Friday, September 18, 2009

All the V's - Verona through to Venice

We probably would not have even called in at Verona if it had not been encouraged by Rosaria at Stresa. But boy, are we glad we did! We leave Sirmione and travel off motorway through the countryside to Verona that is less than 45 kms away. Like many of these towns, we again enter through the industrialised zone - kind of a pity really because we are seeing the worst long before we see the best and often get the wrong impression of a town.

Its not too long though before we get into the frenetic traffic of inner city Verona. We are back to those narrow small streets that Helen loves so much! There is not a lot of street parking available and we look on both sides of the river. "Be patient" I say. And there it is!! Frances has been saving us one, just a few blocks from the main square. We feed the meter and duty done, head off to take a look. We had passed a most amazing sight for Helen (and us too, but we have seen others) in the Roman Amphitheatre in the centre of the town as well as a good stretch of the city walls still standing and the gates in to the city. So we head off to here first.

Outside in the Plaza there are local characters dressed as Gladiators in the plastic breastplates and helmets that the boys wore as kids! For "a small donation, ma'am" they will pose with you for a photo. Helen is posing with the gladiator on the left and at the time I took this photo, had no idea that the guy with the sword was there! There were even more laughs once she turned around to see him. Each day, Hels takes a 'foot' photo and today it is taken in the amphitheatre against a piece of pink marble that has the fossil of an ammonite in it - clearly visible!

This was a special place for Helen especially who said that sitting on a marble seat that had been there for 2,000 years was amazing. The arena was being set up for a concert that night and had been used the month before for a performance of Turandot featuring none other than Placido Domingo. Tonight it's the turn of an Italian popstar (who we have never heard of!) But it is nice to see that this public space is still in use today. With the seating for the concert in the floor of the amphitheatre, it is hard to visualise the original use - the famous gladiator fights. It is a good climb, and a test of the calf muscles, to the top on those worn marble steps, but the view was certainly rewarding.

But we are here just for a quick stop, so they re-join me on the outside and we head off across the plaza for a coffee. Ah, Verona - this is where Juliet called pensively to Romeo, and we have yet to see it, so Michael rushes to feed that hungry parking meter a little more. Helen and I walk along the arcades that face in to the square to one of the gates that were the only entries into the town square - this one set with a great clock up near the crenellations on its walls. The Church that is out is the street behind it also makes a great photo. And so we walk along the former city wall to the Information Centre to find out where Juliet's balcony is. Map in hand, we wander down back streets and across plazas. We come across the house where Maria Callas once lived. We see the remains of an even earlier Roman gate - the Porta Leoni dating back to 70BC and in the square near it, part of the footings of its round towers have been excavated. Michael of course is in history heaven and really quite oblivious to us for a time!

Finally we reach Juliet's house along with the famed balcony. Of course, its really all a load of hogwash. The story is just that, a story, originally set in Siena by a writer from Verona before being adapted by Shakespeare. There is a true link though - the house is owned by the Dal Capello family (from where the Capulets got their name) since the 13th century. There are hundreds of people crammed in to the inner courtyard that has been paved with those pebbles with their edges facing up which slope into a drainage pit in the centre - killers for the tootsies!! The balcony sits up above near one corner and for a fee you can enter a museum now housed in the building and have a photo taken. No thanks, I am far more interested in the covered timbered medieval arcade at the other end of the building and the mason's marks, while Helen has her photo taken having a grope for Greg!

And so we take our leave having had a tantalising taste of Verona, but really nowhere long enough. I seem to say it every day - 'you could live a lifetime in Europe and still not see it all' and today is the epitome of this. There is so much more we could see. It would have been nice to have more time to sit and watch too, but Venice is calling, so we reluctantly move on.

We drove along the motorway from Verona headed for Venice having plotted Kate for the Hotel Adria on the mainland. Ah yes, Venice is an island! But to stay on that island we would have had to hock the car AND all Helen’s possessions! We had been forewarned by Jan and Erin back home that parking in Venice itself is a nightmare and the train system very efficient.

So following Jan and Erin’s lead we booked a hotel in Mestre on the mainland. You know, even in Mestre where we were staying, there was a traffic restricted area – of course, right where we needed to go! Still, we found the hotel thanks to their pretty good signage.
There is a public car park nearby and so we pull in there while Michael went to check if that was the parking area referred to in the reservation confirmation. The spaces are tight so Michael dives out quickly before I park. Before he is fully out of the car there is an African man helping to direct us to a spot. Aha – we know his game. Our windows are down and its only a heartbeat later that the begging starts. I just put the window up. Cruel as it may seem, this is the easiest way to deal with this issue. There are many cities in Europe where there are now signs to the effect of ‘Please do not encourage the beggars’ and often you can see the police moving them on. For those of us more fortunate than some, we might appear to be good targets for a donation. Michael arrives back to tell us that there is parking directly behind the hotel and we gladly leave the beggar and his three mates to their craft.

The Hotel Adria is beautifully clean. The room, while not big, has comfortable beds – and anyway, our aim is not to visit the hotel! There is a bus stop about 100 m down the road with tickets sold at the adjacent Tabac. We no Italiano, she no Inglesi! Thankfully a customer spoke some English and we are soon holding combined transport tickets for 36 hours at a cost of €23 each – that will last us through to 4 am Sunday if needed! Like that’s $40 Australian. Not long and we are sitting on the No 7 ActVa bus to Venice. Quite efficient with a 20 minute service too. Mind you, it is after 4 pm by now, and life is still thumping.

Mestre is a residential and commercial hub that sits just outside the Port of Venice. We cross over the main rail line that has about a dozen tracks – remember, two or three stops away is the final stop – and they can’t go any further without getting very damp wheels. That there is sufficient traffic to warrant this size of infrastructure is pretty amazing – ah, but of course, there will be freight off the port as well!!

The road runs parallel to the rail across the peninsula that extends for just under 4 kms over to the Island. Once on the island itself, it gets really really crazy! There are cars going every direction, darting across the lines of traffic without any thought for anyone’s safety! The buses hurtle through the middle of it all to a huge bus parking plaza where there are long range, tour and local buses all intermingled. And the rule here – the horn of course!!

We all disgorge from the bus – about 50 of us (yes, by the time we get on to Venice we are playing the sardine game!) and surge for the edge of the water. From here, we are but just a few steps from the famous Grande Canal of Venezia. And what a sight greets us. Think of George Street in either Sydney or Brisbane at peak hour, then double it. There are so many boats on the canal it is more than a little bewildering. We follow the crowds down to the ferries and thankfully with our tickets already in our hot little hands, are able to queue for the next ferry down the Grande Canal without having to queue to buy a ticket first. Goodie - only one queue, not two! Its hard to explain the number of people. Personal space here is almost totally non-existent. People are on you toes, in your face, and no-one could care less. And the lines are thick with people who are chatting and gesturing in a very Italian sort of way! As the ferry arrives, even before it has unloaded its cargo of humans from the last trip, our crowd billowed forward, crushing us all even closer together.

We had no real plan in our mind for this afternoon and evening. It was more of an opportunity to get a first glimpse of the 'Queen of the Adriatic' and get our bearings for a full day tomorrow. But we did want to see some of the city, knowing that again, our time is so limited. Our ticket covers us for all the buses and ferries and so we hop aboard that next one up the Grande Canal with a loose plan to ride it to the end. But of course as Pont Rialto comes in to view we know that this will be our first stop. There are a number of images that come to mind when someone says the name Venice, and this is certainly one of them.

Pont Rialto, or the Rialto Bridge is the oldest of the three bridges that cross the Grande Canal. Originally built of timber, it caved in in 1440 and was rebuilt, again in timber with the addition of shops and a mechanism that allowed the centre to be raised to allow the passage of ships. The present bridge in its current form dates to 1592. There are now a double row of shops separated by an arcade from which you can walk out on to the terraces. And what do you think those shops sell? Well, there is Venetian Glass, Murano Glass and more glass and jewellery and masks and italian leather handbags and souvenirs and more of the same and more again. And their is a hawker at every door entreating you to come and see, genuine .... Its a crazy crazy place. I do see some stunning blue Murano glass that really takes my fancy, but heck, we are off to Murano tomorrow, so I'll try there.

We had dinner at the Ristorante Florida (what the???) where our very 'slick' waiter Hero spies us looking at the menu board that is advertising a three course meal ‘touristica menu’ for €14. Wow, that is way cheaper than anything else we have seen. As there are three options, we decide to go with one of each! No sooner is our order taken, than he sits down to eat his dinner and we appear to be forgotten about. It gets quite frustrating for a while. The prima plati (first course) arrives and we are really pleased with what is put in front of us. However, the second course is a little different and Michael who has chosed the Milanese schnitzel is presented with a flat piece of 'cardboard' which does little to sate his hunger. Thankfully he has the remains of Helen's fried calamari and my roast chicken to fill the hole!

After dinner we again join the Ferry to finish our trip along the Grande Canal. The light fades into darkness and a new face of Venice shines into the night. A cleaner more sympathetic one. Everything looks nicer by night here. The lights are reflected in the inky water and with the glow of the city, the uplit domes positively shine. We exit the ferry at the last stop of San Marco and look out across into the Bacino e Canale di San Marco across to yet another small pensinsula. But what a majestic site sits there - the Church of Santa Maria della Salute just before the point which is crowned with the Punta della Dogna with its tower that holds aloft a globe supposedly meant to bring good luck. Duty on goods arriving from overseas was paid at this point.

We need to be mindful of the time. While the ferries run late into the night, the buses back to Mestre are not so frequent and the last one is at 8:20 pm. So rather than rush a glimpse of St Marks, we decide that we will spend some time there tomorrow and reluctantly head back on the next ferry. Just as well, we managed to literally just squeeze on to the 8 pm bus. Tight like those five sardines squeezed into their little tin, I don't even need to hang on. I can't fall anywhere!!! And so, back to Hotel Adria, exhausted in mind as well as body.

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