July 12th (Tuesday) – Gracie’s 13th Birthday
Gracie and my mom got up early to go into town to try and find a bakery or pastry shop to make a birthday cake for Gracie. Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful in finding a cake. Gracie decided on a gelato “cake.” This was actually a good alternative because Gracie usually has an ice cream cake for her birthday cake. While my mom and Gracie got gelato, Emma and my dad went to the butcher with our host to get burger meat and steaks (for Gracie and I’s birthday dinners).
Once everyone was back at the apartment, the siblings and I swam for most of the morning.
We had a light lunch of sandwiches and fruit.
What Gracie said she wanted to do on her birthday was bike ride around the local trails around our apartment. So after lunch, Gracie, Emma, Dad, and I rented bikes and did just that.
When we got back, we got everything ready to grill out for dinner. Burgers for dinner was Gracie’s request and they were delicious.
After dinner, we stuck THIRTEEN candles into a tub of gelato and sang happy birthday.
July 13th (Wednesday) – My 21st Birthday
I went to the nearby Frassasi Caves about a month ago when I was traveling solo, but I unfortunately didn’t get to the Tempio del Valadier (a church in a cave) because of bad weather and flooding. Back in the fall when I was starting to plan my time in Italy, I saw an incredibly striking image of the church in National Geographic Magazine. When I saw the image, I started borderline obsessing about how, if at all possible, I could see it in person.
For my birthday, I knew I wanted to go back to hike up to the Tempio del Valadier, plus I knew that the family would enjoy going to the Frassasi Caves.
We got an early start – we were on the road by about 8:30. It was about an hour and a half drive from our apartment to Genga.
We arrived at the ticket office for the Frassasi Caves around 10:30 and got the next shuttle bus up to the caves.
The Frasassi Caves were discovered in 1971 by a group of college age cavers. Scientists believe that the cave system began forming between 400,000 and one million years ago. It is the third largest cave system in the world, behind the Son Doong Cave in Vietnam and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. It was strictly forbidden to take photos inside the caves. (I did anyway with my phone…per usual)
I really enjoyed getting to go back into the caves for a second time, but I enjoyed it even more getting to see my family experience it too.
The DHAM CLAN has a tradition to sing happy birthday not only when we do the birthday cake and candles, but also at the exact time we were born. At 2:42pm Italy time (the time I was born), we were still on our tour inside the cave. That did not stop my family from singing me happy birthday. It was a pretty crazy and priceless moment.
When we finished touring the Frassasi Caves, we got our car and had a picnic lunch above the Sentino river. While we were eating lunch, we tried to figure out how we were going to get up to the Tempio del Valadier. From the spot we were eating lunch, we could actually see it!
After some trial and error, we found the parking lot and trail head to get up to the church in the cave. It surprisingly only took about 3o minutes to reach the church.
There is documentation that there has been religious activity inside the cave here since the 1000’s. Benedictine monks first built a stone structure here in the mid 1000’s. The octagonal church seen today was commissioned in 1828 by Pope Leo XII, who was originally from the surrounding area of Genga. Although the church itself is not considerably old or spectacular, it is an incredible architectural feat. There is barely any breathing room between the cross topping the church and the roof of the cave.
Back behind the church, there are steps that lead back into the cave which you can walk up and explore.
After exploring in and around the caves, just as the sky opened up and it started to rain, we headed back down to the parking lot.
We drove the hour and a half back to our apartment and then started prepping for dinner. My dad, even though it was pouring rain, grilled a couple giant steaks for our dinner (Tuscany is known for their amazing beef).
So…my birthday “cake.” My favorite type of cake ever and what I always have on my birthday is yellow cake with chocolate icing. It’s very rare in Italy to find a bakery with cakes like we’re used to getting in the states. In Italian grocery stores, they sell these individually wrapped little cakes called Plum cakes, that are yellow cake. I suggested that we put a bunch of Plum cakes together and make some chocolate icing to put on top. We got a couple packs of plum cakes and the ingredients to attempt to make chocolate icing. Well, as we came to find out, Italian cocoa powder and powdered sugar are actually very different from what we use in the U.S. We could not get the consistency of the “icing” to match the icing we know and love. In the end, it was runny and too sugary. We dumped (more like dripped or poured) the concoction over the plum cakes and put 21 candles on top. The family sang happy birthday and by the time they were done, almost all the icing had slid off the cake and onto the plate. If was pretty pathetic, but it was also very hilarious and very special.