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glenmd Jul 18th, 2010 09:26 PM

April 2010 - 3 weeks in Italy, plus Switzerland
Prologue - I am a single male, in my early-to-mid forties, living in Vancouver,
BC. I had made my first excursion outside North America the previous April (two
weeks in London, there is a trip report around here somewhere), and after
changing my mind frequently, had settled on Italy as my next destination,
partially due to the appeal of roaming among Roman ruins, and partially because
the idea of living on Pizza and Gelato for 3 weeks was appealing.

In addition to the usual preparation steps (purchase of guidebooks, maps etc.,
reading trip reports, etc., I signed up for a couple of Italian language courses,
and downloaded some lectures on Roman architecture from Yale open university (and
bought the appropriate textbooks). During this process I learned:
a) I have no gift for languages.Ok, I already knew this, but I still think it helped me occasionally.
b) A fair bit of the development of Roman architecture, some of which was pretty
dry, but there were lots of times I was able to remember stuff I had read while
looking at various things in Rome and Pompei.

As part of my preparations, I made a few reservations:
1. Venice (Doge's Palace Sercet Itineraries tour)
2. Florence - Uffizi and Gallerie Accademia (home of Michaelangelo's David)
3. Vacitan City - Vacitan Museum
4. Rome - Borghese Gallery

The first three were merely highly desirable to avoid unpleasantly long lines, the fourth is a requirement.

Day 0/1 Travel Day (or the day I realized all my Italian language learning would
be useless in Switzerland)- I had an early morning flight (9 AM), connecting in
Toronto to Zurich. Flights were on-time, however the airline had cancelled my original connecting flight so I end up getting into Zurich about 2 and a half
hours later than my plan. (They did let me know about the change about a month
before the flight, still it was annoying, especially since Toronto has a particularly boring airport)

Arrived in Zurich 10:30, customs was painless and I had no luggage (carry-on
only) and I had pre-bought my train tickets to my first stop in Pontresina (near
St. Moritz). So, 30 minutes after touchdown, I was waiting to board my train. :)
By 3 PM, I had arrived it Pontresina. The train ride was fairly scenic, lots of
mountains along the way.

I walked to my hotel (15 minutes uphill, but as a hiker, no big deal even as tired as I was). Checked-in, wandered around the town a bit (there isn't a whole of town to see, lots of hotels though) and tried to find somewhere to eat. Unfortunately, not speaking a word of German and being a fairly unadventurous eater, this was trickier than I thought. In the end, I found a supermarket, bought some fruit, nuts, but some undetermined varieties of milk and cheese and called it a night. around 8 PM. In spite of fatigue (or possibly because of it) I awoke at just before 1 AM, and couldn't get back to sleep.

Day 2 - (the day I hiked out to a glacier or the day I discovered that holding hands on Swiss hiking trails is apparently illegal.)
It had started snowing about 2 hours after my arrival in Pontresina the day before, so I awoke early the next morning to a snow-covered landscape. I had some breakfast from the supplies I had purchased last night (the room had no fridge, but it did have a patio, which served the purpose admirably :) ), and set out by 7:15 or so.

The trail I had picked was about 18km return, mostly walking through a snow covered valley out to a glacier. Because of the snowfall the previous day and my early start, the trail was completely undisturbed, not a single human footprint to be seen (some animal tracks though). With all the trees covered with freshly fallen snow, it was amazingly pretty and serene. Temperature was around freezing, I had gloves and fleece jacket, but no hat. When the wind would pick-up, I would cover my ears with hands to keep them warm, but after a few minutes, the wind would die down again. Turns out I should've brought a hat, but more on that later. The skies were blue, but because it was a valley, I had nearly reached the glacier by the time the sun came into view. There were some amazing views, and better still I only encountered 2 people the entire way out. (There were lots of cross-country skiers coming back.)

By 2:30 or so I was back in town, did some more exploring, walking uphill above the town and then headed back to the hotel for a bit. Unfortunately, while I didn't realize it (although I really should have seen it coming), I was now badly sunburned. Fortunately, I was so tired, I was eventually able to fall asleep anyway.

Next up ... a train ride into Italy. (yes, I realize the promised Italy trip report is disturbingly short on Italy-based content. :) It's coming soon, I promise.)

Peter_S_Aus Jul 27th, 2010 11:21 PM

Looking forward to the next installment.


ellenem Jul 28th, 2010 07:02 AM

Enjoying your report . . . more please!

glenmd Aug 15th, 2010 07:39 PM

Day 3 - A train ride through the Alps and on to Venice (or the day I snuck into Italy.)

When planning my trip, I had read the train ride from Pontresina/St. Moritz to Tiriano, It. was exceptionally scenic, so I had decided I would start my trip in Switzerland. I had an 8:00 AM train headed out of Pontresina. (There is a special train called the Bernina Express that runs this route, but as far as I can tell, the regular train serves the purpose just as well.) Unfortunately, it was snowing again as I pulled out of Pontresina, and conditions quickly deteriorated into near blizzard status (lots of blowing snow, visibility limited to less than 100m.) So, rather than mountains, mostly I saw snow, blowing snow, and even more snow). It was actually kind of nice watching the weather go by, all while curled up nice and warm inside the train. Not what I signed up for, but what can you do?

As we descended, I start to see glimpses of a green valley. Yay! I arrived in Tirano, walked across the street from the Switz rail station into the Italian train station, and waited for my connection to Milan and onto Venice. I kept expecting someone to ask to see my passport, but no one ever did.

I was only in Milan for about 35 minutes, most of which was spent trying to find something to eat and my train on to Venice. The only observation I have from my brief time there was identifying a particular sub-species of woman. It wasn't just that these women were particularly attractive (though they were). You find that everywhere. It was the fact they were so well put together, I mean clothes, hair, makeup etc. How much time a woman would have to spend to look like that I can't imagine. Anyway, I have seen this occasionally in other places, but never so many in such a short period of time.

I got into Venice around 5:15 or so, just in time for the rain to stop. I stepped out of the train station and into another world. Used my map to walk to my hotel (Hotel Tivoli, located near San Toma Vaporetto stop) with minimal delay and checked in. Headed back to the area of the train station and bought a 72 hour vaporetto (water bus) pass (33 Euros), and boarded a vaporetto and took a ride down the grand canal. The first thing that struck me as I went down the canal was the sense of decay. Yes the buildings have stood for hundreds of years, but you shouldn't be under any illusions that this is what the people who lived here 400 here saw as they travelled down the canal. I can only imagine what this city looked like in its glory. The sun was getting low in the sky, and this led to some breathtaking images along the way. I went as far the Garibaldi stop and walked back to Hotel, stopping for a few minutes to take in Piazza San Marco just after dusk. One thing I noticed very quickly is that I had to adjust my idea of how it would take to get anywhere due to Venice's rather unique idea of what constitutes a street. In some cases, there are "streets" that you can touch the walls on both sides of the street at the same time.

Day 4 - Galleria dell'Accademia, Burano and Torcello, or the day I discovered that the best thing about being in Venice was just in being in Venice.

I woke up early 5:45 or so,and set out for a early morning stroll just after 6 AM (there is a thread somewhere where a number of folks suggested it). This is an excellent idea. The tourist hordes are almost all in bed, so the only people I encountered at first were folks cleaning up the mess left by the previous days tourists. The water in the canals was still and the air crisp and clear. I just randomly wandered the Dorsoduro area, taking in the scenery. As time passed, I started to see more locals headed off to work, and boats filled with produce and other supplies stopping to stock up stores and restaurants. It was just so peaceful and serene.

Stopped back at the hotel for breakfast, then headed out again. First stop of the day was the Galleria dell'Accademia. I am not even remotely knowledgeable about art, but I did enjoy some of the things a saw there. There is one work by Bellini, an enormous canvas of a scene set in Piazza San Marco, that was particularly impressive. On the other hand Bellini would appear to have been obsessed on the subject of Madonna and child images. He had at least 6 of them in the gallery.

After leaving the gallery I did a walk by of Santa Maria della Salute and then headed to Fondamenta Nuove (stopping for lunch along the way) to catch a ferry out to the Burano. When I arrived at Burano, the connecting ferry to Torcello was loading up so I ran over and hopped on. Torcello was once home to 20,000 people. Then, unfortunately malaria carrying mosquitos moved in and the people moved out (the population now is less than 50). There is nothing left to suggest there was ever a sizable population there, apparently the locals took the building materials with them when they left. There is little to see except marshland. There is a church there, however I only saw the outside of it ( no shorts allowed). On the whole, I would say the island is skippable.

I went back to Burano and starting walking, crossing over to Mazzorbo and walking around it. It was a pleasant walk, brightly coloured houses everywhere, plus the less famous leaning tower of Burano :) . It was also the first place in Venice that felt real and not like a theme park or museum. There was a school, kids playing etc. I headed back to the main island via Lido, had some supper and called it a day.

up next: the balance of my time in Venice, including the Basilica di San Marco, Doge's Palace, and the Frari Church, plus impression on Venice as a whole.

chazzarelli Aug 15th, 2010 08:43 PM

I'm really enjoying your report. Looking forward to reading more.

glenmd Sep 30th, 2010 11:41 AM

Apparently what motivates me to do these trip reports is the urge to go again. So, now that I am in the very early stages of planning 3+ weeks in France, Belgium and the Netherlands for next March/April, I find myself in the proper frame of mind to continue:

Day 4 - Basilica di San Marco, Doge’s Palace, Frari church, Scuola Grande di San Rocco or the day that made me wonder what is was about an image of a camera with a big red slash through that was so hard for people to understand.

I got up early again; this time headed towards the Rialto Bridge, and watched folks setting up the market for the day. Didn’t take many pictures (it felt kind of rude), but enjoyed seeing the variety of seafood especially.

After breakfast, went to join the line-up for Basilica di San Marco. Got there about 40 minutes before it opened, there were already a couple of hundred people in front of me (it didn’t help that this was the Saturday of the Easter long weekend.) I saw a lot of churches in Italy and after awhile they started to blend together, but this one does stand out, partially for the elaborate exterior and partially to the extensive mosaics lining the upper walls. The only annoyance was all the people taking pictures, in spite of signs everywhere saying not to (and because it was relatively dark in there, there were flashes going off everywhere)

From there, I went next to the Doge’s Palace. I had reserved the Secret Itineraries tour. I am not sure the areas we went to were any more visually impressive that what was available to everyone else, but if you are interested in the history of Venice at all, it was very informative and well worth doing. Had lunch somewhere (keeping to the standing rule of not buying/eating anything within a 10 minute walk of a major tourist destination), then headed to the Frari church and the Scuola Rocco (which are close together). I thought the Scuola Rocco in particular was nice. They have this amazing ceiling done by Tintoretto, and they provided large mirrors so you could look at said ceiling without straining your neck unduly, a service I would have appreciated in the Sistine Chapel. (Although I understand the impossibility of them providing it, but more on that subject later)

Late afternoon by this point, grabbed some pizza slices and picked some souvenirs and headed back to the hotel. After dark, I took one last vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal and then headed to bed.

Tomorrow, on to Florence…

ellenem Sep 30th, 2010 12:40 PM

Welcome back to the report! Still enjoying it.

Paul1950 Oct 1st, 2010 05:35 AM

glenmd--Thank you for this. It brings back fond memories.

glenmd Oct 1st, 2010 02:40 PM

You won’t find me making a lot of mention of where I stayed. In general, I chose accommodations based on location and price, using Trip Advisor, Venere and Expedia user reviews to get a sense of what to expect. I don’t need amenities much (though all had some form of internet access), so as long as things were clean and reasonably quiet I had no complaints.

You will find I have even less to say about where I ate. I am not a foodie, and most just lived on the free breakfasts the hotels all provided, pizza and gelato. :)

First off, a brief recap of Venice:

Stayed at the Hotel Tivoli, which is located near the San Toma vaporetto stop. Centrally located (though honestly, Venice is small enough that almost anywhere on the main island is probably ok), it served my purposes well. It was a little noisy, but this is fairly common at budget hotels, and it didn’t prevent me from getting a decent night’s sleep. Breakfast was of the continental variety, but everything was fresh and tasty.

The highlight of Venice for me was the early morning walks. For that reason, it is probably the one place I went on this trip I could most imagine myself living in. (not that I could afford to, you understand)

I almost forgot to mention. Apparently, the people who make expensive designer purses, just give away their merchandise to young men to sell them on the street for a substantial discount. :) I ran across 6 such men within 3 minutes on my first night in Venice.

Day 6 (yes, yesterday was mislabeled) - travel to Florence, plus the Uffizi

Caught a 9:30 Eurostar to Florence, took roughly 2 hours to get there. Checked in at my hotel (Delle Camelie, which while pretty spartan décor wise, was clean and quiet – plus the manager-owner seemed like a genuinely nice person). I had reservations for the Uffizi for 3PM, so I had a couple of hours to kill. I decided to take a walk through the historic centre of Florence.

Now, I had purchased Rick Steve’s guide to Florence (and Rome as well). He had included a couple of guided walks in the book, one of decided to do while waiting for my assigned time as the Uffizi. Generally speaking, I like his guidebooks, they are very practical. However, actually downloading the audio version of his walks ran into 2 problems: 1) His voice quickly became annoying and 2) He thinks he has a sense of humour.

Anyway, I walked along following the guide, getting my first look at the Duomo, stopping to see nice church (Orsanmichele, sculptures on the outside, and the inside was a) free to see, b) open on Easter Sunday and c) Photographs were permitted.)

Continuing towards the Uffizi, I passed an open square where Michangelo’s David originally stood (a copy is there now). There are a few more sculptures there, just standing around out in the open (they did have roof over them).

Arriving at the Uffizi, it took me 40 minutes from the time I got in line to pick up my ticket until the time I saw my first painting. How long the poor sods with no reservations had to wait, I have no idea.

As you might guess from the length of time I spent waiting, it was a zoo in there. In between dodging tour groups (which, btw, I officially abhor), I did manage to see some breathtaking paintings. My favorite was Lippi’s Madonna and Child. In trying to find words to describe the beauty of it, I went online looking for pictures of it. This process just saddened me, because pictures can’t seem to capture art very well. Sorry, you pretty much have to take my word for it, or go see it for yourself. :)

After spending 2 hours in the Uffizi, I headed out, where it had begun to rain fairly heavily. So, I just did some laundry, ate supper and rested up for the next day.

Tomorrow – Bargello, Duomo museum and dome climb, Santa Maria Novella church, Piazza Michangelo.

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