Friday, January 31, 2014

Venice, Italy ~ St. Mark's Square

Early morning in Venice means finding the gondolas still covered from the night before. Rides go on till late in the night so they don't start back up again til late morning. The splash of blue at the harbor just adds to the beauty of the scene.
 San Giorgio Maggiore Church is part of the beautiful view in the morning. This is a very popular view to photograph so early in the morning is the easiest time to get the Church without the crowds.
 This is part of the large waterway that the busses and water taxi's use as a highway around the islands so there are always boats zipping back and forth from side to side.
 Early morning is also the best time to get a close look at the gondolas. You can't help but be romanced and charmed by their shape and beauty.
 This gorgeous building is part of the Hotel Danieli. Part of what I do before a trip is to research the area. Somehow I missed that the inside of this hotel is world famous type beautiful. I will go back just to photograph the inside! So even if you do more!
 Lions are everywhere in Venice. It is a sign of virility and power. You will see them in statues, carved into doors, as door handles and even as places to tie up a boat!
 This was, by far, my favorite lion in Venice! He is just the most fierce lion statue I have ever seen in our travels! Made from bronze, he has had centuries to get this wonderful patina!
 Even at 9am the square begins to get crowded. Be aware of pick pockets and then take the time to really soak it in. There are several cafe's near the edges that you can grab a coffee and relax and people watch.
 St. Theodore watches over the square from the back of a slain dragon that looks like a crocodile to me! But he does look quite grand facing into the square. It is very easy to imagine the vintage lamps with their rose colored glass being gas lit which just adds romance to the area. 
 This is another version of the Venetian Lion. The twin columns represent the two patron Saints of Venice, St. Theodore and St. Mark. If anyone can explain to me how a winged lion represents St. Mark please do let me know. It really isn't clear to me.
 The clock tower was completed in 1499 and it is the gateway to the main thoroughfare to the city and the path you would take to get to the Rialto section of shopping. We wandered to the Rialto Bridge from here through some really beautiful streets.
 To the right of the square as you enter from the water is St. Mark's Basilica. From this angle you can see the famous four horses of Venice. (click on the photo to enlarge it and see the horses at the top of the arch) They were considered such a potent symbol of power that they had bridles added later to "contain" the power and even Napoleon stole them and took them to Paris in 1779 when he conquered Venice. The newest Dan Brown book "Inferno" covers these horses in part of it so you know they are truly famous.
 The details in the front of this building are amazing. (Remember to click on the small photos to see these details better!) and as much as we wanted to go inside of the Church it was SO crowded there was a line around the building.
 The other regret is that the famous square was under construction so 3/4 of it was covered in drapes or scaffolding or both. I was able to get this small section of the famous columns. Just one more reason to go back again.
Our tour that morning was of The Doge's Palace. It takes up one full quarter of the square. One side faces the water and marina and the other side faces the square. The beauty of the outside doesn't even hint at the beauty in the inside. Unlike the Basilica, we were part of our Go Ahead Tours group and didn't have to wait in the long line to get in. If you are not with a similar group then give yourself plenty of line time and arrive early in the morning for shorter lines.

Next week I'll take you inside the Palace so you can see just how beautiful it is and get an idea of the drastic change the prisoners went through as they passed through the Palace, across the Bridge of Sighs and into the dungeons, never to be seen again.

See you then!


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Venice, Italy ~ Touring the Canals

The most wonderful thing about Venice is that all of it is fairly picturesque. Now, don't get me wrong, as with all cities, I'm sure there were parts that are "seedy" but Venice has become the "high rent" district so most of the areas are well kept. Many of those who work in Venice can not afford to live in Venice. It is like Manhattan and all of those bridge and tunnel workers who commute in every day. This means, as a tourist, that you are treated to a lot of really beautiful sights even if you are not on the "main drag".
 The canals certainly help this impression. The colorfully painted buildings, the ornate bridges and the boats reflected in the water sets such a romantic scene that you can't help but be romanced by it.
 And speaking of romance. Gondoliers are a very special type of people. Chances are good that this is what their family has been doing for centuries and the boat they are guiding is one that has been in their family for generations. There is a certain romance right there.
 Outdoor cafes are everywhere in Venice because the inside rooms of these buildings are often small and only hold a few tables. And those brightly striped poles are everywhere you look. Not always blue and white but always colorful. The colors represent the family and the shirts worn by the gondoliers match the colors of that family.
 While used almost exclusively by tourists in modern times, gondolas were the main form of transportation of ancient Venice. In fact, they sported a curtained canopy and the drapes could be opened or closed as you wished. The original "Venetian Blind". 
 There are over 400 bridges in Venice. They connect the many islands as well as many neighborhoods. Obviously I didn't get to photograph all of the bridges but was told that they are all different in some way. I'd love to put that theory to the test someday!
 The gondola is one of the many details that help make Venice beautiful. The "fin" or "Ferro" on the front of the boats serves many purposes but most of them are symbolic. The S shape stands for the curve of the Grand Canal. The six "teeth" stand for the six districts in Venice and the break curve between the top and the teeth is said to represent the Rialto Bridge. The practical reason for it is the weight. It is a counterweight to the gondolier who stands to the back of the boat. This fin has become the symbol for Venice and whenever you see it you immediately know where you are at, even if you don't see all of the boat.
 Not all of the gondolas are in the "tourist" areas. This was in our neighborhood and I was charmed at the every day feel of the gondolier taking a break in the middle of the day.
 Out to sea. With all of the canals it's easy to walk this city and forget that it's surrounded by open ocean. But once you are in a water taxi or water bus you will be quickly reminded since they will use the open waters as a quicker way to get from Point A to Point B. At these times it can feel a bit daunting that this city is so waterlogged.
 Water bus stands, like this one to the right, are easy to find all over the city. This is truly the way to get around town. The gondolas are the most expensive way to take a tour ranging from 30 euros to over 100 euros per ride. Water taxis are less but still expensive for a regular journey around town but the bus is much cheaper. It cost us 18 euros for a 3 day pass that allowed us to use the bus, any bus, to go anywhere we wanted over those three days. Now there were locals who told us not to bother with a pass because they are hardly ever checked. Indeed, we were never asked for a pass the entire time. But, for my own peace of mind, and to help the economy, I'm glad we bought the passes. I would have been totally horrified had I been asked and didn't have one!
 All types of boats drive the water ways of Venice from old fashioned wooden boats to the gondolas and water taxis to speed boats. There is even a "rush hour" each day and it's actually fascinating to watch how the boats carefully, yet quickly, maneuver around each other at this time of day! So grab a coffee or a glass of wine around 4pm and sit back and enjoy the show. I'm sure it's very frustrating to those driving the boats each day but it's certainly more entertaining to us to watch than a traffic jam in L.A. would be to them! 
 But it's the colors that will sweep you away. The boats, the buildings, even the doors are used as further details to make this city colorful and beautiful. And this is just one of the many side neighborhoods, far from the Grand Canal. Beautiful. 
 Always stop and look when you are in the center of crossing the bridges. The views are worth it at each and every stop. This is why, although there are a lot of water "streets", this is a walking city. Grab a map, learn how to read it well, and criss-cross these neighborhoods as much as you can. You will never be disappointed.
Stone bridges, brick bridges, bridges with carvings and statues on them, iron bridges, wooden bridges, there are so many in Venice and definitely a part of the romance of the city. As with Manhattan, you can not see this city in just 2 or 3 days. So do a little research and figure out what you would like to see and try to get there in a round about way with the help of your map. This way you get to see more of the city and still see the highlights. Then start planning on how you are going to come back because there is just so much of this beautiful place still waiting for you to explore!

I will show you more of the "highlights" this upcoming week. We'll go to the Doge's Palace as well as St. Mark's Square so you can see what all of the fuss is about there!


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Venice, Italy : Arrival and the Grand Canal

Venice had been on my "Bucket List" for so long I thought it was never ever going to happen. Then my mom went there, took one look and said "Cat needs to see this!" Over the next several blogs I'm going to "share" Venice with you. It is one of the most amazing places that I have ever been and one I hope to see again someday. (don't forget to click on the smaller photos to see the full sized version!)
 With Go Ahead Tours you are placed into some really wonderful hotels. At first I was sort of bummed that we were not staying on the Grand Canal but once we got to the hotel I figured out the "why" of our location which was that it's not a long walk to the tourist areas but it gave us time to see the beauty in this area as well. This was the dock to our neighborhood and the first place where we entered the city.
 We were staying in the Jewish Quarter. This is where the word "Ghetto" comes from. It doesn't mean anything derogatory in Italian. It just means a highly populated part of the city by one group of people. It became a derogatory term as the ghetto's became where the poorer populations lived. We arrived after the afternoon break had begun so the neighborhood was almost deserted as it's people moved indoors for the break.
 Our hotel had a very plain front so we had no idea what to expect. I had done some research and found that it not only use to be where gondolas were made but also a monastery at one time. In fact, the rooms were very sparsely decorated and yet some of the most comfortable and well appointed rooms of our trip! 
 The view from the hotel door was of one of the 409 bridges that connect the islands of Venice. Beautiful view indeed!
 We decided to go for a walk and look for food. The only restaurant that would let us order at that time of day also took full advantage of the fact that we were starving and willing to pay high prices for our food. While the food was great it was not the best way to start off in the city. Just a warning for you.
 After lunch we decided to walk to the Grand Canal. We walked through the main square where we saw this building. I found out later that it was a nursing home that was turned into the neighborhood library.
 I loved the highly ornate details This wasn't any special building, just housing, but the door is just so ornate it fascinated me.
 We took a few moments to rest as we entered a shopping section near the Grand Canal and I noticed these windows. We spend tons of money trying to achieve the look that centuries has made a natural part of Venice.
 We entered one shop and I was simply floored by the Venetian Glass chandeliers! The entire ceiling was covered with chandeliers of all shapes and colors so this is just one of the many. Surprisingly they are not the thousands of dollars to buy that you would think. This one was $300 euros which is about $425 US dollars. Unfortunately it costs about the same to ship it to the US. Am I wrong to think $850 is an acceptable amount for a chandelier like this?
 But it was the masks that took my imagination for a ride! These amazing works of art start at $1 euro for a mini one up to thousands of dollars for the more complicated varieties. I could have easily bought a really beautiful one for about $25 US. If I could only have worked out a way to get it home. The next visit I'm going to find out where the DHL shop is and pack a box in my suitcase so I can bring one home with me!
 I had to share this photo because of the animal masks on the bottom shelf. Yes, the gold masks are divinely gorgeous and they are what drew me to the glass, but it was the animals that kept me staring with a combination of horror and comedy!
 The bottom mask is the one I'd hang in my home but it was the top mask I was sure I would wear if I were able to ever attend the Carnival which is during the early part of February and ends with the beginning of Lent.
 Of all the pieces of mask artwork this one captured my heart. Unfortunately it was also over $100 euros so far out of my budget. 
 While shopping we watched this artist work, captivated by his blue eyes. But it wasn't until the young Jewish man stopped to admire the work with his arms laden with shopping bags that the scene took on a decidedly Venetian flavor. Wonderful character in one photo.
 Outdoor cafes are everywhere since the inside of the buildings are very small. There is some inside seating but the majority is outside under umbrellas or awnings.
 Finally, the Grand Canal. This is literally my first view of it. Took my breath away and I began to cry. I hear that this is not an unusual reaction to this view. 
See the Grand Canal...CHECK! One of the most amazing views of my lifetime to date. I hope, someday, to return with my husband and explore some favorite sights again and discover new ones but this will also be his first view of the Grand Canal. The first part of this amazing city to share with him. Stunning! 

This weekend I'll share with you another section of the city so I hope you can join us here again then.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Milan, Italy : Castello Sforzesco

I'm always game to go see a Castle. They tend to be romantic in their construction with tons of very interesting details. This one, however, is more fortress than castle. To be honest, it has been built and torn down and rebuilt so many times by so many powers that what it may have been in the 15th Century is almost lost. However, it was still very interesting to see and learn about the defenses of this fortress.
 The Castle is located at the center of a beautiful park. It was fairly empty as we began our tour but when we came back outside the park was getting quite crowded. I think it's an evening gathering place for the local neighborhood.
 The most romantic part of this fortress is the moat. Now a dry or "dead" moat it is covered in gorgeous emerald grass and, if you chose, you could picnic there.
 The holes in the walls were confusing at first but later on we were to find out their purpose. This photo is deceiving because it makes them look quite small when in fact they were about 4x4 inch squares.
 This gives you a better idea of their size. They were used to climb the walls. Soldiers would have these poles and they would stick them in the wall above their heads and climb up them...then remove the poles and continue on up. The advantage was that they could get very high up very quickly but others couldn't follow them.
 These arches are actually tunnels up into the fortress.
 The statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi guards the actual entrance. He was an Italian General as well as a politician and is considered on of Italy's "fathers of the fatherland".
 As you walk into the fortress you find yourself inside a huge courtyard. From here you start to understand the construction of the space.
 At one time 4,000 soldiers were stationed here and up to 1,500 of those were mounted soldiers. Imagine this courtyard filled with them!
 While the castle has been damaged and rebuilt over the centuries, lots of remnants of the castle from the 15th century still exist.
 Around the castle the neighborhood reflects the other dominating nations that once occupied Milan but the most prevalent was France. Only some of the Italian details, such as these arched windows, remain.
 Napoleon found the castle to be too pretty to be destroyed so he actually headed a movement to restore it back to it's former glory.
 But restoring the castle was, in the end, his undoing. Once the Milanese reached out for help from other nations and they were able to overtake the fortress Bonaparte didn't have a chance.
 Murals, such as this one, were painted over with limestone during the many occupations. When the Milanese people took the castle back over they were able to restore them. This archway leads into the private apartment section of the castle.
 From the brick of the courtyard and castle facade you feel the difference of the private apartments beginning with this ceiling mural inside the archway hall leading to the inner courtyard.
 These are now offices but once these windows were to the private rooms of the Duke's who lived here and, later, the occupied forces and their officers.
Once restored in 1861, the Castello Sforzesco became a beautiful place to visit, a home for the arts, and a tourist destination. Considered second only to the Duomo of Milano, this spot is one of the "must-see" destinations in Milan.

Next week we'll head off to Venice for it's own three part series! See you then!