Thursday, April 28, 2005

4/25-28/05 Days 4-7 Tuscany to Venice

Monday (4/25), we did go into Pisa, sadly. My mom insisted, despite my feeling that it would be a tourist trap. But we went. The closer we got to it, the more confusing and congested it got. Parked the car in a carpark and headed in. For the past several days, we’ve been spoiled by beautiful scenery and tranquil farm country. Pisa, near the tower at least, is everything I hate about touring the big sights in a big city. Mobs of people who can’t keep their shit together, tacky tourist shit everywhere, and pushy slimey tourist vendors, people hawking knock-off purses and sunglasses. I can’t stand crowds and wanted out almost immediately. Yeah, there’s the tower. It’s leaning, quite a lot, really. Now get me the FUCK out of here!

(pictures: in Lucca, a wreath placed at a monument for Labor Day, and a communist demo in a piazza)

Got a little lost leaving Pisa and took a giant detour but found the Autostrade finally. My mother, the notorious leadfoot, refuses to go over 90 (kph, that’s like 56 mph for chrissakes) because the car makes an alarm at 100. Finally, we get to Lucca. My boss had told me it was his favorite city in Italy, but I wasn’t really that impresses. Partially because it was a holiday, perhaps, and stuff was closed. But, meh. When compared to Siena and San Gimignano, it just didn’t do it for me.

On the way home, I thought we’d pass through Volterra, since descriptions of it intrigued me. High, high up a mountain road, it came into sight late in the afternoon, and we stopped in for dinner. Volterra captures the imagination. The incredible view over Tuscany, the medieval labyrinth of steeply cobbled streets and alleys, the incredible Roman ruins, any of these would have been enough to fill an afternoon. So we really regretted not spending an entire day (at least) there. I hope like hell that there will be a next time.

Tuesday (4/26) we checked out of our beautiful apartment (did I mention the host, Mauro, had given us farm-fresh eggs???) and headed to Venice. My mother wanted to take the scenic route, rather than the Autostrade, which turned out to be incredibly scenic, but incredibly slow. So back to the Autostrade we went after a few hours of driving but not much real progress. After reading from three different tourbooks that the speed limit is 130, I finally convinced my mother to go about 120 (instead of 90). She was still getting passed by almost everyone, but we were supposed to drop the car off in Venice by 4:30, and the only possible way to make it was to ignore the car’s alarm.

And we did, after getting lost on the mainland near the bridge to Venice, make it just in time to avoid an extra-day car rental fee.

Buying the map of Venice at the tourist office for 2.50 euros was an incredibly smart move. There is no way to give directions here. I have generally considered myself blessed with a good sense of direction, but, in Venice… let’s say I can’t find my toes without a map to check every few inches. I helped my mom over the many bridges and found our hotel in Campo Santa Margherita, a pretty lively campo. The hotel was up narrow, sloped stairs, and the host seemed very confused about us. I had a printout of our emails, which seemed to help, but he was still confused. Finally, he pointed us upstairs to our room, which was omigod small. Smaller than the rooms at the Hudson in New York, which had been my previous standard. At this point in the trip, I’d grown incredibly testy with my mom. I love my mother a whole lot, but patience isn’t one of my virtues. I was having a hard time holding it together.

But I didn’t complain about the room. What’s the point, when you’re stuck there? We just decided to spend as little time there as possible. So we went out for dinner at the ristorante downstairs (not good) and started wandering aimlessly. Wow. There can’t be any other city like this. Everyone already knows about the canals and bridges, but the maze-like layout is pretty incredible and the fact that you can be a couple of blocks from something, or just across the canal, and it’s still an hour away… Twisting and turning through the campi and narrow alleys is enchanting or tedious, depending on which end of your day you’re on. Along the Southern edge, on the Canale Della Giudecca, we encountered some men watching the water with lights; nets in had, like a pool net. What are they fishing for? It’s hard to imagine the fish would come there. We found our way over to the Canal Grande at St. Maria de Salute, a stunning church, but a dead end for us. Much of Venice was made not only to be viewed from the water (the only way to really absorb the intended architectural effect is to see it from a boat), but also to be reached by water. Many buildings open right onto the canals and therefor you can’t walk into or by them. There isn’t any promenade along the Canal Grande in most areas. So it’s always, coming out to the Canal Grande to have a look, then ducking back into the labyrinth to make your way for a bit before resurfacing. You can tell the locals, they move through the alleys purposefully, weaving through the turns confidently, while the vast majority either wanders, distracted by the sights, or confusedly consults a ragged map at every intersection. (and there are a lot of intersections, particularly when you realize that the smallest, darkest alley might frequently be the one you need, to get where you are going)

Fortunately, after our first miserable night in our crappy, tiny hotel, the innkeeper chased us down as we were leaving for the morning, and said (since he just comprehended, apparently, that we were staying four nights) that for the same price, we could have a small apartment with a kitchen a few streets away. What a relief, room to breathe! The new place isn’t posh, but it’s not crappy either. We have a little one-person terrace over the street.

So Wednesday (4/27), after transferring to our new digs, we made our way toward St. Mark’s. At the Ponte Dell Accademia, the bridge over the Grande Canal, the tackiness started: knock-off purses and other crap being peddled by greasy, over-pushy types. In and out over the bridges, and we detoured to St. Moise, because it was written up as the ugliest church in Venice. (How many churches did these people NEED, anyway?!?) It wasn’t mega-ugly, but we couldn’t get in to see the altarpiece, which is apparently pretty bad.

As you approach St. Mark’s, the streets become really thick with the crap peddlers and tourist junk, and then you see it, walk through the portico, and it opens up before you, vast and really quite nice, and not too obnoxiously crowded. The Basilica is a ridiculous concoction, though. It’s a Small World, I assume, must have been based on this. There was a line for the Basilica, but by the time we’d gotten our bearings, we decided it was a little late to get in line. I noticed that the Palazzo Ducale was open for a few more hours, so we went in.

Palazzo Ducale was a great tour. The museum really gives a really good background of the structure and life of Venice, and of course the art there is also amazing. The world’s largest canvas painting was on the wall in the biggest room, and there’s a chance to see the various columns up close to see all the wonderful themes and detailed carvings.

Unfortunately, by this time, I’d developed a nasty head cold (been sick since the last day in Tuscany), and sleeping became impossible. So Thursday (4/28) was a trial. We did get ourselves up and over to St. Mark’s by 9:45 as planned (this is quite a hike since we still haven’t used any vaporetti/water buses). The line was already about 45 minutes long at opening time. The Basilica is just as overdone inside as out, but taken in small bits, and up close, each detail is beautiful. The mosaics are on display such that you can see the faces of some up closer, which is neat.

Hiked out and over the Ponte Di Rialto (the most famous of the bridges over the Canal Grande, this one houses shops in the center row) and over to a church which was closed, then on to the Palazzo Mocenigo, because they had costumes and textiles among their displays. The museum was not huge or particularly impressive, but apparently their research library is quite extensive. Talked with a guy from the library about their work with other museums in the US and other places. After a quick sandwich and beer (my mom got buzzed), we continued our hike to the Ghetto. On the way, we would Chiesa San Geremia, which was exciting because we wanted to see St. Lucy's uncorrupted remains. The church was closed! Damnation.

My poor mom made it over to the Museo Ebraico, but was fading quickly. This is a LOT of walking, and the stairs are really hard on her knees. But we arrived exactly in time for the walking tour. And tour we did. The tour normally includes 2 small synagogues and one of the bigger ones outside. But since it was Pesach, the big ones were both closed to tours, and instead they showed a 3rd small one. So we saw the German, French, and Italian early synagogues. I don’t understand it clearly enough to relate properly, but the Italian is different because they are separate; different language, different traditions, and they were clearly poorer. The museum itself wasn’t much to look at, but there are some breathtaking relief sculptures outside to commemorate the holocaust victims taken from Venice.

The hike home had become something of a death march, and we collapsed for a few minutes before dragging ourselves out for dinner, and the most expensive laundry trip ever.

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