Escape to Italy, Part II: October 22 2009
We zipped along the tracks of Italy from Florence to Venice at 110 miles/hour on the Eurostar train (Oct 8). Gosh, you only arrive in a place for the first time...once...and Venice was amazing (okay, more than Chris's first arrival but Erin was wowed). Even from half-way back in the train station (Ferrovia) we could see the canals and the pastel colored buildings with windows shaped both European and Eastern all at the same time. We walked to our accommodations at Pensione Guerrato winding our way across bridges and through narrow passageways ("streets"). There were not many street names but rather numbers within the "districts" of Venice...Pensione Guerrato was at 240A...in the San Polo district. We asked directions and were told to simply go that-a-way as the numbers decreased until we found 240A...we were at 3000 San Polo. Well, it worked and we were thrilled with the Pensione...in an 800 year old building in a 3000 year old city (www.pensioneguerrato.it and ph 041 5227131). Our initial walking reinforced the fact that there were no motorized transports on land of ANY kind. Everything moved on the water...literally everything...cabs, ambulances, police, buses/public transport (vaporetti), warehouse deliveries, building material transport, garbage pick-up...everything. All linkages between the 118 islands in the marshy Venetian Lagoon were across water...by bridge or watercraft. However, total size was remarkably small. Walking from one end to the other could be done in an hour.
We quickly dropped off our bags and made our way to St. Mark's Square (the principle square in Venice). Venice was a powerhouse for more than 1,000 years starting in 828, peaking with the capture of Constantinople in 1204 (marking the virtual end of the Byzantine Empire) and ending with Napoleon's victory in 1797. At its unparalleled Imperial peak it had 36,000 sailors and 3,300 ships...completely dominating the Mediterranean trade between Asia, Africa and Europe. Venice was even the printing capital of the world in 1482. Yikes! And the Venetians were not afraid to display their power and wealth. This central point of Venice was flanked by the architectural marvels of the Gothic styled Doge's Palace and Byzantine styled St Mark's Basilica, the Grand Canal and the columns of Venice's two patrons. Heavens, even the glass in the light posts had rose colored glass.
Above the entrance to the Basilica were bronze horses brought back as "loot" from the sacking of Constantinople. Subsequent Venetian ships nearly always returned from voyages with the random column or frieze continually adding texture to the Basilica both inside and out. Interior floors were intricately patterned marble, ceiling mosaics were blindingly stunning gold/bronze/various stones covering 86,000 square feet and numerous sculptures (all masterpieces in their own right). Okay, we do not want to start any fist fights but...in our opinion...St. Mark's Basilica quite possibly outshines the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica. For quite some time we stood with gaping open mouths silently awed by the entire place. Still mesmerized we sat along the Grand Canal and were soothed by the water lapping at the marble steps.
Oct 9 we ventured via vaporetti to Murano Island. It was a foggy morning which added to the fairytale feel of the city. Murano Island has been a glassmaker's island since 1291 (moved from the main part of Venice due to fire hazard concerns). We visited the glass museum and later found the small Cenedese Studio where we watched Paolo Cenedese (lampworking master) turn molten glass into stunning seashells and branches of red coral (www.paolocenedese.it). We learned that lampworking is the term used to describe glasswork that uses a gas fueled torch to melt clear and colored rods of glass. On the return vaporetti ride we took the long way round and circled right past St Mark's Square. Too bad the Bridge of Sighs is covered with a giant billboard as restoration work is done...Geox clothing anyone?!
One of the highly regarded travel guide writers for the area is Rick Steves (of TV travel show fame, www.ricksteves.com). We followed his advice for dinner one night and nibbled our way through numerous toothpick munchies (cicchetti) with a glass of wine; fried cannelloni with béchamel/tomato filling, ham and cheese sandwich battered and deep fried, fried rice ball stuffed with seasoned meat and cheese. There were dozens more options all easy to order by pointing at glass cases. Rosticceria San Bartolomeo fit the bill perfectly (San Marco 5424...see what we mean about the addresses). We ended the evening with a stroll to St Mark's Square where three separate orchestras played under the stars.
We concluded our visit to Venice with a tour of the Doge's Palace...on the secret itineraries tour (Oct 10). The governmental structure of Venice can closest be described as a Republic. Councils of businessmen, Nobles and citizens comprised a Senate structure with a figurehead leader in the position of Doge. The Republic worked remarkably well despite (or because of) small authorized groups of individuals charged with the task of making sure that no single man had too much power. These small groups had small, plain offices (approx 24 square feet) from which they used tools such as espionage and surveillance to carry out their charge. Records of their secret activities were recorded by scribes and comprise the third largest library of documents in the world...to this day (the Vatican has the largest). Through the secret itineraries tour we saw the actual offices and back hallways in which these small groups functioned...including the cells for political prisoners. The most famous political prisoner was Casanova...who escaped by, literally, walking out the front door. It was fascinating! And all discreetly tucked between floors and behind wardrobes of the grand Doge's Palace. After the secret bits we returned to the public areas...again room after room overflowing with masterpieces of all kinds...including the largest painted mural in Europe (in the Senate Room). We were feeling a bit weary of museums but tried to soak it in.
October 10 we took an overnight train from Venice to Vienna (Wien)...bunk bed accommodations with morning coffee and a roll were just fine...and fun. We stepped off the train at 8am to crisp autumn temperatures and thick aromas of baking bread (Oct 11). Pasta and salami were replaced by elaborate pastries and snappy sausages. The Vienna visit was a birthday present for Chris and a new destination for both of us. We bundled up and wandered the broad avenues of the historic inner city. Vienna was the crown jewel of the Habsburg Empire...created the origin of all Holy Roman Emperors between 1492 and 1740 as well as Austria, Spain and several others. Although it has been a century since the empire fell the Viennese still live elegantly...with manicured parks and horse drawn carriages as well as stylish leather and boiled wool jackets...at stores such as Loden-Plankl (www.loden-plankl.at). Cathedrals rocketed to the sky with intricate exterior details and the Hofburg Palace was still magnificent after all these years...including the displayed Habsburg dinner service measuring 90 feet of Imperial silver (www.hofburg-wien.at). The Imperial winter palace (Hofburg Palace) incorporates 640 years of architecture. We visited the Imperial Apartments and Hofburg Treasury...containing the "best" jewels on the continent AND a unicorn horn...not likely found in many other jewelry boxes.
The food in Vienna spoiled us rotten...breakfasts of soft bread, various cheeses, smoked meats and sweet pastry...snacks of apple strudel (for Chris)...snacks of sausages (for Erin)...and comfort food dinners. Chris sampled several strudels but came to the conclusion that he is, in fact, an apple pie man rather than a strudel man. Erin preferred the savory "hot dog" snack. It was quite a unique process in Vienna...an uncut hot dog roll is jammed onto a heated spike...toasting the inside...then stuffed with a grilled sausage. Our hands-down favorite was the kaselkrainer...snappy once bitten and oozing with cheese on the inside. Yum! Dinners did not let us down either...our first night we went to Purstner on the recommendation of a 10 year resident...and bartender at an Irish Pub (Riemergasse 10, www.puerstner.com). Located in a traditional house of the turn of the century we enjoyed zwiebelrostbraten (pan fried slice of beef topped with gravy and crispy onions...like skinny onion rings) and ratsherrenpfanne (roasted fillet of pork with mushroom cream sauce atop spaetzle with cheese)...and a side of french fries. Wow - portions were huge and on a return visit we split the ratsherrenpfanne and were both completely stuffed. Fabulous! We think the Viennese could give the Italians a run for their money in a cook-off. After dinner we were treated to sidewalk performers...Vienna style. We heard opera on one corner and a cello concert on the next...each echoing in the square as if we were in an opera house.
Although not Austrian in nature we had another food need satisfied...we found Crisco! Erin made an audible gasp when she saw it in Bobby's ex-pat foodstore (Schleifmuhlgasse 8, ph (01) 586 75 34). No kidding the last time we saw this was in Singapore...and the South Pacific before that. It has not been available in Australia, Thailand, Greece....or points in between. Crazy that one of our most prized souvenirs from the trip was a 3 pound tub of Crisco...but there you have it. Tortillas here we come!
All of this eating gave us good motivation to walk. We stretched our legs between the Danube and the inner city on the walking paths of the Prater. The Prater is a park that was opened to the public by Emperor Franz Joseph in the 18th century. Lovely tree lined paths were used by joggers, walkers and horse drawn carriages. The Fall foliage was beautiful and the chilly weather encouraged us to don every layer of clothing we had...at the same time...to keep warm in the 30-40 degree F temperatures (Oct 12 and 13). Another great dinner was at the Gulaschmuseum Restaurant (Schulerstrasse 20). We had more than 15 types of goulasch to choose from...it was a tough choice (except for the horse goulasch...eeek). We chose a potatoes and smoked sausage goulasch (Erin) and a spicy pork fillet goulasch (Chris) followed by vanilla ice cream topped by warmed raspberries and whipped cream. Yum...did we say that already?! Needless to say we slept like logs every night. Our final morning at breakfast nearly made us spill our coffee as it began to SNOW! That was a novel sight and gave us the perfect excuse to settle into a sofa in a warm coffee shop and read...okay, it was a Starbucks...but snuggled inside behind large plate glass windows watching the snow drift past was wonderful. Off we went that night on the overnight train back to Venice and then onto the ferry for a 24-hr ride to Corfu.
In Venice we changed out of our shoes and socks and back into our sandals (Oct 16). We took turns sitting with the backpacks on the steps of the train station as one or the other of us had a final look around Venice. It was a long walk to the ferry terminal and we were glad we had plenty of time. We boarded our Minoan Lines ferry and promptly settled into our inside cabin...Chris was especially thrilled to take a shower before departure. The ferry trip was uneventful and quieter than the train...without the unhitching and hitching of cars throughout the night.
We had a wonderful trip to Naples, Rome, Florence, Venice and Vienna but we missed traveling with Barefeet...she really pampers us. Upon our arrival in Corfu we were greeted by bright sunshine and warm weather (Oct 17). Too bad it was short lived...buckets of rain, thunder and lightening...we wiggled a bit on the parking lot blocks due to the wind but not a single leak...well done Barefeet. Ah well, daily rainbows brighten the days as we wait for dry weather in order to apply the coppercoat bottom paint. However, there is plenty to keep us busy...including picking up our gold-coated mail package. We have been taking care of taxes, getting C-MAP chips for the remainder of our voyage, laundry, working with Tracy and Martin on the hulls, getting the port engine oil seal replaced, getting the starboard engine transmission repaired and reminding ourselves how much we enjoy Greek food. The winter social life at the marina is small but we are meeting people and joining in local goings-on. We had no idea how big X-Factor was (UK talent show) but around here there is no speaking while the show runs...tee, hee, hee.