Travelogue for Ireland, 2016

IMG_1250“My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.”

― James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

For a sneak peek at my pictures from this year’s trip to Ireland, including scenes from Dublin, the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Moher, Giant’s Causeway, and more click here.

Travelogue for France, 2015

Valensole Plateau, France - 2015

“Paris is always a good idea.”

— Audrey Hepburn

To see my pictures from last year’s trip to France, including scenes from Bastille Day in Paris, the châteaux of the Loire Valley, the Festival d’Avignon, and the lavender fields of Provence, click here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Viaggiare (v.): to travel, to journey, to tour, (by plane) to fly

It’s just after nine on a warm summer’s night and I’m sitting comfortably aboard a Delta Air Lines flight to Paris, France, waiting for the engines to accelerate and the wheels to leave the ground. For me, it seems a miracle of human technology, this ascent into the heavens, and no matter how often or how far I roam, it never grows old.

As I crane my neck toward the window, eager to see the street lights and the chain of cars along the highways disappear beneath a dark canopy of clouds, the world inside the cabin feels as small and as ordinary as the universe is large and mysterious.

I break my gaze for now, knowing there are minor tasks to be accomplished, and these must occupy my hands. I reach for my iPad and noise-cancelling earphones, reset the time on my watch, inflate a foot rest to make myself more comfortable for the long flight ahead, and laugh as the safety video on the screen in front of me explains about emergency exit rows and oxygen masks using a 1980s theme featuring Alf, break dancing, leg warmers, and Rubik’s cubes.

I’m sitting next to a charming older couple in row thirty-four. They introduce themselves as Mary and Bob, and as we tuck into dinner they announce that they’re celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with a vacation in Paris and a Viking river cruise. I’m going on to Italy, I say, and for a few minutes we chat amicably about our itineraries and we wish each other well. The flight attendants clear our trays and dim the cabin lights, and soon there is only a patchwork of TV screens, laptops, and smart phones to illuminate the dark.

It’s then that Mary falls ill.

Whether with airsickness or anxiety, she is nauseous and shaking, and I’m struck by the quiet way in which Bob holds her hand and strokes her back as she leans forward, her head resting upon the small plastic tray table. It’s a strange thing, to be forty thousand feet above the earth in so confined a space. As passengers, we are so close to each other that we can’t help but be privy to intimate details in one another’s lives, and yet we sit stolidly facing forward, row upon row, pretending we do not see.

All of the sudden, I feel like an intruder in a story that is not my own. There is nothing I can do to help, and so I’m willing (and grateful even) when the flight attendant motions me to a new seat in the rear of the plane. By now I’m wide awake and restless, so instead of curling back to sleep, I scroll through for a movie to watch, settling on a new film by Richard Curtis, called About Time. The premise is that a socially awkward young man named Tim is able to use time travel to woo the woman of his dreams. It sounds silly from the start, but before long I’ve embraced it.

By the end, the man’s father, who is dying of cancer, has shared his secret formula for happiness: “Part one of the two part plan,” says Tim, “was that I should just get on with ordinary life, living it day by day, like anyone else. But then came part two of Dad’s plan. He told me to live every day again almost exactly the same. The first time with all the tensions and worries that stop us noticing how sweet the world can be, but the second time noticing. Okay, Dad. Let’s give it a go.”

It might be a better movie than I thought. Or, maybe I’m still thinking about Mary and Bob and the simple beauty of life-long love. Perhaps it’s because I’m on an airplane, and people tend to get overly emotional on airplanes. Whatever the reason, the moral of the story resonates, and as I lean back into my seat and pull up a blanket, I stare out the window into the endless dark of night and think about how this year’s adventure feels very much like traveling back in time.

A year ago, I was anticipating a well-orchestrated trip to Italy—my third in six years—but a string of bad luck, including health problems and a stolen credit card, derailed the entire first week, and I was forced to simplify the rest. I would miss the pope on Corpus Domini and the annual infioriata in Spello. Gone, too, was the trek to the coast to wander about the pastel fishing villages of Liguria. All that remained were Venice, Florence, and Rome—an off-kilter itinerary from the start, run in reverse.

A year later, what I want more than anything is a do-over.

I’ve rebooked the same hotel in Rome, with its stunning rooftop terrace, from which I’ll see the pope in a candlelight procession between the basilicas of Saint John Lateran and Santa Maria Maggiore. I’ve snagged a room in Spello to see the floral carpets that weave through the streets of that tiny Umbrian hill town on the Sunday following Corpus Domini. And I’m bound once more for the sea and the sun of Liguria, where I plan to sail by ferry from Santa Margherita Ligure to Rapallo, San Fruttuoso, Portofino, and Camogli. And there’s more, too. So much more that I can hardly contain my excitement.

For the next month, Italy will be mine. And my home will be in Florence.

I reach over and pull down the shade on the window, so that the rising sun doesn’t wake me too soon. I close my eyes and try to empty my head, but I’m still thinking about the heady possibilities of time travel when I finally doze off.

“Okay,” I’m ready. “Let’s give it a go.”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Andiamo (interj.): let’s go, hurry up, come on already!

Last fall, in the excitement of preparing for another trip to Italy, I decided that it was time, at last, to improve my pitiful Italian. I bought a set of Rosetta Stone CDs and signed up for an “Italian for Travelers” class through CCV, the Community College of Vermont, which offers evening courses for adults. The text we used was a slender volume with the overly ambitious title Conversational Italian in 7 Days. It was an unfortunate book, the kind that prompts you to memorize inane dialogues, including one in which a tourist asks a hotel clerk for the price of a room (Qual è il prezzo della camera?) and receives his answer in lira, an outdated unit of currency that was replaced by the Euro more than a decade and a half ago.

Months later, I’m still struggling with basic vocabulary, but as I stare out the window at the morning sun and feel a familiar rush of adrenaline in my stomach as the plane begins its descent into Paris, there’s one word that bounds back into my sleep-deprived skull:

Andiamo.

Let’s go!

I have just two hours at Charles de Gaulle airport before my connecting flight departs Gate F23 for Florence, but I’m determined to use it wisely. I log in for fifteen minutes of free wifi to send a text message to my family in Pennsylvania, and then grab a quick lunch at an EXKi café, but once I spot a familiar pastel awning on a kiosk nearby, I’m far more interested in dessert. I haven’t been to France since 2009 and I’m craving a Ladurée macaron. I do my best to push the Italian I’ve learned temporarily back into my brain and ask for a trio of delightful flavors, s’il vous plaît: rose pedal, peach, and pistachio. Like Proust’s madeleine, the taste sends me tripping back in time, and for a few moments I sit quietly in a crowded row of airport chairs under the glass roof of the terminal, thinking about Paris and a rainy day I spent there once, many years ago, antiquing on the Left Bank of the Seine near the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It’s nice to be back, if only for a moment in transit.

The small Air France flight that takes me on to Italy is short and uneventful, but when I spy the massive dome of Florence’s cathedral out the window, rising high above the red-tiled roofs of the city, I know that I’ve arrived. Andiamo, andiamo!

Back on the ground, there is some minor housekeeping to be done. I collect my bags and pop a SIM card into my phone so that I can text Cristiana, the “greeter” at my apartment building, to let her know that I’m here, then I wait in line for a taxi, staring down at the business card provided by my rental agency, Italy Perfect. I practice the address over and over in my head before I finally speak it out loud: Lungarno Torrigiani, trenta-tre. Per favore.

It’s half past three in the afternoon, and the airport is just a few kilometers from the city center, but traffic is congested and it’s pushing my driver—a young man with dark brown hair and a relaxed disposition—into fits of causal profanity. Italian culture dictates that he be angered when a motorcycle veers directly in front of his cab while merging lanes, and he seems happy to oblige with a howl of indignation, a pump of the horn, and a rude gesture out the window, but there’s little relish in it. He’s does what he is expected to do, and then leans back and turns up the radio.

The ride is taking far longer than either I or Cristiana expected, so I pass the time by puzzling over a decal on the window of the cab that reads: Scendere lato marciapiede. This is translated helpfully into English as “Please get down on side-walk,” which is either an instruction to passengers on how to safely exit the vehicle, or a commandment to pedestrians to get out of the way of Mario Andretti, who by now is thumping his fingers on the steering wheel, and accelerating like a rocket at the smallest hint of an opening. Florence is a maze of small cobbled streets, and the pavement is choked with tourists walking obliviously down the center of the road.

By the time we reach the address, it’s a quarter past four and Cristiana has been called away on other pressing business. The doorman, an affable gentleman named Mauro, introduces himself and kindly offers to load my luggage into a vintage birdcage elevator, which clicks and clacks charmingly on its way to the fifth floor.

The double doors to my apartment are tall and carved of a deep, rich wood, and there is a polished brass plaque that reads “Bardi 2.” Mauro opens the door and hands me the key, saying that Laura will be by soon to walk me through the particulars on the air conditioning unit and the washing machine and so on, but my brain is hardly paying attention. I am standing on the threshold of a year’s worth of planning and suddenly I’m reminded of that Booking.com commercial on TV, the one where nervous travelers arrive at their destination, their hopes and dreams pinned on a reservation made sight unseen. As the narrator says: “The door opens, you hold your breath, and then you realize: YOU GOT IT RIGHT!”

I step inside, survey my surroundings, and think: “Yes!” Without a doubt, I got it right.

I sprint across the room to a large window, hung with cheerful floral drapes, open the levers, and gaze out. It’s a pleasant city view, with a hodgepodge of stucco buildings and shuttered windows, bathed in a warm afternoon light, and as I lean out and crane my neck to the left, I can see the church of San Miniato al Monte perched high on the hill behind a cluster of trees.

For a fleeting moment, I fancy that I am Lucy Honeychurch, the disappointed heroine in E.M. Forster’s classic novel, A Room with a View: “I want so to see the Arno. The rooms the Signora promised us in her letter would have looked over the Arno. The Signora had no business to do it at all. Oh, it is a shame!”

And I suppose it is.

Throughout the long, dreary winter in Vermont, had I longed to open the shutters on my imaginary windows to see all of Florence at my feet — from the red-tiled dome of the cathedral, to the sturdy and crenellated tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. Alas, the proverbial “Room with a View” is expensive. I’ve paid €1,990 for a four-week stay, but it would have cost €1,190 more to stay in a similar apartment facing the river, which I couldn’t justify to my practical brain and my limited pocketbook. In the end, I opted for a tiny one-bedroom apartment facing Via dei Bardi instead, with lemon yellow walls and lime green trim, tall ceilings, and big, bright windows. By the time I hear a knock at the door and circle back to the entrance to meet Laura, who smiles broadly and greets me with a generous hug, I’ve decided that I love my “Room with(out) a View.” It suits me well, and feels like home.

I relax for a bit, unpacking here and there. I hang my clothes in the walk-in closet, place some maps and brochures in a basket on the living room table, and spread out my toiletries on the glass shelf above the bathroom sink. There is a tall cabinet to explore, filled with cups and plates and pots and pans, and I take stock of what I have at my disposal while making a grocery list. After years of hotel rooms, it feels good to spread out and settle in.

By the time I venture out onto the street in search of a meal, it’s just past seven, and the late day sun feels warm and inviting on my jet-lagged body. After a long day in transit, I’m in the mood for a walk. The Uffizi Gallery is just across the river, and within minutes I could be crossing the Ponte Vecchio and back on Via Porta Rossa near the Hotel Davazanti, which is where I’ve stayed on all of my previous trips here. Those surroundings are familiar and enticing, but for now I’m far more eager to explore my new neighborhood on the Oltrarno.

I turn left and then left again, heading towards the Pitti Palace, but then instinctively veer right on Via dello Sprone, a narrow alley which spills out into the tiny Piazza della Passera. I wandered here once before on a shopping excursion. It was the perfect summer’s night—my last in Florence before moving on to Lucca—and the ceramic plaque I bought that day from a friendly woman named Tiziana, hangs in my library at home, where it gives me great pleasure. Coming back to this little square feels natural, a bit like picking up where I left off.

My stomach is growling for dinner and the menu outside of 5 e Cinque looks inviting. I order a fizzy glass of pignoletto wine, and then dive into a cećina, a flatbread made with chickpea flour, which is followed by a covaccino con capocollo di cinta senese—a thin Tuscan bread heaped with local salami.

Afterwards, I wander to the Ponte Vecchio, where my old friend Claudio Spadi is entertaining the crowd, and then stop for a dish of ice cream at Cantina del Gelato on Via dei Bardi, which has decadent swirls of hazelnut, Nutella, and caramelized almonds. By the time I reach the palazzo and the tiny birdcage elevator takes me back upstairs, my legs are tired, but my stomach is full and my heart is entirely content.

It’s going to be an extraordinary month.


My apartment in Florence

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Note: Although the apartment I rented is no longer offered through Italy Perfect, it is available by contacting the Rinascimento Palace directly, albeit for a higher price.

Additional resources

Friday, May 30, 2014

Mangiare (v.): to eat, to tuck in

It’s silly to get excited about grocery shopping—it truly is—and yet those mundane errands we take for granted at home suddenly seem novel when we’re traveling abroad. Perhaps it’s the language barrier, or maybe it’s the promise of new and unfamiliar foods. Whatever the reason, it’s the first thing on my mind when I wake up this morning.

There’s a small shop just up the street from my apartment, with a blue and white awning that reads: Sapori & Dintorni, il Supermercato da Gustare e deGustare. It’s part of the Conad chain of grocery stores and as best I can figure, the slogan means “flavors and surroundings, the supermarket to taste and taste,” but really, it sounds best in Italian, far more elegant than the local Price Chopper in Vermont.

Inside, there’s a rush of customers speaking in rapid-fire Italian, and an imposing queue that snakes through the aisles on the way to the cashier. As I reach for a cart, I remind myself that I’ve done my homework, so I know something about what to expect:

Bring a cloth shopping bag. Check.

Remember to use plastic gloves before handling produce. Check.

Bag your own groceries. Check.

I also read something about ordering meats and cheeses over the counter at the salumiere, but at the moment I’m feeling too meek and too overwhelmed to try, worried I’ll get the fractions wrong and end up with a mezzo-kilo of ham instead of an etto.

By the time I make my way to the end of the line, I’m quite pleased with myself. I’ve found all of the essentials on my list—latte scremato, spremuta di arance biande, sacchi nettezza, and carta igienica—and as I examine the labels and let the words roll over my tongue, I’m amused that the things I’m about to buy sound so much more impressive than milk and juice, trash bags, and toilet paper.

I’ve managed to fill my cart with an array of other appetizing things, too, including focaccia bread and chocolate biscotti, as well as a few small custard tarts. My apartment has a tiny kitchenette with a two-burner stove and no oven, but there is a microwave, so I’ve also picked out a few packages of prepared pasta for quick and easy meals. Yes, I feel a teensy bit guilty buying such things here in the cradle of Tuscan cuisine, but let’s be honest… I’m no Mario Batali. Besides, I’m on vacation.

Buoyed by the morning’s adventure, I drop off my bags at the apartment and head outside again, this time over the Ponte Vecchio and into the historic heart of the city, along Via Calimala and its plush shops, past Piazza dell Repubblica and its carousel, all the way to the Duomo. There’s a Vodaphone shop nearby and I need to recharge the SIM card I bought last year for my iPhone, as well as purchase another so that I’ll have access to data on my iPad mini throughout the month. Afterwards, I head to Eataly, where I pick up a few more staples for the apartment, and then to the Mercato Centrale, where shopping succumbs to browsing and I spend a happy hour exploring the new first floor, with its artisan food vendors, wine shop, and cooking school.

By the time I make my way back to Piazza della Signoria, it’s late afternoon. My legs are wearing out, but my list is nearly complete. I spy a black “T” in the window of a caffè facing the square and duck in to buy a few bus tickets, then I walk to the corridor next door to buy an Amici degli Uffizi card, which for €60 will give me unlimited access not just to the Uffizi itself, but to many other sites in town, including the Accademia and the vast complex of museums at the Pitti Palace.

Back at the apartment, I warm up some pasta and sit down for dinner at the dining table facing the window, which I’ve improved with a vase of fresh sunflowers from the market. Afterwards, I take a slow stroll down to the Ponte alle Grazie and across to a well-reviewed ice cream shop on Via dei Neri. As I wander back, enthralled by the warmth of the setting sun on my face and the taste of dark chocolate and salted caramel gelati on my tongue, I think about how this is my fourth trip to Italy and how on each of the previous three, I had stayed in “tourist” Florence, where everyone smiles and speaks English, and there’s always a concierge to do the hard things for you, like booking tickets at the Uffizi, or calling to make a dinner reservation.

This time, I’ve made a point of striking out on my own. It may seem like a trivial thing, but I’m proud of my success. All of the mundane tasks I’ve accomplished today—the grocery shopping, the SIM cards, the bus tickets, and museum passes—have been a good investment. I’m preparing myself for the next four weeks, getting to know my surroundings, and gaining confidence in my skills. In short, I’m learning to survive outside of captivity, and all of the sudden, the possibilities of life in the wild feel endless and intoxicating.

Things to Do

Certain mental pictures rise before the collector of memories at the simple mention, written or spoken, of the places he has loved.

— Henry James, Italian Hours

Top 10 lists are necessarily selective. They are also intensely personal. Mine reflect my own interests and biases, but with that caveat in mind I gladly offer them here—one at a time over the next few months—in the hope that it will inspire others to visit Europe and create memories of their own.

Top 10 Things to Do in Rome, Italy

RomeIn writing to a friend while on “The Grand Tour” of Europe in 1870, a young graduate of Harvard University named Roger Swaim, lamented his arrival in Rome. He had been to France already and would later continue on to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Holy Lands, but not before making a thorough visit of all the conventional sites—the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican—and he was not looking forward to it. “Oh dear! Here is this awful task of Rome on my hands, a mass of brick to investigate [and] excavations to penetrate.” Exhausted and overwhelmed, he felt that he should only “appreciate Rome after getting away,” for it would take time to forget its “filth and discomforts.”

For travelers today, it’s still possible to experience the grittiness of Swain’s Rome, but it’s just as easy to conjure the magnificence of a city built by emperors like Titus and Hadrian, or to bask in the Baroque splendor of art created by the hands of Caravaggio and Bernini. Rome is ever evolving and pulsing with the energy of history and human emotion. It is, after all, the Eternal City, and there is always more than enough to see. Here, though, is a short list that begins to scratch the surface. By the end of your stay, you will want to return time and again to excavate its many layers.


An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:

#10

Climb the Capitoline Hill and gaze out across the ruins of ancient Rome

The city of Rome was built upon seven ancient hills—the Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal, and Viminal. Begin your visit at the Capitoline Hill at a treacherous intersection of streets near Piazza Venezia. To the right of the massive Vittorio Emanuele II monument, variously derided as a “wedding cake” or a “giant typewriter,” climb the cordonata, a set of long sloping steps that lead the Piazza del Campidoglio, where an impressive equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius dominates the space. What you see is a copy of the bronze original, which can be viewed in the adjacent Capitoline Museum, a meandering collection of galleries housed in the Renaissance palaces that surround the square. It’s well worth an entire afternoon’s visit, but for now, continue forward, either to the left or the right of the Palazzo del Senatore, until you reach a terrace overlooking the Roman Forum.

You are standing at the center of Rome and the ruins you see are the remnants of some of the city’s most important civic buildings. Look for the Temple of Saturn, the Temple of Vesta, and the church of San Luca e Martina and try to imagine their grandeur. Look to the distance then and you can see the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum. When the British novelist Charles Dickens visited Rome in the mid-19th century, he stood before the Colosseum and said that to “see it crumbling there, an inch a year; its walls and arches overgrown with green; its corridors open to the day… is to the see the ghost of old Rome, wicked, wonderful old city, haunting the very ground on which its people trod.”

LOCATION:  To reach the terrace, head to Piazza del Campidoglio, and for entrance to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum continue on and look for Piazzale del Colosseo, along Via dei Fori Imperiali.

HOURS:  The Capitoline Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 AM until 8:00 PM; the Colosseum and Roman Forum are open in the summer from 8:30 AM-7:15 PM. Click here for hours at other times of year.  

COST:  Admission is €13 for the Capitoline Museum; a combination ticket to the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum costs €12 and can be purchased online to avoid a lengthy queue. Purchasing a RomaPass instead for €34 might be a worthwhile investment, depending on the number of days you have in Rome and the number of museums you plan to see.

TIP:   While virtually no one appreciates the aesthetics of the Vittorio Emanuele II monument at Piazza Venezia, there is an elevator at the back of the building that will whisk you to the top for a panoramic view of the city for just €7.

WEBSITES:  The Capitoline Museum; the Colosseum and Roman Forum

#9

Stand beneath the dome of the Pantheon to marvel at a feat of ancient engineering

Built during the reign of Hadrian around 126 AD, the Pantheon is thought to be the best preserved building from ancient Rome. With its elegant pediment and massive Corinthian columns, it may not look like a house of worship, but it is indeed a temple whose name is derived from a Greek word meaning All Gods. It is best known, however, for its coffered dome, which was considered such a feat of engineering, even centuries later, that Filippo Brunelleschi traveled here in an effort to uncover its secrets before starting work on his own massive dome in Florence on the basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore. The circular opening in the center of the dome—an oculus—allows daylight to illuminate the interior.

Afterwards, be sure to sit and linger by the obelisk in Piazza della Rotunda, or break for an espresso in one of the local cafés. It is a lively square and you are certain to be entertained by something interesting, whether it is a talented street musician, or a curious pair of levitating men in orange robes and turbans.

LOCATION:  Piazza della Rotunda

COST:  Free

HOURS:  Always open

WEBSITE:  The Pantheon

#8

Travel along the ancient Appian Way and descend into the catacombs of San Callisto

The Appian Way was one of the most important roads in ancient Rome. Once upon a time, its cobblestone pavement began at the Circus Maximus and continued on past the Baths of Caracalla, all the way to the port city of Brindisi. Beneath the surface, there are scores of underground tunnels where the early Christians buried their dead, and today, many of these “catacombs” are open for guided tours.

For a pleasant break from the urban intensity of Rome, travel out along the Appian Way to enjoy the open green space and a multitude of worthwhile sites, including the remains of a sophisticated system of aqueducts. Then, on the way back, stop at the Catacombs of San Callisto to explore a massive burial site that once held the bones of half a million Christians, as well as nine popes and numerous martyrs.

GETTING THERE:  The catacombs are reachable by public transportation (see this link for details), but the route is time-consuming. Instead, I’d recommend taking the Archeobus, a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus that begins its route in central Rome and then travels out along Via Appia Antica with a direct stop at the catacombs of San Callisto. Tickets cost €12 for adults and are valid for 48 hours. A family discount is available.

An organized bike tour is another fun option.

HOURS:  The catacombs of San Callisto are open daily (except on Christmas,  New Year’s Day and Easter Sunday) from 9:00 AM-12:00 PM and again from 2:00 PM-5:00 PM.

COST:  Admission to the catacombs is €8.

TIP:  The catacombs of San Callisto extend deep into the ground. It gets chilly down there, so taking a jacket is advisable, even in the summer.

WEBSITES: Appia Antica Park; Catacombs of San Callisto; the Park of the Appia Antica; Archeobus

#7

Spy the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica through a not-so-secret keyhole on the Aventine Hill

If you are in the mood for an interesting quest on a lazy afternoon, check your map and make your way to Piazza Cavalieri di Malta, where guidebooks promise a “secret keyhole” in a door that reveals a perfectly framed view of St. Peter’s Basilica through a tunnel of pruned hedge.

Look for the worn green door that guards the entrance to the garden of Priory of the Knights of Malta. It’s surprisingly easy to spot, because there is often a small crowd of people queuing for the chance to press their eyes and camera lenses against the keyhole. It may be a well-discovered “secret,” but it’s still as delightful as peering into a doll’s house through an old-fashioned shadow box.

LOCATION:  Piazza Cavalieri di Malta.

COST:  Free

TIP:  Taking a photograph through the keyhole is a tough shot because you have to get both the door and the dome in focus simultaneously. Be prepared to try and try again until you get it right, or do as I did and take a picture of each, then join them together using Photoshop.

WEBSITE:  ItalyGuides.it

#6

Stray off the beaten path and explore the narrow lanes of the Jewish Ghetto

Rome may be an intense and noisy city, but stray slightly off the beaten path into an historic neighborhood known as the Jewish Ghetto—tucked between the Vittorio Emanuele II monument and the Tiber River near Isola Tiberina—and you will find a maze of narrow alleyways that spill out into small piazzas, each more charming than the last.

If you are in the mood for culture and history, visit the Jewish Museum of Rome at the Great Synagogue, but if not, devote an afternoon to wandering aimlessly about the streets. Eventually, you will stumble upon the Bernini turtles that perch on the basin of the Fontana delle Tartarughe in Piazza Mattei, and the crumbling, remains of the Portico d’Ottavia, as well as host of enticing restaurants, shops, and boutiques.

If you stay for dinner, order a plate of carciofi alla giudia—Jewish-style artichokes, deep-fried to a luscious, golden brown.

LOCATION:  The Jewish Museum and synagogue are located on Lungotevere Dè Cenci.

HOURS:  The Jewish Museum and synagogue are open Sunday through Thursday, 10:00 AM-5:00 PM (summer hours are extended to 7:00 PM), and Friday from 9:00 AM-2:00 PM; closed on Saturdays and Jewish holidays.

COST:  Admission to the Jewish museum and synagogue costs €11 for adults, €8 for those over age 65, and €4 for students.

TIP:  While in the vicinity, considering making a short detour to Largo di Torre Argentina, where there is a sanctuary for abandoned cats. You’ll see dozens of them lounging about on the ancient ruins, and donations to help with their care are gratefully accepted.

WEBSITES:  Museo Ebraico di RomaJewish Ghetto Walk (Rick Steves); Echoes from the Roman Ghetto (The New York Times); Foodie’s Guide to Rome’s Jewish Quarter (Fodor’s)

#5

It’s mangia time!

Eating in Rome is an elevated art form, best enjoyed slowly with family and friends over a bottle or two of wine. But even if you’re travelling solo, take the time to dine out and dine well. Where else can you sip a cappuccino while reading a book in one of the oldest cafés in Italy—the venerable Antica Caffè Greco, on Via dei Condotti? And where else can you indulge as happily and as cheaply as you can here with a slice of pizza al taglio or a dish of gelato?

You should also embrace all the city has to offer by savoring some traditional dishes. Italian cuisine, after all, is a patchwork of regional specialties and local ingredients. While in Tuscany you can expect to find wild boar and Chianina beef, when in Rome look for veal saltimbocca or a spicy bucatini all’Amatriciana. And if you happen to be there in the early summer, don’t ever pass up the chance to order a plate of fiori di zucca—zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta cheese, battered and deep-fried.

One final tip, based on personal experience… If ever you long for the simplicity of cacio e pepe, the Italian answer to macaroni and cheese, be very careful how you say it. The letter “C” can be tricky for foreigners. Quite by accident, I once ordered a very private part of the male anatomy instead. It was an innocent slip of the tongue that sent my waiter into peels of laughter!

TIPS:  It may go without saying, but avoid restaurants that post generic photographs of generic food, or those that offer a special menu turistico in English. To gain confidence with Italian vocabulary, consider buying a copy of Eating & Drinking in Italy, by Andy Herbach. He offers basic advice on restaurant etiquette, as well as an indispensable menu translator. In addition to paperback copies, it’s also available for Kindle and iBook readers.

WARNING:  Because of a recent city ordinance, eating and drinking is now banned in areas of “particular historic, artistic, architectonic and cultural value” in Rome, which very nearly everywhere. Local police can now impose fines on tourists who violate the rules by snacking on a sandwich near the Colosseum or the Spanish Steps.

WEBSITES:  Not sure what to tip? Don’t know the difference between a primi piatti and a secondi piatti? Try this handy primer from Fodor’s. For all you need to know about gelato, see: Your Ultimate Guide to Gelato in Rome. And for tips on how to navigate the confusing world of Italian coffee, check out: How to Drink Coffee… Like an Italian.

#4

Sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and more!

As if having the ruins of ancient Rome beneath your feet were not enough, the city’s museums offer a fascinating mix of the elegant, the sublime, and the macabre.

Visit the Borghese Gallery to admire Bernini’s exquisite sculpture of “Apollo and Daphne.” Trek to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme to see stunning frescoes and mosaics, including a lush painted garden from the Villa of Livia at the National Museum of Rome. Commune with the spirits of two of England’s greatest romantic poets at the Keats-Shelley House near the Spanish Steps. Or, plunge underground to see the skeletons of thousands of Capuchin monks woven into elaborate and ghoulish designs, including a grim reaper holding scales and a scythe made of human vertebrae. The opportunities are endless, bound only by the days in your itinerary and the strength left in your legs.

Here are my personal favorites, in descending order. For hours, locations, and the cost of admission, please refer to each museum’s website, linked below.

TIP:  If you plan to visit several museums in Rome, consider purchasing a Roma Pass, which costs €34 and provides free admission to the first two museums and reduced admission to each additional museum visited within a three-day period. It also provides unlimited use of the city’s public transportation network.

#3

Gaze upon the face of God in Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel

Getting to the Sistine Chapel is enough to test the patience of a saint.

First, there are the notoriously long lines get in, made worse by the heat of the summer sun. Then, there is the crushing weight of people inside—more than 6 million souls visit each year. In their only gesture toward crowd control, the Vatican Museums are arranged into a one-way street, with large black arrows printed on the gallery map. There are minor deviations here and there that allow visitors to move more quickly to the chapel itself by bypassing some inestimable treasures along the way, but mostly it’s like being on a theme park ride from which there is no escape once the rollercoaster has left the platform.

Buckle in and stay for the day.

Take your time and walk in awe through the 16th century Gallery of Maps that render the cities and towns of Italy in exquisite detail. You will see the Raphael Rooms, including his masterpiece, The School of Athens, paintings by Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci, and even an entire room devoted to sculptures of animals.

By the time you reach the Sistine Chapel, you will be acclimated to the unnatural closeness of the strangers and ready to gaze solely upon Michelangelo’s narrative: Noah and the flood, the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and (of course) God’s creation of Adam in the touch of two outstretched hands. Outside this place, in the pages of books, on coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets and computer mouse pads, the image is so familiar that it’s lost the power to impress. Here, though, you will feel the room pulse with energy and human emotion, and with history, too, for it is here the College of Cardinals meets to elect a new pope.

If time allows, follow the signs and continue on into St. Peter’s Basilica, and if strength remains after a thorough exploration, consider climbing to the top of the dome. Even with an elevator that rises part way, it’s a challenging climb to be sure. As the dome slants in, so too does the head room available on the stairs. It’s a tight and awkward squeeze, but the view is unparalleled. Look down upon St. Peter’s Square and then trace Via della Conciliazione all the way to Castel Sant’Angelo, across the bridge with its sentry of angels, all the way east to the Vittorio Emanuele II monument at Piazza Venezia, which towers over the city like an oversized wedding cake.

Rome is glorious and so, too, is Vatican City.

LOCATION:  St. Peter’s Basilica is located in Piazza San Pietro. To reach the Vatican Museums, turn right and walk out along the walls to Viale Vaticano. For more detailed directions, click here.

HOURS:  The Vatican Museums are open Monday to Saturday, 10:00 AM-6:00 PM. On Sundays, the museum closes at 2:00 PM, except for the last Sunday of every month, when there is also free entrance from 9:00 AM to 12.30 PM. Obviously, expect the lines to be even longer on that day.

COST:  Entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica is free; admission to the Vatican Museums costs €16 for adults.

IMPORTANT:  Modest dress is required. According to the Vatican website: “Access to Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, Vatican Gardens and Saint Peter’s Basilica is permitted only to visitors dressed appropriately (no sleeveless blouses, no miniskirts, no shorts, no hats allowed).”

TIPS:  You can now reserve tickets for the Vatican Museums online. Do it! Or, be prepared to face the consequences—a line of epic proportions that, at times, stretches halfway around the walls of Vatican City. If money is no object, you should know that VIP tours that allow private access off-hours are available.

MORE TIPS:  To extend your visit to Vatican City, consider booking a Scavi tour which takes visitors deep into the necropolis to the tomb of St. Peter (€16). Or, above ground, you can request a ticket to a Papal Audience held most Wednesdays (free).

STILL MORE:  There are more than 900 churches in Rome. If you have the time and the inclination, continue on with these:

#2

Viva l’amore and toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain

If you are forced to wade through a horde of tourists to get anywhere near the Trevi Fountain in Rome—and you will be—you might want to blame Hollywood for making such enchanting movies as La Dolce Vita, Roman Holiday, and Three Coins in the Fountain.

The fountain is impressive in its own right. Completed in 1762 at the terminus of an ancient Roman aqueduct, the pool of water is ornamented by a massive wall of travertine and Carrara marble statues representing an aquatic theme. To be honest, though, most people who congregate here have little interest in art and architecture. Most have come with loose change in their pockets and a very specific task in mind.

According to Fodor’s: “Everyone knows the famous legend that if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain you will ensure a return trip to the Eternal City. But not everyone knows how to do it the right way: You must toss a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder, with your back to the fountain. One coin means you’ll return to Rome; two, you’ll return and fall in love; three, you’ll return, find love, and marry.”

I’m a single lady, so the last time I was in Rome I threw an entire handful of coins of every size and denomination, just for good measure!

LOCATION:  Follow the crowds to Piazza di Trevi, off Via Del Tritone, near Piazza Barberini.

COST:  Free, aside from the coins you throw, which are collected regularly and used by the city to fund local charities.

TIPS:  If you feel inspired to reenact another scene from a famous Hollywood movie, you should visit the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, near the Circus Maximus, to snap a quick picture of “La Bocca della Verità,” or Mouth of Truth. It’s a carved stone face that was featured in the 1953 movie Roman Holiday. Legend has it that it bites off the hands of liars, so please be careful!  ;-)

Still can’t get enough? Try this walking tour of the locations used in Roman Holiday. Or, even better, explore the city on a scooter of your own, just like Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Vintage vespa tours are available from Bici & Baci.

WEBSITE:  Trevi Fountain

#1

When in Rome, do as the Romans do… and join the evening passeggiata

The sweet life. That’s what la dolce vita means, and being in Rome with the pulse of human existence all around, it’s easy to understand the meaning, especially at the end of the day when the noise of traffic fades away and the city falls into a romantic reverie. Families flood the streets and take a gentle stroll about in an Italian tradition known as the evening passeggiata.

Join the crowds and enjoy the show. As someone once told me on my very first trip the Eternal City: “Rome by night, she is magic.”

She is, indeed.

SUGGESTED ITINERARY:  Here is an interactive map of the route I suggest, starting at the Colosseum and ending by the Spanish Steps. Be warned: the total distance of this walk is roughly 3 miles, but will take you by some of the city’s prettiest squares and monuments, including Campo de’ Fiori, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and the Trevi Fountain.

Click on the link below that reads “View Larger Map” to see detailed walking directions from site to site.


A Photo Gallery of Rome

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Top 10 Things to Do in Florence, Italy

Whenever I think of Florence, I like to remember my favorite scene in E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room with a View. When the heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, first enters the Basilica of Santa Croce without a guidebook, she feels lost and alone.

Of course, it must be a wonderful building. But how like a barn! And how very cold! Of course, it contained frescoes by Giotto, in the presence of whose tactile values she was capable of feeling what was proper. But who was to tell her which they were? She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and trancepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.

Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.

We should all be more like Lucy when we’re in Florence—that most intimidating of cities. As her companion, the outspoken Miss Lavish says, the “true Italy is only to be found by patient observation.”

With that in mind, put the guidebooks aside. “Give it to me; I shan’t let you carry it. We will simply drift.”


An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:

#10

Walk in Lucy’s footsteps and visit the Basilica of Santa Croce

The colorful marble stripes on the front of this Franciscan church may be Victorian—described by Forster as a “black-and-white façade of surpassing ugliness”—but the interior dates to the dawn of the Renaissance. There are frescoes by Giotto and Gaddi, as well as tombs and cenotaphs dedicated to many great Italian men, including:

  • Galileo Galilei, the mathematician and astronomer;
  • Dante Alighieri, known for his Divine Comedy;
  • Niccolò Machiavelli, author of a famously shrewd treatise on power known as The Prince; and
  • Michelangelo Buonarroti, the renowned sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, who designed the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, created the iconographic statue of David before his battle with Goliath, and painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Take your time to wander about Santa Croce, then be sure to see the wonderful church museum that’s adjacent, just through the cloisters.

LOCATION:  Piazza Santa Croce, 16

HOURS:  Monday-Saturday, 9:30 AM – 5:30 PM; Sundays and Holy Days, 2:00 PM – 5:30 PM

COST:  Full price ticket, €6; reduced price ticket for children, €4

RULES:  Appropriate dress; photography is permitted without a flash, no tripods

WEBSITE:  Basilica di Santa Croce 

#9

Shop for leather goods at the venerable Scuola del Cuoio

Florence is justifiably famous for its leather. You can shop the San Lorenzo street market* for fun and inexpensive items of questionable origin, or visit any number of the high quality boutiques in town, including Madova, Roberta, Peruzzi, and Frizzoni, but my own personal favorite is the Scuola del Cuoio. Their products—ranging from belts and wallets to stunning purses—are meticulously handcrafted out of lambskin and other more unusual pelts, including deer, ostrich, python, and alligator. For a memorable experience, you can also visit the workshop and watch as an artisan monograms your purchase in gold or silver leaf.

* Update: As of January 2014, the San Lorenzo street market has been indefinitely moved to Piazza del Mercato Centrale and its surrounding streets.

LOCATION:  Enter through the Basilica di Santa Croce, or through the garden that surrounds the apse, at Via San Giuseppe, 5r.

HOURS:  Fall/Winter, Monday-Friday, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM, Saturday, 10:30 AM – 6:00 PM; Spring/Summer, Daily 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM.

WEBSITE:  Scuola del Cuoio

#8

Cross the Ponte Vecchio and explore the antique galleries and artisan shops of the Oltrarno

The name “Oltrarno” simply means the “other side of the Arno.” From sculptors and wood carvers to gilders, bookbinders and goldsmiths, the small shops you’ll find along the maze of streets between the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza Santo Spirito may seem a world away from the hoards that congregate in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo, but getting there requires nothing more than an easy walk across one of Florence’s beautiful bridges.

While the Ponte Santa Trinita and the Ponte alle Grazie were both destroyed by the Nazis near the end of World War II and later rebuilt, the Ponte Vecchio—or “Old Bridge,” in the middle—was spared. Like Brunelleschi’s red-tiled dome, the Ponte Vecchio is an iconographic symbol of Florence.

Before you cross the bridge to the Oltrarno, be sure to stand back along the riverbank to admire the shops that hang pell-mell from the sides. The butchers and fishmongers of the medieval city are long gone, replaced by jewelers whose wooden doors and wrought iron hardware at the close of day resemble a row of pirates’ treasure chests.

GETTING THERE:  Explore the area on your own (The New York Times and National Geographic both offer useful itineraries), or book a walking tour with a guide.

NOTE:  For a full day, combine a stroll about the Oltrarno with a visit to the Pitti Palace or the Boboli Gardens, or even late afternoon vespers at the church of San Miniato al Monte (see #4 below).

WEBSITE:  Welcome to Oltrarno

#7

Climb Giotto’s bell tower for a breathtaking view of the city

Getting to the top of the cathedral’s campanile in Florence requires 414 steps, but the view overlooking a sea of red tiled roofs more than makes up for the effort. You can see San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapel to the north, the Palazzo Vecchio to the south, Santa Croce to the east, and the church of San Miniato al Monte in the far distance on a hill across the Arno. Best of all, Giotto’s bell tower will give you an unparalleled look at Filippo Brunelleschi’s famous dome.

If you make it to the top and back, be sure to reward yourself with a few scoops of gelato. The delicious Grom is nearby, on Via del Campanile, at the corner of Via delle Oche.

LOCATION:  Piazza del Duomo. Enter via the stairs in the nave of the cathedral, or outside on the south side of the cathedral

NOTE:  There is no elevator. Visitors must climb 414 steps to reach to the top of the bell tower, but unlike the trek to the dome, the staircase is wide and headroom is ample, making it a better choice for those who are claustrophobic.

HOURS:  Daily, 8:30 AM – 7:30 PM

COST:  €6, although a combination ticket including the Duomo, bell tower, dome, crypt, baptistery, and museum is also available

WEBSITE:  Museo del Duomo

#6

See the Gates of Paradise and glimpse the fiery pits of Hell at the cathedral’s baptistery

Michelangelo once called Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze panels for the baptistery doors the “Gates of Paradise.” Here in Piazza del Duomo, those panels, which depict scenes from the Old Testament of the Bible, are reproductions of the originals that were installed in 1452, but they are stunning nonetheless.

Inside the baptistery, the scene is somewhat different. The lush ceiling mosaic depicts a benevolent Jesus with arms outstretched and a choir of angels overhead, but what you’ll notice most is a disturbing image of “The Last Judgment.” Look carefully and you’ll see Satan munching on the naked torso of an unrepentant sinner, while others meet an equally unpleasant fate in the jaws of snakes, lizards, and giant beetles.

If you save your visit for a sunny day, you’ll also see rays of sunshine slanting through the room’s narrow windows. When the gold leaf on the glass tiles capture the light, they shimmer and glow as if lit internally by the flames of a hundred candles.

LOCATION:  Piazza del Duomo

NOTE:  Ghiberti’s original bronze panels for the baptistery doors can be seen nearby at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

HOURS:  Monday – Saturday, 12:15 PM – 7:00 PM; Sunday and the first Saturday of the month, 8:30 AM – 2:00 PM

COST:  €4, although a combination ticket including the Duomo, bell tower, dome, crypt, baptistery, and museum is also available

WEBSITE:  Museo del Duomo

#5

Museums, museums, museums!

It’s hard to think of a city with more enticing museums than Florence.

You can see Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery, compare Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia to Donatello’s David at the Bargello, marvel at the world’s largest collection of artists’ self portraits in the Vasari Corridor, stand before Benozzo Gozzoli’s stunning frescoes in the Chapel of the Magi at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi or Fra Angelico’s Annunciation at the San Marco monastery, or indulge in the splendors of the Pitti Palace and the Palazzo Vecchio.

There is never time enough to visit museums in Florence, but be sure to wile away the hours at one—if not all—of these:

COST:  Admission fees for individual museums vary, but consider buying a Firenze Card which provides queue jumping access to 60 different churches, museums, and historical sites at a cost of €72. The card, which is valid for 72 hours, also includes public transportation, use of the city’s wifi network, and dedicated Android iPhone, and iPad apps with built in GPS. Another option is the Amici degli Uffizi pass, which costs €60, but is valid until the end of the year. For useful tips on which to buy and why, click here.

#4

Hear Benedictine monks sing in Georgian chant at the church of San Miniato al Monte

The basilica of San Miniato al Monte is a beautiful Romanesque church in its own right. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries, it has a long, graceful nave and an adjoining cloister and cemetery. But once you’ve visited the grounds thoroughly, consider staying for vespers, an evening prayer service in the Roman Catholic church during which the local Benedictine monks sing in Gregorian chant. It can be a wonderfully serene moment in an otherwise intense and overwhelming city.

LOCATION:  Via delle Porte Sante, 34

TIME:  On Sundays and Feast days, the monks accompany Mass with Gregorian chant at 10:00 AM and 5:30 PM in the crypt. In the summer, Gregorian chant also takes place during vespers at 5:30 PM on weekdays.

NOTE:  If you go, please—I beg you—be polite enough to stay through the entire service. There is nothing worse than a tourist who drops by, only to wander out a few minutes later.

COST:  Free, but a small donation to the church is a welcome gesture

WEBSITE:  Basilica di San Miniato al Monte

#3

Rub the snout of Il Porcellino for good luck and a future return to Florence

Il Porcellino is the statue of a wild boar located under the loggia of the Mercato Nuovo, near Piazza della Signoria. Legend has it that if you place a coin in his mouth and allow it to fall into the grating below, it will bring good luck. And if you rub his snout, you will ensure your return to Florence someday. Needless to say, it’s been polished to a brilliant shine by thousands of tourists.

I’ve visited the little piglet myself on the final night of each of my trips to Florence, and I know it works because I always come back.

LOCATION:  Piazza del Mercato Nuovo

COST:  Free, aside from the coin you use for luck! The proceeds are collected and distributed to local charities.

#2

Stop and listen to a street musician

From Italian pop to accordions and classical guitar, it seems that there’s always live music on the streets of Florence, especially in the evenings on the Ponte Vecchio, and in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza della Repubblica.

Stop, listen, enjoy. It’s free.

And if you like what you hear, tip them a Euro or two. Or better yet, buy their CD to bring those lovely Italian memories home. Listening to Claudio Spadi sing “A te” or “Acquarello” in the middle of a cold, Vermont winter always brings a smile to my face.

WHERE:  In the summer, you can usually find local musicians on the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria, Piazza della Repubblica, and often in Piazza San Marco, Piazza Santa Croce, and Piazza Santo Spirito.

WHO:  My personal favorites? Here are some videos of performances by Claudio Spadi and Luca Sciortino, Justyna Maria Janiczak, and Piotr Tomaszewski

#1

Watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo

The panoramic view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo, high on a hill on the south bank of the Arno River, is magnificent. From a distance, the architectural details of the city melt into harmonious shades red and yellow, and like the brush strokes in an impressionist painting, the impact from afar is greater than the sum of its parts.

To see the city at its best, go in the evening and stay for the sunset. It’s a sight you’ll long remember.

LOCATION:  Viale Michelangelo

GETTING THERE:  Aside from a taxi or rental car, there are three options for getting to Piazzale Michelangelo:

1) Walk along the banks of the Oltrarno to the footpath that winds up the hill. Please note that there are many stairs and they are steep;

2) Take the number 12 bus from Santa Maria Novella train station; or

3) Reserve a sunset limousine tour with a company such as I Just Drive, which costs €18 per person and requires a minimum of four people.


Where to stay when in Florence

My personal choice is always the Hotel Davanzati at Via Porta Rossa, 5, but don’t just take my word for it. Check out their reviews on TripAdvisor.

Hotel Davanzati Hotel Davanzati Hotel Davanzati


A Photo Gallery of Florence

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Top 10 Things to Do in Venice, Italy

Venice, ItalyMore than a century ago, it was the great American novelist cum travel writer Henry James who decided that there was “nothing left to discover or describe” about Venice, and that “originality of attitude is completely impossible.”

But, he said, “it would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to say. I write these lines with the full consciousness of having no information whatever to offer. I do not pretend to enlighten the reader; I pretend only to give fillip to his memory; and I hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love with his theme.”

And so I am.

Released from the burden of originality and the guilt of self-indulgence, here is my own To Do List for first-time visitors to Venice.


An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:

#10

Ride a vaporetto down the Grand Canal

Whether you arrive in Venice at Santa Lucia railway station, at the bus depot in Piazzale Roma, or at the small airport across the lagoon, the glorious Grand Canal will be among the first sites you see, and invariably, it will look exactly as you imagined. It will feel at once foreign and familiar, as if you’ve stepped into an 18th century painting by Canaletto, only to find that the world around you has changed little in its substance.

To extend the illusion a little longer, board a public water bus—known as a vaporetto—and ride it the length of the canal, under the Rialto Bridge, by the colorful and crumbling façades of grand palazzos like the Ca’ d’Oro and the Ca’ Rezzonico, all the way down past the dome of Santa Maria della Salute, before disembarking at St. Mark’s Square.

If the Grand Canal seems heavy with traffic today, bustling with motor boats, water buses, and gondolas, remind yourself that it was even more crowded in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the golden age of the Venetian Republic, when it was a major thoroughfare for merchants who traded goods across Europe and the Far East.

BUYING TICKETS:  ACTV tickets can be bought: 1) Online; 2) On site from the Hellovenezia ticket office at the railway station; or 3) From the automatic ticket machines on some landing docks.

COST:  A single ticket on the vaporetto costs €7, so buying a tourist travel card is a wise decision. Cards allow unlimited access for a period of either 12, 24, 36, 48, or 72 hours, or for 7 days from the time it is initially activated. Prices vary accordingly, from €18 to €50. For further details, see one of the websites below.

NOTE:  For the purposes of sightseeing, board a vaporetto on Line 1 (map), or pay slightly more to board the special Vaporetto dell’Arte, which includes a multilingual audio and video system. Remember, you will need to swipe your travel card on the iMob validating machines located at the entrance to the ACTV loading docks before you board, or face a hefty fine.

WEBSITES:  ACTV, VeniceConnectedVaporetto dell’Arte

#9

Soak in the Byzantine splendor of St. Mark’s Basilica

At the eastern end of St. Mark’s Square lies the basilica that was built to house the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist, plundered from Alexandria, Egypt in 828 A.D. Legend has it that the Venetians hid the relics in a barrel under layers of pork to slip them past Muslim guards, a scheme they later depicted in a mosaic above the portal that is farthest left of the front entrance.

While Venice is replete with Baroque churches, St. Mark’s Basilica is an exotic outlier, with its massive marble columns, graceful arches, and onion domes clad in lead. Look carefully about and you’ll also see a hodgepodge of ornaments that were brought back piecemeal over the centuries by Venetian merchants who had sailed to the Orient and back.

To see the interior—a “glittering robber’s den” encrusted with gold mosaic tiles, set unevenly to better refract the light—you will have to survive the basilica’s infamous queue, as well as its strict rules for entry, but both are a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing one of Europe’s finest churches.

GETTING THERE:  For directions to Piazza San Marco from various locations, including the train station and Piazzale Roma, click here.

HOURS:  Summer hours for the basilica are from 9:45 AM – 5:00 PM weekdays and Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 2:00 PM – 5:00 PM. Please check the website below for hours at other times of year.

NOTE:  Modest dress is required (cover those knees and shoulders!) and photography is not allowed, nor are large bags and purses. To avoid the maddening queue to get in, consider making a reservation online.

COST: Admission to the basilica itself is free, but small and very worthwhile charges apply to enter the chancel, treasury and loggia, areas which include the Pala d’Oro, a gold altarpiece constructed of enamel icons and encrusted with gemstones; an odd and extensive collection of chalices and reliquaries containing the blood and bones of saints; and the original gilded horses of St. Mark, the prize of so many lootings over the centuries.

MORE:  If time permits, consider purchasing a Chorus Pass for €12, which grants admission to sixteen churches in Venice.

WEBSITE:  Basilica di San Marco

#8

Visit the Doge’s Palace to walk across the Bridge of Sighs and see the prison cell from which Casanova famously escaped

The Palazzo Ducale, which adjoins St. Mark’s Basilica, was once the residence of the Doge of Venice. To make the most your experience here, book a “Secret Itineraries” tour with a well-trained guide, who will explain the civic and political history of the city and its “Council of Ten.”

You will see where the most delicate administrative tasks were performed, in an attic space far removed from prying eyes, then you’ll continue through the Chancellery, where walls of cabinets once contained secret documents, before arriving in the torture chamber in which prisoners were hung by their arms from ropes. You’ll even get to cross the infamous Bridge of Sighs and enter the prison itself to see the cell once occupied by Casanova, and from which he made his daring escape.

Along the way, be sure to keep your eye out for centuries old graffiti scratched into the window panes by bored clerks.

GETTING THERE:  If arriving by vaporetto, chose either the Vallaresso or San Zaccaria stop. For more information, click here.

HOURS:  From April to October, the Doge’s Palace is open daily from 8:30 AM – 7:00 PM, and from April-March, daily from 8:30 AM – 5:30 PM. “Secret Itineraries” tours in English run at 9:55 AM and 11.35 AM and should be reserved in advance.

COST:  A full-price ticket valid for the Doge’s Palace as well as the Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana costs €16. The “Secret Itineraries” tour is €20. For those tourists who intend to visit many of the city’s churches and museums, purchasing the Venice Card (€39.90 for adults) may be a worthwhile option.

MORE:  In addition to the Doge’s Palace,Venice offers an array of enticing museums. If time permits, or foul weather forces you indoors, consider visiting the following: Gallerie dell’Accademia (pre-19th century Venetian art); Peggy Guggenheim Collection (contemporary art); Museo Correr (collections focus on the art and history of Venice); or Ca’ Rezzonico (a museum of 18th century art).

WEBSITE:  Palazzo Ducale

#7

Gaze out across the rooftops of Venice from the top of the campanile in St. Mark’s Square

While most ancient bell towers in Italy require a sturdy pair of legs, the campanile in St. Mark’s Square has a large and speedy elevator. Ride it to the top for the sheer pleasure of the view. From a height of 324 feet, you can easily see the entire city, with a rim of coastline in every direction. Look for the iconic church of Santa Maria della Salute at the mouth of the Grand Canal. If you scan the red tiled roofs carefully with a camera lens or a telescope, you might also spy the elegant spiral staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo.

Rest assured, while the original 15th century campanile collapsed into rubble quite suddenly in 1902, the reconstructed tower won’t fall again because Venice recently completed a multi-year engineering project to shore up its foundation.

LOCATION: Piazza San Marco

HOURS:  Summer hours for the campanile are from 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM. Please check the website below for hours at other times of year.

COST:  A ticket to ride the elevator to the top of the campanile costs €8.

MORE:  For another extraordinary view of the city of Venice, take a vaporetto out to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and take the elevator to the top of the bell tower there.

WEBSITE:  Basilica di San Marco

#6

Visit the Rialto Market to experience the vivid sights, sounds, and smells of Venetian life

In the morning, the open-air Rialto Market is a feast for the senses, as local farmers and fisherman unload trays of fresh squid, cuttlefish, crabs and clams, as well as baskets of whatever produce is in season, from cherries and grapes to peas and asparagus.

If the old adage about eating with your eyes first is true—mangiare con gli occhi, as the Italians would say—you will stroll about and leave feeling very full and very happy.

LOCATION:  San Polo, Campo de la Pescheria (fruits and vegetables) and Campo de le Becarie, Loggia Grande and Loggia Piccola (fish)

HOURS:  The markets open around 7:00 AM. Note, the produce market is closed on Sundays and the fish market is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

WEBSITE:  Mercato di Rialto

#5

Go shopping anywhere and everywhere for Murano glass

While the fame of Venetian glass extends back to the Roman Empire, all of the furnaces and foundries were moved to the island of Murano in 1291 out of fear that a fire would consume the city’s wooden buildings. Today, the art, craft, and tradition of Murano glass continues and local boutiques sell a dizzying array of whimsical sculptures and ornate chandeliers.

On one of my visits to Venice, the shop window at Pauly & Co. in St. Mark’s Square displayed a series of balloon animals that would surely pass for the real thing, in addition to a green fedora for €7,500, and a folded shirt, complete with buttons, for €8,100. A craftsman even made what would appear to be Cinderella’s glass slipper, although at nearly €11,000 most women would need to marry Prince Charming to be able to afford it.

For a far less expensive option and one that’s easy to slide into a suitcase already bulging with Italian souvenirs, shop for jewelry instead.

RECOMMENDATIONS:  Personally, I like the jewelry collections at Antica Murrina and Le Perle. Here are some other suggestions from Lonely Planet.

NOTE:  If you spend enough and you’re a non-EU citizen, consider applying for a VAT refund.

#4

Escape the crowds for a day and go island hopping

Eventually, even the most ardent admirer of Venice will want to escape for the day to the nearby islands of Murano, Burano, or Torcello. The first is best known for glassmaking, the second for lace, and the third—I suspect—for being seldom visited by tourists.

Start with a short boat ride to Murano, where you can any number of glass factorys for a free tour. In the heat of the furnace, the craftsmen work quickly and deftly with molten glass that is roughly the texture of salt water taffy, just be wary of the salesmen who will follow you afterwards into the showroom. They can turn the subtle art of browsing into an uncomfortable, high stakes game of cat-and-mouse.

Next, make your way to Burano, a tiny fishing village where the streets are a riot of color, lined with houses that are painted in improbable shades of blue, orange, green, purple, and red. Flower pots rest on window ledges, laundry hangs to dry, and in the summer nearly every front door stands ajar, covered only with a striped curtain that catches the breeze, as a sail might on a boat.

If time remains, consider one last jump to Torcello. There is a brick walkway that leads away from the dock, but much of the island consists of open fields and undisturbed wetlands. Follow the path to a cluster of old buildings that includes two magnificent churches side-by-side—Santa Fosca, which is low and round, and the more conventional Santa Maria Assunta, with its solitary bell tower. Both are primitive, peaceful and calm, far removed from the opulence of Venice and its madding crowd.

GETTING THERE:  The islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello are easy to reach using public transportation. Vaporetto line numbers 12, 13, 14, 4.1, and 4.2 make the journey to Murano from Fondamente Nove (on the north side of Castello), and line number 12 continues on to Burano and Torcello.

COST:  Travel to the islands is included with a standard ACTV ticket

WEBSITES: Murano, Burano, Torcello 

#3

Be indulgent and hire a gondolier

Yes, it is cliché, and it is expensive, but you have traveled long and far to come to Venice, and you really should ride in a gondola.

Henry James once wrote that “little mental pictures rise before the collector of memories at the simple mention, written or spoken, of the places he has loved.” When he conjured an image of Venice, it was not Piazza San Marco that he thought about, nor was it the basilica, or the dome of the Salute church, or even the Grand Canal. Instead, in his mind’s eye he saw:

“…a narrow canal in the heart of the city—a patch of green water and a surface of pink wall. The gondola moves slowly; it gives a great smooth swerve, passes under a bridge, and the gondolier’s cry, carried over the quiet water, makes a kind of splash of stillness. A girl crosses the little bridge, which has an arch like a camel’s back, [and] you see her against the sky as you float beneath… On the other side of this small waterway is a great shabby façade of Gothic windows and balconies… It is very hot and still, the canal has a queer smell, and the whole place is enchanting.”

I rest my case.

LOCATION:  Gondolas depart from nearly every dock in Venice, so wander about and pick a neighborhood that appeals to you. Most itineraries will include at least a short piece of the Grand Canal, but it’s often a ride along the quiet side canals that is most enchanting.

COST:  The rates for gondoliers are fixed by the city of Venice. During the day, expect to pay €80 for a 40-minute ride for a maximum of six people, and €40 for each additional increment of 20 minutes. In the evening, the rate increases to a base price of €100. If you would like to be serenaded by your gondolier, that fee is additional and must be negotiated.

Too expensive? Here are some affordable alternatives:  1) Share a gondola ride with others at Santa Maria del Giglio; or 2) Take a traghetto across the Grand Canal. For a list of crossing points, click here.

WHAT TO EXPECT:  Gondola Rides in Venice: How to Get the Most from your Venice Gondola Experience

WEBSITE:  Gondola Venezia

#2

Spend a lazy evening under the stars listening to the orchestras play in Piazza San Marco

It’s said that when Casanova escaped from prison in 1756, he stopped off for a cup of coffee at Caffè Florian before fleeing to Paris. It’s easy to understand why when you see how lively and pleasant Piazza San Marco becomes at night, once the crowds have slipped away.

There are three restaurants in the square, each with neat rows of tables and chairs, and awnings under which an orchestra plays. Take a seat at Caffé Florian, Ristorante Gran Caffé Quadri, or Caffé Lavena, order a cocktail, lean back and relax as you are serenaded with sentimental waltzes and lively folk dances.

No one will blame you if you get up and dance.

LOCATION:  Piazza San Marco

HOURS: 

  • Caffé Florian is open daily from 9:00 AM – 11:00 PM in the summer, and closed Wednesdays in winter (menu)
  • Ristorante Gran Caffé Quadri is open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch from 12:30 PM – 2:30 PM, and for dinner from 7:30 PM – 10:30 PM
  • Caffé Lavena is open daily from 9:30 AM – 11:00 PM

NOTE:  To avoid an unhappy surprise when the bill arrives, please know that there is a supplemental charge per person whenever the orchestra is playing.

WEBSITES:  

#1

Put away the map and get lost

In a city built of islands, where there are 150 canals and 400 bridges, maps are of little use, and modern gadgets like cell phones with GPS, even less so. For that reason, it can be genuinely difficult to find things in Venice, so resolve to discover them instead. The lack of intention makes all the difference in the world. It allows frustration to give way to serendipity.

In exploring the city’s labyrinthine streets and canals, you may find comfort in periodic signs that read “Per Rialto and “Per San Marco,” but notice how they often they point in two directions at once, creating endless combinations.

Right, left, right.

Left, left, right.

Follow your fancy and see what pleasures await. On one of my tramps around Venice I was treated to shop windows that had exotic spices stacked into powdered pyramids, papier-mâché masks formed into the fanciful faces of cats, hedgehogs and owls, and tiny gold fish suspended in blown glass aquariums of every size and shape.

Walk on, and soon you’ll find yourself wondering what more there is to see just around the corner, and you’ll be tempted to devote the entire day to finding out.

It will be a day well spent.

LOCATION:  It matters not.

HOURS:  Unlimited.

COST:  Nothing.

MEMORIES:  Priceless


Where to stay when in Venice

My personal choice is always the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo at Santa Croce 2063, but don’t just take my word for it. Check out their reviews on TripAdvisor.

Hotel Al Ponte MocenigoHotel al Ponte MocenigoDSC_3323c


A Photo Gallery of Venice

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Cursed.

Try as I might, that’s the word that’s repeating in my brain as I head off to Europe this year.  It’s my fourth solo trip.  I’m a seasoned traveler by now, so the apprehension I feel seems odd and misplaced.  First there was London in the summer of 2006, then a wider swing through the UK in 2007 ending with a week in Paris, and then last year Italy. Fourteen days spent living la dolce vita in sweet, lovely Italy. This time it’s a return trip to France to explore parts of Normandy and the Alsace, followed by a journey north and east into Belgium and the Netherlands.  It all sounds wonderful on paper—perfect, really—so it’s a shame that the entire enterprise is doomed from the start.

I’m not entirely serious when I say that, of course, but there is something to it. Unwittingly, the dates I locked in last fall in order to use my frequent flyer points conflict with my nephew’s high school graduation. That’s guilt-inducing enough, but to make matters worse I’ve developed a lingering foot problem that makes walking distances rather like stepping on a nail (over and over), which should make climbing into German bunkers near Omaha Beach and, quite frankly, all of Mont-St-Michel, interesting.

Weeks before I leave, an outbreak of swine flu has me worried about restrictions on international travel. In a mad and quite possibly vain attempt to stay well, I start carrying a bottle of Purell with me everywhere I go. Then, with just days to go, I find out that United Mobile, the company that operates the SIM card on my cell phone, is suddenly out of business and has taken with it all of the money I recently added to my pre-paid account in preparation for my trip. And finally, hours before takeoff, comes the surprising news that my “window” seat on Lufthansa, booked seven months ago, is actually—and ironically—in a row without a window. When I make a mental tally of these things, I know it could be far worse. In this economy, I’m fortunate to be able to travel at all, and yet it feels like a premonition of things to come. There are storm clouds on the horizon. Literally.

So let’s just cut to the chase.  Let’s get to the bottom line.  I’m writing this as a retrospective at home in Vermont in mid-winter, so I might as well say that this is going to be the story of a road trip that is filled with rain, transportation detours and delays, more rain, scaffolding and other forms of obstruction, a broken camera lens, and still more rain.  Really, a ridiculous amount of rain.  So, let’s just thank God here and now for Parisian tartes and café cremes, Belgian chocolate, and Dutch pancakes, before rewinding to the start of the story…

Amen.

It’s early on a Sunday night and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting to board a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.  This is what happens when you try to use years of accumulated points in your Dividend Miles account.  You get a tight connecting flight on a partner airline, although I suppose the upside—if I follow the Sarah Palin school of thought on foreign travel—is that I now get to include Germany on the list of countries that I’ve visited!

There is a general moan among the passengers on flight 427 when a short delay is announced for “cleaning and catering.”  Within minutes the crowd grows antsy and it is clear that there will be little patience for boarding etiquette.  Despite the usual invitation for families with small children to board first, everyone begins to press towards the door in an undifferentiated mass.  The Lufthansa employees seem to know it’s a losing battle, so they resort to social admonishment instead.  In a stern German accent, a man says: “I dit not know vee had so many children onboard dis flight!”

Filing in, though, I’m feeling a bit smug. We are told that the cabin is filled to capacity, every seat taken, but before leaving home I checked in online and was able to change my undesirable, windowless seat from 32K to 35A, a maneuver at the time that felt worthy of a fist pump.  But as I make my way down the aisle, I’m suddenly perplexed. Row 32 has a window, a perfectly fine window, identical in every way to every other window.  So much for the color-coded warning on Seat Guru’s floor plan.

As I settle into my new assignment, I find myself squeezed in next to a very large and already very sweaty woman.  She’s quiet and not at all inconsiderate, but between shoulder and knee, there’s truly no way to avoid full bodily contact.  It’s going to be a long and uncomfortable night.  I crane my neck to the right and for a moment stare wistfully at the nice-looking man sitting in the aisle seat of row 32, and the woman resting peacefully by the window next to him. Ah, fate, what have you done to me?

On the upside, we were scheduled to depart at 6:05 PM, and despite the all the nonsense over “cleaning and catering” it’s only 6:15 when we pull away from the gate, which when you think about it, isn’t bad at all.  But the delay has forced us far back in the queue for take-off.  It’s 7:00 by the time we lift into the air.  My one and a half hours of leeway in Frankfurt—an overly optimistic layover from the start—is shrinking into nothing…