gina akao


Day 15: San Gimignano, Greve, and Montecatini

We had a 6:30am wake-up call to leave Siena and go to San Gimignano, a rural town whose hills are featured in the background of the Mona Lisa. I hadn’t slept because of the cold I had managed to catch. I stayed away from the cookies and opted for eggs, ham, cheese, pears, peaches, and a fruit filled croissant. 

We boarded the bus and our driver, Ferdi, took us to the Tuscany region where we tried two types of red wine. Before the wine tasting we enjoyed the garden and area where you can rent castle rooms and have weddings. 

Steve and I are not big on wine but tasted the Chanti Classico wines.

We had some free time to explore the shops and take in the beautiful Tuscan countryside. 

We enjoyed lunch at a cafe where I ordered rice with saffron and parmigiano cheese. 

After lunch we boarded the bus and headed to our hotel in Montecatini.

Because of my cold we opted out of the Tuscan dinner with the tour group and happened upon a small five star restaurant that served hand made fresh pasta with vegetables. 

I was too full to finis my second course but took my meatballs to go.

Day 14: Orvieto and Siena

Steve and I departed from Rome on our tour bus and headed for Orvieto, where we visited a beautiful limestone cathedral. 

We paid four euros to see inside, where it was very cold.

After the cathedral we grabbed lunch. I had a pizza with tomorrow sauce and lots of garlic, hoping that the garlic would scare away my cold.

We did some shopping and met a store owner who proudly showed us that his antique store is listed in Rick Steve’s guide book and that Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick had visited. We bought a gift and wandered to the next attraction, a church dedicated to Saint Catherine, whose scull was kept inside the church as a relic after she was martyred. Our tour guide explained that Catherine had taken a vow of silence for 5 years and dedicated her life to helping the poor.

We were not allowed to take pictures of the alter where the skull was displayed behind a golden mask of Catherine’s head.

We traveled to Siena and visited the square where horse races take place twice a year.

Dinner was included with our Cosmos tour, so at 6:30pm we headed to the restaurant and enjoyed a meal that started with bread and olive oil and beef and cheese. Next was a delicious spaghetti with cream sauce and carrots.

The main course was beef with cauliflower, carrots and onions. 

I enjoyed my ricotta and chocolate chip cake for dessert and got to know three ladies from Houston who sat across from us at the dinner table. Two worked in HR and one was a cousin along for the trip.

Day 13: The Colosseum and Roman Forum 

Today’s Cosmos tour began with a 6am wake up call and a complimentary breakfast of spinach quiche, scrambled eggs, a custard croissant, ham, cheese, and an assortment of fruit pastries. 

Our tour director, Ursula, guided us onto the bus and to our destination, the Castel Sant’ Angelo, where we paid the admission. Diana, a widow from Connecticut, accompanied Steve and I since she was on the Cosmos tour but elected not to go back to the Vatican, which all three of us had seen before in great detail. 

This time we got to see the inside of the castle, which had an impressive view of the bridge below from one of its towers.

I especially liked the room with the harpsichord, since I play classical piano.

In the adjoining room housed an unusual painting of a maiden with a unicorn.

Ursula later told us the castle was where the popes could escape to if Rome was under invasion. 

We had lunch at a rather touristy place and I was disappointed to taste the most bland red sauce I have had during our trip. However Steve ordered a Hawaiian pizza and said it was some of the best pizza he has had in Italy. 

After lunch we finally got to see the destination that Steve and I have both deemed absolutely necessary to visit in Rome–the Colosseum. Our local tour guide greeted us and shuffled us in past the Arco di Tito.

Once inside, I imagined I could feel the fear of those slated for execution at inside the Colosseum walls.
Our tour guide mentioned that lions, tigers, panthers, and other exhiotic animals from Africa and Asia were  brought by traders and sold to the Romans for the entertainment of the crowds. The pulleys hoisted the animals into the arena and the entrances were staged with fake props such as a cave entry way for a lion.

We proceeded to visit the Roman Forum.
Vestal virgins were condemned to be buried alive if they broke their vows of celibacy. 

It was the hottest day we have experienced so far in Rome and I was getting tired because I caught Steve’s cold last night so I was grateful we had a chance to go back to the hotel to rest before our night excursion.

We visited the Spanish Steps, which is where fashion shows used to take place until the fashion shows were discontinued because the models kept falling down the slippery steps. I carefully made my way down.

Ursula led us back to Trevi Fountain, where Ursula gave us the full story of the wishes. The first wish is to return to Rome. The second wish is a personal one. The third wish is optional…but you can wish to be married or divorced. 

Dinner included a five course meal starting with bruschette al pomodoro. A flute player and guitar player entertained our tour group with several American love songs and a handful of Italian ones.
The guitar player who sang reminded me of my brother David because of his artsy black attire. 

We enjoyed melon and ham.

Pasta with ham, cream sauce and peas.


Chicken and potatoes with rosemary. 

Gelato with berry sauce. 

And as a special surprise, Ursula asked the waiter to bring us three roses and a piece of cream cake drizzled in chocolate to celebrate the honeymoon Steve and I were finally able to enjoy! 

Day 12: Fontana di Trevi and the Pantheon

Steve and I had a free day with no scheduled tours, so I had a quick breakfast of strawberries and apple before we hailed a taxi to take us near the Fontana di Trevi. 

We stopped in one of the shops and the Brittish sales lady, Bridget, told us we should go back to the fountain and throw in three coins and make a wish. She gave us three coins because she said it is luckiet if someone gives you the coins. She told us that when she was 18 and traveled to Rome the first time, she spotted a handsome young man and wished she could marry him. And her wish came true and they have been married for many years, she gleefully reported. She warned us to hold the coins in our right hand and throw them over our left shoulder or the reverse means you wished for a divorce. Armed with this new information and the coins, Steve and I returned to the foundation to make our wishes.

We continued to the Pantheon, which is free on Sundays. 

I marveled at the beautiful ceiling. 

The building inside was breathtaking. 

Next we wandered until we happened upon a rather unimpressive looking church compared to the others, but we followed a student tour group in and found the interior incredibly ornate. 

A few of the paintings required a deposit of euros to illuminate them.

We departed and had lunch at a place that had a wooden oven. I ordered eggplant parmesan.

We happened upon several more impressive buildings. 

There was live music in some of the squares, which was an interesting contrast to the fountain below, which depicts a battle with an octopus. 

We passed Piazza del Tribunali. 

Steve paused in front of the walls of Rome before we got a taxi back.

I have seemed to have caught a mild version of Steve’s cold so we headed back in time for the Cosmos Splendors of Italy land tour check in to meet our tour director for the coming week. Her name is Ursula after the actress in the James Bond movie. Steve and I will need to get up at 6am tomorrow so we turned in early. 

Day 11: Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museum, and St. Peter’s Basilica

Steve and I caught a cab to the Vatican Museum, where we checked in for our City Wonders tour. Our tour guide told us he was working on his PhD. His retention of historical details was amazing. The radios we wore to hear his microphone crackled constantly, so I occasionally unplugged my ear buds to listen in naturally as he described the circumstances around many of the works, including those of Rafael. In the picture below our tour guide described a painting of a saint who was crucified upside down. 

Interestingly enough, Leonardo da Vinci was not an artist but rather a scientist so he left many paintings unfinished. The face of the painting below had been stolen but later returned. 

From the spiral Bramante Staircase, we enjoyed an expansive view of Rome.

We wandered through the museum for hours. The statue below depicts a Roman athlete cleaning off his sweat.

The people who inhabited Rome before the Romans valued corpulent figures over the muscular ones. The guy in the statue below looks like he needs to go on the Atkins diet.

We wandered through the museum for four hours total but arrived in the corridors of the Sistine Chapel at last. The tour guide told us that the shape of God the Father looks like a brain, an intentional detail that Michaelangelo painted to emphasize the mind and that God is in our thoughts. Instead of painting God breathing life into Adam, which would almost look like a kiss,  Michaelangelo chose to represent the giving of life with the touch of the index fingers.

We were not allowed to take photos or video of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel itself but the chambers before it had plenty of painted ceilings. 

Once we entered the Sistine Chapel and stared awe struck at the ceiling, I wondered how patient Michaelangelo must have been when he started painting the ceiling, because he was 35 years old, my age, when he started and came back when he was 61 to paint the last judgment portion.

We were allowed about 30 minutes to be memorized by the beauty and grandeur of the ceiling before we had to shuffle out through the crowds to continue past the golden doors of the Basilica. 

Once inside I was astounded at how ornate everything appeared. 

After our tour Steve and I caught a cab back to our hotel and enjoyed a fancy dinner at a five star restaurant. 

Steve savored a pistachio dessert.

I ordered a cannoli, a perfect end to our day.

Day 10: Pompeii

Steve and I caught a cab to our Pompeii tour meeting stop.

It was chilly in the morning so we purchased some hot tea with honey and lemon and I bought a custard croissant later.

We enjoyed looking at the statue of Posidon. 

The Egyptian looking monument with hyroglifics in the center had a film crew working on what looked like a student-made independent film.

Our tour bus took us about two hours into the Napoli area. Our guides, Enricca and Jonathan, described the story of Pompeii and how the volcano exploded and killed thousands of inhabitants over three days. Toxic gas, 400 degree sheets of heat, and raining stone killed some people instantly and others died slowly from suffocation. As an empathetic person, it was difficult to see the caste of a young 20 year old woman covering her face.

Another man was sitting curled up, covering his face. The skeletons of the people are encased in the ceramic castes. Normally there are several but many were away being restored.

A dog was chained and afforded no opportunity to run.

The frescoes of the brothels were preserved fairly well. Weeks before the catastrophic event, the people of Pompeii had celebrated a festival for Volcan, the God of fire.

Lunch included pizza Margarita and salad at a Napoli restaurant. 

After lunch we returned to the bus and visited a museum that had many statues and an impressive Egyptian mummy exhibit. We saw a mummified crocodile!  I hadn’t slept well the night before so I was tired but still enjoying our tour and chatting with the other Americans on the bus. There was a single dad with his father and son sitting next to us. I traded crazy cat owner stories with the boy and Steve shared his scooter adventures. 

Back at Hotel Fleming, I had pasta and ricotta for dinner around 8:30pm. People dine late in Italy.

Day 9: Return to Rome

Today was our last day on our Costa Cruise, so Steve and I checked out and had breakfast. 

I took one last picture of Civitavecchia from our balcony. I definitely enjoyed my Costa Cruise and would recommend it. The ship was kept immaculate and the food was the best I have had in a very long time.

After we disembarked we had an hour wait until our airport driver was scheduled to pick us up. During the wait I listened to a sitting meditation that I purchased a while back when I was still working at University of Nevada, Reno. The class was called the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program, and the instructor, Colleen, had spent time in Italy while she was developing her role in the program. In Italy, the people eat mindfully, careful to savor each bite. As the meditation goes, “We only have this breath, and this one, and this one. You cannot be in a future breath or a past breath.” Nondoing is an art, and I need to get better at being in the present because thoughts and negatively can easily overtake my life and keep me unhappy. I know my dad would want me to be joyful and although there is no cure for grief nor a way to hurry it up to make it go away, I can do the best to make my life full.

Antonio, our cab driver showed up and gave us an informal tour of Civitavecchia to the heart of Rome. His English was good and he told us where to get the best pizza, pasta, and wine. He pointed out the vineyards. 

He even told us which days were the best if you wanted to see the pope and avoid the crowds. I asked him if he has ever been to America, and he said no because it is expensive to travel and he doesn’t have time. He works till 9pm most days and just has enough time to eat and go to bed. I told him I play piano and he said he would love to learn piano and drums but has no free time. He said it is his dream to go to San Francisco and listen to Jazz. He said that I am a lucky girl because I have had time to learn an instrument. I never really thought of it that way, but leave it to a driver in Italy to tell me to focus on my gifts instead of working away my time here on earth. When my dad died I was waiting to see him take the next breath. That breath never came. So why should I continue to stress myself out about trivial things, when my time here is limited too? I spent most of lunch fretting over a client email until I decided to stand my ground and not let work overtake my honeymoon with Steve. Both of us work too much already. We deserve to enjoy every minute of our time away. Steve has a cold but soldiers on.

We walked dangerously along a busy freeway, which had an interesting statue of Romulus and Remus at the beginning of the bridge.

Around 3pm we found a park with a vendor who served paninis, hot chocolate, and tea.

Steve found on the map how to get back via the pedestrian bridge. The Italian flag was proudly displayed at the end of the bridge.

We finished our walk after 8 miles. I stopped to have Steve take a picture of me in front of a private villa guarded by an angel of stone. A pleasant reminder the angels are watching over us!

Day 8: At Sea, Return to Civitavecchia, Italy

The last day of our Costa Cruise didn’t include any ports, so Steve and I went directly to breakfast, where we enjoyed talking to a nice couple from London. They told us their names were Theresa and Bill and they had two adult children, a girl and a boy, but no grandchildren. 

Around 10am, there was an opportunity to paint plates, so Theresa, Bill, and I participated while Steve went back to the cabin to nap. We’ve deemed his allergies a cold by now so I am steering clear.

I attempted to paint a fresco I had seen in Savona, with not much luck because my paint brush was too big.

Lunch started with egg pasta. 

Fried pork chop.


And coffee and chocolate cake.

Before the 4 o’clock meeting explaining the procedures on how to disembark, I went back up to the balcony to catch a bead-making activity. 

Steve and I had purchased portraits from the ship’s photographers the previous day.

At sea, we passed an island, Sargedna. 

Dinner started with mushroom pie.



And best of all, a cannoli!

The chef gifted everyone champagne as a goodbye present. Most everyone dressed up for the gala dinner. I thoroughly enjoyed my Costa Cruise with Steve and would jump to do it again!

Day 7: Palma de Mallorca, Spain, and the One-Year Mark of Dad’s Death

A year ago on March 14th my dad died of Alzheimer’s. I didn’t sleep well last night because despite being on my honeymoon, I still wake up around 2:44AM, the time he died. It is as if my body thinks I still need to be on the alert. Last night I woke up at 2 AM but was able to fall back asleep. 

I finished reading Uma Girish’s book, Losing Amma, Finding Home. I was impressed how stunningly sensitive Uma’s recount of losing her mother to cancer and then her father 18 months later seemed to flow out of her naturally. 

I have tried to write about the last week with my dad while he was on hospice, but I have not shared my writing with anyone other than my critique group, and even then I have decided to delay revising the piece, finding it too draining to recall the painful wasting away of my dad until Alzheimer’s claimed him. My critique group had told me my writing about his death was unemotional, even a little clinical in its recitation of facts, but I really didn’t have time to feel anything right after he died. I had to snap into administration mode to notify next of kin and call the hospice nurse, who was not present when my mom, a young Rite at Home aide, and I saw him take his last breath. The aide departed almost immediately after taking his pulse and verifying he had passed away. Mom and I were left to deal with things. We had only three days to plan his funeral, and I had only one day to write the obituary. I composed his eulogy with the help of my mom to recall the happier times of his life. For many months after I seemed to remember nothing about his good days and only of the horror of seeing a loved one die. I was afraid not to touch him after his last rattling breath. Mom said he was still warm.

Determined to make it a good day, I said a silent prayer asking God to remind me that Dad is at peace, and I will see him again when Jesus comes. I don’t like waiting. Life is just not the same without him, and I have become tired of making excuses not to function on my bad grief days. One of my favorite clients, Ron Schelegel, who has worked for many years helping veterans overcome post traumatic stress, had generously agreed to barter some time with me in addition to his paid hours to sort out my grief with the aid of a technique called Psych-K. I have found my sessions with Ron incredibly helpful and can feel a release in my chest whenever I “download” a positive statement from Ron, who is always reminding me I can give myself permission to live and love to the fullest. 

For eight sessions, I had seen a local grief counselor in Gardnerville, but since my health insurance covered very little, I stopped going because I could not justify the costs because of the inconsistent income my home business takes in. By the Monday before Steve and I left for our vacation, I had started to sob and collapsed on the bathroom floor of our home. I felt emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausted from insomnia, four weeks of vertigo, stress from my business, and grief. There was a reason why Steve and I planned our vacation for March. I wanted to be nowhere near the place where Dad died, the master bedroom of my mom’s house. He had wanted to die at home, but going into that room brings back painful memories of giving him liquid morphine and swabbing his mouth with water when he could no longer sit up to drink or eat. To this day we have still not decided what to do with his clothes and shoes, which still occupy space in the closet, although by now my mom had paid for the room to be cleaned and the walls painted.

I began today emotionally numb, not really able to put my finger on my feelings. Steve and I boarded a bus to our Dragon Cave excursion. 

I have visited caves before but not one that included a string quartet playing classical music. Somehow they had figured out how to fit an organ on the rowboat with the musicians. The music was so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. We had the option to ride in the rowboat to the exit but I opted to take the bridge, which was quicker.

After the cave we enjoyed a ham and cheese sandwich and caught up on email.

The bus took us back to Palma de Mallorca, Spain, where we visited a cathedral. 

Steve’s allergies were acting up so we passed a colorful ally and found a pharmacy that sold cold medicine. 

We decided to return to the ship early for a siesta. 

Dinner started with a spinach dish.

Potato soup.


And vegetable skewers. 

I ordered a wild berry dessert. 

Tomorrow Steve and I will spend the day at sea and then return to Rome and wrap up our Costa cruise.

Day 6: Barcelona, Spain

We arrived in Barcelona and bundled up for a windy day. The bus took us to a shopping center with an impressive looking statue dedicated to Columbus’ discovery of America.  

We walked a mile to visit the most unusual cathedral I have ever seen. It appeared to be under renovation. 

We enjoyed tapas for lunch at an authentic Barcelona market.

The woman said her dad was born in Pittsburgh but moved to Barcelona when he was two.

We walked through a park and after eleven miles, our feet were killing us so I stopped for a pedicure. 

We made our way back to the ship and enjoyed a three course meal, starting with potato pie.

And strawberry dessert. 

Steve ordered chocolate and raspberries. 

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