Monday, December 27, 2010

Exquisite Europe * Venezia, Italy (December 2010)

Venezia, how I can describe Venezia?  It's simply a magical place!  Why magical?  Because it's hard to comprehend how a floating city like Venice can exist, when only a few miles away, a normal land above water lies.  Traveling between these places just seem like time traveling.  Our hotel was outside of Venice, and thus, we are able to experience going in and out of Venice, which is basically like going from one world to a totally different one.

Our bus brings us to the parking island where we take a speed boat via the waterways to St. Mark's square.  And once we step into the island, everything is different.  No cars there, just gondolas or boats.  Thousands of bridges over water are seen in the island.  It almost feels like you are in dreamland, maybe because we've seen the replica in Las Vegas and Macau, LOL.  But nothing beats the real thing. A replica will always have signs of being artificial, while the real thing is defined by the daily wear and tear that shapes its character.

Our first glimpse of Venezia was during the nighttime when we first arrived.  Our bus ride from Assisi to Venice was about three hours.  It was the usual foggy weather, till we realized visibility has dropped and it's because it was actually snowing and it was getting stronger.  It was a precious moment of white Christmas, and even if I've seen other white Christmases in the past, nothing beats fresh snowfall and glimpses of snow flakes flying outside your window.  Imagine the excitement as we are all not used to seeing snow.  Ironically, some of our tour mates were in turn amused at our excitement.

We stopped by a roadside stop to get some sandwiches and coffee, somewhere in Bologna.  And I wondered it this place had anything to do with the Bologna ham.  Well it does, it's known for Mortadela, which is the original Bologna sausage ham.  It is also the name for which the Spaghetti and Bolognese Sauce came from, although here, they simply call that Ragu sauce.

Before we got into Venice, we passed by Imola, which is known for the Grand Prix, and near this area is a place called Maranello where the famous Ferrari cars are made.  Unfortunately, we have not seen any Ferrari cars on the road during this trip.  Along the way, you can also see some wineries.  I learned that the Prosecco grapes are used for making wine, Prosecco being the champagne of Italy.

So finally, we arrive in Venice and we are brought straight to the dock, where we would catch our gondolas.  It was dark by the time we got there, which is a very good way to experience the romance of Venice.  Six to a gondola for us, and a bottle of champagne also to warm us up on that cold winter night out on the waters of Venice.  Our route was in the inner waterways of Venice, and it brings us through the Grand Canal.  The buildings along the waterways were old and provided us a haunting feeling, as we quietly floated through the water.  Add in the gondoliers and the serenade, it completes the whole ambiance of Venice.  We saw churches, restaurants, and even five star hotels, plus of course, the parked gondolas and boats on the sides.  Speed boats also ply the same routes, so our gondolas get to rock quite roughly at times.  I wouldn't want to fall into the water.  Venice in the last few years have been known for their smelly canals, which disappointed visitors looking for a romantic evening.  Good thing, the canals didn't smell the night we were there, and we had a great time.  We arrived at another dock, and soon emerged into a small abandoned alley which was also under construction, probably with some restoration going on.  People still seem to live upstairs still and the noise made by our group had probably awaken them as we saw the lights turn on in one of the rooms upstairs.  But they seem to be used to it.  Along the alley, you can see some ramps about two feet high, these are ramps used when the water is too high and Venice becomes flooded.  I am amazed at how that is part of their everyday life.  And it's not only the alleyways but the water must go inside their homes and stores which have a first floor.  I searched the internet for some photos, and yes, it's how I imagined it to be, St Mark's Square under water and people walking in it, arches and doorways halfway flooded, chairs and tables halfway on the water, and even people buying food inside a flooded supermarket, all seem to be a normal day to them.  We ended our visit that night walking through the alleyways that were all filled with stores, including brand name stores.  There were also specialty stores, of which one of the funny shaped clocks caught my eye.  I later went back to get myself one for my room at home.  There were also a lot of Venetian masks for sale, which were very pretty.  Folks in our group did get a couple of them for souvenirs.

We had our last look at Venice on our boat ride back to the mainland which was where our hotel is located.  The views were wonderful but the wind was extremely chilly.  For photographers like us, we braved the weather hoping to capture the memories of Venice that we will sorely miss.

Day 2, we headed back to Venice from our hotel, but now it was day time.  Our tour started with a walk from the docks where our boat left us, to Piazza San Marco, where the St Mark's Basilica and the famous Campanile Tower were located.  This would probably be the most photographed representation of Venice.  Also on one side is a clock tower, which leads to the big shopping district where all the famous brand stores are also leading to the Rialto Bridge.  It's such an irony to see the old architecture and the new modern shopping stores blend together.  It makes you think twice whether you are dreaming or not.

After the short introduction to the Piazza, we head to the Murano glass factory.  Murano is the famous hand-crafted glass maker in Italy.  I remember Mom and Dad bought a Murano tea set decades ago on their trip to Europe and because it was so precious, they had to hand-carry the set home through their long flight.  The glass was marvelous and like no other glassware I've seen.  The blending of the colors made is so unique. You can see its delicate and original craftmanship in the product itself.  Simply amazing.  And today, we are here looking at it with our own eyes.  The craftsman showed us how to blow a glass blob into a vase, and then add in the hot melted glass to form two beautiful handles on each side of the glass.  The guide also explained the strictness of the quality and that each person has to maintain a high success rate to be a master glass blower.  The glass blower also created a small horse with all the small details, all in just 5 minutes.  Again, simply amazing.

We decide to head back out and explore more of Venice.  My three nieces and I headed through the small alleyways back to the Piazza to look for the ever famous hot chocolate.  The place was called Florian.  We followed the tour guides instructions, but managed to get lost.  Then we asked one of the nearby hotels for directions and they directed us back to the Piazza.  In the time we got lost, we were able to see one of the other churches in the other area and also the dock where hundreds of tourists are waiting for their turn on the gondolas.  Good thing, we took the gondolas the previous night.  And after asking one more time, we finally found it, and it was just in the Piazza itself.  Well, we just experienced what our tour guide explained to us:  Italians are very poor at giving directions, LOL.  She pointed to us a billboard at the end of the piazza and asked us to turn left.  The cafe was actually a good 20 steps before the large billboard.  Oh well.  So, we went in, saw that we had time to have a sit down lunch, and decided to order some quiche and sandwiches, this time French food.  The quiche was delicious, and even my nieces appreciated fine food like these.  We of course ordered the hot chocolate and opted to top with cream.  The cream cooled down the hot chocolate, so our first taste wasn't particular special.  But towards halfway down the cup, we can taste the creamy chocolatey flavor that melts down your mouth.  The Florian reminded me of the famous Cafe Tortoni in Buenos Aires, housed in an old European-style building and serving fine hot chocolates and pastries.

After lunch, we headed back to the Piazza hoping to do some more shopping, but as we exited Florian, we saw a group of pigeons on the square, and couldn't resist to go play with them.  My niece was readily armed with her left over bread, and started to tease the pigeons.  They started standing on her arms.  A guy also shared some of his leftover potato chips with us, and we managed to attract the pigeons even more.  The four of us got the chance to have the pigeons either stand on our hands, arms, shoulders, and even on our heads.  It seems the pigeons are trained, LOL.  So, the movies were right, you can actually come to Piazza San Marco and be friendly with the pigeons.  It was a beautiful experience, something we've only seen in movies, turning into a real personal experience for us.

Then it was time to head to the docks for our next excursion, a visit to Burano island, tagged as a photographer's paradise.  We met up with the rest of the group which appeared with some black shopping bags from Murano.  And so, we got on the boat again, and headed for Burano, an island sitting miles outside of the fish-shaped Venice.

From the distance, we could see the island of Burano coming up, and most distinct was the leaning tower of Burano (not Pisa :-)).  The tower was part of the abandoned church in the island.  As we approached the island, we would see the colorful houses.  And our tour guide told us the story of why these houses were colored.  In fact, they are not allowed to change the colors of their houses without proper approval from the authorities.  The color of each house is meant to guide the fisherman back home from the sea after a night of drunkenness.  Whether true or not, it does make sense.  Although, I wonder if the fisherman would even recognize the color by the time he gets drunk, hahaha.  We also saw a gas station near the water, and I realized soon that the gas station was for the boats, not cars.  After all, this is Venezia.

And so we got off to the island.  The first interesting sight we saw was the laundry hanged in the middle of each alleyway.  This is a common sight back home but only in the squatter areas, so it was interesting to see it here.  You can name it all, pants, shirts, jackets, towels, bed sheets, bras, panties, briefs, all complete :-)  But somehow, it looked neat.  And this sight follows all over the island.  We were led through small alleyways into the central square.  And along these alleyways, you can see all colors of houses, and it was interesting to see the people living there, going on with their daily work, not minding the tourists that come around.  Again, something that we're not used to.  If this was back home, the residents would come out and stare at the tourists.  At the square, there were a couple of restaurants, delis, and souvenir shops.  And one thing unique about Burano is their lacework, they do excellent lacework and you can see old Italian women selling their work.  My niece and I decided to head to the deli to buy some prosciutto ham and Asiago cheese.  This one didn't have a large selection of prosciutto but had a large selection of cheese which we weren't really particularly familiar with.  My niece recognized one, which was Asiago so we got some of those, and then 300g of prosciutto ham to go.  All left to buy was wine, LOL.  Then we went to the deli and I bought a bottle of Limoncello, the famous Italian after dinner liqueur, a small bottle of Prosecco, the Italian champagne, and, a small bottle of White Truffle paste and Funghi Porcini paste each.  Things are also much cheaper here in this island than in Venice.

Prior to that, while the rest of the group went to the lace shop, my niece and I ducked out to take photographs.  After all, this is a photographer's paradise.  We headed to the area near the water and found a small waterway leading to other areas of the island.  It was one of the famous spots for capturing photographs of those color houses along the waterways of Burano.  The difference here, as pointed out by our tour guide, was that here, the boats are owned by the residents, while in Venice, most of the boats are public transports, like the gondolas, speed boats, ferries, etc.  We even saw one boat with the Japanese Hello Kitty sign, then later as we walked along the waterway, saw another house whose main door had a Hello Kitty sign as well.  Hello Kitty seems to be popular in Italy, as we later found some more of these along Italy.  Interesting :-)  Another interesting sight we saw were huge fat jugs of wine covered in straw baskets on the boats.  I guess this is why the fishermen get drunk after a night out at sea.

At the boatride back to Venice, we experienced a wonderful sunset.  We headed up to the deck where the boat navigator was, and got a full 360 degree view around us.  I got to practice my silhouette shots here, and just simply sit and enjoy the magical horizon as the sun goes to rest for the night (or at least does it rounds to light up the other side of the world).

After Burano, we headed back to Venice through Piazza San Marco, and we had some more time to do some last minute shopping.  Before that, we all headed back to Piazza San Marco to take photographs of the group at the Piazza.  I then headed back to the square selling the funny clocks and got mine.  The rest of the group also got some small trinkets and others went for a pee break.  Then it was time to head back to the docks.  This time, we followed a short-cut, bypassing St. Mark's Square, but as expected, the signs were very scarce this way and you would sometimes just see a hand-written sign on the wall.  We eventually got there.  Despite the tight schedule, my niece managed to pass by to get the Venetian masks at the square.

After all, it was time to say goodbye to this magical island we call Venezia...

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