Venice: City of Bridges, fo’ real

The Toussaints vacation isn’t over yet, but if I don’t write about Venice now, I never will.

If I sound a little less enthusiastic than usual, it’s because I’m in Prague, and as much as I enjoyed Venice, Prague is just kicking ass right now.  Look, I’m glad I went to Venice, it was a much-needed addition to my life list of European cities.  But–and this isn’t going to sound good–I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been lured into a tourist trap, albeit a beautiful, unique, and soon-to-be-swallowed-by-the-sea tourist trap.

Saint Mark’s was stunning and regal and the church itself quite different from other notable churches I’ve been to.  Then there were the pigeons.  Now, usually I’m up for making a fool of myself for the sake of the “insert city name here experience.”  But honestly…pigeons.  Hundreds of pigeons lured into the hands of dozens of tourists who, in any other city, would shudder at the thought of having a pigeon land on them, let alone perch on their shoulder, hovering over their clueless one-year-old in what I’m sure is meant to be a very poignant photo.  Needless to say, I didn’t buy any birdseed.  It was all I could do not to crouch in the fetal position on the ground every time one decided it had to get somewhere that was directly past my head.

Okay, I think my wet blanket moment has passed.  But more generally, while I loved walking around Venice and getting a small peek at a very different daily routine (do you take a boat to work?), I felt like I had fallen for some kind of trick.  No matter how hard Colee–my right-hand woman on this trip and another American assistant in Gap–and I tried, we could not escape the tourists, and after two days of extensive (no, seriously) wandering, even beyond the normally crowded neighborhoods, we were at a loss to find a restaurant or boutique that an actual Venetian would frequent.  Instead, we found mostly mediocre food at high-brow prices and heard more French than Italian (national holiday, remember?).

All in all, I don’t regret going to Venice.  It was almost consistently stunning because it’s just so different from other cities.  It reminded me of Mont Saint Michel, the abbey in Normandy that is an island at high tide and connected to the mainland by a thin spit at low tide.  The streets are so narrow that it almost doesn’t matter if it’s sunny out, you feel like you’ve stumbled into a city where it’s always dusk, the alleys lit from below by storefronts whose windows are filled with Murano glass and incredible carnival masks.

No pictures yet.  My camera is working hard here in Prague.  We leave for Vienna sometime tomorrow, and then it’s back to Gap for six whole weeks of work (horrors!).  It’s been a great trip so far, and I’m glad to have been able to do something like this for the first vacation.

Coup de foudre à Firenze

Salut!

Okay, more of my wonderful week in Italy…unfortunately, my last full day in Rome I was sick. Coughing, achy, stuffed up, headache, the works. But it didn’t (I hope) prevent Sofie, Klaudyna, and me from having a full day. We had another wonderful grasse matinée (lazy morning), including a lasagna lunch made for us by Birgitta, Sofie’s mom. She apologized for what she insisted was the worst lasagna she’d ever made because she didn’t have time to heat it at the lower temperature it required…it tasted pretty darn good to me. Our first stop in Rome was the Spanish steps, which were decked out with huge pots of beautiful azaleas. It made me think of the azaleas at home, which are probably in full bloom by now.

Next was the Pantheon. While its interior isn’t as lavishly decorated as St. Peter’s or some of the other churches I’ve seen this semester, the Pantheon is an architectural wonder. How did they build such a perfect dome, and on such a large scale, so long ago? The measurements are incredibly exact. Not only is the bottom rim of the dome a perfect circle with the hole at the top exactly centered, but the dome, if reflected downward into the building itself, would make a perfect sphere. And this sphere would just barely touch the floor at the exact center of the structure. How’s that for precision?

We stopped for some gelato (when in Rome…) and then walked over to the Colosseum and Forum Romana again, to take a better look. It wasn’t great weather, but at least it wasn’t raining. Then, to finish up the day, we walked through the Villa Borghese to a place that Sofie promised had a great view of Rome at sunset. And she was absolutely right, it was incredible to see all the cupolas, spires, and ornate buildings in relief against an orangey pink sky. A perfect finale for a great three days in Rome.

I arrived in Florence by train the next day (Wednesday) and checked into my hostel. Not wanting to risk it with my cold, I rested most of the afternoon and really only ventured out into the city to find a very inexpensive, very good trattoria. By this point having lost my voice almost completely, I croaked out my selection for the prix fixe menu, choosing fettucine with pesto, chicken with a white veggie sauce, and a salad. It was excellent, and the tiramisu wasn’t bad either. The highlight, though, had to be the pesto, since French pesto, pistou, just doesn’t cut it in my opinion. How can you make a good pesto without pine nuts?

Anyway, the next day was full of walking, queueing, and gawking. My first priority was to see Michelangelo’s David, housed in the Galleria dell’Accademia (I hope I spelled that right). The entrances to the Accademia and the Uffizi are surprisingly low key, at least I think so. It took me a good ten minutes wandering around near the Galleria dell’Accademia until I happened to spot the line in a small street off of a square. But it was of course worth the wait. I actually am glad pictures weren’t allowed, because I would’ve been tempted to just take as many pictures as possible instead of taking my time to look at the statue. It was off on its own under skylight, so you could walk all the way around it. Every step I took, the expression on David’s face changed and so did his body language. Also, it never occurred to me before that David’s head is actually not proportional to his body, it’s too big. It doesn’t take away from the sculpture, it’s just funny that one of the most famous pieces of sculpture is not one of the most technically perfect.

Wandering away from the museum, I made my way down to the Duomo. I love the colors, the pale pinks alternating with dark greens, and the painting on the inside of the cupola is one of the most beautiful ones I’ve seen, I think. It’s not the sunniest subject, the progression from Hell to Heaven, but again the colors are striking and it’s beautiful even from 30 feet below, kind of spiraling up away from you. The rest of the inside of the Duomo was simple, but still impressive because of the size.

Before committing to the wait in the line at the Uffizi, I walked over to St. Croce Church, where I had read there was a kind of specialty foods market. The church was similar in style to the Duomo with its pink and green stonework, but I was really there for the market. Having scoped out all the stalls, full of pastries, cheeses, olives, and alcoholic beverages of all kinds, I gave in to my sweet tooth, though as usual it took some convincing, and got a cannoli. Not the most conventional lunch food, I admit, but completely satisfying. Now I was ready to wait for almost two hours to get into the Uffizi.

I’ve said it before, early religious art usually doesn’t interest me. Despite coming from a culture steeped in Judeochristian traditions I’m just not well enough versed in art history, Christian symbology, or the Bible itself to really appreciate that kind of art. There was a lot of ‘that kind of art’ in the Uffizi, but also a lot of Renaissance art, which I can understand better. My favorite piece is an obvious one, Boticelli’s Allegory of Spring, but I liked Judith Slaying Holofernes by the female painter Artemisia Gentileschi as well. The more I travel around Europe the more I understand why Europeans are so hung up on the fact that the United States is a “young country”. As I made my way to the most recent paintings in the Galleria del’Uffizi I made sure to see how many were completed after the founding of the United States. Not such a difficult task, since there were three.

After this busy, busy day I picked out a trattoria that was recommended by my trusty Let’s Go volume and a couple travelers’ forums and headed out, ready to eat. Apparently documentation of Florence’s streets hasn’t been as accurate or as thorough as I would have hoped. Twenty minutes after I had found the approximate location of Trattoria Anita according to Let’s Go, Google Maps, and the person at the front desk of my hostel, I found an annoyingly straightforward little sign that pointed down a tiny street “Trattoria Anita”. Still, another success on the food front. I would actually just prefer to eat the pasta and not even go on to the second course, which is usually a meat dish, maybe with a veggie on the side. It seems like the pasta is the main event, and all of the second courses I had were good but didn’t really compare with the quality of the fresh pasta and their wonderful sauces. Me and my crazy American ideas…

Before leaving Florence the next afternoon, I explored the Ponte Vecchio and the Oltrarno neighborhood on the other side of the river from the main drag. The weather was beautiful and the Oltrarno was much more peaceful than the very tourist-y center. I found a tiny but wonderful sandwich place run by two brothers and frequented by locals. You have to be quick with your order, just say the number of the sandwich you want to one brother, order a drink from the other, and then enjoy your fare squatting on a curb beside the tiny, tiny storefront. It’s kind of odd to see people standing in the street eating sandwiches and drinking from dainty wine glasses. But my prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich was awesome.

I was reluctant to leave Florence, and Bologna didn’t really compare to either Rome or Florence for me, but it was a lazy end to a very full trip. Bologna is called the “Red City” because a lot of its buildings are in red brick and apparently it’s known for its Communist inhabitants. I can’t speak for the number of Communists I saw in Bologna (how does one spot a Communist?), but its buildings are a charming dusty red color. I spent some time in the main piazza and grabbed my last pasta lunch in Italy before taking an overnight bus into Marseille.

So, enfin, I’m back in France, the blog’s updated, and I’m coming home in less than two weeks. I think I’ll update next with some jokes about French people one of my professors gave us. A plus tard!
Maggie B.