The World A to Z, Uncategorized

O is for Orseolo

IMG_5967The best part of having your own plan to see the world is being able to make it fit your personal wishes. That was especially true of the “O” trip. Greg and I wanted to go somewhere romantic, European and hopefully Italian. Neither of us had ever been to Venice (well, to be fair, I spent a few hours there on a day trip once about 25 years ago), so we were looking to head to the “City of Bridges.”

IMG_5952It turns out one of the doges credited with founding the city was Pietro I Orseolo. In fact, there is a small section of the city named for him. So … “O is for Orseolo.”
To make it even more legit, we stayed at Locanda Orseolo, a fabulous boutique inn just a block and a half off St. Mark’s Square.

I knew that a trip to Venice at the end of February was a weather risk, but what the heck, you can’t make the weather, but you can adjust to it. So we packed rain stuff and enough to keep warm if it got a little cold and headed east.

We arrived in the rain … but found our hotel easily thanks to the picture perfect directions provided by the staff. What a gem of a hotel! It totally pays to do your research, read reviews and decide what you really want. We wanted small, close to the center of the city and very Venetian. We got exactly what we wanted!

Tired from travel and feeling a little jet lagged, we asked about a place close by to grab a quick, simple dinner and wandered a few tiny alleys, crossing over a couple of bridges to a small ristorante. WOW! Trust your hotel staff for their recommendations. We had incredible fresh seafood, perfect Italian wine and delightful ambiance.

IMG_6036Exhausted and full, we climbed the three flights of stairs to the Gianduja room and slept under a soft, fluffy comforter awaking to the forecast for another gray, rainy Venetian day. It was, indeed, gray, but the rain was holding off so we jumped onto a vaporetto (Venetian buses are boats!) and headed for the island of Murano to see how the famous glass is made and wander through the shops in search of a real Murano glass souvenir.

IMG_5722The glass museum posted notices that pictures are not permitted, but it’s worth a visit before you hit the shops. You learn about the island’s history and techniques used to produce the myriad of pieces you’ll see – everything from lamps and chandeliers to earrings and cufflinks. One shop sported an incredible selection of insects made of glass; another was brightly lit with ornate chandeliers. Snapping a few shots of the scenes and shopping left us craving lunch, so we stopped into a little restaurant and grabbed something to warm up after spending the morning walking around in the cool dampness of the day.

It was a quiet afternoon of wandering and sightseeing before a classically touristy dinner in a restaurant right on the main tourist street. Be aware – we ate at a place on the tourist street because we wanted to know just how “authentic” it was. After the previous night’s dinner, it was clear the “real Italian food” the man out front suggested we would get was much closer to Olive Garden or Chef Boyardee. We got exactly what we were looking for – campy, mediocre tourist food. The lesson here is: go off the beaten track. Find a place with a bit of a crowd speaking the local language. That’s where the good food is!

IMG_5779We’d scheduled a food tour for Monday mid-day and met Francesca at one of the dozens of churches in the center of Venice along with the other three people who would be taking the tour with us. We met a pair of sisters from England and a single mom from Berkeley, California and headed out to learn about Venice, Italian wines and something called ciccheti (the Italian word for tapas).  What fun! The sun flirted with us and the rain held off as we weaved our way through passageways to four different bars to try the flavors of Venice. IMG_5766We wandered past the fruit and vegetable market and marveled at the huge purple artichokes and pink cabbage. The tour was over too soon. We decided to continue on our own, discovering more hidden treasures in a city known for its challenging layout.

Tuesday we took a side trip to Florence, which left Wednesday for us to see and do everything we had missed earlier. We declared a photo day and headed out to see what incredible views we could find as the sun blazed brightly for the first time during our visit.

We snapped pics of little churches on hidden piazzas, gondolas gliding along the canals, architectural oddities and sights familiar to anyone who’s ever seen images of the famous Venetian landmarks. We grabbed a pizza in a little pizzeria tucked into an alley in the “artists” section of the city. IMG_5832We snapped a shot of a father and his daughter walking near a church. We found the scene depicted in a painting we have in our home and tried to recreate it in a photograph.

Thursday came all-to-soon and we packed our belongings and made our way back to the airport (once again in the rain) for the flight home.IMG_5970

Venice lives up to its reputation as a charming, romantic city with great food and a fascinating culture unique to a city with no roads, just waterways. If you get a chance, this is one of those places you should try to see. Despite its fame, you can still soak up the culture without being assaulted by “tourist traps,” although there are places that define the phrase.IMG_5808

So what are you waiting for? Book a flight, pack your bags and go! Even if it’s not Venice, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored.

The World A to Z

“I” is for Italy by Judy

I is for Italy, specifically Florence.

I often tell people that Italy is actually several countries. No, not politically, but gastronomically. After all, what better way to get to know a place than through its food? In the north, Italy is Alpine. There are thick, warming stew-like sauces and heavy, hearty meals. In the south, the seafood of the Mediterranean and Adriatic are the food specialties and the sauces are light and cooling for those hot summer nights. And in between, there are the cuisines of Naples and Rome and Tuscany just to name a few. Wherever you go in Italy, read up on the local specialties before you get there so you know what to look for and really enjoy.

I had never been to Tuscany, despite living in Italy for almost three years in my 20s, so when “I” popped up on my plan, it was easy to go somewhere that was familiar enough to be easy, but new enough to be exciting and fun.Everything from my camera 143

Florence seemed like a fun choice. There’s Michelangelo’s “David,” the Ponte Vecchio, and leather goods. What’s not to like?  I poked around on the internet and found a wonderful little hotel just two blocks from the main square and its stunning cathedral. In typical European fashion, the heart of Florence and most of the things a first-time visitor would want to see are in easy walking distance of the main square.

A little research turned up a hint about visiting the cathedral. It turns out to get to the top of the cathedral dome OR the bell tower involves climbing hundreds of stairs. Only the heartiest of tourists would consider making their way up both and I am not among them. The hint was this: climb to the top of the bell tower. From there you get almost an identical view of the city AND a view of the gorgeous dome.

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The climb was worth it. The view was perfectly enhanced by a brightly lit blue sky. It’s easy to see why Renaissance artists were such romantics.

From the cathedral, a stroll towards the Ponte Vecchio meant a stroll down a classically narrow Florentine street lined with shops selling souvenirs, leather goods, pastries and just about anything else you can imagine. I couldn’t resist the leather and slipped in one shop to find a pair of beautifully crafted gloves. When I asked about a pair in the window with a cutout pattern on the cuff, the sales clerk had me place my elbow on a cushion on the counter top with my hand up. She looked at it, reached behind her and grabbed a box from the wall of glove boxes and, after opening the box and unwrapping the buttery soft gloves from their tissue paper cocoon, slid the left glove right onto my hand – a PERFECT fit! Beaming with my purchase in hand, I continued toward the gold and silver shops that line one of Italy’s most famous bridges.

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confess, I am not a huge jewelry lover, but the shops on the Ponte Vecchio are well-appointed and lit to enhance the sparkling, shimmering pieces of gold and silver filigree that Florence’s jewelers are known for. I walked up one side of the bridge and down the other while window shopping and wondering if a 24 or 18 karat gold pendant and earring set would get more wear than a sterling silver set. I have many friends who would argue I shouldn’t choose, but opt for both. In the end, I chose silver, an ornately crafted set of Florence’s fleur de lis symbol would be the perfect souvenir.

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I spent the rest of the day window shopping and sightseeing my way through the heart of Florence, feeling ever-more Italian. The sights and smells of Italy always draw me in. By the end of the day I was ready to dive into a plate of fresh, Florentine specialties … and I was not disappointed! Steak smothered in spinach, fresh tomatoes and soft, scrumptious mozzarella, OH … the choices! I felt lucky knowing I had two more dinners here.

I spent the following days exploring the art and architecture of Florence, the nooks and crannies of the city, the huge market on the square and (again thanks to a little research) a stroll across the river and up the hill to the Piazza Michelangelo. The guidebook said it had the best view of Florence and that proved to be absolutely true. I went, as suggested, at sunset. Simply and utterly amazing!

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As is the case with most of my vacations, the week ended far too soon and I found myself headed for the airport and homeward bound. The good thing is, now that I know about Florence, I will go back.