The day finally has arrived! We are off to Italy! The sixteen day, independent journey through Italy begins. I am traveling with my wife and six wonderful cousins to the homeland of our ancestors. Although my wife and I have traveled there numerous times before, this will be the most enjoyable trip we have ever attempted, anywhere!
I did say independent. With all the participants input, I crafted together the demanding and relaxing moments of this journey to achieve “La Dolce Viva!” After 2 years of planning, reviewing everyone’s schedules, researching, seeking agreement, and adjusting over and over again, we stepped onto the Airbus 300 from the USA to Venice with confidence and a sense of accomplishment.
While on the plane I am ask myself, “Why did it take two years”? The answer was simple. I had to consider my family’s agenda, everyone needing to schedule time off, and coordinate 3 very active groups of relatives in Italy. Then there is the matter of private tour times, planes – trains – boats and bus schedules, meal requirements, medical issues and “must do” personal agendas. It is a wonder this adventure ever happened at all! When going on a commercial tour or cruise, all of the work is done for you by a travel agent. For half of the group, it is their first time to Europe. I want to throw out a big thank you to my cousins and Eda for all your help, thoughts and hard work. Everyone’s “can-do” enthusiasm made it much easier to accomplish this incredible feat.
For this adventure, we started at the thigh of Italy with Venice and the Vento. Then slid down to the kneecap – Florence, Siena, Lucca, Pisa and Tuscany. From there we travel down the ankle to Sorrento, Capri, the Amalfi Coast and ending up in Roma. What made this itinerary so special is not where we went, but rather what we did and how we did it! As the days peeled off the calendar, we couldn’t fathom how the next day could exceed the day we had just experienced, but they did! Every day was different and held a new and exciting adventure.
We set several goals for ourselves. They are to meet and see as much family as possible, balancing activities with relaxation and to test as much gelato as we could. I am positive we will make this mission a success! One of the unexpected benefits was to be able to walk anywhere we wanted to go. We logged an impressive 5 to 10 miles per day (according to 2 sports watches), so we could afford the daily calories from our favorite gelato. My Texas cousins (shown left) and I are greeting my 92 year old cousin Maria (green blouse) and her son Carlo (navy shirt), as well as my beautiful cousin Angelica (far right).
We Landed in Venice and could not wait to see the carnival of life that awaited us in St. Mark’s Square (shown below right). Our stay would be long enough to see the main sights so we could start checking off some of the goals of our trip. We found our private water taxi (group pic shown below left), a wooden cruiser for 12 that zipped us from Marco Polo Airport to our hotel in the gullet of Venice. (http://www.venicewatertaxi.it/?lang=en) Now you ask, why use a private water taxi? Isn’t that expensive? After spreading the cost over 8 people, the taxi was only 1 Euro per person more than public transportation, which delivers you to a centrally located public boat dock instead of directly to your hotel. It was well worth 1 Euro to avoid pulling the luggage halfway across Venice and to avoid the mass of tourists we later encountered. We purchased the tickets in advance – online and received a voucher to go to the hotel and to the train station the next day.
Hotel Canaletto (pictured, left) was perfect for our first night abroad (http://www.hotelcanaletto.com/). This hotel was the home of Antonio Canaletto. He is known as il Canaletto, a renowned 18th century Venetian artist. While rustic on the outside, the hotel is lavishly furnished in 18th century Venetian style. The hotel staff met our water taxi dockside and helped maneuver our luggage to the hotel entrance. As with all the hotels where we stayed, an inclusive and bountiful breakfast awaited us each morning. Even starting a year in advance, finding a hotel in Venice was not easy as 99% of them required a minimum two night stay. Especially on a weekend that has a multitude of events. After trying all the suggestions by Rick Steves (Tour Operator), we opted to check with my travel agent – Brenda McClain of Andavo Travel in Birmingham. Brenda found us a great location, price and needed time of stay. Hats off to Brenda, she’s the best in the US! Feel free to give Brenda a call when you need to make any type of travel arrangements. You can contact her at +1 (205) 874-8528 or Brenda.McClain@andavotravel.com). During peak season, it is advisable to book your hotels in advance.
Our first order of business was to arrange our exit from the city! We walked a short distance to the Rialto Bridge where we purchased 24-hour passes (20 euros) on the public Vaporetto boats (“a bus on the water”). The Vaporetto runs the length of the Grand Canal and ventures to islands that are off the beaten path. We jumped on a Vaporetto to the main train station to buy our tickets for our next two trips. High speed trains require advanced purchase with assigned seating along with the ticket. Handling this necessary chore freed us up for an afternoon of sightseeing around Venice. The Vaporetto costs 7 euros per trip, so the pass pays for itself after 3 trips. It is also considerably cheaper than the romantic gondolas, which start at 80 euros per trip.
We met up with the others in our group and grabbed a quick lunch near the hotel (pictured, above right). Always on the first day after a transatlantic journey, it is very important to keep moving around as much as possible to combat jet lag. We boarded a fast Vaporetto on the Grand Canal to the center of Venice and disembarked near St. Mark’s Square (shown left). We quickly started mingling with the crowds. The pigeons pecked at our feet while we toured St. Mark’s Cathedral, its Square and the Doge Palace.
The centerpiece of Venice is St. Mark’s Basilica (shown left). The Byzantine extravaganza started in the 1200s and was completed in the 1700s. The bones of St. Mark were taken from Alexandria in 830 and placed in the original church. The five domed Basilica is a majestic collection of art, marble, and mosaics. However, as compared to other Duomos and basilicas of the cities of Italy, the inside always seems darker and has more of a medieval feel than the others. Until 1807, St. Mark’s was the doge’s private chapel. Admission is free for most of the facilities inside the Basilica. However, a few attractions require a minimal priced ticket.
Adjacent to St. Mark’s Basilica is the seat of the once invincible Venetian government. The Doge (pronounced “dough-jay”) palace was home to the supreme ruler of Venice. The Doge Palace, which is now a museum, is constructed with magnificent white stone and pink marble. Ambassadors were received, the Venetian Senate met, matters of State were decided and justice was rendered by the courts all in this one location .
Prisoners who were sentenced by the courts and were taken to the adjacent dungeons. If they were condemned to death, their execution was put forth immediately. They were taken from the courts and lead across the Bridge of Sighs (pictured, right) and locked up until the demise of their fate was arranged. The small windows would be their last views in life as they knew it.
We actually did get lost in the dungeon and spent a few harrowing moments looking for a guide to show us the way out. When touring the Doge Palace and its many levels, allow several hours for the visit and be prepared with your own guided information as the rental audio is very dry and lacks any coordination.
Leaving the Doge’s Palace by the back door, we returned to the magnificent Piazza San Marco (shown below right) public square. Napoleon called this center of Venice the “finest drawing room in Europe.” By day it’s a gathering place of humanity with pigeons oohing and cooing, which adds to the majestic feel of Venice. At night it magically transforms into a romantic spot as the open-air tents house the serenading orchestras. Music fills the air as each orchestra competes with each other. The crowds decisively stroll back and forth across the square as a new song strikes up. It is free to stand and listen. But be aware of the price of romance as we once sat down and ordered hot chocolate and later walked out with a tab over $20. Shrewd vendors know all to well where they are and how to work the crowds. Whether you are on land or water and/or utilizing the Vaporetto, always know the cost of goods and services. Another precaution is to keep an eye on your wallet and purses because pickpockets are out in force!
Over our first four days in Italy the August heat was relentless. We chose to end the sightseeing for the day due to jet lag, hunger and excruciating heat. We decided on an early dinner along the Grand Canal. The day ended with some free time for shopping and cold gelato. Getting a good night’s rest was essential as we plan for an early start the next day with train tickets already in hand!