Monday, February 28, 2011

Travels in Italia - Volterra

This was K's Grand Tour of Italy before returning to the U.S. I lobbied for a hill town visit as that's quintessential Italy. We picked Volterra. This would have been a great choice if (1) we hadn't had fog the entire time we were there blocking our view, and (2) Volterra weren't quite so off the beaten path. That appealed to us, and the trip to and from Volterra included a nice bus ride through the Tuscan countryside. Sadly, Volterra was actually ABOVE the clouds the whole time we were there, meaning that gorgeous view over the hills of Tuscany was completely obscured. In addition, this was the only hotel we booked on the fly, and it was horrible. Since we were only staying one night, it was fine, and since our trip was eleven nights and four hotels, having one bad seed wasn't too bad. Our hotel, Albergo Nazionale, only had two redeeming features: (1) It is quite literally, the closest hotel to the bus drop-off piazza, and (2) the view over the hills would have been incredible had it not been foggy. We were first assigned to a room that had not been touched by cleaning staff, even down to unmade and rumpled beds. We were then assigned to another room that had all the elements needed for a nice room, but was so dated and put together so poorly, that I stayed up all night long, waking from multiple nightmares of being eaten by bed bugs (to be fair, we did NOT get bitten by bed bugs at this hotel).

Despite this, the town of Volterra is a nice walking town. I think we were the only tourists in town, and this being the off season, many shops and restaurants were closed. Volterra does have a very interesting, Etruscan Arch, dating back to the 4th century B.C. It is part of the original city walls for this once important trade route city. Hard to imagine sleepy Volterra as one of the region's most important cities, but I suppose things can change in 2300 years.

The most amazing thing about Volterra is the virtually unadvertised, ancient Roman ruins that are fascinating. We could see no evidence of opening hours, the possibility to visit the ruins, or any other marketing ploys, but we were able to get great views by looking down from the old city walls. Apparently, these ruins were only discovered in the 1950s. There is an amphitheater, still containing parts of the columned stage, and our guidebook states this theater dates back to 10 B.C. There also seem to be what looks like a Forum area or perhaps some covered market stalls. We had seen some little signs on Volterra's street corners pointing the way to various sites around town, but for the most part, we just wandered around on our own. This made these ruins that much more delightful to find. We had no idea of their size, and this is one of the delights of Italy. The country is chock full of absolutely ancient ruins, and you never know what you're going to find when you turn a corner. It could be a dumpster full of garbage, an ugly, Mussolini era building, or 2000 year old ruins casting a bit of ghostly magic about the surroundings.

All in all, Volterra was a nice little break, but I was glad to move on to Siena.
A Volterra Street View
Twilight fans take note...the Volturi are from Volterra and parts of New Moon are set in Volterra. However, while a few scenes were filmed here, the majority of on-location filming was in another hill town, Montepulciano

Travels in Italia - Firenze III

Our last two days were fairly relaxing and quiet. Our feet were starting to really hurt after a whole week of walking all day, every day. We ate both nights at the most fantastic restaurant, I Quattri Leoni, located in the Oltrarno neighborhood, across the Ponte Vecchia bridge. We could not get enough of the food at this restaurant, including a wonderful, avocado salad - something I haven't had since moving to Italy. Our final day, we did take the bus up to Piazza Michelangelo, on a hilltop overlooking the city. And of course, after six straight days of gorgeous blue skies, this was the day we had fog and haze. The view was still excellent, we just missed the backdrop of blue behind the rooflines. We also found where the men of Florence hang out. To our delight, the town of Florence was filled with women. Finally, we were in a place where other women were out together, eating together, in the coffee bars together - we no longer got strange looks (as happens in Naples). Up in this piazza, the men had congregated with their vintage cars. We got to walk around Cinquecentos, Fiats, a cute Katerina, Alfa Romeos - very fun and as interesting as the view over the city.
In this photo, you can see the old City wall
Behind the piazza is the San Miniato church, a cute, little confection in the same pink and green marble of the Duomo. It's quite beautiful inside, but mass was going on, so we popped in only to move our eyes around. It was freezing inside, which goes a long way in explaining why 90% of the women in the nord wear fur. Fur coats, long and short, fur on their boots, fur hats. I didn't even know people still wore fur on a regular basis. PETA would have a field day in northern Italy.

Beside the church is little shop run by the monks selling their tonics and such. This must be a big thing in these parts, monk produced toiletry items. I rather like the idea, although I've yet to try my tonics. Walking down from the church, we got to wander through the Oltrarno neighborhood, a little off the tourist path. K went on for a walk while I stopped off at Pitti Palace to visit the Costume Gallery and Argenti Museum (Treasure museum). What a complete waste of time and money. I hated both of them. I thought the layout was ridiculous, the exhibits poorly lit, oddly designed, and just plain boring. The Argenti Museum has a mandatory, extra exhibit on wine, for which 4euros is added to your ticket cost. This is just plain annoying since I had no desire to see this exhibit. The Costume Gallery is located through a maze of staircases and turns. All in all, I was disgusted. I visited the palace's Boboli Gardens eight years ago and remember them to be a peaceful haven and respite. This time, it was cold and late in the day (and I was so annoyed), so I headed back to the hotel for a long rest. It wasn't the best final afternoon in Florence, but our second dinner at I Quattri Leoni made up for it - that's the dinner where we were at a table next to actress Judy Davis for those of you who read that blog posting.
Just a random, gorgeous building

Now, on to the Tuscan hill town of Volterra...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Travels in Italia - Firenze II

We had failed to do what every guidebook recommends regarding the Uffizi and Accademia museums...get a reservation. We decided to take our chances since we were in low season, and the chance paid off. We walked in with no wait at every place we visited (Venice, too, for that matter). With the Uffizi being the grandaddy museum and knowing it would be a couple of hours of intense art overload, we headed there first. Rick Steves has some phenomenal AudioTours on iTunes, and I surely don't mind pushing them. It was great to put in my earphones and wander through the museum, leaving my hands free of a guidebook and eyes free to take in the art instead of read about it. Still, though, my absolute favorite thing about the Uffizi is the ceilings. They are magical and every single square inch is covered with gorgeous paintings. Next time I visit Florence, I am going to take a hand mirror so I can enjoy those ceilings without neck strain. One of the Uffizi's most famous paintings is Birth of Venus (this is the one where a naked Venus, with her bits and bobs covered with long, flowing hair, is standing on a half shell). I have to admit that in person, this one didn't impress me as much as I was expecting, perhaps because it's surrounded by so much other talent or perhaps because the colors are so faded. I was expecting more vibrancy...and, I'm currently in my I-like-bright-colors stage. This will change in a few years, and then favorites will change as well. With our Uffizi visit over, we needed sustenance, and found it at a lovely sandwich shop, 'Ino, right around the corner from the Uffizi. We liked it so much that we returned the next day as well.

Next up, we walked to the Accademia, via the Duomo. Now Florence's Duomo is a sight to behold. It's exterior is all white, pink and green marble, which greatly appeals to my Lilli Pulitzer love. We walked past the Duomo another night right at sunset, and when the setting sun hits the facade of this marble, it glows. A little Duomo Fun Fact: Building started on it around 1300, and it's dome was the largest in the world for hundreds of years. However, at the time of building, there was no technology for a dome of that size, so it was built with just a flat roof, the people being confident that someone would come along eventually with the knowledge to build the dome that was designed. Even today, the dome is the largest brick one ever built.
A small section of the Baptistry doors

A quick pop into the interior of the Duomo proved to be disappointing as it's practically empty and has very little magic or interesting art. So off we headed to the Accademia and our date with David. David was originally commissioned for the roof of the Duomo, so Michelangelo carved him with a disproportionately large head due to perspective. But during the work, it was decided to place him in front of Palazzo Vecchio instead. A copy stands there today while the Accademia houses the real deal. Michelangelo ticked off all his fellow sculptors of the time because while they would pick out the perfect pieces of marble, then sketch designs onto them and chip out their designs, Michelangelo would just start chiseling away. He believed the sculpture was in the marble waiting to get out. The Accademia holds several unfinished sculptures of Michelangelo as well, which gives us a great look at his incredible skill, and visitors also get to see a detailed, gorgeous, carved wooden crucifix, which Michelangelo carved at only age 17. It was a thank you gift to a church that had allowed him to dissect bodies from their hospital in order to study the human form. Age 17!
Okay...I lied. This is the interior of Florence's Duomo's dome - it has a gorgeous painting on it. However, this and a painting of Dante are really the only two pieces of artwork in the HUGE Duomo, so, relative to all the other churches we visited on our trip, Florence's Duomo interior was uninspiring...nice to visit since we didn't wait in line, but certainly not worth it at another time of year when lines are long.
After all this heavy art, it was time for some shopping. We headed to the nearby San Lorenzo market, a perfect haven for leather goods, silk ties, scarves, and trays. Haggling is acceptable here, and for those of you who read my posting on all my trip souvenirs, this market is the site of the dapper, young scarf seller. He's so adorable that you just have to buy a scarf based on his personality. This was the place for leather purses, suitcases, briefcases, wallets, and anything else that can be made out of leather. And finally, our last visit of the day was to the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy, begun as the herb garden of the church's monks about 700 years ago. Today, they sell perfume, elixirs, tonics, and even products for your pet. It's beautiful and ritzy inside, and would have been much more enjoyable without pushing and shoving tourists crowding the desks in each room. There is a room for teas and tonics, a room for home items & pet care, and a room for skin care and perfume. The staff dealt amazingly well with incredibly rude tourists, save one lady, who ignored me when I asked her a question, refused to help me in favor of people who'd come up after me to her table, then talked about me to her co-worker in Italian...but since we were in the "nord" (north), I could understand her. I only wish my Italian were good enough for me to have called her on it in would have been a great "Pretty Woman" moment.
Have you seen the Hitchcock movie, "The Birds?" I think he got his inspiration after a visit to Florence.
After a busy day, we were ready to relax and had yet another enjoyable meal at one of Anna's restaurant recommendations, Osteria Marione. For me, one of the greatest parts of this trip was the eating out. We had delicious food everywhere we went, and it was so nice to get to order off of a menu...and to have choices other than pizza or seafood.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Venice Photos

I just embedded several photos into my previous posts on Venice. You can either scroll down to the posts or click on Venice in the Topic List on the right to see the posts with photos.

In addtion, there were a few more I wanted to share as well:
Grand Canal and Rialto Bridge

Murano Glass Art Display

The lovely colors of Burano

I love how this homeowner matched her cleaning bucket to her house

Exterior decoration of a little, tucked away theater in Venice

The horses sitting atop St. Mark's Basilica

Another Murano glass art display - with this one, when you stand in front of it, you can see  yourself in the woman's belly...very cool

I think I took about 125 pictures of gondolas - I just couldn't stop clicking that shutter

Travels in Italia - Firenze

Florence's famous, Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno River
Florence gave the world Galileo, Dante, Michelangelo, Donatello, Machiavelli, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Florence Nightingale, and a true example of last but not least, Salvatore Ferragamo. It ushered in the Renaissance age and woke the world up. As for K and I, we needed waking up. Venice was exhausting! We slowed our pace down in Florence, starting with our trip on the fast (Eurostar) train from Venice, which got us to Florence in about three hours. We had reservations at the lovely Hotel Relais Cavalcanti, a boutique hotel about a five minute walk from the Uffizi with two sisters running the place who are fantastic communicators. We had multiple emails prior to our visit confirming arrival time and providing incredibly detailed directions straight to the front door from the train station. After showing us the common areas and our very pretty room, Anna returned with a map of the city upon which she had handmarked in color-coded highlighters suggested sites and restaurants. She even included budget info with the restaurants! We quickly decided to follow her recommendations, and found all of them to be just great throughout our stay in her lovely city.
Sculpture filled loggia outside Palazzo Vecchio

After a little rest, we headed out at dusk to explore the neighborhood. Our hotel was located in Florence's large, pedestrian zone in the historic district, so we were able to ease back into the world of traffic slowly. About three minutes from our hotel, we happened upon an outdoor leather market, held in a place that seems like it could have been hosting outdoor markets for hundreds of years. A little guidebook searching confirmed this - Mercato Nuovo...I missed taking a look at the circled X on the ground in the center of the market. This marks the spot where people were dropped from the ceiling as a bankruptcy punishment. Another few minutes past this, and we came upon the Piazza della Signoria with it's most beautiful, covered loggia containing a multitude of large sculptures and bronze statues. By now it was dark, but this loggia was well-lit and quite magical in the dark. The piazza was quiet, and the visitors wandering around the statues were contemplative. Palazza Vecchio, Florence's Town Hall and a museum, had it's doors open, and inside we could glimpse some decorative walls. We wandered in, only to find a gorgeous courtyard with frescoed walls and ceilings, carved columns that were a riot of swirls and vines, and beautiful paintings. It was a delightful, quick visit and an introduction to the reason Florence is considered one of the art capitals of the world.
Amazing courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio (a museum and the Town Hall)

All of this walk was designed to take us towards one of Anna's recommended restaurants. Arriving at 7:10, we were too early by 20 minutes for their opening, so we headed for cocktails at the bar next door, Moyo. And there we learned an amazing secret of Florence. The cocktail bars put out appetizer spreads to rival a buffet, and these are included in the cost of your 8euro cocktail. One drink, and a person could eat their fill of cheese, sandwiches, pizza, pasta salads, chicken bites, and the list goes on. In addition, Moyo makes a real deal Bellini. The Bellini was invented by Harry's Bar in Venice and is a peach puree in prosecco (Italian version of champagne). I ordered bellinis all over Venice and kept getting this premixed, straight out of the bottle drink that you can buy in American grocery stores. Disappointing. But at Moyo in Florence, I finally got a real one...and it was good.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Travel Day Disasters

Ischia's gorgeous, rocky coastline
What an exasperating day. Nathan & I were so looking forward to our relaxing spa day at Negombo Thermal Spa on Ischia. Negombo supposedly has many thermal pools of varying temperatures (most hot) set among lush gardens. Neither of us have ever been to Ischia, either, so we were both looking forward to see this island, which is billed as an equal to Capri, but more popular among Europeans. Our take...Ischia is nice if you're going for one of the spas, but it's not an island either of us has a hankering to "explore." But I'm beginning at the end.

Our first indication of how the day was going to go should have been upon arrival at the Pozzuoli port, where we proceeded to the ticket office of MedMar, one of the two ferry companies with boats from Pozzuoli to the islands of Ischia, Capri, and Procida. At the MedMar office, which is the address on their website, we found a building locked up tight with no indication of it having been open anytime recently. Since we can see the MedMar ferry from our Glass House, we knew it was operating...but where-o-where do we go for tickets? We asked a port official and were directed to the other company, Caremar, who did not have ferry times we wanted. But, we didn't know what else to do. We bought our tickets, and about 15 minutes later, watched MedMar's ferry come in for a landing. Heading down to the boat just to get some information, we found an out of the way ticket booth tucked in right on the dock and hidden behind the marina. Too late for us, we got all the info for return trips and waited another half hour for our company's ferry. The boat was comfortable, the day was warm, the scenery was extraordinary. Crisis averted, we were on our way for spa relaxtion!

And how God laughed. We had the information for the proper bus to take to the spa, so all we needed were the tickets. Generally, in Italy, one must purchase bus tickets at newsstands or tabacco shops prior to boarding. On our way to the newsstand, we got the hard sell from a taxi driver wanting to take us to the spa for 20euros (the bus is 1.40), and as we were walking away, he tried to tell us the bus wasn't operating. Ugh. That's never a fun gauntlet to run, in any country. The newsstand did not have the all day ticket, which we thought we wanted, but the clerk directed us to the biglietteria (ticket office). We found a shop with that name on it, went in, and found one of those slick tour operators that pretend to be tourist offices. He directed us in a different direction for the biglietteria. We wandered up and down the street for awhile before finding someone else to give us more directions and finally found the bus "station," basically a small parking lot...and sure enough, a biglietteria. After a 20 minute wait, our bus arrived. Crisis #2 averted, and we were again on our way for spa relaxation.

Upon boarding the bus, we asked our driver for the Negombo stop, and he said he'd tell us. After passing three stops in the town on the island where we knew the spa to be, and three more stops down the road, the driver told us to get off and get on the bus going in the opposite direction as he'd forgotten to tell us way back when to get off. So switcharoo time, and driver #2 was kind enough to actually let us know our correct stop. Finally, a good hour after we arrived on this smallish island, we were just a short walk for our (now half) day of relaxation.

Walking down the curvy, downhill road with no sidewalks, we saw no signs indicating we were headed in the right direction. I kept thinking, why did I care about bringing a hair dryer again? Visions of salt-water hot tubs and steam rooms all day, then dressing for a nice, seaside dinner had run through my head for the last few days. Now I just wanted to throw my backpack off the cliff. We missed the almost hidden, shortcut staircase that cut off the road cutbacks down the hill, but finally made it down and found the spa...which was completely deserted. We'd checked the website, which has an entire section dedicated to winter hours and pools open in the winter. What we forgot about is that this is southern Italy. Nothing is ever logical or as it is "supposed" to be. Ever. We wandered around overgrown gardens, passed empty pools, and slipped around on mossy bricks before finally reaching a gorgeous beach set in a little cove. A couple played with their dog on the beach, but these were clearly not spa-goers. We wandered through more gardens and little hidden patios, finally passing one small hot tub filled with water and a building behind it that had steam coming out of it. Nathan went inside, only to find that there was one indoor swimming pool, the small outdoor hot tub, and a sauna open. That's it. Complete and utter bust, and at this point, we had been "traveling" for almost five hours. We'd planned on lunch at the spa's lovely restaurant overlooking the sea...which was all boarded up. In an effort to regroup, we sat on a pool patio overlooking the lovely cove, ate unripe, filched oranges from a tree in the garden, and enjoyed the warm sun. Hunger finally pushed us out.
Negombo's beach and cove - the water really was as gorgeous as it looks in the photo.

Checking the guidebook, we determined the town of Sant' Angelo, described as "chic," sounded like a nice place to have lunch. Back up the hill we went to the bus stop, and there we waited for quite a long time. By the time a bus came, we didn't even care where it was going. After a 20 minute ride, we did in fact stop in Sant' Angelo - this was the end of the line. We were so tired and had passed through several towns that had nothing looking like any type of restaurant or lunch place, so after a quick look around down the hill to the  very small village that seemed to be completely dead, we decided to get back on the bus (thankfully the driver was on break, so it was still there) to return to the ferry port. There, we could get lunch and be ready to board the next available ferry. After a long bus ride, we got to the port and found our options to be a ferry leaving in the next five minutes or wait another two hours. This disaster of a day needed to be over, so we quickly bought tickets and rushed aboard...and breathed big sighs of relief to be headed home!

Ischia has gorgeous ocean views, but the towns looked remarkably similar to the towns near our home (i.e., peeling paint covering all the buildings, and not in a charming way), the bus system is maddening and packed, it does not seem to be a walkable area at all, and we found most of the locals we encountered to be less than helpful or friendly. We will return (in-season!) to visit Negombo because we could tell just how beautiful it must be, and we'd possibly like to visit some of the other thermal spas that abound on the island, but it's just not a place I want to go and spend a weekend. Now we know.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Islands and Spas

My soul to-day
  Is far away
    Sailing the Vesuvian Bay.
      - Thomas Buchanan Read, Drifting

Today, it's not just our souls sailing the Vesuvian Bay. We are headed via ferry to the island of Ischia, and more specifically, to Negombo Spa. Ischia is a mountainous island about an hour's ferry ride from Pozzuoli. While we'd love to spend a weekend out there, we didn't actually do any advance planning for that, and Crazy Dog is at home. So off we're headed for a day at Negombo, a highly recommended spa complex with multiple pools, saunas, grottoes, and gorgeous gardens. While the last half of the week has been cloudy and rainy, tomorrow we're predicted to have sunny, blue skies and temps approaching 60degrees, so I hope we have the chance to really explore the complex. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Crazy Dog is scaring off Other Kitty. Sinbad has not shown his face in awhile, but Other Kitty has been making multiple, repeat visits each day, wandering along a high wall and stopping to groom himself just out of Scully's reach, sauntering along the terrace, just on the other side of the glass wall as Crazy Dog works himself into a righteous froth inside, or, like today, settling down for a rest on the other side of a potted palm tree, poking his head out now and then to stare down Scully, causing much racket and commotion inside as Scully raced around our tile floors in consternation. Good times.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Travels in Italia - Venice II

This is my 3rd post to upload today, so scroll down for the previous ones.

St. Mark's Square with the Basilica and Doge's Palace
As I've written several times, my greatest pleasure in Venice was walking the streets. K and I skipped some of what are considered the major sites of Venice in favor of just enjoying the back streets. That said, St. Mark's Basilica must be one of Europe's most astonishing, awe-inspiring churches. Before I traveled throughout Europe in 2003, a friend who has been here often said, "If you've seen one church, you've seen them all." Now this might seem to be a bit cynical, and she did not mean it literally - rather, the churches here are all filled with amazing artwork, beautiful floors, carved woodwork, interesting light fixtures, unbelievably detailed mosaics, and so on and so forth. After visiting a few churches, it becomes difficult to remember - now which one had the Michelangelo statue, which one had the Bernini chapel, which has the carved, wooden altar, and where was that Golden Wall? As much as I hate to admit it, I've visited St. Mark's before...and didn't remember how fantastic it is. It's just too easy to go on church overload. But I hope, now, to never forget the interior of St. Mark's.
One of the exterior mosaics on St. Mark's Basilica
It's gold...all glittery, shiny, gleaming gold! Paying to go upstairs to the Museum means you get to look down on the floors - inlaid, marble mosaics that form beautiful "rugs." The ceiling is all mosaics, telling biblical lessons, and more of that gorgeous gold. I have no comprehension of the skill it takes to show movement, folds in fabric, and leaves on trees with tiny pieces of glass glued onto a flat surface. St. Mark's is also the church home to the Golden Wall, made 1000 years ago of Byzantine enamels, studded with hundreds of gemstones, large and small, 1500 pearls, 300 emeralds, 15 rubies, and more. The sheer excess is breathtaking.
Just a small portion of St.Mark's Basilica's fanciful roofline
While in St. Mark's Square, we also took the elevator up the Campanile. While I wouldn't wait in a very long line to do this, it was well worth the entry fee at a time with no line and afforded us a phenomenal, 360 degree view over Venice, the Lagoon, and even the snow-capped Dolomites in the distance.

We took an entire day to visit the islands in the Lagoon of Murano and Burano. Around 1300 (1291 to be exact), Venetian glassmakers were ordered to move out to Murano for fear of fire in Venice. While home to a few factories where you can watch demonstrations, it's now home to many more junk shops selling glass products made overseas, never mind the "Made in Italy" designation. This does not negate the dazzling charm of Murano and store after store of incredible, beautiful, brightly colored glass things - chandeliers, vases, jewelry, figurines, bowls - and there are as many different styles of glass design as there are stores. Murano can be overwhelming. We eventually broke from staring at shiny things and found the local grocery store. Food that looks appealing was hard to find in the cafes, so at the grocery store, the deli counter sliced up some meat and cheese for us, and sliced some bread as well. Some fruit, a chocolate bar, chips, and sparkling orange soda meant we were all set for a little picnic sitting on the steps by the canal (which is probably not allowed, but it was off season - we tempted fate by setting up just opposite the carabinieri station (police), but escaped without reprimand after eating our fill).
Burano's adorable, colored townhomes are captivating
After Murano, we got on the vaporetto headed to Burano. Burano rose to acclaim in the 1500s, when the women began making lace. That industry has declined, and much of the lace is now imported from China. Burano is not the place to buy handmade lace with a couple of exceptions. There is a lace making school, which was closed when we visited. There is also a store, Merletti d'Arte dalla Lidia, on the main drag near the leaning tower (yep, Burano has a tower than leans as much as the Leaning Tower of Pisa). This store has the requisite little old ladies with pillows in their laps making lace (K and I joked that the Nannas of Burano are put to work as store exhibits), a hard-selling clerk who is determined to show you everything there is to buy (at 200euros per handkerchief, the real stuff was out of our budget), and an absolutely phenomenal, private museum. Even if you have no interest in lace at all, I don't think anyone can look at these intricate, huge examples and not see the sheer skill and artistry needed to produce them. Burano is a delightful, quirky little town filled with postcard-perfect, brightly colored townhomes, many with the residents' laundry waving in the wind from the upper stories. Utterly charming. It was buttoned up tight while we were there with a few lace (junky) shops open as well as one art store and one coffee bar. I can only assume that in season, this place comes alive. Or maybe it's always a quiet, residential haven.
Laundry in Burano

Our final day, we walked around the Dorsoduro neighborhood, home of our hotel and the Frari Church, which we just happened upon in our walk. The Frari was definitely worth the visit inside for it's stunning artwork. After our morning stroll and final taste of Venice, we boarded the vaporetto for our last ride down the Grand Canal to the train station, where it was on to Florence...

New Page

This recent trip has prompted me to add another page to the blog, Journeygirl's Favs. It is a list of places I have stayed, eaten, and shopped that I would recommend to others. There are many more places that I've visited, so if it makes this list, it means I really loved it! This page is really designed for those traveling to Italy as a help in your planning. There are numerous guidebooks you can buy, both specific and general, so this page is just one woman's list of a few fun places. It is by no means comprehensive, and I'm sure there are thousands of other great options out there.

Travels In Italia - Venice

Venice's Grand Canal
My friend, K, and I completed our 12 day trip through Italy last week. She was returning to the States and wanted to see a little more of Italy than just the Campania region where we live. I invited myself along on her trip, and our adventure began. We found cheap flights to Venice, and this being the off season, we snagged a fantastic room at Palazzo Guardi in Venice for a nightly cost that was cheaper than a dinner out. To our delight, our hotel room was Venetian luxury, with fabric covered walls, gilded and scrolled furniture, and we were given a two room suite. Amazing!
A couple of gondoliers waiting for customers
Venice is basically a whole bunch of small islands in a marshy, saltwater lagoon. Every piece of land is paved. K noted several times the complete and utter lack of greenery. And yet, for me, Venice is still one of the most magical places in the world. Canals abound, and bridges over those same canals occur every few yards. All of this build-up is set atop wooden piles that do not rot underwater due to lack of oxygen. You may have heard that Venice is sinking...apparently, this sinking began in the 1900s when artesian wells were dug on the edges of the Lagoon. Once the wells were banned (in the 1960s), the sinking rapidly slowed, so now Venice's inhabitants just suffer from high tides - so high that at times, plank walkways must be set up for people to get around the city. As an effect of the prior sinking, you can see, walking around the city, many palazzi have front doors boarded up and partly underwater. These residents have had to abandon their first floors and move on up.

Venice "streets" can get crowded, too
Venice seems suffused with calmness. I actually felt my body relaxing as we wandered through this old city. After a day or so, K pinned down for me exactly what Venice lacked...traffic. No cars. No buzzing motorcycles roaring up behind you while you're out for a walk. No stoplights or traffic jams or roundabouts. Just walking. We've been on vacations where we don't use a car, but how rare is it to visit a place without even that constant, low, underlying buzz. Many towns in Italy have a car free center, but there are always exceptions - police driving through, the occasional taxi, or even just the sounds floating in from the edges of town. With narrow walkways and even narrower bridges abounding in Venice, motor vehicles are not a possibility. Boats it is.

Venice has a Grand Canal bisecting the city, a quite wide and a busy waterway full of water taxis, gondolas, vaporettos (little ferries), traghettos (a type of gondola), and many workmen - we saw furniture movers with a boatload of luxury chairs and sofas, builders with a small crane, wood, bags of construction materials, etc., and everything in between. Operating in Venice means getting on the water. We used the vaporettos for the most part. They run up and down the Grand Canal and along the perimeter of the island as well, with many stops just like a regular City Bus. Riding the vaporetto up and down the Grand Canal, especially at sunset, has to be one of life's crowning moments. The palazzi lining the Canal glow with the sunset light and a hush seems to cover the water for just those few moments - a chance to take in the golden light and the romantic gondolas swirling around.

As a travel note aside: Vaporettos are expensive taken singly, and even the daypasses aren't cheap. For anyone visiting Venice for five days or more, I purchased an imob card, 40euros, and good for five years. It allows me to load vaporetto tickets at only 1.10euro each rather than the typical 6.50euro per ticket. K opted for the three day pass, then a one day pass. The passes are worth it, especially if you plan to visit one of the outer islands, such as Murano or Burano.

The traghetto I mentioned is yet another mode of transportation. Only four bridges cross the Grand Canal. So pedestrians (generally locals) wishing to get to the other side head for the nearest traghetto stop. A traghetto is essentially a gondola without a sofa. Riders stand up while the operator rows folks directly across the canal to the stop on the other side. Traghetto stops are a bit hidden, and sometimes found only by paying attention to the discreet, dark brown, "Traghetto" and arrow painted on the sides of buildings in piazzas. They were certainly not hugely used, but we found our two rides delightful. I mean our three rides. On our way out of town, we so wanted to ride one again, yet had no need to cross the Canal. And we trundled to the nearest traghetto, hustling to the boat as the operator caught sight of us rounding the corner and waiting for us. We paid our .50, rode across, disembarked on the other side and promptly got in the back of the line (of three people). The operator didn't blink an eye as he accepted our .50 each again and rowed us back to our start.

Yet another Venetian surprise was the sheer volume of artisans plying their trade. I suppose Venice can't help but attract artists. Most follow a specific theme - paper, glass jewelry (and/or beads), masks, or painting/photography - but there are some surprising bits of uniqueness. One mask store, Rugadoro, makes each mask by hand using scraps of fabric to cover the form - and the forms taken their own unique shapes. Animal faces, suns, and moons fill the store, a refreshing change from the beautiful, ornate, and ubiquitous masks filling other shop windows. Venetian Dreams was my favorite jewelry store, with a co-proprietoress who makes all the jewelry and sells the beads she uses, too. We found the artists manning their stores as much fun to visit as the stores themselves, with almost all of them wanting to engage in conversation and tell us about their craft.

And a little note on language here...K and I found that in the nord (north), we could both speak and understand Italian. What a relief it was for us to find out we did not, in fact, waste the hefty bill we paid to our language school. And our teachers did, in fact, teach us Italian. The problem is that we live in Naples. My best analogy is a Japanese student learning English, then visiting Louisiana, where the dialect is so strong that it obscures the actual language. We did learn Italian. Unfortunately, Napoletanos speak Napoletano, a dialect that even other Italians don't speak. Our landlady speaks more Napoletano than Italian, and at one point at the Housing Office during lease signing, her son (our landlord) told Nathan that he was speaking Italian with the base Housing Office so his mother wouldn't understand him. That's how different Napoletano and Italian can be. So...relief for K and myself and a great deal of fun as well.

More to follow...
Venice is all faded luxury and grandeur - this is a building facade on the Grand Canal

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why You Should...

...always bring an empty suitcase if you're traveling to or through Italy!

The windows in Venice are irresistible, so filled with shiny, sparkly things. Both Venice and Florence were home to some beautiful, paper stores. We concentrated on those that were specific artist studios, with paper, books, and other lovelies made of the owner/artist's designs. Scarfs are very (!) popular here right now, and we were sucked in by a dapper, young fellow in the market who immediately began using us as his models to tie our scarves about 27 different ways. He hooked us both when he tied one in a huge, fluffy bow and said, "We sometimes call this the Grace Kelly." We, who? Actually, who cares, I'll take three scarves, please. The large cones of yarn are my Best Find, at only 2euro per cone in Siena's street market. Since I don't think any knitters read this blog, this will mean nothing, so just trust me, it's beyond amazing. And my Favorite Find is the little piece of Venice street art. I love the light in it, and can't wait to have it framed.

My friend and I returned from our trip on Thursday night. I was very ill all day Thursday and spent all of Friday in bed. Thus, I still haven't started blogging about our trip. Pictures will take awhile to post, too, as I have over 1000 to go through! I took over 700, and my friend took almost 300. Nathan's only question was, "How on earth did you possibly take 700 pictures?" Not, "Why is your suitcase so much heavier?" or "Why do you have an extra bag than the one you left with?" or "What was your favorite site?" Nope...only, disbelief at the sheer volume of photos. But on trips, I'm a picture taker. I love panoramic views and close up shots of interesting door handles. I love the play of the light on the bows of the gondolas and the sheer multitude of Japanese tour groups loading their entire group into those same gondolas, screaming all the while. I love the mask filled windows of Venice and the sunset light hitting the pink and green marble on Florence's Duomo. I take pictures of all of it. I'll start blogging on the actual trip in the next few days.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Star Sighting

We are in Florence (gorgeous), and returned to the same restaurant, I Quattri Leoni (the four lions) for our second night in a row. The lady at the table behind ours was facing me and looked so familiar, but it took me three hours to place her. I am pretty sure we just ate dinner 10 feet from actress Judy Davis, of late in Debra Messing's TV Show, "The Starter Wife." Florence is great!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Venice Quick Post

Venice is even more beautiful than I remembered. I had the opportunity to visit Venezia eight years ago, and counted it then as one of my top three favorite cities in the world. Lovely Venice can retain her crown on my list. We have left off several of Venice's top sights b/c all of Venice is a museum. We did visit the islands of Murano (glassmaking) and Burano. Murano is overwhelming in all of it's shiny, sparkly glory. We managed to escape the island without dropping hundreds if euros on art piece necklaces, but it was touch and go for awhile. Next up was a visit to Burano, where Venetian lace was made. Now it's full of shuttered shops or open ones filled with tacky, machine-made lace junk. There was one fabulous store open that also has a private museum, Meletti d'Arte dalla Lidia. Since the Lace Museum was closed, I am so glad we got to see this shop's museum. Handmade lace is truly a work of art and labor of love. While Burano was completely dead - no people, restaurants, shops - I can just imagine it on a bustling day. The island is charming and colorful, and were it not for the cold, I would have felt like I was in the Caribbean or Florida Keys. Well...the cold and all the laundry hanging outside the windows. But that began my obsession with "Burano Laundry" photos. Dark clothes against the brightly painted houses were irresistible.

We ended that day with a cichetti crawl like the locals. Stop in at a bar (here in Venice, a bar is a bar), have a glass of wine and a little snack (sort of like a tapas plate). Fun.

I'll have to add photos after the trip is over.