Monday, 29 November 2010

Italy by Road- Last leg (Venice)

Final Stop- Venice (Venezia)

The last stop on our trip, and without a doubt the best one, was Venice. It’s around 500 kms from Pisa. Venice, over the years, has been described by many names- The City of Canals, The City of Masks, The City of Bridges. But nothing befits it more than the ‘Queen of Adriatic’.  Our stay there definitely made us feel so.
Our hotel, Hotel Delfino was in Mestre, a 20 min ride from the main city of Venice. There’s a bus stop right in front of the hotel, which made travel to the city convenient. So we left our car at the hotel parking and took the bus no. 4 to Venice
The buses were surprisingly crowded considering the Italian standards. Of course, coming from India where hanging from the footboards of buses is the norm, it was no biggie. Bus no.4 took us to Piazza Le Roma. Here Mom, Dad and I split from Shereef and Bilal. This time everyone was armed with a map and all contact numbers. Bilal insisted on carrying two copies of everything (just in case, according to him). We decided to walk from the Piazza, till San Marco square and take the ferry back to the piazza.

Venice was much more crowded than Florence and Pisa. Maybe it seemed so because of the narrow streets. The streets are lined with small shops, mostly selling Venetian masks, and Gondola knick-knacks. Venetian masks are exotic masks used during the annual ‘Carnevale’ (Carnival of Venice). In earlier days these masks were used by the public while voting. Supposedly, it guarantees a fair voting. 

The other thing that sells like hot cakes in Venice is Murano Glass. Murano is a Venetian island and has been manufacturing this kind of glass since the 9th century. You can see shops displaying Murano glass crystals, figurines and trinkets. They are bright and beautiful. My parents were almost tempted to buy a crystal to take back home, but at our place nothing breakable can survive for more than a few days (what with my two brothers constantly at each others’ throats.) They had learnt from experience (and innumerable broken vases) not to buy such stuff anymore.

If Florence has to be seen riding bicycles and Rome through it’s metro, Venice should be covered on foot and by boat. Then of course there are the Gondolas, the main attraction of Venice.
 The gondoliers wear a standard uniform of black and white striped shirts and, sometimes, a straw hat. A gondola ride will take you through the waterways crisscrossing the city and the gondolier will explain the main spots en route. Walking through the city you’ll have to cross mini bridges which take you over the narrow canals and almost always you’ll find a Gondolier gracefully gliding his Gondola through these canals. Now as a teenage girl I’ve always had these romantic notions of riding on Gondolas. They were shattered when my dad said that this is just a ‘thoni’ (a decorated one) back home in Kerala. And more so when, after seeing the ticket rates, my Mom exclaimed that with this money we can buy a naadan gondola back home. *Sigh* Parents….

It’s impossible to get lost in Venice. There are directions at every other street. After an hour’s walk we finally reached Piazza San Marco. The Basilica here ( Basilia San Marco)  is famed to be extraordinary. It is unique because the interiors are gilded. It’s grand, the ceiling, with intricate carvings on gold. Unfortunately, photography is not permitted inside.

Outside, in the square, there is another attraction- Pigeons, hundreds of them. Stretch your arms and stand midst them and in seconds you’ll have pigeons on your arms and your head. Of course, you have to be careful that you don’t get pecked!

As planned we took the ferry to get back. Line 1 is exclusively for tourists, it goes much slower than the normal boats. The ride to Piazza le Roma was wonderful. The Grand Canal is flanked on both sides by houses, cafes, offices, some with their personal piers. Why, we even saw a church by the water and people getting down at its pier. There were even apartments with parking lots for boats! Imagine going home on your private boat and entering your porch by water…

Once in the room we were relieved to find that Bilal hadn’t managed to lose himself in the city. Instead he had invested his allowance on coke (I told you, he is an addict).

We decided to see Venice by the night.
If witnessing Venice by the day is beautiful, Venice at night is an altogether different experience. The streets come alive with makeshift food stalls selling roasted chestnuts (the smell of which is irresistible) and hawkers trying to sell fake Rolex watches and Gucci bags. On some of the wider streets there are markets selling fresh fruits and vegetables (frutta e verdura). I was recording all these scenes on my handy cam when I saw some paintings on sale. I was looking at them through the lens when a hand blocks my lens and pushes the camera away. I was about to begin a fight thinking it was one of my brothers when I saw that it was some strange old man. After pushing me he rushed to his paintings and covered it. I was stunned for a while. I guess he didn’t want his signature pieces to be recorded.  Of course, my dearest brothers didn’t lose this opportunity to pull my leg. This was fodder for them to tease me for the rest of the stay there.

Dinner was at a fabulous Chinese restaurant. Great service and delicious food. Icing on the cake was the dessert-‘fried ice cream’ recommended by our Chinese waitress, a sweet lady who conversed in minimal English but spoke Italian like Italians do- incomprehensibly (to us).

The next day we set out earlier than the previous day. We boarded a ferry from Piazza Le Roma which took us to Lido, the last stop. We had planned to come back walking. What we didn’t know was that Lido is an island (one of the 117 in Venice). It is connected to the mainland only by boat. So we walked around Lido, which doesn’t look like Venice, with its broad streets and few people about. (My dad says it’s like nammude Fort Kochi). After an hour of wandering through this island we took the speed boat back. Once in Piazza Le Roma we went about souvenir shopping, buying plaques and mini Venetian masks.

Back in the room our luggage was all packed. It was 3 pm and we set our GPS Navigator back to Brindisi. The return to Brindisi was a 1000 km drive along the Adriatic coastline, with stops at Ancona and Bari, both sea side towns We spent Saturday night at Ancona,  after driving around 400 Kms from Venice. The last leg was another 550 Kms with an hour long break at Bari. We were back home by evening. That was the end of our 10 day tour. 

Writing this travelogue/ diary was very enjoyable- Relating experiences at different places, smiling when particular incidents came to mind and laughing at some private joke. I rewound and relived each moment of those wonderful 10 days. I hope you enjoyed the glimpses into our tour and maybe even motivated to travel to this part of the world! J

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Italy by Road- Part 2 ( Florence and Pisa)

Second Stop-Florence (Florenzia)

By the evening of 16th Nov, we were in Florence, after a 280 km drive. Coming from the bustling Rome, which is a through and through metro city, Florence seemed a quiet, peaceful town. When in Rome, you can’t walk on the sidewalks without bumping into people, here you can’t find people to walk on the same sidewalk. My Dad says it’s because its off-season now.
We checked into Hotel Leonardo Da Vinci, which won my brothers’ hearts with welcome drinks (My brothers’ are big time fizz addicts, you see). It was already dark, so we decided to go for a walk around the city (it’s a very small city, you can cover it walking) and have dinner from outside. Now that’s another quirk of my family, food plays an integral role in our tours, the lack or abundance of which can affect our moods. All of us are absolute foodies and nothing can motivate us more than the thought of hot food waiting for us on the table. And thus, in my blogs too, it takes up a considerable chunk of my writing. That night we had Pizzas and Spaghetti from a Moroccan Hotel. By the end of the meal we were too full and too tired to do any more sightseeing or walking, so we hit the bed.
The next day we had time only till 3pm to do our sightseeing, we had to start to Pisa then. So morning 8.00 am we all had a scrumptious meal of croissants, cakes, and fresh orange juice (Another thing about the hotels here- They all serve excellent breakfast buffets. A good kick-start for us) we checked out of the hotel, put the luggage in the car and left the car at the hotel parking lot. We were going to walk around Florence. By then Shereef and Bilal had decided that they don’t want to come with us (they consider me boring and whiny L )
Hence, we started off to the Centro ( Pronounced Chentro). And before we even reached there, we smelt it. The place smells of leather! Florence is like the Agra of India, it is the seat of the leather industry in Italy. Centro is full of small shops selling leather jackets, tunics, handbags, leather bound diaries. They have beautiful stuff, but the prices are harsh on our pockets (or my Dad’s, to be precise).
 . Our whole day was spent walking around in the markets, bargaining with the shopkeepers till they shook their heads and gave up hope. And that is when I see it. The Leather Tunic. I fell in love with it. The shopkeeper was a Palestinian fellow. After all the salams and courtesies we got down to business. He gave me his best price for the tunic -140 (He was talking in Euros, of course). I shook my head and did the mental math-  Rs.8400- WAY out of my budget. With a sigh I left The Leather tunic there and, for fear of losing my resolve, walked out without a look backward. My Dad, sensing my mood, said we’ll try again in Jan when there is a huge sale and prices hit rock-bottom.

The thing I love about Italy, and what I’ll miss the most maybe, are the open air cafes and restaurants here. Here meals are a very relaxed affair. They spend hours on their spaghettis and Lasagnas, sipping on their wine. Wine is a part of every meal. Whichever restaurant we go to, the server always asks what we’d like to drink. We always answer with ‘Natural water, Thank you’ (because Dad once made the mistake of not checking the label and buying a pack of ‘Frizzante’ water from the super market. For days we had to drink soda when we were thirsty.) Italian food, except Pizza, doesn’t agree with me. Though the cheesy pasta, dripping with tomato sauce seems appealing, it never tastes as good as it looks. Their sea food, though, is exceptional . At a restaurant, my Mom was surprised to see Kalummakayi and kaka (Clam) dishes. We ordered Clam spaghetti and were impressed with the dish, so we ordered shrimp. It was as if they just caught shrimps, boiled and served it with vegetables ( My mom was saying-what a waste of prawns, or to be precise ‘ithu nalla masala ittu porichirrinengil….’) Experiences, Experiences!

After a day of shopping we returned to the hotel at 3.00 pm. We had told Shereef and Bilal to meet us there, but found only Shereef there. Due to a minor tiff with his brother Bilal had gone his own way and now he was lost. Shereef had no clue where Bilal would be. My Dad and Shereef went out in search of him, meanwhile Mom and I stayed back at the hotel lobby incase he turned up. For an hour my Dad searched all around the places we went. Finally, he gave up and gave a ‘Missing’ report to the Police. The Police there are very efficient, they relayed this information with his description to all the Police Stations there. Another hour went by and no news from Bilal or Dad. My mom and I were really tensed, we are talking about a 12 yr old boy with no phone, no map and little money, lost in a city where few people speak English. Also, it’s Nov, so the sunset is early- at 4.30 pm. Night will just make it tougher for us to search for him. Finally, after 3 hours, Master Bilal turns up. The poor thing, he had been walking in circles for 3 hours. He tried asking people for the hotel, but no one could give him directions. It was a restaurant we had seen near the hotel the previous day that brought back to him the route. After all the questioning and consoling got over we thanked the hotel manager, and started off to Pisa.

Third Stop-Pisa

The main attraction of Pisa is, obviously, The Leaning Tower of Pisa (or Pisayile cherinja gopuram, as my parents call it).
The Leaning Tower of Pisa actually leans! It leans due to its construction on a small foundation which caused one side of the tower to sink in. Due to the tilt, the engineers of that time added the top floors with one side taller than the other. The tilt of the tower kept increasing till a few years back, when restoration works stabilized it. Wiki has some fascinating facts on the tower, do check it out.
It is rumoured that Galileo did his famous experiment, involving  heavy and a light cannon balls being thrown off the top reaching the bottom at the same time, here( Please don’t ask me to go into the intricacies, Physics never was my strong point ).
After clicking loads of pictures in front of the tower we went inside the cathedral near the tower. As all other churches in Italy, this one too was beautiful. It was huge and had lovely sculptures made of marble. The ceiling itself was spectacular with intricate carvings. The windows were made of coloured glass and entire walls were covered with huge paintings. It is the stuff you read in novels, only more beautiful. 
Here too, there were a lot of tourists, especially from Asia. We even met a Malayali family from Bangalore, need I say more?

In Pisa we restricted ourselves to the area near the tower. We bought a few souvenirs from the vendors outside and then set off to Venice.
Ah, Venice! The last destination on our tour, and the best one. More about Venice will follow on the next post.


Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Italy by Road- Part 1

              Saturday, 13th Nov, we packed our bags, stocked our car with food and started off from Brindisi on our 10 day trip- The Great Italian Road trip.  We made a route map to travel to Rome, Florence, Pisa and Venice. A 2500 km drive across Italy and back to Brindisi along the Adriatic coastline. 

The first stop, Rome, is 550 kms from Brindisi. Midway we decided to visit Pompeii. Pompeii is the dream destination of archaeologists. This city, almost 2000 years back, was covered by lava after a volcanic eruption. Pompeii was among the flourishing cities of that time. It was a much planned city and had a lot of rich merchants. As fate would have it, in around 79 AD, the mountain of Vesuvius erupted. It covered the city in 3 mts of ash . The inhabitants of the city died of suffocation. The second day the lava was thrown out, covering the entire city in its path.  After a few days there was an earthquake. Talk about bad luck!
 The city now lays frozen in time. The lava preserved the bodies of the people and the animals. You can see people in the position they died, crouching, laying down…. a fatal and unimagined end to an entire city. It is quite depressing, but for anthropologists this place is a key to the times then. We had just 3 hrs to spend there, so couldn’t cover even half of the ‘City of Ruins’.

                     We were warned in advance about thefts in Rome, but no one really took it seriously. I mean, we have traveled all over India and faced down the worst of pick-pockets, how bad can it get? One incident burst our innocent bubble. On the express highway, when we reached our first toll, near the ticket counter a chewing gum chewing dude came to collect the money. My dad without thinking handed over 50 Euros. This guy performed the vanishing act in the pretense of getting change. We waited there till the cars behind us started honking and finally an old man came up to us and confirmed what we knew all along-we had been duped. We realized that it was an automated toll machine. We were all struck, this was daylight robbery! But this may have been a blessing in disguise, for from that moment we were really alert and on our guard. So maybe it saved us from a greater misfortune.

First stop- Rome (Roma)
                  Apparently all roads don’t lead to Rome; we had to hugely depend on our GPS navigator to reach the place. Without it I wonder where we would have reached. We checked into a hotel run by a Bangladeshi friend of ours. Now if you want to see Bangladeshis, you should come to Italy. You'll see them here as managers, shopkeepers, roadside vendors, chefs; any job you mention you can find a Bangladeshi doing it.
                   The next day we were charged up. We were in Rome!! The city had a lot to offer and we had just 3 days. We took daily transport passes, which let us travel by metros, trams and buses in the city. Our first stop was the Colosseum (Colosseo) . Now we have studied all about the Roman Civilization. I remember looking at the pictures of it in my history text books. But nothing really prepares you for the actual sight. It’s magnificent! Yes, it is in ruins, but one can’t help but marvel the architectural genius displayed by those men 2000 yrs back. With no modern construction equipments those people managed to build such a magnificent structure. The Colosseum was built by the kings to provide entertainment to their subjects. Now this is not some movie theater where we can sit back munching popcorn. It was a battle ground where fiery gladiators fought bloody duels with each other and with animals. Sometimes slaves were allowed to fight to earn their freedom. Thousands of spectators would turn up to witness and cheer the fights. The result was always the same- one of them dies. And the participants couldn’t fake dying; to check whether the defeated gladiators are really dead, they were poked with a red hot iron rod. The ruthlessness of it all chilled me, especially the fact that thousands of people would come to witness this barbaric sport.
        I couldn’t help but imagine the lives of those gladiators. They start training for it as young boys. As gladiators they earn huge money, but very few of them live beyond 30 to enjoy the wealth they amass.
Opposite to the Colosseum there are ruins of some of the old Roman structures. There are old gardens, stables, palaces- all in ruins, but still standing testimony to the grandeur of that time.
Outside the Colosseum the scene is lively. Lots of groups were walking around in huddles wearing neon jackets and caps so as not to be lost. You have Americans, British, Arabs, and Asians all with their guides clicking away on their cameras. There were also a lot of souvenir shops selling Colosseum key chains, magnets, T-shirts. And, most of them were manned by Bangladeshis. The best part was that we could finally bargain without miming! There were men dressed up as gladiators whom we could pay and take pictures with it. In short the place was buzzing with things to make you part with your money.

            The Colosseum took half of our day and most of our energy. We trudged to the nearest Pizzeria and had a meal of fungi (pronounced as ‘FOOng-I’ here) and Margherita Pizza. The rest of the day was spent walking along the streets of Rome, which in itself was a nice experience. I love the sights and smells of Rome. Walking along a typical street there, you’ll come across people lounging in open air cafes, you can smell the coffee brewing inside, numerous Pizzerias with portly bakers standing near their ovens making Pizzas, Pastry shops (Pasticceria) displaying all sorts of delicious treats. Some streets had florists selling fragrant and exotic flowers. The streets are never quiet, there is always that sound of life. I love those streets and can spend hours just describing them.

              The second day we took a train to the Vatican city. We reached St. Peters’ Basilica and were impressed with the architecture and grandeur of the church. Due to time constraints we had to skip the Vatican Museum which is one of the biggest museums in the world. As per a British guide, who had a long conversation with us, if we spent 30 secs in front of each artifact there, it would take us up to 13 yrs to complete the entire museum. We decided we didn’t have that much time.
From Vatican we went to Flaminco to see the famous Piazza del Popolo. From there to the Trevi Fountain. It is the most beautiful fountain I have ever seen. There are beautiful marble sculptures around the huge fountain. The place was crowded with people clicking pictures. All had the same pose- throwing cents into the wishing well. I too did the same : D.
The rest of the day was spent roaming the streets of Rome. On every other street there is a church. We entered a few of them and were impressed with the exquisite paintings and sculptures inside. These works of art were commissioned by the Church during the Renaissance to artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo etc .
             By the end of the day we were famished, we went to an Indian restaurant by the name ‘Sitar’. It warmed our hearts when we found out that the place had mallu waiters. My parents gladly used this opportunity to speak Malayalam. After all, how often does one meet a fellow mal in Rome.  After quizzing the waiter on his whereabouts in Kerala, and more or less his entire history, we finally ordered food. Let’s say we were not disappointed.

              Our last day in Rome was the day of Eid. We prayed Eid prayer at the Grand Mosque there. It was a wonderful experience, praying with people from different nations- Italy, Morocco, Philippines, Somalia, India, Pakistan etc….It was a memorable Eid
Our time at Rome had come to an end. Our next stop- Florence. I will be writing about it in my next post, so do visit this page again!


Monday, 8 November 2010

A week in Italy and a few extra pounds...

A few trips in and around the city,daily doses of cappucinos,some photographs and a week is already over. Time flies,doesn't it? A few weeks back I was in my hostel dreaming about my coming Italian adventures,and now here I am relating it to y'all!
The flight from Calicut to Dubai was really comfortable. We flew through Emirates. At Dubai, we enter the business lounge and find ourselves facing mini paradise. It's one hell of a place-reclining chairs,unlimited food,spas,the works! For a moment we caught ourselves wishing that the rest of the trip be spent in a similar fashion. Ah,that was life!

Then we landed in Rome,the second stop on our trip. And got separated. Rome airport has it's own metro service. My mom and Bilal got into a compartment and before Shereef and I could enter the door closes. We stand there for sometime not knowing what to do. Fortunately,people were still getting into the adjacent compartment and we too got in. We were re-united at the next stop. Later Bilal told me that mum was on the verge of tears.Mothers!
Rome was alien. All around we see fashionistas clippety clopping in heeled boots looking like million bucks.I shrank into my humble khadi kurta,re-emerging only to board our flight to Brindisi. The last lap! And the worst one. It was one hour  of turbulence. By the time we landed,the four of us were quite a sight- darks circles and tortured look. Jet lag was working it's way in. Then there was dad waiting for us with an eager smile,we forgot jetlag and turbulence and all and rushed to him. It had been 5 months!

We go home. It's a nice place with a beautiful garden. The house owner,Lily,stays above us. A darling of a person. She sent us freshly baked fruit cake...we found out that she is an amazing cook too.
We got to witness our dad's culinary skills too. He had hot spaggetti and Indonesian rice waiting for us. Mom was quite jealous...but not jealous enough to register that this new skill can be used for her benifit.

Day 1
We go to the local sports club-Circolo Tennis. My brothers enroll for tennis. I don't,cause..well,my hand eye coordination is not exactly remarkable. People might end up hurt. Grievously.
Then,dad takes us for a drive around the city. It was all that I expected. And more. Brindisi is a quiet town. Actually,it is more like a typical European village.The people are amazingly friendly. They go out of the way to help you. And as new-comers to a place,you really appreciate that.
Dinner is kebabs from 'Istanbul Kebab' which,funnily,is run by Pakistanis. And the kebab turned out to be Shawarma. But who cares!

Day 2
Mom and I go to the local vegetable shop (verdura in Italian),reassuring Dad that we know the way back. And,we get lost. But it was quite enjoyable,finding our way back. We ended up walking for about half an hour. We reached home tired but wiser.(Dad didn't think so,when he found out that we managed to get lost when it was only required to walk back straight)

Day 3,Day 4
 Spent at the club. My brothers are fast learners. They consider themselves Federers and Nadals. *sniff* My darlings.

Day 5
The mall! It is out of the city (funny,isn't it?) We spend some time there and head back.
Diwali party at dad's colleague's place. There is a small Indian community there. Very close-knit. The party was a hit,with fire-works and all. For a moment,it felt like we are back in India. We hogged on the food ( I,very elegantly,of course)

Day 6,Day 7
Weekend! That means Dad's free. We head out of the city to Lecce and Otranto.While Lecce is a typical Italian city with old,beautiful buildings, cafe`s and bistros, and posh cars, Otranto is a quiet seaside town. Lecce was buzzing with life. There is a make-shift market under huge tents. They have all sorts of stuff- From boots to hats to Tunics-Everything! We meet two Indian guys at an ethnic store. One from Rajasthan and the other from Punjab. Such nice people,they even invited us for lunch to their place. Talk about hospitality!

The weekend went memorably. Next week we are planning on a roadtrip across Italy. Will keep you updated.

P.S-I tried my Italian on a girl at the airport. She just stared at me. And...Continued staring. I don't think she understood. I tell you,these Italians are slow.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Travel Bug

Finally! After months of running around for the visas and tickets and stamps and seals (by my mom) we are finally ready! Brindisi-here I come!
The place I am going to,Brindisi,is a small port in Italy. It seems to be a charming little place(according to Wiki) and I just can't wait to see what all it has to offer.
The journey seems tiring,with stops at Dubai and Rome. 20 hours! So, Jet lag seems inevitable...*sigh*
I plan to update my blog regularly with pictures and happenings there. Till then,Ciao!