Italy Part 2: Panini, Gelato, Pizza, Repeat

Florence

You know that feeling when you know you’re about to round a corner and see some amazing building, and you realize you don’t actually know what it looks like, and then BAM! you’re in Florence looking at the Duomo. The initial sight of this thing literally stopped me in my tracks:

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There is tons of history on the Duomo, but what I found most interesting was, they built the whole thing (started in 1296) and then had this massive hole where the dome was to go, but no one knew how to build it. Brunelleschi (the architect) went to Rome to look at the Pantheon, which had no architectural plans to look at, but came back and managed to build what was at the time, the largest dome in the world.

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Then I continued walking towards the area where I thought there was a replica of The David, and while I’m most definitely going to embarrass myself here, I realized I wasn’t quite sure what The David looked like, who David was, or why The David was important…the location of the replica contains TONS of statutes, but I was pretty sure I knew which one it was… but to be extra sure I went to the real one, and had the “I’m about to see something really cool” feeling all over again, and then BAM:

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He is really tall!

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So for the other art idiots reading my blog, here are some quick facts about the David:

  • He was made by Michelangelo (I did actually know this part already) between 1501-1504 out of one single block of abandoned marble. He is 516,7 cm tall, or for Americans, almost 17 feet.
  • He was initially meant to be placed along the dome of the Duomo, that’s why he’s so huge, but he was just so darn attractive they decided he couldn’t be put so far away from the people, so they stuck him in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (old palace/town hall), where he stood until 1873 when he was brought to his current location, the Galleria dell’Accademia; the two locations are 15 minutes away walking but it took them three days to move him.
  • Who is he? David from the Bible, of course! Controversial whether this is meant to be before or after he took down Goliath.

While the architecture was brilliant, what I really loved about Florence was the food. On recommendation from an Aussie at 5 Terre’s I went to Panini Toscani, right behind the Duomo. Skeptical of buying food in such a touristy location, I got more excited when I saw a really long line. After about a 30 minute wait I was ushered into a hole in the wall deli looking shop along with 6 other people and sent to the back. Here we were welcomed by a man who seemed to be the owner who apologized for the long wait and asked that we be patient with him and try out the cheese and meat options before placing our order. Yeah, I think I can do that.

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We then tasted four cheeses and three meats and chose our pairing (I went with a very fresh mozzarella like cheese and prosciutto) and then you get to pick your bread (soft focaccia) some other toppings (zucchini, sun dried tomatoes, and a spicy pepper spread) before it’s toasted. And then you get to eat it while walking around the Duomo. Wow.

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It was so good I went back again on my last day and was welcomed back, so I guess you could say I’m a regular.

As the days rolled on I got into a bit of a food routine – free breakfast at the hostel, panini for lunch, gelato for afternoon snack, and pizza and a glass of house wine for dinner. I think it worked out pretty well:

I also took the time to climb what could be climbed – the bell tower and the dome. Each was around 400 steps, which was nothing after hiking Cinque Terre, but with the narrow stairwells you’re only as fast as your slowest climber, but I think it was worth it:

I will say that the giant cracks in the dome bothered me a little bit…

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Some additional pictures of Florence, including the view from Michaelangelo’s Square, the fake David, and one of the many Italian leather stores.

Venice

As I said in the last post I’ve always wanted to go to Venice, so unlike some other cities I visited, I made a point to spend some extra time researching and deciding exactly what I wanted to do to make the most of my time there. Something I read in every blog and every article was that I should be ready for the tourists.

I thought I had prepared pretty well (and c’mon, it’s November) but I had no idea what I was in for. Imagine walking through NYC’s Time Square, but take that giant sidewalk and divide it up into super narrow alleyways with tons of bridges connecting them. At one point I actually had to lower my shoulder and ram through a group of somewhat older Asian tourists, otherwise I really think I may have been trampled (and of course I’m the one that got yelled at). Major respect for anyone who visits this city in the summer… So after a quick look at the famous St. Mark’s Square, I decided to do my best to stay away from these sections of the island, which is no easy feat.

I started with a free walking tour called “Secret Itineraries” which promised it would go to no touristy destinations. It was perfect and I learned so much about Venice that I can now share with you!

  • There are over 400 bridges linking hundreds of tiny islands together to form the main island of Venice, though there never seems to be a bridge where you need it to be…
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View of the Ponte della Paglia bridge from the Bridge of Sighs
  • Venice sits on wooden posts that are literally stuck in the mud. Once they are securely in the mud there is no oxygen, so they never rot, therefore Venice’s main foundation sits on the same wooden posts that were put there centuries ago.
  • Venice had the very first Jewish Ghetto, in fact the word “ghetto” actually comes from Venice. The Venetian government instituted the ghetto in 1516 and it was in place until Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797. Jews were allowed to roam the city freely during the day but had a curfew and a gate was used to lock them into the ghetto at night.
  • There are still about 450 Jews living in Venice and they still live in the area which was once the Jewish Ghetto, as this is where the still practicing synagogues, kosher food stands, and Jewish schools are located.
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They were not allowed to build synogagues so they are simply converted houses.
  • These stones were placed in front of houses where Jews were taken to concentration camps during WWII, naming the person who lived there, when they were born, when and where they were taken, and when they died. There is also a memorial which lists the names of all Jewish Venetian victims of the holocaust.
  • The streets of Venice flood over 200 times per year. Many houses have installed these frames which they can slide a wooden slab into to protect their houses from the water. St. Mark’s square is the lowest in the city (just 85 cm above sea level) and therefore floods the most often. Luckily I got 3 dry sunny days!

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  • The very first casino was believed to be in Venice. The city had over 100 when Napoleon showed up, but he didn’t like the types of crowds the casinos attracted so he removed all but one, the very first, which is still in operation today and is still the only casino in Venice:

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  • The famous gondolas cost around $40,000 (I’m talking about the pretty ones with the velvet cushions and gold lining). It’s so expensive because the gondola must have a very specific design to operate smoothly and almost everything on it is symbolic in some way. What I found most interesting was the tail (on the left in the picture below). The six prongs represent the six Sestieres (neighborhoods) of Venice. If you zoom in there are 3 decorations within these prongs which represent the three main islands, Murano, Burano, and Torcello. The single prong that goes in the other direction represents the island of Giudecca. The curved part at the top represents the Doge’s cap, and the semi-circle between the Doge’s cap and the six prongs may or may not represent the Rialto Bridge. So much symbolism in one tiny part of the boat!

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  • The most popular drink in Venice is an Aperol Spritz. When the Austro-Hungarians conquered Venice, they found Venetian wine to be too strong so they added water, the Venetians didn’t like this so they added some other things, and this eventually evolved into Spritz. Aperol is the most popular flavor, and it’s not just the tourists who drink this, everyone in Venice is  drinking Aperol Spritz at all hours of the day. It was a little sweet for me but I really liked the way the green olive complimented the sweetness.

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  • The Austro-Hungarians are also responsible for installing the railings on the bridges. There is one bridge on the entire island that doesn’t have railings, as it only leads to two private residences. I like that it gives you an idea of what the original Venetian city used to look like (yes I walked on it).

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  • The street signs actually describe the type and history of the street. For example, a calle is simply a street that runs through buildings. A salizada is a “paved” street, meaning it was an important street when it was built. A sotoportego literally means “under porch”, so this street passes under a building. Rio Terra translates roughly to “water land”, meaning this used to be water, but they put a street over it. These are just a few examples.
  • Walking around you see the famous Carnival masks everywhere. They actually have quite a bit of symbolism. The one I liked the most is the mask with the really long nose (pictured below on the right). It was not initially meant for Carnival, but was invented by a physician to protect against the plague (Venice was hit hard by several plague outbreaks). It was made this way to 1) keep people farther away from the sick person breathing and 2) there were herbs placed at the tip of the nose which supposedly purified the air the sick person breathed.

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  • Some random rules of Venice: no cars, no bikes, no feeding the pigeons, no brick ovens (i.e., just ok pizza), no swimming in the canals.

I had trouble with food in Venice. It seemed like the restaurants were either tourist traps or really expensive, but I think I did ok. The lasagna was my favorite.

I think my favorite thing about Venice was actually sipping on an Aperol Spritz while watching some local kids play soccer. They had turned the indents on either side of the door of the below church into goals (so the field was sort of an upside down rainbow from my vantage point) and were playing 3 v 3, you can see a kid with the ball at the edge of the right goal. This picture shows a somewhat empty area, but at times big crowds would walk through, mostly locals in this area, and these boys would just ram right through them, prompting many Italian scoldings. It was a welcome break from the massive crowds and rows and rows of souvenir shops.

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My last day in Italy I decided to skip Venice and head to the nearby islands of Murano and Burano. Murano is known for the famous Murano Glass, and Burano is known for lace and very colorful houses.

If I’m being honest, I was really tired, I didn’t sleep well, had spent some of the night watching the Warriors vs. Spurs game, had a headache most the day, a couple of new mosquito bites were driving me nuts, and I got really frustrated with the massive lines for the ferries and the mobs of people rushing the gates when they arrived. But I managed to catch a glass blowing demonstration, treated myself to a really delicious lasagna bolognese, enjoyed the colorful houses, and then more quickly than planned, made my way back.

So that’s a wrap (or a panini?) for Italy!

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Tomorrow morning I am headed to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and I have to say I am really excited to start getting into Eastern Europe. Many travelers I meet are coming from that direction and have nothing but good things to say about the hospitality, beautiful scenery, and rich history. I am also pretty excited to get away from the crowds of the highly trafficked Italian cities.

I’ve spent some time working out an Eastern Europe itinerary and here’s what I’m thinking:

Ljubljana & Bled, Slovenia ➡ Zagreb & Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia ➡ Belgrade, Serbia ➡ Sarajevo & Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina ➡ Dubrovnik, Croatia ➡ Kotor, Montenegro ➡ Shkodër & Tirana, Albania ➡ Athens & TBD, Greece.

Any suggestions/recommendations are always welcome!

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