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

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Dec 16th, 2005, 11:05 AM
  #1
Uma
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Trip Report - First Time to Venice, Florence, Lucca and London

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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Dec 16th, 2005, 09:25 PM
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Uma,
Thank you so much for the first part of your lovely trip report. Am looking forward to more.
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Dec 16th, 2005, 10:15 PM
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Hi, Uma!

Lovely report so far! Looking forward to Florence!
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Dec 17th, 2005, 06:58 AM
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ira
 
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Hi Uma,

Thanks for sharing.

Please break your posts into shorter paragraphs.

For some of us, too much text is hard on the eyes.

Thanks.

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Dec 17th, 2005, 07:30 AM
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Uma
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artlover, smalti and ira, thanks for your comments. will take you up on your suggestion next time, ira - smaller paragraphs.
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Dec 17th, 2005, 08:53 AM
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Nice trip report, Uma! I'm looking forward to hearing about Florence and Lucca.
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Dec 17th, 2005, 10:53 AM
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Yeah, let's have some more, Uma!
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Dec 17th, 2005, 01:42 PM
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Dear Uma,

I'm really enjoying reading your report. We also stayed on the Riva degli Schiavoni in a small 3rd floor apartment, just down the way from the Londra. I loved your description of the view, especially the Salute in the golden evening sunlight. I can close my eyes and go right back there. Thanks so much for writing and looking forward to more.

Best wishes, SusanEva
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Dec 17th, 2005, 01:43 PM
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Hi Uma,
My DH and I are 39 days away and your beautiful trip report is pacifying us in excellent fashion.
Looking forward to more!
Tiff
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Dec 17th, 2005, 07:20 PM
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excellent report...anxious to read more..
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Dec 18th, 2005, 05:04 AM
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Very nicely written report. I'm taking good notes for my upcoming trip in March. 4 nights in Venice but only 1 gelato?

"Achingly lovely" What a beautiful way to describe all that is Venice. Ahhhh...waiting for more!
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Dec 18th, 2005, 10:34 AM
  #12
Uma
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Thanks for all your kind words. Here is Part Two:

We took the Eurostar 1st class from Venice to Florence. Nice train, great ride. Thought we had done well to bring 2 of the 22 " rolling suitcases and 2 small overnight bags. Even that was a bit much to heft up and down the train stairs. Take note.

Where Venice was calm, Florence was a caffeine jolt. All the scooters and tiny cars, the bicycles, the narrow streets, everyone smoking and scurrying. We arrived to a march of right wing party members protesting the intended building of a mosque. La polizia were out in force, in riot gear. The march went off peacefully, but our hotel was cordoned off and we had to plead to get past the police shields.

Where we stayed: Hotel Helvetia & Bristol. Location was terrific, around the corner from Piazza della Repubblica, close to the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi and the Ponte Vecchio. We had a standard room. Small, though nicely decorated. The tiny bathroom had a glassed in shower. A rose and a bowl of fruit greeted us upon arrival.

The lobby of the Helvetia is lovely. The staff always greeted us by name, and were extremely accommodating and helpful. Housekeeping here, as at Londra Palace, was wonderful. Breakfast was included with our package, served in the intimate lounge and restaurant - a spread reminiscent of the one at Londra Palace, but with hot foods - scrambled eggs and bacon or sausage. Afternoon tea and a dinner at the hotel were also included (more later).

Some of what we saw and did: We took an Artviva Walking Tour our first morning. Our guide was an art student from Australia. Highly recommend the tour and the company. She was amusing and informative. A good way to get some history and our bearings. When she led us into Piazza della Signoria, we stumbled upon a parade in the square. Men in colorful costumes hoisted colorful flags they tossed high in the air. We loved this square and crisscrossed it many times during our stay.

I had figured, before the trip,that the two things that would move me to tears would be that first glimpse of Venice from the water taxi, and seeing Michelangelo's David in the Accademia. Neither did. It was the Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori - the Duomo - that did me in. Perhaps because of its sheer size, the beauty of its pink and green and white marble facade, its grand dome, the hours and days and months and years it took to construct. I found my first sight of it quite moving.

We were never to see the inside of the Duomo - lines were always too long. But we loved the inside of the Baptistery and the copy of Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise. Don't miss the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (Duomo Museum) - close by and where the original Gates of Paradise panels are on display, along with a late Pieta by Michelangelo, works by Donatello and della Robbia and artifacts from Brunelleschi's dome.

We had reserved our tickets by phone for both the Accademia and the Uffizi -
easy and wise to do. There aren't words to do justice to the David. You could stare at him forever, and still not comprehend how someone could have created that from stone. We were quite taken, as well, with Michelangelo's unfinished Slaves. The Uffizi is a wonderful museum, well worth a trip, if just for Botticelli's Birth of Venus (but there is so much more). I went through the Bargello Museum while hubby explored. Go for its sculptures and the beautiful palazzo that houses them.

We enjoyed walking along the banks of the Arno, crossing over the Ponte Vecchio, though I found all the jewelry shops a little overwhelming.

Piazza della Repubblica was a bustling, vibrant square. There was always something going on there - one day a giant flower sale, the next a carousel, always street performers.

The church of Santa Croce was a highlight for us, with its tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, Ghiberti and Rossini and its frescoes.

Hubby rubbed the wild boar's snout at the Straw Market, and dropped a coin from its mouth. (confused about where we were going on our trip, one of his residents had given him a coin to toss in the Trevi Fountain for luck). Not sure how much luck she'll have, but hopefully he ensured her a trip to Florence one day.

We spent one of our days in Siena. Took the SITA bus - very easy and inexpensive and drops you off in town. Unfortunately, it began to rain while we were on the road, and continued the whole time we were there. Hard to see much when you are more concentrated on not getting poked in the eye by the umbrellas of passersby as you walk the narrow streets. Sun would definitely have enhanced our experience, but it was still a good one. We liked Il Campo, and were dazzled by the inside of the Duomo. We ducked into Nannini for cioccolata calde, rolls that tasted like pizza and pan forte (like fruitcake, but better), and that warmed us up.

Again, we didn't make it to many of the sights I had planned to see - saw the outside of Santa Maria Novella church, but not the inside; didn't see the Medici Chapels or the Synagogue or San Marco, or make it to Piazzale Michelangelo or Fiesole (weather wasn't the best, and I had dragged hubby around enough as it was). Again, we'll have to save those for a future trip. What we did see and experience was terrific.

Next up: what we ate. (hint - lots of gelato)
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Dec 19th, 2005, 07:36 PM
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Uma
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Not sure if anyone is interested, but since I wrote it, and it may be useful to someone, will finish up my Florence trip report.

Where and what we ate: Dinner our first evening was at La Martinicca, a very reasonable and casual spot close to our hotel, and recommended by the concierge. We shared bruschetta al pomodoro, ribolitta, chicken cacciatore, a veal dish and tiramisu. The food was hearty and good - not great. We chose our second evening to have the dinner that was included in our hotel package. Helvetia's restaurant is called Hosteria Bibbendum (or something close to that), and it provided one of our tastiest meals. Each dish was excellent. We shared scallops with chickpeas in a green sauce, fettucine with lobster, tomatoes and zucchini, risotto with pecorino, sliced chianina beef with roasted vegetables, a chocolate torte, creme brulee and tiny pastries. Our waiter, aware this was a complimentary meal, kept bringing out dishes and we kept sampling.

Dinner our third evening was at La Giostra. Eating here is an "experience," one you will either love or hate. The Prince is a character, as are his sons, one of whom sported a Harley tee shirt and gold bangles from his wrists to his elbows. The meal began with complimentary spumanti. We had already ordered eggplant carpaccio, unaware that the Prince himself would bring out a huge platter of delicious, complimentary appetizers. And still we kept eating. We shared a very good gnocchetti with ricotta and spinach and an even better tagliatelle with wild boar, tiramisu (good) and sacher torte (ok).The atmosphere is warm and bustling.
We really enjoyed our "experience." The British couple seated next to us, and with whom we chatted throughout our meal, hated it. They disliked the gargantuan portions and the fact that wine was only had by the bottle and not the glass.

Cantinetta Antinori was quite close to our hotel, and where we had dinner our fourth evening. The Antinori family are winemakers, so I had to try a glass. I let the waiter choose; his selection, a red, was wonderful. The food was very good - smoked swordfish appetizer, tagliatelle with ricotta and spinach, Tuscan bean soup, chianina filets. Meat was a recurring theme in our meals, though we rarely eat it at home.

We had planned to eat at Acqua al Due on our last evening. It was raining again, and we were tired, so just returned to La Martinicca.

As in Venice, we never ate lunch. Unless, of course, gelato is considered a lunch. And then we ate lunch everyday! Our first taste in Florence was at Gilli on Piazza della Repubblica. Good, but not great. Much better was Perche No for hazelnut, banana, pistachio and chocolate. The best, by far, was at Vivoli. Banana, hazelnut, pistachio again - and chocolate with orange. The pistachio was sublime.

We bought beautiful marbleized stationery, bookmarks and picture frames at Il Papiro near the Duomo Museum, fragrant soaps at the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, knickknacks at the Uffizi and Accademia gift shops, and great leather wallets (not cheap) and bookmarks (cheap) at the Scuola del Cuoio (Leather School) attached to the Santa Croce church. My splurge was a stylish leather jacket at Saja (near Piazza della Signoria). A discount is offered to people who take an Artviva tour. In Siena we bought salad fork and spoon sets with ceramic handles from a shop called The Alternative.

Snapshots and thoughts on Florence:
Trying to take in the enormity of the Duomo, the bell tower and dome, and failing; standing on the Ponte Vecchio looking out at the faintly rippling Arno;a street performer dressed like a sly and slightly tipsy Napoleon, posed beneath the Rape of the Sabines statue; sipping our hot chocolates standing at the bar at Rivoire; always the church bells chiming the hour and the half hour; the fashion flair of the locals; the patience of the drivers in their tiny clown cars weaving in and out of the throngs; stopping on a street to eat my gelato and looking into the face of an elderly, dapper Italian gentleman whose smile melted my heart; the Tuscan countryside; David and Venus and a late Pieta; the army of scooters at rest in front of the hotel, but waiting for their marching orders.

A local we met at the train station when we first arrived, who lived elsewhere, remarked that Florentines had an attitude that had driven him away. One of our cab drivers definitely had that "attitude;" his disdain for Americans was obvious. For the most part, we found the citizens of Florence to be good hosts.

It is definitely a walking city. And it's busting at the seams with art and architecture, history and culture, fashion and food. Decades wouldn't be enough to soak up all that Florence has to offer.

If pressed, we would both say Venice was our favorite of the two cities, by the slightest of edges. That takes nothing away from Florence and its treasures. It is a city I hope to return to one day.
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Dec 19th, 2005, 07:55 PM
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Uma, I am enjoying your report and reliving my Italian experience. How did you enjoy Lucca? I loved it and can hardly wait for your report. Barb
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Dec 19th, 2005, 07:58 PM
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I'm sure lots of us are really enjoying this, Uma. The details you choose to share bring me right back there. More, please!
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Dec 19th, 2005, 08:06 PM
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Excellent trip report, Uma. I, too, am eager to hear about Lucca.
Thanks,
Dina
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Dec 19th, 2005, 08:47 PM
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Fine report of Florence, Uma. We also enjoyed the Helvetia & Bristol many years ago--it was a charming, charming hotel.

The art in Florence is indeed overwhelming.

Looking forward to more of your report!
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Dec 19th, 2005, 08:47 PM
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Uma, I'm really enjoying your report. Your writing style really brings the flavor of the cities to mind and reminds me of my trip in Sept. And I like your "Snapshot" sections as well. Do continue with Lucca, please!
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Dec 20th, 2005, 07:21 AM
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Hi Uma ~ Still enjoying your beautiful descriptions and wonderful report, please do continue, sometimes it does take us a bit to get back here.

No matter how many times I read reports on this area, I never tire of it, each brings their own unique view, hearing you speak of the Duomo reminded me of my own first sight. Coming down the street by myself and seeing it for the first time is something I will never forget. And now I will soon have the luxury of introducing my husband to her.

Thanks for your great report, looking forward to more, Tiff
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Dec 20th, 2005, 08:02 AM
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Thank you, Uma, for this wonderful report. I will be in Florence with DH in about a month, and I really am interested in the restaurant reviews, and what you bought. I took note of the comment about the jewelry shops being overwhelming; I am afraid that's how I will respond to all shopping, even though I want to make some purchases.

Bonniejean
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