Monday, June 11, 2012

Venice to Varese

Ah, Venice. I love Venice and really, really, really wanna go back!!

On Thursday morning we left Assisi and took the long drive to Venice. We stopped a couple of times on the way, once for a short tea break and the second time for lunch, before reaching our hotel on the mainland near Venice at about 2pm. Most of our group spent the afternoon on the Venice islands, but Mads and I opted to stay back at the hotel and finally do our washing – best thing EVER, the hotel we were staying at had a laundry on each floor. So, so good!

Scenery on the drive

Driving through the mountains

We had dinner at the hotel, lasagna followed by veal and lemon cake for dessert. I was absolutely stuffed afterwards, and we were sitting at a really good table with this one adorable couple, June and David, who have been together for 4.5 years after they were both widowed – they’re probably in their 70s I would guess and they are both really lovely people. After dinner we were so stuffed, in fact, we decided to go for a wander around the area we were staying in. It’s quite a nice place, and it was a beautiful night!

So on Friday we spent the whole day on the Venice islands! Hooray! We took a boat to the island of Murano for a glass-blowing demonstration, which was so good! In about two seconds flat the glass blower made a nice vase, and even more incredibly then made a glass horse, but just turning the glass and pulling at it with what looked like big tweezers, it was incredible! Into the showroom next, Murano is quite famous for its glass and of course the items in there were WAAAAY out of our price range, but they had some beautiful pieces and I might go back in the future when I am super rich.

The Murano glass blower making a vase

Making a horse - this was so incredible! Just a couple of pulls on the molten glass with the tweezers and there it is!

Back in the boat and off we went to the real Venice!! It was so beautiful!! We noticed pretty quickly that there was something out of the ordinary going on, there was a tall ship with sailors all lined up along the masts, and important-looking navy people and bodyguard types around the place. We found out that they were celebrating 150 years of the navy, and the President of the Italian Republic Giorgio Napolitano was going to be there to address a crowd at St Mark’s Square! So after being startled by the cannons on the tall ship being fired quite a few times, we lined up along the barricade beside the Doge’s Palace and St Mark’s with our Travel Director Marisa, and we got to see the president! He’s apparently about 83 years old, so he was being driven in a golf cart, but it was all very exciting! The Italian national anthem played (which I recognised after years of watching Rossi win the motorbikes), and the president made his speech with a whole bunch of navy dudes lined up and a giant Italian flag hanging in St Mark’s Square. It was very cool!

Boat ride to the Venice islands

There it is - Venice!!

Tall ship complete with sailors and flags and real working cannons!

A statue of Vittorio Emanuele, the first King of unified Italy

The bridge of sighs, connecting the Doge's Palace with the prison. So called because prisoners would get their last glimpse of Venice from the bridge - for a while at least

The bell tower, St Mark's Square.

President Napolitano!!

Afterwards we farewelled Marisa and headed off to get lost in Venice. We wandered down lane ways, along canals, over bridges – the whole place is absolutely stunning! And I didn’t even think it smelled at all, which is one thing I have heard about Venice, how much it stinks. The buildings are just so old and pretty, the canals are a really nice green, and there are gondolas all over the place. We came across a really nice gelato store, so we stopped in and I had a delicious cherry-flavour, it was SOOO yummy!

Yum yum yummy yum cherry gelato (and a bit of chocolate for good measure)

A street in Venice

Mads with her invisible gelato. Actually I don't think she was meant to be in this picture, so I don't know what she's doing...

Hooray a canal!


Such a beautiful city. And it didn't even smell!

St Mark's Square, where the president addressed various members of the armed forces.

I was very excited to see that there was an exhibition of the works of Gustav Klimt and the Secessionists, he is my very favourite artist, so we went. It turned out it was held in a beautiful old palace that is now an art gallery, but we entered up a grand marble staircase and in through a ballroom with the most gorgeous chandeliers and mirrors on the walls – it made me want to go to a fancy masquerade ball. But it was so amazing to see some of Klimt’s works in the flesh!! The problem with his work is that a lot of it consists of friezes on walls in various buildings, so it can’t really be exhibited around the place, but they had a couple of very famous works of his, Judith I and Judith II. I did an assignment on Judith I a couple of years ago, so to actually see it was so amazing! I felt a bit emotional seeing just a simple sketch study he did with charcoal on paper, just knowing that he touched the paper, that his hands held the charcoal that made the lines on the face was incredible. But my favourite piece in the exhibition was the design for the Lovers Embracing, part of his famous Stoclet Frieze. Ahhh, it was so beautiful!! It’s the kind of picture that almost makes you feel as though you are in the painting – you can feel the warmth and the comfort and the excitement of the embrace. Breathtaking!

Yaaaaay Klimt!!!!

Anyway, more wandering and we came upon a pizzeria, so we had lunch which was super delicious – margherita pizza with chips. Next up St Mark’s Basilica. The outside of the church is very lovely – inside it is very dark, but the whole place, as in all the walls and the ceiling, is absolutely covered in mostly gold mosaics. It’s quite incredible! Mind you, it was exceptionally frustrating being there – despite there being signs clearly saying ‘no pictures’, all the tourists were taking pictures, most of them with flash, some were taking videos – and despite the request for silence (also signposted all over the place) there were tour guides giving their groups information, it’s just really dodgy. Why can’t you have a bit of respect, for goodness sake? If you really NEED a picture, buy a postcard! There are lots of them at the gift shop! Except for the main part of the basilica you have to pay Euros to get in to different parts of the church, for example the treasury and some of the chapels and to climb up to... I dunno, a bell tower I guess, so we just wandered around the main section taking it in.

St Mark's Basilica

Actually, an interesting thing about Venice is that despite the fact it is absolutely crawling with tourists, it is still really chilled out, because I think people are just happy to aimlessly amble (one of my favourite pastimes). Most of the time, you get a street or two away from the main tourist attractions and you’ll lose the crowd. In Venice, however, pretty much all the little backstreets and lanes have a steady flow of tourists going through all the time.

We had wanted to go to the Doge’s Palace, which is meant to be a really good museum, but it costs 20 euros per person to get in!! You do get entry to other museums around the place for that price, but when you just want to go to the Palace it’s a bit steep. So we went on the ferry up the Grand Canal instead to the railway station, then tried to slowly wander back to our group’s meeting point near St Mark’s. This time we actually did get lost, expecting to come out near St Mark’s and instead finding ourselves and the edge of the wrong island, looking across the Grand Canal at the church. We managed to find a bridge that got us to the right side of the Canal, but we had to do a fair bit of backtracking before we made it to the bridge! But the place was so beautiful it didn’t even matter. We found a really nice handmade mask shop that we looked in, we stumbled across a fellow sitting in a square playing a lute, and the sun was shining and everything was just lovely. I am really in love with Venice!

The Doge's Palace. The screen in front was showing the telecast of the president's speech

Apparently pigeons are protected in Venice! I'm glad someone else appreciates them. I think they're cute. Look at them all fluffed up having a nice bath...

Ferry ride along the Grand Canal

I just love the rich colours of the buildings in Italy.

Beautiful red flowers - they had these all over the place.

We had sort of expected that we would come out near that tall ship in our wanderings. Instead we found this dead end on the wrong island...

Look! That man is playing a lute!!! 

Our poor little feet almost worn down to stumps, we went to meet Marisa and the rest of the group (who had all gone for a fancy lunch on Burano island) at the dock where the boat was to pick us up. So we just sat on the edge of the Grand Canal watching the water. I had to go to the bathroom at one point, so I paid the 1.50 euros to get in, which was a total rip off and it wasn’t even that clean. Anyway the boat came, we got in, and we headed back to the hotel. We popped across the road to get some food for dinner from a little supermarket: on the menu chocolate cookies, cherries and nectarines. Then once again to pack ready to leave for our next destination the next day!

So on Saturday morning once again we hopped on the bus early for a very full day with lots to see! As Marisa ALWAYS says ‘are you exciiited!?’ I love Marisa, she is so lovely! She speaks fluent Italian and English on top of her native Croatian and knows a lot of facts about Italy and stuff we’re passing on the road and the places we go to. She’s also very helpful with absolutely everything, and she’s really nice to talk to as well! But one of the best things about Marisa is that she’s got this fun singsong voice, and just always has a funny way of putting things – so we’re always very keen to hear what she has to say next. 

Anyway, our first stop was fair Verona, as you should all know the home of Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s most famous play. We hopped off the bus and wandered past an old city wall, and the Roman amphitheatre where the Opera is performed each summer – ah, that would be so incredible to see! We headed to the famous Juliet’s house, basically an old house with a pretty courtyard and a balcony overlooking it. Apparently they’ve found that there really was a Capuleti and a Montague family living in Verona back in the day, and that they were rich merchants, but I don’t know if ‘Juliet’s House’ is related to them at all... anyway, it’s a pretty little spot, and tradition has made it significant even if it’s not historically. You enter through an archway that is covered in chewing gum, and through a passage where thousands of lovers have written their initials on the walls. It actually looks very cool! There is a life-size statue of Juliet in the courtyard, and tradition says that in order to be lucky in love men are to put their hand on Juliet’s right breast. Naturally many, many, many men have taken advantage of this opportunity and consequently she has one very shiny, very worn boob from all the ‘tikky tikky tikky’ as Marisa puts it. Poor Juliet. You can go inside Juliet’s house, it’s a museum, but we didn’t – instead we had a look around the courtyard: there’s a couple of souvenir shops, a gate covered in padlocks (another tradition that’s swept Europe, just about everywhere you go you’ll see padlocks attached to famous landmarks with couple’s names written on them), and a little shop above which Juliet’s Secretaries work replying to love letters people have written to Juliet. I kind of wish I’d written something, but not being particularly romantically inclined I didn’t know what to write. Also you have to personally take it upstairs, a bit too intimidating for me!

Marisa with her rolled up map that she waves around for us to follow.

The Roman amphitheatre

Fair Verona

Chewy stuck on the arch leading to Casa di Giulietta. Romantics stick notes to the wall with it.

Juliet's Balcony

Poor Juliet cops yet another feelski. The lucky fellow is David from our group.

Padlocks! I love them!

Juliet's statue.

Inside the passageway leading to Juliet's House. It actually looks really cool, I think.

Mads and I had a bit of a wander around – Verona is a very pretty little city, and there are a lot of very nice shops. Torture when you’re a borderline shopaholic on holidays with three weeks to go so you have to conserve Euros!! There are also a lot of really annoying/creepy buskers! One dude dressed as a baby in a pram making awful baby crying noises, another dude dressed as one of three heads on a table making horrible noises on a kazoo-sounding instrument CONSTANTLY! We ran into June and David and had a coffee with them at a bar, sitting on the sidewalk – an absolutely delicious cappuccino for me, yum yum! And really they are some of our favourite people on this tour!

Cool building covered in frescoes in one of Verona's Squares.

I really like this statue. I'm not sure what it's of, but I think it's really cool.

We have seen these dudes all over Europe! Don't know why they think they ought to get Euros for standing around in a costume that doesn't even really look like what it's meant to be - mind you, I've seen worse.

The old city wall, Verona.

Back on the bus, heading further north to cross the Swiss border and visit Lugano! I was very excited, surely, surely, we would get a new stamp in the passport here! Switzerland is, of course, mega-neutral, not a part of the EU and super defensive about its neutrality. Alas, no! At the border crossing Marisa and Luca just had to get off the bus to fill out some paperwork, then they were back and we were in! I suppose it’s convenient not having to get your passport checked, but I really want more stamps!!

Driving past Lake Como on the way to Switzerland

Anyway, we arrived at Lugano not long after, to find all the streets around the lake closed. So poor Luca had to navigate the giant bus around trying to find somewhere to let us off – eventually he did, and we got off to find the trials for the Tour de Suisse bicycle race taking place! I’m not interested in bike racing at all, in fact men wearing lycra give me the heebie jeebies, but we got LOADS of free stuff! And cool free stuff! Mads and I each got a backpack, two hats, two flags, a t-shirt, a weird balloon rattle thing, and a cow bell! So so so fun!! There wasn’t much open in Lugano because of the race in terms of shops, but Mads and I had a bit of a wander anyway. The lake is absolutely stunningly gorgeous: such a beautiful deep, deep blue, surrounded by mountains and trees and buildings. I really wanted to go in the water! The people in Lugano are also really nice, and there are a lot of rather good looking men, I have to say... We got a McFlurry from MacDonald’s to eat by the lake (a magnum one – super delicious!) before heading back to the bus, everyone waving their flags as Luca pulled up which I think he enjoyed. Back to Italy – I don’t think we even had to stop at the border here – and to our hotel near Lake Varese. It was a really nice hotel. We had dinner there, waaay too much food but rather yummy all the same. There’s no way I could eat 3 courses on a regular basis, I have to say...

Mads in her free hat

The finish line, Tour de Suisse

A cyclist.

Lake Lugano. Spectacular!

Mads shows off the day's earnings. 

Sunday was a very nice day indeed. We had the option of either staying at the hotel for a free day, where we could sleep in and relax or go to the lake or whatever, or we could take an optional tour to Lake Como and Milan. Surprisingly enough, we chose the second option! Aaaah Lake Como. I want to live there. It is so incredibly beautiful – the lake is absolutely huge, and so deep and blue and surrounded by trees and mountains and the most beautiful, luxurious villas! However devastating news: George Clooney has sold his house and doesn’t go to Como anymore. Finally I get to Lake Como and he’s gone! My brilliant plan to meet him there, and for him to fall madly in love with me on the spot - foiled! Talk about frustrating. I shall have to formulate another plan...

Mountains, on the way to Lake Como

We went on a nice cruise of the lake to start with, naturally Mads and I travelled on the top of the boat for the best views, and it was very cold! While the sun was shining, the wind was sure blowing and we were rather freezing. But we got to see the lovely villas up relatively close. Many of them are actually hundreds of years old, as Como has been a playground for the rich and famous for about that long. We saw a villa that Napoleon stayed in, the villa that Mussolini spent his last night in before being captured by Italian partisans and eventually executed, Sophia Loren’s house, the house that until fairly recently belonged to the Versaces, and many more interesting and beautiful places. Apparently it’s mostly Russian oil magnates that are buying up big in the area these days...

Lake Como! So, so, so, so beautiful. 

Mads has chosen this place as her future holiday home.

I think I'll live in this one. A nice humble, little cottage by the lake...

The place at which Mussolini stayed before his capture

Heading back to Como town

We had free time in Como after the boat ride, but despite being desperate for a swim Mads and I decided we were a little too cold after the boat ride, and we couldn’t find a good swimming spot anyway, so we went back to Como town for some lunch – yummy mushroom risotto for me! Before getting back on the bus we needed the bathroom, this took a bit longer than we’d anticipated as we were wearing our swimmers, so we had to sprint back to the bus which everyone had already boarded and were waiting for us to arrive... oops.

Me and Mads, Lake Como

Person: 'What did you do this weekend?'
Me: 'Oh, not much, chilled out at Lake Como, you know. The usual...' 

The cathedral in Como town

Off to Milan next! Milan is actually a very modern city, due to the fact it was basically flattened during WWII. Consequently it has a very different feel to the other cities we’ve visited in Italy, maybe a bit more like Sydney I suppose. We got off the bus near the Opera House La Scala, saw a statue of Leonardo da Vinci, and then walked through the stunningly beautiful La Galleria shopping mall, for want of a better term. This leads through to the main square of Milan, which is dominated by the stunningly beautiful Duomo cathedral – its white marble gothic facade looks like lace. We had a while of free time, so Mads and I headed in to the cathedral. It was absolutely massive inside, but again so dark! It felt rather Notre Dame-ish, I suppose, due to its size and layout. There were some interesting works of art, including a sculpture of a dude with no skin, and we went down into the crypt where they had the ‘relics’ of a saint – i.e. his body in a glass case. But it was all covered up with what looked like a mask over the head and clothing over the body, so it wasn’t so bad.

Leonardo da Vinci. I think he has an idea...

The famous La Scala opera house

La Galleria

The dome above La Galleria

The Duomo, Milan

Inside the Duomo. Massive!

The beautiful marble floor inside the Duomo

Huge pillars holding the roof up, inside the Duomo

When we’d finished in the cathedral we had a bit of time to kill, so we went for a wander around the main part of Milan, stopping in for some delicious gelato (hooray they had Amarena, my new absolute favourite cherry flavour). More wandering... we had something to drink, I got a postcard and finally found a little Italian flag to add to my collection, we looked at the Da Vinci statue and a gorgeous little accessory shop in La Galleria, before meeting up with the group again to head back to the hotel. One thing I will say about Milan, they have the most aggressive guys trying to sell you stuff in the street. There were a couple who were selling these friendship bracelet things that actually chased us down the street and tried to force them on us, saying ‘it’s free, it’s free’ – it’s never free, they always say that to get you to take it. I had to get a bit forceful with one of them and tell him to back off, we didn’t want it! Super annoying.

A cool building in Milan.

Back at the hotel with a couple of hours to spare before dinner, we decided to go to Lake Varese to swim. So we wandered across the road to the path that goes around the lake, having to walk around 3kms before we found a good spot in which to enter the water. Despite everyone’s warnings that the lake would be very cold (the lakes were formed by glaciers a few thousand years ago, so they are very deep), the water was actually really warm. There were some cute duckies with ducklings swimming around, it was rather pleasant. However we looked across the lake after a couple of minutes swimming to see pouring rain heading right for us – so we got out and dressed really quick and headed back to the hotel. Not quick enough, obviously, so the rain absolutely bucketed down on us and we were drenched. Me in a white t-shirt, much to the delight of the handful of Italian men we passed on our way home. Oh dear. Absolutely drenched through we arrived at the hotel. I knew of a door that was quite close to our room, alas it was locked so we had to go through the lobby, where everyone on the tour was watching Italy vs Spain in the Euros. Naturally most of them spotted us trying to sneak in. Oh well. We had fun.

A quick shower for me and we headed to dinner, risotto followed by yummy trout and vanilla bavarian cream for dessert. Once again way too much food! Back to the room to pack ready to move on again the next day. 

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