A Travellerspoint blog

January 2020

Welcome to Firenze


semi-overcast 14 °C
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We said our goodbyes to Venice as we walked from our hotel to the train station, not an easy trek as our bags were heavier as we traversed over the bridges. After spending a week in Venice we were leaving with mixed emotions, after becoming accustomed and familiar to finding our way around the streets, but also looking forward to a new place and adventure. About an hour later we arrived at the station, had an espresso, looked around the shops, bought lunch and readied to board the train. The high speed train journey was less scenic as we headed through farmlands and then headed through the alps which meant some time was spent travelling through tunnels. Arriving in Florence on a slightly gloomy day we walked through the historic centre of town to our accommodation.


The unit is only 100m from Pizza della Signoria, the historic, political and artistic centre of Florence. The unit itself has everything we could possibly need, has just recently been renovated and is huge compared to our tiny hotel room in Venice. The only negative is the lack of lift and that it is on the third floor of the unit block. After settling in, we headed out to explore our neighbourhood, find the tourism office and local grocery store. Fortunately we are in a very good location and very close to everything needed. While we were out and about we quickly looked at the Arno river, Duomo and the great buildings in our area.


The next morning after a late start, we headed for a “free” walking historic tour of the city. During the tour we learnt about the history of various churches, including the Duomo. We also learnt about Chianti wine production, local Florentine delicacies, the understated external architecture of family homes adorned with a shield or crest, a sign post notating who lived where and of course the role the Medici played in the development and political leadership of the city. Heading to the Duomo the guide taught us about the significance of the colours in the marble, it’s origins and the historic importance of the doors of the baptistry with one set crafted by Michelangelo. It is interesting that the tradition of having an external place to baptise citizens was because the Catholic Church did not allow non Catholics on the sacred ground of the church. Another interesting fact that would have been missed if it wasn’t pointed out was the height of the 1966 floods. Many corners and buildings show the height the water reached, sometimes waist height and others up to the 2nd storey of the buildings. The tour ended at another historic church just around the corner from our unit, so we ducked home for lunch, passing a local resident with a Ferrari entering one of the city car parks, who of course revs the car as the throaty engine echoes off the buildings in the narrow streets.


After lunch we headed over the Ponte Vecchio to explore the other side of town before walking up the hill to the Piazzale Michelangelo. The Piazzale offers a spectacular view over the whole city. No building can be higher than the Cupola on the Duomo, which stands at 112m. On the way we had a look at the old city walls dating back to Roman times and waterfalls built into the side of hill. Dusk is a wonderful time to wander the city streets, window shop and as it got darker the lit up city monuments provided another perspective as does the changing skyline as night settles in.



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overcast 8 °C
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The fog rolled in the morning and the following day heavier resulting in change in plans for the day.


Heading back over the calle, we explored different parts of Venice and as the fog cleared headed out for a gondola ride that took us out onto the grand canal. Like many professions, this is also one that is generational and the gondolas colours and style reflective of the family. The boats are asymmetrical, longer on the left side to balance the gondolier who stands and only paddles on the right. The water is peaceful and the gondolier provided interesting facts and pointed out sights along the way including reassurance at the beginning as the boat lean was quite substantial as we passed under the smallest bridge in Venice.


A second visit to Saint Mark’s basilica was in order with the purpose of ascending the upper part to the terrace and to view the bronze horses that previously adorned the top of the basilica. There are copies where the originals stood. It is truly worth ascending the steep stairs and paying 5E to see inside the basilica from the top, the bronze horses, accessing the terrace and at the time an exhibition of Baptistry mosaics and artefacts along with entry to the room where the Doge held feasts. This room hosted many precious artefacts including religious books and tapestries.


We also visited T Fondac dei Tedeschi, Venice’s high end department store, similar to Galleries La Fayette in Paris. We weren’t there to buy nor even window shop as it is very elite, red escalators to the top and red carpet on the marble stairs down. Instead locals, their dogs and tourists alike can book a free 15 minute slot to visit the Terrace. The Terrace is the rooftop that overlooks the grand canal and provides a great view across Venice rooftops. Perfect any time but especially so at 4 pm as the sun starts to set and the colours a and water shimmers.


The following morning the fog meant you could not see across the lagoon and only 50m in front as you walked along - a little eerie but beautiful. The calls and horns of the boats provided an aural cue, as the ships looked like ghost ships emerging from the fog to be swallowed up again. During Napoleon’s reign he commissioned parklands which is at the end of Venice and it was strange seeing a typical Parisian type park with symmetrical trees, a central promenade and statutes. This was a lovely way to spend our last days in Venice.


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On a grand scale


sunny 6 °C
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The Grand Rialto is one of the two, and probably the most famous bridge in Venice as it elegantly spans the grand canal. In earlier centuries, the bridge housed high end merchant wears until one crossed the bridge as it joins the central food market, fresh fruit and vegetables, spices and a little further down fresh off the boat seafood of all kinds and sizes. You can smell the fish market before you see it. Not only the humans know this location, the sea gulls strut around as if they own the place. As a big as a cat, the gulls are brazen and swoop on the stalls and steal the fresh fish or seafood they can grab. It is forbidden to eat in the main squares, not only to reduce the food source for the birds but protect the humans as the sea gulls and pigeons swoop and will take food from you resulting in tourists having to go to hospital. While we were there a gull stole an ice cream cone from a woman’s hand and another lady ended up with bird droppings all over her nose.


On the Rialto bridge we found unique hand painted, one off, men’s ties and did a deal with the owner whose family has been running the business for 43 years.

In the afternoon we headed to the Correr museum, entry comes with the ticket to the Doge’s palace. The museum is in Saint Mark’s square with the building the former palace built for Napoleon when he invaded Venice and also used by the Habsburgs, Queen Sissi and Franz Joseph, when Napoleon traded Venice to the empire. The museum is worth a visit to see impressive imperial rooms and furniture, there is also glorious marble work, my favourite was Icarus and his father. An exhibition about the first Doge was also on display, with impressive written, nautical, navigation, armour and spoils of war displayed. The building then extends to the archeological museum, also included in the ticket, with a large display of marble statues, busts, coins, including Roman stashes dug up, and a glorious academia hall whose paintings were another wow moment at the end of the building. It was also nice to have a different view of St Mark’s square looking out from the palace windows.


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Island hopping


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Given we are in one of the world’s largest man-made lagoons that is filled by the Adriatic Sea and the tide changes every six hours, we signed up for a three island tour to experience other parts of Venice.

Richard has sea legs, while I usually turn green around the gills when it comes to water travel and it’s after effects for a couple of days. Lucky the only unevenness came when entering and exiting the boat and for the remainder the company’s boat was well balanced and steady with beautiful views and fairly calm, clear blue water to look at.


The first stop was Murano, the island renowned for glass making. In the early centuries Venetians inhabited the island, to reduce the risk fire of in the city and also to protect their trade. An obligatory watching of a vase being made by one of the masters and then you are shepherded into the shop. After a cursory look we took off to see a little more of the island before the boat departed to its next destination. A hint is to look at the prices of items on the mainland before you go, as with any shopping it is buyer beware.


Along the way you pass two islands no longer inhabited, one a former convenant and the other an island used initially as a monastery in 1000 C.E transformed into a military base and now left as ruins.


Burano, is the next stop, an island predominately of fisherman and lace making. Beautiful vibrant coloured houses that meant the fisherman could identify home from afar and also on returning home at dusk/evening. The lace is beautiful however it is expensive both here and on the mainland, no doubt because it is all hand made and the time and craft is reflected in the cost. We loved walking the streets here and the island has a lovely vibe.


The third island was Torcello, only five minutes by boat from Burano. There is very little to see and do on this island, mainly monastery ruins as the island hosted many monasteries in its history. It was lovely to see some of the abundant bird wildlife and on one side of a church the ground was still frozen from the evening before so you could kind of trying to skate along on your boots without getting wet.


An hour and half later we were back at San Marco square and having a Tiramisu gelato before Apertif time.


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History, power, religion and the heart of Venice


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The start of the day was meeting under the clock tower in San Marco square for a walking tour. It was very cold, beanies and gloves required as we set out. It was great to hear extra tidbits of information or learn new things that you can’t find unless you have the intel. Walking many of the Calle it showed us how these were connected, making it quicker the next few days as we traversed the districts. Some of the key highlights were visiting were Marco Polo once lived, now the building is a theatre, seeing the Byzantine and Renaissance architecture and how the buildings were created for trade and living, understanding carnivalle throughout the centuries and how the face masks evolved, learning the origins of perfume and everyday language that originated from Venice. Along with a reminder that spaghetti pasta originated in Asia, brought back courtesy of Marco Polo’s expeditions, while the sauce is Italian.


Be prepared if you come to Venice public toilets are very expensive at 1.50E, better to go to a shop purchase something and use their restrooms. After a quick break, we headed to the Doge’s palace. The palace borders the square overlooking the water and was previously connected to SaInt Mark’s Basilica, as the Doge’s private church.

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We passed the original entrance to the Palace, now the exit which would have greeted Venetians and visitors alike in former times. This is because the water once lapped and guests stepped off their boats onto the entrance. On the outside the palace has two red marble pillars which were used to publicly convey the execution of a prisoner, usually those who murdered or took part in espionage. This occurred between the two main pillar gates to the square, the winged lion and Theodore slaying the dragon, and it is said it is bad luck or an ugly death if you walk between these.


Inside the Doge’s palace, there is a grand courtyard and the main marble staircase that the Doge is sworn in on. Also an original covered gondola, no longer in use and the original statue of Theodore and the dragon. Entering the staircase to see the Doge and his various Councils, you can’t help be overawed by the beauty that exudes wealth and power, along with the various messages about justice and charity. As with most places of the era, there was dedicated areas for common people and nobility decorated accordingly. There was various rooms that the Doge and his Council members, who were rotated regularly, are used and identified by the number of Council required. The Doge always seated in the middle. The three inquisitors also had their own special room and depending on your responses may lead you to the torture chamber, where you most likely be strung with your arms behind your back and hoisted in the air. This was mostly used to gather information from those who allegedly committed treason.


The Doge was elected and responsible as the leader of Venice to make decisions along with the nobility to benefit the whole of society. Venice had a King, in Constantinople as they turned to the east for protection in the lagoon’s early formation. The city was built on marshland and early inhabitants refugees. The alignment east proved beneficial for trade and wealth for many years. The military accompanied the merchant sailors to protect the merchant goods of Venice. As a merchant city it was the duty of nobility to vote each Sunday, their only day off. If your name, males only, was in the Golden book then it was compulsory to attend and vote. The room that hosts the Venetians voting is the largest open room in Europe and with the roof supported by an upturned boat style engineering that is winched.


A quick tour of the prisons and a view of the bridge of sighs from the inside provided a unique view of areas that were still used earlier in the 20th century.


Leaving the palace we had a personalised tour of Saint Mark’s basilica. The basilica is lit up for a short time each day and shines on the magnificent mosaics that adorn the wall and floors. Visual representations of the bible and reminders to citizens about the pitfalls of abundance are from ceiling to floor. The guide told the story that two Venetian merchants became aware of dismantling work to reuse materials in a church in Egypt. In the church were the bones of Saint Mark, the merchants took the bones wrapped them carefully and placed them in a basket and smuggled them out hidden amongst pork. The legend says on arrival at Venice the bones became so heavy that they were unable to be lifted any further and this was a sign that Saint Mark had come home. He had previously visited Venice on his way to Egypt. The Doge met the basket and it miraculously became light and was placed in its permanent home, the basilica.

For a small fee or as part of the tour, you walk past Saint Mark’s final resting place under the alter. There is a gold piece of art that contains etched and glazed silver individual disciples and other bible stories. This piece of art has been turned around, as it is right next to Saint Mark and people were very disrespectful sitting on Saint Mark to get a better look at this art piece. No photos are allowed inside so the outside mosaic provides a glimpse of the golden mosaics portrayed inside.


In the afternoon we had booked a grand canal tour and again had an individual tour, along with Mark from Ireland, headed out on a small boat to take in the sights by water. The canal is well frequented by all manner of boats and with a rhyme and order not easily visible but if think about vehicles and the use of the road it is exactly the same. This was a lovely way to see the bridges, merchant houses and palaces along the canal at the end of the day.



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