Impressions of Italy – Part Four

IMG_E0565Venice is old and decaying, has major pollution problems, is prone to flooding and is crowded with tourists brought in on cruise ships that sail dangerously close to the banks, but I love it anyway! I love it because Venice is also a city of canals and bridges, palaces and cathedrals with little piazzas tucked in here and there simply for show. It is a unique place filled with history, captivating scenery, priceless art and impressive architecture; and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sits on over 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. It has no streets—just a maze of canals filled with boats and barges and the sleek black gondolas that have become a symbol of the city.

DSC02446 (2)We arrived by boat, of course, and checked into our hotel, the SHG Hotel Salute Palace. It is located on a canal in a picturesque neighborhood where you can easily walk to many enjoyable sights. Our only problem here was not resisting the temptation to throw open the shutters and windows in our postage-stamp sized room for an unobscured view of the famous roof-tops of Venice. I suspect we let in a half-dozen mosquitoes. When I got warm in the middle of the night, I refused to kick off the covers for fear the mosquitoes would attack me while I slept!

The only way to get around in the city is by water or on foot, so on our first evening out in Venice, we traveled by water taxi along the Grand Canal to a chic Venetian restaurant for a fabulous dinner.

We walked back in the romantic atmosphere of Venice at night. It was an evening to remember… peaceful, luminous and a little chilly.

The next day, our tour included Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square),

St. Mark’s Basilica,

the Gothic masterpiece known as Doge’s Palace,

and a glass blowing demonstration by a skilled Murano Glass artist. We opted to include a gondola ride because, seriously—why go to Venice and not experience that?

During our free time we had lunch at a lovely sidewalk café. To our credit, we did not get lost! We panicked briefly until we noticed that at each crossroads, painted or etched in stone was always an arrow pointing the way to St. Mark’s Square.

Another optional tour was a lagoon cruise from Venice to Burano Island. Burano is a cross between Cinque Terre, Venice and Pisa. It has brightly painted houses like Cinque Terre, but instead of being stacked on hillsides, they are built along canals like in Venice; and the ancient Church of San Martino has a leaning bell tower just like Pisa.

Lace-making is popular here, so the shops offer lace products like linens and clothes. We had dinner (my least favorite dinner of the trip) then sailed back to Venice as the sun was setting. When we got off the boat, the moon over the lagoon was pure magic!

Venice is a city like no other, and in case you hadn’t guessed, it was my favorite city on the tour. I’d like to go back for just a day and be the only one there; to hear the sounds that were muffled in the crowds. Surely, I’d hear water lapping at the foundation of centuries-old buildings, I’d hear the gulls and pigeons cry as they fly from piling posts to roof tops and back again, I’d hear classical music from Vivaldi and Puccini, and I’d hear the echo of fisherman, artists, famous Italians and common residents who – over the last two thousand years – once called this city “home”.

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Next up is Part Five in this series – Assisi, Positano and the Amalfi Coast. Arrivederci for now!

Foto Friday #16

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When dead trees fall in the damp, dark woods – strange things begin to grow. Fungus settles in on lifeless bark and eats away at the remains. The fact that fallen trees are alive with fungi may be a perfect example of how the ecosystem works, but it sounds a bit creepy to me – like a Halloween story!

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Impressions of Italy – Part Three

DSC01417 (3)When we began researching options for a guided tour of Italy, I was drawn to the ones whose agenda included Cinque Terre. The on-line photos of the five little villages by the sea were so charming, it seemed a shame not to see them if we could. It was one of the main reasons we chose the Globus tour. So, after two nights in Rome and two nights in Florence, I was excited to be on our way to Cinque Terre.

We left Florence by bus and headed to the coast, then north to the Italian Riviera. At La Spezia, local tour guide Marcella joined us for commentary as a boat took us up the rugged coastline to the northern-most of the 5 towns, Monterosso. Four of the five villages slope down to the sea while the fifth one sits perched on top of a cliff. All have vineyards clinging to terraced hills, layers of pastel-painted houses and picturesque harbors filled with fishing boats and bright blue water. The villages are linked together with hiking trails and a railroad, but not with easily navigable roads. As we passed each village by boat, getting a good picture was nearly impossible because of the distance to shore and the constant movement of the boat.

We disembarked at Monterosso and could finally snap some photos during our free time. Monterosso is the biggest of the five towns and has the most amenities; a few hotels, a public beach, restaurants and steep, crooked streets with hole-in-the-wall shops. Nothing is large in Monterosso except the view!

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We walked the narrow paths that snaked through town and found a tiny place that served the BEST gelato. It was a very warm day so when it was time to leave, we all sought what little shade there was while waiting for the group to re-assemble. With Anna’s help we made our way through crowds of tourists from the waterfront to the train station. We rode the rails away from the coast to meet up with Giorgio and the bus.

On August 14, just one month before our trip, Italy suffered a major tragedy when a bridge near Genoa collapsed. The 51-year-old bridge was on a heavily traveled highway. With the bridge out, the traffic had to be re-routed, sometimes adding hours to a normal commute. That’s the situation we found ourselves in on the way north to Lake Maggiore. While stuck in stop and go traffic, I thought sadly about the 43 lives lost and said a little prayer for their families.

We reached Lake Maggiore in time for a late dinner at our hotel, the Grand Hotel Bristol. After dinner we strolled the beautiful grounds of the hotel and walked across the street for a panoramic view of the lake and mountains, much the same lovely view as could be seen from the balcony of our room.

The next morning, we joined the optional excursion to Isola Bella, a privately-owned island on Lake Maggiore. We enjoyed a guided tour of Borromeo Palace, a baroque style mansion with private gardens that encompassed most of the island. The elegant palace is strikingly furnished and includes underground rooms with shell-covered walls and ceilings, and stunning views out of each and every window.

It was the Italian gardens, however, that impressed me the most! Massive overlapping terraces are embellished with statues, fountains, and exotic plants.

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The wild, white peacocks roaming free and the breathtaking views of the lake made this excursion a spectacular experience and one of my favorite optional tours of the trip.

We finished the afternoon with a stroll around the town of Stresa and a leisurely walk by the lake on our way back to the hotel. That evening we took another boat cruise, this time to Isola Dei Pescatori where we dined on local favorites. The white wine and pesto pasta were particularly delicious. It was a beautiful night, and the lake looked gorgeous in the moonlight.

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On the way back to our room to pack, we stopped in at the Grand Hotel et des Isles Borromees. In 1918, Ernest Hemingway checked into room 106 at this hotel then headed straight for the bar. He spent most of his 10 days here talking to the bartender, playing pool and taking boat trips to the island of Pescatori (where we had dinner). He fictionalized these experiences in his novel A Farewell to Arms. In a letter to his parents, Hemingway wrote “I’m up here in Stresa, a little resort on Lake Maggiore. One of the most beautiful Italian lakes.” I’d have to agree with Hemingway about the beauty. I tried to see the lake through his eyes knowing he had found inspiration to write here.

The next morning, we crossed the border into Switzerland. The town of Lugano sits at the base of the Alps on the shores of a glacial lake. Lake Lugano measures 50 square kilometers in size. Just opposite the lake front is a popular shopping area known as Via Nassa. You can find everything from designer boutiques, department stores, chic restaurants and wine bars to fresh produce, meat and flower markets. It’s the perfect place to shop if you’re into that sort of thing, but other than a few Christmas ornaments, we buy very little when we travel. We find our best souvenirs are memories and photos… and they are so much easier to pack! But who can resist buying chocolate in Switzerland? We certainly couldn’t, so we bought several boxes at the market to take home as gifts.

With Swiss chocolate in our pockets, we boarded the bus to Venice! I couldn’t wait! My impressions of Venice and Burano Island are Part Four in this series. Arrivederci for now!

Foto Friday #15

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I’m taking a break from travel writing to talk about the weather!

Several weeks ago, it rained for six days in a row where I live. The ground was completely saturated and squished in minor protest beneath my feet. Temporary puddles thought they had found a permanent home. After a week, there was a pause for a day of sunshine… then it rained again. It even briefly snowed! I feared we were going from summer straight into winter with only a short-lived Fall.

More than rain fell during that period of time. Autumn leaves came down too, some prematurely forced from the trees while they were still green. Others were dead and ready to fall anyway, the progression of life returning to the ground from which it came.

We’ve had no new moisture for a couple of days, but a distinct chill lingers in the air. I’ve noticed colorful leaves now float in the puddles that remain, replacing the dull, monotonous leaves from a few weeks ago. Today I caught them swimming in a reflection of beautiful blue sky. Maybe there will be a Fall after all!

Impressions of Italy – Part Two

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OK, I’ll admit it! Florence disappointed me at first. We arrived in the city at what must have been rush hour. With no place to park, our bus had to stop around the corner and down the street from our hotel. I remember wrestling with our hand luggage through thick pedestrian traffic on narrow sidewalks merely inches from the curb. Once inside the Ambasciatori Hotel, the atmosphere was pleasant, and our room was modern and spotless – but I didn’t expect modern in Florence.

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After time to freshen up before the optional Florentine Dinner, we were soon back on the sidewalk headed for the bus where Giorgio waited to whisk us away from the hustle and bustle of the city. We drove up into the hills through the ritzy parts of town to Piazzale Michelangelo, a mostly pedestrian square with breathtaking views. From this vantage point, the skyline across the Arno River to the center of Florence was simply spectacular. There, in that peaceful setting high above the city, I got my first glimpse of the Florence I had imagined.

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After breakfast the next morning, Anna lead us across the street and through the busy train station to meet our local tour guide for the day, Lia. She was waiting for us in the Historic Center of Florence where the entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That’s when I saw it… the Florence I had hoped for, the one I’d read about, heard about and had seen in the movies… the cradle of the Renaissance! Examples of impressive art and architecture were everywhere I turned. No wonder Florence is ranked by Forbes as one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

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We started our city tour at the Academy of Fine Arts where the Statue of David by Michelangelo proudly stood. It was exquisite! I was most impressed with his hands (what did you think I was going to say?) The veins are visible in his hands and arms, especially the right one which clutches stones and is disproportionately large for his body. Works by other 15th and 16th century artists were on display here, as were other sculptures by Michelangelo, but it’s the sight of “David” that I will always remember!

From the museum we walked to the magnificent Florence Cathedral with its Renaissance dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the Bell Tower clad in white, red and green marble just like the cathedral, and the Baptistry across the street. The first stone in this 4-part complex was laid on September 8th, 1296. The differences in style between the four parts is due to of the long periods of time from start to finish. It took two centuries for the cathedral alone to be completed!


We proceeded to Signoria Square, an impressive 14th-century L-shaped plaza where several old palaces, dozens of sculptures and the crenellated tower of Palazzo Vecchio still remain. Uffizi Gallery, home of the greatest collection of Italian art is also located here, but we did not purchase tickets to go inside. Instead, we walked to Ponte Vecchio for a view of the “Old Bridge”, one of the most photographed sites in Florence.

We ended our tour with Lia in Santa Croce Square (the same place we had walked to the night before with Anna for dinner). The highlight of the square is the Basilica of Santa Croce, the final resting place for native sons like Michelangelo, Rossini, Galileo and Dante. I was beginning to believe Anna’s claim that anyone with an ounce of talent or intelligence came from Florence! Understandably, it is a city to be proud of… and she lives here!

In our free time we found our way to Santa Maria Novella, a mid-13th century church started around 1246 and finished about 1360. Beginning in the 1500s, the square in front the church was used for chariot races. A welcoming row of charming restaurants lined one side of the street near Santa Maria Novella, so we sat down for – you guessed it – pizza for lunch! From there it was a short walk back to the train station and our hotel. In a few hours we would leave for the optional San Gimignano tour.

As our bus approached the medieval town of San Gimignano, we could spot its stone towers rising like the skyline of Manhattan. The town once served as a relay point for pilgrims traveling to and from Rome. At the height of its glory the families who lived here built tower-houses as symbols of their wealth and power. Although only 14 towers remain, San Gimignano is still surrounded by 13th century walls and is famous for its medieval streets, architecture and enchanting rural setting. It is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We thoroughly enjoyed our time here and managed to hike back down the hill to the bus just as it started to rain. Luckily, the rain didn’t last too long.

San Gimignano is in the Tuscany region of Italy. Vineyards in this area are heavy with an ancient variety of Vernaccia grapes which grow in the sandstone hills.

The region’s famous white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, is produced at the winery where we ate dinner. Fattoria Poggio Alloro is a family run farm, winery and restaurant. In addition to wine, the farm also produces assorted grains, olive oil and wildflower honey. They gave us a tour of the property before we sat down for dinner. Our meal was to have been served on the patio overlooking the rolling hills and fields, but the earlier rain forced us indoors. We dined on regional dishes made from the finest local ingredients. This traditional Tuscan meal was the best dinner of the whole trip, in my opinion.

As good as the meal was, I couldn’t resist the urge to step outside to catch the beauty of the Tuscan sunset. I’m so glad I did! I captured shots of golden hills with San Gimignano in the background which proved to be some of my favorite photos from the trip.

Reluctantly, we returned to Florence for the night. We would be off to Cinque Terre in the morning – which is part three in this series. Arrivederci for now!

Impressions of Italy – Part One

Rome wasn’t built in a day, they say, and it can’t be seen in one either – but we did our best! Because of a lengthy flight delay, our first day in Rome consisted of a very late dinner and much-needed sleep. Our sightseeing had to be crammed into the next day, the second of a 13-day Globus tour. We started in Vatican City, an independent country inside the city boundaries of Rome, and the spiritual and physical seat of the Roman Catholic Church.

DSC00542 (3)Our local tour guide Marco was a wealth of knowledge. He guided us expertly through throngs of antiquity and splendor, not to mention crowds. The crowds were just something we had to accept; they were present everywhere we went! We toured the Vatican Museums, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (no photos allowed!), and St. Peter’s Square and Basilica.

We rode the bus from Vatican City to the Roman Forum for a close-up look at the Colosseum and Arch of Constantine. The scale and design of the Colosseum is impressive, but sadly the 50,000-seat structure was witness to many a bloody battle!

Some people think of the Eternal City as filthy and congested, and while it is that, Rome is also an enchanting place to admire the one-of-a-kind treasures it has to offer. We wanted to see as much as possible, so we stuck with Marco for the optional afternoon tour.

aWe had a few minutes of free time for lunch near the Trevi Fountain, so we chose quick Italian favorites: Pizza and Gelato! Then we turned our attention back to Trevi, the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous fountains in the world. It is so huge it was impossible to photograph!

From the fountain, we walked passed ancient columns and on toward the church of Chiesa di Sant Ignazio di Loyola. The interior of this church includes a fresco by Andrea Pozzo, who cleverly painted the ceiling in 1685 depicting a fake dome, but actually it’s a flat canvas.

Not far from the church is the best-preserved temple in Rome: The Pantheon! Upon entering the doors, you find yourself in a huge, empty space that makes you feel small and insignificant –  but isn’t that how you’re supposed to feel in front of the Gods? The single source of natural light comes from the “eye”, a 9-meter open hole in the center of the dome. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

We ended our afternoon in the lively surroundings of Navona Square. The most beautiful parts of Piazza Navona are its three fountains, designed during the papacy of Gregory XIII.

After we returned to our hotel, The Romanico Palace, we were on our own for the rest of the evening. The Spanish Steps were only a 20-minute walk, so we headed in that direction. As we passed the American Embassy, men in uniform yelled at me for taking a picture. Apparently, that’s a no-no! At the Spanish Steps (or Piazza di Spagna) I could take all the photos I wanted! With its characteristic butterfly plan, the famous steps are recognized the world over and are a popular place for people to gather. At the foot of the stairs is the Barcaccia Fountain, the work of Pietro Bernini and his son, Gian Lorenzo.

On the stroll back to the hotel, we were on the look-out for a place to eat dinner. We stopped at a lovely little restaurant, but it had no air-conditioning. It had been an un-seasonably warm day and we didn’t think we could bear the heat, so we left and settled for a sandwich and cold drink in the comfort of the hotel bar. Back in the room, our luggage still hadn’t arrived, so we washed our underwear in the sink and dried them by hand with the hotel-provided hair dryer. Good times!

The next morning, we were off to Pisa, home of astronomer Galileo Galilei. Fresh off the bus, Anna lead us through a jungle of alleys filled with assorted markets, gelato stands and cheap souvenirs.

DSC00922 (2) It was like arriving in another world when we emerged through the city gates onto the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The (Leaning) Tower of Pisa, a cathedral and the baptistery, along with a cemetery and museums are all located within the square. The ornate 14th century tower was already tilting when it was completed in 1372.

We took photos and had lunch, then hopped back on the bus with Giorgio and headed to fabulous Florence – which is part two in this series. Arrivederci for now!

(Note: a click in each grouping of photos allows you to see each one individually)

Impressions of Italy – Introduction

Italy! A land of ancient urban sprawl,DSC00940 (3) colorful villages,DSC02607 (2) quilted rolling hills,DSC01348 (3) well-weathered charm,DSC02471 (3) pristine alpine lakes,DSC01832 (3) and the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, DSC03241 (3)where vibrant dwellings cling to the cliffs above the shore.DSC03199Italy is home to vineyards, olive trees and lemon groves DSC03264 (3)and cypress trees so tall they seem to hang from the heavens on invisible string.DSC02885 (3)In Italy, the indulgence of good food and wine,DSC01908 (2) priceless masterpieces,DSC02250 (2)magnificent displays of architecture,DSC00641 (2)and postcard-perfect scenery is an everyday occurrence.DSC03298 (3)IMG_0856 (3)DSC03038 (3)DSC01517 (3)No wonder Giuseppe Verdi is quoted as saying “You may have the universe if I may have Italy”.DSC01417 (3)

We had the pleasure of visiting Italy in September on the Globus “Italian Mosaic” tour. We have only good things to say about the 13-day experience. Our tour director Anna, and bus driver Giorgio, were both excellent at what they do; and the local tour guides at each stop were knowledgeable, easy to understand and very pleasant. Our 42 traveling companions were awesome too!

While Globus did not disappoint us, Air Canada certainly did! They are no longer on our list of acceptable air lines. The delay of our departing flight caused us to miss our connection to Rome and eventually cost us over seven hours of sightseeing time and two nights without our luggage. But let’s not dwell on the negative!

Written details and photos of our Italian travels will be presented in 6 parts over the next several months:

Part One – Rome and Pisa

Part Two – Florence, San Gimignano and the Tuscany Region

Part Three – Cinque Terre, Lake Maggiore, and Lugano, Switzerland

Part Four – Venice and Burano Island

Part Five – Assisi, Positano and the Amalfi Coast

Part Six – Sorrento, Isle of Capri, Pompeii and conclusion

Arrivederci for now!