Thursday, February 7, 2013

Girls' Weekend in Venice, or A Post Guaranteed to Make Julia Green with Envy

Tyler went to the US for nearly two weeks in January. To forestall myself from staying in the apartment alone the entire time, I scheduled a weekend trip in the middle of his absence--to Venice! The trip was my friend Katie's brainchild--I wouldn't have had the energy to make it happen without her gentle prodding--and our friend Mirjam came along, too.

This is the neighborhood where we stayed:

This palace is right next to the vaporetto (water bus) stop nearest our apartment.


We saw intricate stonework with surprising details like this all over the city.

Notice two pairs of lions, one supporting and one perched on this balcony.
Not pictured, but among the best features of our location: Grom, Tyler's and my favorite gelateria in Europe (and probably in the world), has a shop just around the corner.

Most of what we did in the nearly three days we were there was walk around and gawk at the exteriors of things. This is clearly the most important thing to do in Venice, since the canals are on the exteriors of things. (Most of the time. Luckily, there was no flooding while we were there.) But, since we had Katie with us, and Katie is both inquisitive and brave, we got to see some impressive interiors, too. Most notably this one:



That's the Hotel Danieli, where the three of us all aspire to stay one day when we're rich and famous. We stumbled upon it while walking through the nearly empty city on Friday night. It was built in the 14th century, during the days of the glory of the Republic of Venice, and it really shows why they call these buildings "palazzi." In January, the lowest point of the low season, it costs 300 euros a night to stay in the Danieli's simplest room. (Which is still beautiful. Again thanks to Katie, we got to see one.) In May, it's more than twice that.

Saturday dawned clear and gorgeous. We set out (many hours after the dawn) by vaporetto on the Grand Canal.

The boat heading toward the camera is a vaporetto.
Mirjam and Katie on the boat.
Stripy poles in the Grand Canal.
I was shocked by the beautiful blue-green color of the water. I was expecting brown. But of course, this water does come from the Mediterranean, and the Mediterranean doesn't do brown.


Very proud of this picture. The church is called San Salute.
Gondolas and San Salute, another of my best photographic efforts.
At the end of the Grand Canal: St. Mark's Square, the drawing room of all Europe!


I LOVED St. Mark's. It is the best major church I've seen, hands down. Unique roofline, excellent state of repair, extremely high level of fanciness on both the outside and inside. When I go back to Venice I will pay to take the tour, to climb the terrace, and to go into the apse. This time I contented myself with taking the free walk-through at a glacial pace.



The interior is covered with golden mosaics in styles spanning several centuries. The floor is tessellated marble in endlessly varying patterns. The floor is also notable for its extreme unevenness--it's a series of hills and valleys. I guess that's what happens when you put a building that heavy in a swamp.

Astronomical clock in St. Mark's Square.
Gates to the campanile, sadly closed due to December's flooding.
I had to get pictures from all sides.
When I could tear myself away from St. Mark's (Katie and Mirjam were very patient with me) we went to get a look at the Bridge of Sighs.


Then we boarded another vaporetto to cross to...


San Giorgio Maggiore!


The most important thing about San Giorgio is that it has a tower to climb and is perfectly located for views from that tower. A very nice thing about this particular tower, especially if you're seven months pregnant, is that you don't actually have to climb it--there's an elevator! Unprecedented!

Western view
St. Mark's Square from San Giorgio
It was very cold up in the tower. Pretty soon we crossed back over to go in search of lunch. On the way (on the previously unphotographed side of of St. Mark's) I found a friend.


After eating and wandering a bit more we crossed the Grand Canal to go to the Guggenheim Collection. The collection, most of which was purchased by Peggy Guggenheim herself, is housed in her home. One of the museum's best features is her eclectic sculpture garden, where she is buried alongside her 14 Lhasa Apso dogs.

The dog's marker is a bit hard to read. At the top it says, "Here lie my beloved babies." Though many of the dogs had excellent names, my favorite is probably Sir Herbert.

On Sunday we headed out to see some of the other islands in the lagoon. We had to wander a while to find the vaporetto stop, so we saw a bit of a neighborhood we hadn't been to before. There were several teams of rowers out on the canals in matching outfits, yet they didn't look especially practiced--we saw several people nearly lose their balance and fall in.


Our first stop on our trip out into the lagoon was the cemetery island. It was converted into a cemetery during Napoleonic rule of Venice. Napoleon may have been the loathed conqueror of the proud Republic of Venice, but at least he had the sense to recognize that the Venetians' practice of burying their dead on the tiny islands where they lived was highly unsanitary. We saw the graves of lots of Venetians with pretty names and also of two famous people: Sergei Diaghilev (whose grave was adorned with ballet shoe offerings) and Igor Stravinsky.

View from the cemetery vaporetto stop. Pictures weren't allowed inside. Murano is in the background.
Once we found our way out of the maze of graves we caught a boat to Murano. This was my least favorite of the islands. We walked down the main canal from one boat stop to another and saw essentially nothing but glass shops. The buildings were neither as grand as those in Venice itself nor are cute as those on Burano. If you want to find the nicest glass stuff (some of the wares we saw in shop windows were quite remarkable) then Murano is the place to go; otherwise, skip it.

I shouldn't say that glass shops were all there was to see--there was also this charming lighthouse right next to the vaporetto stop from which we departed the island.

Definitely my favorite building on Murano.
Burano, though, was truly worth seeing. It has the feel of a normal little town (at least in January, when it was pretty much free of tourists)--not a wealthy or fancy place, but lived-in and pleasant. What makes it unusual is its wild and crazy paint job.


According to our hostess (who is American, but got her information from her "very Venetian" old lady neighbor) the houses are painted this way because Burano is (was) a fishing village, and the bright colors helped the fisherpersons navigate back to their houses in the thick lagoon fog.






Leaning tower of Burano!

Stoplight houses
We managed to walk around the whole island between one boat departure and the next. I would have gladly stayed longer, but by this time it was wickedly cold, and getting into the heated boat was a welcome respite. We made one last little hop on our outward journey to Torcello, the island "where Venice began," to quote our hostess again. Torcello was first settled in the fifth century, and was for 500 years or so the most populated and richest of the islands. When the water around the island filled up with sediment and turned into a swamp, the people packed up and moved to other islands, primarily Venice. They took down most of the buildings on Torcello so they could reuse the materials, so Torcello today is oddly, almost eerily empty. There are four historic buildings left: two churches and two palaces. We tried to go into the seventh-century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, but as it was closing soon the mean lady at the ticket counter wouldn't let us have the audio guide. So instead of looking at the Byzantine mosaics we hoofed it back across the island to catch the earlier boat.


Creepy sculpture garden/vineyard
And that was pretty much it. The amazingly good weather finally broke while we were at dinner that night, so we spent just an hour or so walking around in the rain before heading back to the apartment. In the morning we made our way back to Aachen in a series of well coordinated vehicles: vaporetto to shuttle, shuttle to plane, plane to shuttle, home. The tiny size of the airports we flew through (Treviso and Maastricht-Aachen) meant that check-in and baggage claim took almost no time, so the trip was remarkably efficient.

Venice, like Prague, Santorini, and Cinque Terre, was a place that I had seen a lot of pictures of before going there. I'd even seen movies shot there. And yet I still spent the whole trip thinking, "I didn't know it would look like THIS." It's pretty much impossible to make your brain understand how beautiful it will be until you're in the middle of it. Julia: you'll get there. I recommend going in January some year. In the meantime, eat your heart out over this blog post! ;)

Rialto Bridge by night

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The RED Tour

In a post that will chronicle a few assorted adventures in reverse chronological order (to make the acronym fit), I'm going to summarize our RED tour: the Rhein, the Eifel, and the Dom in Aachen. These all happened in September and October 2012 (we are terribly behind) when the weather in Aachen was still fair-to-great and immediately after our two week tour of Germany.

R is for RHEIN:

I'm looking at these photographs taken in mid-October with my mouth agape--the Rhein valley is SO gorgeous. This river cruise was another perk of being part of the Humboldt network--they brought many Humbolditians from around Bonn for a Saturday tour of the best of Bonn (and environs). The fall colors were just barely past their prime, but still breathtaking, made even better by the rugged hills on the east side of the river.


Seeing the castles atop the colored hills is certainly one of the highlights of my time in Germany. It's hard to beat castles on the Rhein on a perfect fall day:



At the end of our river cruise, we went to Drachenfels, the ruins of a castle on a hill just south of Bonn. The place offers excellent views of the whole Rhein area, and on clear days one can see the cathedral in Cologne, some 30+ km away. On the hilltop we managed to get a photo of us, together, for the first time in a while. (Also, the first picture of us with a really visible Sara Baby Belly.)


Having descended the hill, we took a (Humboldt-sponsored) guided tour of the palace Drachenburg, something we'd wanted to do since we visited there over a year prior when we were still German language students living in Bonn. We didn't take a tour at the time because they were only offered in German and our German was certainly not at that level, but Humboldt to the rescue! they arranged a behind-the-scenes, all access tour for us. I won't recap the whole experience (since we already wrote about it here), but there was one room we really wanted to visit that we couldn't the time before: the music room. This time we got to go in, which was really exciting because it has an organ. (I'm a sucker for chasing organs around Europe.) The funny thing about this organ is that it's a fake organ. It is, in fact, just the facade of an organ, placed in the room only as a very impressive decoration for guests. On top of that, the host (named Mr. Spinat, which our tour guide emphasized means Mr. Spinach) would "play" this fake organ for his guests, something of a organist/Milli Vanilli combo. Totally crazy, yet fantastic.


After the palace tour we went to a winery (surprise! Humboldt loves to take us to wineries) for a rather fun and tasty evening in the cellar. However, my favorite was the color-changing ivy on the stone outside. Fall in the Rhein area of Germany is absolutely gorgeous.


E is for EIFEL:

This year I turned 30 years old. While normally a cause for celebration--or at least a good send off party--this year we were on day two of our two week tour of Germany. Since we didn't really know anybody and didn't know the city we were in (I think we were maybe in Munich, but I'm not sure), we didn't really make much of it. To compensate, we rented a party house in the Eifel national park (just south of Aachen) and invited some 10 other people there for a mid-week getaway in early October. (October 3rd is the day of German unification, a national holiday, so we timed it just right.) The house was really large and perfectly suited to the 8 adults and 5 children there, with a small farm and play area just outside the door. The aesthetic highlight, though, was our "hike" in the forest. While not strenuous (see: 5 children), it was quite picturesque, with the leaves really changing and a reservoir alongside the trail.


Here is the Stapleton family, a favorite of ours in Aachen, hiking along the trail. (Except Timmy, who is clearly riding, and Aaron, who appears to be being dragged.)


And the rocks and the trees were just right. It was nice to just walk in nature for a little while, especially for us city folk.



D is for DOM:

Lastly, in early September the semi-annual meeting of the CHARISMA organization (an EU consortium which partly funds the cultural heritage research that I'm working on) was held in Aachen. As part of that meeting which I helped organize, we made arrangements to have a private tour of the Dom (the cathedral) of Aachen by a Dom historian. Not only that, but we got to climb into the rafters and topmost parts of the church which are normally inaccessible to the public. It happened to be a beautiful Friday afternoon that was perfect for taking pictures of our town. This is a westward view of Aachen from the Dom--the church in the background is the Jakobskirche, the spire of which we can see from our living room window.


And here is an eastward view of the city. The round building in the middle is the largest and most famous fountain in Aachen, the Elisenbrunnen. It has sulfurous water that can really make a stink in the summer.


Here is a northward view of the hills behind Aachen and the Rathaus (city hall).


A close up of a tower of the Rathaus.


And an artistic shot of the three different roofs that, all connected, form the iconic silhouette of the Aachen cathedral. This silhouette has really come to feel like a symbol of home for us here.


A bonus photo for those interested in the religious history of the cathedral: the Aachener Dom is a site for pilgrimages. Every seven years some fancy relics are brought out on display and loads of people come for a visit. (The next exhibition is in 2014.) Back in the day, before crowd control and things of that nature, the city/church did what it could to maximize visibility of the relics: they hung them out these windows of the church (now the little red door you see below). They would cover them with a shroud at night, then, during the day, the shroud would be removed for worship from all across the city. There were ordinances preventing the construction of buildings that would obscure sight of a given relic for some years. I don't know how long that lasted, but it's nice that it's all kept indoors these days. Also, the expansion of the cathedral itself would prevent sight of some of the relics' windows nowadays, something of a failure in planning I would say.


After well over a year of living in Germany, we've realized that it really feels like home. It's things like these--the Rhein, the Eifel, and Aachen's stunning cathedral--that help me see in part why we like this place so much now.