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A Week in Italy - Part II

Author: RichardNika
Email: Corona70@aol.com (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: April 2006

In Part I, I talked about my time in Rome and Venice, but I didn't have time for a few final comments on that last unique city.

Venice is a wonderful and unusual place, but it is becoming a tourist theme park. I have never seen such crowds of tourists. Living in another popular tourist city - Miami Beach - with a resident population only slightly larger than that of Venice (88,000 here, about 3/4 of that in Venice) I can sympathize with the permanent residents there, who complain about higher prices than elsewhere in Italy. Indeed, a public water bus - a vaporetto - is 5 Euros in Venice, several times what a street bus is elsewhere in Italy. Food costs more there, and so does the one internet cafe I found. And yet, I too was a tourist there. When and if I am lucky enough to return, I would like to do so in the dead of winter, when the crowds are thin, and have two days - one for the museums and the art, and one to just explore everywhere on foot. Remember, Venice is surprisingly small, and you can walk through all of it in one full day.

I left Venice in the early evening. As with all subsequent trains, I had a 6-seat 2nd class compartment - these are not especially roomy or comfortable, but train trips within Italy are rarely more than a few hours, and most of the people are friendly.

I reached Florence late in the evening. I had no hotel reservation, but found a 3-star near the station which was fine. I studied my guidebook, visited the internet cafe up the street and turned in. I had one full day there coming up and intended to use it to the fullest.

In the morning, I set out on foot. I had a route mapped out which included some difficult choices. The Academia with Michelangelo's David was well off my route, and my wife had warned me that, aside from the David there was nothing exciting there but"medieval paintings with halos." There was a report of an imminent railroad strike, so I stopped in a travel agency and was told not to worry - the scheduled strike would be that day and only for eight hours!

First stop was the Duomo, the huge cathedral. This was an impressive and massive space - I spent some time walking about, admiring the art and the architecture. Being a cathedral, admission was free. My next stop along my route was the Bergello Museum. This relatively little-known museum is a fabulous place - among the statuary on the ground floor is a 10-foot high statue Michelangelo sculpture of Bacchus, the god of wine, with a cup of wine in one hand and a child under the other arm. Michelangelo was 22 when he made it. The museum was multi-storied and had an immense variety of art - sculpture, paintings, enamel, marvelous pottery, coins and medals and much more. It was upon entering the museum that I learned of my good fortune - my week in Italy coincided precisely with "Culture Week," April 2-9, during which admission to almost all museums and attractions in Italy was free. I figured out after returning home that this probably saved me close to $150.

Next stop was the Uffizi Gallery, perhaps the best known art museum in Italy, and rightly so. Works that you have seen in books and probably in your dreams are there. Unfortunately, Culture Week also meant a huge slow-moving line of students, and it took at least 90 minutes to get inside. All the art is on what we would call the second floor, mostly in rooms adjoining a wide hallway which is filled with sculptures. You can take as much time as you wish, and you will so wish. I spent perhaps 10 minutes just trying to figure out the facial expression on Botticelli's "Birth of Venus." You don't really get it in photographs. Finally heading downstairs, there was a special exhibit involving Leonardo da Vinci and his scientific findings, inventions and discoveries, replete with working models and interactive displays. The Uffizi is the only museum I was in in which the policy against flash photography is strictly enforced.

My final museum stop was the Palazzo Vecchio, which adjoins a huge and crowded square - in the middle of the square, a section of pavement is marked to denote the spot where the religious fanatic Savonarola was burnt at the stake many centuries ago. The Palazzo was and still is a government building, but filled with magnificent paintings and furnishings - the city council still meets there, in the same room in which they met centuries ago. An interactive video display on the history and culture of Florence occupied me for some time.

After leaving, I walked along the Arno River and up to the middle of the famed Ponte Vecchio Bridge, with its many fine small shops. Then, exhausted, I finally managed to get a taxi back to my hotel, dinner and my internet cafe visit.

The next morning, the trains were indeed back to normal, and I took the fairly short ride to Orvieto, a charming hilltop town that my wife had visited the year before on her trip with Go Ahead Tours (she recommends them highly, by the way). To get there from the station, you can either take a taxi up the steep road or use the aerial tramway, which I did. There was no "left luggage" facility at the station, and when I reached the town, I faced a main street going uphill for at least a mile. I pulled my luggage behind me, finally finding a kindly hotel proprietor who allowed me to leave it there for a few hours.

Orvieto is a charming town; its main street goes uphill, reaches a crest and then starts down the other side. Side streets extend for blocks on either side, and I explored a few, getting some wonderful photos and encountering a small neighborhood open marketplace. School let out, and a mob of chattering kids passed by me, giving me glances - Orvieto is, after all, not a major tourist destination. But the architecture is beautiful, and there are many small galleries. near the crest. I saw the cathedral, a few blocks off to the left, and headed for it. It was closed, but its exterior was the most extraordinarily and intricately decorated exterior of any building that I have ever seen. The amazing huge wooden doors were once moved inside but then replaced in their original position by no less than the Pope himself. Many of the exterior sculptures in the walls appear to tell stories. On the streets near the cathedral are shops selling the artwork that is the town's specialty - large and elaborately decorated and painted plates and plaques in deep relief.

Heading back downhill, I stopped in a tiny place and had an individual pizza, about the size of a dinner plate, for the usual one Euro - about $1.25 - far less than anywhere in the US. The accompanying beer cost about the same. Before boarding the funicular back to the train station, I stopped to take photos of the unbelievable views of the countryside. Then it was on to perhaps the Italian city least appreciated by tourists - Naples.

Continue reading A Week in Italy: Part III.

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