Italy or Bust

Posted:  June 8, 2022
👁 1203   19

How We Spent Twenty Days Exploring Italy With Our Family

“This is the first time we have sat down all week,” said Chris as he settled into his aisle seat. His comment was nearly factual as we had spent the past six days running all around Ventura County, CA preparing for our departure, Italy bound. Chris’s mom (Mama Neely) had dreamed of this perfect Italian vacation, giving her must-sees to her travel agent who checked all of her boxes crafting the ultimate international adventure for our family of 10; all that us kids (and grandkids) had to do was show up and pay for food! This trip was three years in the making, but not on purpose- Thanks to Covid, car accidents, and other unforeseen circumstances we postponed this trip more than once, changing the master itinerary each time to accommodate for the other members of the Neely Family (or Neely Armada, as we call ourselves). After all this time when we saw an opportunity to make it happen in May of 2022 we took it! Unfortunately, Chris’s sister and her family of five were unable to join us due to some personal scheduling conflicts, but the remaining five of us (which included me, Chris, his brother Jon, his partner Shannon, and of course Mama Neely) were more than ready to wave goodbye to California and embrace the trip we had been dreaming about for years – but of course, it wouldn’t come easily, we had to jump a few more hurdles to make it happen.

The Plight of Flight

It was 2:00 am on a brisk April morning when I was awoken by my brother-in-law Jon and his partner Shannon dog-piled on top of me in my bed. “Good morning!” They said as bright and cheery as possible as if they hadn’t just flown over 12 hours from Curacao to join us back in the states. Although I was groggy, I reached for my glasses and joined them in the salon where we talked about their flight, boats, and of course our excitement for the following weeks. There was so much to do but seemingly so little time; Jon had one last presentable shirt left after the wears and tears of boat life which warranted a few Goodwill trips, I had to wrap up some loose ends at my desk job before officially “retiring” to focus solely on my business, Chris had to complete our hard dodger build, international drivers licenses had to be obtained, and of course, we had to pack and repack to ensure we had everything we needed for the next 27 days. In addition to the inherent stresses of international travel with your family, my phone (aka my lifeline for work) decided to off itself the day of our departure which prompted an impromptu drive to the nearest apple store for an unplanned upgrade. Nothing primes your wallet for vacation-spending quite like investing over $500 in tech before you even leave for the airport. After the purchase and data transfer, we got back to preparing the boat for our friends Mitch and Quincey who would be staying aboard while they worked on replacing the water system on their boat, Esprit. Chris was deep cleaning the head (truly saving the “best” task for last) when he noticed the gasket on our Raritan Fresh Head had cracked, resulting in leakage with every pump. Desperate for a solution he went aboard Mama Neely’s Sea Castle to commandeer her flusher (it’s the same toilet) but to our shock it was ALSO broken. Thinking on his toes Chris utilized a bike tire fix-it-kit to get the job done, which we hoped would hold until our return. With the tools packed up Avocet was in ship shape which meant it was time to kiss our Cleocat goodbye and make our way to the marina lawn to catch our Uber to the airport… or so we thought. 

“They canceled us,” Shannon said while holding Mama Neely’s phone. Our flight was in 4 hours, but factoring in the LA traffic, hassle of security, finding our gate, and the pace Mama Neely had set post-car accident we were already cutting it thin. We scrambled to find a ride, calling upon every taxi company, one of which promised they would pick us up in 5 minutes, but when 15 passed Chris called to cancel and was cussed out by the cabbie. 0 stars. Despite our valiant efforts to find a ride, we decided that driving ourselves was now our best option. Shannon did some quick research and found a car park with a cheap shuttle so we set the GPS and weaved our way through the angsty LA drivers.

We arrived in the knick of time, blowing through security like seasoned veterans. Once settled at our gate, Shannon and I went on a mission to find food. Burritos are always a good choice, we thought as we stood by waiting for our orders to be filled. “Number 10! Number 10!” The cashier yelled from the counter. Our tickets were number 34 and 36. Considering our tight timeline, we were crossing our fingers and toes that we would get our food before boarding. “Number 29!” The cashier yelled. Chris texted me “Mom and Jon are boarding.” Finally, our numbers were called and we sped walked to our gate, offloading the goods to the boys to help carry aboard. The flight attendants of Swedish Air giggled as they saw our food make its way down the aisle, gently ribbing us with comments like “you know we have food aboard, right?” But what they didn’t know was that the Neely boys can EAT. Once seated, we stuffed our faces as if it were the first time we had seen food in a week. 

With full stomachs and comfortable seats, we could finally breathe and appreciate the fact that we were doing it. After three years of anticipation, it was happening. Although we would be gone the entire month, the five of us managed to travel with only carry-on luggage which was made possible for Chris and I thanks to the new Osprey bags he bought us. I had also brought my “day bag” which was made specifically for flying, providing room for my shoes and other items that wouldn’t really fit inside a backpack. There is some comfort in knowing all you need can be carried on your back like a turtle with its shell.

Ten hours passed on our Swedish Air flight, and after a few movies, an attempt to sleep, and of course staring endlessly out the plane window we had landed in Zurich, Switzerland at 15:00. Although we had felt like we left the chaos behind us, we found out that our flight to Milan, Italy had been canceled – in fact, it was the only flight in the entire airport that was canceled. After tracking down an information desk, we got the reroute sorted out… or so we thought. Everyone was rebooked for Munich, Germany except me, whose ticket was the only one for Frankfurt, Germany. Exhausted after our first flight, I was a bit shocked at the news but having traveled solo domestically and internationally in the past, I was sure I could handle it – Chris, however, was less than sure and uncomfortable with the idea of his wife navigating a huge airport alone. He stepped up to the counter to plead his case with the agent who was clearly frazzled by the situation. Perhaps it was the language barrier or the end of her shift, but she was unwilling to assist us in any capacity saying our two flight options were “totally full” and “overbooked”. Despite the presented options, Chris wasn’t taking no for an answer and returned to the desk to speak with another associate. This time the man who helped him was a miracle worker, and able to change all of our tickets for the same flight that boarded 20 minutes later. Our hero. 

Despite having been told this flight was “totally booked” there were empty seats all around us and (ironically) I had no seat mates leaving me with extra room to sprawl out. In a blink of an eye, we were in the sky and the lush green landscape revealed itself under the cover of ominous clouds. Just as the wheels left the tarmac a long stringy finger of lightning cracked in the hills off our 12 o’clock. We all looked at Shannon (who is not a fan of flying) who responded with a simple “trust me, I already know.” As we flew into the dark (and electrical) unknown, I couldn’t help but think of the TV Show Manifest, and follow suit in hoping we don’t disappear for five years. Fortunately, we were still alive and part of the same universe, landing in Germany one podcast episode later and ready for the final leg of our trip. 

Tired and starved we hunted for the best food options in the airport with comfortable seating, stumbling upon an Italian restaurant – go figure. It was about 2:00 am California time, so after eating a light dinner of pizza, German beer, and fries we brushed our teeth and napped on the benches of our next flight’s gate. During my peaceful sleep, I couldn’t help but notice how quiet Europeans are in comparison to Americans – you could hear a pin drop from across the airport, whereas in the states you would have to focus hard on what the intercom says or else you risk missing valuable information. “Now boarding Flight (whatever it was) to Milan, Italy” sounded over the intercom. Having just an hour or so of real sleep on my terminal bench, I groggily stretched and tried to get the blood circulating again before grabbing our bags and jumping in the queue to board our final flight, which was over in a blink. 

“Hertz closes at 12:00,” Chris said as he glanced down at his watch. It was 11:20 and we were fresh off the plane. Since the booking was under Jon’s name, he ran to secure the car while the rest of us were left to navigate the airport on our own. Eventually (after a few wrong turns) we were reunited and by a sheer miracle had a car to begin the first part of our vacation – or holiday, as the Europeans call it. Looking through the back window of our Citroen Space Tourer  (which would soon become a cornerstone of this experience) I saw castles, clock towers, and the silhouettes of diverse flora as we weaved through the narrow streets and backroads. Chris was exhausted but managed to drive us to our villa in one piece. I couldn’t wait to see it in the daylight.

Lago Maggiore – Day 1

Sunlight was inescapable as it shone through our sheer blinds. We were tired, but the excitement of being somewhere new took over, prompting us to open our eyes and embrace the unfamiliar. It was 5:30 am and the sound of songbirds filled the air, drawing me closer to the window that overlooked the magnificent Lago Maggiore (Lake Maggiore). “Buongiorno” is what I posted to my Instagram story, channeling my inner “Emily in Paris” all while letting my friends and family know that we had arrived. 

Chris soon joined me by the window, espresso in hand as we admired the lush green landscape that had resisted the mass molestation of developers. In place of towering hotels and obscure buildings were villas and humble homes littered throughout the land, working with the scenery versus against it. Chris and I finished getting ready and then walked downstairs to meet the rest of the family for our first breakfast of the trip. Jumping right into Italian culture we ordered a round of Cappuccinos – a drink that should only be ordered before 11:00. The breakfast was simple, but delicious made complete with flakey croissants that nearly brought tears to my eyes. A regatta formed in the near distance, capturing our full attention as we watched the sailors skillfully tack up and down the lake to make their marks. 

Come to find out, Lake Maggiore is noted as one of the most spectacular places in the world for sailing. The Tramontana winds blow across the lake’s surface in the early hours of the morning from the mountains towards the plain while the Inverna winds show up in the afternoons, blowing in the opposite direction. These winds are as reliable as Swiss clockwork, allowing sailors to fill their sails throughout the day. 

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When the wind died, we made our way to The little town of Intra, another town situated along the Borromean Gulf. Many of the shops were closed since it was a bank holiday, but we still enjoyed getting lost on the streets together, popping into churches, and eating gelato. Later in the afternoon, we drove to a market – or Mercato as they say in Italian – and bought 15 bottles of wine, half a wheel of brie, two hard cheeses, and some other light snacks all for under 100 Euro! With provisions stocked we returned to our villa, Casali della Cistera, to hop in the jacuzzi and do a “wine tasting” with five of our 15 bottles. We had gone to get towels from reception when we were intercepted by Walla, a long-time friend of the Neely’s whom they had met while chartering in the British Virgin Islands years ago. We were thrilled to have a friendly face join in on the fun and help us navigate a new country and language, especially since her Italian was conversational while ours was not even in the realm of “survival” yet. Speaking of survival, driving the roads of Northern Italy is definitely survival of the fittest, and for our first lesson: Don’t drive into narrow, poorly marked alleyways. 

“Yah… you don’t got it” Jon said from the passenger seat of our beloved Citroen. The rest of us sat looking out the windows, wide-eyed, as Chris attempted to back out of a very tight alleyway that was definitely meant for foot traffic only. We were on our way to dinner with Walla when Google maps decided to take us on a “fun” detour resulting in getting us wedged between a literal rock and hard place. Clearly we were not the only ones to make this honest mistake since the walls had been carved out from other vehicles hitting the sides. Car parts were littered along windowsills and the not-roadway as we continued to retrace our path. After some gentle, tight-quartered maneuvering we were back to a real road and continued on to dinner.

oops.

After our risky drive we arrived at the restaurant for our first dinner of the trip. The waitress initially turned us away since she was unsure if the kitchen had enough food for the six of us, but then to our delight she allowed us to stay. Although we had tried our best italian, we were thankful our waitress spoke a decent amount of English. “How did you find us?” She asked. Her surprise was warranted as Chris really did some digging to find a highly rated place off the beaten path (emphasis on that last part). All of our meals were phenomenal and made even better by the friendly waitress who shared that it was the first day the wait staff didn’t need to wear masks, and in place wore the biggest smile on her face. It was around 10:00 when we wrapped up, and we were some of the last patrons to be seen. Before we left, we were presented with homemade limoncello as a “thank you” for being the best table of the day. To top off the experience, the bill (which in California would easily be around $300) was under $100 euros. Amiamo l’italia.

Isolate Borromean/ Switzerland – Day 2

“Buongiorno” sang the family in unison as Chris and I sat down at the breakfast table. It was another glorious morning in Italy, and we were ready to see more things after cappuccinos, of course. That day we traveled to the renowned Borromean Islands to explore Isola Madre, Isola Bella, and Isola Pescatori. The name “Borromean Islands” derives from the Borromeo family, which started acquiring the islands in the early 16th century and still owns the majority of them (Isola Madre, Bella, San Giovanni) today. 

Our first stop was Isola Madre, the largest of the three, which is also noted for its gardens that have been carefully maintained since about 1823 in a traditional English style. Although we did not go into the palace, I read that it is splendidly furnished with 16th to 19th-century Italian masterpieces. Back on the shore, I dipped my toes in the water which was similar to our home lake, Huntington, before boarding the boat to visit the next Island, Isola Pescatori which was as beautiful as the shop owners were cranky. 

Neely Brothers admiring the view

Nice shot, Jon!

While walking through the fishing village, Shannon and I stopped to look at a shawl that had a wonderful handle. Apparently, my interest disgusted the shopkeeper since she removed the garment from my view and hid it inside. Jokes on her, I was going to buy it. As we walked through the streets this snooty attitude continued as shopkeepers (particularly the women) seemed disgusted with our presence. One woman, in particular, looked Shannon up and down with such repugnance I had to giggle, especially when I heard from Chris that she had given the same look to me as I passed by. Despite the women, the men on this island seemed to like us as we received “Ciao Bella” on a couple of occasions. 

We truly saved the best for last as Isola Bella stole a piece of my heart. Named for Isabella, countess Borromeo, this little slice of heaven was originally a barren rock, but after first improvements and buildings it was opened by count Carlo III between 1629 and 1652. His son Vitaliano the 6th built an attractive summer palace, bringing in vast quantities of soil in order to build up a system of ten terraces for the garden. The merchants on this island were a lot friendlier, in fact, I bought a new sundress almost instantly when a young shopkeeper happily showed me three different styles, with a smile! This island also had a cat sanctuary which won us over as a family of cat lovers. It was here we witnessed our first dead body of the trip (yes, there would be many more to come) that belonged to Saint Victor whose human remains are kept under the high altar for all of eternity. 

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It was over lunch Jon advocated for the idea that we drive to Switzerland to spend the remainder of our day. To his excitement we were on board and after our island adventure made our way north. Always on the hunt to see cool things we took a detour that included a short hike to Roman ruins. Mama Neely and Walla stayed behind with the car while us kids made the trek to the top. Along the trail we noticed markers that resembled headstones, marked with “DM” which sparked an ongoing joke that lasted the entire trip and surely will continue to make its rounds in the future. “That must stand for didn’t make it” Jon said, prompting the eruption of laughter as we hiked on. At the top was a vista overlooking the road and the intense mountainsides. Although the door to the tower was boarded up, I found a hole that we could use to crawl inside. One after another we crawled our way in, impressed that we didn’t get our white shirts dirty. From the inside Chris and I climbed to the “window” to get a better vantage point and sat for a moment taking it all in. Wow. 

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The massive calzone

Back on the ground, we continued our wild drive to Switzerland. Rain pelted the windshield as Chris did his best to share the narrow roadway with fellow drivers. The town over the border of Switzerland was sleepy with not a whole lot of things to see or places to eat, so we opted for a coffee stop before driving back down to Stresa, Italy for dinner. Yes, we drove all the way to Switzerland from Italy for a few coffees. Back in Italia, we had an incredible dinner at Rosata Restaurante where Chris ordered the biggest calzone we have ever seen! Come to find out, it was also Walla’s birthday so we made sure to get her dessert to commemorate the special day – she managed to keep it secret from us all day until she nonchalantly mentioned it to Mama Neely… of course we wouldn’t just let that one slip by! 

Feeling absolutely gluttonous to the core we returned to the villa and hugged Mama Neely and Walla goodnight before utilizing the gym equipment to repent for our indulgent sins. Shannon and I did a mile or so on the treadmill and elliptical before joining the boys in a few rounds of ping pong and finally retiring to our respective beds for another night of much needed sleep. 

Lake Como and the Planet of Naboo – Day 3

Fun fact: I am a huge Star Wars nerd. And I don’t mean a new-age-nerd either, my affinity for the films runs deep, starting with my dad who was enamored with the first film back in 77 that kicked off a collection of memorabilia, posters, and other related items that I grew up around. If there is a trivia game with Star Wars as the topic I am your best bet at winning. At our wedding, I walked down the aisle to Princess Leia’s theme and we walked up the aisle (together) to the Throne Room Scene – both scores from Star Wars. With that said, when I learned we would be traveling to the location used as the Planet of Naboo I couldn’t contain my excitement. 

That morning we woke up extra early to get to Como as recommended by our Villa staff. Chris drove while Jon sat shotgun to help navigate – or so he said. Despite our attempt to be timely, we ended up burning a half hour or so due to driving in the completely wrong direction. Come to find out if you miss a turn while using offline Google maps, your phone will not reroute. Because of this, we had to pay 2 euros to the tolls, investing in our knowledge of how to properly use the Italian roadways. While exiting our last toll, a man knocked on the passenger window. Despite our best attempts to blend in, the man immediately spoke to us in English rather than saying “il tuo paraurti è caduto” which roughly translates to “Your bumper has fallen off.” Jon jumped out of the car to collect the bumper, shoving it in the back of the Citroen. What did we hit? No idea. 

Finally, after much anticipation, we arrived at Villa Balbianello which was actually a 20-minute hike to get to. When we arrived, we found out the tours were by reservation only and of course, they were totally booked. Chris was determined to work his magic and did his best to turn a no into a yes. He couldn’t get us in the villa but we were welcomed to walk the garden which is all we needed! The grounds were impressive with a variety of plants and statues decorating the area around the villa. After a circle around the property, we saw where they filmed the wedding scene from Star Wars Episode 2. We took in the scenery before beginning our hike back to the car. Mama Neely and Walla took the short way while we decided to be a bit more adventurous and take the long way, which we were definitely not dressed for. Up and up we went on the dirt trail through the dense green woods that reminded me of the Pacific North West. 

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While in Como, we took a ferry across to the glamorous Bellagio which had a totally different vibe than our sleepy little towns around Lake Maggiore. Unlike the Vegas resort that dawns the same name, the original Bellagio is known for its cobbled lanes, elegant buildings and Villa Serbelloni Park, an 18th-century terraced garden with lake views. Affluence was everywhere, and there was no surprise why so many celebrities have homes in this area of Italy. The streets were steep with narrow walkways and shops with expensive price tags made window shopping – and definitely just window shopping – fun. We could afford one thing, though.

Driving to La Spezia/Genova – Day 4

Leaving our beloved lakeside villa was extremely bittersweet as it meant we were onto our next adventure, but it also meant leaving our slice of paradise behind. We cannot recommend Relias Casali Dello Cisterna villa enough; The managers Simona and Alberto were incredibly welcoming and took great care of us making this first part of our trip. If you are looking to explore the northern lakes of Italy, definitely look into booking your stay with them! With the car packed we hugged Walla goodbye, incredibly thankful to have shared this part of the trip with her, then headed south towards La Spezia. 

Chris and the Med

Shannon was in the driver’s seat and Jon navigated while the rest of us sat in the back taking in the scenery. Excitement came over us when the Mediterranean Sea came into sight, inspiring our detour through Genova to get our toes wet. Armed with Prosecco, a wheel of brie, some baguettes, and fruit packed by Simona we had a pretty decent picnic set up as we found a spot on the beach to sit down and enjoy ourselves. Shannon and I were quick to ditch our shoes and run to the water where we slightly recoiled at the cool temperature but were too ecstatic to care. “The MED!” is all we could say with smiles strewn across our faces. 

After our picnic, we continued our drive to La Spezia where we checked into our hotel which had a wonderful view of the port. Unlike cities at home, La Spezia had streets filled with citrus trees bearing fruit that was free for all, producing a wonderful fresh smell and adding life to the otherwise concrete jungle. It was here we were reunited with Lenny, a long-time friend of the Neely family, who had recently moved to Italy. “One for you, and one for you!” Lenny said, extending tthree bottles of Gin, one for each of the Neely boys and for Mama Neely. Lenny’s family has a namesake distillery (Dellavalle) that produces a number of spirits including the gin we now possessed. 

Lunch with Lenny

Although our picnic on the beach was yummy, our stomachs growled for more sustenance. In the company of Lenny we wandered the streets of La Spezia comparing the unfamiliar familiarities of city life in Italy to what we know at home. Of course, our hunger did not coincide with the Italians eating schedule (again) which meant a majority of the eateries were closed. Fortunately, we did stumble upon one place next to the park that graciously took us in with a waiter that was quite the comedian. It was a wonderful lunch complete with complimentary cognac after Jon was honest about the beers that were left off the initial receipt. 

The breezeway of Port La Spezia was reminiscent of Mexican ports with large palms running parallel to the brick walkway and large boats anchored out. The sun melted on our skin with a kiss of brisk wind brushing across all vulnerable surfaces. With wine poured the six of us sat along the breezeway talking about life, boating and what the future would hold for us all, essentially catching up with an old friend while taking a walk down memory lane. In the marina we watched a sailboat pull in and out of its slip at least 10 times, clearly unable to stick the landing. Of course, the Neely Armada took great joy in commentating the event at the expense of the poor captain who was thankfully well out of earshot. In a blink of an eye, the day had turned to night and it was time to return to our hotel for a full night of rest, since the next day would be full of walking. 

Not bad for an iPhone photo

Cinque Terre – Day 5

How fitting was it that the five of us were visiting Cinque (meaning five) Terre on the fifth of May? The sky was gray and rain was in the forecast, but I was hoping for the best as I made the bold choice of wearing a white linen shirt for this adventure. Over breakfast, Shannon shared that she was bit by what we assumed was the only mosquito in all of Italy since we had yet to see a flying pest. If they did exist, they would have her for a first course then Chris for a second, leaving me off the menu entirely. 

We boarded the tour boat from Porto La Spezia beginning our tour with Porto Venere, which is what we still recall to be one of the highlights of our entire trip. It was here we explored the Doria Castle (Castello Doria) which had unique tower-like houses that effectively turned the Harbor into a fortified citadel. Although quite vertical, the streets were lined with interesting shops and foods – a deep green pesto catching our eye. After a taste test, we all confirmed it was hands down the best pesto we had ever eaten and bought jars to bring home. I am hoping to recreate the flavor soon! We wandered through the castle walls enjoying the sights and history firsthand. At the top was a relatively new cemetery where hundreds of people laid to rest overlooking the water below. Church bells rang in the distance as we scurried down the steep, uneven steps to catch our boat for the next town. 

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Riomaggiore is a village and commune dating from the early thirteenth century, is known for its historic character and its wine, produced by the town’s vineyards. Riomaggiore’s main street is Via Colombo, where numerous restaurants, bars, and shops can be found, which is good since it was the only road we explored when the sky decided to open up and drop buckets of rain on us. Thankfully there was a Michelin Star restaurant we could duck into to wait out the brunt of the storm. We ordered ravioli in a pesto sauce, similar to the pesto we tried in Porto Venere, which was absolutely to die for. At the end when we were finishing our espressos the rain began to lighten up enough to where we could venture back out without risking getting soaked to the bone. Up the street, us girls popped into a shop where I purchased a simple sterling silver ring; a memento of this beautiful place. Before boarding the boat, we were entranced by the sound of an organ, following the sound to the Oratorio di Santa Maria Assunta church where a man was playing the keys with (what we can assume) his young granddaughter at his side. It was truly enchanting. 

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Our boat-led adventure ended with Monterosso Al Mare which is the largest of the five coastal villages in Cinque Terre. The village is located on hills cultivated with lemons, vines, and olives. We have heard that its amazing beaches, beautiful reefs, and the sea’s crystal clear waters make this small village one of the most hospitable of the Ligurian Riviera but the weather was not in our favor for beach combing so we stuck to the sidewalks and ventured into town. At some point, Jon, Chris, and I were separated from Mama Neely and Shannon, and found ourselves inside the highest elevation cemetery I have ever seen. We gasped for air at the top that had a beautiful 360-degree view of the surroundings below. Again, a remarkably peaceful place to rest for all eternity. As we descended I was transfixed by the rich smell of what I could only guess was a butter chardonnay reduction with garlic and perhaps shallots. My stomach growled. We had walked a total of 15,800 steps that day according to my iPhone, and I could absolutely feel it. 

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 Once reunited with Mama Neely and Shannon we ventured to the train station where we boarded a train to Corniglia, one of the five cities that was only accessible from the road/train. It was a short trip but lovely nonetheless as the scenery of the landscape was intriguing with the classic Mediterranean fishing village flair and pops of bright yellow citrus speckled throughout. Right outside the station at Corniglia was a cab that drove us into the heart of town, and thank goodness too… it was all uphill and would have been a very long walk. Sunlight was fleeting when we stepped foot in the town center, desperate to find dinner to fill our empty stomachs. While walking the narrow streets we found a cream-colored cat that led us to a restaurant where she sat, letting us pet her by the door. “The Cat has decided. We eat here” Shannon said; there was no opposition to the decision. Down a flight of stairs, we settled in the belly of the building that was situated on a cliffside, like every other building in this region. The wait staff received food from the upstairs kitchen via dumbwaiter which was an ingenious addition to helping the flow of things. Of course, it was another incredible meal complete with tiramisu and espresso before we returned to the town center where the cabbie said he would pick us up… or so we thought. 

Shannon thought she had confirmed with the cab driver when he dropped us off that he made rounds every 10 minutes, but after waiting in the rain for 25 minutes we realized he must have meant the last cab stops at 10:00 meaning we were stranded in this town, faced with a long and steep walk back to the train station – a feat that would have sucked for us kids, but could be potentially trip ending for Mama Neely and her injured foot. Just as we had begun to sulk our way to the bottom, a white van pulled up and picked up a couple on the sidewalk. “WAIT!” Chris and Shannon yelled, running after it. He was another cabbie that was about to finish for the night but took pity on us and promised to return after dropping off his current passengers. Relieved and feeling like our Griswold-Family-Vacation misfortune was turning around we sat on the bus bench and waited patiently for our hero to return, which he did, and returned us to the station as promised. We boarded the train one last time, arriving back in La Spezia at 11:00, totally and completely ready for bed.

Lucca and Pisa – Day 6

I cannot even begin to explain how good it felt to “sleep in” the morning after walking 15,000+ steps. It was another rainy day, but it wouldn’t stop us from having fun and moving on to the next part of our adventure. After breakfast we restuffed our bags and the Citroen, heading inland towards Lucca, but first with a pitstop in Pisa. 

Truth be told, all I had really known of Pisa was its famous leaning tower, and I thought that was all there would be to see. To my surprise inside the city walls of Pisa, there was so much more including an incredibly ornate church, baptistry, museum, and cemetery. We were all blown away when we learned the significance and history of Pisa went far beyond its tower, which in all honestly was one of the lesser fascinating bits of this incredibly historically dense city. During the museum tour, we learned that in the 14th and 15th centuries the arcades of the Camposanto Cemetery were once painted with Renaissance frescoes that covered mostly biblical themes and the lives of local saints. On completion, the frescoes covered 2,600 square meters — more than the Sistine chapel. Unfortunately, during the Second World War, an Allie bombing set the roof of the cemetery on fire, burning the building for three days, and severely damaging the frescoes which were later removed from the wall and displayed in the museum for preservation purposes. Although the colored paint had been burned away, the judgment day fresco caught the attention of Jon and I who stood in awe of the painting admiring its grotesque depiction of heaven and hell. To sum it up: the frescoes remind the viewer of imminent death and the necessity of living a Christian life, by literally scaring the fear of God into them. As we continued on the museum path, a colored painting of the judgment day fresco was on display adding an entirely new layer of terror and magnificence. 

The Final Judgement Fresco that captivated Jon and I. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Camposanto Cemetery can be literally translated as “holy field”, because it is said to have been built around a shipload of sacred soil from Golgotha, brought back to Pisa from the Third Crusade in the 12th century. A legend claims that bodies buried in that ground will rot in just 24 hours. The burial ground lies over the ruins of the old baptistery of the church of Santa Reparata, the church that once stood where the cathedral now stands. As a cemetery enthusiast, I was thrilled to walk around the grounds and admire the tombs and inscriptions on the graves. Pisa was lovely but the rain was starting to fall and it was time for us to seek refuge in our car and head North East to Lucca.

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Chris is roughly 25% Italian on his fathers side with ancestors hailing from Lucca, a city on the Serchio river in Italy’s Tuscany region. It’s known for the well-preserved Renaissance walls that circle its historic city center and its cobblestone streets. Broad, tree-lined pathways along the tops of the massive 16th- and 17th-century ramparts that are popular for strolling and cycling. It was here we found our next Villa tucked into the green hills of Lucca; home for the next few days. 

We arrived late, just in time to find dinner. Jon searched for the most inexpensive and well reviewed eatery near us, finding one very close to our villa. Inside, the waitress apologized that her English was not very good to which we sincerely apologized that our Italian was non bene. It was another wonderful meal in a room of Italians fascinated with how we had found this “local” place. “Dolci from the Chef, he was in love with you the minute you walked in the door” our waitress said to me. I was flattered, my in laws impressed and Chris was thrilled we got free dessert because of my looks. I quickly google translated how to say “ this is my husband” in Italian. Our waitress returned with a notepad, saying the chef wanted my instagram, so as the true social media manager I am I wrote down @svavocet as well as @svprism so we could all reap the benefits of my beauty. That was the first time that has ever happened to me, and I will cherish the moment forever. 

Lucca – Day 7

After days of gray skies and rain, the sun was most welcomed in the morning when we ventured inside the walls of Lucca, inspiring me to wear my yellow sundress. The streets were buzzing with cyclists, music, bubbles and families as we weaved through the crowds to find a bike shop that could rent us 4 regular bikes and one E-assist for Mama Neely. After some research, Chris found that Ride the Walls had the most affordable bikes with friendly staff who got us all situated for our day. Outside the Piazza San Michele, a woman with a beautiful voice sang classic 40’s songs in Italian, enchanting passerbys like ourselves to hop off our bikes and listen. Chris, armed with a film camera, snapped a few photos of the performance capturing the moment forever. We continued on our bike ride around the wall, stopping at San Colom Bano for some much needed coffee before we continued the rest of our tour. 

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Do you remember in all the old gladiator and roman films how there are very cinematic scenes where it almost looks like its snowing? Well, it’s not snow. It is the dandelion-like-pollen from the Poplar tree which Chris and I happened to be very allergic to. Fortunately we were not alone as with every breath of wind people all around joined us in sneezing fits.

After a full lap around the city wall we returned the bikes and headed off to find lunch. Everything within the walls were on the pricier side, which as a tourist destination was to be expected, but Jon found a place filled with younger people which we could only assume meant it was on the less-expensive side. Da Umberto was perfectly priced with incredible pizzas and a great atmosphere to relax before continuing our exploration on foot. Once full, we visited a leather store nearby where we enjoyed trying on the expensive leather jackets. 

We were not expecting to buy anything from Benheart Leather – where the median price was $250 – but when Chris slipped on a dark leather jacket that fit him like a glove things changed quickly. The jacket was made for him, hugging his broad shoulders and covering the length of his long arms. He looked like a male model or Indiana Jones, ready to find the Lost Ark. The jacket was $500, single handedly the most expensive piece of clothing he had ever purchased (including his suit for our wedding) but it was an opportunity to invest in leather that will last a lifetime, from a place where his ancestors once called “home”. I wanted a jacket too, but none of the styles fit me well enough to inspire the need to spend $500, so we tabled my desires for another time and place, hoping something would appear during the rest of our travels. Remember this, it’s important for later. 

Back at the Villa Jon, Shannon, Mama Neely and Chris napped by the pool while I sat down to write. An hour passed before our appetites caught up with us, inspiring our search for the next eatery. *ping* Jon sent a message to the family chat with a link to a dinner option. “This place looks pretty nice” Chris said, as if he had anything to worry about while dressed in Italian leather. I pulled out my nicest dress to try and match his level of class before we connected with the family in the car. Everyone was dressed to the nines, even Jon, who we had not seen dressed so nicely since our wedding in 2018! The restaurant was a 20 minute drive into the country, far from any tourist hotspot. 

“Closed for an event” Chris said, after returning from inside. The place we had our sights on was no longer viable, and we were left without a plan B. Fortunately, Jon was quick to locate another place just up the road. From the outside, it looked like a very small restaurant, with home-like fixtures and low lighting. Unsure if they could feed a party of five, they said we were welcome to take a seat and wait for about 45 minutes which we agreed to – we had no plans, no cares, and were along for the ride. The man led us into room after room, the restaurant unveiling itself to be much larger than initially anticipated before we found our table in a small room with one other large party. “Bienvenido!” the group said as we took our seats. Despite the waiter’s warning regarding the wait time, we were taken care of promptly with drinks and appetizers presented almost immediately after we ordered them. 

As we neared the end of our meal the group behind us asked where we were from. “Americans!” they confidently guessed. They were from the area, and shocked that we had stumbled upon this restaurant on a whim. Eugina was the most vocal of the group, asking all about boat life and our travel plans. My phone made its way around their table with a photo of Avocet pulled up. It’s safe to say, she was a crowd pleaser as the group then asked a plethora of live-aboard related questions which we happily answered. Our new friends left us with plenty of notes regarding where we should go and where we shouldnt, exchanging numbers with Jon and Shannon before departing. Later in our trip Eugina followed up with us to see how everything was going and offered a few more suggestions, which was greatly appreciated. Friends are all over the world, just waiting to be met!

Mothers Day in Florence – Day 8

“Did that American Coffee not jump hold your crotch?” Jon asked over breakfast. “I’m sorry, what?” was my response as we all laughed at the absurdity, trying to comprehend his intention behind the random words he strung together. Clearly, more coffee was needed but first it was time to celebrate Mama Neely! It was Mothers Day, and Shannon had woken up early to gather wildflowers and dress the table for the occasion. They gifted her a beautiful necklace brought back from the Dominican Republic, while Chris and I were still hoping we would find the *perfect* piece of art to gift to her. Meanwhile at home in California, my friends at the Sugar Bakery would be delivering my mom a beautifully decorated cheesecake. 

After breakfast we made our way to Florence, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region. Amongst the many masterpieces of Renaissance art and architecture, one of its most iconic sights is the Duomo which is a cathedral with a terracotta-tiled dome engineered by Brunelleschi and a bell tower by Giotto. Mama Neely waited for us at a cafe while we climbed to the top of the bell tower. The stairs were narrow which made close-quarter maneuvering around descending traffic a claustrophobic’s worst nightmare. At the top, the view of the city was remarkable as the sound of a marching band from below filled the airway. We snapped photos before Shannon and I began our walk down. 

At the bottom, we sat down with Mama Neely for some drinks while we waited for our men to return. The bells rang from the tower as our waitress came to take our order. “casa bianca, por favore” Shannon said. Before I could make that “due” the waitress educated Shannon, saying that the house wine is never good and that she may as well give her euros to the cafe owner. Instead, she brought us a glass of her favorite which was definitely delicious. We continued to bite our tongues when ordering wine in the future. 

The artist

“That was AMAZING!” Chris said with a sh!t eating grin. He and Jon were at the top of the tower when the bells rang, and could feel the reverberation in their bones. They took a video to share with us, and we could feel the power of the bells even from a second hand perspective. I think it was definitely a highlight of their time in Florence, if not the trip as a whole. Across from the cafe was a street artist who had many wonderful pieces on display. I caught Mama Neely looking at one of the smaller pieces, and signaled to Chris to buy it in stealth. He did as asked, while also getting a piece for us to commemorate the trip. “Happy Mothers Day!” we said, handing her the art accompanied by a hug.

Florence is home to Michelangelo’s Statue of David, a masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, created in marble between 1501 and 1504. To see it in person was incredible, and surprising, since I didn’t expect the figure to be 5.17 meters (roughly 16 feet) tall. The statue’s size was not the only surprising faset, but we learned that the statue symbolized the defense of civil liberties embodied in the Republic of Florence, an independent city-state threatened on all sides by more powerful rival states and by the hegemony of the Medici family. The eyes of David, with a warning glare, were fixated towards Rome where the Medici family lived. Finally, we discovered that David, although a hero, is not very well endowed due to the fact that the Greeks (for whom Roman artists copied) believed small “bits” signified self-control, restraint, and intelligence… or it was just cold. 

Wow, you made it this far! Thank you so much for reading. To prove you are a true fan, comment “vini, vidi, vici!” in the comments so we can see who made it to this checkpoint.

Siena and San Gimi?…Gimig?… Jimmy Jon-O – Day 9

After a full day of walking in Florence we deserved a slow morning. With more than eight hours of sleep under our belts mixed with the fuel from our daily cappuccinos we packed our bags once more, this time with signs of difficulty before embarking on our next mission. 

We were bound for Perugia, but Mama Neely had a few detours mapped out to explore before arriving at our next villa. However, after a long night of researching the best place to buy leather jackets in an attempt to help me fulfill my “wants,” Jon had discovered that there was a leatherschool in Florence, and not just any leather school, but the leather school. Located in the monastery of the Santa Croce church, the quiet school of Scuola Del Cuoio was founded after World War II through the collaborative efforts of the Franciscan friars of the Monastery of Santa Croce and the Gori and Casini families, Florentine leather artisans since the 1930’s. Their mission was to give orphans of the war a means to learn a practical trade with which to earn a living. Today, the school remains the largest genuine laboratory in the city where clients can witness the artisans create the leather goods in the midst of centuries-old history. If only getting there was as easy as googling its history, though. 

The Duomo, shot on the Olympus OMD-1, Mitsubishi 100

“Just do it!” Jon said to Shannon who was driving through the busy streets of Florence. “Jon, I don’t think we can go down this street” she said in rebuttal. Despite her (and our) concerns, she followed through with the approval of her other half and drove into the historical center of Florence. This is where we learned a very valuable (and potentially expensive) lesson that would haunt us the rest of the trip. 

Limited Traffic Zones (called Zona Traffico Limitato or ZTL in Italian) are found in most major cities around Italy to reduce congestion in high traffic areas, helping to slow the inevitable structural decay of their historic city centers. ZTL zones are marked by flashing signs that outline the time you are allowed (if at all) to drive in those areas. Florence is one of the cities notoriously guilty of pushing drivers into ZTL zones with no way out, which results in a potentially steep traffic fine. According to our later research, you can expect to pay approximately 65 EUR if you drive into a ZTL zone, plus a “Traffic Violation Fee” of around 45 EUR charged by your local car rental supplier. This information sent Jon, an impressively frugal human being, into a fit of disappointment. It was an expensive learning experience he would not let himself forget for the remainder of our trip. The real bummer though? The leather school didn’t have any leather jackets that suited me. A real lose-lose for everyone involved. But hey, at least we have something to laugh about for years to come!

If you would like to help with the reparation costs associated with Jon’s navigation faux pax, please consider donating to our Ko-Fi account. We will rebuild.  

Tuscany’s landscape was gorgeous with golden hills and bursts of green, and potholes bigger than any we have ever seen. On our way to Perugia, we stopped in the sleepy town of San Gimignano, a place which even the Italians had trouble pronouncing. Encircled by 13th-century walls, its old town centers on Piazza della Cisterna, a triangular square lined with medieval houses. The Duomo di San Gimignano is a 12th-century church with frescoes by Ghirlandaio in its Santa Fina Chapel, which to my delight, had turtles walking in the outdoor courtyard. San Gimignano is definitely where interior decorators of the early 2000’s got their inspiration with crumbling stone walls, intricately wrought iron accessories, sun-washed hillsides, rustic stone farmhouses, and marble flooring – the cornerstones of the copy-cat decorating fad.

With the hard-to-pronounce city in our rear view mirror we set our sights on Siena, a town distinguished by its medieval brick buildings. The fan-shaped central square, Piazza del Campo, is the site of the Palazzo Pubblico, the Gothic town hall, and Torre del Mangia, a slender 14th-century tower with sweeping views from its distinctive white crown. The Palio di Siena is a horse race that is held twice each year, on 2 July and 16 August, in Siena, Italy. Ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in the appropriate colors, represent ten of the seventeen contrade, or city wards. While here, the boys stumbled into a jackpot of a camera shop that had stockpiles of Hasselblad’s, Leica’s, Nikon’s, Cannon’s, Fujinon… you name it! They were in heaven. “Just five minutes” Chris said, surely to never be seen again. Knowing darn well he was as good as gone in a labyrinth of cameras, Mama Neely and I found a cafe nearby and settled for some coffee while we waited. 

Center of Siena where Palio di Siena is held

It was later in the afternoon when we came together again; this time with more film for the camera thanks to the camera shop in Siena. With the daylight fading faster than my energy we set our course for a place to eat dinner while enroute to Perugia. Testone was a casual eatery off the roadway that was relatively busy and definitely a local spot – the menu was very heavy on the Italian and tough to decipher, but one of the waitresses spoke enough English to help us figure it out. Sort of. We cheersed to our mystery orders and to the fact that the following day was 100% all about good ol’ rest and relaxation.

Perugia – Day 10

Despite being able to sleep in, Chris and I were too excited to explore our new dwellings and were up at 7:30, ready for breakfast. Since we wouldn’t be visiting any churches, I had the opportunity to wear my new dress that I bought in the Borromean Islands. After breakfast, Shannon and I sunbathed by the pool while the boys went on a mission to find a laundromat. “So… that was different” Mama Neely said, wide eyed as she joined us at the pool. She had just finished her message and Chris and I were next. You see, unlike the U.S. when you get naked for your massage you get really naked, and are offered a medical-looking-mesh-thong that provides the illusion of privacy. You are also asked to lie face up, with no cover. The light overhead really made it feel like an ER, but the comfortable environment begged to differ. Everyone loves a good shoulder massage, but in Italy they take it a step farther by massaging everything directly connected to your shoulders, like your chest area which is not generally touched in the States. In summary: if you are getting a massage in Italy be prepared to get a lot of second base action.

Saturnia Hot Springs and Orvieto – Day 11

After a lovely day of rest and pampering we felt refreshed and ready to embrace the next adventure. The Saturnia Hot Springs had been on Mama Neely’s bucket list since she first saw the aquamarine-colored waters in a travel magazine. Although the hot springs were two and a half hours from us, we didn’t mind the drive and had planned a stop or two along the way. Orvieto is a small city perched on a rock cliff in Umbria, Italy that is well known for its underground cave and tunnel system. While walking the streets we stopped into another leather shop in search of my leather jacket… Although I was once again disappointed, Shannon found “the one” and went home with a jacket of her own. 

While driving we could tell that we were approaching the hot springs as the rotten-egg smell increased to a nearly overwhelming level. Fortunately, once we arrived the smell subsided… or perhaps we just became used to it. It was a short walk to the springs where we saw a medley of people enjoying the pools; some clothed, some not; Some influencers hunting for the perfect background and some simply enjoying one of mother nature’s most elegant gifts. The best part? It’s FREE! 

Saturnia Hot Springs

The water at Saturnia is 37.5 degrees celsius (98 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round, which makes soaking in the travertine stone pools oh-so relaxing. The warm sulfurous waters of Saturnia were well-known by first the Etruscans and later the Romans. In fact, they believed them to be a gift from the gods, and made good use of the waters and its healing powers. To think that we experienced such a gift as they did is just wild! Once Mama Neely and Shannon were settled, Jon, Chris and I went on a walkabout to see what was higher up. We discovered that above the relaxing pools was a stream with only a few people in the water – and for good reason! The current of the stream was strong but my husband, being the child at heart he is, made a human dam to try and challenge the flow of water. “How do the beavers do it?!” he asked while trying not to get swept away. His water diversion caused Jon and I to get pushed to another small pool out of the current’s path. I must have put a limb out a bit too far because once the current had a hold of me It almost took me directly over the small waterfall – thankfully Jon’s arms were long and grabbed me before the drop. Shortly after my rescue, another spring-goer was swept right over the falls in a shocking now-you-see-him-now-you-don’t scenario. Fortunately we saw him walk away, seemingly unscathed but as we exited the stream we saw that the landing of the waterfall was rock, and just rock. *Shutter*

It was the most laughs I have had in a long time, and the scenery was unreal. It really seemed like a movie set, or perhaps a Disney ride with the stone carved by the water to have soft edges, and natural wading pools just perfect to lounge in. If you ever have the opportunity to visit this spring, I highly recommend it. 

The hotsprings were Neely approved; Shot on Olympus OMD-1, Kodak Gold

Assisi and Learning to Cook Like an Italian – Day 12

“Saint Francis sounded like a cool dude,” Chris said as we walked the streets of Assisi. It was true, although we are not Catholic, Saint Francis is my favorite with his soft spot for animals and his belief that nature itself was the mirror of God. Additionally, he believed in acceptance, which is terribly ironic since Shannon and I were kicked out of his church for having exposed knees, despite our men baring their knees with no issue and the countless other women wearing shorts and tank tops. 

Exiled to the “steps of sin” (as we called them) where we waited for the rest of our family, we made friends with a man who had a golden retriever named Billy. If you know me, you know I am a sucker for a golden. “Can I pet your dog?” I asked, a simple consolation prize for our removal from Saint Francis Church. Billy’s owner had been living in Italy for the past 10 years but was originally from Florida, so felt compelled to offer some advice to his fellow Americans. He mentioned that in Assisi you can get a traditional Umbrian sweet called a Rocciata which was used during holy rituals dedicated to the god Hondo Cerfio. In modern day this treat circulates all over Italy during Christmas and New Years Celebrations but is seldom seen in cafes or sweet shops during other times of year. Here in Assisi, you can find the treat year round. Billy’s owner (whose name, if you couldn’t tell, I have forgotten) recommended a specific cafe to get the best Rocciata in Assisi which inspired our mission to find it while we waited for the rest of the family. 

Although unsuccessful in our personal search we reconnected with the family on our descent from one of the tall streets we wandered up. “That was amazing!” Mama Neely said. Chris and Jon, undoubtedly trying to make us feel better about our exclusion, downplayed the experience which was sweet but not necessary. Our friend, Billy’s owner, provided us with a lot of knowledge we would have otherwise missed out on had we gone inside. In addition to the Rocciata tip, he mentioned that back in 1998 there was an earthquake that shook the Basilica, causing the bell tower to implode on itself. The video on YouTube is horrendous, but to understand the extent of damage we recommend you watch it HERE. Although this is common knowledge, Billy’s owner shared that when the church began to look for contracts to reconstruct their place of worship the mafia stepped in and basically said “no, no, we got this” and took charge. It looked fantastic when we were there (well, from what I and Shannon could see from the outside) and given Mama Neely’s excitement we can only assume the interior was done up well too. 

Next to the Basilica was what was once known as the “Hill of Hell.” Just after the canonization of Saint Francis in 1228 and before the construction of his Basilica, the site had been used for public executions thus gaining the dark name. Laborers believed the hilltop to be infectious with doom and refused to work on the basilica, so the Pope offered anyone who did work forty days off their stay in purgatory, which is how the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi came to be built. When the construction was over, the hill got a more appropriate name. It is now known, thanks to Saint Francis, as “the Hill of Paradise.” Walking the path along the Hill of Hell/Paradise Jon discovered a large amount of obsidian and grabbed a few pieces to bring home with us. Obsidian. From the hill of hell. How daring

Inside a church without a dress code

As we walked back to the car we stumbled upon the shop Billy’s owner told us about. Shannon, Mama Neely and I stepped inside while the boys carried on their own path, oblivious to our stop. The burly man behind the counter welcomed us in and intrigued us with the offer of cheese samples. He paired a sheep cheese with truffle salami and truffle honey which was just so incredible I bought two jars of the honey to bring home- one for me, one for my parents. Remember this detail. It’s important for later. With some more provisions to bring along we began our drive back to the hotel where we had to shower and get ready for our cooking class.

Now, I’m not really sure what we expected, but it definitely was not being welcomed into an Italian woman’s home to cook in her kitchen- a surprise indeed! Tina was the home owner and spoke no English, but her friend Paola and her 18 year old son Francesco (who was studying English) translated for us. The kitchen made the experience an intimate setting as we learned how to make simple crowd pleasing appetizers that consisted of traditional Umbrian flatbread, ricotta, and rocket (arugula). We learned that bread in Umbria doesn’t contain salt, a nod to the mid-1500s when Pope Paul III imposed a hefty tax on salt to increase revenue from his Papal States (which included present-day Umbria). Rather than pay up, the inhabitants simply began making their bread without salt, and the tradition still continues.

After our antipasti, we began the process of making pasta – something Chris and I were well practiced in since our friends aboard S/V Azimuth taught us back in 2021. However, this pasta was made without eggs and mixed by hand. Chris was a natural finishing his dough first then helped his brother whose chef skills are limited to chicken and rice, and scrambled eggs. We rolled out the pasta on a pasta board, which was a bit different from our usual pasta machine we use on Avocet. While rolling our pasta out, Shannon asked what was in the sauce that was on the stove. Tina waved for Francesco to help translate and through him we learned it was a simple red sauce with garlic. “No onion?” Shannon asked, which was apparently enough for Tina to jump in and say “NO!” Francesco then relayed that mixing onion and garlic together is very taboo in Italian cooking; it’s either one ingredient or the other. 

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Pasta was delicious paired with a local wine and good company. We shared the details of our life afloat which bewildered our three hosts. In return they shared with us stories of their lives in Umbria and details about their families; Tina shared photos of her adult children who were definitely good looking and Paola told us that her older son studied English and was abroad before the pandemic. Francesco, who took a bit to warm up to us, shared how his teacher would be so pleased to hear how he was practicing his English, and if I was his teacher I would give him an A+. After dinner we gathered in the kitchen once more to learn how to make tiramisu which was fairly simple the traditional way. All you need are lady fingers, espresso, and  mascarpone. “Do you add any liquor?” Mama Neely asked. They giggled a bit before explaining that this was a dessert that children consumed, which meant no liquor involved. While we were piping in the mascarpone, Shannon had a follow up question “do you use vanilla in the mascarpone?” which nearly gave Tiny a heart attack. “NO vanilla!” she said strongly. Apparently, additives like vanilla are not a part of traditional italian tiramisu – and it definitely did not need it because wow was it delicious! 

Although it was not what we were expecting, our cooking class was phenomenal and our hosts really made this a highlight of the trip. We walked away with some new recipes, history and a lot of wonderful memories. We picked up a lot of new Italian words and phrases, elevating our miniscule vocabulary to survival at best. It was money well spent and if you have the chance to book Cooking with Paola and Tina, DO IT!

Tina, me, Shannon, Jon, Mom and Chris… who looks totally natural with a glass of wine and an apron in the kitchen.

Lake Trasimeno – Day 13

“It’s hard to believe we are halfway through our trip,” Chris said over breakfast. It was true, although it felt like we had just arrived, our time in Lake Maggiore with Walla felt like ages ago. WIth no real plans set for Day 13 we decided to explore the nearby Lake Trasimeno which was a bit of a drive but well worth it. The green hills rolled with red poppies bursting like fire for as long as the eyes could see. 

Castiglione del Lago which is an incomparably delightful village located on a chalky promontory overlooking Lake Trasimeno with all the impressiveness of its castle, “Rocca del Leone”. The village has ancient Etruscan and Roman origins and the steep cobblestone streets and architecture reflected that fully. Castiglione del Lago has kept throughout the centuries a particular charm, thanks to the beauty of the old town center, which is still ringed within medieval walls, with an outstanding view of Lake Trasimeno and Valdichiana, towards Cortona.

Look at all those palm trees… damn! A techno song by Ehrling played in the distance, one I was most familiar with since our friend Garrett played it nonstop one summer. The music was coming from a rooftop cafe with a view of the lake that was just opening for lunch service at 2:30 in the afternoon. To my shock the menu was heavily vegan influenced which was seldom seen in our travels. With the rest of the fam’s approval we sat down for an incredible lunch that remains one of my favorite meal-memories from the entire trip. The same song was on loop and by the fifth or hundredth time we had to escape. Not even the view could keep us there, but to the family’s horror I downloaded the song and would continue to play it randomly for the rest of our time in Italy. I enjoy the chaos. 

A short drive away from Castiglione del Lago was Tuoro Beach, where we could slip into our swimsuits and jump into the lake that was very reminiscent of Millerton, the low elevation freshwater lake near where Chris grew up. Even here we were not safe from the Poplar tree fuzz which comically seemed to be taunting us at this point, affecting Chris and I more heavily than the others. Chris tried to tackle his brother in the water which was lukewarm and silty. Using me as a human shield, Jon tried to hide, while Shannon jumped right in. To avoid the wrestling that would undoubtedly break out I sought refuge in the deeper water alongside Shannon, trying to ignore the gross feeling of lake grass on my feet.

We dried off in the sunshine, breaking out the snacks. Two cats hunted in the distance, pouncing in the tall grass before Shannon and I attempted to befriend them. They were not fond of our advances and bolted into a nearby tree to try and hide from us. Defeated but still amused (because cats) we returned to where the family was lounging before grabbing our clothes to change and get ready to leave. We finished off the snacks which was good, since dinner was… interesting. 

Normally, Chris and Jon picked our dinner locations purely based on price and google review, never steering us wrong. That night, someone decided it was Shannon’s turn which she gladly accepted. We ended up going to what was a five star restaurant that excelled in their tasting menus and artistic plating. It was definitely pricier than our usual choices, but hey, it was an experience!… is what we kept telling ourselves. We all ordered the sample menus which brough nine courses of carefully crafted dishes starting with what was sou vide cooked egg that was one step away from being raw served atop of a medley of nuts and mushrooms. Jon took one bite and his face went white. This dish would haunt him (much like the ZTL zone) the remainder of the trip. Although the remaining 8 dishes were absolutely wonderful Jon remained stoic at the head of the table, still mildly traumatized by the first course. Shannon was put on probation from choosing dinner from there on out. 

“Sounds like live music” Chris said when we got back to our hotel. Around the corner there was a band playing at the cafe, drawing a crowd that overflowed into the road. It was 11:30 at night, but no one cared. The surrounding appartments embraced the music with their windows open and people danced to the classic rock tunes Chris and his family grew up listening to. The musicians sang in english, and although we said we would only stick around for one song we ended up staying for a few, then the clock struck 12:00 and we agreed it was time for bed. We were sure their set would wrap up shortly after, but we went to bed listening to the band play into the early hours of the next day.

All Roads Lead to Roma – Day 15

I swear, packing continues to get harder each time we do it. With our bags stuffed like italian sausages and barely zipping together we loaded the Citroen for one last ride. In the back seat I created a few Newsletters for clients and did other light work before we pulled over to get gas – which was comparable to Southern California prices. It is worth noting that every gas station we visited was very clean with expensive espresso machines and baristas that could pour the perfect cup-of-whatever-you-want every time without fail. 

Goodbye, beloved Citroen

We arrived at our hotel just in time to avoid the ZTL zone. With our bags delivered to our rooms, the boys took off to return the car to Hertz. It was their last hoorah… but not before a classic mixup. You see, Hertz was actually closed so they had to drive to the train station to return the car which turned their 5 minute walk back into a 45 minute walk back, and they had to beat the time against the ZTL zone activation. The universe was on their side, because they made it and just like that our time with the Citroen was over. 

A short walk from our hotel was one of Rome’s most unique and impressive heritage sites; the Capuchin Crypt. The crypt itself consists of a corridor passing through six consecutive rooms lit only by small windows and very dim electric candles, making the whole mood quite somber. While the chapel has no human remains on display the other five are filled with hundreds of thousands of human bones, thus giving the crypt its fame. The bones are elaborately stacked against the walls and organized into enchanting Baroque patterns that are aesthetically pleasing as they are chilling. The five rooms are given such suggestive names as the Crypt of Skulls, the Crypt of Pelvises and the Crypt of the Leg Bones and Thigh Bones that (you guessed it) reflects the contents of each room. Not everything on display is bare bone. In one room, two severed, mummified arms cross one another to make the form of the Capuchin’s coat of arms. Some rooms also contain robed capuchins, their darkened, desiccated skin still clinging to their skulls. We were perhaps only 10 feet from these mummified corpses and other remains, making the entire experience seem surreal. “The reflection that [the Capuchin friar] must someday be taken apart like an engine or a clock…and worked up into arches and pyramids and hideous frescoes, did not distress this monk in the least. I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present.” – Mark Twain. Memento Mori.

Capuchin Crypt photo: archaeology travel

After our tour of the Crypt we were dying of hunger (see what I did there?) and stumbled upon a pizzeria that served what we agreed was the best pizza in all of Italy. We cheersed to the next chapter of our trip, sans car, and looked forward to navigating public transportation together. After dessert and espresso we were off to bed. 

Rome by Golf Cart – Day 15

Shannon looking out the golf cart

I must admit, I was a bit wary of the thought of doing a golf cart tour of Rome, but those thoughts of hesitation melted almost immediately after meeting our guide, Gabe. Gabe was Swedish but had lived in Italy for a little over a decade while studying history. He was funny, and passionate about history, sharing details about anything and everything with us while making sure his walking pace outside of the cart was good enough for Mama Neely.

We passed numerous classic cars while Gabe drove through the narrow cobblestone streets and roads. “Classic cars on Sundays” he said “It’s a vibe. Sunday Mass, drive the sports car to lunch.” Sounds good to us! We learned that the buildings around the city didn’t surpass 10 stories to ensure St. Peter’s Basilica remained the tallest structure in Roma. Speaking of structures, did you know that the Romans created concrete? Their recipe was volcanic rock and lime – the rock, not the citrus. For underwater structures, lime and volcanic ash were mixed to form mortar, and this mortar and volcanic tuff were packed into wooden forms. The addition of seawater instantly triggered a hot chemical reaction, thus curing the concrete. 

At the colosseum we walked up to an overlook where Gabe could give us some stats. I was entertained and appalled at the “Influencer Olympics” that was taking place. People rushed to get the perfect spot for their selfies, changing outfits and poses a dozen times without turning around to admire the historical icon for which they used as a background. This is when Gabe introduced us to his best valley girl accent that was terrifyingly spot on, even with his Swedish accent. 

“You must go in here, I insist,” Gabe said, pulling his cart off the road. We were in front of a church, San Pietro in Vincoli Church (Also known as the Basilica Eudossiana) which Shannon and I were not dressed for wearing a dress and shorts. Gabe ensured us that despite the dress code we would be fine to enter alongside the droves of other tourists. Inside the church Mass took place to the left of the main altar while to the right was best known for being the home of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses that depicts the biblical figure with horns on his head, based on a description in chapter 34 of Exodus in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible used at that time. The church also houses a very special, often overlooked relic. So just like many other churches, San Pietro in Vincoli is an ancient one. It was rebuilt from an older foundation as early as in 432, to keep the chains that, according to tradition, were used to bind St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem — hence the church’s name, in Vincoli.

While driving to the next location Gabe explained that sculptures would have originally been painted vibrant colors to be 3 dimensional. Because of time, the color faded and later sculpters were left mimicking the plain organic white marble that remained – they didn’t know any better! Gabe casually explained how all drains lead to the Med, and how the Rose Garden (that we were driving through) was originally a jewish cemetery that from above looks like a menorah. “Where did all the bodies go…?” I asked, genuinely concerned. “They were relocated… but there are more than likely a few bodies still at rest under the garden” he answered. 

The fam and Gabe with Roma behind us

Of course we stopped by the Trevi Fountain in the center of Rome where we elbowed our way through the herd of humans to secure a viewing spot. It was here we learned that the fountain is at the junction of three roads (tre vie) marking the terminal point of the “modern” Acqua Vergine, one of the aqueducts that supplied water to ancient Rome. The aqueduct is still in use today, despite some interventions during which the fountain remained empty where calcium-free water is thought to be one of the causes. Additionally, when the fountain was being built the barber nearby was furious with the noise and would stop by the site daily to complain. To remedy the headache the builder received from so many complaints from one person, he sculpted a vase at the corner which blocked the view of the fountain from where the barber shop was so the barber could not enjoy the beauty of the fountain. 

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Contrary to the age old saying, we had conquered the entirety of Rome in a day, hitting all of the historically significant spots making us even more excited to venture into them following day. Back at the hotel we had a round of drinks while Mama Neely kept her foot elevated; after a whole day of walking it sorely needed ice and rest. “Gabe said entry into the Pantheon is free today. It closes in 30 minutes… do you think we could make it in?” Chris asked. The four of us kids were game to at least try to race the clock and made our way down to the street to begin our trek.

Two Lime scooters serendipitously awaited us as Chris and I shared one, and Jon and Shannon the other. It was the most terrifying amount of fun I have ever had as we navigated through traffic and then down cobblestone roads packed with people. “SLOW DOWN” I yelled while laughing, Chris must have confused the gas for the breaks because instead of granting my request he throttled it sending me into a fit of giggles and squeals as I could only imagine going head first over the bars and breaking my teeth. Funny enough, Jon must have had the same issue because as he and Shannon got closer to us I could hear Shannon echo my request through her own laughter. We eventually ditched the Lime scooters when the streets became too dense with people to squeeze through on wheels. Relying on our two feet, we arrived at the Pantheon just in time to find out it was closed, and definitely not free on that day. 

“We needed the walk anyways” I said as we were half way back to the hotel. Although the Pantheon mission had been a bust, we had the opportunity to see Rome at night and stretch our legs to help work off the pasta pounds we had gained. 20 minutes later we were reunited with Maa Neely and shared the details of our failed (but fun) expedition. Together, we walked to dinner nearby where the owner, an older gentleman, grabbed Shannon by the arm and escorted her to the table. He had been very attentive and ensured our meal was up to our (and his) standards, checking in with us every time he passed the table… with his eyes focused on Shannon. I had ravioli so delicious I ordered a second round of them… as did Shannon. At the end of our meal we ordered desserts and the owner had a glass of housemade Limoncello with us, leaving the bottle for us to enjoy. 

The Vatican and Gladiators – Day 16

“It’s time to get up,” Chris said while gently rocking my shoulder. I retaliated by pulling the covers over my head. His next move was bold, as he pulled the covers completely off leaving me to get up or freeze. The choice was mine. Reluctantly I dragged my carcass out of bed to the bathroom where I wiped the sleep from my eyes and got ready for our day in the Lord’s house. 

Outside the Vatican, we met our tour guide, Elisa, whose bubbly personality reminded us of our friend Quincey at home. She was a history student that shared the key details of the Vatican with us while guiding us through the “well curated” museum. I have well curated quotation marks because although the collection of art was impressive, it had a dark undertone since many of the pieces were from religious conquests and plunders, worth their weight in the blood that was shed to bring them there. The amount of art is overwhelming, and there are not any interpretation cards to explain what you are looking at so if you are going to visit the Vatican yourself, I highly recommend getting a guide.

To see the Sistine Chapel in person was breathtaking; especially with the newfound knowledge bestowed upon us by Elisa. Michelangelo was an anatomist, a secret he concealed by destroying almost all of his anatomical sketches and notes since dissection was banned during his century. However, 500 years after he drew them, his hidden anatomical illustrations have been found painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel inside the body of God. The depiction in God Creating Adam in the central panel on the ceiling was a perfect anatomical illustration of the human brain in cross section, with a spinal stem. We also learned that the artist grew to detest the opulence and corruption of the Church. In two places in the masterpiece, Michelangelo left self portraits— both of them depicting himself in torture. He gave his own face to Saint Bartholomew’s body martyred by being skinned alive, and to the severed head of Holofernes, who was seduced and beheaded by Judith. As if that wasn’t gnarly enough, When the Last Judgment was almost complete it was unveiled for the pope and the Master of Ceremonies was so disgusted by the cavorting naked figures he openly expressed that the painting was more appropriate for a bath-house rather than the pope’s church. Michelangelo, my new favorite anarchist, got him back by depicting the master of ceremonies as the judge of the underworld with the ears of an ass and a serpent attacking his groin. Savage. Although there are many details I could share I will leave it with this: Ol’ Mich really got the last word by painting his male lover into the masterpiece next to his self portrait, with God’s eyes looking directly at him, and his eyes looking at all of us.

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Before leaving, I made one special stop to the post office where I bought a minted coin for my brother who is a collector. Mama Neely sent postcards to the grandkids (our nephews) and we snapped one last photo with Elisa before returning to the hotel where we took a power nap to regain strength before venturing back out into Roma. Recharged (but barely) we changed into clothes a little more comfortable then grabbed a taxi to one of my favorite parts of the entire trip. 

Located on Palatine Hill (where Romulus and Remus founded Rome) is the Colosseum, a location famous for its gorey history and representation in films like Gladiator. The marvel of ancient Roman engineering is over 1,900 years old with construction that began in 72 A.D. and finished in 80 A.D – yes, unlike the tower of Pisa (which took 200 years to build) the Colosseum was completed in 8 years. At its tallest point, the Colosseum stands 157 feet high which is around the same height as the Washington Monument. There are four levels to the Colosseum and over 50,000 spectators could enter through one of the 80 entrances, depending what corresponded on their ticket. The amphitheater shielded spectators from the sun by utilizing a massive retractable velarium (awning) that required hundreds of Roman sailors to manipulate the rigging to extend and retract. To walk through one of the same entrances ancient Romans used many moons ago sent shivers down my spine…it was surreal. 

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Looking guilty

Inside the structure we made our way up the stairs as high as we could go,  where the museum was located. While waiting for Mama Neely, Jon and I sat on a broken marble pillar that gently rocked back and forth. Entertained by this, we continued to move it not thinking it would actually roll anywhere. We were wrong. Shannon walked away to save herself from embarrassment as Jon and I did our best to push the pillar back to where it had been sitting for god knows how long but were unsuccessful in our efforts so left the pillar there for the next eternity. I am hoping this doesn’t have an adverse butterfly effect in the future, especially paired with our obsidian from the hill of hell. 

On the arena floor we looked at what was left of the underground where many prisoners and animals awaited to be released to fight above. Archeologists carefully brushed away sediment with toothbrushes nearby, helping preserve this incredible place. I was astounded to learn that the Colosseum had many different functions over time, from gladiators to becoming a church – yes, you read that right. A place so soaked in blood and aggression turned over a new leaf in medieval times. After that, it became a fortress for two prominent Roman families, the Frangipane and the Annibaldi that utilized its chambers for animals, food storage, beds, entertainment areas and more! Unfortunately as time went on, the Colosseum was damaged by lightning, earthquakes, vandalism and pollution. All of the marble seats and decorative materials that lined the facade were pillaged and reused in the construction of papal palaces (like the Vatican) and Christian churches scattered about the city. Before leaving, Jon had the idea to reenact the scene from Gladiator where he says “are you not entertained?” which paired with Chris’s camera skills resulted in the masterpiece you can see HERE.

After our self guided tour of the Colosseum, we returned to the Pantheon for the third time, which was definitely the charm because we were welcomed inside to see the world’s largest unsupported concrete dome in all its glory. For several centuries after its construction, the Pantheon served as a Pagan temple but In 609 AD, Pope Boniface IV received permission to convert it into a Christian church, at which point it was renamed Sancta Maria ad Martyres. It was the first-ever Roman Pagan temple to be consecrated into a Christian church; a crucially important factor regarding its preservation and is what saved it from being destroyed during the Middle Ages. 

Following its conversion into a Christian church, it became the burial place for monarchs (including both kings of Italy), poets and notable Renaissance figures, such as painter Raphael and architect Baldassare Peruzzi. Upon seeing it, Michelangelo himself stated that it was the design of angels and not of man, so yah… it is kind of a big deal. 

It was a short walk around the church, but one that was worth every step. Outside we walked to Venchi, the best gelato stop in Rome, then found dinner nearby. Afterwards, Jon and Mama Neely took a cab back to the hotel while Chris, Shannon and I wanted one more walk through the city since we would be leaving early the following morning. By the Trevi Fountain we weaved our way through the dissipating crowd to get closer to the famous water, snapping a few photos in the low light before continuing on our way. At the hotel, we all met in Mama Neely’s room to reflect on our time in Rome. Vini, Vidi, Vici. 

The Road to Amalfi – Day 17

“Why does it seem like there is more room in my bag?” I asked Chris while zipping it up. Either I had perfected the art of packing or I misplaced a handful of belongings because for once my bag zipped with ease. Downstairs in the lobby we checked out then waited patiently for our taxi to bring us to the train station. Roma Termini station felt like an airport with teleprompters displaying departing and incoming trains, voices over the intercom, and shops all around to spend your time while waiting for your departure. 

After getting some more cash (with a horrible exchange rate, but I’ll save that story for Jon to tell) we boarded our train and got situated while waiting to depart. The family in front of us realized they were on the wrong train and scrambled to exit to catch their right one. In their haste they left behind a baby bag, which they surely needed. Chris ran after them, yelling “Escuzie!” from the platform. Fortunately they heard and quickly returned to collect their things, grateful someone noticed. We definitely need more Chris Neely’s in the world. 

An hour of high speed travel had lapsed and we were in Napoli (Naples) where our driver was waiting for us. “Thank god we aren’t driving anymore” Jon said as he buckled into the passenger seat. I was shocked to see the infamous Mount Vesuvius so close, yet still so far in the distance. We had a plan to explore Pompeii in the coming days, to see firsthand how the eruption froze a town in time but… I’ll get to that in a minute. The driver held a steady 144 km (90 mph) as we dashed down the roadway. The outskirts of the city reminded me of Johannesburg, South Africa, with its urban dwellings mixed with nature. The affluence we had experienced in the north vanished in a blink as the ugly side of wealth disparities showed in the failing buildings, unpaved roads and plastic tarps strewn about. Then, we turned right. 

The Amalfi Coast drive is arguably the world’s most beautiful (and terrifying) sightseeing road. It stretches 50 kilometers (30 miles) between Sorrento city and Amalfi village, the community that gave the coast its name. Despite being built on the side of a sheer cliff, it only occasionally has railings to keep your car from potentially plummeting into breaker-washed boulders far below. Although there is a northbound and southbound lane, you would easily believe this is a one way road with it’s narrowness and lack of shoulders to pull onto. Our driver was good, but aggressive driving quickly and breaking hard when necessary. I normally don’t get motion sick, but in the back of the car I was starting to feel nauseous. 

Finally, we arrived at our villa. “We really are leaving tomorrow to do that road again?” Jon asked. Mama Neely said we don’t have to do anything we didn’t want to do, and we all agreed that Pompeii would be there next time so we decided to enjoy our final destination in Italy, Positano. 

Capri – Day 18

Shot on the Olympus film camera on the way to Capri

The sun shone through our rooms sheer drapes, waking us up at first light. The sea glistened like a thousand diamonds below, while boats came and went from the small loading area. We quickly dressed and took the lift down to the breakfast area that had a panoramic view. It was the most impressive breakfast spread we had seen, absolutely saving the best for last. We loaded our plates with pastries, fresh quiches, cheeses, yogurts, granolas, and of course ordered a round of cappuccinos to start the day. Afterwards, we made our descent to the loading dock where we boarded a gorgeous boat that would be taking us to and around the island of Capri. 

The island is famed for its rugged landscape, upscale hotels and shopping, from designer fashions to limoncello and handmade leather sandals, drawing yachts and visitors to its shores almost year round. It was a slice of paradise that had the largest lemons I have ever seen – seriously, Shannon and I shared a Limoncello inside of one! After lunch we found a beach to lounge at and dip into the brisk water. Chris and Shannon were like fish swimming as far as they could, seemingly impervious to cold while I shivered after the first 15 minutes. In the sunshine, I applied my favorite Channel Islands Native Sunscreen and enjoyed people watching alongside Mama Neely and Jon. One more Limoncello for the road and we were back enroute to the mainland.

“I think I’m just going to get a dessert and go to bed,” Mama Neely said. We were back at the villa and all exhausted from a day of being out in the sun. Mama Neely was definitely the victim of dehydration and was in dire need of rest and liquids. She assured us she would be fine and sent us all on our way to dinner. Since we were on a cliff, we only had four options: Eat at the villa (which was pricey) eat at the restaurant below the villa (which was even more pricey), eat at the Pizzeria (still pricey) or the restaurant next to the Pizzeria (you guessed it… still pricey… but yet still affordable). 

“We only have pizzas” the waiter said, clearly closing up shop. Confused, since we had made a reservation for this time, we clarified we were in the right location. We were, but some of the kitchen staff didn’t show up for work, leaving them with only pizzas to sling. We were all on board with this as we picked out which pizzas we wanted. The wind began to increase outside, blowing over tables and chairs while a gray cat ran inside to seek shelter. It played coy with us, getting close enough to touch then darting away. Another dinner was done and we were beyond ready for bed.

The Day the Neely’s Stood Still – Day 20

After 19 days of nonstop movement and seeing something new each day we decided to stay put and enjoy our picturesque seaside villa. We were still pinching ourselves in disbelief that we were there, and that a place like this exists in the world. With no agenda we found a comfortable spot on one of the decks and set up camp for a few hours. Shannon reading, I working a bit, Chris and Jon polishing off the Gin while Mama Neely just sat back and enjoyed it all. 

“We need more tonic” Chris said while pouring himself the last of it. There was still half a bottle of the Gin that  Lenny had given us, and there was a small store nearby so Jon, Chris and I volunteered to go buy more – I wasn’t used to sitting idle and definitely needed to stretch my legs. We walked along the same treacherous stretch of road we drove on two days prior, but by foot it seemed far less scary. It was still narrow, but being able to maneuver accordingly was key in maintaining roadside anxiety, ensuring we got to and from our destination safe and sound. At the shop we bought more tonic, prosecco, and some snacks, filling our backpack before starting our walk back to the others. This time we chose to take the “scenic” route, known as the “lovers walk” that winded alongside the cliff (off the road) and connected back to
our villa. 

With some steps under our belt and more tonic to last the day we ventured down to the pebbled beach and rented a couple chairs to continue enjoying our mellow day, sea side. Shannon and Chris jumped in the water immediately while I was too glued to a book Shannon lent me, inspiring me to buy a kindle that would be waiting for me on Avocet upon our return. Plus, the cove was in the shade and I knew I would not regain body heat for hours if I submerged myself in the inviting water. Before we knew it, it was almost 7:00! We returned to our rooms and got ready for dinner at the restaurant next to the Pizzaria. 

Over dinner we discussed the trip, our highs and lows and what we enjoyed most. We talked about how it felt like the trip had just started but also how it felt like we had been there all along. Most importantly, we talked about what we want to see next time – because there will be a next time – and cheersed Mama Neely for taking us on this trip of a lifetime. After dinner we gathered in Mama Neely’s room to play cards, but somehow it turned into a wrestling match between the two Neely brothers. I grabbed Chris’s glasses before he crushed them, then Shannon and I jumped in on the fun – it was definitely the Gin.

Amalfi Coast by Boat – Day 21

You can take a Neely away from their boat, but they will always find their way onto another. On our last day in Italy we were treated to a private boat tour. Our captain, Giusseppe (or Joseph, as he said we may call him) picked us up from the loading dock and went south to share the sights and local knowledge with us. Of course we were fascinated by the make of his beautifully kept motoryacht, which happened to be built in Positano. Its flare was crucial in keeping the bow dry in the Mediterranean chop, while the well kept varnish and teak decks impressed the lot of us. The boat, Panthea, took us to many places that day, starting with the Fiordo di Furore. The Furore’s fjord (which is actually an inlet) is sort of a natural port, where it is possible to arrive only by the sea side, surmounted by a natural rock arch that perfectly complements the majesty of this place. We were told that If you are visiting in July you cannot miss The “Mediterranean high diving championship cup” – The famous diving competition held every year in Fiordo di Furore.

From there we visited a few caves and swimming spots when Giuseppe unknowingly made Shannons entire trip by taking us to a swimming spot next to the town of Miore. I wasn’t going to get in initially because Giuseppe said we would have to cliff jump to get back – something I am not too fond of, with an unrealistic fear of jumping into water. I know. I’m working on it. As the others jumped in, Giuseppe looked at me and said “miss, you will regret it. Do it” which was apparently all it took for me to jump in. The cave was amazing and intimate with steps carved out from time leading up to the “sweet water” as Giuseppe called it. The waterfall fell beneath the rock, into another cave. We walked along the cliff’s edge before Jon, Chris and Shannon jumped off the ledge into the water. I slid as far as I could to where the water met the sea before sitting and contemplating my fall to peer pressure before jumping in. We swam to the waterfall, feeling the water temperature fall rapidly the closer we got to the pure “sweet water.” Before getting back on the boat, we were joined by small fish that the Italians call “Iyates” that circled Shannon. She was in mermaid heaven, and maintained her position while I snapped photos of the experience. 

Back on the boat we continued the tour and visited many swim spots before we agreed that it was time for lunch. Giuseppe brought us to a local eatery that was only accessible by boat. It was mostly seafood, but they (thankfully) had a pesto pasta to satisfy my fish-free appetite. It was all delicious and finished with a round of espressos to help increase our core temperatures from a day well spent in the Mediterranean sea. We began to slowly make our way back to the villa, but of course there were more caves to explore. Already committed to being done with swimming for the day, I had changed out of my bikini into shorts but Shannon was quick to jump in and swim towards the dark, ominous cave while Chris and Jon looked at eachother. “Well she cant go in there alone” Jon said, as if he was going to be the first to jump in. Chris stood on the bow preparing his dive when Giuseppe, one hell of a jokester, threw the boat in reverse, forcing Chris to make a splash. “Come on Jon!” the two yelled from inside the cave. 

Happy Shan

“Cold. so cold” Chris said, shivering back on the boat. Shannon stood on the swim step, wringing out her hair and answered with “You guys are wimps.” Apparently the inside of the cave was so cold they could see their breath, causing the Neely brothers to forget all of their swimming skills and become liabilities for Shannon to get back to the boat. Although they vowed to remain dry, Giuseppe brought us to one last cave. Shannon needed no convincing and jumped in with ease while Jon reluctantly followed. Chris tried to stay strong in his decision to stay dry, but Giuseppe was convincing with his Italian accent. “Get in the water” he said, which was all it took for my other half to join the fish and explore another cave. Mama Neely and I sat on the bow with Giuseppe, sharing details of our trip and comparing the differences between the north and south regions of Italy. Giuseppe, amused with our observations, responded with “in the north they work to live. Here in the south? We live” which was simply profound.  

Together again and seriously ready to stay dry, Giuseppe ran the boat at full speed back to the marina to offload us. Jon, Chris and I sat on the bow laughing our faces off as the sheer of the boat dispersed wakes, and the feeling of speed filled our chests. It was a phenomenal day with Captain Giuseppe exploring the Amalfi coast, and a wonderful way to conclude our Italian adventure. Give Giuseppe a follow on instagram! @63giuseppebonito

After dinner we packed our belongings and finished the last of our wine, gin and other spirits we couldn’t bring with us to our next destination. Although our time in Italy was finito, our family holiday was not quite over with. 

England Bound – Day 21

leaving our slice of paradise

Back when we were preparing for our Italy trip, Mama Neely recommended Chris and I make a detour to visit our ol’ pal Tom who lives in London. After 13 years of friendship and his many visits to the US, it would finally be my time to visit him on his home soil, an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. “But… I haven’t been to England” Jon said when he heard of our new plans. Asking if it would be alright to join us, we turned this new leg of the trip into another family adventure adding a few new stops to the agenda. 

After our last Italian breakfast and wonderfully prepared cappuccinos, we lugged our bags to the carport where a taxi van awaited us. This van was much more cush than the one that brought us here, with proper working AC, comfy seats and large windows to help subdue the carsickness. Our driver was assertive but gentle on the road, a complete 180 from the first driver who scared the hell out of us. We finally had arrived at the airport, ready to embark on the next journey. Did I grab that? What if they confiscate my contact solution? Oh god, what if they try to reroute me to a different airport like last time? My mouth was silent but my mind raced with the help of my anxiety, fueling the many nervous questions revolving around travel. Fortunately, we had everything we needed and boarded our flight with ease. The security was the equivalent of the United States TSA precheck, making the entire ordeal less stressful and much more efficient. 

Little Chris

It was a short 2 hour flight to London where we were graciously picked up by the Brickles, old friends of the Neelys whom (just like Walla) they had met while chartering in the BVI’s. Rob and Janice had been so kind to welcome the lot of us into their gorgeous home in the country, near the hundred acre woods. Yes, those hundred acre woods! It had been years since they had all seen each other, Chris was probably 7 or so judging by the photos they had brought out to share. That evening we were joined by their children, making it a full reunion full of laughter, questions about boatlife, and catching up. Unfortunately, I stopped taking notes about our daily activities when we made it to England, so the rest of this blog post is running off of pure memory, photos, and “excellent” storytelling – bare with me!

Hever Castle – Day 22

Sunlight shone through the window of our room while a rooster cocka-doodle-dood in the distance. Thinking my friend Tom had lied all these years about the English weather, I put on a skirt and tank top to embrace the warm sun. In the kitchen, The Brickles were already up and cooking us all a wonderful breakfast to kick off our day. Afterwards, Rob took the boys outside to see “Boozy Suzie” his original 1951 Landrover. Chris and Jon got a kick out of the ol’girl, sharing details about their cars of the past and present, thinking Chris’s 1963 MGB would be right at home here in England. 

We spent our day touring Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, the second queen consort of King Henry VIII of England, and mother of Queen Elizabeth I. The castle offers three floors containing antique furniture, Anne Boleyn’s prayer books, instruments of torture, and a large collection of Tudor’s paintings. With so much to see we enjoyed taking our time and listening to the audio tour that guided us through the historic site. 

The outer grounds of the castle included a maze, planted in 1904 which Chris and I dominated in 4 minutes, while it took Jon and Shannon 9. There is also a water maze where children played, trying to reach the folly at the
center without getting wet. The castle gardens contain a wide range of features, including an Italianate garden (including Fernery), herb garden, topiary and rose garden which piqued my interest as I noted the species of the beautiful budding roses, reminding me of my great grandmother. On one of the lawns there was a car show, displaying many Corvettes that had the boy’s attention. Although the show was wrapping up when we arrived, we still enjoyed perusing through the remaining cars while planning our next destination: a pub.

As I soon learned, England has wonderful ciders with history that dates back to the beginning of time. An English-style cider is made by using bittersweet and bittersharp types of apples, or “spitters,” as they are sometimes called. Some of these varieties include Dabinett and Yarlington Mill, both of which have English roots. These brews are often characterized by their slightly higher than average ABV, ranging between six and nine percent, a low to non-existent level of carbonation and dry, tannic flavoring. We sat down at a table outside the pub to enjoy our drinks and discuss the rest of our plans in England with our friends before “crawling” to our next pub, the Crow and Gate for a hearty, healthy and delicious dinner. 

“This game is ridiculous” Rob said looking over his sad lot of cards. During our entire trip we had been playing a card game called Golf in our downtime, which we had then brought to share with the Brickles. Despite their excitement to play, Rob learned how frustrating the game could be first hand, forfeiting his good cards over to me, a habit he unfortunately did not break any of the 9 rounds. Before we knew it, the clock struck 12:00 and we rushed to bed before we turned into pumpkins. The next day would require all the energy we had!

Into London We Go – Day 25

England unveiled her bipolar weather the day we ventured into London. The rain spit outside as we packed our belongings and had one last meal with our friends before making our way to the train station. Upon departure we hugged our hosts farewell, thanked them for opening their beautiful home to us and for being a part of our holiday. The station was pretty straight forward; buy a ticket, find your platform, and wait patiently until it arrives. If only leaving London was this easy… but we will get to that later. 

Our train arrived and after a few stops we were exactly where we needed to be. Chris waved down a cab that was waiting outside the station. To our surprise, the cab sat five people thanks to its unique design. Apparently, they introduced these vehicles in the States for disabled people, but are beginning to utilize them for parties of five looking to get from point A to B. At our hotel we quickly dropped off our luggage then hit the streets to take it all in. 

Everything was decorated with the Union Jack Flags, photos of the crown, and of course corgi dogs for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee which was coming up in June. Queen Elizabeth II, who became queen at 25, is Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and the first to reach the milestone of seven decades on the throne. Not only will there be major festivities in London, but thousands of street parties are planned nationwide, repeating a tradition that began with the queen’s coronation in 1953. We were grateful to catch a glimpse of the preparations for this milestone event before the crowds arrived. 

Shannon with her wripped note

Of course we found ourselves aboard another boat, this time on the River Thames. The bar only took cash, which wasn’t a problem for Shannon who had been holding onto a 50 pound note for 15 years after she had received it as a tip. The note was falling apart, and when she took it out the people behind us had a good laugh. “Do you think they will take this?” Jon asked them. They both shook their heads and laughed at our courageous attempt. Jon went in with the cash and was gone for a while… We were thinking the worst. But then, right when we thought all was lost, he emerged with a sh!t eating grin with drinks in hand. “They took it!” he said with surprise. Apparently the bartender had a good laugh and brought his supervisor to see the note as well. Jon explained how it was a tip given to Shannon when she was diving with sharks in Guadalupe, “did the shark eat it?” the bartender asked. Despite all odds, they took the note in exchange for our drinks and we were all happy campers – or sailors, I should say. 

The deck crew shared facts about the surrounding area with us and his dry sense of humor reminded us of the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland. Although we were the last ones standing outside, we couldn’t handle the rain and retreated below where it was dry. Finally, we arrived in Greenwich, a historic town southeast of London in the historic county of Kent that is notable for its maritime history and for giving its name to the Greenwich Meridian – a must see for us sailors. 

We wandered through the museum that was free, taking in all the history of sailors long before us. Out of the entire museum I was blown away by the paintings, specifically JMW Turner’s The Battle of Trafalgar which is the artist’s largest work – and one of his most controversial. Depicting the famous naval battle, the painting hangs in its own dedicated gallery. We admired the piece for a while before we made our way out. “I’m going to stay here, but you all should go” Mama Neely said, referencing the Prime Meridian line which was at the observatory. With her blessing we ventured out into the park and began our ascent to the observatory, which wasn’t really all that high considering the mountains we are used to, but the vertical walk still worked my thighs to exhaustion. 

At the top we had a wonderful view of London, but couldn’t locate “the line” at all. We went to enter the museum, but after learning it was 21 pounds per person we agreed it was not necessary and decided to find the line without the museum’s help. “Guys… look” I said, nonchalantly motioning towards a group in front of us. Two people snuck into the exit to take a photo with “the line” that was clearly displayed on the wall and ground. To think, you had to walk through an entire museum and pay 21 pounds for a photo op at the very end… sheesh! Shannon followed the group before us, sneaking through the gate to snap a photo. The three of us looked at the security guard behind us who definitely had his eye on us and decided not to get removed from the premises. Happy with her defiance of authority, Shannon returned and we snapped a group photo before regrouping with Mama Neely. 

During our River Thames tour, the guide pointed out the Anchor Pub which, to us sailors, seemed rather fitting. After our time in Greenwich we hailed a cab and asked him to deliver us to the pub where we had rounds of Cider and Malt beers. For some reason, Jon decided to order 20 wings with a bonus 5, despite the fact we had dinner plans with our friends Tom and his girlfriend, Orlagh in 15 minutes. Right as he was stuffing his face, the two aforementioned friends walked in catching Jon literally red handed. I jumped up to hug them both while Jon wiped away his mistakes. 

Together we followed the locals through the streets of London, listening to the facts and catching up. It was my first time meeting Orlagh, despite following each other online for years. “It’s still weird seeing you here” Tom said, which was valid since as mentioned he had visited the US many times over the course of our friendship, while this was my first time over the pond. Tom and I met at High Cascade Snowboard Camp way back in 2012 and have maintained a solid friendship ever since – he even flew out to attend our wedding… and help us move out of our apartment, and aboard Avocet all in the same trip. To sum it up: Tom is one of the best guys I know, and Chris and Jon will attest to that! 

The fam + Tom and Orlagh

“It’s an old man beer, but it’s delicious,” Tom said, showcasing his Abbot beer. Jon, a huge fan of Tom, followed the leader and ordered the same later claiming that it is his new favorite. Dinner was lovely with plenty of vegan and vegetarian options, something we were lacking throughout our travels. Afterwards, we began our walk again until we stopped at the Tower Bridge for a pint. Across the way, we landed at the Tower of London where Tom and Orlagh gave us a history lesson. Essentially, The Tower of London was founded towards the end of 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest. The White Tower, which gives the entire castle its name, was built by William the Conqueror in 1078 and was a resented symbol of oppression, inflicted upon London by the new ruling elite. The castle was also used as a prison from 1100 until 1952, although that was not its primary purpose. Another fun (and gruesome) fact: it is where Queen Anne Boleyn was beheaded by a French swordsman, rather than the standard axe-wielding executioner, on 19 May 1536. 

After our history lesson we walked to a cocktail lounge where we finished the night with old fashions (my favorite) and hugged our dear friends goodbye. “Not so long this time, yah?” Tom asked while we bid farewell. I promised, sincerely hoping we would return sooner than later so we could see much more of England and visit longer. “Good evening mates, I’m Bobby.” Our cabbie was a riot, From ‘apples and pears’ to ‘weep and wail’ Bobby taught us some common Cockney rhyming slang while entertaining us the whole way to the hotel. We were his last cab of the night, and we tipped him for his generosity and humor, definitely cementing some quality memories and introducing new words to our vocabulary. 

God Save the Phantom of the Opera – Day 24

“It’s the last day,” Chris said as we wandered down to the breakfast hall. After being spoiled rotten in Italy and by the Brickles, our breakfast in London was nothing to write about. Literally. It was yogurt, OJ, and a packaged croissant all delivered in a brown take away bag. Sustenance was sustenance and we took what we could get before we set out to stretch our legs. The city was bustling with people under the gray bipolar England sky – sunshine one minute, pissing rain the next. We made our way to Buckingham Palace where they were practicing for the Jubilee, because of which we couldn’t get through the gates. To see the palace and horses was enough to satisfy us on this trip, as we walked through the Palace gardens which were amazing. Shannon, a birder, was in heaven observing the White Pelicans, various Duck species, and small finch-like birds. “Parrot!” I said, as a green parrot landed on the branch in front of me. So well blended with the surrounding greenery, the family thought I was seeing things but soon discovered I did, in fact, see a parrot. The bird flew away before we could get close and we continued on our walk, getting a kick out of the male pigeons trying to impress the females. 

Just when I thought our bird sighting was over, three parrots landed in a tree surrounded by school kids trying to feed them. The family marched on while I took a detour to see what this bird-business was all about. Despite the crowd for the parrots, the pigeons got their fair share of attention hopping onto little hands and shoulders. Shannon soon joined alongside me where she became a perch for the pigeons, but alas, no parrots. Chris was intrigued too, and the birds really took a liking to him even when he freaked out and ran away – to watch pigeons chase after him was a sight I’ll never forget. 

Outside the Palace grounds we found our way to a pub for a bite to eat and (thanks to Tom) some Abbot beer. Unlike Italy, many eateries didn’t have free Wifi, which was how we managed being away for so long without a sim card. A minor annoyance, but a blessing in disguise, our phones were used for photos and note taking only ensuring we remained in the moment with our loved ones. While inside, a torrential downpour unleashed from the skies like something you would see in a movie. Right as we paid the bill, the gray skies parted like curtains, unveiling the sun. 

We walked back to our hotel to prepare for our night time activities; attending the Phantom of the Opera in Her Majesty’s Theater, for which it originally premiered 35 years prior. Before dinner and the show, we had to embark on a very important mission to obtain covid tests so we could fly home the following day. Luckily it was a very quick process at Boots (the equivalent of our Walgreens) and we were all Covid negative! With that out of the way, we ventured to Soho and the West End. 

I didn’t know what to expect at the theater, I had never attended a play of this caliber before and was excited since I thoroughly enjoy musicals and the performing arts in general. We had great seats on the balcony overlooking the left stage and snapped a few pictures before the magic happened. The Phantom of the Opera is widely considered one of the most beautiful and spectacular productions in history, playing to over 145 million people in 41 countries and 183 cities in 17 languages. Killian Donnelly as The Phantom, Lucy St. Louis as Christine Daaé and Rhys Whitfield as Raoul were absolutely incredible at performing the West End’s most haunting love story, earning every standing ovation at the end. There are no words that could do this play justice – you are just going to have to experience it for yourself or take my simple word for it: phenomenal. 

Homeward Bound, Cleo Here We Come! – Day 25 

“One more time!” I said in the morning as we zipped our bags. Everything was stuffed, less delicately than before since our final destination was home. After our bagged breakfast, we walked to the Tube where we struggled to find the right train, definitely getting on each other’s nerves. It was amazing – we made it 24 days without wanting to bite each other’s heads off but in the final moments we wanted nothing to do with each other… for a moment, anyways. At our connection, we scrambled to find the correct train but the attendants were quite helpful in getting us to where we needed to be. 

After questioning Shannons confidence in her decision to board the train she did, our neighboring passengers confirmed that we were in the right spot… they hoped. It took four stops but we made it to our terminal in Heathrow and began the check in process. Since it was a direct flight back to LAX, everyone besides Chris and I checked their bags. I like to keep all my possessions near me and Chris had a few items he didnt want to get lost or damaged in transit… if only we had realized our honey was still in his bag and not with the other liquid keepsakes and obsidian chunks in one of the checked bags. Yes, it’s true. We almost made it out of security without something going wrong, but Chris’s bag was flagged and the agent confiscated both jars of truffle honey. I was livid. Not at Chris, but the avoidable situation all together… im convinced the agent just wanted it for herself. The silver lining is we got to keep our pesto from Porto Venere in Cinque Terre. 

We made it through security in the knick of time, grabbing a quick bite to eat before we boarded our flight home. Once comfortable and in the sky, I watched Mary Queen of Scots, which was great and quite appropriate to wrap up our European adventure. I looked over at Chris and Shannon who were both watching Gladiator – also fitting, I suppose. A few cat naps and stretch breaks later, the California mountain range appeared through the clouds, painted in golden evening light for a moment before we entered the typical June Gloom. 

Outside of customs we retrieved the checked bags then made our way to the pick up area to wait for our shuttle. Back where it all began. The shuttle came and delivered us to the car park where we discovered they had parked another car behind Mama Neely’s 4Runner, resulting in a very skilled and awkward 30 point turn to get out – if we learned anything on this adventure, it is that nothing is easy and in those moments its best to laugh. 

Meow…Meow….MEOW “hi baby! Give us a second…” I said as my tired hands fumbled our companion way keys. Cleo waited eagerly on the top step, meowing furociously to greet us. Funny enough, we were sure she would have forgotten about us while in the presence of her doting GodPurrents Mitch and Quincey, but her affections were a pleasant surprise. Once in my arms, Cleo and I went below deck where Chris followed with the bags. Avocet was clean, an unlived in type of clean that would be taken care of in moments as our bags erupted with clothes, dirty laundry, and souvenirs from our travels. It was only 7:00 pm ships time, but for us it was 3:00 am. After a quick light dinner we all went to bed. There is no place like home I thought while pulling my weighted blanket over myself in our aft cabin bed. 

A very happy cat

If you made it this far I would like to extend my deepest gratitudes, and please, pat yourselves on the back because you read 21,472 words! As you can imagine, it is so difficult to capture an entire month of travel, laughter, magic, and learning in a single blog post, despite how much I try with creative language and emphasis. Although this blog post is long, it is a journal entry of our adventure filled with loving memories that we will cherish forever. I hope you enjoy the read, and if not the entire blog I hope the parts you skim through bring a smile to your face! To Mama Neely: Thank you, for bringing your kids on the adventure of a lifetime. We will cherish the memories forever. I am confident we will return to Italy (and England) in the future, there is so much more to see and explore! Plus… I never got my leather jacket, so I think that warrants another trip soon. Who knows, maybe Avocet will make it across the pond for her own European adventure. I guess you will just have to stick around and find out. But until then, we wish you fair winds and following seas!

Arrivederci, 

Marissa (and Chris and Cleo)

 




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13 Comments

  1. Shannon

    “vini, vidi, vici!” xoxo Great post Marissa. Thank you for writing it… now I don’t have to!

    Reply
    • SV Avocet

      So far you are the only one passing the test lol I am impressed!

      Reply
  2. JANICE

    “Vini, vidi, vici!” Loved every word – I felt like I was on the trip with you! Fabulous! Well done you! Sending love xx

    Reply
    • SV Avocet

      thank you for reading! xx

      Reply
  3. Dad

    “vini, vidi, vici!”

    Reply
    • SV Avocet

      🙂

      Reply
  4. Morgan

    What an incredible experience for you guys — amazing! I remember being 12 years old when I saw Phantom at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver (BC, Canada)… such a great production.

    Reply
    • SV Avocet

      It was incredible – we cant wait to return to Italy and England again someday… hopefully soon… the jury is still out if we will sail that far 😉 Thanks for reading Morgan! I hope all is well with you guys, last I heard you were doing projects… are you still in project mode or back in the water?

      Reply
  5. Clarke

    Veni, vedi, vici!!!

    Reply
    • SV Avocet

      Close enough Clarkey 😉

      Reply
  6. Mandy

    Vini vidi vici! Sounds like it was an amazing trip!

    Reply
    • SV Avocet

      Thanks Mermandy!

      Reply
  7. terrill

    Vini Vidi Vici! I wanted to comment when you asked but I didn’t have a clue where. I started reading and couldn’t stop. I have visited some of your stops and loved seeing them thru your eyes.

    Reply

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