Sunday, February 25, 2007

Venice, Italy

Venice, or Venezia to the Italians, is famous for its canals and is one of the most well preserved cities in Europe. There are about 150 canals, splitting up nearly 120 islands, all connected by about 400 bridges. There are no cars in Venice. Instead, water taxis, waterbuses, waterambulance(high speed waterboats) and the world-famous gondolas sweep along its myriad of canals.

Arriving in Venice at night, we headed straight for our hotel which was in Maestre. Maestre can be considered a suburb of Venice. This is the penultimate stop for all trains heading for Venice. Hotel rates here are a lot less and it takes only 1 Euro and 10 minutes to hop on to any train and reach Venice.
We reached the Venice central station from where we got a €12 pass to travel all day in the water buses. The water bus/taxi or gondola are the only way to travel in Venice else you gotta walk. From the central station we tool a water bus and reached our first stop – Piazza de San Marco. Napoleon called the Piazza "the finest drawing room in Europe". It is what Times Square is to New York n Trafalgar Square is to London. The place is literally covered with tourist n pigeons.
St Mark’s Square originated from the 9th century as a small area in front of St Mark’s Basilica. It was enlarged in the 12th century to its present size and shape. The Procuraties are three connected building on the eastern side of the square. It used to house the Venetian offices earlier but now there are cafes, museums, souvenir shops there. In the autumn months, the tide rises n the square resembles a lake.
St Mark’s Basilica (Basilica de San Marco) was built in 832 AD and is renowned for it’s opulent design, gilded Byzantine mosaics, and its status as a symbol of Venetian wealth and power 11th century onwards. Reportedly, the church had in fact been based on two churches from Constantinople, now Istanbul. The horses that you see in the pic are ‘Horses of St Mark’. They are replicas of the sculptures plundered from the Hippodrome of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.
The square’s tallest structure is St Mark’s Campanile. Built as a bell tower for the basilica, it actually collapsed a few times before being totally rebuilt in 1902. The common feature to both the basilica and the tower were the insanely long queues. Well that’s one thing which u gotta face when u are traveling in peak tourist season. Not to mention the problems in finding accommodation. One advice to travelers would be to always get a confirmed booking before embarking on a travel to any such popular tourist destination. You just can’t walk into a hotel and get a room.
Opposite the Campanile, and adjoinig St Mark’s Basilica is the Doge’s Palace. Built between the 14th and 15th centuries, the palace was the official residence of the Doge (Chief Magistrate or Leader of the Republic of Venice). Very ornately designed marble exterior.
Just take a stroll around the place and are sure to witness someone posing in a mask. The wearings of masks by Venetians was def one of the mankind’s most eccentric practices. Venice at a time was perhaps the most flourishing state in Europe and the inhabitants had a very high standard of living. With a level of social wealth unequaled since, the citizens of Venice developed a unique culture - one in which the concealing of the identity in daily life became paramount to daily activity. Part of the secrecy was pragmatic: there were things to do, people to see, and perhaps you might not want others to know what deals you were cutting. After all, the city is relatively small. Don’t return from Venice without one as a souvenir.
The Rialto Bridge (Ponte di Rialto) is a bridge spanning the Grand Canal. It is the oldest bridge across the canal and probably the most famous in the city. The current structure was built in just three years, between 1588 and 1591, as a permanent replacement for the boat bridge and three wooden bridges that had spanned the Grand Canal at various times since the 12th century.
Gondolas were for centuries the chief means of transportation within Venice. Though now-a-days its mostly used by the tourists. A 40 minute ride will set u back by €100. What the hell!! You don’t come to Venice everyday. But the trip turned out to be quite a disappointment. The gondolier didn’t sing any song, the small canals were kinda stinking and although he did point out Casanova’s house and a couple of other details I was rather expecting more.
For me the most interesting time in Venice was spent roaming around in the streets n checking out the souvenir shops which house some of the most beautiful murano glass work. The glass workers were banished to the island of Murano centuries ago because of the fire risk to Venice.
Venice is a walker's paradise. Its small, easy to cover but the maps can be a bit confusing and you could get lost. But there’s only so much ground to get lost. Narrow lanes, by-lanes and bridges, some no longer than 12 feet, connecting them. Yet again one comes across all the big fashion labels n ofcourse Ferrari. I got a glass bottle with a gondola blown into it from the side wall, complete with a gondolier.
At sunset the Venetian skyline is a scene to watch and behold. No wonder Claude Monet was inspired to paint ‘Sunset in Venice’.
Rialto Bridge at night

Venice was an unforgettable experience. Surreal, dream-like, just like an altered state of reality. Walking down the streets that don’t lead to anywhere in particular. The water flowing beneath your feet quietly, noisy tourists at places and the much needed silence at some. Armed with the map and the anxiety the traveler continues. Halts for a while and then resumes.

Would recommend Italy to each and everyone. I’ll be back with some more travel experiences sometime later this year. As of now, I don’t know what I will feed my wanderlust, but will keep u guys posted.

PS: I need a new backpack.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Pisa, Italy

The next morning left for Pisa. The day being 25th Dec the hotel mngr packed some Xmas cake for us. Really nice fellow, spoke perfect english and helped us a lot in getting the missing luggage from Milan to Rome. Anyways the train journey to Pisa was about 3 1/2 hours and most of the travellers were desis. True to the tradition I again met people from my company. I have met people from my company everytime I have vacationed in Europe. I would say that go to any popular tourist spot in Xmas or Eatser Holidays n just shout “My company’s name”, chances are you will see few familiar Indian faces. And this time I met an old mate who was earlier in the same project in aalborg, but is now in Amsterdam(Some people are lucky). The train journey from Rome, Lazzio to Pisa, Tuscany is especially very enjoyable as the train runs along the sea for a large part of the journey and you get to enjoy the sights of magnificent villas, the vineyards n the Italian riviera.
Hopping off at the Pisa Central station we deposited our bags at the locker room and headed off to the tower. The walk (Yes, I love walking) from station to the tower is a leisurely 20 mins max. Just walk straight from the station. Chances are that there will be more people walking in the same direction. The walk would lead you across the river Arno, sopme old quarters of the city with pretty aged buildings n narrow lanes at times.
It was a sunny day and the Torre pendente di Pisa (Leaning Tower of Pisa) was visible in its full glory, fighting a battle with gravity. Breathtaking. It is situated behind the Cathedral and it is the third structure in Pisa' s Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles). Aerial view of the entire Campo dei Miracoli. e other two being the Duomo n the Baptistery. The Leaning Tower is infact just the bell tower to the Duomo, but def much more famous. The Tower stands 58.36 mtrs tall. The construction commenced on 9th August 1173 and is spread over two centuries. Even before it was complete the inclination was evident and corrective measures have been taken from time to time. The tower was closed in 1990 because of the danger posed by the continuing tilt, but reopened in 2001.
Galileo is said to have proven that objects of different weights drop at the same rate by dropping a cannon ball and a wooden ball from the top of the Leaning Tower. For a fees of €15 you can take a ½ hr trip inside the tower, a must do. A batch of 30 or so people are allowed in at a time, so make sure u reach the tower in time. The 294 narrow, winding n foot-worn steps lead you to the three levels where you can stop in the tower. The view from top is amazing. And so is standing there getting urself clicked.
The campus has huge sprawling gardens, and lot of people r there just enjoying the sun. Next to the tower is the Duomo, the medieval cathedral entitled to St. Mary. The exterior façade is white n colored marble, huge bronze doors. Notice (on the top) the statue of Madonna with Child and the four evangelists Mathew, Mark, Luke & John. Inside there are frescos on the dome and an awesome mosaic in the apse - Christ in Majesty.
Midway down the nave hangs a special bronze lamp. It is commonly known as Galilieo's lamp, since it is believed that the great scientist Galileo Galilei figured out the law of the pendulum by observing the lamp as it swung back and forth. The inside also has some very beautiful stained-glass works.
Opposite to the duomo is The Baptistery, dedicated to St. John the Baptist. An impressive buiding. Some more time was spent in the lawns eating pizza hamburgers n sipping the good ol Heineken. And clicking the age old clichéd pose of pushing n supporting the tower.
Pisa is just an hour away from Florence by road or rail, so it might be a good idea to include the same in your travel iternary. I wasn’t as thoughtful while planning the journey.

For people who r interested in visiting other things in Pisa there is
Orto botanico di Pisa, a botanical garden operated by the University of Pisa, Oldest Botanical garden in Europe.

If u r interested in reading a much finer travelogue of Pisa then read
this. Mark Twain’s - The Innocents Abroad.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Italia Rome V

Last post on Rome… (I know my dear readers, yes both of you, want me to end this Rome thing which has stretched a bit too much I guess)

From Roman Forum moved onto The Pantheon, which is arguably the best preserved ancient building in Rome, coz of its constant use thru the ages. Standing in front of this structure I felt both intimidated and overhwelmed. Due to the size, structure, symmetry and the fact that something made 2000 yrs ago stood so marvellously, withstanding the test of time.

The original Pantheon was built in 27 BC-25 BC by Caesar Augustus’ general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa to to commemorate the Victory of Actium over Antony and Cleopatra. His name is inscribed on the portico of the building. M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIUM·FECIT - Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, during his third consulate, built this. Now as Julius Caesar lends his name to the Cesarean section, Agrippa lends his name to Agrippated Birth - he was born feet first.

The Pantheon was intended as a temple to all the Gods. During its two centuries as a functioning temple, statues of gods filled the niches, animals were sacrificed and burned in the center; the smoke escaped through the only means of light, the Oculus. Now I overheard some guide telling his troupe that when it rains no water enters the Pantheon via the Oculus which has a 27 feet diameter. One of those things to which I would have to “see it to believe it”. Sadly it didn’t rain that day & I cant give a word on that.
After Christianity replaced paganism in Rome, the Pantheon was abandoned for a time until the Byzantine emperor Phocas gave it to Pope Boniface IV. In 609 AD, the Pantheon was consecrated as a Christian church.The main altar of the church is opposite the entrance, and the original 7th-century icon of the Madonna and Child can be seen above it. The interior is very rich and most statues inside are in pretty good shape. In the piazza outside the Pantheon is a lovely fountain topped by an ancient Egyptian obelisk.
Outside almost all tourist attraction in Rome, you will find people dressed as Galdiators ready to pose with you for a small fee. Do it by all means if u r interested. The light was dwindling by the time we left the pantheon and I had decided earlier that I would visit the Colosseum at night when it would be all lighted and beautiful. Some of the people were not so excited by the idea and so me n S went to the Colosseum. Caught a bus and realised only after boarding the bus that tickets were not sold in the bus. You had to buy them before boarding. Travelling without ticket in Rome public transport was certainly not on my list of must-dos, but now that it happened m glad :P

Travelling halfway across the city to visit the Colosseum at night was worth evry nickle i spent. Actually I didnt spend any. Doesn't it look awesome?
The other set of people who headed back to the hotel experienced an unsucessful attempt of pickpocketing on them. Rome like any other city has its share of crime. As a traveller who’s there for a small time, one should be careful and try not to get involved in any unpleasant incident. A theft, fight or loss of belonging is not why one would like to remember Rome.
Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II

Throughout Rome you will see fountains or water sprouting from the mouth of a lion/elephant kinda thing. More often than not the water is safe to drink, but don’t take chances. Drink it only if u see locals drinking it. Another thing which is quite common is that every now and then you will run into something which is historical. There's history in every nook n corner of this city. One cannot possibly know about everything but I try to capture the image n go back n read about it later.

The main mode of travel in Rome was walking. Believe me, this is the best way to explore. Walking thru the roads n streets, one notices not only the shops, buildings, houses from much closer quarters but also the people going/returning from work, people idling on the sidewalks, street vendors, the billboards, the signs and many such things.

The number of designer shops per square kilometer must be the highest in Rome. Almost all big names in fashion seem to be present here. Most of them are from here. And you will also find fakes being sold at every street. An authentic looking designer Gucci/Fendi/Prada handbag for as less as €25. €15 if u bargain a bit. Though my fav shops were the number of pizza outlets in the city. Almost every second street will have one. While covering the city I would often hop into one of these and come out with a slice of pizza. In most such shops they sell pizza by the weight of the slice you want. And it comes out to something between €2 - €4. Allows you to sample a lot. There’s a huge difference in the way pizza is eaten elsewhere n Italy. Here most of the pizzas are veg, with generous toppings made of all kinds of vegetables and the freshest ingredients. I did not find a single place that had chicken pizza but the ham more than made up for it. *slurp*

They say there’s a city named Rome on every continent (I find it hard to believe..errr Antarctica??). I bet none of them is like this. 2 days in Rome slipped right past me and it was time to move on to the next destination.
Another dream come true!!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Italia Rome - IV

Next morning, time to hit one of the timeless wonders of the world – The Colosseum – perhaps the most famous and enduring monuments of the culture and cruelty of the ancient Romans.
The construction started in 72 AD under the rule of the Emperor Vespasian of the Favian dynasty and hence was originally named Flavian Amphitheater. The construction was finally completed in 80 AD under Emperor Titus. It got the name Colosseum thanx to the colossal statue of Emperor Nero next to it - Statuas del Gigante Nerone. (
The reconstruction of Colosseum with the Nero's Statue).

This huge amphitheater could hold about 60000 people who could enter through any of the 80 doors and occupy seats according to their social status. The inauguration of the Colosseum was marked with 100 days of games. The fights took place in the sandy arena. (Arena is the latin word for sand). It was used until 6th century after which it was abandoned till the middle ages. Amongst the beast fights and jugglers and magicians the most popular event was the the gladiatorial events (munera). ’Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant’ – (Hail Ceaser, We who are about to die salute you.) that’s what the gladiators used to say before starting the fight. The gladiators who fought were not only slaves and prisoners of wars but also free men who fought for wealth and fame. In view of their popularity these games were often supported by politicians seeking public support. The last gladiatorial game in the Colosseum is recorded in AD 438, when the games were abolished by the Emperor Valentinian III.
For €11 you can get an be a witness to this great historical wonder. Be there preferably early coz the crowds tend to swell with time.

Just outside the Colosseum is the Arco di Constantino. This arch was built after Emperor Constantin's victory on October 28 in 312AD against Massenzio in the Milvio Bridge battle.
From Colosseum we moved on next to the Roman Forum. The Forum is located in a valley that is between the Palatine hill and the Capitoline hill. It originally was a marsh, but the Romans drained the area and turned it into a center of political and social activity. The Forum was the marketplace of Rome and also the business district and civic center. It was expanded to include temples, a senate house and law courts. Much of the forum has been destroyed. Columns and stone blocks are all that remain of some temples.

The Arch of Titus (Arcus Titi) is a triumphal arch that commemorates the victory of the emperors Vespasian and Titus in Judea in 70 AD, which lead to the conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish temple there. The inscription in Roman square capitals reads:
which means - "The Senate and People of Rome (dedicate this) to the divine Titus Vespasianus Augustus, son of the divine Vespasian."

The Basilica of Constantine (Basilica Constantini) was begun by Maxentius in 306-310 and completed by Constantine in 312-337. Today we can see three huge vaults from the original building. The basilica design later became a model for Christian architecture. For the Romans it was a center of justice and civic affairs.

Temple of Antoninus and Faustina (Templum Antonini et Faustinae). When the wife of emperor Antoninus Pius died in A.D. 141, he had this temple constructed in her honor, and twenty years later at his own death, the temple was rededicated to them both.

Temple of Castor and Pollux (Templum Castoris) was erected in honor of Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Jupiter. Only three massive columns remain.

Temple of Saturn (Templum Saturni) - Legend has it that an altar was built at the foot of the Capitoline Hill for Saturn and that a temple was erected on the same site. In early times, the grateful inhabitants brought their wealth, grain, wool, and oil, to offer the first fruits to the god who had blest them, and to have him guard the remainder of their treasure.

Arch of Septimius Severus (Arcus Septimii Serveri)- This triumphal arch was erected in 203 A.D. to commemorate the Roman victory over the Parthians in honor of the Emperor Septimius Severus and his sons, Caracalla and Geta. Reportedly Napolean was so impressed by the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Arch of Titus, that he ordered his architects to reproduce these in Paris; the result is the Arc du Triomphe de Carrousel (a life-size imitation of the Arch of Septimius Severus) and the more famous Arc du Triomphe, which maintains the exact proportions of the Arch of Titus, though several times larger.

On top of the capitole hills after a long flight of steps is the La Lupa Capitolina. The legend says that Romulus and Remus were nursed by a She-Wolf. Romulus becoming the first king and founder of Rome!!