A Magical Day in Venezia

There are so many sights to see and streets to explore in Venezia. Even if we came here every summer for the next ten years we could not possibly explore them all. Every time we walk from our hotel to Rialto we discover a new canal, a shrine, a campo, or a new garden we had not seen before. The locals say you can never really get lost in Venezia. It’s an island.

This morning we took the vaporetto one stop across the canal from our hotel to visit Basilica de Frari. Dating back to the 1400s it contains extraordinary art work by Titian and Bellini. When we arrived sadly they were having a funeral service so we were unable to get close to the altar, but it also made us feel as if we were in a living church. We have been in this church four times now, but we never get tired of it.

The weather today was hot and humid. Tourists looked weary and sought shelter in the shade. We visited the Peggy Guggenheim Museum housed in the palace where she lived with her beloved pets in Venice. She had a collection of Picasso, Dali, and Chagall as well as paintings by Jackson Pollock. The coolness of this museum was a nice respite from the heat of the streets.

Back in San Marco we visited a glass shop we had been in last year that featured jewelry and glass animals. “We are the second oldest glass store in San Marco,” the owner proudly told us. Outside the store is a stop for gondolas. We saw a large group of Asian school girls all in uniform excitedly boarding the boats and snapping photos.

We ended our afternoon at San Marco at a traditional cafe that spills out onto the piazza with an orchestra we had visited last year. Many of these cafes can fleece the tourists, but this one is recommended by Rick Steves as being very fair. From our vantage point the people watching was fun. Tour groups dutifully followed their leader who strutted by holding an umbrella while families stopped for fun selfies in front of San Marco. We noticed some representatives from Respect Venezia shoo people away from sitting on the edge of the arcades of San Marco which is now a violation. We learned the 100th violation since May was given out yesterday to a tourist in a bikini sunbathing at a museum garden.

Dinner tonight was a at A Beccafico which was recommended by our hotel. Located only four minutes from our hotel in Campo Santo Stefano, it was the perfect place to have a meal. Campo Stefano is a large campo with five cafes, a church, a museum, and several shops. We decided to eat at 8:30 which is more typical for the locals and the whole experience felt very authentic. Several college aged boys played one on their guitars, vendors shot neon lit frisbees high into the sky, and children played in the square. We ordered Spaghetti with chopped tomatoes and spaghetti with clams but the restaurant give us some extras too. They served us freshly made bruschetta and at the end of our meal they gave us a tiny glass bottle of limoncello. It was the most delicious meal we have had since we arrived in Venice.

We walked around the campo after dinner and from our hotel could see the lights of Rialto. Tomorrow we fly to Dublin and then onto Boston. The sun has set on our holidays. Thank you for coming on our journey with us,

A Warm Summer Day in Venezia

It’s summer in Venezia and by 9:00 am, the tourists are already out exploring the city. We feel very fortunate to stay where we are staying: NH Venezia Palazzo Barocci. It’s a former Venetian palace that once hosted Vivaldi’s operas.

Following our GPS, we walked to San Marco. Inside the Basilica they turn on the lights for one hour a day so that you can see the golden mosaics in all their glory. This year they charged to see the altarpiece covered with gold and jewels, but it was nice because we could look closely at it rather than being herded past it with the crowds.

To get to the outside balcony, you must climb the steepest stone steps, but at the top, the view makes it all worthwhile. I sat in the shade and admired the view. Many of the Venetian homes have roof top gardens. I like to contemplate what it would be like to live here. In the museum at the top of the Basilica we saw the horses that Napoleon stole. They once sat on top the Arc d’ Triomphe in Paris. The horses were returned in 1815 and sit inside the museum to protect them from the elements.

After visiting the Swatch store, we decided to follow the advice of a young man in Swatch and check out a cafe in a quiet area. We didn’t actually find the one he suggested, but loved the one we found: Ristorante Da Mario Alla Fava. We had pasta with fresh cut cherry tomatoes, and cold pasta tossed with pine nuts, tomatoes, and arugula.

Scuola Dalmatia Delhi Santi Giorgio e Triffon was a 500 year old building where an old fraternity used to meet. It features paintings by Carpaccio telling about the life of St. . George. It was very dark and as the Irish would say “close” ( hot and humid) in there. Walking through it you knew you were in the presence of a very old place with old woodwork, stone steps, velvet flocked wallpaper, and heavy red curtains. The woman who sold tickets huddled near a small fan.

For a special treat we decided to go to the roof top terrace of Hotel Danieli. It is right off San Marco and overlooks the lagoon. The hotel is very old world and elegant. To stay there costs over $1000 per night. The concierge was dressed in a crisp tailored suit, but when we asked if we could go the rooftop bar, they could not have been more welcoming. Napkins were brought to us on tongs and the peach Bellinis were made from freshly sliced peaches. Since it was so hot we ordered a fruit plate of fresh pineapple, peaches, kiwi, passion fruit, and melon. The whole experience was a splurge, but the sweeping view of the lagoon made it all worthwhile. Car ferries crossed paths with old wooden but beautifully polished water taxis, vaporettos, and even gondolas.

Venice is overrun with tourists and some of the locals are feeling that some tourists are disrespectful. Because of this, there are new rules and when enforced, carry stiff fines. Some rather logical ones are no picnicking in the middle of Piazza San Marco and no jumping in canals while others have surprised tourists. Today we saw some people shooed away from sitting around a historic fountain, and dragging suitcases on wheels through historic piazzas is not allowed, Last week two people were arrested on the steps of Rialto for making coffee with a camp stove which I think sounds crazy someone would think to do that there.

Dinner tonight was in Campo San Polo at Birraria La Corte. It’s a pretty campo where children play soccer after dark and people sit on park benches just enjoying the ambience. At the restaurant we sat outside where we could people watch. One American college student called out to the waiter as she sat down, “Bring me a big bottle of water!” We took a vaporetto back to our hotel to see Venice from the water. It was the perfect ending to a really special day.

Venezia!

Last night there were several thunder showers in Aosta. Although we did not see any lightening, the boom of the thunder echoed off the mountain peaks. But by this morning the rain had stopped and we were able to dine outside for breakfast.

Our drive through the mountains from Aosta to Turin was breathtaking. Tall rocky peaks towered above us and the landscape was dotted with small hill top castles. We took a train from Turin to Venezia which was a modern train.

Entering the causeway to Venezia is magical. The train slowly winds over the causeway and the skyline of Venezia appears. I will never tire of this moment. You are truly entering a different world.

To get to our hotel NH Collection we took a vaporetto from the train station which wound its way down the Grand Canal from one stop to the next Dodging wooden water taxis and long sleek black gondolas until arriving at our hotel which is just beyond Rialto. We stayed at this hotel last year and liked it very much because it is right on the canal, yet not in the hustle and bustle of all the tourists.

Using the GPS on our phone we walked to an outside restaurant near Rialto. We used to see people with little maps of Venice but now you can see everyone walking around the maze of streets guided by their phones. It’s been a long day so we decided to head back to the hotel early. We look forward to exploring some new areas to us in Venice tomorrow.

Roaming Through Roman Aosta

Aosta is such a pretty town nestled into the valley surrounded by mountains, some with towering rocky peaks. It’s a town where tourists come to visit, but more importantly it seems like an authentic town where people live and go about their ordinary life. Laundry flaps in the breeze on clotheslines or from balconies and lazy cats bask in the sun. But there’s something else interesting about Aosta. It has a Roman past and Roman ruins can be seen throughout the town.

This morning we explored the historic part of the town through the pedestrian zone where surprisingly almost all of the shops were open. At the entrance to the town is a huge Roman arch. It is in perfect condition. Suspended from it is a crucifix which was placed there to stop some of the leaks from the top of the arch. It was an interesting contrast to a Roman arch. Nearby was an old Roman bridge. A sign explained that a devastating flood hundreds of years ago changed the direction of the river it once crossed. However, standing on the bridge, it was perfectly aligned with the Roman arch which was several blocks away.

On our tour we walked past various Roman ruins and the town did an excellent job preserving and landscaping them. The Roman amphitheater was baking in the hot sun so we tried to sneak a peak for free at it from around the block, but it didn’t work.

We visited two cathedrals today and what was most interesting about them was they each had beautiful Roman mosaics on the floor, all in mint condition. One showed an elephant which isn’t indigenous to here, but shows the vast expanse of the Roman Empire.

Usually we avoid cafes with signs that say “We speak English” and particularly those that post a picture board of all the food, but there is one in the town square that has seemed very popular and we weren’t sorry. They made us a fresh focaccia ham and cheese sandwich and it was only $5.

The shops here all seem independently owned and many sell locally made crafts rather than made overseas. We know this when the artist’s card is included. We found one that made exquisite music boxes. We sat near the shop the other night and heard them play the same song again and again. I knew I knew the song and even played it in flute orchestra, but could not place it. Yesterday it came to me: Pachelbel’s Canon. They do of course have shops selling kitschy items such as a Roman arch inside of a snow globe on top of a Vespa, but its fun to look at anyway. My favorite shop has all beautifully illustrated journals and books, most on a nature or dog theme. We have been in there twice and they have even given us adorable illustrated dog calendars as gifts.

We took a short 20 minute drive to see a Roman Aqueduct that is off the beaten tourist trail, but was remarkable. Pont d’Ael was built in 3 BCE by the Romans to bring in water from the mountains for agriculture. It crossed a deep gorge with crystal clear water roaring down from the mountains. Standing on top of the aqueduct which was once used as a road to cross with animals, we could see waterfalls tumbling down steep rocky cliffs. Hardly anyone was there and the government had built a glass walkway which was beautifully lit so you could walk through the aqueduct. We liked the experience of walking through it and over the top so much we did it twice. A man working at the site gave us an informative history lesson about the aqueduct.

Dinner tonight was at a pretty restaurant that served pizza and caprice salad. They had an outdoor garden where everyone sat with tiny lights on each table once it turned dark. What was even more charming was that dogs were allowed and slept happily under the tables. We’ll miss being in this alpine wonderland. Tomorrow we travel by train to Venezia.

Day Trip to the Top of Europe

Leaving Mont Blanc

The snowy peak of Mont Blanc rises high above the valley floor
beaconing us to visit
To stay or to go?
Italy awaits
Slowly our bus pulls away
The timeless mountain will wait for our return

This is a poem I wrote back in 2009 on my former explorerbear blog. We had come to Chamonix, France with high hopes of visiting the area via a series of cable cars, but the mountain was clouded over for three days.

On the morning of our departure it was a sunny day. We were taking a bus to the Cinque Terre in Italy and actually considered postponing that part of our holiday for a day to visit Mont Blanc, but instead we headed to Italy as planned. Ten years later we are back and today we finally got to make that journey to the top, this time from the Italian side.

Only 30 minutes from our accommodation is Skyway Monte Bianco. Newly opened, it has two mountain stations with cable cars that rotate 360 degrees as they ascend to give everyone a great view. The philosophy of the company is to draw man closer to the mountains and the sky, broadening horizons and overcoming boundaries. We could not have asked for a better day. It was warm with barely a cloud in the bright blue sky.

There was an air of excitement as everyone boarded the gondola with cries of whoa everytime we went over a pylon. Our first stop was called Pavillion. It had an indoor restaurant and boutique, wine cave, and an outdoor botanical garden with all sorts of wildflowers that grow at high altitude in bright purples and yellows. A sign explained how wildflowers are like eyes. A patch of them may look similar but look closer and you will see subtle differences. I loved it. They even had a miniature lake with a boat where kids could use a pulley to pull themselves across.

Feeling ready for our next stop, Punta Helbroner, we got in line for our next 360 degree gondola to take us up high in the mountains when something was not quite right. The door would not shut properly. No one dared get out of line and we waited and waited. Finally after one hour, an announcement was made in Italian to groans from the crowd and cards with numbers were passed out. We had no idea what the card was for. In English it said to enjoy Helbroner for two hours and then head back down to manage your time, yet the gondola to take us there needed repairs. Some people left and the crowd surged forward. Somehow we managed to make it in front ready for the next gondola. Grandpas and Grandmas got separated and after a lot of yelling, the gondola arrived repaired.

Helbroner is over 11,000 feet in altitude. The altitude can make you dizzy. People looked surprised. For a moment I worried I might black out so we decided to have lunch and that helped. For many, Helbroner is the final destination. It has an amazing view of Mont Blanc, the neighboring peaks, and the valley below, but for us there was one final adventure. Aiguille du Midi Mont Blanc is a trip where cable cars for four people travel for 40 minutes from Italy to the Chamonix mountain station in France. They travel in pairs of three and it’s quite unique because they start and stop leaving you dangling high above the icy world, but that was known to us so we weren’t worried.

On our trip to the French side, we traveled with a mother and daughter from the state of Washington. We passed high above hiking couples in the snow who needed to mind their step around icy crevices. We even spotted tents at the base camps. I learned my niece Jessica’s children were hiking Mont Blanc at that moment. How wonderful it is my sister could be in New York and send photos of the two hikers to me. As I scanned the icy peaks, I wondered if some distant hikers could be them. They are very brave. Mont Blanc is covered in ice and snow and is very steep.

The mountain station on the French side was very busy and freezing cold so David and I got back on the gondolas foe a 40 minutes journey back. It was wonderful. We had our own cable car and each rocky peak we passed seemed bolder, steeper and icier than the previous one. Some had hikers on top, and some stood alone.

Tonight we had dinner at an osteria that served local specialties. The menu was small and included fried frogs, steamed roe, and calf’s tongue. I ordered polenta with mushrooms, The osteria was very pretty inside with wooden beams and alpine cow and chicken decorations. The town was a beehive of activity, but we decided the best way to end the day would be to just sit out on our balcony, look up to the lights on the mountains, and reflect on our memorable day.

Tall Mountain Peaks and Castles

It was very hard leaving Torino this morning. It is such a magnificent city in terms of architecture. In my opinion it has some of the grandeur of Rome and Venice but seems more like an authentic city where people live.

We rented a car to drive to Aosta in the mountains. Usually we rent through local car rental places such as Enterprise or Sixt. We have been scammed big time from renting from Auto Europe and particularly Hertz, but none of our go to places were in Torino for a price we could afford so we rented from Avis. It was quite a funny experience. Usually we get a lot of instructions on how to use the car and here the guy just drove up our Mini Cooper and wished us a happy day. We ended up contacting them several times: where was the AC, how do you put it into drive, and where was the key to lock it later.

The weather today was perfect and we had a beautiful view of the mountains as we drove north. Some were bare rocky summits reaching for the sky while others were covered with forest with little villages dotted high above. In the distance, snow covered mountain peaks glistened in the sunlight.

We stopped at a castle on the way called Fenis Castle. It’s a large fortified castle built of stone back in the 12th century. Our tour was in Italian, but it did not matter. Each room had a board with information in English. There were frescoes on many of the walls in astounding condition considering their age and old original wood work. We stopped in a local grocery store and although we did not speak Italian and the girl did not speak English, she made us a fresh ham and cheese sandwich.

We are staying in a rustic Alpine hotel in the mountains in Aosta. Our room has vaulted ceilings and Alpine decorations, but outside is an ultra modern spa with 3 or 4 pools.

We decided to walk into town which was a pleasant walk down hill through a series of twists and turns with stunning views of the mountains. Arriving at the restaurant was a surprise. It was located on a very pretty pedestrian only street with small cafes and pretty shops. Ristorante Osteria da Nando is a family run restaurant with delicious food. We dined outside and had a traditional meal of crepes filled with cheese and ham, pork chops with mustard, and a coffee chocolate cream dessert.

Throughout the meal people watching was perfect. There were weary hikers, families with babies, and a lot of dogs. One family even had a dog in their stroller and no baby at all, Next door to the restaurant was a pretty shop. From our table all I could see were owl tote bags and a trolley of handmade soaps which many people stopped to sniff. The shop played the same song over and over again and again throughout the meal. I decided to check it out and it was coming from exquisitely handmade music boxes.

We took a short walk down the street and came to a huge Roman arch. I thought it was fake and part of a special exhibit but David said it dated back to Roman times and the town has many Roman ruins,

Back at the hotel we sat outside to enjoy the view. I love to look up into the mountains at night and wonder who lives in those distant rural places by themselves. Sometimes I can see a single headlight moving on a distant road to an unknown destination. I thought that Turin was wonderful but sometimes after spending time in the city, a room with a view of the countryside is just what you need.

The Mystery of Religion and History of Film

I have always known about the Shroud of Turin, but didn’t realize it was here in Torino (Turin) myself until my friend Alice asked if we had seen it in a Facebook comment. Located in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, it is considered a pilgrimage stop for believers. The size of the cloth is 14 ft. 5 in x 3 ft. 7 inches. It it is only on display certain times of the year and not this July or August. This morning we were able to see the display in the church that had the facsimile of the face of Christ enlarged so you could see the detail. Many knelt before it in prayer while others may have pondered the question, “Is the Shroud of Turin real.” Some scientists say it is a forgery made during the medieval period when reportedly someone even confessed to making it. Other scientists say that the people in medieval times did not have the technology to produce such an artifact. The Vatican has neither accepted nor rejected it. The current Pope wrote a beautiful statement upon seeing it about how we are fortunate to be in a beautiful place of prayer and peace.

Since it was so sunny out we spent some time walking from piazza to piazza past elegant stores, churches, and other old buildings. Some of the piazzas had fountains where children joyfully played in the water. This city has such a blend of old world and new. Right outside our hotel where sleek trolleys glide by, we discovered a retro one parked.

Lunch was at Baratti & Milano, an elegant cafe since 1858. Stepping inside is like stepping into a time warp. Servers wear black and white with bow ties, napkins are embossed, and toasted ham and cheese sandwiches are served on China plates. We also tried Bicerin which is the signature drink of the city. It’s hot coffee, melted chocolate, and real whipped cream.

Outside one the piazzas we passed a man with a pile of sand on a tarp. It looked like he was making a sand castle but later when we passed it again, we saw he had created a beautiful dog with glass eyes. I think it looks real.

Only 8 minutes from our hotel is the National Museum of Cinema. It’s housed in Mole Antonelliana. It is an amazing museum that winds from the ground floor to the dome following the history of cinema. We saw very early pictures drawn on frames that you can spin in a circle and look through slits in the sides to get the figures to move, and stereoscopes. One picture showed people going to a theater to take a trip around the world by moving from chair to chair to look at photos through a stereoscope. I liked this quote on an information board. “Photographic views were a way to discover the “un-seen” and to preserve a memory of the “already seen.”

There were old cameras dating back to the 1800s and all sorts of movie clips or sets you could visit.

What was truly amazing about the museum was just standing on the balcony that wound its way to the top. At times, the lights dimmed, dramatic music played, and a light show of images played on the ceiling. I was really astounded to discover that the glass elevator we rode on yesterday to the viewing platform, rose up on wires suspended out in the open from the dome as if in a circus. I have never seen anything like it. One of the last exhibits was an Orson Wells film projected on ceiling where people lie on their backs and watch it on the ceiling. I thought that was unusual.

Back at the hotel we decided to have refreshments on the upper terrace on the fourth floor where they have actually planted grass. It’s fun to look up at the Mole and see people in the tower.

Dinner tonight was at M**Bun. Its slow cooked fast food. We had grilled chicken sandwiches with salad, homemade potato chips, and tiramisu. I tried the Mole Cola, their local version of Coke and it was good.

We spent some time walking through different piazzas and, one of them, Piazza Reale, was full of families enjoying a young pianist. One young boy jumped right in the fountain that shoots out of the sidewalk, but his family didn’t care. Several vendors walked around with balloons covered with blinking lights. We concluded the evening having a glass of wine in their outdoor bar area right on the square. It’s a pleasant evening in the 60s. We will miss Torino. Tomorrow we travel to Aosta in the mountains.