Monday, July 14, 2014

Italy Travelogue! Part 4: Venice

Venice's crumbling buildings and shadowy canals give it a sense of moody mystery. But it's also a seaside city, and when the light hits the Grand Canal just right, the turquoise water and candy-colored buildings are dazzling.

We arrived in Venice via high-speed bullet train and caught our first glimpse of the busy Grand Canal when we stepped outside the train station. We hopped on one of Venice's ubiquitous water taxis, a Vaporetto, and enjoyed a mini-tour of the Grand Canal while on our way to our hotel (tip: the Vaporetto was easy to use and an inexpensive 7 Euro, compared to the private water taxis (not gondolas) that cost upward of 100 Euro). We stayed at the adorable Pensione Guerrato, located right next door to the Rialto Market in a thirteenth century convent. We were delighted when we opened the heavy wooden shutters on the windows in our room and realized we had a view of the Grand Canal!

We headed back outside and spent a few minutes wandering around the Rialto Market, which has supplied Venetians with their food since around 1000 AD. The stalls are full of every type of fish and sea creature imaginable. I spent a full five minutes staring at a pile of inky octopuses, but B was excited about getting his hands on some fresh figs. After enjoying his snack, we made our way through the throngs of people at the base of the Rialto Bridge and headed to Piazza San Marco. 

After taking in the iconic view, we went inside St. Mark's Basilica. St. Mark's resembled the Hagia Sophia more than any of the Cathedrals we had visited while in Italy. The Church is a mixture of Italian and Byzantine architecture, and its interior is modeled on Constantine's Church of the Holy Apostles in present day Istanbul. The ceilings are covered in mosaics made from glittering gold and its decorated throughout with jeweled art and precious relics looted from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade - so much so that the church is nicknamed the Chiesa d'Oro, the Church of Gold.

After visiting the church, we decided to just meander through Venice's tiny back streets and take in the city. We stopped in countless churches before we came across a little piazza and decided to stop for an early dinner. As we were eating, it started to rain, but we continued to sit outside because our table was covered with a huge umbrella. As the storm continued, however, it started to rain harder and harder until it was a total downpour. We finished our drinks while watching the torrential rain come down all around us, safe in a cocoon of umbrellas. It was, as the Germans sitting next to us said, "incredibly romantic."


Sadly, the rain didn't stop once we finished our dinner and abandoned the safety of our table's umbrella. We ran all the way back home, but were completely soaked. Of course, as soon as we got back to the hotel, it stopped raining, so we changed into some dry clothes and headed back to the Piazza San Marco.

At night, each of the cafes that line the Piazza San Marco put on live musical performances. We decided to forgo an expensive seat at one of the cafes, and sit on the steps of the piazza eating gelato and drinking a bottle of wine my mom gave us in Rome. It was a gorgeous night, and one of my favorite memories from the trip.

The next morning, we started our day with a tour of the Doge's Palace. Both B and I seem to have missed covering any sort of Venetian history in school, so we enjoyed touring the building and learning more about the history of Venice and its government. The Palace also featured some incredible art, and it was interesting to see how Venetian art differed from art in Florence. For example, while in Florence the Virgin Mary graced the majority of paintings, in Venice the queen-like, majestic figures in paintings were often allegorical depictions of Venice.

After our tour, we picked up sandwiches from a little shop and had a picnic on the side of the Grand Canal. Then, we made our way to the Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice's premier art museum. B and I continued our game of "guess the saint" and "find the tool of martyrdom," and enjoyed our tour through the history of Venetian art. At this point in the trip, however, we had honestly both satiated our desire to learn about Italian art, and we made our way through the museum much quicker than we had previous ones.

By now, it was late afternoon and we had yet to have any gelato (a serious problem!), so we set out to find some. We stopped by Santa Maria della Salute, which was built as an offering during a particularly terrible plague, to take in the view of Venice and the Grand Canal from its marble steps. From there, we walked along the Zattere, a type of waterfront promenade that afforded a different view of the city and had a much more "tropical" feel to it than the rest of Venice. Finally, we came across Gelati Nico, where we had some of the best gelato of the trip (lemon and strawberry for B, chocolate and rum cake for me). We took our gelato to go, and ate it while watching the work happening at one of the few, remaining gondola workshops.

We walked back through the city, and stopped for aperol spritzes at the base of the Rialto Bridge. The bars near the market were hopping and provided a gorgeous view of the Grand Canal. After a couple rounds of drinks, we boarded a gondola waiting just steps away. The gondolas are pricey - about 80 Euro for a 30 minute ride - but we felt it was worth the splurge. I am so glad we decided to do it, despite the hefty pricetag. It was fun to see Venice from the water, and gliding through the empty canals was a pretty romantic way to watch the sun set and end our time in Italy. 


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Italy Travelogue! Part 3: Florence and Siena

Florence is stylish and sophisticated, while still dripping in history. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, the city overwhelms with its vast wealth of art. So many of the great Italian artists were connected to Florence - Michelangelo, DaVinci, Raphael, Botticelli, Dante, and Donatello, to name but a few - and their legacy is still so palpable you can almost feel their presence as you wander the cobblestone streets.

We arrived in Florence later than planned due to a train delay, and were worried everything was already closed for the day. After checking in at the Hotel Abaco, a slightly bohemian little hotel with an amazing location, we walked over to the Duomo, whose colored marble facade and enormous brick dome are breathtaking.

The Duomo was, in fact, closed by the time we arrived, so we decided to just walk around the Church and take it all in. To our delight, a tiny door toward the back was open and we were told we could only go inside if we wished to attend Mass. I don't think we have ever been more excited about Mass! It was the perfect way to see the Cathedral, and we listened to the Italian Mass while gazing around the surprisingly austere interior.  After Mass, we walked over to the Ponte Vecchio, the famous medieval bridge that is lined with shops. The shops used to be the domain of butchers, but legend has it that Cosimo de Medici didn't like the smell so he replaced them with jewelers - and they remain to this day.

Our next day in Florence was dedicated to seeing some of its famous art. Our first stop was the Uffizi, whose line was already two hours long early in the morning. We had read that you could buy tickets for the Uffizi at another nearby museum, the Palazzo Pitti, so we crossed over the Ponte Vecchio and stood in a much, much shorter line for 15 minute hoping it would work. And it did! We were able to purchase tickets for both the Uffizi and the Galleria dell'Academia there. The lines at both museums were horrendous all day, so I definitely recommend purchasing tickets in advance online or picking them up at the Palazzo Pitti.

One of the world's best art museums today, the Uffizi was originally built in 1560 to accommodate the offices of the Florentine magistrates. The building is beautiful in its own right, and its collections are astounding. As you walk through the myriad rooms, you can see the birth and development of the Renaissance before your very eyes. I was grateful I took a few classes on religious art while at Wellesley and loved getting to see some of my favorite works of art, such as DaVinci's and Raphael's paintings of the Annunciation. I pointed out to B that saints are always depicted with the instrument of their martyrdom, and we developed a (friendly) competition to see who could find them fastest and properly identify the most saints.

After making our way through the Uffizi and having lunch on their rooftop patio, we walked over to the Galleria dell'Academia to see Michaelangelo's David. I was excited to see the David in person, but the actual experience far surpassed my expectations. The statue is simply incredible.

By this point, B and I had had our fill of art, so we headed over to the trendy Oltrarno neighborhood on the left bank. After walking around the neighborhood for a bit, we stopped for dinner at a lively little restaurant in the even-more-lively Piazza di Santo Spirito. The food was delicious and the atmosphere was perfect. It was hands-down one of my favorite meals from the trip.

The next day, we hopped on a bus (or, to put it more accurately, fought our way on to a bus) and drove through the gorgeous Tuscan countryside to Siena. Thanks to the plague and a period of economic difficulty under Medici rule, little has changed in Siena since the 13th and 14th centuries. It is just what you hope a Tuscan, medieval hill town will look like, with seemingly endless postcard-perfect streets and sweeping vistas. One of my favorite spots was the gorgeous, shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, which just might be the prettiest piazza in all of Europe.

After taking in the piazza - and a few drinks - we headed over to the Cathedral. The Sienese have always had a good deal of city pride, and this is especially evident in their Cathedral. The building is guarded by a statue of the she wolf with suckling children, the symbol of Siena, and decorated throughout with black and white marble stripes (black and white being the colors of Siena). To say the Cathedral is visually "busy" is an understatement. There couldn't be a sharper contrast between Florence's bare Duomo and Siena's rich Gothic interior.

Interestingly, the present Cathedral, in all its grandeur, is only a glimpse at what the people of Siena had hoped it would be. They had intended to expand the Church and build the biggest Cathedral in the world before the plague hit and forced them to abandon their plans. The shell of the would-be Cathedral is still visible today.

After the Cathedral, we stopped at the museum next door to see Duccio's Maesta. The altarpiece is covered in gold and vivid colors, and is incredibly beautiful. The Virgin Mary is the patron saint of Siena, and before the altarpiece was installed in the Cathedral, the entire town accompanied it on a procession so Mary could see her city.

Of course, a city as devoted to the Virgin Mary as Siena couldn't be without a saint or two. And it seems that Siena ascribed to the "go big or go home" motto when it came to all things religious, because it is home to one of the most famous saints in the Catholic Church: Saint Catherine. She remains one of the three female Doctors of the Church, one of the patron saints of Italy (the other being St. Francis of Assisi), and one of six patron saints of Europe.

The house where St. Catherine grew up is still standing, and has been converted into small chapels decorated with frescoes depicting her life and miracles. Given that St. Catherine is something of a historical and Catholic celebrity, I had expected the site to be packed. However, the little house and part of town nearby was surprisingly, and refreshingly, devoid of tourists.

After returning to Florence, we stopped by a wine bar to enjoy a bottle of Chianti from a local winery and some type of appetizer made with truffles that was out-of-this world amazing. We grabbed some pasta at a nearby trattoria and gelato from Vivoli (which gets my vote for best gelato in Florence, if not Italy) before taking one last walk through the city. We stumbled upon an outdoor concert in Piazza della Signoria and soaked up our last bit of Florence nestled between the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi, listening to the music.