Thursday, 14 August 2014

Venice - the land of mystery and intruige

I have been to Venice twice before, although I don't have many memories apart from the rain. The last time I went, with my parents, it was mid September and the rain was torrential from the moment we entered the train station until we left. I remember business men in pinstriped suits and wellies, St Mark's square being entirely flooded and crowds of people waiting to get into the Academia, because it was the only dry place in easy reach.

I was, therefore, rather nervous about what the weather would be like this time. A wet Venice is not the best place to be, and the weather on this trip has been really mixed. Everywhere I've been, someone has said 'oh, it's not normally like this'. And I keep hearing stories of heatwaves in England!

Anyway, having got dad to help me visualise my route from the boat stop to the hotel (no taxi to rely on to take me direct to the door here), I felt reasonably confident of getting where I needed to go without getting lost and finding myself at a dead end. Upon arrival at the station, I was greeted with ....... sunshine, hooray! Perhaps I don't curse Venetian weather after all. I found my way to the hotel with no problem at all (very basic, with weird panel instead of door to the bathroom and rocks for pillows, but a stone's throw from St Mark's, so who cares) and then decided to launch myself into the city and see where I ended up.

By a convoluted meandering means, I ended up at the Academia and wandered about for a couple of hours, being completely floored by a Veronese canvas that covered an entire wall and then finished off the day first with an expensive Aperol spritz at one of the pizzaetta cafés and then with a meal in Noemi, a restaurant dad had recommended, where a group of Italians were having a very jolly party (and the head of this party later turned out to be the restaurant's cleaner, so it's no wonder one of the waiters stashed a glass of Prosecco near them, and kept gong to join in the fun when he felt no one else needed him).

The following day, I had no plans other than meeting a good friend who was joining me, but couldn't get a flight out until a day after my arrival for various reasons. So, again I wandered with a vague direction in mind. This time, I ended up passing the Arsenale (and finding many dead ends when I tried to discover a way in ..... not possible, it's a military zone. Keep out! Unless you're a Venetian spy of course), and then wandered right up to the space occupied by the Biennale, which was in the middle of the Architecture part of its exhibitions. It was all very odd, and I didn't get a lot of it, but the exhibition space is surrounded by a park, which is just as surprising as finding central park in New York - it's not something you think of when you think of Venice, this wide open space, without any bridges to cross. (Side note - can one take too many pictures of bridges? I think I may have tested this question whilst I was there.)

It was too hot to be bothered to walk back the way I'd come, so I hopped on a boat and then wandered down a side passage to find a place to eat - and I found a very nice restaurant, where I killed an hour eating something I'm still not entirely sure I ordered (but it doesn't matter, because it was very good anyway!).

I then meandered back and decided to go to the Museo Correr, which is in the corner of St Mark's. And suddenly DRAMA! Slipping my museum pass back into the pocket of my handbag, I suddenly realised I didn't have my phone. Immediate panic. Where could I have left it - the restaurant! But would it be there? And would I be able to get back into the museum, as they'd already scanned my ticket and it could only be used once! One of the ticket ladies noticed my panic, and I explained, and asked if I went away, could I come back in. Yes, she said. Now breathe, breathe and run! She didn't quite push me out the door, but it was close. And then things became like a silent movie - there I was, running through St Mark's, scattering pigeons and tourists in my wake, over two bridges, and back down the side street - at the corner of which was a young boy playing the accordion, and rather aptly playing a tune that sounded dramatic and threatening. 'Run, run, you're never going to get it back. How are you going to contact people' it seemed to be saying. I dashed into the restaurant, explained myself to a bored waiter who gestured to me to go right ahead and look, found my table and ...... there it was, on the bench where I had been sitting. Untouched for the last 20 minutes. PHEW and wow.

So back I went to the museum, smiled broadly at the ticket lady, who looked very happy for me and let me back into the museum, and found myself doing a solo waltz at the side of the ballroom (where, unfortunately, I had some rather amused witnesses).

Elizabeth eventually arrived, after a convoluted bus and boat ride from the airport, and we went out for dinner before collapsing in the hotel, both of us exhausted for different reasons.

The following day, we immersed ourselves in the mysterious world of Venice's past, with a tour round the secret parts of the Doge's palace. Just like the castle in Ferrara, the palace has prisons in its lower levels, which would have flooded at high tides and been generally dank and miserable. We followed our guide along dark passageways and up steep flights of stairs, until we were under the roof of the palace, where the very secret offices of the Council of ten were - very sombre rooms, with no decoration, because they weren't supposed to receive visitors here, just inquire into every level of Venetian society and deal with all the information the spies sent their way. Right at the very very top of the building we were shown the two cells Casanova stayed in for just over a year (for reasons no one, not even him, were ever able to fathom). The first cell he almost managed to escape from by digging a hole, until he was discovered by the guard (and it's just as well really, because he would have dropped into the main office of the constable, and he'd probably have been executed). The second cell he escaped from by means of a priest in the next cell, who made a hole in both their cells and then they tried to escape by jumping off the roof. They didn't jumps, realising the canal below was far too shallow, so they shaved their beards and managed to get out of the palace by means of the main door - Casanova had chosen 31st October as his escape date, knowing everyone bar a few guards would be out in the city celebrating. As they were allowed to keep their own clothes (being noble prisoners, rather than ruffians), they made themselves presentable and then wound their way through the palace, passing many rooms where - had they been occupied - the two would have been caught, and out through the main gate, just casually telling the guards they'd not left earlier. Simple really.

After the tour we made our way through the main parts of the palace, which were grand and lavishly decorated, the better to impress those who sought an audience. We went over the bridge of sighs too (where I my hand out of the small windows and to those taking pictures of the famous bridge) and down into the new prison, built when the numbers of prisoners grew too large for the confines of the smaller dungeons. The Doge's palace is a threatening and imposing place - far more so than any other seat of power in Italy. You don't find much of God's forgiveness here.

From the palace we wandered about, shopping every so often to admire glass or gloves or handbags or lace or ......... Venice is a treasure trove when it comes to shopping. Note we didn't buy anything at that particular point. Instead we had ice cream for lunch and wandered in and out of churches, some with some beautiful paintings and very much marbled up to the hilt. It does make me wonder about the future of Venice. When it finally sinks (and some buildings are very much on the tilt already), what are they going to do with all the art? Will they distribute it to other Italian cities, or will some 'enterprising' soul decide to create a replica Venice in the middle of some American desert, where it couldn't possibly sink. Who knows. I just hope I'm not around when it does start to happen.

Anyway .... onwards. The next day we visited Murano and Burano, famous for their glass and lace, respectively. The boat ride is a fairly lengthy one, weaving around other islands, stopping off at the hospital and the cemetery (where we saw a priest in a speedboat) and then on to glass and lace world. Both islands are mini versions of Venice, but I prefer Burano for its relaxed feel and the vibrant colours of its houses. It's known as the island where the rainbow fell, because each house is brightly painted, and you are presented with a riot of colour as you step off the boat. The museum of lace is pretty fascinating when you think of all the intricate work that was (and still is) done by hand. It was here that my spending spree began. I really wanted to buy a tablecloth for myself, until I remembered I don't own a table and couldn't predict the size of the one I eventually hope to own, so I contented myself with buying things for people who do own furniture. Back in Venice we had an early dinner as we were going to a concert of Vivaldi's Four Seasons - which was alright, but even to my untrained ear it didn't sound quite right, and to Elizabeth's very trained ear, it definitely didn't sound right! But it was a fun experience.

The next day was a busy one as we had various points we wanted to cover. We started off by going to the Scuole Grande of San Rocco. This was one of Elizabeth's favourite places and is famous for its gigantic canvases by Tintoretto, including a very dramatic annunciation. No peaceful entry of the Angel Gabriel with Mary patiently waiting for him to be found here. No - the Angel bursts through the door completely shocking Mary, who looks like she's about to scream in fear. She's not that attractive either and her house is a mess. It's fair to say the place quickly became a favourite of mine too and every other annunciation we saw that day paled in comparison. From there we went to the Academia (my second visit, but I found a few things I'd overlooked the first time) and then moved on to the Peggy Guggenheim museum. Here there was more drama as Elizabeth discovered she'd left her handbag at the Academia. She left me in the garden as she rushed back to look for it. Thankfully she returned, with handbag, not too much time later - she had apparently almost caused a security incident and her tale of proving the bag was hers was high comedy. That's enough drama for one trip I think.

We moved on to the church on the island of Guiadecca, which was built to give thanks for the lifting of the plague in the late 1570s. The weather (which so far had been brilliant) was looking decidedly iffy, and there were storm clouds gathering. It started to rain, and then was throwing it down (although not as badly as on my previous visit) and we decided to get the boat to the Rialto, banking on it having cleared up once we got there. And it did, although it was still a bit drizzly, which forced us into a shop to avoid the last of it. And here my spending began in earnest ..... I saw a vase I loved, but the shipping cost was almost twice the price of the vase itself. So, no, leave it in the shop and on to the next. Where I found some gorgeous amber-brown-gold glasses, and having decided to buy them, went back and bought the vase so the other shop could ship it with the glasses. The package has already reached home apparently!

Things unravelled from there really, and now I have shawls, gloves, some wonderful jewellery and all manner of other things that I might keep or give as presents - depending on how I'm feeling. I almost bought an amazing multi-coloured handbag but decided against it ......

Our final full day was more restful than previous days. We really only had the church of St Mark's to see, and that didn't open until 2, so we just meandered the streets, buying things that took our fancy and eating ice cream until it was time to queue up to get in. The roof opens earlier than the church, so we found ourselves sitting on it, admiring the view out over the square for a bit before going into the church proper. It is an amazing riot of gold mosaics and a fantastic floor, which is sadly mostly covered to protect it from the myriad feet that tramp over it daily (but why carpet covering and not raised plastic or glass, I wonder?). Elizabeth went to the Museo Correr whilst I climbed the campanile (well, I say climbed - they have a lift, which takes away from the fun a little) and looked out over the lagoon. I came down pretty quickly, and it's as well I did, because the bells started ringing out the half hour, and that would have been deafening to stand under!

We had our final dinner in a lovely restaurant, again recommended by dad, and I came to the sudden realisation that it was my last night in Italy. It was slightly shocking to think that time had gone so quickly.

To the airport I went the following morning (Elizabeth had a later flight), where I battled with the badly organised lines and then hopped from Venice to Lyon then on to Bordeaux where I stayed for the night in a slightly dodge hotel (couldn't find the light switch for the corridor, so at one point I was feeling room numbers with my fingers, until I admitted defeat and went back downstairs for help). I had booked a table at a highly recommended restaurant called La Tupina, and the little I ate was wonderful, but unfortunately a migraine meant I couldn't finish my delicious pork, so I ended up in bed very early!

The following morning I caught a train to Poitiers and was met by Norma - a very dear friend - and have been relaxing at her home ever since - well, except for this afternoon, where we were both being taught to dance the waltz by a couple of her neighbours, which caused much laughter. I am to relax here until Sunday. 


Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Bologna - also known as the various train adventures

Please excuse the delay in writing up the various tales of Bologna (and now Venice too). The hotel where I was staying in Venice was basic at best and I wasn't about to spend time in the entrance hall tapping away and paying for the privilege of passers by gawping at me. In any case, there was too much to do and see and just absorb to allow for time spent writing.

But now, I am in rural France in the home of a wonderful ex colleague and there's an amber storm warning, so what better way to spend the time! [Note, there was an amber storm warning when I wrote this yesterday, but aside from some dramatic thunder at 2am, I'm not entirely sure that it came to anything!]

This entire trip has been one of changes and shifts of pace. The difference between Sorrento and the Amalfi coast to Bologna and the region of Emilia Romagna was quite a sharp one. Travelling between the two was an adventure in itself, with an early rise to catch the 8am train around the bay to Naples (and although I know I sound like a grump, that is too early for accordions to be playing, even if they are belting out 'we no speak Americano'). From Naples it was on to Bologna, passing through Rome and Florence before disappearing into a series of tunnels for the rest of the journey. I shall spare you my thoughts on the benefits tunnels would make to the HS2 plans for another day - or perhaps I'll write a letter to the Times ...

So I arrived in Bologna and found dad already ensconced in the hotel and we setter down to make out plans. I was wanting to go to Ferrara because of its links to Lucrezia Borgia and dad had Ravenna in his sights because of some amazing mosaics. Around these things we were to fit everything else that took our fancy including a trip to Verona to see Carmen at the Arena. We didn't do much that afternoon. In fact we took full advantage of the fact that Bologna is much less touristy than other places, with most sites of interest closing for a siesta and had siestas ourselves.

The next morning we set out to discover Bologna. The weather, however, had other ideas and chose to throw it down. Now, Bologna is uniquely blessed with colonnades through much of the city, but this does not make dealing with rain any easier, and there are still large open squares to negotiate, not to mention acres of slippery marble! So, after a couple of mad dashes into churches, we took refuge in a café. The rain chose not to abate, so I agreed to brave it and back out into the downpour we went. The main church of the city is dramatic and was, once upon a time, a threat to the opulence and size of the Vatican. Its ambitions were quashed when the Papal government grew wary and diverted funds for the continued building works to other enterprises, such as the University. Ever since, Bologna had had the reputation for being a little quirky and not quite in line with everyone else.

Because of the rain (which I admit was now letting up a little) and the enforced siesta time we decided to have lunch and I stumbled across a tiny place whose clientele appeared to be mostly people on their lunch breaks (a good sign, if the locals like it). My pasta with butter sauce and fried bacon was sublime. And I'll have to tell you its name later, because they didn't have any cards left and I had to take pictures of a sachet of sugar - much to the amusement of the waiter.

It's quite hard writing up these pieces after the fact, but I wouldn't want to do a report every day, because it would get very boring. There is the danger, though, of missing things out - partly because I've forgotten the order and which restaurant was visited when, and I'm going to have to wait until I get home to properly sort everything out (the number of pictures taken has reached about 4000 now, if anyone is interested).

So, allow me to rush forward to the next day and tell you of our visit to Ferrara, which was our first foray into the countryside (which is very flat and reminds me of Norfolk). This was the seat of the D'Este family, to whom Lucrezia Borgia belonged. She has always had a nefarious reputation of poison and intrusive, but I have to say that if the stories of some of the previous dukes are anything to go by, she was a comparative saint. The family seat in the centre of the town was a medieval fortress, complete with moat and dungeons where the D'Este family kept the enemies they most wanted to keep an eye on - and where one of the Dukes locked his wife after discovering her adultery. They were also used by the Nazis when they were in occupation.

Spook and damp with tiny doorways they were enough to unsettle now, so I hardly dare think what they must have been like in earlier times, with hardly a candle to dispel the complete darkness. The upstairs rooms, by contrast, were sunny and bright and richly decorated. It would have been a very strange world to marry into, although I'm sure Lucrezia Borgia was used to political machinations as the daughter of the Pope.

The following day we had a definite event to work around, as we were going to the opera in Verona. Dad had decided against hiring a car and had booked rooms in Verona for the night. This meant we had a whole day to explore elsewhere.

We thought that Modena and Parma would be interesting (and tasty - what with ham and balsamic being their world renowned exports), so off we went to Parma first, which is a very quiet relaxed town, full of people on bicycles. I am appalled to realise I can't visualise a thing of what we did there. It has melded with Ferrara and other places. My amnesia will cease once I sort out my pictures, and I'll enlighten you all then.

What I can remember it that upon arriving back at the station, we discovered the only route to Verona was via local shopping service to Brescia (as slow as it sounds) then a change of train to Verona. And the next train wasn't for another hour (I have skipped over the half hour wait for tickets - I will not rant about ticket buying in Italy, except to say it is a shambles).

So, a trip to Modena was off the table and we instead made slow and stately progress to Verona. I have been to the city before and think it is a lovely place. Fairly touristy, especially around Juliet's 'house', but its streets are much like Florence and relatively few cars around mean wandering in aimless fashion is easily achieved. The river forms a kind of boundary to the main city, so as long as you don't go over bridges, its not so easy to become lost. As a walking tourist, I appreciate this limit to my investigations! Perhaps I would have got on very well in the medieval world after all - I've always assumed I would prefer the luxuries of the Victorian era, provided I was wealthy and not a maid or governess of course!

Dad remembered the lovely restaurant we had found on our previous visit, which was just as good as the last time. Here we people watched - dad finding a slight doppelganger to his cousin, and we both made speculations about the odd couple at the table next to us. A large older gentleman with a stick thin lovely looking woman, very probably in her early 20s, who ate very little and spoke less. She had no need really, for the man was loquacious in the extreme and even felt the need to read out the entire menu for the edification of his guest. I'm being a touch catty - but it really was a very fascinating interchange.

From one performance to another - it was time to attend the opera. I'd chosen Carmen over other things on offer because I knew the story well so wouldn't have to worry about the absence of English surtitles. The arena is of Roman origin, not as big as the Rome Collesium, but in better repair than that. The stage took up one end, and was rigged with screens - from which a lady dressed all in black emerged periodically to bang a gong. The performance was brilliant, particularly as there was no electronic amplification. It was a bit odd to be surrounded by people who didn't think it was rude if the hummed along or had a bit of a chat mid performance, but it was a great experience nonetheless.

The following day I wandered around Verona as far as my flagging camera battery would allow and then we travelled back to Bologna - a far easer journey as we didn't stop off anywhere on the way.

Our day trip to Ravenna was next on our agenda, so back we went to the train station ...... where the god of train adventures had a laugh at our expense and we got on the wrong train to Rimini - the one we got on didn't stop at Ravenna, whilst the later one, we thought we were getting did. So .... an hour in Rimini, which neither of us wanted to go to in the first place, so we just sat in a café a the station.

It being Sunday, Ravenna had a very quiet feel to it. It's applying for capital of culture in 2017 by the way, so you might get to hear lots about it. All the shops were shut (and I spied some rather nice shoes, which I just took photos of instead), and there weren't that many people about, except for other tourists on the mosaic trail. Thankfully, all the places of interest were open, and were amazing. These weren't your average roman mosaics - all very detailed, but essentially monochrome. No, these were a riot of blue and gold and were brilliantly preserved. Well worth a visit!

Our final full day in Bologna was bright and sunny, and I expressed a wish to visit the church on top of a hill, which we had frequently seen from the train. This was reached by means of a long colonnade of 666 arches, which was built to shield the frequent pilgrims from rain or sunburn. Dad didn't really fancy it, so off I tracked on my own ...... and the view over the hills was brilliant - even if it was an extremely sweaty weary climb to get there! On the way back down I wandered into what I thought was a shop, but turned out to be an artist's laboratory (the Italian description for a workshop). There were a few things on sale, so I bought some rather nice green earrings, and then suggested that if the man wanted to try selling in England, he might like to visit the Christmas market on the Softbank - rather than trying Camden, where he'd been before and not had much success. Once I've found his card, I'll tell you all where to find him!

And that was the end of Bologna ...... well, that was my end, because I got a mid morning train to Venice (which I apparently shouldn't have been on, so had to pay the difference!). Dad, however, had an early evening flight home, so spent the day in Modena - and he later texted to say he'd bought rather a lot of cheese, two types of balsamic vinegar and a bottle of Aperol, so I can continue with my drinking habits once I'm home. Brilliant!


Monday, 4 August 2014

Sorrento - the days of wine and Zucchini flowers

Today is my last day in Bologna and I find I am taster behind in my blogging with Amalfi coast and Emilia Romagna adventures to relate before I move on to Venice.

Having spent the last few days travelling to different cities, I elected to spend today in Bologna - I stretched this a little to include a trip to San Luca, which is a church on a hill, which can be seen from the railway in the valley below, and is reached by means of walking up the hill under the cover of a colonnade of arches - 666 in all, although the labelling stops at 657 for some reason. It is as exhausting as it sounds, and at the time of writing this part of the blog, I was a complete sweaty mess. The view of the surrounding hills was worth it though.

So - to rewind a little - let me take you to Sorrento. I was very glad to leave Rome and the train ride to Naples is rather stunning. The rolling hills of Tuscany give way to a rather starker landscape, with rocky crags jutting out all over the place. I think I passed the old monetary of Monte Casino, where my grandfather fought in WW2, which was quite impressive. Arriving in Naples meant a change of train to Sorrento and here I must digress to question the lack of signs at stations and indeed pretty much any city. They don't make it easy by any means!

Anyway, having found the train and bundled on to it with a shed load of people, mostly bound for Pompeii, I then moved slowly round the bay of Naples to my hotel in Sorrento. Here I was to meet my mother and godmother (Carol and Kathy) although they weren't due for some hours. Time to explore the hotel, give in to the urge for a siesta and have a couple of drinks on the terrace whilst watching the sun set.

Mum and Kathy arrived late in the evening so it wasn't until the following morning that we started to plan things to do. The first thing to reveal was the plan for Mum's birthday on Friday - dad having bought tickets to the opera in Naples. This went down very well (and the day was lovely... we went to Naples by boat, I persuaded everyone up to the museum, which was rather further up the hill than I'd thought, and we managed to get the open top tour bus back down on the cheap, because it was their last trip of the day, and Cavaleria Rusticana was great, even if it did take us a few goes to figure out how to get to our box.

Sorrento was very much a change of pace - after rushing about seeing everything it was possible to see in the big cities, here I had to adjust myself to a slower pace of life. If I'd been certain of anything when planning my trip it was that my alcohol levels would rise dramatically - and so it proved. Not that I'm complaining - it was lovely to meander around Amalfi, Capri and Ravello (getting there by various bus and boat combinations) soaking up the atmosphere of the narrow windy streets before pausing for a long lunch.

And the food was something else. I mean to do a separate post about the best places to visit once I'm back at home, but let me say that Il Buck and L'antica - both in Sorrento - are out of this world and make me sad that I just can't manage 8 courses.

The write up of Bologna is going to have to wait, because it's time for me to finish packing and then go out for dinner - after that 6(ish) mile hike up a hill and back again this morning, I am more than ready for my food!