For two weeks in Italy this past August, the Barrosse and Rashid families shared one of the most wonderful experiences of our lives.
From Florence to Siena, from Amelia to Assisi, we enjoyed the sights, sounds, fragrances and flavors of Tuscany and Umbria.
We experienced famous cities with churches and monuments created and decorated by history’s most celebrated artists – and acres of gorgeous, bountiful countryside gardened for millennia by humble, unknown Italian farmers.
It’s hard to describe the beauty and history of these regions of Italy in words – which is why we took so many pictures.
Our trip to Italy began in the magnificent city of Florence, where there is so much fine art, grand architecture and fascinating history packed into a few square miles that the effect is dizzying. And while we did not succumb to Stendahl Syndrome, as the great French author did on a visit to Florence in 1817, we were, as Stendahl recorded, “in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty.”
We were dumbstruck by our first breathtaking view of Brunelleschi’s incomparable Doma and the incredible cathedral it crowns.
We spent many hours crossing and re-crossing the magnificent bridges over the Arno River……including the world-famous Ponte Vecchio.
We gorged ourselves on the bountiful artistic buffet served up during our tours of The Accademia and the Uffitzi Gallery.
We enjoyed the lovely, opulent grounds of the Boboli Gardens and the stunning views from Piazzale Michelangelo.
We embraced as much of Florence as we could in the precious time we had to spend amid its grandeur.
The experience was all the more enriching because our families were able to share the treasure of Florence with each other.
Sporting our all-powerful Firenze Cards, we traveled to Florence each morning by bus from our pleasant resort conveniently located in the nearby town of Impruneta. In Florence, exhausted ourselves with art and food and fun, and then returned to Impruneta for some countryside R & R.
Our day trip to Pisa was a revelation.
We had imagined the famous Leaning Tower standing alone, surrounded by thousands of tourists snapping the obligatory photo: a cultural cliché that had to be experienced.
But we were wholly unprepared for the sight of what Michelangelo called “The Field of Miracles” – an architectural wonder of which the Leaning Tower is the best known but by no means the most impressive feature.
After Pisa, we headed north to the seashore at Via Reggio.
Victoria, enthralled by her study of Percy Shelley and the Romantic poets, was eager to see the beach where the drowned Shelley’s body was burned on a pyre by his friends, including Lord Byron, who, overcome with emotion at the loss of his brilliant young friend, swam in the chilly waters as the flames of Shelley’s pyre rose into the evening sky.
Alas, it’s hard to commune with the spirits of Shelley and Byron on the busy commercial beaches of 21st century Via Reggio. But it was an enjoyable visit nonetheless.
In Tuscany, there was never a moment of disappointment.
Nearly halfway through our grand Italian adventure, we experienced il Palio di Siena – a unique bareback horse race held twice a year in Siena’s main square, on July 2 and August 16, which is the date we attended (survived) the race.
We’d been prepared for the experience by our Italian host and guide, Valentina Grossi – but the Palio was still overwhelming.
It was an impossible task to capture all the people, the emotion, the tradition, the colors, the spectacle, the pageantry, and the race itself in photos. But we tried.
Heeding Valentina’s unerring directions, we arrived in Siena early in the morning through the imposing San Marcos Gate, while the townsfolk were still scrubbing the streets, hanging bunting, dressing up their store windows, and setting out table and chairs in front of the cafes.
It was clear that something akin to a medieval Super Bowl was in the offing. There was a palpable anticipatory excitement in the air, and we could not help but be caught up in the town’s collective vibe.
After lunch in the Piazza del Campo, where the race would be held, we were drawn even deeper into the festival atmosphere when I suggested we visit nearby St. Rocco’s church (the namesake of my boyhood parish in Cleveland). Each neighborhood in Siena sponsors a horse and rider. These groups are known as “contrade”.
As luck would have it, we arrived just as the parish’s rider and its horse were being blessed in the church. We now had a contrade to belong to: Lupa, the she-wolf.
Then it was back to Piazza del Campo, where we camped out as tens of thousands squeezed into the square before the 7:00 start of the race.
The race itself was a blur. Our horse from St. Rocco’s parish led for half the race but faded to third place. But the Palio was an event unlike any other in our lives.
The day after the Palio, we headed south out of Impruneta on the road to Camporsevoli, which would become headquarters for our second week in Italy – a jumping off point to explore Southern Tuscany and Umbria.
On the outskirts of Impruneta, we stopped at the American World War Two Military Cemetery to pay homage to the Americans who came to Italy 70 years ago to free it from Nazi tyranny.
We paused to remember the sacrifice represented by row upon row of white crosses, crescents and Stars of David on the green, sloping lawns leading up to the monuments erected in memory of their lives, their valor and their victory.
After our solemn pilgrimage to the military cemetery, we continued our journey into southern Tuscany.
As wild and joyously harrowing as the Palio was, our weeklong stay in the tiny hilltop hamlet of Camporsevoli was the picture of tranquil beauty, peace, and relaxed, restful recreation.
Camporsevoli is a tiny hamlet built in and around a small fortress that’s been a strategic location for centuries, coveted by the Romans, the Papal State, and the neighboring Tuscan city-states.
Camporsevoli has been in the possession of our host Valentina Grossi’s family since the 1820s, but the site has been inhabited since Etruscan times. In fact, two Etruscan tombs are preserved in village cellars. Listening to Valentina’s father recall family and Italian history was one of the highlights of the vacation for me.
We were delighted to add to the estate’s long and colorful history by writing and performing “La Commedia Di Camporsevoli” — no doubt the first comedy film shot on the property entirely on iPhone.
Not far down the road from Camporsevoli is the town of San Casciano dei Bagni, yet another picturesque settlement of medieval origin crowning a Tuscan hill.
San Casciano die Bagni charmed us with it’s splendid views, narrow streets, delightful shops, and pleasant places to dine and converse.
We returned to San Casciano often during our stay at Camporsevoli to enjoy the tranquil pace of life in a small Italian country village. We learned what Italians have always known: to slow down, feel the pleasant breeze, sip the fine wine, taste the wonderful food, meet the people – and enjoy spending time with the people you love in one of the world’s loveliest places.
We spent their last few days in Italy enjoying the pleasures of Umbria.
Our glorious days trips to Amelia, my emigrant grandparent’s hometown, and Assisi, where excitement over the new Franciscan Pope was palpable, proved to be just the right tonic for our slightly exhausted traveling party. These gorgeous, historic Umbrian cities vibrated at a less frenetic pace than the legendary Tuscan città we’d explored during our first week in Italy.
Going into our Italian adventure, we had a good idea of what to expect in Florence and Siena. We’d made extensive preparations for our assault on Florentine art and history and the Palio in Siena. But we were less certain of what was in store for us during our stay in southern Tuscany and Umbria.
Sallying forth from Camporsevoli, we ventured to the relatively unknown town of Amelia in Umbria.
We might not have put Amelia on our itinerary if it weren’t for the fact that my grandparents, who immigrated to the United States in 1911 and 1913, were born and raised in the farmlands around this scenic hilltop town.
Somehow, my daughters challenged me to drive through the impossibly narrow medieval streets (and tunnels) of Amelia: lanes clearly meant for oxcarts not autos.
After some very narrow escapes, I managed to get our car (and my family) out alive.And, of course, there was the little matter of the manual transmission. I got very handy with the stick shift, emergency brake and clutch.
We arrived in Assisi, the city of St. Francis, on a dazzlingly bright day – and found this historic town to be filled with excitement and activity, jazzed by the fact that a humble Franciscan had just been installed as the new Pope.
High on a mountain above a vast, wide plain, Assisi is as beautiful a city as one could possibly imagine.
No shops in Italy were cuter, no store proprietors were friendlier, and no public vibe was more uplifting.
Something wonderful is going on in Assisi. Our stay there was far too short.
After the Rashids flew home to Chicago, our family lingered in Italy for one more day – and one more day trip — this time to nearby Cetona, just a few kilometers from Camporsevoli, right on the border with Umbria.
By now, we were well practiced in how to unwind, relax, enjoy slow-moving Italian café culture, and luxuriate in the simple pleasures of the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside.
Our final excursion was to Chiusi, where we put our daughter Emilia on a train to Rome.
Our two weeks in Italy were over.
The memories will endure all our lives.