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European vacation

December 13, 2005|by FEDORA COPLEY

SAN GIMIGNANO, Italy - For several years, my family and I had been saving our change in a pasta cannister we christened the "Italy Jar," hoping we would eventually have enough to fly to the country my mom's grandparents came from.

When we finally did go to Europe, the cash from the Italy Jar was divvied up between the five of us - mom, dad, my 19-year-old sister, 16-year-old brother and me - for spending money.

We scheduled our trip for mid-November, although we knew the days would be cool and nights would begin early. But there would also be fewer tourists and my sister could get out of college more easily.

Small town in Tuscany

This was my first time flying overseas, so everything from getting on the plane to seeing cities from up in the air was new. Not to mention coming into a foreign country.


After landing in Milan on Sunday, Nov. 13, we picked up our Renault minivan and hit the road. My father immediately got lost. But he kept driving south, found his route again and eventually we reached a town in Tuscany called San Gimignano (pronounced "gee-mee-NYAH-noh").

Looking back on it, it seems like a classic Italian town, with red ceramic roof tiles, stone buildings, olive trees, closely-knit townsfolk, little coffee bars and wrinkled old men smoking pipes. It felt traditional, old-fashioned.

But funnily enough, in the downtown it was a happening place. A small network of stone roads held many shops selling an array of things - ceramic dishes, watches, clothes, postcards, calendars, Asian-influenced knick-knacks.

Here I had my first taste of classic Italian food: salami, formaggio (cheese), roasted vegetables and bread. All through the trip we would have several meals like that.

Glitzy shops in an old town

One of our nights in Tuscany, we drove to Siena, about a half-hour drive away. We parked our car just inside the old wall of the city and walked through winding, narrow streets to the center of town.

Anyone could tell this was a hip place. The women wore fashionable sweaters, jackets or fur coats, with high-heeled or flat-bottomed boots. It was a lot like San Gimignano, just bigger and flashier.

It was like a mall in the center of Siena - there were so many shops. One we stepped into was a paper shop, called Il Papiro.

The store sold gorgeous sheets of marbled paper, and items covered in marbled paper - boxes, picture frames, pencils, journals.

The woman behind the counter spoke pretty good English, like many people in Italy. I'd say out of every five people we talked to, three spoke at least comprehensible, if not good, English. More than I could say about my Italian. Still, we got by with simple words when need be.

Rome and Vatican City

After three days in Tuscany, we drove further south to Rome. Before this trip when I thought of Rome, it was grand, ancient ruins like the Coliseum that came to mind. But actually seeing the city was a lot different.

Rome is dirty, polluted and crowded. There's a lot to Rome that isn't ancient and grand. For a foreigner, being in Rome was similar to being in New York City; I felt like I was in a whole different level of the word "city."

On the streets, vendors try to make a living. On one stretch of the huge stone wall around Vatican City, there was a purse-seller every six feet, selling exactly the same purses as the men next to them. And not once did I see someone stop and look at a purse, much less buy one.

We drove into Rome during rush hour and at night. That was my first impression of Rome. The next day we saw the Vatican Museum and the Sistene Chapel ceiling, St. Peter's Basilica, the Coliseum and glimpses of the Roman Forum.

We saw the Coliseum by moonlight, and the Forum after that. The Coliseum was very, well, big. There were a lot of arcades and columns, all the oatmeally color of stone. It struck me as funny that there were streets right next to it - cars whizzing past this famous ancient structure like it was an everyday sight. I guess, for Romans, it is.

Into the countryside

The Amalfi Coast, which we visited after Rome, was one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. Steep mountains roll into the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Switchback roads wind among towns perched on hillsides. White houses speckle the coast, but there are no beaches here - the mountains plunge into the sea.

After five days of unusually warm weather on our trip, temperatures dropped and the wind turned bitter. We stopped for an afternoon in Pompeii - the famous, old Roman city buried in volcanic ash when nearby Vesuvius erupted.

As we entered the historic part, I saw a sign that said in English "Do not climb on walls." This was unfortunate for me, because I love to climb things. But I like to bend the rules when I can, so I held onto the railing on the ramp leading up to the city, and slid along using my feet on the wall. I figured it didn't count as climbing.

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