Tag Archives: Umbria

Our Italian Adventure

Italy Banner 1Italy Banner 2Italy Banner 3For two weeks in Italy this past August, the Barrosse and Rashid families shared one of the most wonderful experiences of our lives.

IMG_1782From 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.

Pictures like this…IMG_1672

And this…IMG_1894

IMG_1592Our 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.IMG_1337

We spent many hours crossing and re-crossing the magnificent bridges over the Arno River…1239502_10202229777774500_1083724015_n…including the world-famous Ponte Vecchio.IMG_1372

IMG_1628We 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.IMG_1615

IMG_1437Sporting 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.

1233352_10202229776694473_1644880412_nOur 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.IMG_1762

IMG_1776After 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.66155_10202229776454467_765745900_n

In Tuscany, there was never a moment of disappointment.

IMG_1797Nearly 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.IMG_1848

IMG_1778Heeding 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.1234046_10202229769774300_1463206431_n

IMG_1854After 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”.3 Pics

IMG_1919As 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.IMG_1965IMG_1948IMG_1945IMG_1996531939_10202229768494268_1772278040_n

IMG_2004The 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.

IMG_1790On 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.IMG_1793

After our solemn pilgrimage to the military cemetery, we continued our journey into southern Tuscany.

IMG_1846As 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.ItalyA

ItalyBWe 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.581236_10202229829015781_1319484394_n

IMG_2053San 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.IMG_1890

We spent their last few days in Italy enjoying the pleasures of Umbria.

IMG_2270Our 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.

IMG_2133Going 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.IMG_1969 crop

IMG_2097We 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.IMG_1975IMG_1977IMG_1983And, of course, there was the little matter of the manual transmission. I got very handy with the stick shift, emergency brake and clutch.IMG_1985

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.IMG_2034 copyIMG_2274 copy

IMG_2262High 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.Screen Shot 2013-11-27 at 12.55.33 PMIMG_2279

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.IMG_2559

IMG_2586By 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.

The question is – how soon can we go back?IMG_2318IMG_1431IMG_2284IMG_1897 IMG_1899


Filed under Adventure, Art, Beauty, History, Travel

My Book Report: “The Day of Battle”

daybanner1day banner 2Later this week I’ll be traveling with my family to Italy. We’ll stay in Tuscany near Florence for a week and then head southward in Tuscany, close to Umbria and the ancient town of Amelia – the place my grandparents left when they came to America in the early 1910’s.

pic_03Amelia grew up around an ancient hill fort known to the Romans and some scholars consider Amelia the oldest town in Umbria. Whether that’s true isn’t certain, but it is clear that over the centuries, Amelia has seen its share of war. Occupied by the Etruscans and then the Romans, the town’s ancient hilltop fortress was a strategic point in the Second Latin War (remember that one?) way, way back in 340-338 BC. In World War Two, Umbria became a battlefield as retreating Nazi troops, hounded by an inexorable American and Allied advance, slowly withdrew from Italy under fire.

00087703-451287_catl_500Knowing I was going to be exploring Tuscany and Umbria, a good friend gave me The Day of Battle, Rick Atkinson’s excellent history of the Italian Campaign in World War Two. It’s one of the best-written, most thoroughly researched and yet completely readable books on military history that I’ve ever read.

Atkinson knows that all good storytelling is anchored in compelling characters, and he presents a great dramatic cast in The Day of Battle – from icons like Ike and Patton to lesser-known generals like Mark Clark and Lucian Truscott, common soldiers like Audie Murphy and Bill Mauldin, and the writers and reporters who followed them into battle, including Ernie Pyle and Eric Sevareid.


Lt. Hanley and Sgt. Saunders. My childhood heroes on “Combat”.

Atkinson recently released The Guns at Last Light: The War in Europe, 1944-1945 — the last volume in his Liberation Trilogy which began with the Pulitzer Prize-winning An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943. Most guys my age were introduced to the war in Africa by watching The Rat Patrol. And the movie The Longest Day fixed the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944 in our memories and imaginations. Besides, Sergeant Saunders and the rest of his squad on Combat landed on D-Day!

However, how many of us know that the U.S. 5th Army liberated Rome on June 4, 1944 – just two days before the Allies assaulted the beaches of Normandy on D-Day?

height.290.width.427The second volume of Atkinson’s trilogy, The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, filled in the Italian gap in my World War Two consciousness vividly and profoundly.


Eisenhower and 5th Army Commander, General Mark Clark, study maps of Italy after the conquest of Sicily.

Atkinson deftly portrays the colorful personalities and political pressures behind the decision to undertake the Italian campaign: the machinations of Winston Churchill, the diplomacy and determination of Franklin Roosevelt, and the taxed patience of a chain-smoking General Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander in the Mediterranean during the first stages of the invasion.

Atkinson lays out the three basic reasons that the Allies fought in Italy: to knock fascist Italy out of the war and to engage as many German divisions as possible, thus taking pressure off the Soviets on the Eastern Front and keeping Hitler from reinforcing his Atlantic defenses before the planned invasion of Normandy.

dob-photosnotinbook-25Atkinson points out that military historians have debated whether the Italian campaign was a sideshow and whether or not all the strategic objectives were met – but, as The Day of Battle makes grimly clear, the savagery of the relentless combat for every inch of Italian soil was no sideshow for the cold, wet and dirty soldiers who fought across the beaches, rivers and mountain ridges of Sicily and the Italian peninsula.

article-0-0850C347000005DC-407_634x454As an American with deep Italian roots, I’m almost shamed to admit how little I knew about the Allied invasion of Sicily, the horrors of the Salerno and Anzio landings, and the slugging, slogging war of attrition waged against desperate German defenders dug into heavily fortified mountain strongholds like San Pietro and Monte Cassino.

Cassino-mapAfter the hard-won Allied breakthrough at Monte Cassino, and the link-up with American troops that finally broke out of the misery and butchery of the Anzio beachhead, the road to Rome was open.dob-photosnotinbook-51

holl190After General Mark Clark’s columns rode into Rome along the same route taken by Caesar’s victorious legions, the Germans fought a long delaying action up the Italian boot.

While Umbria and Tuscany were spared the annihilation visited upon southern Italy — from Sicily to Naples to Monte Cassino — there was still a lot of hard fighting in the towns that I’ll be visiting on my family vacation.

Picture 1The evidence of that hard fighting is marked by the thousands of graves at the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial. Most of these soldiers died in the battles and skirmishes that took place in the 11 very long months after the capture of Rome and before the Germans in Italy finally surrendered on May 2, 1945. My family will be sure to visit this honored place to pay our respects to the men who liberated my grandparents’ homeland from Nazi tyranny.882906c0

cisterna-may44-1The son of a U.S. Army officer Rick Atkinson grew up on military posts, holds a Master of Arts degree in English literature from the University of Chicago, and has been a reporter, foreign correspondent, and senior editor for 25 years at the Washington Post. All of this has made him a well-rounded and knowledgeable storyteller with a military man’s intimate appreciation of war and soldiering combined with a reporter’s objectivity and a literary flair that makes his work special. Wherever the troops are fighting in The Day Of Battle, Atkinson finds connections to Greek and Roman myth and history that help to make his account transcendent.

The Day Of Battle is historical writing at its very best.

booksThe only drawback is that now I’ve got to read the other two volumes in Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy.

Alas. So many good books, so little time.

Forward, march!


Filed under Adventure, History