Monday, March 6, 2006

Viva Veneto! Karina's Italian Adventure, The Exciting Conclusion

Friday, March 3, Day 4 - Venice again

Friday was our last day…at least for me, Emily, and Tracey. Stephanie's husband was coming down to Pisa, so she was taking the train down there to meet him. Her train was scheduled to leave at 8:20.

So we quickly ate breakfast and at 7:20, I got us checked out of the hotel and asked that a cab be called for us. Typically, it only takes a couple of minutes for the cab to arrive. The first place he contacted couldn't send out any cabs. So he called the second place and the phone was busy. He tried for 20 minutes. After being unable to get through, he advised us to go to the tobacco shop across the street and buy bus tickets. So we did that and waited for the 8:05 bus, which didn't come until 8:15. It was really cold and it started snowing while we were standing there. Finally, the bus came, but by the time we got to the train station, Stephanie had missed her train. She was able to get on another one that got her down to Pisa a half hour later. We got our train tickets to Venice, which ended up being on the EuroStar, the high speed luxury train. They cost a bit more, but it was Emily's birthday, so we figured it was worth the splurge.

Ironically, the high speed train was 20 minutes late. And when it arrived, it came in on a different track. Fortunately, it was the track next to us, so we didn't need to rush to get to it.

We arrived in Venice, checked our luggage at the left luggage counter, and then set out. This time, we stopped in many souvenir shops on the way. I got a Murano glass pendant with my initial on it, and a ceramic handpainted mask, as well as a Murano snowman ornament. We slowly made our way toward Piazza San Marco, since our goal was to actually see the inside of the basilica and the Doge's palace. Instead of lunch, we grabbed some ice cream cake at a gelato stand. When we stopped at McDonald's to use the restroom, Emily and Tracey had decided that some protein might be nice, so they each got a hamburger. When I saw them eating, I caved and got one too. Yes, I understand the irony and the sacrilege of eating McDonald's in Italy. But I had to say, it hit the spot.

Finally, we arrived again at San Marco, which was not nearly as crowded as it had been 3 days before. We went into the basilica, and I immediately got a sense of déjà vu. It reminded me of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Turns out, it was modeled after the Hagia Sophia, so it's no wonder I made the connection (I actually read this in The Historian later that day - a novel that has nothing to do with Italy, really, but it was mentioned. I thought that was pretty cool. And the novel is based on fact, so I assume that the San Marco/Hagia Sophia connection is true). We weren't allowed to take pictures inside, which is a shame, since it's gorgeous. But I managed to take some pictures right outside the entrance. You can take a virtual tour here:

After touring the basilica, we went next door to the Doge's palace, but not before I had a sudden impulse to feed the pigeons. I hate them, so I'm not sure what compelled me to do it, except that Emily videotaped it and she thought it was funny. I asked her for some crackers and she gave me some butter cookies out of her purse. Within a minute or two, I had pigeons all over me. I got smacked in the face with their wings and everything. But I didn't get pooped on. Miraculous.

Okay, so Doge's Palace…we could only take pictures in the courtyard, but the inside was very impressive. The prisons were a bit cramped though, and my slight claustrophobia made me somewhat uncomfortable.

Once we toured the palace, we figured we'd call it a day, since we needed to start moving toward the train station to work on getting home. We wanted to eat first though. Emily found this restaurant that seemed a bit high priced to me, but she really wanted to eat there, so I agreed and we went inside.

It was disappointing. I had minestrone soup. At least, that's what I ordered. What I got was vegetable soup with microscopic bits of chicken in it. There were no beans, which is what I thought made minestrone minestrone. I complained to the waitress and she was really snotty with me. Emily and Tracey ordered shrimp scampi, which was a bit charred. The bill for the 3 of us was 81 euros. My soup alone was 9 euros - an outrageous price. In fact, I'm pretty sure the prices inside were higher than what was posted outside. And the food was terrible. At least mine was. We were angry and we felt we got ripped off.

So unfortunately, that was my last meal in Italy. It left A LOT to be desired.

We got to the train station, got our luggage, and got our train tickets to Treviso. There was some confusion. We looked at the arriving trains schedule instead of the departure schedule, so we were waiting at the wrong place and the wrong time. When we finally realized it, we had been sitting for quite awhile. So Emily asked at the information counter which train we should be on, and we got straightened out.

We had some time to kill, so Emily went to the restroom, and I just happened to glance at the train ticket, realizing that it was only for one person! The entire time, all our fares had been printed on one ticket. So I pointed this out to Emily, and in a huff, she got in line at the ticket counter again and waited for the same person from whom we bought the tickets. She was prepared to yell at him, but when he saw her, he said he was glad that we came back, because he had our two tickets still with him. So he gave them to her, she blew him a kiss and thanked him, and we found our platform.

Got to Treviso and needed to take the bus to the airport. There was some confusion as to where we caught the bus. There were about 10 different bus stops. The very last one we checked was the one we needed. So we waited. And then our bus arrived.

It took us through a different part of Treviso than what we saw the first day - right in the center of town. Treviso looked very nice and seemed to be quite a happening place on a Friday night. It's only about 15 km. outside of Venice, yet it looked like the place to be.

So we got to the airport for our 9:20 flight, which left a bit late since somebody checked on their luggage and never boarded the plane. When we got back to Charleroi, it was 11 pm and Emily had mistakenly told her husband that we were getting in at midnight, so we had to wait almost an hour for him to arrive. It was freezing out, and one of the night workers tried to kick us out. But we refused to leave. Finally, he arrived and we headed home. I walked in my own door shortly before 2 am, exhausted.

Ciao, Italy. It was nice knowing you, if only for a few days.

Last day photos

Viva Veneto! Karina's Italian Adventure, parts 2 & 3

Day 2 - Nove (March 1)

Nove is a small town outside of Vicenza, in fact, you go through Padua to get there. Unfortunately, I was unable to see much of Padua, which looks like another amazing place to sightsee.

Anyway, we started our morning with breakfast at the hotel. There is nothing like a fresh baked croissant with cream cheese and jam. They had other things too, but if I see that on the breakfast buffet, that's the only thing I want.

After breakfast, we called a cab to take us to the Army base. There is a small military installation in Vicenza. I shouldn't really say that it's small - it's larger than the Army garrison we have here. This seemed quite large by comparison. But it's considered small.

Anyway, we needed to pick up a rental car, so we asked around and finally got directions to the Europcar office on base. The cars were parked on a lot about 7 km outside of the base though, so we couldn't pick up the car right away. We had a little over an hour until the shuttle would come get us to take us to the lot, so we stopped at the commissary and bought some more snacks and water and we stopped a few other places in an effort to kill time.

At 11, this blue school bus came and got us. The guy spoke no English, so he had trouble understanding where we were trying to go. Finally, he picked up another passenger and that person explained to him where we were trying to go. So he dropped us off there and we located the Mercedes that we reserved. That was the one thing we spared no expense on during this trip. We wanted a good sized car with a roomy trunk and an automatic transmission. Split 4 ways, the cost per day wasn't bad.

After figuring out all the bells and whistles and plugging our destination into Emily's GPS system, we were on our way to Nove. It didn't take us too long to get there…maybe half an hour, slightly longer. Nove isn't a spectacular town or anything. They have a nice bell tower in the center of town and a pretty impressive school building, but there is nothing striking beyond that. You can see the mountains in the distance though, which is cool. Nove's claim to fame is its dozens of ceramics shops, and ceramic shopping was our order for the day.

Well, I should say it was THEIR order for the day. I didn't particularly care to go shopping, but since I'm writing an article about Nove ceramics for a magazine, I had to go. If I didn't have to go, I would've gone off to Verona for the day.

I bought a few things. The mosaic pottery was beautiful, so I bought a piece for myself. I got some gifts. The pottery is really cheap. You can get Lenox or Tiffany china there for a fraction of what you pay in the States. But it was mostly white stuff, and all white stuff bores me. I like color. And the pottery I bought was colorful.

So the entire day was spent shopping. My companions bought A LOT of pottery. I was mostly interested in getting pictures for the magazine. We visited some shops that had pretty handpainted things, but as I was not in the market for any pottery, I didn't see the point in buying it.

Nove is so small that there weren't many places to eat. We stopped at a place that had sandwiches, and I got some kind of wrap with thin sliced beef and cheese. Also, Nove is off the tourist radar enough that they still have squat toilets in most public restrooms. We only found one regular toilet the entire time we were there. Believe me, I was thrilled.

While we were shopping, we ran into two people from here at our base. Small world, after all. And we ran into a lady who is trying to start her own business selling Italian pottery. I think she spent about 15,000 euros...she spent 8,000 just in one store. Anyway, she seemed really nice, and her name was Karen. She is the one who called me "Karina" and told me that it means pretty in Italian.

Once everyone was satisfied with the shopping (actually, it was time for the shops to close), we headed back to Vicenza, stopping at the base to get some cash out of the ATM machine. We asked a nice couple to recommend a restaurant for us, and they told us about this place called Giada's and gave us directions to it.

So, bellies grumbling, we set off for Giada's. The restaurant is located inside an elegant looking 3 star hotel. We ordered 2 appetizers to share: fried stuffed olives and fried mozzarella. I had a nice fruity white wine which reminded me of Riesling. We had a basket of mixed breads AND bruschetta brought to our table. The bruschetta was delicious, as were the appetizers. For the main course, I ordered angel hair pasta with crab legs. They didn't bring me a little fork to get the meat out, so I had some trouble, but what I was able to eat was excellent. Finally, we ordered dessert. I got a lemon sponge cake that was absolutely delicious. Total cost for 2 appetizers, 4 main courses, a side dish, 1 liter of wine, a Diet Coke, and 4 desserts - 69 euros. Astonishingly cheap. We were very pleased and it was the best meal we had on the entire trip.

After our wonderful meal, we headed back to the hotel for night #2.

Day 3 - Vicenza (March 2, if you're not keeping track)

After breakfast, we headed back to the base. We had an appointment with the post office to ship all the pottery. The pottery shop where we purchased the most stuff was delivering it to the base for us. We had to wait awhile for them to show up, but they finally did, we helped unload the boxes, and then we labeled everything and slapped on the customs forms and shipped them back here. (And in case you were wondering, the shipping doesn't cost us anything).

After that was done, we drove into Vicenza for a day of sightseeing there. We found a place to park next to a really pretty park with a beautiful church. So we walked through there first and then headed toward the market square, where a flea market takes place every Thursday.

We got there and perused the flea market for a bit. There was nothing different there from what we usually see in the local markets here. So we gave up on that. We stopped at a place for lunch and ordered pizzas. Mine was vegetarian and came with giant strips of zucchini on it and large pieces of pepper and eggplant. It was a very odd looking pizza and honestly, it wasn't very good. I had a nice rose wine with it though. I don't know what it's called, but it was good. As we left the restaurant, I saw a small dog walking around inside, collecting sugar packets off the floor. His owner, an elderly gentleman, seemed pretty distressed about it, so I called the dog over to me and plucked the sugar packets out of his mouth. As I was leaving, the man stopped me and said "Thank you" in English and then wished me goodbye.

Our car was paid up to park until 2, so after walking around a bit and exploring various streets and alleys, we headed toward the car so we wouldn't get a parking ticket. Tracey was getting tired and wanted to go back to the hotel to nap. So we dropped her off and then drove to a better parking spot closer to what we wanted to see: the Teatro Olimpico, Europe's oldest operating theatre, built by the famous Italian architect Palladio in 1580. The theatre was breathtaking. And we found out that they were performing Romeo and Juliet there only 2 days later - the day after we left Italy. Oh, the heartbreak! Especially since Vicenza is Romeo and Giulietta country (so is Verona, but the original author is buried in Vicenza).

There was an art museum across the street, and our Teatro Olimpico tickets admitted us into that museum as well, so we decided to check it out. We didn't spend much time there. It was mostly religious art, but nothing really famous. Some of it looked familiar though.

After the art museum, we wanted to stop and sit awhile, so we found a coffee shop and got some ciacolatta calda (hot chocolate).

The church were Luigi Da Porto is buried (the aforementioned author of the original Romeo and Juliet) was close by, so we decided to go there to see if we could find his grave. Supposedly, the church also houses a thorn from Christ's crown of thorns. We saw neither. The church was pretty though. It's the Church of Santa Corona.

After the church, we pretty much had enough sightseeing. We were near a pastry/gelato shop that I had seen earlier in the day that had really cute heart-shaped pastries and other lovely delights, so I wanted to take Emily and Stephanie there to show them. We decided to have some gelato, since how can you go to Italy and not have some? So we went inside and they ordered tiramisu and chocolate, I ordered strawberry.

After our treat, we headed back toward the car, but not before a cosmetics/candle store caught my eye. I went in and bought some bath stuff and then hopped in the car and we went back to the hotel.

Stephanie and Emily decided to return the rental car. They left me with the task of picking up something for dinner. So they took off to get rid of the Mercedes and I stayed in the hotel room for awhile to read, since I knew they would take awhile. Tracey was also in the room with me, working on puzzles. It was the first real moment of quiet I had the entire trip, other than when we slept.

An hour after they left, I figured it was time to pick up dinner. We actually wanted to avoid Italian this time…Chinese sounded good to all of us. But when I asked at the front desk, they indicated that the nearest Chinese place was quite a distance from the hotel. I wasn't comfortable being out after dark, alone, in a strange city. So I decided to just get food at the closest place I could find, which ended up being a gelato/snack shop about half a block from the hotel. The guy working there spoke no English at all, so with my very limited Italian, I was able to order 2 pizziola sandwiches and 2 ham and fontina cheese on foccacia. While he was toasting my sandwiches, he was talking with a guy who had a beagle. The beagle kept looking at me and then jumping up to hump the guy's leg. It was hilarious. But I pretended not to see. After what seemed like ages, my sandwiches were toasted, he wrapped them up to go, and I went back to the hotel. I divided each sandwich in half so we could each try a bit of both. They were delicious.

After the sandwiches had gone cold, Stephanie and Emily returned. They had some problems with the car rental return, but it got sorted out, and they came up to the room with 2 glasses of red wine for themselves and a glass of champagne for me (they had no white wine at the bar). They ate and told us about their car rental return adventure. Since Emily's birthday was the next day, we surprised her with a card and a tiny gift - a silver violin that was purchased earlier that day. Emily is an accomplished violinist.

And thus ended day 3. One more day to go.

I published an article about Nove in the
Stars & Stripes, European Edition in October 2006. My photos are included too.

Days 2 & 3 photos

Sunday, March 5, 2006

Viva Veneto! Karina's Italian Adventure

Day 1 - Tuesday, February 28, 2006 - Carnevale in Venice

As we drove further into Belgium toward Charleroi airport early that morning, the snow fell harder and harder, making me glad that I was leaving. Surely the weather would be better in Italy. We arrived at Charleroi, checked in for our flight, and waited. Our flight was slightly delayed, but not by much.

The Ryanair flight was reasonably short - about 90 minutes - and I had a positively breathtaking view of the snow-capped Alps before we began our descent into Treviso airport. As our imminent arrival was announced, I looked out the window and gazed for the first time at the Italian landscape below. It was much browner and drier than Germany. The sun was shining. There was NO SNOW.

Once we departed the plane and tried to get our bearings, we had a decision to make: take a bus all the way into Venice, or take a bus to Treviso's train station, and from there, take the train into Venice? We chose the former, figuring we would get a nice view of the scenery as we drove by. The only problem was, we had no idea where the bus would drop us off in proximity to Venice's Santa Lucia train station, which is where we needed to go to store our luggage. A look through a guidebook revealed that it was only a short distance from where we needed to go. Whew. We sat back and enjoyed the ride and watched stately villas come into view. Already, I was smitten with Italy.

After a 45 minute ride (give or take), the bus arrived at Piazelle Roma. We debarked, found our luggage, and walked about 10 minutes to the train station. Everywhere I looked was a photograph - postcard perfect. But with luggage in tow, it was difficult to get out my camera and take photographs. Alas, I could not, if I wanted to keep up with my friends.

Once we located the train station and stowed away our luggage, the first order of business was getting food. Since the Carnevale festivities take place in Piazza San Marco - a reasonably long trek from where we were - we decided to start making our way in that direction, and stop to eat wherever looked good. This time, I had my camera at the ready, and I snapped away - Venice is a shutterbug's heaven. I frequently got behind my travel companions, but I always managed to catch up.

Eventually, we stopped for lunch at some nondescript place tucked away in a small square. Stephanie had been to Venice before on her honeymoon, and she recalled eating in that area, so we stopped at a place that she recognized. I ordered spaghetti carbonara, my favorite Italian dish. It was good, but I've had better. I had tiramisu for dessert. It was a satisfactory meal, but it didn't blow me away.

Recharged after our meal, we again made our way toward Piazza San Marco, occasionally stopping to browse in shops or take photographs. Carnevale events were well underway by the time we arrived. The Masque Parade was taking place on a stage that was set up at the end of the piazza, opposite Basilica di San Marco. There was such a crowd that I was unable to see anything. I focused mainly on taking pictures of the people around me who were in costume. Emily, being the tallest one of our group, was able to hold up her video camera to record the parade, and we watched it on the small screen of her camera.

After the parade, some of the participants came out to pose for photographs. Tracey, Emily and Stephanie decided that they wanted to buy some masks, so we visited several of the souvenir stands set up in the piazza until they all found what they wanted. Dusk started settling in, so we decided to go in search of dinner. I took a few more pictures as the lights started to come up around Venice, then we headed back toward the train station. We found a little café and ordered calzones.

We took our time getting to the train station, enjoying the allure of Venice at night. As we were getting closer to our destination, we stopped in a grocery store to get bottled water and snacks, and then walked to the train station to pick up our luggage and get on a train to Vicenza.

Once on the train, we noticed that it was much different from the reliable, efficient German rail. For one thing, the stops are not announced, so we had no idea when we were going to arrive in Vicenza. Every time we pulled into a station, we looked out the window, frantically searching for a sign to tell us where we were. Finally, we asked a passenger how many more stops until Vicenza. She told us that the next stop was Padova (Padua) and then 2-3 stops afterwards was Vicenza.

Once we got off at Vicenza, we immediately hailed a cab to take us to our hotel, about a mile and a half away. Since it was a holiday and nighttime, we were charged quite a bit for the ride, but it was better than trying to navigate the streets at night without a map and whilst carrying luggage. After a short drive, we arrived at the hotel. The lobby was very attractive and clean, so we felt good immediately upon entering. Once we made our way up to the room, we were impressed to find that it was huge, clean, and despite its shabbiness, it was charming. It was also very cheap - the four of us shared a room for about $120 each night. We had two twin beds and a queen bed. I immediately claimed one of the twin beds. We settled in, two of us took our showers to help save time in the morning, and then we were asleep.


An article was published about this trip in the January 2007 issue of Connection magazine. (I was also supposed to do the entire photo spread, but they only used about 5 of my photos at the most, and the absolute best one that I took wasn't even used).

This is the best photo I took there. It was published in a photography anthology in December 2006:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

See the rest of the photos from day 1 here