JARS v58n3 - An Italian Adventure

An Italian Adventure
Don and Bette Kohlenberger
Oak Harbor, Washington

Our trip to Italy really began on May 3rd 2003 at the ARS convention in Olympia. After winning the raffle grand prize the previous September at the ARS Western Regional Conference in Bellingham, Washington, which was a week at Bill and Mary Stipe's timeshare on Waikiki Beach, we both figured there was no way that we would be lucky enough to have our ticket pulled from the hat and head off to Italy for an all expenses paid two-week stay in the Alban Hills above Rome as guests of fellow ARS member Piero Sambucci. When it came time at the banquet for Piero to pull the lucky owners' ticket from the hat Bette and I looked at each other and shook our heads. We really didn't expect to win again. Alas, our soon to be good friend Piero pulled the ticket with our name from the hat. By the time I registered what just happened Bette was half way to the podium hootin' and hollerin'. We were on our way to Italy. Piero later advised that the two weeks that he had set aside for us was to be the first two weeks in November and we should bring along another couple lest we get tired of spending our days with just him. Our good friends and bowling partners John and Carol Decker agreed to accompany us.

In front of the house
where we stayed at night
Picture of us in front of the house where we stayed at night.
Left to right: Don Kohlenberger, Bette Kohlenberger, Piero Sambucci (our host),
Carol Decker, John Decker.
Photo courtesy of Don and Bette Kohlenberger

On November 3rd we boarded our Northwest Airlines DC-10 and after flying north along the east side Whidbey Island, giving us a beautiful view of the whole island, we turned northeast on the great circle route to Amsterdam. After flying through the night we landed at Schipol Airport as the sun was peeking up above the horizon. Facing a four-hour layover we headed to the passenger lounge. We did catch a few sideways glances from other travelers when we sampled the Heineken on tap; after all it was just midnight back home. Okay…we also had a cup of coffee. We finally boarded a KLM 737 for the short flight south over Germany and the snow-capped Italian Alps. At long last we landed at Fiumicino (aka Leonardo da Vinci) airport in Rome. Piero met us at the airport and so began our Italian adventure.

The house that was to be our home for the next two weeks is at an elevation of 1,500 feet (450m) above sea level, on the outskirts of the town of Velletri in the Alban Hills twenty-five miles southeast of Rome. Rome is on a broad plain along the Tyrrhenian Sea and is surrounded on its landward sides by a series of hills that reach upwards to elevations of 1,650 feet (500m) or higher. These hills are called the Alban Hills. "Alba" means "sunrise" in Italian, thus the name. The sun rises over these hills when viewed from Rome.

Once we made it to Piero's mini van we began our sightseeing. Our first stop along our way to Velletri was at Castel Gandolfo, which serves as the Pope's summer residence. We drove along the ubiquitous narrow streets. At once we began our daily ritual of wondering how many times we could say "Wow." It soon became apparent that we would be seeing structures dating from before Roman times to the present, all of which are seeing daily use by the locals. It was common to walk along a narrow street in Rome, see a residential doorway that dated to pre-Roman times next to one that may be only 700 or 800 years old. Our concept of "old" certainly was recalibrated.

We arrived at Piero's house at 5 p.m. The house was actually built as a bed & breakfast twenty some years ago and serves as the residence of Piero's mother and father, neither of whom speak a word of English, by the way. Piero lives with his wife, Loredana, and their two young daughters above Loredana's Veterinary Clinic. After introductions we were shown to our rooms and asked if dinner at 8 p.m. would be okay. We all looked at each other and wondered how we would be able to stay awake for three more hours!

Dinner that first evening in Velletri was representative of every dinner we would enjoy during our too brief stay. With a glass of wine we sat down to what we discovered was the first course (the local wines are excellent). Piero placed a large bowl of pasta in a marinara sauce in front of each of us. We ate heartily and polished it off. While discussing how good dinner was, out came the meat dish with vegetables and salad! Then after that we were served dessert! Every meal we ate during our stay was home cooked, either by Piero, his mother, or his cook. The menu was never duplicated, and each dish was delicious.

Day two we awoke to sunshine and enjoyed breakfast outside on the porch. From the porch we could look out over the plains to the Mediterranean (Tyrrhenian) Sea with Anzio-Nettuno to the south and Rome to the west. Our first stop of the day was at Emperor Hadrian's Villa. The Villa is one of the largest and most spectacular villas ever built in the Roman Empire (it once covered an area greater that the center of Imperial Rome). Once again... Wow! And Old! We started what was to become a daily tradition. Everyday we took homemade sandwiches and fruit with us and had a tailgate lunch party. Great fun! After lunch we toured the medieval hilltop town of Tivoli. Just about every hill or mountaintop has a medieval (or older) fortress-like town perched on top. They are everywhere and make for a spectacular view! We made it back to the house, as typical of each day, between 6 and 7 p.m. and enjoyed another home cooked meal at 8 o' clock.

On the third day we visited the fortress like-town of Orvieto. Perched on a 300-meter plateau, it looks down from its cliff edged balcony over a vineyard dotted plain. A couple of highlights, aside from the beautiful narrow streets and piazzas, were the Duomo and the Pozzo di San Patrizio. Some 300 years in the building, Orvieto's Duomo (begun 1290) with its breathtaking façade, is one of Italy's greatest cathedrals. The Pozzo, Orvieto's vast well, was commissioned in 1527 by Pope Clement VII to provide the town with a water supply in case of attack. Two 248-step staircases drop into its interior, cleverly arranged as a double helix so as not to intersect. One staircase was for the donkeys to bring water up and the other for the donkeys to go back down. The 203-foot-deep shaft took ten years to complete.

We spent a total of three and a half days in Rome itself. Each day on our way into and leaving Rome we traveled on the Old Apian Way. That is the road paved with large gray cobble-like stones that were laid by the Romans a couple of thousand years ago. We visited numerous "old" sites from the Roman era. Among the highlights was our tour of the Colosseum. Even after two millennia it remains a majestic sight. We also visited the Roman Forum, the Senate where Julius Caesar was killed and the dungeon where St. Peter was imprisoned and many other churches and buildings dating from Roman times. One day we strolled along the Via dei Coronari lined with antique shops which opened up onto the famous Piazza Novana full of local artists selling their paintings. Further along we visited Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps. Another day we toured St. Peter's Basilica and Castel Sant' Angelo. Castel Sant' Angelo began its "life" in AD 139 as Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum. Since then it has been built upon and has served many roles, a medieval citadel and prison as well as the residence of the popes during times of political unrest. We visited the Vatican Museum and, of course, the Sistine Chapel. One of our personal favorites was Bernini's David in the Borghese Gallery.

Florence was a three and a half hour trip through the beautiful countryside of Lazio and Tuscany. Among the highlights of this day trip was our visit of the Gothic Church of Santa Croce, began around 1294, the final resting place of Michelangelo Bonarotio, Galileo Galilei, Dante Alighieri and others. We walked across Ponte Vecchio, the oldest surviving bridge in the city (built 1345) lined with gold shops.

Another day trip included visits to the towns of Spoletto (7th century or older) and Assisi (medieval). Both are small hillside towns. For us the highlight of this day was our visit to the Basilica di San Francesco which is the burial place of Saint Francis. Construction of the Basilica was begun in 1228, two years after the saint's death. On our way "home" we stopped in the town of Deruta (near Assisi) and saw how terra cotta pots are made. What an interesting process! I wish we had access to those beautiful pots here.

Pompeii is a couple of hours southeast of Velletri near Naples. We spent almost four hours walking through the ancient Roman seaside town that was buried by pumice and ash in AD 79. Although it was discovered in the 16th century, serious excavation began only in 1748, revealing a city petrified in time.

We took a morning to visit the American Cemetery at the seaside town of Nettuno immediately east of Anzio. The cemetery is one of fourteen overseas sites where American Military Dead are interred. We were very pleased to see how well the site is groomed and maintained. It was a very moving experience knowing that many of the Dead interred there gave their lives in the liberation of Sicily, in the landings in the Salerno area, in the subsequent heavy fighting northward, in the landings at and occupation of the Anzio beachhead, and in the air and naval operations in these regions.

Later in the day we drove southeast along the coast to a promontory named San Felice Circeo. Near the top of the promontory are ancient walls of a city dated to 393 BC. Nearer the water stands an ancient watchtower that was erected to warn of the approach of the Saracens. From the top we were afforded a spectacular view along the coast as far as the Bay of Naples.

Early November is olive harvest time in Central Italy. During the first week we were there Signore Sambucci (Piero's 78-year-old father) picked 2,400 pounds of olives. We were fortunate for the opportunity to visit the facility where the locals bring their olives for pressing. Did you know that olive oil comes from the pits and not from the flesh of the fruit? It was fascinating to watch the process. The locals "sit" their olives through the process from when the olives are washed and crushed to the finished product when they take home the golden yellow oil. The presses operate twenty-four hours a day until all of the olives are pressed, and then the facility is closed until it's time to press again next year.

One of our days we visited some of the towns of the Castelli Romani. In the town of Nemi we went into a sausage shop. If you haven't been in an Italian sausage shop you haven't been in a sausage shop! The entire ceiling and walls were covered with the every kind of sausage you can imagine and legs of prosciutto. Quite a sight!

In the town of Grottaferrata we met Padre Partemio (very old and spry) at the Abbazia di San Nilo for a tour of the Abbey. Parts of the Abbey date "only" to the 17th century while other parts date to the 1st century BC. The original structure is believed to be part of Cicero's villa and his daughter was buried in the floor of the chapel in the 1st century BC. The church is Orthodox Roman Catholic and there are weekly services. The mosaic floor in the main sanctuary was laid in 1004 AD. The Germans in WW II bombed the Abbey but the bombs were, thankfully, duds!

Just when we thought we had seen the oldest structures in Italy we visited the ancient hilltop town of Tuscolo! Currently undergoing archeological excavations Tuscolo dates to 3,000 years ago! Wow! And Old!

One of the many things that impressed us throughout our time in Italy was that regardless of how old buildings are (aside from the obvious Roman ruins) they are actively being used for daily activities by the local residents, not as tourist attractions.

Our trip home was about as long as getting there and after twenty-four hours of being awake we made it as far as the north bridge at Deception Pass where we were delayed for a half hour by a small rockslide! Regardless of how wonderful a trip is it's always great to get back home!

Don and Bette Kohlenberger are members of the Whidbey Island Chapter.