The Magic of San Marco

The sun was brightly shining this morning when we woke up. Right after breakfast we boarded a vaporetto and headed straight into San Marco.

The area around San Marco was a beehive of activity. Just as we stepped off the vaporetto, a huge Norwegian Cruise Line ship sailed down the Grand Canal to dock in Venice. The size of the ships compared to the size of the buildings is quite a contrast. They bring thousands of passengers onto the island every day and there has been talk of having them not dock here anymore.

Walking to Correr Museum we discovered a tiny inlet where gondolas seemed to congregate before passing through the canals. I spotted a beautiful glass shop and headed inside. I’m not usually attracted to these shops, but this one had beautiful hand blown glass animals. Walking around the store, I carefully clutched my purchase and was a little embarrassed to read the sign, “Do not touch anything.”

The Correr Museum had an interesting combination of decorated rooms with period furnishings, marble floors, beautifully painted wallpaper with hand painted animals, and statues standing before mirrors. This gave the observer a different perspective. “You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul,” said George Bernard Shaw.

In some of the rooms, modern art was mixed with ancient art. One odd exhibit had television monitors on the floor all showing artists at work, but machine guns were part of it. The explanation was in Italian so I do not know the significance of the display.

We stopped in the cafe in the museum for a sandwich and a salad. It was quite elegant, very affordable, and air conditioned which was a welcome relief from the plus 90 degree temperature outside.

Doge’s Palace surrounds two sides of San Marco. Much of it was closed for renovation, but we were able to see the renovation in progress. The palace had beautiful chandeliers with Murano glass which is hand blown on an island nearby. There were rooms where politicians met long ago and they were elaborately decorated with paintings on the walls and ceilings.

The whole world seemed to be inside the palace. We saw tours for Japanese, Chinese, German, Italian, Spanish, English, and Arabic visitors all in their native language. One group which appeared to be from a cruise ship had a small group of six. Pointing to a set of metal arrows in a room devoted to weaponry, a woman wearing a long flowing skirt and straw hat asked, “What’s that? Does it zip, zap, zing faster?”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” replied the guide with a quizzical look. At that the woman acted out arrows shooting with her arms. It was a comical moment.

The last two rooms were covered with dark paintings. One room had over 1,000 people depicted all in a state of battle. One wall had a huge sailing ship where sailors were in anguish fighting a battle while rowing like mad, Personally I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I thought the whole room represented a total state of chaos on every wall.

I have always known about the Bridge of Sighs and remember it being depicted in a romantic old movie, “A Little Romance,” as a romantic bridge, but in reality, this is far from the truth. From inside the museum, we crossed from a palatial palace over the bridge to a prison. This was the last look prisoners had long ago of Venice. Visiting the prison in the intense heat of Venice was torturous so I can’t imagine what it would have been like long ago. It had cold looking stone rooms with iron bars. Escape would have been impossible. I was really happy not to be in it anymore when we exited the building.

The lines to visit St. Mark’s Basilica were long in the hot Venetian sun, but by going online you can buy skip the line tickets within 5 minutes of your visit. We visited at 4:30 which only gave us 30 minutes before closing, but the lines were down. The Basilica houses the remains of St. Mark and is a pilgrimage spot. The ceilings are covered with glittering gold mosaics which are centuries old. They may not be as shiny as they once were, but are beautiful. We paid 2 euro extra to see a storyboard all in gold with precious jewels in honor of St. Mark. Climbing the steepest steps ever, we visited the archaeology exhibit which included four horses that Napoleon had stolen, put on the Arch of Triumph in Paris, and were returned to Venice. They are inside to protect them from the elements and the ones outside are reproductions.

Back at Piazza San Marco we sat outside at a cafe with a live orchestra to people watch. Tour groups full of weary tourists strolled by following guides holding limp flags. Families of small children stopped to feed the pigeons. One family had a pigeon eating on top of a girl’s hat. Selfie sticks are still popular and we sometimes wonder if the people actually look at the monuments they snap pictures of themselves standing by. Bells rang out every hour echoing through the Piazza. We could have stayed there for hours.

We have decided that Venice itself is a museum. While searching for a mailbox down the Grand Canal we wandered into a campo we had never seen. A man sitting on the edge of a well played a recorder in front of an ancient church with its wooden doors tightly shut. We found a small restaurant on the corner of the campo where we dined on pizza and spaghetti Bolognese. The servers were so friendly, but none of them were Italian. This is the Italy of today where people living here are from many countries.

Following Google maps back to our hotel, we made new discoveries. In one campo families dined outside at two cafes. We sat on the marble steps of a theater just to enjoy the ambience.

Just before we reached our hotel the sound of an accordion echoed in an alley with a small bridge crossing a lagoon. It was singing gondolier. It was the perfect backdoor moment.

Back at our hotel we sat out in the garden with a final toast to Venezia. This has been a memorable trip and we promised ourselves to return again next year. Thank you for coming on our journey with us.

The Quiet Gems of Venice

Breakfast this morning at our hotel was outside in the garden under wide canvas umbrellas, but the hotel guests were not alone. From up on the tiled roof of the hotel, three pigeons sat watching and waiting. As soon as people abandoned their breakfast, down they’d swoop to grab a piece of toast. Also present was a ginger colored cat who we saw yesterday. A staff member kindly gave it a bowl of milk when breakfast was over.

We followed google maps to Rialto and noticed that the types of shops in Venice are changing. Seven years ago when we were here, the shops all tended to sell prints, decorative papers, leather bags, masks, glass, gelato and pastries, and funky souvenirs. This year we noticed several blocks with designer shops which was surprising, but I was thrilled to find out one of them was Swatch. Going there is fun for me and it’s always so hard to choose which watches to get.

Rialto Bridge was overflowing with tourists in the hot sun snapping selfies against a backdrop of the Grand Canal with vaporettos and gondolas. Just beyond the bridge, tiny fountains pour cool water over towers of coconut slices and shops selling gelato temp people inside. We stopped at Campo San Polo which is a wonderful atmospheric square with shade trees, a pump with fresh water to refill bottles, and several cafes with misters for the hot and weary customers. Some people even stop and feed the pigeons who flutter around them. We stopped for an iced coffee. Inside the cafe chefs were busy making lunch and it smelled of fresh garlic and basil.

We visited Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa die Frari which is full of artwork made specifically for the church. It is made of brick because Venice cannot support a stone church on its soggy foundation. The most magnificent artwork is Titian’s altarpiece which looks beautifully lit even though there is no natural light on it. Titian’s tomb is also inside and its massive and way more impressive than Napoleon’s tomb in Paris. It extends several stories and has intricately carved marble sculptures.

The foundation of the church of San Polo dates back to the 9th century. At first I wasn’t impressed because the paintings are all dark and there’s no light on them so you don’t really know what you are seeing. Not only that, the Last Supper is depicted almost as an unpleasant scene of people shoving each other unlike Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan. We stepped outside and a girl who had just stepped out told us there was more in the back room. We hurried back in and found brightly colored 18th century paintings of the stations of the cross with a painting of the resurrection on the ceiling.

Tonight we took the vaporetto to San Marco. It was so hot that people sat with their feet in the canal, but San Marco was magical with small orchestras playing at historic cafes. San Marco is so beautiful with small lights lit up in the arches. Tomorrow we’ll return and visit the major sites there. It is supposed to in the 90s so hopefully our day will include lots of museum with ac.

Venezia!

This morning when we paid our hotel bill, we were really surprised. The cost was $125 per night for a superior room including a buffet breakfast.

This morning we took a train to Venice. As I’ve mentioned before, if you book in advance you can travel first class for a ridiculously low rate and avoid the free for all chaos of coach which we know all too well. In general, people pile their suitcases high on the seats and pretend to be asleep if anyone looks pleadingly at the empty seat.

Our second train was a 90 minute high-speed Trenitalia. For $35 each, we got business class seats. The approach to Venice is magical. The train leaves the city of Venice and heads out over a causeway to the island where only huge cruise ships mar the skyline.

We waited by the Grand Canal for our vaporetto and had to wait for four to get the right one. Just as one vaporetto was about to pull away, the silence was broken with cries of “Permesso, Permesso!” It was like watching a drama unfold. Wearing a flowered muumuu, a woman came bursting through the crowd with a huge suitcase, unlatched the gate on her own, and just as she proceeded to fling her bag aboard, the boat roared off leaving her standing there with a sheepish grin on her face.

We are very pleased with our hotel. It’s the NH Collection Palazzo Barocci which is right on the Grand Canal. Our budget did not include a room with a view, but the hotel has a beautiful garden where you can sit outside.

We took a vaporetto to Ca Rezzonico which is a museum celebrating Venice of the 18th century. The style included rococo furnishings, but it was so interesting to see painted on wallpaper. There were many teacups from all over the world on display as well as imports from China during Venetian trade.

Tonight we had dinner just down the street from Rialto. It was humid outside, but nice to be able to eT outside. When they found out we went there because of Rick Steves’ we got free proseco and limoncello. The scallops were delicious as was the pesto pasta.

Walking back to our hotel, it was nice to experience Venice when the crowds are down. We decided to look at our blog from 2011 and to our surprise found out we had been in the very same museum we toured today in 2011 but neither of us can recall having ever been there ever! We could not believe it and could not stop laughing. We will have to look at our 2011 photos when we get home. Tomorrow will be a hot day, but we look forward to exploring Venice once again.

Stepping Into the Past: Parma, Italy

This is a holiday weekend in Parma. Because of it, most shops are closed and many of the museums we had on our itinerary were closed until 1:00 pm, but no problem. We plotted out a new plan and had a great day.

The temperature today was in the mid 90s and it was very humid, but fortunately, most museums have air conditioning to preserve the artwork, and churches tend to be 10 degrees cooler inside. The streets are a different story. What’s surprising is walking past department stores with the doors wide open blasting cold air out the door which feels very inviting as you pass by.

The Museum Diocesano (museum of the church) was designed to preserve many of the original statues from the Baptistry that were crumbling from the elements. The statues of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba were beautifully displayed and if you looked closely, you could see evidence of color or words. Glass floors provided opportunities to see excavations of old Roman ruins. Along several walls, beautiful mosaic tile floors were on display, each one in almost perfect condition.

The Baptistry, the place where people were baptized, dates back to 1196. It has 16 arches in the dome all surrounded with paintings telling a biblical story, and the walls are covered with 14th century frescoes. If you look closely, you can see areas of restoration with modern day building materials.

Outside on the steps of the Baptistry we met a family with two elementary age children from Leeds, England. They love to travel, but the children were wilting in the heat. They wondered what was inside the Baptistry and when I described it, they told me I would be really wowed by the Duomo and they were right. It was dark inside but very ornate with a huge pipe organ. In the dome was a painted scene of people floating through clouds to heaven. It looked three dimensional.

We ate at an old world style restaurant on the piazza. Our starter was Parma ham and melon followed by our meal of spinach, pumpkin, and mushroom tortelli. They handed us a menu with pictures of the most amazing desserts, but we decided to pass even though the waiter looked at me with a grin that said, “You know you want one.”

The builders and visionaries of Santa Maria Della Steccata used St. Peter’s in Rome as a model. It’s a Renaissance church with frescoes from the 16th century. The painted dome looked like carved marble, but everything was painted.

Before we went inside there was a close call in front of the church. A woman parked her bright pink dog stroller outside on the sidewalk, but when she went inside, her adorable little furry dog jumped out of the stroller. He was attached to the stroller with a short leash and tried to pull away so it would have been stroller and all into the street. David held the dog and untangled it from its leash while I dashed inside the church and whispered to several couples asking if they had a dog gesturing outside. “Dog?” People looked at me quizzically. They spoke no English. One woman finally understood, spread the word, and the thankful owner came running outside calling out, “O mio dio!”

At the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista built between 1490-1519, local artist Correggio painted the dome, People again appeared to be floating through clouds upward to heaven. I spotted a box where for 2 euros, the dome would illuminate for 2 minutes. It was quite a magical moment. People who appeared to be asleep in the pews, snapped to attention and all eyes gazed upward. One man was contorting himself backwards over a pew to get a perfect shot.

The highlight of the day was a visit to Farnese Theater built in the 1600s which one magazine proclaimed is the most breathtaking site in all of Italy. Stepping inside was like stepping into the past. It’s a wooden arena style theater surrounded by wooden arches. Old photographs from the early 1900s showed the theater crowded with people watching concerts. During WWII, the theater was damaged, but restored to its former glory using the same plans and surviving building materials.

Attached to the museum was the Gallery di Antichita and the Museo Nationale. Tickets include all 3 sights. Our guide said the gallery is sparse and thinking the first room was it, I couldn’t agree more. There was a long table with an odd collection of small bronze statues and an 18th century goblet in a glass case. It turned out that was only the entrance. The museum had many paintings including those by local artists Correggio and Parmigianino. All along the walls in every room were red velvet benches with a note taped on each one “Si prega di non Sedersi.” David and I wondered if it was ok to sit down because si means yes and it didn’t make sense to have 10 of these in every room as some sort of tribute to these benches which truthfully looked rather ordinary, but later I looked it up and sure enough, it means please do not sit down.

Tonight we had a picnic dinner in our room. It’s a good way to save money and as Rick Steves’ says, “It’s good travel.”

Traveling into Italy’s Heartland: Parma

Early this morning at breakfast we had a really nice surprise. “Happy birthday!” said the hostess to David and presented him with three tiny cakes on a slate dusted with powdered sugar and surrounded by fresh strawberries. David immediately assumed I must have told them, but I did not. They got the information off his passport.

A 25 minute easy walk from our hotel is the Academia Carrara which is considered one of the finest art galleries in all of Italy. The gallery showcases art from four collectors. The art is beautifully displayed and contains an enormous collection from the masters. My favorite paintings are ones showing landscapes or cities. I try to imagine what it must have been like long ago in these places.

In one room was art restoration in progress. A woman with magnified goggles was carefully cleaning a painting. A screen showed us the precise area of the painting where she was working. Usually when we leave a museum we like to buy postcards of some of the works, but this museum has a different approach. Instead of a gift shop, there are poster tubes filled with four colorful posters, yours for a donation of any amount.

We took an easy two-hour train ride to Parma with one change. Here in Italy paying just a little more for first class is worth it. We know from many trips in coach where we were left standing for hours because people piled their suitcases into seats beside them and were unwilling to move them. We traveled in a car with compartments with seats for six people in each compartment. The only other person in ours, a young man on his iPhone the whole time, was told by the conductor he had a second class ticket and he needed to move. He just replied “oh,” and then stayed anyway.

We love our hotel, the NH Parma. We are very close to the old town and walked down to it to check it out right away. The buildings are very old, some dating back before the 1500s. We stopped at an old world cafe where people were watching a soccer match. Fans even stopped by on bicycles.

Dinner tonight was one of the best on our trip. We had Parma ham for a starter followed by pasta with pesto, shrimp, and cashew nuts. Most impressive was the espresso. It came served in tiny china cups on a doily with a lid on top to keep it hot. The restaurant had linen tablecloths and napkins, wine buckets with linen cloths, and attentive and professional waiters who seemed to have an appreciation for the tradition that is providing quality service at a restaurant. Here at this old world restaurant though, the old blended with the new. We could see the chefs cooking behind a glasses in area in back. There was an old world elegance, but it was not pretentious. No on was dressed up.

After dinner we walked around town. We are excited to explore it tomorrow.

Exploring Medieval Bergamo

Our journey here to Bergamo in northern Italy by train was quite an experience. Our train which was supposed to leave Nice, France at 2:00 pm was delayed until 5:00 due to a “person on the tracks” as they put it which was very sad. Finally when our train left, it seemed to crawl at a snail’s pace and we didn’t arrive at Milano Centrale until 11:20 pm which was just in time to catch the last one hour train to Bergamo. Other than the delay, the train ride was quiet, but there was a somber moment when we passed through Genoa. Right beside the train was the collapsed bridge.

We are staying at NH Bergamo which is a Spanish chain of hotels we like. We were upgraded to a suite on the top floor with a balcony overlooking the old town. Last night we could see the lights, but this morning the view was even more magnificent and we couldn’t wait to visit it.

An easy 10 minute walk through wide streets lined with palm trees took us to the funicular station to the old town. There was a long line which at one point turned into every man for himself. Once at the top, we felt like we were in a different world. As in many hill towns in Italy, the cobblestone roads wind between the sand colored houses with stucco roofs, and at the top of the hill, there’s a church.

Walking up the hill we couldn’t resist a window display of what looked like yellow dome shaped cakes with powdered sugar. Known as Polenta e osier (sweet little dessert) it was a sponge cake filled with chocolate cream and was as light as a feather. The bakery, Nessi, has been there since the 1940s.

Santa Maria Maggiorie looked like a cream colored church with a dome on top, but in the front were two large marble lions. Stepping inside, I was completely unprepared. The entire church was ornately decorated with gold, statues, and paintings. On one wall were some early frescoes showing the last supper. They must be hard to maintain in the humid summer weather.

In the larger Duomo in town, there were brighter colors and less ornate decorations. Our guidebook said it was less impressive, but truthfully I liked the less ornate style better.

In the old town are towers dating back to the 11th century. At the museum a modern glass lift whisked us to the top for wonderful panoramic views of villas, gardens, churches, bell towers, and mountains to the north. Bergamo is in the foothills of the Alps.

Walking through the streets we noticed several old world restaurants with outdoor gardens. The one we chose was the type of place with linen tablecloths, linen napkins, and waiters dressed up. We dined on beef and mushrooms served with fresh polenta. It was delicious and served with breadsticks baked with rosemary.

After lunch, we decided to check out the shops and bakeries. Two tourists stood outside a shop with the words Sicilian Ice etched onto the glass door eating lemon ice. I hurried inside where I noticed several flavors on offer, all in natural colors. The lemon flavored one was unbelievable. It tasted like fresh squeezed lemon in perfectly crushed ice. It was so good I immediately suffered brain freeze, but on a hot day, it was perfect.

Our final stop was a museum giving tribute to the influence of Venice on the area when they ruled here long ago. Audio visual displays told the story of how the area had become a center of trade introducing new cultures and foods to the area long ago. However, it was mostly in Italian.

Dinner tonight was at a pizza restaurant. On the way back to the hotel, a fireworks show lit the sky. We’ll miss this town. Tomorrow we head to Parma.

Grand Homes of the French Riviera

Early this morning the cicadas were singing in the outside garden. With no rain in the forecast, we were able to head out early for a full day of adventure.

Renoir (1841-1919) lived in a villa outside Antibes in Cagnes. The home is now a museum and with remarkable simplicity, displays some of his paintings, ceramics, and sculptures.

In the gardens surrounding the villa, placards with copies of some of his paintings show the exact spot where Renoir stood. Ancient trees grow on the property with gnarled branches as well as classic tall Cyprus trees.

In the museum we were introduced to some of Renoir’s friends who collaborated with him. In his studio where late in his life Renoir painted different models from his wheelchair, his wheelchair, easel, and paint set were all on display. On the wall was a painting of Renoir working from his wheelchair by his friend Andre and a photograph of the scene too. What was really impressive were the number of family photographs displayed dating back to the early 1900s which included pictures of his son Jean Renoir who was a renowned filmmaker. The movie Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe was filmed, in 1959, at the villa. Renoir is also celebrated for such movies as The Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game.

When I look at black and white photographs I always need to remember that the world did not appear black and white to the people in the photos. Their world was just as colorful as we see it today and even more so. We noticed that several paintings did not include any houses or buildings we could see from the villa. Instead they saw colorful flowers and hills covered with trees.

From Renoir’s villa we could see an ancient hilltop town Haut de Cagnes which appeared in many of his paintings. Approaching the town we were pleased to see a car park but when we pulled in, it all seemed very odd. It looked a sliding glass door would open and you would drive into the lobby of a building. Two men kept gesturing for us to do it and when we got inside, we experienced something new to us. You exit the car and it disappears into the unknown. To get it back, you can watch a moving plank on a monitor retrieve your car all automated. Here at the base of this ancient village, modern technology blends with the old world perfectly.

Haut de Cagnes was beautifully preserved with stone houses, wrought iron balconies, and flowers everywhere. At the top was Grimaldi’s Chateau which is a series of Museums. We ate outside at a cafe with panoramic views of the countryside giving a feeling of total freedom from a busy world.

Our final stop of the day was The Rothschild Villa and Gardens where Beatrice Rothschild lived. Inside we toured the villa where we saw carpets from Versailles, rose quartz figurines, and delicately embroidered clothing. Beatrice was eccentric and even held a wedding for her two beloved lapdogs which included a garden party with guests. Floral arrangements enhanced every room. On a table I spotted a magnificent bouquet of roses, some in full bloom and some wilted. Never one to resist the sweet aroma of roses I buried my nose in one of the flowers and sniffed. Nothing. The flowers were silk!

Outside we toured the gardens. The paths wove around the peninsula so you had 360 degree views of the sea. Huge yachts were anchored offshore and we could hear the happy cries of swimmers below.

On several of the paths were herb gardens with signs that said smell me. There was rosemary, mint, and lemon verbena, but most wonderful of all were fountains in the middle of the garden that playfully spouted water every 20 minutes to classical music. Watching it made me feel very joyful.

Driving back to Antibes was a challenge. The GPS was accurate, but gave directions every 30 seconds such as, “Turn half left, keep right, but turn left.” I don’t know how people maneuver these roads every day and then squeeze their cars into the tightest of parking spaces.

Tonight we had a picnic dinner back at the hotel. We will miss the French Riviera. Tomorrow we take a train to Italy.