Friday, December 28, 2007

Ahh Florence!! ...

(the continuation)

One of the things I noticed in Florence was that people were very stylish. Coming from someone like me who hardly cares about what's the latest in fashion, this observation says much about the city. I often found myself watching people, observing and admiring what they wore and how they wore them. I felt so...unstylish. I thought I could pick up a tip or two about fashion style, and hopefully kick mine a notch higher. This remains to be seen...

On our first morning at the hostel, I came to the dining room in my lounge wear thinking that other hostel guests, who were mostly in their 20s, would still be in their house clothes. It was still early in the morning, and besides, this was a hostel, not a 5-star hotel. WRONG! I was surprised to see people in the dining room all dressed and made up, ready to go. Somewhat embarrassed, I just went about eating pretending not to care. I'm old enough to be your mother... The next morning, I made sure I looked better at breakfast.

The hostel's dining area

Like I've said previously, our hostel provided good breakfast. Aside from your choice of a meal from the menu, there was a buffet of side dishes. I tried as many items as I could. I like Italian food! Outside the hostel, Gino and I looked for cheap places to eat. One time, I had bruschetta for lunch, which is a piece of bread with lots of tomatoes. At night, we ate at a pasta place. We had to eat pasta in Italy! In Venice, we ate pizza but never pasta. Fortunately, we found a cheap pasta place in Florence even if we had to walk far to get to it.

Gelato, or ice cream, is something you will see everywhere. In Venice, we bought a cone for 1 or 1.5 euros and we were happy. One night in Florence, after walking about 30 minutes from Piazzale Michaelangelo, Gino and I had a craving for ice cream as we passed by this attractive ice cream shop. Not knowing Italian, we just pointed to the flavours we liked. When the saleslady pointed to a cone size, we simply nodded not bothering to ask how much it was. Big mistake! A cone that size cost 9 euros. That's about $15 CDN! I could buy 3 gallons of cheap ice cream from Superstore with that amount. We felt so bad about our ice cream that we enjoyed every ounce of it. "Ahh, this is so good. It's so worth it..." we consoled ourselves even though it--the cost, not the ice cream--was hard to swallow.

Florence is a shopper's delight. I enjoyed the markets even if I did more browsing than buying. There were several shops on the streets and piazzas and ancient market places. We also passed by a street full of name brand stores. Very high end. "A woman's paradise. A man's hell," was how Agnes, our tour guide, described it. Men, if your wife loves shopping, Florence is the place to go--or avoid!

One of the shops on a street full of jewelry stores. The gems are dazzling! If I were into jewelry, I would probably linger on this street instead of just walking by.

An ancient marketplace that remains a market today. Leather goods galore! But not as much as the ones you will find in San Lorenzo Market

If I had more pocket money, I would have bought a good Italian leather bag or a pair of shoes. They were lovely, of good quality and I think cheaper than the ones you buy here in BC. But not being a bag or shoes person, I passed. What I was attracted to buy was an extraordinary pair of Levi's shoes for Gabriel as his birthday gift and another pair for Gino for his birthday. Gino said those same styles, which may not yet be available in Canada, were really cheap. I thought so too. What I got for myself was a Firenze apron, pashmina scarf and some souvenirs for the house. I was saving the shopping for Avignon.

Gino and I came across this market one night. It was very interesting. Lots of household products and not the usual leather goods and apparel. I liked this place.

We always went back to the hostel very tired at night after hours and hours and hours of walking around the city. After a nice shower and some time on the Internet, I would lie down and read my book or write on my journal. Gino fell asleep faster. On our first night, there were more females in our bedroom. Lights were out earlier. On the second night, there were more guys. At around 2 am, I woke up to a cacophony of snores. Finding it hard to go back to sleep, I amused myself by identifying snore variations. Each person had his own. It was beginning to sound funny. About that time, a couple of guys arrived and headed for their beds. "Ugh, snore fight," someone whispered. Within minutes of lying down, he joined in the fray. Tip to travellers: Bring ear plugs! You'll never know when they will come in handy.

(Next, the more artistic part of Florence...)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monday, December 17, 2007

Ahh Florence!!

Under the Tuscan sun

The ambience of Florence, Italy (Firenze in Italian), the capital of Tuscany, is very different from that in Venice. This made it an even lovelier experience for first time tourists like me and Gino. Florence is busier, bigger than Venice and looks more like a normal city because of road traffic and narrow streets--except that it is so rich in history and beauty. After all, this is where Italian Renaissance was born. I needed more than 3 days to soak it all in.

We stayed at Ostello Archi Rossi located in the historic centre of Florence. It was quite affordable at 20 euros per day per person including a yummy, big breakfast. With such a good breakfast, we ate lightly throughout the day.

Our room was dorm type again but this time men and women were mixed, which was fine by me. I would probably hesitate to get this kind of accommodation if Gino and I weren't together. We shared one of the 8 double-deckers in a big room that had two restrooms. We had individual lockers with keys. The washrooms had hairdryers! I thought this was a very good hostel, and it is.

The lobby of Ostello Archi Rossi. Look at the original
frescoes by local art students. There were more in
the hallways and dining room.

The hostel was walking distance to important tourist sites, and, oh boy, did we do a lot of walking! We were out most of the day into the night. My legs and my feet were starting to get sore. I began contemplating on getting a good pair of Italian leather walking shoes.

On our first full day in Florence, we joined a free 3-hour walking tour done daily by our hostel for its patrons. The guide brought us around the city centre and across the Arno River. It is very educational to join tours like this. I learned so much about medieval history, culture, politics, architecture... It's like going back to school but far more exciting! I was awed to be in same region where da Vinci and Michelangelo and many other great artists and writers were born and nurtured and expressed their genius. By the way, Carlo Collodi, the creator of Pinocchio was also born in Florence.

There are several walking tours you can join in Florence as in other tourist places. In Florence, the tours I saw in brochures cost about 20 euros. I was happy with our hostel's free tour.

Our tour guide. I admired her brave fashion sense and beautiful Italian accent. I loved the Italian accent and manner of speaking.

Agnieszi(?), or Agnes, our guide showed us churches and palaces or mansions of the rich and powerful of the Middle Ages. I would not have appreciated those buildings without knowing their histories.

Inside and outside palazzi, or palaces. Click on any picture to enlarge.

I was imagining how it must have felt to live in one of these mansions with exquisite furniture and furnishings and outdoor scenery painted on the walls. How wonderful! And then our guide said there was only one mansion that actually had a toilet! So how did they relieve themselves? Agnes said in those days people were not as keen on hygiene as they are today. So how did they do it? Be careful when you are walking on the streets because of what might be thrown out the window, Agnes joked. Uggh! I will not exchange my old townhouse for a palace...

I had to take a picture of the
only toilet in so many palaces.

The next day, Gino and I did not join the hostel's walking tour covering a different part of the city. Gino wanted to explore the city by ourselves, check out galleries and historic places. I wanted to check out markets.

To be continued...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

From Venice to Florence to Pisa

This part of my "travelogue" is now on the third day of my European vacation. Amazing how many things you can do and sights you can see in 3 days, rail trip included. It seemed I had been away for a long time...

Gino and I spent a mere 26 hours in Venice but we were quite content with what we experienced there. Venice is a small city and you can walk across it in a matter of hours. We got to see the major tourist attractions. Yes, there were more that we could have visited with more time and MONEY. But as we would tell each other, "It's good to leave some things to come back for".

By this leg of our trip, we were back on schedule. While waiting for our train's departure for Florence, we had time to go to the Jewish ghetto and nearby areas. We walked around with our luggage in tow even if they were very inconvenient to carry on bridges and uneven sidewalks.

At the Jewish ghetto

Finally, we were off to Florence. The train ride took about 3 hours. We arrived past 2:30 pm, which was when our hostel, the Ostello di Rossi, opened. The hostel was just a few blocks from the Santa Maria Novella train station. Very accessible. And among other things, it had free Internet!! Our Venice hostel had Intenet too but they charged 5 euros per hour. This one in Florence gave us free Internet use for 30 minutes at a time.

Internet-starved, Gino and I spent some time checking our emails as soon as we settled in. Done with that, we went back to the train station and hopped on a train to see the leaning tower in Pisa , about 1.5 hours away. By the time we arrived, it was already dark. We hadn't considered that the sun set early. So there we were in a strange place, with no idea of where the tower was nor how to get there. I was a little anxious.

We went to a small magazine stand inside the station to ask about the tower's whereabouts or to buy a map. Gino knew little Italian. I knew hardly anything. Even so, we tried to make conversation with the lady vendor. Fortunately, she knew some English. She was fine until I asked the question, Is it safe to walk?

"Safe? I don't know safe..." She answered, a little embarrassed. How do I convey "safe" through sign language? I thought to myself. I thought of strangling Gino by the neck or pretending to stick a gun to his side with my hand. I prepared to do the second--the hold-up act. But I thought I would look really silly if Gino did not catch on nor cooperate in my instant role play. I put down my "hand gun" before I could even put it up. (It's a literal hand, silly.)

Although the lady said we could take a bus to the leaning tower, Gino insisted on walking. "We can see more of the city if we walk," he said. In spite of my apprehensions, we walked some two kilometres to the tower with Gino guided by a map.

We walked and walked--over a bridge and on narrow streets. "This is it," Gino said when we got on a road that was supposed to lead straight to la torre. We were busy chatting and the street was lined on both sides with buildings that covered the view ahead that I did not notice the end of the road until Gino exclaimed, "Whoa!" I looked up. There was the cathedral, the Duomo. As we walked further on, the leaning tower appeared on our right. WHOA!!

We were at the Piazza Miracoli (Square of Miracles) where 4 magnificent edifices--the cathedral, the baptistery, the camposanto (a walled cemetery said to be the most beautiful cemetery in the world) and the leaning tower--stood. We admired the architecture and exterior of these structures even if we did not get to go inside any. Definitely worth our time and effort!

By the time we arrived, there were still many tourists in the area. The leaning tower was still open but tourists could no longer go in as its maximum number of visitors for the day had been met. "Mom is happy about that," Gino said. Yeah I was. I had a reason not to shell out 50 euros per person to go up the tower.

We walked back 2 kms. to the train station then rode a train to Florence. It was a long and exhausting day...

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Venice slide show

I hope you enjoy this one.. (click on the speaker icon to stop the music)

Monday, December 03, 2007

More from Venice

Venice used to be the capital of the Serene Republic founded by refugees on this archipelago at the time of barbarian invasions of Italy. Today it is still known as La Serenissima, the Serene City, a well-deserved title, I believe. For me, I think it's the combination of the canals, the classical buildings, the bridges, the squares, the gondolas, the pigeons--and the lack of land motorists--that makes it, well, serene. Venice is captivating!

I loved St. Mark's Square, the center of Venice. The piazza (square) is located near the Grand Canal, the most important canal in the city. You can spend hours and hours there feeding birds, watching people, admiring architecture, enjoying the sun, browsing tourist shops, listening to live music, ... or lining up to enter any of the monuments, galleries or museums around it at peak time. Here are some of the things you will find there:

St. Mark's Basilica, "one of the best known examples Byzantine architecture". The domes are not very visible in this picture. I read that the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist were smuggled from Egypt to Venice by 2 merchants in the 9th century and were initially buried in the Doge's Palace until a church was built for them. Oh, the things you learn when you travel...

You can go inside the basilica for free at a certain time of the day. Gino and I went to the museum (Museo Marciano) located upstairs. Entrance fee is 3 euros per person. You can't bring big bags and backpacks inside. You have to leave them at the free baggage check-in in a building nearby. I think you also need to be properly attired. Unfortunately, no picture-taking is allowed so I have nothing to show you, but I can tell you that I saw the original 4 gilded bronze horses (The Horses of St. Mark), magnificent tapestries, Byzantine sculptures, ancient mosaic fragments, large books you can read from 10 feet away (large-print these days are nothing compared to then)... From the museum we were able to hear some chanting from the basilica and look at the opulent, glittering interior of the basilica, also nicknamed Chiesa d'Oro (church of gold). Very impressive!

The Doge's Palace or Palazzo Ducale. It used to be the official residence of the ruling doges (equivalent to the English duke) until the fall of the republic in 1797. Another gothic architecture like Notre Dame in Paris. Remember the pointed arches? OK, that's all I know about gothic. We didn't get to enter this building. The line was too long... or was it because it wasn't free?

The 500-year-old St. Mark's clock up close. I think the time is 12 something. It's a 24-hour clock that shows zodiac signs and the phases of the moon. It doesn't seem to have a minute hand but there's a display above this clockface (not seen in the picture) that says the time and minutes in numerals.

Museo Correr. We just enjoyed the outside. I read a review somewhere that there are nice paintings and historical pieces here but it suggested that this should be on your low priority list unless "you have time to kill or don't prefer a nap". That makes me feel good because I didn't get to enter it!

Ahh the pigeons! I hadn't seen so many pigeons who loved to be around people. Even the sparrows were people-friendly. I was okay until the birds started perching on my shoulders, my head, my arms... It was a delightful experience but the thought of getting bird poop on my hair or clothing made me rather uneasy.

At night, the square lights up, fancy restaurants sets up tables and chairs outside complete with live musical performers. It was wonderful to walk around and enjoy the music. Just don't sit on the chairs or a waiter will approach you and take your order. Now if you have come for some fine dining, this is an excellent place.

Talking about food, I loved the ice cream here, real gelato for a mere 1 or 1.50 euros per small cone! Of course pizza is something you will want to eat in Italy. I read somewhere prior to the trip that food was cheaper the farther you go from St. Mark's Square and that you could buy a big slice of pizza for 1.80 euros in Campo Santa Margherita. For dinner, Gino and I walked over a bridge and sought this place out. We found a pizza place called Pizza and Kebab. Bottled water was cheaper in this area too.

Enjoying a slice of pizza. We ate sitting down with no additional service fee. Tip: When in Venice, if you are looking a cheap place to eat, don't eat at places where you sit down, a restaurant for instance. Eat at snack stands, where you literally eat standing up.

So far I have mostly written about St. Mark's Square and it's not even as much as we actually saw or experienced. I just read today that in earlier times, public executions were held here. Bummer! Am I glad this is no longer happening.

In my next post, I will simply do another music video of choice pictures from Venice so as not to bore you with stories you may not appreciate until you actually plan to go there and need some travel tips.