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.