Monday, August 31, 2009

Venice - St. Mark's area

While Venice as an island is small in size, it surely makes up for that by being large in stature. Venice, long the powerhouse nation, ruling the seas and the trade routes of the Mediterranean, with power extending all the way into the area now known as the Veneto. The majority of Venice's power was centered around those whole ruled over the Venetian empire from the St. Mark's area of the island.

St. Mark's Square in English, or San Marco in Italian, is the spot where the Doge's Palace sits, the famous Bridge of Sighs, the unique and distinguished St. Mark's Basilica, and the Campanile that stands tall looking down on all of it. Additionally, the famous winged lion sculpture atop the pedestal stands tall in the square looking down upon all those it rules over.

So naturally, this is the area where all of the tourists visiting the city eventually flock to fill the square - to tour the Basilica, to tour Doge's Palace, to take the elevator to the top of the Campanile, to sit at night and listen to the string quartet as it plays classical music on an almost deserted square, to see the gondolas on the Grand Canal bob up and down in the water, to people watch, to shop, to do all manner of different activities.

My first experience with St. Mark's Square came by vaporetto. Coming in on the vaporetto from Burano, after an 1.5 hour journey, we were let off at the San Zaccaria stop, right around the St. Mark's Square area. I already knew it was going to be a different experience than the one I had imagined when we were sailing through part of the Grand Canal and I saw huge yachts tied up along side the canal. Approaching sunset, the area was crowded with tourists, some milling about, other dragging around luggage looking lost, others just strolling with a cup of gelato in their hands. It was a blur of sights, and sounds.

As it was already approaching evening, we decided to just wander through the area and get our bearings. The first sight in the St. Mark's Square area that I saw was the Bridge of Sighs. This is the famous bridge that connects Doge's Palace to the prison, and it's often said that the slight opening in this concrete bridge provided convicted criminals of their very last glimpse of Venice. I was, however, disappointed with the Bridge. As there are restoration projects ongoing in the general vicinity, the canal over which the bridge lies was completely covered in advertising for a clothing company. In fact, everything was covered except for the bridge itself. But the design and the colors were such that the Bridge kind of just disappeared into the background.

As I got closer to St. Mark's Square, the crowd began to grow more thick, and dodging other tourists almost became a game. When I reached the bell tower, or the Campanile, I discovered that it was still open at this hour. I had planned all along to go to the top of the Campanile for views over Venice. The Campanile towers over all of Venice, and from high atop this island city, you can get a beautiful view, especially around sunset. The elevator ride to the top was short. However, right when I got on the elevator, the clock struck 8:00 pm, and the bells in the tower began to ring. It was quite the experience to ride in the elevator and hear the bells high above you ring with the sound reverberating inside this elevator car. When the elevator reached the top and the doors opened, the sound of the ringing bell was incredibly loud. It was a sight to see this massive iron bell swinging back and forth notifying all within hearing distance that the top of another hour had arrived. The view from the top of the Campanile is amazing. It was a clear and beautiful day and I could see out in the Venetian Lagoon and all throughout the island. It was quite the sight to see all these red tiled roofs packed in closely. Off in the far distance I could make out the 4 cruise ships in port on this day. And when you looked down below, it was a different perspective from which to view the Doge's Palace, St. Mark's Basilica and St. Mark's Square. This view, from the top of the bell tower, just before sunset, is one of those views that just kind of takes your breath away. I know that when I think of Venice, this is one of the views I'll always think of.

Once I was back down on the ground, I took some time to just soak it all in. Marvel at the sights and stand in wonder at this mythical city.

The next morning, I made my way back to St. Mark's Square. It was just past 8:00 am and the square was virtually deserted. This is another view of St. Mark's Square, one that most visitors never see. This big open square, merchants coming out to clean up their storefronts and set up for the coming day, the bells of the Campanile ringing in the morning, the Basilica standing there shrouded in shadows, and the imposing Doge's Palace right next door. It was so peaceful and serene to walk around near the canal's edge and not constantly be bumping into other tourists and just being able to listen to the water of the Grand Canal lap up against the banks.

I had pre-reserved online entrance tickets to St. Mark's Basilica. That saved us a lot of time and the aggravation of waiting in line. The Basilica opened to the public at 9:45 am, by 8:30 am, there was already a line forming outside of the Basilica. By 9:30 am, the line reached out almost to the Grand Canal. I personally found the exterior of the Basilica to be much more interesting than the interior. The mosaics work on the Basilica is amazing. All the intricate detail that is needed to depict scenes from the life of St. Mark. However, to me, the inside of the Basilica seemed dark and uninviting. And while it is historical, it seemed rather bland and uninteresting.

By the time we exited St. Mark's the square was really beginning to fill up with tourists, the sun was starting to shine high above, and it was time to make our way back to the ship for sail away.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Venice - The Islands of the Venetian Lagoon

I'll admit prior to this trip, I'd never had an interest in visiting Venice. Rome? Definitely. Athens? Absolutely. But Venice? What could it possibly have that would interest me? Boy, was I wrong.

Venice, and the islands of the Venetian lagoon were enchanting, perhaps even magical. There's an appeal to this Italian city, that is unlike any Italian city that I've ever been to, that I can't put my finger on. It's an odd mix of old world wealth and charm, mixed in with a sprinkling of modern sophistication. I walked away from Venice and it's surrounding islands with one thought in my mind, "I have to go back there some day and spend more time exploring the area."

On the day that we were to embark the Ruby Princess, we traveled by train from Milan to Venice. We figured that with the ship overnighting in Venice, that it would give us enough time to get an overview of the city. We departed Milan's Centrale Stazione just before 9:00 am. As this was a long distance journey, this line is serviced by the EuroStar. We pre-booked our 2nd class seats the day before when we arrived in Milan. When the train pulled up to the platform in Milan, we just needed to find the right car, and the right seats inside the car. We were pleasantly surprised to find that our seats ended up being right in the middle of our particular train car, and directly adjacent to luggage racks that are found in each train car. That was convenient as one of the concerns we had ahead of time was where we would put our luggage so that we could keep an eye on it. With a luggage rack located right next to our seats, this was no longer a concern. We actually ended up meeting a party of 4 seated directly across the aisle from us that happened to be traveling to board the Ruby as well. So we passed the time chit chatting with them.

The journey from Milan to Venice takes just under 3 hours. The scenery along the way was nice. The atmosphere relaxing. When we arrived in Venice, we opted to disembark the train at Venice's Santa Lucia station (on the island) rather than the Mestre station (located on the mainland). We figured that since we are the DIY type that we would walk from the train station to Piazzale Roma. Once off the train, we located the new pedestrian bridge and used it to cross to Piazzale Roma. One note on the bridge, while beautiful and new, it is full of cumbersome steps that must be traversed in order to cross the bridge. In hot weather, with multiple pieces of luggage, this can present a bit of a challenge.

The process of getting to the ship and checking in was not a particularly pleasant one. I had found out in advance that there would be a free shuttle to take passengers from Piazzale Roma (the main transportation hub in Venice) to the port as there was also an MSC and Costa ship in Venice that day (those are the cruise lines that trigger the operation of the shuttle). However, the wait for the free shuttle was long, and there seemed to be much confusion. In addition to the free port shuttle, Costa, MSC and Celebrity also operated their own shuttles, for which Princess passengers were not allowed to use. While we waited for the free shuttle to arrive, many passengers got fed up enough that they just hired private taxis to take them to the port. However, as this is a free service provided by the port, this is something that is beyond Princess control. Once we finally arrived at the port, there was confusion as to where we should go, what we should do. There were signs that informed passengers that check in for Princess was down at the far end of the terminal building (Ruby Princess was docked at the furthest pier away). However, what they failed to inform people was that you actually needed to drop your luggage off first at the building outside the terminal building with the porters, who would then transport your luggage to the ship. We were lucky that a Princess crew member spotted us and told us to go back to the luggage drop off location prior walking down to the far end of the terminal building to check in. Others were not so lucky as they had walked all the way down to the far end of the terminal building only to be told to walk back to luggage drop off and then walk back to check in. The check in process itself was smooth and simple with a minimal amount of waiting time.

Once checked in and fed with lunch, we decided to walk from the ship to Piazzale Roma. There is an ACTV office there that sells vaporetto shuttle tickets. As we would be in Venice now for exactly 24 hours, we decided to purchase the 24-hour pass at a cost of 18,00 Euros per adult. This would allow us access to all vaporettos, any line, in any direction for 24 hours after validation of the ticket.

As we knew that traveling out into the lagoon would take the longest amount of time, our first stop would be from Piazzale Roma to Murano, then from Murano on to Burano, and from Burano over to St. Mark's Square. After validating our ticket, we found the vaporetto stop for the vaporetto out to Murano.

Once on the vaporetto, that was my first experience in traveling through the canals and in the lagoon. For some reason, things just look different at water level than they do when you're just walking through neighborhoods. The trip out to Murano took approximately 30 miniutes. We departed the vaporetto at the very first stop in Murano, the Colonna stop.

Murano has long had a history of glass blowing. In fact, the quality of Murano glass is known worldwide. Along the main canal that runs through Murano, each side of the canal is filled with glass shop after glass shop, selling everything from jewelry to vases, to chandeliers, to sculptures. Some of the stores even have free glassblowing demonstrations where their artisans show you exactly how a masterpiece is made before they try to get you to purchase that masterpiece. When we were in Murano, they had an interesting exhibit of huge glass art pieces scattered all over the island. There was a gigantic blue glass star, a Christmas tree and ornaments made of glass, and other works of art. We wandered through town for a little bit until we came to the Murano Faro stop. This stop is located where the Murano lighthouse is located, and is the only location on the island to catch the vaporetto to Burano.

The ride from Murano to Burano is approximately 30 minutes. During the ride over to Burano, you pass by some rather small little islands in the lagoon that are only large enough to house one decaying building left to stand in ruins. Not long after leaving Murano, you can already see Burano off in the distance. A distinguishing landmark of Burano, and an easy way to spot it from afar is the fact that Burano has it's very own leaning clock tower that rises up over the island. As you approach Burano, the first thing that strikes you is one of the things that Burano is well known for, it's brightly colored rows of buildings that line the waterfront. It's quite a sight to see a long row of buildings painted in reds, blues, yellows, pinks, oranges, and every other color under the rainbow.

Only a few feet from Burano's only vaporetto stop, is the shopping area. Aside from the brightly colored rows of buildings, Burano is known as an artists colony. And their most famous product is handmade lace. Lace products of every imaginable sort can be found here: umbrellas, clothing, hats, tableware, etc. As you walk closer to the main canal of Burano you begin to see the pastel colored buildings. The buildings that line the lagoon tend to be brightly colored, where the buildings that line the inner canals tend to be muted pastel colors. Pale pinks and greens, mixed with pale purples and blues join together to create a beautiful effect, especially when those colors are reflected off the water in the canal. Gorgeous is the only way to describe it.

We had to be careful when getting off the vaporetto in Burano. As it is located quite a distance away from Venice, the frequency of vaporettos to Burano is limited. By the time we headed back to the vaporetto stop to catch the vaporetto there was already quite the crowd forming. We were concerned that the vaporetto wouldn't have the capacity to fit all the guests waiting, and the following vaporetto was more than 90 minutes away. Luckily, the vaporetto that showed up to pick up passengers was a large 2 deck vaporetto.

The ride from Burano back to Venice was almost 90 minutes long as the vaporetto ride includes stops at Lido, the lagoon's largest island. We had timed the trip well and approached Venice just as day started to turn into dusk. Off in the distance, we were able to watch the Costa ship sail by after having passed through the Grand Canal on it's onward voyage, with the setting sun as a beautiful backdrop.

It was certainly worth the time and the effort to head out into the Venetian lagoon and visit Murano and Burano. My only disappointment was in not having more time to explore each of these islands further as well as some of the other islands in the lagoon such as Torcello.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Verona, Italy

The town famous as the backdrop for Shakespeare's famous play Romeo & Juliet, is so much more than a sleepy little town famous for it's star-crossed lovers. This is a city full of life, of color, of warmth, and of passion.

During our one day in Milan, we decided to hop on the train and travel east to Verona. Train travel throughout Italy tended to be simple, easy, and efficient. Not to mention, a lot cheaper than any other alternate form of travel. At every train station throughout Italy we found simple, easy-to-use self service ticket machines from which we purchased all of our tickets. And though the machine asks you to indicate what day you're traveling and which train you will be traveling on, the actual ticket that comes out is good for 60 days from the day of purchase on the route that you've purchased. The only thing that you need to remember is to always validate your train ticket prior to getting on the train. A validated ticket is good for travel on that route through midnight of the day it is validated. Simple and easy.

The only tough part of any train journey is waiting at the train station for the board to tell you which Platform your departing train will be leaving from. As trains coming into the station aren't generally assigned a Platform until they are within the vicinity of the station, a departing passenger trying to catch the train just needs to stare up at the board and wait until the board flashes with a departure Platform. Then instantaneously, for all of the more popular routes, you'll see a whole sea of people flood to that particular platform.

Once we had gotten on our train from Milano Centrale to Verona's Porta Nuova station, all we had to do was settle in for our almost 2 hour train ride through Northern Italy to reach Verona. As Milano Centrale was the origination point for the train, and Verona was the termination point, it made the journey simple.

We finally arrived in Verona in mid afternoon. Once off the train, I found myself a newsstand to purchase our 1,00 Euro bus ticket from the train station to the center of Verona, known as Piazza Bra. The bus station located just outside of the train station was simple and easy to use. There were lettered terminals, and at each terminal there were signs indicating what bus stopped at that terminal as well as the bus's route. I had researched ahead of time that any bus stopping at Platform A all eventually lead to Piazza Bra and the Arena. Within minutes we were whisked to the entrance to the old City Wall.

Piazza Bra is Verona's main town square. It's enormous in size, so much so that it has a nice green tree-shaded area in the middle of the Piazza, along with the obligatory bronze statue on horse back of Vittorio Emanuele. On it's outer edge it is ringed with multi-colored buildings that are typically Italian and fronted by sidewalk cafes. Then, at the far end of the Piazza, standing like a golden light kissed by the sun, is the beautiful Arena di Verona. Much like the Colosseum, it is 2 outdoor amphitheaters built by the Romans and put together to form an Arena. Though the one in Verona is smaller in scale than the one in Rome, it is also much better preserved and is still used today for the summer Opera series where it hosts nightly some of the most famous operas, as well as opera singers in the world. Only two days before we arrived in Verona, Placido Domingo had just finished a performance inside the Arena.

In order to soak up the sights and the sounds of this beautiful city, and in order to indulge in something that is typically European, we found ourselves a small little sidewalk cafe in the shadows of the Arena and enjoyed an Italian meal that included their version of "ice coffee" along with a Margherita pizza and spaghetti arrabbiata.

After that nice little break we decided to wander through the city. Exploring a little bit of the river area, then walking back through the City Wall and into the bustling Piazza delle Erbe area with it's busy outdoor market, fountains filled with people sitting around the base eating gelato, and the famous whale bone good luck charm that hangs over the crowd.

Eventually, as the tour books say, we found ourselves wrapped up in the crowd and into a narrow little opening marked by a sign in Italian that states "Casa di Guilietta," or better known as Juliet's house of the famous Romeo & Juliet play. Inside the courtyard there's a balcony, purported to be Juliet's balcony. Outside stands a bronze statue of Juliet herself, for which the wives's tale states that if you rub her right breast, it's supposed to bring you luck. Naturally, there's a horde of people waiting in line to rub Juliet's right breast. As luck would have it, when we arrived at Juliet's house, there was an actor and actress playing the parts of Romeo & Juliet and re-enacting the famous balcony scene in Italian. That only added to the craziness that is the story of these two ill-fated lovers. While history had proven that the story of the Capulets and Montagues does not really exist except within the lines of the play, that hasn't diminished people's fascination with the story, nor with this city.

Moving away from the lure of Rome and Juliet, we spent the balance of the afternoon just wandering through Verona's busy streets. Of course, sampling gelato along the way! AT the end of the day, we found ourselves a nice little bench in the green tree-shaded space in the middle of hectic Piazza Bra and just kind of watch the hustle and bustle of people, of crowds, of scents, of sounds, and of this great city known as Verona.