We actually made this trip back in September, but I've only now (over my holiday break) found time to write up my notes into a real report. So, here it is!
I love reading exhaustively-detailed trip reports, so I am probably going to go overboard. I'll divide it into two posts, and include a list of resources at the end for anyone who might find them useful.
There's also a photo album on Picasa, here.
( Click for an abundance of detail )
All those people who say it rains all the time in England and that the food is terrible are liars. Liars I say!
We just got back yesterday from two weeks in England. We spent the first in the Cotswold region, based in Chipping Campden, and the second in London, based in Chelsea. It was fabulous, and I have a bazillion pictures to share. But I will restrain myself for now and simply point anyone interested to a selection I’ve put up in a Picasa album here.
I’m going to be posting a more detailed travel journal as well, but that will probably trickle out over the next few weeks in dribs and drabs. Thank you to all of you who provided suggestions and guidance!
(And seriously, it rained for about three hours total during our entire trip, two of which were early in the morning. And the food was amazing, especially in London.)
Part I can be found here
Part II can be found here
As a reference for anyone planning a trip to this part of Ireland, I’ll note that we drove from Ennis to Dingle by way of the Shannon Ferry, and it was fine though not very scenic, and driving through Tralee was particularly stressful and confusing. But it got us to Dingle!
~Days 5 & 6: Dingle~
This was the highlight of my trip! I loved Dingle from the moment we came out along the southern coast past Inch beach and saw the tracks of silver light running along the sea toward Kerry.
|From Ireland October 2010|
Dingle itself was such a charming little town, full of restaurants, pubs, and cute dogs. Not to mention tourists! Bob and I particularly enjoyed the brightly painted storefronts:
|From Ireland October 2010|
There is also a tower out on one hill overlooking the bay that strongly resembles a Dalek:
(not my picture, I found it in this photo album — sadly there was no time for a hike up the hill to get a closer in person look)
We spent the afternoon of our arrival rambling around the town, window-shopping and sampling some much-lauded local ice cream (which was good, but nothing extraordinary. We find much better made locally in Maine. Or by Ben & Jerry’s)
We particularly enjoyed a visit to the Dingle Music Store, where the proprietor welcomed us warmly and (upon my asking about local CDs featuring concertinas) pulled down a concertina from a shelf and began playing for us. He moved on to accordion later! We enjoyed our impromptu concert very much, and were happy to get his recommendation to see a session later that night down the street that would feature an uillean pipe player. I was sorely tempted to accept his parting offer of a sip of whiskey, because it would have made a good tourist story, but alas neither Bob and I care for it and wouldn’t have wanted it wasted on our palates.
We had dinner at a Chinese restaurant (Tir Na Ri), being in the mood for something different. It was comparable to standard restaurant Chinese food we’ve had elsewhere. We did enjoy the oddity of seeing fellow diners having their beef with broccoli over chips (fried potatoes) as well as rice!
After settling into our B&B (The Lighthouse, located a brisk uphill walk from the downtown, very comfortable, with a huge lovely tub and plenty of hot water at last!) we rested up a bit before following the suggestion of our music-store friend.
The recommended pub, An Droichead Beag (“The Small Bridge”), was conveniently only a 10-15 minute walk from our B&B. There were probably at least a dozen other live music sessions going on that night (a Thursday) but we are so happy we chose this one! Not only for the excellent music, but for the atmosphere of the pub itself. It was a low, wood-beamed, fire-flickering place that reminded both Bob and I of The Prancing Pony from The Lord of the Rings. It was crowded, but everyone was very jovial and there was a wonderful energy throughout, no doubt assisted by the music. We’re pretty sure the band must be relatively famous locally as there were not only tourists but plenty of locals (more so than the following night, when we returned to see a fiddle and guitar duo play to a smaller and less boisterous crowd).
We had a wonderful time, squeezed into our tiny corner. Even the Diet Coke seemed to taste better, in the small glass bottles! We left during the break between first and second set, and I kind of regret not staying to hear more. But we were tired, and I am not a night owl, and we had lots to do the next day!
For our second day in Dingle, we decided to do the popular Slea Head Drive, a loop that runs west from Dingle to the farthest tip of the peninsula. This was probably my favorite drive of our entire trip. We stopped a number of times at various forts, beehive huts, and scenic overlooks.
It was absolutely gorgeous!
|From Ireland October 2010|
We especially enjoyed stopping at Dunbeg Fort, where we paid a few euros each to the old gentleman tucked into a tiny shed, then headed down a pebbly walk to the edge of the cliffs, where we found ancient stones marking out the structure (it’s not a “fort” in the sense of more modern defenses). A good part of it has already fallen into the sea, alas. We each tested out the beehive guard-hut, and peered down between the gaps in the stone walk to glimpse the ‘suterrain’, a secret underground passage.
After touring the site we watched a video at the tourist center across the street, and had some tea and scones at the Stone House, a restaurant that shares the parking lot. The scone was so tasty and the Stone House itself so appealing (with its sunny, brightly decorated rooms, and tables to sit at outside, all sharing the gorgeous view down to the cliffs and across the water) we decided to have an early lunch. We were delighted to hear that the brown bread and roasted chicken for our sandwich were still in the oven but would be out shortly, so we hung out and talked with the friendly chef/waiter Mark (whose uncle owns the restaurant, if I remember correctly). He told us that this summer they switched from a high-end expensive fish menu to a less expensive more traditional menu, and that it had been a hit. I can see why, as everything we ate there was marvelous! The scone was light and fluffy inside and buttery-crisp outside, the open-faced chicken sandwich was so fresh and juicy, and came with a tasty side salad dressed with a corn-pepper-pesto relish. Mmm… It was the best food we’d had so far on our trip so we decided we might as well have dessert too, especially as Mark said it was the last day he would be there before closing for the season! I had a really luscious Bailey’s cheesecake, while Bob had an apple tart. Highly recommended!
Another of our favorite stops on the drive was at Slea Head Beach. It’s an amazing setting, right on the tip of the mainland, with only the Blasket Islands further out. The beach is a cup of pale sand held between sharp dark stones. You reach it by means of a steep curving switchback, and when you stand on the beach facing out to sea, a tall cliff looms behind you. Very dramatic!
|From Ireland October 2010|
We continued on, stopping to observe more interesting landscapes:
|From Ireland October 2010|
Our last stop before returning to Dingle was the Gallarus Oratory:
|From Ireland October 2010|
We enjoyed visiting the Oratory itself, marveling at the mortar-less construction that has stood watertight for centuries. We also enjoyed parking in the lesser-known public lot and walking in, thus avoiding the fee for the visitor center.
Back in Dingle, we had late afternoon tea at the Goat Street Cafe and wished we would have been able to have a full meal (it was closing at 4:45 and we weren’t really ready for supper). It looked like the kind of food we would really enjoy (spicy stirfries and couscous and curries and tarts), and smelled wonderful. We contented ourselves with dessert. Check out the cute plate decorations:
|From Ireland October 2010|
We went back to our B&B to rest up for another night of music, then found ourselves a late but tasty dinner at an Indian restaurant down by the harbor. If we return to Dingle we’d definitely eat there again, but we’d also have liked to check out The Blue Zone, which had some delicious-smelling pizza but was sadly full when we stopped in.
After supper we returned to An Droichead Beag for another round of music, and then to bed to rest up for our last full day in Ireland!
~Day 7: Lough Gur and Bunratty again!~
Our only fixed plan for our last day was to attend one of the touristy “feasts” at Bunratty Castle for dinner that night. We decided to break up the drive back by stopping in the Lough Gur area, south of Limerick.
We loved this region, and wished we could have spent longer! Lough (lake) Gur is surrounded by interesting sites ranging from hill forts to neolithic tombs to the largest stone circle in Ireland. We were fortunate to also have lovely weather with blue skies and puffy white clouds, which leant the scenes a fairytale quality.
|From Ireland October 2010|
We were amused that the stone circle also served as cow pasture:
|From Ireland October 2010|
|From Ireland October 2010|
Regretfully leaving Lough Gur, we drove north through Limerick (not as bad as we feared) and found our last night’s lodging at Headley Court in Bunratty. This was a serviceable B&B we chose primarily for its convenience to the airport (10 minutes away). It wasn’t the most lovely location or the most charmingly decorated, but the proprietor was friendly and breakfast next morning was tasty (for the first time we were offered something other than eggs/toast/porridge: French Toast!)
After checking in, we returned to Bunratty Castle for the second time on our trip. As I had expected, the affair was slightly (or perhaps quite) cheesy, but was still fun, and the food and entertainment were actually very good! I don’t think I would do it again, however, because it was pretty clear they were packing in far too many people for true comfort, in the interest of making as much money as possible no doubt. The tables were packed so tightly it was uncomfortable, and I am not even a particularly large person. The food service was likewise rushed, probably because there are two seating each night, and we were the first. But aside from those drawbacks, it was a fun way to end our trip!
Overall I had a very good time, though it was also a learning experience for me in terms of what I enjoy and what I don’t enjoy in a vacation. I discovered that I much prefer a vacation where I stay put in one place for several days, and do more of my sightseeing by foot. If I were to return, I would probably try to rent an apartment in Dingle for 5 days, or perhaps somewhere on the east coast, and do more walking tours. I also much prefer staying in an apartment for purposes of eating. Not only do I enjoy poking around local grocery stores, but it would have made it easier to eat healthily and cheaply. So, it’s good to know that for the purposes of future vacation planning!
And lastly, here’s the entire set of pictures from our Ireland 2010 vacation, for anyone who just hasn’t had enough cows, stones, sea, and silly off-kilter self-portraits.
My husband Bob and I decide earlier this year that to celebrate his birthday and our twelfth anniversary we would take another “big” vacation: to Ireland! I had never been, and the last time he was there was thirty years ago. We decided to stick to the West coast since we only had a week, and we planned to rent a car since it would afford us more freedom to see the sites we wanted to see, at our own pace. After researching prices online, we took our plans to an agent at AAA, and she found an independent tour option through CIE tours that was cheaper than what we could do on our own (it covered flights, car rental, and lodging). Working with AAA was a smooth process and I would recommend it to anyone who either doesn’t feel comfortable doing things on their own, or who feels it is a better deal. That said, I think in the future we will make arrangements on our own, for two reasons. One is that we will probably want to find a rental property and base ourselves from one or two locations if we return. The other is that we had a bad experience with Hertz rental cars at Shannon airport and would not use them again.
( Cut for pics of antler-mermaids, stone monsters, ring forts and giant Pi )
To be continued!
Friday October 16th:
Dad and I go out early for a last walk around Florence and some final shopping for souvenirs and gifts for friends. Then back at the apartment we finish packing, slung our packs on our backs, and bid “arrivederci” to our apartment at Palazzo Gamba. We trudge our way over to the Santa Maria Novella train station. It is not nearly as complicated as I had feared, and we are an hour early, so we have the hang of the arrivals and departure boards well in advance of our scheduled departure. Dad had bought our tickets online (for a Eurostar train, second class) so all we need to do was keep our eye on the board to see when the platform is listed next to the train number on our ticket. In the meantime we buy some snacks (I had to buy a funny snack pack that included a bunch of cookie wands and a container of Nutella to dip them in). We also have sandwiches made out of the last of our bread, cheese, mozzarella and salami.
The train ride is smooth and painless. I am careful to make sure we wait until Venice Santa Lucia, rather than getting off at Venice Mestre, thanks to forewarnings on the Slow Travel site. Since it is a Eurostar and our tickets were already purchased we just show the ticket (there’s only one, with all our seats listed) to the conductor when he comes around.
When we arrive in Venice we call our contact at Views on Venice to let them know. Someone will be meeting us at the Ca’Rezzonico vaporetto stop to show us the apartment. As we emerge from the station and out onto the docks we have our first view of Venice. I had told myself I would not take out the camera until after we had dropped off our stuff at the apartment but I can’t help it -- I must capture this moment! There it is! Water! I knew it was going to be there, but I was still blown away by the sight. I hadn’t expected the water to be so beautiful: a brilliant blue-green with jade shadows. I feel all the tension built up in Florence evaporate. As Indiana Jones would say “Ah, Venice!”
Dad buys our three-day vaporetto passes and we race for the next number 1 headed in the Lido (and thus the Ca’Rezzonico) direction. I had not realized there would be two (or more, in some cases) different docks at some vaporetto stops. I also thought we would have to stamp our pass once to activate it, but it seems that now there is a barcode reader instead: you swipe the card over the center of the reader and the light will turn green if it is still valid. We do so and lug our bags onto the boat. It is crowded but my spirits can’t be dampened. There is too much beauty to take in! Our boat chugs off down the Grand Canal...
Damp breezes sweep up off the rippling waters as we zip along past the decaying majesty of the old palazzos. I can see why some people might find the crumbling beauty not to their tastes, but I adore it. I am going photo-mad trying to capture the ineffable essence of this city. Everywhere you turn there is some funny, quaint, ugly, lovely detail: a window-box of cyclamen, brilliant pink against faded walls. A crumbling angel gracing the corner of a building, her face now streaked black and white with age. A plaque so weather-worn you have to invent the original contents: was it Saint George battling a dragon?
After a too-short trip we reach our stop. Sylvia, the Views on Venice rep, meets us there. She is friendly and very helpful, leading us the short walk to Campo San Barnaba, where she points out a good bakery (Rizzo Pane) and then leads us through a Sortoportega (tunnel-like walk), over a bridge, around a corner and onto “our” canal, the Rio Delle Romite. It is so charming and quaint I know at once I will love it! We cross one last bridge and then we are “home”. The outer entrance is on the ground floor, but we go up one flight of stairs to our apartment. I had seen pictures but the interior is so much grander and lovelier than I expected! We wander through the rooms, amazed at our good fortune. I am particularly stunned by our bedroom, which has a chandelier (!) and a is decorated in cream and white, with the afternoon sun streaming in the two tall windows veiled in gauzy white curtains. Outside is the neighbor’s garden, complete with palm tree. Wow!
Sylvia shows us how to use the various appliances, gives us a map and other materials, then heads off. We put away our things, then set out in search of an early supper. Campo Santa Margherita is nearby, and supposedly well supplied with cheap but tasty pizza, so we head that way, passing once again through Campo San Barnaba (where I also notice an internet point and a GROM gelateria, as well as an exhibit of devices based on the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci at the church dominating the charming campo).
Campo Santa Margherita is wonderful, full of energy and vivacity. There are lots of people out enjoying the sun, walking dogs, letting their children play. There are also trees, hooray! We can’t stop to look at the outside menus without someone coming and trying to talk us into eating, but everything looks good. We end up choosing one (Pizzeria Pier Dickens) where the waitperson seems the friendliest and promises we can sit in the sun. She brings us all complimentary champagne. We feast on an assortment of pizzas: Calabrese (with onion and egg), Margherita (with tomato and mozzarella) and another with sweet corn, fresh tomato, and ham. All were delicious. I normally prefer thick-crust pizza but these thin-crust pizzas were very good! Service was also excellent, and we enjoyed our leisurely hour or so sitting in the sun soaking up the atmosphere.
We then stopped in at the nearby grocery store for supplies: bread, more blood orange juice (we all love it!), jam, butter, pasta, sauce, and some interesting yogurts (chantilly, nocciola, malto, cocco). Dad takes the groceries home while we wait with Mom (who has a bad knee that needs a rest after the bridges). Unfortunately-- I forget my key is in my backpack (with the groceries) and Dad locks both the backpack and his own key inside. We’ve managed to lock ourselves out within three hours of arriving! And worse, the office will close in five minutes, and it’s a 50 euro fee if you get locked out outside of office hours! We scramble to use the payphone, and thankfully they agree to stay 15 minutes extra so we can run over to pick up the spare key. Guidebook and map in hand, Bob and I race off on this mission.
It’s actually kind of fun, if a bit nerve-wracking. We zoom across small campos and large, catching glimpses of a cute dog drinking from one of the many public fountains, gondolas out on the water, mask shops, pastry shops, and dozens of bridges. Thankfully the Views on Venice office is only a few minutes away in San Marco sestiere, and we make it in time. We take a more leisurely stroll back and meet Mom and Dad at the apartment. We are all very very careful with the keys after that!
After recuperating from that little adventure, Bob and I head out for an evening stroll along the Zattere (the long mostly flat walk that runs along the southern edge of the Dorsoduro sestiere, beside the Giudecca canal). We round the tip and made our way along the more twisty-turny route from Santa Maria del Salute church to the Accademia and back home. Seeing the glittering lights on the Giudecca and Grand Canals is a skin-tingling sight!
Saturday October 17th:
I spend the early hours of the morning in the apartment updating my travel journal, with the window cracked open so I can hear the faint creaking of the boats, the lap of the water, and the ringing of bells on the hour marks. I sample the Chantilly yogurt which is heavenly, and really does taste like whipped cream in flavor.
Since Mom and Bob like to sleep in, Dad and I head out on our own early, and take a nice walk up to the Rialto bridge (dropping off the spare key at Views on Venice). We get some excellent cornetto at a pastry shop we thereafter fail to be able to relocate, until the very last day when I finally find it again and record the name: Pasticceria Marchini.
I check out the internet point in Campo San Barnaba, which is a funky little one-room shop crammed full of toys, action figures and color. The fellow who works there reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe, with his droopy mustache and dapper suit (complete with silk cravat), not to mention his refined but faintly creepy demeanor.
The weather is utterly gorgeous again, but we haven’t been able to check a report so we aren’t sure if it is going to last. We therefore decide to visit the more distant islands in the laguna this afternoon, in case the weather deteriorates later. But first: lunch! We look for a recommended restaurant, but it doesn’t open until 12:30 and we are hungry! So we decide to try Pane Vino e San Daniele. It turns out to be Bob and my favorite meal of the trip! We get sides of roasted vegetables and lasagna for everyone except me. I have spotted a meal I must have: tiny light and delicate gnocchi in a creamy sauce, served in a BOWL MADE OF CHEESE. It is delicious! And everything is relatively inexpensive -- the bill for Bob and I (two pasta dishes, mineral water, a vegetable side) is 20 euros -- that’s cheaper than any of our restaurant lunches in Florence. Apparently there is a second Pane Vino nearby, that is a bit pricier but just as good (Mom and Dad eat there later in the trip).
Now we set off for Burano -- ultimately we take a round-about route because we do not realize that there are FOUR different Santa Zaccharia vaporetto docks, and thus miss the dock where we could have gotten on the boat that went directly to Burano. Instead we go from Ca’Rezzonico to Zaccharia, then take a different vaporetto around the outside of Venice (along the Giudecca Canal) to the Fondamente Nuevo stop, then switch to the boat to Burano there. But it gives us a nice view of the city!
Having read a suggestion online, Bob and I disembark at the Mazzorba stop, then walk along the pleasant path that takes you through that quiet isle, into a park, and from there to Burano’s outskirts (rather than getting off right at the main Burano stop with the masses of other tourists). We enjoy the peaceful green walk.
Burano itself is as lovely as I expected, but more desolate. The hectic tourist strip only sets off the emptiness of the other streets. Still, we find much beauty and a picture waiting to be taken at every corner. One of our memorable sights is an enclosed garden populated by at least nine cats who appeared to be plotting world domination. I am reminded of the Neil Gaiman Sandman story about cats.
Eventually I begin to feel like I am trapped in a labyrinth of pastel houses, so we head back to the vaporetto stop. We decide not to try to see Torcello, but rather to head back to Venice on the ship that is about to depart. Dad is still off taking photos but Mom says she will wait for him and they will make their own way home. We get some gelato for the “road” and set off.
From the Fondamente Nuovo we set off south toward San Marco’s Square. We stop for a peak at Santa Maria di Miraculai and find it a refreshing and exquisite change from many of the other churches we have visited, with its distinctive marble walls and graceful, simple style, capped by an elaborate ceiling of panels showing Saints and other figures.
As we make our way into Santa Maria Formosa Campo the bells begin ringing. We stand silently, watching them swing in the tower high above, marveling that we are really here to see them. Continuing on, we encounter an ugly scowling carved face on the rear of the church, and have fun posing for photos with it.
As the sky darkens we reach San Marco at last, coming out from under the clocktower. It is awe-inspiring to step out and see all those famous sites: the wide piazza, the distant outline of the lion on his tall pillar, the glimmering gold of the Basilica and the distant rosy walls of the Doge’s palace. Ah, Venice!
We wander dreamily across the piazza listening to the orchestras dueling jazz versus classics, and I decide it is time for a splurge. I convince Bob we should stop for hot chocolate at Florian’s!
If it were just a fancy, overpriced restaurant I would not be so tempted, but one of the reasons I was interested in coming to Venice was that it is featured in one of my favorite books: Betsy and the Great World, by Maud Hart Lovelace (which is in turn based on the author’s own trip to Europe just before WWI). In the book, Betsy and her Italian beau Marco eat at Florian’s often (I think it must have been cheaper then!). As we stood there and I imagined my literary heroine walking these same stones, I simply had to go in and revel in the moment. So we did!
We make the most of it: snuggling down into the cozy velvet nook, we marvel at the richly ornamented walls and painted mirrors that made us feel like we are inside a gorgeous jewelry box. The elegant waiter in his white coat takes our order (two hot chocolates with whipped cream) and we both pledge not to even think about the price. We are here for the whole experience. As the music drifts in from outside I lean back and am overwhelmed with emotion. Love for my wonderful husband who is willing to share these adventures and indulge my odd whims; love for my favorite author, as I imagine her here; love for Venice itself. The hot chocolate arrives with great pomp and circumstance, crowned by mounds of whipped cream and a thin cookie embellished with the logo “Florians”. All around us other patrons are having cocoa and colorful drinks. I don’t see anyone ordering dinner! We watch a cheerful couple dancing outside to the rollicking polka music. Waiters swoop in and out expertly balancing trays of champagne for those bravely sitting outside in the chilly night.
At last we drag ourselves away (or rather Bob drags me away) and head for home. After a dinner of pasta at home, I relive my day as I soak in a gloriously hot and deep bath, then go to bed.
Sunday October 18th:
I wake early (I am too excited to sleep!) and spend several hours updating my journal, reading, eating bread with butter and peach jam, and drinking copious amounts of tea. At around 8 Dad and I head out to the Piazza San Marco, hoping to get some pictures with fewer crowds. It is clear and sunny, but cold and windy. I wish I had brought gloves and a hat!
The square is considerably less crowded, so we spend some time taking pictures, and wondering what the odd set of platforms are that have been erected across the piazza in front of the Basilica. I can’t get enough of the view toward San Giorgio Maggiore, framed by the two pillars topped by the lion of Saint Mark, and poor Saint Theodore who lost his spot as patron of Venice when Mark moved in. I also love the pink glass of the lamps throughout the square. We then spend some frustrating time waiting for a vaporetto to San Giorgio Maggiore, hoping to climb the tower for the views, before giving up. I later discover we were at the wrong station -- there are not just two here, but four, and the one where the vaporettos run to SGM is over a bridge from where we were waiting. Oh well!
We make our way back across San Marco’s only to discover a change is underway: sheets of water now cover parts of the piazza! It’s a small bit of Acqua Alta! Aha, that is what the raised walkways are for! This provides a bit of excitement for our walk home, as we skirt the growing pools and get our feet a bit wet in the process. We see others holding their shoes and walking barefoot. On the way home we get pastries from a shop in Dorsoduro (near the Toletta area I think). They are not as good as the elusive shop of our first day, but they are tasty. I try a baba soaked in rum and filled with cream. It is sooo good!
Back home I drop off Dad and pick up Bob so we can set off on a ramble around town. We start by going up the Zattere again, people- and dog- watching as we go. We note that there appear to be hundreds of cute dogs in Venice, many of which trot freely and obediently along off-leash, following their humans over bridges and along canals. As dog people ourselves, we feel this speaks well of Venicians. We even see dogs on vaporettos, often wearing muzzles (for safety, due to the close quarters, I imagine).
So far Bob and I both agree that Dorsoduro is our favorite part of Venice. It has a charm unlike any other part of the city. Perhaps it is that the houses are not quite as tall, or that the canals are sunnier and more often edged by paths on both sides, or perhaps it is the presence of schools and universities. Whatever the case, we feel very lucky to be staying here!
Eventually we take the vaporetto up to the Giardini stop, and get our first look at the public gardens. They are delightful, but we are hungry, so we decide to return after lunch. Wandering through the Castello sestiere, we find an unremarkable but decent restaurant (crammed with Italians, as far as we can tell) and eat. We decide to try to see the Basilica before it closes (it is open 2-4 on Sundays).
The line is not horribly long, but I am embittered when an older couple blatantly cuts in line just as we are reaching the entry. They pretend not to hear or see us (or the two couples ahead of us who are just as infuriated with their rudeness) as we tell them there is a line. I try to shrug off my bitterness, but only partly succeed. The Basilica is definitely a grand site, but it is poisoned by the crush of the crowds as we shuffle along the marked out route, like sheep into the shearing pen. I am not sorry to see it (especially as it is free) but I do not think I really enjoy the experience, and decline going up to see the original horses and upper walkway, or the treasury, which cost extra. Perhaps if I return again in January I might visit again and enjoy it, but as it is I feel the experience is a waste.
Thankfully, the next experience more than makes up for it. We visit the nearby church of San Zacchariah, another site with a connection to Betsy and the Great World. One of Betsy’s favorite paintings is Bellini’s Madonna and the Saints. Entering the quiet, uncrowded church and approaching the lush, jewel-like painting I experience the awe and reverence I would have hoped to feel in the Basilica. The painting really is a masterpiece, and I spend quite a long time (for me) studying it.
We walk onward to the Giardini again, enjoying the green and peaceful afternoon, listening to a young man practicing his guitar, and watching kids playing soccer. Reaching the San Elena stop, we catch a vaporetto back home, stopping for more groceries for dinner (roast chicken, potatoes, salad, and peach juice).
Mom, Dad, Bob and I have dinner together around our elegant table, talking over our days and trading stories. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to travel with my parents, and I am so happy everyone is having a good time! I am very proud of my mom for walking so much despite her knee. She is being careful to rest it in the mornings and at night, and thus far it is going very well!
After yet another indulgent blazingly hot bath and a bit of reading, I head for bed.
Monday October 19th:
Mom, Dad and I are all up early, and decide it is a good opportunity to visit the Accademia, which opens bright and shiny at 8:15 (and which Bob is not particularly interested in visiting). Unfortunately the museum is being renovated and thus many of the exhibits are moved around and hard to locate. Mom and I follow along with the Rick Steves tour as best we could, and find it just the right level of detail for our taste. We particularly enjoy seeing The Tempest by Giorgione, and debating what the soldier and the nursing mother are thinking, whether they know the storm was coming, etc. But my favorite is the Madonna with Saint Catherine and Mary Magdalene by Bellini (who I now have an interest in after my experience at San Zaccharia). I agree with Rick Steves that this depiction of Mary Magdalene is striking, and I spend some time studying her expression.
After we head home and Bob is ready, we all take the vaporetto to San Marco’s again. Bob and I will be trying to get spots on the Secret Itinerary Tour of the Doge’s Palace. We had waffled about doing so prior to our trip, and hope it is not too late! We bid Mom and Dad farewell as they head off on their own adventures, and we get into line. Thankfully it is not too long, and once inside we find the well-marked desk for Secret Itinerary bookings and info. We are able to get spots on the 12:25 English Language tour, hooray!
Since we have an hour to spare, we explore the central courtyard and take pictures of the Stairway of Giants, the Mouth of Truth, and other notable spots. We check my backpack and visit the café, which is excellent and relatively cheap. I get a brie and ham panini to eat at the bar and it is about 3.50 euros (and quite large!). We meet up with our tour, which is led by a vivacious and friendly young Italian woman.
The Secret Itinerary Tour is just our sort of thing: full of interesting little tidbits and visits to secret rooms. I particularly enjoy seeing the hidden doorways disguised as armoires! Bob enjoys it even more than I do! Afterwards, we are left to our own devices to explore the rest of the Palace. We spend several hours at this, since there is a LOT to see. I particularly enjoy the mindblowing enormity of the Grand Council Hall (which supposedly can fit 2500 people!) and the dank and atmospheric prison cells on the other side of the Bridge of Sighs (which is sadly covered in scaffolding, but for a good cause: it is being fixed up!). We take note of the many graffiti inscriptions along the inside sills of the prison windows and wonder about those who carved them. By the time we reach the Doge’s apartments we are too worn out to take them in. Bob spends some time in the Armory while I rested, and then we depart, feeling that our work here is done, as best it can be for one visit!
Back in the streets we find our way to what one guidebook calls “the best gelateria in Venice” - La Botique del Gelato, near the Santa Maria Formosa Campo. It is good, but so has all the gelato been! I really like the “Zabaione Mousse” I get (combined with meringue gelato). Is this another name for Semifreddo, or something different? We are not sure, but it is delicious. Bob has pizza from a random stand on the street for his late lunch.
We spend the rest of the afternoon getting intentionally lost in the San Polo sestiere and exploring. As we cross one bridge, we both feel a sort of internal jolt, and realize we are back in lovely Dorsoduro. It continues to be our favorite part of Venice!
I have been checking out a number of recommended mask making studios and showrooms, looking for just the right place to purchase my own souvenir. As it turns out, my favorite is Ca’Macana, right around the corner from our apartment! Having reached this decision, I decide now is the time. We head over and I deliberate the very difficult choice. There are so many beautiful masks. At least my budget limits me to a smaller selection or I might be there for days! Finally I decide on a bird-like cream mask with black, gold and blue filigree decorations.
Dropping the mask off at home, Bob and I head over to watch the sun set over the Giudecca canal. We see several others with the same idea. Another couple picnics to the music of a small boom box, while a woman and her wrinkle-faced Sharpie sit against the steps of a church, all of us watching the golden disk lowering in the sky. It is such a clear night there is little color, only streams of light glittering along the water. A ginormous cruise ship passes by, one of several we have seen in our time here. Very surreal!
When the sun has passed, we head back for dinner at the apartment, another delicious meal of supermarket pasta and sauce with salad. Mmm!
Tuesday October 20th:
Our last full day in Venice! Fortunately we have already done all our “must-do” items, and that leaves us free to just enjoy ourselves as we wish. I sip my morning goblet of peach juice mixed with blood orange juice and munch a cornetto for breakfast. I head out solo for my last morning in Venice, and enjoy the chance to stand on the Accademia bridge and just try to soak in that beautiful view. I wander a bit more, finally rediscovering that excellent pastry shop, where I purchase goodies for everyone else back in the apartment (and a mini canolli for myself). I search out the elaborate spiral staircase at Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, which is very cool but sadly is located in a drab and unattractive little back alley. It’s too bad that it is not right on the Grand Canal! I also make the discovery that the public WCs (which cost 1.50, compared to 60 cents in Florence) do not open until 9 AM, so I head rather more quickly back to the apartment.
By this time my manic vacation energy is beginning to ebb, and I am glad for a rest while everyone else gets ready for the day. We head out together in the direction of the Frari Church and Scuola del Rocco, passing through Campo Santa Margherita on the way. It is vibrant as ever, now sporting a busy fish market! Mom and Dad head for the Scuola, but Bob and I are more interested in Frari church. We do a bit of shopping (I finally find some glass beads from Murano that I like) and then we head inside.
It is much more of a “cathedral” feeling structure than any of the other churches we have seen thus far. We admire the most notable and famous art: Titian’s Assumption of Mary. It truly is striking, though I still prefer my Bellinis! Titian’s tomb is almost more impressive than his art-- an enormous gray stone behemoth along one wall. Across from it is the very different tomb of Cavolo, which apparently was actually a design Cavolo created himself intending it to be used for Titian. When it was declined, he used it for a foreign princess, and then when he died his students re-used the design for his tomb. Except that his body is not in the tomb: only his heart, in an urn. The tomb itself is a somewhat alien-looking pyramid, quite different from anything else in the church.
We head back toward Campo San Barnaba. Our plan is to send Bob in to check out the Leonardo Da Vinci machines exhibit first, to see if it is worth the 8 euro admission. He will signal me whether to join him. Accordingly I lurk outside as he pays for a ticket and passes beyond the black curtain. A short time later he reappears, gesturing for me to follow. And I am so glad I do! It ends up being one of my highlights!
The church is full of several dozen devices constructed based on sketches by da Vinci, and at least half of them are hands-on. I find it fascinating both to see how the devices themselves worked (or how he thought they ought to work) and to read about how da Vinci came to work on them. We spend over an hour inside. I am sure not all people would enjoy such an exhibit but Bob and I both really love it.
I leave a bit earlier than Bob, with the intention of getting a drink. While I am out I notice that the GROM gelateria has a flavor called Cassata Siciliana. I have been on the lookout for this throughout our trip, as it is (yet again) something that shows up in Betsy and the Great World (Betsy and Marco eat it at Florians). I may not have found the actual cake, but I figure a gelato flavored with it is the next best thing, right? So I get a cup and enjoy my snack while waiting for Bob. It’s quite good!
When Bob rejoins me we decide to have lunch at Pane Vino e San Daniele, since it was so good last time. In fact, we have almost the exact same meal! It’s hard to say no to a basket made of cheese, and it is just as delicious the second time. And since Bob didn’t get a gelato earlier, we cap things off with a visit to the final gelateria on my list: Gelato Squero, over by the Accademia. It is cheap and has a very good flavor, though perhaps not as creamy in texture as some. Really, though, none of the gelato has been bad!
We continue on to visit Santa Maria del Salute, which is another church that does not feel quite like a church to us, perhaps because of the rounded floorplan. To me it feels more like a government building or library. After that we decide to try one more Venician experience: a gondola is too pricy for us, but we are happy to pay our 50 cents each to ride the traghetto! We have fun being ferried across the Grand Canal in a smallish, gondola-esque boat!
By this point I am starting to feel a tiny bit desperate-- wanting to experience everything I possibly can and remember it all, knowing we are soon to be leaving. We eventually return home to eat dinner. Bob has leftovers, and I pick up a slice of pizza on the way. When I see a slice decorated with French Fries I cannot resist, though I am probably motivated more by a sort of perverse horror than actual desire for such an odd concoction (it tastes exactly as you might expect -- weird but not bad).
As night comes on Bob and I head out one more time to stroll San Marco’s and listen to the music, then back again to pack and prepare ourselves for the long trip home. We will be waking at 3:45 to meet our 4:30 water taxi (arranged for us by Views on Venice) at the Ca’Rezzonico dock!
I truly enjoyed my trip to Florence and Venice! Italy is a beautiful country and the people we met were almost uniformly generous and helpful. Ultimately I enjoyed Venice more than Florence, although I certainly did have a good time in Florence. If I were to do it again, I would probably choose to visit Siena or some other Tuscan town, and spend more time in the countryside. In particular, I would return to San Antimo in a heartbeat! If I were to visit Florence again I would look for an apartment on the Oltroarno, in a quieter neighborhood near a public park. If I were to return to Venice I would not change a thing, except that I would try to get tickets to the Opera, and I would not visit the Basilica unless it was much less crowded.
My particular favorite experiences in Florence were our day trip with Luca (especially San Antimo), the Bargello, Santa Annunziata Church, and all the delicious gelato and cornetto. In Venice my favorite thing was just wandering around in Dorsoduro, seeing San Marco’s square at night, our hot chocolate at Florians, and the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit.
I will leave with one last funny (to us, at least) story: all through our visit Bob and I kept a running joke about Indiana Jones, talking about how we wanted to find the “Venice Sewers” that Indy appears to get into via crypts below a library that (as far as we knew) did not actually exist. I was thus flabbergasted to discover via some googling when I returned home that the exterior of that “library” was actually the church that housed the Leonardo machines exhibit.... in other words, it was our favorite, just-around-the-corner Campo San Barnaba! What a wacky, nifty coincidence! We just rewatched that scene on the DVD and indeed, there it is! There’s even a boat selling vegetables in the same spot as the vegetable-seller’s boat where we ourselves got tomatoes during our stay. Ah, Venice!
As it turned out, my parents and brother were also interested in going on a trip, so we decided to plan a family vacation to Paris, France. Although the dates of our trip moved around a bit, we finally settled on a week in October of 2006. And last week, we finally went!
One thing I brought with me on our trip was a Moleskine notebook I bought over a year ago, with the intention of dedicating it to travel journaling. During our trip, I kept track of what we did (in occasionally scrawled and almost always fragmented notes), what we ate, and what we spent. I am hoping to write up these notes into a full-fledged journal of our adventures, but that is going to take some time. But for now, here are some lists (you know I love lists!):
Ten Favorite Experiences:
- Visiting the Luxembourg Gardens. Watching the people, encircled by the ring of pale stone queens and women of myth.
- Seeing the Eiffel Tower light up and then twinkle at the top of the hour.
- Visiting the Jardin des Plantes and seeing the recycled dragon and all the lovely flowers still in bloom
- Riding in a boat along the Seine
- Shopping in the Franprix and the different boulangeries and other shops along the street.
- Climbing the Sacre Coeur basilica.
- Visiting the Cluny Museum and seeing the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.
- Sainte Chapelle: both the lower section with its vaulted starry ceiling, and the upper with its walls of colored glass.
- Notre Dame: especially during the evening history/slide show with everyone hushed and the whole vast place dark but for the prayer candles.
- The Chateau de Vincennes - marvelling at the walls, the towers, and the lack of crowds :-)!
Ten Thrilling Moments:
- Seeing the Medici fountain in the Luxembourg Gardens. I still can’t put into words why this fountain gave me shivers. Something about the quality of light filtering through the trees, and the sluggish water, and the lush red begonias spilling out of the pots, and the ropes of twining ivy leading you toward that huge, almost oppressive fountain.
- Catching my first glimpse of Sacre Coeur in between buildings as our shuttle driver took us into the city along the Champs Elysees.
- The sight of the Winged Victory of Samothrace at the top of the stairs in the Louvre.
- Walking across the bridge toward Notre Dame in the evening and hearing a street musician playing his accordion.
- Coming around the corner of the Science Museum and seeing the Geode and the Parc de Vilette laid out like some glittering, utopian science fiction landscape.
- Catching sight of the Grand Palais from aboard our boat, never having stumbled across a mention or photo of it in any of the travel resource I had read. It looks just like something out of the setting of one of my books, and it was so cool and startling to see it come to life.
- Standing in the Sainte Chapelle, marvelling at the beautiful walls that seem made entirely of stained glass, and having the sun suddenly come streaking out (it had been cloudy when we went in) and set one wall aglow.
- Sitting with Bob down on the quay along the right bank, between the Pont Neuf and the Pont des Artes, eating croissants, with very few other folks out and about. The sky had a volatile edge, with clouds and sunlight tearing one after the other though it. Watching the play of light on the bridge and the water, I really felt like I was there for the first time (despite the fact that this was technically the third morning I had spent in France).
- Opening my boxes from Pierre Herme and seeing my rows of pretty little macarons and artistically rendered pastries sitting there like flowers.
- Searching the Rue Rapp for the restaurant Jenny recommended (which alas we did not end up trying as my family was worn out by then) and stumbling across a gorgeous, weird,marvelous building done up completely in the height of Art Nouveau, that just calls out for some story to be set behind its elaborate edifice.
Ten Delicious Foods:
- The sandwiches Bob and I got near Bon Marche - baguettes with four cheeses, tomato and chicken, heated up till the bread was crisp and the cheese melting.
- The crème brulee and Earl Grey tea at Mariage Freres teashop. The best tea I have ever tasted. Seriously.
- The gelato from Amorino (first visit: marron glace; second visit: mascarpone and pistachio).
- The Isphahan from Pierre Herme patisserie. That breath of roses when you bite into it, and the burst of raspberry and lichie. So good!
- The chouquettes, all of them! Little nubs of pastry, like empty cream puffs, rolled in chunky crystals of sugar.
- The many breakfasts of baguette with butter and mirabelle plum jam I consumed in our apartment.
- The roasted duck and potatoes from Restaurant Jules, where we had our “French Traditional Cuisine” dinner.
- Nutella crepes!
- My assortment of Pierre Herme macarons, especially the rose, caramel, pistachio, and chocolate.
- The sip I had of my dad’s soup at the Vietnamese restaurant we had dinner at - fragrant and fresh and lemon-grassy.