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Italy

Venezia, The Floating City

"If you read a lot, nothing is ever as good as you imagined. Venice is -- Venice is better." ~ Fran Lebowitz

overcast 20 °C
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Where did we stay? Hotel Venezia

The City of Water is old and beautiful. Walking down the narrow alleys and over the hundreds of bridges, 400 bridges to be precise, the magical feeling of Venice is lost to none. Once known as the Republic of Venice, the city is now part of Italy. The rich history of Venice can be felt everywhere, and the charm of this beautiful city takes your breathe away.

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We stayed on the mainland of Venice, known as Mestre. In the past, the islands of Venice was only accessible by boat. Today, a 4km bus connects the mainland with Venice. As no cars are allowed inside Venice, all busses, trains and cars park in a big parking lot after they cross the bridge and everyone walks from there. In Venice everyone walks everywhere and walking is definitely the best way to explore this collection of 118 little islands.

Street names with Venetian corrections
Venetians have their own dialect, which is different from the Italian spoken in the rest of Italy. Venetians also used to know their way around the city without needing any street signs. Street signs have been put up by the Italian government. These do not use the Venetian dialect of not using double letters in their spelling and the Venetians have rebelled by painting over the letters on most of the signs in the city.
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Signs directing you to the main areas in Venice
During the day, tourists and the general population crowd the streets. During the night, Venice gets quiet. The streets are less crowded and the narrow alleyways, some requiring single file are easier to navigate. Getting lost in Venice is the best way to explore the city, but luckily you are never really lost as there are signs everywhere pointing you towards the three main areas.
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These main areas are: Piazzale Roma, Rialto and San Marco.

PIAZZALE ROMA

This is the square right at the entrance of Venice and no vehicles are allowed past this point. There are many shops here where you can buy souveniers. If you are in Venice and you want to get back to the main square or the entrance bridge, just follow the signs to Piazzale Roma.

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Alleys of Venice
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RIALTO

Exploring Venice, you will eventually come across the Grand Canal. You will recognise the canal immediately. It is the widest canal in Venice as well as the busiests canal. There are many vaporetti's (water buses), as well as gondolas and water taxis on this canal. The Rialto bridge connects the markets, which is the economic side of of Venice, to San Marco, the political side of Venice. The shops on this bridge were put here to pay for the construction of the bridge. The market was one of the busiest areas of Venice and one of the big gathering points of Venice.

"What news on the Rialto?" - Merchant of Venice (William Shakespeare)

The Grand Canal
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Rialto Bridge
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The Grand Canal at Night
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SAN MARCO

After you cross the Rialto Bridge, follow the signs and you will eventually get to San Marco's Square. San Marco hosts many of Venice's famous sights such as the the Doge's Palace, the Basilica as well as the Bell Tower. These are not political buildings anymore, but are now public buildings and museums. This square is also featured in several video games such as Tekken and Assassins Creed.

San Marco Square
The San Marco square is famous for its flooding. The holes which were designed to collect rainwater is also what floods the square. Podiums are built across the square for people to walk on. Venice sinks by 12cm a year. Venice has started building layers on top of their current floors to counteract the sinking. As a result of this, the pillars on the Doge's Palace is now much shorter than it was when the palace was built. Many lower floors of buildings are now also boarded up and unused as a result of the rising water.
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Campanile di San Marco (The Campanile / Bell Tower of San Marco)
A must see in the San Marco square is the Bell Tower. For 8€, you take a lift up to the top of the tower and from here you will see a 360° view of Venice. Standing in the queue to go up the tower is well worth the wait. The views from above are beautiful and you definitely get a sense of the many canals and alleys of Venice.

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San Giorgio Island from the Bell Tower
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Gondola Ride
From San Marco, you can take a gondola ride through Venice. The ride will be approximately 30 minutes long and will take you through the small canals of Venice. You will see places only accessible by boat and experience the quiet, peaceful areas of Venice. A gondola ride will be 80€ and can take up to 6 people. Look for any of the areas where people are getting onto gondolas and wait in line.

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TOP TIPS:

1. DO GET LOST: There is no better way to explore Venice than getting lost in the narrow alleys and streets. Just follow the signs to the main areas if you feel lost.
2. DO ASK ABOUT THE SEATING FEE: As everywhere in Italy, some restaurants charge a seating fee to simply sit at a table and drink a glass of wine. That glass of wine can become expensive very quickly, especially if you are at a popular restaurant with a nice view.
3. DO GO UP HIGH: The best view of Venice is from the Bell Tower. Standing in the queue will ensure you a 360 degree view.
4. DO TAKE A MOMENT TO TAKE IT ALL IN: Buy a bottle of wine and some plastic cups and sit next to the canal. Take in the people, the gondolas, the water, the movement of Venice.

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Posted by Anja Fourie 10:03 Archived in Italy Tagged water venice tower italy rialto san_marco mestre grand_canal san_polo Comments (3)

Palermo, Sicily

"In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns." - Calo ~ The Godfather.

sunny 28 °C
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Today we are docked in the darker part of Italy. Mafia country.

Palermo is the home of the Sicilian Mafia, also known as the Cosa Nostra. The city has a quiet, eerie feeling to it. The streets are emptier than all the other Italian cities I visited. Could this be an effect of the Mafia? Or is this merely a fantasy playing out in my head? There are apparently up to 4000 active members of the Mafia in Palermo. On my trip here, I try to spot a Mafia member or something giving away evidence of Mafia activity. I find nothing, but I guess that is the point. If I could point a Mafia member out from the crowd, he wouldn't be a very good Mafia member, now would he?

1. Docked at Palermo
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Compared to the famous cities of Rome and Florence, Palermo looks poverty stricken and dirty. Palermo is the largest city and port on the island of Sicily. It used to be a part of Greece and later became part of the Roman Empire. In 1861, Sicily became a part of Italy.

2. Post office of Palermo
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A tourist map shows eight places of interest in Palermo. I give the Marionette Museum and the Archaeological Museum a skip. I follow the map to Quattro Conti, the exact city center of the old Palermo. The four buildings surrounding the city center are all decorated with statues and carvings. On every corner in Palermo, there are also horse-drawn carriages that take you around the city for 5 Euro.

3. City center of old Palermo
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All of the carriage men try to get my attention. One whistles at me and I decide it is time to brave the heat of the summer day. I leave the shadow of the buildings and walk down the road to the next destination on my map. A man on a Vespa suddenly drives up the sidewalk right in front of me. My first thought is that he made an accident, but he turns around a throws a big smile at me. "Gelato?" he asks. It takes me a moment to realise he wants to buy me an ice-cream. I shake my head no and start to walk away. This does not discourage him at all. He starts to follow me on the sidewalk, slowly riding his pale blue Vespa behind me.

My next destination suddenly appears before me. The Cathedral. Sanctuary from Mr.Blue Vespa and sanctuary from the Sicilian heat. This 12th century Roman Catholic church, with architectural styles from the Middle Ages, shows a stark difference to the Renaissance flair of architecture in Florence or Pisa. The appearance is almost Gothic and Middle Eastern at the same time. This could be leftover from the time that Sicily was under Arab rule.

4. Cathedral and grounds
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Further down the street, the last thing to see is the Palace. I can't find a way into the palace, but with the sun bearing down uncomfortably on me, I didn't look too hard for an entrance either. I rather just stroll through the palace gardens. Later I found out that this is the current seat of the parliament of Sicily and not a tourist attraction.

5. The Palermo Palace and gardens
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Walking back I accidentally stumble upon the Piazza Pretoria. This is a beautiful fountain which was originally built for a villa near Florence, but ended up here. Somewhere down the street I walk into a church. This isn't even on the tourist map, but I go in anyway. Here I just sit down a little to get away from the heat. It is really quiet, peaceful and beautiful inside the church. The great thing about beautiful old churches are that they are tourist attractions, but generally do not ask any entrance money.

6. Piazzo Pretoria
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7. Inside the little church
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As I walk back to the port to return to the ship, I buy myself a bottle of water. The shopkeeper realises I am a tourist and that I don't speak Italian. "Where? Where?" he excitedly asks.
"South Africa." My answer is met with a blank expression. "Africa?" I try again.
His face lights up as I see understanding sinking in. Then, confusion. "But...uh...you...uh...white?"
"Yes." I smile. The language barrier is far too great to explain this one, so I just show him my R5 coin instead. It looks exactly like a 2 Euro coin. Both have a golden circle in the middle, surrounded by a silver band. He gets immensely excited about the coin and I give it to him to keep.
"Ah, I remember! I always remember!"

I say my grazies and my ciaos and the shopkeeper hurries outside to wave to me as I walk down the road. Sicilians are definitely a lot friendlier than main land Italians. I smile as I wonder if I would be part the dinner conversation that evening.

Next stop: Barcelona

Posted by Anja Fourie 14:43 Archived in Italy Tagged horses fountain florence cathedral dirty sicily friendly palermo Comments (3)

When in Rome...

"Rome has not seen a modern building in more than half a century. It is a city frozen in time." - Richard Meier.

sunny 26 °C
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Civitavecchia is the heart of Italy as this is a really big and important port and harbour. Civitavecchia, which means "ancient town", is about 80kms away from Rome. Walking on the port is not allowed, so a shuttle bus from the ship takes us into town where we take the 1.5 hour train ride into Rome.

1. Civitavecchia harbour wall
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Rome has a few different train stations as the city is so big. We decide to buy a ticket for one of the hop-on-hop-off bus tours. The bus stops at 12 major points in Rome and you get earphones to plug into a little box where you can listen to interesting facts. These type of buses are a really quick and cheap way to see the city when you don't have a lot of time.

2. The map and our stops
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As the bus drives down Via Labicana you see the Colosseum coming towards you. When we round the corner we also see the sea of tourist surrounding the popular fighting grounds of Ancient Rome. We walk around, take some photos and then proceed up Fori Imperial, past some beautiful buildings and ancient ruins.

3. Thank you Mr. Obvious, we almost didn't see the Colosseum there
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4. Entrance gate to the Colosseum
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5. The Colosseum
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In the distance you can see the Il Vittoriano and it takes your breath away. The Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II is a monument build to the first king of a unified Italy, Vittoria Emanuele. It is visible to most of Rome as it is so large, but is regarded by most as too pompous. To me it was just one magnificent structure. The building is made out of pure white marble and it just dominates everything around it. Not even the rude gladiators can ruin the mood.

6. Il Vittoriano
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Everywhere on the streets there are men dressed as gladiators and you pay them to take a picture with them. We ask the one which way we should walk to get to the fountain. He rudely replied: "Why should I speak English to you. I am standing here and I am hot in this outfit and you don't even want to pay me for a photo." We then just use our own little map and figure the way out on our own.

The square in which the fountain is situated is so crowded that we cannot even reach the edge to throw in some coins. Throwing in a coin will, according to Roman legend, ensure that you return to Rome one day. In the end I climbed on a step just to get a photo. The Fontane di Trevi really is very beautiful. This should not be confused with the Fountain of Love that can be seen in the movie, When in Rome as this is a made-up fountain. We then make our way down to Stop 12 and come across the Pantheon without even searching for it. The Pantheon was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa as a temple to all the gods. Vittorio Emanuele II is also buried here. Today the Pantheon is used as a Catholic church.

7. Trevi Fountain
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8. Pantheon
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Stop 1: Citta del Vaticano. Arriving there, the queue to get inside is at about 2 hours. We have no time to stand in this queue, so we just take some pictures of St. Peter's Basilica, the dome, and then get some ice-cream. We sit on a bench and wait for our bus to come back so we can take the train back to Civitavecchia. The ice-cream melts immediately as it probably has the same density as milk. You eat so fast, just to avoid getting melted ice-cream all over yourself. This being the first relaxed moment we had all day, I just sit in wonderment at the busy Roman street in front of me and the beautiful view of the Vatican to the right. The Vatican City has a population of about 800 people and it is ruled by the bishop of Rome, who is of course the Pope. It is the sovereign territory of the Holy See, which is where the jurisdiction over the Catholic Church presides. It is thus the central government of the Catholic Church. The current pope is Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th Pope. He is of German descent and holds both German and Vatican citizenship.

9. Pope Benedict XVI
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10. Outside the Vatican
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Rome is a big and magnificent city. Even though there is so much more to see in Rome than in smaller cities like Florence, Florence is much more beautiful. Rome is dirty at best and there are so many people everywhere that you get crushed wherever you go. Rome is just such a big city that you really need about three days to experience it properly.

Next stop: Palermo, Sicily.

Posted by Anja Fourie 10:46 Archived in Italy Tagged italy rome vatican colosseum vittoriano ice-cream trevi_fountain rude_people Comments (2)

Florence and Pisa in one day

"A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see." - Samuel Johnson.

sunny 29 °C
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When I got up this morning we were docked at a beautiful little town called La Spezia. La Spezia has a small harbour which made it another tender dock. This meant that the little shuttle boats had to take you to shore again. The entire town is set against a steep slope into the mountain. La Spezia is one of Italy's main commercial harbours and hosts one of the biggest Italian military industries, OTA Melara.

For 6 euro, a little train will take you to the town centre as the harbour is at the bottom of the mountain and a little way from the attractions of La Spezia. At La Spezia's station, I buy my train tickets for Florence and Pisa. I will be travelling in a lopsided triangle. From La Spezia to Pisa, from Pisa to Florence and from there back to La Spezia. The next train leaves in 10 minutes and after a hour we are in the centre of Pisa. I buy a bus pass for 1,10 euro. It takes me the Field of Miracles.

1. Even the McDonald's in Italy is stylish
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2. Entrance to the Field of Miracles
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The bus stops right at the square in front of the Square of Miracles. From outside the wall I can already see the Tower. I wish I had time to see more of Pisa's architectural wonders, but the Piazza dei Miracoli will have to do for now. It is also known as the Piazza del Duomo and is a walled area which contains the four great religious buildings of Pisa. This square has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The first thing you see when you enter the square is the large Romanesque dome of the Battistero (Baptistery). The other two buildings are the cathedral (Duomo di Pisa), and the Camposanto Monumentale (cemetery).

3. First sight of the complex
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4. The Field of Miracles
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That famous tower hides behind the massive cathedral and as you round the marble steps of the cathedral, the Campanile, the loose standing bell tower of the cathedral comes into full view. We all know this as the Leaning Tower of Pisa (Torre pendente di Pisa, or simply Torre di Pisa). The tower seems smaller than what I imagined it to be, but it is still magnificent in real life. Not a fan of the cliche, I decide that the tower can hold itself up for once and I just get some regular tower photos. You are allowed to enter and climb the tower once again as they have found a way to keep the tower from leaning. To gain entrance you just need to hand over your life savings and probably be weighed as well. Italians don't want any fatties to tip over their precious heritage.

5. Sinking base of the tower
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6. Me, myself and Mr. Leaning Tower
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Unfortunately my time in Pisa is up and I take the bus back to the station, just in time to catch the 12:00 train to Florence. Florence is an hour away from Pisa and 2 hours away from La Spezia. Florence is bigger, busier and dirtier than calm Pisa. I get a map to orientate myself and decide to walk down Via de Panzani towards the Piazza Giovanni.

"Everything about Florence seems to be colored with a mild violet, like diluted wine.” - Henry James.

Somewhere I take a wrong turn and end up at the Capelle Medicee. The Medici family was a very influential and important family for Renaissance Europe. They commissioned thousands of works of art which helped keep the Renaissance alive. Catherine de Medici (1519 - 1589) was the wife of Henry II of France and she ruled after his death. She was to the 16th century what Queen Victoria was to the 19th century. Her three sons were three different kings of France and her daughter in law was Mary Queen of Scots. It is believed that without her France would not have become Europe's first nation state.

7. Capelle Medicee
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Walking around the corner of the Capelle, you see the giant cathedral looming at the end of the street. It takes your breath away before you even get to the Duomo Piazzo. As you round the corner the massive cathedral and it's brilliance cannot even be described. The cathedral is topped by Brunelleschi's dome and it is the third biggest Christian church in the world today. It really is magnificent and you cannot seem to tear yourself away from this holy sight.

8. Duomo Piazzo
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When you walk up a side street it takes you to the Galleria dell' Accademia. This is where the real David by Michelangelo is housed. I am dissappointed at the very long queue as this means that with my limited time I will not be able to see the David. It is almost time to catch the train back to La Spezia, so I just decide to slowly make my way back to the station. As I'm walking through the beautiful streets of Firenze, my stomach starts growling. For 10 euros I get to eat an amazing multi-layered lasagna with a roasted chicken and vegetable salad. The lasagna is amazing and I never want it to end. But this is Italy after all, the birthplace of pasta.

The 15:53 train takes me back to La Spezia. The train ride will take about 2,5 hours which means I will only arrive in La Spezia at about 18:20. This doesn't leave much time to get back to the harbour to catch the last shuttle boat which leaves at 18:30. I don't worry about it just yet.

The train stops at La Spezia at 18:19. There are no taxis at the station. The little train I took up to the top is nowhere to be seen. I look down at my sandles and decide that I'll have to make a run for it. I've never been much of a runner, but the adrenaline pushes me down the hill like a mad person. Italians jump out of the way. The 25 minute walk has to be completed in 10 minutes.

I am unsuccessful. I arrive at the harbour at 18:40. I have about 500m still to go, but my legs are weak and my chest is burning. I can see the shuttle boat is already half-way towards the ship and they are packing up their gazebo. I run faster than I've ever ran. The officer sees me and screams for the shuttle boat to return. It's actually a scary thought when you think that the ship waits for no one. Laraine meets me in the room and freaks out that I almost missed the last boat as those who miss the ship's departure, have to make their own way to the next stop. The ship waits for no one.

Next stop: Rome

Posted by Anja Fourie 10:11 Archived in Italy Tagged food bus train italy pisa florence cathedral david leaning_tower la_spezia field_of_miracles Comments (2)

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