Monday, November 25, 2013

Venice, the Original

I was thinking about how I've heard "Venice of the North" applied to so many cities that it sort of loses its meaning: Amsterdam, Bruges, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm. There's got to be more to Venice than just having canals, right?

Since Venice is only about 40 minutes by slow train from Padua, I figured I'd make a day trip there. It would be ridiculous to be so close and not even see the city, although I had to go alone since Morgan was busy working. When you step out of the train station, you're already in another world. The Grand Canal is just steps in front of you, and you're faced with the first of many green-topped domes you'll see.
I wandered in the same general direction as the throngs of tourists. I didn't have a plan, or a map. My goal was just to walk around and see what I could manage to see.

As you can see, it's not too hard to
follow the tourists.
The streets were lined with souvenir stands - t-shirts, hats, Venetian carnival masks, Murano glass, magnets, whatever your little heart could desire to take home as a reminder. It's sort of hard to believe that they can all survive crowded on top of each other like that, but I guess the moral of the story is that Venice has enough tourism dollars to go around. I was surprised to see that it doesn't rank in the top 20 most-visited cities worldwide (according to Business Insider), but that's got to be a blessing, considering how much real estate many of those cities have in comparison to Venice.

Periodically you'll see signs on the corners of buildings that direct you toward the Piazza San Marco and/or the Rialto, so I broke away from the crowd and started meandering along small streets and crossing smaller bridges. I had been warned that it's easy to get lost or stuck in dead ends, but I didn't have much of a purpose in mind except "eventually end up at Piazza San Marco," so I figured it wasn't that big of a deal.
Plus, it was relaxing and quiet once you got away from the major crowds. Just Venetians going on about their daily business - people passing on bridges and stopping to talk, a woman asking what time it was and exclaiming over how much she was running late. In these parts of the city, it felt like a small town.

I thought I remembered something about cats in Venice, but I only saw one.

After doing some searching online, it appears that the cats were rounded up some years ago and deported to another island. There are still some hanging around, but not many.

It's strange to walk around and realize after a while that foot traffic is all there is. Obviously no cars, but also no bicycles. The only things with wheels were the dollies the delivery men were using (with frequent "attenzione!"s as they came up behind you). I found my way to Piazza San Marco and was back in the thick of the tourist crowd.
The church in the center, some of it on the left covered in scaffolding.
The Doge's Palace is on the right.
I thought about going into the Basilica, but there was already a long line across the square, and there was no shade whatsoever. I was hot, and tired, and just didn't feel like dealing with it. So instead, I took pictures of the outside and contemplated what to do.
I was clear on what I couldn't do.
I walked down to the shore of the lagoon to check out the tide situation. I had no idea what the deal was with flooding, just that it sometimes happened. I asked one of the souvenir vendors about it. "Not today!" he said. I looked at the portable walkways out around the square, and he said, "They're just getting ready. But it won't happen until October or November. Don't worry!" Of course, I'd been more hopeful than worried, but now at least I knew.

I took a photo of the infamous Bridge of Sighs, and decided to check if the line for the basilica had improved. It hadn't; instead, it had gotten longer. So I definitely checked that off my list for the day and decided to push on to other parts of the city. After much trekking, I found myself on another island at what seemed to be the edge of the world.

You're gonna have to make this one bigger to really see it.
Don't be lazy - click it!
I visited the basilica there (Santa Maria della Salute) and rested for a while just listening to the water lap against the concrete. Of course, most of the lapping was caused by the incessant boat traffic going by, so that impacted the relaxation effect a little! Eventually I had to rouse myself to head back to the train station to go back to Padua. The shadows were starting to get long.

So I said goodbye to Venice with a photo out the window of the train as we prepared to cross the bridge back to the mainland.
It's been so hard keeping from adding even more pictures than I've already put into this post, but if you're looking for more, I'm working to upload the rest to my Venice Flickr set. I haven't got them all there yet by any stretch of the imagination, but give me a few days and check back because there will be more. And the night shot that's there is from my second trip to Venice, not this one (what? I've already been back?! Indeed, I have.).

The next post will probably be a sort of general wrap-up of whatever loose ends I have regarding Italy (in other words, an excuse to post photos I didn't find a place for yet). Or, you never know, it might be something else entirely. Watch this space.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Where Cameras Fear To Tread

I mentioned in a previous post that sometimes I forget things we've done because there were no cameras allowed, which means I don't have photos to jog my memory for the posts. Well, there were a number of those types of places in Padova. First up is the Cappella della Scrovegni, the exterior of which isn't much to look at. But the inside is covered by frescoes painted by Giotto.

I lifted the picture from Wikipedia for obvious reasons.
This is apparently the #1 thing to see in the city. You have to get your tickets ahead of time, and show up half an hour early for your scheduled time. And once it's your appointment time, you don't actually go directly into the chapel. You sit in a climate-controlled room and watch a video about it. After that, your group is finally allowed through the airlock into the chapel itself.

For 15 minutes.

To me, it wasn't that big of a deal because I'm no religious scholar so I mostly just saw "ooh, paintings," but I can imagine that if you were familiar with all the stories depicted and wanted to examine those, or the technique, or the restoration work in detail, you wouldn't have nearly enough time. There's still a lot of restoration work to be done because unfortunately over the years, the adjoining buildings were knocked down and the chapel had its bare brick walls left open to the elements, which took its toll on the frescoes.

My verdict on the whole thing: it's the thing to see, so you probably should, but go in with your expectations set. You're going to feel herded and you won't get as much time as you might want. On the other hand, the fact that 1. the whole thing arose because some guy felt guilty about his family being moneylenders and 2. Giotto painted essentially every square inch of the walls of the entire building, and did it in a spectacular style, make it pretty interesting.

While on the subject of frescoes, the baptistry in the Duomo di Padova (Padua Cathedral) was also decorated in the "more is more" style. These were done by Giusto de' Menabuoi in the 14th century. He's not a household name, but the paintings are pretty incredible. And at the baptistry, you pay your €5 and can stare at it for as long as you want, without any airlocks or associated hassles.

The rest of the Duomo is more recent. As is frequently the case, there were older churches on the site but one burned down and one was destroyed in an earthquake. The one that is currently in place was finished in 1754 and is curiously ordinary-looking outside, and very modern inside.

Effigy? Wax figure? Mummy? Cryogenically
preserved body? I have no idea.
We also visited the Palazzo Bo, which contains an operating theater which used to be used by the University of Padua. As a side note, the University of Padua is one of the oldest in continuous operation, and in Italy is second only to Bologna. That's nothing to sneeze at, since Bologna is the oldest one in the world. Some pretty famous names have found their way there, incuding Copernicus and Galileo, who was the chair of the mathematics department around 1600. (Also Casanova studied there, although I don't know that he's terribly famous academically speaking.)

Anyhow, back to the operating theater. This thing is awesome.

You can't go into it anymore, you can only look at it from below the spot where the body would have been laid. However, it's still amazing to see. This is the oldest operating theater in Europe, and it's hard to tell from the photo, but the space between railings was standing room only and it's a surprisingly tiny room. Students were crammed in there (capacity was 250 people) and apparently fainting was a problem, although since you were so well wedged in, you couldn't really fall anywhere. Very practical.

For the final no-cameras destination, Morgan and I visited St. Anthony's Basilica.

You can take pictures of the outside.
This was my first visit to a basilica associated with a real saint, by which I mean one I'd actually heard of. The inside is pretty ornate, although not wall-to-wall frescoes or anything.

Although you can't take pictures, there are no rules against drawing.
The two main attractions of the basilica are the Tomb of St. Anthony and the treasury that contains his relics. The treasury was all glass and gold, with containers which include St. Anthony's larynx and his tongue. I didn't really know what to think about that - bones don't seem that weird to me, but a jar with a tongue in it strikes me as maybe a little strange. (I just discovered that some of the relics have been on tour in the UK, which is also odd to me.)

The tomb is in another part of the church. On the day I was there, it was quite busy. A line of people shuffles past the tomb, and touch it and pray to St. Anthony.

I walked around it, but I didn't touch it as it just didn't seem right. It's not my religion; I am merely an observer. I felt even more strongly about that as I looked around - St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things and people, and everywhere were photographs of children who are presumably missing.

I can't really think of anything to follow that up with, so I'll just leave it at that. Next time, a day trip to Venice.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

I Say "Italy," You Say ...

I am currently sitting in Padova, writing a blog post about Padova as I saw it two months ago. I didn't expect to be back here - life is surreal sometimes.

As I said, this time, I'll show and talk about some of the typical Italian scenes and sights. One thing that people think of when you say "Italy": markets in the piazzas. At right is the Piazza dei Signori, with the Torre dell'Orologio at one end (more on that in a minute). This market spans 3 squares which are laid out one after the other - the Piazza dei Signori (Lords' Square), Piazza dei Frutti (Fruits Square) and Piazza delle Erbe (Herbs Square). The atmosphere is vibrant, and there are a variety of things for sale.

Mmm, veggies.
Meat and cheese shops are in a gallery next to the square.
Our hotel was not far on the other side of the arch in the tower, so I often started my morning by passing through the markets. Then in the afternoon, the booths are packed up and the area fills with tables and chairs for the bars and restaurants that surround the square.

Piazza dei Signori facing the other direction. After a short
rain shower, the tables start filling up again.

Back to the Torre dell'Orologio - on the tower is an astronomical clock that was built in the 15th century. It's a replacement for one that was from 1344. It displays the time, date, and current astrological sign. That is, unless the current sign is Libra, which is not represented. I've read a few different theories on why that is the case, but I can't tell you which one is true. It's not clear whether the original had Libra and the copy left it off for some reason, or if this is a faithful representation of the 1344 version as well. In any event, the clock has Scorpio taking up two spaces.

Another thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Italy: statues. And if you want to see statues, have I got the place for you ... Prato della Valle. Apparently, there are 78 statues in this park - I didn't count them, so I have to trust Wikipedia on that! But in any event, this spot is statue central.

How statues reproduce.

The park is a big oval surrounded by a canal, and the statues are lined up along both sides of the water. It's a terrific place for taking photos because it's got a bit of everything - in addition to the statues, there's greenery, bridges, reflections on the water, scenic buildings and churches in the background. One of the buildings you get a great view of is the Abbey of Santa Giustina - in the background of the photo at the bottom of this post. From another angle, you can see the Basilica of San Antonio, which I'm not going to talk about right now because churches will be the subject of another post (you can't throw a rock in Padua without hitting a church).

And that's it for this post! I'm guessing the next one will probably be about churches, unless something else strikes my fancy as I go through my photos.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Taming of the...

Here we are, ready to talk about Italy, and I don't even know where to start. I've been staring at the beginnings of this blog post for far too long, trying to figure out how to approach it. We went to Padova (or Padua, as it's known in English) because Morgan had a math conference, so he was away all day every day for the entire week and I was wandering the streets by myself. Which, don't get me wrong, there are certainly worse fates that can befall a person, but it makes it a little different because it doesn't break down easily into an "on this day, I did this" sort of format. Plus, I was hoping to come up with some sort of witty and appropriate title that would rhyme with The Taming of the Shrew, since that was set in Padua, but I've got nothing.

Anyway, here goes. We flew from Brussels to Zurich (where one of the few airport food options was a US $29 club sandwich) to Venice, which is just about an hour away from Padova.

Yep, that's Venice.
We got into Padova at night, so it wasn't until the next morning that I got a good look at the place. And when I did, one of the first thing that struck me walking down the street was how friendly people were. It's a marked change from Belgium, where it's rare for anyone on the street to meet your eye. It was early, so there weren't a lot of people out, but everywhere I went I was greeted with "buongiorno!" One of the people I was greeted by was a woodworker with a little stand a few blocks from the hotel. You might be thinking, "Well of course he's friendly, he wants customers!" but seriously, even people like that don't say hello in Belgium. (They might yell "Echte Gentse neusjes!" in your direction from the cuberdon stands, but they don't say good morning.)

I can check Pinocchio off my "Italy Bingo" card.
Padova is a very walkable city, as long as you're paying attention. I've heard that the drivers in Italy get crazier the farther south you go, but that doesn't mean they're sedate in the north. It's the kind of place where even after the "walk" signal turns green, it's a good idea to check the road again - in both directions - before you start to cross. We had been happy to hear that the hotel had bikes for guests to use, but once I'd walked around for a day, I was too terrified to even get on one. The bikes I saw seemed to adhere to even fewer rules than the cars - they were on the street, on the sidewalk, going in either direction. It was a free-for-all.

If you want to know what Padova looks like, it mostly looks sort of like this. Most of the streets have these colonnaded walkways. (Now imagine people walking through here and bikes weaving through in both directions as well. Yeah.) The walkways are kind of great - they provide shade from the sun, shelter from the rain, and put a nice stone barrier between you and the cars. Okay, I'll stop about the cars. Except first I have to tell you a story. I was walking along, and came to an intersection where a woman was traveling in the same direction as me on a bike. A car approached from our right and was thoroughly into the intersection before he saw the bike and came to a sudden stop. The bicyclist started yelling at the driver, clearly telling him that he was supposed to have stopped (he had a stop sign, in fact) and he could have killed her. The driver's answer was also perfectly clear to me even though my Italian is marginal at best. He pointed at her undamaged bike and said, essentially, "I did stop."

Now I'm really done with harping on about the hazards of the roadways.

Anyone will tell you that Italy is full of art, and when they say that, they're probably mostly referring to Renaissance paintings and highbrow stuff like that. Yawn! (I kid, we saw some of that, too.) But there's also a lot of street art, so I'll share some photos of that now.

These are just a few examples of what I saw on the streets; I'll have the rest of them up on Flickr eventually. I enjoyed being surprised by pieces like these whenever I turned a corner.

I particularly liked the geometric ones I ran across like the pink one posted below. There was another one of these I found, but I couldn't get a very good picture of it, unfortunately.
The lighting makes it a little difficult to see, but
he's disdainfully holding up a graffiti tag.
I know this maybe hasn't been the typical view of Italy. I bet you were expecting more architecture and old frescoes. Or statues and pictures of food. I promise I took those photos too - well, actually, not many pictures of food, oddly enough - and they're coming up in future posts. And also probably some drawings of my own - I did a few while I was there. Hopefully the next post will come sooner, now that I've started.