I'm writing this from Amsterdam, where we’ve been staying with our friend Ronan for the past five days. I’m a bit behind on our stories, and will send our tales of Morocco, Spain and France soon. We are nearing the end of our journey and will be flying back to Ecuador on August 20th and back to Vancouver September 15th for a month.
We’ve had lots of offers of places to stay, but are still looking for a self contained place where we can do a bit of cooking, etc. However we haven’t said no to anyone. If anyone hears of a housesitting or sublet situation, please let us know.
We dipped in and out of Italy: to Rome before our cruise, Naples and Venice after the cruise, and then went by train to Ancona, Trieste, Verona, and Milan from three different directions, Nice, Verona and Rome. We also visited Monaco, not part of Italy, on our cruise.
Roma Our five days in Rome were full. Rome was overwhelming in many ways – from the wild traffic and winding streets to our first impressions of the sculptures and ruins as we inched by. Our two-day hop-on hop-off pass was excellent simply because there is so much to see. On our first day we saw the coliseum, which seats 10,000, the Arch of Constantine, a Michelangelo statue within a church, the Spanish Steps, Medici Palace and several beautiful piazzas. There are hundreds of old buildings in Rome, beautifully built with style and elegance. That’s what made it impressive to me – not just a few beautiful buildings but a city built with grace. Rome is a lovely walking city and is surprisingly green. We spent a fair bit of time just strolling along the streets.
On our second day, labour disruptions spoiled our Vatican sight-seeing plans -this is Italy of course. The next day we started early and saw the impressive St. Peter’s Cathedral or Basilica with little hassle. Unfortunately, this meant the following stop, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel, had incredibly long lines. It was fascinating but unfortunately a bit of a cattle-herd experience. With probably one thousand people in the noisy and crowded Chapel, we had to keep moving. Apparently Rome is overrun with tourists at all times of the year and the summer becomes even more hectic. All-in-all, though, were happy to have seen Michelangelo’s famous fingers.
Wandering through the streets revealed many of the important areas: the Pantheon, Via del Corso, many charming little piazzas, or squares, statues, and of course dozens of churches, or chiesas. At the Piazza Venezia, Campdoglio the white-marbled Venezia Palace with its dozens of statues and massive size is one of the most impressive areas I’ve seen. At the Capitolini Museums nearby we had excellent view of the Roman Forum, Trajan’s Column and Trajan’s Markets, Circo Massimo, and Piazzas Barberini and Republica, and the giant Theatre of Marcello. We also saw the crowded Trevi Fountain, made famous by ”Three Coins in the Fountain” and some Fellini movies. We became accustomed to dozens of priests and nuns going about their business.
We saw two art exhibits. Funnily enough, an excellent Hiroshige Wood Block Exhibition was in town, at the Fondazione Roma Museo, part of a 6,000 piece collection donated to the Honolulu Academy of Arts by the late James Michener. It was a peaceful experience with gentle Japanese music playing – such a contrast to the busy streets. We also saw a Giottio e il Trecento exhibition at Complesso del Vittoriano, which holds important works from this early 14th century Italian artist. It was worthwhile, although after seeing literally hundreds of painting of Christ and Mary and Jesus, I have diminishing interest in religious art. Most churches have statues, not pictures. We were in Rome for five days before we took the train to the Civitavecchia Port to begin our twelve day cruise.
Our next stop was Monaco is a sunny little Principality on the Mediterranean coast. This sovereign state is less than a square mile in size one and the playground of the rich. Because of the Grand Prix de Monaco, the city had temporarily blocked the waterfront roads with bleachers. Once we found our way in, we had a fascinating day. This was my introduction to the French Riviera. We toured the Royal Palace and saw the changing of the guards. The Grimaldi family has a long history as rulers, and of particular interest to many is the love-story romance of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. We saw the palace room where they married and their tombs in the St. Nicholas Cathedral. It’s the first time I’ve seen a throne in a palace. The Grand Casino can only be described as grand, and on display an excellent Daphne du Barry sculpture exhibition. Monaco is impressive –fabulous views, elegant old buildings, charming small shops and restaurants along winding streets, and multi-million euro yachts in the harbour. We saw most of the attractions in one day, before moving on to Naples.
Napoli Our day in Naples began by nearly getting arrested, because we didn’t know Naples busses require tickets, not Euros. We attempted to pay, but couldn’t, and while in the process of figuring out what to do, the badge-flashing Transit Police started writing us a 57Euros fine – each. Other passengers talked loudly and gestulated that we jump off at the next stop, so we did. We assumed we’d be pursued and walked very quickly into the crowd, but– ha-ha – we escaped.
What a start– but we loved Naples, in spite of its grittiness, edginess and noise. Of course it has the reputation of being a tough, Mafia controlled city, but turistas don’t see that. The traffic is fast and erratic, and we adapted quickly. We got around by using our Lonely Planet guide and by simply noting the swarms of tourists on the cruise ships walking tours. We explored old Napoli –the tiny streets, the Largo Castello and Piazza Municipio, and the agoras started by the Greeks. In contrast to Rome, only about 15% of the churches are open. Naples churches are large, but more sombre-looking and plainer than most Catholic churches we’ve seen. We found ourselves near Piazza Bellini, which has numerous music bookstores and instrument shops and where University music students filled the streets with music.
We toured the National Archaeological Museum, one of the best of dozens we’ve seen over the past few months, displaying several hundred statues representing the many gods and noble people of the time. Many statues were huge - twenty feet high and others told stories- gods wrestling animals for example. In the Pompeii exhibit were portions of decorated walls, frescos, painting and statues from their elegant homes, which model the sophistication and style of the day; a snapshot of how advanced this civilization was centuries ago. In retrospect we wish we did the day tour to Pompeii. Others on the cruise visited Capri, the Amalfi Coast, Positano, and Sorrento.
Venezia We cruised into Venice by sea and I must say the experience was memorable – sailing into the heart of this historic elegant city. We debarked the next morning and with the usual packing, collecting-the-luggaging, standing–in-lining, shuttle-bussing, and trudging, the morning was gone. Our lovely very large bed-and-breakfast-without-the-breakfast accommodation room had a fold-up kitchen the size of a large wardrobe. The private garden was the prize – a large 200 square foot high-walled patio covered with in-bloom pink and red oleander trees and a massive white jasmine wall; pots of yellow pansies and yellow marigolds were everywhere. I kept my suitcases locked there, as the owner had towels and other goods swiped from various hotels around the world. Venice is wonderfully quiet because it has no cars, only Vaporettos, - small ferries, and boats.
Although only 70,000 people live in Venice proper, our b-and-b agent Christian told us it receives a whopping 21 million visitors a year. He described St. Marks’s Square as “hell” -wall-to-wall people except at midnight or seven am. He warned us of the 2,000 Euros fine for counterfeit purses purchases from African street sellers. When the police give chase they pack up, run, and knock over tourists in their path. Sure enough a Quebec woman from the cruise ship was arrested for buying a purse. As well, young Roma boys are notorious pickpockets and these under-aged kids, can’t be charged. Well-warned, we ventured out.
Venice was originally a delta and the Grand Canal was one of the larger streams. It sits below sea level and there are 188 islands and 400 little bridges, mostly walking paths. Venice is a food-lover’s paradise. We stopped at window after window to examine the lovely cheeses and meats, and bought groceries for simple breakfasts and snacks. At local shops, a bottle of vino from a large vat costs two Euros. Venice shops feature lots of Murano glass and delicate masks, which represent the past when people loved to mingle anonymously
We were at Piazza San Marco twice and never made it inside the Basilica – the lines were just too huge. Saint Mark’s Square was busy, but we had a drink and enjoyed some live music. Unfortunately right now much of the square is cut off because of construction. The winged lion of St. Mark, the Evangelist graces the square and is a beautiful symbol of Venice.
The Doge’s Palace is most interesting for a couple of reasons. First it showed the Venetian government structure and the power the church and wealthy noblemen had over life and death. We toured the prison, led to by the Bridge of Sighs, so named because that’s what prisoners did as they were led off. Most unusual are the interior walls of the palace. Many had magnificent frescos and murals while others had amazingly intricate plaster decoration. Many of the pictures were “framed” by the specially-built plaster walls. The room sizes are apparently some of the largest in Europe. Our long hunt for the Peggy Guggenheim Museum was to no avail – it was shut due to “power outages”, and the nearby Musei Di Accademe was a bit boring – a few Bernini’s and besides that more religious art. Sorry to leave, we took a three-hour train ride the next day to Ancona, and the ferry to Croatia. We picked up Italy again from Slovenia, and arrived by train into Trieste.
Trieste We were a bit worried because Trieste wasn’t even mentioned in Lonely Planet’s Mediterranean Europe. Mind you, the Southern Europe LP covers 14 countries so information is limited. Still we were pleasantly surprised as we walked along the Gran Canal and by the Adriatic Sea shore. Trieste’s orderly design is largely affected by the Austrian Empire that ruled back in the 1740’s. The Piazza Unita d’Italia rivals San Marco in Venice in its size and t because it faces the sea this huge square seems more impressive to us. It is surrounded by exquisite public buildings of Italian, neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau style. After Zagreb grungy buildings, Trieste was a jewel, with many restoration projects on the go. Unfortunately, we didn’t visit the Castello di Miramare, a famous destination. The Revoltella Modern Art Gallery was most impressive – beautifully curated, with a good representation of 19th and 20th century art. We entered a sun-lit modern building and exited through the Baron Revoltella magnificently furnished 19th century house. The wood inlaid floors, and magnificent furnishings, as well as excellent examples of art made this an exciting visit. Because we visit so many art galleries in any given month, we have opportunity to compare. This is an A-plus experience
We noticed two things immediately: the stylish dress of the locals, and the number of interesting dogs there: poodles, spaniels, shiatsus, yorkies, pitbulls, bulldogs, and a few others. James Joyce lived here for ten years. But Trieste is not a major tourist town, and we can’t figure out why except that perhaps there are no local beaches. A nasty part of Trieste’s past is that it was used by the Nazi’s in WW II as an extermination camp – the only one in Italy. Our food was largely unmemorable, even though we ate at a few high end restaurants; our best meal was at Caffe delgi Specchi, which dates from 1839. Yugoslavia lost Trieste in 1954 and so the city has pockets of a variety of cultures. The food in the area is influenced by Slavic, Italian and Germanic styles. After a couple of days, we took a train to Verona.
Verona has about one-quarter million people, and is inland along a river. We followed a four-hour walking tour outline and were back to the characteristic winding streets and squares. This Northern city has impressive churches and a most imposing castle with a moat. The many Renaissance paintings reflected that artists were “allowed “to expand into non-religious subjects. Verona‘s Coliseum holds 20,000 people and, unlike most, is used for major productions. We saw the opera Aida sets, and Placida Domingo advertisements. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet play is set in Verona and Juliet’s balcony inside a small courtyard was filled with throngs of tourists. As our warm and generous hotel owner said, one day is enough to see Verona’s important sites. We moved on by train to Milan, arrived very late at night and with our shuttle bus and waits, pulled another overnighter in the Milan airport before flying on to Barcelona.
Our last leg was a train ride from Nice, France to Milan, and the Italian Riviera route meant we saw many of the small towns along the way. The train from Venice to Ancona was along the opposite coast and revealed flat, green countryside planted with grapes, low houses with red-tiled roofs and wide horizons. The train ride from Trieste to Verona and Verona to Milan from the north was similar rolling hills, and of course from Milan to Rome is through Tuscan country.
Milano Milan’s Duomo or cathedral is the largest in the world. It is surprisingly delicate and pretty from the outside, but rather dark and unimpressive from the inside, save the magnificent stained glass windows. The steel and glass covered shopping centre just off the main square, 100’s of years old, is one of the most beautiful we’ve seen. Indeed, Milan has some lovely old buildings in the city centre. We saw the La Scala Opera House which was w closed, and at the Museo Nazionale, a Leonardo da Vinci’s Atlantic Code exhibition, including a couple of originals housed for preservation in an all-black tunnel and some fun high-tech exhibits.
Unfortunately my purse was stolen from a high-end outdoor restaurant and so we spent our supposed last night in the police station for a couple of hours and then the rest of the night repacking our suitcase separately as Ken could go to Ireland. I couldn’t leave the country. As it was the weekend I stayed in Milan, took the600 km ride on the high-speed train to Rome on Sunday, and after much paperwork and more money received a new passport. My passport was replaced in one day – thank goodness I had a photocopy of my birth certificate. I took an overnighter to Paris and then on to Amsterdam where Ken and Ronan were waiting.
In all we visited six cities. We’d like to spend a couple of weeks in the south, go through the Tuscany region and spend more time in Florence. We have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Italy, especially after my purse-snatching incident in Milan. We found the food much better and less expensive in France and Spain; we simply don’t like pasta or pizza every day. I think the Italians are just too used to millions of people visiting them. They make many restaurant bill mistakes (always in their favour) and the taxi-drivers are something else. Internet connections are ridiculous because of anti-porn and anti-terrorist legislation. Our hotel simply closed down the net at night, and shops of course aren’t open. That being said, Italy does have amazing buildings and history, stunning scenery, friendly people, and an inimitable sense of style.