Monthly Archives: October 2007

Italy 2007, Day 11

Italy 2007: Day 11

This morning we took a fast E414 class train from Milano Centrale to Venezia, or Venice.  During train passages, it always seems like we’re running from platform (binario) to platform, from train to train.  Today we had less than ten minutes to get from our regional EC from Como onto the fast EuroStar service into Venice, then a long three hour run.

Wandering the cars of a train, you always see a variety of faces:  Youth backpacking across Europe; businessmen using their HSDPA WWAN cards to get work done; families on vacation with kids drawing in crayon.  I forget that in North America we typically drive to boring family vacations the the US or Canada and have to fly to anywhere interesting.  Imagine how exciting it would be to visit Italy if you were British, or France if you were a Spaniard.  Many years ago I had a theory that Europeans dreamed of going to America the way young people in North America typically go for the Grand Tour of Europe, post graduation.  This was supported by a Coca Cola commercial I saw while in the UK.  But it really seems that most Europeans don’t seem to care, not with all the cultural riches just next door.

Listening to Spirit of the West on my iPod, we entered into Venice in an eerie mist in the rain.  The railway track into the central train station is on a dedicated pier, so as we passed shipbuilding and commercial ocean liner docks, we also felt like we were riding our train across the ocean.  The view out the left side of the train was purely ocean and sky.

The rain that had dogged us in Lucca and Cinque Terre unfortunately returned.  After arriving in Venice, we had a quick lunch in a strange little cafeteria style restaurant aimed more at locals than at tourists:  The place was reminiscent of Movenpick Marche back at BCE Place in Toronto, where you bought everything a la carte.  In Italy, typically if you take away, it’s the stated price.  If you sit down, there is coperta or table charge, and service or tip above that.  Our group has typically enjoyed a bottle or flask of house wine and bottled water on top of that.  But at this establishment, no table or service fees are required.  Not that it mattered, we were trying to get some food in for a long walk.

Venice is a number of islands grouped together.  Imagine one large mass, with a S-shaped canal cutting around it, then further canals and waterways subdividing land even further.  We started in the area of Cannaregio, and took the path around into San Marco, finally getting to the Piazza San Marco late in the afternoon.  While on the way I supposed into the  Telecom Italia “Future Museum”.  Sadly, the exhibit which had lots of old telephones seemed to be closed.

In the streets, often vendors and their souvenirs give you an idea of what a town is famous for.  If you looked at Toronto, perhaps you’d think our fair city was famous for the CN Tower and stuffed teddy bears in Mountie costumes.  The most popular souvenir here in Venice is the mask, this town was known for one of the earliest celebrations of pre-Lent Carnival in 1268.  The masks allowed aristocracy and peasants to mingle and for romantic and criminal liaisons to transpire.  Elaborate masks, some carefully made by Italian artisans, others carefully made en masse in China, are sold on the streets now, ready to decorate the rec rooms of tourists abroad.

You see Venice in many forms, reflected in popular culture:  It’s in the Lizzie McGuire movie, it’s the backdrop for the latest James Bond flick, I’ve even seen it built of Lego pieces at Legoland Deutschland.  Now, after seeing it in person, it seems less impressive in person, perhaps because it’s been raining all day.

Given the rain, we went into the Palazzo Ducale, or Palace of the Doge.  The Doge was the highest leader in Venice and the Palace is partly private residence and also governmental chambers.  While this was the seat of aristocracy, there was th semblance of representation as every member of each of the patriarchy of Venice was represented regardless of fortune.  The rooms ranged from small to huge, in some cases 150 feet wide; however, all of them were ornately decorated.  In one room, called the Shield Room, two giant globes sat; on the walls, maps of the world were mounted.  I looked at one carefully for a few minutes and realized it was drawn upside down from what we know:  Up was pointing south across the Mediterranean towards Africa.

Tomorrow I hope we get to see the island of Murano where they make glasswares.  Tired from all the walking in the cold and rain, we headed to a local wine bar for a drink, where I had an aperitif of Aperol, red wine and an olive on ice, then for food afterwards.

Italy 2007, Day 10

Italy 2007: Day 10

Lured by the idea of going to another country for a day, we visited the town of Lugano, Switzerland by taking the SBB FFS CFS train towards Basel.  It only took half an hour but we found ourselves in a completely separate country.  Switzerland is a country of Italian, German and French speakers, each region representing influences from each in culture, language and food, but uniquely Swiss.

One of the things we did today was visit a chocolate factory, where we got to observe the operation of a chocolate making plant.  We also got to eat lots of samples.  Though the actual operation of the plant quite rather interested me professionally, having toured factories of all sorts, from furniture manufacturing to mail sorting to car assembly, the instant the aroma of chocolate appeared, the only thing I could think of was eating chocolate.  So while the high speed molding line and the rapid film packager was cool, I wasn’t thinking line rate and balancing, I was thinking, delicious dark chocolate to eat.

Lugano is quite an expensive place, featuring such high end boutiques as Versace and Louis Vuitton.  A number of the group bought Swiss Army knives here, they are remarkably affordable.   I once had a Swiss Army knife–moreover to say, I had a People’s Liberation Army Knife:  It was a Made in China knockoff.

Lugano is also home to a McDonalds.   I’ve always wondered what other products are sold in other countries.  Certainly there must be localized food.  Today I saw a sign offering McEmmental and McGruyere burgers.  I was seriously tempted.  On a more serious food note, while waiting for the others to shop, I popped into a small market next door and bought a bunch of white grapes.  They were absolutely delicious and were not uniformly shaped or coloured like our regular grapes.

Upon our return to Italy and Lake Como, tonight we found a bar that served appetizers with drinks, not quite a tapas place, but good enough for the purpose.  Como has recently gained a Hollywood visitor, star George Clooney has recently purchased a villa here in the hills.  This fact has not gone unnoticed, with the local chamber of commerce and hospitality industry endlessly flogging this tidbit.  Tomorrow we return to Milano Centrale to take a two hour long train to Venice.

Italy 2007, Day 9

Italy 2007: Day 9

I am starting to appreciate this tour in that it takes me to places I likely would not have planned myself–I don’t think I would have thought to visit Asti for a wine tasting and I certainly would not have penciled in Lake Como, today’s destination, as a top choice.  Yet I had a good time today in this unusual resort town of beautiful scenery.

We took several trains from Asti today, eventually finding ourselves at Milano Centrale, or the main Milan station.  Along the way we got to ride an ETR500 class high speed trainset, though it didn’t get to run at full throttle due to the local regional lines.   Milano was the archetypical European train station:  Passengers rushing to catch trains, travelers mixing around in a swirl of paths, people swarming vendors and bars for a bite to eat and one for the road.

We had to wait more than an hour for our last leg to Como, so we piled our luggage against a wall and took turns walking around to look for food and amusement.  While looking to grab a shot of a ETR470 or 500 idling at a track, I instead found an unusual situation with almost fifty policemen, replete with riot shields, waiting for something at the end of one of the tracks.  A few in plainclothes had walkie talkies strapped to their shoulders, periodically picking people out of the crowd as they came off the train and pulling them aside, circled by the guys in riot gear.  I pulled up my camera to shoot when one of the police gave me a stern look.  Organized crime bust?  Antiterrorism roundup?  Immigration control?  Who knows.  Such intrigue.

The time change made everyone a little sleepier since many had risen an hour early to leave, so by the time we hit Como, the group was tired.  The lake is nestled in the mountains, with the Swiss Alps in the background. There is a small ferry boat which goes from town to town, allowing you to traverse the lake relatively quickly.  It docks and drops people off almost immediately then scurries off for its next destination.

Our destination on the lake was Bellagio, a beautiful little town on the other end of the lake.  Here, you can see how the villages dot the mountainside, little glimmers of colour on the serene swaths of grey and green terrain.  While the group enjoyed shopping in the little boutiques around town, I just wanted to sit and enjoy the view.  While exploring, there was a number motorbike riders, who noisily had chosen Bellagio as the destination of their Sunday ride.  I also met an older lady from the UK, shooting with a 24-105f4L+5D, who had accidentally deleted her entire memory card.  I know the feeling:  The cursed Little Mermaid in Copenhagen once caused me to delete a memory card.  Admittedly it was only 8MB versus the 2GB she lost, but it’s like being kicked in the crotch, metaphorically.

The sun was coming down beautifully this evening as the five o’clock ferry pulled into Bellagio:  All the tourist photographers, serious or amateur, full frame or crop, SLR or cellphone, were watching the sunset from the dock.

 

Italy 2007, Day 8

Italy 2007: Day 8

I’m watching “Nost Piedmont”, which appears to be local access television for this region of Italy.  This evening’s production is focusing on a local purveyor of baked goods and preserves in jars in the first segment and miserable looking teenagers doing cultural folk dancing in the second set.  Sadly, it took me quite a while to get Nost Piedmont on.

When I travel, I like to turn on the television and see what’s on locally.  Sometimes it’s just CNN Europe or BBC World Service.  But other times you find something uniquely cultural, like the Japanese men’s synchronized swimming competition I saw a few years ago, or the girl skipping rope to Janet Jackson singles on German TV.  Tonight, in my quest to see the best of Italian television, I looked around the room for a remote.  I should have stopped there.

I then went to the front desk, to ask the receptionist for a remote.  She has a warm and friendly smile but also does not speak English.  Not a problem, I’ll use the international gesture for remote control, the “clicking wildly” in the air gesture.

I returned to the room to find the remote didn’t work.  So of course, I figure, I’ll just try the front panel, since every television in the world must have buttons in case you lose the remote.  Which turns the television on just fine, but it displays “Zamceno” in red letters onscreen.  Which I presume means either “No signal” or “Just give up now, and go to sleep”.  But no, I feel I need to troubleshoot this further, so I wrestle with the power and RF connections on the back of the unit, knocking them out temporarily.

After standing on the end of the bed to reach up to the wall mounted television, I return to the front desk muttering “Zamceno, zamceno, zamceno”, to which the receptionist, who as we’ve already ascertained does not speak English, tries to ask me “Non functione?” in response.  The conversation goes like this:

Me: “The, um, remote doesn’t work”

Her: “Non functione?”

Me: “Uh, yeah, er, si…”

(looks for another remote)

Me: “But I don’t think that’s the issue…the TV is broken”

Her: “Brok-en?”

Me: “Non functione”

(hands me another remote)

Me: “No, it’s the tel–”

(making gesture of box on wall)

Her:  “I’m sorry, I don’t speak…”

Me: “It says ‘Zamceno'”

Her: “Zam-cheno?”

Me: “Yeah, Zamceno”

Her: “Zam-cheno? What this?  Non functione!?”

(Blank stare)

Anyways, after about five minutes of the words “Non functione” and “Zamceno” repeated in several combinations, I got two more remotes, which I returned to the room with.  Instantly the television turned on and this time, with eggplant in jars and disgruntled kids in national costume.  But now, of course, I can’t leave “Nost Piedmont” alone, I want to know what in the love of god is “Zamceno” other than some sort of illicit Latin dance craze.  So, I feel the need to actually walk through all the use cases here–I turn the television off, try the front panel again and it says “Zamceno”.  Use the remote, and it puts you right into eggplant in jars.

While I’m at it, I also find out that someone has put the entire television into like Slovakian because I know “Hlasitost” ain’t the word for Volume in Italian.  Now while we’re on the topic of European televisons made by the lowest bidder in Indonesia, this television has a further quirk:  You can scroll up to Channel 51…and since the clicker only has Channel Up and Channel Down, you’d think by turning off the television it would reset to Channel 1.  Which it doesn’t…except, and get this, it does reset the volume to 0.

Okay, now back to a regularly scheduled jams and folk dancing.

We took a long train ride to Asti today, which has brought us into wine country.  Sadly, as we took the train, the sun was was rising and the Italian coastline, with the Cinque Terre towns in view, were basking in its warm glow.  The sea was calm, and the sky blue.  Though we did get a chance to visit yesterday, this weather was so much better.

The plan was to check in at Asti, then head to Nizza, where we’d tour a winery.  But first, we stopped into a local Saturday market in a parking lot bordering the train station.  Lucky we did, because I enjoyed perusing the stalls of fresh ingredients like peppers, tomatoes, cheese and nuts.

We took a local train to Nizza, watching the rolling hills striped with vineyards pass by. Everyone remarked how clean the windows were on this brand new Alstom DMU was, and how quiet the train was.

The Bersano Enoteca was our destination, where we were given a tour of the facilities.  I’ve been on winery tours in Niagara Region, but it they also had a set of some of the equipment used hundreds of years ago, old presses and wagons built in times when a reliable crown or worm gear mechanism was a big deal.  They also had a steam locomotive from the late 19th century, which Bersano himself had purchased for the purpose of bringing his wares to the main train line.  We were shown the casks and barrels aging in the cellar, which was above ground due to regular flooding by the local river.

We then sat down in a room to enjoy several different wines–of which I took notes.  The first was a white called Gavi, made of Corteza grapes.  It was quite good and smooth.  The second was called Antara, which was a red.  It was blend of Barbera, Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Merlot.  I didn’t like this one, it was overpowering.  Everyone liked the house specialties, 2004 Generala, made of Barbera D’Asti,  which ages 18 months typically, and the 2003 Badarina, of certified Barolo.  We finished off with the famous regional sparkling wine, Asti Spumante.  It was easy to drink, being very, very sweet.  It does not taste like champagne at all.

As we finished our wine tasting session, a luxurious car pulled up.  Everyone at the table wondered what it was.  Now, my Top Gear watching friends will be proud of me, as I instantly recognized it as a Maserati Quattroporte, based solely on the front quarter panel vents just near the wheel arch.  It was the owner’s, a man who himself had carried on the family tradition for all these years.  He came in to greet us, though his real audience was a local trade association of eateries and chefs, who likely meant big business for his company.

Full of wine, we returned to Asti for dinner.  I had a Caprese salad of tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella, then a porcini risotto.  Tomorrow we’re going to Lake Como.

Italy 2007, Day 7

Italy 2007: Day 7

I woke up this morning and I could hear the rain coming down in the streets of La Spezia, the grinding sound of steel wheels on the nearby train station of incoming trains.  The idea was to climb the hiking trail of Cinque Terre, the five villages that dot the rugged, rocky coast of the Mediterranean.  That wasn’t going to happen, which was fine by me, because my stomach had caught up with a full week of eating rich, delicious food while simultaneously dragging pounds of equipment thousands of steps up and down every torre, duomo and piazza so far.

We tried our luck at Riomaggiore, where the drizzle grew to a full on downpour.  Even in the full bore rainstorm with winds coming from the sea, abnormal for the usually calm Med, the first town was beautiful in its colourful houses and buildings staggered haphazardly.

Continuing on to Vernazza, the largest and most picturesque of the five, we were greeted by brightly coloured fishing boats and fishermen going out to make their catches.  By then the rain had stopped and we had precious time to enjoy the local village, filled with shops and stores.  We also had lunch up on the highest point in the area, just below a castle ruin which we later went up and explored.  For lunch I had a spaghetti with clams, langoustines and mussels freshly caught from the sea.

We tried out luck at Corniglia, walking up several flights of stairs but decided to return back down to the train station to catch the train to Manarola, a town popular with German tourists.  All throughout the course of the day we had been dodging tourist groups, at first a bunch of Italian teens on a school trip, later, a set of Americans off of a cruise liner who claimed one of our group was scaring a baby because she was wearing a toque.  After all the running for trains, I need a break and sat at a pizza shop and had a drink.  The pizzeria had a really beautiful selection of pizzas including one with just big onions, another with tomatoes, a wholly pesto covered one.  They looked incredibly delicious except I’d already had a heavy lunch.

Eventually we made our way back to La Spezia.  Although the rain really hampered our sightseeing today, we made the best of it and at least got the chance to visit these little coastal towns.  Though I suspect, privately, had we taken the hike along the trails that connect the towns, I think I would have collapsed.  I was completely beat by the end of today as it stands.

Tomorrow we are leaving late in the morning for Asti and onwards to Lake Como.

Italy 2007, Day 6

Italy 2007: Day 6

News of the day:  Every trip I have some sort of accident–Today I dropped the 24-70mm.  Call it the lack of sleep, the exertion of climbing basilica stairs or the limoncello, but here I was in the La Spezia train station and the camera slipped out of my hand.  Thankfully it hit my toe and then the hood landed on the ground, falling only a total of two feet.  Disaster averted.  Damn my foot hurts.

This morning was not much better than yesterday.  Still raining, we went to the train station and took a train to Pisa, home of the famed tower.  Some of us decided to climb the tower, laughing off the small 200-plus steps in comparison to our previous 464-step Florence Duomo climb.

Climbing the tower is unusual, the steps and the inclination of the tower make you feel like you are falling forward or just walking normally at some points.  Eventually getting to the top, you are rewarded with a view of the surrounding area, which, given the weather wasn’t so interesting.

By the time we left the sun was coming out, making for some good photos.  Most people really only come to Pisa for the leaning tower, so we got back onto the train and continued to La Spezia, at the foot of the famed Cinque Terre or “Five Lands”.

Tonight we traveled to the furthest of the Cinque Terre towns, Monterosso, which is about 20 minutes by train from La Spezia, where we are staying.  We walked along the stunning beach, staring out into the Mediterrean.  One of the specialties of Cinque Terre is a drink called Limoncello, which is a lemon liqueur.  It is has something like 30% alcohol content and tastes like Lemon Meringue pie filling, mixed with booze.  Pretty powerful.  The first sip had a burning sensation, but the subsequent ones were much smoother.  It has a unique, sweet taste.  The bunch of us sat around the streets of Monterosso drinking this in what one of our group termed “NyQuil cups”.  At dinner, being a coastal town, I had seafood with pasta, my ravioli came with two large langoustines still in shell.  Others had pasta of squid ink and a paella of seafood with mussels and spaghetti noodles.

Tomorrow our plan is to hike the five towns starting at Monterosso and back into La Spezia.  It is supposed to be 9 km, taking five to six hours, apparently fueled by espresso and limoncello along the way.

Italy 2007, Day 5

Italy 2007: Day 5

Today was sadly rained out.  We made our way out of Florence to the small town of Lucca.  A walled city, we were to rent bicycles and ride around on the walls that surround the village.  However, it was raining with a bitter cold this morning as we got into town and about the most we could stomach was a trip to a local restaurant to have lunch.  I had pasta with onions and anchovies, a combination new to me.

I then returned to the hotel, which was actually a converted convent.  With it’s marble stairwells and high ceilings, it was the most unusual place I’ve stayed in so far.  I took a long, much needed nap.  Since it was raining hard, most of the group stayed in too.

Later in the evening we made our way to one of the churches in town, where we attended the local opera.  Lucca is the home of Puccini, the famous opera composer.  Under the age old arches of the Duomo, a simple operatic arrangement of pianist, soprano and tenor performed with a modest backdrop behind them.

After the opera, we went out for dinner:  Tonight I tried Tortelli Lucchese, which is a local specialty to Lucca featuring pockets of pasta filled with meat.  Food is unique here in Italy, where I’ve discovered there isn’t a bad restaurant.  One of my coworkers at the office said that things like tomatoes were fantastically sweet–which I had written off as hyperbole.  But, it is, completely true.  The regular large tomatoes are no different than our own.  But the pomodoro, the ones about the size of golf balls, are delicious and sugary.  The lettuce even is crisp and fresh.  It is undamaged and unblemished.  I can’t figure out what it is, but what I do know is the time to market here in Europe is much shorter.  Things don’t come from South America or California and ripen along the way.  The food is simple in presentation, perhaps even rough, but tasty and flavourful.

The Smart fortwo is really popular here, and there’s a number of 2008 models already ripping about town.  I’ve been told many young Italians consider the smart as a baby Mercedes, making it their first step into purchasing a luxury car.  Overall, as with Europe in general, people here favour small cars like the Mini, plus the multitude of local varieties.  There’s a fair number of Fiats and the police drive Alfas.  I’ve also see a few older cars such as the Fiat 500 Topolino and Citroen 2CV.  But there is nothing larger than a Honda Civic here and there’s absolutely nothing of the size of an NADM Accord.  A full sized Accord would get stuck in the narrow streets here.

Italy 2007, Day 4

Italy 2007: Day 4

Today was our second day in Florence.  The overall aim was to visit the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the famed Michelangelo sculpture, the David.  Finished in 1504, this giant sculpture towers 17 feet tall and is the centerpiece of the small museum.  A couple of things I noticed:  The sculpture’s hands and feet seem disproportionately large and the sculpture is seven and a half heads tall, versus the typical seven heads tall for realistic form drawing.  They have a 3D model which you can scroll around on screen with to see details like the veins in his hands.  I’m honestly surprised such detail is in the marble sculpture.

There are other things to be found in the Accademia, including a current exhibit on musical instruments, which include transposing clarinets and horns where one swaps out the entire body of the instrument; as well as harpsichords.  There’s also a room of hundreds of plaster busts, which is without a doubt, creepy.

If there’s one thing I learned from this museum after reading the numerous placards near paintings, is that painters often edit their work.  Restoration work often reveals subpaintings and misdirected efforts underneath the final product, like layers of Photoshop action histories.  In one painting, an entire drawing of a castle was hidden underneath a set of clouds.

Our next stop was the Uffizi, which coincidentally means “The Offices”.  Originally the buildings were administrative offices of the government.  Without reservations, our group was forced to wait outside the gallery in line.  After a while, I was the only person interested in sticking around as the line was now two hours long.  I attribute this to wanting to see the Birth of Venus painting, and years of training queuing for rollercoasters with Iain.  (In 2004 we went to ride Millennium Force, an Intamin hypercoaster at Cedar Point during freezing rain.) In line with me were a Russian family, enjoying all the onscreen menus of their newly purchased digital cameras, and a trio of American sorority girls, who were complaining their recent pledges were posting ugly photos of them on Facebook.  Which in itself is something I wouldn’t have believed as a child:  I was born in the Cold War:  The idea of Russians playing with Japanese digital cameras and American college kids within five feet of them would have been crazy.

I finally made it into the gallery and got an audio tour player.  The Uffizi features over 1055 works of art spanning 45 plus rooms, so the guided tour, in absence of an art history education, was well worth it.  There are rooms featuring Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Goya, just to name a few.  While there are some very well known paintings there, I also noted some strikingly vivid works: There is a painting called “Amore e psiche” of Giuseppe Maria Crespi, a Bolognese painter.  It’s painted as if lit photographically.

Some things I learned from this gallery overall:  Everything is titled the “Adoration of Magi”.  Painters work on commission by wealthy and powerful people.  Hoards of guided tours should be avoided.

I’d spent nearly four hours at the Uffizi:  One and a half lining up and two and a half hours inside.  I had lunch in a small shop nearby.  After lunch I went to find the Basilica di Santa Croce and ended up in a strange alleyway, watching a Mercedes A-class turn around in a dead ended street.  Eventually by following the voices of Japanese and German tourists, I found the Piazza.  I also went to the Piazza de Pitti, where it was suggested that the museum would feature modern art.  Unfortunately judging by the descriptions outside, apparently my concept of modern art (eg, the Tate in London) is differs from their concept (eg, late 19th century art).

I spent a bit of time this afternoon looking for kitschy postcards for a coworker and eating gelato and crepes.   There is nothing better than to eat gelato in Italy and take photographs in good light.  For dinner tonight, I had rabbit, which was interesting if a tad salty.  We also went back to the Grom Gelato shop where the “Fendy” bag beatdown occured.  I had “Mela” flavoured ice cream, which is apple.  It was awesome.  Full of gelato, a few of us went back to the river to look at the Ponte Vecchio at night, with all of its shops closed, and also found the merry-go-round in the Piazza della Repubblica to be still running.

Tomorrow we leave the hustle of Florence and continue onto the small Tuscan town of Lucca.

Italy 2007, Day 3

Italy 2007: Day 3

We departed Siena today with a train to Florence or Fiorenze, in Italian.  I apparently scared the tour leader when I hopped off the train for a minute to grab a shot of the incoming locomotive.  The countryside here in Tuscany is arid and dusty, which apparently suits the growing of olives and grapes apparently but not vegetables like corn.  We arrived in Florence and found ourselves again in a bustling metropolis similar to Rome.

Florence is known for its markets and leather goods such as belts and gloves.  We started off the day by going to a local market near the hotel:  This is something I’ve done several times before when traveling on my own, so it’s cool our group made the same choice.  In the market we found butchers and merchants selling the aforementioned meats and cheeses, as well as things like whole roosters plucked of feathers but retaining their heads, dried mushrooms and a panoply (it’s a real word) of olive oils.  As a group we bought a lunch of salami, prosciutto, cheese of sheeps’ milk, a blue Gorganzola, and a local variety of hard cheese similar to my Costco favourite, Parmigiano Reggiano called Peccorino.  While the others decided what to buy, I shot some closeups of the cheese and meats:  The butchers kept their glass refrigerator cases absolutely spotless, which is good not only for photography but reassuring a quality operation is at hand.

We made our way first to the Piazza Signoria to see the fake David statue in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.  There I saw a guy shooting with a 75-300mm IS standing on a ledge.  Smart:  He’s using the telephoto to close focus on the statue and blow out the background with bokeh.  Not so smart:  Italian policeman yelling at him to get down.  I was about to follow suit but decided I would be okay without getting in trouble with the law, however minor it is to stand on centuries old historical buildings.

The streets of Florence are lined with markets.  There are small stalls of street vendors selling belts and bags.  There are also major fashion boutiques here, just like Rome.  Perhaps it’s because we’ve been walking through tourist oriented high streets, but there’s a lot of fashion here.  People are very stylish.  I suppose if I only walked through Bloor/Yorkville, I’d probably figure Toronto was like that too.

We got to the Galleria degli Uffizi, the famous art gallery.  Inside are famous paintings like the Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.  Sadly, I know it not from art history classes but from the splash screen of Adobe Illustrator.  I’ve probably seen that painting a thousand times while waiting for Illustrator to startup.  We’re going to go there tomorrow along with seeing the real David sculpture at Galleria dell’Accademia.  A long line is expected.  I’m kind of happy to see people waiting for hours in line to see art.  I’ve seen people line up for hours to buy stuff on New Years Day (Okay, I once did that for a inkjet printer) and I’ve also seen people line up for hours to ride rollercoasters too (Which I’ve also done:  six hours for two rides on Cedar Point’s Top Thrill Dragster) so I’m expecting this to be good.

We continued along to the Ponte Vecchio, which is the famous bridge across the Arno River in Florence featuring little stores over top.  Built in medieval times, the bridge used to have butchers forming a market, it now features overpriced gold jewelers and souvenir shops.  I actually most anticipated this, having watched a National Geographic documentary about its engineering and construction.  But when we made our way around it, I found it to be somewhat boring and tacky, if only for the current tenants of the shops.

Most days the most exercise I get is walking to the laser printer from my desk.  This is not a good thing as we did a lot of stairs today.  The Piazzale Michelangelo is at the top of a hill on the other side of the Fiume Arno.  Typically when traveling, like for example, the Neuschwanstein Castle outside of Munich, hiking upwards is rewarded by an excellent view.  At the top of the hill is a great view of the Duomo (dome) of the Santa Maria del Fiore church, the river, the covered bridge Ponte Vecchio and many, many rooftops.  A Korean couple we saw earlier was walking around up there, directed by a wedding planner and a local photographer.  Florence’s expansive skyline made for a beautiful backdrop:  That must have been one hell of a honeymoon to have a local stringer ready to shoot you in your dress and tuxedo on the other side of the planet.

The other side of Florence’s daily commerce showed up at the top of the hill with the now ever present bag vendors, who put out a white sheet and lay out handbags and purses taken out of a big plastic bag.  Fantastic luxury brands like “Prado” and “Dolce and Gabba” (sic) were available for your perusal, unless the law came around, which would mean sudden dispersal and subsequent chase.   If you really wanted a bag with randomly patterned A’s and S’s on it, versus the classic L’s and V’s of Louis Vuitton, you were in luck:  You can bargain your way down from 35 euros to ten and take one home.  Our guide told us it was illegal to buy a bag from such vendors, as it’s likely they are linked to the mafia.  I didn’t think much of this until later, not ever really wanting a stylish handbag anyways.

We traversed the streets of Florence to the Duomo, a domed church named Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.  Our goal was to climb all 464 steps to the top, for the vantage of the rest of the city as well as the inside of the dome, hand painted by Michelangelo with representations of hell, purgatory and heaven, the same feelings you have as you climb up the grueling Stair-Master demolishing work out.

One goes up staircases vertically to an observation ring internal to the space, with full view of the inside of the dome and the painting.  Then the stairs begin to follow the curve of the dome itself, eventually coming nearly horizontal such that you have to bend forward and keep from hitting your head on the stone ceiling.  While doing all of this, you get an appreciation of the engineering feat that is this 42 meter wide structure that weighs 37,000 tons.  It was built in 1432, a time when we didn’t have helicopters, skyscraper cranes or computer aided design to model something before firing the millions of bricks required.

At the Duomo, I spotted a girl shooting with a familiar lens:  A 24-70mm f2.8L just like mine.  I thanked her for making me feel less stupid carrying it around the world, because she’d gone up the 464 steps lugging it too.  She said it was her favourite lens, which makes sense when mounted on 5D full frame camera body.

After we found ourselves at a fantastic little gelato place name Grom.  One of things I’ve noticed with gelato shops is their creative presentation:  Typically one sees a scalloped mountain of gelato, often decorated with elements of its ingredients, such as coconut husks for one flavoured like coconut.  However, this shop was a little different, featuring some very subtle flavours and all of them hidden in metal containers.  I had a cone of pear granita (ice), which didn’t have any milk.  The taste was very natural and made my day.

While enjoying my ice cream cone, suddenly a man ran around the corner, with a police motorcycle in  pursuit.  He dropped his bundled white sheet of fake handbags but tore off into the alleyways, leaving the policeman and another colleague confused as what to do with the sudden stash of handbags.  I suggested we bargain with the officers for a better deal.

I ended up taking a needed nap after the long day of climbing stairs of churches and hills.  The group ventured out to shop in the market.

For dinner, we went out for pizza, our guide inspecting each restaurant for the quality of their pizza oven.  Despite being a Neapolitan regional specialty, it seems pizza is everywhere in Italy.  The place we went to was founded in 1955 and featured flat, thin crusted pizzas spun by hand.  We had a great time enjoying the house wine and wood fired oven baked pizzas, then later turned up at a local club to have drinks, specifically Italian beer, which, as a member of our group remarked, has the aftertaste of peas.

Italy 2007, Day 2

Italy 2007: Day 2

Today we took the train to Siena, a medieval town in Tuscany.  The group walked out to Rome Termini and boarded a train.  In the early hours of the morning, the train station was alive with an ephemeral mist of people and packages moving around.

Like many European countries, the Italian train fleet balances both the futuristic bullet trains and the 1960’s vintage rolling stock, cushions and seats graced with cigar smoke from years gone by.

Siena is a picturesque town, replete with twisty streets of stone.  The major event in this town is the yearly summer horse race, Il Palio, that runs in the town square.  The outside ring of sidewalk in the town square is used as a race track and the townfolk come out to cheer on riders from their district.  A ring of buildings surrounds the Il Campo, and entrance is granted through small archways from the outside.  The archways frame the clock tower, the Torre del Mangia, that dominates over the piazza.

We went for lunch at a nearby restaurant just outside of the ring, as the common consensus is that the restaurants inside the circle are more for tourists and not as good.  The region is known for meats including wild boar, which I later had for dinner.  But for lunch, I tried a ravioli made with peccorino cheese and pears, which was really nicely done.

Our first destination after lunch was to go to the Torre, which we climbed up through narrow stone stairs to the top of.  At some points the staircase was so narrow you’d square your shoulders.  Hundreds of steps later, we found ourselves at the top, with a view of the entire town and the Tuscan hills in the distance.  The wind up there was bitterly cold and sadly while I wanted to stay up as long as possible, we had to eventually come down.

Our next stop was to visit the Duomo, a church filled with antiquities of elaborate stained glass, stone work and sculpture.  One one side was a library, itself covered with huge paintings on the walls and a mosaic on the ceiling.  If you looked carefully the murals integrated the arch of the room with fake painted arches, giving each ogive arch a window into a different scene.  The local history council only uncovers the mosaics on the floor once a year, and we were treated to seeing them.  The palazzo stonework features different religious scenes including an unusual hexagon pattern in the centre.

The Duomo was interesting, but wasn’t my favourite sight today.  The Duomo complex also features admission to something called the Panorama.  When we entered the museum, it seemed typical:  Statues removed from the church itself on display without fear of falling or being exposed to elements, scriptures written by monks before the invention of the printing press.  The documents were kept in an extra humid room to keep them from drying out, and they were really interesting to see small details like crop marks and alignment lines penciled in by the monks to help transcribe church music accurately.

As typical as age old priceless documents are, the real highlight of the day again happened as the sun was coming down, casting a warm glow as we walked up a flight of stone stairs:  The Panorama is actually an unfinished wall and tower that rivals the Duomo’s height, built to compliment the church.  Climb up to the top and you are rewarded with a fantastic view of the Duomo, the Il Campo, the tower and all of the surrounding medieval town.  The sun was setting and the beautiful terra cotta roofs and painted buildings were basking in the reddish view.

It was such a fantastic view I didn’t notice the cold wind.  In fact, the combination of the wind and the sun setting felt really wonderful.  I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to be at the moment, just to see the surrounding city and countryside.

The GAP Adventures tour seems to be pretty much like backpacking and figuring your way out on your own with a little bit of help bookending each city.  Our tour leader is a young woman from Malta who has led expeditions to Patagonia and Peru, and the group consists of mostly Canadians and a few Americans.  It’s a very small set of eight people which means each day we seem to lead each other around.  They all seem to be reasonably well traveled, which is nice.

Each evening we gather for dinner, although we’ve done lots of stuff for lunch together too.  In the evening we went out for dinner in Siena, where we got to order stuff like wild boar on handmade noodles.  Siena was fantastic.  In Japan I preferred the smaller towns in the countryside versus the larger cities, completely to my surprise.  Siena was exactly like that, a pace slower than in Rome without any of the pushy crowds.