Posts Tagged With: travel

Aloha, Dammit

Having realized a year ago that winter in Hawaii is nicer than winter in Maryland — a shocker, I know — we have rented the same Kona house as last year and are currently enduring the rigors of the Big Island.

I can feel your skepticism. But there are rigors, or at least there were last weekend, as getting here was a first class pain in the okole (as the Hawaiians say, referring to a body part that is not “neck”). In brief, our journey here involved:

  • A canceled flight from Baltimore to Los Angeles;
  • A rebooked flight that left two hours late;
  • A fire alarm in our hotel in LA, resulting in a hotel evacuation; and
  • A canceled flight from LA to Honolulu.

There was more, but I’ll spare you the details since, being on vacation in Hawaii and all, I am not expecting an outrigger-canoe-load of sympathy. Anyway, we are here for nearly a month, accompanied for our first week by my BFF and former Evil Assistant Angie (she’s still evil, but since I’m retired she’s not my assistant anymore) and her (and our) friend Diana.

Remarkably, despite our tribulations we arrived in Kona only 90 minutes later than originally planned. The island is little changed from a year ago, with two notable exceptions: (1) there has been a lot more rain the past year than in the year before, meaning that many areas are much greener than a year ago, and there is much less haze in the air; and (2) the volcano is in eruption. More on both in a moment.

Our first stop was one of our favorite venues in town, the Kona Farmer’s Market. We even recognized some of the same vendors, and the assortment of tropical fruits and tourist tchotchkes was reassuringly familiar.

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Both we and our friends were anxious to see the volcano, and so we headed there straightaway on Day Two, pausing only in the town of Naalehu — the southernmost town in the US, at latitude 19°N — to gorge on malasadas, the beignet-like treat that is a Big Island specialty. (I wrote about both the town and the baked good in this post a year ago.)

We arrived at the 4000 ft summit of Kilauea in late afternoon, our plan being to stay until dark so that we could see the glow of the lava lake in Halema’uma’u crater. The summit was clear, much less hazy than a year ago, and so the view out over the caldera was striking:

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That’s Halema’uma’u in the middle of the scene. For reference, it’s about 1000 ft across and about a half mile away. The steam rising off it is from the lava lake below the rim; it is low at the moment, well below the crater rim and thus not directly in sight. But its glow illuminates the steam at night.

We spent a few hours exploring the park with our friends, walking around on the lava fields and, as ever, marveling at the tenacity with which plant life re-establishes itself after an eruption, like this:

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In addition to the lava fields there are a number of fumaroles around the park, and since it was late in the day we were able to enjoy the sight of the afternoon sunlight streaming through the outputs of the steam vents.

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By 6:30 PM the sky was darkening, and we were in full darkness by the time we returned to the caldera overlook, to be greeted by these scenes out of Dante:

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On Kilauea’s southern flank, about ten miles south of the summit, is the Pu’u O eruption site. This particular site became active 34 years ago and is gradually adding to the Big Island’s surface area: when it is in eruption, its lava stream flows miles downhill to the sea, where it makes a dramatic and steamy entrance. It is possible to get to that site and see the lava flow, but it isn’t easy: you either have to hike 8 miles (roundtrip) over lava, or pay big bucks to hire a boat or a helicopter. Neither seemed practical, so we contented ourselves with the entertainingly hellish view of Halema’uma’u and called it a day.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Our Japan Photos and Videos — the Website!

I have been peppering the blog with several photos from each of our stops in Japan. Now that we have been home for a month I have finally sorted and edited the main photo collection as well as a number of short videos (a kimono demo! a sumo match!) and posted all the appropriate links on our website. You can check out the complete set of photos and videos at http://www.isaacman.net/japan2016/japan2016.htm

Our next sojourn will be a return to Hawaii in mid-January. Aloha!

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mi Casablanca es su Casablanca 

Our flight to Paris was uneventful and reasonably comfortable, we having plunked for an upgrade to what Air France calls “Premium Economy”, which air-travel-amenity-wise is pretty close to business class. Plus, Air France serves edible food. Once in Paris we met up with our friends and traveling companions Steve and Thumper during the layover for our flight to Casablanca. Their journey started in San Francisco so they were already pretty well exhausted.

Our Casablanca flight consisted largely of Steve and Thumper, ourselves, and a planeful of hajjis returning  from their pilgrimage to Mecca. (This being about two days after 700 pilgrims were crushed in the crowd.)   The hajjis are easy to spot, the women in white djellabas, sometimes modestly but colorfully embroidered, and the men in unadorned white full-length tunics (called a kamees). My favorite sight by far was a woman in a djellaba sporting a garish sombrero complete with multicolored ball fringe, as though she had made a wrong turn and taken a pilgrimage to Tijuana instead of Mecca.

Casablanca airport is modern and efficient, as befits its location; Casablanca is the largest city in Morocco with a population of about 6 million. Despite all the hajjis the airport was not particularly crowded and we moved pretty quickly through passport control and baggage claim, then easily spotted our tour lead. He is of course named Mohamed, a large burly local with a rolling gait and a likely heart attack in his future. (Actually, “local” is not exactly the right word: he is from Fez, which will be one of our destinations.) His English is quite good and like the other Overseas Adventure Travel tour leads in our experience is very well-informed and a continuous font of useful information.  Among the latter was an admonishment not to eat the salad at dinner; we are very definitely in “don’t drink the water” territory, and eating uncooked fruits and vegetables is a decidedly bad idea.

The four of us were the only tour members on our flight, and so there only us, Mohamed, and our driver in the minivan on the half-hour drive to our hotel. The outskirts of the city, between the airport and town, look like a downscale version of Arizona or perhaps some place in northern Mexico, all scrubby desert and low stucco buildings among half-cultivated fields with the occasional grazing herd of goats. (There was a promotional video playing on the plane called “Morocco: Lands of Color”, although at this point the colors would be about ten shades of brown.)

Further in, however, Casablanca looks like an actual cosmopolitan city, many of the streets lined with royal palms. There are few high-rise buildings — I don’t think we saw anything taller than about ten stories — but there’s a modern-looking light rail system and a lot of activity on the street. The men are clad in everything from djellabas to western suits, and the women in everything from hajibs to spangled stretch pants. It is quite a diverse scene, especially near the heart of town at Marichal Square, named after the first French governor of the country. But despite the modernity there is a certain air of seediness: peeling paint, cracked stucco, litter in the streets.  Practically all signs are in both Arabic and French, which is good news for us since we can get by with the latter.

We are staying at the Imperial Casablanca Hotel, distinguished by having been Gen. Patton’s headquarters during World War II. It’s modern-looking, with dark marble walls in the lobby and high-ceilinged hallways lined with black and white photos from the country in earlier days. Those hallways are long, high, and very dark: the ceiling lights are controlled by motion sensors and so the lights turn on and off as you walk down the hall. This is all commendably energy-efficient, of course, but it also means that you are always walking uncertainly ahead into an ominous pool of darkness and thus imbues the weary traveler with a vague unease á la The Shining. However, our room is well-appointed and comfortable and there is no blood seeping through the walls.

Dinner was buffet-style and oddly eclectic, the main entrees consisting of lasagna and paella. We met up with the other four members of this part of the trip, two 70-ish couples. There are only these eight of us for the next few days, after which we join up with eight more people for the main part of the tour.

Steve suggested taking a walk after dinner . The women were not interested so it was just the two of us; Mohamed offered to accompany us but we declined,  figuring we would explore a bit; Mohamed then directed us where to walk and, more importantly, where not to. (It was 8:30pm by now, and dark.) We went about three blocks and didn’t see a lot: shuttered stores, a bar with some guys hanging out, some dark office buildings. Somewhat to my surprise it was not exclusively men out on the street, though they were the only ones actually hanging out; the women all seems to be moving more purposefully.

We got some local cash from a nearby ATM; Morocco’s currency is the dirham, worth about ten per US dollar. We decided to end the day with a quick reconnoiter of the hotel rooftop to see what kind of nighttime view we could get of the city. That tuned out to be not much, the hotel being only five stories tall. Other than a pair of huge brightly lit cruise ships in port, a mile or two from our hotel, the view was unrewarding. Tomorrow we will see more of the city before heading out for the long drive to Rabat.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Under the Not-Altogether-Tuscan Sun

…Which is to say, that though we are not technically in Tuscany (yet; we are still in the region called Veneto), the “look and feel” of this part of Italy comports quite perfectly with your mental image of sun-drenched hillside vineyards and rustic farmhouses. (Please note that, as in Greece and similar Mediterranean tourist destinations, “sun-drenched” is the officially-approved adjective and must be used at least once every three days in all missives back home. I have now fulfilled my quota.)

Anyway, our particular farmhouse was a lovely two-story structure with two bedrooms and a comfortable modern kitchen and living room area, accessible by a tortuous narrow (and unlit) road, and situated on a you-know-what-drenched hillside full of vineyards adjacent to a stereotypically charming village. And here are the pictures to prove it:

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This was essentially an overnight way station en route to our next “real” destination, which were the towns of Asolo and Bassano del Grappa. (Pay attention to the “del Grappa” part of the name; it’ll become important later.) Both are medieval towns – they’re all medieval towns around here – of about 50,000 people. Asolo is known primarily for having been the site of a gruesome World War I battle. It is all steep cobblestone streets and narrow alleys, like this:

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I should mention that while I was taking the picture of the bicycle I was observed with great interest, and then engaged, by an elderly local gentlemen, spectacularly drunk and straight out of Central Casting with the largest, most mottled cauliflower nose I have ever seen, about one-third the size of an actual cauliflower. He commented at cheerful length in heavily slurred and fully incomprehensible Italian, nearly incapacitating first me and then Alice with breath that, were an open flame to have passed nearby, would have incinerated us all.

The town is dominated by a tall bell tower and by a castle built as a sort of a consolation prize to house the reluctant bride of a local nobleman.  You can enter the grounds and ramparts of the castle (via a steep cobblestone path, of course) to get an excellent view of the town and surrounding hills, including of course the bell tower, as you can see.

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We spent the morning and early afternoon in Asolo before moving on to Bassano del Grappo, which in overall appearance is pretty similar, right down to the alleys:

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Bassano, however, has two claims to fame, one being this attractive covered bridge that was built in 1569, repeatedly destroyed by fire, and rebuilt most recently about 50 years ago.

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We walked across the bridge, of course. But the part of its history of which Bassano is most proud – and probably makes the most money off of – is the “del Grappa” part, which is to say that Bassano, in particular via the efforts of the highly venerated Poli family, is for practical purposes the birthplace of grappa. Grappa, if you are not familiar with it, is the highly potent, multiple-distilled product of, essentially, the dregs of the winemaking process. It is cheap, flavorful, and highly toxic to carbon-based life forms. Some people love it. Some people are crazy.

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Do not drink.

 

Now, needless to say, the city fathers of Bassano would like to encourage you to consume their home-grown claim to fame, and so the Poli Grappa Museum gives you the opportunity to do so responsibly, if somewhat surrealistically. The museum displays a variety of archaic distillery apparatuses, tangled collections of flasks and retorts that would be right at home in any mad scientist’s lab. The culmination of the self-guided tour (immediately prior to the gift shop, of course) is a sampling gallery. But they are smart enough not to let you actually drink the stuff, which would be catastrophic. No, they let you smell it.

Huh? You enter a room lined with what appears to be about 20 coffee urns, each representing a flavor of grappa. You push a button on the counter in front of the “urn”, and it blasts a mist of some kind of synthesized ersatz grappa with exactly the correct smell and (sort of) taste into your face. See Alice imbibing the aerosol below:

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The world’s only olfactory hangover

 

At that point, if you’re anything like me, you react exactly as you would to a real swig of grappa, which is to say your olfactory system seizes up as your entire body briefly convulses.  Jim managed to give himself a zinger of a headache by performing this exercise once too often. This may be the single most bizarre interactive display I have ever experienced. It was a fitting end to our brief stay in Basanno. You have been warned.

We continued on to our destination of the next four days: Vicenza, about an hour’s drive further. Vicenza is a somewhat larger town of about 100,000, somewhat spread out with actual suburbs but enjoying an old walled city in the center, the nexus of its cultural heritage. Our plan is to use it as a base of operation for the next four days, visiting some of the surrounding towns like Padua and Verona. Our B&B – a quite spectacular one that I will describe at length in my next post – is located on a hillside outside of town. We arrived around 7:00 PM, settled in for an hour or two, then struck out to find some dinner.

We had passed a couple of reasonable-looking trattorias not far from the B&B, but decided that we would take the opportunity to find something a little more interesting in the downtown area, near the walled city. This turned out to be an impressively poor plan, as the narrow, poorly-lit streets were nearly deserted and most of the restaurants closed. We wandered and wandered, the hour grew later and later, and we got more and more lost, finally giving up altogether and deciding to return from whence we came and settle for one of the local trattorias after all. This proved to be far easier said than done, because:

  • The streets were not only narrow, dark, and deserted, but there was virtually no signage;
  • Our GPS was blissfully unaware of things like pedestrian streets where traffic was not allowed;
  • Our GPS does not speak Italian and thus mangled the often-lengthy street names as though they were being read by a female version of George W. Bush; and
  • The narrow streets often caused the GPS to lose lock and thus become as confused as we ourselves were.

The upshot was that we followed an essentially random trajectory through the seamiest, Fellini-esque back alleys of nighttime Vicenza. Our GPS gamely struggled to keep up, occasionally emerging from its electronic ataxia (“Recalculating route!”) to attempt to tell us in Bizarro Italian that in 100 feet we should turn left at Viata Santo Ciccianizolo Aleghieri Cruce del Roseannadanna, as we all went “Wha….?” and cruised past the intersection, which didn’t have a street sign to check and was one-way the wrong way anyway.

By 10:30 PM, primarily through Alice’s heroic navigation efforts,we somehow stumbled back into our original B&B neighborhood and walked sheepishly into the very first trattoria we had seen hours before, which was thankfully still open, and where (I am happy to say) we had an excellent and very inexpensive meal. Which just goes to show…something, I guess.

Tomorrow: a description of our jaw-dropping lodgings, and our first full day in Vicenza. (The walled city by daylight!)

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Venice Day 2: Doge Day Afternoon

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The fearsome, delicious mantis shrimp

Well, we did not have a gondola ride last night after all. We were exhausted, and simply walked down to the waterfront (less than a block from our flat) and had a typically excellent Italian dinner at a seafood restaurant aptly called Pesado. I had — wait for it — mantis shrimp with pumpkin flowers over pasta. Mantis shrimp? You mean you’ve never heard of the deadly mantis shrimp? Well, I will have you know that if you are a small sea creature then the mantis shrimp is one of the meanest badasses around. About the size of a large crayfish, it sits and waits until you are within striking distance, then lashes out a barbed claw at a speed of 50 mph (23 m/s), accelerating at 100,000 g’s (!) to turn you into a kebab. I am not making this up.

Aren’t you glad you asked?

Anyway, given our state of exhaustion, the terrifying but tasty mantis shrimp was an entirely adequate substitute for a nighttime gondola ride (which we will try for again tomorrow), and so we spent our last remaining dregs of get-up-and-go walking along the edge of the Grand Canal taking some nighttime photos, e.g.:

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Venice is beautiful at any time of day and in any weather, which is fortunate since today’s weather was on the chilly, gloomy side with an occasional very light drizzle. But before I relate today’s events, I would first like to regale you with two pieces of Italian trivia:

  • 13 is not an unlucky number here, but 17 is. Alitalia has no 17th row on their airplanes, and people get all hinky because today is Friday the 17th. I have no idea why this is so. (No one really knows either why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky elsewhere; the superstition is only about 150 years old and contrary to popular wisdom has nothing to do with the Apostles.)
  • Gondolas are not symmetric. Alice pointed this out to me, and it is very definitely true. The gondolier’s oarlock is of course at the rear and is always on the starboard side. Since he is always rowing on the right, in order to help keep the boat moving in a straight line instead of a wide counterclockwise circle the starboard side of the hull is flatter than the port side. That is, if you look at a gondola from above then it looks a bit like a backwards “D”. Who knew?

Now that you can win a couple of bar bets with the above information, let us carry on. Jet lag having had its way with us, we slept in this morning and then set out to a couple of small local stores to buy breakfast stuff (cheese, eggs, bread, etc.), returning to the flat for a meal before setting out on the day’s peregrinations, which turned out to be seven straight hours of walking.

Our first destination was back to St Mark’s square which, today being Friday, was significantly more crowded than yesterday. (I can only imagine what a Saturday in July looks like; an ant colony perhaps.) It’s kind of obligatory to see St Mark’s Basilica, and the line to get in moves very quickly, so we checked off this particular obligatory item pretty quickly. I suppose this sounds insufficiently respectful; the basilica is of course huge, famous, decorated with enormous elaborate paintings of the saints who appear to be covered with gold leaf, and so on. For me (whose appetite for pre-Renaissance religious art gets sated very quickly), the most interesting part was the architecture: the domes are ornate and elaborate, and the marble colonnades intriguingly complex, with every column seemingly made of a different type of marble.

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St. Mark’s Basilica. It is very Catholic.

Our next stop, immediately adjacent to the basilica, was the Doge Palace. The Doge, as you may know, was the chief honcho of Venice, the office having been created in about 700 AD and lasting for a mere thousand years. It was an elected position although for a period of a few hundreds the practice was to allow the Doge to name his successor, which in practice made it largely hereditary. In 1172 everybody had had about enough of that, and the position became determined by a council of 40 elders, rather analogous to the College of Cardinals. (Fifty years later the number was increased to 41 because of a deadlocked election.)

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Hercules at the Bat.

Anyway, the Doge was highly influential, even powerful, but under a number of constraints. He could not, for example, conduct official business without having a member of the council present; he couldn’t even open official mail in private. (Hillary Clinton, are you reading this?) But he was still a big deal. When granted an audience with him, the honored visitor was required to climb a specially reserved staircase — the Giant’s Stairs — to meet him. He would never descend those stairs to meet you; even the Pope had to climb them. The stairs are named for the two “giants” at their apex: Hercules and Atlas. Atlas is of course shown shouldering a globe in the traditional fashion. Hercules, however, is depicted clubbing the Hydra to death, apparently with a Louisville Slugger baseball bat as you can see in the photo. (It is not widely known that Hercules batted right, but threw left-handed. He hit .522 in his best season with the Delphi Deities but was eventually traded to Thessalonika.)

The Doge Palace is enormous and ornate in a fashion that Versailles would echo centuries later. Every room that we visited was limned in gold, the walls and ceilings virtually tesselated with the great artists of the era, notably Tintoretto. This will give you the idea:

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And that’s just the laundry room. (Not really.) But there is room after room much like it.

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Don’t cross this bridge when you come to it.

The palace is connected directly to the adjacent prison (convenient!), the connection being the famous Bridge of Sighs that you see here. Legend has it that the bridge gets its name from the sighs that the prisoners would breathe as they crossed the bridge and beheld the beauty of Venice for the last time before being incarcerated. I am skeptical of this. It’s easy enough to believe the sighing part, but personally if I were being marched off in shackles to a 13th century prison cell then no longer having a nice view would be the least of my worries.

Because of this historical association with the Doge Palace, the Bridge of Sighs is considered one of the go-to sights of Venice despite being architecturally less interesting than many of the other bridges throughout the city (and there are many, crisscrossing the spaghetti network of small canals).  But having toured the palace, we did in fact cross the bridge. No, we didn’t sigh. But if any of the prisoners who crossed didn’t either, they probably did by the time they got to their cells, which we also saw, and which I can pretty much guarantee would have gotten zero stars on TripAdvisor had it existed at the time.

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Worst. B&B. Ever.

As it happens, in one section of the palace there was a temporary exhibit of Henri Rosseau’s art, for me at least a welcome change from endless gold-leafed crucifixion scenes. We spent a relatively idyllic hour or two looking at Rousseau’s paintings, very cleverly and informatively displayed alongside his contemporary artists whom he influenced. (These included even Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.)

But when you’re in Venice, you are never very far from a crucifixion scene, and my pastoral neo-impressionistic relief was short-lived. After leaving the palace, we walked across town to the Accademia Museum, a particular goal of Alice because of its large and impressive collection of Tintorettos, Bellinis, Carpaccios, and Mozzarellas. (I’m not sure about that last one.)  By this time we had been walking for over five hours, and while I will be the first to admit that it was a very impressive collection — in some cases due to the sheer wall-sized immensity of some of the works — and that Alice very greatly enjoyed it, I was by this time pretty much crucifixion-ed and Madonna-ed out. Oh, and also St. Mark-saturated. As you may have already inferred, San Marco is pretty much the iconic figure of Venice in much the same way that Ben Franklin is the local deity of Philadelphia. We admired many paintings of Mark the Evangelist being martyred by the Alexandrians by being dragged through the streets for being a tad too evangelical.

After an hour and a half of this I reminded Alice of the wise words spoken by our almost-three-year-old grandson after an hour and a half at the National Aquarium: “I’ve seen enough fish now.” So I’m a Philistine. Sue me.

We walked back across town to our flat, by which time we estimated that we had hoofed roughly ten miles over the course of the day. Venice is a very walkable city, but you will walk a lot. It is a maze of medieval alleys barely as wide as your outstretched arms, a spiderweb of crisscrossing tiny streets and canals, and it is no coincidence that the first question one of my friends asked me after our first day here was, “Did you get lost yet?” But we didn’t, and I will tell you how. Download the wonderful app called “City Maps 2 Go”, which loads up your phone with a very highly detailed offline map of whatever city you want. It doesn’t need a cell or wifi connection to operate, just a GPS signal, and it guided us through the 10th-century street warren without a hitch. Highly recommended!

We went out for another late dinner on the Grand Canal — salmon gnocchi for me, seafood soup for Alice, both excellent. Which was a fine way to end the day, as well as this blog entry.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Venice: The Incredible S(hr)inking City

You may have read on occasion that Venice is slowly sinking — more about that shortly — but may not have been aware that it is shrinking dramatically in population as well. As recently as 1952 the official population of the lagoon city was over 200,000; today it is roughly 50,000. It has shrunk by 9% in the past 15 years alone, and the fear is that soon it won’t be a “real” city at all, with actual residents, but rather solely a tourist enclave populated entirely by tourists, gondoliers, restaurant owners, and souvenir vendors. In other words, it may become the Colonial Williamsburg of the Adriatic.

But at that, it would still be pretty charming: Venice is one of those places whose appearance comports very nicely with your mental image of it. Which is to say, that it looks like this:

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Venice, appearing as advertised

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Venice-7Despite the charm, it’s pretty clear that the city is in decline, struggling to maintain its physical infrastructure.  Venice the city-state reached the peak of its influence quite some time ago — the Venetians basically dominated the Western world from about 900 AD to 1300 AD — but, well, what have they done for us lately? At least a bit of this decline is a consequence of the aforementioned sinking, whose signs are everywhere. Basically, the water is lapping at the front door of every canal-side structure, and the “ground” floors of many dwellings are unusable as a result, as you can see here.

So when will you need scuba gear to tour Venice? It depends on who you ask. The “official” rate at which the water is said to be encroaching is roughly 2 mm per year, but those self-same officials ascribe that number mostly to the rise in sea level of the Adriatic rather than the city actually sinking. (The Republican Party may not believe in global warming, but the Venetians, Dutch, Seychellians, and other low-lying peoples know better. And if you, gentle blog reader, also disbelieve it, then you are a willfully ignorant idiot and can stop reading now, pausing only to leave some stupid comment that I will delete.)

Where was I? Ah, lapping canals, yes. The official line is that, sea level rise notwithstanding, Venice used to be sinking on its own but isn’t any more. This may actually be true. Venice used to be studded with many artesian wells whose effect on the water table was exactly what you’d expect, and as the underground water was drawn off the city subsided to fill the gap. For that very reason artesian well drilling was halted about 25 years ago, and the subsidence has supposedly stopped as a result.

Maybe. A recent study by a geology group at Stanford claims that the city is in fact still sinking, at a rate of 8 mm per year. That is a lot: a foot every 40 years or so. The city fathers of Venice do not like this number, and there is quite the roiling controversy as to whether the study is correct.

Be that as it may, we will only be in Venice for 5 days, meaning that even if the Stanford study is correct the water will gain only about 0.1 mm on us, which is roughly twice the width of a human hair. And since we are staying in a third-floor apartment, our electronic equipment is probably safe.

We landed at Marco Polo airport at about 8:30 AM today (local time) and took the vaporetto (“water bus”) from the airport to the famous Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, from which we could walk to our apartment. It’s a third-floor walkup that we found through AirBnB, nicely appointed and well-situated maybe a 75 yards from the canal. Although its entrance is an obscure doorway in a tiny grey stone medieval alley, the flat itself is modern and comfortable: 3 bedrooms (though we only need to for ourselves and our traveling companions Jim and Elaine); 1 1/2 baths, a small living room with TV, and a large well-equipped kitchen and breakfast area.

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The maid was cleaning the place when we arrived at about 10:45 AM, so we dumped our luggage in the living room and set off to explore the city for a few hours before exhaustion and jet lag felled us altogether. As it happens the particular part of the Grand Canal that our street abuts is the home of a large outdoor produce and fish market, which made for  some pleasant wandering. The fish offerings in particular were plentiful and diverse, showcasing a number of creatures that we have seen rarely or not at all, including (a) gigantic black-and-white mottled and blobby-looking cuttlefish about the size of bed pillows; (b) buckets of whelks in their shells; and (c) a variety of unfamiliar crustaceans.

Some further wandering revealed that there are essentially three kind of souvenir vendors in Venice, found in about equal numbers. The sketchiest of these are the African guys who operate off a blanket thrown down just about anywhere on the street. They are everywhere, and they clearly all get their inventory from the same place, because they always all sell the same thing. (I have noticed this in previous trips to Italy and in Paris as well.) The “thing” that they sell is whatever happens to be the fad this year, which in April of 2015 happens to be selfie sticks for about 5 bucks each. Every last one of them was selling selfie sticks, and God knows the market was there because a lot of tourists — especially the Asians — were using them. Despite the availability of ready customers, the vendors were not at all shy at coming up to me and offering to sell me one as well…as I stood there holding my SLR with its soup-can-sized lens. Really? Does this camera look like you could attach it to a selfie stick and hold it at arms length?

The next-least-sleazy species of souvenir vendor is your garden-variety storefront selling plastic gondolas, teeshirts, snow globes…all the traditional tchotchkes. There are approximately one billion of these stores in Venice, and their density increases exponentially with proximity to a major tourist attraction such as Saint Marks’s Square. (Indeed, there are now so many selfie-stick-sellers and teeshirt vendors in Saint Mark’s Square that the famous pigeons have apparently been squeezed out; there were surprisingly few there.)

Venice-5Venice-6And finally we have the actual cool souvenir stores: the mask vendors. Venice is famous for its masks, as you may now, ansd there are many stores selling many beautiful ones. Some are whimsical, some grotesque, and many would be right at home in a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. The nice ones of course are handmade, often out of papier mache, and one patient owner let us watch her for a while. You can see her at work and one of her simpler creations in these two photos.

We spent the rest of the afternoon variously walking our feet off our getting around on the vaporettos. (Question to my Italian friends: is the plural “vaporetti”?)

Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify the type of water traffic on the canals. The Grand Canal is positively choked with boat traffic which, remarkably, seems to manage itself quite handily with few or no collisions and not even any obvious near-misses. Anyway, a quick glance at the canal immediately reveals:

  • Vaporettos, i.e., water buses that hold perhaps 40 people.
  • Water taxis, which are much smaller and more expensive teak-paneled speedboats that hold perhaps 4 passengers
  • Utility boats delivering supplies and construction, dredging, and other equipment from one point to another
  • …and of course hundreds of gondolas, mostly filled with clueless seniors like us or Japanese schoolgirls with selfie sticks

…which pretty much sums up our day so far. The weather today was beautiful — sunny and in the 60s — but is supposed to turn sour tomorrow. So we are considering going out tonight for an obligatory gondola ride, which should be especially nice at night. Perhaps I will buy a selfie stick.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Viva Italia: Where the Pasta is Prologue

Having now fully recovered from last October’s sojourn to the bottom of the world, we are about to turn our attention to a (literally) more classical destination: Italy.

We depart on Wednesday, April 15, for a three week ramble through northern Italy. Most of the trip will be in four regions (see map): Veneto (since we are starting in Venice), Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, and northern Tuscany. We’ll only go about as far south as Florence and Pisa, which you can see on the map. A bit northwest of Pisa along the coast is the town of La Spezia, which is one of our major destinations since it is the jumping-off point for the famous Cinque Terre hiking region.

Why Italy? Since our travel proclivities seem to run along the lines of Botswana and Patagonia, you might ask, isn’t Italy a little….pedestrian? To which we can only reply: “C’mon, it’s Italy!” Both of us have been to the country a number of times — Alice spent ten weeks there as a visiting mathematics professor many years ago — but we have never explored these regions very much. And neither of us has ever been to Venice, an egregious oversight that we will now correct. Moreover, while we enjoyed eating warthog and pan-fried insect grubs well enough, generally speaking Italian cuisine carries just a tad more appeal than Zimbabwean. We did not much worry about gaining weight in Africa or South America; on this trip it’s pretty much a given.

2014-08-01 17_29_26-Italy Driving Trip 2

If the route were simple, it wouldn’t be our trip.

Our first five days will be in Venice, after which we pick up a rental car and follow the route shown in the second image. And now you know that this is really us making the trip, since the route is far too complicated for any rational travelers to undertake. In truth it is not quite as crazy as it looks; we will only be driving every few days, with few-day stays at “hubs” like Verona from which we will make driving and walking day trips.

We will not be alone on this trip, nor will we be in a 16-person group as we were in Africa and South America. Rather, we will be with another couple, our friends Jim and Elaine. Jim and I know each other from NASA, from which he retired a number of years ago, and we have all become quite good friends since discovering ten years ago that they lived only a few minutes from us. They are also one of the very few couples we know — my parents being about the only other one — that have traveled to even more places than we have.

As usual I will be posting my travel journal interspersed with some of my photos (Jim is also an avid photographer). So stay tuned and, as they say over there, “Ciao bella! Dolce Gabbana!” Which means, “Say goodbye to all your money if you buy this designer handbag.”

 

 

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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