Monday, May 2, 2016

Italy 2016 - Off to Florence

We left Venice by train.  We walked to the train station from the apartment, with suitcases, because it is the only way to get around.  The train wasn't full, and it was very comfortable.  When we arrived in Florence, we again walked with our suitcases.  We should have taken a taxi, but it didn't look far on the map.

The guesthouse in Florence was a short walk from the Duomo.  The streets are noisy and crowded, with more people than can fit on the sidewalks.  Its seems that the streets are pedestrian only, until a car or motorbike comes along. 

We only saw the historic center of Florence, and the train station.  We walked to the Arno River, and crossed the Ponte Vecchio and were shameless tourists.  We were tired and hungry, so we settled on an acceptable tourist trap restaurant in  that area of the city.   The shops were the same as we have in New Jersey, and at Sarah's request we spent some time in H&M.  Then, we took the train to Prato for dinner.  We visited Sarah's dorm, had drinks at a bar on Piazza San Francesco.  Dinner was at Agora Eno Restaurant.  That night we took the last train back to Florence, which was a little creepy.

The next day, Sarah took the train to Florence and we all went to Pisa.  What a wonderful day!  That tower!  We got there in time for coffee at a café and to walk around a little before our time to climb the tower.  The steps are very worn from the millions of feet over the years, and combined with the lean it made walking up a challenge.  After that we visited the church and the baptistery.  We had lunch in a university neighborhood and were very glad to have left the tourists behind.  We took the train back to Florence, and then to Prato for dinner.  Sarah's train from Pisa was delayed and she arrived in Prato only a short time before we did.

Our last morning we visited Florence's Duomo.  We climbed Brunelleschi's dome.  Amazing!  I can't imaging being permitted to do this in the U.S. - the steps were worn and narrow, there was no railing, and at the end it was only wide enough for one person going up OR down.  The view was splendid and seeing the dome paintings up close was impressive.  After this, Bill and the kids went to climb the bell tower while I visited the crypt.  Then, we had a nice lunch, picked up our suitcases and took a taxi to the car rental office.

Now for my disappointments.  First, I should have booked three nights in Florence instead of two.  Second, I didn't do my homework on the sites in Florence.  We discovered when walking around on Sunday that the museums are closed on Mondays.  There wasn't enough time to get tickets and visit the Uffizi on Sunday afternoon, so we didn't get to see it.  More planning is needed than I thought, and advance tickets need to be purchased for many sites.

I will need to return to Florence some day to spend more time and try to get the feel for it.  Our time was so short, and because we went to Pisa we didn't really get to explore any of the city.  It was also terribly crowded with tour groups, I can't imagine what it would be like during the tourist season!!

Friday, April 29, 2016

Italy 2016 - Beginning with Venice

My oldest daughter is studying in Italy this semester.  We decided to take this opportunity for a grand vacation!  After a few months of planning, we were finally on our way!  We flew into Venice, planned two night there in an apartment, then two nights in Florence at a guest house, one night in Umbria, and four nights in the Naples area.

Venice is unique and wonderful.  I can understand the 'mixed' reviews I have heard from friends and family.  First, it is always a tourist destination.  Second, it is expensive.  Third, it is maddeningly difficult to find anything you are looking for.  Fourth, it is full of tourists.

All of that being said, we found it charming and a place we would like to return.  We stayed in the Dorsoduro section in a rental apartment.  This neighborhood, sestieri, is more residential than San Marco and the only hotels were along the Grand Canal.  The squares, piazzas and campos, had casual cafes (bars), neighborhood restaurants, children playing, and market stands with fresh fish and vegetables.  The stores were small groceries, hardware stores, clothing and shoe shops and did not cater to tourists.  To walk these streets was to experience the city without artifice, or the veneer of an international tourist attraction.

When we disembarked from our water taxi, we were a "short walk" from the apartment, according to the taxi driver.  But, with dead cell phones and a simple paper map, we got lost for the first time in Venice.  I don't think there is a single straight street in the city, at least as far as we walked.  And because it wasn't designed for motor vehicles, streets are often walkways between buildings.  We did eventually find our way to the Campo Santa Margherita and then the apartment.

That night, jet lagged, we made our way to Piazza San Marco, and got lost for the second time.  It was raining, but that actually enhanced our Venetian experience.  There weren't a lot of tourists out because of the weather, and we could wander in relative peace.  Every few 'blocks' there would be a turn because of the maze of streets and canals.  When we arrived in San Marco I understood immediately why many people don't love Venice - it seemed to be the Epcot experience: picturesque but soulless, everything in place for the pleasure of people passing through. 

Our full day in Venice will filled with churches.  We started at Basilica dei Frari.  But were immediately stalled - there was a wedding in the church and we couldn't visit until it was done.  We learned that visiting Italy involves patience, good nature, and alternate plans.  We waited in a café across the canal for the wedding to finish.  Knowing that Venice's churches are still being used for worship, and not just tourists, made the experience richer.   Seeing Titian's masterpiece in place, instead of a museum, was perfect.  Next, we visited Chiesa di San Giacomo dall'Orio, a hodge podge of a church with elements from Romanesque to Baroque.  Lunch was delightful at Al Prosecco, where we had plates of cheeses and cured meats, along with prosecco (of course!), fruit and bread.  We took the vaporetto to visit Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, situated on an island in the lagoon.  This is a Palladian church with graceful arches and a quiet peace.  There is an elevator to the top of the dome, where all of Venice is laid out before you.  Dinner that night was in Dorsoduro, in one of the many places we ate without English menus. 

We did get the hang of navigating the streets of Venice without getting lost.  We relied on a combination of cellphone GPS location and paper maps.  We didn't take a gondola ride because of the continuing rain.  We didn't visit the island of Murano or many other places.  But we did spend almost two days experiencing the delight of Venice, and avoiding the worst of the tourist crowds.