Tagged: Italy

Venetian dreams

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“There is still one of which you never speak.’

Marco Polo bowed his head.

‘Venice,’ the Khan said.

Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’

The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’

And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Venice is a bizarre place, there’s really nothing quite like it and I would struggle to compare it to anywhere else I have ever been.  The first and fairly immediate dose of weird is having to get on a boat to go anywhere, and it was with abject puzzlement that I got onto a a little ferry, ‘vaporetto’ straight out of the train station.  I mean, I knew that Venice was built on the water, but never having encountered this sort of set up before it felt quite strange.

Since the island of Venice itself is hellishly expensive and requires some serious advanced booking at all times (there is no off season here) we opted to stay on the little resort island of Lido.  This suited us fairly well since it had a beach that stretched the length of the island and the weather was still good enough that this was a soothing place to walk along and nurse our Bellini hangovers.  Lido was actually an excellent little find which I would recommend as a holiday spot in its own right.  During the summer season it attracts 30,000 holiday makers and the entire island is catered to this summer trade with holiday homes and hotels making up the majority of the islands real estate.  As it was, the army of little beach huts had been long locked up by our arrival and the place was looking a little desolate.  The recession also seems to have got its hooks into the industry here, Venice might never be short of a wealthy visitor but Lido was supporting more than one derelict hotel.  Sad times.  I would love to holiday here in the summer though.

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Far from the madding crowd, empty Lido beach in the off season

When we did venture onto the main island we were greeted with a great mish-mash of architectural styles.  Venice is famous for this mix, a place where east meets west.  The influence of the renaissance is here of course, and Santa Maria dei Miracoli was probably my favourite amongst the the many churches I saw.  Just like the duomo in Florence the coloured marble cladding incredibly bright.

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Santa Maria dei Miracoli 1481-89, Pietro Lombardo

I have to say that I found Saint Mark’s Basilica (Venice’s most famous church, next to the Doge’s Palace in Piazza San Marco) to be absolutely hideous.  Again, this is another example of how words and photographs are a poor substitute for reality because I had always assumed that Saint Mark’s was probably rather beautiful.  Perhaps its individual elements are, I guess, but together it’s a bit of a nightmare.  It’s a patchwork vomit of numerous architectural styles which have been piled on over the years in an uncountable number of alterations and additions.  Mark Twain aptly described it as, “a vast warty bug taking a meditative walk”.  Saint Mark’s is like an embodiment of Venice’s achievements in the wider world, an architectural trophy cabinet of precious objects and materials traded, pillaged and plundered from abroad.  The Doge’s Palace which sits right next to the Basilica looks charmingly ordered and beautifully articulate in comparison.  What can be seen in so many Venetian buildings though is evidence of Venetian wealth and prosperity as one or the trading gateways to the east.  You can see the byzantine/ottoman influence at work in both of the buildings below.

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Choas vs. Order, architectural trade off in Piazza San Marco

Wandering away from the crowds down the labyrinthine backstreets away from Piazzo San Marco brings you to an altogether different Venice.  The streets are narrow and buildings are crooked, leaning drunkenly into each other or over the narrow waterways.  In these crumbling backstreets it is easy to imagine the Venice of different era, a medieval town wracked by plague*, the prosperous merchant town of Marco Polo, the playground of Casanova.

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Centuries unchanged, history is found in every crevice in Venice (note the beautiful colours, Venice might be sinking but it’s colour palate is very much alive).

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The Bridge of Sighs, which links the Doge’s Palace with the prison in which Casanova was incarcerated.

Our trip ended rather unfortunately with a bout of mutual food poisoning (can’t win em all, and ironically this wasn’t the fault of the famous Venetian seafood), but Venice will stay in our hearts I’m sure.  If you haven’t been then I’d definitely bump it up the list, but personally I think it will a quite while before Venice succumbs to an inevitable watery grave.

*A quick endnote on the plague in Venice.  If you have a morbid imagination like me then you would probably be interested in this article about Poveglia, an abandoned and supposedly haunted island near Venice.  Poveglia was used to quarantine incoming merchants as well as plague victims, and later housed a mental hospital in the twentieth century.  Rumour has it that you won’t find a boat that will take you out there as the island is considered unsafe for visitors.

Florence, Finally, part III

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A view to the Renaissance: Florence as seen from Palazzo Michelangelo at sunset

So after not having the best start to my week in Florence I did eventually get to see the mind blowing art and architecture that I was there for.  My one real regret for the week was that I hadn’t had the money to be able to visit this city sooner when I was a History of Art and Architecture student; I definitely would have had a renewed vigour for my studies!  I was astounded by just how many buildings that I had studied that were gathered together in such a small space, from the Uffizi to Palazzo Vecchio, the Medici Riccadi, Palazzo Pitti, Santa Croce and countless others.  I was in architectural bliss.

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Duomo dreaming, first sight of the cathedral

For me the absolute stand out architectural piece was the obvious one; the duomo.  When I first saw this building, making slow progress towards it down a narrow Florentine street, I was totally unprepared by what I was about to encounter.  I spent an entire year studying Renaissance (re:90%Florentine) architecture, but obviously no amount of reading, lectures or tutorials managed to convey the majesty of this building.  I just could.not.believe.it.  The marble cladding is just so bright and beautiful, it’s incredible.  I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong reaction to a building, or at least not in my recent travels.  I reckon it’s probably a contender for the most beautiful building I have ever seen.

In my head I was comparing it to Notre Dame in Paris because Notre Dame (1160-1345 w/later alterations) is also a city centre cathedral, but of a very different type.  Every time I see Notre Dame I think about how it must have looked to medieval peasants when it was first constructed.  It is a magnificent building now, but a person alive back then it must have looked like something that came from heaven; truly a house of God.  I think if I had been alive back then I would have gone to church just to bask in the architectural glory alone, and in Florence this idea is still very tempting in 2013.

Florence’s Cathedral, colloquially ‘the duomo’ and formerly referred to as ‘Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore’ was begun in 1296 and completed in 1346, although the green, white and pink marble facade that amazed me was a later 19th century addition.  Notre Dame always seems so dark and spindle-y to me, like a great black spider on the banks of the Seine while the duomo in contrast seemed incredibly bright.  The austere interior was a pleasant relief to the ‘busy’ facade and it was nice to be able to concentrate on the solid lines of the construction.  Absolutely astounding.  I’m a little bit sad that I never picked up this kind of enthusiasm for the building while I was actually studying it, I guess seeing something in real life is worth more than a thousand words, or even a picture.  Better late than never I suppose.  And here are some (totally inadequate) pictures:

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Appetite for beautiful architecture sated but not quite satisfied, my next stop was Venice which I’ll be writing about in my next travel post 🙂

Accommodation follies and some fine architecture: Florence part II

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15th century Villa Camerata in Fiesole: an unlikely hostel

I sure was in a sticky situation when I woke up on my first morning in Florence.  Events from the night before having impeded me from booking a hostel for the next night, and my morning scouring of the internet having been unsuccessful, I hauled my tired and panic-y self and implausibly heavy little suitcase off to the tourist information office.

Florence was not forgiving on that first morning.  I hadn’t been prepared for the narrow streets, and it was with some dismay that I noted the sheer amount other people dragging around suitcases on that Saturday morning.  It seemed as if hostelworld.com hadn’t been lying to me after all, and the city really was full to capacity.  Not wanting to stay too far out of the city, or in another criminally bad hostel I was even psyching myself up that this may in fact be the time for a hotel room.  Ouch!

On arriving at the tourist information office the man behind the reservation desk eyed my luggage sadly, apologised, and confirmed that the city was indeed booked out due to an international conference.  When I asked about hotels he regrettably informed me that the cheapest he had was €130 a night, and that, even in his personal opinion, was too much.  For me it wasn’t just too much but just totally out of the question.  I was swimming in panic and cold sweat at this point as I crossed the road to the train station to think.  It was at this time that I started musing on how nice it be to not have to solve this problem ALONE.  Travelling alone might have a plethora benefits, but two heads are always better than one in a crisis.

I considered getting a train to another town close by (Pisa is not too far) but realised of course I would be in the same situation there – nothing booked.  Or, I could give in to my fears and book one of those forgotten-or-undesireable-even-on-the-busiest-weekend-EVER hostels I had been avoiding.  I ducked into a cafe with wifi (luggage in tow) and made my peace with this decision.  The clock was ticking and it was mid afternoon by this point, the ONLY priority for the day was to have somewhere to sleep.  It was with tearful reluctance that I got a taxi to hostel 5km out of town.

I was dismayed beyond belief when the taxi turned off onto a endless potholed drive that led up to the hostel, past campsite and vineyards.  I felt liked I had been deposited in the middle of nowhere, and all my defences had well and truly been worn down to the point where I couldn’t even appreciate the beautiful entrance hall (shown above).  I feel quite sheepish admitting to this now, especially considering my warm and tender feelings towards this place by the end, but after I’d checked in and gone to my room I cried for the first and only time during my independent travels.  Aw.  I briefly convinced myself that I would leave Florence on the first train I could get the next day, and draw a line under the whole nightmare.  But luckily, food, a shower, a nap, some new friends and quite a lot of wine are great revivers of weary travellers spirit and in just a few short hours I decided that I would stick around after all and absorb all Florence had to offer.

After initial scepticism about its distance from the city centre I fell completely in love with Villa Camerata and ended up staying almost a week before finally switching another hostel in the centre so I could enjoy some city nightlife.  For a girl who likes her architecture this was an absolute delight to come home to every night:

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I couldn’t help myself from doing some research on the building (it’s prime dissertation material, if you want my opinion – I’ll be waiting – History of Architecture students) , but I wasn’t able to turn up that much.  Apparently the villa was a meeting place for the Accademia degli Svogliati, a 17th century association of writers in Florence.  I couldn’t have thought of a better base for my stay in the city.  Aside from the stunning marble in the entrance hall, the peaceful veranda with occasional sketching artist, the nearby vineyards, the manicured gardens, what I will remember most about this hostel will probably be the people.  I met some wonderful people here, and I really was very sad leave in the end.  I think this is a tribute to an unconventional choice gone right (as opposed to wrong, which has also happened a multitude of times).  Villa Camerata would not have been my first choice, but it will be next time.

Would you like to stay at Villa Camerata?  Summer months are highly recommended so you can drink wine and draw on the veranda.  Bring insect repellent.  I can assure you 100% that I am not being paid for such shameless advertising (more’s the pity) but you can book here.

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Lots of life but not much art: Florence part I

I had been in Florence two days before I was able to bask in front of the glory of the Duomo, and almost a week before I set foot in the Uffizi.  I was a History of Art and Architecture graduate on virgin territory, and I was on a mission, so what went wrong?

A whole lot of LIFE as it turns out, a.k.a that scythe that cuts through everything when you’re making other plans.  When the story left off I was in Verona where I had opted to stay for only one night as it was fairly small, and I had struggled to find cheap accommodation.  This problem had persisted when I had attempted to book a hostel for Florence, irritated and pressed for time I booked a less than salubrious looking hostel in the city centre for just one night (as it was fully booked after this . . . as was everywhere else), under the assumption I would have time in the evening to book something for the following nights.  I wasn’t sure at this point if Florence was just fully booked for the weekend or if Italy in general wasn’t particularly forthcoming with cheap accommodation.

Determined to do a quick loop of Verona during the day time, I forget my hostel woes, dropped my case at the station and headed off for a whistle-stop tour before my afternoon train.  Sightseeing was successfully accomplished, minus one battery dead camera and some mosquito bites, I headed back to the train station.  So far so good.  But then: my train got delayed.  Then it got delayed a bit more.  Along with every southbound train out of Verona (including, I was amused to note, the Orient Express) my train was delayed for a full 3 hours – longer than the actual journey was supposed to take.  So a 3 hour delay plus a few hours on the train meant I arrived in Florence after dark.

From experience I know that major train stations tend to be in unsavoury areas, and I have heard many a hostel tale about bags being stolen at stations – so I was less than happy.  As a girl travelling alone I try my best to avoid arriving in unfamiliar places after dark.  But there I was in Florence long after nightfall, at a train station that did not appear to be the central station (in fact it was the secondary out of town one, which was a pity, because my hostel was within easy walking distance of the other one – possibly its only good feature).  I was panicking a bit at this point as it was after 9 with no apparent taxis or buses, and my hostel had strict check in hours up until 10pm.  When I had called ahead from my delayed train to let them know I would be late, they said it was no problem, up until 10pm . . .

But then I did get a taxi, and arrived tired and slightly unnerved just before 10pm.  What I then encountered might be described as The Worst Hostel I Have Ever Stayed In and perhaps The Worst Hostel In Florence.  I’ve stayed in lots of hostels, so I don’t use this description lightly.  This place was the pits.  The furniture was flea market, but not in a good way – and so was the mish-mash of old blankets and bedding.  My ageing iron bed was made up with an old, badly stained throw of indeterminate colour which may or may not have been better than the old sleeping bags on the other beds.  The dorm I was in was a through room to bathroom as well as the 4 bed room next door which didn’t seem overwhelmingly reassuring to me either security or sleep wise.  The guy running the place gave a perfunctory tour but didn’t offer any maps or information on the city or hostel, but I wasn’t terribly bothered by this at the time as I just wanted to decompress and book a room somewhere else for the next night.

10pm comes and goes.  ‘Reception’ is locked up and the staff leave.  I have no idea if this is common or not, but I haven’t encountered this before.  The doorbell begins to ring.  Then the phone in the (locked) office begins to ring.  Then the doorbell again, then the phone.  Lots uncomfortable looks exchanged between hostel strangers.  Finally, standing awkwardly in front of the hostel intercom emblazoned with the note ‘Do NOT respond to the doorbell, guests will be let in by a member of staff’ I make the call to answer the intercom and let what it presumably a very upset new guest into the building.  It’s maybe 11pm by this point and I’m feeling pretty strung out myself, but also full of empathy because I know very well that it could have been me ringing doorbells and phones to no response if the hand of fate had delayed me just a little more.  The thought of this REALLY freaks me out by the way, I have no idea what I would do in an alien, booked up city late on a Friday night if my accommodation had disappeared/closed entry etc.  I hope I am never in this situation.

Anyway.  I checked the new guest in after guiltily asking to see his reservation and apologetically showed him around the hostel.  By this point it was looking less like an actual hostel and a lot more like a load of second hand beds crammed into an old apartment.  This place was astonishingly unprofessional.  As all of the keys were locked up in the office and the new guy urgently needed to go and meet a friend I handed over my keys and he promised to leave them in a plant pot in the morning for me to pick up.

Excitement momentarily over I sat down with my laptop to finally start scouting out some hopefully better accommodation for the next night.

I was seriously tired by this point.

Then.  The doorbell began to ring again.  Then the phone, then the doorbell.  So we let this person into the building as well – and yes, it’s another new guest.  Incidentally both of these guys had emailed the hostel in advance to let them know that they would be arriving late, but I guess these messages had BOTH been ignored.  This is uncaring and unprofessional almost beyond belief.  Most hostels will still charge for the first night regardless of whether a guest turns up or not, but the money is the least important part of this.  Ignoring emails and refusing to cater for the arrival time of your guests, especially when they warn you in advance is a bad and irresponsible way to run a business.  Irresponsible behaviour like this could put young travellers after dark, on a budget, on unfamiliar ground, laden with luggage etc. in a very dangerous situation.

Anyway.

I was really, seriously, reaching-the-edge-of-my-limit-tired.  But the night wasn’t over yet.

I was still trying to book a hostel.  But everywhere that wasn’t an inconvenient amount of km out of the city, or reviewed as a flea infested basement with triple bunks, was fully booked up.  Even some of the poorly rated hostels like the one I was currently in were completely full for the weekend.

Around this time a guy who I was sharing a room with started talking to me.  I decided to give up on the hostel booking until the morning when I could approach it with a clear head.  It turned out that my talkative roommate was a sculptor who was aiming to hit up Florence’s finest art, architecture and sculpture.  Now, I’ve worked alongside sculptors in the past – and my roomie also showed me photographs of some gilding work he had done (I have also some experience of this which I blogged about) and I can happily talk about art and architecture for hours.  The conversation was flowing despite a few creepy vibes from the guy, but I was unbelievably tired.  The time was pushing 1.30am and I really needed to sleep so I made my apologies and said I must go to bed.

I wash, change, put on a jumper as the room is so cold,and turn out the light.  The two girls also sharing our room have gone out to a bar.  Despite being so exhausted from the trials of the day my mind needs a little longer to shut down, and also the cold is kind of distracting – not to mention the enduring mosquitos.  I toss and turn a little bit.

* THREE GUESSES WHAT HAPPENED NEXT *

‘Angela, are you awake?’

Mistake caused by the mind fog of tiredness here I actually answered.

‘Angela, I have a question for you,

I would very much like

. . . . to kiss you?’

So!  Yeah.  A guy who I had only just met hit on me WHEN I WAS IN BED.

A rejection and an awkward conversation followed, coupled with some total disbelief on what had just happened.  And I have to say I only managed to fall into a deep, but not particularly restful sleep after the two girls returned from the bar.

The escapades continued the next day, but I’ll pick up on that in my next post.  Safe travels!

In fair Verona where we lay our scene

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Stellar photo from me on this occasion (apologies!) Piazza Bra in Verona and the Roman arena

After a long trip down from Salzburg through the breathtaking Brenner Pass I arrived in Verona tired, grumpy, and all for catching an early night in my guesthouse (last minute hostels in Verona not forthcoming, it seems) but instead I decided to head out into the night – and I’m glad I did.

Resisting the temptation to enjoy having a room to myself for the night, not to mention the desire to completely empty and repack my case without worrying about annoying dorm mates – I stumbled out into the drizzle to discover Verona by night.  This was my very first visit to Italy so I had two clear agendas for the evening.  1. Pizza  2. Gelato, both of which I highly expected to be THE BEST PIZZA AND ICE CREAM OF MY LIFE (I wasn’t disappointed).  Verona was noticeably warmer than the previous places I had visited so I was already in a good mood, despite the persistent rain, as it felt like I had happily stumbled back into late summer temperatures . . . by British standards.

Slowly threading my way through increasingly busy streets I finally came to a large square lined with bustling restaurants and cafes, customers calmly sipping wine at a mass of outdoor tables under awnings.  In the centre of the square rose Verona’s magnificent arena.  This is a spectacular structure to behold at any time.  It dates from around 30 AD and is the crown jewel of the towns multitude of Roman ruins.  I have never been to Rome so this was my first encounter with an arena of this kind, and it was not merely the structure on this evening but roars of massive crowd from within which gave me goosebumps.  It turns out this almost 2000 year old structure is still used as a venue for music concerts and is still capable of housing 15,000 people.

The atmosphere in the square that evening was electric as crowds queued up outside for a rock concert.  For me, as a hapless tourist who had wondered in on this by accident, each roar from the crowd or sound system was a thrill.  I think I definitely began to get a better understanding of what these arenas must have been like in their Roman heyday, the buzz and palpable excitement around them, and the focal point they provided for a town.

The next day I paid €6 to gain entry to the arena and I felt like I was walking into a natural structure.  The walls were so solid and immovable that it was difficult to remember that this was something that had been built, rather than something which had been carved out of solid rock.  I was left with a sense of awe that the Romans had been able to construct something as mammoth and everlasting as this, and I was in even greater awe that it could still be used more or less for its original purpose almost 2000 years later.  Incredible.

Snapshots of the Eternal City

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I’m a long-term fan of Woody Allen and as I missed To Rome With Love at the cinema I’ve been waiting for it to appear on iTunes for an absolute age.  I suspect that Woody Allen must be quite enjoying his latter years filmmaking his way around Europe, spending just enough time in each city to identify the poetry, the romance and the life.  Out of the European films; Vicky, Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris and To Rome With Love I think that unfortunately I’m going to say that the latter is my least favourite.  However, that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, I just thought it was a little inconsistent.

To Rome With Love pursues four different stories, and different versions of Rome.  There is the architect who lived there as a student and encounters his younger self in a backstreet, there is the newly married Italian couple who arrive in Rome wide eyed from the country and an Italian business man who one day finds himself to be inexplicably very famous.  Finally, Woody Allen makes an appearance as the retired music producer father of an American girl who has become engaged to an Italian (the father of whom happens to be something of a Virtuoso opera singer – but only in the shower).

I love how the definitive Woody Allen couple appears in every film, just under different names.  Here it is Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and Monica (Ellen Paige) who feel a lot like a rehashed version of Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Manhattan, not that I’m complaining.  You’ll find the same intellectual jibes about Freud and some jokes about The Fountainhead, and it’s still a formula that has me giggling the whole way through.  Monica is pretentious and unbearable the same way that Keaton was in Manhattan, and Jack is besotted anyway, just like Allen.  Needless to say the outcome of the relationship is predictable.  I think this ‘snapshot’ of Rome was probably my favourite of the four.

My least favourite was the sketch about middle class average Joe, Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) who is shocked to discover that he is famous one day.  It is an amusing farce, especially when poor Leopoldo starts to lose his mind when fame vanishes and his adoring public no longer remembers him.  However, it just felt a little bit tired and not that original.

To Rome With Love was good but not fantastic, but I’ll still be eagerly anticipating Woody Allen’s next film.  I think it would be interesting to see London, but unfortunately I think the grey skies and English stiff upper lip probably aren’t conducive to whirlwind summer romance in the same way that Paris, Rome and Barcelona are.  Allen is a master at painting a portrait of a city and it’s inhabitants, but as always nothing can ever comes close to the majesty of Manhattan.  Perhaps it takes more than a few months on location to get to the heart of a city, perhaps you have to live and dream there for years to really understand it, not just the summer.

Trivia Tidbit: To Rome With Love was originally titled The Bop Decameron, before being changed to Nero Fiddled. Woody Allen changed it when he realized that few people understood the title’s loose reference to The Decameron, a medieval collection of novellas.