Thursday, February 26, 2009


11:00PM February 23

When I initially sent out a message to the girls inviting them to join Adam, John, and I for a day trip to Siena, at least five of them responded saying they would love to go. By Friday night though, they had all backed out, feeling overburdened with work, so the three of us happily took off Saturday morning to catch the 10:10 train, but as we bought our tickets in the station, we got a message from Alex that she and a few of the others had changed their minds and would meet us there.

Much like the train to Bologna, this one went through the rolling hills of the Apennines, but this time, to the south. Nonetheless, the landscape was similarly gorgeous, with many towns laid into the hillsides and castles perched atop them. Vineyards graced the flat lands between the hills, and fortunately, my window on the train was clean enough to allow me to capture much of this (below).

As we exited the Siena train station, we were essentially forced into a shopping mall, and as we followed the exit signs in the mall, it left us right back at the station. We were definitely confused about how to get into town, and they clearly intend all travelers to take the bus. We eventually did find an errant side walk that led towards a road up the hill into town. Adam, who had been to Siena on a previous trip to Italy, remembered Siena lying atop a significant hill, but after Perugia, and our daily walks to campus, it really didn't seem that bad. The only hard part was the lack of a safe pedestrian passageway at certain points, but that's another part of Italy we've gotten used to.

Even when we made it up the hill and through the gates of the city, we were still a good ways from the historic center of the city. Just inside the gates, we came upon a grand view of the hillside below, where John took a few "band" photos of Adam and I (below). I can't say I was particularly impressed by Siena at first. It seemed a lot like Florence, with a ton of stucco buildings, but without the abundance of entertainment options. Adam assured me it would grow on me though, so I trusted him, and sure enough, the city became more gothic as we went along.

The gates of Siena

At one point we stopped in an old vacant church (below), which seemed so familiar, and yet so odd to me at the same time. Later, I realized that this old stone barn of a church was an image I'd seen so many times in history textbooks and films but had never witnessed in person. The churches such as the Duomo are grand, and those back in America have much more refined interiors. This was a house of god in the very purest sense, and in a way, it seemed that you could become closer to god in this environment, without all of the extravagance. The comforts of a modern church would seem to be just another buffer, separating you from the ultimate source of enlightenment. I found this empty dank building more powerful than any of the grand cathedrals and basilicas we'd seen thus far.

Eventually we came to a great valley of nature dividing the city (below). It was really curious to see the countryside--not simply a park--enter right into the heart of this Italian city. Across this valley, set atop the highest of the hills, was the Duomo of Siena, temporarily covered in scaffolding. By this point, we got word that the girls had arrived, and we decided to meet them--they took the bus to the center--in the town's main square, Piazza del Campo (top).

While waiting there, the three of us breathed in the surroundings. It was really wonderful, with tall stone buildings on all sides of the sunken square. Before the girls showed up, we weren't entirely sure how many people would be joining us. As we sat on the far side of the square, we saw Alex, Jen, and Lauren walk towards us. From there, we went for a short stroll around the backside of the square, and then we set off to find a restaurant for lunch.

We came upon this rustic place which had hand-written menus. It was really charming, and the food was pretty good but nothing of note. I got the "Fantasia di Polenta": an intriguing title, and a change of pace from pasta.
The polenta was okay, but it just didn't have any overwhelming flavor or texture to it. Adam and John got pretty good ravioli, but their servings were, like mine, quite small.

After lunch we went off to the Duomo. It was everything that the small old church on the outskirts wasn't: huge, extravagant, and gorgeous. You couldn't help but be in awe of the devotion people made to god, the church, and their community by erecting such a structure. Heads were carved into the perimeter of the wall lining the ceiling, frescoes adorned many of the walls while other stories were told in the pictures sculpted into the stone floor, and the large pillars lining the hall gave it all a real grandeur. It was quite a spectacle to behold. I felt as though I had entered some gothic palace of Middle Earth.

I found it fascinating that in one corner was a skull and crossed-bones symbol engraved into the floor. It would have been difficult to find unless you just stumbled upon it, as I did, but I wonder where it's significance comes from, as everything in that building had some significance. Another interesting facet was the wall on one side of motorcycle helmets. Motorcycles and gothic churches seem like a mismatch if there ever were one, but my guess is they were there to commemorate ill or recently deceased people.

The Duomo

Inside the Duomo

We spent most of the rest of the day simply walking around. Alex had heard from her mother that Siena had the best pastries, so we sought out a good pasticceria to try for ourselves. We did not find anything that jumped out at us though, so we settled for one bakery that wasn't particularly great. We then sat outside in Piazza del Campo for an extended period, watching all of the kids in costumes run around celebrating Carnivale in their own way. It was really relaxing and wonderful.

By 5:30, the girls wanted to get on the way home, so John went with them back to catch the 6:20 train. Adam and I decided to stick around a bit longer, taking a leisurely walk back to the train station by way of an open pool of water which Adam seemed to remember being a Roman bath house. We caught the sunset on our way back through the nature valley, and took a different route to the station by way of the soccer stadium--you could easily catch a game from the grass hill outside the bleachers.

Roman Baths

Outside the baths

We didn't have that much more we wanted to see, so Adam and I actually watched the 6:20 train depart as we crossed a bridge over the tracks on our way to the station. By the time we'd bought our tickets, we had another fifty minutes until our train took off, so we went back to the mall and looked for local wine at the grocery store. We picked up one bottle of Sienese wine and a bottle of Tuscan Amaro, an herbal liquor we were curious about.

When we got back, we were disappointed to find that John had already eaten, so we decided to go for burgers at our local high-class McDonald's. I almost never go to McDonald's in America, but this food was really all right. I don't know why they can't raise their standards back home, but I won't complain about having another quality food option while I'm here. We then went back home and tried the Amaro alongside a good batch of tiramisu I'd made up the night before. It was really tasty, and we all agreed it was the best liquor we'd had here yet. It went especially well alongside the tiramisu as a dessert drink. At that point, we decided to get some sleep before our trip to Carnivale in Viareggio on Sunday.

Why is there a guitar footstool on the ground?

They have "Jolly" hotels too!

The Duomo across the valley

Inside the Palazzo Publico

The backside of the Duomo

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Venetian Valentine's

11:00AM February 22

I was caught off guard by our arrival into Venice. We were in the midst of training across what I believed to be a large lake, the Alps still the background. As we approached the land on the far side of this body of water, I recognized that the buildings inhabiting the coastline, gorgeous and antique in nature, appeared to be packed one on top of another, which could only be a city such as Venice. It was an awesome sight to make an entrance to this city of water from a large body of water.

In the station, learning from their experiences the day before in Verona, the girls rented lockers for their bags, and we confirmed that the last train to Florence departed at 8:00, giving us about seven hours to stroll about the city. The plan was to wander the streets all day, stopping whenever and wherever something grabbed our attention, but with a concerted effort to move in the direction of Piazza San Marco, the large square at the center of Carnivale, situated on the far side of the city.

As we exited the station, we noticed a change in the smell: it was the scent of the sea permeating the air. Directly in front of us stood a large canal buzzing with motorboats. To the left of the station was a grand white bridge that arched over the canal (right). The streets were bustling with eager tourists, each one bristling with excitement as they realized they had indeed entered this fantasy world. The city of canals really did exist, and we were about to experience it during Carnivale. As we crossed that first bridge, I knew it would be a day I'd treasure for years to come.

After making it across the Ponte degli Scalzi, we tried to steer away from the crowds, walking down the city's numerous side streets. Everywhere we turned, we were greeted by the sight of water and gorgeous urban structures. One thing we didn't realize ahead of time though, was how quiet it would be. Except on the grand canal, there are no motorized vehicles of any sort to be found, so walking through the city, even in the most populated areas, was quite tranquil.

Looking back on the station from the Ponte degli Scalzi

Our first quiet side canal

It was nice, as we took our time through the city: we didn't feel compelled to hurry off anywhere, and we stopped frequently in shops, looking for just the right masquerade masks and murano glass souvenirs. Eventually we found a shop which had good quality masks for a decent price, and we each bought at least one. While the girls mostly went for the bright colorful masks with gold trim, I got a devilish red mask with a particularly long nose (left).

We next made our way towards two piazzas outside of, what at least appeared on the map to be, notable churches. We were a bit disappointed to find them mostly empty though. It seems that every piazza we pass through in Florence during the day is jammed with people, but even on this day at the peak of Carnivale, Piazza San Paolo was noticeably vacant, with a small lonely carousel tucked away on the far side of the piazza. In front of the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari there was at least a lutenist, dressed up in an all black Renaissance outfit. I found it fascinating that, even in this large open area, his lute was quite audible, due to all of the hard services surrounding us.

Empty San Paolo

Lutenist outside Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

We next passed through a small piazza where some locals were doing face paint. At first, it was just Kate who wanted to have her face done, but one by one, as each girl watched the next one get their face painted, they all felt compelled to have their faces beautified for the occasion. While I waited through this prolonged process, a little girl, probably six, came out into the square dressed in eighteenth century attire. What we first interpreted to be a cute little girl dressed up for the occasion, we soon realized was another tourist trap, as person after person went up to take a picture with the little local girl. This became especially apparent when her two older sisters, no longer quite so cute, came out in similar attire to join her as an attraction. When each of the girls had finished with their facial transformations, the painters offered to give me a little design for free, but I decided to pass.

We next headed for the Ponte di Rialto, the one bridge of any convenience that gets travelers from the station over the grand canal towards Piazza San Marco. The really brilliant part of this city planning though, is the presence of shops on the middle portion of the bridge, attracting numerous tourists to stop there; the outer portions of this bridge are also suffused with people trying to get their pictures of the grand canal, and the kicker, is that on either side of the bridge, on the streets that lead up to it, they've placed a giant street market. At this point, it was around 3:00, and the crowds were really insane.

The view down the center of Ponte di Rialto

We were beginning to get hungry, as we had not eaten since our 7:30 breakfast, and we began to keep our eye out for a decent restaurant on the way to Piazza San Marco. Alas, that did not happen, and San Marco reached us before we knew it. The crowds here made the Ponte di Rialto seem like nothing though, as people from all over the world decended upon this giant square to witness Carnivale in all its glory. There were plenty of people in costumes--at least as many were Americans in Halloween-style outfits, such as Native Americans, as those in typical masquerade garb--and even more wearing masks or hats to commemorate the occasion and fit in. We slowly made our way through the square, a few times getting slightly separated from one another as we tried to navigate through the large crowds. When we eventually made it to the other side of the Piazza and reached the open sea, we found the plentiful gondola poles all but empty. We continued to journey amongst the masses as we made our way off the piazza and towards dinner.

Crazy Piazza San Marco

After a slow passage, which included stops at several more stalls to find the perfect mask for Yvette, we wound up at a nice restaurant that was able to accommodate us immediately. The meal was one of the best I’ve had here. I ordered a non-traditional pizza with hot peppers, bell peppers, corn, and sausage (below). It was really excellent and definitely the best pizza I’ve yet to eat in Italy. I also particularly enjoyed Kate’s cuddlefish pasta. Due to the fish’s ink, the pasta was black, so I lent her my devil’s mask to eat her devilish pasta (below).

We didn’t think the service was particularly good at the restaurant though, so we opted to spend our money elsewhere for a treat later in the evening. It was getting towards sunset, and at that point, we had planned to take our requisite gondola ride. I had initially hoped to use our gondola ride as an excuse to also cross back over the grand canal while avoiding Ponte di Rialto, but the gondola no longer serves any purpose for transportation: it is simply a tourist function, like a Disney world ride, taking you in a loop around a certain area of Venice and letting you off wherever you got on.

Our gondolier, Alessandro, was really excellent. He spoke very good English, and we tried also to speak some Italian with him. He flirted with the girls, particularly Yvette, the whole time, on several occasions pulling out a paper cut-out of a heart, which he propped in front of his own heart and pumped back and forth to show he was “in love.” He was pretty funny and gave us some nice tidbits of information about certain buildings, but regardless of the gondolier, it would have been impossible not to enjoy the voyage through Venice. Yvette was overcome with happiness and could not stop smiling for the entire ride, and I honestly can’t blame her. We hit the grand canal right at sunset, and it was truly spectacular. The only problem with the ride was that it lasted little more than twenty minutes. We savored every second of it though, and it felt like so much more.

Brittany and Yvette in the gondola, with Allesandro in the background.

The grand canal at sunset

Clockwise from top left: Brittany, Yvette, Marielle, Kate, and Me.

When we reached shore, we took a few pictures with Alessandro, and then we made our way back towards the station. We walked a bit faster than before, but we still were in no great hurry, as we had plenty of time to get back. Yvette did eventually find her perfect mask on the way back, and then we looked out for the right dessert. Kate and Brittany stopped at one stall on Piazza San Paolo where they got excellent hot chocolate—ciocolatta calda is much thicker and richer than what we typically get in America. Earlier in the day, we’d all been intrigued by a certain large green pistachio cookie in a bakery, and I was determined to find one of those.

I was proud that I was able to get us most of the way back to the station without a map. I overshot the station a bit, but that worked out well as we got to cross over the biggest bridge in town, a very modern pedestrian crossing over one arm of the grand canal. We reached the station by 7:20, and Yvette, Kate, and Brittany went to retrieve their bags, while Marielle and I looked out for the perfect dessert. We did find one place just down the block from the station which sold the pistachio cookies, and we also got a small cannoli for Yvette, after remembering her grand search for the great cannoli in Perugia. We met back up with the other girls and shared our desserts on the steps of the station. The cookies weren't the great dessert, but the moment seemed too perfect.

Venice was simply magical, finally getting to experience this city I'd been intrigued by since I first heard of it as a young geography-inclined child. As much as I knew and had seen of it in pictures, there was nothing quite like taking it all in, in person. And as much as I may have detested the crowds, I am glad to have witnessed this city, in all its glory, during Carnivale: a truly special experience that I will hold with me for a long time.

A gorgeous building next to Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Fully-costumed masqueraders

The girls and their face paint at the far end of Piazza San Marco. From left to right: Brittany, Marielle, Kate, and Yvette.

The island of San Giorgio Maggiore, as seen from the waterfront at the edge of Piazza San Marco.

Another gondola, as seen from ours, on the grand canal.

Yvette in ecstasy

The view from the train station steps at night.

Ed. note: The pictures in "Verona: Part Two" are now of much higher quality and can be viewed at full size when clicked. I added a few extra pictures to that post as well.