A Slowing Sinking City ~ Venezia, Italia (Seconda Parte)

After taking the Venice Grand Canal tour, it was time to step inside some of the elaborate buildings we’d seen from the water.

We savored our early morning wanderings, a wonderful way to watch Venice wake ~ merchants getting products hand-carted to their doorsteps, children standing hand-in-hand with parents at vaporetto stops, waiting for their school ride, silent gondolier boats gently bobbing canal side, and fishermen casting out their first lines of the day.

Here is a glimpse at our excursions during our visit to this unique city:

1) St. Mark’s Square

This political and religious center of Venice turns into a giant dance floor at night and is said to be the place for romance, with orchestras playing and bodies swaying, but early morning it’s eerily quiet.

The Campanile (bell tower) sits at the edge of the square and guards the Grand Canal.  You can ride an elevator 325’ to the top of the tower for some of the best views of Venice, if you care to stand in long lines to do so.  We took a pass.

2) St. Mark’s Basilica

Before the basilica opens its doors, there is a side chapel available for those who wish to sit in silence. This was my main reason for arriving so early.  As we stepped through the door, mass was being said in another part of the church, in Italian of course.  Although I couldn’t understand the words, I felt their lyrical message being carried throughout the basilica, filling the gilded, mosaic dome.  I couldn’t imagine a more peaceful way to begin my day than sitting in silence in this holiest of places.  It was quite a humbling experience.

When the doors later opened to tourists, we were there to tour the most famous church in Venice, built in the 11th century to replace an earlier chapel.  Unfortunately no photos are allowed inside, which is just as well as I couldn’t begin to capture the exquisite beauty found inside this holy space.  The interior walls and domed ceiling, depicting Christ ascending into heaven, glow with gold mosaics and colored marble.

Venetians smuggled St. Mark’s bones into the city in A.D. 828, where they were interred under the main altar of the original church.  In the year 1094, when the present church was almost complete, the church officials were preparing to re-inter St. Mark’s bones under the new altar when they realized that during the long years of the church’s construction they had forgotten where they stored the remains…oops!  All parishioners bowed down to pray for help and, led by the doge, they soon found their patron saint.

Thanks to one of the lower points in Christian history, when Venetian crusaders looted the city of Constantinople and brought the plunder back home, we now can view the Golden Altarpiece.  Sparkling brightly behind the main altar, it is made of enamels illustrating religious scenes, all set in a gold frame and studded with sparkling precious gems from the year 1100.

3) San Marco Museum

Upstairs in the basilica, the museum offers a glimpse at some of the mosaic sections removed from the original church, along with the larger-than-life bronze horses that once graced the balcony of the church. Stone replicas now stand in their place.  As this was part of the basilica, no photos were allowed.

4) Accademia Gallery

This is Venice’s top art museum, filled with highlights of the Venetian Renaissance.  The artwork begins in the Middle Ages and runs to the 1700’s.

5) La Salute Church

Topped by a crown-shaped dome, this Church of St. Mary of Good Health was built to honor the Virgin Mary and thank God for delivering the people of Venice from the plague of 1630 that killed almost one-third of the city’s population.

6) Doge’s Palace

Built to illustrate the power and wealth of the Republic, the doge (ruling duke) lived with his family in this palace. It is also the place where the Senate met, deliberated, and passed law.

The grand staircase is well worth the visit, as are the many rooms filled with artistic treasures.  The Doge Palace houses the largest oil painting in the world, Tintoretto’s Paradise.

7) Bridge of Sighs

This small bridge spans a canal that connects the Doge Palace with the prison.  Legend has it that a condemned man would be led over this bridge on his way to prison, take one last look at Venice through the marble-trellised windows, and sigh.  Prison cells are eerie and three levels deep.

8) San Giorgio Maggiore Monastery

On a small island across from St. Mark’s Square, the white marble façade of San Giorgio Maggiore Monastery gleams brilliantly against the azure water of the Grand Canal.  This is another of Venice’s beautiful churches to explore and a great place to get a bird’s-eye view of Venice from the bell tower.

The monastic community of San Giorgio was founded in A.D. 982.  At one time you could rent rooms from the friars, but unfortunately they no longer offer this.

A large blessing hand, entitled “Together”, created by artisan Jaume Plensa, formed of 8 alphabets – Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, and Latin, hangs from the ceiling. It is meant to be an inviting and welcoming symbol of mercy.

“Today more than ever we must show that living together as brothers in total and mutual respect, cultural and spiritual, is the only way to live in peace.”

Getting deeper into Venice as the shadows lengthen
Getting deeper into Venice as the shadows lengthen

With all the elegant palaces to visit, the ancient works of art to study, and the history to soak in, some of our fondest memories of Venice will be our wanderings along the alleyways deep in the city. Try as we might to get lost so I could use my “City Maps 2 Go” app, we never did.

A batch of wine, waiting to be bottled
A batch of wine, waiting to be bottled
Terry found another furry friend in one of those alleyways.
Terry found another furry friend in one of those alleyways.

Surprises awaited us around every turn, across each bridge that spanned the canals.  Nondescript doors opened into tiny little wine bars and enchanting restaurants, and artisanal gelato shops abounded. Along with seeing so many fascinating sights, it seems we may have eaten our way through Venice as well. Ahh, la vita di Venezia!

Next Up: Cinque Terre

A Slowly Sinking City ~ Venice, Italy (Prima Parte)

Venice, situated in a lagoon in a calm section of the Adriatic Sea, is Europe’s best-preserved big city.  I had longed to see this romantic, elegantly decaying city since watching a documentary many, many years ago – gondoliers traversing the waters of the Grand Canal, singing Italian ballads to their paying passengers.

Park your car at the bus station just across the causeway (no cars allowed on this island) and come along with me as I give you a sneak peek into this urban wonderland.  Leave your 21st century mindset behind as we step way back in time (about 1,500 years).

Venice, a colorful kaleidoscope of people, 400 bridges, 2,000 alleys, and 177 canals, is made up of more than 118 small islands, joined in the shape of a fish.  What was once a refuge from barbarians is now a slowly sinking city filled with tourists.

Just one of the colorful canals snaking through Venice.

The sinking has not been caused by the hordes of tourists, although some locals may think otherwise during peak travel season.  Venice has battled rising water since the 5th century and the water seems to be winning.  A phenomenon called “aqua alta”, usually occurring mid-autumn until late winter, causes the city to flood about 100 times a year.  The aqua alta occurs when a large tide combines with strong winds and an incoming storm.

This grand deteriorating city sits atop sediments that are still settling and compacting.  Along with the forces of Mother Nature, some man-made events have caused the city to be more vulnerable to flooding as well – offshore pier work and the construction of a railroad bridge to the mainland. You will know the aqua alta has arrived when you step into a paved square and find water pooling in stone grates at the square’s lowest point.  Time to seek higher ground!

Silhouettes during an evening stroll along the alleyway where we stayed.

Since a serious flooding in 1966, officials have struggled to find a solution.  It has taken about four decades for all to agree to install mobile gates on the floor of the sea, where she enters Venice’s lagoon.  When the seawater rises to a certain level, air is pumped into the gates, causing them to rise and shut out the Adriatic.  The project is due to be finished sometime this year.  There are many skeptics.

Coupled with that “sinking feeling”, Venice is also losing her population.  There are 58,000 residents in the “old city” and this number is down to about half of what it was just 30 years ago. It’s an expensive place to live, as everything has to be shipped in and hand-carted to its final destination.  Locals are leaving at a rate of about 1,000/year and of those remaining, roughly 25% are senior citizens.

A more primitive water taxi perhaps?
A more primitive water taxi perhaps?

Even so, the city is thriving thanks to the tourist trade.  But her cultural heart is dying.  City planners fear that in a few short decades once proud Venice won’t be a city any longer, but rather a “cultural theme park”.

So, let’s visit this unique city before it’s too late. Take a deep breath; step onto the vaporetto (water taxi) with the locals and tourists; know you will pay an exorbitant price for some items; and yield to her magic.  It’s time to take a ride on the Grand Canal!

The Rialto Bridge, a major landmark of Venice, is lined with shops and currently being restored. This is the third bridge built on this spot, constructed in 1588. It closed the Grand Canal to shipping and made it a canal of palaces.
The Rialto Bridge, a major landmark of Venice, is lined with shops and currently being restored. This is the third bridge built on this spot, constructed in 1588. It closed the Grand Canal to shipping and made it a canal of palaces.

The Grand Canal is Venice’s “Main Street”.  It is two miles long, 15 feet deep, and nearly 150 feet wide, making it Venice’s largest canal, with some pretty impressive sights along its shoreline.  Nearly 25 miles of canals drain the city, dumping into the Grand Canal.

If you are waiting for your luggage to arrive, this is where you might find it.
If you are waiting for your luggage to arrive, this is where you might find it.

Dating from the days when Venice was the world’s richest city, palaces can still be seen lining the Grand Canal. Sadly they are slowly rotting as there are now very strict laws prohibiting changes to these buildings.  Many of these grand palaces now sit vacant, still with brilliant chandeliers gracing the space above watery, empty ground floors.  But in some ways this only adds to Venice’s charm.

Police, taxis, ambulances, garbage trucks, and gondoliers all travel the waters of the Grand Canal, although gondoliers do prefer the quieter canals.  This is where most accidents between the vaporetti and gondoliers occur.

There’s the bell tower at St. Mark’s Square, rising above the Doge’s Palace.  Ok, here is our stop.

St. Mark's Square and Basilica, where the tourists and pigeons compete for space.
St. Mark’s Square and Basilica, where the tourists and pigeons compete for space.
Interesting bell on a building in St. Mark's Square, along with the symbol of Venice, the winged lion. Representing the evangelist St. Mark, it appears in both merchant and military naval flags.
Interesting bell in St. Mark’s Square, along with the symbol of Venice, the winged lion. Representing the evangelist St. Mark, it appears on both merchant and military naval flags.

Time to head back to rest up for a full day of sightseeing tomorrow.  Let’s get back on the vaporetto.

The Accademia Bridge near sunset.
The Accademia Bridge near sunset.

Here’s my stop, San Basilio in Dursoduro (the belly of the fish), where I have secured an apartment for us for the next three days.  See you soon for part two, where we’ll take a peek inside some of these beautiful old buildings.


Country of the Pale Mountains ~ Dolomites

Italy’s regal, rocky rooftop, the Dolomiti, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, provides some of the best mountain scenery in all of Europe. These pale sentinels, composed of sedimentary rock similar to limestone, rise dramatically above the surrounding landscape.  These unique summits were named after French scholar and mineralogist, Deodat de Dolomieu back in the mid-18th century, the first person to discover how this stone differed from limestone.

We had a week to explore the towns and villages dotting the landscape and to do what we love best, hike, beneath dazzling light-gray spires, azure sky, and with a lush green carpet at our feet.  We marveled at every turn the beautifully manicured lawns, meadows and fields.  What the cows didn’t take care of, the mowers did.  Flower boxes hung off most window sills, while many buildings and private homes had hand-painted names on them, business branding, words to describe the local landscape, and family surnames.   The entire region was a work of art!

Thanks to friends Frank and Margee, we settled into a timeshare in the village of Santa Cristina, a perfect location for exploring the Dolomites.

Seven out of ten locals speak German as their first language and many wish they were part of Austria.  Signs and literature in the province are written in both German and Italian.  Some of the local elders in the villages still speak in the ancient Roman language of Ladin.

Even with a week, we couldn’t begin to explore the entire province.  This is what we managed:

2.  Castelrotto

Italy is known as the land of 1,000 bell towers and this village seems to subscribe to the theory “bigger is better”, as their tower dominates the town’s scenery.  Only 5% of the locals are native Italian-speaking and most know their town by the German name of “Kastelruth”.  Murals on several of the town’s buildings speak to its 1,000 year history.

3.  Bolzano

Gateway to the Dolomites, this city of 100,000 boasts a most unusual attraction that drives hordes of tourists to her doorstep, a draw envied by her neighboring country of Austria ~ Ötzi the Iceman.

While hiking in 1991, high in the mountains on the Italian/Austrian border, a German couple stumbled upon an amazing discovery, a corpse, thought to be that of a missing hiker from several years earlier.  What was actually being witnessed was a discovery unlike any other, the corpse of Ötzi the Iceman (found in the Ötztal Alps, ergo the nickname Ötzi), entombed for more than 5,000 years in a glacier. This revelation began a 10-year battle between Austria and Italy for ownership.  Tooth enamel studies showed that he grew up in Italy, ending the battle.

Our main goal in Bolzano was to visit the South Tirol Museum of Archeology and see the actual corpse of Ötzi. Although encased in glass now, it is compelling to see flesh and bone and clothing of someone who walked the earth 5,300 years ago.  An artist’s rendition of what he looked like in life is displayed as well.

After touring the museum we headed to the open-air market, where I had a great time trying to converse with the woman at the pasta counter in Italian.  A typical German lunch at a street-side bistro rounded out our time in Bolzano.

4.  Ortisei

Many of the surrounding towns and villages are connected by walking trails so we decided to get our morning exercise and explore Ortisei, a town where wood carving runs a close second to tourism in its economic vitality. We browsed through the ART52 exhibition, a room given by the township to showcase local artists’ work.  Lots of creative, talented people appear to live here.

5.  Sterzing (Northern Italy)

There seem to be ancient castles on every hilltop, some vague images of their former regal selves, while others have been refurbished.  We had read about a castle near the Austrian border that had not been developed for tourism, had changed little since the 15th century, and could be toured.  This sounded intriguing so we booked a tour of Reifenstein Castle, led by Frau Steiner. It is a fascinating medieval castle, one of the best preserved and historically important castles of South Tyrol.  Unfortunately no photos were allowed once inside the castle.

We crossed over into Austria for a typical sausage lunch and stopped to visit a beautiful church in Gries, Austria.

Of all our activities while in the Dolomites, hiking remains my absolute favorite, a memory I will carry with me for some time.  We had perfect weather, allowing us two hiking days up close to these pale giants.  I had dreamt of completing a via ferrata while in Italy, but our location didn’t allow for it so I will just have to save this for another time.  The hikes we did were breathtaking so I have no complaints.

For our first hike, we took the gondola up to Compatsch, where we hiked the Panoramic-Zallinger Hutte Hike.   Stepping off the gondola, I felt the urge to yodel as we stepped onto the Alpe di Siusi, Europe’s largest alpine meadow, where we were surrounded by 360º views of the Dolomites and the sound of cow bells clanging.  This trail followed alpine meadows, dropped down into deep woods, and traversed high valleys dotted with huts, one of which we stopped at for tea and apple strudel…oh so yummy!

Our second hike found us on yet another gondola from Col Raiser, where we hiked for miles before arriving at Seceda, with stunning views across the entire Dolomite range. The Alpe di Siusi lay before us, dotted with huts and hotels, one of which we stopped at during our hike, for a lunch of local cheeses and breads.

We will never be able to choose one favorite location during this European trip, but the Dolomites will most likely rise near the top.

Next Up: Venice

En Route to the Dolomites ~ A Photo Post

As we left Chamonix, car pointed once again towards the Alps, we entered the 7-mile Mont Blanc tunnel.  Beyond the tunnel we arrived in Italy, a new country for us, one dotted with vineyards clinging to the hills and ancient castles perched above.  We planned for a 2-night stay somewhere between the French border and the craggy Dolomite peaks and along the way discovered Italy’s largest lake – Lake Garda.  With many small villages dotting the shore of this lake, we chose Bardolino for our 2-night stay, originally a bustling fishing village dating back to the year 1000, now known for its nightlife, food and wine.

Before we left for Europe we’d made reservations in larger cities but hoped to be spontaneous beyond that.  It appears that the shoulder season of September and October in both France and Italy have been discovered as an ideal time to visit, as impromptu hotel stays are more difficult to find than we had read.  Luckily we were able to snag two rooms in Bardolino, although in separate hotels, but friends Frank and Margee were within a block of where we were booked.

The layout of Bardolino is a bit unusual but makes perfect sense once you understand their logic.  Houses were built one behind the other beginning at the shoreline.  The streets run perpendicular to the coast, which permitted safe and easy access for the fishing boats to be transported down to the water.

Verona was nearby, known throughout Shakespearean verse as the “city of eternal love”.  Since it was an easy day trip, we decided to see what all the fuss was about.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it draws poets, painters, and romantics for its various styles, Roman origins, magnificent Renaissance palaces, and the walled heart of the city.  This is where the house of Juliet (of Romeo and Juliet) is said to be based, although many skeptics dispute this.  The ancient amphitheater, whose walls still stand, is visited by tourists around the world.  We opted out as we knew Rome was in our future.

For us the Sant’Anastasia church and the Duomo were the highlights of the day in Verona, as well as the walk along the Adige River.  Beyond this we found Verona to be very crowded, touristy, and loaded with high-end boutique shops.

The mountains were calling us once again.

Next Up:  Back in the Alps, Italian-style

Above the Clouds in the French Alps ~ Chamonix

On a rainy day we left Beaune for Annecy, where the terrain along the way changed from fields and rolling hills to forest-covered mountains and cascading waterfalls.  There was not a room to be found in this crowded, difficult to navigate city and we were becoming a bit concerned this might be the case in Chamonix as well (our next planned stop).

I quickly got online and grabbed the last two rooms at Le Faucigny Hotel in Chamonix, perhaps two of the few remaining rooms to be found in the town.  Seems our lack of luck in Annecy was to be our good fortune in Chamonix, as we had the most amazing experience above the clouds in this little town.  Le Faucigny was a beautiful little boutique hotel with a Scandinavian feel.  A scrumptious breakfast spread was laid out each morning, with tea and cakes served in the afternoon.

Chamonix, the largest of five villages at the base of Mont Blanc, is the sister city to Aspen, CO.  We had researched hikes earlier so knew which trails we hoped to explore.  Since our first day in Chamonix was a bit overcast, we decided to stroll the town, do the Riverbank Walk, and visit the tourist information office for hiking maps and info on the gondolas and lifts.

All hikes we were interested in required a lift up into the mountains.  Sadly, two of the lifts and the cogwheel train had already closed for the season, so strike two hikes off our list.  But the Aiguille du Midi lift, one of Europe’s most popular, was still running.  All hope was not lost.🙂

Refuge at P
Refuge Plan de l’Aiguille, along our hike, serves up great meals and knockout views on the patio.

Before leaving on our European adventure we had read about a gondola ride from Chamonix over to Helbronner Point, an Italian border station.  In a gondola built for four, you glide silently for 40 minutes over glaciers and snow-capped peaks into Italy.  It sounded fabulous but unfortunately this lift had closed the previous week due to an “incident”.  And we learned that incidents of this nature are not so uncommon.  It seemed that high winds crossed the cables, stranding 110 people over the glacier.  French and Italian workers were able to rescue all but 33, who spent a cold night dangling over the mountains.  Yikes!

The next day still looked a bit grey but the sun was shining above the clouds so we walked to the gondola and purchased tickets.  Our plan was to get off the lift midway and switch to another gondola that took us up to the tower at Aiguille du Midi, 12,6oo feet above the floor of the valley.

Drop-dead gorgeous scenery enveloped us as we stepped off the gondola, high above the clouds.  Stately Mount Blanc, standing at 15,771′, was on display, as well as the Swiss Matterhorn in the distance.  We could see Chamonix far below, as well as Plan l’Aiguille du Midi, halfway down the mountain.

Once we breathed in the views from the platform we hurried over to the Pas dans de Vidi, where we “stepped into the void”.  Stepping into a 5-sided glass case, and looking down into the abyss, 3,000′ of snowy emptiness greets you.  I loved it!  

The glacier as seen from Le Signal
The glacier as seen from Le Signal

From here it was back into the gondola, where we glided halfway down the mountain to Plan l’Aiguille du Midi, hopped on the Grand Balcon Nord trail to Le Signal, overlooking a beautiful glacier and more heart stopping views.  Along the way we heard a noise like a small jet and saw a very fast-moving object zip by us, a base jumper.  He looked like a giant orange flying squirrel doing a fly by as he rapidly headed to the fields of Chamonix far below.  This past June we learned that a man flying solo died before he made it to the landing field, when he flew into bad weather.

Our time in Chamonix was marked by so many remarkable moments.  Terry and I both agreed that this would be an area to visit again, as the hiking trails are so abundant, many at higher elevations.  We soaked in some of the most exhilarating views we have ever experienced.