Saturday, September 14, 2013

Yes, another church, but with a difference

After Pat and I finished our excellent meal at Ristorante Boccadama, Pat decided to check out some of the shops around the Piazza di Santa Croce.  I, as usual, needed to find a bathroom.  And, no, I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to use the restroom in the restaurant.  I think it was actually a matter of standing there at the little leather goods kiosk next to the restaurant while Pat decided on a billfold to buy her son, and then our standing there trying to decide what to do next, and it suddenly hitting me that I needed to go.  Since I wasn’t interested in shopping at all (I never am), we agreed to meet at the large statue on the steps of the church, as we had been instructed by Gianni.  I then made a beeline for the church – whose façade looks like the Duomo on a small scale, and is almost as beautiful – figuring I could surely use the toilets there.  But alas, unlike at the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, at Santa Croce you had to pay to get into the church, to get at the restrooms.  So I forked up six Euros, to go to the bathroom.

However, when I took a look at the little booklet I’d picked up at a table by the ticket
Michelangelo's Tomb
booth, I was glad I’d paid my six Euros.  Because one of the claims to fame of this church is that it contains the tombs of a number of celebrated personages, including Michelangelo, and Galileo.  I mean, oh, wow.  To be looking at the tombs of one of the greatest artists in the world, and one of the greatest scientists.  Many people are not impressed by tombs, but I am.  Because this is the closest you can get to someone who is dead.  It’s why I have trouble with the concept of being cremated, and having your ashes dumped out into the wind on a mountain top, or at sea.  Where do people go later to feel close to you, and in some way, commune with you?  With a tomb – whether it’s an elegant sarcophagus, surrounded by elaborate sculpture, as in these cases, or a simple stone in the grass – you have a concrete place to focus on.

Galileo's Tomb
The church itself is less stark and bare than the Duomo, with a handsome dark wood ceiling, and narrow, sort of brownish-green columns holding up the graceful arches along the nave.  But it’s the apse, at the far end of the church, that is flat-out gorgeous.  I could tell this, despite all the scaffolding covering it up (it helped to later see a picture of it in my Florence guide book).  The usual rich colors, covering every inch of wall, a gorgeous gold alter, and windows full of deeply colored stained glass (at last, beautiful stained glass!)  They were obviously doing some restoration work on all those frescos of saints climbing both the outside and the inside of the huge arch that led to the apse.  I found it rather fascinating, watching the men and women up there in their white coats, looking like miniature people, dwarfed by the elaborate scaffolding, and the architecture surrounding them.  I thought, what a fascinating, if tedious, job, restoring all that beautiful artwork.

So I got my quick view of Santa Croce – would have wandered a bit more, but nature was screaming – went out to the cloister, where les toilettes always seem to be located – found I couldn’t figure out how to keep the door to the stall locked, so the lady at the front of the line kindly held it closed for me, and finally made my way out to the statue where we were all supposed to meet.

Only to discover that when Gianni kept referring to the “Pantheon” earlier, telling us we would be visiting it after lunch, he was talking about this church. Due to all the famous people buried there.  So the place I had just paid 6 Euros to visit on the run, the rest of the group was to get into for free.

Ah, well.  Since Gianni had also said our next stop would be some museum, and I was pretty museumed out, I took this opportunity to return to see the interior of the Duomo (See Note of August 6, 2013) .  When I exited there I boldly asked the guard at the door “Dove’ un taxi?”  I didn’t understand his answer, but I understood the pointing well enough.  I made my way out beyond the pedestrians-only streets to where the traffic plowed by (often interrupted by pedestrians) and was lucky enough to spot an empty cab stopped for a red light.  I went up and tapped on the window, the driver looked over at me and nodded.  When I got in I told him exactly what Gianni had told me to say: ”Hotel Villa Maid’-ee-chee, per favore’.”  And then watched as the driver made his way with great panache through the crowded, narrow streets, full of scooters and bicycles that zipped in and out amongst the other traffic.  And finally I ventured to ask “Parla englesee?  He glanced back at me and said “un po,” which is what they all say.  So I said, “I think you must be very brave to drive a taxi in Florence.”  He laughed, gave a very Italian shrug and said “It is nor-mal”.  A ride in a taxi with a real Italian driver, how cool is that?

And when she got home, after a very long day, Patricia collapsed onto her bed and declared, “The stupid museum was the Gucci Museum.  With a gift shop, of course.  A total waste of time.”

Saturday, August 24, 2013


A lot of people have asked me about the food in Italy.  “Was the food great?”  Speaking from my own experience I’d have to say: not really.

What I ate the most of were ham and cheese sandwiches – un panino al fromaggio e proscutto – the best I could do in the way of portable snacks for when hunger struck at inconvenient times.  But these were not on our kind of bread; the ham and cheese (and sometimes lettuce) are in a kind of pocket, long and narrow, and crispy, especially if the vendors pop it into some kind of a toasting machine, which they usually do unless you stop them.  Really not bad.

I’ve already mentioned the excellent dinner several of us had at Anima Bella, our first night in Venice (See Note of June 2, 2013), and the mediocre meal we had our second night, at Al Giglio, in the Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo (Note of June 17, 2013).  And by the way, I didn’t stay for the main course, as I slipped out and went to the concert, but Pat told me the beef steaks that most people ordered – rather than the fried calamari – were tough.  The place gets mixed reviews on TripAdvisor.  But the lunch Pat and I had in Florence, when we were all set loose for an hour and a half, after visiting the outside of the Duomo and the Baptistry, was one of the best, and most Italian  meals I had while in Italy.

This was in one of several small restaurants (and many small shops) that rim the large Piazza di Santa Croce, at the far end of which is another beautiful church, the Basilica of Saint Croce, which we were to visit later.  But right now—after pointing us in the direction of a large leather and gold goods market (like the glassblower’s shop in Venice, and the souvenir shop we were steered to after visiting the Vatican, there was always someplace that you suspected had an “arrangement” with Perillo Tours) – Gianni encouraged us to have lunch somewhere around the square.  Pat and I settled on the Ristorante Boccadama, a rustic looking little place with a long narrow front room, that held a few tables for one person, a bar at the back, and around the corner a long, narrow dining area, with two small tables pushed together on either side of a central aisle.  We were seated at a table with two men next to us – whom I fairly quickly ascertained were a middle-aged American, trying to both get to know and charm his younger – though not young – potential playmate.  But as in all such seating situations, the two sets of strangers maintained an invisible curtain between them, so as to preserve a sense of privacy.  And next to us was a whole wall of bottles of wine.

What I ordered was the Tuscan sausage dish, and it was out of this world delicious.  A huge coiled rope of sausage on top of beans in a tomato sauce.  There was so much, I offered some to Arthur, one of our fellow Perillo Tourists, who was sitting across the aisle with his wife Madelyn and his sister-in-law.  These three had become to a certain extent Pat’s best friends – she always tended to sit with them, in dining situations (whereas I tried to mix more, sitting with different groups each time), and to walk with them as we were “touring” especially when I had done one of my disappearing acts.  Arthur and Madelyn sort of fascinated me because they were both retired from the IRS.  I mean, how often do you meet someone who has worked for the IRS, never mind a married couple that has worked for the IRS?

Anyway, Arthur had ordered pasta, and as usual it was this huge mound, with nothing but tomato sauce, so he was delighted to be able to add some sausage to it.  And after I got back home, and checked TripAdvisor, I found that this little restaurant that Pat and I just wandered into, gets universal rave reviews, with many people saying what I did: best meal I had in Italy.

We also had dinner at two of the hotels where we stayed.  At the Grand Hotel Villa Medici, there in Florence, the antipasto (what we would call the appetizer) was this very tasty, unusual little pale green mound of who knows what. It looked like it should be sweet but was actually delicately herbed. Then came the pasta dish – lovely little squares of ravioli, stuffed with ricotta cheese, and covered with a fine, thin sauce.  My idea of of a manageable pasta course.  But then came the main course (which Rick Steves, in his travel guide, says is almost always a disappointment), and while they called it veal, it neither looked nor tasted like veal, nor was it as tender as you expect veal to be.  What it looked like was a thick slice of rare roast beef. The little joke I made (that did get a little laugh) was that I suspected this wasn’t young calf, but adolescent cow.  It reminded me of ordering veal in Greece, where it always looks more like pot roast.

The final blow was that dessert was vanilla ice cream.  Vanilla ice cream!  How pedestrian.

Our dinner at the Rose Garden Palace Hotel in Rome was of a similar caliber.  My main course of fish was quite tasty, but not noticeably Italian.  And there was the usual impossible pile of pasta.  Perhaps the best aspect of both of these meals were the plentiful bottles of red and white wine, and carafes of water, on all the tables

Of course, it could be argued that one rarely gets really spectacular meals at hotels, even first class ones (Pat and I stayed at the very expensive Boston Harbor Hotel, the night before we flew to Italy, and were quite disappointed in our dinner).  We did have a very good dinner our last night in Rome, when we were taken to a small restaurant, called all Arco di S. Calisto, deep in an area of very narrow lanes full of restaurants and artsy-craftsy shops, the Trastevere.  Another long, narrow room, where tables were pushed together to accommodate us all.  One thing I really liked was that they put a huge bowl of excellent salad – all kinds of good stuff in it – at the end of each table, for us to “pass down” as needed.  Once again there was too much pasta – if you don’t like spaghetti with tomato sauce you should probably steer clear of Italy – but the fish I ordered was quite good.  Again, not noticeably Italian.  But perhaps I just don’t know what to expect in Italian cooking.  Except, now that I’ve been there…pasta.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The place with the big red dome

The famous Duomo (cathedral), which we visited after we left the Accademia Gallery, is first of all huge.  We came upon it from the side, and looking down its length, it seemed to go on forever.  It is even more magnificent on the outside than pictures of it suggest.  (The inside is less so, but more about that in a moment).  Particularly the façade: the multicolored marble – did I mention that everything in Italy seems to be made of marble? – is so striking, so different from the grey stone I was accustomed to seeing in French cathedrals.  When you’re standing looking up at it, it seems to be striped, but that’s a trick of the eye, caused by the long white marble panels trimmed in green marble.  These panels running up the sides, the front of the building, one atop the other, form green and white stripes. And there is also some rose-colored marble mixed in there, especially in the tall, square camponile (bell tower) that stands next to the church.

At the same time that you’re marveling at all that color, you are almost blinded by the whiteness of the vast central entrance, the two smaller arched entrances to either side.  And there are white niches containing sculptured figures on each side of the arches, and just below the roof. The large round windows above the pointed side arches, and the even larger window above the central arch, give a wonderful symmetry to the whole.   

Interestingly, though the church was built over a 140 year period (1296-1436), the marble facing on the façade (which is so gorgeous) was re-done in the late 1800s.  Can't help wondering what it looked like all those years. 

So I was busy snapping pictures, like everyone else, but oh, those crowds.  Losing one’s group was a real fear, and a real possibility.  At one point, when our guide was going on and on, as he had about David, I took the opportunity to sit down on a step of the church and finish the sandwich I had started eating when we were at the Palazzo Davanzati (as I’ve said, my need to eat frequently was a constant pain).  I heard the guide switch from the Duomo to the Baptistry, which is a few steps from the church, and is the place where babies in days of old had to be baptized before they could enter the church.  The most famous feature of this small, octagonal-shaped building are the double doors carved by the artist Ghiberti, over a 27-year period (these artistic masterpieces took a long time to produce!)  The doors are made up of 10 gilded panels beautifully carved with stories from the Old Testament. Most of us who took art history in college have studied these doors, and it was nice to be able to see them in the flesh, so to speak.  But as a matter of fact it was difficult to see them because of…you guessed it… the crowds.  Every picture I tried to take was obscured by heads, bodies, some group leader holding up a sign with a number on it so his group would know where he was.

I would have loved to be able to patiently wait until those pressed up against the gold-painted bars
Ghiberti's famous doors, completed 1452
that protect the doors from the hordes (and possible vandalism) had moved away, so that I could inch my way up to that barrier, and actually study the panels for a few minutes.  But alas, I was losing the guide’s voice – it was fading in and out on my little headphones (which I now had, thanks to Gianni coming equipped with a couple of spare ones) – and looking around, I couldn’t see a single member of my group.  Yikes!  Had they gone into the Baptistry?  I circled the place, searching for the entrance; when I finally found it, saw that there was a 5 Euro entrance fee.  No, surely they hadn’t gone in there.  So I returned to where I had started and there, praise the lord, was Gianni, looking around for me, waving when he saw me (and not for the last time). 

But wait, the group was moving off down the street.  I ran up to Gianni and exclaimed (literally exclaimed) “Gianni, we aren’t going into the Duomo?!”  No, he said, “There isn’t time.”  This absolutely flumoxed me.  How could you take people to see one of the most famous churches in the world, and not take them inside.  When I said this to Gianni he agreed with me, and said that when I got the email from Perillo asking how I had liked the tour, I should mention this.  “Because they won’t listen to us,” he said, meaning the guides. 

Alas, I never received such an email, never got the chance to voice my dismay at this egregious omission.  Perhaps if the guide hadn’t spent so much time on David, there would have been time.  Listen up, Perillo Tours.

I later went back by myself.  I was pleasantly surprised at how minimal the crowds were, how non-existent the line to get inside, and not for the first time I wondered, “Why do all the tour groups descend on these famous sites at the same time?”  Instead of everybody showing up  9-11 a.m., why don’t some of them go 2-4 p.m.?

Facade of Duomo, Florence

Side of Duomo, dome & a chapel in bkgrd
 At any rate, once inside I admit to finding myself mildly disappointed, as I had been with San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.  Here, too, the word ‘austere’ probably sums it up best.  What you mainly notice about the place is that it is vast, vast and empty, no pews or chairs, practically no decoration, just great blank walls reaching up and up.  The few narrow stained glass windows are so high on those walls, they make practically no impression at all.  The one thing that is truly impressive is the inside of the great dome, which is as spectacular as the outside.  It’s so very high it’s hard to see the figures, the scenes clearly, but it is a wonderful swirl of rich color.  Worth going into the church…as long as there’s no line.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Un po' di vino

We’re going to take a little break from sightseeing now, since the next two sights were churches, and you’ve probably had enough of churches for a while.  We’re going to a wine tasting.

The wine tasting took place the following afternoon, on our way back to Florence, after spending far too little time in Siena (I wasn’t the only person to feel this way).  As always, hurry hurry hurry to get on to the next place.

The place we visited was Tenuta Torciano Vineyard and Winery.  Checking Tripadvisor after I got home, I found that it generally gets very high marks.  I did find most of the wines good, as well as the balsamic vinegar they had us dipping our bread into at the end.  But the tasting went on far too long – I would say a good hour longer than it should have – mainly because our host, Pierluigi, the charming and humorous owner, was dividing his time between our group, out on the covered patio, and another group in the main dining room.  So he was back and forth, leaving us alone sometimes for too long.

Indeed, at the very beginning, most of us didn’t know what to do.  Young serving girls were coming around, pouring wine into our glasses, and setting little plates of cheese, salami, and bits of lettuce in front of us.  We had just finished lunch in Siena, so the food was not particularly appealing.  But initially we didn’t know if we were supposed to eat it, like an antipasto -- which it wasn't, quite -- or just drink the wine and wait for instructions about the food (but why would they put food in front of you, if they didn’t want you to eat it?), or wait for instructions on both counts.  Eventually most of us sipped at our wine and picked at the food, at which point Pierluigi came out and told us: try the wine with a bit of cheese, then a piece of sausage, then a bit of salad, and see which one goes best with the wine.  Aha!  This did prove to be an interesting experiment.  And we repeated the experiment with the later wines.  Diana, one of the women at our table who had been to other wine tastings, said they would be giving us a clean glass for each wine, but that didn’t happen.  One of the young women wordlessly showed us how to dump any leftover wine into a ceramic bowl, and we simply used the same glass for all the wines, which put Diana’s nose somewhat out of joint. (“How can you clear your palate?”)

I really liked the Baldessare red, which was a tiny bit less dry than the chianti (which I also liked), which was much less dry than the chianti classico, which was almost astringent.  I didn’t bother trying the dessert wine because I do not like sweet wine – have never been able to understand why you would serve a sweet wine with a sweet dessert.  Poor Pat didn't really care for any of the wines, as she is a white wine person.

My big problem was that I can no longer drink too much wine -- at least not unless accompanied by a full meal -- or I not only get impossibly sleepy, but develop a sugar-induced headache.  Thus, while everyone else was pretty much downing everything that went into their glasses, I really did just taste.  A few sips, along with a few bites of the food supplied, that was it.  But around me, the sound level got higher and higher as the amount of wine consumed increased.  Patricia and I were at the quiet table (as we usually were), rather than the boisterous one, which got very boisterous indeed.  Even at our table, the rather demure Gloria, one of the women traveling alone, eventually became shrill, as she became more and more inebriated.  She had a rather annoying voice anyway, that always sounded a bit as though she were whining, but when oiled with wine, it became positively shrieking, especially after she broke a glass, which she found both embarrassing and hilarious.  I actually liked Gloria, who was a pleasant, friendly lady and, as I learned when we made the long day trip to Pompeii together, she was very interested in history, including ancient history (as am I), people in general, and the stories that were their lives.   She was a widow from New York (and one of the things that made her voice unfortunate was that pronounced New York accent), who worked part-time in a social work capacity, which I found admirable.  

But in the present situation, I found myself eventually just wanting to get away from her; indeed, from all the raucous noise.  This was one of those times in my life when I felt acutely how un-group-oriented I am.  I availed myself of trips to the bathroom three times, only one of which was actually spent in the toilet.  The other two were spent out on the back step of this old farmhouse-turned-restaurant, staring around at the small garden to the left of me, the open patio to the right of me (where they have dining all’aperto, when they don’t have on-again-off-again rain, as they did that afternoon), and at the tall hedge in front of me, that separated the building from the country road, along which an occasional car would pass.   

They were now into the selling phase of the afternoon – “We can ship anywhere in the United States!” – and in this I had absolutely no interest.   So I went for a walk around the back garden, which was pretty, if wet.  Found a pen of animals in a far corner, and suspected that these game birds, that rabbit, even this goat were probably not pets, but destined for dinner in the restaurant at some point.

For many people on the tour this was one of the highlights of the trip.  For both Pat and me, it was a moderately interesting, but ultimately boring, experience.  Except for Kelly from Kentucky, who was in the early stages of pregnancy, and could not drink at all, I was the soberest person on the bus trip home.  But now I’d been to an Italian wine tasting.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Art: Food for the soul

Our next stop was the Accademia Gallery (AG), for a look at the famous David.  This most famous work by Michelangelo Buonaroti (and how many of you knew ol’ Michelangelo had a last name?) was begun when the artist was only 26, and took him three years to finish. This puts me in mind of Mozart, writing all those symphonies and other works before he was 20.  A genius is a genius, what can one say.  David originally stood in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, which we were to visit later, and which really is one’s idea of a palace.  Today it houses the city government of Florence, and has an imitation David out front, as in 1875 the original was moved to the AG.

At the AG there were the usual long lines, coming from both directions along the narrow sidewalk on the narrow street.  As a group we were whisked to the front of one of the lines (there are definitely advantages to being a group!), ‘though we still had to wait a bit.  Once inside we were led by our guide to the Gallery of the Slaves, which leads to the statue of David, standing by itself in the center of its own well-lit rotunda.  In the dimly-lit GoftheS, it’s easy to be distracted by that big, beautiful man-child up there on his pedestal. I tried to pay attention to what the guide was saying about the Slaves, but unfortunately I had left my headphones at the hotel, and even standing near him didn’t help much, as the place was so noisy – a high-ceilinged, echoing room full of other guides talking to other groups – so I finally gave up, and just went to look at each of the slaves.

These are not crack-the-whip slaves, but rather slaves of the marble, trying to come out.  For that was Michelangelo’s belief: that sculptures lurked within the marble, and just needed the artist’s help to reveal themselves.  There are four of them, and they are in various stages of being revealed (or, one might say, finished).  Two of them especially look very crude, very unfinished.  To me they demonstrate that a “work in progress” might be intellectually interesting – and provide guides with lots to talk about – but emotional satisfaction comes from the finished product.

As to David, whom I ventured to visit next, while our guide was still pontificating on the Slaves, he is absolutely amazing.  The subtle muscles, the knees, the abs, the perfect buttocks, and that calm,
smooth, boyish face.  I’ve long held that the Mona Lisa, that millions also flock to see, is way overrated, but Michel-angelo’s David is not.  To see the real thing, not a picture in a book, is a deep pleasure.

By the time our guide had moved the group into the David room, I had moved on, to the two galleries that lie on either side.  These are taken up with those overblown paintings that I’ve mentioned I’m not crazy about: swirling robes, voluptuous women, chunky cherubim on fat clouds, everybody looking some degree of pained.  But what was interesting about these paintings was that they had all been restored, and there were small pictures below them, that showed what they had looked like before the restorers (or “cleaners”) went to work.  What a difference!  What a fascinating, but painstaking, job that must be.

I found fascinating the room at the far end of one of these galleries, called the 19th Century Room.  Here are lot of busts of regular folks who (nonetheless) could afford to have busts made of themselves.  These are not the austere, essentially interchangeable busts (and in some cases full figures) of classical Rome and Greece, but pictures in plaster cast (from which the final marble statues were made) that actually show what the sitter looked like, capturing not only dress and hairstyles, but expression, suggestions of personality.  It made me want to rush out and have a bust made of myself, although I really should have had that done before the days of a fattened face and drooping jowls were upon me.

Mary Magdalene by unknown artist, 1280-1285
I also visited two small galleries that contained beautiful examples of 14th century art – wood panels with gold leaf backgrounds, rich colors, Madonnas with ugly baby Jesuses who looked like miniature grown men, story-telling squares surrounding the main figure, halos around the saints, the angels, the Madonnas, almost a total lack of depth perception.  These are not realistic paintings, but serene religious commentaries, meant to inspire and instruct.  

And while I was enjoying all of this, the rest of the group were still standing around David, while the guide went on and on.  Pat said he eventually got to where he was telling them about other groups he had led, which included famous sport and entertainment celebrities who made amazingly stupid comments about the statues.  Perillo Tours, I think perhaps this part of your Marco Polo Tour could be improved upon.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Next Stop: Firenze

The countryside beyond Padua gradually became more hilly, and beyond Bologna, which we just drove past on the highway, the northern end of the Apennine Mountains, which run up the middle of the Italian boot, rose on our left.  These are friendly mountains, as opposed to majestic ones.  We were soon deep in the mountains’ lushly green foot hills, going up and down, and around curves.  In little valleys you could see farms, with their ocher-colored, red-tile-roofed  farmhouses.  And eventually the traffic slowed noticeably – ah, yes, the famous terrible Italian traffic, which we had not had to deal with up to now.

By the time we rolled into Florence it was raining, and coming on to evening, so Gianni made the decision to wait on the planned trip to Michelangelo Square, to view the city.  And we were glad he did, since instead we visited there on our last day, when it was partly sunny and dry; much better for viewing, and picture-taking.  We now went straight to our hotel, Grand Hotel Villa Medici.  Like the hotel in Venice this one was elegant and well-maintained, although more sleekly contemporary in its interior decoration.  There are “testimonials” in one of the lounge areas from famous folk like Luciano Pavarotti calling the hotel an “oasis” in the heart of Florence.   The beautifully landscaped swimming pool to be seen beyond large windows and modern French doors certainly looked like an oasis; indeed, I regretted that we simply did not have the time to sit out there and relax for an hour or so.  (See Note of May 18, 2013)
Grand Hotel Villa Medici

The most disconcerting aspect of the hotel was the way the main elevator kept going on the fritz.  There was another elevator, just across the lobby from the main one, but it came out in a place that left you confused as to where you were.  And we never knew when the elevator would be out of commission, so everybody spent a lot of time wandering around upstairs, trying to figure out which elevator to take.

The best thing about the hotel was that our room, while considerably smaller than the room in Venice, had a balcony.  Pat especially appreciated this feature, since she could smoke without having to go downstairs and outside.  And I delighted in looking over the waist-high wall and watching the life on a Florence street: people going in and out of the small shops, the apartment buildings, the light traffic on the street: buzzing motor scooters, the small cars, the occasional tourist bus.  I discovered, when I went out looking for food later, that down a couple of blocks to the left there were numerous hotels and small restaurants, as well as a mini-mart that was able to supply me with my standby ham-and-cheese sandwiches (and was staffed by someone of obvious mid-eastern ancestry: shades of New York/Boston/ and many other large cities).  And we watched an absolutely gorgeous sunset from that balcony, while listening to swooping, whistling birds, that someone told us were swallows.
Sunset from our balcony

The next day we began our touring by visiting the Palazzo Davanzati, one of the few residential buildings in Florence dating from the medieval period.  We tend to have a Cinderella-ish idea of what a palace is, but among the Italians of old a palazzo could be simply, as this building was, the large home of a rich family.   From the front it is unprepossessing: a very flat – no protruding balconies, shutters, or even window sills – plain, brown building, four stories high.  Our guide pointed out that something the façade did have were iron sconces, to hold torches, and flags.  Medieval Italian city states, like Florence, were torn by internal factions, often a matter of guilds, who had their own flags.   Whatever group you belonged to, you flew their flag.  Even today, flag waving is very big in Italy.

There are also lots of iron hooks, curved upwards, called erri.  These were used to hang baskets of flowers from, or banners, on festive days, or to leash little pet dogs or moneys.  So presumably the façade was often much less drab than it appears today.

Inside, I immediately felt I had stepped back into Romeo and Juliet’s day.  The ground floor is actually a stone-floored courtyard, though it seems less like one now, because there is a roof four floors above, rather than the awning that would originally have been there, which could be rolled back to let in air, or rolled into place to keep out rain.  The wide double doors leading out to the street would have been left open during the day, and people would have entered and left at will.  Off this courtyard is, among other rooms, the room where banking transactions would have taken place, for the Davizzis, who built the house in the early 1300s , were wealthy merchants and bankers.  There is a stone stairway leading up to the first floor, where the family’s private rooms were located.  Halfway up this staircase is a heavy door, that would have been manned by a guard, to keep out the riff-raff.

Upstairs, on each floor, a gallery runs around three sides of the house, and looks down on the courtyard.  I could just imagine the young girls of the house, peering over the stone balustrade at some dashing young fellow in striped tights below.  The rooms open off of this galley – the Great Hall, where special guests would have been entertained, bedrooms – one of which had been painted to look like the walls are covered with beautiful tiles, the other of which seems to have beautiful fabric wall hangings, also painted on.  There’s even a toilet.  In most of the rooms a few beautiful, elaborately carved wooden chairs, tables, chests.  I saw why there were no shutters to be seen on the outside of the building – the heavy wooden shutters are inside, and fold up accordion fashion when you open them.
I loved the place.  Pat hated all the stone stairs.
Beautifully decorated building in Florence


Sunday, June 23, 2013

God's House

I am not a religious person, but I love churches. That is, I love beautiful churches, not the bare, unadorned churches (often Baptist) of my native South, and elsewhere. I love them because of their beauty, and because of the peacefulness they exhibit (when they’re not crowded with tourists) and the contemplation they can encourage (when they’re not crowded with tourists). On the drive to Florence we stopped in the university town of Padua, and saw a sublimely beautiful church, the Basilica of St. Anthony.

First we had to get there. On Wednesday, we were taken by several boats back to the mainland where we climbed aboard a huge bus. It was comfortable, but we had been told (in the literature we were sent) that it would have a restroom on board; and for the longest time most of us didn’t realize there really was a restroom, because it was tucked down beneath the row of seats that was just before the back door. The bus was so high, that you had to walk down several steps to get to the back door, and most of us failed to notice the door built into the wall on the left of the “stairwell.” Eventually the assertive Bonnie, who had to go the bathroom almost as often as I did, and was not shy about letting people know it, discovered the toilette – which is what it is called, none of those euphemisms like restroom, or bathroom, or ladies/men’s room – and took the plunge to use it. “I don’t care, I had to go,” she announced when she came out.

For the longest time I was leery of using it, fearing it would be one of the “squat” kind, that used to be much more prevalent in Europe than they are now, but that you can still happen upon. Frankly, I didn’t see how you would be able to stand up in what seemed like very little space beneath the seats above. But finally the body won out and I went…only to discover that it was a perfectly nice, very clean little “restroom” that you could certainly stand up in. There was even a sink where you could wash your hands. After that, the toilette on board and I were good friends.

The countryside between Venice and Padua (which is Padova to the Italians) is flat farmland, with the occasional hill, the occasional clump of trees. I noticed that virtually all the small farms had their own little vineyard – everybody grows grapes.

At Padua, in the huge bus parking lot, we noticed scattered about some rather disreputable looking people, and Gianni announced over his little intercom that they were gypsies, and we must take care not to encourage them. He said this more than once, which immediately had me feeling sorry for these people – who included women and children – and who were so obviously treated as pariahs. But I didn’t encourage them: beggars, or people selling cheap junk instead of begging, may tug at my heartstrings, but I don’t allow myself to be drawn into their net.

Canal of Prato della Valle (professional photo)

It was a good long walk to the church, through what I thought at the time was just a large open park, but which I later learned was the Prato della Valle, the largest public square in Europe. It has a canal running through it, and large statues up on pedestals all around. It also has young black men selling the cutest little windup toys, unusual things, like roosters and old-fashioned cars. I was much more tempted by these, than I had been by the handbags in Venice, and if I’d had some little nephew back home, I might very well have stopped and asked the price.

I did dash into a store at one point to buy a water – praying that the briskly walking tour would not get too far ahead of me -- because I had finished off the bottle I had, and was always thirsty (which undoubtedly contributed to all the bathroom runs). It cost only 1 Euro, but the packaging proved to be quite inferior. When I tried to unscrew the lid, the whole top came off, which meant I couldn’t screw the lid back on. And the plastic was very soft, so that the bottle squished, and putting it in my shoulder bag resulted in water everywhere. Later I did get another bottle, hoping it would be made of firmer stuff. It was just as squishy, but I had Pat unscrew the lid – she proved to have a lighter touch – and I was at least able to keep the bottle in my bag without getting everything wet. After that, Pat opened all my bottles of water.

Basilica of Saint Anthony (professional photo)

On the open plaza before the basilica Gianni informed us that the squat toilets could be found to the left, the “normal” toilets off the cloister to the right, and let us go, for 45 minutes. I and a bunch of other people made a beeline for the normal toilets – where we had to pay a Euro to get through the turnstyle, and where there was a man on permanent clean-up duty in the ladies’ room, which is actually not that unusual. Bodily functions taken care of, I went into the church, and was blown away.

Absolutely gorgeous. The tomb of St. Anthony sits on a dias on the left, surrounded by a semi-circle of beautifully executed wall sculptures, of blindingly white marble, representing different events in the saint’s life. I recall looking at the famous “The Miracle of the Reattached Foot,” without it registering that the young man did not, indeed, have a foot. The back of the saint’s sarcophagus, which you pass as you are walking the semi-circle, is a place where many people stop, press their hand against the marble, and say a prayer. A few in our group did this. (I was later to realize that quite a number of the PT group were good Catholics, who, for example, were very excited about being able to see the new pope when we were in Rome). We couldn’t stand directly in front of the saint’s tomb, because it was roped off, as there was a service going on in the nave in front of it (which I thought odd – how distracting to be trying to sing the Lord’s praises while all these people were moving about, even talking, to either side of you) but you could see from the side that it is of a beautiful green marble – in Italy there is simply marble, marble everywhere – and was surrounded by mounds of flowers.

As you continue past the tomb you come into what is known as the Chapel of the Black Madonna. I didn’t know this at the time, but I was looking right at the Black Madonna, who wasn’t black at all, but quite white. One of life’s mysteries. This chapel is actually the original church, which existed in St. Anthony’s time (early 1200s), and around which the rest of the basilica was built.

Behind this chapel there is a larger, and very beautiful, chapel that is simply covered with frescos in the late medieval style (late 1300s). You could tell that the paintings were beautiful – lots of gold mixed in with the rich colors -- but you couldn’t see them very clearly, because the chapel was dimly lit, and many of the paintings were high, on the arched ceiling, indeed, on the inside of the arches themselves. I told Pat it probably looked better when they got bright lights in there to take a picture, and as a matter of fact, when I later picked up a free guide from a stereotypically kindly looking old monk, I found a picture of the chapel in which they had obviously done exactly that. This, by the way, was the Chapel of Blessed Luke Belludi, who was one of Anthony’s buddies.

The chapel that really took my breath away was the Chapel of the Relics, or the Treasury Chapel. Like all good Catholic churches in Europe, this one has holy “relics,” in this case a couple of bone fragments, a fragment of skin (uggh), and some hair from St. Anthony, as well as the biggest deal of all, his “uncorrupted tongue.” There is also, of course, a piece of the True Cross. Every major church has a piece of the True Cross. The Protestant reformer John Calvin once remarked that there were enough pieces of the True Cross to build a ship.

Pat was absolutely fascinated by the idea of seeing the “uncorrupted” tongue of someone who had died in 1231, so got in line to make the pass before the three marble niches that contain the three gold reliquaries. Since I am not really interested in seeing anybody’s tongue, whatever shape it is in, I contented myself with staring up and around at this gorgeous room, with the red-streaked-with-grey marble walls of the reliquary area, the elaborate, Baroque statuary, in big frames, as if they were pictures, high on the walls, as well as above the reliquary niches, along the marble balustrade that separated the reliquary area from the rest of the room.

Unlike many of the churches I saw in Italy, this one was full of color, and many beautiful frescos that were more in the style I like – that of the late medieval period – than the overblown style of the famous painters of the 1500s. And the cloister I visited later (I have a thing about cloisters), while less peaceful than it should have been, thanks to all the tourists, was still lovely, with its huge magnolia tree in the center. And the smaller cloister beyond, which most of the tourists hadn’t discovered, really was peaceful, with the only sound being birdsong. For a while I sat enjoying that, then gradually realized that it was sounding very repetitive. And I couldn’t see any birds, but I did see speakers, tucked away in corners. Recorded birdsong. Ah, well…

Monday, June 17, 2013

From the unfortunate to the sublime

O.K., so I missed the walking tour of the Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, and the prison behind it.  I was disappointed, but not crushed, especially after Pat collapsed into the room, after what had been a very long day for her, and informed me that the guide, who was “very knowledgeable,” gave them detailed information on every picture hanging on every wall.  I would soon have been  swooning with boredom.  I like a little history with my tours, but not so much that I can’t properly assimilate it.  I figure I can always read up on the history of this that or the other person/political situation/work of art if I’m sufficiently interested.  But to be force-fed bushels of information while I’m trying to take in, visually, whatever we’re passing: no, not for me.  I was to feel the same way when we visited the Accademia Gallery in Florence, and the local guide spent 45 minutes talking about the sculpture of David (after spending 15 minutes on the unfinished Slaves, which stand in the gallery that leads to David) .  Mind you, David is indeed an incredible work of art – and speaking strictly as a woman, if the guy also had a brain and a sense of humor, he’d make a really good Significant Other – but 45 minutes is definitely overkill, for people who are not art students.  While the others in the group remained politely in thrall to the guide, I wandered off and got to see three different, fascinating parts of the museum, which the others missed because when the David talk ended, we were hustled out to the gift shop, and that was that.

But to return to Venice:  what did I do instead of the walking tour?  Exactly what I had wanted to do that morning: explore.  First I grabbed another sandwich from a little place on the Street of Sandwich Makers (actually Calle de le Rasse) recommended by the irreplaceable Rick Steves.  I went to the same place I had gone to the evening before when getting a sandwich for Pat – I hope this eases the minds of those of you who thought I had completely forgotten about my friend while enjoying my dinner out -- and one for me, for later, when I would inevitable be hungry again.  I was hoping the same pretty, sweet-smiling young man would be there, but alas, this time it was an old man and his wife.  I whipped out one of the few Italian phrases I’d had the opportunity to use since coming to Italy – Un panino al fromaggio e prosciutto, per favore – and the old man took one of those waiting in the display case and plopped it into the waffle-iron-like toaster.  I also ordered “un Coca-Cola Lite” which I had learned, as in France, was the way to get a Diet Coke.  Then I moved as fast as I could, through the narrow passages that led out to that vast San Marco Square, which I had to get across, all the time painfully aware of how desperately I needed to use the bathroom (had needed to go since my second trip to San Giorgio, but I was damned if I would use that paperless toilet again), and there were still a few blocks to go beyond the square.   I was never so glad to see anyplace as the Hotel Europa & Regina, and made a second-base dive for the elegant restroom off the Reception area, rather than try to make it up to our room.

Anyway, after a rest of about an hour, and another rejuvenating bath, I set out on my walk.  Followed the flow of tourists down Calle Larga, around corners, along more narrow alley-like streets lined with shops and small hotels, which I was glad I wasn’t staying in. since they would undoubtedly be noisy, right over the street as they were.  Was enchanted when I paused at a very small bridge crossing a very narrow canal, and a glance to the left showed me a woman walking briskly along the narrow walkway to her back door.  Frequently at a bridge you find these walkways, usually running just a short way down the canal; when they end, it is just buildings, with the water lapping at them.

 Finally came out into the small square with a big name, Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo. The little church of the same name had signs out front advertising a display of Vivaldi-era music and instruments, so I went inside and spent a few minutes gazing at exquisitely beautiful violins and mandolins from the 1600s, the 1700s.  There was also a sign advertising a concert that night that would include Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  Oh, my god, a chance to hear one of my favorite pieces in the city where it was written.  But alas, the church where the concert was to be held was not this church, and I had no idea where la chiesa di San Vidal was located.  However, I kept walking, eventually reaching a much larger square (like many “squares” it’s actually a rectangle) and at the far end of it what should I find but…the church of San Vidal.  I went inside and asked if there might possibly be any tickets left, were I to show up there at nine o’clock that night.  The woman said yes. “Not a large group, no, but one person, I think, yes.”  Hmmm…

I kept walking, across the nearby Accademia Bridge – from which I took the two pictures in an earlier posting – past the Accademia Gallery, and deep into the area called Dorsoduro.  And here I was able to see regular folks walking into their regular apartment buildings, regular old folks sitting in virtually deserted squares; I was able to get the smallest glimpse of “real” Venice.  I noticed a number of roof gardens, and greenery tumbling over walls – people will try to put a little green into their lives, wherever they may live.
Residential Street in Venice

Accademia Bridge

That evening, I did go with the group to the restaurant where we were to be treated to dinner.  But I took the fact that it was at the other end of Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo – a mere brisk eight minute walk from the church of San Vidal – as a significant, and rather exciting, sign.  And at ten of nine, after plowing my way through the appetizer, much too much pasta (which was usually the case), and an insipid salad, I made the decision.  I slipped away, made the brisk walk to the church, got one of the last seats in the place (at the reduco price of 21 Euros – absolutely the only positive aspect to creeping old age is senior discounts), and spent one of the most sublime hours of my trip, listening to Vivaldi – Venice’s favorite native son -- in a place, and fashion, that could have seen just such a concert in Vivaldi’s time.  The group playing, Interpreti Venziani, played with power, even exuberance (indeed, the cello player, who was very good, was also hard to watch, because he seemed to be having mini-seizures of ecstasy). 

What can I say, I was completely, completely happy.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The best laid plans...

Alas, the first half of our only full day in Venice (definitely not enough time allotted for that city!) was essentially a loss for me. I was not interested in the morning’s planned excursion, which involved going to Murano to watch the glassblower demonstration, and then being force-marched through the gift shop afterwards. What I wanted to do was soak up as much of the city of Venice as I could, preferably those parts away from the center of tourist activity. But Gianni, who was perfectly willing to accept this streak of independence on my part, said I should meet them at the foot of the two columns that stand at the end of the Piazzetta, the wide walkway that leads from San Marco Square to the embankment at the water’s edge, between 10:30 and 10:45. This was so I could join them for the walking tour through the Basilica of San Marco, the Doge Palazzo, which is right next door, and the prison that stands behind the ducal palace, and is reached by the ironically beautiful Bridge of Sighs. This was an excursion I was definitely interested in.

Bridge of Sighs

However, a perusal of the maps in Rick Steve’s Italy suggested that it was highly unlikely that I would be able to walk far enough to reach the more genuinely residential areas, and get all the way back to the far end of the Piazzetta in time.

So I came up with a Plan B: visit San Giorgio Maggiore, the church that stands on the small island of the same name, directly across the lagoon from the Piazzetta. Both Rick Steves and other sources rave about the view to be had from the top of the bell tower there. And I would have to take a “public bus,” i.e., a vaporetto, to get there, which I looked upon as an adventure in itself. Whenever I visit a place, I like taking public transport, because it’s an opportunity to both rub elbows with “real” people, as opposed to your fellow tourists, and to get a taste of real, or perhaps I should say ordinary, life.

This “bus” had a cabin area with double rows of seats, just like on a regular bus, but many people choose to stand in the open area up front.

The church with its bell tower makes an impressive sight from the main part of Venice – you can see it in the background of the picture I took from our hotel window – but a closer view reveals a façade that I would call “handsome” rather than beautiful. It made me think of a flattened Greek temple. In fact, it made me think of a false front, like on a movie set. I was also not particularly impressed with the interior, though commenters on Trip Advisor rave about it. The fact that it was a grey day, and there was no interior lighting to brighten things up, may have contributed to my finding the place large, cool (n the literal sense of the word), peaceful, but rather austere. As at other churches I visited in Italy (a total of seven) I was struck by the absence of beautiful stained glass windows. But I was quite taken with the choir, tucked behind the main alter, with it’s beautifully carved dark wood seats.

However, time was of the essence, so I followed the signs to where you plunk down your 6 Euros, in order to take the tiny elevator (limit, 6 passengers) to the lookout at the top of the bell tower. First I had to make a stop in the nearby toilet, only to discover there was no paper. And I had given Patricia, who was having trouble with the sniffles, the little packet of tissues that I had long ago learned it was important to have on you for just such contingencies as I now faced. Damn.

The view from the bell tower is indeed nice, though I couldn’t help wishing the sun were shining, to brighten things up a bit. And the main island of the city is really too far away for you to be able to see things in detail (and I couldn’t figure out how to make my camera zoom in – aachhh!). What I found best about the view was how you could see all the islands, spread out in the lagoon. That, and the boat traffic, which I delighted in.

Cloister and nearby island from bell tower
What I think I’d have to say is that San Giorgio Maggiore is a nice spot to visit if you are spending several days in Venice – plenty of time to see everything else – and you feel like getting away from the crowds.

For ye gods, the crowds. I had found them dismaying when I was making my way to the embankment to catch the vaporetto – such a difference from the evening before! -- and they were even worse when I went back, to wait at the foot of one of the San Marco columns for the PT group. I was surrounded by hundreds of other groups, chattering away in French, in German, in Japanese, in flat, loud American. When they are on the move they are often preceded by their guide holding aloft a glove-like hand atop a tall pole (which is not a bad idea – it is very easy to lose sight of your group).

People were waiting in excruciatingly long lines, to get into the ducal palace, the basilica. And the sun had finally decided to come out so it was, abruptly, HOT. And naturally (naturally, if you know me) I had left my sun glasses back at the church. These were wonderful glasses that I’d had for only a couple of weeks, that fit over my regular glasses, sort of like goggles. So there I am, hiding out in the skinny bit of shade provided by the column I was standing beside, squinting out into the millions of people, trying to spot somebody from the PT group. Not having much fun.

I waited for 45 minutes, and finally gave up, decided they must have been there earlier (I’d arrived at 10:45), and I’d missed them. (NB: They apparently arrived seconds after I left.) I decided to go back to the church to look for my glasses – I really hated to lose those glasses. I also hated to plunk down another 6.5 Euros for a ticket, so bypassed the ticket booth and just got in the line waiting for the boat, clutching my already-used ticket atop the guide book I carried, fervently hoping no one would ask to see it, as no one had on my first trip (and no one did). The line was clogged with young, giggling school kids with backpacks, obviously on a field trip. I swear school kids are the same everywhere…

And no, of course they didn’t have my sunglasses at the counter where you get your ticket for the bell tower, nor were they up in the now-horrendously crowed bell tower, that the folks downstairs kindly let me go back up to, for free. Indeed, it was so crowded up there it took me 15 minutes to inch my way back onto the elevator, and I had to cheat – stepped onto an already full elevator (6 people), murmuring “Pas de problem,” as the doors closed. I just wanted to go home! So I did. (And things did get better.)

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Our night on the town

When you step out the official “front” door of Hotel Europa & Regina, you’re in a courtyard completely surrounded by buildings, all maybe three of four stories high. If you walk to the far corner of the courtyard, you find that there is a little passage between buildings. You follow it around a couple of corners, and out to where there is a “nest” of gondolas, young men lounging in them, waiting for customers. They are gathered at one of the little stone bridges that crosses the smaller canals.

If you turn left at the bridge you are on Calle Larga, a relatively wide, pedestrians-only street, (but note that Calle means ‘narrow street’) lined with shops, and including two banks, both of which have ATMs that got heavy use from the Perillo Tours (PT) group. At the ATMs you do have to make a point of switching languages, as I was later informed by Patricia, who had failed to do so (didn’t notice the button where you could do that), and so was trying to fumble her way through obtaining money, in Italian.

The other thing that Calle Larga has is a number of very black young men with clutches of large, fancy handbags – knockoffs of famous-brand names, I later learned – that they are hawking. You actually see these guys everywhere, and I couldn’t help wondering if they were some of the thousands of Africans who have fled to Italy over the past few years. Later learned that they are exactly that, and that the police vacillate between harassing them, for harassing the tourists, and turning a blind eye. It certainly is important to just keep walking when they approach you, not make eye contact, etc., not because they’re dangerous, but because otherwise they won’t leave you alone. I admit to feeling sorry for them, thinking what a wretched way to try to make a living this was, but I reckon it’s better than begging.

San Moise, with tourists
If you turn right at the little stone bridge, what you’re looking at is the very small, incredibly ornate church of San Moise (and who, I wondered, was Saint Moise?), sitting in its own little Campo, or Square. This was the first of many, many churches I was to encounter in Italy, and easily sported the greatest amount of elaborate carving. It almost seemed like a toy church, sitting in its little toy square.  A couple of blocks down the calle that starts beside the church, and continues past shop after shop selling (in particular) leather handbags, sometimes outrageous shoes, and sleek, elegant, no doubt wildly expensive clothes, you finally pass through an archway, and are looking out at famous San Marco Square.

Yes, it is huge. The size, along with all those columns marching down either side, supporting the arches that support the buildings, made me think of a military parade ground. We were seeing it at the perfect time: twilight when the thousands of tourists had departed, either back to their cruise ships, or their cheaper housing on the mainland, or just back to their hotel to rest and get ready for dinner. There were still people in the square, feeding the pigeons (lots of pigeons), taking pictures, and just strolling, that famous Italian pastime. Most of the cafes that line the square have live music of an evening: one of them was already in full voice, playing chamber music to a bunch of thus-far empty chairs and tables.

San Marco Square
My first impression of the Basilica of San Marco, at the opposite end of the square, was that it was rather squat, compared to all the soaring Gothic cathedrals I’ve seen in England and France. And all those domes, with their onion tops – the giant center one, the two handmaidens – as well as all the fat, almost dome-like arches that serve as entrances, and the fat, curved dormers that march along the front balcony – it all gives an exotic, Eastern look to the place. Naturally, as Fate would have it, there was scaffolding covering half of the façade, a photo ruiner if there ever was one. But I took a picture anyway.

Basilica of San Marco, Camponile on the right

 Our little group made its way under the “big clock” per Gianni’s instructions, and found ourselves in a narrow lane crowded with tiny shops selling carnival masks, sandwiches, gelato, and every kind of souvenir you could imagine. I seemed to be the only one who recalled Gianni saying we should “turn left” at some point. A glance down the first left didn’t produce anything promising, but at the end of the lane, where you had to turn either left or right, a glance to the left, just across a tiny bridge that spanned a tiny canal, was a tiny ristorante, Anima Bella. We’d found it!!

And it turned out to be perfect. Two good-natured, very Italian women working culinary miracles behind a half wall. They saved us a lot of time and confusion by announcing briskly that there was “only pasta,” and then giving us a choice of kind. This made dinner a far less painstaking affair than other dinners we were to have. For example, the following evening, when we were treated to dinner by PT, it took almost three hours to plough our way through all the separate courses -- appetizer, pasta, salad, main course, desert. This is far too long a time for me to maintain my interest, and involves far too much food. (And the food was mediocre, to boot!)

But here at Anima Bella the pasta with seafood that I ordered was excellent (the seafood turned out be to large shrimp, complete with legs and exoskeleton -- dining in Greece had taught me to expect this – you do not get denuded shrimp); the three ladies who ordered tortellini declared it superb; Bud, the all-but-silent husband of the much more voluble Bonnie, couldn’t decide, and was finally talked into “pasta with sausage and sweet peppers,” which turned out to be, basically, our spaghetti with meat sauce. He utterly cleaned his plate, and declared it “not bad.” And Walt, the oldest member of the PT group, a sweet, funny man, was the only one who went off the grid, and ordered antipasto, which produced a marvelous array of cold cuts, olives and cheese.

This was certainly one of the more enjoyable experiences of the trip, a cheerful, getting-to-know-one-another stroll to the restaurant, with a first, very impressive view of San Marco Square along the way, then a tasty dinner, pleasantly lubricated with just the right amount of wine, plenty of conversation, and laughter. Can’t beat that.