Saturday, March 30, 2013

Europe Trips: Italy: An Italian Sojourn Part 6

In continuation to the previous blog, I pencil down a few more things from my list of must recommended things to do in Venice. The last but not the least is of course a walk around Venice – which is described further in detail.

5. Visit to Piazza San Marco:

Your visit would be incomplete without visit to Piazza San Marco which commemorates St. Mark, Venice’s Patron saint.
St Mark with Lion winged Angel
Piazza San Marco, the heart of Venice is dominated by 16th and 17th century arcaded buildings. It is dominated by Basilica di San Marco, the Campanile. The basilica was built to house the body of St. Mark, Venice’s patron saint. It is one of the best known examples of Byzantine architecture. 

Basilica and Campanile

Near the Piazza San Marco, you will also see Doge’s Palace or Palazzo Ducale – an opulent complex of state rooms, courtyards and corridors that was the seat of the Venetian government in the Republic’s heyday. The Doge's Palace has Venetian Gothic style architecture and looks absolutely spectacular on a bright sunny day.

Doge's Palace - view from Grand Canal
Doge's Palace - another view
The famous things to watch on the outside also include Ponte de Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) which leads across a canal to the prison cells.

We chose to hang out outside of San Marco and Doge’s Palace than visit it from inside and we wanted to soak in the atmosphere and rich scenery around it. Also we were well heeled from our earlier visits to St Peter’s Basilica, Sistine Chapel and other museums, so gave the inside visit a miss. We invested the time that was saved to explore more of Venice by walk and water – the things which the city has been most famous for.

6. Venice in Walk – exploring the Calle’s, little shops:

The magic of Venice is captured best by its blue waters, busy and colourful life and historic buildings on both sides of the Grand Canal, the water waves and trails left by vaporetti’s and gondola’s criss crossing the waters. The rustic charm of this city is also underlined by the narrow alleys/lanes – called calle’s which will magically lead you from one piazza (or a square) to the other. 

As you enter these narrow calle’s, you will leave behind one scenic place, walk through a tunnel for 10 steps and emerge out to probably find a pristine church on one corner or a shop selling Venetian antiques, masks on the other. 

The island itself is not huge, so you can choose a route to walk around and do it comfortably. If you are looking to mark specific places to see while on this route, one recommendation is to walk from Piazzale Roma to St Marks Square and around (probably a 30 minute walk with stops). 

In between you can take your own detours to some of the places like the Venetian Ghetto or the narrowest Calle (which is just 53cm wide) called Calle Varisco. Do drop in all the small shops that sell everything from tourist souvenirs to handicrafts made out of Murano Glass or the very famous – Venetian Masks. 

We enjoyed the walk around the Venetian Ghettos - an area of Venice in which Jews were compelled to live under the Venetian Republic. It is still a center of Jewish life in the city. There are a couple of synagogues around as well. 

The fliers lying in our hotel room recommended us a couple of places in and around the hotel - mostly museums. But one small description that definitely raised our eyebrows and which still looked offbeat enough is a walk to the narrowest calle in Venice – Calle Varisco. We  lost our way a little back. To add to it, the map was not being exactly helpful, but still we weren’t disappointed to find this narrow alley connecting one part of the city to another. Ideally people should walk through it, but barring sunlight air and probably small animals – i don’t see anything passing this narrow gap! 

Explore the Venetian magic not only during daylight, but also at night. There are small cafes and bars open all the time – some of them open – playing loud Venetian music open air – under the pretext of luring customers. We got drunk in one of such drink bars – Fruilala – sitting on a bar stool, soaking in the atmosphere, Venetian music – enjoying some creative cocktails dished out by our bartender. Little did we care that the menu card did not have prices next to the name of the drinks we ordered. After a few swigs down, when your head starts feeling light and you start enjoying life – there comes the bill that reminds you that “Nice to enjoy, but from the next time do check the prices before ordering”! However i will not ruin the evening with this, but it was indeed a time well spent. Ohh and did i forget to mention – don’t miss sipping the special drink of Venice – Apertif or Spritz as they call it – with olives. It is wonderful!

Venice is known by various names – Venezia, “City of Tunnels”, “City of Masks”, “The Floating City”. You will associate the deeper connection that the city has with these names once you visit this magical city. Do remember - when it’s time for you to leave this mystical city – you will promise to return back. But deep down inside your hearts, you will know that the Venice trip was something special – almost like a dream you didn’t want to wake up from. You will carry Venice in your hearts and memories to your grave!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Europe Trips: Italy: An Italian Sojourn Part 5

One of Italy’s most visited regions, Veneto in the country’s northeast was independent for centuries until 1797, when Napoleon invaded. It then bounced among French, Austrian and Italian domination. Bordered by some of Europe’s most beautiful elements (the Adriatic Sea to its east, Lake Garda to its west, the Dolomites to its north, and the Po River to its south), Veneto is known for agriculturally rich valleys flowing down from Alps and for important cities like Venice, Verona and Padua.

Venice, unarguably is the jewel in the crown of Veneto. Venezia, as it is known in Italian is an archipelago sited on a group of 118 small islands separated by canals (177) and linked by bridges (409). You will not even realize you are treading over these smaller islands as you enjoy Venice on foot – climbing through one of those 409 bridges and criss crossing across the calle’s. The canals serve as the highways for Venice and can be tamed by Vaporettis (water buses), Gondolas (private boats), Private Water Taxi’s. The other option is to walk across this island and soak in its mesmerizing, rustic and colourful charm. Venice is no wonder Europe’s largest urban car free area. Though there is a train station and bus station and other connections to mainland, major part of Venice is still best covered on foot or by water transportation.

It would be criminal waste of money and time if one doesn’t visit Italy, while in Europe and most of all rule out Venice in his trip. A lot of folks do cover Rome and Venice as separate trips (of 3 days each) from the UK/ other countries – but makes sense to combine it all Rome+ Pisa+ Venice (and if you have some energy a dash of Florence) to soak in as much as you can of this wonderful country!

Some of the best experiences/ things to do in Venice:

1. Grand Canal Tour: The Grand Canal/ Canal Grande’ is Venice’s main canal or the main superhighway for its water transportation. It is like the Motorways (M) of the UK or Interstate (I) of the US. The Grand Canal has the Santa Lucia railway station on one end and Saint Marks Basin at the other end. A good idea to do the grand canal tour is to take vaporetti No. 1 starting from the stop outside Piazza Roma or from the Santa Lucia Station all the way upto St. Marks Sqaure. Many tourists also explore parts of the Grand Canal by gondola.

As you cross the Grand Canal, you will pass through over 170 buildings on either sides – which have been built anywhere between the 13th and the 18th centuries. It`s a colourful and busy spectacle.

The gondola’s, vaporetti’s and other modes of water transportation add a dash of life to this colourful spectacle. You will definitely step back in time as you go through this scenic tour and remember that while you experience your journey, you are experiencing a journey which has not changed much in the last few centuries except for the noise!

Santa Maria della Salute / Basilica of St Mary of Health seen in the background during the Grand Canal tour in the picture below

St Marks Bell tower and Doge's Palace
The Grand Canal tour is recommended not only during the day, but also in evening and at night – when the lights come out and bring a different sense of spirit and mystery to this wonderful city.

Museo di Storia Naturale at night along Grand Canal

Grand Canal in the evening
2. Island hopping to one of the lagoon islands – Murano, Burano or Torcello: If you want to escape the crowds of Venice and go to smaller offbeat locations – escaping the crowds, enjoying a longer ride on the vaporetti and soaking in the blues of the water and architecture of the Venetian churches, buildings from a distance – this is the best thing to do.

Murano island has long been famous for the Italian Murano glass. Many of its glass factories offer tours and demonstrations. We decided to skip this as we had our share of museums in the last two weeks across Paris, Rome, Vatican City and Florence!

Murano Island at a distance
Burano island is a 40 minute boat ride from Venice (by vaporetti no. 12) and more interesting of these three. I did enough reading on the internet the night before we covered this part of our Venice itenary and was blown over by this tiny island – with its brilliantly painted houses. When we visited this island, we enjoyed our time here totally. This island is famous for its traditional handicraft – gossamer-fine lace and also has a school for lacemaking! Thi island also has a leaning tower (just like the Leaning Tower of Pisa) – which now i call the Leaning Tower of Burano!

Burano island and the leaning tower from a distance
If you travel 5 more minutes beyond Burano, you can reach Torcello, which had Venice’s earliest settlement. However a malarial outbreak did decimate the population of this island some years back, but it still has some amazing churches.

Your vaporetti pass (which is typically valid for 12 hours, 24 hours, 36 hours and so on) also covers visits to these islands. So you cover these at no extra cost!

3. Gondola Ride: Venice is probably most remembered for a Gondola – the famous Venetian boat, with a boat-clad Gondolier manoeuvring it through the tides on the Grand Canal as one enjoys a romantic moment with his partner. Thanks to movies, travel documentaries and the lure for feeling romantic amongst the minds of our wifes and girlfriends, this is one ride; you would as well do once in your life time! A gondola ride can typically cost average of 80 Euros or upwards for about 40 minutes depending on the time of the day and mood of the gondolier! We negotiated this fair price (which is still expensive) and were one of the last customers of our Gondolier, who was known by the name of Thomas. Thomas was not one of the chatty gondoliers unless he was provoked onto a conversation (thanks to the inquisitive me), but a professional at his job. He made our ride enjoyable and helped us experience the sunset on the Grand Canal and the narrow canals of Venice with some deft manoeuvring of his Gondola. One of the famous songs - Do Labzon Ki Hai from the Bollywood movie The Great Gambler starring Indian movie star Amitabh Bachchan is shot in Venice. They did have a Gondolier who sang some of the verses of this song in Italia, which was indeed soothing! I wish Thomas could dish out something similar in those 40 minutes!

Exploring the Venetian canals

Exploring the "City of Bridges" on a Gondola

Romantic experience - sunset over Venice while on Gondola ride!

4. Famous Bridges of Venice: 
Venice is also known as “City of Bridges” as it is home to over 400+ bridges criss crossing and connecting the 100+ islands in this beautiful and mystical archipelago. Some of the famous bridges of Venice span across the Grand Canal and you would pass through them as you take the Grand Canal Tour. There are four such bridges - Ponte di Rialto, Ponte dell'Accademia, Ponte degli Scalzi and Ponte della Costituzione

The most oldest and famous of these four bridges is the Ponte di Rialto or Rialto Bridge. As you can see, it looks equally splendid – day or night. It has been standing there, since 1591, a little over 430 years!

Rialto Bridge

Ponte degli Scalzi
Ponte della Costituzione is the most recent one commissioned in 2008, which connects Santa Lucia station to Piazzale Roma Bus Terminal area – amid protests by politicians and general public. Though this bridge is required for ease of access to the bus terminals and the wider mainland from the Venetian island, it has been an eyesore as compared to the other beautiful bridges.

Ponte della Costituzione
Rest is covered in the next blog! Time for a break :)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Europe Trips: Italy: An Italian Sojourn Part 4

Pisa & Florence
The most famous cousin cities of Italy are Rome and Venice. They figure in the top 3 must see places in Italy for every tourist. A close contender to these would be Pisa – but obviously for the world wonder Leaning Tower of Pisa and Florence –the capital or the birth place of Renaissance. They say you need at least 5 days to absorb and appreciate Florence. For a tourist like me, who is right now in a blood rush to visit most of the happening or famous places in this leg of my career and age, the 5 day Florence trip can still wait till i am in my late 40’s! At the same time, i did want to visit the best places in the limited time i had. Thanks to the excellent service of Trenitalia, i was able to do a fair justice to Pisa and Florence.

On the first Saturday this March, my wife & I were in 4 different Italian cities on the same day, where the distance between our beginning and final destinations was approximately 650 to 700 kms. We left Rome in the morning by the 8.10 am train and reached Pisa by 11.00 am. In Pisa, we walked from the station to the Leaning Tower of Pisa (which is a good 20-25 minute walk one way). We caught the train to Florence at 1.11pm, reached Florence at 2.11pm. In Florence, we hit the streets trying to make most of the six hours we had there before we took the train to Venice at 8.30pm. We finally reached Venice Station at 10.30 pm.  This may appear almost like a military regime and less of a vacation for an avid reader like you – and thankfully my wife was patient throughout – silently bearing the ordeal – which perhaps took a larger toll on her than me. But nevertheless, it didn’t dampen our spirits or enthusiasm to still tick off all that we had planned to cover in these cities. An important acknowledgement is also to the Italian Trains, which are very reliable, clean and definitely fast – as some of the trains clocked 250 kmph wish washing us through miles of Italian landscapes – including houses with sloping roofs, the blue sea, snow clad peaks of the Italian Alps or plain farms and green grass. It was almost like travelling on a train in India, when you will see the soil, vegetation and house structures change as you travel from one part of the country to another in a single day.

Once our train reached Pisa, we got down at this very nice and quiet station which had an old world charm of its own – out of the hustle and bustle of Rome. It wasn’t difficult to find the office in the station where we could leave our luggage for a modest fee, while we explored Pisa. Though there was a bus that could take us close to the leaning tower of Pisa, we chose to walk – as it was no more than 20 – 25 minute walk (each way). It ended up being a wise decision, as Pisa is a very nice small town. We walked across the River Arno on a bridge and caught sight of a beautiful scene with color building on one side and church on the other – separated by the quiet but firm flow of the River Arno. Enjoying in the rivers arms were two folks with their boat out in the waters.

River Arno and the background in Pisa
As we zig zagged, we were surprised to come across an authentic Indian restaurant just 5 minutes before the Leaning Tower of Pisa – with a very nice decoration from the outside - with a traditional Indian cyclerickshaw. We just nodded our heads in submission as a matter of fact collectively sighing “We Indians are everywhere! We cannot escape our own clan!”

Trad'nal Indian cycle rickshaw
A walk from this Indian restaurant to the Leaning Tower of Pisa is hardly five minutes. Once you keep walking towards the white shaped Duomo of the Pisa, your heart starts beating in anxiety to catch the wonder of the world that you have always read about since childhood, but had never seen with your own eyes. As you almost come to the square in front of the Pisa Duomo and you turn your head to the right hand side, you will find the Leaning Tower of Pisa leaning as it was in the books, in your mind and on the internet Рalmost naughtily Рinviting you to give the clich̩ pose that tourists so often give to stop the tower from falling.

Leaning Tower of Pisa
Duomo at Pisa

Capturing it all - from the front of Leaning Tower

Post photo shoots, we walked back to Pisa station taking the same route and we then grabbed quick hot sandwiches to have on the way and rushed to catch the 1.11pm train to Florence. Though we had planned for a later train, we were allowed to board an earlier train by the railway booking office. Advance booking of the tickets for this entire intra Italy travel journey was a boon in disguise for us. It saved us a lot of time and effort as all our tickets were printed out at home in the UK before we set afoot in Italy.

One hand is enough to correct the tilt!

Florence – the capital of Tuscan region has been aptly called the “Athens” of medieval ages. It is also the birthplace of the Renaissance. Florence has been declared as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is one of world’s most beautiful cities – artistically and architecturally. Some of world’s greatest artists – Micahelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli – all have spent some time in Florence and soaked their sweat and blood in this great city to further enhance their artistic endeavours.

Florence today is home to some of the great museums like Uffizi Gallery, Museo dell'Accademia (that houses Michaelangelo’s David) and other places of artistic and historical significance like Pitti Palace, Piazza della Signoria, Loggia dei Lanzi, Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Florence Cathedral and Ponte Vecchio. We chose to visit only the top five per our research and interests amongst these and in the 6 hours we had in Florence,  even that looked unlikely in the beginning. But we did enough justice to these places.

1. Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Florence Cathedral:
The walk to this cathedral is about 10 minutes from Florence station. As you start nearing the Florence cathedral, you start admiring it for what it is and has been. The basilica is one of Italy's largest churches, and until development of new structural materials in the modern era, the dome was the largest in the world. It remains the largest brick dome ever constructed. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Unfortunately the camera cannot do justice to this splendid marvel. Walk around the church for stunning views!

The cathedral looks equally stunning at night.

It is one of the best cathedrals i have seen so far in Europe – other than Notre Dame in Paris.

2. Museo dell'Accademia: The museum that is notoriously famous for just one important piece of work that has been discussed, debated and dissected by art lovers, thinkers and philosophers for centuries – Michaelangelo’s David. We have all read the story of David and Goliath during our growing up years on how the diminutive David gets the better of Goliath – the demon who is many times physically powerful over David. David wins the war through his innocence, intellect and boyish charm. Watching Michaelangelo’s David in person just brings the old famous story to life. David has been carved from a single marble stone and reflects all the qualities that the author had attributed to him in the David vs Goliath story. You can see David’s muscle jutting at the right levels, his nerves seen jutting out at his forearms. Even the chip on his toe nails, the balance of his body resulting in the poise of his back, neck and buttocks has been sculpted to needle accurate precision. You are not allowed to photograph the original David, but you can take pictures of the replica of David kept at Piazza della Signoria. David is worth the effort folks. If you are planning to skip this museum, probably that is a wrong choice!

You can also see other pieces of work from Michaelangelo – Pieta and four other unfinished sculptures. The original Pieta from Michaelangelo is of course kept in the St Peters Basilica in the Vatican City. The other unfinished sculptures also have a raw finished charm to them and look pretty detailed enough.

3. Piazza della Signoria:  This L shaped square is the focal point of the origin and history of Florence. It is a very famous meeting place amongst tourists and continues to serve as the political hub of Florence to this day. It is located close to the Florence Cathedral. Palazzo Vecchio (“Old Palace”) as it is also called is a town hall of this great city. Overlooking the square with its copy of Michelangelo's David statue as well the gallery of statues in the adjacent Loggia dei Lanzi. We were lucky to catch a march by the square by a ground of uniformed guards or people in costumes of guards. It definitely took us back in history - to the times when major announcements would have been made atop the tower followed by a march by the troops and soldiers - bonded in solidarity and unison to crush other invaders. 

Replica of Michaelangelo's David 
4. Loggia dei Lanzi: it is one of the most significant public places in Italy, and it hosts cultural points and museums. It is effectively an open-air sculpture gallery of antique and Renaissance art including the Medici lions. It is located in the premises of Palazzo Vecchio itself.

Medici Lion

Rape of the Sabine Women

Perseus with Head of Medusa

5. Ponte Vecchio: Ponte Vecchio or Old Bridge over the Arno river in Florence is the one of the oldest bridges - first built in 996 and then re-built over the last few centuries. It was the only bridge that perhaps was not destroyed during WW II - especially under the orders of Hitler. Today, jewellers, art dealers and souvenir sellers throng the bridge -thats why you see the windows on the bridge! Economic concept of "bankruptcy" originated here - when a merchant could not pay his debts, the table on which he sold his wares (the "banco") was physically broken ("rotto") by soldiers, and this practice was called "bancorotto" (broken table; possibly it can come from "banca rotta" which means "broken bank")

Ponte Vecchio Bridge

It is romantic to watch the sunset over Ponte Vechhio. Also, walk on the bridge – where the actual shops are and peek into their windows to see glittering gold and diamonds from Italy. More than the sparkle of the jewels, the price tags on them will open your eyes further and leave your mouth open in awe.  And just before your wife starts getting interested to focus on a few of the gold ornaments, its time to enjoy a coffee and lemon cake in one of the nearby cafeterias – changing topics from gold and jewellery to picturesque scenery and Florence renaissance!

Romantic view of the evening from Ponte Vecchio

Shops on Ponte Vecchio Bridge

The walk back to the Florence train station is enjoyable at night. Catch a glimpse of the Florence cathedral at night as well. We were surprised with the Florence city centre – which had  a very vibrant and young crowd. All the best designer brands were having their shops and most of them had a decent number of customers inside. Apart from tourists, the local population also seemed to be able to afford expensive brands – which shows the orientation towards style and fashion in this ancient city.

You can also leave your bags at Florence station for a nominal fee – just like in Pisa/ Rome or any place in Italy and collect it on your way back to your next destination. Food in Florence station wasn’t bad and we had warm panini’s with different mix of vegetables with Arancia Juice.

As you bid the city goodbye – you cannot help but observe that even the train station wall clock has an artistic background. Maybe that`s why this city has rightfully been the birthplace of Renaissance?

Florence train station