Ben Garney

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Our last day in Venice! We spent the morning going across the Canal to St. George’s, which resided basically on its own island. After seeing it looking at us across the water for two days, we had to check it out. It was nice but not earth shattering. It turned out there was a conference going on on the island, and a nice exhibit on urban planning put on by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art - this being the LMOMA in Sweden, not the USA as you might be expecting.

Hopping the water bus to Venice airport was a little bit of an unknown but in the end it worked out very nicely. We were worried that they might be very strict about luggage or depart at an odd time or from a hard to get to place - in the end we got on exactly when we wanted to, at the most convenient stop (right outside our hotel), and there was plenty of room for all our luggage. Katy and I alternately napped, people watched, and enjoyed watching the very picturesque outskirts of Venice as we headed in to the airport.

Venice airport was nice; bigger than Eugene but smaller than PDX. The shopping was substantially nicer, and the jetways went through tasteful stone towers. We hung out in the lounge until our flight for Turkey departed. Katy took advantage of the wifi to try to video chat with her parents and Scott, who we were going to meet in Istanbul.

We caught the flight and enjoyed the surprisingly nice Turkish Air coach experience. Katy enjoyed the seat to seat calling quite a bit. Once we got to Turkey we had to clear customs (including buying a visa). I was grilled by the passport control guy about how much I paid for my visa; Katy got waved through flirtatiously. We both expected to see a lot of people in conservative Muslim dress, but out of the 500 or so people we saw in the airport, only one couple fit that description.

Once we had our luggage, we caught a taxi and headed to the hotel. It took quite a while; the last 5-10 miles near our hotel especially had consistently awful traffic for our whole stay. But the cab driver was nice, seemed to follow an honest route, and made an effort to point interesting things out to us. There were plenty of borderline sleazy people in the airport trying to sell us on various bus/taxi/hotel services.

We got to the hotel, settled in, then headed out to pick up a couple of essentials (ie, diet soda + snacks). Pricing in Istanbul was weird, and it wasn’t until I left the country that I put my finger on it - everything was very cheap EXCEPT the hotel. A liter of soda was about $1USD, even right downtown, but our hotel was something like $350/night (the highest we paid anywhere on the trip by a wide margin). We ate well for around $12/meal. My theory is that the government taxes hotels heavily to capture tourism dollars. I’m not sure we came out ahead, but it was a nice change from Europe where everything except the hotels was much more expensive.

Read about Katy’s perspective on today.

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Today was fully devoted to Venice. We started with Rick Steve’s audio tour of the Grand Canal, the sinuous 150ft wide canal that winds through the heart of Venice. This involved hopping the water bus, which turned out to have a stop right by our hotel, riding all the way back to the bus/train station, then proceeding forward again back to the hotel. Despite the long round trip, it was well worth it to get a feel for the city - and even after going down that stretch of it three times in a 24 hour period, the Grand Canal didn’t get old.

After the tour, we went by St Mark’s Square, observed the huge lines for the Campanile, cathedral, and Doge’s Palace, and decided to cruis the many shops for a bit. Katy visited the post office, and I did my best to get lost in Venice’s fabled winding pedestrian ways. (It didn’t work.)

After that, the Doge’s Palace had a short enough line that we went in. It was full of amazing artwork, and we took advantage of Rick’s tours once again. (Rick’s audio tours, incidentally, always contain at least one corny joke.) We also got to take a detour through the prisons and court rooms, which were as medieval as one might hope. I was glad not to have to face a sentence in them, as they were not built for 6’7” offenders.

After the Doge’s Palace, we went into St. Mark’s Basilica. It featured glorious Byzantine mosaics (which Katy liked) as well as four beautiful large bronze Greek Horses on the roof (which really excited her). For those who aren’t in the know, Katy deeply enjoys sitting on large horse statues. As soon as she saw them, she immediately plotted how she could climb onto them. Although they were replicas of the originals (kept safely inside the church), they were also some 150ft above the hard unyielding stone floor of the piazza. Additionally, Italy seems like it would be fairly strict about molesting national treasures. After I pointed all this out, Katy conceded that she was just kidding and would never seriously consider doing such a thing. Don’t tell her I said this, but it would have been a pretty sweet picture. I actually feel a little bad I’m a stickler for not molesting thousand year old plus church architecture…

(That night we got a picture of her on one of the stone lions outside the church, but the theme of bending rules to get sweet photos came up a couple more times during the trip.)

St. Mark’s also had a nice collection of reliquaries, and a pretty cool museum containing various mosaics being preserved.

Finishing with St. Mark’s, we did some shopping, then took a brief stroll to the Campanile, St. Mark’s bell tower. Originally dating back to the 800s, someone has since installed an elevator and charges admission for the opportunity to look down on the city from 300 ft up. We camped out and watched the sunset - simply beautiful. It eventually got cold, so we went back down and got dinner.

Mark Twain sums Venice up well:

Her glory is departed, and with her crumbling grandeur of wharves and palaces about her she sits among her stagnant lagoons, forlorn and beggared, forgotten of the world. She that in her palmy days commanded the commerce of a hemisphere and made the weal or woe of nations with a beck of her puissant finger, is become the humblest among the peoples of the earth,—a peddler of glass beads for women, and trifling toys and trinkets for school-girls and children.

— Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

So, unrelated, but we did get some pretty awesome glass trinkets while we were out shopping today!

Read Katy’s perspective on today.

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We spent the morning exploring Milan. We headed downtown and found parking, then visited several da Vinci related museums. They were all showing different parts of a big exhibit on the Codex Atlanticus, a collection of some 1,119 leaves of da Vinci’s drawings and writings. Although da Vinci’s The Last Supper would have been great to see, his notes were amazing. To think that someone had such broad and well developed interests in 1500 is astounding. Truly a genius.

We visited the Emmanuelle Vitelle II Gallery so we could spin on the Bull’s Balls. The Balls, in case you aren’t familiar with them, are attached to a Bull on the mosaic floor inside the gallery. The bull is the symbol of Turin, and it is one of 4 major Italian cities represented in the mosaic. For whatever reason, locals and tourists spin on the balls as they walk by for good luck.

It turned out the EV2G was a very upscale shopping mall, so we also got to have a taste of full-on Italian shopping. They had a McDonald’s, so we stopped at the McCafe part to grab a snack. It turned out to be not that different from any other cafe, but it was definitely interesting to see the Italian take on McD’s.

After a busy morning, we hopped back on the highway to head to Venice, the final leg of our drive through Italy. We made it to Venice in drizzly, overcast weather. White skies and wet roads as we drove over the causeway to the island. We found the rental office and parked on the 10th floor of the nearby parking structure.

Since we had a lot of luggage and didn’t know Venice, we hopped a water taxi to our hotel. Expensive, but well worth it to not have to figure out the vaporettos right away! We checked into our small hotel in a little square off the Grand Canal (near the Zaccarias stop), and headed out to a nice dinner.

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We got started a little late today, but soon found our way to the train line running through Cinque Terra. We went from Monterosso al Mare, where we were staying, over to Riomaggiore, then walked back to Manarola. Unfortunately, the walking link to Corniglia was closed due to a recent earthquake, so we had lunch, then rode the train back to Monterosso.

Back in Monterosso, I took a quick dip in the Mediterranean, while Katy stuck her feet in. This was my first time in that body of water. It was nice! 

After that, we hopped into the car, carefully negotiated our way out of the windy windy roads around Cinque Terra, and headed towards Milan. Unfortunately, due to the CT train schedule and late start, we missed our chance to see the Last Supper (it turns out they are really committed to their reservations). So, we took it easy in CT, got in late, and stayed at Akka Palace, a hotel outside of town. It had spacious rooms and parking for the car, which was great.

Although the hotel itself appeared to be in the Chinese/Middle-Eastern part of town, they recommended an awesome local Italian place for dinner. Then we came home, blogged, and planned the next day.

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Today was our last day in Florence. We started it off right by getting a very familiar looking donut. Despite its pink, Simpsons-esque appearance, Katy and I both agree it was one of the culinary highlights of the trip. (Not pictured: Italy also stocks Duff Beer.)

Next, we tracked down the Avis rental office and picked up our ride for the next three days. We were supposed to have a BMW 3 series but they gave us an Audi A6 instead. Not a bad car. It had enough room for our substantial collection of luggage, a comfortable amount of legroom for me, and a GPS - essential for getting around Italy!

When I researched it, everyone in the whole world claimed that it was a terrible, awful, no good idea to drive in Italy. Getting the car took longer than we expected, and getting our luggage to the car took even longer - we forgot to think ahead and have a cab drive us with all our luggage to the rental place, so we had to hoof it out of the no-driving zone in downtown Florence to the car ourselves. Parking was hard to find but cheap (about a Euro/hr) when we got it.

That said, I had a lot of fun my first day on the roads of Italy. We got out of town without much trouble (only a few death-defying maneuvers required - Katy’s favorite was the left turn across 4 lanes of traffic). Then we found a Maserati on our way to Pisa, and I spent the next hour or so following him at speeds well in excess of the posted limits.

Italian driving is great. Lane markings are a suggestion not a rule, so you can really focus on getting nice lines through your corners. People are used to everyone driving like a maniac so they don’t freeze up or slam on the brakes if you do something unexpected. The speed limits are not strictly enforced (our GPS came with knowledge of all the automatic speed cameras so we knew when to slow down), and people like to drive fast.

My main complaints are expense (gas, tolls, parking, etc. all tend to add up) and fatigue (it is fun but tiring to drive at Italian levels for long periods of time, especially if you have someone in the car you don’t want to kill, such as yourself). Luckily, I had a 5 Hour Energy to deal with fatigue. We only had the car for three days, so expense wasn’t a big deal, either.

The roads can also be amazingly narrow. After we visited Pisa, we proceed to Cinque Terra. There, the roads were so narrow that we had to fold both mirrors and drive with only an inch or two of clearance to proceed. This was fine, although at times a little nerve wracking when the GPS gave us a wrong turn and we had to turn around and go back up the road…

Cinque Terra is five towns in a row on the side of some hills facing the sea. To get there you have to drive through the hills, which was fun but very twisty. On our way we had a fun surprise - a campground had caught fire and a big chunk of the hill side was ablaze! We stood and watched for a while, clearly seeing the flames licking through the forest, before deciding it would be prudent to move ahead on our route so we wouldn’t be cut off from the hotel. When we first showed up a helicopter was dumping water on the blaze - we got a little further and another heli joined it, then a little later a much larger seaplane started doing it, too. It was amazing to see these vehicles cruising in dozens of feet above deck, through thick clouds of smoke, dropping water, then going back out to sea to do it again. We probably spent an hour or so watching them fight the fire before finally turning back onto the road and getting to the resort.

Once there, we strolled through the town, then had a lovely dinner at nearby Restaurant Miky, before watching the sunset and turning in for the night.

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We headed past the Duomo to the Pitti Palace today. The Pitti Palace, despite its name, is not pitiable at all. It was a treasure house for the Medicis from 1549 on, and it was full of amazing art housed in equally amazing rooms. We spent a couple of hours exploring the many exhibits and grounds. Beautiful. We did skip past the exhibit on Native American dress, though, on the basis that living in Oregon we’ve seen it before.

After lunch, we hopped a cab and headed to the Stadio Comunale Artemio Franchi to watch AC Fiorentina play Catania FC. This was great fun. The game was hard played and the fans were very Italian, which made people watching a full time employment. Katy was hugely entertained by the fact that smoking was allowed in the stadium, among other things. Read her blog post for full details.

Our evening was spent at Santa Maria Minato. We had a great time sitting on a park bench and watching the sunset. The church grounds were lovely, and the view of the city was sublime. Afterwards, went back to the hotel to prep for our drive the next morning.

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Florence is a beautiful and easy to explore city.

We started by visiting the Florence Cathedral. We went inside to check out the amazing architecture and admire the interior of the dome. There was a museum under the floor so we checked that out - in addition to some views of the foundations, it featured a couple of human skulls in gold boxes (!).

Then we headed outside to climb to the top of the dome. Having recently read Brunelleschi’s Dome at my mother’s suggestion, it was a fascinating climb. The dome was designed, and construction of the church started, decades before they knew that it was possible to build a structure of such size - they started in 1296 and finished the dome in 1436! It remains the largest brick dome in the world. Inspired by the Pantheon, which we saw just a day before, it is actually two domes, not one.

However, we somehow missed the stairs to the cupola, which is where you stand at the top to look out at the world! We only realized this after crossing the upper balcony of the dome and going down five or six flights of narrow stone spiral staircases. Katy decided to go back up the stairs, squeeze past the people on the balcony, and make it up to the cupola. I followed and we made it up to the very top of the dome - a truly amazing sight, 300 feet above Florence.

After our dome adventure, we had lunch, got Florence Passes, cruised for souvenirs, then purchased tickets for a soccer game on Sunday. Eventually, we made it to the Uffizi, which was a good time - we used a Rick Steves’ audio guide again and had a great time admiring and discussing the marvelous paintings and statues.

We headed to the central bridge in town for the start of sunset, then up to a nearby park to look down at the city as the lights came on. On our way back across the bridge, we caught a street concert - two Italian guys with guitars and PA system. Approximately fifty tourists were hanging around listening. We listened to a couple of songs before calling it a night.

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Today, we got up and headed to the Parthenon. It’s a lovely building - but it’s hard to really capture it in pictures because it has so many facets. The front is a beautiful classical looking facade in white marble, but the rest of the exterior is well worn brick. The whole building is level with the ground at the front, but by the time you walk to the back, there’s a 20 foot retaining wall between it and street level. The interior was beautiful. We used the Rick Steves’ audio guide, and had an informative and interesting time exploring.

We stopped for lunch at a place between Trevi Fountain and the Parthenon, and Katy did some souvenir shopping along the way. After looking at many cheap items with SPQR written on them, plus a lot of questionable quality replicas of local landmarks and the "Cats of Rome" photo calendar (highly adorable), we stopped by a small church directly adjacent to Trevi.

Our next milestone was the Capuchin Crypt. It appeared to have been renovated recently, as the introductory area on the Capuchin friars was extremely professionally done. I learned many things about the Friars and their good works. Then we we headed down to what Frommer’s called “one of the most horrifying images in all of Christendom”, the Marquis de Sade described as “worth the effort” to visit, and Mark Twain visited while writing The Innocents Abroad. The crypts are decorated with the skeletal remains of hundreds of former Capuchin friars. They are something to see in photos, but in person they have a much bigger impact. In that context, it’s unfortunate that the last crypt exits directly to the gift shop.

We spent the rest of our day in Rome walking around the town and stopping in at different churches. We had an early dinner, hustled to the hotel to grab our bags, then raced in a cab to the train station to catch our train to Florence - we made it with about three minutes to spare!

After an uneventful 90 minute ride, the train neared Florence. As soon as the first person lined up at the train doors, I packed my stuff up and got in line. After nearly missing the train on the way out, I didn’t want to miss the station! It turned out this was unsettling to Katy, who preferred to wait till much closer to the station to get ready. Of course, when the train arrived at the station, we had plenty of time to disembark. We hauled our bags to our hotel, grabbed dinner, strolled by the Duomo, then headed to bed.

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In the morning, we hit the Vatican. The Vatican is huge, and if you try to appreciate every piece, you’ll surely go mad. We took a streamlined approach and cruised through the overgrown and undercurated collections, only stopping for really eye catching stuff. Even so, it took all morning and a chunk of the afternoon to get through.

After the Vatican, we caught St. Peter’s Basilica, which was an astounding experience. We climbed to the top of the dome and looked out over the city.

After a quick sojourn to the hotel for nap and dinner, we returned to downtown Rome for the night tour of the colosseum. While the day tour was perfunctory and not very informative, the night tour was longer, much more interesting, and a lot more fun. Having the place all to ourselves was a unique experience, and the lighting was great. We got to go onto the reconstructed stage and check out access ways that aren’t normally accessible.

Finally, we swung by some of the ruins outside of the Forum for photos, grabbed some gelato, and headed home.

Ben’s highlight: St. Peter’s Basilica.

Katy’s highlight: Sistine Chapel.

Read Katy’s post for today.

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Yesterday, we got into Rome after a long flight from Eugene. We had time to get dinner and walk to the lovely Trevi Fountain, before calling it a night.

Today, we hit the sights. We grabbed our Roma pass, then visited the Flavian Amphitheater, better known as the Colosseum. It’s big! Amazing that so much of it has survived after so many centuries. We had a mediocre tour. After the Colosseum, we crossed the street and explored the Roman Forum and Palantine Hill.

We had a reserved time at the Villa Borghesi, so we had to grab a cab and leave directly from the Forum. We made it in plenty of time to get our tickets, then grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby snack bar before returning to admire the art and sculpture. No cameras allowed, so sadly I can’t share the strange and beautiful sites within.

We got dinner at a restaurant near the Villa with a David Attenborough sea life documentary looping in the background, then headed back to the hotel by way of Trevi Fountain, the Parthenon, and the Vatican - this time remembering to bring our cameras so we could get some nice shots of them!

Read Katy’s coverage of the trip to Rome and our first day of sight seeing.