A Travellerspoint blog

Italy

Venice

Venice is like no other city on earth. It is basically a city built on water -- or more accurately on muddy, marshy swamps. DSC_0078.jpgAfter the sack of Rome 1,500 years ago, a group of people moved into the lagoon as a natural protector. There they pounded more than a million trees into the muddy swamp, put stone over the top of the trees, and built a city. Really, who thinks of doing that? The result is a beautiful car free city with a maze of canals and tiny alleyways. DSC_0099.jpg

I was quite happy to return the rental car at the entrance to Venice -- without any scratches, accidents or injuries to any of the passengers! We hopped on a vaporetto (a large boat that is the equivalent of a city bus in Venice) and wandered our way around until we found our hotel. It took several stops to ask for directions. Venice is known for being a confusing city, and I can see why. People navigate by landmarks, not by city streets (because really, there are no streets!). But we did find it and it was great! Wendy had booked the hotel online, and it ended up being in the perfect location. It was just off Campo Santa Maria Formosa and right on the fringe of the San Marco neighborhood. That meant we were a short walk from all the tourist stuff, but a little out of the way of all the tourists. We were right on a canal, and frequently saw (and heard) gondoliers taking people down the canal. DSC_0072.jpgWe didn't take a gondola ride while we were there, mainly because there are really expensive and the gondoliers love to rip off tourists. But we did take several vaporetto rides and got a good view of the city from the water.

Venice is really an endless maze of tiny little alleys. We wandered around a lot, sometimes knowing where we were going, sometimes not. It all seemed to work out in the end. The first evening we wandered down to St. Mark's Square and saw some of the nightlife. The Square is really quite pretty, with St. Mark's Basilica on one side, the Doge's Palace next door, and the rest of the rectangle filled by lovely buildings.DSC_0056.jpg For some reason I had always imagined the square bigger, but standing in it, it really didn't look that big. It may have been because of all the tables from the sidewalk cafes. The cafes have tuxedoed waiters and small orchestras playing music all night long. It felt very much like James Bond.

The next day we toured St. Mark's Basilica.DSC_0057.jpg After seeing so many different churches on my trip, it is still amazing to see how different and beautiful each one can be. St. Mark's has a very distinctive style -- part European, part Byzantine and middle eastern. Venice was once the world's biggest superpower -- funny to think about today when Venice is mainly a tourist stop on a tour of Italy. But for 400 years (about 1,000 years ago) Venice was the place to be. The main reason is that Venice controlled all of the trade routes from Europe to Asia. Traders and merchants would meet in Venice, and subsequently the city got rich. It really was the first global, cosmopolitan city. Europeans could find spices, cloth, and other things unavailable in Europe. People of all ethnicities shared the canals and alleys. 2DSC_0089.jpgDSC_0095.jpgNumerous religions were practiced. And ideas, art and culture all blended. The numerous palaces that line the canals of Venice are a reminder of the wealth of the city and the merchant families. Unfortunately, many of the palaces are in disrepair, because it is so expensive to keep up the huge buildings, and the constant toll that water takes on structures.

One of the most beautiful parts of St. Mark's are the mosaics on the walls, ceilings, and domes. The mosaics have a definite Byzantine feel. Most of the tiles are covered in gold leaf, and it is really stunning. I also loved the horse statue that is on the terrace inside the church. It is a full-size statue of four horses trotting that initially sat on the outside balcony. Now there is a replica on the terrace to protect the original statue, which was made in the 4th century B.C.!

The Doge's Palace next to St. Mark's Basilica has an even more Byzantine feel to it. The outer walls are characterized as ˝Venetian Gothic˝. DSC_0060.jpgAccording to our guidebook, this palace was the most powerful half-acre of land in Europe for 400 years. The interesting thing about it is that the Doge (basically the head of state) really had no power. Venice had what could loosely be called a democracy -- except it was only the aristocratic families that counted. They had a Senate and numerous judicial councils, and the Doge was just the figurehead of it all. He was the leader, but had no executive or legislative powers. The Doge's Palace is an interesting place because it combined all of the functions of the government. The senate hall, the Doge's apartments, the judicial courts, even the prisons were all within these walls. The prison's were interesting -- there was even graffiti carved into the stone by prisoners from over a thousand years ago!

We spent the afternoon on the island of Murano, one of the numerous islands in the lagoon that make up Venice. This is known as the glassmakers island. Venice has long been known for it's glass -- mainly because they learned glass making techniques from the east. Because most of the city is made of wooden structures, the glass makers were forced out of the main islands due to fire risk and given their own island. This is still the center of glass making today. We visited the glass museum and looked around in a lot of different shops. Wendy and Steven even found some beautiful candlesticks that will be a great souvenir of their trip!

Saturday the tourists were out in droves. Since Venice was at the height of its power, it has been a tourist draw. Europeans used to come here to party -- much like modern day Vegas -- and many of them still do. Plus Saturday was a national holiday (liberation day) and a city holiday (St. Mark's day). Because the streets are so small and everything is compressed by bridges, it makes it feel very crowded. The highlight of Saturday was a visit with our old friend Lele. Lele was an exchange student from Italy when we were in high school. He graduated with my class from Naches. Wendy and Lele were good friends in high school, and have kept in touch over the years. Wendy and Steven saw Lele in L.A. about 5 years ago, and so when we decided to go to Italy, Wendy emailed him. He came to Venice for the day from Milan and we spent most of the day just chatting and catching up, sitting at sidewalk cafes. It was really great to see him and to reminisce about high school days. DSC_0104.jpgDSC_0106.jpg

Wendy and Steven left early the next morning. I was very sad to see them go -- it has been fun travelling with them. But I am also looking forward to being on my own again and heading out of Italy to other parts of Europe.DSC_0087.jpg

Posted by jenniesue 23:42 Comments (0)

Italy

Lake Como and Bellagio

DSC_1104.jpgDSC_1084.jpgThe highlight of my trip with Wendy and Steven was without a doubt Lake Como. It was such a beautiful area, with the lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks in the distance. We stayed in Bellagio, a small town on the tip of the spit of land that splits the lake into two separate portions. Everywhere we looked we were surrounded by beauty. Most of the area is still pretty uninhabited, with small towns dotting the lakeside. The town we stayed in was so picturesque -- according to the guidebook, many say it is the prettiest town in Europe. We stayed in an old villa turned into a hotel right on the lakefront. DSC_0004.jpgThe weather was beautiful, so full of sunshine that Wendy even got a sunburn. All of the wisteria and azaleas were blooming, and the air smelled of flowers. DSC_1097.jpg

Lake Como was the perfect place to just relax. We didn't have an itinerary, no museums to visit or places to tour. We just wandered the streets, sat outside in the sun sipping our drinks and watching the boats come and go. We did take one of the many ferries across the lake to an adjacent town and explored for a couple of hours. But other than that, we just kicked back and relaxed! And it was PERFECT!DSC_0039.jpgDSC_0011.jpgDSC_0005.jpg

Posted by jenniesue 04:00 Comments (0)

Italy

Tuscany and Montepulciano

Leaving Rome we picked up a rental car at the train station and headed out of town. I was a little nervous to drive in Italy, especially after all of the horror stories I had heard and witnessed in Naples. But thankfully drivers in northern Italy are much better than in Napoli!DSC_0049.jpgDSC_1029.jpg It was actually much easier than I expected and I can happily report we all survived (including the car) with only one incident (and that was a parking ticket). Once we hit the autostrada (a toll highway) it was just like driving on a highway in north america. One of the highlights of the drive was the Autogrill -- basically an Italian version of a truck stop, complete with convenience store, bathrooms, and restaurants. The ingenious thing about the Autogrills is that they are designed over the road, so people from both sides of the road can access all the services without having to leave the toll highway. Steven was big fan of the Autogrill and we stopped several times. DSC_1077.jpg

Tuscany was absolutely beautiful and exactly what I pictured it to be! Rolling green hills, olive orchards, vineyards -- with lots of small hill towns built of stone and brick. Unfortunately the weather wasn't the greatest, a little rainy and overcast. We stopped in Orvieto on the way to Montepulciano. It was a great hill town to wander around in and the Cathedral at the top of town was just magnificent!DSC_1030.jpgDSC_1032.jpgDSC_1037.jpg Built out of the characteristic marble of the area (black and white) and embellished with mosaics of all colors, it was really stunning and worth getting wet from the downpour.

We stayed just outside of Montepulciano, a town known as a wine-making center of Tuscany. We stayed at an agriturismo (farm house) set in the rolling hills. DSC_1044.jpgDSC_1042.jpgIt was beautiful, although the steep dirt roads made for some nervous moments for our little Fiat Punto rental car. It would have been a piece of cake in an SUV or truck, but most cars in Europe aren't made to handle farm roads. Wendy kept commenting on how much the area reminded her of Yakima, where we grew up. There were many similarities -- especially the rolling green hills and the agriculture. DSC_1067.jpgBut the towns were very different. Montepulciano is set up on a hilltop, with the hill crowned by the town cathedral. It is much different than the cathedral we saw in Orvieto -- the outside was made entirely of brick and the decoration was much more sparse.DSC_1054.jpg It was interesting to see how much styles could change between areas so close to each other among churches built roughly at the same time. We spent much of our time wandering up the streets of Montepulciano, sampling local wines and shopping at some great leather stores. We drove around several parts of Tuscany, and it really is truly beautiful. We spent a few hours one afternoon in Siena, but after the calm of Tuscany it seemed mobbed by tourists. DSC_1075.jpgPlus we had difficulty parking there (hence, the parking ticket which I currently have no idea how to pay. According to the woman at the Farm House, most people just ignore it and sometimes they find you, sometimes they don't).

I would definitely love to spend more time in Tuscany, and I can easily see how people rent villas there for several weeks. If the weather had been nicer, it would have been great to hike around the area. Hopefully someday I will be back!DSC_1065.jpgDSC_1064.jpg

Posted by jenniesue 03:47 Comments (0)

Italy

Roma!

I left Naples early in the morning and caught a train to Rome. It was great staying with Mel and Jamy, and if I didn't have Wendy and Steven's visit to look forward to, I easily could have stayed longer! I met Wendy and Steven in the main train station in Rome after wandering around the station several times. Apparently Rome train stations don't believe in maps, or at least in accurately reproducing what is in the station in the very infrequent maps they do have. But we managed to meet up as planned at a cafe. We stayed in a lovely hotel (thanks mom and dad!) at the top of the Spanish steps. It really was an ideal location -- close walking distance to just about everything. I think we only took the metro once or twice. DSC_1019.jpg
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Rome is an amazing city. The skyline is absolutely beautiful -- there are no skyscrapers or tall buildings to block your sightline in any direction. The number of domes and monuments visible are just breathtaking. We had a great view from the terrace of our hotel out over the city. The first night we just wandered around taking in the city. We managed to find our way (accidentally) to the Trevi Fountain. DSC_0703.jpgWhat a amazing fountain, and it was so beautiful all lit up at night! There were lots of people milling around -- tourists throwing coins into the fountain, teenagers making out, and people just wandering. We also wandered past the Pantheon. The Pantheon is the best preserved buildings of ancient Rome and the model after which all other domes were made.DSC_0694.jpgDSC_0797.jpg The architects of the Renaissance were so amazed by the construction of the dome that they actually had to cut a square out of it to understand the principles behind it. It is thre reason for the dome on St. Peter's basilica and on our Capitol building. One of the best things about it is the oculus at the top, which to this day is open to the elements. So if it is raining in Rome, it is raining in the Pantheon.

On our second day in Rome, we visited the Vatican. Wendy had (very smartly) pre-booked a Vatican tour for us. This was really the only way to go, as those without tours were standing in line for tickets for at least 1 - 2 hours. As it was, we skipped the line and headed straight into the Vatican Museums. The museums are really overwhelming, with just an enormous collection of important art. According to our guide, if you spent 60 seconds looking at each piece, you would be in the museum for longer than 12 years! Thankfully our guide could lead us to the highlights without any aimless wandering. One of my favorite pieces in the museum and a statue I have wanted to see for years is the Laocoon.DSC_0720.jpg This is one of the best preserved examples of Greek statuary made in the first century BC. It was buried for centuries before being uncovered in 1506 in Rome and given a place of importance in the Vatican. It is such a beautiful statue, showing so much movement and emotion -- an incredible work of art.

Of course the other major highlights of the Vatican are Raphael's paintings in the apartments and the Sistine Chapel. The most famous of Raphael's painting is the School of Athens, an enormous mural showing all of the major players in ancient Greece, as well as many contemporary Roman artists of Raphael's time. DSC_0741.jpgThe Sistine Chapel is really incredible. It is such a huge project; amazing to think of Michelangelo dedicating so much time to a work he really didn't want to do. When he was selected to paint the Sistine Chapel, he had never really painted before. He was a sculptor. But the pope wanted him to paint, and so he painted. And the result still leaves us all in awe. DSC_0787.jpgDSC_0776.jpgSt. Peter's Basilica is another awe-inspiring site in the Vatican. This is the largest church in the world and it feels like it. It is completely overwhelming to walk into the Basilica and feel the massive size. It is beautifully decorated with numerous artworks. My favorite was Michelangelo's Pieta, an incredibly moving and life-like depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the dead Christ. We didn't get to see the Pope during our visit, but we did see several Swiss Guards, which was a highlight for Steven. DSC_0786.jpgDSC_0788.jpg

Rome is such an incredible place because it really is the center of so much of civilization. It is the center of western civilization as we know it, and the democracy that we know today. It is also the center of christianity and the Church, as well as one of the most important renaissance art cities. It seems like everywhere you turn there is another building or artwork of importance. It really is overwhelming to take it all in. One of my favorite places we visited was the Roman Forum. DSC_0841.jpgDSC_0872.jpgDSC_0879.jpgThis was the heart of ancient Rome and so similar to many modern day cities --the markets, the courts, the temples and houses. A good majority of the Forum has been unearthed, and walking down the wide streets it is easy to picture it as it was back in the day. The Colosseum was also amazing. DSC_0933.jpgDSC_0929.jpgDSC_0905.jpgIt is a little funny that so many tourists flock to a place where the main sport was killing. But it is remarkable how similar the Colosseum is to our modern-day sports stadiums. Down to the aisleways, entrances and exits and seat numbers, it feels just like being in a modern-day football, basketball or baseball stadium. It made me feel that we have so much in common with ancient Rome and Romans.

Posted by jenniesue 03:05 Comments (0)

Italy

Naples, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast

I arrived in Naples on Friday night. It was so good to see Mel waiting at the train station! Naples is a very interesting city -- it feels more like Asia than Europe to me. It is definitely different than northern Europe. The city is more than a little chaotic. The driving alone is an art all to itself! Apparently signs, lanes, stoplights don't really mean anything here. I am certainly glad that Jamy and Mel have mastered the art of Neapolitan driving because I don't think I could do it. And yet, because they don't really have a choice, they seem to have jumped right in and figured it out.

Mel and Jamy have a lovely apartment with a garden on the top of a hill in a suburb outside of Naples. The view is fantastic -- stretching out across the Bay of Naples to the islands of Ischia and Procida. It still seems a little surreal to me that they live here (and I think it still is for them too!). From Mel and Jamy's house, you pass old Greek and Roman ruins, including a Roman aqueduct. Amazing to think how long people have been living in this area.

On Saturday, we headed down the coast. The first stop was Pompeii. It really is a fascinating place. Of course, I had read and studied about it before, especially in art history classes in college. It really does feel like a complete town. The ruins are so beautiful and there is something that feels very sacred about them.DSC_0596.jpgDSC_0597.jpg It is crazy to think that so much of this place has survived intact since 79 A.D., thanks to being buried under layers of volcanic ash. There are even still frescoes and paint on some of the walls. Walking around Pompeii, I could really get a sense of what it must have been like to live in a Roman village back in the day. We spent the rest of the day in Sorrento, a pleasant town on the peninsula below Naples.

We spent Saturday night and Sunday on the Amalfi coast. What a beautiful area! The coastline is so dramatic, cliffs dropping down to the turquoise blue Mediterranean sea, with towns and villages perched along the shoreline. DSC_0632.jpgWe visited the towns of Amalfi, Ravello and Positano. I liked Ravello the best. It seemed to be more laid back and was up on a hilltop overlooking the coast. We wandered and enjoyed a couple of drinks admiring the view. We even had our first celebrity spotting -- Noah Wylie (from ER) was coming out of the church after Easter services.
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We stayed in a B & B along the coast in the small town of Torca. It was such a wonderful place. The host Tina made us feel so at home. Her mother lived there with her and she didn't speak any English, but was still so welcoming and friendly. They went out of their way to make sure we had a wonderful stay -- providing us with books, maps, and lots of good tips for visiting the coast. The breakfast was incredible -- we didn't have to eat lunch either day! Because of the Easter holiday, Tina prepared special Easter cakes and tortes, which were all delicious! We enjoyed a wonderful Easter dinner with some of Mel and Jamy's friends yesterday. It was great fun to sit, eat good food, and chat.DSC_0661.jpg

Posted by jenniesue 05:09 Comments (2)

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