Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Italy 2014: Venice

Venice. A city that lands near the top of nearly every "must see" travel list. I figured Venice would be stunning, but boy did I underestimate this city.
Thursday: We arrived in Venice on Christmas Day via train from Bologna. Finding our hotel from the train station was a bit of an adventure. Joe had very specific directions (and an excellent track record) for getting from train station to hotel. However, Christmas Day scheduling caused some things to be off, and we ended up on a waterbus headed towards San Marco. Luckily while on the bus, we found a map good enough to point us toward our hotel, and we actually managed to get right to it. By right to it, I mean we would end up one canal bridge short of the hotel, think we'd missed it, and head backwards. Eventually we realized we just had to cross the canal, and there it was. Huge, can't miss it type of place. Doh. I was ready to be rid of my backpack by this point, and I was thrilled when we got to our room - perhaps my one my favorite rooms ever - which was a huge corner suite overlooking the canals, with views of San Marco in the distance. (Go Joe!!)
Of course we couldn't stay in the room long, and we were hungry, so we immediately headed out to find pizza and check out the square. Even though it was Christmas, there were plenty of places open near the touristy areas. We checked out Piazza San Marco, got lost in the streets, visited a few gorgeous churches along the way, and eventually ended up at canal-side restaurant beneath the Rialto bridge. I thought it would be hard to top our Christmas dinner in Munich 2013, but this may have done it. Also, I have come a long way - food wise, not clothing wise - since my dinner in Strasbourgh

Would it be weird if I asked the Hermes salesperson if I could buy something from the window?
Friday: Predicting the crowds would be worse on the weekend, Joe and I first headed to tour Saint Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace. I've been in probably 100+ churches in Europe, but Saint Mark's Basilica is definitely one of my favorites. I couldn't get over the gorgeous mosaics that cover the entire inside of the church. We were able to tour the second story and walk around outside, taking in fantastic views of the square. The Doge's Palace was interesting too, especially walking over the Bridge of Signs to view the early Venetian prisons.

After our two big tours, we were pretty hungry and tried to find a recommended spot for lunch. However, we never did find it (even after two separate attempts) and assumed it was just closed for the holidays. Instead we walked to some other churches, including SS Giovanni e Paolo and I Gesuiti, and ducked into a bakery for a lunch-replacing delicious cannoli snack. 
We had already decided we would do an apertivo buffet for dinner, and once we couldn't take the cold anymore we headed to the restaurant (again an adventure trying to find it) just in time to be some of the first to enter. Why am I obsessed with the apertivo buffet? Well for 5 euro plus a drink, you get unlimited food. In this case we got multiple types of bruschetta, pasta, and risotto - and relatively cheap beer. I'm not the only one obsessed with this - the restaurant was so crowded and people kept making a mad dash for food. Luckily we had a table right next to it, so we were set. We stayed until the restaurant switched away from happy hour and called it a night.

Saturday: Knowing it was supposed to rain that afternoon, we decided to wander out of the San Marco province and over to Dorsoduro. Our goal was to be near the Accademia in case it rained too hard, and try to see another part of Venice. First we visited S. Zaccaria, and then wandered through Piazzo San Marco (confirming our hunch that it would be busier on Saturday - wow the lines were long!) and towards the Ponte del Accademia. Joe and I agree that getting lost in the streets of Venice has been a highlight for us - we had so much fun picking out our favorite chintzy touristy gift of favorite piece of Murano glass in the various shop windows.

Once we made it to Dorsoduro, we wandered to the Punta della Dogano to take in beautiful views of the Grand Canal. 

We stopped for a delicious lunch just in time to avoid the rain. After lunch we decided to skip the Accademia (I know, I actually skipped an art museum?!) and instead head to the Scoula de San Rocco. I had no idea what to expect here, but am so glad we went. I've seen this called "Tintoretto's Sistine Chapel" because the entire building was covered with his paintings. It was really incredible, and I thought a nice treat to see one artist's work in such magnitude.

Upon leaving, it was pouring rain and we opted to head to the hotel and take the afternoon easy. We got completely soaked, but honestly it was really fun trying to navigate with our umbrellas, avoid puddles and people, and see Venice a bit differently. 

Right before our hotel, we picked up a bottle of Chianti from the supermarket (6 euro - win!) and then spent some time in our room reading and watching snow fall (!!) onto the canal. It was so nice to be warm and dry, and the amazing wine and view were perfect. 
Venice has won its place at the top of my "favorite cities of this trip" list, and perhaps my favorite city in Italy. Most of the time, when I leave a place, I think that I'm so happy I was able to visit but I don't need to return. Venice is different - I could spend another week or more here, and I definitely want to return. 
Since I'm about done with our Italy 2014 trip, I will sum up by saying that this was an incredible vacation. I am so lucky that Joe took the lead and planned everything out (itineraries, hotels, travel) and was willing to revisit so many places. I am also so lucky that my work allowed me to take off two weeks, and I never once felt the stress of being gone. Overall this was just a spectacular trip, and the perfect way to end 2014.

Italy 2014: Bologna

So at this point, I've fallen down on the job. I didn't track much of what we did in Bologna - which largely was just wander around and take in the city.  I will say that Bologna was pretty cool, and I'd definitely recommend a visit here. Just maybe not a climb up the Asinelli Tower.

The San Petronio Basilica, showcasing what happens when you leave project unfinished

The beautiful Santo Stefano Basilica - 7 churches in one

And now a short story:

"Oh look, E. A tower! We should climb it," said Joe with an eagerness she didn't recognize.

"That's strange," E thought to herself.  "He usually doesn't want to climb towers. This one looks really tall and scary. Also, does he realize that it is leaning? Maybe he'll lose interest by the time we get there. It is foggy after all, and we probably won't be able to see a thing from the top."
They approached.  "E!" Joe exclaimed. "I want to climb it. Let's go!"
 "Yeah, sure. Okay," she replied.  Yet inside, she was worried. She had been able to pass off her fear of unenclosed heights so far, but this tower looked like trouble.

She decided to play it cool, and they purchased two tickets and started climbing.

"What the..."


There was no hiding her fear.  Joe was on to her.

"E! You're hyperventilating. You will not climb tower any longer! If you take one more step up, we both are headed straight back."

With less than a seconds hesitation, she stopped. And waited. As countless teenagers flew past her up the steps, she didn't care. She just wanted out of the tower.   Joe on the other hand kept climbing and reached the top with ease.  He was rewarded with views of... fog.

However, Joe was proud of his new ability to climb towers like a champion. After he had taken a long look at Bologna, snapped a few pictures, he climbed back down the stairs and found E humming to herself in a slow, trance-like state.  She was still trying to make her way down the steps without passing out.

They finally got to the bottom, and she nearly kissed the ground.  It was then decided that she would no longer partake in scary tower climbing, and would stick to what she did best, i.e. looking for what to eat next.

Italy 2014: Lucca

Oh Lucca, how I love thee. Who knew that I small Italian city - of which I had heard little of until Joe added it to our itinerary - would be such a gem of a place? (Probably Joe, since he took me there.)
We arrived in Lucca late in the afternoon, trekked over and down the walls, and headed to our hotel. After our stop in Pisa, we were beat and opted to give our feet a break. Once we emerged, it was dark and the streets were lit up with Christmas lights, the main square was filled with an ice skating rink, and the people walking around seemed so happy. We grabbed a drink at a bar recommended by our hotel before heading to Trattoria de Leo, another spot recommended by our hotel and yet another amazing meal. The local soup (bread + vegetables) was some of the best soup I have ever tasted! The restaurant was fantastic, and filled entirely with locals and families. A great, homey vibe with delicious food. I'd say that was a quick win for Lucca.
In the morning, we took our time heading out to explore the city. I think one of the things Lucca is best known for is its city wall, built in the 16th and 17th centuries and basically in still-perfect condition We opted to walk the walls first thing to orient ourselves. I loved casually strolling along, watching walkers, runners, and bikers (all clearly local) pass by. The views inside the walled portion of the city were punctuated with towers, churches, and red roofs. We could also see the tower with the oak trees on top, which we'd visit later. I loved taking our time and taking in the city.

Whenever Joe dropped behind me, I could always count on him trying to picture me

After our walk, we meandered through the city. It is small enough that there is no worry about getting lost. Plus, the streets had such a great feel to them. We stopped for a quick peak in San Michele in Foro, and then headed to a pizzeria so I could grab a salted chickpea sandwich (trust me it was delicious!) Next we kept wandering and found ourselves at the base of the Torre de Guinigi, one of the oldest (15th century) tower/homes inside the city and the same tower with the oak trees on top. The climb - luckily nowhere as difficult as the Duomo - afforded us panoramic views of Lucca.

Who loves hat-head selfies? Joe & E!

The imagery inside the tower was rather gruesome yet fascinating
From there we headed to the Piazza Anfiteatro, a round piazza that was once a Roman amphitheater. It was nearly deserted, save a few restaurants, shops, and kids playing. (Again, a highlight of low season!)
Inside the Piazza Anfiteatro - with no people!

Nevermind! People!

When we walked out of the piazza, Joe noted a restaurant that looked really cool, and we realized it was one we had starred in our guidebook - clearly a sign. (Okay, maybe not, but we were hungry!) We had a delicious lunch (more soup for me) and debated staying another day in Lucca.
Ultimately we decided it was better to leave before we ran out of things to do, still feeling completely charmed by the city. But Bologna better be awesome, because I really fell in love with Lucca.

Next stop: Bologna!