Friday, November 4, 2016

A Week in Italy: Rome, Pompeii and Positano

We fell in love with Italy all over again. Our week in Rome, Pompeii and Positano was the perfect blend of sightseeing, relaxation and serious excitement -- in a matter of only days, we experienced the aftershocks of an earthquake, a waterspout reaching from the sky to the sea, and an active earthquake. But more on all that later.....

We weren't even off the plane the first time I heard a native Italian say "mama mia" (I thought that only happened in movies from the 1950s). Nicolina, the owner of our Airbnb rental in Rome's historic center, checked us into our flat and we immediately set out to wander, quickly running into the Pantheon, Trevi fountain, a pizza dinner and gelato for our stroll home. 

The next morning met us with a bang! All six of us experienced our first earthquake. There was a 6.7 magnitude quake about 100 km away and we felt the significant aftershocks in Rome. Thankfully there was no loss of life. While we were all getting ready for our second sightseeing day, the floor started to shake and the chandelier was swinging. I thought the small bathroom where I was putting on my makeup was going to crack right off the aging building. Rob actually thought the earthquake was the kids jumping around (which says something about our life with four energetic children). Within seconds of the physical rumbling, we heard crash of glass…and discovered that the window in the apartment below us shattered onto the street two stories down. I'll admit, for a few moments, I felt panicked; I wondered if we needed to quickly evacuate in case the building was going to crumble. I'm an earthquake rookie. But the charming old man in the flat across the hall simply advised us not to take the elevator, and otherwise all was normal. We went on with our day, stopping first in the panneteria (bakery) below us and trying one of everything he was selling -- pistachio biscotti, pizza bianca, and all things almond.
Broken glass in the middle from the earthquake
We saw the sights on our walk to the Colosseum…the Victor Emmanuel Monument in the Plaza Venezia (nicknamed the Typewriter), the Roman Forum, and the statue of Romulus and Remus. It was fun to show the kids 2000-year-old history, especially since the International School of Luxembourg studies ancient Roman culture in second grade. Even with our Skip the Line tickets, we, ahem, waited in a long line, shuffling step by step with all the other tourists until we were finally in. Though Rob and I have been to Rome four times between us, it still just takes your breath away. 


The Capitoline She-Wolf that tells the story of Rome's beginning
The Roman Forum

We walked for awhile to find lunch, distancing ourselves from the tourist block, and found a fabulous restaurant -- we were thrilled the menu wasn't translated to English. We sat with coffee for half an hour until they were ready to serve lunch, absorbing the Italian life around us, smelling the orange trees 50 feet away and letting Bitsy finish her long nap in the carrier. It was almost November and we reveled in the warm air on our bare arms. On our walk home, I had a fun Italian moment: We stopped for an ice cream cone at a lovely gelato shop near the Pantheon. The ice cream dude told me it cost 22 Euro, then he quickly saw that I was holding two 10 Euro notes in my hand. Before I could pull out more money, he said, "Oh, 20 is fine." I turned to Rob and said simply, "I love Italy."

Let's face it: Italian food is to die for. That evening, we dined al fresca again, watching the fathers walk with their daughters as we ate our hand tossed pasta and sipped house wine. Elvis, our Albanian waiter was fabulous -- he taught the kids how to stack their finished mussel shells and brought everyone kiddy cocktails (Limoncello for me and Rob) to say thank you. 

The next day, we visited the Vatican -- so much stirring history and modern significance. We didn't realize it was a Roman holiday, so it was busy (which is like saying Mt. Everest is sorta big); we rode the crowd wave all the way to the Sistine Chapel. The kids loved the Vatican, but were politely underwhelmed by the Michelangelo's ceiling (we may have talked it up a little too much! I should have learned my lesson at the Hall of Mirrors). That afternoon, we met our friends Filip and Liva from our Peoria days at the Spanish Steps. Together with their two daughters, we walked up to the gorgeous Borghese Gardens with its moss-covered fountains and gravel terrace overlooking the city of Rome. This was a highlight of the entire trip for me. It was relaxed and authentic; we ditched the tourists and enjoyed the sunset surrounded by Italian families. 
The Spanish Steps. (We weren't the only ones who found them).
The view looking out from the Borghese Gardens
 
Searching for dinner after our lovely park date
Rob, Filip and Liva met in grad school!

The next morning, we caught our train at Termini to Naples, zipping through the Italian countryside with Roman aqueducts, olive orchards and vineyards. Rob asked a polizia (with his semiautomatic) which train platform was ours. As we walked away, I heard one officer say to another "quanto!!"

Our driver, Jack, picked up us in Naples and drove us straight towards Mt. Vesuvius to the town of Pompeii, which was both destroyed and perfectly preserved when the volcano erupted in 79AD. The kids were fascinated! We hired a tour guide -- the only one of our entire trip -- and he guided us through the ruins and brought history to life. Mt. Vesuvius is an active volcano, and days before our visit, Italy issued updated emergency plans to evacuate 700,000 people if it should erupt, which experts say is a problem of gigantic proportions. Sweet John was nervous it would erupt during our visit!
These were stepping stones so Pompeians could avoid the sludge in their roman sandals

Later that afternoon, we drove along the Amalfi Coast to Positano. In a word, it was breathtaking, and not just because of the exquisite natural beauty and crystal waters. Jack the driver (who picked us up with no car seats) casually took the high-altitude hairpin turns while chatting with our flat owner on his cell phone. An inch too far and we would plummet into the sea. We could see broken guardrails where others had... Strangely, we felt safe as he took the roads he grew up driving.

Positano became home for the next four days -- our Airbnb rental home had lemon trees on the terrace, hundred-year-old vines and an outdoor shower with a view of the coastline. Pier Guido, the Naples-based owner, spent his childhood summers there; his grandfather bought the place. He showed us how to get to the beach by pointing out the route on an oil painting that hung on the wall. The garage was chiseled out of the mountain, and there was exposed rock emerging from hallway corners. We took the steps down to the Rocky beach and let the kids play as the sun set. Along the way one man counted the kids and told us Positano was a very romantic place…that the next time we come maybe will have more! Then a little further down a man who looked like the Italian equivalent of Ralph Lauren told us in his singsong Italian that family was the greatest blessing. His house was named La Dolce Vita and he told us we were so lucky that our children are still young. We felt welcome everywhere we went.

Lemon trees on one of the terraces
Because the trees hadn't been pruned for the season, the lemons were green, but wonderfully refreshing!
Our home
Rob walking down to the beach with Bitsy
This was the view from our balcony at nightfall
In the morning Rob went to the market. We sat on the terrace eating provolone cheese, Italian ham, crusty bread and fresh fruit while a man somewhere sang opera. It brought tears to my eyes. You could hear claps, including ours, from all around the cliff where the sound reverberated like God's very own opera house.

There were wild cats everywhere. When we tried to count how many steps we took up and down to the beach, we lost track in the many, many hundreds. Each day, we walked down the water and picked sea glass out of the pebble beach. John pulled tiny rocks out of the water and said, "Mom, it's stardust." Bitsy chewed rocks like an old dog. Madeline and Charlie's pant pockets hung to their knees with the weight of their jewel-like mementos.
Pizza, gelato, repeat. Pizza, gelato, repeat....
All the boys got Italian haircuts!
She's sacked out

We woke up on Bitsy's birthday with so much excitement and celebration. The kids tumbled into bed with her like a pile of puppies. I can't believe our sweet girl is two years old! The only thing that could possibly make that moment any sweeter was finding out that the Cubs won the World Series the night before!! Rob watched the game from 1:30 in the morning until 6am. Then we all watched highlights together until Rob and Mimi walked to the market to get fresh breakfast pastries and picnic lunch fixings. 



Throughout the day, Bitsy proudly said, "I'm two!!!" loving the reaction she got from her siblings. An Italian house doctor named Vito Fiorentino came to our home to check out the kids, who all had nasty colds; we wanted to make sure we didn't need antibiotics. He was fabulous; 82 years old and had been practicing medicine in Positano for 55 years, just as his father did for 70 years before him. He sang to Bitsy in Italian, told us funny stories and kissed my hand before he left. 



While Bitsy and Rob napped, I took the three big kids down to the main Positano beach. About 10 minutes after we left, people started streaming into the street from shops and restaurants, pointing behind us. We watched in horror and fascination as a long narrow waterspout reach out of the clouds and touched the beach where we had just been collecting seaglass. 

That afternoon we had birthday celebration for Bitsy. Rob and John came home with a special balloon arrangement and a bouquet of lilies (a birthday tradition) that filled the entire flat with their gorgeous scent. Afterwards we went to the restaurant -- Da Vinceta-- where Pier Guido recommended and told the owner we may be coming. We ate fresh seafood, stuffed zucchini flowers and handmade pastas with a giant birthday finale. The lights turned completely off, a bell started ringing, and the Italian staff sang to Bitsy. They couldn't get enough of the kids...ruffling their hair, touching their cheeks and playing peekaboo throughout the meal.

The next day we went back down to the beach to see if we could catch a boat ride to Capri, but seasonal workers were putting away all the stands for the season. We were perfectly happy to spend another day in the sun with no agenda. The clouds burned off and while the kids splashed, we added to our seaglass collections. Charlie said "this is the best last day of vacation I've ever had."

And it was.

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