Category Archives: Penn Alumni Travel

Penn Alumni Travel Galapagos FAQs

Author: Alyssa D’Alconzo, Ed.D. GED’04, GRD’11

It’s been two months since Penn Alumni Travel returned from the Galapagos Islands, but few days go by without someone asking a question about our magical trip. Below are my answers to our Galapagos FAQs. Do you have questions or want to join us for Machu Picchu to the Galapagos in December 2015? Click Here or e-mail PATravel@pobox.upenn.edu!

  1. Where are the Galapagos Islands?

For many people on our trip, traveling to the Galapagos was a bucket list item and, for all of us, it was a trip of a lifetime. But other people I’ve spoken with aren’t quite sure where the Galapagos Islands are located.

This archipelago of volcanic islands is located in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles west of Ecuador. Part of the country of Ecuador, the islands are distributed on either side of the equator.  To reach them, we flew from the United States to Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador.

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Next, we took a small plane to the Galapagos (Baltra Island, to be specific).

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Once on Baltra, we received a warm welcome from our naturalist guides and boarded zodiacs to the National Geographic Endeavour.

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  1. How were the ship accommodations?

The National Geographic Endeavour is an expedition ship and while that means it lacks some of the traditional luxury items associated with a traditional cruise ship (multiple restaurants, televisions in cabins, room service, etc.), it certainly doesn’t mean it’s lacking in safety or comfort. The small, stabilized ship, holding only 96 guests in 56 outside cabins, is fully air conditioned with a small pool, fitness center, cozy library, and lounge with a full-service bar. It’s kept immaculately clean and there’s even a spa — if you can find time to take advantage of it! (See FAQ #3)

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To explore the Galapagos, being on an expedition ship is a great advantage. It carries snorkeling gear, kayaks, underwater cameras, a fleet of zodiacs, and a glass-bottom boat.

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With so many toys and so much to see, you’re not likely to miss the Lido! Besides, you’ll never find a traditional cruise ship with an “Open Bridge” policy like the one they have on the Endeavour.

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An open bridge means the captain and officers welcome guests any time of day or night and are happy to show you how the equipment works and answer questions about sailing and navigation.

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It’s truly fascinating to experience and I loved being in the bridge when we crossed the equator for the second time.

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  1. How physically active was the trip?

Visiting the Galapagos on an expedition ship does require physical mobility, as you’re accessing each island via zodiac and the terrain on each island is different. That said, there were plenty of options for people of all physical ability levels. For example, while there was hiking each day, there was always an option for shorter walks or longer hikes. If you didn’t want to snorkel, you could ride the glass bottom boat. Not up for kayaking? Go on a zodiac ride!

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Your activity level over the course of the week will depend on your ability and interests, but you will not be without lots of options! For example, one of my favorite days was when I completed what I called the “Galapagos Triathlon” – kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking all in the same afternoon! Yet while I was rushing on and off the ship with all kinds of gear, other passengers were enjoying a relaxing afternoon in a lounge chair on the deck or participating in only one or two of the activities.IMG_8428

  1. Could you touch the animals?

The absence of predatory mammals in the Galapagos means that you are nearly always within arm’s reach of endemic species unlike those you’ve probably ever seen before. Sea lions, blue and red footed boobies, finches, tortoises, marine and land iguanas, flightless cormorants, sea turtles, sharks, and many others fill the days and camera memory cards, but physically touching them is against Galapagos National Park rules. The guides ensure that all passengers follow these rules, so that the islands remain preserved for future visitors.

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  1. How were your guides?

Our guides were phenomenal. We had a group of naturalist guides who seemed to know everything about the flora and fauna of the islands and were incredible leaders on our hikes, zodiac rides, and snorkeling and kayaking adventures.

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The work of the naturalist guides was complemented by undersea specialists who shared fascinating video of what was happening beneath the surface of the water. Add in our Faculty Host, Michael Weisberg, who gave engaging lectures about Darwin, evolution, adaptation and speciation, and it was an incredible learning experience!

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  1. How many Penn alumni were on the tour?

There were 14 alumni on this tour departure, and we had a great time experiencing and learning about the Galapagos together! We were all proud to see the Penn flag flying high above the National Geographic Endeavour all week

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and even enjoyed some exclusive chances to catch up and get to know one another, apart from the larger group.

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  1. What kind of camera did you use?

I probably get this question more than any other! I brought a DSLR, a point and shoot, and my iPhone. They all took great pictures, but that’s probably because every Endeavour trip has a Photo Specialist on-board and many of the guides are photo-certified, as well. They’re all very accessible and always looking out for passengers to ensure they get the best possible photos. On multiple occasions guides would make recommendations for my camera settings or photo angles. Their advice proved to be invaluable and I’ve even noticed I take better pictures with my new knowledge (get eye level with the subject!) now that I’m home.

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  1. Would you go back to the Galapagos?

Without a doubt! It truly was a magical trip. In fact, Penn Alumni Travel will be going to the Galapagos again in December 2015. I also can’t say enough good things about our wonderful faculty host, Michael Weisberg, and our tour operator, Lindblad Expeditions. I eagerly welcome the opportunity to travel with both of them again and we’re making plans for 2016 now. Stay tuned for our full 2016 schedule to see when Michael Weisberg will be hosting and where we’ll be sailing with Lindblad. I hope to see you on our next departure!

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Penn Alumni Travel: Flavors of Tuscany

Author: Professor Michael Gamer, Department of English

By its gastronomic and vinophilic nature, our foray into Tuscany with Penn Alumni Travel transcended the usual stuff of tourism. Part of the reason was the location of our base: the Podere Ciona vineyards in the heart of the Chianti region, owned and operated by Franca Gatteschi. Nestled in the hills, the winery really was a rural idyll. The dawns were misty and the evenings (on clear nights) were full of stars. The mid-October weather cooperated and the views each morning were serene:

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Then there was the size of our group: nine of us joined by six alumni from Wake Forest University. Whenever I teach a seminar here at Penn I find 14-15 to be the perfect size: it maximizes the give-and-take of discussion without placing too much onus on any one person. The same went for our Tuscan group; by the end of the trip we all really had gotten to know one another.

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Here you see us on our second-to-last day, in Brolio with the Castello Brolio in the background. Given how much by then we’d done — and consumed — we look pretty good on the whole. There had been the three hill towns of the Chianti Classico region (Radda, Gaiole, Castellina), cheese tastings and Sunday dinners in the Arezzo area, a cooking class in San Martino followed by Monte Sant’ Edigio, the monastery of Saint Francis of Assisi; there had been Cortona and Siena. That night would be the cooking class with the four Tuscan Mammas, and the next day there would be Florence. With the exception of Florence, I had never visited any of these places, and they were wonderful; and, given the difference between Florence in high season and in October, even that city seemed entirely new to me.

What made this trip so memorable for me, though, was our guide, Marco Messina. That the group adored him would be an understatement. Like any great teacher, he brought knowledge, kindness, patience, and humor to the project of showing us Tuscany. But he also did more than that; on the way, we met his family and friends. No matter the town or winery, museum or restaurant, Marco would find a way to lead us backstage:

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From master olive oil, cheese-, and bread-makers to our coach-driver, Fabio, the meetings were informative, memorable, fun, and, above all, genuine. My own favorite memory is the evening we spent at Castiglion Fiorentino — where, after a terrific meal we found ourselves being let into a closed Civic Museum to see Etruscan ruins. Then, as the sun was setting, we were treated to a 45-minute performance of flag-tossing as the sun was setting. Those of us who had been on cheerleading and pep squads finally had the answer to the question of flag- and letter-twirling’s origins — in this medieval mix of martial art and dance.

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I’m hoping everyone else enjoyed this trip as much as I did. Hope as well to see you next year on the Machu Picchu and Galapagos trip!

[Professor Gamer will be hosting the 2015 Penn Alumni Travel trip, Machu Picchu to the Galapagos. Click here for more details or click here to view all our 2015 tours.]

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Penn Alumni Travel: Castles and Cathedrals of France

Author: Lynn Marsden-Atlass, Director of the Arthur Ross Gallery

[This post was written during a Penn Alumni Travel trip exploring the Provincial French Countryside. To view our 2015 schedule of tours, click here.]

October 16, 2014

Today we are touring the Renaissance castle of Chenonceau in the Loire Valley. Henri II gave his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, this lovely castle that spans the Cher River.  It reflects perfectly the Renaissance style with beautiful paintings, tapestries, furniture, painted ceilings, and floor tiles executed by Italian and French Renaissance artists and workmen.

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We began our journey last Thursday in Toulouse, one of the great pilgrimage destinations during the Middle Ages with two exceptional examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, the basilica of St. Sernin and the cathedral of St. Etienne.  Today Toulouse is a center for commerce and college students – Airbus builds their planes here, and the cafés in the place St. George are full of people enjoying a coffee or an aperitif talking to one another. Face to face. The square buzzes with voices. No cell phones in the café.

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In Albi we visited their remarkable cathedral, and the Palais de La Berbie that houses the museum of Toulouse-Lautrec, and gardens.  A native son, Lautrec is esteemed today for his lithographs and posters.  He designed these for his friends who were Montmartre’s performers at café-concerts, at the Moulin Rouge, or for Aristide Bruant at Le Mirliton. Scandalous outliers, such as La Goulule and Jane Avril, gained notoriety and fame through Lautrec’s posters.

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Our medieval pilgrimage continued on Tuesday with a visit to Rocamadour. This is a  superb site set in a breathtaking valley with a deep river bed. The houses are built vertically on rock. Above those the church with its famous Chapelle de la Vierge noire (black virgin) is perched, and above the church is a castle.  We climbed 262 steep steps to reach Rocamadour’s churchyard. Eleanor of Aquitaine climbed those same steps on her knees!

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Sarlat is one of the Dordogne’s picturesque towns whose specialties include mushrooms, confit of duck, walnuts, and foie gras made from duck or goose liver.  We enjoyed touring this town, its church, and Bishopry. Some of us paid special homage to the local geese in the “Place des Oies”.

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On our way to Saumur, we paused to admire Chinon, the castle of Charles VII. A 16-year-old Jean d’Arc traveled here after having a dream that she must assist Charles VII. Jean d’Arc later defended her King in battle, before being burned at the stake.

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The Loire Valley is resplendent with castles everywhere. In the 16th century King Francois I settled in the Loire valley surrounded by his court. Francois I brought Italian artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, to France to decorate his castles in the new Renaissance style.

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The Penn Alumni on this trip are fantastic. Smart, enthusiastic, curious, with a good sense of humor, our band of seventeen has a wealth of knowledge in all disciplines. The camaraderie of the group is especially lively in our bus conversations and over leisurely meals that feature great regional specialties and wines. Vive la France!

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A bientot,

Lynn

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Penn Alumni Travel: Lascaux

Author: Laura Foltman

[Staff host Laura Foltman is traveling with Penn alumni, friends, and faculty host Lynn Marsden-Atlass through France. The group returns to the U.S. on October 22nd. For more information about Penn Alumni Travel trips, click here.]

“C’est formidable!” Judith Forman, CW’63, G’66, stated as we exited Lascaux II.  We weren’t sure what to expect with this stop on the Penn Alumni Travel tour of the provincial French countryside.  Our guide, Ms. Elsa Marechal, explained that Lascaux II was a fake cave of prehistoric paintings.  “Ugh!” we all thought.  Here is a tourist trap on what has been an otherwise fantastic trip.

We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Lascaux, the original cave, is located near the village of Montignac in the Dordogne region of France.  One day, in the 1940s, Marcel Ravidat’s dog got lost in the woods.  Marcel found the dog stuck in a hole.  When he rescued the dog he noticed rocks were falling and echoing below the hole.  He took the dog back to the house, grabbed shovels, flashlights, and three friends, returned to the spot, and started to dig.  They soon found themselves in a large shaft that lead to two large caves.  The four friends began exploring, not seeing anything noteworthy until one of the boys slipped and fell on his back.  When his flashlight hit the ceiling he found something extraordinary: about 2,000 figures that were painted 17,300 years ago!  The boys made a pact that this would be their secret hiding place and wouldn’t tell anyone.  Remember, these are teenage boys.  How long do you think the secret lasted?  Three days!

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The cave complex was open to the public in 1948 and averaged 1,200 visitors per day: extraordinary numbers for the time.  All the visitors changed the climate in the cave.  Carbon dioxide, heat, humidity and other contaminants were visibly changing the paintings and lichen began growing on the walls.  Thus Lascaux II, a replica of the great hall where the majority of the paintings are located, was built in 1983 so that visitors can view the caves without damaging the original paintings.  The tour isn’t just a replica, it is an EXACT replica of the current cave as they update it every 3 years to reflect the state of the real cave.

Penn Alumni had a terrific tour guide named Dave Cohen who called Neanderthals a modern equivalent of Rugby players!  Lifelong learning continued for our Penn alumni as they dominated the tour by asking thought-provoking questions such as:

“Why, out of the 2000 images, is there only one image of a human?”

“Are any of the depicted animals domesticated?”

“What is the chemical make-up of the paints to make them last so long (the drawings can not be carbon dated)?”

“How were Neanderthals able to understand motion and perspective?”

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Lascaux is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the alumni on this trip now understand why.  If you want to find out more information, including the state of the current cave and some of the famous depictions of the images, go to http://www.lascaux.culture.fr/?lng=en – /en/02_00.xml

The  group poses for a pictures in Albi.

The group poses for a picture in Albi.

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Penn Alumni Travel: A Watercolor Record

Author: Barbara Seymour, GLA’82

[The author and artist, Barbara Seymour, traveled on a Penn Alumni Travel trip to the “Celtic Lands” this past spring. Some people take photographs on tours. Others write in journals. Barbara decided to record the tour in watercolors. Below is a snapshot of her beautiful memories.]

My travel watercolor kit.

My travel watercolor kit.

As a watercolor painter, I was so inspired by the Scottish landscapes we saw on the Celtic Lands trip.  Since I live in the woods in the Philadelphia area, the open sky, sea and mountains were a new and challenging subject.  I found myself looking for subjects with all these elements to photograph and paint.

In the Hebrides.

In the Hebrides.

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I also loved the changing light and how it affected the landscape, casting shadows over hills and sea.  Clouds became an obsession!

Old ruins and castles make marvelous subjects.

The ruins of an old monastery on the Isle of Iona.  (with iris in bloom and shepherd and sheep!)

The ruins of an old monastery on the Isle of Iona. (with iris in bloom and shepherd and sheep!)

Duart Castle, Isle of Mull.  (with yellow Grouse blooming in the foreground).

Duart Castle, Isle of Mull (with yellow Gorse blooming in the foreground).

I found a spot on Iona that almost reminded me of home: A tiny little path between fields, with a stone wall.

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I found this image of an abandoned fishing boat poignant, suggestive of the ravages of time.

I found this image of an abandoned fishing boat poignant, suggestive of the ravages of time.

Celtic Crosses were everywhere, ancient and new. I also got a chance to paint the little white flowers blooming everywhere in the grass.

Celtic Crosses were everywhere, ancient and new.  I also got a chance to paint the little white flowers blooming everywhere in the grass.

Finally, I chose this old stone bridge, with a very challenging stoney river flowing underneath.

Finally, I chose this old stone bridge, with a very challenging stoney river flowing underneath.

Scotland is wonderfully inspiring for a watercolor painter.  I am not finished with it yet!

[Barbara will be having two Open Houses showing and selling these and other paintings this fall.  All are welcome!  View her website here. The dates are Sunday, November 16th, 2014, 1-5 pm and Sunday, December 7th, 2014, 1-5 pm.   The address is:
Headlong House
307 Moylan Avenue
Media, PA 19063

( 2 blocks from the Moylan-Rose Valley SEPTA train station).]

 

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Penn Alumni Travel: Unforgettable Galapagos

Author: Liz Drayer, C’83

Darwin and blue-footed boobies.  That’s what I thought when I heard Galapagos, before we signed on for this September adventure.  Then our copies of Origin of Species arrived in the mail, courtesy of Penn Alumni Travel.  Wow, I thought I’ve never cracked this historic volume.  Now’s the time.  I made it through Chapter One before resorting to Evolution for Dummies.  But no problem – Professor Michael Weisberg filled in the blanks once we arrived.

The fun began when we boarded the National Geographic Endeavor, with its first-rate facilities and staff who catered to our every need.  How many times had I tried to win this exact trip on the Jeopardy sweepstakes?  With less than seventy guests, we were able to get to know everyone during the course of the week.  You can’t help but make friends nestled “cheek to cheek” in the Zodiacs, the motorized rafts deployed daily to ferry us to the islands.

Each morning began with a wakeup from Carlos, the ship’s master of ceremonies and naturalist extraordinaire.  Then it was off to explore the island du jour, each with unique topography and endemic species of animals and plants.  We practically tripped over iguanas, nursing sea lions and glittering Sally Lightfoot crabs, all oblivious to our comings and goings.  The naturalists’ encyclopedic knowledge deepened our appreciation for all we saw, and we marveled at Brian, our videographer/stunt man, who scaled precipices barefoot to nab the perfect shot.

“Scaly” is not a four-letter word.

“Scaly” is not a four-letter word.

Our shipmates made the trip special – a diverse group of all ages and backgrounds.  The wide-ranging activities offered something for everyone.  Snorkeling with sharks and sea turtles.  Scaling volcanic formations.  Kayaking and glass bottom boats.  Magnificent vistas and sugar cane farms.  And my personal favorite, the Galapagos Tortoise, those plodding kings that once thrived on the islands, now bred by researchers hoping to restore their prior glory.

America’s next top model.

America’s next top model.

We wound down each day in the cozy library, sipping cocktails and watching the cottony clouds waft across the horizon.  Evenings featured local cuisine and music, barbeques and crossing-the-equator parties.  A highlight of the trip was the excellent lecture series featuring Penn’s Professor Weisberg, that left me craving the classrooms of Bennett Hall.

These island getaways are exhausting.

These island getaways are exhausting.

We capped off the week with a day in Guayaquil, fraternizing with reptiles that hang from the trees in Iguana Park.  We marveled at yellow-jerseyed fans streaming into the soccer stadium, arriving at ten for a four o’clock game.  Ecuadorians take their football seriously….

Huge thanks to Alyssa D’Alconzo, Director of Alumni Education, Travel, and Career Networking, for organizing this fabulous trip.  Nothing sums up our nine days like Carlos’ favorite superlative:  Fantastic!

*Liz Drayer is an attorney and writer in Clearwater, Florida.  Her most recent short story, Crashers, appears in the June 2014 issue of Prick of the Spindle literary magazine.  Her email is edrayer@tampabay.rr.com.

[If this blog has inspired you to travel with Penn Alumni Travel, visit our full 2015 schedule here. We will be returning to the Galapagos in 2015 with the tour Machu Picchu to the Galapagos, December 1-15, 2015.]

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Penn Alumni Travel: Portrait of Italy 2014

Author: Ann de Forest

Our Penn Alumni Travel tour through Italy began on the picturesque Amalfi Coast on the Tyrrhenian Sea and ended at the opposite end of the country in Venice, where the Adriatic flows to form its characteristic lagoon and canals. Led by Joe Farrell, Professor of Classical Studies, and our indispensable Italian tour director Enrica Angeli, our fourteen days of travel across the peninsula from south to north, with stops in Rome, Umbria, and Tuscany, were packed with delights. Information, insights, stimulating conversations, natural wonders, and of course, memorable food and wine were ours in abundance. Late spring was a perfect time of year to experience Italy at its most glorious. The weather was splendid: days, for the most part, were sunny and clear, ending in spectacular sunsets as the evening cooled.

This is a view of the costiera amalfitana, the Amalfi coast, where we began our tour.

This is a view of the costiera amalfitana, the Amalfi coast, where we began our tour.

There were twenty-two of us in all gathered at the luggage carousel in the Naples Airport on the last day of April. Joe, our faculty guide (and also my husband) had already whetted participants’ curiosity with a pre-tour webinar, and in his first lecture, he traced Italy’s history back much farther than the ancient Roman civilization that is the focus of his research, to deep geological time. Italy was formed by the collision of two tectonic plates that pressed together to form the Appenine Mountains, which run like a rocky backbone through the peninsula, dividing regions and creating, in human history, isolated pockets for peoples to develop cultures adapted to specific, local conditions. Earthquakes, volcanoes and other geological upheaval shaped not only Italy’s distinctive, picturesque landscape but also the particular character of individual towns and cities. Throughout our two weeks, we saw again and again how, in Italy, geology is destiny.

We experienced Italy’s topography at its most dramatic on the day of arrival. As we made our way to our hotel in in the seaside town of Maori, we wound our way along the precipitous cliffs of the Amalfi Coast (see below), marveling at the bravura and skill of our bus driver on those narrow, hair-raising ascents and descents, and at his finesse in squeezing by other buses coming in the opposite direction.

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Our first full day, May 1, is a holiday in Italy and the rest of Europe, where Labor Day marks the beginning rather than the end of summer.  So we set out early to beat the holiday crowds. Our first stop is a dazzling jewel of a town, tiny, pristine Ravello, perched high above the sea. The main attraction there was the Villa Rufolo, a medieval castle that fell into ruin and was restored in the early twentieth century by a Scottish industrialist. As we ambled in the formal Renaissance garden terrace (below) and admired the view of sparkling aquamarine water beyond it, a few in our group discussed the Allied invasion of this intricate, treacherous terrain during WW II. Enrica had supplied us with a hand-drawn map for reference. This conversation set the tone for discussions that would continue throughout the trip. Our very first day and stop gave us a quintessentially Italian experience, in which different moments of history overlap, and land, water, art and architecture no matter how tranquil or inspiring bristle with stories of war, conquest and disaster.

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Just as the town was filling up with larger buses of tourists and holiday travelers, our bus headed back down the hill to the city of Amalfi, a one-time maritime power, which we learn was one of three independent maritime republics on the peninsula, whose prowess as seafarers made that nation a rival of Venice and Pisa. The port city is tucked into a narrow canyon, which made a safe haven for Amalfi’s pirates to retreat from enemy marauders. The Duomo, with its steep marble staircase, beautifully accommodates the restrictions of the topography.

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Farther back in the canyon is a paper museum, which celebrates one of Amalfi’s oldest industries, and details the history of paper making (especially delighting one Penn alumna, a poet and book artist, who found the materials here for a new art work). Afterwards, we boarded a boat that skimmed along the coast back to Maiori, a quicker and more efficient means of transport than the roller-coaster roads.

Discussion of disaster dominated our next day’s tour, through the ruins of ancient Pompeii, destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. In a lecture the evening before, Joe had talked about the typical form of a Roman town, with streets laid out on a grid, a forum with public buildings, temples and civic structures at its center, and gymnasiums, amphitheaters, taverns, and baths as features of daily life. He also talked about the fascination with Vesuvius from before Roman times to the present, showing images and impressions of this still active volcano through the eyes of British Romantic painters and Victorian moralists, who saw in the destruction of Pompeii divine punishment of pagan decadence in the early days of Christianity.

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The group poses for a picture with the Penn Alumni banner.

Mt. Vesuvius was hidden by clouds on this drizzly day,

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or as Enrica liked to say “Vesuvio is shy.” The history of Pompeii and what the excavations reveal about Roman life in the first century were fascinating. Walking on intact Roman roads, poking through the House of Menander, with its painted wall decorations, or the bath complex where we admired the delicate stucco work in the changing rooms, was like traveling back in time. The poignancy of Pompeii comes from the sense of deserted places abandoned in a hurry as the volcano erupted and ash rained down around them.

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With Pompeii as our introduction to ancient Roman life and culture, we departed the next morning to Rome itself. On the way, we stopped at Monte Cassino, where the first Benedictine monastery was established in 529. After being destroyed in Allied bombings in 1944, the monastery was rebuilt immediately after the war to reproduce its original proportions and austere white splendor. Once again, the themes of geology and topography emerged. This hilltop with panoramic views in every direction, and a vista that stretches to the sea, made it the ideal spot for a protected sanctuary in the early Middle Ages. Some 800 years later, that same vantage point made it attractive to the German army as a well defended spot where they could track the Allies for miles from whatever direction they came, and this led to its destruction.

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Later that afternoon, we arrived in Rome, where we settled into our hotel in the Centro Storico (historic center), not far from famous classical and Christian sites, including the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian and the baroque church of Santa Maria della Victoria, home of sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s exquisite tableau, “St. Theresa in Ecstasy.” Arrival in Rome was the theme of Joe’s next lecture, which opened with a clip from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita in which rooftop sunbathers in bikinis wave enthusiastically at a statue of Jesus flying over the city in a helicopter, bound for the Vatican.

Over the next three days our group had a chance to wander and explore this dynamic city, still the capital of modern Italy (a country younger than the U.S., as Joe reminded us). Rome may be a living museum, but it is the ongoing, often raucous dialogue between past and present, sublime and ridiculous, monumental and banal that more than anything makes the Eternal City so alive. On “May the Fourth (Be With You),” for instance, we encountered a Tie fighter and a parade of Storm Troopers, right outside the Colosseum.

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Joe and I have lived in Rome and know the city well, so were delighted to be able to recommend our favorite restaurants, to whisk our companions into tiny churches to glimpse hidden masterpieces of painting, sculpture and architecture, to show the outdoor market at Campo dei Fiori, the espresso bars, gelaterie, and other aspects of Roman daily life. These informal walks and unexpected discoveries provided counterpoint to the impressive monuments we visited on informed, guided tours over the next two days — an afternoon gelato is the perfect way to cap an intense morning of walking, thinking, listening and looking in the Colosseum, the Forum, the abundant collections of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica.

Our faculty tour leader, Professor Joe Farrell, in St. Peter’s Square.

Our faculty tour leader, Professor Joe Farrell, in St. Peter’s Square.

After three days, we bade Rome farewell and headed north. On the bus, the dense, crowded periphery of the city quickly gave way to rolling countryside and green fields. (The pale green grass growing all along the Tiber Valley, Enrica tells us, is semolina, the grain used to make Italian pasta.) Our next destination, the Etruscan city of Orvieto sits on top of a volcanic plateau, commanding impressive views in every direction; and our hotel in the center of the medieval town offers vistas of roof tiles and stone and brick towers on one side, a green valley on the other. Swallows wheel in the cloud-streaked sky at sunset and church bells ring out every quarter hour.

Our education the first evening is very hands-on: We learn how to make pasta in Ristorante Zeppelin, where volunteers took turns following chef Lorenzo’s directions for rolling and cutting the strands and forming typical shapes like farfalle (bowties).

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The next day, we traveled to Assisi, a small city best know for its two saints, Francis and Clare, whose commitment to the poor, to simple lives dedicated to poverty and charity, revolutionized the church of the twelfth century. The lives and influence of these saints, and the basilicas built in their honor, have made Assisi a pilgrimage site for centuries. While we were drawn, like the pilgrims, to the history, the architecture, and the Giotto frescoes, local residents were preparing for their annual festival, a medieval pageant that pits one end of the town (Sotto, or lower Assisi) with the other (Sopra, upper). We found bleachers filling the main piazza and bright medieval banners lining the streets. For lunch, some of us joined the locals at long tables to eat porchetta sandwiches and drink fresh wine in plastic cups as part of the festivities.

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The land, the soil, the stone, the topography — these were what Joe had taught us to look for. The pearly pink cast of Assisi’s stone building, which give the town an almost ethereal air, derives from from the color of the local stone, while Orvieto is more golden in tone, most of the buildings formed from porous volcanic tufa. The earth also contributes to the local industries. On the way back from Assisi, we visit Deruta, a center for majolica since the early middle ages. We watched the quick, deft hands of a ceramics artist paint a small pitcher in colorful, delicate detail. She is continuing a generations-old tradition of craftsmanship in her family.

Enrica, our tour director, shows off some of the wares in Deruta.

Enrica, our tour director, shows off some of the wares in Deruta.

That night, back in Orvieto, we explore the narrow streets and charming angles and alleys. The magnificent medieval Duomo is startling for its scale and its grace.

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We saw the inside of the twelfth-century Duomo on a guided tour the next day, including chapels with frescoes by Fra Angelico and a troubling cycle of the Last Judgment by Luca Signorelli. The day of our city tour happened to be market day, so we enjoyed browsing among tables overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables, including the first of the spring cherries, and trucks devoted to salumi,formaggi, and, pane (cured meats, cheeses, and bread). In the afternoon, we visit the underground caves that tunnel through the porous tufa stone under the city. The Etruscans used these to store wine and olive oil, and as wells. In the middle ages, these hollows were transformed into dovecotes, to lure and breed pigeons in times of famine. Pigeon remains a popular local dish, which some of us sampled that night in a traditional Umbrian restaurant. In more recent history, the caves functioned as bomb shelters during WWII.

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We traveled next to Tuscany and stopped for lunch in the university town of Perugia, perched high on a plateau, dominated by a central pedestrian boulevard lined with outdoor cafes. From one vista, we could look across at Assisi, which from that distance seems pressed precariously into the hillside.

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In the afternoon, we turned off the highway, and Enrica stopped the busdriver so we could look across a field to see from a distance the Villa Lecchi, the magnificent eighteenth-century estate, which was to be our home for the next three days. After a week in towns and cities, the Villa with its view of olive groves and vineyards, felt like a true retreat.

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We left our retreat early the next morning to go to Siena. A few days earlier, Joe had told us about the time he spent on an Etruscan dig not far from Siena, and how that summer when he was just out of college he discovered the pleasures of this medieval city, with its sloping, shell-shaped Campo, the main piazza, its pride in its long history as a republican government, and its traditions, including the famous Palio, a frenetic, no-holds-barred horse race around the Campo, which takes place twice each summer. While we were too early for the Palio, we did get to see a living Sienese tradition in action. That night the L’Oca (Goose) contrada, one of the 17 districts that acts as social and cultural centers, was holding its annual baptism festival. Every baby born in that contrada that year would be baptized in the local fountain. As our local guide led us down the steep streets of L’Oca, green and yellow banners waved from the lampposts. A band played in the distance, and suddenly our group was swept up in a parade, a marching band making its way up one of the narrow streets as the first part of the celebration.

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We left the local festivities to see the impressive main sights, including the magnificent Duomo, with its unique inlaid marble mosaic floors.

That night, back at our Villa Lecchi retreat, we dined out on the terrace, listening to the music from a wedding taking place in the main dining room of the villa, charmed and singing along with the American pop music sung with an Italian accent: “Can you feel the love tonight?” The sunset seemed like it was offered to us as our own personal show; and later, as the night grew dark, fireworks in some distant town across the valley flared up in the sky, a perfect ending to a glorious day and night.

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The next day, Sunday, Florence was packed with visitors. We began our own visit to the birthplace of the Renaissance on the other side of the Arno, where the city spread out before us, dominated by the Duomo, Florence’s cathedral, with its campanile designed by Giotto and topped by Brunelleschi’s impressive dome.

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That day we were especially grateful for our tour guide, who was able to skirt the lines waiting to see Michelangelo’s magnificent David, the epitome, she said, of Renaissance humanism. Later, Enrica took a group into the Uffizi to see other masterpieces of Renaissance and Baroque art, including Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Caravaggio’s Bacchus. She also steered those who want to see something off the beaten (tourist) path to a small leather-working shop and museum just behind another Brunelleschi masterpiece, the basilica of Santa Croce.

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The next day took us to a much smaller city, the charming hilltown of San Gimignano, famous for its thirteen bell towers, which rise invitingly out of the Tuscan landscape. San Gimignano’s main church, La Collegiata, features arches painted black and white to mimic the marble stripes of the cathedrals of Siena and Florence. The walls of the church are adorned with an intricate and intriguing fresco cycle from the fourteenth century of scenes from the Old Testament, from the Creation to the story of Job.

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That afternoon, we were treated to an excellent seminar in Tuscan viniculture and wine tasting by a young Italian woman with a Scottish accent in a vineyard just outside of San Gimignano.

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All too soon, it was time to leave Tuscany for our final destination, Venice. After a long day’s drive over and through the Appenine mountains, stopping to experience the Italian version of truck stop dining, we entered a dramatically different landscape, the broad flat plain of the Po Valley. In the distance, the pre-Alps and Dolomites, still snow-capped, formed a dramatic backdrop.

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After crossing a long causeway, we boarded water taxis to reach our hotel near the famous Grand Canal. Then, on an evening walk, we learned how to navigate the twisting streets of Venice on foot, passing the Rialto Bridge and ending up in Piazza San Marco. Later the same evening, a small group went to hear the music of one of Venice’s most famous native sons, Antonio Vivaldi, performed in the Baroque church of  San Vidal. The familiar “Four Seasons” suite was played, on original instruments, more briskly and exuberantly than most of us had ever heard it. The evening’s magic was capped by a ride back to the hotel on a vaporetto, Venice’s public transport, under a full moon.

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In the morning we rode again in boats down to the Piazza San Marco for a walking tour of Venice’s characteristic neighborhoods, and then gathered that night for a farewell meal. To cap the evening, one of the participants read an entertaining and heartfelt homage to Enrica. We laughed– and were moved to tears.

Italy, as we had been told and could see from the beginning, is an assemblage of geographies, topographies, cultures and traditions; and our “Portrait of Italy” was more a collage or a mosaic than a smooth, idealized painting by Raphael or Titian. What we saw in fourteen days was the rich variety that Italy has to offer. We stayed in a seaside hotel, in the fast-beating heart of Rome, in a charming medieval hill town, in an eighteenth-century villa in the Tuscan countryside, and finally in a modern hotel on a Venetian canal. Along the way we saw some of Italy’s most significant sites and monuments: Pompeii, the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel, the Uffizi in Florence and Venice’s incomparable San Marco Square. We admired sacred spaces, some of them very spare, like the church of Santa Chiara in Assisi, and some elaborate and immense, like Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. We rode boats along the Amalfi Coast and in Venice, and we burrowed under the tufa grottos in Orvieto. We learned about the long continuity of cultural traditions, not just by listening to guides and looking at the sites, but by making pasta with our own hands, watching majolica being made, or holding up a wine goblet to note the straw color and clarity of a young vernaccia. What lasts in retrospect are the smaller moments, the unplanned surprises: teenagers hammering together props for their pageant floats in Assisi, a seafood dinner in Rome where the proprietor politely listened to our orders, and then basically ignored them, taking charge and offering us the specialties of the house, a hot air balloon floating over the Tuscan countryside. My last image comes from the very last night, as we walked back from our jovial farewell dinner across a small bridge to our hotel. In one direction the sun was setting behind the distant snow-capped mountains.

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In the other was the moon, poking through clouds in an indigo sky.

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[Inspired to journey to Italy with Penn Alumni Travel? We will return to the peninsula with a second Portrait of Italy tour next October 2015 with faculty host Professor Campbell Grey. Click here for more information. We will also explore Southern Italy and Sicily in May 2015 with Professor Thomas Max Safley. Click here for more information.]

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