Friday, May 31, 2013

A Barrage of Trinkets

In all of the cities we've visited, there have been tons of trinkets to be purchased - bells, spoons, endless jewelry, t-shirts, and so on.  In Venice, we were amused by some of the more colorful options.  First, the many great masks (possible future Halloween party theme?):
Then, there were the adult bibs:
And finally, some rather inappropriate aprons.  Which one is your favorite?  I like the David - you can't see it very well here, but one cart had it on full display one evening.  That sure catches the eye.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Venice, City of Getting Lost

Going to so many new places means that Paul and I get a little lost from time to time.  Google Maps has been a huge help with that.  Paul caches local maps, and we can use those without data on his Android phone.

However, Venice is still tricky, even with a cached map.  Streets make sudden 90 degree turns or dead end into canals quite frequently.  That really just adds to the fun, though.  We spent 1.5 days getting lost in Venice - over and over - and it was great!  Paul particularly liked when we stumbled into empty squares like this one:
Most tourists spend all their time in about 20% of Venice, which means that you don't have to go far to get away from all of them.  Paul and I certainly took advantage of that.

The other fabulous thing about Venice is that it has public parks.  In Florence, we tried quite hard to find one in the evenings, but everything was gated off or closed (and had charged admission earlier in the day). Venice has a variety of small public parks, so amidst getting lost, we could stop and just relax in the sun for a while.  The weather in Venice was gorgeous - mid-60s to low 70s and sunny.

St. Mark's Basilica is one of the main attractions in Venice, so we dutifully took some pictures.  You can see the reflection of the Basilica in the water that is slowly coming up from underneath the square in this photo.  Sometimes the whole square floods, but this is pretty much the most water we saw:
Inside, the Basilica is covered in mosaics with gold backdrops.  You weren't supposed to take photos but everyone was, so I cheated, too:
We also made sure to check out the dueling orchestras on St. Mark's Square in the evening.  There are three of these 4-5 person ensembles at restaurants around the square.  You can pay a lot of money to sit at one of the tables - OR, you can join the crowds moving from ensemble to ensemble as they take turns churning out lovely music:
And, of course, we viewed the infamous Bridge of Sighs that convicted criminals crossed on their way to prison.  Supposedly, they sighed as they took in their last glimpse of Venice.  You can also see some of the many gondolas taking tourists on a ride through the canals.  We opted not to take a gondola ride.
But we did ride one of the vaporettos (public transit boats) down the Grand Canal while listening to a Rick Steves audio tour.  It was lovely to see Venice from the water:
And no blog post is complete without a photo of us.  Paul commented that it looks like we've been superimposed onto this photo.  Really, it's just because the camera used flash - I swear!  We're standing on the Rialto Bridge - one of the three main bridges over the Grand Canal.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Odi et Amo, Firenze

I visited Florence (Firenze in Italian) in high school.  I don't remember a lot about it, but I do remember I didn't particularly like it.  I was curious to see what my impression would be this time.

Turns out, just about the same.

We arrived in the train station and found our way to our hotel.  On the way, we discovered that we were in Florence for a gelato festival!  +1 point!

Then, we discovered that the space above our hotel (it's in a large building) was under construction - not particularly wonderful, but they only worked on it from 9-5, so we were not around for much of the noise.  Our hotelier was welcoming and friendly and more than happy to answer our questions.  This equals out = no points.

Next, we went in search of food.  On the way there, I got bird poop on my pants (my best guess is that I walked into it as it was falling out of the sky).  -3 points, Florence.

Rick Steves recommends a small grocery store near the train station for the quick salad/pre-made foods section.  Clearly, the store owner has caught on and has jacked up the prices.  It cost us 15€ for some extra salty, extra al dente pesto pasta; some pickled eggplant; and two small roll things.  We were also grumped at multiple times by the employees, who seemed pretty fed up with foreigners. -4 points. 

To comfort ourselves, we partook in the gelato festival.  For 10€, we got 5 dishes of gelato, a gelato inspired beverage, and a tote bag (the gelato was redeemable over several days).    +4 points
It's always a sad thing when the gelato is gone.
After that, we let Rick Steves take us on a tour of the city and regale us with fun facts and corny jokes.  We started at the enormous basilica:
And checked out the famous baptistery doors:
Afterwards, we wandered around for quite a while, during which time someone dumped bread crumbs out of a window and onto my head.  Awesome.  What the heck, Florence!?  -2 points

It's not quite as bad as being spit on at the Colosseum, I suppose.  Yes, I got spit on - apparently some teens thought it would be hysterical to spit off a high spot, and I was lucky enough to be right below them.  It landed in my hair and on my cheek.  Lovely.

But I digress.

We went back to our hotel and consoled ourselves with some limoncello that we purchased in Assisi.  Limoncello is one of my new favorite alcoholic beverages.  In fact, I'm drinking some now as I edit this post! (Maybe unwise?  How's my spelling/grammar?)

On Friday morning, we found the food market.  Everyone was super friendly, we found lots of great foods for making meals in our hotel room, and had delicious cheap sandwiches.  +5 points  
Here's a sample meal from our food market bounty (I'm peeling an orange).
After dropping the food off at our hotel, we went to the Uffizi.  This was a mixed bag.  Boticelli's Birth of Venus is truly lovely in person, but no photographs are allowed at all, and a large chunk of the museum was closed.  We saw nothing by Raphael, which was disappointing. And it was rather expensive, given how much was closed.  -2 points.  I did cheat and take a picture of the Ponte Vecchio (bridge with lots of jewelry shops on it) from the Uffizi though:
We went out to dinner.  The plates were huge, but for whatever reason, we weren't given free watermelon for dessert like everyone else.  -1 point

Saturday it rained and rained and the high was 59 degrees.  Brrrr.  I won't deduct points for weather, though.  We went to the Galileo museum, which was good overall, although we both would have liked more explanations of how things worked, not just who acquired them and when they were constructed.  +2 points
Some science-y thing from the late 1500s.  More info here
Hopefully, Paul will write a more complete post about some of the stuff in this museum - there really were some very cool things, like the above armillary sphere built when people still thought the earth was the center of the universe.  All those wooden circular belts you see would have moved. Really impressive!

Then, with a recommendation from our hotelier, we found a coffee shop where we could actually sit for a while and read, taking refuge from the pouring rain and cold weather. Paul says, "It was super close and awesome!" +2 points

Tomorrow we leave for Venice, city of expensive lodgings. :)

So, odi et amo ("I hate and I love," in Latin, from a poem by Catullus) Firenze. For those of you who did the math, I think Florence came out with a +2 score overall.

I should probably add a few points for the spectacular sunset we had the pleasure of viewing one evening:
A bit darker:
And of course, sunset plus Kate and Paul:

Monday, May 27, 2013

24 Hours in Assisi

We spent about 24 hours in Assisi from May 22-23.  Architecturally, Assisi is a very well-preserved medieval town.  It has tons of cute alleyways, many of which are decorated quite nicely with vines and flowers.  I believe Rick Steves said that there is a contest every year for best balcony flowers.  We certainly saw many fine examples:
and another:
Since the main attractions in so many cites are churches, we've seen tons of Christian iconography.  I've been intrigued by the fanciful scenes of the end of times, hell, and many others, but I think the picture below is my favorite.  That, my friends, is a lion eating a Christian outside the Church of San Rufino.
Assisi is built into the side of a hill, and there are some great views:
And, of course, the main attraction of Assisi is the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi.  No pictures allowed inside, but here's what it looks like from the outside!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Two of Italy's Hill Cities

On Monday, Paul and I finally started using trains to get around, and it was awesome!  Trains are clearly the best way to travel in Europe.  We arrived in Orvieto, checked in to our hotel, and then took a funicular up to the old town.  The major attraction in Orvieto is the Duomo:
Like so many churches, as we are discovering, you are not allowed to take photos of the inside.  Rest assured that it is incredibly impressive.  Like the Temple of Olympian Zeus, this church took a long time to build - construction began in 1290, and it wasn't finished until the early 1600s.  Paul and I found the organ, dating from the 16th century, very neat.  The choir stalls were composed entirely of wood, much of which was inlaid with beautiful and intricate designs.   Paul also liked the wood ceiling and wondered if it was actually original.  Overall, this cathedral is massive, which you can hopefully tell from this side view:
After exploring the Duomo, we wandered around for a while until we located a lovely walkway along the edge of town with a great view:
We found a bench in a sunny spot and read for a few hours.

On Tuesday, we took a day trip to Civita di Bagnoregio (that's Civita in the background):
We crossed a crazy steep bridge to get there (testing my fear of heights again - another successful adventure!):
We explored every nook and cranny of the town in under an hour (and I do mean every nook and cranny - we went down every side street we could).  There were great views and cute streets around every corner:
We were also amused by some high school-aged kids on a scavenger hunt.  We wondered if some innovative gym teacher dropped them off at the bottom of the hill and said "you have 50 minutes to complete this scavenger hunt, GO!"  They had clearly run up the walkway to Civita, and we watched them run all over to find the flags.  

It was chilly, overcast, and occasionally rainy so we enjoyed a delicious and relaxing meal along with two cups of hot tea.  The artichoke lasagna was amazing, and we are determined to figure out how to make it ourselves when we get back.  I have an ongoing list of all the foods I want to add to our repertoire that is growing quite quickly. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

And yet more Rome

On Saturday, we took a day trip out of Rome to Ostia Antica - the ancient Roman seaport.  It's an entire city of ruins, including an amphitheater:
Lots of great mosaics:
And this cool statue tucked away in a tunnel under the ground:
It was like being a kid again - exploring a landscape of ruins, always wondering what cool thing could be right around the corner:
Paul found the mills very interesting (as did every other single tourist there - this is by far the most people we saw in one place in all of Ostia Antica, and this was our second attempt to take a photo, too).  The millstones have holes in the top where for the whole grain and the flour came out the bottom.  Donkeys or humans pushed them in circles:
Saturday night was Rome's free museum night (just once a year!), so we went to the Capitoline Museum.  The line was long, but moved pretty quickly: 
The Dying Gaul is justifiably famous, down to the calluses on his foot:
And the pieces of the impressive statue of Constantine, originally in the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine in the Roman Forum, were quite neat to see:
On Sunday, we wandered around, ate delicious pizza (we ate a lot of pizza in Rome!), and sunbathed on the Spanish Steps:

When in Rome...

...see all the things!  We certainly tried to.  On Friday, we checked out the Pantheon, which is awesome in and of itself but also as a bonus, it's free to visit, unlike so much of Rome.  We walked in during a church service, which is somewhat amusing since this building was originally constructed to honor all the gods of ancient Rome, but is now used to honor just one.  The original sculptures of the Roman gods have been replaced with figures important to Christianity.  It's a truly impressive structure that's been very well-preserved, probably thanks in large part to its continued use as a church:
St. Peter's Basilica (also free!) was awe-inspiring as well.  Like the School of Athens painting I mentioned in the last post, I had forgotten just how big this church is.  I know it's big, but it's hard to appreciate just how big until you're inside.  Rick Steves' audio tour said the distance from the entrance to the far wall behind the altar (straight ahead in the photo below) is two football fields.
And it contains Michelangelo's Pietà, which is beautiful:
We are both impressed, especially Paul, by how young Michelangelo was when he accomplished so many great works.  He sculpted both this piece and the famous David in his 20s.

We also walked past the building that everyone refers to as the "wedding cake" several times during our stay in Rome:
And visited the Trevi Fountain at night:
We sat there for quite a while waiting for it to get dark enough and were amused/annoyed watching all the guys (scam artists?) with instant print cameras (of incredibly poor quality, from what we could see) try to trick tourists into buying a photo.  They did this by volunteering (quite vehemently) to take photos for tourists using the tourists' cameras and then badgered the tourists into buying an instant photo from them.  One guy was particularly awful.  He was able to talk a tourist into a photo and then proceeded to force her to pay for a photo that showed pretty much none of the fountain - just the tourist.  They fought about it for quite a while.  

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Wow, Rome.

Rome leaves little time for blogging.  Those of you who know me well know that I wear a pedometer (Fitbits are awesome), and the last 4 days have all been over 20,000 step days.  Yesterday we crested 25,000.  In short, we have been busy seeing everything and walking everywhere.

On Thursday, we visited the Roman Forum.  Paul was super impressed by the enormous Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, and justifiably so - it is enormous:
Also awe-inspiring were the seventeen-centuries-old (that's right, folks, 17 centuries!) bronze doors of the Temple of Romulus: 
Then, we moved on to exploring the Colosseum with the help of one of Rick Steves' fabulous audio tours.  I'm not going to lie, they can be really hokey, but they definitely increase my enjoyment of these sites.  Sometimes ruins are just ruins (well, not the Colosseum, I suppose), so it's really great to have a (free!) audio tour to walk you through.  The app for the audio tours doesn't work very well, so Paul just downloaded the files to his phone.  We picked up a headphone splitter before we left the States, and we walk around tethered to each other while listening Rick Steves regale us with information about these incredible sites:
A better picture of the innards of the Colosseum:
The Colosseum is an incredible structure with a gory history.  It's hard to think about all the horrible things that took place there - fights to the death between animals, between humans, and between humans and animals.  They also sent Christians into the arena to their deaths (probably anyway, that is somewhat contested but sources say it seems quite likely) as well as other people that they conquered.  Not exactly a sporting event I'd like to see.

However, I was really impressed by a drawing of what it looked like when the canopy over the Colosseum was unfurled - incredible!  They showed humans actually walking on it to put it into place.  I wish I had taken a picture of that.  An extremely quick Internet search isn't yielding quite the right image, either.

After the Colosseum, we headed over to the Palatine Hill to explore even more ruins, passing by the Arch of Constantine on our way:
And finally, I leave you with one last picture of the Colosseum (the clouds cooperated nicely in this one!):