No student ever wants to be awake and attentive outside of school at 5:20 am on a Friday morning, but that was exactly what I was doing in the company of twenty of my classmates and five chaperones. On February 17, the last day of school before vacation, our group of Latin students finally headed to Rome, Italy. Pausing for pictures in front of the school bus that would drive us to Logan Airport, we quickly said our goodbyes to our parents, who had been kind enough to drive us to Old Rochester Regional High School with all of our suitcases. We loaded the bus and embarked promptly at 5:30 am. The following day, our flight arrived at Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport. Energized by the sheer fact that we were now in Rome (none of us had gotten proper sleep on our overnight flight), we collected our luggage and met our tour director for the duration of our trip – a woman we immediately came to love, Carmen del Gaudio.
When we originally signed up for our trip, the itinerary included Rome, Ostia, Pompeii, Sorrento, and Capri. Over the several months leading up to the trip, our itinerary changed when we were booked with another group, students from Billerica, Massachusetts. Our itinerary no longer included Ostia, the ancient port city of Rome, but we gained an excursion to Assisi and Florence. The trade-off worked in our favor, as we broadened our touring experience and learned more about Italy than only its Roman heritage.
Ms. del Gaudio surprised us with a trip to Ostia – not knowing we were Latin students – when we initially arrived in Rome. The students from Billerica were not arriving until later that afternoon, and so we had several hours to kill – Ms. del Gaudio figured that we wouldn’t mind visiting Ostia to pass the time. First our bus driver, Francesco, drove us around the ruins of ancient Ostia, driving so that both sides of the bus had a turn to snap pictures. Then Francesco drove us to modern Ostia, were he dropped us off by the beach. Ms. del Gaudio directed us to a couple of ristorantes were we could buy some cappuccinos and issued us a meeting point and time. For a few hours, we had the blocks around us to explore; and explore we did, learning from Ms. del Gaudio that it was Carnevale, the week-long celebration leading up to Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season.
After picking up the Billerica students from the airport, we set off on a long drive to Assisi, which is known for St. Rufino, St. Francis, and St. Clare. Unfortunately, none of us managed to take in much of the view on the drive; we were all asleep due to jet lag. We arrived in Assisi an hour before our dinner was scheduled at our hotel, a dinner that set the standard for our diet the rest of the vacation. It was a three-course meal. I’m sure that my classmates would agree that we all miss the Italian food we enjoyed while we were abroad.
After dinner, we wandered the surrounding area in fairly large groups. Words cannot express how beautiful Assisi was during both day and night – but especially at night, just after the sun had set and the stars had appeared. The churches were lit by spotlights, the air was crisp, and we all agreed it would be lovely to live in Assisi for the rest of our lives. After a good night’s sleep, we enjoyed a guided tour of Assisi the next morning, visiting the piazza, the Basilica of St. Clare, and the Basilica of St. Francis. From there, it was on to our next stop – Florence, or as it is known in Italy, Firenze.
Our stay in Florence was longer than our stay in Assisi. Since no buses are allowed in the city, we stayed in a nearby town, Montecatini. The buses could only drive during certain hours in Montecatini, so for the two days that we visited Florence we had to wake up early. Francesco took us to a train station, from which we walked into Florence and towards the piazzas. Our first day in Florence, we toured such sights as the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower. This Basilica is famous for its large dome, which was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi won the commission in a competition against contemporary Lorenzo Ghiberti, who had won an earlier competition for the commission of the Baptistery’s doors. According to our tour guide, the Baptistery was built solely to handle the many baptisms that are made at the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower.
The dome, or Duomo as the Italians call it, was available for climbing – a steep feat (pardon the pun) requiring a staggering four hundred steps up and another four hundred back down. Climbing the Duomo was a two-step process, with the first leg of the journey bringing you near the frescoed ceiling of the dome, and the second leg bringing you outside to a priceless view of Florence in its entirety. The tour of Florence concluded with a leather-making demonstration and half a day of free time (read: shopping) before we returned to Montecatini. The next day we returned to Florence to visit Michelangelo’s David and other Renaissance artworks. Finishing in Florence a few hours later, it was back on the bus and onwards to Rome, stopping at a surprise destination – a small town called San Gimignano.
San Gimignano was never on our itinerary, but we all chipped in 10 euro to pay for the permit to park there. Originally founded by the Etruscans, the predecessors of the Romans, San Gimignano became a stopping point for pilgrims heading to Rome and Jerusalem during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The small, walled city was strong enough to declare itself independent of bishops who maintained tight control over that particular commune in Tuscany. Famed for its large number of towers (only fourteen remain), San Gimignano remains a popular tourist attraction. After climbing the two hundred steps of the city hall tower, we were once again privy to a miraculous view – this one white and tan, rather than the red of Florence. After a few hours of exploring, we returned to the bus and Francesco drove us the remaining miles to Rome.
Rome contained a flurry of activities for us. We visited the customary sights such as the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and the different piazzas. We threw our coins into the Trevi Fountain under the light of the moon, wishing for our return to the Eternal City, and we peered down on Rome from the top of the Spanish Steps with the sun’s last rays lighting the streets with fire. But the highlight was, of course, the ancient sites we visited — namely, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and the Forum. On our drive through Rome to these archaeological areas, we passed a Roman pyramid (yes, they did build pyramids), the remains of the ancient city walls, and the baths of Caracalla. Our tour guide for the Colosseum and the Forum was an archaeologist. We learned much about the ruins from her. One interesting fact that Krisztina told us was that most Roman ruins are unexcavated. There were many imperial forums in ancient Rome, and from ancient documents scholars can ascertain exactly where the ruins would be, but no excavations have been attempted because they run under the modern city’s roads and buildings. As Krisztina said, two thirds of the imperial forums are left unexcavated. She said that this was not necessarily a bad thing, as sometimes it is easier to preserve the ruins by leaving them untouched than expose them and risk destroying them.
We spent a day in Vatican City with another tour guide, who brought us through the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. From Vatican City, we returned to Rome and walked to the Piazza Navona, where we purchased the reportedly best gelato in Rome and looked at the different watercolors for sale. That night at the hotel, we said our goodbyes to our companions from Billerica, who were returning home the next morning, but not before exchanging contact information and making arrangements to swap our pictures online. We prepared ourselves for the next stage of our trip, which was to Pompeii with an overnight stay in Sorrento.
If our studies in Latin and the Roman culture made us excited to visit Rome, then we were ecstatic to visit Pompeii. While we waited for our tickets to get into the ruins of the city destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, we visited a cameo factory and watched a demonstration. Then, it was into Pompeii, where we were accompanied by the many friendly but stray dogs of the city. (Someone was prepared and had bought dog cookies in Florence.) After an engaging tour of Pompeii with our guide Marco, who displayed the city’s history by telling stories about its inhabitants, we were free to explore – but we stayed in one group in order to prevent ourselves from getting lost. The sites we visited in Pompeii were the forum, a senator’s house, a fast-food restaurant (yes, the Romans had them), a public bath, a gladiator’s training ground, a brothel, a theater, an amphitheater, and a bakery. The bakery was a special location for our Latin classes since Ms. Pretat makes “Roman bread” throughout the year – bread that is made from a recipe found inscribed in a wall in the ruins of Pompeii. An exciting but slightly scary event from Pompeii was that while we were in the forum and within the sight of Mt. Vesuvius, the volcano began to smoke. It was a thrilling experience.
Sorrento was a beautiful seaside town, and unfortunately we only stayed there one night. A group of boys decided to swim in the Mediterranean Sea, while everyone else simply waded – they agreed that the water was rather cold. After dinner at the hotel, the group decided to take a bus up the cliff face into the town’s center – the expedition was spontaneous and fun. We milled around Sorrento, eating gelato and the region’s famous oranges.
In the morning, we set off for our last destination – the island of Capri, off the Amalfi Coast. We took a twenty-five minute ferry ride to the island, where we hopped on another boat in order to explore the island’s coast. On this boat ride we explored a couple of grottos in the cliffs and passed through a natural arch, making a wish as tradition demands. Then it was back to the island, where we met our next tour guide, Fabio, who took us to the town of Capri and to the gardens of Augustus. Capri, in ancient times, was the place where the rich and famous – namely emperors – summered. The gardens of Augustus are still maintained today, and provide a beautiful view of the island from their high vantage point.
Sadly, after Capri it was time for us to prepare for our return to the Tri-Town. We headed back to Rome, packed our bags, went to bed relatively early, and got up later than usual so that we could handle the jet lag. Ms. del Gaudio accompanied us to the airport, where we parted at the check-in. We made our arrival at Old Rochester Regional High School around 12:30 am on Monday, February 27, and it was back to school that morning.
I was lucky enough to have been one of the twenty-one students visiting Italy on this school field trip, and I know I can speak for everyone when I say we are all deeply grateful to the district school committee for allowing us to have this enriching experience, and we appreciate the hard work of Latin teacher Judith Prétat in preparing the trip and the support of our families. Not a second of the trip was wasted; we were always learning. Thanks to the group from Billerica, we made new friends, learned some conversational Italian, and got to see much more of Italy than we had anticipated.
By Anne Smith