Thursday, March 22, 2012

Italy Day 3: Florence

On day 3, we took the train from Venice to Florence. Because it was only 1 kilometer (less than a mile) from the train station to our hotel, we decided to walk--bags and all. That turned out to be a terrible decision given the time of day and the weather, although we were not aware of either of these unfortunate circumstances. Because it was the middle of the day, the sidewalks were teeming with locals going to work, eating lunch, and selling their wares. As the sidewalks are extremely narrow, we caught more than a few dirty looks, so by the time we reached the street our hotel was on, we were very excited. However, our excitement was not to last, as the skies opened up about 3 blocks from the hotel, and we were literally soaked by the time we reached the hotel lobby. We weren't allowed to check in for 2 more hours, so I tried to dry off in the restroom and generally sulked about my hair, soaked-through clothes, and wet shoes. After about an hour, it stopped raining and we walked to Mercato Centrale to grab a sandwich at this place I had heard about through TripAdvisor, called Nerbone. (Side note: TripAdvisor has never steered me wrong, and especially on this trip, it has been clutch.)


We ordered paninos con bollito, bagnato, which was essentially the best and freshest roast beef au jus in the world. They had some crazy hot sauces they put on there too, which lit me up, but JC rather enjoyed. Even though they were just sandwiches, JC and I agreed they may have been one of the best things we have eaten on the trip so far.

After eating lunch, we left the market and immediately entered the San Lorenzo Leather Market. This place was absolutely made for me, as I love leather, I love outdoor markets, and I love bargaining. We bought some souvenirs for ourselves and other people, including an incredible coral-colored bag for myself, several beautiful leather notebooks with Florentine paper, a wallet for JC, and a few other items.

At that point, it was check-in time, so we headed back to the hotel. We ended up with this beautiful room on the top floor with an even more beautiful view.


Yes, that is the Italian countryside to one side and Brunelleschi's Dome on top of the Duomo to the other side. We ended up sitting out on the balcony every night staring at that incredible view.

After snapping a few pics, we left to go to the Duomo.

 The exterior is truly stunning (well, Rick Steves doesn't seem to think so, but I do). And the views are to die for...

 View of the Giotto's Campanile from the top of the dome.

... but the inside of the church is really quite disappointing when compared to other churches. It is very bare with not much art. It does have some great stained glass, some pretty marble floors,  and the "Last Judgment" painted on the inside of the dome was nice, but overall the inside was nothing grand. It would be considered a gorgeous work of art if it were in the U.S., since most of our buildings are little brick squares thrown together without much thought, but in a country that has San Marco, the Vatican, and others, the interior of the Duomo seems kind of sad. (JC actually called it "weak sauce".)

Next we walked down to the Ponte Vecchio. This bridge has been around since the Medici family was ruling the city, and it has narrowly escaped several catastrophes. When the Nazis conquered the city during WWII, they blew up all the other bridges in the city so that no one could catch them as they fled Florence. However, the commander ignored the orders to destroy Ponte Vecchio, as he thought it too beautiful. I guess even some Nazis could appreciate beauty.

When we got to the river, an 8 was just pushing off the dock for practice. We watched them row for a while before crossing the bridge to go to a restaurant we had picked out for dinner. However, we never could find it, nor could we find the second place we tried to go to, so we wandered back to Piazza della Signora, where we had been earlier.

 Statute of Neptune in Piazza della Signora. I think the fountain is quite beautiful, but most Florentines at the time hated it, calling it "The White Giant".

 That stupid crane really ruined this picture.

I was so disappointed about dinner that as we walked back, I said, "I don't even care what we eat. If I could find a McDonald's, I would probably even eat there." Not 2 steps later, JC said, "Looks like you got your wish." However, neither of us really wanted to eat there, so we ended up settling for a mediocre sandwich shop (this is what happens when you don't check TripAdvisor first!). But the gelato we ate at Gelateria dei Neri really made up for that. It was honestly the best gelato we've had on this trip, and I can't see how it could be beaten. Yum!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Italy Days 1 & 2: Venice

We're in Italy! That's the good news. My SD card was corrupted and I'm missing huge chunks of our time in Venice! That's obviously the bad news. Most of the pictures that were lost were night pictures at San Marco and along the canal, so we woke up at 4AM Monday morning to attempt to recreate some of the pictures before leaving for Florence, thus saving my sanity and sparing me thousands more tears. (You think I'm kidding, but really...)

Our introduction to Europe was a late arrival at CDG in Paris, with only 70 minutes to catch our connecting flight. Because CDG is literally the worst airport in the world (okay, so I can't say that with absolute certainty, but I can say it is the worst I have ever been in), they park your huge international carrier out in the middle of the tarmac and bus you 20 minutes to your gate. So even if you are on time, you are still only left with 50 minutes to get to your flight, 40 if you count that you have to be there 10 minutes before takeoff. And you have to go through customs and security. Let me say I have never sprinted through the airport in effort to make a flight. I've just never cut it that close I don't think. But this is what was happening yesterday morning.

Photo via Google

We made it (yaye!) right as they were closing the gate. After checking into our hotel, we went to this incredible pizza place (Antico Forno) that was recommended by TripAdvisor, followed by Nutella crepes. I would insert a picture here, but alas, it is no longer with us due to the aforementioned tragedy. We then spent two hours wandering around Venice trying to find San Marco, because despite the fact that we had a map, maps are nearly useless there in that twirling labyrinth of strangely-named pathways. But I guess if you have to get lost, it is a really pretty place in which to do so.

 Balcony from our hotel room

View from our balcony

 View from our balcony

 I loved this shot because it was something you saw all over Venice--laundry hanging out to dry. It was nice to see how the locals were carrying on with everyday life while the rest of us vacationed in one of the most romantic cities in the world.

After debating back and forth what these very colorful gates represented, JC finally realized it was a playground.

After wandering and wandering, we finally found Piazza San Marco. I have to say that even after having visited what I already considered some of the most beautiful churches in the world, this one definitely takes the cake. I love how it combined Greek, Roman, and Eastern influences in the architecture. And the stories behind the basilica itself and how it got its name are pretty cool. Apparently the Venitians straight up stole the remains of St. Mark from Muslims in Alexandria in the 9th century, hiding the saint's remains in a pork barrel knowing that the Muslims wouldn't want to touch it. Quite interesting.

I wish I had some pictures for you of how amazing the inside is as well, but unfortunately you aren't allowed to take photos. We ended up going to mass on Sunday night, because that's the only time the glittering mosaics are able to be viewed properly. They turn on all these lights and the amount of gold is almost blinding. It really was stunning.

 I had a couple of other photos before they were all deleted, but these pics were just to illustrate how locals feel about their dogs. There were dogs EVERYWHERE. On every boat. In every cafe. In every piazza. I have never seen such. 

This view was from the bridge going over the Grand Canal, close to our hotel. We crossed it multiple times a day, and the view never got old.

 Yes, that bridge.

We didn't sleep a wink on the flight over to Venice, so we were totally pooped by Saturday afternoon. We ended up taking a nap and not waking up until 8. We tried to eat at a restaurant, but it ended up being closed, so we walked over to Rialto Bridge (again, formerly had a picture to insert here, but you can Google a pic if you want--it's quite beautiful) and ate sandwiches there. Afterward we went to sit in Piazza San Marco to listen to a Rick Steves audio tour (dude knows how to do an audio tour). Everyone was gone for the day, because it was nearly midnight at that point, so it was really nice to sit out there and listen to information about the basilica, its clock tower, the Doge's Palace, and the bell tower. Then we walked next to the canal for a while before going back to the room. You already know about the vanishing-picture fiasco, so here are some of the replacements from Monday morning's venture.

 Piazza San Marco

Piazza San Marco

The cafe where we had espresso Sunday night after mass. The espresso was fabulous and there was an orchestra playing some great up-tempo classical music, most of which were pieces we recognized. It was super pricey but totally worth it to have coffee at the first coffee shop in Venice (founded in 1720) while overlooking the piazza with some background music.

Small part of the Doge's Palace

At first we thought these were tables, but they are actually "sidewalks", as the island experiences intense flooding in March, where the piazza and a good portion of the island is covered. So these boards are hanging around the island everywhere, waiting to be strung together as floating sidewalks.

The side of the basilica and the clock tower in the distance.

The Campanile (bell tower)

The Doge's Palace and the winged lion on its pedestal. The winged lion is St. Mark's symbol and can be found all over the island (and the piazza, for that matter). As an aside, they also used to behead and hang people right between these two columns. 

Early morning deliveries.

The Bridge of Sighs, where prisoners used to walk from sentencing to the old prisons in the Doge's Palace. As a plug, if you ever get to go to Venice, you should absolutely do the "Secret Itineraries" tour at the palace. It was amazing to learn about some of the things that went on there.

 The architecture of the Doge's Palace and the basilica are breathtaking.

 Sadly, the locals obviously do not appreciate what they have. I have never seen so much graffiti in my life.

The last thing we did was visit the island of Burano. It. Was. Amazing. I've never seen another place like it, really. Since it used to be (and still is, I think) mainly a fishing village, and the fog was terrible when the fishermen would come home, they began painting their houses extremely bright colors (some may call them "loud", but either way). And it made for some stunning pictures. However--you guessed it--they are no longer with us. It kills me that I lost these, because they were some of the fave pics in Venice. If they were still with us, this is what they would (and did) look like.

The last night we ended up wandering around looking for a mystery restaurant that we never found. So we ate at this crappy joint in the middle of a piazza. And while the food wasn't good, there was some good entertainment. A group of what appeared to be college students were standing not 15 feet away from us singing at the top of their lungs. And not just any music. But bad American music. "Who Let the Dogs Out", "I've Gotta Feeling", and "Good Feeling" (the one by FloRida) were among their songs of choice. We decided they must have just passed a big exam or something, because obviously there were some good feelings going on there. But who knows. There were also some exceptionally good one-liners by JC at that dinner. He had ordered some pasta that turned out to be really terrible. JC said, "Pasta al Carboni? This is more like Pasta al Jabroni!" Oh. My. Goodness. Me losing it at that remark was probably the only thing that stopped those students from singing for the whole hour. It was only for a few seconds, but they stopped, as I howled with laughter. There was also a guy who came over at one point and started singing with all these girls, and JC said it "sounded like the Italian mating call". Because seriously--Italian men were singing everywhere we went.

So that pretty much sums up the first two days in Venice. I can't wait to write about Florence--it's been wonderful (with some low moments as well) so far. Ciao!