Medici

Everybody who was anybody in Italy in the Middle Ages seems to have been in Florence at the beginning of the Renaissance. Every time you turn a corner you can sense two thousand years of footsteps and imagine what it might have been like to live here as history unfolded around you.

I loved the walking tour that Christine, our Airbnb host and tour guide, gave on Sunday morning. For two hours she walked us through the streets of Florence, doling out tidbits of history and making me want to learn more — starting with the Medici. No tour of Florence can happen without learning about this family who ruled Florence for 300 years and whose wealth basically financed the Italian Renaissance.

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The Basilica di San Lorenzo in the heart of Florence’s market district

We started the tour at the Basilica di San Lorenzo. It claims to be the oldest church in Florence, consecrated in 393. This very ancient church was in bad condition at the time of Medici patriarch Giovanni Bicci de’ Medici (1360-1429), a self-made wealthy Florentine banker. But this was his parish church, so he used some of his fortune to hire famous architect Filippo Brunelleschi to design a replacement. He was also thinking about a beautiful burial place for members of his family, and in fact most of the Medici dynasty are buried here. It features a rough-hewn exterior which was supposed to be covered by a spectacular façade designed by Michelangelo, but due to lack of funds and other complications, the decorative covering was never added.

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Medici Riccardi Palace

Just a block away from the Basilica di San Lorenzo stands the Medici Riccardi Palace, the home of Cosimo the Elder (1389-1464), son of Giovanni de’ Bicci. It is designed in what was a very modern style for the time, with the ground floor exterior made of rough stone, the second floor a little smoother, and the top floor made of smooth stone. Other Florentine nobility rushed to have their own homes built to imitate this style.

We walked from the Medici Riccardi Palace past the grand Cathedral of Florence, and Christine stopped us there to tell us some of the history of the cathedral and its dome. I’ll talk more about that in the next post, to keep this one from being too long…next stop, the Museum House of Dante.

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The Museum House of Dante, from http://www.museocasadidante.it.

Dante Aligheri’s actual house is no more, but in 1965 the city of Florence constructed this replica of a medieval house near to the actual place where they think Dante was born in 1265, and lived until his politics caused his exile in 1302. He wrote in Italian, instead of Latin, making his work accessible to people in their own language, and his work is said to be the bridge between the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance.

One of the most interesting things to me about the Museum House of Dante is the tower that you can see on the right. It’s actually much shorter now than it would have been during Dante’s time. Christine explained that in this era, wealthy Florentine families (think Medici, as well) would attack and even kill each other, including members of their own families, to consolidate their power. They built at least one tower attached to their residences as an emergency shelter. There was no entrance on ground level and windows were tiny or non-existent. The family would enter the tower using a staircase on the first floor of their main residence. In the Middle Ages, there were nearly 150 tower houses in Florence, some almost 70 meters high. Today, most of them have been absorbed by other buildings.

Palazzo Vecchio

The Palazzo Vecchio, in the Piazza della Signoria

Not far from Dante’s museum is the Palazzo Vecchio, historically the seat of Florentine government and beginning in 1540, the residence of Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519 – 1574), a Cosimo from a different branch of the family who became Duke when his relative Alessandro de’ Medici was assasinated at the age of 26. The tower contains two small prison cells, at one time incarcerating Cosimo the Elder, and later in the 15th Century, Savanarola. Besides now being one of the most fascinating museums in Florence, it it still houses the mayor and council of the city. At the entrance is a copy of Michelangelo’s David, in case you don’t have a chance to see the original in the Accademia Gallery. On the right you can see the Loggia dei Lanzi, formerly a place to hold town meetings. When Cosimo I became the absolute ruler of Florence, according to Christine, he did away with town meetings and filled the loggia with famous sculptures.

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Site of a terrorist bombing, Florence, 1993, by the Sicilian Cosa Nostra Mafia

Violence in Florence wasn’t limited to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Christine told us the story of this home near the Uffizi Gallery, where a family was killed by a Mafia bomb in 1993. An olive tree, the symbol of peace, was planted on the site where the bomb was detonated. You can read more about it here.

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Uffizi Gallery courtyard, getting set up for the late evening movie

Speaking of the Uffizi Gallery, here we are in the courtyard, with the Gallery on each side. Building of the Uffizi was begun in 1560 by Cosimo I de’ Medici, to be used as offices (Italian “uffici”) for Florentine magistrates. The family had a gallery on the upper floor, which was gifted to the city of Florence by Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, the last Medici heiress. In 1765 it was officially opened to the public, formally becoming a museum in 1865. It houses treasures by Michelangelo, da Vinci, and other priceless works of the Italian Renaissance. If you want to go, be sure and buy tickets in advance before you leave home, as it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe.

In the center of the photo, they are setting up an outdoor theater for that evening’s free showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. I thought it would be fun to go, kind of like the movie we saw with Monika in Varese the week before. It would have required a late night walk, though…about 45 minutes from our apartment to the Gallery courtyard. Christine reassured me that it would be safe. “I walk a lot in Florence at night,” she said. “It’s very safe.” In the end, the girls didn’t want to go, and I spent the evening planning another outing I hoped they would like.

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Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River

One of the most famous sites of Florence is the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge over the Arno River that dates back to Roman times and is lined with jewelry shops on each side. The current bridge was built during the Renaissance, after two previous bridges had been swept away during floods. The bridge suffered major flood damage again in 1966, when 101 people lost their lives and millions of dollars worth of rare books and art were destroyed.

Medici influence? In 1550, Cosimo I purchased the Pitti Palace, on the opposite side of the Arno River from his residence at Palazzo Vecchio. He built a corridor (part of the Vasari Corridor) above the shops so the family could walk safely between his two palaces. At the time, the shops on the bridge were owned by butchers, but Cosimo ordered the butchers to leave because he didn’t like the smell. Goldsmiths took their place and remain to this day. The entire Vasari Corridor connects the Pitti Palace to the Palazzo Vecchio, including part of the Uffizi Gallery, and contains over 1000 works of art. You can tour the Corridor, but you have to buy tickets in advance.

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Piazza della Repubblica

Our tour ended at the Piazza della Repubblica, one of the main squares of Florence that has been the city center since the time of the Romans. The Column of Abundance, in the center of the photo, marks the place where the Roman forum stood. The piazza used to be densely populated with medieval towers, homes, workshops, churches, and original seats of some of the guilds, but when Florence was tapped to be the capital of Italy after the Revolution of 1865, the piazza was emptied and the buildings were destroyed in an effort to “clean up” the city.

If you love history, and all the human drama, innovation, tragedy, and hope that goes with it, Florence is the place. The place. You could spend years here and not see everything. So…another visit to Florence may be necessary, very soon.

And there are still Medici descendants in Rome and Tuscany.

And they still don’t get along very well.

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Italian Taxis and Tips

Cathedral of Florence

Megan is dwarfed by the huge Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, now just called the Cathedral of Florence

 

I remember reading Dan Brown’s Inferno, and trying to imagine the sights of Florence as he’s saving the world again. The Boboli Gardens, Palazzo Vecchio, the Gates of Paradise on the Baptistry of the Cathedral of Florence — it’s all here, and it is beautiful.

Florence — just the name of the city looms large and imposing, with its vast and impressive history, art and architecture. But it would have to wait a day, because we just didn’t have the energy to do much when we arrived that afternoon on the train from Pisa. Sara’s mom had suggested we take a taxi to our room, so after looking in vain for a map/schedule/ANYTHING referring to a bus or local train that would get us close to our room, we went on a hunt for the taxi stand.

Taxis outside of Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence.

Taxis wait outside Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence. Image from florencewebguide.com

The main train station in Florence, Santa Maria Novella, is in the city center, very near the historic district where cars are not allowed. It isn’t huge, but we still had a little trouble finding the taxis. There were 10-20 white Italian taxis waiting in clump, in order of priority known only to the drivers, to pick up fares. We ended up with a friendly and helpful driver who listened to me say the address with my apparently pretty thick English accent, but he knew exactly where to go.

In the days that followed, we walked from our apartment to the train station myriad times, and I’m not quite sure that taxi driver didn’t take us for a little ride to pad the charges a bit. Oh, well, it was our first and only Italian taxi ride, and it was worth ten euros because we were all exhausted. He also looked puzzled when I tried to give him a tip, so I didn’t.

As we ate our way through Italy at various restaurants good and mediocre, I tried to understand the tipping culture in Italy, and I think it is simply this: you don’t have to tip. As far as I could understand, Italians don’t tip as a rule unless the service and food are stellar and you are at a really nice place. One website also encouraged tourists not to tip, because it might become expected, like it is in the States. But once I realized there was a service charge added to each restaurant meal, I didn’t feel so bad about not tipping. If your tipping experience was different, please leave a comment below! It’s a puzzling topic, how to tip when you are abroad.

coop

Inside the Coop supermarket. Image from Rachel’s blog at smallnotebook.org

After we dropped off our luggage, we walked to the closest grocery store and bought some items we could cook in our apartment. The name of the store (a nationwide chain)  is Coop, which I can’t help but pronounce co-op…like a co-operative. Italians pronounce it coop, like a chicken coop. The girls pounced on me every time I said, “Let’s go to the Co-op,” but I’m sorry, some things will just sound funny to me for the rest of my life.

There are just a few things to know about grocery shopping in Italy. One, yes, there are large supermarkets like this one, and also smaller grocery stores. There are also fresh air markets, only open in the mornings, and also individual vendors pulling out a traveling display on a street corner. Two, never handle the produce if you are at a market! When you see what you want, ask the vendor to bag it up for you. If you are at a supermarket, use the plastic gloves that are provided before you touch the produce. Three, you can rent a cart for one euro deposit, or you can use the little wheelie baskets for free if you aren’t buying much. Four, Bring Your Own Bags! Even the little plastic bags we take for granted here in the U. S. cost money at the check out lane. We came back to the U.S. with a delightful assortment of canvas grocery bags (which I fully intend to use here at home if I can ever remember to take them with me to the store) because we could never remember to bring the one we bought the last time we shopped.

A long day, starting with the trip to Pisa we took this morning. Tomorrow I am taking a walking tour with our Airbnb host, Christine, who says she is an official Tour Guide of Florence. I can’t wait to see the history of this fascinating city come alive, even more that it did on the pages of a book.

 

 

Sara

Sara and Megan

Another day, another train – this trip a series of four regional trains that will take us to the town of Rosignano, where Sara lives.

Sara stayed with us three years ago, when she came to America (which seems to be the preferred way to call the United States) as a Rotary Exchange student. She did a year at our high school while Megan was finishing her last year there, and the two girls are still good friends.

Sara and her parents met us at the train station, and there were tears and hugs all around. Daniele, Sara’s dad, drove us back to their home where we were told to put on our swimsuits and join them at the pool…they had just finished turning their back yard into a lovely pool area and deck. After a game of king-of-the-hill with a giant inflatable unicorn, we sat on the terrace and ate gnocchi with pasta sauce and Daniele’s braised tuna steaks, which were delicious, like all the food we have had here so far.

Rosignano is a beautiful seaside town, and though the weather was beautiful, we could tell that we were moving farther south…a little bit hotter. The next morning, we piled into the car with Simona while Daniele was at work, and drove downtown to see the stylist who does Sara’s and Simona’s hair. Megan has the tips of her hair dyed blue, then slowly turning green, so she decided it was time to cut it off…and what better place than Italy? The stylist did a beautiful job, and Megan was happy.

Megan gets her hair cut at il parrucchiere

That afternoon, Daniele came home from work and drove us all to Pisa, about 45 minutes away down an autostrada that had Daniele using all the Italian gestures we have come to know and love. I asked a grammar question that had Daniele and Simona arguing for about 5 minutes, while Sara just shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

Sara and Megan by the Torre di Pisa

Yes…the leaning tower is worth a visit! It sits in a lovely piazza, and was intended to be the bell tower to Pisa’s duomo and baptistry. Unless Sara’s family had taken us there, we would not have had time to see it (on this trip…)

The tower was built over 200 years, starting in 1173. It started tilting when the second floor was begun, five years later, because the foundation was not deep enough and the subsoil was weak and unstable. Construction was stopped for a while so that Pisa could go to war with Florence, Lucca and Genoa. This was actually a good thing for the tower, because it allowed the base to settle. Otherwise, the tower would have probably collapsed.

In 1272, construction began again. The tower has a slight curve to it, because engineers actually built the upper floors with one side taller than the other to compensate for the tilt. Construction was halted again when the Pisans went back to war with the Genoans and lost. The tower was finally finished in 1372 with the addition of the bell tower. There have been efforts made even into modern times to stabilize the tower, but the tilt was left because it was good for tourism.

More war history… In WWII, the Allies suspected that the Germans might be using the tower as an observation post. The U.S. Army sergeant sent to confirm this was struck by the beauty of the cathedral and tower, so he refrained from ordering the artillery strike that would have destroyed it.

We said goodbye to Sara and her parents at the Pisa train station where we caught a train for Florence. I’m so happy we were able to see her again, and meet her parents… they made us feel so welcome and appreciated. Maybe we will see them again in a year or two, when they are planning to come to the U.S. in the summer.

And Sara actually leaves for New York next week! The world is so small these days…and with trains, it’s been easy to see it.

Blue Cheese Pizza, Because This Is Italy

The public beach in Laveno at Lago Maggiore, with Sasso del Ferro in the background

Our second day with Monika was really one of the best days we have had on our trip so far. Of course she knew all the little out-of-the-way places that we would have never found on our own, which made our day with her even more special.

I can’t really even remember which towns we visited. Monika said to put our swimsuits on under our clothes, so we did. We piled into her little Renault and whizzed up and down the mountains, down narrow one-lane streets and budged our way through roundabouts until I was totally confused.

I think first we went to the larger town of Varese, where Monika wanted to rent bikes and go for a ride along the lake shore. But at 11:00 am, the bike shop was closed.

I have gotten used to tourists and locals shrugging at both major and minor inconveniences and muttering, “This is Italy.”

So we walked along the bike path for a ways, discussing the Italian and English words for raspberry (lampone), blackberry (mora) and gooseberry (uva spina), all of which, I think, we saw growing along the path. Even in the north of Italy, where it snows in the winter, there are palm trees.

Traveling down the funivia on Sasso del Ferro, in Laveno

Back into the car for a trip to Laveno, a small town on the shore of Lago Maggiore. Monika wanted to take us up the cableway (funivia) to the top of Sasso del Ferro (Iron Stone). It was somewhat nervewracking, standing in little two-person open baskets and ascending ten minutes up a steep mountainside, but…totally worth it.

At the top, there is a restaurant and hotel, with a balcony where you can see the snow-capped Italian Alps to the north. If the sky is clear, they say you can see the spires of Milan Cathedral 48 miles to the south. There was a launch pad for hang gliders, with a blue and white hang glider patiently waiting nearby for its next flight. On the other side of the peak was a place for parasailers to jump off the mountain. Monika told us that when Jody was little, she worked here as a waitress for about four years.

We walked around the gift shop where we sat on a bench in the shade and ate the sandwiches we’d brought. As we were eating, two men hooked themselves up to the hang glider and proceeded to jump off the mountain…amazing to see!

Ready to fly

Good conditions for soaring

When we went back to the cableway to go back down, the attendant asked to see our tickets again. Monika was puzzled. “Why would someone pay to go up, without also paying to go back down?” she asked, shaking her head. This…is…Italy?

After a late lunch at the top of Sasso del Ferro, it was time for another whirlwind journey through the streets of Laveno until we arrived at the beach. Swimming on the beach at Lago Maggiore…it doesn’t get much better than that. But if you’ve ever been up close and personal with a swan, it was also a little unnerving.

My new friend

After swimming, we ate outside at a lakeside restaurant where the food was delicious as always. I ordered a wonderful speck and gorgonzola pizza. Speck is a delicious paper-thin sandwich meat, kind of a cross between ham and bacon. Monika asked me if I could buy gorgonzola in Iowa. I said we could find it in larger stores, but that I usually buy blue cheese. She wrinkled her nose in disgust.

The outdoor theater in Varese

Monika had one more place to take us. We drove to Varese again, a town of around 80,000 that is the urban center for the area. They were showing Isle of Dogs at an open air theater, so we sat on plastic chairs under a canopy with maybe 200 other people, waiting for the sun to completely disappear behind the mountains so the show could start. Erin, Megan and I were kind of hoping beyond hope that it would be in English with Italian subtitles…but no. My Italian is not good enough to listen to movie dialogue with any kind of comprehension, so halfway through I just kind of closed my eyes and dozed.

Back to Monika’s house where we crashed, knowing we would be leaving on the train in the morning and not really wanting to go. Lots of hugging and air kisses, a few tears, and a promise to Skype again soon.

I’m actually getting a tiny bit homesick, and we have a week and a half to go. But as much as I am missing things like ice, clothes dryers, and screens on windows, I know that I will come and visit Monika again someday. She is a wonderful person and a good friend. As for the rest, well, I will be back because…this is Italy.

Nonna’s Ragù

View of Laveno and Lago Maggiore from the Cableway

Being from a small Iowa town, I don’t think I will ever get used to the way life goes on in a big city. So with some relief, we relegate Munich, Vienna, and Venice with all her island children to memory and head west to visit my friend Monika in the small mountain town of Orino.

Riding Italian trains is maybe not as easy as some might lead you to believe. When you don’t have a car, part of the trick is getting to the station, where you find your departure from a list, like at an airport. The number of the platform, or “binario,” where you are to meet your train will hopefully pop onto the screen in time for you to make it there before your train does. If your regional train is running behind, you had better be waiting for it on the platform because you will have a total of about a minute or less to get all your stuff on board before it takes off again. High-speed trains are usually waiting on the platform for a while and boarding is much less stressful.

We took a high-speed Frecciarossa train from Mestre to Milan, about two hours or so. At Milano Centrale, we went down two flights of stairs to the Metro station where we had to buy tickets from a finicky vending machine to ride three stops to another train station. From there, we caught a regional train that took us north to the beautiful lake district where Monika lives.

(I bought almost all of our train tickets online before we left home on a fantastic website called trainline.com. I thought the prices were good, and if there was an upchargefor the service, it is totally worth it.)

The area is sprinkled with little towns that hug the hillsides and in a way make one big town around the shores of the lakes…Lago Maggiore, Lago Como, and the smaller Lago Varese. Orino is a tiny town of 300, and Monika lives in a little two-bedroom apartment at the top of a winding staircase with her son, Jody, who is around 23, and her cat, Galileo, who does not much like company and only made one short appearance while we were there.

We sat around the table in the afternoon and talked for a bit while we had some of Monika’s delicious apple torte. She had a vase of gorgeous flowers on the table – white lilies and huge blue and pink hydrangeas. After a bit, Monika put a slice of cake in a sack and asked if we wanted to go for a walk. We went to visit an elderly woman who lived in a small house up the hill surrounded by flowers of all shapes and colors. She had given Monika the flowers the day before. She was thrilled to have the cake, and it just reminded me of home…small towns and friendly people who care for each other.

Jody’s girlfriend, Lucrezia, joined us for dinner and we made potato gnocchi with Jody’s grandmother’s (Nonna’s) homemade ragù. “She makes it with too much oil and butter,” Monika said, as she thawed the ragù in the microwave, drained off the liquid, and added tomato sauce. So much for nonnas everywhere and their mastery of the Italian kitchen.

The meal was delightfully Italian, with bite-sized pieces of parmesan hacked from a chunk as big as a loaf of bread as an appetizer as we cooked the gnocchi. We just spent the evening talking and eating and drinking wine. I met Monika on a language exchange website, so we are teaching each other Italian and English. The conversation took some crazy turns around the language barrier, but it was fun. Jody also speaks pretty good English, Lucrezia a little, while Erin and Megan have no Italian at all…except for “acqua naturale, per favore.” We managed, and a few times the topic of language itself made for some interesting conversation.

I think small towns might be the same the world over…and language aside, we all have much more in common than we think.

Sparkling Water Does Not Make Good Ice Cubes

I will never, ever complain again about the teenager at the Taco John’s drive through who gives me my soda in a glass filled to the brim with ice. I try to tell myself that ice is better for me than soda…getting my 64 ounces a day. But still.

It’s hard enough to go to a restaurant in Europe, at least in Germany, Austria and Italy, and ask for still water. If you do, the waiter looks at you like you must be from a third world country, and he brings you the tiniest glass bottle of water you have ever seen in your life. Chilled, with a small empty glass.

No ice.

If you forget to make it abundantly clear that you want plain water (stilles Wasser in German, acqua naturale in Italian – yes, we learned these words very quickly), they will assume you want sparkling water.

We do not.

And never, ever ask for tap water. They will look at you like you might also be happy eating a bag of Cheetos for dinner.

Several times, the girls bought a bottle of water in a store, and more often than not found that they had purchased sparkling water by mistake. “Check the color of the cap,” someone told us. “A dark blue cap is sparkling water, a light blue cap is still water,”

Ohhh, okay. But if the bottle cap is green, I guess we are on our own.

One day we ended up with a bottle of sparkling water that I knew we would not be drinking, so in my constant search for ice, I wondered if I could put sparkling water in the tiny trays that pass for ice cube trays here. The answer is…yes, but you will end up with ice cubes that puff like marshmallows and that are impossible to remove from the tray without running it under the faucet…melting them.

Anyway, drinking water, with or without ice isn’t really wise if you are going to be away from your lodging for a while…there are very few public toilets in Europe, and approximately zero that are free, if you can find one.

64 ounces a day will have to wait until I get back home.

Lost at Sea

The main canal in Murano

Faced with the fact that my traveling companions hate walking, we decided to skip walking around Venice for a second day in favor of taking a boat to the islands of Murano and Burano.

We bought a day pass for the public transportation system (which turned out to be an excellent idea) and headed for Piazzale Roma on that wonderful tram.

Megan, my intrepid adventurer daughter, is sometimes impatient with me when I insist on knowing where the bus/train/airplane/boat is going before I board. From the vaporetto station at Piazza San Marco, we followed her onto a boat that she thought was going to Burano, when instead we took a leisurely cruise across the lagoon to Lido – a beautiful 11-mile long island that separates the Venetian lagoon from the Adriatic Sea.

Along the sea side of Venice Lido there are beautiful sand beaches, and in the 19th century, the first beach resorts with grand hotels were built. Europe had never seen anything like it. Wealthy Europeans flocked to Venice Lido, to sunbathe and visit the nearby city. The word “lido” made its way into the English language, and now cruise ships may even have a “lido deck,” where passengers can swim and sunbathe.

Vaporetti come in all sizes, depending on the populariy of the route.

After a return trip to Piazza San Marco, we got on another boat that was going the right direction, but we got off too soon. This time we ended up on a lovely and large island called Cavallino-Treporti, where Megan found a little beach and collected some shells.

Back on the next boat…and ta da, we come to Burano!

A view of Burano from the #12 vaporetto

Burano is a tiny village of around 5,000 people that occupies its own set of small islands and canals. Besides fishing, Burano has a tradition of lace making going back hundreds of years. The houses are all painted in bright candy colors, and it’s a beautiful place to spend a few hours away from the crowds of Venice.

Too bad we were running out of time.

We hopped off the boat on Burano and stayed long enough to take some pictures. There are two routes for the #12 vaporetto out of Burano, and you guessed it, we took the wrong one.

This time we ended up on the grassy and muddy island of Torcello, quiet and largely abandoned now with perhaps a hundred permanent residents. Torcello is where the original inhabitants of the lagoon built their home – Venice 1.0, if you like.

Megan at the vaporetto stop on Torcello

From the 7th to the 11th centuries, Torcello was a thriving community of 20,000 people, until some began moving to what is now Venice, building a new settlement there. Then, malaria and competition from upstart Venice took over and Torcello was largely abandoned and vandalized for building materials. There are still sights worth seeing on Torcello, but for us, we just sat at the vaporetto stop and waited for the…right…boat.

Finally, we docked in Murano, around 6:30 in the evening as most of the shops and restaurants were closing. “We are not like Venice,” I heard one shopkeeper tell another tourist. “We close and go home when the people leave.” Since the girls were STARVING, I left them eating pizza by the boat dock while I walked the main canal, taking pictures and finding a pair of beautiful glass earrings to buy.

Craftsmen on Murano are usually happy to give tours.

Murano had been a fishing port from as early as the 7th century. Venice had a reputation for beautiful glasswork with Asian and Muslim influences, since it was a major trading port. But at the end of the 13th century, Venetian authorities ordered the glassmakers to move to Murano, fearing that the heat and fire of the furnaces might burn the mostly wooden buildings of the city.

Next boat back to Piazzale Roma by way of San Michele, the island that serves as the cemetery for Venice’s population. All in all, about a five or six hour boat trip. The girls were still complaining, even though we found a way to see Venice without making them walk…oh well. I got to see a part of the city that I didn’t get to see the first time, so I was happy.

Hungry, but happy. Gelato on the way home from the tram stop made it all worth it.

Grande Signora

The Grand Canal, Venice

It’s a strange feeling to cross a border in Europe. When you drive from state to state in America (roughly the same distance covered), nothing changes. You have to watch carefully for the “Welcome to Nebraska!” sign to even know you have actually crossed the border.

We took a Flixbus on a nine-hour drive from Vienna to Venice. It sounds awful, but it was actually a nice break for our feet and for my pocketbook. We left Vienna and headed south to Graz, then to Slovenia, driving through Ljubljana. Next stop was Trieste, Italy, then to our apartment in Mestre. From country to country, the scenery didn’t change much (beautiful mountains and valleys and farms) but you could tell from the billboards and signs that you were in a place with a completely different language and history.

Venice has a history that is as unique as the city herself. Around 400 AD, the Germanic hordes swept toward Italy after the fall of the Roman Empire. Inhabitants of the Italian mainland fled to the small islands in the Venetian lagoon, where the barbarians with their lack of ships and seamanship would not follow. Over the centuries, great logs were cut from the mainland and sunk into the mud of the lagoon, building platforms on which the great palaces and cathedrals of this Renaissance powerhouse were constructed.

We stayed in a beautiful airbnb apartment in Mestre, sister city to Venice on the mainland. There is a new tram service from Mestre to Piazzale Roma, the transportation hub in Venice. For 3€ you can get a round trip ticket into Venice – it’s fast and so super-convenient you would hardly guess that you were using Italian mass transit.

The Cathedral of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice

The biggest attraction in Venice is just the city itself. It’s not very big. Someone with a mission, good walking shoes and a MAP(!) could cross the entire city on an hour; the main tourist areas in less than that. We exited the tram and started walking, joining hoards of other tourists wandering around and posing on bridges for selfies.

Erin wanted pasta, so we decided on a cute little restaurant advertising a special for 11€. Megan ordered penne with a rich salmon sauce, Erin ordered spaghetti with a bacon and onion sauce, and I got a pizza.

A vaporetto on the Grand Canal, Venice

In my personal opinion, your basic tourist can see Venice in a day, maybe two. If you are more into history or art, definitely take more time to see the museums and cathedrals. For the girls, though, two hours of wandering around and shopping was enough. We found St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) after many complaints, then took a vaporetto ride back to Piazzale Roma and home to the apartment.

I wasn’t too disappointed by their lack of interest, because I’d actually seen Venice before. If you scroll down far enough, you can read about the cruise and trip to Venice that my husband and I took five years ago when visiting Europe was like a dream come true for me.

On the water for over 1600 years

Back then, Venice was enticing, exotic and totally different from anything I had ever seen before in all my years living in the cornfields of the Midwest. I loved it and still remember all the little corners we explored. But now, for me, Venice seems like a tired Grande Signora, a grande dame painted clean and bright on the outside for her guests but worn out and tired on the inside. Today I peeked through a few open doors and down dingy alleyways to see the heart of the city, and to imagine what it must be like to live and work here.

It’s a beautiful place, filled with art, history, and ghosts – and for me, once was enough.

Baby Seahorses and Macarons

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Green Chameleon at the Haus des Meeres

I have always tried my best to avoid reading any kind of history of war. It was nothing I wanted to know about, and I am ashamed to admit that for most of my life I was never certain whether Hitler was World War I or II. But in Europe I see history everywhere, in the most unusual places…much of it connected in some way with war. Megan wants me to watch a video she saw  called A Brief History of World War II. I think I will watch it as soon as I get a chance.

Day two of Vienna-on-a-Budget included a walk to the Haus des Meeres (House of the Sea), Vienna’s public aquarium. The building now housing the aquarium was first constructed as a combat flak tower in 1943-44, one of many built by the Nazis in several European cities, including Vienna. The towers served as air raid defense shelters for local civilians, and they were used by the Luftwaffe to defend against Allied air raids.

After the war, the building was a hotel, a fire station, and a youth hostel. The aquarium moved into the building in 1957, and expanded floor-by-floor over the years into the 10-story building it is today. The tenth floor houses WWII exhibits, and you can see it if you register in advance. There is also a slogan written around the top of the building – “Smashed to Pieces…In the Still of the Night” – a memorial against war and fascism designed by Lawrence Weiner.

There were so many amazing creatures here, I can’t begin to name them all. I was most fascinated by the seahorse display. They developed a way to successfully breed seahorses in captivityand are currently working on understanding seahorse “language.” The little seahorses in the photo are no bigger than my little fingernail, jus happily floating around eating plankton.

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Baby Seahorses at the Haus des Meeres

We saw reptiles of all kinds, poisonous and non-poisonous, birds, sharks, and at one point there was a little black tamarind monkey, just sitting on the railing as we were walking by.

After the zoo, we walked to the open air market, the Naschmarkt. It was filled with foodstuffs of all kinds for sale, with restaurants and clothing stalls. When I saw a display of macarons, I had to buy a few. I’ve always wondered what they tasted like, and these were delicious.

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Naschmarkt

We caught the subway from the Naschmarkt to go see the Danube Tower, a 252-meter tower situated in a park on an island (Donauinsel) in the Danube River. You can ride an elevator to the top and eat dinner there if you make a reservation far enough in advance. The island is a recreational paradise, but it’s also home to some very modern skyscrapers, and Viennese hustling around in black suits with briefcases.

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Danube Tower

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Looking over the Danube River from Donauinsel, toward the city

I really loved Vienna, and Munich. They are clean, historical yet modern, easy to get around in (even if you don’t speak German), and the weather, at least while we are here, has been perfect. Lots of things we missed, but I think we’ll be back someday, for sure.

I’m going to be brushing up on my history in the meantime.

600 Years of Hapsburgs

Schonbrunn Palace

Traveling can get expensive — first the planes, then the trains, then the busses and hotels…what we don’t usually take time to consider is entrance fees to all the stuff you want to see. All three of us wanted to see the zoo, all three of us wanted to visit Schonbrunn Palace, but we decided to split up for the first time. Erin and Megan went to the zoo, and I toured Schonbrunn.

The zoo is actually on the grounds of Schonbrunn, so it wasn’t difficult. I had never heard a word about Austrian history until five years ago, when we toured the royal apartments of the Empress and Emperor of Austria in Venice. “Why does Austrian royalty have a palace in Venice?” I remember wondering. But I never gave it a second thought until today.

I learned much more today about Empress Elizabeth (Sisi), her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph, and the 600-year reign of the Hapsburg dynasty. I know there is a lot more to learn. Rich furnishings, grand ballrooms, private rooms and gardens — it’s the story of the families that makes the history come alive.

Privy Garden

After the palace tour, I wandered around in the gardens. So beautiful. They must have had an army of servants and gardeners. I walked through the Privy Garden, the Maze (corn mazes in Iowa just aren’t the same!), and the Orangery, where they grew tropical plants like citrus trees in pots, so they could wheel them back inside during the winter.

The Gloriette

My ticket included a trip to the Gloriette, a building at the back of the garden and at the top of a very long hill. According to Wikipedia, a gloriette is “a building in a garden erected on a site that is elevated with respect to the surroundings.” The royal family ate her in the dining hall quite often. You can climb all the way to the roof, behind the eagle with the golden shield, and the view of Vienna is spectacular.

The girls met me back at the train station and said the zoo was fantastic, with displays they had never seen before. They saw anteaters, giant pandas, koalas, and a fascinating exhibit of ants, travelling through clear tubes to the rest of the colony, also nesting in clear containers. Megan said they had a similar diaplay of bees. The Tiergarten Schonbrunn was founded as an imperial menagerie, and is the oldest continually operating zoo in the world.

After a long day of walking with a 70% chance for rain all day, we got on the train for home just as the first drops of rain started falling. Megan declared her longing for Asian food, so here in Vienna, a culinary giant, we head to the top floor of the neighborhood delartment store for cashew chicken, bulgogi bibimbap, and a bento box.

I’m still on the prowl for some of those delicious Viennese pastries.