Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Italy: Venice, Our Last Stop

Gondolas crowd one of Venice's many small canals. We did not see or hear
a singing gondolier, but we did see boats in which passengers were
accompanied by singing guitarists, and in one case an accordion player.
In planning our 2019 seven-week Balkans trip, we chose to go south (Greece) to north (Slovenia and Italy), partly thinking that mid-May might be too cool in the north and that early July might be too warm in the south. It turned out that early July was quite hot in the north with warmer temperatures than on the Greek islands. And we found ourselves sort of at a dead-end in Trieste if we wanted an easy flight back to the U.S.  For a one-stop flight, we'd have to go back to Zagreb or go to the other side of the Adriatic and fly out of Venice. We took a train from Trieste to Venice.

Our only other time in Venice was in November, 1999, when the city was chilly, rainy and, on the day we left, flooded. It was not the sort of transcendental experience that many travelers expect the city to offer. So here was a chance to visit during high season, when the sky would be sunny and the sidewalks dry. Unfortunately, Venice in high season has become infamous for its crowds, masses of elbowing and pushing visitors eager to check off every sight worth seeing (and there are a lot). We were willing to dive into this during a three-night stay.

Fortunately, we chose a hotel about as far as possible from the crowds at the Rialto and Piazza San Marco, though it is on the Grand Canal: Hotel Palazzo Barbarigo sur Canal Grande, in the San Toma area, just a few steps from Campo San Toma. It's at a corner where a smaller canal, the Rio di San Polo, meets the Grand Canal. The San Toma square is prominent enough on most maps to make finding the hotel pretty easy, just cross the bridge closest to the church, stay straight and take the second right into Calle Corner, a rather dark and narrow but clean alley that does indeed involve a 90-degree corner and ends at the door to the hotel. Come out into the daylight from Calle Corner, and there are signs pointing you toward the Rialto and to Piazalle Roma (home to the bus station and shuttle buses to airport). Cross the Grand Canal on the Rialto and signs will lead you or you can just follow the crowds to Piazza San Marco. Still, it's easy to get lost and confused in Venice, but eventually a sign will appear pointing you in the right direction. And without getting lost, how would you have found that wine bar, that masquerade shop, that stationery store?

For our Balkans itinerary and hotel information, click HERE.
For our visit to Athens, click HEREDelphi, HERE
Santorini, HEREHeraklion, HERE. Chania, HERE
Hydra, HERE. Thessaloniki, HERE. Kotor, HERE.
Dubrovnik, HERE. Hvar, HERE. Split, HERE.
Zagreb, HERE. Ljubljana, HERE. Piran, HERE. Trieste, HERE.

On the way back to the hotel, we twice went in the other direction and crossed the Grand Canal on the Ponte dell'Accademia. A slightly longer walk but much less crowded. And, back at the hotel, we simply had to duck back into the streets nearby to find drinks and dinner at little places near Campo San Toma. We knew we were at a local place on Via Nomboli when the owners were at one of the other sidewalk tables and passersby kept addressing them by name. Although there was a souvenir shop across the street, most of the people walking by appeared to be headed home from work.

We had two full days to enjoy Venice. We got "avoid the wait" online tickets for St. Mark's Basilica, which we had visited 20 years earlier. On that visit, one simply walked in and walked around and enjoyed the magnificent space, just as one does in most large Italian churches. Here, because of the crowds, visitors now stay between rope lines on the periphery of the church, never getting to experience standing in the middle in front of the altar. Signs warn against taking photos. When I took one photo, a tour guide scolded me, ignoring the fact that the people on his tour were taking photos almost nonstop. He shrugged when this was mentioned.

If the basilica was a disappointment, our other destination wasn't. We happened to be in town during the once-every-two-years La Biennale di Venezia, the Venice Art Biennial exhibition. At a mere 20 euros, it's a bargain, presenting more art, more concepts and more ideas than one can possibly absorb. This year the show was titled "May You Live In Interesting Times," and many of the works were indeed interesting. The Biennale takes up two huge spaces on the point of land that extends east from Piazza San Marco. One is called the Arsenale, which centuries ago had a military purpose, and the other is the smaller Central Pavilion in the Giardini.

Inside the Arsenale, unpainted plywood walls divided the space, which felt like several airplane hangars strung together, putting most works in rather intimate spaces that encouraged visitors to move in close. Many countries sponsored exhibitions, usually highlighting one artist and one work, often on themes related to climate change. Much of the other work is probably best described as conceptual, though some were so highly personal that they defy category.

Our arrival in Venice involved a long wait for and then a crowded ride on a water bus because that was the way the directions to our hotel began. Our exit was simpler. We simply took our rolling luggage and followed signs to Piazalle Roma where we caught a shuttle bus to the airport. The alternative, a water taxi from our hotel to the airport, was more than 100 euros.  It turns out that Piazalle Roma is just a few steps from the Santa Luca train station where we arrived. The lesson: Get a very good map of Venice before going so you can see your options. Canal travel is fun, but the backstreets of Venice have their own charms, too, and they're free.

Here are some photos.
A small terrace off the bar at Palazzo Barbarigo offers
a wonderful view of the Grand Canal. The floor below
this, the "ground floor" or "water floor,' had an entrance
for people arriving by boat. Our room, on that lower floor,
had a window looking out at all the boats on the canal.
Not quite the evening rush, but still
a lot of traffic on the Grand Canal.
Gondolas tie up beside a restaurant on one of the
small canals. The motorboat on the right
is a water taxi.

The Ponte dell'Accademia is one of  three bridges over the Grand Canal. It connects the relatively
quiet Dosoduro district with the very crowded San Marco district. The other bridges are Scalzi, which
connects the train station with the Santa Croce district, and the famous Rialto, which connects the
San Polo district with the San Marco district. 

Masks are a big business here. We saw
shops where people could buy a plain
white ceramic mask and paint it however
they liked. One American teenager
turned his into something from
a horror movie.

It's OK, though, because this sidewalk cafe sells
drinks, foods and ice creams. 

The famous Bridge of Sighs connects a building, on the left, where a court condemned
prisoners to die, and the building on the right where the executions were carried out,
usually on the same day.

Basilica di San Marco was begun in the 11th century as the doge's personal chapel. Most of its
celebrated mosaics date from the 12th and 13th centuries. Crowds make it an unpleasant
place to visit, but if you've never seen it, it's a must.

Mosaics adorn almost every surface inside the basilica.

Byzantine touches make for an exotic interior.

The horses are gilt-bronze and date to Roman times. They were looted
from Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1204.

View of St. Mark's Square from the steps
of the basilica.

On the waterfront a few steps from St. Mark's Square, yachts and other
watercraft were tied up. We wondered if they belonged to jet-setters
who had sailed in to see the Biennalle.

This was one of the first works we encountered at the Biennale.
It's called "Double Elvis" and it's by a New York artist named
George Condo (b.1957). 

This photograph in a large group of photos by the Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) artist Soham Gupta
(b. 1988), all of them depicting vulnerable people living on the outskirts of Kolkata.

"For in Your Tongue, I Cannot Fit" by Shilpa Gupta of Mumbai (formerly Bombay)
deals with the "violence of censorship." The microphones suspended above each
paper are actually low-volume speakers reading the protest messages
that have been impaled. Visitors wandered through the exhibit, reading
and listening as much as they wanted.

One not-so-famous church gives an idea of the glories
behind the stone facades of Venice. This is Church of St.
Pantalon in the Dosoduro district. No crowds, no rope line,
just cool quiet and breathtaking art.
The winged lion, for centuries the symbol of Venetian
maritime power, still soars atop a column where
St. Mark's Square connects with the waterfront.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Italy: Time for Trieste

One of several grand facades on Piazza Unita d'Italia, the gigantic
square at the heart of Trieste.

Our "Balkans" trip was all Balkan -- Greece and countries that once were part of Yugoslavia (Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia) -- until we took a short taxi ride from Piran, Slovenia, to Trieste, Italy. And how could we not visit Trieste since we were already so close?  Trieste is Italy's least-Italian city. Slavic and Central European influences are almost as evident here as Italian, making Trieste Italy's one truly cosmopolitan city. It emerged from World War II as the Free Territory of Trieste and formally became part of Italy in 1955.

The areas of the city that we explored on foot centered around the gigantic Piazza Unita d'Italia, a plaza dominated by grandiose buildings from the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries, when the city was part of the Hapsburg empire. A lot of today's sidewalk cafes began in that period as Viennese-style coffeehouses. To the west of the piazza is a more-or-less modern city with a regular street grid punctuated by the Canal Grande.  To the east of the piazza is an older section of narrow, mostly pedestrian streets lined with cafes, restaurants and shops.

For our Balkans itinerary and hotel information, click HERE.
For our visit to Athens, click HEREDelphi, HERE
Santorini, HEREHeraklion, HERE. Chania, HERE
Hydra, HERE. Thessaloniki, HERE. Kotor, HERE.
Dubrovnik, HERE. Hvar, HERE. Split, HERE.
Zagreb, HERE. Ljubljana, HERE. Piran, HERE. Venice, HERE.

We stayed at the Grand Hotel Duchi d'Aosta, which is on the piazza and home to the well-regarded Harry's Grill. After dropping our bags at mid-day on a Friday, we set out to explore and have lunch while waiting for our room to be ready. We headed into the newer area and eventually stumbled upon a great lunch at a sidewalk pizza place on Via Rossini beside the Canal Grande. Back at our hotel, we found our room had a great view onto the piazza but had hardly enough space to open two suitcases, so we coughed up a few more euros and moved to a "junior suite," which had a bathroom almost as large as the first room, a sofa, plush chairs and still a great view of the piazza.

That first afternoon, there was a big demonstration outside a government building on the other side of the piazza. We went over and one of the protesters told us that Victor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, was meeting with Matteo Salvini, the Italian interior minister. The two, both notorious for anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, were supposedly discussing building a wall between Italy and Slovenia. No, it's not just the United States that has gone mad. Significant parts of Europe are also falling for nationalistic clap-trap, much of it here (as in the U.S.) promoted by Russia, according to various intelligence agencies.

Other than getting to shout "no wall" in Italian (or maybe not; we don't know), highlights in Trieste included the small but fascinating Revoltella Museum and the huge Grotta Gigante, one of the world's largest caves.

The Revoltella Museum (click HERE) is in two parts. One was the palatial home of Pasquale Revoltella (1795-1869), an important businessman and financier in imperial Trieste. He was a major backer of the Suez Canal, which he saw as essential to rebuilding Trieste as a trading center, and he was a major art collector. Upon his death he willed his home and his art to the city, along with money to maintain and expand the collection. That expansion is the museum's second part, an adjacent building containing  modern exhibition space. So a visit here is a bit of a time warp -- you see many works that Revoltella chose himself displayed as he chose to display them, interspersed with his personal mid-19th-century furnishings. Then you pass into the newer part and you might as well be at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Even if you aren't interested in art, Revoltella's palace with its fountain and marble stairs is worth the price of admission, which was 7 euros.

The Grotta Gigante involved a 40-minute ride on a city bus, which we caught at Piazza Oberdan, about 15 blocks from our hotel. The cave (click HERE), which opened to the public in 1908, is mostly one large chamber with a total volume of 365,000 cubic meters, a length of 167 meters, a width of 76 meters and a floor-to-ceiling height of 98 meters (more than the length of an American football field). It is so tall that pendulums suspended from the top move ever so slightly near the floor when there is significant seismic activity almost anywhere in the world. Entry is only with a bilingual guide, who takes visitors on an 850-meter path, descending 100 meters underground (and then, there's the climb to get out!) at a constant temperature of 11 Celsius (52 Fahrenheit) year-round.

Trieste isn't a foodie destination like Bologna or even Naples, but it has a lot to offer. We happened upon a decent outdoor Greek place beside a construction site in the older part of town. We had pizza twice in Trieste, each time as good or better than we had last year during three months in southern Italy. One well-hidden Tuscan place is worth recommending: Enoteca L'Etrusco (click HERE). One of its Tuscan specialities is rabbit, which I had. L'Etrusco is on a pedestrian street called Via dei Capitelli. We were there during one of Europe's heat waves, and our orders were taken in the dining room, which was quite warm. The personable host persuaded us to move to a cooler, shaded outdoor table, even though it was threatening to rain. We were all set up outside, enjoying our drinks under a patio umbrella, when it started to rain. The host led us back to our original table now that the rain had cooled things down and the dining room was comfortable. If it's a choice between air conditioning and really good customer care, I'll take the later.

One unexpected treat in Trieste was stumbling upon a "late shopping" block party. Apparently, merchants stay open late, hire a band and serve food to encourage late-night shopping. We heard the brass band play "Barbara Ann" by the Beach Boys, "Drop That Bass" and a couple of other tunes that I couldn't put names to. This was in the newer part of town and we were walking back to the piazza after being turned away at a restaurant because our hotel had screwed up our dinner reservation. We ended up getting a sidewalk table at a big Chinese place on the harbor. Since we love Chinese food, this was a happy ending.

Here are some photos.
Those cameras are pointed at Matteo Salvini, Italy's
interior minister, who was the subject of a large
protest demonstration the day we arrived. We caught
only the slightest glimpse of him. 

Another view of the media scrum around Salvini.

Protesters wait for Salvini to emerge during a meeting with Hungary's Victor Orban.

The view from our room at the Grand Hotel Duchi d'Aosta. At left, police
provide security for a meeting between  Matteo Salvini and Victor Orban. This
was after the protest. To the right is a large sidewalk restaurant.

The Church of Saint Antonio Nuovo sits at the eastern end
of the Canal Grande. 

These lollipop-like trees are hollies that are kept
trimmed. We saw them in several parts of the city,
including this square well away from the touristic center.

I'm not sure what this sign is trying to say. Come back and shop in Trieste?
Abandon your Trumpian and Brexiting ways and come back into
the world of rational thought? 

The ruins of a Roman-era theater are a few blocks
from the central piazza.

Pasquale Revoltella's palace-like home
is part of the Revoltella Museum.

Too much is never enough. That might have been Revoltella's decorating mantra.

 "The Piercing of the Isthmus of Suez," 1864, by Pietro Magni
 (1817-1877), an allegory that shows Europe, left, holding in her right hand
the Red Sea and in her left hand the Mediterranean. Revoltella was
an important backer of the Suez Canal, which he thought would
benefit Trieste. This is a work that he commissioned.

A ceiling in Revoltella's home.

This storeroom at the Revoltella Museum is open to visitors.

"Emancipation of the Black Men," 1873, by
Francesco Pezzicar (1831-1890), a Trieste

Another work by a Trieste artist, this one is "The Kiss,"
1931, by Ruggero Roman (1877-1965). 

A view of the harbor from the roof of the Revoltella Museum.

A table for two on a pier at the harbor.

Mid-afternoon finds city streets quiet,
though there are a lot of people at the
sidewalk restaurant in the distance.

Most of Trieste's buildings date to the late 19th century and the
waning years of the Hapsburg empire.

That crane is on the waterfront. 

A brass band pauses between numbers at a late-shopping block party. 

No words needed for these warning
and informational signs about Grotta Gigante.

Stairways with strong railings make descent into
the cave a breeze.

Those are two tubes, each of which holds a pendulum that swings ever
so slightly in response to seismic activity even on other continents.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Slovenia: At the Sea in Piran

View of the seaside promenade just north of the Hotel Piran. Metal railings
at left are part of steps for swimmers to enter and exit the water. The awnings
on the right are a row of seafood restaurants. 

After Ljubljana, we took a two-hour bus ride to Slovenia's 47-kilometer Adriatic coast. Our destination was Piran, a seaside resort housed in buildings left by five centuries of Venetian occupation. A Venetian-style campanile overlooks much of the town, a warren of winding lanes, hilly streets and stone buildings both modest and grand.

Piran was a chance to chill after vigorous sight-seeing at our previous stops in Slovenia and Croatia. Even though ferry service connects it with Venice, low-key Piran seems like a place for Slovenes to build their summer memories. We did hear German spoken  a good bit, but that's true everywhere in Europe during high season, and we heard a lot of English, because it's the second language that almost all continental Europeans can speak. But mostly we heard Slovenian, especially among the many large family groups.

From the bus station, we had a relatively short walk all the way around the small harbor to our waterfront accommodations, the 100-year-old Hotel Piran, which combines the looks of a formal hotel from another era with genuinely friendly service.  We had a room with a fairly large terrace overlooking the sea and the public concrete "beach."

For our Balkans itinerary and hotel information, click HERE.
For our visit to Athens, click HEREDelphi, HERE
Santorini, HEREHeraklion, HERE. Chania, HERE
Hydra, HERE. Thessaloniki, HERE. Kotor, HERE.
Dubrovnik, HERE. Hvar, HERE. Split, HERE.
Zagreb, HERE. Ljubljana, HERE. Trieste, HERE. Venice, HERE.

We arrived in time for lunch at one of the big seafood restaurants that stretch to the north from the hotel. That afternoon, we hit the beach. I hit it a bit too hard, putting a gash in my leg when I brushed against a rock jumping off a pier. Jane got bandages from the front desk and we later walked to the pharmacy in Tartinjev Trg (Tartini Square), the town's main plaza a few steps from the hotel, and got an antiseptic ointment and more bandages. Out of the water for the rest of our stay, I watched as over and over again people jumped where I had jumped and came out unbloodied.

The next day, our one full day in town, we made it up the Church of St. George, a 12th-century structure that has become mostly Baroque over the years. We also made another climb to the remnants of a city wall east of the old town (there really isn't a "new" town here), and walked around the tip of the peninsula . From the harbor northwest to the tip and then east a bit, there are several access points for swimmers (ladders or steps into the water), most of them surrounded by sunbathers. When the water is rough on one part of the peninsula, it might be much calmer at another.

Piran is a salt-production center, and has been since the Venetians (13th to 18th centuries) were in charge. We didn't visit the salt production area, but we did come home with its fleur de sel as gifts. Conveniently, the salt works have a gift shop on Tartini Square.

At sunset, the place to be is the bar atop the Hotel Piran for the best views. Then there's a wonderful seafood dinner waiting for you somewhere in this little town.

Here are some photos.
Two structures, one green and one red, stand at the entrance
to Piran's small harbor.

We climbed to the city's medieval wall for this view, which shows how completely
Piran fills up its peninsula. On the right is the Church of St. George and its
Venetian-style campanile. 

Tartinijev Trg (Tartini Square) is the town's only large plaza. To the left,
it opens onto the harbor. To the right, shops and narrow streets plug it
into the town. The statue is of Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770), an
Italian violinist who was born in Piran.

This looks like a more conventional beach
than the concrete beaches along the promenade,
though concrete might be more comfortable to
walk on than these rocks. It's on the north
 side of the peninsula. 

A harpist performs on a street leading
to St. George's Church.

Looking down from the garden at St. George's Church. The two
people are sitting on a bench.

The Svetilnik Lighthouse marks the northwest
point of the peninsula.

The medieval city wall looms in the distance in this
view from St. George's Church.

Visitors can walk along the surprisingly narrow wall. I'm sure much
of what we see is the result of 20th-century restoration.

View from our terrace at Hotel Piran. It shows
the seawall that separates the harbor area
from the swimming areas.

Sunbathers just below our terrace.

She's diving where I hurt my leg on a rock.

What's a seaside without a mermaid? 

A narrow street high in the town offers
a view of the harbor entrance.