Saturday, April 30, 2005

4/30 Day 8: Venice to Florence

(pictures of the apartment, and the view from the balcony)

Today started early, since my head cold turned into an acute earache in the middle of the night. Wed’ planned to sleep in, check out, and make our way the 15 minutes or so to the station, in time for our 12:30 train to Florence. Instead, I got up when the pain became unbearable around 6:30 am, and my poor mom got up too as we faced having to try to find a doctor in Venice, on a Saturday, who could see us before our scheduled departure.

Packed our stuff up and went back to the hotel office, waiting at a café in the campo for the owner to come back, since it was suggested that he’d be better able to advise how to find a doctor. I managed to pop my jaw and ear enough to turn a sharp constant pain into a dull constant pain, and we decided to try lots of water and some decongestants. Easier said than done, since most of the pharmacies are closed Saturday, and the don’t sell these things at grocery stores like they do in the US. I gave up, but found a pharmacy at the last minute a few steps from the train station. Thankfully, the pharmacist knew enough English to understand and give me what I wanted. At least, I think he did.

(picture of a market on a boat in one of the small canals)

(my mother and I on the vaporetti--the water bus)
Spent several hours waiting in the train station. Our train was scheduled to leave at 12:32, so we sat in a waiting room with TV’s showing Arrivals and Departures, train number, destination/origin, time, and platform. Lots of trains going in and out or Florence. One every 5 or 10 minutes, arrivals and departures. All is well, and we are in the zone! Around 11:00, I noticed that no new trains were showing up after 11:17 on the TV’s. Odd. By 11:20 or so, it was clear that trains were still coming and gong every few minutes, but the information was no longer being updated. Beautiful. Around 12:20, we went looking f or our platform, and all of the many signs and screens in the vast station were also stale. Trains are coming and going with no info. WTF?!?! Finally, about 10 minutes before our scheduled departure, the displays started rolling through updates. We got our train, sat down, and rolled out with about 3 minutes to spare. Fucking Eyetalian train agents?!?! Taking a lunch break, sure, but is it so important that they have to get a thousand people lost?

Chatted with a man traveling with his son on the train to Florence, and arrived around 3:30. Couldn’t make sense of the buses, but found the tourist office where we got a map. And hiked. Florence is much warmer, like, yuck. We both hate hot and sunny.

It was a disaster trying to find the bed & breakfast place. We did meet a sweet old eyetalian lady who was delighted to find that we were American and offered up a Watchtower—in German. She spoke no English at all (Italian only), and seemed to believe either: A.) the magazines were in English, or B.) that Americans read German. My mother tried to explain, but it was clearly pointless, so I just accepted it and thanked her profusely.

The room is in a woman’s flat and pretty nice. The best is a chocolatier 1 1/2 blocks away. (Hemingway) So far, the food we’ve had here has –not- been very good. But this chocolate is like, transcendental.

Tomorrow, hopefully I’ll feel better, and we should get to a good walking tour of Florence. The museums are, for the most part, closed for Labor Day, so we’ll just enjoy what we can outside. Assuming I can stay out of the ER for once.

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.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

4/24/05 Tuscany: Day 3

Destination for today was Siena.
First stop in the old city was San Domenico church of St. Catherine. Big old thing, with neat paintings and all, but the real draw was probably the relic- St. Catherine’s face. Supposedly undecayed, and on display. She looks good for a woman of her age, but her face seems very small. This is what you have to love about Catholicism.

And the onward into the city. If San Gimignano was the perfect medieval village, Siena is the perfect medieval city. And now a lot of shops have moved in… Benetton, lingerie shops, expensive tacky eye-talian fashion boutiques… Little piazzas here and there and the Il Campo, which is really impressive. Described over and over as shell-shaped, with the plaza in the middle full of people, family and friends, dogs, children, lovers,… It’s a really wonderful civic space, lined with cafes and bars on one side (the curved edge, and bars doesn’t mean bars like it does in the USA. Bars in Italy are sort of a step down from a restaurant or café), facing the imposing Palazzo Pubblico and Torre del Mangia on the other. We stopped and had lunch, then went to the tourist office where we were told that the steam train "nature train" was booked. So we went over to the Duomo. From where we’d parked, we could see the Duomo standing out in contrast to the red-brown medieval skyline. Its black and white marble striped shape seemed so out of place and commanding.

We skipped the museums because we were enjoying the city itself so much (and we’ll spend plenty of time looking at paintings in museums over the next two weeks) and wandered over to the line to enter the church. Almost didn’t, but thought, "hell, when will we be here again?" and lined up. Even waiting in line was nice because the façade of the church is so detailed. But really it can’t prepare you for what is inside. Words can’t describe the effect of the interior, but to begin with, the floor was one of the most beautiful works I’ve ever seen. Scenes and figures on the floor showed great detail, movement, depth, color, and emotion. And were made in marble! The detail was incredible. There were a few statues from Michelangelo, apparently, but those paled in comparison to Mary by Bernini. A library covered in brilliant frescoes housed illuminated manuscripts which were at eye level and six inches away for once (unlike in Dublin!) and the Three Muses stood in the center, soft and supple. In this church, like others we’d seen, hung on the wall silver hearts and things that looked like medals. But in this church, one wall that was covered with such medals also displayed a couple of pairs of baby shoes and a dozen or so motorcycle helmets (including old shorties and one modern dirt helmet!)

Back to the Campo for gelato and to write on the postcards we’d purchased at the Duomo. Then walked up to the Basilica de Provenzano, where a bust of Mary hangs which is some sort of miracle or something. It was a smallish church with a priest praying in the front pew so we didn’t venture too far in. Up the hill to the convent San Francesco, with much construction going on in the courtyard. The church was massive and dark, bare in the main chamber with huge paintings displayed hung away from the walls. This church houses the miraculous Sacred Host, (see: Eucharistic Miracle of Siena)"which have never decayed, but remain the same after three centuries." There’s a special chapel for these, which are in a fancy little reliquary-thingy. There are 200-some-odd host in the container. For whatever reason, this chapel was FULL of praying people. Alright, dead saints’ undecayed heads? Neat. Wafers wot ain’t gone green? That’s just crap. I do not remember anything about Christ asking anyone to worship wafers. And anyway I can get plastic food at Denny’s. This reeked of idolatry and misplaced religiosity to me. And it was dark in there, and I had to pee. So out of the convent church we went after glossing over the second half. Because we’d have to hike through the hordes of tourists all the way down to Il Campo, where there’s a for-real toilet that I KNEW wouldn’t be just one of those squatty affairs. Except, I had to stop long enough to snap a picture of an Aprilia dirtbike.

And then out of Siena, and back into our freezing cold apartment. The "scenic route" because we got a little lost and I insist on charging ahead on the backroads instead of backtracking. It worked, sort of, and we finally found our way back to San Gimignano for a delightful dinner, and then to our apartment. Tomorrow we plan to blow through Pisa just long enough to see the leaning tower (my mother’s request) and then to Lucca for our last day in the Tuscany countryside.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

4/23/05 Tuscany: Day 2

(views from the apartment in Tuscany)

Today, woke up WAY late. Had a lot of weird dreams last night. So it was after noon when we finally left. Ooops. The host was downstairs doing something with fire in the small building about 30 feet from the house, so we stopped in to ask. He was baking bread, in a wood-fired stove. Wow. He told us "the modern life not good for me," that the way modern bread is made didn’t mesh with his way. He uses stone-ground wheat, bakes it like this… this place is so cool. Except, I was awoken by some very loquacious roosters. That hardly ever happens to me in San Francisco.

Destination for the day was San Gimignano. My pronunciation is bad, but my mother has take to saying to San Chimichanga. We learned a very little Italian, but it seems absolutely useless. People just stare wide-eyed at the simplest utterance. So we’ve abandoned that.

I must say, San Gimignano is one of the most breathtaking places I ever been. The city itself, when you try to ignore all the tourists, is very intimate and charming, Lots of little spaces and small walks, creating a break from the crowds. Sometimes a completely dark passage will dump you out a stone’s throw from the piazza, twisted little roads lead you to medieval structures and little gardens.

We meandered around the city all day. First the Museum of Mediaeval Torture, which was odd. Many of the artifacts were from a private collection, and the writing which accompanied them was a little creepy. Then lunch in the piazza at a place with a beautiful dessert menu. Gelato made to look like sculpture, but we didn’t have any. Then wrote postcards o the steps of the Duomo (really the Collegietta now) and wandered some more. My mother got to experience the joys of a water closet (no toilet, just a ceramic flushable hole in the ground) and then we went to the Civic Museum. Frescoes and the beautiful woodwork in the town hall, then I decided to take a hike up the tower. I didn’t know it, but apparently I’m afraid of heights, and got what I assume was vertigo, just about 1 flight of stairs up. Pressed on, slowly, and finally climbed the ladder to the top. Up here, you can look down on the city and see some of the hidden parts, like the modern sports park and school. Also, the bell, and the birds. Built in 1311, 54 meters in height, the stairs are worth it, but still a little scary. Going down was worse since there wasn’t a rail on that side.

Time for a "world famous" gelato, then more wandering, and came upon the Church of San Augustino. Which was stunning. Beautiful frescoes behind the altar. (you have to put euros into a slot to turn the lights on) and some wonderful tile work in the back of the church. I have a suspicion that the entire church used to be frescoed, because there are some disembodied hands and halves of saints in some of the framed frescoes on the lengthwise walls. But who knows. The adjacent cloister garden was very tranquil. More wandering out through medieval walkways, and we found the Spezzioria and Museo Arceologico which were probably closed, but definitely up too many stairs for my mother, and then pressed on to find the Medieval Fountain, which was off the beaten path and not very dramatic. The lower structure had a modern mosaic on the back wall. The upper structure had one end with water cycling out to a little "waterfall" (pretty pathetic and smelly waterfall) below, and there were tons of little fish living in it, about 3" long. Next to that pool, in the other room, the water was standing, and nothing lived but a smell.

More wandering, and the city was emptying. I decided we ought to sit and eat at the Piazza del Duomo while it got dark, and that was lovely. The changing light and the dwindling crowds transformed the city. But it was cold, and we slowly made our way to the Exit.

Friday, April 22, 2005

4/22/05 Tuscany: Day 1

This morning (yesterday morning) started at 5am with my mother waking me. By 7am we were at the San Jose airport, and by 2:45 local time, Chicago O’Hare. Everything was smooth until our changeover in Chicago, and it all went downhill from there. The flight to Rome was delayed. We finally departed at 4:50. I’d told my mother several weeks ago that there was no way we would get to Pisa to pick up our car at 2pm, but she insisted that we could. We were lucky to have a smallish international flight with just us sitting in one section, aisle and window. (When I was a teenager, and went to Ireland, I was stuck in one of the middle sections, with like 6 seats across. Ugh.) Tylenol PM knocked me out. Arrived around 9am in Rome, with a few vague ideas, and some clear ones:
1.) Get to Pisa
2.) Pick up our rental car
3.) Check into our apartment

Seems simple enough, but we didn’t’ really know how to get to Pisa, and neither of us had really learned enough Italian to communicate even simple needs. Managed to get a fairly helpful ticket agent to tell us where to go, and sell us our tickets for all of our Italy train trips. First, you take the train into Rome (Ostiense, in this case). Then, you get a train to Pisa at 11:57. Easy. Except, we were on the specified platform for our train to Pisa when suddenly the they changed the overhead sign from Torina to Civitavecchia. And our train doesn’t show. We asked the closest person, he said our train was ritardi (late). And would be through at 11:35. OK. It will be 40 minutes late, fine. We waited. The sign turned back to the destination we wanted (Pisa is in the way to Torino) and at about 11:35, a train came through, so we got on it. The train stopped every-fucking-where and looked more like a commuter train than a distance train. And, uhhh, at Civitavecchia I see from the sign at the platform that it’s now going to return to Rome. Beautiful. So we got off and asked the station agent. "Platform 2." So we went. And trains came and went. "No, it can’t be this one…" and so on. Then, one looked right, so we got on and shortly, the two empty seats next to us were filled with a little girl (Marta, about 11y/o) and a rotating cast of her family. My mother made conversation with her, which she really enjoyed. We met her little brother, Orlando, mother Ellen, and friend Julia. She showed us her school textbooks and her little brother spazzed out a lot and talked way too enthusiastically. It was really neat. Her mother enlisted other passengers’ help to try to help us figure out where to go to get our rental car in Pisa. Really nice people.

Finally in Pisa, back and forth to the tourist office to check the location, and then on a bus to the Pisa airport, which seems more like a shopping mall than anything, but whatever. Crowded, annoying, Italian servicemen everywhere shipping out, loading their bags on carts to push around (ain’t they ‘posed to be able to carry that stuff?) Got the paper, went to get the car. The shuttle to the lot where the car was would only take the driver, so I waited alone with the luggage. And waited. And waited. When the shuttle driver returned for the second time after dropping off other drivers, with my mother in tow (At least she wasn’t lost in Italy somewhere) it seemed the car wouldn’t start. Finally, the mechanic brought it around and showed my mother that there’s a special trick (involving a red light and a special button on the key fob)to start the dang thing. We’d had enough, with late planes, wrong trains, dehydration, and no sleep.

My mother was not born to drive. She can do OK in California I suppose, but the Italians DRIVE. Active, not passive, like Americans. Tailgating is normal. They drive fast in curvy small roads without a thought. My mom normally has a lead foot, but the damn rental beeps and tells you "eccesive speed, slow down" on a little LED screen when you go over 90km/hour. Which is pretty slow. We got passed by Volkswagens, RV’s, and even SCOOTERS. Ugh.
Got turned around a few times, but finally found our place before sunset. And damn, is it nice. Cold as shit, but incredibly scenic and just perfect. Apartment upstairs in Tuscany with a view of the walled medieval town San Gimignano out the window. Downstairs is a farm with cats and chickens in the yard. There’s a woodburning stove, library of books, games, and tourist info, kitchen, wine, and, get this, they baked us a PIE. When was the last time a stranger baked you a PIE????

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

This week's horoscope

<>Leo: (July 23—Aug. 22)
Although you've always worried about dying alone and unloved, you can put your mind at ease: A tragic mix-up at the pheromone lab will lead to your being loved to death by nine separate species.

Monday, April 18, 2005


<>I'm leaving Thursday for a two and a half week trip to Italy with my mom.
We'll be landing in Rome, taking the train to Pisa, renting a car, and driving to a farmhouse near Siena where we'll stay for four days. Then driving to Venice, ditching the car, and staying in a dumpy hotel in Venice for four days. Then taking the train to Florence to stay at a B&B for three days before taking the train to Rome where we have an apartment in Travestere for four days. Then home.

My mom wanted to see Italy and figured I should be her guide since I went to art school. Nevermind it's been years since I read that stuff. I really need to brush up on my art history to pull my own weight.

Anyway. Think of me often and I'll see you in May. (Well, probably not, since I'll be going to China shortly after I return)

Seattle trip

<>So I took April 7th and 8th off and we all went to Seattle for my brother’s wedding. Paul came with me, as he is a saint, and had heard tales of fried cheese.

It’s sort of a bittersweet time, since my sister is having troubles and holding it all together while my brother is just embarking on his journey into marriage. I love my sister dearly and hope for the best.

Ben made some good decisions and good luck, and found a neat girl. They will do great stuff together. But I wish it were closer.

So, arrived in Seattle, checked into the house that my mom rented for us. It was a nice little craftsman-esque place with a lot of flowers and such. We ate and ate and ate and drank lots of wine all weekend.
Dilettante chocolate for cake
Bleu Bistro for frou-frou drinks and wasabi grilled cheese
Asteroid Café for the big dinner (really really yummy)

Seattle Underground Tour. I’d never been before, it was fun. My grandmother made dirty jokes.
Wedding rehearsal. Paul stood in since Jeff did not come to Seattle.
Party at Megan’s folks’ house: nice neighborhood, absolutely STUNNING view.
Party at Ben and Megan’s house. We heard geese in the distance, Jennifer was scared. We got fairly tossed.

Fried cheese and other yumminess at Byzantion on Capitol Hill.
Wedding, at a neat chapel on the campus.
Wedding reception. On a docked antique ferry boat. They had cupcakes for a wedding cake. It was a neat idea, but none of them had sprinkles. There was a goose on the boat, my sister was very scared. We got tossed again, and then went home. My sister was drunk and hiccupping and other stuff. Hilarious.

Breakfast, totally out of hand. My family is insane. Mimosas eased the pain. (actually, it isn’t painful to be around my family, just very noisy.)
Alaska Airlines sucked, both to and from Seattle. I’m just amazed that we made it home. Getting our bags was a big bonus as well.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

this week's horoscope:

<>Leo: (July 23—Aug. 22)
Three extremely important events will mark your last days on earth: First, you find out you can buy uranium over the Internet. The second and third pretty much follow as the night follows the day.