A Travellerspoint blog

Ruins, Ruins and More Ruins

I think we’ll go see some . . . ruins! We’re in Rome, after all.

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We arrived in Rome on Saturday. We caught an Italian Eurostar in Florence which zipped us to Rome in almost no time. The seat reservations were pretty steep, but it was worth it. We met up with our Rome host at the flat that we are renting and after getting settled and buying a few groceries at a market just around the corner, we were out exploring by the middle of the afternoon.

Our flat is great. The best flat we’ve rented so far; probably the most expensive, too. We are close to the Tiber River, across from the Trastevere neighborhood. We are close to the Campo de’ Fiori and not far at all from the Forum,, etc.

During our first afternoon, we wandered around to try to get a feel for our neighborhood, plus we wanted to see if we could make sense of our map. It became clear that the map wasn’t all that it could be (Knopf Mapguide), so our first stop (after the grocery store) was a book store. They didn’t have what we wanted either (why are so many tourist maps so big and bulky?), so we pressed on with what we had.

We went by the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona. We witnessed the end of a wedding along the way. Before heading back to the flat, we engaged in more people-watching and general marveling at how people get around in Rome. There are streets and alleyways that often match up to our map, but sometimes do not. Crossing the street can be a challenge, as those who ride scooters and motorcycles do not seem required to stop at red lights. And there are a lot of scooters in Rome.

On Sunday, we decided to head to the Forum first. The day, although the weather forecast claimed that it would be overcast, was beautiful—warm and sunny. A little too warm, though, for Margaret. She started wilting early.

The Forum was lots of fun and a great learning opportunity for the kids. John liked learning about legends—the legend of Romulus and Remus and the legend of the guy who galloped his horse into a hole in the ground. We saw lots of ruins and some grand arches

After the Forum, we went just next door to the Palatine Hill, where the emperors of Rome once lived. There, the kids could actually play among the ruins. Here they are showing how they felt ruined themselves (especially Margaret, as she was still complaining about the heat!):

Here are some other shots among the ruins of the former palaces:

After a very long day, we exited through the Forum and then we up to the top of the Victor Emmanuel monument and had little snack at a café on the terrace.

Then, it was time to make our way back to the flat. We caught up on what was going on with the Pats, called some relatives, and had a simple dinner of gnocchi.

But, the day wasn’t over yet! We decided, much to Margaret’s chagrin, to take an evening stroll, Rick Steves’ suggested “night walk.” It began at the Campo de’ Fiori, then through the Piazza Navona, where we braved the “gaunlet” of waiters and other restaurant personnel trying to get us to sit down at a restaurant table. We encountered lots of other people strolling about, after all it was a lovely Rome evening. We even saw another group with the very same Rick Steves walk/map guide. Only they were doing the walk in reverse.

After the Piazza Navona, we went by the Pantheon—an even more impressive sight all lit up. And, finally to the Trevi fountain. (Technically, the Rick Steeves walk proceeds from there to the Spanish Steps, but we were getting tired, so we called it a night at the fountain).

Then, it was time to find some delicious gelato, to reward Margaret for minimal complaining. We went a bit out of our way to get to the place recommended by Rick and by our Knopf Mapguide (which has some good recommendations, though its maps are inconveniently formatted) — Giolitti. Unfortunately, her choice of chocolate and kiwi was not the best combination. But, she managed to get through it.

Our first full day of Rome was done.

Ciao!

Susan

Posted by jrreisert 23:06 Archived in Italy Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Michelangelo and Machiavelli

Our last day in Florence

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There’s no way to see all the sites of Florence in anything less than a month, and we gave ourselves only three full days (plus the day in Lucca) to see as much as we could. Margaret’s must-see sight was the Uffizi — actually the Botticellis in the Uffizi. John’s must see-sight was Michelangelo’s David. John’s fascination with David began when we were in Amsterdam. That’s when we ran out of reading material for Margaret. At an English bookstore, she picked out something called the Plague Sorcerer, but fairness required that we get John something too. Most of what was there was either too babyish or too hard for him, but we found a book on the art of Michelangelo and, more generally, about Renaissance art. He devoured that book (having not much else to read) and has become a big fan of Michelangelo. He insisted that we find the Michelangelo Holy Family at the Uffizi and then that we go to the David.

We’re told that in the summer it’s necessary to book tickets in advance to get into the Accademia to see David, but we just showed up at about nine in the morning on Friday and walked right in, which saved us 16 Euros in booking fees (about $20). I have mixed feelings about the Accademia. On the one hand, David in person more than lives up to the hype, and it was worth the 10 Euro admission fee just to see it. It is difficult to write anything about it that isn’t clichéd or trite, so I won’t. But it is stunning. And it must have been, when it was first unveiled, awe-inspiring proof that in at least one domain the moderns had surpassed the ancients.

On the other hand, there was not much else that I desperately wanted to see there, though the Michelangelo Prisoners were also very fine. For the rest, we could have done without the early Gothic altarpieces, the plaster casts of ancient sculptures, and the later religious art.

With the altarpieces, the kids are getting very good at playing “name that saint” — trying to recognize the saints in the paintings by their distinctive attributes. St. Catherine with the wheel upon which she was martyred; St. Paul with the sword with which he was martyred; St. Lawrence with the grill upon which he was martyred by roasting alive (see a pattern here?).

After the Accademia, we headed home and ate lunch in the flat. Then it was off to the Santa Croce church to see the tombs of Machiavelli and Michelangelo and some amazing Giotto frescoes. Though they belong to Florence’s Franciscans, this lavish church and cloister hardly evoke the simplicity one associates with the name of Francis.

The piazza outside Santa Croce is beautiful, as is the church facade, but some people just don't like to have their pictures taken:

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We spent a long while at Santa Croce, where John paid his respects to the tomb of Michelangelo

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and Joseph pays his to Machiavelli's tomb. (Unfortunately, that picture was too dark).

After that, we visited the cloister, where Margaret proved that she can pose for a lovely picture when she really wants to:

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Then we went off for an exploratory walk to see some remnants of the old medieval wall of Florence.

We hiked down to the Arno (a sluggish, brown, weedy looking river — at least in October) and across to a hill on the other side, at the Piazzale Michelangelo, where we were treated to a lovely view of Florence. And, John tried to mimic the pose of David (with his clothes on, of course) in front of the copy of the famous statue.

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After slowly making our way back down the hill, we headed along the river to the Ponte Vecchio. Along the way, we found this:

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Note the detail (Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott):

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This is the only Protestant church we have seen so far in Italy.

When we got to the Piazza della Signoria, we stopped for our daily gelato. And, for our final tour of the day, we visited the Palazzo Vecchio, where Joe got to see and stand in the study of Machiavelli. (He had a very nice office).

After dragging him out of there (and then convincing him that it was too late to visit any other museums—which took some work!), we slowly headed back to the flat. We grabbed some groceries to make dinner. Then, it was time to eat and pack.

Arrivederci, Florence!

Joe and Susan

Posted by jrreisert 23:01 Archived in Italy Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

A chance meeting on Bus 21 in Salzburg leads to . . .

An fun day for the whole family in Lucca

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For the most part, our trip has been carefully planned out. We devised an itinerary, made hotel reservations, and decided on a few major things we wanted to do in each place. (Actually, by "we," I mean that Susan did all those things). But occasionally, we are able to be spontaneous. (And we will need to be again, the week after next, since we have not finalized our plans for the week between our departure from Rome and our arrival in Paris -- but that's another story).

Today's story begins in Salzburg, back on the 15th, when we were on the 21 bus from the Bloberger Hof into town. A few stops after we had gotten on the bus, another family of English-speaking foreigners boarded -- a Mom and Dad (about our ages), an older daughter with nose firmly planted in a book, and a younger son, bursting with energy. They were just like us... only Canadian!

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Somehow, a conversation was started, and it turned out that their family is from the Toronto area, and the kids, Sarah and Alec are within months of Margaret's and John's ages. They are spending a few months in Italy, in Lucca, and after hearing that we would soon be in Florence, Andy and Kim (the parents) invited us to spend a day with them in Lucca, which is just over an hour to the east of Florence by train.

Florence is full of art treasures and amazing museums -- many more than we could see in the four full days we are staying here -- but it's been a long time since we spent any time with another family with kids. So we decided we'd skip some of the museums and picked a day (Thursday) for our visit and hopped on the train, hoping for the best.

The train ride was itself something of an adventure. We bought our tickets at a self-service electronic kiosk, and we think we probably bought the right tickets, but they were so cheap (10 Euros for the family to go to Lucca and back) we think we might have made a mistake. As it happens, no one ever checked our tickets (though I dutifully validated them on both legs of the journey), so we'll never know.

The train was old, dirty, and a local, so it stopped at every village and cow-crossing between here and Lucca (and a few that are a bit out of the way, too!). No announcements were made at any stop, and, for the most part, we could not see the names of the towns at which we had stopped. It was all very unnerving. But we had gotten on the correct train after all, and it terminated in Lucca, so we got off when everyone else did, and after a few moments met up with Andy, Kim and the kids.

The kids bonded instantly. John and Alec started running around, playing tag, and generally acting like nine-year-old boys, but they did pause for this picture.

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Margaret and Sarah started talking about books.

Don't they all look cute together?

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Andy led us on a "greatest hits" tour of Lucca. There was a Roman excavation under what was once Lucca's cathedral. Then we were off to the current Duomo, St. Martin's, where we paid our respects to the Volto Santo, an ancient crucifix, which was, according to tradition, carved by Nicodemus. After this, we admired the facade of yet another beautiful, marbled church, and then it was off to lunch.

Our hosts took us to a local, hole-in-the-wall pizza joint. The pizza was excellent, as good as (or better than) what we had on our first night in Venice. But the real treat was something called "cecina" -- a sort of baked pancake made out of chickpeas and who knows what else. It was great. And the whole meal, including sodas, set us back less than 11 Euros, which makes it the cheapest meal we've had out on our whole trip. And it was one of the best.

After lunch, we walked to the old Roman ampitheatre, which is now a piazza, which retains the oval shape of the original theater. Apparently some of the walls outside one of the entrances date back to Roman times, but we were never quite sure which ones. They all looked old to us.

Here's a random shot of John (near the "canal" or aqueduct in Lucca), looking happy as can be:

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From there, we made our way to Lucca's old fortifications, which still form an intact ring around the old city. Unlike some of the old fortifications we've encountered (such as those in Conwy, in Wales, which we visited four years ago), these are wide (they are earthenworks with a facing of brick) and have a multi-purpose recreational path along the top. So we rented bikes and rode a couple of times around the city. The kids have been eager to rent bikes since we arrived in Belgium, and for one reason or another we had not yet managed it, though we've been in a number of good places for cycling (in Belgium or Haarlem, along the Rhine, or along the Danube or the Salzach). The Lucca ride was a real treat -- it was flat, highly scenic, and in an hour, we made it twice around the circuit of the old city.

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The ride may have been the highlight for the kids, but the piece de resistance of Lucca must be the Torre Guinigi, the tower with the trees on top.

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Naturally, we took some photos to take advantage of the unusual background:

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Afterwards, we were glad to accept Kim and Andy's invitation to a simple Tuscan dinner at their flat. We had pasta, salads, and red wine out on their terrace. The girls enumerated points of similarity between them, and Margaret announced that they had between twenty five and thirty things in common (such as the fact that they both have close friends who are left-handed). The boys played on the game boy and watched "Fairly Oddparents" in Italian, seemingly finding it quite as funny as they would have done had they seen it in English.

Wiped out by our full day of activity, we took the 7:32 train back to Florence. This time, we had a clean, modern (double-decker) train, which had video screens and audio announcements informing us of where we were stopping. Still, no one checked our tickets.

ciao,
Joe

Posted by jrreisert 12:27 Archived in Italy Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Florence

Art, Architecture, Gelato, and Galileo's finger

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Hello friends,

We arrived in Florence on Monday. It's hard to believe that it is already Wednesday evening. It's been a whirlwind-- as has most of our Grand Tour. Despite getting plenty of sleep (most nights), I often experience moments of tremendous exhaustion. It's a lot to take in.

Doesn't this just say "Florence"?

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We are staying in a nice apartment, right in the middle of everything in Florence. it's on a narrow street, close to the major Florence cathedral-- and across the street from a bar. Thankfully, our apartment comes with serious windows. A set of multiple-pane windows, plus a set of older windows, and then you finish it off with some indoor shutters. The whole thing cuts down on the noise dramatically. Good thing, too, because motor scooters scream down the street night and day and, since we are not far from the hospital, ambulances come down our street too on a regular basis.

Yesterday (Tuesday), we climbed the tower next to the cathedral. In the gift shop at the bottom of the tower, we found a great book called, "Florence: Just Add Water." The book is a great introduction to Florence, geared to children Margaret and John's ages (not too "babyish," John would say). We have been using the book all around Florence.

Here are Joseph and the kids, with the new guidebook, on the Ponte Vecchio:

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Here is some guy (Joseph insists it is not his bald spot) reading the guidebook to our children:

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After the Tower, we visited the Baptistry, the place where all Florence children were once baptized. Baptisms took place only twice per year. The Baptistry was also used as a kind of covered town square for public events. The domed ceiling of the Baptistry features mosaics of Jesus Christ and stories of the Bible. According to Joseph, the "best part" is the picture of the Devil actually eating a poor sinner. Yikes. John's been having a hard time getting to sleep the past couple of nights.

Since it was raining when we emerged from the Baptistry, we decided to stay close by and visited the Duomo just next door, including the Duomo crypt. Lots of marble. Lots of space. I guess the intent was for worshippers to feel small, in the presence of God. And, then, one part of the floor is designed to have an spider-web effect, so that if you stand in the middle, you will feel like you are being swallowed up. Nifty.

After a little gelato to give everyone a little extra energy, we walked toward the Uffizi to see about getting tickets (the guidebook warned that reservations should be made a month in advance, but we were still hopeful). On the way, we visited a market (where Susan petted the famous Florentine pig — thus, according to legend, assuring that she will someday return to the city):

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Getting tickets at the Uffizi was an exercise in ridiculousness, although we were victorious in the end. Signs around the Uffizi courtyard are put out intended to help poor, hapless tourists figure out which doorway they should go to-- depending on whether they have tickets, just a reservation number, they want to get tickets, or they have no ticket at all but want to get in that same day. Yet, the signs are not really clear. The only thing that is clear is the huge line of people who are trying to get in on the same day. That line features a glowing, flashing sign that indicates how long you must wait before you will know whether or not you will get in that day (it was flashing 1-2 hours when we were there). Finally, we found a person to ask. Joe went into the indicated doorway and, in no time, had tickets for Wednesday at 10:30-- at a premium, of course. But, hey, we're in Florence.

Then, we wandered a bit more, and admired the Santa Croce church.

Then, it was time to visit the food store, get some supplies for making dinner, and settle in for the evening.

Today (Wednesday), we let the kids sleep in. We wanted them to be as fresh as possible for the Uffizi, since we had paid so much for those tickets! We got to the Uffizi in time for our appointed entry. Getting in is a lot like getting on a plane. Metal detectors and a machine checking bags. We even had to take off our belts! Joe observed that at least we didn't have to take off our shoes!

But, we got to see some great art. The book that we had picked up was very helpful. We worked our way through the best of Italian painters and sculptors, stopping along the way to talk about 14th century Madonnas, Giotto, Gentile da Fabriano, Botticelli (The Birth of Venus and Primavera), and finally, some Da Vinci and Michelangelo. We had hoped to get through the museum and then go to lunch, but after about an hour and a half, it was clear that we would need to get something to eat. We were all fading. And, there was still a lot to see. But, once you are in the Uffizi, you stay until you're done, so our only option was the cafe. Much to our surprise, however, the cafe turned out to be quite nice. Our little lunch was delicious and not outrageously expensive. Margaret had a grilled tomato and mozzarella cheese sandwich. I had a chicken, cheese and lettuce panini. And, Joseph and John had "toast," a lightly grilled ham and cheese sandwich, with the crusts cut off. Just perfect for John.

And we took some nice photos of the Palazzo Vecchio from up close:

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After some refreshment, we continued on in the Museum until about 2:30 when we finally declared ourselves "art-ed out."

Then, it was time for family squabbling in the Piazza della Signoria. Well, not so much squabbling; more like family poutiness. Margaret could only think of gelato. Joe was on to the next big site. I was just plain tired. And, John just wanted family unity.

Finally, we ended up at the Museum of the History of Science. Most of it is being renovated, so we were limited to two floors. But, lucky for us, we could still view Galileo's middle finger, in a jar, in a glass case. Lovely.

After the museum, we ran a couple of errands. We finally got Margaret her gelato (chocolate and caramel, I think).

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Then, Joe and John climbed the tower of the Duomo.

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Margaret and I went off to the food store to get dinner.

Tomorrow, we are off to Lucca to meet our new friends from Canada who are living in Lucca for a little while. We met them on the bus in Salzburg. They have a daughter who just happens to be 11 and a son, who just happens to be 9. They will show us around a bit and all of the kids will have the opportunity to play with other English speaking children. Should be a good day for all.

Ciao!

Susan

Posted by jrreisert 11:43 Archived in Italy Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Life in Venice

Great weather, beautiful scenery, and pizza — what's not to love?

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Buona Sera,

This update comes a bit late, as we’re now in Florence, but our beautiful Venetian pensione with an excellent location only steps from the Rialto bridge near the Grand Canal did not offer internet access.

The train ride from Salzburg to Venice was long — two hours to Innsbruck, then another five from there to Venice — but uneventful. Innsbruck, even from the train station, was beautiful, though unless one is doing serious hiking or skiing, or partying, there’s not that much to do. So we contented ourselves with a shot or two from the train station, and moved on.

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We shared a first class compartment for part of the ride from Innsbruck with a young couple (seemingly in their twenties) and their lap dog! Who knew that one could bring lap dogs on Italian trains? Later on, in the Venice train station we saw a twenty-something hipster with a ferret on a leash, so who knows what the limits are. We did not, however, see many children.

We made our children do some schoolwork on the train, however, and, as you can see, at least some work got done, though not as much as we had hoped.

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Upon our arrival at Venice, we attended to the most urgent matters. Cash machine in the train station (we were paying the hotel in cash). Check. Vaporetto tickets. Check (we bought the 48 hour passes). Then on to the #1 boat (luggage and all) to the Rialto-Mercato stop and a short walk to the Pensione Guerrato http://www.pensioneguerrato.it/, which is hidden in an alleyway right near the Rialto fish market. They say the building was first constructed in the fourteenth century, which, for Venice, is not all that old. Though the it had been renovated many times over the centuries, the place still felt solid and ancient.

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It was a classic old place, with antiques in the hallway. And several rooms (including the ones we hired) with no “facilities.” These were down the hall. John and Dad shared a room, and Mom and Margaret. The ladies had the bigger room, with the better view. If you look carefully in this picture, taken from their room, you can just see the water of the Grand Canal (look under the arches). Not bad for 90 Euros per night, per room, in Venice. Our first night, we wandered to a restaurant recommended by our hotelier, Rick Steeves, and the Knopf Pocket Map Guide to Venice (Al Nono Risorto). The pizza was excellent, with crispy thin crust; the house red wine, cheap and tasty. Dessert featured little Italian cookies and a small glass of something like sherry, for dipping the cookies in.

We got out to an early start and were at the Academia when it opened. We had the place almost to ourselves for a few minutes, and enjoyed the late medieval and early Renaissance art. Unfortunately, about half of the Bellinis were either being restored or lent to other institutions, which meant that Margaret did not get to see the famous Madonna and child with Mary Magdalene that she had set her heart on. At least the Tempest was there. After reading A Soldier of the Great War, I had to see it. That novel had more meaningful and intelligent things to say about that painting than just about any of the guidebooks or museum-supplied commentaries we've encountered anywhere.

After the Academia, it was off to St. Mark’s square. As an incentive to keep the kids interested, we played another search game. I offered them ten cents for every winged lion (the symbol of St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice — as he became when some Venetian merchants “rescued” his body from Alexandria in the tenth century). Here’s one of the most prominent, on the Doge’s palace:

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We toured the Correr museum (of the history of Venice — and lots of winged lions) and had lunch in their cafeteria (great view, quiet, expensive, mediocre food, indifferent service). The interior of the Doge’s palace was next. Naturally, large portions of it were being restored, but the astronomical clock, which was being restored when I was last in Venice (2004) was now visible — and glorious. This picture may not show the details as well as possible, but it is digital, showing the time in five-minute increments. (By about this time, I had to cut the game off at about 2 Euros per kid — these things can get expensive, fast).

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We decided to try the basilica on Monday, first thing in the morning to beat the crowds, so we hopped on a vaporetto to St. Giorgio, where we took in the church and admired the Doge's Palace:

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We also saw the remarkable spectacle of a cruise ship being tugged out of Venice. See how the modern ship dwarfs the Renaissance scale of the modern city. I am giving my verdict on the design of the ship, here (the stern is not visible in the photo (the ship was just too big), but it was hideously squared off).

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After returning to St. Mark’s, we found an overpriced café with a view of S. Giorgio and sat for gelato and espresso.

Then, we took a cruise on the vaporetto down the rest of the main island, past the big park, out to the Lido and returned up the Grand Canal for a sunset cruise. Us and as many people as could fit body-to-body on the boat. We were so crowded in by the end that we were unable to get off where we wanted and had to get off at the next stop and make a long walk home. Naturally, by that time, everyone really needed to get back to the hotel (if you know what I mean), and naturally, that was the only time we really had trouble finding our way.

Here's another random, lovely view:

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For the record, Margaret took over a hundred pictures in our two days walking around Venice. Apparently Adelia told her to, because she'd like to visit the place some day. So we have lots of Venice photos on the hard drive.

I thought, briefly, about taking a gondola ride — but they're quite expensive, and I'm certain that, knowing the cost, Susan would not have enjoyed it. We did, however, take some nice pictures of the gondolas and gondoliers:

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After taking care of business, we wandered out again, found a cheap pizza place (cheaper, but not as nice as the previous night’s place, with a very questionable semi-fizzing cheap red house wine -- cut with fizzy water, perhaps?) and got home for bed.

Monday was another big day. We were packed and out of the hotel by 8:30 and planned to get in as much sightseeing as we could before our 2:45 train to Florence.

We were at the Campanile when it opened at 9, and enjoyed a delightful view of the city.

Here's the view from the south (note the Chiesa di Santa Maria Della Salute under renovation):

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And to the West (note the renovations on the square):

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And to the East (see the domes of the basilica in the foreground):

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We were among the first tourists into St. Mark’s when it opened at 9:45 and spent a long time admiring the mosaics, the treasury (Susan had some things to say about the merits of the Protestant Reformation and its iconoclasm and repudiation of the veneration of the saints — some of which might have gotten us kicked out of the cathedral, if any English-speaking ecclesiastics had been around), the spectacular golden altarpiece, and the museum in the balcony.

Outside, the kids climbed on some of the St. Marks' lions (no wings, however):

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We had a picnic in the park and took the vaporetto up to S. Toma, where we got out and hiked it to the Frari church to admire the Titian Assumption of Mary and a truly extraordinary Bellini altarpiece. I had hoped we’d have time enough also to see what Rick Steeves calls “Tintoretto’s Sistene Chapel” (the Scuola Grande de S. Rocco). Alas, there was no time. We hiked it back to the hotel, packed ourselves and our luggage into the vaporetto, and got to the train station to board the Eurostar express train to Florence. It was much nicer than the train we took from Innsbruck, though we had been required to reserve seats at 15 Euro a piece, so it should have been. The train was fast (2:45 to Florence, making only two stops before ours), did not require a connection, and had a free beverage service, so it seemed worth the extra cost. And it was.

We arrived at the Florence apartment without difficult and found it very satisfactory. But that will have to wait for another blog entry.

Ciao,
Joe

Posted by jrreisert 12:11 Archived in Italy Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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