Sunday, April 26, 2009

København, Danmark

I just returned from visiting Copenhagen, Denmark which is also the city where a lot of people I know are studying right now.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Venezia, Italia (Mar 26-27)

Venice really is a city like no other. First of all it's an island. Second, it's sinking. And finally, I'm quite confident that you can't walk more than 100ft without changing roads. I've thought that other cities have been difficult to navigate but there were usually a few main roads I could use to get to where I wanted to go. In Venice the main roads are the canals and everything on land is just a maze of walking paths. I have never been happier that I brought a map with me. That being said, wandering around the city and sometimes getting very lost was a lot of fun.

Venice is full of tourists and therefore has more gift shops than I've seen since I went to Disney World. Venetian glass and masks are the hot ticket items and they are everywhere! I bought a couple pieces of glass and would have liked to have gotten a mask but I was worried it would get squished in my backpack so I decided to wait on the mask until I can make it to Carnevale or Mardi Gras Venice-style.

I spent a lot of time just exploring the city but I also went into over a dozen churches. I went to a few of the larger churches such as Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and Santa Maria Formosa and S.S. Giovanni e Paolo. I also went to the Basillica di San Marco, one of the city's premier tourist attractions. The majority of the churches I visted were small (and free); some of them were so small they weren't named on my map. The small churches, and even the larger churches were similar to the ones in Florence, slightly more art but still tasteful. There were definitely more visible relics in Venice. I saw hands, feet, blood, even a tooth, of various saints all over the city. Personally I think such relics should put away but I will say that everything was very well preserved. San Marco had more gold in it than any church I've seen since I left Prague. The knave wasn't as big as some of the other churches I visited in Venice but it was definitely the most ornate. Just around the corner from San Marco is the Bridge of Sighs where prisoners were once led across a canal from the Palazzo Ducale to where they were executed. Unfortunately they were renovating the buildings around the bridge while I was there so my picture is cluttered with scaffolding. The church I remember the best was a relatively small one, I was looking for one of the bridges across the Canal Grande when I noticed it was hosting an exhibit on Vivaldi, who was born and raised in Venice. Having played "The Four Seasons" way back in high school orchestra I thought I'd check it out. Not only did the exhibit have information about his life, it also had probably three dozen violins, violas, clarinets, and an assortment of other string instruments - all dating back to the 1700s. There wasn't anything especially remarkable about the church but the exhibit was very neat.

After crisscrossing the city a couple of times I ended my day at the Piazza San Marco. I was on the opposite side of the city as the train station so I took a water bus on the Canal Grande back to the station. The Canal Grande is the major road of the city and definitely the easiest way to travel without getting turned around or lost. The riches families lived on the Canal so the houses visible from the water have ornate fascades facing the water. I took my waterbus to the station as the sun was setting which made for some very pretty skylines.

As with every city I've visited I had to leave so much of it unexplored. I am definitely completely enamored with the country of Italy and cannot wait to go back and explore some more. Everytime I go my list of places keeps getting longer and I have yet to actually cross any of them off since there is so much still to see and experience.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Minitrip: Sacile

Sacile is a small town north of Venice where my friend Andy lives. There's a direct train from Sacile to Venice and Andy was kind enough to let me stay with him so I didn't have to pay for one of the crazy expensive hostels in Venice. I took a train from Florence to Venice and then decided to go to Sacile and hang out there for the rest of the day since I was pretty tired from all of my adventures up until then.

It was a beautiful sunny day so I spent a couple hours walking around the town. One of the travel websites I use called Sacile "Little Venice" because of the canals that crisscross its centro. One of the things the site didn't mention is that you can see the Dolomite mountains from the streets. The centro is made up of shops surrounding a central piazza. The town church is also referred to as a Duomo but it doesn't quite compare to the size of the Duomo in Florence. It was beautifully situated right next to one of the canals though. I found a footbridge where I could see the canal, town, and mountains and tried to get a picture to due the view justice. Unfortunately I got about half dozen people's TV antennas in the shot which definitely compromises the picture.

If I wasn't obligated to go back to Uni. Sussex and then RPI, I probably would have set up camp right there in Sacile. I even found a couple of places for sale or rent. It was such a beautiful town and everyone I met was really friendly. It was exactly what I was expecting for a small Italian town.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Firenze, Italia (Mar 24-25)

My favorite way to travel in Europe is quickly becoming by train. The train ride from Rome to Florence was very different scenery than my trip through the Alps to Milan. Instead of giant mountains there were tall hills with manors or villages at the tops. The low lands were devoted to agriculture. The only bad thing was the grey weather that followed me all the way from Rome to Florence.

One thing that gray, rain weather is good for is museums. Therefore I went to the Galleria dell' Accademia and the Galleria degli Uffizi on my first day in Florence. I honestly spent more time waiting in line than it took to see all of the art in the museums. The Accademia is famous for Michelangelo's Statue of David. Although there is little else in the gallery worth noting, the David was intense. Somehow all of the pictures in my textbooks never quite conveyed how tall the statue really is. The statue is very beautiful and totally worth the 6.5 euros I paid to see it. In the Uffizi, I saw Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" and "Spring." I almost missed both paintings because the entrance to the room with the paintings is through the back of another room. I'm really glad that I backtracked and found the entrance since those two paintings were the main reason I stood in line for as long as I did. I didn't recognize any of the other works in the gallery but staying in the gallery kept me out of the rain so I was happy to check out all of the rooms.
By the time I ran out of paintings to look at, it had stopped raining so I ventured out and decided to climb up to the Piazzale Michelangelo which is, more or less, a parking lot at the top of a hill that looks out over the city of Florence. The climb up the stairs to the piazza was much harder than I was expecting. Stairs weren't steep but there were a lot of them. Luckily enough people walk up to this spot that there were plenty of benches surrounding the parking lot. Even though the sky was still fairly misty from the afternoon showers, you could still see the expansive city and the Tuscan mountains beyond it. Many of the buildings had red tile roofs and the misty mountains in the background created what is considered to be a classic Italian backdrop.

Since I did the museums on the first day, I did churches on the second day. Florence, like every other major Italian city, has a ton of churches. It turns out that the Duomo in Florence is the Duomo with the third largest knave in the world. The Duomo and several other well-known churches in the city have exteriors of green and white marble. I haven't seen that combination any where else that I've traveled. I visited close to a dozen churches over the course of the day ranging from the gigantic Duomo to the tiny hole-in-the-wall church that Dante and his family attended. Overall, I've found the church is Italy to be more beautiful and better decorated/organized than the churches I've seen anywhere else. I really liked checking out some of the smaller churches, it was a little like stepping back in time. I went up to a monastery next to the Piazza Michelangelo and heard the end of Vespers. From inside a large mostly empty marble church the echos of the chants were flat out eerie. I didn't make it to St. Croce which is where Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli are supposed to be entombed. I also missed the Palazzo Piti which is where the Medici's lived. However, I'm definitely planning on returning to Italy so I'll have another chance to see them.

One of the high points of visiting Florence was seeing my friends from JMU. We met by chance in Dublin and have kept in touch with facebook and email. They're studying in Florence so they were able to show me their favorite pizza and gelato places. Pizza and gelato are essential when traveling on a student's budget and these places had some of the best I had tried so far. The pizza in Florence was at least twice as thick as the super-thin pizza I had in Milan but it was still very light, nothing like the gummy crusts you sometimes get in the States. I wish I could have spent more time hanging out with everyone but they had papers to finish and I had a train ticket to Venice. A couple of them are planning on coming to the UK later this year some hopefully we'll get to meet up again.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Roma, Italia (March 20-23)

The major inspiration for my trip to Rome was to watch my friend Andy run in the Rome Marathon. I had read about marathons in magazines and newspapers and seen clips on the news but you really can't appreciate how much a a crowd over 14,000 runners and support crew creates until you're trying to negotiate a city in the midst of it. We arrived in Rome a couple days before the marathon and it seemed like everywhere we went we met people who were running or knew someone running the marathon.

My first day in Rome the weather reminded me more of the weather I was used to in England than the sunny, warm weather I was expecting in Italy. Luckily that day was spent checking into hostels and creating a rough plan for the next couple days. Ironically, my first day in Rome was also the day of my first meal at a proper Indian food restaurant.

The next day we planned to go to Vatican City. The weather was still cool, but sunny. The hostel we stayed at had a breakfast room with a terrace. The view from the breakfast terrace in the sunlight reminded me of something from a movie. Yes, I was probably a little swept up with being in Italy but it was still very pretty. Vatican City was crawling with people. We set off for the Vatican Museum and were greeted with a massive que. Thankfully the line moved quickly and we were in the museum in less than half the time than a "tour guide" had predicted. We only did the art portion of the museum and that took nearly three hours. Mixed in with all of the gothic religious art, we saw Raphael's School of Athens, the Sistine Chapel, as well as Eygptian, Assyrian, Roman, and Greek exhibits. The real School of Athens was very cool, especially after seeing a sketch of it in Milan. The Sistine chapel was not what I was expecting. All of the walls and ceiling are covered with frescos. The famous frescos make make a very small percentage of all of those visible. I had to search for some of the familiar fractions of complete frescos. The high concentration of people jammed in the small chapel took away from the art because of all of the jostling and shhing by curators.

After we finished as much of the museum as we could handle, Andy and I headed for the marathon expo so he could register and get his bib number. After seeing all of the sponsor and vendor tents at the expo, even I felt like I should be running. They also had a pasta dinner going on which we visited before checking out the Colosseum. The building was already closed but I got some good pictures of it and the surrounding ruins at sunset. We wandered around the city a little bit before turning in early for the marathon the next day.

Sunday morning I met Andy at the Colosseum at 7:30am. The streets and the metro were packed on the way to the Colosseum. All of the runners and cheer squads we had met of the last two days were congregating for the beginning of the race. While Andy got to run along a prearranged racecourse, I got to battle through slow moving crowds and try to navigate a city that suddenly had many of its major street blocked off. Thankfully the metro, though congested, was still working normally so that proved to be one of the better ways to get around. I crisscrossed across the city several times and only managed to actually see Andy running once although I'm sure that he ran past me several time with me realizing it. I did get to see several sites along the racecourse like the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps which was pretty handy. Andy did a great job finishing the marathon in 4 hours and 12 minutes. I was really proud of him. After the race Andy was really sore so he took some time to rest and I went back to Vatican City.

On my second trip to Vatican City, I went to St. Peter's Square and Basilica. The Pope was on tour in Africa so I didn't see him in his window but I did see the window. The St. Peter's complex huge and crowded. St. Peter's Basilica was gigantic. It has the largest knave in the world which is only part of what makes it awe inspiring. The floors and walls had intricate patterns of marble and while there were many decorations, it didn't feel cluttered like many of the other major religious buildings I've visited. However, as the center of the Roman Catholic Church, I'd expect St. Peter's Basilica to look incredible. I couldn't get close to the high alter because that area of the Basilica was reserved for those attending mass. I couldn't stay for mass because I was due to meet Andy for dinner. From where I was, about halfway back from the alter, the rest of the cavity looked just as beautiful of the area that I could see up close.

My last day in Rome, Andy and I were meant to go to the Colosseum and the ruins of Palantino Hill and the Roman Forum. However, Andy was still very sore from the race so I went on my own. The Colosseum seemed even bigger from the inside than it did from the outside. Enough of the structure remains that you could get a rough feel of what it may have been little to attend "games" at the venue some 2000 years ago. The ruins were another story. There area was once full of marble buildings but over the centuries the temples, palaces, and other buildings have been broken, disassembled, and mixed together to the point that, without a guide or a decent map, the crumbling walls don't mean very much. I spent the rest of the day wandering around the city searching out some of the sights I had missed like the Pantheon, and several fountains. It was the perfect day to walk around the city; sunny and warm with a light breeze. I spent all day walking around and taking pictures, wrapping out the day and my time in Rome by taking some night pictures of the Colosseum. Next Stop: Florence.