Italy:: Venice

Venice-209

Photo credits: Marylou

::VENICE ~ VENEZIA::

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There are many words to describe Venice, but one of the most common and fitting is the word “magical”. Without a doubt this island is about as tourist-centered and splashy as tourist destinations can be. And sadly, because of the tourism, many of the residents are leaving the island for more affordable and sustainable places to live.

The real charm of Venice lies in its canals. If you were to replace the canals with roads, it would lose 96% of its personality. The fun of getting on a boat instead of a car, and getting into a canal instead of an interstate is what sets Venice apart from other splashy destinations. I’m supposing that when she floods, she probably isn’t as charming and is more along the lines of inconvenient, but we didn’t experience that in our 2 days there.

We arrived on a Sunday afternoon and waited in a very long queue for the overcrowded parking garage located just off the causeway. It was literally let one car out of the garage, and let another in. Parking is rather limited on the island and we found that when we left Tuesday morning, it was a lot less crowded. We had arrangements for meeting our apartment host at 2:00 and when the line for the garage wasn’t moving much, Marylou and I left the others and sprinted to our apartment to finalize details. We discovered instantly that Venice is very, very crowded. It is not a very big island, approximately 4 km east to west and 2.8 km north to south. It averages about 60,000 tourists a day and so there’s not a lot of places for people to spread out.

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The view of our “street”, er, “canal”.

One of our first matters of business was to buy our vaporetto passes which gave us unlimited access on the boats for the duration of our stay. Vaporettos are a bit like water buses and there are a few main lines that each run. We found the stations to be well marked and for the most part,  the routes were easy to understand. We rode around the island for a few hours that evening because boats are fun and also to orient ourselves with the layout of the island. The Grand Canal, which empties out into the sea is quite magical at dusk when all the ristorante lights come on. We also got to see a huge cruise liner leave and after being there a few days, we were happy to see any cruise ship leave 🙂

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There are hundreds of little bridges spanning back alley canals.IMG_2987

One of the most famous bridges in the world is the Rialto Bridge pictured above. We enjoyed walking it and shopping the local market at the one end.

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There are a few iconic places in Venice that are definitely worth visiting. St. Mark’s Basillica is one of the most famous and unless you get there right when it opens, you’ll wait in line awhile. I’d recommend paying 2 euro and wearing a headset with the history and information of everything you are seeing. Rick Steves also has an audio download for many of these sites and we used him as well throughout our trip. The apostle Mark was killed and buried in Alexandria and it is rumored that two Venetian monks smuggled  his remains out of the country under a pile of pork and cabbage leaves. Since Muslims aren’t permitted to eat pork, this was a perfect way to avoid rousing suspicion. Supposedly his body lies underneath the altar of this Basilica. We were not permitted to take pictures inside but it was yet another ornate and elaborate church, and we wondered yet again what Mark would think of his namesake basilica.

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In the same complex is the Doge’s palace which we heard is also worth some time exploring. We were running short on time and kind of tired of spending money so we enjoyed this from the outside. Venice in the 14th century, was the seat of the government before it moved to Rome and the doges lived here in the palace. It has a decidedly Gothic style and the intricate arches and moldings were pretty incredible!IMG_3026

The famous Bridge of Sighs linking the palace to the prison. Supposedly prisoners would take one final look at their beloved Venice through the windows on the bridge and sigh before going into their cells. There was a wedding photo shoot happening while we were there and I thought it added a somewhat romantic layer to this iconic place 🙂

Everything is a bit more expensive in Venice, due to literally everything including supplies being boated in. Mornings on the canals were a bee hive of activity, with loading and unloading supplies and tools, moving things around, picking up and dropping off passengers and everything else that a normal city does, this just being done on water.

And of course, no roads means no fire trucks or police cars but they do have police and fire boats, pictured below. We saw a casket being taken down a canal in a….. hearse boat?! The one day when we were riding the boats just because we could, we got off at our stop with a bunch of school children. There were pockets of normal life that we got to see happen but mostly it was tourists like us who were taking it all in like we were.

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IMG_3060IMG_3068And of course there were the gondolas with the renowned gondoliers in their striped shirts. It costs a pretty penny to ride one of these and for even a bit more, you can hire a singing gondolier 🙂 We thought it was beautiful and could be very romantic but as I mentioned, we were hitting the spending fatigue part and opted to enjoy Venice on the vaporettos and just take pictures of the gondolas.

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We enjoyed one of our most memorable dinners in Venice. Some lovely fellow Americans that we had met in Tuscany recommended this little restaurant in Venice and raved about the Cacio e Pepe so we decided to give it a try. I think our waiter was a bit disgruntled with having to make it five times because we all ordered it 🙂 Cacio e Pepe means cheese and pepper and the process by which it gets to your plate is most intriguing. They cook spaghetti noodles before hand and then bring it out to your table alongside this huge hollowed out cheese wheel. They scoop out the noodles and a bit of the hot water into the cheese (in this case, cheese from pecorino sheep ). They stir the noodles around in the cheese wheel, the hot liquid melting the cheese and then work it together for awhile resulting in basically a very glorified pile of macaroni and cheese. They then use a mortar and pestle to grind peppercorns to sprinkle over the top of the entree.

This was another one of those meals where we all ended up with a huge serving of pasta and not much else, but another (by this time very familiar 🙂 bowl of gelato finished our dinner. We had mucho leftovers so we combined them all and took them home and enjoyed another meal the next day  for lunch. We added a bit of ham and some extra cheese and it was quite nice. We got rather creative with our leftover food and saved lots of money by re-purposing leftover food.

So yes, we discovered Venice to be fun and charming as well as expensive and crowded, all of which we were prepared for. It is definitely has romantic vibes and I think we saw more love-birds here than any other spot. Here’s a PSA for any potential honeymooners in Venice- the streets are very crowded with people and suitcases and bags. It won’t always be conducive for holding hands and so be aware when its suitable (cue gondolier music) and when to momentarily unclasp those loving hands. P.S (it makes it easier for all the other tourists walking beside you)

That’s a rather strange way to end this part so I’ll leave you with one final beautiful picture:

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From here we head north to some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. We trade beautiful old buildings and congested streets for Alpine heights and lonely roads.

Vicki

Italy:: Tuscany

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Photo credit: Marylou

As I was sorting through and selecting my pictures for this part, and as I walked back memory lane (lined with pencil trees), I realized that Tuscany may be my favorite part of the trip. And I’m fully prepared to feel that when I get to Venice as well, oh, and the Dolomites for sure! See, we just really had a wonderful trip and I find myself still thanking God for allowing me to experience all these wonderful places.

So it’s harder to describe Tuscany because Tuscany is a region and not one particular place with a zip code. There are many different aspects to tell about and so many little towns to describe and I’m not sure I can describe such a big, classic area in one little post, but I’ll try.

One of my objectives for our trip in general was to experience and enjoy Italy organically, and not just for the touristy photo-ops and places, beautiful though they were. Tuscany fulfilled that wish. Tuscany is famous for its olive and wine production and for those stunning vistas with pencil trees (forgive me, that’s what we called them 🙂 and stone villas.

But let me back up. We left the Cinque Terre on a fast train and arrived in Florence on Wednesday evening. I regret (just a smidgen) that the only part of Florence that we experienced was the rather sketchy train station, but we were still struggling with PTSD from the crowds of Rome and the option of more crowded museums and places was rather low on our priority list by this point. We hired a rather (read VERY) self assured, dashing young Italian taxi driver to take us to the car rental place outside Florence proper. This was our first experience in a car driven by an Italian and it did not disappoint. We careened rather wildly around corners and between cars and I was pretty much leaning away from the window, willing him not to hit the car inches from me. He parked with everything but  a smirk and we were just thankful to have gotten there alive. We picked up our big, spacious van, which we named Peppy, here and we had it for most of the rest of our trip.

We definitely recommend using the efficient and inexpensive train and metro systems in the bigger cities, and getting from place to place, but then renting a vehicle for easy access to little towns and villages off the beaten path.

We spent the biggest part of our trip in Tuscany (Toscana in Italian). This was day 7 of our trip and some of us were struggling with colds and so a more relaxed itinerary was lovely at this point. We stayed in a little village in the Chianti area called Ponte Agli Stolli. Our farm house had an old Tuscan feel and it was most amazing.

The view out the front of our house, and the view from the back. This was a typical road through a village, with buildings just feet from the side and mirrors mounted off the buildings to show oncoming traffic around corners.

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Photo credit: Marylou

We were rather desperate for fresh fruits and veggies by this point, as the Italian diet consists of many carbs, so we drove to Aldi for groceries and enjoyed many a wonderful, homemade meal in the wonderfully furnished kitchen. Grocery shopping quickly became a highlight and we enjoyed seeing all the local foods and the ridiculously cheap, fresh pasta.

Italy was unified from a number of different states into current Italy as recently as the late 1800s. Prior to that, regions were ruled by kings, and the castle towns exist to this day, giving a peak into town life, surrounded by walls and guarded by castle towers. We day-tripped into many of these towns, which are now popular tourist spots, and saw many beautiful, old buildings.

IMG_2821IMG_2808IMG_2807We loved stumbling upon little villages that weren’t teeming with tourists, and Pienza, (photo above) was another favorite place from our trip. IMG_2792You quickly see differences in architecture design and style. This particular Basilica in Siena had a more elaborate, Byzantine feel, distinctly different from the Roman and Greek styles we saw back in Rome and even the Cinque Terre.

It was in St. Catherine’s Basilica in Siena that we saw her (Catherine’s) very dead but preserved thumb. Apparently, if you can acquire a saint’s body part or parts, you can name the basilica after them. You have to take their word for it, but it is rather startling to see a black thumb in a case 🙂IMG_2788IMG_2783IMG_2896Some of the towns we drove through and enjoyed: Siena, Pienza, Greve and Radda in Chianti, Montepulciono, San Gimignano. I could write more about each place but we didn’t adequately explore nearly all of them and so they remain decorative little memories of a very beautiful region.

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These are the classic views of terraced, Tuscan hillsides and vineyards. It took us a long time to go anywhere because we kept stopping for pictures. My pictures don’t do justice to the beauty, as they were taken with my iPhone, but if you want to see the real deal, go check out Marylou’s website where she is also blogging about our trip.

A few personal Tuscany highlights:

MONTE OLIVETO MAGGIORE MONASTERY in Asciano

Because one of my favorite books remains The Hawk and the Dove Trilogy, (I reviewed it here), it was important to me to see a working monastery. This particular Benedictine monastery (built in the 14th century) is set on the top of a beautiful mountain, with breath taking views all around. We got there at sunset, and in time for Vespers (the evening service) and got to hear their Gregorian chant. I suppose I mentally compared it to the one in the book, and this one was much more elaborate, with art being highly celebrated and displayed here. There was the beautiful quietness and serenity that I expected, and the monks were dressed appropriately in long, white robes, so it all checked out well 🙂 The picture of the medicine above, available for purchase in their gift shop) is in honor of Brother John in the book and his loving, healing hands that loved the aged and infirm right on home to their God.

TRADITIONAL ITALIAN MEAL INVOLVING FLORENTINE STEAK

Marylou was gifted some travel money and she generously offered to put it towards a classic, traditional meal for all of us to enjoy. Italians eat late at night, usually after 8:00 and it can take up to 2 hours to enjoy all the courses. You have to understand that Italians eat in courses, and they never eat their meat and pasta together. Being budget travelers, we usually chose one course as our meal which meant we usually ended up with a pile of pasta and not much else. In retrospect, we should have ordered more courses between us and then shared for a more rounded out meal. However, for this special meal we chose a few antipasti (the appetizer course including things like olives, smoked meats, some vegetables, etc) and a few pasta dishes including one infused with truffle oil. Truffles are expensive fungus that grow underground and are found by trained dogs or pigs. We then ordered the famous Florentine steak, which are from the local and world famous Chianani cows. When we put our order in for the T-bone steak, the waiter repeated it to make sure he understood correctly. The owner then came out to verify and others were looking at us kind of strangely. It was brought out, seared on the outside, but rare in the middle, which is the only way they will cook this steak. We pretty much devoured it down to the bone, much to the waiter’s amusement. Soon, kitchen staff  started peeking their heads around the corner and the owner came back out and made enough of a to-do about it that we finally asked if we were missing something. Turns out, Italian women don’t usually eat steak, and to see a group of 5 women scarf it down in record time was rather note-worthy to them and we won their approval 🙂 The waiter indicated that his wife eats food more along the lines of, and his English wasn’t perfect, so he made delicate, ladylike motions with his pinky finger in the air. 🙂 🙂 Dessert ended up being an assortment of marvels such as creme brulee, chocolate molten cake, tiramisu and panna cotta.

IMG_2948We finally finished our meal around 11:00, and the locals were still going strong, drinking their espressos and everything!

Overall, Tuscany was lovely and just what we needed for the middle part of our trip. It gave us the space and time to go out and explore during the days, and then come back to our house when we needed some down-time and time to just absorb and savor all that we were experiencing. Like I mentioned, renting a vehicle allowed us to do this, and we found the highways and road systems to be well marked and easy to follow. The little towns and villages were the most difficult, with roads that would narrow down to one lane, and no clear visibility around upcoming corners. We definitely worked together to check for traffic, and with Lois’ confident, expert driving and Marylou’s capable navigating, we got around just fine.

I mentioned in my first post about enjoying a culture and place without always comparing it to your home culture or mentally trying to make it conform to your experience, but it was here in Tuscany that I did make some interesting comparisons.

There is virtually no individuality in certain aspects of life in Italy, anywhere. Coming from a culture that values self-expression and celebrates individuality, it was quite interesting to visit one that values history and tradition. You want a Cape Cod style house in Tuscany? Well for starters, you probably shouldn’t even be wanting it, but you for sure won’t get it. What makes all the idyllic scenes possible anywhere you go, is the template of life handed down from generation to generation. There is a continuity that you see regardless of which town you drive through. The houses are the same, the colors are the same, the landscaping is the same, the terrace designs are the same. Traditions are important to the preservation of this ancient culture.

Our Australian tour guide in Pompeii told of a birthday party her friend was hosting, where she decided to stretch her Roman friends’ food borders by serving an entree of chicken and pasta together. The friends arrived, took one look at the entree, asked what the chicken was doing with the pasta, and refused to eat it.

Okay, so my America is all about listening and not just accepting, but celebrating new ideas and ways of doing life, and this new mindset was rather startling 🙂

Italians aren’t as concerned about new ideas or others feelings, which means you could take it personally that they don’t do more to make you feel welcome. We encountered some fairly rude and unhelpful people on our trip, and I think it might be part of their proud, traditional culture. We also enjoyed many warm,  and wonderfully inviting people, and they were usually the ones from whom we rented our houses or did business with  in general.

I guess I found the culture kind of refreshing in certain ways and while I think I’d find it stifling living in a culture that regulates creativity and individuality, I do think there is a certain structure and stability that I could appreciate.

And if you’ve made it this far, bravo! The next stop is magical Venice, which is also my favorite location from the trip 🙂

Ciao!

 

Italy:: The Cinque Terre

While Rome was everything that it should be- cultured, timeless and beautiful, it was also very, very crowded. I think we were all ready to get on the train and head north, to the Cinque Terre, which hugs the Italian Riviera coastline. The Cinque Terre means five towns, and it is just that- five villages that sit precariously on the cliffs along the sea. Before tourists discovered it, they were only accessible by the sea, and survived on fishing and wine-making. Today, they live on tourism, and are easily accessible by train, boat or hiking paths.

We stayed north of the Cinque Terre, in a little village called Levanto. I will never forget train-ing into the area and getting glimpses of sparkling blue waters on one side, and terraced mountains on the other. We chose to stay in Levanto because it is only a 5 minute train ride away, and because accommodations were considerably cheaper there. Our first stop was a stroll to the grocery store that took way longer than it should’ve because of views like this:

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Italian villages are effortlessly charming and Levanto was no exception. I fell in love with the quietness and the authentic culture of this town. While the CT (Cinque Terre) is set up for tourism and is teeming with people enjoying the views, Levanto is quieter and more unassuming. We viewed Levanto as our little refuge, and we’d escape here after the masses of humanity engulfed the CT. This remains one of my favorite locations on our entire trip.

If you intend to spend any length of time in the CT, I would highly recommend getting a Cinque Terre Park Card. This pass gives you unlimited train rides between the villages and Levanto, as well as access to the hiking trails. The train system is mostly easy to understand and we made good use of our passes!

We discovered that while they all have similar characteristics, they all feel distinctly different. Monterosso is resorty and flat with the nicest and biggest beach front. Vernazza has the classic Riviera views and looks like a postcard, Corniglia is quieter and sits on a hill with no harbor front or beach, Manarola is smaller with beautiful views and Riamaggiore is the most workaday and least touristy.

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Monterosso

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Vernazza from sea level (picture from Kelly)72a

Vernazza from mountain level and I-can’t-even level. (also taken by Kelly, as well as the next one)73

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Cannoli at mouth level 🙂 IMG_2590

Unedited, brilliantly blue water. We really tried to get our fill of this beauty, and continually marveled throughout our trip that our beauty capacity never completely filled up. There was always room for one more gasp or delicious sigh.IMG_2602

Riamaggiore. You can see the railroad tunnel through the mountain, IMG_2642

We decided to experience the villages from the sea so splurged on a private boat tour and enjoyed sunset views of the five villages. Our boat driver was a nice, friendly guy from Spain and he took us into delightful little coves, like the one pictured above, and showed us things like sea tomatoes and other interesting things. And then God showed His stuff with a breathtaking sunset, and even boat driver was taking pictures 🙂

78It was in the Cinque Terre that we ran into friends from Thomaston! Seeing familiar faces five thousand miles from home was a special high light of our trip. We knew the group was going to be in Italy the same time as us but we didn’t know if we’d run into them. Most of them, however, had no idea we were around and I think we shocked them really well! And now its fun to say Ciao! and stuff when they come into the deli.

Everybody has been asking what our favorite place in Italy was and it’s really a tough call to make. If I had to say, I’d probably choose the CT because of its beauty and because I love the sea so much in general. It’s a place like none other and I’m secretly hoping to go back someday!

If you are reading this and thinking about visiting the CT, here’s what we recommend:

  1. Get out and about early. Cruise ships often dump hundreds of tourists into these small villages and it completely overwhelms them. Going out early in the mornings or later in the evenings gives you breathing room and the space to adequately take all this beauty in.
  2. Be prepared for climbing. We were a bit surprised by all the steps and inclines but since they are built onto mountainsides, I guess it makes sense. Some of the steps aren’t that great and are really steep so be prepared for that. You’ll get toned legs as a reward 🙂
  3. Stay either in Levanto (to the north) or La Spezia (to the south). Rates are cheaper and it feels good to get away from the crowds at times.
  4. Spend no less than two full days here. We were there from Sunday evening to Wednesday morning and found that amount of time to be good. I’d recommend briefly visiting all five villages and then finding one or two to thoroughly explore.
  5. Be prepared to leave a bit of your heart behind. One of my most treasured memories of our whole trip was sitting on a rock in Monterosso, with the blue waters gently lapping over my feet and just being quiet and enjoying the moment. We saw and experienced a lot in a short amount of time and so those 15 minutes of just being quiet and absorbing it were really special.

And I think that’s it for this little piece of coastal paradise. Next we head inland to Tuscany, in a post coming soon, hopefully.