Friday, 24 February 2012

In fair Verona, where Shakespeare laid his scene...

We found a quiet, pretty town with all the charm to inspire the most epic tragedy that Shakespeare could ever have wanted. To us, Verona was everything that Florence had been lacking. Tree-lined walking paths beside the fast-flowing river, making it one of the few rivers we've come across in Italy that is actually pleasant to stroll along. Thee are plenty of the interesting, winding alleys, usual to Italian cities, but there are also plenty of open squares with public seating and greenery - a rarity from what we've experienced.

The town is also surprisingly full of things to see, but without the massive crowds of bigger cities. Our visits to the roman theatre and arena were almost eerie as they were each practically deserted. The arena didn't seem much smaller than the Colosseum and it is in much better repair. It's actually used as a venue for opera in summer - I imagine the acoustics would be amazing for any kind of concert.

We also took a trip up the Lamberti Tower, a beautiful bell tower located within the centre of the old part of the town. The views of the town and distant hills and mountains were spectacular.

We also visited the (obviously fake) Juliet's house where we witnessed once again Italy's love of graffiti. The walls in the gateway of the house were absolutely covered in graffiti, and just inside the gate is a sign - 'penalty for defacing the walls - one year's imprisonment or over 1,000 euro fine. Obviously, it's well policed. The house itself was a bit of a let down. It was supposed to be set up like a house of that period but in reality it was almost empty. Also frustrating was that all of the information was in Italian. Of course, we're in Italy, and that's to be expected, but you would think that as the house was based on one of Shakespeare's greatest works, they would also provide information in English.

The church of Santa Anastasia was beautiful. I found it surprising that a church in a smaller town was decorated as spectacularly as the famous churches in much bigger cities. The inside of the church was actually more impressive the inside of the Duomo in Florence, which is much more famous.

Verona is a truly beautiful place, and no visitor to Italy should miss it.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Venice Carnivale

Venice was amazing! It also helped that we were there during their Carnivale celebrations. Seeing as we were there during Carnivale we decided it would be good to join a tour to help make the most of our visit. We joined a 3-night TopDeck tour. Our accommodation was situated off the main island at a camping ground utilised by a lot of tour groups due to the difficulty of getting 50+ people to a hotel on the main island with all their luggage when no vehicles have access. It did mean that we had a twenty-minute ferry each way every day. We started off with a walking tour of the main island, which involved quite an early start for us. A few hours later it became apparent that this had been a necessity when the whole island became packed with people. Keeping track of 50 people in huge crowds in a place full of narrow alleys would have been a logistical nightmare. After our tour we spent most of the day just strolling around the island. It would have been impossible to try to get somewhere on time when it took triple the amount of time it would normally take you. Not that it bothered us. It was a people-watching paradise. Everywhere were people dressing in elaborate costumes. Some traditional, think Casanova, some were more contemporary. There were also shows on at the main square that could occupy a viewer for hours. We went on a gondola ride which was magical. Despite the massive crowds on the walking streets, the canals seemed quiet and it was almost like you'd stepped into a different world as you floated down a narrow canal with only brief glimpses of the partying going on.

On our second day, we took a trip to a couple of the outer islands. We visited Murano which is famous for its glass. We were able to see a glass blowing demonstration which was fascinating. They made it look so easy by making a vase in less than 10 minutes. I have no doubt that it is actually extremely difficult. This followed by a round of drooling over beautiful glassware that we could never get home without breaking. Our next stop was the island Burano (it took me a full day to realise our Italian guide was referring to two different islands when he said Murano and Burano) which is the home to lace making but also the prettiest fishing village. All the houses in the island are painted brightly, and all in different colours. As the story goes, the fishing wives were sick of the husbands using the excuse that they thought the house was theirs when they 'visited' another woman on returning to port in the night. There's no mistaking your house when it's bright magenta!

We finished our tour off with our own carnivale masked party, everyone dressed up in masks, capes and costumes. All I can say is the party was wild. I'm sure only Italian bartenders can get away with dancing on tables and the bar!

All in all, a great time in Venice. We didn't do a lot of the usual tourist things, but simply being a part of the celebrations was enough.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Ancient ruins and their modern-day inhabitants.

Ancient ruins are in no short supply in Rome! The Colosseum was incredible. Inside they have interesting exhibits explaining the use of the arena as well as the architecture and how it had eventually become unused. It was nice to see so much information available, and in English as well as Italian because a lot of other sites had very little information. The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill was a particularly impressive, and extensive area of ruins. They were very confusing though. We were given a map to follow but here was no signage to help guide people along the map route, and when we found a larger, stationary map along our walk, the numbering and map details actually differed to those on the map given to us at the ticket office. Between the two, it made it virtually impossible to follow the audio guide we had also paid for. This was pretty disappointing as it meant we didn't really know what we were looking at in the ruins - whether the remains of a building were a home or a temple. It was still an interesting and beautiful walk and still worth a visit. I just wouldn't expect an informative visit unless you take a guided tour.

During our visits to the different ruins we noticed that there seemed to be a lot of one particular animal living in ruins. Cats! Except for the Colosseum, every ruins we visited we saw at least one cat which started a bit of a tally for us. Roman Forum: 2, Terme di Caracalla (roman baths): 1, Largo di Torre Argentina: at least 20, and those are just the ruins I can remember the names of!

Something else there seems to be a huge amount of are fountains! Romans love big open piazzas, and what better to put in that space than a fountain! And they're never boring, plain fountains either. They're always different, featuring sea creatures, mermaids and and people. It's always an interesting experience finding yourself in a new piazza.

Unfortunately I still haven't found a new photo transfer device because I took lots of photos of fountains and cats!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

When in Rome

Rome is an impressive city. It combines the best bits of European cities. Winding, narrow streets galore, and wide open squares - most featuring fountains, statues or monuments. Romans seem to love fountains. While there is a strong touristy vibe in Rome, it doesn't overpower the feeling of culture and history throughout the city. I also love that there are actually trees and green areas in the city - something that Florence seemed to be lacking. I have come across the less reputable part of Rome - on a crowded bus I had some things stolen out of the bag on my back. Fortunately only some camera memory cards - all of which had already had all their photographs transferred onto my iPad - as well as my picture transfer device. Which sadly means that until I can find somewhere to buy a new one, no more pictures!

Despite this, I am really enjoying the city. A highlight has been our visit to the Catacombs of San Sebastiano. I know we seem rather morbid, having already visited catacombs in Paris but these were much different. The Catacombs of San Sebastiano are from ancient Rome, having been used between 100AD and 400AD! Unlike the catacombs we visited in Paris, these had specific family burial rooms, and no remains were actually in the chambers. They had all been removed in respect of the dead, seeing as the public tour through daily. We were taken down as part of a guided tour which gave us a much clearer picture as to how the catacombs were used and their history. They served as burial grounds for both Christians and Pagans of ancient Rome. Particularly cool was the ancient graffiti along the area that was used as space for funeral banquets. Ancient graffiti seemed to mostly comprise of requests to the dead. The most prominent names, repeated hundreds of times, are those of Saints Peter and Paul. Their remains were once moved here from the Vatican for safekeeping, though they were returned when Constantine legalised Christianity.

The guide also told us that the word 'catacomb' actually originated here. As the Latin words 'cata', meaning near, and 'cumbae', which is the name of the caves that are part of the underground complex. The name was eventually given to other underground burial sites.

This was only one of the interesting things we've seen in Rome. More to come!

Monday, 13 February 2012


Florence was a nice place, but compared to other cities we've been to it was a bit underwhelming. That's not to say I didn't enjoy myself. I saw some beautiful artworks, including Michelangelo's David - which is a lot bigger than I imagined. We walked interesting streets and ate some great food. One particular street, Ponte (bridge) Vecchio, was originally lined with butcher shops. However, when the Medici family decided to put a tunnel through the bridge they ordered the butchers be replaced with goldsmiths because they did not like the smell. Today, the street is still lined with jewellery shop after jewellery shop.

The Duomo in Florence is one of the largest cathedrals in the world. Not just its sheer size but also the green, red and white marble facade, in an almost geometric design, make it a very impressive cathedral. The outside contrasted strongly with the austere inside which was relevant to the renaissance period it was built in. The church was quite different to ones we have visited in France and England.