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Welcome to my blog site about my husband Randy and my recent trip to Italy.

Entries are posted from newest to oldest, so start from the bottom if you want to read them in chronological order.

Venice to Chicago: There’s No Place Like Home

 

And then they “clicked their heels three times” and were safely back home.

I wish.

The morning started out fine. We checked out of the apartment, took a local bus to Marco Polo Airport, had lunch, checked in and boarded our plane. No problem. The flight to Dublin was a bit bumpy, but nothing either of us hadn’t experienced before. I was thinking about all we’d seen and done in eleven days and how happy I was that our plans went without a hitch … and that’s when the perfect trip proceeded to fall apart. It was almost enough to make me believe in jinxes.

As the plane began its descent into Dublin for our connecting flight to Chicago, one of the flight attendants made a public announcement reminding us to be aware of our nearest exits and to be ready to brace for impact if so instructed. Hmmm, that never happened before! We learned later that there had been horrific storms over most of Ireland all day, which had wreaked havoc with all the air traffic. Our connecting flight was posting as several hours late and boarding was delayed even beyond that. We were relieved when the pilot finally backed the plane out of the gate and on to the approach lane, but just as quickly discouraged again when he turned around and headed back toward the airport.

aerlingusTechnical problems. We were kept sitting on the tarmac another couple hours as crews frantically tried to repair one of the computer systems, and then when we thought we might take off, the pilot announced a new flight crew would have to first be found.

When that proved unsuccessful, another flight attendant came back on to inform us that the flight had been cancelled and that the airline was not able to provide a block of hotel rooms for all of us. The Aer Lingus service desk or call-in number could assist with hotels and rescheduled flights for passengers who had booked directly through them, but those of us who’d utilized a third-party (in our case Expedia) were on our own. I imagined there were hundreds, if not thousands, of other people in the same fix.

I’d encountered a similar situation last year when traveling to Portland, Oregon in January for a Board meeting. Because of a freak winter ice storm, all planes were diverted to Seattle. Even though that airline promised us rooms, there simply weren’t enough to go around. The hotel where I was standing in line sold out about 3 people ahead of me. Fortunately, an English woman on my flight took pity on me and allowed me to share a room with her.

So I was kind of prepared, had our mobile hotspot turned on and was checking hotel sites near the airport. Six or seven times, I would click in to book the hotel room only to be notified that rooms were no longer available. Finally, I snagged one in the Bonnington Hotel. (It used to be called The Excelsior, but our cab driver told us the name was changed after there was a gang-related murder. Nice!)

controlBut after we disembarked, the problems just continued to escalate. (And have I mentioned before that I am a control freak?) Our debit travel card was declined when we tried to use it to get some cash at an ATM, probably because we hadn’t reported that we’d be in Ireland. We’d spent our last euros at the airport in Venice and we were also afraid that the credit card wouldn’t work for a taxi ride. (It did.) We couldn’t call to straighten it out because — no phones!

Our wifi and tablet batteries were almost drained and we didn’t have the right adaptor with us to use an Irish wall socket to recharge. We got to the hotel so late that the restaurant was closed and the pub wasn’t serving any food. I’m diabetic and I hadn’t had a full meal since many hours ago at lunch time and ate only a small snack while on the plane. And I still hadn’t confirmed that we had a rescheduled flight home the next day. (Have I mentioned yet that I am a control freak?)

As we sat at a table in the pub waiting for a Domino’s pizza that never arrived, I was just about getting ready to burst into tears. But I took a deep breath, prayed for a few minutes and then calmly tried to figure things out — with Randy’s help of course. A brief word with the bartender and the hotel chef (who was nursing a beer beside me) scurried to make me a chicken sandwich. Randy asked the front desk for help and they were happy to recharge our phones so we could email folk at home (Randy had to put “plan B” into action for church on Sunday, just in case we didn’t make it home tomorrow) and I could verify our rescheduled flights.

Unlike the character Blanche in the play and film A Streetcar Named Desire, I have not always depended on the kindness of strangers. In fact, I tend to go it alone more often than not. (Have I mentioned yet that I am a control freak?)

Lesson Number Twenty-One: Sometimes “strangers” are God’s answer to prayer. But you’ll never find that out unless you humble yourself, submit and trust. And it works best if you do that sooner rather than later.

aerlingus2I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep, but I did, and quite restfully, too. Our rescheduled flight the next day wasn’t until 1 PM, but something (or Someone) prompted us to get to the airport early. Good thing we did because — as you might imagine — it was utter chaos at the Aer Lingus area. No one was permitted to check-in via self-serve kiosks and the lines at the counters were long, long, long. But I was surprisingly calm about the whole thing and remained serene even through the long customs lines at Newark Airport. I must have learned my lesson yesterday, at least for the time being.

Getting from Newark to Chicago and home was uneventful, thank goodness. I had a bit of a difficult transition back to “real life” (I always do after a trip!) and cooking and cleaning, etc. But I’ve enjoyed talking to friends about our trip and it’s been really neat reflecting as I worked on this blog. We’re going to do a Powerpoint presentation at a church event in July, and I think that will be great fun, too.

So, what are my final thoughts? Other than the lessons posted throughout the segments, what have I learned and what would I do differently?

stair3First of all, I’d definitely do it all over again — except for those last days returning home; but I’d probably do it when I was much younger — if I could go back in time. I was surprised at how physically challenging it was. I had prepared for several months by using a treadmill and even having some physical therapy for my hamstring and hip, but it was still really strenuous, especially the tricky cobblestone streets and the buildings and subway stops without elevators or escalators. If you’re thinking of going, go now and don’t wait until you’re a lot older.

And I would definitely return, too. There’s so much I didn’t get to see and do: the ancient ruins, the Borghese Gallery, the Vatican and the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, the village of St. Francis of Assisi in the Umbrian countryside, Michelangelo’s statue of David, the Ferragamo Museum and the inside of the Duomo in Florence, and the Rialto Bridge area and several museums and churches in Venice. We just have to get some of those other “bucket list” destinations visited first.

I shouldn’t have worried so much about pickpockets. Aside from our one scary experience in Rome, I was really in no danger. (And wouldn’t have been then if I’d paid attention.) Still, I was in “hyper alert” mode almost everywhere we went. That too was tiring.

If there’s a “next time” in Italy or anywhere outside the States, we’ll make sure to have international phone service. Wifi was great for most of our needs, but in an emergency situation you need a phone that works. (There may have been phone services that worked through a wifi app, but I hadn’t researched that enough.)

Read the fine print, ALL the fine print. I tend to be impulsive, especially when I think I’ve found an excellent deal. So sometimes my research falls short. If we’d had all the information, we probably would have made different choices regarding the Roma Pass and we might have rented a car for Tuscany instead of taking a bus trip.

just-in-case-signContrary to what Rick Steves recommends in one of his videos — “plan for the best” (sorry, but I can’t find the link) — I’d also suggest planning for the worst. I wish I hadn’t assumed that the trip home would go smoothly. With a little more forethought we would have been better prepared to meet the challenges of that day. (But then I might not have re-learned that lesson about submission, trust and prayer, either.)

And finally, though this seems contradictory, I wish I’d left more to chance. (Have I mentioned yet that I’m a control freak?) Itineraries need some “breathing room,” and I didn’t have enough of that built in. Because some of my fondest travel memories — both Italy and elsewhere — are the unexpected, and uncontrollable, things that happened. So plan ahead, but try to “go with the flow” once in a while, too.

Hope you’ve enjoyed my blog as much as I have writing it. Buon Viaggio!

 

Venice: Our Last Day in Italy

stmarks-vendors5Venice “insiders” who knew the city well recommended visiting San Mark’s Square either early in the morning as soon as the sites opened or later in the evening if they were open until 9PM. We had an early bus to catch to the airport the next day, so we decided on “early” and caught the 8 AM bus from our local stop in Mestre. As with yesterday afternoon, it put us smack dab into the middle of rush hour again. Men no longer give up their seats to women, nor young people for their elders unless you rather forcibly make them (I saw several older women do that yesterday.) This was a part of local life that I would be just as happy to do without.

In Piazzale Roma we boarded a vaporetto to the San Zaccaria stop just to the east of St. Marks. It leaves you off on the causeway fronting the Grand Canal — the Riva degli Schiavoni — which even this early in the morning was packed with people and vendors of all kinds. (Photo above www.dudziak.com)

20180510_013402Heading west toward the plaza we crossed the Ponte della Paglia, which gave us an amazing view of the famous (or infamous) “Bridge of Sighs,” an enclosed structure that led from the Doge’s Palace on the left to the prison on the right.

The bridge’s name comes from the tradition that law-breakers heading from the courtroom to jail would look out at the lagoon for the last time and sigh over their loss of freedom. Not everyone remained forever; the equally infamous womanizer, Casanova, managed to escape after several years of imprisonment for “affront to religion and common decency.”

The Ponte della Paglia is also a preferred spot for wedding pictures, and a young oriental couple was posing for them while we were there. We stopped to watch the couple for a while, but it was hard to tell if they were in love or if their marriage would last. (The groom was taking an awful lot of selfies!) They reminded me of why Randy and I were in Italy in the first place — to celebrate 30 very fulfilling (and challenging!) years of marriage. How blest we are to have a marriage that has endured and thrived. (In fact, Venice is a favorite “destination wedding” location for people all over the world. Actor George Clooney and his wife, Amal Allamuddin, tied the knot in Venice. The city does make a gorgeous back drop for wedding pictures — see here, here and here.)

The Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) is a stately, U-shaped structure built around a central courtyard and abutting the Basilica di San Marco. It was both residence for the various Doges who were “head honcho” of the republic and the central administrative offices and chambers for the city. (Likewise, the basilica was the city’s religious power base and its square often the focus of large social gatherings.) Our skip-the-line passes allowed us to walk right in without any wait at all.

dogesLesson Number Twenty: Doges, from the Latin for “military leader,” were aristocrats who were elected by their peers to serve for life. Long terms were not encouraged due to the risk of abuse of power, so it’s not surprising that the average incoming age of a doge was 72. There were 120 doges over the 1,100 year existence of the Venetian republic and toward the end their position was largely an honorary one. Still, they had to be skilled managers, balancing the inter-workings of all the various councils, senates, judges, etc. And though their lives were strictly regulated — for example, the doge could only leave the palace at night on one particular day, December 25 — they did get to wear those cute little hats. 

The palace was built to impress — from the Lion of St. Mark (more about him later) carved above the grand marble steps in the courtyard, to the glorious La Scala d’Oro (the Golden Staircase) inside, to the equally gold-embellished waiting room, to the over-the-top and self-aggrandizing art in the many council and senate chambers.

I could only imagine what a foreign dignitary, or worse yet, a prisoner would have felt standing (or maybe kneeling?) before the local leaders. I almost felt Stendhal Syndrome coming on again, even though I wasn’t in Florence. It really was a sight to behold. (More pics at the end of the blog post.)

We had hoped to fill out the rest of the morning by touring the Correr Museum at the opposite end of St. Mark’s Plaza, which has many works by famous Venetian artists on its walls. I knew far less about them than I did about Caravaggio in Rome or Masacchio in Florence, so I was really looking forward to a visit. But the line for “fast track” entry was stretching around the block and moving at a snail’s pace because of a one-man-searching-bags security system. Perhaps later when we returned in the afternoon.

20180510_035010_HDRInstead, we decided to take a meandering walk through the western end of the San Marco sestiere to our lunch location near the Accademia Bridge. We were in no hurry (as we had been the previous day in Cannaregio and Santa Croce), so we stopped frequently for sightseeing and photo ops.

I loved the color and bustle around the Bacino Orseolo, which the website Reid’s Italy calls “the gondola parking lot.” I wrote in the previous blog about the high price of a gondola ride, but it doesn’t cost anything to look — or take pictures. And what an interesting cultural juxtaposition — the Hard Rock Café was located right next door!

Visitors to St. Mark’s Square often take a “beaten path” route north from the plaza to the Rialto Bridge along the high-end shopping street, Merceria. Again, wanting to both avoid crowds and do something just a bit more “local,” we headed around corners and across bridges to Calle de la Mandola and a shop called “Venetian Dreams.” I had read about the store and its owner, Marisa Convento, online and I was intrigued by her dedication to traditional Venetian craft.

venetiandreamsEven with Google Maps Live we almost walked by the shop — oh those pesky Venetian addresses again! But I’m so glad we found it because it was crammed full of beautiful beads and intricately made jewelry. I design and fabricate jewelry myself, so I enjoyed talking with her about methods and ideas. And I bought a pair of pretty, the-Doge’s-Palace-must-still-be-in-my-head gold colored bead earrings. (I could tell they were hand-made because the beads weren’t perfectly symmetrical.) Molto bella!

Another serendipitous jewelry discovery happened near Campo Santa Stefano, the last large public plaza before reaching the Grand Canal. A young Ukrainian couple, who had lived in Venice for 12 years, had a table set up in a shady spot and were selling his well-made wire-wrapped jewelry. I got a brass and malachite pendant and pierced-copper earrings that I will probably re-work sometime in the future.

20180510_052008I had also learned about the place where we would have lunch by doing an “off the beaten path” search on Google. First of all, it was a beautiful setting — the light-filled sunroom of the Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti. The palace sits on the Grand Canal and currently houses the Venice Institute of Science, Letters and Art in addition to occasional temporary exhibits and events. There is also a small garden, but it was not open to the public.

Second, it was the most peaceful and relaxing meal we had the whole trip. Only five other people — another American family and a single young Italian gentleman — were in the dining room at the same time as we were.

And third, the buffet meal was unforgettable — better even than the ones we’d enjoyed in Rome — and at a very reasonable price. There was a variety of hot and cold dishes, including delicious eggplant parmigiana. And it’s the first time I ate a fennel bulb (the yellow thing at the top of the plate); it tasted like licorice.

I hated to leave because the rest of the afternoon would be full of crowds and noise and hot sun — across the Accademia Bridge (which was being renovated and was completely covered in plywood and Tyvek) and by boat back to St. Mark’s Square and the throngs of tourists that were still lining up for the Basilica. Thank heavens our host Raffaella had told us about how to book skip-the-line entry inexpensively online. So we were able to dodge the crowds outside and start our tour precisely at 2 PM.

Inside was a different story, however, very, very crowded with slow, meandering lines. We knew ahead of time that the full effect of the glass mosaics would be somewhat hidden by the dingy lighting, but it was still a wonder to behold — a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns and textures and fixtures that were found (or stolen!) from all corners of the earth. We talk about things being indescribable, but this really was. You have to see it for yourself to fully appreciate it.

It reminded me a bit of the equally unique Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia.)

brighton

We didn’t want to wait in a long line (still!) to visit the Correr, but we weren’t quite ready to say “goodbye” to Venice either. So we boarded the #1 vaporetto for a long ride up the Grand Canal to Pizzale Roma, stopping at every … single … one … of … the … sixteen … stations! We got a great view of the Rialto Bridge and even thought about getting off there for a while, but we just didn’t want to deal with any more crowds and we’d really had enough for one day.

Somewhere along the way — I think near the San Toma stop — we came upon this canal-side palace or house. I quickly snapped a few photos because it so typified everything we had seen and done and enjoyed in Venice — an amalgam of color, elegance and just a touch of decay. La Serenissima in all her faded glory!

 

Here are several more pics of the promenade and Giudecca Canal from the San Zaccaria vaporetto stop. The second pic is looking across the canal to San Giorgio Maggiore Church.

 

The entryway, courtyard and exterior stairway of the Doge’s Palace. Notice how close it is to the Basilica of St. Mark’s. I couldn’t find any sort of online dictionary to translate the mask carving.

 

Additional pictures of the Golden Staircase. And the Bridge of Sighs seen through an upstairs window.

 

Artwork in the waiting room and various council chambers. Several of them are fairly recognizable images, especially of classical stories.

 

Sarah Stevers, in her book Art, Style, and Society: Siena, Florence, and Venice, 1300-1600, points out that Venice was often personified in paintings as a blonde, goddess-like woman. That is true of many paintings throughout the Doge’s Palace. She is often portrayed receiving blessing from religious or mythological figures or accompanied by the Lion of St. Mark, the symbol of the Gospel writer taken from John’s vision in Revelation (4:7). St. Mark was the patron saint of Venice and four Venetian merchants “rescued” his bones from Alexandria, Egypt and brought them to Venice for re-burial in the basilica. The lion symbol is prominent everywhere throughout the city.

 

Stevers also noted that Venetian artists were usually more focused on the republic and the communal nature of a citizen’s obligations to it, rather than on individual characteristics. Portraits did not become popular until much later than in Florence, and they tended to look very similar. This was especially evident in a painted frieze of the doges in one of the rooms. It looked to me like the same man “ran for office” over and over again. But that couldn’t be the case if they served for life. I think Sever’s opinion explains it well. Interesting!

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Gondolas at the Bacino Orseolo and a cute cat doll dressed for Carnevale.

 

 

Venice: Off the Beaten Path

beaten pathAs the video linked in my previous post noted, many of the 20-million-a-year tourists that swarm Venice are day-trippers. They spend only one day in the city and tend to walk a customary “beaten path” between St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge. Sometimes a visit to the Accademia Gallery will also be tacked on to the itinerary if there’s enough time.

Our original plan to stay for three days was knocked down to two when we needed an extra day in Rome because of the May 1 national holiday. Still we hoped to have the time to see and do more than just the ordinary and to get a good taste of everyday life in Venice. We were really helped in this effort by the Venezia Unica Pass. Compared to the passes offered by Rome and Florence, this one seemed to be the best deal. (Especially since rides on the local water buses, called vaporetto, were €7.50 a pop!) And it had a wonderful user-friendly website where you could mix and match the various options.

We chose a 48 hour transportation pass combined with another pass that allowed skip-the-line entry to eleven museums. The passes cost €54 each, but we would have each paid €99 without the passes for four bus rides to and from Mestre, six trips on the vaporetto and entry to four museums. (We had hoped for five museums, but we didn’t visit the Correr because even the “fast track” entry line was blocks long due to snail-paced security.) Like I said, it was a very good deal.

We were in no particular hurry this morning, so after enjoying a leisurely breakfast we caught a local bus and rode across the long causeway to the major transportation hub for the historic city of Venice, the Piazzale Roma. Filled with bus bays and parking garages and close to the train station, it’s the area where visitors either choose to walk across their first footbridge onto the island or board a vaporetto to their next destination. Visitors who have arrived by train can walk across the contemporary Calatrava Bridge to get to the ferry terminals in the square. (Calatrava is also well-known locally for designing the art museum and a pedestrian bridge in Milwaukee.)

Lesson Number Seventeen: Don’t be intimidated by Venice’s water bus system. The terminals are easy to find — they look like little white and yellow houseboats — and each station has clearly marked signage with maps, directional pointers and timetables. Make sure you validate your ticket before boarding — similar to using the land buses. Sometimes there’s a turnstile onto the dock and that’s the only way you’ll get through. The best spots for sightseeing are outside in the front or along the sides of the boat. And be alert for pickpockets, especially if it’s crowded. 

We took the #3 express to Murano, an outlying island that is the center of Venice’s glass production. Because most of the medieval city’s buildings were made of wood, the glass furnaces posed a constant threat of fire and glassworkers were removed to Murano from the main island in 1291. Soon Murano glass became world-renowned — the island of Manhattan may have been purchased for $24 worth of Venetian “trade beads” — and its artisans enjoyed privileged status as long as they remained in the republic. (Like Florence and Siena, Venice was an independent city-state or republic for a millennium, from the 8th to the 18th century.) An online article describes Murano’s history this way:

20180509_051950What made Murano’s glass makers so special? For one thing, they were the only people in Europe who knew how to make glass mirrors. They also developed or refined technologies such as crystalline glass, enameled glass (smalto), glass with threads of gold (aventurine), multicolored glass (millefiori), milk glass (lattimo), and imitation gemstones made of glass. Their virtual monopoly on quality glass lasted for centuries, until glassmakers in Northern and Central Europe introduced new techniques and fashions.

Today the island is dotted with working glass furnaces — at least 16 if you do a Google Maps search — glassware boutiques, and the Museo del Vetro/Museum of Glass. Some of the furnaces offer tours or allow tourists to watch their artisans at work. The shops are “iffy;” some have really fine hand-crafted goods, but many contain kitschy trinkets that were mass-produced in China. The glass museum would be a good place to start to learn some history about the industry and perhaps begin to develop a good “eye” for quality workmanship.

manin4Like Venice, Murano is made up of seven smaller islands that are intersected by canals and connected by foot bridges. There are a number of vaporetto stations depending on which route you take, and as it turned out, we got off at the wrong stop. It was a bit difficult finding the Glass Museum, but helpful locals directed us to the “main drags” — Fondamenta Manin and its parallel Fondamenta dei Vetrai — on the grand canal.

Since we were in the vicinity, we stopped at Chiesa San Pietro Martire (Church of St. Peter Martyr, NOT the apostle), erected in 1511 after fire destroyed the original church from 1348. One of only three active parish churches on the island, its plain brick exterior gave no clue to the treasures waiting within. The bright white walls of the interior were filled with paintings by some of the best known artists in Venice: Tintoretto, Bellini and Veronese. Though we hadn’t planned on visiting here, it was a very sweet surprise. (We had another sweet surprise just a little way further up the street — a family run bakery which provided us with a delicious mid-morning snack.)

20180509_051935The story of glassmaking was presented chronologically at the museum — from Roman times to present day — with well-thought-out exhibits and a wealth of historical and artistic information. While most of the pieces were protected in closed display cases, some of them sat close-at-hand on open tiers. They really let us get “up close and personal” to see the brilliance of the color and intricacy of the details. This playful design of fish (left) reminded me of the movie Finding Nemo.

There were so many beautiful pieces (and I’ll post pics of some of them at the end of the blog post), but I was particularly intrigued by this decorative centerpiece (below) from the 1700s. it was amazingly large — probably the size of a 5X7 foot rug — and intricately designed of tiny pieces of molded, twisted and fluted clear and multi-color glass. It even had tiny glass flowers in the urns around the center fountain. It must have taken ages to make, and I could only imagine what it had cost. My guess is that some aristocrat had more money than common sense. But I totally understood the impulse — both to make it and to own it. Many years ago I almost finished furnishing a large doll house and I still enjoy doing miniature lighted Christmas villages and nativities. This was just the rich man’s version.

By now it was time for lunch and we had several options: stay on Murano, take the vaporetto back to our next museum visit near the Rialto Bridge or cross by water bus to the north shore and walk through the more residential area of Cannaregio. We decided on the latter and boarded the vaporetto again and headed back across the lagoon, past San Michele Island, which is the site of the communal cemetery (did you wonder where they buried their dead?) to Fondamente Nove.

sestiereLesson Number Eighteen: The main island of Venice is roughly fish-shaped with the Grand Canal meandering through its middle and the Giudecca Canal slicing off its lower end. It’s divided into six quarters or sestieri, each with its somewhat unique character: San Marco with its famous basilica and Doge’s Palace almost smack dab in the middle, Cannaregio and Castello to its north and east on the same side of the Grand Canal, Santa Croce, San Polo and Dorsoduro to its west across the canal, and Giudecca to its south across that same-named canal. Unlike Rome and Florence, plazas are called campos and many buildings that would qualify as palaces anywhere else in Italy are simply called a Ca or house. Addresses make absolutely no sense, and sometimes street signs aren’t accurate either. If you don’t want to get lost, use live Google Maps.

Though there were a half-dozen pizza joints along the waterway, we ate instead at Algiubagio (I have no idea what that means and Google Translate was no help at all.) A Michelin Guide 2018 recommended eatery, it was probably one of the priciest meals we had the entire trip. But we ate on a terrace that arched out into the lagoon and the view was one-in-a-million. (It would have been a very romantic location after dark.) My meal of shrimp and pasta with salad, bread sticks and wine was very, very good. I’m not a big seafood fan (squid was also on the menu), but I’m glad I had at least this taste of it in Venice.

We tried to find a vintage clothing store a couple blocks inland, but either it had moved or Google Maps was once again mistaken. It was a short walk from there through narrow lanes and across bridges to Campo Santa Sofia. At the end of the campo, visitors can either rent a gondola or, along with the locals, take a traghetto — a smaller two-man rowed boat — across the Grand Canal to the Rialto Market. After that expensive lunch, you probably can guess which we decided to do.

Venezia :-: VeniceLesson Number Nineteen: Fares for gondola rides are set by the city and quite expensive unless shared with a group: €80 for 40 minutes (with €40 for each additional 20 minute increment) in the day time and €100 (with €50 for an additional 20 minutes) after 7 PM. Singing will usually add substantially to that amount. A traghetto ride costs €2.

“As the crow flies,” the Museum of Palazzo Mocenigo wasn’t very far from the Rialto Market. But nothing is a straight shot in Venice, and it seemed we were a long time zigzagging through narrow streets and across bridges until we found it. It’s a large, two-story, Gothic-style building, but with such a plain exterior it would be easy to pass it by if you weren’t looking.

The interior, however, was a different story. Former home to one of the local branches of the prominent Mocenigo family, its furniture and décor showed how the “other half” lived in the 17th and 18th centuries. Seven of the Mocenigo men served the city as doges (dukes), the head administrative leader of the republic. Their portraits and other paintings reflecting their glorious achievements are displayed throughout. (The family also owned several palazzos that faced the Grand Canal, including a block of homes not very far away in Santa Croce.)

The last male descendent of this line bequeathed the building to the city in 1945, and it has become a center for the study and display of fabrics, costumes and perfume. I love historical fashion and had seen pictures and videos (above) of some of the garments. So I was disappointed when the women’s dresses weren’t currently being exhibited. Still, it was an interesting visit, especially the room where we got to sniff the contents of various perfumes. (In the 16th century, Venice was Europe’s capital of perfume as well as glass.)

ca pesaroIt was a short walk (2 streets and 1 bridge) from there toward the Grand Canal to visit the Ca Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art. (“Modern” means Venetian, Italian and international art from the 19th and 20th centuries.) We wouldn’t see the exterior of the building from the water until we sailed along more of the Grand Canal tomorrow, but I knew from pictures that it was an impressive three-story structure of light-colored marble, built around a central courtyard and with a terrace overlooking the waterway. (How this only qualifies as a “house” instead of a “palace” is a mystery to me. Maybe it has to do with the prominence of the family instead of the size of the building.)

It was such a wonderful break on a very hot afternoon — refreshingly cool in the courtyard with a breeze off the canal. And really fascinating art on the top and middle floors. I especially liked the work of two 20th century Italian artists: Vittorio Zecchin (below top) and Gino Rossi (below bottom), who actually had a studio in the building. I love color and both men were master colorists.

There were a lot more memorable art works — including some really weird (in my opinion) contemporary stuff – and pics are at the end of the blog post.

From there, it was another vaporetto back to Piazzale Roma, a standing-all-the-way-because-of-rush-hour bus back to Mestre and a relaxing dinner and evening at the apartment. Two very happy tourists turned in early, knowing that tomorrow would be busy and our last full day in Venice and Italy.

 

Here are some more pics from the Glass Museum in Murano.

This first four are of millefiori discs and miniature portraits, geometric designs and pictures made of tiny glass mosaics.

 

The second two pics are of an older and contemporary piece that have faces embedded inside the glass. How in the world is that done?

 

Some contemporary jewelry – Venetian lampworked beads and millefiori.

 

Several figural pieces: a dragon, a toucan and a mandolin.

 

And some of my favorites. I love the combination of blue and purple with milk glass.

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Here are more pics of the buildings, streets, canals and bridges of Cannaregio.

 

Art and décor from the Museo di Palazzo Mocenigo: a Murano glass chandelier, portrait of one of the Mocenigo Doges, a painting of Judith and the head of Holofrenes and one of David getting ready to hurl a stone.

 

Costumes from the Mocenigo Musuem: men’s waist coats and lounging outfits.

 

Sculptor Adolfo Wildt’s work was also at the Ca Pesaro (we had seen it in Rome). His distinctive style was easy to pick out from the rest of the works.

 

Finally, several masterpieces by Gustav Klimt (another Judith painting) and Jeff Koons (large bearded man not included!)

 

 

 

 

Venice: Amusement Park for Grown Ups?

Tuesday morning our train left the Santa Novella station for Venice at 9:50. No wait! That was actually 9:30. Which means we accidentally missed the train and had to catch the next one an hour later.

gypsy1Here’s what happened … we arrived in plenty of time, but we both got kind of transfixed watching a group of gypsy girls work the crowd. Unlike the gang we had encountered in Rome — teenage girls who were dressed like everyone else — these girls were easy to spot with their long, multi-colored skirts and dark, braided hair. (Each one of them was also wearing the identical pair of high-platform red sandals.) They were mainly panhandling, but also hanging around the ticket machines, possibly to take note of the credit card information if people were careless enough not to shield their transactions. The local cops would usher them outside, and five minutes later they’d be right back. By the time we paid attention to the departures screen, our original train had pulled away.

Lesson Number Fifteen: Gypsies, or Roma as they prefer to be called, are not the only people who engage in pickpocketing in Italy, or anywhere else in Europe, for that matter. They are not solely threats or nuisances or interesting specimens for observation. But their traditional lifestyle, often lived outside the mainstream, can cause serious problems both for the communities that they frequent and for themselves. Here are two good articles (here and here) from very different perspectives.

The high-speed train ride from Florence to Venice (actually to Mestre, an industrial city on the mainland across from Venice) was uneventful and even somewhat boring. No lush green fields and farms this time because the railway often took us through the tunnels in the mountains.

We had no problem finding our short-term rental apartment in a residential area of Mestre. A large 2-bedroom flat, it included a full size, more than adequately equipped kitchen that opened onto a lovely balcony/terrace. A couple blocks from the bus stop connecting to Venice, it was also close to a bunch of restaurants and various size grocery stores. Our hostess, Raffaella, had left us a bottle of Brut and packages of cookies to make us feel welcome.

We got settled in, unpacked, took a nap, read through Raffaella’s information notebook, and at her suggestion, booked a time to tour the Basilica of San Marco. Entry is free, but lines can be incredibly long. For €3 each we would be able to “skip the line” when we finally got there on Thursday. We had dinner later that evening at the Hostaria Vite Rossa, and in my opinion it was the best meal of our entire trip. We shared an assortment of Venetian cicchetti (pronounced chick-etti), which is a type of tapas, and my main dish was a scrumptious chicken, potato and eggplant dish that was just as good warmed up the next day.

Lesson Number Sixteen: Most restaurants in Italy (including this one) are honest and you receive great food and service in exchange for what you pay. But there are exceptions, so acquiring some basic knowledge before you go is helpful. First of all, there are different types of eating establishments with a variety of names and food products — from full menu, sit-down service to a quick pastry, sandwich or pizza on the run. Second, you will pay more if the eatery is close to a major attraction or caters to tourists instead of locals. Third, you will pay extra to sit down or to eat bread, which typically is not complimentary. (If you do sit down, the service charge will no doubt be included on the bill and you won’t need to add an extra tip.) And fourth, lunch and dinner is served in “courses” — usually antipasto (starters), primo (first course of pasta), secondo (main course, usually of meat or fish), contorno (side dishes) and dolce (dessert.) Pick and choose; you don’t have to eat them all or in order. As with everything else when you travel, it pays to be a savvy food consumer (see here, here and here).

20180509_071746_HDRBefore we turned in for the evening, we talked a bit more about our first visit to Venice the next day. Known since at least Byzantine times as La Serenessima (The Serene One), it is a beautiful city, situated on a linked group of 118 small islands, surrounded without and within by water and crisscrossed by hundreds of bridges. The whole area is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site with some of the most unique historic buildings in the world. Yet the city also has some major problems. It is sinking and tilting and most of its older, canal-side buildings are in various states of decay.

And then there’s the tourists. While its limited space is home to an estimated 55,000 permanent residents, it is overrun yearly by 20 million visitors and especially crowded when the enormous cruise ships are docked nearby. (Many cruise lines have made Venice either the start or finish of a week on the water.)

One solution: the Enjoy Respect Venezia awareness campaign that educates visitors on respectful behavior. It includes a list of rules that can result in stiff fines (25-500) if violated:

  • don’t buy counterfeit products
  • don’t bring bikes into the historic center, walk on the left hand side or stand on and block bridges
  • do not eat on the steps of churches, other public monuments or anywhere except a café in St. Mark’s square; and BTW, do not feed the pigeons
  • don’t wear swimwear (or go nude or topless) and do not swim in the canals or basin
  • do not litter, vandalize the art and buildings in any way or urinate in public.

Some of these seem to be “no brainers,” but then Florence and Rome have had to adopt similar measures as well.

venicebarriersOver the May 1 national holiday, the Mayor of Venice even erected barriers to “channel” tourists (at least those who hadn’t purchased an official city pass) into less crowded by-ways near the train station and St. Mark’s Square. Some local residents weren’t happy with the “experiment” and taunted the mayor for turning their city into a Disneyland for adults. It was uncertain at this point whether or not the barriers would be used in the future.

I had also seen some online pictures and videos of locals protesting out-of-control tourism in Venice, so I wasn’t sure what kind of reception we would experience. I guess we would just have to wait to find out.

 

 

 

 

Under the Tuscan Sun

You just can’t go to Florence without also taking some time to visit Tuscany. So we got up “bright and early” this gorgeous, sunny Monday morning and headed for the rear of the Santa Novella station where the tour buses congregate. Our 12 hour Gray Line Bus day trip would visit Siena (yippy! I had read about its art), a winery in the Chianti area, the “Medieval Manhattan” tower-town of San Gimignano, and Pisa. I had added this day to our itinerary mainly to break up our routine — and because most of the museums in Florence would be closed! But I was also determined to see the Chapel of Santa Fina in San Gimignano since it played such a key role in one of my favorite movies Tea With Mussolini.

tuscany2We joined a mixed English and Spanish-speaking group, and our multi-lingual guide, Valentina, quickly got us boarded and settled into our seats. She did an amazing job of explaining and interpreting, giving us a brief history of the region on the hour ride to Siena. And the countryside was breathtaking — lush green fields interspersed with cypress trees, poppies and stone farmhouses that seemed to glow in the morning light — it was much as I’d imagined from pictures, movies and paintings I had seen.

As was the case in Rome and Florence, the historic center of Siena is closed to vehicular traffic. So buses have to drop off passengers almost a mile from the central plaza – the Piazza del Campo. It was a long hike and, unlike the flat flood plain of Florence, it was mostly uphill. Valentina walked really fast and I was grateful to discover that I was able to keep up with the group.

In addition to its rivalry with Florence (see below), Siena also endured intense feuding among the various contrada (neighborhoods) that sprang up around its aristocratic families. Think “Romeo and Juliet.” What remains of these internal conflicts are still acted out twice a year at the world-famous palios, free-for-all horse races around the central plaza where the only rules are that there are no rules. One of the local cafes behind us showed videos of the most recent race as entertainment for its guests.

Here are a couple professional photos of the horse race — close up and from the air.

Next we hiked uphill some more to visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. In her book about the differences between Florence, Siena and Venice, Sarah Stevers described Siena’s architecture as elegant and aristocratic. But the cathedral is NOT quite what I imagined that to be. It’s an absolute marvel of contrasts and color with every available surface decorated in some fashion.

siena1There were alternating bands of dark and light marble on the exterior, the bell tower and throughout the inside, where it is far more noticeable. “Gingerbread” carving highlighted Gothic niches and spires. (The Sienese revered and utilized Gothic style long after Florence had abandoned it for more severe, classic designs.) And gilding spotlighted just about everything.

siena2The Piccolomini Library (on the left side of the church facing the altar) is a prime example of the city’s “over the top” approach to ornamentation. It was built beginning in 1495 for Cardinal Piccolomini (who later was elected Pope Pius III) to house his priceless collection of illuminated manuscripts.

Only a few people were allowed in together and then only for a few minutes, not nearly enough time to fully appreciate Pinturicchio’s frescoes, which one online writer described as “a treasure within a treasure.” They were almost “eye-gouging” in the brilliance of their colors and detailed design. I was glad that I’d gotten over the sensory overload from the day before.

The cathedral in its present form was completed in 1264, and in 1337 — perhaps in competitive response to the beginning of Florence’s Duomo in 1296 — Siena’s citizens began an expansion that would have tripled its size, making it the largest Gothic building in Italy. (The two cities had an intense rivalry for wealth, territory, influence and power for many years until Florence finally prevailed.) The grandiose plans were abandoned when the foundations began to collapse and plague struck the city in 1348. The only reminders are a few stark archways that stand outside the church.

Lesson Number Fourteen: And it’s a universal, biblical reminder — “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” (New International Version)

20180507_063213We had about twenty minutes after the cathedral tour to shop or get a snack (gelato!) before heading back to the bus. Another, long up-hill trek! Then another hour bus ride through the lush hillsides to a lovely little winery/restaurant that overlooked the towers of San Gimignano, a Unesco World Heritage city. The meal was served family style and included three courses –traditional appetizers, pasta and desert — each with the appropriate wine. By now Randy and I had each gotten a fair share of sun, so it was nice to take this break on a shaded, breezy outdoor terrace.

On to San Gimignano and another steep (though much shorter) uphill hike. Valentina led us to the first arched gateway to the historic center — Porto San Giovanni — and then cut us loose to do our own sightseeing. I immediately spied a leather goods workshop that I pledged to visit again on my way back to the bus.

20180507_071451_HDRSan Gimignano is nicknamed “Manhattan of Tuscany” or “Manhattan of the Middle Ages” because of the large number of towers from that era that dot the landscape. Fourteen remain from the original seventy-two; originally defensive fortresses, they are a graphic reminder of the aristocratic in-fighting that also plagued Siena. The historic center with its paved central piazza is almost unchanged since medieval times, but the main street leading up to it is lined with all kinds of kitschy tourist shops.

It was very hot, and I don’t do either heat or sun very well. So when Randy and I stopped for a few minutes in the shade of a stone archway, I thought I couldn’t make it any further. I’m glad I pushed myself to continue because otherwise I would have missed what in my opinion is the real gem of the city — the Church of Santa Maria Assunta.

The frescoes in its Santa Fina Chapel (painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio) were featured prominently in the film Tea With Mussolini. Toward the end of the movie as Allied Forces approach the occupied town, Nazi soldiers set charges to blow up one of the towers near the city center, threatening the priceless works of art nearby. Though the Santa Fina fresco has been sand-bagged for protection, three of the leading ladies — Joan Plowright, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith — also chain themselves to a tower doorway, thereby effectively thwarting the Nazis’ final act of destruction. At the very end, the sandbags are removed, and Santa Fina is shown still sleeping in peace — a recognition of what can be accomplished by taking a strong, but non-violent stand. (There is no historical evidence that any of this actually happened.)

I’ve always been struck by the way that the woman tending to Santa Fina (her companion, Beldia) resembles actress Maggie Smith.

There was also a lot of other beautiful art and decoration in the chapel, and the many lighted candles indicated the intense devotion to the saint. (You can read about Santa Fina’s life and her significance to Catholic faith here.) I especially liked the little cherubim that surrounded St. Gregory the Great in the fresco of Santa Fina’s vision and the ones that were also carved into the ceiling trim above the chapel. Just like some I had seen in Florence, these were also chubby angel-babies adorned with six wings.

I know that I have used the term “breathtaking” several times already in this blog series, but that exactly describes the main part of the church building. In a much simpler Gothic style than Siena’s main cathedral, it had a series of 14th century frescos on the left of stories from the Old Testament by Bartolo di Fredi, and on the right a series from the New Testament by Lippo and Federico Memmi. There were only 3-4 other people visiting the church while we were there, which made it one of the most restful and spiritually uplifting sites that we would visit the entire trip.

I wish we’d had a lot more time to stay, but the bus would be leaving in about 15-20 minutes. The jaunt (mostly down hill, thank heavens!) back to the parking lot turned into something out of an Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First?” comedy routine. We split up with Randy going off to check out an art gallery while I looked for the leather workshop I’d seen on the way in.

When I found it, I took a few minutes to pick out just the right bag (did I already say they were breathtaking?) and plunked down my personal credit card. Declined!!! Even though I had informed the company that I would be in Italy! (I confirmed that when I got back home. Maybe someone didn’t recognize the city name.) Randy had all our cash and our other working credit cards, so I ran up and down the street for a few minutes trying to find him. No luck, and so with much embarrassment I apologized and left the store.

While I waited in the parking lot, Randy showed up just a few minutes later coming out of a nearby grocery store where he’d purchased us some water. When I told him what had happened, he said “But I was in that store. They said they hadn’t seen you.” That didn’t make any sense since he’d gotten back to the bus area before I did. As it turned out, we were in two different stores! Oh well, it was very, very expensive, so probably for the best.

20180507_104045_HDRBy this time it was the middle of the afternoon and everyone was really tired from spending so much time in the sun. So many in our group snoozed during the one and a half hour bus ride to Pisa, a port city near the mouth of the Arno River that was an additional rival of Florence and Siena. Its main tourist area was also far removed from the bus parking lot, so Valentina had arranged for shuttle trains to carry us back and forth. That certainly saved some time, but we were still too late to get into any of the timed entry sites in the city — the leaning tower, the cathedral, the baptistery or the cemetery. I think is was really poor planning on the part of the tour company, but it was still a charming area and Randy and I enjoyed some people watching (most everyone took selfies of themselves “holding up” the tower), some window shopping and a snack of panini sandwiches and pizza.

The bus ride back to Florence was uneventful — a bit of rain, but then the sight of green fields and, in the distance the snow capped mountains of the Apuan Alps. In Valentina’s last lesson, she taught us that the snowy colored Carrara marble hails from this region. After a quick taxi ride back to the apartment, we had a light supper and then turned in early, fulfilled yet exhausted after a very busy “under the Tuscan” sun kind of day.

Here are more pictures from Siena’s Cathedral:

The “gingerbread” on the exterior.

 

All that remains of the proposed 14th century expansion.

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A few of the 171 busts of Popes that range from St. Peter to Lucius III (circa 1185). This group is from the 5th century.

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One of the 56 inlaid marble panels on the floor. They took over 400 years to complete and were designed by leading Sienese artists.

 

The marble interior, main altar and stained glass window of The Last Supper.

 

A fresco near the Piccolomini Library. The youth in front is purportedly the artist Raphael.

 

Here are a few other pictures from the Santa Fina Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Assunta in San Gimignano.

Effigies of the saint.

 

A fresco of St. Gregory the Great’s supernatural visit to Santa Fina as she lay suffering.

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The ceiling and walls of the Santa Fina Chapel.

 

And, finally, here are some more pictures of the grounds around the cathedral and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

 

Florence: Sensory Overload and “Stendhal Syndrome”

ddi-free-museum-tickets-7As I wrote in a previous blog post, all the major cities we planned to visit offered various kinds of transportation and sightseeing passes. Florence only had one variety — the 72 hour Firenze Card (€72 or €79 with unlimited transportation). How fortunate that we wouldn’t need it — the itinerary I’d planned had us in the city today for Domenical Museo, the first Sunday of the month when all state-run museums are free to the public.

We knew that lines were going to be long. So if we wanted a fairly quick entry, we had to choose an early morning visit to either the Uffizi Gallery with its outstanding collection of masterpiece paintings or the Accademia with Michelangelo’s sculpture David. The Uffizi won out, partly because it was only a 5-10 minute walk from the apartment. By the time we arrived at 7:30, the queue had already snaked 3/4 of the way around the museum’s piazza. When we entered at 8:30 it was several blocks longer — all the way back to the end of the Piazza Signoria. It would continue to remain that way until we exited several hours later.

uffizi1The Uffizi building was designed by Giorgio Vasari (whose painting of the Last Supper in Santa Croce Church was described in a previous post) and constructed between 1560 and 1580 to house Florence’s administrative officials. (Uffizi means “the offices.”) It is a narrow, elongated U with the short end abutting the river and the long, three-story sides bordering an open plaza. The exterior is lined with statues of prominent Florentines and the interior is vaulted, gilded and covered in marble. There is a working (but slow) lift, which we rode to the top floor where rows of windows flood the area with light and provide an unobstructed view of the Arno River and Ponte Vecchio. (The banner pic for this blog was taken from there.)

There are 101 rooms in the museum arranged on the top and middle floors — Italian and international paintings, sculptures and temporary exhibits. We took our time, stopping often to listen to Rick Steves’ audio guide when we wanted more information about a particular work of art. His audio tours are very informative and also very humorous; they include a downloadable transcript and map of the facility. We had already used them at the Duomo and Orsanmichele and we would listen again in Venice, too.

20180506_022626It was kind of a “flash back” for me. When I was in grade school I embarked on a personal, non-scholastic project to compile a notebook with pictures of every painting I could find. I called it “Art Through the Ages,” and my Mom kept it and gave it to me later when I reached adulthood.

Many of the paintings I included were hanging there on the walls of the Uffizi. It was so amazing to stand before a priceless artwork that I have admired for over 60 years, such as Boticelli’s Primavera (right). And it was also neat to realize that I have the same good taste as the Medicis (even as a third-grader!), since all this was once mostly their private collection.

We probably spent 3 hours in the Uffizi and I took almost 100 pictures. I’m only going to post my absolute favorites at the end of this entry; you can see some of the other highlights of the collection in online articles here, here and here.

There were no lines to enter the Bargello Museum, which is located slightly north of Piazza Signoria. And since that also meant very few people inside, we had unimpeded views of some of the best sculpture that Renaissance artists had produced. The building itself is one of the oldest in Florence and has an imposing, fortress-like design. Bargello means “Captain of the People” (or Chief of Police), and in the past the building served as a barracks, a prison and a place of judgment. The severity of the facility made an interesting contrast to the works inside.

20180506_054935I had mainly wanted to see Donatello’s David, which did not disappoint. It is so very different from Michelangelo’s version — almost prissy by comparison! And forged from bronze rather than carved out of marble. It was the first free-standing nude since Roman times, and it has generated centuries of scholarly debate over the meaning behind the young hero’s provocative pose. Here’s how Judith Testa describes him in her book An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence:

Like the biblical David, Donatello’s figure is a preadolescent boy but, unlike the aggressive youth in the Bible who shouts insults and defiance at his adversary and exults in Goliath’s death, Donatello’s David is a dreamy and contemplative victor. The wide brim of his hat casts a shadow on his face, adding mystery to his expression. The elaborate hat, which draws still further attention to the figure’s near nudity, is as unprecedented as David’s lack of bodily covering. (Kindle locations 4056-4060)

Testa goes on to argue that the sculpture has religious meaning — going beyond the Old Testament story of the killing of Goliath to represent Christ conquering sin and death. It also has social/cultural/political meaning — David’s vanquishing of a powerful adversary corresponds to Florence’s actual experience with its own earthly enemies. And it might even have sexual meaning — Florence had a reputation as the “San Francisco” of its day and contemporary Germanic people named anyone engaged in homosexual practice “ein florenzer.” For me, this speculation only added to the mystery and made my contemplation of the piece all the more enjoyable. (There is a really good online article that discusses the scope of Donatello’s work throughout Florence.)

I also really liked the sculptures of John the Baptist — one that had previously been attributed to Donatello but was really carved by Desiderio da Settignano (left) and the other by Francesco da Sangallo (right). The latter had done an awesome job of carving the hands.

We walked quickly through the Mercato Porcellino, just so I could say that I’d done that. (Click here for a web page about the market, including a 360 degree photo.) But all of the leather goods looked cheap in comparison to what I’d seen earlier at the leather school.

Lesson Number Thirteen: When it comes to leather, looks can be deceiving. Plus, as the old saying goes, “you get what you pay for.” I’d also learned this the hard way five years ago when I bought what I thought was a pretty blue tote bag from a street stall in Windsor, England. A few weeks after I got home it began to smell funny and it gradually faded to a pale bluish-gray. I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.

Just around the corner from the Uffizi, on a narrow cobblestone street that we’d walked several times before, we were surprised to find a lovely little shop that manufactured and sold silk ties and scarves and also some leather products. I’d lost one of my good black gloves this past winter, so I replaced them. Soft, supple leather, they fit perfectly. Randy also got a regular tie and a bow tie and I bought a beautiful floral scarf.

stendhal6The plan had been to take a quick break at the apartment and then head back across the bridge to the Palazzo Pitti to see the fashion and jewelry collections as well as the Renaissance and contemporary art. But I just couldn’t do it. The thought of standing in another line and fighting through crowds — or even just looking at another exhibit — made me almost sick to my stomach.

A book I had been reading suggested that what I was experiencing might be something called Stendhal Syndrome. Named after the 19th century French writer Marie-Henri Beyle (pen name, Stendhal), symptoms include rapid heart beat, dizziness and disorientation. (He’d wrote that he had heart palpitations, felt like life had been drained out of him and feared he would fall down after he visited the Church of Santa Croce on a trip to Florence in 1817.) I’d heard about Jerusalem Syndrome before: folks who go kind of nutty after having a religious experience in the Holy City. But this one was news to me.

Whatever the cause — and I think it had more to do with sensory overload and an almost non-stop schedule for the last 6 days — Randy went to the Pitti by himself while I stayed alone at the apartment, tuning out the world by reading some mindless romantic novel. He didn’t get back in time for us to visit the Accademia and see the David. Maybe next time?

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But we did return to the Piazza Santa Croce that evening. After I helped a young woman capture her runaway puppy, we bought a gelato and sat on benches to watch an old man do “interpretive dance” to the music of a three-man acoustical band. Kids were playing nearby, people were walking and chatting and vendors from the local weekly market were taking down the remains of their displays. This is almost what it feels like to be a local, I thought. It was a wonderful ending to a very full day.

Here are some more pics of my favorite paintings in the Uffizi:

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The Incredulity of St. Thomas – a copy after Caravaggio. The original (scholars are split on whether it is lost or in the Bildergalerie in Potsdam, Germany) is one of the most copied and replicated paintings from the first half of the 17th century. This one is from the Medici collection.

 

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Medusa – attributed to Caravaggio (it is not signed). Commissioned as a ceremonial shield by Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, the Medicis’ agent in Rome. It really bugged me for several days because the visage reminded me of someone. Finally figured it out — Johnny Depp!

 

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Annunciation by Botticelli because it’s so different from other paintings of the same theme. Usually Mary is portrayed as humble or almost frightened by the angel Gabriel’s visitation and message. Here it’s the angel who appears to be submissive.

 

Madonna of the Pomegranate, also by Boticelli. Mary, the Christ child and the noble youths surrounding her are all painted with exquisite tenderness. It’s one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen.

 

I love nativities and I had seen several of these frequently printed on Christmas cards. From left to right, they are: Michelangelo’s The Holy Family, Giorgio Vasari’s Adoration of the Shepherds, Bronzino’s The Return from Egypt and Dutch artist Gerritt von Honthorst’s Adoration of the Child.

 

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This rendition of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden by Pontormo is almost as dramatic as Masaccio’s in the Brancacci Chapel. Pontormo was an innovator in his own right and renowned for his depiction of “haunted faces and elongated bodies.”

 

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I like this painting of Bia de’ Medici by Bronzino because she looks like Randy’s sister, Lynn. Bia was the illegitamate daughter of Cosimo I and she died when she was five years old.

 

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And finally, another very famous image Venus of Urbino by Venetian artist, Titian. (She has engendered as much controvery over her meaning and message as Donatello’s David.) An art book I read earlier pointed out how differently women were portrayed in the paintings of Florence, Siena and Venice. Venetians idealized (and sexualized) their females as blonde, radiant goddesses. Compare this image to the one of little Bia or any of the portrayals of the Virgin (above). Florentine women were much more serious and dignified.

Florence: Then and Now

20180504_074335_HDRHow wonderful to awaken to bird song from the private courtyard adjoining our apartment! Knowing that the next two days would require really early starts, we had chosen to sleep in again and then take our time making and eating breakfast. There were a couple of visits scheduled for later in the afternoon, but that left the morning relatively free.

As with many other Italian cities and towns, Florence has a variety of indoor/outdoor mercatos (markets)some dedicated primarily to leather, some to produce, meats and cheese, and some to antiques and collectibles. We decided to “kill two birds with one stone” and took the bus north of the historic center to visit both a food and a flea market.

The Mercato Delle Pulci flea and antique market recently moved from its historical location near the Loggia del Pesce, the remnants of a covered, open-air building that housed the city’s fish market. That market had been relocated from the Ponte Vecchio area during one of the Medicis’ Renaissance-era urban renewal projects, and now city leaders had decided that the flea market was also an eyesore. Dealers relocated to a large asphalt-topped plaza — Largo Pietro Annigoni — and the earlier site was demolished (see before and after pics, below). It isn’t nearly as charming now, but there were still a dozen or so tented stalls displaying everything from furniture to vintage clothing. I was happy to find a really stunning pair of large, silver-plated earrings; but though Randy and I looked through batches of paintings, sketches and prints, we didn’t see anything that caught our eye.

The Sant’Ambrogio Market is right across the plaza. Smaller than the recently renovated Mercato Centrale near the Duomo, it has more of a relaxed “down home” feel with locals vastly outnumbering tourists. Open every day at 7 AM, it’s where most of the area residents do their food shopping for the day. So there were a lot of basics, but many interesting specialty items as well. I didn’t have any luck discovering a designer vintage scarf among the clothing vendors’ wares, but we did find delicious seasonal strawberries, some savory artisanal goat cheese (great on our dinner salads!) and a chocolate-coated nougat candy that was kind of like American “sea foam” (divinity), only a bit more dense. I gnawed on it for several days any time I needed a sweet “pick me up.”

We took the strawberries and cheese back to the apartment and then hopped another bus to the Oltrarno side of Ponte Santa Trinita (Saint Trinity Bridge). Walking across to the historic city center, we got another great view of the Ponte Vecchio from the west. Palazzo Bartolini Salimbeni is a block in from the river on the corner of Piazza Trinita and Via de’ Tornabuoni, in a ritzy shopping area that includes Ferragamo, Prada, Fendi, Bulgari and Tiffany fashion and jewelry stores.

20180505_061945A  floor in the building had been recently purchased and renovated by Roberto Casamonti, a wealthy collector and dealer in modern art from the 20th century onwards. He was currently exhibiting works from half of his private collection (1900-1960) and the exhibit was free during the month of May. The building was wrapped around an intricately decorated (graffito style) private courtyard (pic right), but the real treasures were hanging in the rooms inside.

I do not know as much about (or appreciate) modern art as I do works from earlier eras. So one of Casamonti’s goals was to educate folk like me. As with other museums that we had visited, there were several works that I really liked a lot.

In the first group of paintings was Giacomo Balla’s Grande serata nera al Salone Margherita, usually shortened to Serata Nera (Black Evening). A work from early in his career (1903-1904), it was painted a year before his La Pazza, another character study that I had seen in Rome’s National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. I don’t know if the woman in the painting was a “lady of the evening” or not, but the way the men are gazing (leering?) made me think of the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I was also reminded of the iconic photo from 1951 of a group of Italian guys cat-calling at a young American woman on the street. The woman in the picture, Jinx Craig, claims that she wasn’t harassed during what was actually a semi-professional photo shoot. But one of the men to her right is grabbing his crotch, an action that was airbrushed out of the picture for many years.

And then there was this collage near the end of the exhibition (My Love by Enrico Baj, 1960) that demonstrates how strange emotional attachments haven’t changed much 20180505_062022either. As another old saying puts it, “beauty (really) is in the eye of the beholder.”

In between Balla and Baj there were a slew of masterworks from very well-known artists: Marino Marini, Giorgio De Chirico, Fausto Pirandello, Wifredo Lam, Max Ernst, George Braque, Paul Klee and Tancredi. (Pics follow at the end of the blog post.) What an amazing personal collection! And what a gracious, generous gift to the city of Florence and its art-loving visitors!

I was really disappointed that the Ferragamo Museum right next door was closed until May 24 for the staging of a new fashion exhibition. Randy and I did walk quickly through this terribly expensive store, even stopping briefly to look at a couple purses. But we were both pretty intimidated by the snooty sales people and the guards at the doors.

Re-crossing the Santa Trinita back over to Oltrarno, we walked down one of its main drags, Via Maggio. Many of the boutiques and antique stores were closed for the weekend, but I did look around a vintage clothing store at the end of the street (no luck, mangiatoiathough, on the vintage scarf search.) The restaurant next door looked inviting, so we headed upstairs for lunch on their partially enclosed outdoor terrace. I was pleased to discover that this was La Mangiatoia (roughly translated, “the manger”) that I had read about online — popular for its good,  home-style meals and reasonable prices. Randy and I split a walnut, pear and cheese salad and I had a dish of rabbit, chicken, sausage and beans. (I think Randy had pizza again, but I could be wrong about that.) Yum!

We had some time afterwards before our only scheduled tour at 4:15, so we did a quick visit to the Basilica of Santo Spirito. For some reason, I didn’t take any pictures there. Probably because I was so very excited to get to our next stop — the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, whose Brancacci Chapel is now a civic museum of Florence.

In 2012 I wrote and published a book about the history of The United Methodist Church’s struggle with moral compromise. My publisher and I finally decided on a cover that included an image in the public domain of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. Thanks to Judith Testa’s guidebook, which I described in the previous blog post, I discovered that the unknown-to-me painter of that scene was a Florentine named Masaccio. I couldn’t wait to view the work in person.

Tommaso di Giovanni di Simone Guidi, whose nickname Masaccio could mean “big Tom” or even “ugly” or “sloppy” or “clumsy Tom,” is credited with being one of the first true renaissance-style artists. He utilized the newly developed rules of one point perspective, and 70 years before Caravaggio even began to make his mark in the art world, Masaccio was portraying emotional realism and experimenting with the dramatic effects of chiaroscuro (dark and light). His Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise is a good example, and Testa describes the painting in this way:

masaccioThis visual howl of despair is among the most powerful renditions of the theme ever painted, a terrifying image of humanity’s separation from God. As they stumble through the gate of the Garden of Eden and out into a desolate world, Adam and Eve convulse in anguish. Eve, frantic with shame, attempts to cover her nakedness with her hands, and lifts her face in a scream, crying so hard that her features seem almost to dissolve. Overcome with remorse, Adam hunches over, his stomach sucked in with sobs, burying his face in his hands and weeping. The recent restoration removed the fig leaves a later and more prudish generation had added, revealing that Masaccio had truly exposed Adam’s nakedness, depicting his sexual organs with a clinical accuracy unheard-of in earlier art. The angel who hovers above the couple does not prod them but merely points the way out — Masaccio’s method of showing Adam and Eve’s understanding of the ultimate tragedy that has overtaken them. (Kindle location 1473-1480)

A complete restoration was completed in 1988, making visible colors and details that were long hidden by layers of soot and dirt. It is absolutely breathtaking. And its comparison with his teacher Masolino’s Temptation of Adam and Eve (more pics below) clearly shows who was the superior artist. Because the painting represents so much to me personally, I could have gazed at it for a long, long time; but we were only allowed 30 minutes with the timed entry. Still, it makes me smile every time I remember looking at it.

From here we rode the bus back to the apartment for a rest and light dinner. Then back on the bus for an after-dark visit to the Piazza del Duomo. We had seen the famous dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral Church of St Mary of the Flowers) from a distance just about everywhere we had been in the city. But the “up close” reality was almost unbelievable.

duomo-florence-night-27116964The building, along with its matching campanile (Giotto-designed bell tower) were massive, almost overwhelmingly so. I felt dwarfed by it, a similar feeling to what I’ve experienced when walking on the strip in Las Vegas. I’ve long theorized that the gambling capital’s architecture is designed (consciously, or not) to completely dominate the viewer, making him or her feel insignificant in comparison and thereby encouraging gambling as a way to regain personal power and prestige. (Either that or it’s just humanity’s tendency to exalt itself.)

It was a similar effect here: an edifice that reminded me that I am NOT God and encouraged me to respond with awe and humility. The cathedral — especially the gargantuan, almost physically impossible dome — played a major role in the religious, social and political life of Florence. For more information, check out this webpage that includes a 9 minute video.

We used portions of Rick Steves’ audio guides to identify the biblical scenes on the three-dimensional bronze doors of the baptistery and also the various sculptures on the exterior of the Orsanmichele, which is nearby. As a final visual reminder that Florence is a living, breathing modern city, we passed a full wedding party — bridge, groom, attendants and guests — on their way to the Duomo plaza to take a few pictures. It was another gorgeous night for taking a slow walk back to the apartment and we enjoyed every minute!

Here are some more pictures from the Roberto Casamonti exhibition:

And here are some more pictures from the Brancacci Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine:

First is a comparison of Masaccio’s painting of Adam and Eve (left) with the one by his teacher, Masolino (right).

Other Masacchio paintings (click on the thumbnail for a larger version.)

 

 

 

Rome to Florence on a Really Fast Train

trainToday we didn’t have to be in Florence to meet the apartment rental agent until 1 PM, so we took the opportunity to sleep in and enjoy one last leisurely buffet breakfast at the hotel. (From now on we’d be doing most of the meal prep ourselves.) Check out was a breeze and the train terminal just a short block-and-a-half away. I’d purchased tickets for the Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) high-speed bullet train before we left, so navigating the terminal and finding the correct platform presented no problem. I was on “high alert” for pickpockets but didn’t see any at all — at least that I was aware of!

Our assigned seats had been upgraded one level and no one was seated beside us for the entire 90-minute ride. At maximum speeds of up to 223 mph (ours did a mere 155!), the countryside seemed to whiz by in a flash. While we were riding, I finished reading one of the two books about art that I had purchased for the trip. As one website had noted — “Florence is bursting at the seams with art” — so with only two full days of touring I wanted to make sure that our visits were worthwhile and that I understood what I was seeing.

Lesson Number Eleven: Learning about Italian art and architecture really enriches your experience as a tourist. My “must reads” were Judith Testa’s An Art Lover’s Guide to Florence and Sarah Stever’s Art, Style, and Society: Siena, Florence, and Venice, 1300-1600. Instead of surveying a whole lot of paintings and sculptures, Testa’s book decribes a few key pieces with an in-depth analysis of their artistic, religious and political significance. And Stever’s compares and contrasts the art and architecture of each city, focusing on the unique ideals that motivated them: aristocratic elegance in Siena, pure classicism in Florence and eclectic opulence in Venice. She suggested that the viewer pay particular attention to the protrayal of women and I intended to take note of that. (Testa has also written a book about the art of Rome and I wish I’d known about it before I left for the trip.)

As we pulled into the station in Florence, the young American couple across the aisle began to talk with us. How surprising to learn that they lived in Madison, Wisconsin, the state capital just north of our town.

mentana2Since the streets all around the terminal were undergoing major renovations, we couldn’t find the correct bus stop and ended up taking a taxi to the apartment. We couldn’t have asked for a better location – in a historic building one block off the Arno River, a few minutes from three major bus stops and only a short walk to several key tourist attractions. With a fully equipped kitchen, wifi, air conditioning and a pillow top mattress, it was the perfect spot for our stay in Florence.

The agent gave us keys and a map, showed us where the nearest grocery stores were located, pointed out the building’s garbage and recycling bins and told us to call or email him if we had any problems at all. After unpacking and getting our bearings, we headed a few blocks north to Piazza di Santa Croce for a visit to the church and the leather school near by.

The Scuola del Cuoio is a world-famous leather factory/sales room tucked into a small courtyard behind the massive basilica. It was founded by the friars and two local leather working families after WWII to train war orphans and prisoners for a productive occupation. It is now the largest artisan workshop in all of Florence and its short-term to year-long classes are open to the public. (Check the school’s Facebook page for all the current classes and events.)

leatherschool7The visitor center includes a gift shop, long glass cases and other displays with some of the school’s classic designs, and a half-dozen work benches for demonstrations. A few craftspeople were working there, but they were mainly focusing on simple, assembly line projects – gluing a strap together and stamping the school’s insignia onto bookmarks. The more complex design and manufacturing takes place downstairs and tours there must be arranged in advance. A tree at the end of the hallway displayed some gorgeous box-shaped purses that almost made me drool. (I love leather bags!) I couldn’t afford them, and they spoiled me for just about anything else I saw later in Florence. Much of what is sold on the street or in stalls is either counterfeit or cheap junk from China. (See more pics of the school at the end of the blog post.)

We had a couple of hours to spend in the Church of Santa Croce and we could easily have stayed an entire day. I didn’t have St. Peter’s in Rome to compare with — or the interior of the Duomo in Florence — but I think it was the most magnificent and beautiful church of any that we visited. Begun by the Franciscan order in 1295 and finally  consecrated in santacrocefacade1443, it was a mixed bag of the brothers’ original commitment to humble living and the more ornate impulses that would come later. The exterior is a good example. Built initially of simple Florentine limestone, the current multi-colored, wedding-cake style marble facade was added in 1857. In a nod to simplicity, the rest of the church is covered in plain red brick.

We were lucky that a volunteer guide for English-speakers was available just as we arrived — a delightful young art student named Stephanie. She was happy to practice her language skills and show us around the facility — the main worship area, the Pazzi Chapel, the Cloisters and the Opera’s Museum. (The opera of a church in Italy is a group of lay people who serve in administrative functions. They are often responsible for upkeep and restoration of the artwork.) There was also a bell tower, basement and sacristy that we didn’t visit.

The worship space is a large T-shaped Gothic building whose flat ceiling is supported by carved wooden beams. It contains a main chapel (dedicated to the cross and giving the basilica its name), 8 family chapels and 14 additional altars along the sides. All contain glorious artwork (frescoes, paintings and sculpture) dedicated to a variety of biblical figures and saints, and the latter tell the story of Jesus’ last days from Palm Sunday to Pentecost. Many notable Florentines are buried or memorialized here: Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli and composer Gioacchino Rossini. The sculpted woman looking at his tomb is purported to be listening sadly to his music!

20180504_101226Two of the artworks in particular stood out to me. The first one is The Descent of Christ into Limbo by Bronzino (1552). (In Roman Catholic doctrine of the afterlife, limbo is the place for unbaptized babies or where the just wait until Christ returns.) Bronzino was a court painter for the powerful Medici family, and so it’s slightly odd that the canvas has been moved to the chapel of one of their main political competitors, the Pazzi family. While Jesus bestows his blessings on Bronzino himself (there is a self-portrait), his artistic contemporaries, and even some notable aristocrats (possibly a Medici), really strange demons writhe in agony above. A massive flood in 1966 (20 feet high!) left the painting severely damaged. It was fully restored and its colors glow with jewel-like brilliance. I think the painting exudes hope; it was a wonderful reminder of my own redeemed life in Christ.

The other painting is Giorgio Vasari’s Last Supper (1546), much beloved by Florentines and art aficionados everywhere. A massive, five-panel masterpiece, it too was severely damaged in the 1966 flood, totally submerged in the mix of water, mud and black heating oil for over 12 hours. It’s estimated that over 1500 art works and several libraries full of books and manuscripts were also harmed or destroyed, but this work was one 20180504_093710of the largest. The effort to restore it was a gargantuan undertaking — in time, talent and treasure — and it wasn’t unveiled for public viewing until the 50th anniversary of the flood in 2016.

In an effort to ensure its safety in the future, it is now displayed on a giant pulley system that allows it to be raised and lowered on the walls. It is a beautiful testimony to the irreplaceable value of Western culture’s artistic heritage and to the exacting standards of art restoration, a profession which many claim originated in Florence with the Medicis.

The cloisters were lush and green after spring showers and a peaceful place to end our visit reflecting on all that we had seen. If you would like to learn more about Santa Croce, the church maintains both an amazing website and a blog site with all kinds of interesting information. And you can see more of my pics at the end of the blog post.

A quick gelato at a small nearby shop, a stop for groceries at a Conad chain store, and a brief dinner of salad and pasta, and we were ready to explore again. Two of my favorite movies — A Room with a View and Tea with Mussolini — were filmed in and around Florence, so I was already half in love with the city before I even got there. But by the end of the evening, I was totally smitten!

20180504_130336_HDROur apartment was only steps away from the Ponte alle Grazie, one of the half dozen bridges linking the historic heart of Florence with the Oltrarno (Italian for “other side of the Arno”) on the opposite shore. All of the bridges but the Ponte Vecchio (“the old bridge”) were destroyed by retreating Nazi troops in WWII and later rebuilt to resemble the older ones. Randy and I lingered there while the sun began to set, enjoying the view of the Ponte Vecchio and getting in some “people watching” as well. Then we took a leisurely, rectangular-shaped walk down Lungarno Torrigiani and Via de’ Bardi through Oltrarno, across the Ponte Vecchio and around to the Piazza della Signoria.

sabinewomenLesson Number Twelve: You don’t really need a 10-ticket bus pass (which we had bought) in Florence because it’s such a “walkable” city. (I’d read that online but hadn’t quite believed it.) While I’d liked the art that we saw in Rome, I hadn’t particularly cared for the city or its “big-ness.” But nothing in this historic center was more than 20 minutes away, and if you got temporarily lost it was easy to reorient yourself by looking for the Duomo’s dome or the river. We only used the passes a couple of times for “long distance” travel and ended up giving the left-overs to some folks in the train station when we left for Venice.

The Piazza borders the Uffizi Gallery and it and the nearby Loggia dei Lanzi are chock full of public statuary, including a replica of Michelangelo’s David. Testa’s book was a big help here; artistic merit aside, Judith and Holofernes (told you she’d appear again), Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Hercules and Cacus and The Rape of the Sabine Women (left) could have different political/social interpretations depending on whether or not the Medicis, another family, the church or the republic wielded the most power.

We sat for a while on the Piazza degli Uffizi steps listening to a lone guitarist play classical and contemporary hits then walked slowly home to the apartment, window shopping along the way. If the rest of our time in Florence was as lovely as this first day, I would be one happy traveler.

Here are more pics of the leather school and Santa Croce church:

And here are more pictures of our evening walk:

 

Last Day in Rome: More Art and Pickpockets

915991925_st-peters-basilica2Of our total cost for the trip (not counting food), almost 25% of it would be for transportation and sightseeing. Though there are a lot of free things to see and do, most activities are expensive and even some churches charge admission. (The Vatican museums, for example, cost €30 pp.) So we wanted to be smart about how we spent our money in this area.

All three of the cities we visited — Rome, Florence and Venice — offer passes of some kind. Some would be a good deal for us and others not so much. We learned again that you have to read ALL the information carefully, including the “fine print,” and then make wise decisions.

There were a variety of options for Rome. The most expensive 3-day Omnia Pass (€113 for adults and €80 for children) covers just about anything that you might want to do:

  • skip-the-line/fast-track entry to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums
  • 2 entries to your choice of 6 popular museums/archeological sites and half price admission to dozens of others
  • a Hop On Hop Off bus tour
  • and public transportation anywhere within the city limits by bus or metro (normally €1.50 each ride).

If we hadn’t been there on the national holiday when things are closed, we might have chosen this option.

Instead, we chose the 2-day Roma Pass for €28, which covered all the transportation, entry to one museum or archeological site, including any special exhibits, reduced half-price admission to all the other popular sites, and discount coupons for a variety of special events and retail businesses. (They also sell a 3-day pass that doesn’t include the Vatican or HOHO bus tour for €38.50.)

toonvectors-50310-140On paper it looked like a good deal. If we had been able to see everything I had planned for our itinerary, it would have saved us about €10 each. But we couldn’t get in to the world-renowned Borghese Gallery — the priciest site at €15 — because its timed entries (only 360 people in 2 hour slots) was booked out several weeks in advance. I hadn’t seen that deeply buried information on their website and we also weren’t informed by the vendor when we purchased the pass in Rome. Plus, we were just too tired this last day to cram in one more half-price museum. Though we lost a bit of money on this one, it might have been worth it for the fast track entry and not having the hassle of purchasing individual transit tickets. Plus, we would make up for it later in Florence.

20180503_041421Our morning visit was The National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art and its vast collection of 19th and 20th century Italian and international works. The building itself — Palazzo delle Belle Arti (Palace of Fine Arts) — is conventionally beautiful and sits just a block from the lush Villa Borghese Park. Built in 1911 for a world’s fair, it commemorates the 50th anniversary of the unification of Italy. But the outside — totally unconventional lion sculptures — should have given us a clue to the surprises that were waiting inside.

I have to say that this is probably one of the most oddly curated museums I have ever been in. Paintings, sculptures and installations were hung or displayed not in chronological order or in relation to different eras or art movements, but by arbitrarily chosen themes. So in one room you ended up with a classical Greco-Roman statue facing (looking at?) an early 20th century painting of a hospital. (I join her in the pic below.) I don’t know, maybe she was the goddess of healing?

20180503_045519

I took lots of pictures in this museum (most of the sites allowed photography without a flash) and many of them can be found at the end of this blog post. But three of the works were my personal favorites. In chronological order they are: Le Tentazione di Sant’Antonio (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) by Domenico Morelli (1878), La Pazza (The Crazy One) by Giacomo Balla (1905) and San Francesco (Saint Francis) by Adolfo Wildt (1926). (Click on each picture for a larger image.)

Morelli was a Neapolitan painter, distinguished professor and Director of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Naples. Though he is best known for his focus on religious and mystical themes, he was also somewhat rebellious against “institutional” styles of painting. In his St. Anthony canvas, for example, the fantastical demons and devils of earlier works are stripped away (literally and figuratively) to reveal the far more realistic temptation that almost every Christian faces — lust.

ballaGiacomo Balla was a key proponent of Futurism in Italy, which was both an art and social movement that emphasized speed, technology, youth, and violence, and objects such as the car, the airplane, and the industrial city. Painters from that period tried to capture light, movement and speed, and Balla’s painting Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash is probably one of the best known images of all. His La Pazza is a much earlier work, but even so the agony and confusion in the woman’s facial expression and posture gives a glimpse of how his work would progress over time.

I don’t know very much at all about sculpture, but I was very drawn to the work of Adolfo Wildt, an artist of Swiss heritage who was born and worked in Milan. By the age of 18, he was already being noticed for his masterful ability to work with marble, and he had his first professional exhibition at 25. The simplicity and sophistication of his bust of St. Francis was characteristic of a distinctive style that not only had an influence on later modern sculptors, but made his work easy to spot later on in Venice.

Since it was raining by the time we were finished, we decided not to walk through the Borghese gardens but took the tram and metro to the Barberini station. Unwilling to face another meal of pasta or pizza, we ate lunch at The Good Burger, which more than lived up to its name with specialty burgers, hot dogs, fries, soft drinks and ice cream on the menu.

20180503_081020The human gps let us down again and we had some difficulty finding one of the two sites of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (National Gallery of Ancient Art) which was housed in the impressive Palazzo Barberini. Originally built by the powerful Sforza family, it was “renovated” to its current condition by Maffeo Barberini, who later became Pope Urban VIII. Honeybees — symbols of the equally powerful Barberini clan — were visible everywhere carved into the marble and stone. (The Barberinis have palaces, plazas, streets and even a subway station named after them. Their emblems are even visible at the Vatican, too.)

This would be our first, but certainly not our last, encounter with a multi-story palace/museum without elevators/lifts.

Lesson Number Nine: Understand Italy’s floor designations for buildings — ground floor equals our 1st floor, 1st floor equals our 2nd floor, etc. And be prepared for A  LOT of stair climbing. A good many 3-4 story palace museums do not have lifts or they are in out-of-the-way places that you could never find without asking. Those that do have them sometimes frown upon using them if you are not disabled. It turned out to be good aerobic exercise for me and an aid to my weight loss efforts.

Contrary to the name, the art works were mainly from the Gothic, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras. And the main reason that we wanted to visit here was to view another Caravaggio masterwork Judith Beheading Holofernes (left). The story, taken from the Book of Judith (scripturally authoritative for Roman Catholics but not Protestants) relates how the beautiful-but-pure widow used her wiles and wits to subdue and decapitate the Assyrian general who threatened her home town. It was an oft painted subject during the Renaissance, including another beautiful version by female artist Artemisia Gentileschi (right, at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence). Caravaggio’s depiction is graphically realistic and it’s another prime example of his use of chiaroscuro; but I actually prefer Gentileschi’s treatment.

I was also intrigued by the number of times that saints Peter and Paul were painted together, sometimes as a couple and sometimes with the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. But the most striking — to me — was a painting by Giovanni Serodine in which the artist imagines them saying “goodbye” to each other while on their way to martyrdom in Rome.

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There were many more lovely pieces and some of them will be pictured at the end of this blog post.

Lesson Number Ten: Be constantly alert to pickpockets — was learned the hard way on the subway back to the hotel. It was close to rush hour and the Barberini Metro station was jam-packed with commuters. As the train pulled up to the platform, there was much more jostling than usual. I got separated from Randy in the frenzied pushing and shoving, leaving me on the train and him still on the platform. Just as the doors were about to close (and I had resigned myself to the fact that I would have to wait at our destination until he followed on a later train) he forced them open, grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me out of the crowd.

A couple of older Roman gentlemen explained to us that a pack of teenage girls — gypsy pickpockets — had done that to us deliberately. (I guess we looked more tired and disoriented than I thought!) When I pointed to one of them, she stuck out her tongue at me. Sorry to say, I also did that to her in return. I wish that I had given her the “zero” sign instead because they didn’t get anything from me and they wouldn’t have even if I’d stayed on the train. There was nothing in my pockets and I was carrying a “theft proof” purse with a locked zipper compartment, RFID blocking credit card/passport shield and slash proof body and straps. Still, it was a scary experience and one I didn’t want to repeat.

After an uneventful ride back on the next train, we took a bit of a rest and then walked out again into the rain for a delicious dinner at Restaurante Strega. Served outdoors in a heated tent, I enjoyed a white pizza with artichokes and my first spritz, a traditional Italian cocktail apertivo which contains, among other things, prosecco and sparkling water. It was a peaceful and romantic ending to our day and our time in Rome.

Here are pics of other interesting artwork from the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art.

Some installation art or possibly costumes. Randy thought the first one looked like a prototype for Chewbacca in Star Wars. The second one had beautiful embroidery and beading. And the third featured folk art blackface dolls. (Click on thumbnails for larger image.)

Well known international masterworks (from left to right): Van Gogh – Portrait of Madame Ginoux (1890), Klimt – The Three Ages (1905), Cezanne – Le Cabanon de Jourdan (1906) and Max Ernst – Compendio della Storia Universale (1953).

And a modern riff (left) on Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (right).

Additional pictures from the Palazzo Barberini:

The Grand Staircase.

Paintings of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. The 3rd and 4th pictures of a painting by Fra Filippo Lippi features an especially delightful, chubby Christ child.

My personal favorites (left to right) were one painting’s depiction of baby cherubim (complete with six wings), Jacopino’s Entombment of Christ, Bellini’s Christ in Benediction and an un-named Flemish Neapolitan painter’s depiction of the Madonna of Sorrows.

 

 

 

 

Rome: Caravaggio’s Mean Streets

Have I mentioned the wonderful food we’ve had in Italy yet? Just kidding, of course, but I did want to say a bit about Italian breakfast — colazione all’Italiana. Unlike their lingering lunch (see previous post), for most Italians breakfast seems to be almost an afterthought, a quick “grab and go” coffee and pastry at the nearest corner café or much the same at home. Sometimes a savory sandwich (panini) is added, but I had read somewhere that Italians believe a more substantial breakfast is bad for the digestion and impedes clear thinking while at work.

welcome piramBecause I’m diabetic (well controlled), that wouldn’t work for me. So I was glad that our hotel (the Welcome Piram) served a full spread breakfast buffet each morning. It had EVERYTHING you could possibly want — eggs, bacon and sausage, fresh fruit, cheese, pastries, pancakes and bread, even very tasty green beans. I usually ate a heaping amount of the latter because I worried I might not get enough vegetables while in Italy (I don’t particularly like tomatoes!) It was a great way to start the morning and keep us going strong.

350px-Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasAnd we would need it today. Up bright and early, we were joining one of the docents from Context Travel for a 3 hour guided walk called “Caravaggio’s Mean Streets.” Context takes great pride in its “very small group tours for the intellectually curious traveler,” and I hadn’t seen anything comparable anywhere else. We were already in love with Caravaggio’s work (his Doubting Thomas is one of my favorite paintings in the whole world), so learning more about him from an expert and seeing some of his paintings in situ was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio’s real name) was a revolutionary artist for his time, breaking with traditional idealized styles to paint both human and divine subjects in all their gritty realism. He was one of the first Italian painters to work with live models — often local prostitutes — and he also became renowned for his mastery of chiaroscuro (the contrast of dark and light), using it to dramatic effect in many of his works. In 1594 he left his native Caravaggio near Milan for Rome. Within six years he had become one of the most famous artists in his adopted city, even though some of his provocative treatments of religious subjects resulted in initial rejection by the public and his patrons. Prone to violent behavior (possibly due to lead poisoning from his paints), he was outlawed from Rome after committing murder. He died in 1610 under uncertain circumstances in the midst of seeking a papal pardon.

Lesson Number Eight: Don’t get so transfixed by what you’re seeing and hearing that you forget to take pictures! Those of Caravaggio’s paintings that follow are from the Internet and in the pubic domain.

Our first stop was the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo (St. Mary of the People), reputedly built over the sanctified site of the burial of evil Emperor Nero. The side walls of the Cerasi Chapel contain two Caravaggio paintings from 1600-1601 — The Crucifixion of Saint Peter (left) and The Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus (right). They are both foreshortened in perspective and meant to be viewed from the side. And they flank another painting — The Assumption of the Virgin — by an artistic competitor, Annibale Carracci. Which is a good thing, because it allows you to see who was the true innovator and most masterful painter.

Both of the paintings have a strong diagonal composition, brilliant colors and dramatic contrast of dark and light. The realism is absolutely amazing, with the horse in the St. Paul painting looking as if it will tumble out backwards onto the floor at any moment. But what struck me most was that both Peter and Paul embrace their experiences (physical death and spiritual rebirth) with open arms. Brilliant!

From there we walked through the Tridente, so-named because of the trident shaped main streets (Via di Repetta, Via del Corso and Via del Babuino) that border and intersect the area. Many of them looked much the same as they would have in Caravaggio’s day.

Our second stop was the Church of Sant’Agostino to view Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loretto/Madonna of the Pilgrims in the Cavalletti Chapel. (The original was either being restored or elsewhere on exhibition, so we only saw a copy.) A later work from 1604-1606, its realism caused a minor sensation (not in the good way) when it was first unveiled. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:

Madonna_di_Loreto-Caravaggio_(c.1604-6)The uproar was not surprising. The Virgin Mary, like her admiring pilgrims, is barefoot. The doorway or niche is not an exalted cumulus or bevy of putti, but a partly decrepit wall of flaking brick is visible. Only the merest halo sanctifies her and the baby. While beautiful, the Virgin Mary could be any woman, emerging from the night shadows. Like many of Caravaggio’s Roman paintings … the scene is a moment where everyday common man (or woman) encounters the divine, whose appearance is also not unlike that of a common man (or woman). 

Not only were they bare feet; they were DIRTY bare feet. And the woman who modeled for Mary was reputed to be Caravaggio’s mistress, Lena.

We ended the tour at the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi where Caravaggio’s “Matthew Cycle” paintings (1599-1602) cover the walls of the Contarelli Chapel. The artist accepted the commission when another painter and sculptor failed to complete their work. What good luck for art lovers everywhere!

The Calling of Saint Matthew, The Inspiration of Saint Matthew and The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew (from left to right in the chapel) caused a public sensation — this time in a very good way — mostly due to his ingenious use of dark and light. From another Wikipedia article:

Image2Caravaggio’s solution to decorating a typically gloomy Roman church interior was revolutionary and brilliant. Visitors to the Contarelli Chapel today are confronted with paintings that use the gloom instead of fighting against it. The paintings themselves are dark – mostly shadow – but certainly there has been a gain in drama, as the highlighted figures of saints and executioners leap out of the enveloping dark. Caravaggio also considered the lighting in the chapel: each of the two side paintings is lit by a beam of light coming from the same direction as the natural lighting in the chapel itself.

Notice the brilliant staging of hands in the Calling painting. You can almost hear Matthew ask “Who me?” as he points to himself. (Or maybe he’s saying, “How about asking that guy right next to me!”) And Jesus’ posture of beckoning the disciple is reminiscent of — or an intentional nod to — the placement of Adam’s hand in Michelangelo’s creation painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The other two paintings are equally compelling, even though the first version of the Inspiration was rejected as being too vulgar.

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The three-hour walk was fast-paced and pretty exhausting, so I was happy to find out I could actually do it. (I’d had physical therapy for a pulled hamstring a few months before we left and a cortisone shot in my painful right hip as well.) Finding a bus back to the hotel from that area was a bit confusing, but we connected to the right one at a major transfer hub Largo di Torre Argentina. It’s also the partially excavated archeological site where Julius Caesar may have been assassinated and a working sanctuary for Rome’s feral cat population.

After a long, long rest at the hotel, we explored the Mercato Centrale/Central Market and had dinner at a small, family run restaurant called Giovanni di Valentino. I had grilled sole — the entire fish! — and Randy had — you guessed it! — pasta. There were also German and Korean families dining there that evening, so it wasn’t surprising that the waiters (it was all guys) used their cell phone apps to translate and take orders. Fun!

Turning in early, we looked forward to another full day tomorrow, our last one in Rome.

Rome for (Mostly) Free: Sightseeing on a National Holiday

As I noted in a previous post, May 1 is International Workers Day, a commemoration of workers’ rights that actually has its origin in the labor movements of the United States. Since this celebratory day would turn into an extended weekend for many, hordes of visitors (Italian and otherwise) were expected to descend upon Rome. Public transit, especially bus service, could be spotty and taxis few and far between. And many (but not all) of the popular sites and museums would be closed for the holiday.

A quick google search of “Rome for free” had turned up a wealth of websites with alternative suggestions of things to do. As I expected, Reids Italy was one of the best with each particular suggestion broken down into its own entry. I discovered that there were a number of free walking tours available where the only cost was what you decided to tip the guide (here, here and here). And if lots of noise and gigantic crowds of people turn you on, there was also a free outdoor concert in Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano (Plaza of St. John Lateran) that ran from early afternoon until late in the evening.

Randy and I opted for a quieter and less crowded schedule, however, at least for the first part of the morning. While doing an “off the beaten track Rome” search, I had discovered an organization of Roman artists called Cento Pittori Via Margutta (100 Painters of Via Margutta) which would be hosting the last day of their 108th annual street fair on May 1.

20180501_040730Via Margutta is a charming, quiet cobblestone street that runs for several blocks parallel to one of the three main drags in the historic city center — Via del Babuino. It is a short walk from either the Spanish Steps or the Piazza del Popolo (Plaza of the People) and easily reached by Metro. Originally home to modest craftsmen and stables, in the 1950s it was a filming site for Roman Holiday and the home of movie director, Federico Fellini. Today it houses exclusive art galleries, artist studios and trendy restaurants.

It rained most of the morning, so some of the painters did not show up for the event. Even so, we spent several hours looking at art works and trying out our rudimentary Italian talking with the artists.

Another reason that I wanted to visit the area was an eatery I had discovered by doing a google maps search. Located at the northwestern end of the street, Il Margutta is described on the google site as a “modern alternative restaurant and gallery serving creative vegetarian twists on Roman menu classics.” We weren’t sure quite what that meant but were willing to give it a try. It didn’t disappoint; with all-you-can-eat buffet, a great glass of wine and a variety of scrumptious deserts, it was one of the best meals we had in Rome. (At least that’s my opinion. Randy would probably vote for one of the pasta restaurants close to the hotel.)

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Lesson Number Six: Lunch is an art form in Italy. While there are some fast food joints around, including the ubiquitous McDonald’s, most Italians take 2 hours or more for what is often their main meal of the day. Take your time. Savor each bite and each sip. And don’t expect the wait staff to bring you the check unless you ask for it. Oh, and if you haven’t traveled in Europe before be prepared for ice-less water and soft drinks. Though it will be provided if you ask nicely.

We really needed a brisk walk after such a big meal and we wanted to get in some of the freebie tourist sites before we headed back to the hotel for a late afternoon nap. The Spanish Steps weren’t far and they were reputed to be beautiful this time of year when the azaleas are in bloom. Designed in 1723-1725 by Francesco de Sanctis and completely refurbished in 2014 by the Italian jewelry firm Bulgari, they were a prime example of baroque architecture and a prime piece of real estate linking the French owned-and-operated Trinita dei Monti church (above) with the piazza of the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See (below). The wide irregularly spaced steps and terraces are billed as “a great place to just sit down and enjoy the atmosphere and views of the Eternal City.”

Right! Only if you manage to evade that horde of holiday day-trippers. They all seemed to have the same idea about “free things to do in Rome” as we did. Apparently, it gets even more crowded in the summer.

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It was much the same at the Trevi Fountain, another baroque architectural masterpiece and one of the most famous fountains in the world. I had imagined it looking something like the screen shots from the movie Three Coins in the Fountain. The reality was a bit different — not only hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of tourists, but also vendors selling all kinds of kitschy souvenir junk. Magnets sporting graphic portions of Michelangelo’s statue of David kind of caught the eye, but not in a good way. Worrying about potential pickpockets didn’t help either. If I thought any kind of personal romance was going to happen in Rome for my 30th anniversary, it wasn’t going to be here.

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So we pushed through the crowd and took our first quick gelato break. It wasn’t the “real deal” (see below), but it still tasted good on an increasingly hot afternoon.

Lesson Number Seven: If possible, visit the most popular tourist sites very early in the morning. (This was good advice to follow in Florence and Venice, too.) Get educated about gelato. Authentic Italian ice cream is made by hand using real milk and other fresh, local ingredients. A sign reading “artigianale” is usually a good indicator, though sometimes that is faked. Bright colors are often a bad sign. Pistachio, for example, should be kind of tan with a mild green tint, not neon green. And banana should be greyish, not flaming  yellow. If you want to be sure, ask for a list of ingredients or inquire as to whether it is made on site.

turnerBy early evening we were ready to explore again. This time we headed to the west of the city toward the Tiber River for a special exhibition of sketches, drawings and paintings by English artist J. M. W. Turner. It included over 90 of the personal favorites that Turner had bequeathed to the Tate Gallery in London, which was co-sponsoring the show at the Chiostro del Bramante (Bramante Cloister). We had developed an appreciation for his work when we visited England five years ago, so we chose this rather expensive exhibition over a similar one featuring Monet.

Only one problem: we couldn’t seem to find the venue. Neither Moovit nor Google Maps was any help, and we kept getting lost in the warren of twisting alleyways and tiny plazas. (And no, Rick Steves, it was NOT an enjoyable experience.) It did give us the opportunity to practice our Italian again when conversation with a helpful local lady pointed us in the right direction.

The exhibition was our first exposure (but not our last) to “timed entry.” Meaning: they only allow so many people through at a time and only for a certain amount of time. It helps protect the artworks and to prevent human bottlenecks, at least in theory. Even with the frustration of waiting a half hour in line to get in, it was all that we hoped for and an awesome ending to our first full day in Rome.

Here are a few other pictures from Tuesday, May 1

The Fountain of the Artists on Via Margutta

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A statue at a Via Margutta art gallery

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Piazza del Popolo (Plaza of the People) – just below the ancient northern gate into the city. Notice the buildings to the right and left of the obelisk. Under renovation, they are wearing printed coverings with graphics of their facades. Either that or “billboards.” We noticed this in all of the cities we visited.

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Fontana della Barcaccia (Fountain of the Boat) – at the foot of the Spanish Steps; it was severely damaged in 2015 when a group of Dutch football hooligans defaced it with bottles and rubbish.

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Rome: Arrival and Settling In

3 coinsWhen I imagined Rome, especially the romantic parts of it, I often pictured scenes from two of the movies I grew up watching: Three Coins in the Fountain (pic left, 1954) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963). Or I recalled the blockbuster adventures of ancient Romans in The Robe (1953), Ben Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960) and The Gladiator (2000). Not all of my impressions of the city came from films, of course; I did take a classical history class decades ago in college. But popular media still had a major influence. And as Randy and I learned when we saw the Stonehenge monument in England, false notions and hype can leave you very disappointed.

So though I wanted to see some of the old “standbys” like the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, I also hoped to find some less popular sites that would still make for interesting visits. As with our initial preparation, the Internet was an awesome resource.

A couple all-purpose websites were excellent for their thorough coverage of the city and I referred to them again and again while planning our itinerary. Romeing, Enjoy Roma and Revealed Rome had information on everything from attractions, to special exhibitions, to restaurants, to local transportation, to nightlife. “Insider knowledge” was helpful, too, especially the Rome section of Spotted by Locals and Yelp. And I discovered a couple gems by simply googling “Rome off the beaten track.”

I also found out early on that we had possibly made a minor mistake with our choice in dates. Our first full day in Rome would be May 1 — International Workers Day — a national holiday when many sites and museums would be closed. But that turned out to be an incentive to think creatively and schedule lots of free activities.

Fiori-di-zucca-fritti-ripieni-di-ricotta-2Our flight to Rome from O’Hare was uneventful and we arrived at the hotel around noon. (At least that’s what the clock said; our bodies not so much.) We couldn’t check in until 2 PM, so we had a leisurely lunch at La Gallina Bianca (The White Hen) which is a lovely restaurant a few blocks from the hotel. Sitting at breezy outside tables, we enjoyed our first traditional Italian dish fiori di zucca fritti (fried zucchini flowers). With a crispy coating and stuffed with fresh ricotta cheese, they were a yummy start to our culinary adventures. Tasty personal pizzas were great, too, and the remaining take-away provided enough for supper later that night.

Lesson Number Five: Don’t worry about tracking Weight Watchers points (or staying on any kind of weight loss diet) while in Italy. Within reason, eat what you want — including gelato once in a while — and trust that the walking and stair climbing will take care of the calories. I lost 2-3 pounds in the time we were there.

We crashed once we got to our hotel room and our “short nap” turned into almost five hours of deep, restful sleep. We thought we had missed the opportunity to do any real sightseeing that first day, but a short walk brought us to the spot where the “Hop On Hop Off” (HOHO, for short) buses congregated. Rome is a much larger city than either Florence or Venice and a bit more complicated to navigate, both by foot or public transport. So one circuit on the HOHO (about 14 euros pp) was a good geographical orientation to the city. (Click here for the link to a map of the route.)

The city at dusk was absolutely gorgeous,. Plus that’s Randy’s favorite time of day. All of the pics that follow are from our time on the HOHO.

Typical tourist enjoying the ride

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Santa Maria Maggiore/St. Mary Major

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Typical Roman Street

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Colosseo/Coliseum

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Arch of Constantine

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Circo Massimo/Circus Maximus — where parts of Ben Hur were filmed

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Native cedar trees and portions of ruins near the forum

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Piazza Venezia – at the foot of Capitoline Hill and with a monument to Italy’s first King, Vittorio Emanuele II

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Mussolini’s Balcony in the Palazzo Venezia. Reopened only in 2011, it’s where he used to address the crowds.

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Travel Smart, Part 2

tourist-2While my favorite travel guru, Rick Steves, and other experts recommend “getting lost” in Venice and other Italian cities, that makes my control freak nature absolutely cringe. I’m all for serendipitous discoveries, but when my schedule is tight (as ours would be) I want to know exactly where I am and where I want to be next.

And nothing labels you “tourist” (see pick pocket section below) quicker than whipping out an unwieldy paper map when you’re trying to navigate.

Google Maps to the rescue! I’ve used the online website many times to calculate the best route and mileage from here to there, but the smart phone app is even more amazing. Once it knows your location and destination “on the ground,” it gives you step-by-step and turn-by-turn graphic and audio directions. It’s kind of like an automotive gps for human bodies. (And just like the one in my car, it sometimes said “you’re here” when I obviously wasn’t.)

Another fantastic app is Moovit, which not only determines directions and distances but also shows all the various options for local transit. It even alerts you to worker strikes and route changes (both common in Italy). I used both these apps beforehand to plan our city itineraries so that there wouldn’t be too, too much walking each day. And constantly consulting our smart phones made us look like just about everyone else on the streets.

Lesson Number Two: Yes, self-absorbed and completely oblivious cell phone junkies are a universal phenomenon. Refrain from pushing them out of the way when they stop dead in their tracks in the doorway of a crowded museum.

cell-phone-770All of which led to the next major consideration: if we’re going to use smart phone apps, how do we access them? How do we stay connected to the Internet while in Italy and how do we get in touch with folks back home?

There are a lot of options for phone service — from using your American provider’s international service (pricey), to buying an Italian SIM card for your existing phone or purchasing a cheap Italian phone and service (about 30-35 euros). Instead, we rented a mobile wifi hotspot from a company called Skyroam, mainly because I knew we would have high data usage.

It was super convenient: they mailed us the device a few days before we left town and we mailed it back on our return. It allowed us to contact family and friends via Facebook and email rather than phone. And it worked well — when it worked. (It was especially handy when our flight from Dublin was cancelled while the plane was sitting on the tarmac!) But is was pricey, and neither the device nor its portable charger held a charge very well. If there’s a “next time,” we’ll probably do option 2 and sign up for both phone and wifi service.

We also used apps to learn some rudimentary Italian and to translate words and phrases (Italian to English, and vice versa) on the spot.

toonvectors-50310-140I hate to admit it, but we were really stupid about money, at least about converting our dollars to euros. We used a company called Travelex to exchange and acquire some cash by mail before we left. And we also purchased a combination debit/credit “travel card” from the local Travelex office in Madison. I wasn’t paying attention and the sales clerk didn’t fully inform me, so we ended up paying over $300 for the so-called “convenience” of universal acceptance and no exchange or ATM fees.

What a rip-off! The best way would have simply been to use a debit card connected to our checking account with a pin number for security. But we didn’t already have one and we had waited too long to make that particular choice.

Lesson Number Three: Never do that again!

But at least our money was secure. Italy (as well as other countries in Europe) is notorious for pickpockets and other grifters. They are often Roma (gypsies), often teenage girls, and often travel in packs. They’re especially prevalent in the train and metro stations, on buses and at crowded tourist spots.

pick1As the old saying goes, “forewarned is forearmed.” So Randy kept our cash and credit cards safe in a money belt under his clothing. And I carried a theft-proof crossbody bag with a lockable zipper and slash-proof sides and strap. (Thieves have also been known to snatch shoulder bags from their scooters.) I didn’t want to be paranoid about it, but I’m also glad that we took these precautions; we had a rather scary encounter with a girl gang on the metro in Rome, which I’ll write more about later.

Our final preliminary consideration was packing to travel light. Since we would be traveling in-country by train and also lugging our suitcases to and from the hotel and apartments, we challenged ourselves to get everything into a 20-22″ carry on and one personal item.

20180427_223943I’m here to tell you that it can be done. With the help of an Eagle Creek “Pack-It” brand flat fold garment container — and with the addition of what I wore on the plane — I had a wardrobe that consisted of 4 pairs of pants, 4 blouses, 4 tee shirts, 1 tunic, 2 cardigans, 1 windbreaker, a sleep shirt, 3 pairs of shoes and an assortment of scarves, jewelry and undies. (I also made sure that I had tops that covered my shoulders and bottoms that covered my knees for visits to churches.) Plus, toiletries, medications and my memory foam bed pillow — all crunched up to fit, but expanding to regular size when unpacked. I will never take a regular size suitcase on my travels ever again!

Lesson Number Four: Do your research and decide wisely about shoes. Cobblestones and other uneven pavement make for tricky walking, especially when rain makes it slightly slick. After many try-outs, I settled on Skechers slip-ons, Keen walking sandals and Born tie-up sneakers. All of them were well broken-in and in colors — tan or black — that I could mix and match with my clothes. (Yes, guys, that can be important to us gals.) I also had a pair of slip-in orthotics for extra cushioning and arch support.

So, was all this preliminary planning worth it? Absolutely!

We had complete freedom to see and do exactly what we wanted and when we wanted to. We didn’t care to explore ancient archeological sites (we had our fill of that in the Middle East) and, though most people can’t believe it, we didn’t want to see the Vatican either. Or shop much. But we did want to cram in as many art museums as possible. We were also able to schedule our visits for the times that weren’t as crowded and even take a brief riposo (an Italian siesta) in the afternoon if we were tired.

And the cost saving alone was worth all the effort. Our 11 day trip was a bit over $2000 each for airfare, accommodations, all ground transportation and sight seeing. In comparison, 10 days escorted with a tour company (Perillo, Trafalgar or Rick Steves) would have cost $3300-$3400 pp, not including airfare. Admittedly, their tours are “top of the line” and even include some meals. Still, saving thousands and thousands of dollars can’t be beat. We couldn’t have afforded to do it any other way.

Stay tuned for my next blog when I’ll begin to write about the sites, sounds, smells and tastes of Rome.

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Travel Smart, Part 1

untitledI have to admit that I was a bit hesitant to consider a totally independent visit to Italy. While it’s true that I had planned a number of large trips before, there were some major differences. In America, Ireland and England there wasn’t a language barrier. And even though I had developed the itineraries for our various group pilgrimages to Israel and Jordan, a tour company and guide had taken care of all the details for flights, accommodations, meals, ground transportation, sightseeing and language translation.

But I was determined I could do this. Italy was on our travel “bucket list” and we really couldn’t afford an escorted tour. I had ten whole months to prepare and I trusted that the Internet, our local library and conversations with friends who have traveled there before would all help me along the way. So, where to begin?

I figured that some good general information about Italy would help us to figure out our options and choices. Fodors, Frommers and Lonely Planet books were all very helpful. So were a couple of blogs that focus on Italy:

But my all time favorite is Rick Steves, whose motto is “travel smart” and whose website generously shares a wealth of information from his experiences traveling all over Europe. (He even provides downloadable audio tours of some of the major sites in Rome, Florence and Venice.) This particular video “Italy: Travel Skills” covered all the bases.

We like cities and we love art, so it was an easy decision to divvy up our time between Rome, Florence and Venice. (I’ll share more about individual city resources when I blog about them later.)

Booking our flights was the next consideration. Because of Randy’s preaching schedule, we like to leave on a Sunday evening and return in time for him to have a few days to get back on track before a worship service. (That way he only misses one Sunday.)

Turkish Airways was offering an insane air fare — a little over $500 each for roundtrip, if we were willing to make a connection in Istanbul. We had flown Turkish Air several times in the past to and from Israel, and we were favorably impressed with their service. So I booked our tickets and counted off the days on my calendar to mark when we could make our seat selections.

It turned into an absolute nightmare. Without going into a lot of detail, I learned a couple months before our departure that I had entered our names incorrectly when I purchased the tickets online; since they didn’t match our passports, the tickets were invalid. (I’m quite literal: the website form did not ask for middles names so I didn’t supply them.) Luckily, because the airline had made a minor schedule change we were able to get a full refund. (Whew!) I rebooked us through Aer Lingus (at slightly more cost) and we were good to go.

Lesson Number One: Pay close attention to the forms you are filling out and ask questions if anything at all isn’t completely clear. Be patient with service reps for whom English is a second or third language. But also be persistent!

mentanaAccommodations were next. Booking.com is one of my favorite sites because you can usually cancel reservations if things don’t work out as planned. I found our self-catering apartment in Florence (pic right) through them. But I used a couple other methods and sites as well. Searching for “hotels near the train station” on Google Maps led me to the Welcome Piram Hotel in Rome. Booking so many months in advance got us a terrifically reduced rate that included breakfast, a pick up from the airport and use of a personal cell phone. Finally, I used AirBnB to find and reserve a complete two bedroom home (with terrace!) in Mestre — on the mainland just 20 minutes by bus from Venice.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog post where I’ll cover three other general concerns: how to navigate and communicate while in Italy, the best ways to deal with money (exchange rates and security) and traveling light/packing.

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