Monday, October 27, 2008

Venice - City of Water and Romance

I'm always excited when starting on a new city blog post - there's this inexplicable thrill of venturing into unchartered territories (like I'm some explorer) and the realisation that I'm finally making some progress on the travel blogging.

When we first arrived at Venice's train station (soon after leaving Florence on the same day), we were greeted by a pungent smell, akin to the sewage, wafting from the nearby canal. Doesn't make for a very welcoming first impression does it? haha. It was already late evening, but most shops were still open. Hence, on our way to our hostel, while lugging our backpacks/luggages, we stopped by a shop to grab some sandwiches for dinner.

Our hostel was a 20mins' walk away, tucked away in an alley a little off the main pavement beside the main canal. The owners were very friendly people, who spoke very good English and were very helpful in recommending places to visit. Our room was a cozy 3 bedder, with a nearby toilet/bathroom just outside the room, shared by 3 other rooms on this floor.


Outside of our hostel



The iron gates leading to our room; Mr Irish figuring out how to open the door to the reception.

They say Venice is famed for its network of waterways, and they were right. Canals and bridges were transversing the entire city. The canal outside the train station was impressively large, there was a large canal on our right while we trudged to our hostel and another small one outside our hostel. The pavements were cobble stoned, just like in most other Italian cities we visited.

We had only 2 days in Venice, and for the first day, after recommendation from the hostel reception, we decided to visit Murano, a Venetian island renowned for glass-making. It happens that there was strike staged by the water taxi drivers in Venice, so we could not board a water taxi at the stand outside the train station. For some reason that I cannot remember, we walked to a remote stand on the other side of the island, and we were able to board another water taxi to get to Murano instead (probably an independent water taxi operator).


Enroute to the water taxi stand to Murano



Welcome to Murano!


It was a hot, hot day in Murano


The island of Murano, like Venice, comprises an intricate network of waterways and bridges



Our scrumptious lunch ala al frescoe at little restaurant in Murano.
The service was impeccable too, unlike some restaurants in the cities we earlier visited


According to Wiki, Murano became the island of glass makers after the glass makers were asked to move their factories previously located in Venice to Murano, for fear of fires. The glassware in Murano is world renowned, with many merchants elsewhere in the world touting their wares to be made in Murano, although it may not always be the case.





The lovely window displays at the Murano shops. I'm in love with half the things inside!


The delicate flowers in the flower boxes were made of glass!


Kungfu dragons =)


The fabulous blue sculpture behind us is made of glass

Murano was a shopping haven, everything a girl could not resist. There were pretty things everywhere - Glass sculptures of every imaginable shapes and sizes, lovely glass ornaments and trinkets, mosaic tiles for crafty DIY projects, chandeliers. The jewelry crafters in Ms Rehau and me couldn't resist spending our Euros on those beautiful glass pendents. Well even guys can't resist the beautiful glassware. Mr Irish bought some glass ornaments himself. *stifles grin*

Our only regret was that we didn't manage to visit any of the glass factories there for a tour, because we didn't know if it's permissible in the first place.



View from our ride back




Back in Venice, we found Venice at dusk and nightfall to be very alluring. Check out the following pictures for the proof!



There were several cozy diners along this canal. Pity we haven't got the time to try any of them.





Sunset by the canal closest to our hostel


The same spot, some minutes later


Twilight descending, some more minutes later




Venice truly lived up to my prior romantic perception of the city - captivating scenery, and laid back, idllyic vibe. Oh, did I mention that we saw some really good looking Italian gentlemen lounging by the diners too? At least, we assumed they are Italians, they could be tourists, for all we know. =)

Venice had woven a dreamy cloak of romance on *starry eyed* moi.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Last Museum Stop in Italy - Palazzo Pitti

You're going to have to forgive me for this relatively short post. For some reason, I seem to be missing some photos taken on this last day in Florence. Without photos to remind me, I am quite, quite lost. You'd want to take it from me - never blog about a trip more than 2 months after the occurrence, you'd need a photographic memory to remember the details. That's why photos are SO important. I practically rely on them (aside from some short notes) to jog my memory.

Our last day in Florence was spent at Palazzo Pitti (Palace Pitti), a palace owned by the famous Medici family (mentioned in a previous post).


Outside the Palazzo Pitti


Mr Irish atop the Palazzo's friendly resident tortoise

As you can see, the Pitti Palace is a severe and formidable looking building.

The Palace's 1st floor houses the Palatine Gallery, which contains a large collection of Renaissance art which were once owned by the Medici's and their successors'. The works include those by Raphael (he's everywhere!), Titian, Caravaggio, Fillipo Lippi, Rubens, Pietro da Cortona. Same as the Uffizi, our cameras could not see the light of day while we were in the gallery. And that would pretty much explain the lack of photos for this day.

Thinking that we're be getting useful information from buying the gallery's guidebook, we each bought one at 10 Euros a-piece. Not a good buy, I must say. We found that this book is nowhere as informative or useful as the Uffizi guidebook. There weren't nearly enough artworks featured in the book, and the descriptions accompanying each featured artworks were rather short on the details, which wasn't helpful in giving us an insight into the paintings' symbolic meanings or the artists' minds as we viewed the pieces.




Compared to the Uffiz, characterised by its massiveness and art treasures bursting at the seams, the Gallery just seemed to pale in comparison. The art works weren't nearly as spectacular nor memorable. Not that I profess to be a very knowledgeable art aficionado, but I did not catch sight of any famous works at the Gallery that were already known to me prior to the visit. This is in contrast to the Uffizi, where I had seen some renowned works of which I already had prior knowledge of. This is the reason why I am unable to tell you of any particular artwork that left a lasting imprint on me, unlike Boticelli's works from the Uffizi. Yes, it's very sad. :-(

We also visited a section in the Palace, known as the Royal Apartments. This is a suite of 14 rooms, formerly used by the Medici family, and lived in by their successors. The rooms were richly furnished, with gilded cornices and chandeliers, fine carpeting, luxurious silk-covered walls and four poster beds. Frankly it seems very pompous to me, but I supposed this is to be expected, from the residence of the most powerful rulers in Florence.

There were many other rooms we did not cover in the Palace, but it wasn't something I was regretful for. Besides, we have a train to catch to our next destination. Where's that, you may ask. The romantic Venice.


If you ask me, Palazzo Pitti is overrated.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Stimulate Your Mind by Surfing the Web?

Caught sight of this intriguing article in Digital Life, Straits Times this week.

Extracted:

A study done in Los Angelos found that the act of searching the Internet simulates key parts of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning.

The researchers observed that during Web searching, subjects registered more high-order brain activity than that registered during book reading and that web-savvy subjects had twice the amount of brain activity during Web searching compared those who were unfamiliar with the Internet.

Isn't this great news for most of us? We can now indulge in guilt-free web surfing, and still be mentally stimulated, compared to reading a book. For me, I still like a good, old fashioned book. But that's just me.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Old Habits Are Hard to Break

That habit is sleeping late. Yes, almost everyone I know is guilty of that.

It's mandatory to break this no-good habit because circumstances have changed for me now. Now I've got to rise and shine at 7am, whereas I used to habitually turn in at 2am every night (and wake up at 12 noon, hah!). I can't survive on 5 hours of sleep everyday, it's unheard of (I am a pig who needs at least 8 hours, else you'd see a very grouchy me emerge)!

Besides, there are tons of benefits to getting sufficient sleep (7-9 hours). Top 10 reasons, in fact, according to about.com.

1. Keeps Your Heart Healthy

2. May Prevent Cancer

3. Reduces Stress


4. Reduces Inflammation

- which causes deterioration of the body as it ages


5. Makes You More Alert

6. Bolsters Your Memory

7.
Reduce Your Risk for Depression

8.
Helps the Body Make Repairs

And if the following reasons don't convince you, I don't know what will!

9.
Naps Make You Smarter

10.
May Help You Lose Weight

So now, I'm trying to turn in at 12am and get at least that requisite 7 hours. Still a huge, huge effort. I always lie there for at least 30mins, fully aware of my surroundings before eventually dozing of. Well, I can only try.

Have a good night's sleep, people!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Hmmm...that tower's shorter than expected

7th day in Europe, 3rd day in Florence.

We're off to the city of Pisa, an hour's train ride from Florence. We located the tourist office in Pisa, obtained the tourist map, and made our way to the Field of Miracles, (it's a nice name, isn't it?) where the leaning tower is located. The city of Pisa is very small - the southern edge of the city centre is the Pisa centrale, where our train arrived at, the international airport is just 2km further south, and its places of interest are situated mostly at the historical centre. Hence it is easy to get around the city by walking, though comfortable shoes are a must, due to the cobble-stoned paths.

Pisa Centrale Train Station

On the way to the Field of Miracles (about a 20mins' walk), we saw the following sights.



On a bridge towards the Leaning Tower, with the church of St Sixtus in the horizon



Spotted this overgrown backyard of someone's house while walking past this residential area


A Duomo spied in the horizon

The leaning tower, at last.

From this perspective it doesn't look so leaning, does it? It leans at an angle of 3.97 deg, btw.

As we all know, the tower's inclination was not deliberate. According to Wiki, it started to lean due to a poorly laid foundation. Fortunately, because work had to be halted as the Pisans were engaged in battle with people from other cities, the soil beneath the tower was given time to settle, hence preventing the tower from toppling. Perhaps if the tower weren't leaning, it wouldn't have enjoyed its current fame. I was quite surprised to note that the tower was shorter than I expected. Given the predominantly low Italian skyline, I guess this is considered a rarity already.

As everyone knows, this is where NO self-respecting tourist would walk away the leaning tower without doing that pose for the camera. You know, that pose with hands pretending to push against the tower, complete with that look of utmost concentration on the face? Yes, that pose.

Yes, we are self-respecting tourists =)

The partially restored baptistery and cathedral

A very elaborate cathedral door

We did not climb up the leaning tower, because 1) The leaning tower had an entrance fee, 2) It's not that high, 3) Who wants to climb the leaning tower when you can climb up the baptistery and see the leaning tower on the opposite side?

I am not too sure myself, but I think the style of the cathedral, could be a cross between Renaissance and Gothic. Renaissance because of its classically styled columns and hemispherical domes; and Gothic because of its stained glass windows.


First glimpse of the cathedral


Beautiful stained glass windows that tell stories of old biblical themes


A statue of Madonna and child

An intricately sculpted pulpit from which the priest preaches




These were the paintings decorating the cathedral. I'm not sure who the artists were.





The Baptistery, just behind the Cathedral, was pretty small, and had an echo-y emptiness to it. In fact, to demonstrate the acoustics of the Baptistery, this person minding the Baptistery took to the "centre stage" and started humming. All the tourists milling around literally stopped in their tracks to take in the wonderful harmony. The acoustics was wonderful and I felt like I was treated to a miniature acapella performance of sorts.



Dome of the Baptistery


The "centre stage"


Down the stairs from the top of the Baptistery.
The no. of stairs aren't as daunting as the Bell Tower in Florence
!




We got quite hungry after all that sight seeing and so we walked southwards, along a less crowded stretch to find a nice cafe for lunch. The most memorable thing about lunch, aside from the delicious food, was a pretty heated discussion we had about food wastage. Ms Rehau and I against Mr Irish. Guess who took the stance that food wastage was alright? hah. Anyway, it was a good discussion that certainly livened lunch and brought forth our debating predilection.




After lunch, we walked back to the Field of Miracles where we entered the reputedly "the most beautiful cemetery in the world", Camposanto Monumentale (according to Mr Irish's guide book). Hmmm... I haven't been to enough cemeteries to verify that claim.

There were a huge collection of sarcophagi around the building, as well as many wall frescoes, some of which were damaged by the fire that occurred in 1944. Restoration had been done, but the ravages of the fire were still apparent on some.


The exterior of the Cemetery


We rushed quickly ahead of the initial throng of tourists entering the cemetery to ensure that we were able to take pictures of the empty hall





Statue of Leonardo Fibonacci, that mathematical genius born in Pisa, whose namesake was used for the Fibonacci number sequence, though it was not discovered by him

The interior


A lovely rose in bloom in the cemetery's central green patch


The restored wall frescoe

Took more pictures after exiting the Cemetery.


The cathedral





I couldn't resist taking this shot of the cute kid throwing a tantrum

More lazing on the field, with the cool breeze in our hair and feel-good grass beneath us. Apparently, the grass appears to lose colour on Mr Irish's jeans for some reason (but not ours)...







This is hilarious. Look at that girl behind Mr Irish doing the pose in unison with his pose



On our way back to the train station, we swung by this building that is also supposedly slightly leaning, like the leaning tower (according to Irish's guidebook again). Makes me wonder if there is something intrinsically wrong with the architects there.... hmmmm...



I can't tell if this building is leaning, can you?

River Arno runs through Pisa, cutting it into 2

A peaceful demonstration cum performance along Pisa's shopping belt

I like Pisa - it's nice and laid back!

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