Saturday, February 28, 2009

Day 143/365 - Buon Compleanno!

Today was the sixth and final day of my trip to Venice. It's also my birthday. It was a day spent largely disguised as someone cultured and refined rather than as an uncouth Midwestern bumpkin. I got a bit of a late start this morning, but I kicked things off with a trip to the Ca d'Oro Museum (14th-16th Century paintings, sculptures, and tapestries) and then wandered around the last neighborhood of the city I had yet to explore, the residential area of Cannaregio. I saw a church full of Titian paintings and lots of Venetians doing their shopping at the market on a Saturday and then it was time to head back to the hotel and get dressed up for an afternoon at the opera.

Before I left home I found an on-line ticket broker and bought myself a ticket to see the opera "Romeo et Juliette" at Teatro La Fenice, a theater that has certainly earned its name of 'The Phoenix' given that it has burned to a shell and been rebuilt. Twice. It was an afternoon showtime, so before it began I stopped and had a good lunch (pasta and bean soup, squid cooked in its own ink with polenta, ricotta cake, and two glasses of Prosecco) at a restaurant right on the steps of La Fenice.

La Fenice itself is quite a show. It's a little, gilded, cloisonne music box of a theater. Photography inside is prohibited but I managed to sneak a few shots. Judging by the number of camera flashes I saw going off, I wasn't the only one (although I had the decency and sense to turn off my flash at least). The opera was great. They went with a very contemporary staging that had a glam rock, goth, anime, rave feel to it and the set was an enormous record turntable that actually rotated at times and had a moving arm (from which Juliet plucked the needle to stab herself at the end). It was the first time I'd seen a pink-haired Juliet. She even had matching pink laces in her combat boots. She was a phenomenal performer, too. And she was smoking hot. It sounds a bit like an odd choice of production design, especially for such a historical venue, but it really worked well. The story is about 13 and 14 year-olds after all.

After the show I popped into a cafe for hot chocolate and a chocolate and nut covered cookie that served as my birthday cake, and then I went to see another musical performance -- this one by musicians and singers in powdered wigs and 17th clothes. I had hoped to get to attend a peformance of local composer Antonio Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," but evidently they have a rotating schedule and today it was a sampler platter of baroque classical music pieces and arias from various operas. It was held at the Scuola Grande di San Teodoro -- a big, historic music school and concert hall -- and was quite good.

From there, it was time to head to the casino and see if I had any birthday luck. The casino in Venice is the oldest operating casino in the world and, as it's located in a former palace, it's quite swanky. When I walked in there in my suit I had to resist the urge to announce myself as "Bond, James Bond." That would have blown my sophisticated act real quick. I managed to quickly lose 50 euros in five straight spins of the roulette wheel and then spent a few minutes wandering through the various rooms with one hand in my pocket and a glass of Prosecco in the other, fronting like I was cool and sophisticated while I checked out the paintings and chandeliers and other gamblers. It was definitely a high-roller kind of a place. There were people making bets of hundreds and even thousands of euros at a time, which made my little ten euro bets seem a bit anemic.

Being in Venice is like living inside a poem. Tomorrow we reach the final stanza for me however, and I have to pack up my belongings and head back to the decidedly more prosaic DC. It's been one hell of a trip.

(Taken with my Nikon Coolpix S200)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Day 142/365 - Across the Venetian Lagoon

Today was the fifth day of my trip to Venice, and the longest day of sightseeing thus far. I left the hotel at 7:45 in the morning and didn't get back until 7:20 at night. Despite all that (and the fact that I walked 5.5 miles, about a mile more than I've been averaging per day) however, it was a very relaxing day.

The day's journey began in the Castello district. I started off at the Naval History Museum -- five floors of boats, ship models, and military and civilian seafaring artifacts which I had entirely to myself. From there I walked down to the public gardens at the southern tip of the city and sat in the sun and read for a while. Then I moved on to wander around the streets of Castello and I still had some time to kill before my afternoon tour of the lagoon islands, so I decided to have a nice lunch.

Lunch has been something I've either skipped or settled for grabbing a sandwich on the run. Today was the first day I had time to enjoy a good lunch. I picked the restaurant of the Hotel Monaco and I sat on their terrace bordering the Grand Canal while having a salad, baked monkfish with potatoes and asparagus, zabaglione, and two glasses of Proseco. It was tremendous.

Then it was time to join my tour. First stop was Murano, the island of the glass-makers. The glass blowing demonstration was pretty short and not much different than other glass blowng I've seen. This was probably my least favorite of the three island stops we made. Next was Torcello, with its two very old churches. The paintings inside the main church were very Eastern Orthodox in style, which makes sense given that when the church was built this area was still under the sway of Constantinople. Finally, we stopped at Burano -- island of fishermen and lace makers.

After the unremarkable glass blowing demonstration, I skipped the lace making show and just wandered around taking pictures. The houses on Burano are all painted in spectacular colors. They look like a row of gumdrops lining the canal. This was my favorite stop on the tour. On the way back to Venice from Burano we lucked into the beginnings of a rather spectacular sunset, as you can see above.

The last stop of the day for me was Harry's Bar in San Marco, favored haunt of Ernest Hemingway and countless others and birthplace of the Bellini cocktail. I had two of them and they were both great. The bar itself was smaller than I expected, but very cozy.

Tomorrow, it's my birthday. I plan to start out the day in the last neighborhood I have yet to explore, Cannaregio, and then go to see the opera "Romeo and Juliette" at Teatro La Fenice. After that, it's either a Vivaldi concert with musicians in 18th century costumes or a trip to the casino. Or perhaps both. It will be my birthday after all and I certainly believe in spoiling myself rotten.

(Taken with my Nikon Coolpix S200)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Day 141/365 - Veni, Vidi, Venezia

Today was the fourth day of my trip to Venice. Only two more days before I have to say arrivederci and fly home. I spent most of the day in the Dorsoduro neighborhood with a short trip to the islands of Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore. This is a side canal in Dorsoduro, a residential section of the city that contains several art museums, a university, and many mask workshops.

I spent the bulk of the day browsing the museums of the Ca' Rezzonico (18th century Venetian and decorative arts), the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (20th century abstract expressionism, surrealism, and futurism), and the Accademia (16th to 18th century Italian painters). I learned that there were other painters who painted like Salvador Dali and that Giovanni Bellini was phenomenal and way ahead of his time in terms of his use of color and his sense of staging. If he'd been born 4 centuries later he'd definitely have been a surrealist.

Venice really is one big bag of eye candy. From the brightly colored jujube houses, to the canals and bridges, to the gilded palazzo and churches, and the priceless treasury of its museums the city is so sumptious to look at it's liable to give you cavities. By day it's amazing and by night it's nothing short of magical.

Tomorrow I'm off to explore the Castello neighborhood and take a guided tour of the lagoon islands of Burano, Murano, and Torcello!

(Taken with my Nikon D80)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Day 140/365 - On the Grand Canal

Today was the third day of my trip to Venice. I spent the entire day in the San Marco area seeing the area around the Rialto Bridge and touring the various sites in the Piazza San Marco (the Doge's Palace, the Basilica of St. Mark, the Correr Museum, and the Campanile). And then I went for a gondola ride accompanied by a guy playing the accordion and a serenading tenor!

The Doge's Palace was really cool. It was both the home of the Doge (the head of the Venetian Republic) and the seat of all the branches of government, not to mention also being a prison. In modern US terms, that would make it a combination of the White House, Capitol Building, Supreme Court, lesser Federal courts, headquarters of the Federal agencies, National Archives, and penitentiary. That's a lot to pack into one building.

Nearly every surface of the official parts of the palace are gilded and covered with paintings. It lets you know just how wealthy the Republic was. Not so the prison. It's just cold and drab and brutal, as you'd expect a prison to be. The notorious womanizer Casanova is reportedly the only person to ever escape from the prison, but it's tough to imagine how he managed it. My guess is he bribed someone. Or several someones.

St. Mark's Basilica echoes the gilded theme of the Doge's Palace. The entire interior of the domes is covered in gold (either paint or leaf, I'm not sure which). It houses the remains of St. Mark, as in Mark the Apostle. The Venetians stole his remains when they raided and sacked the city of Alexandria and then made him the patron saint of the Republic. The winged lion that symbolizes him also became the Republic's national symbol and is all over the city.

The view from the Campanile (bell tower) is absolutely amazing and well worth the 8 euro admission fee. You can see the entire city spread out around you. I'm so glad I came in winter rather than summer. There's no haze in the air to ruin the view and the canal doesn't smell. Plus it's cheaper and less crowded (at least since Carnevale ended, anyhow).

The view from the Campanile and my gondola tour are my two favorite parts of my trip thus far. Normally a gondola ride costs 90 euros, but I booked my tour over the internet before I left home for only 30 euros. There were about 15 of us all together spread over three gondolas along with three gondoliers, a guy with an accordion, and a tenor. It's pretty tough to beat an afternoon of being slowly boated around Venice while being serenaded.

Venice has to be one of the few cities in the world with no cars or trucks. Everything that normally gets picked up or delivered by car or truck (trash, mail, merchandise for the stores, people, etc.) has to go by boat. The lack of car/truck traffic makes it really quiet here. The canals are for boats and the rest of the city is for walking. I haven't even seen anyone riding a bike. I guess there wouldn't be much point though given the stairstep bridges that go over every small side canal. Venice really is a city of a thousand bridges.

Tomorrow, I'm off to the Dorsoduro and Giudecca neighborhoods to hit a few art museums (including the Guggenheim), a museum of Venetian history, and a couple churches.

(Taken with my Nikon Coolpix S200)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Day 139/365 - La Serenissima

Today was the second day of my trip to Venice, or La Serenissima as it was formerly known when the city was the capitol of the Venetian Republic. This is the view from the foot of the Piazza San Marco out toward the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Today I wandered all over the Santa Croce and San Polo neighborhoods, and then went back to San Marco twice -- once during the day to see more people in costumes and once at night to see the Carnevale wrap-up festivities.

The wrap up just turned out to be a big dance party with a DJ and since it was raining and I don't dance, I didn't stick around long. The Carnevale schedule said it was going to be a surprise closing party and I was hoping someone like U2 would play a concert in the Piazza San Marco, but no dice.

San Polo and Santa Croce were pretty cool. It's mostly a residential area so it was quiet and peaceful (incidentally, I think 'La Serenissima' might mean 'the most serene,' but don't quote me on that one). Clothes dryers must be a precious commodity in Venice because nearly everywhere you look you see laundry hanging on the line to dry. Still, I guess it's a small price to pay for getting to live in such a beautiful place.

Navigating your way around Venice means accepting that your map only tells you part of the story and realizing that a fair amount of backtracking and/or getting lost is a given. Still, I managed to hit all the spots I wanted to see today -- the Ca Pesaro ( a modern art museum whose collection included a work by my favorite artist, Gustav Klimt), the Palazzo Mocenigo (an aristocratic mansion decorated and furnished as it would have been in the 1700s), and the Frari church (kinda like a big, gothic Astrodome for God).

Tomorrow, it's back to San Marco to hit all the major touristy stuff there and a gondola tour with a serenade!

(Taken with my Nikon D80)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Day 138/365 - Carnival in Venice

I'm in Venice! Yaaaayyyy! After dreaming about it for years I'm finally here. Switching planes in London was a hassle (moving between terminals, having to go through a security screening again, staring at a status board for 40 minutes waiting for them to assign my flight to a gate, etc.) but all the travail involved in getting here was worth it.

I'm here until next Sunday. There wasn't much time for sightseeing today. By the time I got to my hotel it was after 4:00. I could have gotten to the hotel more quickly if I'd taken the bus from the airport, but I wanted to enter Venice from the water. It just seemed more fitting that way. Plus the cost of the vaporetto (water bus) from the airport was included in the price of the Venice card I bought, so it was even economically sensible. I had to change vaporettos at St. Marks though and being on that boat full of tourists and locals with my suitcase and backpack was no picnic.

My hotel is great. It's just a short distance from the vaporetto stop near the train station. It's a small place, only 50 rooms. It used to be an abbey before it was converted to a hotel. The room isn't very big (it was formerly a monk's cell after all), but it's perfect for me. So far the only downside to staying here are the bells from the nearby church that ring for about a minute straight at 6:15 and 7:15 each morning. Oh well, at least I don't have to worry about a wake-up call.

The first two days I'm here in Venice coincide with Carnevale, so after I got unpacked and freshened up I trundled off to the mask makers fair in Campo St. Stefano to buy myself a mask. I could've picked up a cheap cardboard and plastic, mass-produced, made in China mask from any one of the many stalls in town selling trinkets to tourist, but I wanted the real thing. The one I bought is a hand-made Arlecchino (harlequin) mask made of leather. It only cost me 18 euros and I'm pretty happy with it, although it does make it hard to see down and forget about peripheral vision.

But who cares about that? It's Venice, it's carnival, and I'm here!

(Taken with my Nikon Coolpix S200)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Twice on Sunday Bonus Photo - Bon Voyage

In honor of my trip to Venice, this week's photo from my archives is a shot of sunset at sea from the last time I went abroad -- a Caribbean cruise I took with my brother and his family three years ago.

(Taken with my old Canon PowerShot S400)

Day 137/365 - On My Way to Venice!

This was the gate from which the flight that was the first leg of my trip to Venice departed DC. The plane for this flight was a tiny little commuter jet. Honestly, it was like flying in a VW Beetle. And the overhead bins were so small I didn't think I was going to be able to get my backpack to fit. The flight was delayed 30 minutes due to weather issues up north.

Then when we got to NYC, we were put in a holding pattern due to an aerial traffic jam at JFK. And once we finally landed, they had issues with getting the jet bridge to work properly and so we were delayed yet again. All of which meant I had to hustle to catch my flight to London, which was the second leg of my trip to Venice. So instead of lounging around the airport and grabbing a bite to eat, I was running (or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof) from one end of JFK to the other.

Thankfully the plane for this flight was much bigger. It was actually bigger than it needed to be, given that it was only about three-fifths full. Wouldn't you know it, as soon as we left the gate they made us go and park and wait for 45 minutes for the backlog of flights in line to take off cleared. I got stuck sitting in amidst a group of 10 people traveling together who didn't speak English. They were constantly in and out of their seats and talking loudly and to top it all off they had a bunch of kids with them.

Thanks heavens I remembered to put a pair of earplugs in my backpack. I stuffed them in my ears, popped a Sominex, and settled down to try and get some sleep.

(Taken with my Nikon D80)