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Trip Report - First Time to Venice, Florence, Lucca and London

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This was our first trip to Italy. We travelled at the end of Sept. for 14 days, with 4 nights in Venice, 5 nights in Florence, a night in Lucca and 2 nights in London. Wanted to share some of our experiences with all of you, and to thank you for your insights and the wealth of information that helped so much in our planning. (Or my planning - hubby was kind enough to just follow along).

Venice was our first destination, by way of Dallas and London.

Where we stayed: Using frequent flier miles on American allowed us to splurge on hotels. We stayed at the Londra Palace. It was a great location for us, minutes from St. Mark's Square, close to several vaporetto stops. We are lovers of classical music, and this having been the hotel where Tchaikovsky wrote his 4th Symphony, among others, added to its allure. Our 3rd floor junior suite (#362) with two large windows and tiny balcony facing the lagoon and San Giorgio Maggiore beyond it was like a little jewel box in pink hues. Bathroom was spacious and lovely. A bottle of champagne, plushy robes and slippers greeted us when we arrived. Our package included a buffet breakfast served inside or out at the hotel's restaurant, Do Leoni. We found the food good and plentiful - meats, cheeses, cereals, yogurts, fruit, breads and pastries, beverages. Housekeeping was wonderful. Each time we left our room, it was freshened, towels were replaced. We found the rest of the staff - servers, front desk, concierges (with one exception I will detail later)- topnotch. They were gracious and helpful. If your wallet allows, I would definitely recommend this hotel.

Some of the things we saw and did: Piazza San Marco is a vibrant and beautiful square, and we gravitated to it at all hours of the day - but especially liked the mornings when we - and the pigeons and vendors setting up - had the place mostly to ourselves. I had reserved an entrance time to the Basilica online several weeks before the trip. Our first morning, we wound up joining a tour led by an Italian woman for 10 euros each. Glad that we did, as she took our small group everywhere inside and outside this exquisite church. The same day, we took the Secret Itineraries Tour of the Doge's Palace. Cincia was our guide. I highly recommend this tour. Fascinating to see the artwork, the cell where Casanova was held, to hear about the history of government in Venice, to walk over the Bridge of Sighs. My husband, with a bad back, was a bit done in by all the stairs in both buildings, and hobbled a bit for the remainder of our trip. Luckily we had purchased 72 hour vaporetto passes upon arrival, and we rode up and down the Grand Canal innumerable times. Our tour of the Jewish ghetto - worthwhile - included the small museum and 3 of the 5 synagogues. We enjoyed the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, and I went to the Accademia while hubby explored. We spent time on and around the Rialto Bridge and the Accademia Bridge. We took the #82 vaporetto across the lagoon to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, rode up the tiny elevator to the church belfry and shared our magnificent views with a group of kindergarteners. Our concierge had recommended the gondoliers in front of the Danieli. We paid 80 euros for a 45 - 50 minute ride on the side canals, where we learned about the history and architecture of Venice from our gondolier, who also shared that the city is full of rats! We still did a fair amount of walking, albeit slowly, and got lost several times. But each wrong turn yielded a lovely little bridge, a beautifully colored building, a quaint shop or cafe, locals going about their daily routine, fellow travelers as lost and in awe as we were. We bought a small, signed glass vase at Palesa Gallery in St. Mark's Square, handmade stamped stationery and a beautiful print from Il Pavone Stamperia near the Accademia, and a lovely etching from a sidewalk vendor whose father was the artist. We didn't make it to many of the sights I had planned to see -
to the Frari, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Miracoli, Ca'd'Oro, the inside of Santa Maria della Salute. Already knew we wouldn't have time for the islands. Will have to save all of those for a future trip.

Where and what we ate: Dinner our first evening was at Antica Sacrestia, a casual restaurant close to - and recommended by - the hotel. Pizza Margherita, wonderfully flavored sole, tiramisu and tartuffo. Good food and good service. We were given a bag of tasty cookies as we left. We ate at Alle Testiere our second night. The restaurant was a little hard to find, and we made it with minutes to spare. It is very small - about 9 or 10 tables. We shared a bay scallop appetizer, gnocchi with pieces of swordfish and mushrooms and penne with zucchini and softshell crab for primi, grilled sole and swordfish in wine sauce with capers and olives for secondi. Dessert was a shared piece of fig and almond cake. We generally do not drink (health and medication reasons), but I had to try the prosecco. We chatted with an Australian couple seated next to us - lovely people. The swordfish in wine sauce, gnocchi and fig and almond cake were standouts. Great
food, great service, great place. Our favorite restaurant experience in Venice. Dinner our third evening was at Ai Gondolieri, near the Accademia. We shared fried zucchini flowers, gnocchi with mushrooms in a tomato sauce, served in a parmesan basket. Main courses were filetto di manzo for me, and lamb chops with a sesame crust for hubby. There was a complimentary chef's appetizer at the beginning of our meal, and complimentary cookies and candies for dessert, and a large snifter of celery stalks and other vegetables on the table. The food was very good. Service was good, as well. Our final dinner was at Do Leoni in our hotel. Tempura shrimp appetizer, homemade pasta and a risotto for first courses, and turbo and another fish (a bit like John Dory and very tasty) for main courses. Uncharacteristically, we received fairly poor service from the Maitre'D and wait staff. I emailed the hotel after our trip to
thank them for our wonderful stay, but also to mention the disappointing dinner, and received a prompt, gracious and apologetic reply. Had hoped to try a couple of other restaurants for lunch, but our breakfasts were so filling they held us over until
the evenings. Only had gelato once, at a little shop close to the Rialto Bridge. I had hazelnut and hubby had chocolate, both in cones.

Snapshots and thoughts on Venice: Stepping out onto our balcony to gaze across to San Giorgio Maggiore - left to all the ferries, right to Santa Maria della Salute, and down to the action along Riva degli Schiavoni - the vaporetti and gondolas, the tourists with wheeled luggage in tow crossing the bridges, the tour groups marching, ambling and straggling along behind their leaders, brightly colored umbrellas held high in the air. Sipping our drinks - prosecco and fresh wild strawberries, compliments of Londra Palace - on the square at Florian's, listening to the music of our own personal orchestra. A fleet of gondolas, sleek and glistening in the sun.
Sunset over Santa Maria della Salute. Gliding along a side canal with our handsome gondolier, an old woman looking down at us from her window. All of the colors. The Italian man on holiday with his wife who we met on the square, paying for birdseed to become a human perch for the pigeons. The bridges. The exteriors of the Basilica and the Doge's Palace. Walking past the shop that provided the masks for Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut." The Grand Canal, with its grand palazzi lining either side.

We found the Venetians to be accomodating and gracious hosts. We found their city serene, despite the tourist hordes. Ageless, despite the obvious signs of decay. Achingly lovely. And truly a magical place.

Florence was our next stop.

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