no matter where you go, there you are

Thursday, July 22, 2010

and the rain fell upon the land for forty days and forty nights - genesis 7:1

Our final day in Venice was a spectacular one and though we didn't do much, it was still one of my favorite days of the whole trip. While we were sleeping, it had rained and rained, so much so that we were able to experience a completely different side of Venice. When flooding occurs in the States, it seems like a natural disaster and what damage is done is a terrible loss. Venice seems to ignore flooding. Well, not ignore it, but water and boating is so much a part of their society that they've adapted to dealing with the flooding. Citizens wear boots that go up to their thighs, stands sell temporary rain boots which are like a trashbag with plastic pieces in the bottom, and platforms about 1.5 ft high are set up so that you can walk from dry dock to dry sidewalk without having to wade through 1-2 feet of water. Restaurants and shop owners have brooms at the ready to sweep and clean out the excess water once the water levels drop, and they all stay open for business...even if there's a foot of water.

What's also great is that since everything is done by boat, boats can continue to run and deliver packages, the mail and the police are always on the alert. The only problem is that with high water levels, only small boats can continue to move in and out of the small, side canals. Anne and I began to compare Venice to its own water planet where there are no cars and everything has been made to work on water. It's magnificent and truly spectacular to observe the Venetian society. We could barely walk anywhere before hitting a street that had flooded, thereby forcing us to turn around, and yet I was in love with everything that was happening around me. It was one of the coolest things ever. I'm pretty sure Anne was sick and tired of hearing my say how much I loved what was going on.

We started out the day by getting off the boat at the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute. When the boat stopped at San Marco, it was crazy how different it looked compared to the day before. There were still a number of people around but there was at least 1-2 feet of water in the entire square outside the Doge's Palace, and we finally learned what the funny looking picnic tables were for. They were actually elevated "sidewalks" which were metal legs with wooden tops covered in concrete to make them non slippery. The church was very empty and quiet and a little dark but I was still able to appreciate the architecture.

Outside, we took a little walk but weren't able to get very far because after the first bridge we took, we hit water. It went on for a ways and unless we wanted to get soaked, turning around was the better idea.

Back on the boat, I sat in awe of everything going on...all the seamless changes that Venice had made to accommodate the rise in water, and yet how they seemed completely oblivious to it all.

We saw some girls with a suitcase and without blinking and eye, began to wade into the water lifting the bag above. As it was still pretty gloomy out, it was no surprise to see almost all of the gondolas tied up and covered, but those who did want a gondola ride got one on the rocky, wild, Grand Canal since the boats couldn't fit under the bridges leading into the side canals. We got off the boat at Ponte di Rialto, a covered bridge similar to Ponte Vecchio, but more artistic in its outer appearance.

It took a bit of maneuvering to get from the dock to the bridge, as we were limited to walking on the elevated sidewalks and not falling off. I was also still awestruck and kept stopping to gape at what was happening around me. I'm pretty sure I'm doing a terrible job in describing how interesting the flooding was, but I hope the pics I have do it some justice.

We had wanted to wander this area a bit more, but the water stopped us from going very far. We looked in the shops on the bridge and a few more that were still above water, but there were few and far between that were accessible. Next place we tried was San Marco which was better only because they had plenty of elevated platforms to walk on. A police officer stood by directing foot traffic and the water level was low on the shopping side of the square so we wandered in that area again. Though we'd been there the day before, it seemed like we'd missed many of the small streets so off exploring we went.

By 1:00pm or so, Anne and Lauren headed off for the train station and I found an expensive internet cafe to plop myself down in and kill some hours with. My night train to Munich wasn't til later in the evening and I would have liked to wander the city more, but my lack of rainboots and the burden of my suitcase prevented me from doing so. By evening I had made my way back to the central station, hopped on a train to the Venice mainland station and found my bed in the same bunk as a cute Japanese family. The parents had 2 little kids with them, a toddler boy and a baby girl who were really cute and behaved. They asked if I didn't mind taking the top, which was fine by me and I promptly fell asleep.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

we open in venice...

The train to Venice was about 3 or 3.5 hours so we took the time to relax, read, take a nap...whatever floated our boats. At one point we could look directly into the sun because it was sitting on the horizon, a red ball of fire. Very cool. We arrived in Venice after dark and decided to grab dinner first. Seeing a strip of restaurants on the other side of the river, we thought they looked good and headed over there. Little did we know that in Venice, crossing the canal is difficult. You can't just cross a canal and then take a left and follow along the bank or something. No, you get stuck at dead ends, end up walking over random bridges, taking turns you didn't want to take, all because there are canals everywhere! I knew Venice was a canal city but I didn't understand how heavily infused they are into it. We somehow, eventually, found what we were looking for and sat down to a quiet one else was in the restaurant. It's what happens when you eat at 5:30pm.

Venice is a city unlike any other. Completely dependent on boats for all transportation, it was a bit of an adjustment seeing how many there really are, and taking notice of how there are NO cars whatsoever. If there were, there would be no places for them to go. We bought a 2 day pass for the boat lines that traverse the city and outer islands and hopped on. Our stop was last, on the island of Lido, so we took in the city at night as we chugged along the Grand Canal.

Lido is a very skinny sliver of an island that is about a 10-15 minute boat ride from the last stop on the Canal, and from what I inferred, is a summer resort town. Besides the year round residents, the island is deserted in the winter. For those fellow New Englanders out there, I would compare Lido to Martha's Vineyard, or Nantucket. Or even Cape Cod. However, because it is so empty, I was able to secure us 2 nights in a hotel for the 3 of us for $45. We each had our own bed, Anne had a king-size one, and the private bathroom was amazing as well. Such a deal! So if you decide to travel to Venice in the winter, look out for deals like this on the outer islands. The city of Venice is more ritzy than other major tourist spots such as Rome and hostels in the city were $30-40 per person per night.

Much like Florence, Venice had a lot to do in the tourist books but it all cost moolah, which we were not inclined to spend. The Doge's Palace on San Marco square was the attraction we thought was going to be the most interesting, and since it included admission to the museum on the far side of San Marco Square, the ticket price was well worth it. San Marco Square isn't geographically in the center of the city, but it is tourist central.

We hopped off the boat from Lido and entered the Doge's Palace.
The building was quite large and its design seemed fairly simple. There was a central staircase and velvet ropes, and signs guided you in the right direction through the palace. It was really big and gave interesting insight into the format of the Venetian Government. The artwork was very different compared to the other Renaissance art I had been visiting in museums; different style, different color palette. The large hall toward the end of the tour was pretty magnificent; a great big open space with large murals covering the walls and ceiling. There was barely any free space. Some were of government officials in courtrooms, others were of sailors battling a storm on a great ship.

Once completed, we departed the Doge's Palace and wandered through Saint Mark's Square with the Campanile rising above. There is also a another bell tower that was really neat; small, but you can see the bell on top and the 2 metal statues of dudes with hammers that bang the bell on the hour. The museum's entrance was at the far end of the square.

The museum wasn't huge but it had an interesting collection of Venetian art, sculpture and war items like shields, armor and swords. The ancient coin collections were also pretty interesting. San Marco's was next, and nothing against the church itself, but I didn't like my experience there. It mainly was due to the fact that there were sooooo many people and you weren't allowed to roam about the church in your own fashion. It was like a guided visit where you were forced to move along unless you wanted to be trampled. Not my kind of thing... The ceiling, however, was gorgeous. A lot of yellow tiling and such.

San Marco's area is full of shops so after the church we visited some of them, got some lunch, and then made our way along the river to try and find some of the "highlighted in tourist book" churches. It was an interesting walk around the city because we learned very quickly that Venice is a city you are bound to get lost in. The small map we had from either Fodors or Frommers was a little bit of a help, but there are so many tiny streets to wander down. Yet, getting lost was fun because we discovered the intricacies of the city, and got some gorgeous views of the canals, boats sitting quietly at doorways, laundry hanging out over the water, tourists taking gondola rides and bridges leading to doors as the entrance into the house.

I don't remember all the names of the churches and we only went inside one of them, but they were each a little different on the outside. One was literally on the edge of a canal while another was on a small square that had more foot traffic around it. After lots of Venetian wandering, we finally made it back to San Marco's and took the boat across the way to San Giorgio Maggiore, an island across the canal that had a beautiful church with a tower.

After viewing the interior we took the elevator (thank god for no steps!) to the top of the tower and spent a while taking in the view. It was wonderful to see Venice from this perspective, even if it was a bit hazy.
The sun was beginning to set as we made our way down to the dock and back to the main part of Venice. We found a small restaurant to eat in and spent a bit of time browsing the shops. Many of them had Murano glass work, which is the local art fare, and all the colors, shapes and sizes of the glass were gorgeous. So vibrant and wonderful. The other souvenirs and merchandise found in many of the stores were Venetian masks. Think colorful versions of "Phantom of the Opera" meets Pinocchio.

After arriving back on Lido we passed by an enticing looking gelato shop and bought our 2nd cup of the day. Gelato is just too amazing to resist. Especially when it's so affordable! Our hotel beds awaited us and spending the evening hours relaxing was perfect considering that I would be traveling to Munich the following evening, and Anne and Lauren would be returning to Vienna.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

round 1: suitcase vs. backpack

While preparing for my trip, I debated for a short while about whether I would want to bring a small, carry-on suitcase or a backpack (the backpacking kind) to hold all my clothes. I wasn't bringing much, clothes for a week and miscellaneous jackets as well as some books and toiletries. The largest item I had were my hiking boots, which turns out I didn't even use that much. Sneakers were much more comfortable for the street walking I was doing. Anyway, not knowing if my family still had the backpacks we used in 2001 for our failed attempt of New Mexico mountain backpacking, I decided to go with carry-on suitcase for a couple of reasons. 1) Didn't know if we had a backpack 2) it had wheels so I wouldn't have to carry it and weigh my back down 3) the backpacks we would have owned wouldn't be the kind to open on the side, so packing would be a bitch. If I wanted to get something from the bottom, I'd have to empty the entire thing out.

Turns out though, that maybe the carry-on wasn't the best idea. European cities are modern, yes, but their underlying architecture and layout are all still quite ancient. In Florence, for example, almost all the roads and sidewalks are cobblestone, therefore my suitcase didn't like that one bit and it took me forever to walk from the train station and the wheel ended up breaking. A backpack might have also been nicer so that I wouldn't have taken up so much room while on certain transportation or on the street. With the carry-on, I just felt like I was in everyone's way all the time. Yet, I feel like that without carrying anything...

If you end up in the situation where you're debating your mode of luggage, try and take a few things into account so you can make the best decision. Where will you be going? How is the layout of the city? Are there hills, or is it flat? How far is the walk from train station or airport to your hotel or hostel? What will you be bringing, therefore how will you need to pack it? There are many more things you could ask yourself, but those are just a few that might give you a good start.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Santa Croce and farewell to Firenze

Our night spent in Florence was nice, especially since we had a private room. Sure it was a teeny room and our three beds only had about a foot of room between each one, but we didn't have to worry about roommates and keeping our stuff in our suitcases. And we had our own little private sink. There were 2 bathrooms on the floor and the one right next door was very convenient for the use of the toilet but the shower...not so much. This bathroom had a separate area for the shower, but no curtain or divide in the floor. If you turned it on, the water would go everywhere. You could like use the sink while taking a shower. Interesting, but not convenient.

We had purchased tickets to Venice for around 2 in the afternoon so we had a relaxing morning and slept in a little before packing our bags, checking out and taking a nice walk to Santa Croce. Neither Anne, Lauren or myself had originally planned on wanting to go there, but when we were up in the Campanile at the Duomo we saw it in the distance and wondered what this large church was. It's black and white marble with infusions of pale pink, which by this point I began to attribute to the architecture of Tuscany, stood out against the red tiled roofs. We looked up what church it was while chilling in the hotel room and learned it was Santa Croce, the church housing the tombs of Galileo and Michaelangeo as well as many other notables.

The interior was like any other church, open and wide with space to roam. The ceiling was detailed woodwork, very impressive and unique compared to what I'd seen before.

Tombs covered the walls around the entire place, replacing what were side chapels in other churches. Galileo's was nice and the stonework well done, but I didn't know what the people were supposed to represent.

Michaelangelo's tomb was simialar in size and shape to Galileo's but you could stand much closer to it and they had an information plaque. And it was in English. I can't remember who designed his tomb, but the 3 women represent each aspect of art Michaelangelo influenced and took part in. The sculpture woman, for example, holds a small block and a chisel. Each has a pensive, melancholy expression establishing the mood of the place. I thought it was very interesting and enjoyed looking at the details carved into the marble.

At various locations throughout the church, were the graves of former Florentines but instead of having just a headstone placed into the floor, the graves were marked by a carving in the shape of a human, symbolic of who was buried beneath. These weren't carved deep enough that it created a hole, but they were definitely not even ground.

The only other tomb name I recognized was Machiavelli. He wrote some famous book, I want to say it had "Prince" in the title, but I can't remember. I was supposed to read it for a class in college, but I didn't. Yet somehow I was able to write a piece long enough to get a pass on my homework.

Along the church walls, you could see where old paintings/frescoes had been discovered, many which still had bold colors. It really showed the age of the building and the evolution of art and style.

The rest of the church were large side chapels and then a, what I will call, annex portion where there was a leather store and some other large, open rooms with gorgeous paintings of the crucifxion of Jesus. There was also an semi-underground tomb area and pretty yard art in the courtyard. When we were finished there was still a little while before we were to catch our train so we wandered around the city on the opposite side of the river. Walking along the river was really nice cuz it gave us great views of the large houses sitting on the hillside.

Our time was up in Florence. Perhaps if we had more money and more time we'd have seen more, but in only 1.5 days I could certainly feel how culturally different this city was to Rome. Bustling, but on a much smaller scale, Florence felt like a tight little community, very safe and quaint. A place I would definitely recommend to friends.