Saturday, February 28, 2015

Murano and Burano

Having been to Venice a few times now, we decided to shake things up and check out the islands of Murano and Burano. They are accessible by water bus, and I highly recommend planning your travel times around off hours to avoid getting crammed on the boat like a sardine.

Murano

Murano is famous for it's glass works. Here you can find bright, compressed, rainbow colored floral designs on jewelry, plates, and frames. Bold, swirling glass chandeliers hang in shops. Bottle toppers, public art, and figurines abound. Alas, I left with nothing. Anything definitely hand made was out of my budget, while the affordable stuff was imported from China. In the end I didn't know enough to make a smart purchase.

Emily was a handful today, so our time on Murano was pretty short, though we did have a nice picnic lunch in a quiet piazza.

Burano

I loved Burano. The island is known for its lace making and brightly painted buildings. Lime green, lavender, canary yellow, cerulean blue. Covered passageways off the canal lead to houses looking out on the sea. Shops overflow with linens and souvenirs. A great place to wander with a gelato.

I mean, come on! So pretty!

I wish we had more time to do the islands right and see everything. If I had any recommendation, it's give yourself a half day on each to soak it all in.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Firenze

With a few days free and nothing to do, we decided recently to take a last minute overnight trip back to Florence. We did things a little differently this time, and it really made everything go much smoother. The high speed train got us there in just over an hour and a half, and with the wifi on board, it was a very quiet trip thanks to cartoons on youtube and a set of headphones.

Our first stop was the Palazzo Vecchio.

This is a secret room off the main salone.

A Donatello in one of the apartment rooms of Elenora, wife of Cosimo de' Medici. You can get a nice tour here.

From there we wandered over the Ponte Vecchio.

I just found out that love locks will get you a ticket, so we definitely didn't leave one anywhere on one of the most romantic spots in Florence.

Later in the evening we decided to check out Giotto's Tower, the bell tower of the Duomo. Given that it was after dark, in the off season, and a little rainy and cold, we had the whole thing almost completely to ourselves. It's over 400 steps to the top with terraces to stop along the way. Emily had a blast climbing the stairs with Daddy and checking the doors along the way for ghosts.

The following morning we walked over to a small cafe for a traditional breakfast of pastries and espresso, peeked in the Baptistry and Duomo then made our way over to Santa Croce.

Emily's favorite part of the day was jumping in muddy puddles like Peppa Pig.

This is the tomb of Michelangelo. This is one of those things I still can't believe I can just go see. There it is, the tomb of one of the masters of the Renaissance, no big deal!

There is a small chapel on the church grounds that Cody really wanted to see. Emily was getting worn out and asked if we could go back to the hotel instead. The hotel! We were so absorbed in our little outing before checkout that we completely forgot to return and at 5 to 11, we decided to call in for a late checkout-no dice! Check out was not at the usual 11, but rather 1030. We scooped up Emily and ran through the streets of Florence, shoved everything into our backpacks and scrambled up the stairs to the reception desk where a very kind man apologized to us. The other clerk forgets to tell people all the time. Thank god. Whew. Breathe. No double charge or berating. Florence, why must you be so beautiful and distracting?

Back in the Duomo neighborhood, we walked over to Basilica of San Lorenzo. It's the resting place of several of the Medici family, and the family crest can be seen everywhere.

photo credit

This is the Old Sacristy inside the basilica. It was built by Brunelleschi. The Decoration is the work of Donatello.

With some time to kill we had a good lunch and wandered around, pretty much churched out. We took a long break some time after that at McDonald's, tired and out of things we wanted to or could do. It was too cold and wet for any of the outdoor kid stuff I bookmarked but we still had a few hours to kill. We eventually walked back out to the street. Huh. One of those dumb, tacky red sightseeing buses. And it leaves in one minute. And no one is on board. And it returns at exactly the time we need to be back at the train station across the street. And it goes past the very last place Cody wanted to see that we weren't going to get to because of the rain and distance. Fine, I suppose we could lower ourselves to such measures. I stayed on the lower deck to chill out with the audio guide while they hung out on the open top deck. We saw Galileo's house, Piazzale Michelangelo, the broad avenues that replaced the historic ghetto and city walls, and the English cemetery in the center of a roundabout where the likes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and other famous foreigners of the 19th century are buried. It was a nice way to see the major points of the city and take some weight off my back, but I'm still not proud of using a tourist trap bus!

So that was our second trip to Firenze. Romantic, not too crowded, and fascinating as ever.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Authentic Italian Recipes and Cooking Classes

I just found out about Cooking with Lucas, which offers small cooking classes in downtown Vicenza. I definitely want to sign up for this. Cooler still is Lucas posts his recipes after the classes wrap. These are great examples of typical dishes you find in Italian restaurants and bars. Check it out:

Arancini Siciliani I see this in self-serve restaurants and snack bars a lot.

Pear fagottini with Gorgonzola sauce

Cool, right? Locals, comment if you've taken this class, and non-locals let me know if you try anything.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Berlin

I've always wanted to see Berlin. So much has happened there over the last hundred years and remnants of its complicated history are everywhere, as memorials among new apartments and restaurants where the old city was destroyed. These little memorials came in all all manner of surprising ways, like when I realized the occasional brass cobblestones on the sidewalk were etched with the names of victims of the Holocaust, presumably where they one lived. Or the souvenir shop baring the scars of a shelling, and of course the recreated Checkpoint Charlie flanked with a touristy museum and McDonald's, cars whizzing by under the neon.

We were also there for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I wish I could say it was on purpose, but it was really just dumb luck. It was incredible to see thousands and thousands of people fill the streets to be part of the celebrations.

The evening of our arrival, we did what has turned into a tradition and grabbed some Indian food then took off for a long walk down Friedrichstrasse to see what we could find.

The Spree River

I happened to glance to my right and saw the Brandenburg Gate lit up in the distance. The platz was filled with people. We encountered a crowd gathered in front of a hotel with camera phones held high for a chance to see Mikhail Gorbachev. I didn't see a possibility that he was going to walk out and address the crowd, so we wandered over to see the history displays.

Crowd watching an eerily scored film about the wall.

We crossed the gate to see the set up for the following evening's performances. Glowing balloons lined the street in front of the stage following the general path of the old Berliner Mauer.

Neues Museum

The following morning, after getting hopelessly lost though only a mere kilometer away, we visited the Neues museum to see the famous and stunning bust of Nefertiti.

We weren't allowed to photograph the bust itself, but wow. The lines, the curves, the color. I don't think I have seen a piece of sculpture quite like it.

This Roman piece was discovered in Germany. It was used to hold a tray of hors d'oeuvres at parties.

Shelling inside the museum.

By the time we left and headed over to a nearby street fair, the weather had turned from pretty chilly to the particular brand of biting cold that I've only experienced in Germany and we cut out early to find extra layers for Emily and an easy lunch that she would definitely eat. That ended up taking us to McDonald's which is gross and shameful of course, but at least led us to this moving and educational public artwork-one of the many Jewish memorials we found around Berlin. It tells the story, one I've never heard, about the Kindertransport. Children were sent away to Britain by way of Holland as refugees after the pogrom of November 1938 (Kristallnacht). Though they were saved and survived the war, it was still a complicated experience. Some children found decent foster families waiting to take them in, while others were taken into homes only to be exploited as servants. The lucky ones were reunited with surviving or distant relatives after the war. Others were left with no one, and still forced out of their temporary homes.

"Trains to Life, Trains to Death" by Frank Meisler, a kindertransport survivor.

25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

In the evening we plopped Emily in her stroller and joined the crowds on the eastern side of Brandenburg Gate, with the intention of working our way over to the other side to see bands play, see politicians speak, and join in the revelry. Uh, yeah, that wasn't going to happen. There were thousands of people trying to do the same thing, and while I was happy to be there with so many people who lived through life in a divided Berlin and celebrate with them, I don't know why I thought we had any chance of getting a good view. We very quickly came across a barricade and slowly worked our way down to the next block to get around and over. Another barricade. One more block. One more barricade. The third try took us a block up to yet another barricade but at least parallel to the gate, three city blocks away. There was a big screen we could sort of see, so we decided to sit tight there for another half hour or so. Near the event's start time, the polizei began making announcements, at first gentle encouragements, then an order, to move back toward Potsdamer Platz. No one in the massive crowd moved at first.

Only when it became apparent that all we would be able to hear were muffled booms from the speakers did people finally give up and disperse. We followed the road to a less crowded intersection just beyond Potsdamer Platz at hung out to see the release of the Wall of Light. While there, I spoke to an older man who told me what that random corner was like in the '70s when he was there a lot. He pointed to the two-wide cobblestone line that marked where the wall ran (the light display would have gone through new construction) and said there was nothing really around there except a recording studio. My ears perked up. I knew David Bowie recorded Heroes in West Berlin. The song is perhaps the most famous recording about the Wall in pop culture, and omgDAVIDBOWIE, so we bid adieu and went to check it out while we waited.

Hansa Tonstudio. You can book tours. If only we had more time!

Finally crowds in Potdamer Platz began to cheer. The symbols of a hopeful future for a united Berlin sailed into the night, one by one as everyone applauded. It was an amazing moment in time.

The next day we hiked up to the Berlin Wall Memorial. It's an open air museum that preserves one of the last pieces of the wall as well as some foundations from some buildings and other infrastructure, and a memorial for everyone who died attempting to escape from East Berlin. Looking at the faces, all these regular people, was even sadder when I saw a picture of a victim who was still a toddler, and the last man to attempt to jump the wall, a mere three months before it fell.

The original part of the wall was already here to use in 1961. This space was part of a cemetery. They worked with a brick wall initially that was already in place and relocated the graves (the entrance of the cemetery is accessible from inside the Memorial-it's very pretty). That's how important keeping unwilling citizens in place was to the GDR. Disturbing the dead.

We decided lunch was in order. The TV tower looked awfully close, and there had to be places to eat in Alexander Platz. Always a brilliant planner, I determined it was a ten minute walk. Over an hour later and still not there, we found the church where Martin Luther King Jr gave a famous sermon.

And a this shelled souvenir shop...

And a Holocaust memorial outside the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, where only a few headstones remain.

It felt so incredibly sad there, and after reading up on it at the link above, I understand why. We left some stones and kept moving.

Finally we reached Alexander Platz. We ate lunch at a mediocre kartoffeln restaurant and walked through an old church. We looked up at the tower, said "yup, there it is," clueless that you can go to the top and look out over Berlin.

We spent some time at a playground right there in the square. I thought about taking video, but I didn't want to miss anything. Picture orange leaves swirling, kids and otherwise stiff-looking adults alike jumping in the inlaid trampolines, and a certain three year old squealing with total joy as she bounced with the German boys and girls. It was a pretty perfect way to end the afternoon.

Later that night after another meal at another potato restaurant we did the last touristy thing on my list: Walk to Checkpoint Charlie. It was a main check point between East and West Berlin, and rebuilt for historic/mostly tourist purposes, manned now with German actors in American uniforms. We skipped the museum as it was late and Emily was grumpy, but it was an interesting place to see, considering how different the area is today.

We left early the next morning. At the station I checked the timetables on the farhkarte machine to see how long it would take us to get to the airport. The train leaving in 1 minute would take a half an hour, so I paid quickly and we dashed up stairs and hopped on. Hopped on, I'm pretty sure, the wrong train. The ticket office was closed for renovations otherwise I would have asked for more information, but the airport train SURELY GOES STRAIGHT TO THE AIRPORT, RIGHT?

As I became more and more nervous realizing at first we were going west in stead of south, I finally found an opprtunity to squeeze over to the line map, and I figured we had to transfer at the next stop, far, far north west of our destination. We unboarded only to see exactly one building across the street from the rural stop, no way to cross the tracks, and no one working. We walked back to the train. I shouted to the conductor to see if it was still going to the flughafen and he nodded while looking at us like the huge morons we clearly were. What we didn't understand was it was taking all the stops first, taking a break at this random town in the middle of nowhere, then going to the airport. We spent the next 40 minutes looking for all of our documents, repacking things and preparing to run. We made our flight by ten minutes!

I really wish we had more time there. Part of the chaos and poor planning was only having a few days to prepare for the trip and not a lot of time to absorb any reading material. Some places are fine for just showing up and seeing what you can find-Berlin is not that city. It's enormous, to start. I wish I understood the public transportation system better, and had more days to eat at locals-only restaurants, shop at vintage boutiques, raid the vegan grocery store, or even see the East Side Gallery. There is a lot happening in Berlin today, though it is impossible not to soak up its past at the same time. That's fine too, because I do want to know as much as I can about it's 20th century history, and in that I did all right.

Berlin, until we meet again.