Michelangelo’s Towering Achievement

Imagine a solid block of marble, 14+ feet tall. Now imagine someone hacking away all that does not belong there, starting at the front and working to the back so that, like figure in a slowly draining bathtub, an incredible and exquisite one-piece statue emerges. This describes Michelangelo’s creation of the famous sculpture of David, the shepherd boy (ready to slay Goliath). It’s truly an awesome work and it’s just hard to imagine how it could have been created by hand. The artist did not mark up the stone, set reference points, or draw quadrants on it as some of his contemporaries did; instead he just dove into it, marble chips and dust flying, giving in entirely to the (he said) God given inspiration, working for days without end, without sleep, letting the act of creation completely consume him. In the case of David, he even used a block of marble that others had rejected as flawed and too thin. On the statue, the skin tension, the veins in the hands and arms, the sense of impending motion gives the marble a quality that is quite sublime. I spent an hour looking at this work. 
So went my visit this morning to the Accademia Gallery. The rest of the museum features more (but naturally disappointing, after the David) sculptures and more Renaissance paintings. I confess my circuits were overloaded by then and they did not get a fair viewing.
Next stop was the Duomo, the local medieval cathedral with an incredibly high and long, unsupported interior. What I could see of its famous dome from inside was beautiful but I’m afraid that I passed on the long climb up to the top: the line was very long and the 460+ steps not all that inviting.
I did take some time today to do some laundry and to check out the bus station for tomorrow’s day trip to Siena. After lunch (pizza with mushrooms and artichokes), I also visited the Museum of the History of Science, which was midly interesting but a lot like the "Mind of Da Vinci" exhibit yesterday at the Uffizi.
Here’s a shock: I think I may have overdosed on Gelato! Recent cups and cones have resulted in some stomach distress so I may have to lay off for a few days. Yes, it’s quite a deprivation, I know. And with a gellateria every twenty feet in this town (literally), it’s hard to avoid.
What, you ask, about the Pitti Palace, the Bargello Museum, the Church of Santa Maria Novella, and all those other sights? Well, I tend to look at things in museums really hard, to spend time with them, to look at the details intensely. This is satisfying but also contributes to a phenomenon known as "museum fatigue". After a few hours of this concentrated attention it feels like my eyeballs are about to fall out. So, I don’t go into my tourist role with the notion, as I know some of you do, that I’m only here once and, by golly, I’m going to see it all. Instead, I pick the top sights, see them at my own pace and with due attention, and figure I’ll see the rest on my next few visits. Vive l’difference, eh?
So, friends, tomorrow I’m off by bus for a day in Siena, a hilltop town that was once larger than Paris and was once Florence’s main commercial and political rival. The Black Plague wiped out 1/3 of the town and it never recovered and, consequently, its an excellently-preserved medieval town. It was an interest in going to Siena, in fact, that sparked my whole visit to Italy.

Venus On The Half Shell

On every trip, we reach a point where your reporter reaches cultural overload; where I just run out of adjectives. I think we may have reached that point today, so bear with me, dear reader.
First, a correction: last night’s restaurant was actually Osteria del Porcellino (writing these blog entries after having enjoyed the excellent red wine leaves some opportunities for errors to creep in).
So, today I went to the Uffizi Gallery, the world’s greatest collection of Italian painting, and it was a mind-blower. The collection traces the rise of realism and humanism and the optimistic spirit of The Renaissaince. I found this passage that may explain it all:
"My eyes love things that are fair,
And my soul for salvation cries.
But neither will to heaven rise,
Unless the sight of Beauty lifts them there."
    – Michelangelo
In other words, religion was not enough to ensure salvation, one had to appreciate art as one of God’s gifts to man in order to reach true nirvana. Finally, a liturgy I can get onboard with – groovey, baby!
The nice Uffizi ticket reservation system, which I took advantage of months ago, saved me hours in line this morning. I picked up my reserved ticket, went to the special separate entry door and, before I knew it, I was strolling among the works Bottecelli, Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo, and others. The Medici family, which ruled and influenced all things Florentine for generations, were fabulous art patrons and they commissioned or supported many of the works on display.
My favorite painting in this collection was Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Anyone familiar with Adobe PhotoShop has seen this work (on the software startup screen), also known as "Venus on the Half Shell",  and it was great to see it in person. The colors, the textures, the scale, and subject are all amazing. I spent quite a bit of time getting a real good dose of this one. The Uffizi itself is quite a work of architecture and the ceiling treatments, frescoes, and decorative elements are a wonder all by themselves, even without the hundreds of paintings and dozens of sculptures. I spent about 3 hours there and was captivated every moment. Sometimes you just feel blessed to have been in such a place, basking in the genuis of men from so long ago.
If that was not enough, there was almost an entire floor dedicated to a special exhibit entitled "The Mind of Leonardo" which does a superb job of explaining the products of Da Vinci’s genius. Based on his codexes, or work notebooks, concepts such as the essential ratios of the body (the heighth of the body is 7 times the length of the foot), elements of flight, the math of forced perspective, hydrology, and many others. I’m beginning to give credence to the theory that the man was a stranded extraterrestrial.
I cleared my brain with a post-Uffizi stroll across the Ponte Vecchio – another one of these bridges lined with shops (in this case mostly jewelry stores) and lunch at a tavola calda (literally, a "hot plate"), a kind of buffet setup where you can direct the creation of your meal (in my case, a great salad).
After lunch I went to the Church of San Croce (no relation to Jim Croce) which features the burial site of Galileo. If you read the great book Galileo’s Daughter you know that in old age he got into hot water with The Church for embracing the idea that the Earth circled the Sun. His fame and accomplishments saved him from death but when he died he was not allowed to be buried in a consecrated place. The greatest part of the story is that, after Galielo’s death, his faithful manservant swore to see him properly buried and caused every following generation to take an oath to it. Finally, four generations later, the manservant’s descendant got Galileo’s remains moved into the same crypt as Galileo’s daughter, a nun, in this church, San Croce. It’s a wonderful story and Galileo is in good company now: the church also holds the remains of Michelangelo (it was his "neighborhood church" growing up), Michiavelli, Dante (he was banished, so no actual remains), and Rossini (composer of many great operas and The William Tell Overture).
For dinner, I sought out some "comfort food"; less expensive fare than last night’s dining blowout and found myself at The Old Stove, an Irish bar, for a couple of pints and a sandwhich. Though no one there at all was actually Irish, the food and drink were excellent and cheap.
Here’s a comment on hotel elevators, with special emphasis for my two beautiful daughters, Sarah and Lindsay: each hotel I’ve stayed in on this trip has featured successively smaller elevators (smaller, girls, than the one in our hotel in Paris). I estimate the size of the one in Hotel Pendini here in Florence to be 5′ x 2.5′. Still beats hauling the suitcase up 5 floors, however.
Tomorrow: the Accademia (with Michelangelo’s David) and the Duomo (with its amazing dome).

In Lovely Florence

There’s a certain simplicity to things in Europe. Train stations, for example, are very simple: walk in the front, pass by the tabachi (magazine stand) and walk out on the platforms. No airport-style waiting rooms, no security checks, no shopping mall. So it was easy for me to find my Eurostar train this morning and be on my way to Florence. Oddly enough, there are also no conductors checking your ticket as you board and you could be halfway to somewhere else before discovering you’re on the wrong train. Generally, a lot of things in Europe operate on this kind of semi-honor system – you’re expected to have your ticket but there are no ticket takers checking each person. There are instead occasional rail car sweeps in which tickets are demanded for inspection with very stiff fines if you don’t have one. This is true on trains, buses, boats and probably lots of other places as well. It cuts down on staff requirements and thus costs and speeds up the process of going anywhere. A great system but it would never work in the U.S. because someone would claim that their rights were being violated, of course.
The Eurostar train was clean, comfortable (in 1st Class) and fast and the 3-hour trip to Florence was just 38€ or about $42; a bargain by most standards. A quick taxi ride (oy, what a plunge back into the car culture) to my hotel and voila! I was ready to go exploring in Florence. Most of the city’s tourist attractions are grouped around the old town core and a "pedestrian-friendly" zone that keeps private cars out of the area. There are still plenty of taxis, delivery trucks, bicycles, scooters, and other 3- and 4-wheel vehicles to keep you on your toes when crossing streets, however.
Large areas in this zone are set aside for outdoor market stalls and leather goods seem to be a big sales item here. This is densely commercial tourism and quite unlike Venice. I prowled around and got my bearings, sized up some of tomorrow’s destinations, and then went back to the hotel for an hour of rest until dinner time.
I had dinner tonight at Osteria di Pecorino and it was a very nice meal. I started with a salad of feta cheese and melon pieces with basi, moved on to gnocchi with tomato sauce and mozzarella, and then the main event: shredded chicken with crispy-fried baby artichoke hearts. Finished up up with creme brule and accompanied it all with the fine house red wine. There is a certain rhythm to Italian meals and you are expected to linger. There is none of this "turn over the table" pressure you find in the U.S.; I was at mine for 2.5 hours and during that time no other table in the place had changed diners either. A different dining attitude is required because the staff is very fast at taking orders and getting food and drink out but they slow down quite a bit when it comes to dessert, coffee, and the bill. You will do no one any good by being antsy. I enjoyed every bite and waddled over here to the Internet cafe with a smile on my face and my wallet 52€ lighter (which was quite reasonable).
Tomorrow: the Uffizi Gallery and my absolute favorite Botticelli painting.

Farewell to Venice

Morning was a great time for beating the crowds at the Accademia Gallery, St. Mark’s Basilica, and the Guggenheim Collection yesterday, as I did. The art was very interesting and the architecture amazing. I’m not a huge medieval art fan but it’s fascinating to see the artists working with 3-D perspective and often large-scale works.
Venice, as mentioned earlier, has no vehicles. Even bicycles are banned, which I guess makes growing up here tough on a kid. As a matter of fact, the population is shrinking and aging and the government subsidizes rents to encourage people to stay in Venice. The water buses are the equivalent of a subway system and very convenient once you get the hang of it. It’s interesting to watch the pas de deux between the boat captain jockeying the throttle and the conductor with his deck line when docking at a stop; but it’s all very smooth, born no doubt out of long experience.
The area around the Rialto Bridge is just the worst, most touristy place in Venice (worse, I think, than St. Mark’s). You may know that one of my pet peeves is people who stop dead in the mouth of an escalator and, sadly, that spirit is alive and well here in Venice. People just stop in the middle of bridges, sidewalks, wherever, alone and in groups, with suitcases, boxes, dogs, and decide to consult their maps, take their pictures, enjoy the view, etc. The resulting pedestrian traffic clog is just amazing.
I spent the afternoon wandering and got well away from the tourist areas. Venice is an island, after all, so it’s impossible to really get lost but it was great to just roam without a care. The weather was great, another 75-degree day with clear, clear blue skies. I had lunch in a neighborhood cafe with no name and my flawless Italian fooled the locals for .001 seconds. Luckily, the locals were friendly and welcoming and the sandwich was excellent (there’s nothing like having to choke down lousy food so as not to offend the locals).
What do I now have in common with Hemingway, Chaplin, Capote, Byron, and Welles? After a brief late afternoon rest, I dressed for dinner and headed out to Harry’s Bar, which all of the above and many other glitterati have frequented. It’s small and expensive but the bartender uses unorthodox and highly entertaining techniques. I had my requisite one cocktail (a tiny martini served in an oversized shot glass for 14 euros), took in the abience (white dinner jacketed staff vs. good awful attired tourists) and headed off for dinner.
My thanks to my friends Joanie and Chuck Tooley of Montana for their recommendation of the restaurant Al Peoceto Risorto, where I had dinner. Located west of the Rialto Bridge, adjacent to the fresh food market, I had a great meal there. One thing about Italian food: restaurants serve meals made with the best ingredients the chef could find that day, not with the leftover stuff from the weekend. The results are that each bite deserves attention and focus and is really wonderful. My test of an Italian kitchen is to order a pasta course of pasta aglia olio (basic pasta with garlic and oil). If you can’t make that correctly, you’re lost. Last night’s dish included a touch of chili and was perfecto. Veal Scallopine with Lemon Sauce, a mixed salad and, of course, bread completed my meal. I finished off with a flan-like confection that was heaven. The vaporetto ride home in the dark with all the lights reflecting off the Grand Canal was lovely.
I have concurred that Venice just might dethrone Paris as my choice for the world’s most romantic city. The ambience is just right for romance. For example, everyone holds hands here: husbands and wives, husbands and someone else’s wife, couples, women, mothers and daughters. 
I’ll do some more wandering today and hope for another good meal tonight. Tomorrow, I’ll bid a reluctant farewell to Venice and head by high-speed Eurostar train to Florence with it’s promise of great art. It will seem odd getting back to a place where there are cars. Venice has been a marvelous experience and I hope you’ll stay with me as I head south! Ciao for now…

Italian Opera For Me

Sometimes you just get lucky. Months ago I determined via Internet that all tickets for an opera performance at Venice’s amazing La Fenice Opera House during my stay were sold out. However, hoping I might scoop up a cancellation or something I went by the box office 3 hours before the show yesterday and wound up with a front row seat in the Royal Box for the matinee! The Royal Box is THE BEST seat in the house (which I shared with 12 others) and the experience and performance were fabulous. The opera was Verdi’s "Luisa Miller", featuring the classic opera themes: wronged lovers, blackmail, seduction, miscommunications, suicides, and eventual retribution (no happy ending though). The opera house is unbelievably ornate and throughout intermission folks kept coming up to have a look at and through the Royal Box. The music and singing were wonderful, the production design was spare, stark, and very clever, and I was in heaven for 2.5 hours. The Royal Box even has a private exit which bypasses the throngs in the lobby for a quick after show getaway. 
And now, some Venice observations:
– Italy requires you to show some ID, like a passport, which is photocopied, before you can use the Internet (at your hotel or Internet cafe alike).
– Red wine is frequently served chilled here and it’s refreshing.
– A meal ends with a dessert and then later coffee or tea (not served together as in the US).
– The "bar" at a restaurant may just be the front counter where the cash register is and dining room patrons often have to wend their way between bar patrons to get to a table. Bar patrons may actually spill out into the street if space is tight.
– There is no smoking now inside Italian bars and restaurants which has made for a much nicer eating experience.
– Stores are incredibly energy conscious. For example, at the Internet cafe they even turn off the Coke machine overnight.
– Think of all the things that are delivered by truck in your neighborhood; now consider that all those things have to be delivered by boat and handtruck in Venice. You see delivery boats with all sorts of stuff piled on them in the canal. There’s even a UPS boat.

As I feared, most Internet cafes are not interested in allowing me to install the MSN Spaces tool that you need to have in order to upload pictures taken with my camera to this blog. I’ll continue to post or provide links to pictures already on the web (and I’ll keep asking about the installation – maybe I’ll get lucky again).


Venice Delights

Venice is beautiful –  I’m writing to you from "La Serrenissima" and enjoying myself quite a bit. Getting here was a job but all is fine now that the jet lag has faded. What a place – the fantastical architecture, the canals, the gondolas, even the sunlight – all create the impression of being someplace special.
Internet Cafes are, surprisingly, not very common here and though my hotel is equipped, I thought I’d not hog their one computer for this post. I’m also using a non-US keyboard so bear with me if there are any weird typos.
My frequent flyer-provided 1st class ticket on Virgin Ailines was a little disappointing. The service and food was great as always but Virgin has installed these "fold flat" seats that didn’t work well for me. They’re arranged in a herringbone pattern inside the plane which actually decreases your privacy and places "walls" on each side of your seat which, though low, seemed confining to me. And, across from me was a coulple that stayed up all night yapping which kept me awake part of the time.
So I didn’t really enjoy the flight much. The Revivals Lounge at Heathrow, with its private bathroom, shower, and breakfast buffet was very appreciated, however. Then I caught a Baby BMI flight for Venice (which included a 35 minute delay due to "European air traffic congestion") and, after an inflight nap or two, was soon in Italy. The Marco Polo Airport is actually on the mainland so I had to take a bus to the Piazzale Roma terminal on the island of Venice. From there I boarded a vaporetto (water bus), lugging my suitcase aboard the boat, and eventually made it to San Marco Plaza. Pulling your wheeled suitcase over pavers and cobble stones is a treat and you have to carry it over bridges, which typically have steps – so packing light is recommended. At last, I gratefully made it to Hotel Campiello, located on the Calle di Vin (street of wine – imagine that), and its welcome air conditioning, at about 5 PM.
European hotel rooms are somewhat different than American rooms. The toilet, for example features two different flush buttons, each dispensing a different amount of water. The bidet, which I’ve never used, is a regular feature, of course. The shower, which in many European hotels can leave a lot to be desired, is excellent here at the Hotel Campiello. Naturally, the whole bathroom and bedroom are small by our standards but that’s okay with me. I have a nice window out onto the street and the room is clean.
My initial foray into San Marco Plaza started with a dinner of pizza and wine on a little backstreet in a tiny restaurant. Both were excellent and the house red wine, without any sulfites, was tasty. Doesn’t sound like a very adventurous menu, does it? Well, when I travel my eating schedule gets thrown off and sometimes you just need to get some food into you, which was the case last night. As for San Marco itself, my initial reactions: beautiful architecture, tons of tourists, almost as many *&$/!# pigeons, wonderful open air seating at 7 restaurants, each with a 3-4 piece band playing, and good gelato.
In the evening, the women all dress up very nicely for dinner and their boyfriends/husbands toss on a clean shirt over their jeans and tennis shoes. I concur with my friends who’ve been here and reported that the women are beautiful and very fashion-conscious.
It is interesting to be in a city with no cars or other motorized vehicles. Not even bicycles. Walking everywhere is fun, the streets and plazas are well-marked and nowhere is too far to go. I’m off now to find La Fenice, the famous opera house, and perhaps get a backstage tour. So, more notes and perhaps some pictures tomorrow.

Ready for Italy

Italy! Who can resist the call of a country that was the home of the mighty Roman Empire, overflows with great food and wine, and was the cradle of so much great art, literature, and music? Certainly not me, so tonight I’ll be flying out on Virgin Air (my favorite airline) to London then on to fabulous Venice.
My itinerary features Venice, Florence, and Rome, with stops in Paris and London on the way home. I hope to see a lot of great art, will be attending some operas, and seek to understand the Italian experience. As usual, I’ve depended on the reliable Rick Steves guidebooks and have made extensive use of the Internet to make arrangements. I’ll be traveling solo this time and will miss the company of my beautiful daughters, Sarah and Lindsay, who frequently travel with me (sorry girls, definitely next time).
So, if you are so inclined, you can be my vicarious traveling companion right here. I’ll be relying on Internet cafes and so my postings my not be quite as regular as they have been for domestic trips. In addition, it may be harder to post pictures so bear with me. I may just include links to pictures that others have taken so that you can at least see what I’ve seen.
Ciao for now, baby!