For Venetians, whose ancestors fostered an existence built on cruelty, death is never far away. In fact it is only 400 metres across the lagoon. The island of San Michele is a constant reminder of mortality and to which they will all make a final journey in a sumptuous black vessel.
Of course, death in Venice is a problem when there are no extra square inches of soil available, and their solution of erecting stacked rows of tombs on the island of San Michele provides a dignity for those who make their last journey across the lagoon. However the marble sepulchres do not provide a final resting place as the tenancy is short lived, a mere five years, seven if you’re a child. After this the remains are moved to a more permanent rest on the mainland. Unless you’re famous, like Ezra Pound the poet, who enjoys a long term tenancy.
Wander around this melancholy island with its reverence for death. Venetian funerals have a dignity as the sombre black vessel carries the departed to the island accompanied by the mourners in immaculate black. Somehow the placing of the remains in a marble tomb under warm Adriatic sunshine while birds sing, does not seem as grim as the rattling of earth on a coffin lid in a cold, wet cemetery under Atlantic clouds.
The No 52 Vaporetto will take you there, unless it’s your last journey, and even then after ten years the remains are unceremoniously shipped to the mainland.
For peace and tranquillity, visit the islands. There are 118 in the archipelago, but many are flat islets in the lagoon. Take the vaporetto to Torcello, the original settlement that was Venice. This now largely abandoned island was once home to 20 000 people, but now only a handful lives here after decimation by invaders, plague and the gradual silting up of canals into marshes.
To walk the path from the vaporetto landing stage across the ancient bridge with no parapet, the Ponte del Diavolo, is to feel the melancholia of this abandoned place. The original cathedral from the 11th century has a bare simplicity not usual in Venetian churches, but is a place of great calm. This peaceful island has paths along ancient silted-up canals that peter out in grassy fields and thick undergrowth, where the only sounds are that of birdsong and whispering reeds.
In contrast, the island of Burano, once famous for its lace making, is a scaled down version of Venice with small canals, and brightly coloured houses. Keep the church campanile in sight and it is impossible to get lost here, so wander at will and enjoy the sights of fishing vessels moored outside the houses.
The island of Murano, famous for its glass making has organised tours around the factories even to the extent of free rides out to the island, but beware the hard sell. Instead, go on your tourist ticket on the No 52 Vaporetto and enjoy the island without buying what you don’t need and don’t want.
A tourist ticket is the best way to get around on the vaporetto. As an introduction to Venice, ride the No 1 from the station down the four kilometres of the Grand Canal until it opens out into St Mark’s Basin.
As warm breezes from the Adriatic ruffle your hair, watch Renaissance palazzos gently slide by, each gazing at its own reflection. Mooring posts for gondolas lean drunkenly, their stripes bright against the plaster walls.
The area around the Rialto is the best place to eat in, away from the menu turistico of the restaurants in the central areas. The most tempting food shops and bars are here. Cantina Do Mori is a city legend, dark and secret. It serves the best cichetti, a bit like Spanish Tapas, and cheap wine that is drunk by the market traders. Eat in this area and it’s unlikely that you will go hungry or be disappointed.
Food of course is the highlight of each day, and one of the best ways to enjoy it is to take an apartment and shop in the market. If eating out, it can be expensive as can everything in Venice. Remember if you want to sit outside to see and be seen, it may cost you twice as much as sitting inside. Order a panini or tramezzini at the bar and either stand while you eat or take it out to eat at the edge of a little canal or on the steps of a bridge, even cheaper still.
This far north, pasta tends to give way to risotto and with so much seafood from the lagoon, the choice is large. Most menus have a zuppa di pesce, or fish soup, again with an infinity of ingredients. Specifically Venetian is carpaccio, thin slices of beef served in mayonnaise, or bigoli in salsa, noodles in an anchovy or sardine sauce.
Cantina Do Mori: San Polo 429, with entrances on Calle Galiazza and Calle Do Mori, In San Polo;
tel: 041 522 5401
Directions: Go to the San Polo side of the Rialto Bridge, walk to the end of the market stalls, turn left, then immediately right, and look for small wooden cantina sign on left.
Although there are around 450 bridges in Venice, only four cross the Grand Canal. The most famous is the Rialto, the district around it once the most important financial centre in Europe when the Republic was at the height of its power. Although the banks and bordellos of the renaissance have gone, what makes the Rialto worth visiting, apart from the bridge itself, is the market concentrated around a few tiny alleys and on the quayside. For a thousand years, housewives, servants and chefs have bought their daily supplies here, from a handful of scampi from the lagoon to fresh fruit from the Veneto. This colourful and animated spectacle has to be the best free show in Venice and is open every morning apart from Sundays and holidays.
It would be easy to sneer at the crowds of tourists in the Piazza San Marco, but this is a good place from which to start exploring the city. Napoleon’s phrase, “the drawing room of Europe,” is an apt one to describe this most supremely civilized place of elegant proportions with exquisite monuments that echoes to the sound of classical orchestras and is completely devoid of traffic.
The Campanile di San Marco gives the most breathtaking view over the city and with no climbing of steps-the lift will take you up to the top of the 100-metre-high bell tower. The medieval roofscape of terracotta tiles beneath will have changed little from four centuries ago when Galileo brought the Doge to the top of the tower to show off his newly invented telescope. Interestingly, none of the 117 canals can be seen from the top of the Campanile, either with or without a telescope.
While St. Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica are the jewels in the crown of this pearl of the Adriatic, a walk of a few minutes will take you to the silence of side canals where peeling shuttered windows dream of past glories of the Republic. Or a sleek black gondola rocks gently at its mooring post.
This quintessentially Venetian form of transport is always black, in deference to a law of 1562 that attempted to prohibit the extravagances of boat owners. This extraordinarily beautiful vessel is actually asymmetrical to compensate for the rowing by the gondolier at the stern. If travel by a gondola is wanted, then the best way is to use the ferry across the Grand Canal for a handful of small change.
You can cover almost all of Florence by foot, but on the first day we took the bus. Most of the attractions are closely grouped together and signposted by the whirr of camera shutters. Visitors who are lost and do not feel up to asking directions should follow the umbrella hovering above the crowds – it’s guaranteed to be guiding a band of tourists to another one of the city’s attractions.
The open top tour bus is a cheap way to find your way around the city. Get on the bus, stay on for the whole tour, then jump off on the return journey if there is something you fancy seeing and jump back on when the next one comes along. You get a free pair of earphones included in the price of your ticket, which is valid for 24 hours. All tours have either a guide or audio commentary, with frequent departures throughout the day. Most tours take an hour if you don’t hop on and off, although some may take approximately two hours.
The start point is the central train station (Santa Maria Novella). Look for the red open top double-decker bus - you can't miss it! Tours depart every 30-60 minutes, depending on the season, and children four and under travel for free.
The Boboli Gardens (Giardino di Boboli) are beautiful! Approximately 111 acres (45 hectares) of lavishly landscaped gardens behind the Pitti Palace ((Palazzo Pitti), extending to modern Fort Belvedere in Florence. Designed in a carefully structured and geometric Italian renaissance style, the gardens were begun in 1550 by Niccolò di Raffaello de' Pericoli detto Tribolo, who had been commissioned by Eleanora de Toledo, wife of Cosimo I, to create a setting that would be appropriate for vast pageants and Medici court entertainments.
Lacking a natural water supply, the gardens relied on an elaborate system of water distribution, a special conduit being built to tap the river; this was further enlarged by Ferdinando I, Cosimo's son, and the garden waters are known as the Acqua Ferdinanda. The Boboli, preserved by the Italian monarchy and today a public park, displays statuary from various historical periods, and includes works by important mannerist and baroque sculptors. Among well-known features are the Artichoke Fountain, the Museum of Porcelain, a Rococo Kaffeehaus, and a much-copied, horseshoe-shaped amphitheatre with an Egyptian obelisk.
After touring through the Pitti Palace you may wish to meander through the charming renaissance gardens that occupy the hill behind the museum. You will notice the occasional baroque and rococo touches while enjoying the cypress laneways, the Limonaia & botanical gardens, the hidden statues and bubbling fountains. Inside the gardens you can also enter into the Porcelain Museum with the same ticket. Technically picnics are not allowed in the gardens but pick a secluded spot or an empty bench and you can normally eat without being noticed. There are cafes in the street before you enter into the gardens, and here you can easily purchase sandwiches and wine to enjoy in the sun. Take extra bread and feed the ducks while your there
Also take a look at the Bardini Gardens. These are newly opened gardens and can be entered with the same ticket purchased for the Boboli gardens.
You can reserve Boboli Garden tickets with Florenceart (www.florenceart.it/booking);
For more information see www.polomuseale.firenze.it/english/musei/boboli;
tel: 39 0552651838;
Bit of a rip-off to see the balcony and statue of Juliet. You have to pay to go up the stairs to the museum, if that’s what you can call it - very sparse, and so busy that you’re lucky to get a picture on you own on the balcony. Graffiti everywhere on the arches as you go in and chewing gum - yuk! not worth the trek.
Via Cappello 21-23, south of Piazza delle Erbe, in the Old Town Just follow the crowds of tourists - you cannot miss it.
The central train station of Verona, Porta Nuova, is situated in the very centre of the town. It is a long walk to all the major historic sights of the town and to most of the hotels as well. Very dodgy looking people hanging about, so don't stay there too long, and watch out when crossing the road: the drivers are maniacs.
For departures or arrivals information see www.trenitalia.it/en/index.html
The loveliest church in Rome is the 13th century Santa Maria in Aracoeli.
It's right on top of the Capitoline Hill, in the space between two palaces. There is a huge flight of stairs which challenges the many brides who enter the church. But it is utterly beautiful and filled with chandeliers, ancient columns and a wonderfully decorated ceiling as well as some amazing renaissance frescoes.
4 Piazza del Campidoglio
Veniceby.com is a great hotel guide for Venice. They have a lot of info on each hotel and also many pictures. You can make your choice with all this in mind and they offer direct contact with the owners.
This charming Inn is unique, because besides having 4 charming rooms, it is possible to eat in the restaurant downstairs, which is run by the same owner.
The location is perfect: between the Rialto Bridge and Saint Mark Square.
This hotel is less than one km from Termini railway station. Staff are very kind and helpful in explaining where to go, what to see and, last but not the least, where to dine out.
This bay in eastern Sardinia has water that has to be seen to be believed. Bright blue, green, turquoise and even purple. Hidden coves are backed by a mountainous, rocky and remote national park, which means the beaches can only be reached by boat. Out of season you can rent a dinghy for a reasonable price and have the place (almost) to yourself. Absolutely stunning.
Boats can be rented from Cala Gonone, which is 120kms south of Olbia. Catch a bus from Olbia to Dorgali and then a bus to Cala Gonone.
This beautiful little church lies on the south-east side of the city and sits on top of a fairly high hill. As such, it makes a very good place to walk to, as you’ll see a good deal en route either by cross-country footpaths or by following the roads. Once there you can admire both the exterior and interior of the 11th century church and the view of the city from the Piazzale Michelangelo before making your way back.
Via Monte alle Croci, 34 (above Piazzale Michelangelo);
tel: +39 0552342768;
This fantastic cake shop is a stone's throw from the Vatican, and it has fantastic cakes and a great sweet, tea and coffee selection, plus good sandwiches.
Worth a visit and half the price of nearby restaurants etc.
55 Via Ottaviano (nr Vatican)
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