Friday, May 8, 2015

An Italian Holiday -- Part 1 Venice

The month of April whipped by me like a whirlwind.  Luckily for me, this first full month of spring included a visit to my daughter in Italy.  What better excuse is there to plan an Italian vacation?  Our daughter and her boyfriend – recently, following their engagement, her soon-to-be husband, are living on the Ligurean coast just outside of Genoa for nine months.  Our trip consisted of visits to four different parts of Italy.  We loved them all:  the common theme was, of course, the remarkable food but each place had a unique charm that made us want to stay much longer.  What is it about Italy that captures your imagination and makes you want to linger and return?  Perhaps it is the pleasing landscapes and the classic architecture?  Perhaps it is the country’s wonderful history and extraordinary art? Or perhaps it is simply the food: the pasta, the olives, the wine and the incredible variety of fresh vegetables?  Whatever the reason, a vacation in Italy is always captivating and all the more so when your own daughter is there and able to speak Italian!

First up on our trip was Venice with the maze and mystery of its canals; next came Florence with its Renaissance masterpieces – a shoppers’ paradise; then our daughter’s home in Genoa/Nervi and the rocky Ligurean coast, otherwise known as the Italian Riviera; last and not least was Trapani, the old Sicilian seaport with its rugged landscape, offshore islands and ancient, elegant ruins.  It is impossible to choose a favorite among these four wonderful places.  I will try to describe in my next few blogs why we loved them and why you should make an effort to visit all of these places if you possibly can. 

It is easy to be a tourist in Italy even if you don’t speak Italian.  Everyone seems genuinely happy to see you and delighted to share their food, their culture, and their rich history and pour you a glass of local wine!  Italy is the perfect place for an active older (or for that matter younger) tourist who wants to enjoy delicious food but doesn’t want to gain weight!  A visit to Italy requires a lot of walking and that burns off the calories!  There is so much to see and in most places, walking is the only way to see it.  On the average day, even without trying, we walked at least six or seven miles.  On the one day when we decided to go for an actual hike, we walked more than ten miles – most of it straight up and then straight down hill.  Italy, and particularly the Ligurean coast, is very hilly and your leg muscles get a great work out.  I definitely needed to stretch after that hike and I definitely deserved my mid-afternoon gelato.  Lucky we’d been spending time staying strong in the gym back in Seattle.  A very good reason to exercise regularly, as you get older, is to ensure you can manage “walking” vacations.

Our first stop, after an easy but long trans-Atlantic flight, was Venice.  We flew overnight and arrived at the Venice airport about 10:30 in the morning.  My husband and I are in the habit of renting apartments when we travel instead of staying in hotels.  Nowadays, the range and types of apartments available for short-term rental are wonderful.  We prefer the homey feel and the extra space and amenities that apartments bring – a kitchen, a place to sit other than on a bed and the experience of living in another culture – even if only for a short time.   We’ve also found that apartments are often cheaper than hotels and of course, cooking at home is definitely cheaper than eating in restaurants every night.  On the advice of friends, I chose to rent an older apartment in a largely residential neighborhood away from the tourist bustle of San Marco Square for our four days in the medieval town.

The apartment was in a charming, but quiet part of the old town.  We found it easily by taking a boat taxi directly from the airport and pulling our wheelie suitcases over cobble stoned streets the few blocks distance to the apartment.  After a short nap – it’s a long way from Seattle to Italy – we ventured out for lunch, a little sight seeing and food shopping.  Lunch was the easy part of our first outing.  Venice is jammed with restaurants – osterias, trattorias, sidewalk cafés, every kind of eatery you can imagine except perhaps the fast food kind.  No Subways or McD’s to be seen.  Instead we found small, family-run restaurants, one after another, lining the neighborhood canals with pretty wooden tables and umbrellas. 

Venice doesn’t have any cars or trucks at all.  Instead, the town is a network of canals filled with boats of every size and variety – playing the roles that cars, trucks and buses usually play.  I don’t know exactly what I was expecting since of course I’d read about Venice’s canals.  I’d seen pictures of gondolas and large passenger ferries but I guess none of that really sunk in.  I just did not expect that Venice wouldn’t have any streets or motorized wheeled vehicles at all.  I also did not realize how peaceful it is to have no cars or trucks or buses.  To the extent that there are streets they are narrow and exclusively for pedestrians.  Even bicycles aren’t allowed and that makes a lot of sense.  If you were on a bicycle you’d be getting off every few feet to climb up steps and over a bridge across a canal.  Every neighborhood in Venice is connected to the others by arched bridges that cross the seemingly endless maze of canals. 

The whole landscape is ridiculously picturesque and simply beckons you to enjoy it.  It isn’t necessary to have something specific in mind for a Venetian holiday.  It is enough to be there and to wander; to simply enjoy being in Venice.  Just being present is compelling.  For example, sitting in the living room of our rented apartment, I just wanted to look out of the big windows all day long, admiring the occasional gondola and the back and forth rhythm of boats moving on the canal below me.  Across from me, on the other side of the canal, I admired a stately fifteenth or sixteenth century building.  Forest green shutters set off its tall windows; the roof was made of terra cotta tiles and the walls were rich yellow ochre stucco.  It was so pleasing to my eye and looked much as it must have during the Renaissance – sturdy and majestic at the same time. 

Venice is full of tourists but pleasantly so.  Everyone is there to explore and enjoy.  My husband likened it to an adult Disneyland and there are some aspects that are reminiscent.  For example, everyone is there to enjoy him- or herself; every corner brings a new and interesting building or a lovely view and something new to explore.  Perhaps one of our favorites was all the different kinds of boats – private boats carrying one or two kids home from school; taxi boats carrying families or friends out and about; gondolas full of tourists moving languidly down the canals or large boat buses carrying folks to work or play; commercial boats transporting goods and equipment; working boats full of tools en route to fix buildings or repair plumbing; delivery boats; and everywhere, bridges, churches, small alleys lined with pretty colored stucco or brick buildings.  On one afternoon, we ventured out into the lagoon on a larger boat, i.e., a Venetian “bus” to visit three different nearby islands.  The suburbs of Venice are adjacent islands.  The first island we visited is the most famous, Murano, where the wonderful Venetian glass blowers set up their factories in the thirteenth century to avoid fire dangers in the city.  Murano is still full of glass factories and the prices range from pennies for a small souvenir to tens of thousands for one of a kind works of glass art.  The second island was largely rural and undeveloped – although its history is older than that of Venice itself.  Its claim to fame is a beautiful cathedral built in the seventh century and the adjacent 11th century church that honors Santa Fosca – a fifteen-year-old girl from Libya who converted to Christianity but turned herself into her irate father only to be tortured to death.  It seems religious intolerance is not confined to the 21st century.  The final island we visited, Burano, was my favorite only because its multi-hued houses were so striking.  The story goes that the Burano fishermen each painted his house a different color so that he could find it when returning from long fishing voyages.  Whatever the origin, the houses are a rainbow of colors and delightfully bright.

Perhaps our favorite experience in Venice was not visiting historically important cathedrals or museums but simply the experience of wandering around the neighborhoods, seeing the sights and getting lost!  We spent much of every day doing just this.  Somehow we found our way to a remote Venetian mask store, to the open-air fish market at Rialto, to a tasty restaurant in a distant neighborhood that was recommended to us.  We walked through peaceful squares, the so-called campos and past impressive buildings with wrought iron balconies overflowing with flowers, we wandered down tiny little alleys that dead ended at the edge of narrow canals; we admired medieval statues and small fountains, we climbed up and over countless bridges, and ventured into little bars, cafés and explored beautiful cathedrals.  We kissed in the moonlight standing on the bridge over our canal and held hands so we didn’t lose each other in the crowds of tourists.  In our four days, we felt as if we had just touched the surface of Venice.  We will have to go back again.

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