Subject: Venice to Florence - Finally (long)
Ciao All,

Well Ziners I am back from my maiden voyage to Italy and recovered enough to write an account of my adventures.

I wanted to go to Venice and Florence. When deciding on how to make this trip I had to choose between costs, length of stay, comfort, efficiency. Comfort and efficiency were the costliest items with the shortest length of stay, so I sacrificed comfort and efficiency to get the most money for the longest time # 3 weeks. The problem with sacrificing comfort and efficiency, was unfortunately gaining stress. I was totally on my own, with no support from a travel agency or tour group or familiar people. Too much time was wasted running around in circles not knowing where I was, what I was looking at, or how to get around. Fewer Italians speak English than I had hoped and travellers' Italian does not go very far. Otherwise it was great.

Venice was a complex experience. A traveling experience as they say, rather than a tourist experience in that it was more real life then escape. I had always longed to see Venice because I have a passion for history and culture and Venice is such an important city in European history. I intended to stay 11 days in Venice and 10 days in Florence.

Certainly the beauty of Venice was there, the history, the incredible awesomeness of a city built on water Yes there were a lot of museums, churches and paintings by Tintoretto, Tiepolo and Titian. But what astonished me was the lack of vitality, or creative fire. I mistakenly thought that because Venice hosts the biennale every two years which is one of the greatest festivals of modern art, stages the Venice film festival, and is famous for making great glass she would be a hub of cultural and artistic activity. I thought she would have the vitality of New York, or Paris or even Toronto during the Beaches jazz festival. Far from it. In the evening the campos and alleys are almost deserted and there is almost nothing to do. If you're traveling alone there's even less.

During the day it's okay, I walked around and looked at buildings, monuments and things, but everything closes at 5:30 or 6:00 and there is very little nightlife. What bars and restaurants stay open close at 10:00 or 10:30. No buskers, street musicians, artists selling their paintings # nothing. Just stall after stall of cheap souvenir stands, thousands of glass stores selling the same glass objects, thousands of mask stores selling the same masks. The Piazza San Marco, once the drawing room of Europe was practically empty in the evening. If Venice was a person I would say she was suffering from depression.

The hotel I stayed in (Albergo Bernardi-Semenzato, two stars) was a bad choice. I had the only single room and it next to the hotel lobby, so I heard everyone going in and out and the night clerk talking to his friends on the phone all night, and the staff washing the dishes across the hall from me. The owners were completely indiffirent to my cicumstances and refused to try and help with any of these problems. I spent a good two days trying to find someplace else to stay (getting lost over and over and over again in the labyrinth of Venetian streets) and was even contemplating leaving for Cinque Terre or Florence when someone put me onto a good pair of ear plugs. That helped a lot. But the room also looked awful. It had broken old furniture, a tiny closet that did not fit half my clothes and looked like a cheap motel room. To be fair the doubles on the second and third floors were very nice, but on the first floor it was hell.

Except for one time when I met a young American woman, Carolina, from Gainesville Florida who came to stay for a day, and ziner Dolores Mills I met no one. Guests at the hotel were mostly non-English speaking and did not really socialize outside of who they arrived with. Eventually I came to dread the coming of 6:00 p.m. Since I was alone I felt awkward spending evenings in a restaurant watching other people eat or sitting on a bar watching other people laugh and talk, so I spent my evenings sitting alongside vaporetto stops watching traffic on the Grand Canal or reading, or riding the vaporetto back and forth along the Grand Canal. Another way of passing the evenings was attending evening vespers at various churches. And I'm not Catholic or religious.

The best times were during the day and I tried to pack in as much by 6:00 p.m. as possible. I went on several walking tours with Venice Walks, guided walking tours with very reasonable rates which I highly recommend - Ghost Walks of Venice, Casanova's Haunts and Gardens of Venice. They really gave a good idea of what the city must have been in her day and made sense of buildings and neighbourhoods. I also brought Cadogan's book of Venice self-tours. It tells you where to go and you can read about what you're seeing. The Rialto Market is terrific also. The market has been there for 1500 years and it is bustling with life # until 6:00 p.m. I walked through the Doge's Palace and his apartments and stood on his balcony where he would watch the fleets sailing back home from some great expedition. Even saw the dungeons and was very moved by the messages of pain and desperation scrawled on the walls by former inmates. As a way of amusing myself I made it a point to get a photo of me with as many winged lions as possible. I managed about 8.

The highlight of my visit was the mask workshop I took with Venice's premier mask making company, Tragicomica. The people at Tragicomica were instrumental in restarting Carnevale in Venice in 1979 after it had been stopped for about 150 years. Two weeks of parties, balls and parades in February. That's probably the time to go. Trouble is Venice is on the same latitude as Ottawa and only mildly warmer in winter.

I worked a whole day making papier mache masks, learning the processes and techniques and how to decorate, and I got to keep the mask I made. That was great. I felt less like a tourist and more like someone who is involved in the culture of the city. My instructors were also great. Trouble is they spoke almost no English. We bonded, we are friends for life, but there was so much I wanted to ask them, about Venetian theatrical history, about Commedia dell Arte which was a Venetian style of comedic theatre that is the basis for almost all slapstick comedies # Marx Brothers, Keystone Kops, Charlie Chaplin. Gualtiero, the owner of Tragicomica is such a vital, engaging, friendly person that if he could only speak English or I could speak Italian I am sure would be great friends. I might even have more fun next time I came to Venice. That was a marvelous experience.

I made day trips to Padua and Verona. Padua is about 45 minutes from Venice by bus (and ironically, the 2.50 euro bus ticket to Padua is cheaper than the 3.10 euro ride on a vaporetto). The smaller city of Padua had a flea market, buskers, street performers. It was jumping with life. Artists selling paintings on every corner. Lively outdoor cafes. Art galleries everywhere. I saw the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua which was stunning and enormous. There are no churches that enormous in North America. I visited Europe's oldest horticultural gardens at the University of Padua, which is one of Europe's oldest universities # oldest medical school.

Verona was beautiful. Visited the Castelvecchio built in 1356, now a museum. I felt totally thrilled to be in a 14th century castle. I could understand why Shakespeare set two plays in this city. In his time it was the most happening place in Europe, one of the most culturally, socially, economically advanced places, and England was just a backwater. I saw the Roman amphitheatre which is in the middle of the city still being used for anything anyone would use an arena for. Just seeing how comfortable people were with the old and the new was so amazing, a strange phenomenon in North America. We would never be using an old Roman amphitheatre. We would have torn it down and built new ones over and over.

Food consisted mostly of the mandatory coffee and rolls breakfast at the hotel, fruits, vegetables, cheese and buns from the Rialto market for lunch, or the occasional calzone. In the evening I usually had a slice of pizza because nothing in the Venetian restaurants tempted me. Most of it was very expensive (I was once charged almost twice what I thought I was going to pay) and I had no desire to try sarde de soar (marinated sardines) or liver, onions and polenta.

I couldn't stand it in Venice any longer and cut my stay shorter by one day. On my last evening I met up with fellow Ziner Dolores Mills and her daughter for a brief, yet very charming, late night drink in one of the few open late night bars right beside the Rialto Bridge. Dolores was taking her daughter, who had just graduated from university, on a graduation gift trip to Greece, stopping in Venice for a couple of days. Paolo Maietti had offered to meet us in Pordenone, but Pordenone was too much out of my way and I was leaving for Florence the next day.

Finally I left for Florence by train. Florence was almost diametrically opposite to Venice. A madhouse. Hustle, bustle and noise. Cars, mopeds, bikes coming at you from all directions. One- person-wide sidewalks so that someone always had to jump into the street in front of a moped, bike or car just to walk along. And my Hotel (Hotel Il Bargellino) was terrific. Fifteen minutes after I unpacked, I went out on the terrace and met a Malaysian couple, Robert and Angie who immediately invited me over to their table for a glass of wine and were good company as long as they stayed. Only 5 more euro a day, but I got a charming room with 15 foot ceilings, antique furniture and shuttered windows. I can't recommend it enough. A one-star hotel, but except that there were no telephones in the rooms there was nothing one star about it. Its halls had marble floors, works of art, stained glass skylights and it had a lovely terrace with more artwork. The owners, Carmel and Pino are very helpful, gracious and charming. Once when it was too rainy to eat on the terrace they invited us all around their own kitchen table.

A hotel with a terrace is a great solution for single travel. It solves the problem of what to do when you don't have anything to do in the evening. You can sit on the terrace and either read, write, or chat with other people dropping by. Florence was hopping day and night. The streets were full of musicians, mimes, people selling interesting stuff, all sorts of artists selling their wares, marching bands, singers. Stores stayed open until 8:00 pm or midnight if they were near a busy place. You could buy your way into a nightly pub crawl. They gave you the names of places where they would be crawling and for a fee you could join the crawl. I didn't join because I'm not really a party person and it was mostly comprised of just-out-of-university twentysomethings, but if someone was, they had an instant party to get into and instant friends.

I saw the Uffizi Gallery of course, the art of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci. Also the Palazzo Pitti where the Grand Dukes of Tuscany lived. Probably Versailles is more sumptuous, but since I haven't seen Versailles this had to be the most sumptuous palatial palace I have ever been in. Climbed to the top of the Duomo, some 463 steps and looked out on the rooftops of Florence. Visited the village of Fiesole just outside of Florence where Bocaccio wrote the Decameron, where there was another ancient Roman theatre, Etruscan tombs and a park where Leonardo da Vinci launched his flying machines.

I was really nave about Florence. I thought I would be entering a pristine, renaissance realm undisturbed by the real world. Yes you see beautiful renaissance buildings and palazzos but they are all a backdrop for Bruno Magli, Cartier, Chanel, Max Mara, McDonalds even. American Express is almost next door to Dante's house. It's an odd mix.

Highlights were film appreciation night (Death in Venice of all things) with wine and cheese reception and discussion afterwards at the British Institute of Florence, which also offers all kinds of courses (worth considering for future travel) and a magical dinner I had with Daniel and the Contessa. Daniel Chorzempa is a friend of my friend Rose and she gave me his number to call him up in Florence. I didn't know it at the time but found out after I came home, that he is also one of the world's most renowned classical organ recitalists. Daniel invited me to a semi-regular dinner he was having with what he described as an older woman, but very interesting and vivacious. She turned out to be Maria Luisa, the Contessa Venier. I don't meet many contessas in Toronto. Her ex-husband is from one of the aristocratic families of Venice. Two Doges were Veniers. The commander of the Venetian forces in the Battle of Lepanto, where the Ottoman Enpire was thoroughly defeated and prevented from conquering Europe once and for all, was Sebastiano Venier. They treated me to one of the top trattorias in Florence whose name unfortunately, I forgot to note down. For me this was like something out of a book or movie or even fairy tale.

The Contessa was lovely. She was very gracious, refined, great conversationalist, great company, insisted on being called Maria Luisa, paid for everything and was very disappointed that I was leaving in two days. She wanted to take me next time to her favourite ristorante, made me promise to let her know next time I am in Florence. Daniel was great company too. He studied architecture before he turned to organ playing and gave me a great tour of Florence while walking me back to my hotel.

Food in Florence even on the cheap was fabulous. I had a choice of wonderful take out delis that cost roughly 4 euro a meal. Sometimes I went to Nerbone at the Mercato Centrale where against all my previously understood culinary expectations I could have a delicious boiled beef with pesto sandwich (gigantic) and a glass of wine for 3.50 euro. Sometimes I would go to Leonardo's Self-Service (very close to the Duomo) and exactly like a self-service cafeteria in North America load up a tray from an enormous choice of excellent pastas, meats, fishes, salads, antipasti and wine for about 5 to 6 euro. And get to sit down at a booth at no extra charge.

San Gimignano was another great trip. I went with Sharon, a woman I met through the internet who is a watercolour artist staying in Cinque Terre at the time. Both of us wanted to see the Tuscan countryside, so we agreed to see San Gimignano. Sharon is an extremely vivacious, outgoing character who has a talent for finding people who go out of their way to do things for her. We were supposed to meet in Poggibonsi to transfer onto the bus to San Gimignano, but she pulls up in a car driven by a man she met on the train who has a house outside San Gimignano and who offered to drive her (and consequently, me) there. His home was unbelievable. An old Roman farmhouse, personally renovated, with a Roman watchtower above it. He lives in the farmhouse which was decorated like something out of Architectural Digest # full of charming paintings and antiques, ceramic sink and table, bake oven outside the house. The tower part was three floors of living rooms and bedrooms. He spoke only Italian and Sharon's Italian wasn't good enough to determine whether he was renting this space out or whether it was for his family. He was obviously very attracted to Sharon and they made a date for dinner the next evening. He said we could stay there if we couldn't find a room in town. Sharon wasn't comfortable staying there with someone she had just met so we found a charming double room in town for 60 euro (the same price as a double in my cheap, awful hotel in Venice) with a Jacuzzi. You can ponder on the irony of a perfectly preserved medieval town that has Jacuzzis in its rental rooms.

We spent one day wandering around the lovely town, and at dinner (Trattoria Chiribiri) I had pasta strips with wild boar sauce, Sharon had stuffed rabbit. We met a couple from Luxemburg who sat at the table next to ours and spent the rest of the evening chatting with them. Next day we wanted to visit a vineyard with wine and cheese tastings and were given a map to find it. We ended up on the wrong road but did walk through vineyards and olive trees, and had a lovely picnic on a farm (not sure if we were supposed to, but we did). We were still looking for this vineyard when Sharon collared a man on a bike to ask him about this vineyard. He didn't know of one in the vicinity but invited us to his vineyard instead and gave us a bottle of his wine for free.

If you've never experienced it it's hard to imagine the Tuscan sun from a Canadian perspective. Cells that have been dead for years in your body come back to life. The earth is full of rolling hills as far as the eye can see full of vineyards, olive groves, all sorts of wildflowers and scent of lavender, rosemary, wisteria and honeysuckle in the air. You can see why the Italian personality is so sensual. We eventually arrived at the little town of Santa Lucia. A sign said Country flats for rent. I noted down the number just in case. It would be great, sometime in the future, to stay in Santa Lucia, with hiking trails, biking trails, horseback riding trails nearby, an hour's walk or 1 euro bus ride out of San Gimignano.

Sharon went off to dinner with her friend and I made it back to Florence on my own. Next few days I went to out to Greve in Chianti, one of the little towns that are in the centre of Chianti wine-making region and Lucca, one of the 4 glistening jewels in the crown of the Tuscan renaissance (along with Pisa, Siena and Florence). Lucca still has its old medieval wall about of a block thick surrounding the historic city, the top of which has been turned into a park with beautiful trees, a biking and jogging trail - on top of the wall. My big disappointment was a visit to Viareggio, one of the beach towns on the Italian Riviera. The weather had turned suddenly very overcast and cold. I had hoped to see the azure Mediterranean Sea which I have only seen in movies but never seen in person. Alas, because of the cloud cover and cold, Viareggio was practically deserted and the sea was grey. It looked just like Lake Ontario.

Then it was all over. Time to come home.

The flight home was comfortable, but getting to the airport was stress all the way. My flight brought me to Venice and I had to return from Venice. I bought a ticket in Florence for Venice to change at Mestre, and first of all the clerk made the ticket out for June 10 instead of June 9 (lucky I learned to check everything), but of course the train schedule had only the final destination of the train listed, which was not Mestre. With 5 minutes to go I found someone who looked like he worked there and discovered the train was listed on the board as going to Udine (Milano was also listed for the same time).

I toyed with staying in Mestre and going to the airport from there, but decided to go into Venice one last time because I had what I thought were 2 hours before I had to be at the airport. Well, I miscalculated the two hours, didn't account for the slowness of the vaporetto and confused the 12 hour clock with the 24 hour clock. I got back by vaporetto to catch the airport bus and did not make it in time. The bus had left. I was told to arrive at least 45 minutes before the plane left or there would be a hefty surcharge and I would never have made that with the next bus. So I took a cab - 26 euro, which was more than the cost of the train from Florence to Venice. I was prepared to pay 75 euro for a water taxi if I couldn't get a cab.

I did catch the plane on time and am now sadly back in my pumpkin in Toronto.

What was stressful about the trip? My experiences in Venice. My lack of knowledge of Italian which always made me feel vulnerable, especially on bus and train travel. Very little is explained and very few personnel are available to tell you anything in any language. No one checks your tickets before you get on and if your Italian is not good you can misread or misunderstand which bus or train to get on and arrive God knows where. The amount of time I spent wandering around trying to figure out where I was, trying to find someone who could speak English well enough to direct me, or help me. Being alone. Getting lost with Sharon on the wrong road near San Gimignano was fun, getting lost on the wrong road all by myself would not have been fun. I would not want to be as alone as I felt in Venice anywhere again.

But I would do it all again in a pinch.

Krystyna, Trapped in Toronto