Monday, 15 April 2013


Welcome back Readers,
We are back from our monster seventeen day vacation through central Italy culminating with a stop over in Barcelona.  Since the vacation was so long I will break the vacation into separate posts covering the cities or areas.  Enjoy.
Thursday Day 1 - Our first stop was Venice.  We couldn't decide where to go in Italy initially so we just decided to tour the central major cities.  Plus our time here is winding down so we figured we could afford a longer vacation.  But since it was such an expensive trip we opted for lower cost flights which meant flying out of Manchester to start the trip and flying into East Midlands to end the trip.  So we bought train tickets from Derby to Manchester airport and started our journey on the budget airline EasyJet.  The train ride was fine as was the plane ride so we finally land in soggy Venice late at night.  We opted to take a water taxi from the airport to the main island but after settling in and realising the taxi trip from the airport to San Marco square was an hour and a half we consulted the map and decided to hop off on the north side of the island and navigate our way to our apartment.  Good idea but not a great strategy as Venice is a jumble of confusing alleyways made more difficult in the darkness and pounding rain.  But we were now off the taxi so it was time to slosh our way to our place.  With the help of a local we finally found the street I thought it was on but couldn't find the address or apartment sign so we stopped at a hotel and asked for assistance.  Their reception called the number and the lady was there to pick us up in about two minutes.  Finally we made it to the apartment (and under the 1.5 hour taxi time to San Marco Square which doesn't include walking to the apartment from there so I felt vindicated for jumping off the taxi early) and checked in.  Now we haven't had real good luck with apartments on our travels so we rarely stay at them, and this place didn't help our track record.  It was so bad I decided to call it Il Dumpioli.  The hanging chandeliers only had one or two out of six light bulbs working, the toilet seat was broke off and just resting on the toilet, junk was shoved into cabinets, and the 1930's electrical code wall outlets didn't match the modern day adaptors.  All of the electrical appliances were plugged into extension cords or power strips that had an outdated adaptor on them so we ended up scrounging for the spare slots on the power strips so we could plug in our electronics.  One good point about the place was its location thirty feet from an excellent restaurant which we hustled to after checking in since it was fast approaching closing time and this place was the closest to our apartment.  After eating we headed back to Il Dumpioli to check it out in detail.
The foyer which didn't look bad.  Lori walked into the bedrooms and said "the pictures didn't look like this."  No truth in advertising I guess.

Dining room table with homemade couches along the walls and a two light bulb chandelier overhead.

I don't remember seeing this picture on the apartment website.  Plus the kitchen had a strong smoke smell which is just great for a non-smoking family.
Good Friday Day 2 - After waiting to long for the lady to bring breakfast (she dropped off bread, jam, juice, hard crackers, etc. sometime after we left) we decided to leave and find something on the way.  Our first stop was to wait in line at St. Mark's Basilica so I didn't want to be late in case the line was long.

The view down the alley where our apartment was located.  No wonder we couldn't find it at night, I can't even find it in daylight. 

And this is the street we were supposed to turn off of into our alleyway.  Walking through these streets in the near constant rain during our stay was not fun.  I never did get my navigational bearings straightened out here - typically I have a city mentally planned in my head after a day of walking it but I never could in Venice.  Although it would have helped if we could have walked around with heads looking up or around.  We mostly walked Venice with hoods up and eyes down to keep our faces somewhat dry.  At least our skin was moist, right?  Or is that correct Jim Lang?

Dana Johnson Pic - Breakfast.  The landlady said breakfast here is typically sweets so when I found this cold cream (not ice cream and not butter frosting - somewhere in between) delight I had to try it.  After I tried it I had to go back and get another one.  Crisp bread/biscuit with the cold cream/icing filling topped with sprinkled sugar.  What's not to love?
Navigation Fail #1.  I will quit counting my navigational fails at this point as they were more numerous than I would like to admit.  The church in the distance is San Giorgio Maggiore, I expected to pop out at St. Mark's Basilica not the mouth of the Grand Canal.

Close up of the amazing sculptures we encountered in Italy.  As far as art goes I am more of an Old Masters painting guy but after seeing the sculptures through Italy I changed my mind.  Not to be overly dramatic but we toured Rodin's museum in Paris and I thought - "that's nice".  You see sculptures here and you say "Wow!"  The furled up flag was a precursor of sculptures to come.

The far away shot of the monument from the close up shot above.  As impressively detailed as this was it doesn't even qualify as a sightseeing stop in Venice.  Move this out of Italy and it makes most top ten sculpture lists IMO.  And the rain starts again. 

So where are we?  Judging by the throng of tourists crowding the middle of the bridge ahead I'm pretty confident of where we are now.

Tammy Foster Pic - Ponte dei Sospiri or the Bridge of Sighs.  It connected the prison/cells with the courts of olden Venice and earned its name from prisoners sighing as they were about to enter the courts.  (Implied in this is that back in those times prisoners were usually "guilty" so appearing in a court was more of a sentencing hearing than an actual trial.)  Casanova was probably the most famous prisoner to cross the bridge. 
Now that I have temporarily found my bearings (and checked off an itinerary item) we walked around the corner to Basilica di San Marco or St. Mark's Basilica (church link) to stand in line for admittance.  The first church dates to the 9th C but was burned down in a fire.  The existing basilica was completed in the 11th C and is described as "western Europe's finest Byzantine church" with its 12th-13th C gilded mosaics by my guidebook (thanks again Steve).  The guidebook also calls it "one of the greatest buildings in Europe" which is a little of a stretch for me but I agree that it is beautiful inside and out.  This also starts our UNESCO World Heritage Site tour of Italy.

Beautiful mosaic on the church facade.

Clock Tower from 1496-1506.  It has the Lion of St. Mark and Madonna above the clock face which has the phases of the sun and moon and signs of the zodiac.

As Lori and the kids grabbed a spot in line I snapped a few pictures of the exterior.  I had said previously that I was almost churched out but the churches in Italy renewed my sightseeing vigour.  We only waited about 15-20 minutes in line which wasn't bad for a Good Friday I thought.

13th C grape picker close up.

Colourful columns.  St. Mark's was a beautiful church inside and out.

The nave.  In reading about Italy I didn't quite understand how most people described Italy as almost chaotic but quickly picked up what they mean.  Italy doesn't have rules, they have guidelines.  If you want to cut to the front of the line you just walk up to the counter and butt in.  If you want to take pictures and the sign says no pictures you just take pictures.  If the line isn't moving fast enough and you can't cut you just gently (sometimes not so gently) push the person in front of you to move the line.  All apparently acceptable as we encountered them throughout our trip.

The ceiling was covered in mosaics.  The sign says no camera but almost everyone was taking pictures so when in Italy...

The altar. 

More mosaics.  Thanks to the cloudy skies outside the lighting inside was quite poor and I didn't want to push my luck with the flash.

The main altar and ceiling.

St. Mark's body is supposed to be buried under the altar in the distance but you couldn't get close to check it out.

View down a side corridor.

Outside corridor leading to the museum which we skipped.

Triumphant man standing on crocodile outside the Doge's Palace.  Not sure if this has some historical significance or if it was just pilfered from Egypt.  Probably the latter.

Next up is the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace).  This was one of the few places we pre-bought tickets for since it was highly rated and we were here over Easter so I figured it would be packed.  You can read about it on Wiki here. 
The Doge was the title of the ruler of Venice and the building was initially built in the 9th C although the existing exterior only dates to the 14th-15th C per my guidebook.  Inside was some original stonework (mostly eroded so not very impressive), some building history and a lot of rooms full of wooden panelling, gilded picture frames and impressive paintings.  Lori and I agreed that this was the first place to rival Versailles Palace that we have seen.  Granted it is much smaller and not quite as opulent but still comparable.  Which brings me to my "Dan Stine extreme self restraint in the face of surmounting adversity moment of the week" in Venice - no pictures in most of the museums and churches.  I asked a museum guide later about the policy and she said it was like that throughout Italy but we found it to be the opposite actually as most places in the other cities allowed pictures.  It sure would have been nice to take pictures of some of the rooms.  I really really wanted to sneak some but the workers here were very vigilant.
The most impressive painting was the ~67 foot by ~22 foot Tintoretto painting Paradise (image from web).  Wow, wow, wow.  One of the more impressive sights in Italy.

The Clock Tower (another World Heritage Site) overlooking the basilica as we entered the Doge's Palace.  We chose not to go up it as the sky was a little dodgy so we weren't sure how far out we would be able to see.

Santa Maria della Salute across the Grand Canal. 

Midway through the Palace was the courtyard where pictures were allowed.  The archway in the middle leads to the square.

As part of the Palace tour we toured the cells and crossed the Bridge of Sighs.

Narrow hallway with small doors.  Brief cell tour as the rooms were bare and there weren't any info boards to read.  Kind of disappointing actually.

Dana Johnson Pic - Pasta with seafood.  The meals in Venice were great.
 After lunch was Ponte di Rialto or Rialto Bridge, yet another World Heritage Site. The bridge was built in 1591 and was the only way of walking across the Grand Canal for over 250 years - another tidbit from the guidebook.  The bridge is full of vendor stalls which seems to be a theme in Italy, build a big bridge then put a bunch of stores on it.  

View along Grand Canal from bridge.  It almost feels like the buildings along the canal are floating on the water.

View along Grand Canal from other side of bridge.

View across the Grand Canal.

Rialto Bridge from a water taxi dock.
After the bridge we moseyed our way to Chiesa di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (Wiki link) to check out Titian's Assunta (it was very nice) and his monument (wow).  The church itself was a bit plain and dates to the 15th C.  The artwork inside was incredible and once again pictures were not allowed.  The monuments were impressive (Canova, Titian, Doge Whoever) as were the paintings and sculptures.

Church from outside, it's so tall I couldn't capture the whole church in the picture.

So I took two pictures.

Sarah Anderson Pic - But we're in Italy right?  So I quickly took one of Titian's Monument.  The church monuments here are ridiculously impressive.  My cousin Tim did a similar trip previous to us and his advice was to cut back on museums as the churches are basically museums themselves.  You were right Tim, some of the churches in Rome were nicer than museums we have toured in the last year and a half.  (I did cut back on the museums and smaller churches btw.)

Sarah Anderson Pic - I stealthily and poorly took this photo of a Doge Monument.  I should have took a minute and zoomed in and focused but didn't - mea culpa.  Not sure if the symbolism is as obvious as it appears but the four men on the bottom holding up the Doge's platform are black while the people on the Doge's platform are all white.

Requisite gondola pic along the Grand Canal.  Since it rained, sprinkled, or poured on us most of the time we didn't ride one, we stuck to the water buses that are covered.

St. Mark's Square (another World Heritage Site) - Campaile (Bell Tower) stretching towards the sky and the basilica straight ahead.
By now the on and off again rain has turned back on so we are looking for some indoor activities.  In order to buy tickets to the Palazzo Ducale you had to buy the museum pass which also includes Museo Correr (Wiki link), Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.  Sounds pretty interesting doesn't it?  Well, not so much.  The Correr had some nice rooms and art but nothing compared to the Doge's Palace or most churches.  And didn't allow pictures.  The Archeological was described as Collection of Greek-Roman Antiquity alongside Egyptian and Assyrian-Babylonian sections online which is true but once again nothing new or great.  And didn't allow pictures.  The Biblioteca was my favourite of the three.  It had some nicely decorated rooms (Kalle liked the room with the funky dress fashions) with some neat medieval maps (funny seeing what they thought the world looked like back then) as well as some huge (25 foot by 10 foot) wall paintings that were pretty good.  The kids and I had fun picking out the "important people" in the paintings.  What we have discovered is that if there is a group ensemble/battle/scenic painting you can usually find the painting owner or priest or royalty muckety-muck in the painting because they are slightly out of place as they stare regally out of the painting at you instead partaking in the scene.  Plus the person's face is usually a little brighter/highlighted as compared to the others in the painting.  But they didn't allow pictures either so I was a little bummed out as I liked the maps.
By now it's late afternoon so we called it a day and blind mice navigated back to Il Dumpioli.  We had walked a lot this day and planned on walking a lot for the next 15 days so Mr. Flexible planned our itinerary to include early days and more down time than usual.  We also found some more "eccentricities" of our place.  The TV didn't always want to work which wasn't a big deal since it was all in Italian anyway, we shared the place with a couple of moths, and the kitchen drawer handles were nice and sticky.  Quite appetising when you open the drawer to grab a knife and your hand comes back stuck with muck.
I also figured out that you can spot the American tourist by looking to see who is wearing the baseball cap.  This has been in the back of my mind for a couple of trips now but Italy really reinforced it.  Not that there is anything wrong with wearing a ball cap, we just usually try not to stand out as tourists more than possible when we travel and the ball cap wearer always spoke with an American accent.  Not good or bad, just an observation.
During the course of the day I learned from Karl that we are hitting most of the Assassin's Creed locations.  For the oldsters in the audience Assassin's Creed is a video game series that Karl plays occasionally.  According to Karl the series has visited Constantinople (the only place we hadn't planned on visiting), Jerusalem (check), Venice (check), Florence (soon to be check), Rome (soon to be check), and Boston area (we've been to Philly which is close).  So he thought that was pretty cool seeing the places first hand that he has played in the games.  Lori and I also discussed how we are checking out the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well.  Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello and Leonardo were all around us.  Brian is much older now but he used to be a pint sized jumping, kicking, spinning, running TMNT clone back in the day.  We were going to get him a TMNT memento but couldn't find any.  Sorry Brian.
I skipped over our late night meal Thursday because we liked it so much we went back Friday and then Saturday.  This violates one of my travelling eating rules (only eating once at any restaurant) but the place served the best spaghetti carbonara I have ever eaten and it was relatively inexpensive.  Pasta is one of my favourite cuisines but I have never tasted pasta like this.  The place was Osteria Al Pozzo Roverso in Castello for the curious. 

Dana Johnson Pic - Buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto.  The food keeps getter better.

Dana Johnson Pic - Spaghetti carbonara or food paradise for me.  More of a thicker than creamier sauce coating the spaghetti and bacon, I think I would have eaten it every night if they had delivered to Florence or Rome.

Kevin Coleman Pic - And a local brew to wash down my meal.  Nothing special but not Brit beer so I give it a thumbs up.

Dana Johnson Pic - Karl's pizza which was his choice for about ninety percent of the meals he ate.  Lori and Kalle kept trying different dishes.
Saturday Day 3 - Our second and last day in Venice so we decided to check out the surrounding islands.  But only after I grabbed another cream and biscuit delight.  It was so disappointing on Day 4 when the place was out of my treats.  So so disappointing.

A random church pic to show how the churches are packed into the neighbourhoods here.  The cacophony of Sunday church bells must reverberate this island with all the churches here.

Tammy Foster Pic - Sample bridge path crossing.  We are almost to the vaporetto (water buses) stand when it starts raining.  Even worse was the weak sunshine teasing us as it started raining.

On the vaporetto heading to Murano.  Kind of strange sitting below water level as you travel between islands.  And the rain has started coming down in a steady stream now which lasted ALL DAY LONG. 

After landing on Murano we ducked inside for a quick caffeine fix.  Lori ordered an Americano coffee which is really their normal coffee in a bigger cup accompanied with a tin of hot water.
Murano (read more about it here) is an island by Venice where all of the glass making was moved to in 1291 because of fire concerns with the glass making furnaces around the wooden houses.  So we checked out the main drag and browsed though some glass stores. 

Our first stop was at a shop that has a factory in the back.  The salesman was super friendly and took us in back to watch a guy making chandelier pieces.  Here he is heating the glass.

Here he is working the malleable glass.  The kids really liked watching him work.

I thought this was neat.  The small black and yellow bits are formed into the large piece.  That would have been fascinating to see.

They did some beautiful work here.  Lori was eyeing a couple of the one thousand euro pieces (not pictured) but decided against them.  They were very nice though.

After checking out a few more shops we ended up back here to pick up some glasses and other souvenirs (not pictured). 

 After taking a few pictures and walking out I saw the No Pictures sign.  Oops.  I do have to admit this place had the nicest pieces of the few shops we did visit.  Our taste was confirmed as we left with our loot and saw this place was recommended by Rick Steves.  Rick Steves is very popular with the ex-pats over here so any place good enough for Rick is good enough for us.

Walking across a canal on our way to the vaporetto stop after stopping for a snack and picking up some souvenirs.

Leaving Murano as we motor to Burano (link), a smaller island known for lace making and brightly coloured houses.

Looking down a canal.

Another canal picture.

Even the inland houses are colourful.  The wet troop is on the left adorned in our rain jackets in a bag, possibly our best buy over here.  Medium duty weight, easily packed and keeps us dry.  And we bought them on sale.

We stopped for lunch and tried the house wine which came in these pitchers.  I am not well versed in wines but this was easily the best wine I have ever tasted.  Italy is known for their wine so I thought I would start liking wine after this trip.  So for the next few places I switched from beer to wine and as the wine progressively tasted worse I realised that this place just had really good house wine.

Dana Johnson Pic - The caprese, buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes, were a hit.

Dana Johnson Pic - I tried the lasagna and it was okay.  Not as good as my grandmother's lasagna was, that's for sure.
Dan Johnson Pic - Lasagna layers.

Dana Johnson Pic - Lori had spaghetti and seafood.

Solitary church ruins on the way back to Venice.

These were the boat lane markers.
Church on an island.  I kept wondering what it looked like below all these islands. 
It was late afternoon by now so we had planned on checking out a couple more churches on the way to the apartment but a bathroom emergency forced us straight home instead.  I say straight home but we actually took a couple wrong turns on the way there.  Add the constant rain which makes it difficult pulling out the map to check our progress and the maze-like Venice alleys and our journey took a little longer than expected.  The major attractions have street markings so if you are going to Rialto or St. Mark's it's pretty easy but otherwise I struggled to navigate the streets.  By the time we arrived at the apartment we were done for the night even though it was late afternoon.  Our shoes, socks, pant bottoms and feet were soaked so we were ready to be dry.  We did salvage the night by eating at my favourite Venice restaurant again where KJ and I stuck with our old faithfuls.

Typical end of the evening on this trip, everyone on their electronics.  I would spend my evening jotting down notes for the blog, going over the next day's itinerary and then getting on my electronics.  Occasionally there would be a sporting event I would veg out to as sports is about all I can watch on foreign TV.
We know the wet weather had a part in it but we just didn't feel like Venice lived up to its reputation.  I think I need to give it an Incomplete grade as a few people I've talked to really liked it so maybe we just had an unlucky trip.  Grand Canal, Doge's Palace and St. Mark's Basilica were all impressive while the rest of the trip was okay.  Next stop - Florence.  Talk to y'all in a few days.

Thanks for listening,


  1. Oye, that apartment. You guys can pick them. (What other times did you stay in apartments?)

    Too bad about the weather. At least you had a good go anyway. I'd heard about how difficult it is to get your bearings. I'd heard that the food would not measure up to the rest of Italy, but sounds like you found a place to your liking.

    Looking forward to the other installments.

    1. We are definetely not good at picking apartments. We've done a couple during weekends in the UK.

      I think we were really lucky to find the place close to our apartment. We found the food in Venice to be as good as anywhere else in Italy.

  2. Half the fun of Venice is getting lost! We made up a game-wander around for a bit and then guess which direction we were going the iPhone compass. We were wrong 90% of the time. Sorry you had bad weather, that would definitely take the fun out of wandering the streets and alleys.

    1. That is funny, I can easily see how that game would be played. The rain and Venice streets were a really bad combination for us.

  3. Pitchers of wine and the lack of WC's are also a bad combination in Venice.

  4. Looks like you had the same weather that Tara and I had when we were in Cinque Terre. Crazy how the weather can greatly alter your perception of a place. Sounds like you guys toughed it out and made the most of it. And I may have read this wrong, but I don't think Philly counts as Boston.

    1. I know. I kept thinking of the ex-pats who went and loved Venice and I'm thinking "this is not fun". Probably a lot of fun in sunny weather. Probably the same way you guys felt about CT. I sympathised with you on the day you were sick of the rain and wet shoes/socks/feet and packed in it early. Dry clothing is not overrated. No Philly isn't Boston, that's just as close as we have been to Boston. Boston is very high on our US vacation cities however.