Europe 2011: Venice (5/6)

We arrived at Venice in the dead of the night

Ok, not quite. we arrived at 9:30pm but we’re in Italy and everything just seem to close early.. so we decided to just go straight to our hostel and sleep.

Except, it wasn’t so simple. From the train station we had to cross the Grand Canal, which involves taking a rather long bridge filled with steps – and that’s not so easy when you have a 17kg suitcase in tow.

Day 10 – November 8, 2011

We didn’t have anything planned in Venice except for sightseeing, so we took our time to wake up and only got out the door at 11am. So in a way, Venice and Florence was our “break” destinations since we had to prepare for Paris next.

It’s true what they say about Venice. The place is extremely beautiful and whimsical. Their mode of transportation is obviously by water. I don’t think I saw a single car in the island (except from where we took our shuttle to the airport).

And everywhere you go, there are shops selling Venetian masks. They’re all hand made and very beautiful. You can find all kinds of styles, from vibrant and bold to dainty lace masks.

I think the best thing to enjoy Venice is to just walk around and get lost in the array of small alleys and cute little shops. We walked around for awhile not knowing where we’re going, and that felt very liberating after 1.5 weeks of living by the map.

SUPER CUTE model of bookshelves! the books are really tiny!!

Eventually, we found our way back to the Grand Canal and one of their main bridge, Rialto bridge.

Rialto bridge is huge and filled with more shops. I’m glad we didn’t have to carry our luggage up THIS brudge!

We had a quick lunch at another chinese restaurant (by now we were really sick of western food…) and let ourselves get lost in the midst of Venice’s alleys again… this time we found ourselves at St Mark’s square

Since it’s pretty close to the southern beach and the water seemed high, I suspect this part of Venice gets flooded when it’s raining hard. There were a few raised catwalk-like platforms built on some parts of the square.

Gondolas are super romantic and very Venetian, but we didn’t take any because they are pricey!

Another thing you’d see very often in Venice aside of the masks are these beautiful and colorful jewelries / household appliances made out of a special glass called Murano glass. We decided to take the water taxi to Murano island which costed €13 round trip and took about 30 minutes. I got seasick pretty fast so I spent most of the ride passed out…

Because we arrived rather late at the island, it was very… empty. There was nothing much to do except walk around and shop for more Murano glass, so we went back after an hour.

This beautiful Murano sculpture can be found in the middle of the island.

We looked for a place to have dinner. I really wanted Caprese salad and I finally got it! The rest of the meal was just ok though. I think Venice isn’t really known for their food unless you want to pay for it.

After dinner and walking around a bit more, we decided to call it a day and went back to our hostel to research about our next big (and last T_T) destination… Paris!!

Europe 2011: Florence (4/6)

Day 8 – November 6, 2011

We took train italia from Termini to Firenze Santa Maria Novella. When we first got to Termini, we were confused because none of the trains listed their destination as Florence. Apparently trains there just list their END destination, Florence was one of the stops on the way to Venice so they listed that instead (you should instead check the train number). I’m glad we took the train! Europe by train is pretty. It reminded me of the drive between San Francisco and LA…

Less than two hours later we arrived at Florence. Our hostel (Il Ghiro) was located super close to the station which made me happy because that means we didn’t have to drag our luggage for too long!

Was even happier when we got to the hostel and the room was really spacious and pretty! The ceiling was super high and the bathroom was spacious. I was sad we’re only staying here for one night :( The staff was very kind as well, they let us leave our luggage with them when we were out exploring Florence the next day!

Our first destination was Mercato Centrale, which was across the street from our hostel

This place is great for leather goods! Super cheap and makes great gifts! I got two leather wallets for €15 and €17, and 3 small leather journals for €20 total. I could probably bargain a bit more, but I felt like the price was good so I didn’t fuss too much. We had lunch at a place nearby, which wasn’t really worthy of mentioning. In Italy they do this weird thing called cover charge, which is usually €1-1.50 per meal.

Serena then went across the street to get some gelato. Except somewhere, something was lost in translation and she ended up with a GIANT ice cream and lost €15. It was yummy gelato (I had to help her finish it) but expensive!!

At least she got a cute picture out of it… the thing was as big as her face!

We had nothing much else to do, so we spontaneously decided to take the train to Pisa. It’s only an hour from the Firenze station, and the journey costed €11.90 for return trip! Once we get there, we took the bus to the tower. We read this blog to find out which bus to take.

I can’t believe we’re looking at Pisa tower! THE Pisa tower! Over there, everyone was trying to do the same pose – where you pretend to be touching the tower. We tried to get that picture too but failed miserably -_-.

We got back to Florence and checked out the shopping area. They have quite a few high end stores at Via de Tornabuoni, so Serena went to visit Burberry (her favorite store) and walked out with a new scarf for less! High end brands are cheaper in Europe and on top of that they have 12% tax refund (in Italy and France, Spain is 18%). Collecting tax refund is pretty easy and if you visited multiple countries like we did, you can just do your tax refund at the last destination. In some places you can also get your tax refund in the city, but they would only give you back the refund in form of cash. If you want to get the refund credited back to your card you can only do so in the airport.

After shopping we were hungry for dinner, and we had been missing Asian food so much after a week of constant western food. We hadn’t looked up where to eat, so we just walked around aimlessly until Serena spotted a Peking restaurant in one of the corners! We happily went in and ordered a lot of dishes.

The damage for comfort and familiarity: €20. Pricey, but we were happy with the meal!

Day 9 – November 7, 2011

Realized we missed out on most of the museums in Florence because we forgot that they close on Monday. Was upset that we missed statue of David, but there’s nothing we can do about it… so we headed out to see the Duomo at Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore instead.

The cathedral was finished in 1436

Left with nothing much to do, we shelled out €8 for a ticket to go up to the dome. Except no one warned us there would be no elevators and the hike up the dome are filled with stairs like these:

and an especially steep(!!) one like this one:

Even when we maintained a steady pace, we must have climbed for 10-15 minutes. It was intense cardio!!

The ceiling of the dome was painted with paintings depicting heaven and hell. You start with hell imagery from the bottom, and gradually became heaven as you go up the dome. I couldn’t capture the whole thing..

The hike up isn’t easy, but once you managed to make your way up the dome you are greeted with a beautiful view of Florence from above.

It was drizzling a little bit, but thankfully didn’t interfere with the view from above!

I wanted to try Bistecca alla Fiorentina, so we made our way to Sostanza which received a great raving review for their bistecca. It deserves a separate post so I wrote about them here.

We wanted to check out The Mall outlet, which is about an hour away from Florence and is famous for their low price for high end brands, but we missed the noon bus (because we were at lunch) and the next bus isn’t until 3pm. Given that we had to leave Florence by 7pm and the last bus back to Florence is at 5pm, there wasn’t going to be enough time so we opted to stay in Florence.

The rest of the day in Florence was rainy and drizzly, with nothing much to do but chill in a cafe or shop around… and we did exactly that. It’s a bit boring since we had a crazy activity-filled days for the first week, but in a way it was a welcomed break for my tired feet…

We picked up our luggage from the hostel and got onto our train to Venice.

Europe 2011: Rome (3/6)

Sad to leave Barcelona, but Serena and I were pretty excited about our next epic destination – Rome!

Before I go on, the age old question: Is  Roma Pass worth it? YES, it is, if you’re visiting Rome for the first time. The card only costs €25 for 3 days and gives you free entry for the first two museums / historic sites you visit, as well as the privilege to skip the line on those sites. It also gives you an unlimited access to the public transportation, which we found very very useful. A visit to the Colosseum (that also includes the Palatine Hill and Roman forum nearby) alone would set you back €13.50. Then we used our second free entrance at Musei Capitolini, which was €10 and on top of that we practically abused the unlimited public transport . We were also able to skip a LONG snaking line at the Colosseum, so we think the card basically paid for itself!

Day 5 – November 3, 2011

Rome Fiumicino Airport is located an hour away from the city, and they do have a train that takes you straight to the Termini station at the heart of Rome. We chose to take a shuttle bus from the airport though, since it costs €15 which is just €1 more than the train, and the shuttle takes you straight to your hotel. You can buy the shuttle tickets at the airport train station.

Anyway, we hit a little blunder finding our hostel. Getting to the building was fine since the shuttle dropped us off in front, but we had problems locating the hostel itself since they didn’t list which floor they were at! After about 30 mins of frustrated calling and ringing wrong doorbells, someone finally got us into our room. We were not pleased, but the hostel room itself was nice so iwe were happy again, and would recommend this hostel (called Luxury Rooms in Rome)… just make sure you let them know roughly what time you’re supposed to arrive?

So after setting our stuff down, we eagerly walked out and explored Rome.

The thing about Rome is, if you’ve seen a lot of maps before you’d take one look at the map and freak out because there are a lot to see and the city seems so big. But once you get down to the actual city, everything is actually within walking distance. It only seems big on the map because a good chunk of the streets on the map are actually small alleys, and most of them tend to be close together. It totally threw me off! I’m usually pretty good with directions and can find my way easily, but Rome was a bit tougher.

Another thing is for a city that is said to be 10,000 years old, Rome’s public transportation is surprisingly outdated. They only have two (really ghetto) subway lines running across the metropolitan part of Rome. The locals instead rely mostly on city bus which are not easy for tourists.

Thankfully the city redeemed itself – I would say in terms of sightseeing experience, Rome hands down trumps all the other cities we visited. Rome is an extremely old civilization, so naturally it houses plenty of historical buildings and these buildings are peppered all over the heart of Rome, right where people are living. It’s crazy how the Romans are literally living next door to some 2,000 year old ancient buildings!!

Anyway, we made our way down to Trevi fountain, stopping here and there to take random pictures of the city.

But we got lost on the way there (since I, being the navigator, overshot the distance) and ended up way south from where we were supposed to be. We ended up at National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II, which was so grand and beautiful that we didn’t mind being lost.

Eventually we found our way to Trevi fountain, which was possibly the most gorgeous fountain I’ve ever seen! It’s the largest fountain in Rome and dates back to 1762.

From then on, it was just historical sites after historical sites. Best of all, they were public monuments so they were all free! We didn’t even use our Roma pass until the second day.

Temple of Hadrian, dates back all the way to 145AD, which was just a short walk from Pantheon

Pantheon

The Pantheon. This one made us go “wow” when we first turned into the area. It was quite impressive in size, and dates back to about 126AD.

Also known as Santa Maria Rotonda

The Pantheon’s dome still holds the world’s record for largest unreinforced concrete. I’m not sure what this means exactly, but quick google search reveals that unreinforced concrete simply means that there is no reinforcement bar within the concrete itself. Given the sheer size of this dome and the fact that it was build nearly 2,000 years ago, it’s a good indication of how sophisticated roman architecture was!

Despite being used as roman catholic church from 7th century, the inside of Pantheon contains statues of many different gods.

Sant’Agnese in Agone, an ancient Baroque church dating back to the 16th century.

Piazza Navona

By now we were really tired, and my boss Subha had recommended a place nearby for dinner so we called it quits and walked there. It was La Focaccia at Piazza Navona, and it was so good that I had to make a separate entry here!

Day 6 – November 4, 2011

Determined to see both Vatican and the Colosseum today, we set out from our hostel early. We took the bus down Via del Corso and walked past the national monument again. Pretty during the day :)

National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II

Also walked past the Trajan’s market ruins

And finally… at the end of the main road, it’s the Colosseum! I’ve heard so much about this place!

As you can see, the line to the colosseum was unbelievably long. this is how it looks like outside, then you get inside and line up some more. Thank god we got the Roma Pass :x

Took this later that day.. looks so pretty sunkissed!

Inside the colosseum, it was massive! The colosseum was completed in 80AD and has gone through nearly all of the known Roman history, including several great fires which renders some parts of it irreparable.

A horse butt that was found and excavated in 2008. I forgot how old this is but it’s amazing some details of the statue were still preserved!

Arch of Constantine, 312AD.

We walked over to the Roman forum / Palantine hills area, located just north of the colosseum.

Ruins of the Roman forum seen from above. History in this area dates back to 7th century.

Forum Ruins

It was magical to be standing right on the location where so many Roman history took place!

By the time we were done with Colosseum and Roman forums, it was already too late to go to the Vatican (plus we were tired). We tried to go to the catacombs instead, but it was off the map we had at that time and ended up getting lost instead :(. So we made our way back to the subway and had a quick bite. In Italy, they have this “happy hour” thing where booze comes with a buffet of food. This is called Apperitivi and usually runs from 6:30 to 9:00pm.

The food that comes with my booze. not bad. I really liked the risotto looking thing.

Then we took the subway and visited Spanish steps. We were too tired to walk up the stairs though!

After that, we tried to shop around the area but found that most shops in Italy close by 7:30pm!! how boring. So we headed home instead after a little souvenir shopping

Day 7 – November 5, 2011

Serena mentioned she wanted to see the head of Constantine at Musei Capitolini, so we tried taking the bus there. Except… we didn’t know where to get off and overshot our stop. Wasted 30 mins trying to retrace our steps back.

Also known as Colossus of Constantine, it was this huge statue carved out of white marble and was said to be 12m / 40ft high, likely to be made between 312-315AD.

After that we finally made our way to Vatican. Thanks to this helpful guide on Vatican city, we decided to show up around 1pm. We didn’t know where to go or how to enter Vatican, so we just walked to what seems like a good place to go. We ended up at St. Peter Square.

There was a LONG line and we were getting worried. We thought this was the line to get into Vatican, but this was actually the line to get into St Peter Basilica. The line looks long but it was actually moving really fast so we decided to stay in line despite people trying to sell us “Skip the line” tour tickets.

Inside St Peter Basilica. It spanned almost the entire block! Definitely the biggest church I’ve ever been in, with impressive decor to boot.

After walking out of the basilica, we headed to the entrance of Vatican city. I’m glad we didn’t fall for the “skip the line” tour earlier, since there was practically no line to get into Vatican!

We weren’t very interested in much else, so we made a bee line for the Sistine chapel for Michaelangelo’s work on the ceiling. Sistine chapel itself was a lot smaller than I anticipated though.

We spent some time in Vatican buying souvenir and having lunch before heading out. We basically had nothing more we wanted to see, so we spent the last night in Italy shopping around. I got my new luggage for really cheap, €25, around Vatican. It was of questionable quality but it lasted me through the last half of the entire europe trip and back to Singapore just fine, so I didn’t regret buying that!

Last dinner in Rome. This was a Gnocchi if I’m not wrong.

I think the last notable thing I want to mention from Italy is that they seem to be really fond of Asian girls – or maybe just girls in general? Serena and I kept feeling that we got preferential treatment and curious stares as we walk down the street. Guys are also a lot more friendly and willing to chat with us, though I’m not sure if this is just their friendly culture (and not because we’re asian or girls). They’re always very curious about where we came from!

Next morning we’re off to Florence on italian train! :D