Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Italy 2010 - Milan, Venice and Florence

We left Victoria for Vancouver at 2:30 PM September 22 by Air Canada and then flew via Frankfurt to Milan on Lufthansa.  We were in the middle two of four seats to Frankfurt and space was really tight.  The service sometimes seemed confused but staff were very friendly.   The food was acceptable and drinks including liqueurs were free.  We had friendly companions on either side of us which helped to pass the time.  We both dozed a little but did not get much sleep so the long walk the length of Frankfurt terminal was a challenge.  Passing through immigration and customs at Frankfurt was quick and the flight to Milan was much more comfortable with more legroom. 
In Milan we found the Malpensa Express Train, bought our tickets and were soon on our way to downtown Milan – a half-hour trip.  We figured out the subway ticket vending machine with help from a local and followed the hotel’s instructions from the subway station which was about a 5 minute walk.  We checked in with no problem around 4 PM and were quickly napping until 6:30 PM.  Hotel Star is on a narrow side street.  It has about 30 rooms and is excellent value at about 100 Euros per night including a substantial cooked and continental breakfast. 
Around 7 PM we went out to find tomorrow’s tour gathering place and for a pasta dinner and bottle of Chianti at Cafe Vecchia Brera recommended by Rick Steeves.  We both ordered gnocchi with mushrooms which I enjoyed but Gloria found bland; however it was enough at the end of a 24 hour day.   It was all within about five minutes walk from the hotel.  A full dinner consists of antipasto (appetizer), Primo (pasta or soup) and secondo (more expensive meat dishes).  Generally we plan to eat either antipasto and primo or secondo but not all three when we are eating out.
September 24 - Milan
We ate breakfast around 8 then I checked my email.  The Wi-Fi in the hotel lobby is slow and unreliable but I was able to do what I needed to do, including an email to Andrea and Natalie.  Around 9:00 we walked over to the tour office and by 9:30 were leaving on the bus with about 50 other English, Japanese and Spanish speaking tourists. We were given a small receiver and ear bud which was used at the various sights to hear our guide.

La Scala, Milan
The tour took us first to La Scala where we toured the opera house and adjacent museum which contains artefacts such as musical instruments owned by some of the great composers.  the auditorium holds about 2000, many in six levels of boxes accommodating 6 people each in a circle from one end of the stage to the other.  We will be returning here tonight for the opera at 8:00 PM.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Milan
From La Scala we crossed the road to the square for a view of the opera house then walked through the Galleria, an open ended X shaped glass covered shopping area with many exclusive shops.  It also holds a seven star hotel (and a McDonald’s).  High above the centre are murals depicting the 4 continents recognised at that time and on the floor are mosaics with many symbols from Italian cities, including the bull for Torino.   Visitors spin on the bull’s testicles for good luck, and this area is regularly worn down and the mosaic replaced.

Duomo, Milan
At the other end of the Galleria is the Duomo, Milan’s Cathedral. This is either the third or fourth largest Christian church in the world and has many artefacts, including 2000 statues, stained glass windows – some from the 15th century - and 52 hundred-foot columns.    It has recently been restored and gleams in the sun.     One of the artefacts is a nail from the cross of Jesus which is displayed three times a year.  The bishop uses a cloud shaped elevator to go to retrieve the nail and bring it down to display.  The elevator used to operate my manual labour but is now electronic.  A memorable statue is a 16th century statue of Bartolomeo who was skinned alive by the Romans and the statue depicts this. He carries his own skin over his shoulder, his face hanging behind.  It was carved by a student of Leonardo.  Unfortunately we did not make it up to the rooftop. 
Sforza Castle, Milan
The bus picked us up from the Duomo and took us to the Sforza Castle, built in the late 1300s.  We had time to wander around the grounds before heading to view Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper.  Groups of 25 are allowed in every 15 minutes and each party has to leave before the next is allowed in.  Entry is through a series of chambers with automatic glass doors on either side.  The group is let into a chamber, the doors close and the opposite door opens to let the group into the next chamber.  Finally the group enters a large whitewashed hall with the Last Supper on the upper wall at one end and a later fresco painted by a local artist at the opposite end.  The Last Supper has gone through a series of restorations but it is very faded.  At some point a door was cut into the wall below it eliminating Jesus’ feet.
From here the tour bus returned us to the starting point and we went for lunch.  We decided to eat at a restaurant next to the tour office where a staff member had helped us find our way the previous night.  We had a good vegetarian lunch of a spinach quiche with cheese and vegetables.  Unfortunately we think we were ripped off as on the way back to the hotel we noticed the cost was about double what similar restaurants were charging.
We had an afternoon nap and got ready for the opera.  While we were getting ready there was a thunder storm and it was still raining a little when we left. La Scala is about three minutes walk from our hotel and we pass several bistros on the way. We decided we would stop for a light dinner on the way.  We ordered a grilled ham and cheese sandwich but noticed hors d’oeuvres (antipasti) sitting out on the counter.  Gloria asked the people on the next table how that worked, and they told her if you order a drink you are free to take the hot snacks.
We arrived at the opera house before 7:30 and the doors were not yet open.  People were crowded under the front entrance to get out of the rain.  Soon after the doors were open and we were directed to the fourth level where we found our box, number 15.  We were in the rear two seats.  The front two are chairs like dining chairs.  The second two are backless upholstered stools, a little higher than the chairs.  And the rear two are the same only a little higher again.  We were soon joined by the other occupants – an American couple who didn’t speak much in front and a Swiss couple now living in the Netherlands next to us.  The opera we were about to see was l’Occasione Fa Il Ladro by Rossini. It is in one act with no intermission, about 90 minutes long.  There should have been English sub-titles on the front of the box but I believe they must have been turned off by the American couple.  I had read the synopsis so had an idea of what was going on. 
September 25, 2010 – Train to Venice
We were up by about 8 and went down for another large breakfast.  There was light rain so we decided to take a taxi to the train instead of the subway as we had planned.  The main train station is in what appears to be the business district.  The taxi was about 15 Euros and we were at the station well before 11 AM in time for our 12:05 train.  Unfortunately our train – which was coming from Geneva – was about 15 minutes late.  We were travelling first class which was very comfortable and we enjoyed the 2½ hour trip, mostly through the Italian countryside.  We passed through Verona and Padua before arriving in Venice a few minutes late.  
At the Venice station I bought a phone card and called our contact, Barbara, to let her know we would be on time.  We joined the line to buy tickets for the #1 boat (vaporetto) and then joined the line for the next boat.  A fellow passenger reminded me we needed to validate the ticket at the entrance and we went back and scanned it.  Once on the boat we began our MP3 audio tour downloaded from Rick Steeves’ website.  It was very informative and the 40 minute ride seemed to pass quickly. 

Gloria at the window of our Venice Apartment

We arrived at Arsenale and were quickly identified by a young woman who led us to our apartment.  It was much further from St. Mark’s Square than I had been led to believe but was still reasonably central.  The problem was the number of turns on streets that could accommodate no more than two pedestrians side by side.  Fortunately she offered to let us accompany her back to Arsenale and with that we were able to figure out how to get to Arsenale and to a nearby grocery store. 
We bought tomatoes, meat and cheese etc. which we ate for dinner and in the evening we walked along to St. Mark’s Square and through some of the shops beyond the square.

September 26 – Venice
We had planned a busier day than we usually like to do.  We would visit the Museo Correr, the Doge’s Palace and then do Rick Steeves’ audio tour of St. Mark’s Basiliaca.  It promised to be a sunny and warm day.
We walked across St. Mark’s Square and noticed water bubbling up from some of the drain holes, though most of the square was dry.  The Museo Correr was not really awe-inspiring but gives an overview of Venetian history and had some interesting art and artefacts from the time of Napoleon onwards.  It is located at the West end of St. Mark’s square opposite the Basilica in a building built by Napoleon.  The upper floor contains an art gallery with work by Venetian artists. 
St. Mark's Square flooding - view from Correr Museum
There are some excellent views of St. Mark’s Square from the museum.  From here we noticed before leaving that much of St. Mark’s Square was now flooded and people were crowded along the edges and the centre which was mostly dry.  Some people were wading.  We walked along the dy centre until we reached just in front of the Basilica, which was flooded.  Here was a line of raised platforms along which people could walk across the square.  It was crowded and slow but we made it across to the Doge’s Palace which is on the south side of the Basilica and was our next stop.

Doge's Palace, venice
The palace is the historic seat of the Venetian government and the home of the ruling duke or doge.  It was begun in the 9th century with mmost of the current building constructed in the 14th and 15th century.  It is huge, built around a courtyard and includes living quarters (unfurnished) and government chambers and offices as well as prison cells.  Since parts of the palace were constructed in different eras, the facades around the courtyard are all different.  Photos are not permitted inside. 

Golden Staircase in the Doge's Palace, Venice
There are many highlights including the golden staircase leading up to the Doge’s living quarters.   The Hall of the Grand Council is the room where representatives of each of Venice’s families met and is reputedly the biggest room in Europe.  The walls are covered in paintings as is the ceiling.  Over the Doge’s throne is the largest oil painting in the world - Paradise by Tintoretto – with Jesus and Mary surrounded by 500 saints. The Bridge of Sighs leads across a canal to the prisons.  It is from here that prisoners would get their last view of the world before beginning their sentences and reputedly would sigh at the sight. Unfortunately the exterior on either end of the bridge is under restoration so is covered in tarps. 
On our way out of the building into the courtyard we were surprised to meet Mel and Archie’s cousin from Victoria.  They were on a cruise and had the day in Venice.  We had a chat and took photos before going on our way.   
We went for lunch along the waterfront near St. Mark’s.  We had a seafood salad and I had a beer.  The seafood salad included a very generous helping of seafood including shrimp, calamari and some kind of white fish.  After lunch we went to the Basilica.  We had to drop off our bag nearby and then join the line on the platforms above the lapping water.  The line moved quickly and soon we were entering the basilica. We had a Rick Steve’s audio tour which provided an excellent commentary about what we were seeing and also ensured we saw all of the areas of the basilica.   The most striking feature is the gold mosaic throughout the interior.  Upstairs is the museum including the original four bronze horses which were moved inside to avoid environmental damage.  There are excellent views over St, Mark’s Square from the balcony.     
We returned home for a rest and in the evening decided to eat close to home; so we went to a restaurant at Arsenale and I enjoyed scallops of veal while Gloria had a spaghetti dish and we shared a litre of Cabernet.

Monday, September 27, 2010
Today we planned to visit the Accademia museum, the Frari church and the nearby Scuola San Rocco; then hoped to have dinner near the Rialto bridge.  It was raining when we got up, but by the time we were ready to leave the rain had stopped and there were patches of blue in the sky. 
We bought a 24 hour pass for the vaporetto which will be good for the rest of our visit, including the ride to the train station tomorrow morning.  We caught the boat to Accademia.  There was a short line for tickets at the museum and we were soon inside looking at ancient altar-pieces.  Although it houses some beautiful work, the Accademia is very unimaginative and appears to be struggling.  At one point we saw a gallery closed while someone vacuumed dust and subsequently we saw employees stuffing paper into the cracks in the door, presumably to stop dust entering the gallery from a room that was being renovated.  There were about 25 galleries in the Accademia housing mostly religious works from medieval times to about the 1700s.  While there are multilingual descriptive sheets for each room they are not always available and we would have benefitted from the audio guide.
Next we took the vaporetto a few more stops to San Toma and found our way to the Frari Church.  I found this much more inspiring than the Accademia since it houses art in its original and intended setting.    We had a Rick Steves audio tour loaded on our MP3 player and spent close to an hour wandering through the sanctuary and sacristy.   Here is work by Donatelli, Bellini and Titian in a setting which is uncrowded, unlike most of what we have seen in Venice.
Scuola san Rocca
Across a canal from the Frari is a sandwich shop which serves sandwiches, wine and beer at a reasonable price.  This was one of our better lunches since arriving in Italy.  From here we walked a block or so to Scuola san Rocca – also known as Venice’s Sistine Chapel.  The art work is mostly by Tintoretto who was a monk at the Scuola and all have religious themes.  The walls and ceiling of the upper hall are covered in paintings.  As at the Frari, there were no big crowds, making this one of the more relaxing and enjoyable sights of Venice.
Rialto Bridge, Venice
As we prepared to leave we heard thunderclaps and the rain began.  We put on our rain jackets and headed for the vaporetto.  It was a long walk and we ended up at a vaporetto station some distance from where we had arrived.  We were soon on a boat headed for Arsenale and had time for a nap before dinner. 
We had decided we should spend the evening in the area of the Rialto Bridge as we had spent most of our time so far in the St.  Mark’s and Arsenale areas.  The guidebook recommended against the restaurants right on the Grand Canal so e decided we would head away from the canal once we reached the bridge.  We took a vaporetto to Rialto and climbed the steps to the bridge.  On the bridge are various touristy stores and these continue on the other side by the market.  We had no idea where we were going but after a few minutes stumbled on a small square with a couple of outdoor restaurants.  One of them – Trattoroia Antica Torre – offered a three course meal for 17 Euros so we decided to try that, along with a litre of house wine.  The first course was spaghetti with mussels and clams – definitely the best spaghetti dish I have ever had.  The next course was a salad and with that came the second – a whole unfilletted fish.  I have no idea what it was but it made a good meal. 
We walked back to the vaporetto the same way we came and along the way saw a gelato store.  We stopped and ordered a small cone each – one euro each – probably the best value we have found in Venice.  We caught the vaporetto home and found our way back to our apartment. 
Tuesday, September 28
We were up at 7:30 AM and soon showered and packing.  We needed to leave by about 9 AM so that we could still use our 24 hour vaporetto ticket to the train station.  The vaporetto was busy but we were able to find our way to the back and eventually had the two rear seats which provide extra space for luggage.  We had no problem finding our train – this time a Eurostar to Rome – hopefully stopping in Florence which is our destination today.
We arrived in Florence on time and phoned our landlady.  It was about a 10 minute walk to our apartment through busy streets including a market area.  We were met at the apartment by Christina’s son, Manuele and he gave us good information about the apartment and about the area.  He recommended a restaurant which we will try later.
The apartment overlooks a small McDonalds.  It consists of a single room with a kitchen area and with about a 15 foot ceiling and a loft for the bedroom.  There is a very narrow bathroom with shower, toilet, bidet and wash basin.  It is nicely furnished with antiques.
Since this was a travel day we decided it was a good day to do laundry, pick up some groceries and catch up with email etc.  We found a Laundromat two blocks away and a supermarket one block away.  There are lots of restaurants in the area and a tourist information office.  We also bought an inexpensive cell phone with a cheap plan that will make life easier as so far our apartments have not had landlines.  It is supposedly an unlocked phone so may work with Gloria’s SIM when we get home.  We’ll see.
For dinner we went to a restaurant recommended by Manuele.  We had an excellent meal followed by a delicious Tiramisu and afterwards our host gave us a digestif of a liqueur which he said is locally made. 

Wednesday September 29, 2010
This morning we went for an “American Breakfast” at a nearby restaurant – not bad and reasonably priced at 6 euros but the 3 euro cost of a coffee brings it higher.  We then took a walk guided by Rick Steeves on the MP3 from the Duomo to the Ponte Vecchio.  An enjoyable walk and we were able to stop in at the travel agent to book an afternoon in Chianti on Friday.  The Duomo has a spectacular exterior which is mostly 19th century but the interior is fairly basic.  The Palazzo Vecchio, the former government building, was also an interesting stop with numerous statues outside.  We stopped by the exterior of the Uffizi where we will be going on Saturday.
Ponte Vecchio
We continued on to the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio where the guided tour ended.  The Ponte Vecchio is a renaissance bridge originally lined with butchers and food stores which now house jewellery and gold stores.  We continued on across the bridge and it was a short walk to the Pitti Palace where we visited the Palatine gallery and Royal Apartments.  We are becoming fairly blasé about art galleries but this one does have a huge and interesting collection of 16th and 17th century paintings.  The Apartments have some beautiful rooms, almost all with decorated ceilings.
From the Pitti we went for lunch of Pizza salad.  It was quite good but the advertised price of 5 euros did not mention the 2 euro each table charge.  Many businesses here are very straightforward but many find all kinds of hidden ways to squeeze out more money unannounced.
We returned to our apartment for a nap and to catch up with journals and email.  For dinner we went to Il Pirata, a block from our apartment.  Here they offer a buffet of assorted entrees for 7.50 Euros including water (another euro for beer) – excellent value – we’ll probably be back.  Then we went to the supermarket for a few items. 
Tomorrow morning we will go to the Duomo museum and in the afternoon we go to the Accademia to see David.
Thursday, September 30, 2010
Another sunny morning with a promise of 22 degrees later.  This morning we went to the Duomo Museum which houses many of the artifacts from the Duomo before the new facade was added.  Lots of sculptures including the Pieta by Michelangelo and Mary Magdelene by Donatello.   We rented the audio tour which made it more meaningful.
We went back to or apartment for lunch of cold cuts, soft cheese, tomatoes and fruit.  Then we walked over to Accademia around 1 PM for our 1:15 entry appointment, which I had reserved from home.  It’s about a three minute walk from here.  We used the Rick Steve’s audio guide here.  About half of it is devoted to Michelangelo’s David, which is also the first exhibit he recommends seeing.  The museum was built to accommodate David which was previously outside the Palazzo Vecchio and was deteriorating from weather.  We were there yesterday and saw the replacement David outside.
The original is certainly impressive – people just stand there in awe gazing at it and we were no different. There are also “lesser” Michelangelo statues – sounds like an oxymoron - including a series of prisoners which are incomplete, but complete enough that each is meaningful and expresses an emotion.  The gallery includes a small number of other rooms and exhibits but they are overshadowed by the Michelangelo works.
View from the dome, Florence

We returned to the apartment and I went out again to scale the 463 steps to the dome of the Duomo.  The first half of the climb went quickly, but as you get closer to the top the staircase narrows and in some places there is two-way traffic, so it slows down.  The views from the top are exceptional.  The red roofs, domes and churches of Florence are striking, but beyond that are the green hills of Tuscany.
I returned to the apartment and we rested for a while, going out for dinner at 7:00 pm.  This time we went to a nearby restaurant – Trattoria la Burrasca - recommended in the guidebook.  It was good food, inexpensive and with no charges for extras such as bread.  While we have not had a bad meal since we arrived in Italy some restaurants have questionable business practices.  
We returned the three blocks to our apartment and relaxed, looking forward to our trip to the Chianti area tomorrow afternoon.
Friday, October 1, 2010

This morning there was light rain and we set out for Santa Croce Church.  This is yet another church full of art work, and in this case some important tombs.  It was about a 15 minute walk from our apartment – we haven’t needed a bus or taxi since we arrived – and in the square outside is a bustling marketplace.  We bought our tickets and rented an audio guide which had 82 tracks of 1 to 4 minutes each!  We planned to spend an hour or so here and began listening and looking.  Santa Croce became the prime church in Florence for notables to have their tomb and there are over 250 on the floor and more on the walls.  Here are buried Michelangelo, Galileo, Rossini and Machiavelli amongst others. Like several of the churches we have seen here it is over 500 yeras old, but the faced was built in the 19th century.  One item of interest inside was a marker showing how high the flood waters came in 1966 – 5 or 6 feet above the floor.  We’ve heard several references to the flood of the Arno River which occurred after heavy rains and devastated many art works.  In the case of Santa Croce, they said every item in the adjacent museum was impacted and the museum did not reopen for 15 years.  Most items could not be restored.
We ended our visit after 90 minutes or so as we had to get home for lunch in time to join an afternoon tour to the Chianti region.  One reader has suggested we should choose wine over museums, however we have been trying to do both – usually enjoying wine with meals and a glass before going out for dinner or later in the evening.  We’ve sampled Barbera, Chianti, and a nameless Toscana Rosso at 2 euros a bottle and others I have forgotten.  Like the food, none of them has been bad and some of them are bargains.  I haven’t had a drop of scotch since I arrived but have sampled the Italian beer which seems fairly typical of European beer.    
Vicchiomaggio winery
This afternoon’s trip is a bus tour with about 35 other tourists stopping in Greve, a small town in the heart of the i region and at a winery, Castello Vicchiomaggio  There was still a little light rain but over the course of the afternoon it cleared.  Greve is an attractive little town built around a square, with a church at one end and small stores and businesses around the side.  In the square is a bronze statue of Giovanni Da Verrazzano,  who was born in Greve and was the first explorer after the Norse to explore the North American coast, prior to Columbus.  The unfortunate man, who was Italian but working for the French Government, was captured by Caribs during his third visit and was eaten by them .
We enjoyed a gelato at Greve but skipped the wine tasting as we would enjoy some of that later.  We walked up to a view point above the town and on the way saw what looks like a bumper crop of grapes, although we are told they are a couple of weeks late this year.
After about 45 minutes we were back on the bus and headed for the winery.  Castello Vicchiomaggio is a 15th century castle surrounded by hectares of grapes and olive trees all of which were laden.  We had a tour of the areas where the wine is stored in huge French oak barrels holding about 3000 litres.  Then we went down to the farmhouse where we were treated to antipasto including salamis, prosciutto, tomato and others and served reasonable quantities of a range of their wines from a rosé to a 6 year old red.  After a stay of about 45 minutes at the farmhouse we returned to the bus for our trip home. 
Since we had a full day and it was already dinner time we decided to eat again at Il Pirata – the inexpensive buffet about a block from our apartment.  Again it was excellent value.  We returned to our apartment for a few games of Yahtzee then decided to watch “The National” on streaming video.  This was a real treat – we miss getting Canadian news and although we get over 250 TV channels from all over Europe, only three are English speaking and all of them are news.
I need to do some more work on photos in the next day or so before I forget what they are and why i took them.

Saturday, October 2, 2010
This is our last full day in Florence.  We have tickets for the Ufizzi Gallery at 1:15PM but otherwise nothing planned.  We decided to have an easy morning; eat breakfast in the apartment and do some laundry as the Laundromat here is good and close by.  The weather is good – sunny and mid-20s.  We also ate lunch at the apartment with a bread roll that was the best bread we have had so far, but still nowhere near what we expect in Europe. The smoked sof cheese was excellent though.
We left for the Ufizzi around 12:40 so we would be in line by 1:00PM. A number of things here remind me of Cuba including the line-ups and the entrance and stairwell to our apartment which is probably from the same era as the apartment where we stayed twice on the Malecon in Havana.  First we had to stand in line to exchange the email ticket we bought for the real ticket.  Then we had to join a second line to gain admittance to the gallery.  In all this took about 20 minutes.
Once in the gallery we had to climb 4 flights of stairs – probably about 100 steps in all to the upper floor.  We had a Rick Steves audio guide which seems more relaxed than the audio guides offered by the museums here. The collection here is truly awe inspiring with Da Vincis, Michelangelos and Botticellis and others.  We spent close to two hours wandering around the galleries.  On the way home we stopped for a gelato and sat on a wall by the Palazzo Vecchio in the sun.  We returned home for a nap.  I tried to book our train trip to Lucca tomorrow but the website was not working well.  Instead we decided to walk over to the train station to book our tickets on our way to dinner.  Their system was not working well either as the fare came to almost double what was offered on the website.  The clerk checked it out and with the help of two colleagues came up with a price that was lower than previously but not not as low as offered on the web.  We settled for that and went on our way for dinner.
We had decided to return to Il Barroccio which had been recommended by our host and where we had eaten our first night in Florence.  Gloria ordered spaghetti with tomato sauce followed by a beef stew and steamed vegetables.  I ordered a Mediterranean salad followed by pork loin and steamed vegetables.  With that we ordered a litre of house wine and we ended up with tiramisu, which is the best I have tasted.
The streets are very busy at night with pedestrians – in North America we have a lot to learn about how to make our public spaces liveable.  After arriving home we spoke to Natalie on Skype and left a message for Andrea to call us.  I’m not certain we will have internet access in our room in Lucca.

No comments:

Post a Comment