

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After dinner, we walked around downtown Chicago a bit. This is one beautiful city.

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Next up, we close out Chicago by celebrating Tucker’s half-birthday (oh, and also the Fourth of July…).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello, Chicago!

“Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring.”–Nelson Algren

“Place has always been important to me, and one thing today’s Chicago exudes, as it did in 1893, is a sense of place. I fell in love with the city, the people I encountered, and above all the lake and its moods, which shift so readily from season to season, day to day, even hour to hour.”
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

There’s a slight chance this little blog thing of mine (which, I’ll admit, has been painfully neglected for the past year) could perhaps morph into a travel-ish situation…even though I’ve also neglected to post about our amazing Costa Rican adventure.

[How’s that for a teaser?]

So, Chicago.

When I was young, I won every single grade-wide spelling bee our school system had. From 4th through 8th grade, I was the Spelling Bee Queen. The grade-wide winners would then face off, Hunger Games style, to see who would advance to the State Bee with a [very, very, very slim] chance of moving on to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

We’ll ignore the fact that I misspelled the word “apparel” at the city-wide spell off.

Two years in a row.

I used to spend afternoons and evenings having my dear old mom call out spelling bee words to me from our silver-chevroned couch as I lay in thought on our deep shag carpeting, the pale yellow book of “suggested words” expertly wielded in her hands. Mackerel. Sphygmomanometer. Fugue. Ennui. This same couch, clearly carrying with it a load of maternal ennui, eventually wound up in my college apartment (and later, at the KA house in Athens).

Being an only child is a blast.

My Dad would come home from work nightly during “Bee Season” and announce: “Chicken in your car and your car won’t go? That’s how you spell CHICAGO!”

Which, obviously, isn’t correct. And which, obviously, makes little to no sense.

No wonder I never made it past the City-Wide Bee.

But I digress.

Our little family just did Chicago over the 4th of July in a grand way.

We flew up to Chicago from Atlanta via Midway and Uber-ed our way to our hotel, the Westin River North. Russ checked us in while the boys and I watched the first of many, many weddings stroll through the lobby.

It was also the weekend of the LCI Con 2017.

Y’all.

That’s the Lions International Conference–which brings us back full circle to the above-mentioned chevron couch that saw its last (most definitely not ennui-ridden) days on a fraternity house front porch at the University of Georgia. Had it not been for my Godfather (and hometown next-door-neighbor and father of the said KA who, um, inherited, the couch), I would not have known what the Lions Club was. But I did and I do and, holy moly, thems some traveling folk.

Chicago was flooded with world travelers this past weekend. Absolutely flooded. We saw tourists from Japan, China, Singapore, Ireland, Australia, Jefferson City, Missori (well, their honor band, at least…)

These world travelers inspired us, so we did our best to be as touristy as possible, which means cramming in an exorbitant amount of touristy ‘must-sees’ in a minimal amount of time (all while joyously not having to wear Lions Club vests or engage in pin swapping.)

I think we succeeded.

We threw our luggage down (All 5 of us managed carry-on only!! Victory is ours!) and walked down the street to Harry Caray’s for dinner. From there, we used the first of our 5 CityPass tickets to see/endure TILT360 on top of the John Hancock Building.

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When faced with the CityPass or ChicagoGo Pass, the CityPass wins hands-down. Trust me on this one. After about 4 hours of research (which, let the record state, involved entirely way too much math), I decided the CityPass hit the big 5 and had Fast-Pass line options and was a better bargain.

We woke up Saturday morning and headed off to the Art Institute of Chicago. Tucker adores art museums; Russ adores Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, so this was set to be a win-win situation. But first up, we must see our friends The Lions again:

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The International March of Lions in Traditional Cultural Parade Attire began lining up outside our hotel window at 7:30am. All kinds of cultural attire were represented. It was quite colorful. It was also quite entertaining.

We walked along the southern edge of Millennium Park and somehow managed to keep all children dry.

Even though it wins the dubious award of having The Most Confusing Museum Map Ever, the Art Institute of Chicago is unbelievable. It’s enormous. It’s spotless. Once we made peace with the fact that we were barely going to be able to put a dent in it, we settled down and had a blast (which included re-creations of critical scenes from Ferris Bueller.)

 

And winning the award for Weirdest Piece of Artwork We Saw is this fine gem:

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That, my friends, is a video of a person. Bathing a live duck in a bathtub. Played simultaneously on four ancient Panasonic television sets. With over 100 bricks stacked in piles in front of it.

Ok, then.

We played the Tacky Tourists at lunch, sitting on the top deck of the crusty beach bar/restaurant Castaways on the North Shore Beach.

Later that afternoon, we braved the masses and headed to Navy Pier. There is an “interactive [art] installation” by Roger Hiorns in Polk Park, the greenspace you cross to get to the pier.

His description of this piece of art says:

“The sculpture will produce giant foam clusters, which will be shaped by the wind and spread across the landscape. In this way, the artist engages with the surroundings, and blurs the lines between where the city begins and the art ends. The public is welcome to engage with the interactive installation, with the foam becoming the connective tissue between the individual and the artwork.”

In reality, it’s a giant bubble machine atop several corrugated tin cylinders sitting in a mud bog in the middle of a park overlooking a lake.

The boys loved it.

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In the interest of full disclosure, we will say it smells. Big time.

After a quick rinse-off-attempt in the fountain, we were off to find the Tall Ship Windy for an afternoon sail on Lake Michigan.

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The Tall Ship Windy is a working sailboat that cruises out on Lake Michigan for a little over an hour. One of the tours described on their website claims to be an architecture tour. I think that’s exaggerating a bit; if we were to do it again, we’d have chosen the actual architecture tour on the river. I was trying to kill two birds with one anchor: we wanted an architecture river tour, but we also wanted a boat that served drinks. After seeing boat after boat zipping down the River in front of our hotel in rapid, methodical, cramped fashion, I’d thought I’d gotten the hipper, cooler deal. It was indeed hip and cool but more attuned to the art of sailing than to the art of building. Lesson learned (but it was still a great ride!).

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Once off the boat, we headed back into town on a mission (see what I did there? shout out to The Blues Brothers) to track down a pop culture icon…

IMG_3587IMG_3583(Chicago, you’re beautiful, by the way…)

…The Billy Goat Tavern!

All you SNL fans out there will surely remember the “cheezborger…cheezborger” skit with John Belushi and Bill Murray. (Interesting fact: the SNL skit restaurant was called The Olympia Cafe but was inspired by the Billy Goat Tavern.) The Billy Goat Tavern is underground, gritty, greasy, and filled with surly locals…just like a good dive should be.

From the dark belly of a subterranean Chicago hole-in-the-wall, we then headed to the most colorful place on the planet: Dylan’s Candy Bar. You’ll want to steer clear of this place if you have sensory issues; it’s a cacophonic, rainbow-colored, child-filled, bizarre 3- leveled situation, but it also brilliantly includes a bar for the adults.

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Russ ordered an Old Fashioned, and it was a total production. Never seen a cocktail with dry ice in it before. It looked more like a potion out of Hogwarts than a drink.

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On the walk home, Tucker tried to stump a street magician.

He was not successful.

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And finally, does anyone remember these awesome candy cigarettes? They have some type of powdered sugar in them which, when puffed on just so, lets little clouds of “smoke” waft out. Obviously, these were one of the more offensive (or, at least, questionable) types of candy ever made, so the powers that be removed them from the shelves of America.

Or so we were led to believe.

Guess what we unearthed at Dylan’s Candy Bar?

The boys found them–the Lucky Strikes from my days of yore–and begged to get them. Hopefully this is the first, last, and only shot of them ever doing this (and I’m grateful no one thought to take a photo of me puffing along and laughing just as hard beside them…)

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Our first 1.5 days in the Windy City were enough to have us hooked and fired up for the hard-core touristy stuff I’d planned for the remained of the trip. Next up? Food Tour!

 

 

Happy Birthday, Mom…

What follows is the eulogy I wrote this past August for my sweet mother. Our minister read it, word for word, as the sermon at her service. She would have turned 70 today.

I think it is a fitting tribute to share these heartfelt words about her once again.

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In his 10th Holy Sonnet, the great poet, John Donne, wrote a line I’m sure we’ve all heard many times in classrooms of our past: “Death be not proud.” With these four simple words, he eloquently captured the gist of what it means to be a Christian, of what it means to have faith in the promise of resurrection. “Death be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.”

These words reflect the mystery of our faith, the mystery of faith that my mom deeply believed in. And because of this faith, she was not afraid of what was to come. Not once did anyone ever hear her voice concern or worry over her future. Indeed, she embraced each day as it dawned with gusto, her main—her only—concern being how she could help her family. And to my mom, her family was her life. And by faith was her way of living…

How else could you explain the fact that she agreed to go on a blind date way back during her senior year of college—a pairing covertly suggested by her college roommate in order to work their way around a Brumby Hall curfew? My mom’s first response to her roommate’s invitation? “Oh, with that football player guy with the glasses? Uh, I’m not sure…”

But she showed her ineffable—and often completely hidden—courage that night back in the late ’60’s when she agreed to a date with the bespectacled ball player from a tiny south Georgia town. She told me many times that her heart did a flip when she caught her first glimpse of him walking up a set of stairs to meet her. Less than 2 years later, together they would take an even more incredible leap of faith and get married. Their only child would follow soon after.

Thus began another season in her life.

Change is hard for any of us, but for those of us with faith—who believe in the promise of abundant life which our Lord has provided us—we embrace the jubilant message given to us in Ecclesiastes—the same message that is encapsulated by the popular song from my parents’ college days, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” written by The Byrds:  “to everything…there is a season…and a time to every purpose under heaven.”
 

My mom was given many purposes under heaven, and she willingly and lovingly embraced them all.
 

She was called to lead a servant’s life, and she did so selflessly, volunteering her time at school, chairing countless projects with her service sorority, watching legions of softball games, ensuring her family was fed and clothed. She steadily tackled these and many more mundane tasks with grace and humility, putting the needs of others ahead of herself every single time.
 

She was called to be a friend and what a good friend she was. Friendships with my mom ran decades deep; in fact, my parents’ next door neighbors here in Vidalia are the same neighbors who used to stay up late with them nearly 50 years ago in Athens, laughing and celebrating—perhaps playing cards or rehashing the latest football game. Friends with whom my mom has shared a cup of coffee, a round of golf, or a meal know just how loyal a friend they had. She had a true gift for making friends, and my mom’s friendships ran just as wide as they were deep; she could—and would—talk to anyone. At any time. Her personality sparkled when she met new people, and her laughter could fill up a room.

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She was called to be a wife. That courageous blind date with the football guy? That turned into a rock solid marriage that lasted 46 years. It was a rare moment indeed to find one of them without the other. Wherever they were—be it Las Vegas, Nevada or simply watching tv on Sunset Drive—they were happy just to be together. My mom radiated an invisible strength when she was next to my dad; she was her best self, confident and courageous, with him by her side. Theirs was an unshakable union, a constant companionship. Without her, my dad will never be the same.

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She was called to be a mother. She was fiercely loyal and protective of me and would defend me until her last breath; she somehow thought I was incapable of doing any wrong. She was my first—and my constant—teacher who imparted things to me that are paramount to growing up—things like how to read, how to tie my shoes, how to make amazing homemade macaroni and cheese. Her spirit of adventure would soar when we were together; on Spring Break in 1994, she decided we should bike 25 miles down a mountainside in Jamaica—just picturing that should make you smile. My mom had the kindest heart ever and a way of always making me feel safe.

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Finally—and perhaps most importantly to her—she was called to be a grandmother. Her 3 grandsons—Jack, Tucker and Theodore—made her soul shine. She would do absolutely anything for them; in fact, she once rode all the way to Atlanta and back on the same day just to watch Jack play in a baseball game. Their Baba would never turn down a game of Yahtzee, and she could be counted on to have a stash of Lays potato chips and pink lemonade waiting for them. Baba loved you three to the moon and back and would tell anyone who would listen that you were her sunshine. I want you to think of that whenever you see the sun shining brightly; I want you to remember your Baba forever and let your memories of her make you happy when skies are gray. You three were her life.

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Indeed, my mom was gifted with many holy purposes during her life—servant, friend, wife, mother, Baba—and she humbly and faithfully carried out God’s plan for her. As we are told in the book of Jeremiah, the Lord knows the plans He has for each of us; these plans are to prosper us and to give us hope for a future, the future of an eternal life with God our Father. Because of this promise, even though we deeply mourn this loss, we can find comfort and start to heal. Our faithful servant has carried out her life’s plan just as God intended her to. We can allow ourselves a sense of Peace, and we can boldly tell Death to not be proud because just “one short sleep past, we wake eternally, and death shall be no more.”
 

Alleluia. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

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5,022 miles: the grand finale

Our last full day in Rome arrived, and we were all set for a semi-private tour of the Vatican Museums, complete with access to the Bramante staircase. These tickets were some of the first I purchased when planning the trip.

Of course, in classic Herakovich style, we were 5 minutes late and missed the tour.

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There was another tour group about to leave, and we were allowed to join it. This new tour was leaving 10 minutes late because they were waiting on one last person to arrive, so we tried–and failed–to talk our way back into our original tour group. Frustration station, indeed. (Also, this second tour did not include the Bramante stairs. Bummer.)

However, our tour guide–an adorable young lady from Alabama–made up for it by being very knowledgable, fast, and funny.

The artwork inside the Vatican museums is absolutely spellbinding (and totally overwhelming).

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After the Vatican Museums, we strolled around to find a place for our last lunch. I dragged the family halfway across Rome to a restaurant I’d read about online, but once we arrived at Romeo and took a look at the menu, we bailed. Classy. (The restaurant would be lovely for a pair of grown-ups…but with 3 kids? Not so much…)

Instead, we wound up sitting outside at a sweet, little run-of-the-mill bistro that wound up being fantastic.

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Next stop: the best gelato in Rome–Fatamorgana. Search it out; it’s worth the extra cartography work.

IMG_3392IMG_3394IMG_3374Random bird stare down. We thought he was pretty funny.

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We walked our lunch off on the way back to our hotel.

(Have I told you how awesome our apartment was? Without a doubt, it was the way to go.)

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Tucker has been fascinated with magicians for awhile now. Before we’d even planned a trip to Italy, he’d searched out “magic stores” on Google and read that one of the world’s best was in Rome. So of course he was after us to visit it. I’m not in to magic–I’m a weirdo who gets spooked by it–but I am in to walking around a new city, so he and I set off for Eclectica.

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It was completely worth the hour’s diversion; the staff there spoke English and treated Tucker to several tricks he’d never seen before.

For our last night in Rome, we took a walking food tour of Trastevere.

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waiting for our guide at Piazza Farnese

If you’ve spent any time with our family, you realize that taking a foodie’s tour was risky for a family of particular eaters. We were amazed when all 3 boys decided to play along and try things. The Roman Foodie tour ranked up there with our trip to Pisa; we would do it again in a heartbeat.

First stop was a cheese shop: Coop Latte Cisternino.

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Jack–Jack, I say–tries some fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese. We didn’t tell him what it was made of (water buffalo milk). It was outstanding.

IMG_3409our guide, Diane

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From there, we ambled over to Filetti di Baccala for, duh, baccala–which is a salt-cured cod.

IMG_3441IMG_3433IMG_3428Tucker won the braveness award at this stop.

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IMG_3431“God, if I’m born again, let me be born in Rome.”

From the baccala joint, we headed to an authentic pizza place, La Renella.

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Then we took a much needed little stroll through the winding streets and alleyways of Trastevere.

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We wound up at an adorable little artisanal food shop where the boys enjoyed fresh pressed apple juice, and we had a plate of bruschetta.

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A little more walking…

IMG_3494Diane showed Jack how to use these fountains (which are everywhere in Rome) for drinking water.

IMG_3496IMG_3461this guy was sitting outside his shop, painting Converse all-stars; Tucker was highly intrigued

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Now for the main course: pastas at Trattoria de Teo–Theo’s restaurant! This hidden restaurant was the best; it’s known by the locals for having some of the best pasta in all of Rome. It did not disappoint. Chef Teo even came out to meet our Theo!

Afterwards, we took a passeggiata around the Jewish Ghetto and over to the Isola Tiberina.

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The last stop was for gelato. We were stuffed and sad to see our trip to Rome coming to a close.

IMG_3531IMG_3535IMG_3537our group at the last stop of the Roman Foodie tour

Saturday arrived, and we faced a mammoth day of travel. We arrived at the airport to discover the tickets for our flight had been reserved, but our seats had not been confirmed. This meant that the wonderful folks at Alitalia had sprinkled us throughout the plane, a situation which was not going to work on a 9+ hour flight. After a whole lot of haggling, they were able to get us somewhat together in 2 rows, in the middle of the plane, and towards the back. Thus, Alitalia achieved what we assumed would have been the rare accomplishment of making this return flight even more uncomfortable than the one we took going to Rome.

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Only 2 of the 5 screens for in-flight entertainment worked. There were 3 kids. Imagine the drama.

Also, even though the flight left Rome around 11 a.m., the Italians on the plane decided it was time to sleep, so they closed all the window shades. It was pitch black dark, crowded, cramped, and irritating. But at least they kept the wine flowing.

We hit customs at JFK, and the boys were bouncing off the walls. They kept making goofy faces at the passport recognition station thing which subsequently kept rejecting our passports. Everyone was a little edgy after 9 hours in a tin can, to say the least.

Finally, after over 16 hours of travel, we landed in Atlanta.

IMG_7933home, sweet home

I’ve had friends ask if Rome is too ambitious to tackle with young kids; to them, I say, absolutely not. Rome is nothing short of spectacular, and we cannot wait to visit it again.

5,022 miles: road trip!!

(ridiculous amount of photographs to follow…)

When we first started planning our trip to Italy, we thought we’d try to spend 4 nights in Rome and 3 nights in Florence, but once we realized that would involve switching hotels 3 times, we bagged that idea…but the notion of a day-trip kept calling our names.

After studying more train time tables than Sir Topham Hatt ever has, we decided we could get to Florence and Pisa during a day-trip, but it would be a day-trip on steroids, planned down to the very minute (no joke).

First up, the speed train from Rome to Florence, Frecciarosa. (There was a time when this bright red bullet train would have been the total highlight of the trip for a few boys who were obsessed with trains.) The train left Termini Station a little before 9; I’d ordered and printed tickets ahead of time, but that still didn’t help make maneuvering Termini any less frantic. In fact, even after the train had pulled out of the station, we were still a little worried that we were on the wrong one.

(And a side-note, from my college days on the Eurorail:  they still don’t check your tickets until you are over halfway to your destination, which always seemed a little weird to me.)

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An hour and ten minutes later, we were in Florence.

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Theo wanted to wear his new soccer jersey every. single. day.

Florence seems tiny compared to Rome. We exited the train station, looked up and saw the spire of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, and started making our way to it. I’d been here once before, but I’d honestly forgotten its magnificence.

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Getting tickets to climb the Duomo was tricky. Head to the little ticket vendor in this yellow building below which, as you can see, is not inside the church. We figured this out after we stood in line inside the church to get to the stairs to climb the dome and had to come back outside, find the ticket stand, go back inside the church and get back in line. For a family on a tight schedule, this was a little unnerving. Save yourself the time and grab the tickets right when you get into Piazza del Duomo.

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Climbing the Duomo was hard, hard work. The stairs wind up and up and up and are steeper than the stairs at St. Peter’s. Just when you get to the narrow, slanty part, the path turns into a two-way one with backpackers and other visitors climbing back down. Imagine passing someone climbing down a ladder as you were trying to climb up it. While hauling a backpack. That’s about what it was like.

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Once at the tippety-top, the view is unbelievable–though crowded. (The light was terrible at this time of day, too…).

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(The trick for dealing with crummy, too bright, almost noontime light? Switch over to black and white…)

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We climbed back down, caught our breath, and popped in to the Baptistery of St. John. Everyone knows about Ghiberti’s beautiful bronze doors, but we were equally as amazed at the mosaic on the ceiling inside.

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yes, I actually took this photo… 🙂

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those beams of sunlight coming through the windows are called crepuscular rays, and they’re kind of a big deal to catch on camera, especially in a Holy place…

We headed down to the River Arno and the Ponte Vecchio, intending to take a quick peek and then get lunch.

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Now pretty much anybody would know that to see the Ponte Vecchio, one needs to not be standing on the Ponte Vecchio. Yeah, I blew that one big time.

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boys on the Ponte Vecchio…

So we started taking pictures out over the Arno towards the bridge that is not the Ponte Vecchio…

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…and turned around to see that Theo had wandered off. He was only missing for maybe a minute or so, but it was enough to freak us all out. He did the right thing and found a police officer and stood by him until we spotted them both. Then we had to take his picture with the officer who, as it turns out, was a huge Inter Milano fan (Theo’s ever-present soccer jersey).

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After that little adventure, we needed to regroup. We found an adorable little bistro tucked into an alley way that looked out towards the Basilica of Santa Croce, the largest Franciscan church in the world. We were in a time crunch, so we didn’t get a chance to walk down to it, which was a mistake. If you have time, definitely make a stop there. (We also skipped the Uffizi; again, a must-see if you have time.)

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Next up, a trans-Florence sprint on foot to the Accademia Gallery. We’d gotten tickets ahead of time (again, a must-do) and were scheduled to visit at 1:30. We had to be on the train to Pisa by 3:24, so it was time for speed-art-viewing–actually a challenge for the boys.

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Michelangelo’s David and a Stradivari violin. Both worth more than you or I can ever imagine.

We made our way through the Accademia in what was surely record time (again, not a great thing to brag about; Florence, we owe you another visit). Afterwards, we trotted towards the train station with pit stops for gelato and to make a wish at the bronze boar.

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Jack’s 6th grade class Opera this year is The Mikado; he thought these cookie stick things were a pretty appropriate find

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disturbing on many levels, right? This mask is way creepier than the Pinocchio store (and that’s really saying something).

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It’s the Fontana di Porcellino, the famous pig statue originally created in 1634 (this one is a modern copy). Rub his snout (or jam a penny in there to see if it’ll roll into the grate below) and you’ll be assured good luck and a return visit to Florence. Rome has the Trevi Fountain for this; Florence has a huge pig in the back of an open air market. Ok, then.

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Train time, round II.

The train from Florence to Pisa was no Frecciarosa. This puppy was cramped and un-airconditioned and semi-smoky–just like the trains I remember from college. And just like we did in college, Russ brought along a bottle of wine for the journey.

Forty-eight minutes later, we were in Pisa.

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the boys’ first view of the tower; I wish this came with audio…

One of the neatest things we did this entire trip was tossing a ball around on the grounds of the Piazza dei Miracoli. A friend had suggested we bring a football (an American football, not a soccer ball), and while it was a bit of a pain to haul around, it was totally and absolutely worth it.

wait! is it? could it be? a sign for another Holy Door?

well, not exactly, but it is a Jubilee church; our Reverend Tucker was the only taker alongside me for this one: the Basilica Metropolitana Primiziale (the Duomo next to the tower)

we threw our football to these guys who were playing with their football and a quick game of kick-around followed. New Spanish friends!

Finally, on to the Tower itself. Tickets in hand, we walked up to the entrance like we knew what we were doing and like one of us was not under the age of 8. The website makes no bones about it:  you must be 8 years old to climb the Tower. Be prepared to show your passport. Theo was very, very nervous about getting denied entry (and if he couldn’t go then we’d made the decision that no one would go). But, miraculously, the guard barely even looked at our tickets before pointing to the door.

The first time I was in Pisa, the Tower was not open for climbing. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. If you go to Pisa, this is an absolute MUST.

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one of my favorite photos of the entire trip…Jack, looking out over the town of Pisa from atop its famous leaning tower

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my other favorite shot of the trip…Jack heading back down the leaning steps

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We had a train to catch, so we headed back towards the station, taking in the sunset over the Arno after we grabbed what Russ believed to be the greatest pizza we’d had in Italy.

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We arrived back in Florence with about 10 minutes to spare before our next train headed back to Rome. In the end, we’d traveled 452 miles, visited several important sites, and had probably our best day in Italy.

Go to Pisa. You will not be disappointed. Trust us on this one.

 

5,022 miles: even more Italy

Ah, Wednesday. You arrived with thunderstorms. We didn’t care.

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We headed out of our apartment towards Piazza del Popolo and its twin churches, one of which–for some reason, refurbishment, maybe?–was covered by a gigantic advertisement.

IMG_2975The trident of streets is easily seen (Via del Corso in the middle, Via del Babuino on left and Via di Ripetta on the right) but the lovely view of the twin churches (Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto) makes me never want to buy a Samsung product ever, ever again. Who does that to a church?

We walked across the Piazza and took some photos by the fountains in front of the obelisk, but the rain was getting on everyone’s nerves.

We decided to hop in to the Leonardo DaVinci museum which is tucked away on the other side of the piazza, across from the churches and Samsung ad. Everyone loved this museum. There were hands-on exhibits and models of DaVinci’s umpteen thousand machines, all divided into sections representing the 4 elements of life (air, water, earth, fire) so our Dan Brown fans were thrilled, of course.

Afterwards, we walked back across the piazza and broke the cardinal rule of dining in Rome:  never eat around a monument; however, Rosati wound up being a pleasant surprise. We sat outside under the awnings and were given fuzzy bright red blankets to wrap up in. Watching folks scamper across the piazza in the rain while we were bundled up and enjoying a $6 bottle of Roccameno that wasn’t half bad (yes, it was a $6 bottle of wine–at a restaurant in a piazza where prices are typically jacked sky-high. We were brave travelers on this day, for sure.)

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Next stop? The Galleria Borghese.

Someone asked us if our kiddos were Renaissance fellas who loved art and drama and music or if they were just normal kids. I always contend they are normal kids–who just happen to really like going to art museums.

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I doubt you are supposed to let your child lie on the ground to take a photo in a museum, but just try to stop him.

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The Borghese is just ridiculous in the amount of art stuffed into it; it’s a celebration of greed. Just Google Cardinal Scipione Borghese to get an idea of how crazy this place is. It’s stacked to the gills with artwork by Caravaggio, Raphael, Rubens, Bernini…artwork covers every inch of the walls, including the ceilings.

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It’s critical to get tickets to the Galleria Borghese ahead of time. Visitors are only admitted in 2 hour time slots, and they fill up fast.

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We left the Galleria and walked through the rolling Villa Borghese which puts Atlanta’s Piedmont Park to shame.

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Next stop:  gelato. Of course. Theo was very excited.

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Then a quick stop by another Angels & Demons site–Santa Maria della Vittoria. Just like in the movie, it was closed. Sigh.

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Because I was in charge of the map at this point in time, I could see that–oh, yes!–another Holy Door was just a mile or so away. I was able to placate the masses with the assurance that this was indeed the LAST Holy Door I’d drag them through (at least in Rome). Our fourth Holy Door, at The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, was just as stunning as our previous three. Google Our Lady of the Snows for an amazing story about the history of this Basilica.

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The walk from the Villa Borghese down to Santa Maria della Vittoria and on over to Santa Maria di Maggiore wore out 3/5 of our party. While they all retired to the apartment for a lie-down, Tucker and I headed over to the Keats-Shelley House near the Spanish Steps for a little foray into English poetry.

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We both loved it (shocker).

The rain and the walking and the jet lag were hurting us today so we ditched probably the best restaurant reservations of the trip (at Armando…sigh) and headed back around the corner to Alla Rampa and acted like we were locals.

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We made a quick pit stop at Bartolucci, which is basically Geppeto’s workshop, so we could plant the seeds of nightmares in our heads (just watch this eerie little video from their website and you’ll see what I mean…).

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…then we all hit the hay. Big field trip out of Rome on deck!

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5,022 miles: ancient Rome (part IV)

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When one thinks of Rome, one surely thinks of this big guy and all he stands for. During the 5th grade Olympics at his school, Jack had immersed himself in all things ancient Rome, so he was looking forward to seeing the Colosseum in real life. I’d found out from a friend about an amazing tour of the Third ring and the Underground at the Colosseum, so it was one of the first tours I actually booked.

But before the Colosseum there was…you guessed it…another Holy Door.

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the Basilica of St. John in Lateran

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The flower garland draped over the door was the only decoration we saw on any of the Holy Doors. 

The Basilica of St. John in Lateran has a ton of history to it:  it’s the actual cathedral church of Rome and its construction was ordered by Emperor Constantine, the man who helped turn Rome from paganism and towards Christianity.

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the Holy Door from inside the Basilica

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Across the street from the Basilica is the Scala Sancta, a set of 28 marble stairs brought to Rome by Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, sometime around the year 326. These stairs are the ones Jesus walked up to receive his judgment from Pontius Pilate; the faithful climb them on their knees, a particularly holy exercise, especially during Lent.

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It was difficult; it was powerful, and it hurt; however, we are certain it hurt much less than crucifixion. We were surrounded by nuns and pilgrims, and it was completely silent except for the low murmuring of prayers.

We left the Scala Sancta a little stunned. We could see the Colosseum about a mile ahead of us, and we had a little over an hour until our tour of its Third Ring and the Underground, so we decided to walk there and stop for a quick lunch on the way.

But nothing in Rome is quick.

We found an adorable little sidewalk cafe, Trattoria Luzzi, around 11:45 and popped right in, sat down and ordered. The host came and sat next to us, chatting with the boys and making them laugh. I pulled out our Colosseum tickets and explained that we needed to be there by 12:30. Our charming host told us not to worry.

So we didn’t. And he didn’t either.

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Our food–which was quite good, by the way–didn’t arrive until 12:15, and we woofed it down in a typically rude American fashion then set off on a mad dash down the hill to the Colosseum.

We arrived 5 minutes late and were told our tour had already left without us. To add insult to the injury, we were also told we needed to purchase entirely new tickets to gain access to the Colosseum at all. I’m still confused by this as our Third Ring tickets were not cheap and definitely included getting in the door. We managed to convince the ticket lady to let us in on a much shorter tour of the areas open to the general public led by a guide, which was to start at 12:45.

The guide didn’t even show up until 1, which only led me to believe there was no way being 5 minutes late was the death knell to the original tour. Grr. Frustration. Did I mention it was pouring rain at this point, too?

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The 45-minute tour was, to be honest, nothing much to write home about–most likely because we were all disappointed to be missing out on the Third Ring/Underground tour and growing a little weary of the schizophrenic weather.

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Our next stop was Gladiator School. Thankfully, a friend had warned me that this is way, way out in the middle of nowhere. She certainly wasn’t kidding. It took awhile to even find a taxi who would drive us. Then he dumped us off at what looked like an exit ramp to an interstate and grunted at us to head that way.

Thankfully, Russ had Google Maps fired up on his phone, and we headed down the highway and then turned right onto a dirt road. The whole walk there was surreal; I was honestly worried that we had the wrong address and was also concerned with how on earth we were going to get back to town. We saw only one car (pictured below) on our 15 minute walk.

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this can’t be safe (all I kept thinking was that my Dad would be freaking out if he knew what we were doing right this moment…)

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finally! a sign!

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I was seriously wondering what I’d gotten us into at this point, but Gladiator School was an absolute slam dunk.

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The owner, Paolo, meant business. This was a combo of American Ninja Warrior and Ultimate Fighting lessons. Each boy cried at least once while Russ and I sat on some wooden bleachers and took in the spectacle (stellar parenting, no?). But somehow they all graduated from Gladiator School and were given certificates (and a bonus lesson on the importance of a firm handshake). Paolo was a hero and even called us a taxi.

Between the Colosseum tour debacle and the 2.5 hour Gladiator School experience, we were worn out, so we took a break at the apartment before heading out to dinner.

 

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Da Pancrazio was amazing. Built over the site where Julius Caesar was assassinated, the place just oozes history. (Don’t let its emptiness fool you; we were still dining on American time–around 7–instead of the typically Roman time for dinner, which is much, much later and unmanageable with small kiddos.) Afterwards, we walked over to the Campo di Fiori, an open air marketplace that is decidedly more happening in the daylight hours and when it’s not raining.

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While Gladiator School was a highlight, we were surprised at how overrated we found the Colosseum–something that surely was driven by our frustration at missing our original tour and subsequently enduring a much more common, less detailed visit with a guide who spoke very broken English. We were still in love with Rome, but we were not happy that we’d spent a good chunk of our day wrapped up with the Colosseum. Maybe all of that was God’s way of fussing at us for following the most Holy experience of the Scala Sancta with a visit to a place that was once totally devoted to grisly battles and the unnecessary butchering of animals (our guide proudly told us that over “5,000 beasts” were slaughtered during the Colosseum’s inaugural celebration–a spectacle which lasted 100 days). Ugh.

We were now halfway through our Italian adventure, and the best parts were coming up.

 

 

5,022 miles: Italy, old and new (part III)

(warning: photo heavy essay follows!)

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When you’re visiting a city that was built in the 8th century B.C., you’re going to see a lot of really old stuff. That’s why when you stumble across some type of modern structure, it really stands out. More on that in a bit.

Monday, we headed out to pass through our second Holy Door at The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls which is–just as its name implies–outside the walls of Rome. What this translates to for travelers is, of course, “off the beaten path.” In fact, it’s so off the beaten path that it wasn’t even on any map of Rome I had. I knew its general direction, though, and had written it in with an arrow pointing south. The family was a little concerned to say the least.

Our taxi driver, however, knew exactly what I was talking about, and on our ride out to the Basilica, we passed several of the places I had on tap for us to visit that day–which helped to gauge the distance back.

The Basilica was unbelievable.

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Not surprisingly, there were very few visitors other than us. We passed through the Holy Door and into the nave which had a breathtaking ceiling covered in gold.

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the Holy Door of the Basilica di San Paolo Fiuri le Mura, opened for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, 2016

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Everything inside this Basilica, built in the late 300’s over the tomb of St. Paul, was stunning.

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While the majority of the original Basilica burned down in 1823, the apse mosaic survived. It was created in the year 1220.

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After pulling Russ and Theo out of a group picture (we were not traveling with another group; I had to convince them that photo bombing probably wasn’t the best thing to do in a Holy place), we hailed another taxi for a destination that could hardly be more opposite than this beautiful Basilica:  the glass and steel monstrosity that is Eataly.

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I’d read about Eataly on Elizabeth Minchilli’s wonderful blog, Elizabeth Minchilli in Rome (I also read her latest book, Eating Rome, prior to our trip. I highly recommend it if you are like me and read cookbooks as if they were novels.) We found Eataly to be fascinating. After riding up its 4 skywalk-type flat escalators to the very top level, we slowly made our way back down, trying to decide where to have lunch.

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Eataly was a unique experience in the grand scheme of things, and we enjoyed it very much. If you’re a fan of farmer’s markets, upscale cooking stores, people watching, and gourmet food, be sure to visit.

Next stop, the  Pyramid of Caius Cestius, which was just a short walk away.

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The pyramid is a tomb built for a very pompous Roman who died around 12 B.C. Its presence in Rome is almost as out of place as Eataly’s.

From here, we headed towards the Protestant Cemetery, which is actually just right across the street from the pyramid, but due to a display of rookie level cartography skills on my part, we took the scenic route. The very scenic route.

The English teacher in me wanted to see the graves of Keats and Shelley. Normally cemeteries creep me out, but this one was green and bright and lush and not eerie at all. Thank goodness.

Keats’ grave was easy to find (down the path towards the left), but Shelley’s took a little more time (his is straight up the hill from the gate towards the very back of the cemetery). My whole family humored me as I dragged them around.

What followed after our cemetery visit qualifies as the only bad moment for us on the trip. We stepped across the street from the Pyramid to hail a taxi to take us up the hill to Santa Maria del Priorito di Malta. None of the chain smoking throng of taxi drivers seemed eager to take us; finally, one fairly young hipster stubbed out his cigarette and said we could fit in his taxi if one of the boys rode in the very back.

He opened the door, and Theo climbed in and over the back seat to a tiny seat in the very rear of the car. The rest of us piled in, with me in the front seat. The driver proceeded to race like a maniac up the Aventine Hill, zigging and zagging and revving his engine. He stopped short of our destination and said to get out because he wouldn’t go any farther. We were confused, but figured when in Rome and all. Total fare, according to the meter, was 5 euros. We climbed out, and Russ handed him the fare, but the driver started yelling that it was 20 euros instead. We countered by pointing to the meter. He yelled some more in Italian. We handed him the 5 euro bill and started to walk away, and he went completely bananas, screaming that “the boy ruined the fresh seat.” Apparently, Theo was supposed to climb into the very back of the cab without stepping on the seat at all. (And for the record, the fresh seat was not even the least bit dirty afterwards.) We haggled him down to 7 euros and chalked it up to a driver with a serious OCD issue.

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probably not supposed to pick oranges from the garden of a convent

We were here to look through the keyhole at the Priorata di Malta, which gives you a view across 3 countries–Malta, Italy, and the Vatican City–straight to the dome of St. Peter’s. (Interesting fact for you geography junkies: Malta has 2 sovereign locations outside the boundaries of the actual physical country that fall under its rule–sort of like satellite offices–and the Priorata di Malta is one of them.)

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tough photo to get for many reasons…this one certainly doesn’t do the Keyhole of the Knights of Malta justice

Opting to avoid ruining more fresh seats, we walked down the Aventine Hill to the Circus Maximus on our way to Santa Maria in Cosmedin.

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This home to ancient Roman chariot races is huge and was a great place for the boys to run around and be a little wild.

 

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The Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin was built in the 800’s and contains the most famous manhole cover in the world:  the Bocca della Verita.

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We refueled with some gelato (boys) and wine (grown ups) and began to make our way back to the apartment.

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the Roman bird nest in full effect…

On the way, we climbed the gazillion steps up the back of the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II and looked out over the Roman Forum, which was our only interaction with these 2 huge, important places. Again, we owe it another trip.

After a long day, we headed back to the apartment for a rest and then walked to Alla Rampa, a great little restaurant walking distance from our place and tucked behind and below Santa Trinita dei Monti. The outdoor seating was warm and cozy, and the cacio e pepe was out of this world.

All said, we walked 9.23 miles this day, checked off one solid quadrant of our map of Rome,  and earned ourselves some must deserved rest.

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Tucker peeking out of our apartment window, top left

 

 

 

 

5,022 miles: Italy, Part II

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Castel Sant Angelo

A quick little religion lesson:  Pope Francis has declared 2016 a Jubilee Year, the Holy Year of Mercy. While we are not Catholic, we are faithful Christians, and Rome is, of course, one of the Holiest cities on the planet, so all of this interested me greatly.

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During a Jubilee Year, the Pope opens 4 Holy Doors throughout Rome. (These doors are actually sealed with brick-and-mortar when not opened.) The significance of passing through a Holy Door is best summed up here:

“To pass through the Holy Door means to ­rediscover the infinite mercy of the Father who welcomes everyone
and goes out personally to encounter each of them.” — Pope Francis

The opening of the door signifies God opening a new pathway to salvation, mercy and grace. Your walk through the Holy Door symbolizes your access to God to receive forgiveness and mercy. During this journey of spiritual conversion, pilgrims will seek to be filled with God’s love so they can experience His love and mercy in their daily lives. (http://www.nawas.com/catholic/holy-year-mercy-jubilee-pilgrimages.htm)

I’m all about gaining some blessings, so I plotted out a way for us to pass through all 4 of the doors while we were in Rome. It was like a full week of Sunday School for my family, but we did it, and there was minimal complaining.

First up, the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica.

I’d read that you needed to register for this door; the instructions were partially in Italian, but I plowed through and had our little family registered as a group of 5 pilgrims. Once you complete the registration, you sit back and wait for the Vatican to approve your pilgrimage and to assign you a time to pass through the doors. We were given 9:30 a.m., which is all fine and dandy unless you are on U.S. time and have been in Rome less than 24 hours; in that case, it feels like it’s 3:30 a.m. Good times.

The pilgrimage begins at Castel Sant Angelo, which we didn’t manage to actually enter due to my dragging of my family to the Holy Door. I was paranoid that we would miss our appointed time. Passing through a tent where a man actually looked up our reservation and pulled out a folder with information with our name on it validated my sense of urgency. We were handed a pamphlet which detailed the steps we were about to take on this pilgrimage.

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There were several suggested prayers, reflections, and readings, but honestly, it looked like the majority of folks were just plowing ahead as quickly as possible. We walked down the Via della Conciliazione, past the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina, through the Colonnade, and then through the decidedly neither religious nor contemplative security area.

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Passing through our first Holy Door was indeed pretty magnificent.

St. Peter’s Basilica is, obviously, pretty magnificent as well.

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Michelangelo’s Pieta is directly on the right once you enter.

You do a whole lot of looking up when you’re inside St. Peter’s, both figuratively and literally.

Once again, we waited too long to eat and were very grumpy and not in the mood to walk the distance to Pizzarium or Pastasciutta. Instead, we left St. Peter’s and walked over to De’ Penitenzieri. A few plates of penne arrabbiata and spaghetti bolognese fueled us up for a second trip to St. Peter’s for the Pope’s Angelus and to climb the cupola.

When in Rome, the Pope typically holds 2 audiences a week:  a Wednesday Mass and the Sunday Angelus, or blessing.

 

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Even though we do not understand Italian, this was still one of the most moving things we’ve participated in.

After the Angelus, we went through security again and made our way to the dome of St. Peter’s in order to climb the cupola. We bought tickets to take the elevator halfway up; I can’t recommend this enough, especially if you are working on little sleep. Once you exit the elevator, there are still roughly 231 steep stairs to climb, so you really won’t feel like you’ve been cheated.

 

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The view at the top is breathtaking, and this is only slightly due to the fact that you’ve climbed straight up a tilting iron ladder to get to the tippy-top.

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while I was looking at this view…

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…these 2 turkeys were doing this.

The climb down was equally as harrowing.

After the dome, we visited the Vatican Grottos underneath the Basilica. There’s a ton of fascinating information in the Grottos. You exit the Grottos back into St. Peter’s Basilica again but on a different side. It was later in the afternoon, and the light was amazing.

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After a quick gelato stop, we headed back to the apartment for a bit of a much needed rest.

We made a frantic trip to the Pantheon in the rain, and were there for exactly 4 minutes before it closed.

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yep, hole in the roof

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rainy exterior shot

Sorry, Pantheon. We totally owe you another visit.

Monday evening, we wandered around the nooks and crannies of Piazza Navona until we stumbled upon an amazing little semi-hidden trattoria (whose name I’ll post when I can track it down via credit card statement). Because it was early (for dinner for Italians), we were the only people in the place, but the servers did not seem to mind at all. When people did start trickling in, we were pleased to see that they were all locals. We’d inadvertently unearthed a gem of a restaurant.

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We walked through the Piazza Navona to take a peek at the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, which our sons recognized more from the movie Angels and Demons than they did from the travel info I’d attempted to pump into them.

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a completely pitiful photo but it was pouring down rain, so we didn’t linger

chestnuts roasting on an open fire…

(no one really likes chestnuts, by the way…)

Day 2 was pretty doggone amazing. I’ll close with the best photo of the day, taken from atop St. Peter’s Dome. It sums up our first Holy Door experience to a T.

 

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5,022 miles away: Italy Spring Break, part I

Spring Break 2016 did not disappoint. We booked flights to Rome way back in early July, and then sat back until nearly mid-January before we started planning anything else. After a frenetic few weeks of devouring guide books, websites, blogs, and anything Roman I could find, we put together a plan for our week there that I dare say rivals any vacation we’ve ever taken.

First off, hotels in Rome are crazy expensive. We decided instead to find an apartment–a housing choice that’s outside of the box but worked out infinitely better than we ever imagined. I scoured VRBO a bit and stumbled upon a website called My Magic Rome. We rented Via della Croce 44 int. 6, and while the all caps statement on My Magic Rome’s site stating that the apartment “IS NOT NOISY AT ALL” is also not true at all, the apartment really was a great home base for us. The views were unbelievable. (We also booked a driver directly through My Magic Rome for airport pick-up and drop-off at Fiumicino, a drive of only about 35 minutes or so.)

looking right and then left out of our bedroom window

the nighttime views were even better…

But before we got to this awesomeness, we had to cross the ocean. Oof. And we had to do it via a connecting flight out of New York. Double oof.

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Russ contends–and I agree–that it’s rather pitiful that our boys are semi-seasoned international travelers yet have never visited New York. Until now. Our 2 hour layover in NYC consisted of a walk through the domestic terminal, a walk outside (danger, Will Robinson) from the domestic terminal to the international terminal, and a photo op by a ridiculous t-shirt store to prove they had actually been to New York. Obviously, stepping foot outside the airport terminal and onto the actual ground of NYC makes it count as a visit.

Alitalia. My goodness. Yes, you delivered us safely to and from your marvelous country, but, honestly, your planes are in desperate need of an upgrade. Zero legroom and seats that are so old that they don’t recline anymore at all.

IMG_7555not a whole lot of breathing room here…and this is in Alitalia’s economy plus section...

We landed in Rome around noon and made it through customs without an incident. We were truly worried about our luggage as Alitalia’s number 1 complaint listed on Consumer Affairs was about their spectacular ability to send luggage off to opposite corners of the world from its owners (and after seeing the plane and realizing that lack of space and very uncomfortable seats should have been the number one complaint, we really started to sweat). Fortunately, our 2 bags came through just fine; we met our driver quite easily, and headed to the apartment to check-in.

Needless to say, we were all rather tired and rumpled and hungry. Carina from My Magic Rome met us at the apartment and gave us a thorough tour of the apartment and its amenities. Before she had finished her introduction of the place, we’d already broken into the bottle of wine they’d given us as a housewarming treat.

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When we went to London 2 years ago for Spring Break, our arrival day was ugly:  4/5 of us were lying on the floor of the hotel lobby while Russ checked in, and Jack was so tired he fell asleep at the dinner table and actually fell out of his chair. We planned our Saturday accordingly for Rome; the goal was to have a quick lunch, get a little fresh air, grab a quick dinner and hit the hay early.

We aimed for Pastificio for lunch (and actually found it), but once we truly realized how it worked (order at the front, lean against the wall and eat quickly while standing; Pastificio is known for being an incredible pasta store with a tiny restaurant-like element to it), we decided instead that we actually wanted a sit-down lunch, so we ambled back a bit to Pasticceria d’Angelo. We should have stuck with the original plan. d’Angelo was nothing special, and Pastificio clearly did look special. Our loss.

We walked down to the end of Via della Croce and turned right at the corner a block from the Spanish Steps, which, unfortunately for us, are in the process of being refurbished.

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Our next stop was the Capuchin Crypt Museum. This chapel built entirely out of the bones of Capuchin monks was listed as one of the top “must-sees” with children. It certainly was, um, different. Located in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappucchini, we were thrilled to have found it on foot on our first try (even with a well-studied map, Rome is notoriously tricky to navigate on foot).

IMG_2494Photos are not allowed inside the museum–or in the gardens, either. (I discovered that last little bit after being scolded by a security worker after taking this photo.)

Russ got a little weirded out by the whole thing, but the boys thought it was pretty neat (remember that our little Reverend Tucker loves him some Halloween…). There is a sign by the exit of the chapel which reads, “What you are now, we used to be; what we are now, you will be…” but I remembered it after I’d exited, and they wouldn’t let me back in to find it. I think the guard was still a little miffed that I’d snuck a photo.

After the bone chapel, Russ discovered the most amazing thing:  you can get vino to go in Rome. The boys were fired up to explore, and you really can’t beat a stroll through Rome–especially with a toter.

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We made our way past the Piazza Barberini and came up on the back side of the Fontana di Trevi.

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And it was not covered in scaffolding! We were thrilled (we’d heard the Fountain had been recently restored and were worried our view of it would be similar to our view of the Spanish Steps). My original idea was to give the boys quarters from their birth years to toss into the fountain, but that got ditched before we even left Atlanta when I ran out of time to sift through quarters looking at the dates. Best laid plans, right? We scrounged around in our backpack and found a handful of coins, explained to the boys what do to, and waited our turn.

IMG_2516starting to look a little weary, no?

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Yes, Rome, we will be back…

One of the things I really tried to do prior to us leaving Atlanta was restaurant research. I knew we’d be overwhelmed by all the choices, and I certainly didn’t want us to accidentally end up eating at the Italian equivalent of a Ruby Tuesday’s. So I was armed with a list of fantastic, non-touristy restaurants and had made reservations at the (few) places which took them. Saturday night, especially after our navigational success with finding the Capuchin Crypts, I had my sights on Trattoria da Gino (which is also sometimes called Trattoria dal Cavalier Gino). After reading multiple glowing reviews of the place, I’d tried to make online reservations but had never received a reply.

This place is tucked away behind the Parliament building, with “tucked away” being the operative word. We gave the map to Jack, and he took us up and down Rome’s labyrinthine cobbled roads until we found a sign posted high on a wall with an arrow pointing to Gino’s. We then walked in a complete circle two times and still couldn’t find it. Frustration set in, so we broke down and asked a concierge at a hotel, and he had no idea where it was, either. The concierge looked Gino’s up online and told us that it was closed on Saturdays, even though the website says it’s closed on Mondays. (Upon looking up the restaurant online for ourselves, I found a link showing an actual photo of it and realized we’d walked right past it twice. The vines covered up the name and it was dark–because, duh, they’d decided to take the night off.)  We had another rather nondescript dinner at a trattoria whose name I can’t even recall and caught a taxi in the rain back to our apartment.

We stocked up on provisions (water, wine, popcorn) at the funky little market Coop under our apartment and settled in for the night.

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Despite some bungled dining plans, day 1 was a total success. We saw several important sights and survived on very little sleep. Spring Break 2016 was off to a terrific start!