Romancing Venice

Italy wears its heart on its sleeve on the isle of Venice. A thoroughly romantic mix of museums, music, colors, history, and mystery, Venetia makes you want to wear a pink swirly dress and swoon on a balcony.

Venice, the home of Marco Polo, Casanova, Vivaldi, Goldoni, and Titian, begins with formal introductions in St Mark’s square, but will lean in when you least expect it and whisper sweet intimate nothings in your ear.

Venice has no other purpose than to delight you.

St Mark’s Square is to be toured in an orderly fashion. The “finest drawing room in Europe” as Napoleon christened it, invites loitering with the pigeons while your imagination takes flight.

First, step into the Basilica (a free but timed voucher). The cathedral glows from an overbearing amount of gold decor. It feels heavy, a facade so thick that you are sure the real church must be hiding in the back somewhere, but no. For an additional fee, you discover that St Mark lies beneath a sheet of gem-studded gold that seems just a little like he is trying too hard to impress.

Competition is tough for saints.

You are not supposed to take photos, so you didn’t see this:

Near the entrance, a tiny passageway leads straight up to the rooftop terrace. Pay your 5E at the top and you will be able to enjoy the views, indoor and out, as long as you like. The original copper horses are inside, and replicas are out. Sadly, I was not allowed to ride either set. But they are magnificent.

This photo is for Kim.

Back in the square, a trip to the top (another timed voucher) of the Campanile is not to be missed and to prove that chivalry is not dead…it has an elevator! The lift holds just 11 people at a time and you will have only 15 minutes up top. It’s a gorgeous arial view of the island and its surrounding neighbors. The bells overhead ring at high noon. You will have to decide for yourself whether this is an exhilarating experience or the fast road to deafness.

The clock tower bell-ringers across the way are far more decorous in their duties.

Enter the lacy pink marble Doge’s Palace and you will once again feel the weight of history. It settles around you as you move from grand staircases to spacious rooms, fat gilded ornamentation bordering heavily detailed paintings, scrolled metalwork, polished wood; symbols of wealth, government, and religion. Here, judgement was passed and here, beyond an extensive armory, the Bridge of Sighs led prisoners to the dungeons. Graffiti in the cells is intriguing, especially as Casanova himself scrawled some of it.

This kiss is for John.

To complete the Square, explore the elegant Correr Museum. You will simply run out of time to see all of this multi-level extensive collection of everything. I was reduced to taking a photo collection of chandeliers (12) and then another of rare and ancient books (a million or so). A giant foot statue and a mummy rounded it off nicely.

When we ventured away from St Marks Square, Venice decided to rain on our parade. Armed with our Roman umbrellas, we hopped the vaporetto south for a march along Via Guiseppe Garibaldi. We admired his monument then strolled slowly back along the waterfront. When the drips threatened to put a damper on our day, we stopped at a sidewalk cafe and ordered hot espresso and a banana nutella crepe with a puff of whipped cream.

Because, happiness.

The Rialto Market was right beside our hotel. Placed beneath a permanent roof, this sumptuous daily market is full of tourists taking photos and locals buying their groceries. Everything is shipped in on early morning boats and by afternoon, nothing is left but a lone man hosing down the empty pavement. The variety of seafood, flowers, fresh produce, and spices is glorious.

This is a hint for what your restaurant is going to put on your plate tonight. It’s time to dress for dinner.

The cloak of dusk swirls around the island. Venice dons a mask of deep purple with gold trim, water shining through like eyes of magic. The crowds are finally gone. The night is young. And you are so beautiful.

Venice moves from courtship to seduction.

On each side of St Mark’s Square, a little orchestra plays. To your right, you hear The Blue Danube, from the left comes the theme from Titanic. Should you sit for a moment and take some champagne from the bow-tied servers hovering along the edge of the pavement? Or perhaps you would prefer a creamy hot chocolate from the cafe, steaming like a sigh from its cup? The music begs your feet to move, and happily, Venice is entirely new at night.

The Grand Canal is rippling glass, reflecting lamplight, moonlight, and the stars in your eyes. Wander over the Rialto Bridge (take the gratuitous selfie), and on past glittering delights in small shop windows. Chocolates, high end luxury stores, fashion, bakeries, gelato, lace, leather, glass, jewelry, pubs, and restaurants tempt on all sides.

There are few straight lines in Venice. Follow the curves and dips, the paths that make you glance back over your shoulder wondering whether you missed something, on through the twirling shadows. Each little bridge is an invitation to pause and enjoy the swimming splendor of it all.

If you are wise, you brought your own Casanova for emergency purposes.

If you are smart, you brought your dancing shoes.

The Fresh Florence Air

After spending the morning inside museums, Hubby and I were ready for some fresh air, even if that meant cold fresh air that tried to lift your skirts. (Tell me again…why do grown men wear kilts in windy Ireland? It makes no sense.)

Leaving the Bargello, we wandered over to the Loggia dei Lanzi with: yep, more statues. You can circle Hercules as he wrestles a centaur. Admire the Medici lions. Wonder why women are cast as victims. (Until you remember “Florence Triumphant Over Pisa” and maintain constant respect for your hostess.) And yes – I told you so! – there is Perseus himself, holding the head of Medusa. No wonder this place is full of statues, she’s the beginning and the end of the whole place. Percy stands in the Loggia, at the edge of the Piazza della Signoria, where we decided to take our afternoon tea break.

Sitting in the terrace, I poured a proper cup of loose leaf darjeeling – it cost seven euros – while newlyweds passed us in a horse-drawn carriage. Neptune’s fountain was across the way, undergoing renovations. A tourist in a green-striped shirt walked by, wrestling with his gelato cone. A small child held his parent’s hand, toting a Mickey Mouse pack on his back.

If there’s one thing I know for certain, this was no fake Neverland.

Florence never faked a thing in her life, thank you very much.

To continue our stroll towards the Arno River, we passed between the Uffizi Galleries, a final set of museums that we would have no hope of seeing at this late hour. Inside, Florence kept her painters: Botticelli, Rembrandt, da Vinci, Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, the list goes on. It is, perhaps, the heart of Florence. Her poetry. I imagine I would be lost in the first frame, listening to the eloquent genius pulsing from it.

We emerged onto the glittering waterfront, shaking off the shadows of Uffizi and picking up the energetic  bustle of tourists heading towards the Ponte Vecchio. This famous bridge is not quite what I had imagined after all the hoopla, but it had it’s charm. Padlocks are strung along the railing, in the tradition of “love locks”: names of sweethearts and/or dates are etched onto the locks, the locks are attached to the bridge and the key thrown into the river. Apparently, this only began in the early 2000’s after a book depicted the idea and it spread world-wide. It represents an unbreakable love.

Where I come from, it represents vandalism. Good grief, get a tattoo and save the fish.

Florence threw out 5,500 love locks from the Ponte Vecchio in 2006 alone. There is a strict fine for attaching one, but let me just show you this:

Ahem, Benvenuto Cellini does not approve.

I’ve dubbed Ponte Vecchio the “Yellow Brick Road” because, per the1593 edict of the Medici Grand Dukes, all they sell is gold jewelry there. The windows glow. Let me just show you this:

But I wasn’t in the market. We grabbed a gelato and got going.

At the sun began to settle, we worked our way over the Arno and up a side street. We wanted to view the sunset on our last day in Florence from the Piazza Michelangelo, a large raised plateau. It was the first thing farther than we expected it to be and did not anticipate the amount of steep steps it took to reach the top.

We arrived hot and bothered but the view was worth it. I understand the sunset here changes all during the year, Florence turning this way and that, catching the light and playing it over her curves. Her mood tonight was subtle, blushing over the river, softening rooftops, reducing the wind to a soft warm sigh.

A bronze copy of David enjoyed the sight with us. It’s fitting that they surrounded him with permanent green groupies. After seeing the real deal, nothing less is interesting.

We bought souvenirs there on the piazza, because at this point, the street vendors seemed like old friends. A couple of T-shirts later, an apron, a scarf, we returned down the steps and back into town in search of pizza for dinner.

Hubby by now had strict pizza rules: ten flavors is not adequate, but twenty choices means business. It must say “Pizzeria” on the door and offer outside seating in an actual lane of traffic. The prices must be reasonable, using the Costco standard. It must have “atmosphere” if at all possible.

Florence knew just the place. Which was great, because by now I was ready to kill him.

I had a nice big glass of red wine when we were seated, which means I had a half a pizza in a take-away box when we left for our hotel. I can eat or I can drink, not both. We wandered down the first narrow street that headed in the right direction and ran smack into the college district.

All of Florence’s twenty-somethings were enjoying the pubs along this particular street, standing in groups, chatting and enjoying the evening. We walked at least a mile and never saw a single person drunk, rowdy, or raising a voice. Florence kept it cosmopolitan classy.

“We should have eaten here!” Hubby said.

“Well, considering that we have been married longer than these kids have been alive,” I pointed out, “I feel we chose wisely.”

I took his hand.

If I had to choose being single and twenty-anything in Florence, hanging out with the cool people, or being fabulous five-oh in Florence, hanging out with my beloved on the world’s most amazing 30th Anniversary trip to Actual Italy….there’s no competition.

I wouldn’t trade this night for anything.

Abridged Florence When you’re a pizza snob. Looking back towards the tea. Duck! That’s gotta hurt.

Exploring the Closets in Florence

Piazza di San Giovanni lies between the Santa Maria del Fiori, the third largest church in Europe, and it’s famous golden-doored Baptistry. We stood in this little piazza on our last day in Florence, Italy, wondering how she could be so sunshiny and yet blow with such a stiff, cold, steady wind.

It was first thing in the morning and Hubby and I were not prepared for it.

Brunelleschi’s massive egg-shaped duomo, the crown of Florence, was our immediate goal but this time, our luck did not hold. Timed entry tickets were sold out for the day. We shivered in the square and decided to attack the campanile instead.

This tower is only twenty feet shorter than the dome and as we circled around and up to each staircase level, small rectangular air shafts framed beautiful views of the city, the orange-tiled dome across the way, and the cathedral decked in stripes of green, white, and pink Tuscan marble. 414 steps later, we were treated to a view of Florence from atop her scepter.

The campanile empties out into the Piazza del Duomo. The endless line waiting to enter the cathedral on the west side meant there was almost no one in the square with us, enjoying the slowly-warming southern side. A small caffe on the corner winked at us, then gave us a peek at her pastry case, tucked discretely behind orchids. You guys. We are only human. We sat right in the front window and had a decadent breakfast.

Be still my heart.

I want to believe that if you fill someone up with enough sugar and espresso, the very next thing they see will appear as golden, floating, surrounded by alien aura. But probably the Baptistry really is. My photos indicate that we actually walked through gold doors, under a gold ceiling, and stood in sunbeams that gave us halos. The baptismal font sounds like an angel choir when you hold it up to your ear.

Once the caffeine wore off, we walked completely around the cathedral, hoping to find the end of the entry line. People were frozen, hunched resolutely against the cold, sculpted by the wind.

You can admire the statues or become the statues. Easy choice.

We bypassed it once again, heading instead into the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, a museum dedicated to the history of the duomo. It contains the original Baptistry doors. A great many statues, including Donatello’s St. John and another pieta by Michelangelo are in there, as well as paintings, mosaics, textiles, choir stalls and books, gold-work, and a display of tools and designs used by Brunelleschi for his dome.

St John, by Donatelli Abraham and Isaac Real deal doors.

The Museo Nazionale del Bargello is three blocks straight down Via del Proconsolo. I ask you: can you go into too many museums in one day? No you can’t, don’t be silly. And the Bargello is worthy of your time. There was plenty of sculpture for statue buffs like myself, and a frightening amount of ancient armor and weaponry, right down to hunting hawks’ hoods. Coins, cannon, cloth. No less than three different Davids with the head of Goliath rolling around their ankles.

Caught a fish. Heavy metal. My name is Inigo Montoya… Mercury says there’s more upstairs….

Sighing with contentment, I tucked my camera phone away and declared that it was, finally, tea time.

Legend says that when the contest for who would build the Duomo of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was held, a great many engineers and architects argued around the table about ways to accomplish it. Finally, it was Brunelleschi’s turn to speak. He passed an egg around the table and asked everyone to try standing it on it’s end. No one could. He took the egg back, and smashed it lightly onto the table. The end broke, the egg stood: a perfect dome.

“This,” he said, “is what we need to create.” He got the job.

The story of  Brunelleschi and the largest masonry dome in the world can be enjoyed here. It was an engineering nightmare that he pulled off seamlessly and he died without leaving a trace of notes explaining how he did it.