A Travellerspoint blog

June 2013

The Palazzo Ducale and a Notturno Veneziano

Touring the Doge's Palace, and an evening canal tour with Laguna Eco Adventures

sunny 69 °F

Prior to leaving, we had pre-purchased tickets for the "Secret Itineraries Tour" of the Doge's Palace, as well as a tour of the clock tower, the L'Orologio. We missed our reserved slots for both tours due to our flight cancellation, but on Tuesday morning, I head over to the Correr museum in Piazza San Marco, to see if anything can be done.

They are actually quite sympathetic to our situation, and rebook us for the Secret Itineraries tour immediately, and for the L'Orologio on Wednesday morning. I couldn't ask for better treatment than that. We're able to immediately enter the grounds of the Palazzo Ducale while we wait for our tour to begin.


We're as powerfully drawn to the beautiful architecture as we are to the tasty pastries in the coffee shop. We have learned to keep our priorities in order.



The Secret Itineraries tour takes you on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Doge's Palace, into areas that require the presence of a guide. Our guide speaks highly accented English with a bit of an overly dramatic flair, and is justifiably concerned about the tendency of her tour group to touch things they shouldn't be touching.

Denunciation boxes, ready for anonymous accusations

Denunciation boxes, ready for anonymous accusations

The Golden Staircase

The Golden Staircase

The Golden Staircase

The Golden Staircase

Although photos are permitted in the open air portions of the tour, once we get past the "Golden Staircase" all cameras are put away, so, unfortunately, no photos of the tour itself. We do, however, receive a comprehensive tour of the offices of various officials, the interrogation room, complete with pulley and rope, and the cells for the political prisoners. We venture into the rafters that support the ceilings of the grand halls below, and we hear the story of Casanova's escape from the prison, and see the prison cells and chambers involved. It's chilling to imagine an interrogation by candle light in these gloomy, oppressive rooms. It's a great tour.

Once it's complete, we are free to explore the rest of the palace, which includes an astonishing display of weaponry. The gallery traces the evolution of both armor and weapons, and is really quite amazing. Of particular interest are the weapons that appeared around the development of firearms. Apparently, the thought was that any weapon could be improved by adding a gun barrel to it, thus resulting in such bizarre combinations as crossbows that also fired bullets, and the combination hatchet/gun. The itinerary leads, eventually, to the Bridge of Sighs, where civil prisoners got their last glimpse of Venice before passing into the adjoining prison cells.

Crossing the Bridge of Sighs

Crossing the Bridge of Sighs

Last glimpse of Venice

Last glimpse of Venice

Corridor to the lowest levels of the prison

Corridor to the lowest levels of the prison

It seems unlikely the occupant will be seeing daylight any time soon

It seems unlikely the occupant will be seeing daylight any time soon

From squalor to luxury

From squalor to luxury

Once we exit into the sunlight, it's time for me to get my cell phone situation resolved, so we begin our hunt for the TIM store, which we know is somewhere in the Rialto district. Addresses in Venice are virtually meaningless, serving only to get you to a general vicinity, and asking for directions is akin to trying to sort out a plate of spaghetti. It's a good thing panini sandwiches are so plentiful to keep us nourished during our search.

We finally find the TIM store, and the clerk speaks no English. Fortunately, I have enough Italian that I can explain the problem. He examines my account, and discovers that Telestial never actually funded the card with the €15 I paid for, so it has been deactivated. It takes a little doing, but he's able to get me operational. At last, I have phone service!

Thanks, TIM!

Thanks, TIM!

TIP: If you're using TIM, you can buy a weekly data plan for your phone, allowing you 500mb per week of 4G data for €6. Other data plans for lower cost are also available, and I think it's a great bargain, allowing you access to things like Google maps and navigation while you're out and about.

We decide to head back to St. Mark's to see if we can get in to the Campanile, the bell tower. It's a short wait and €8 to be whisked to the top of the tower by elevator for stunning views of Venice.





We head back to the apartment to refresh ourselves before our 7:30pm meeting with Marco, our guide for our evening tour of the canals. Unfortunately, it doesn't occur to either of us to grab a jacket while we're at the apartment.

Laguna Eco Adventures advertises a 2.5 hour tour of the "back streets" of Venice by "traditional boat", including a romantic bottle of Prosecco and something called (sic) "Tipical Biscuits". The website shows photos of their fleet, all of which are charming vessels.

We meet Marco, as arranged, at 7:30pm at the Rialto Mercato vaporetto stop. The "traditional boat" is actually a small skiff with an outboard motor. It's equipped with a hard wooden bench seat, and little else. Not exactly what we were expecting, but we're willing to go with it. Marco explains that he uses an outboard to allow us to visit all of the sestiere of Venice in the allotted time, something that's impossible to do with a rowed vessel, and, true to his word, we putter through the narrow canals behind the elegant piazzas through each of the Venice districts. It's an enjoyable tour, though the conversation (as it does many times during this vacation) veers toward the political and economic situation in Italy.



Ambulance boats at the hospital

Ambulance boats at the hospital


As the sun goes down, so does the temperature, dramatically. We have no jackets, and Marco has no blankets or other amenities aboard. In fact, he admits he doesn't even have the Prosecco or the biscuits. This isn't at all what we had pictured when we booked the tour.


2 Hours later, shivering, thirsty, and hungry, we part with Marco at the Rialto Mercato. Although we weren't thrilled with the trip, I give him the money we had set aside for the tour (€120) as well as a €20 gratuity. I'm quite surprised when, 20 minutes later, he sends me a text to tell me I had shorted him €10 on the price of the tour. I check my pockets, and find that he's correct...I must have given him the wrong packet of cash. While I'm tempted to tell him to just take it out of his tip, to make up for forgetting the refreshments, I wind up agreeing to meet him back at the Rialto Mercato to give him the missing €10. He certainly keeps us waiting long enough before he returns to retrieve it.

If you haven't guessed, I really am not giving a good recommendation to Laguna Eco Adventures.

The Rialto at Night

The Rialto at Night

We look at the restaurants near the Rialto, but they seem very touristy and expensive (you pay for the view in Venice), so we head back to our neighborhood for dinner. We're surprised that at 10pm, most of the restaurants are closing. We wind up grabbing a couple of porchetta paninis from a bar, and purchase an €8 bottle of Sicilian wine to go with it, to eat back at our apartment.

I'm not a wine connoisseur, so perhaps Sicilian wines are supposed to taste like green olives. Somehow, I don't think so.

Tomorrow, we'll visit the L'Orologio, and take a trip to some of the islands in the lagoon.


Posted by Zukini 14:54 Archived in Italy Tagged venice campanile lagunaecoadventures secret_itinerary Comments (0)

The L'Orologio, and a quick tour of the Lagoon

sunny 71 °F

It's Wednesday, May 15th, and time for our rescheduled tour of the L'Orologio (literally, "The Clock"). The Torre L'Orologio dates from the end of the 15th century, and can only be visited on a guided tour.

Torre L'Orologio

Torre L'Orologio

We meet with the rest of our small group (about 12 people) at the Correr Museum at St. Mark's Square, and we're escorted to the tower by our guide, who opens a nondescript door under the archway to allow us access to the stairs leading up into the tower.


Along the way, we pass the old clock-keeper's quarters. He's only recently retired in 1998, when electric motors were added to the mechanism to replace the manual charging of the clock with chains and weights.




The clock features some interesting innovations...in the mid 1800's, panels were installed that strongly resemble modern digital clocks, ticking off the hours and minutes in 5-minute intervals. Twice a year, on the Feast of the Epiphany and on Ascension Day, the dials for the digital clock are removed, and figures of the Angel Gabriel and the three Magi are installed instead, performing a procession in front of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus above the clock face every hour and performing an animatronic action (Gabriel blows his horn, the Kings bow before Christ). We missed seeing this by a few days (Ascension day in 2013 fell on May 9th), but the figures are in storage in the clock tower, and our guide shows us how they work.



We ultimately find our way to the roof of the tower, where we get an up close view of the bronze "Moors" with their striking hammers. One is old, the other young, to denote the passage of time, and both swivel from the hip to strike the enormous bell. We get some beautiful views of the Piazza before it's time to descend. An excellent tour.




With the rest of the day to play with, we strike out on foot across the Rialto, heading for the Fondamenta Nuove vaporetto stop, our jumping-off point for the islands of the lagoon. We wind our way through the alleys and bridges, frequently getting lost.

Once we board the vaporetto, our first stop is the island of Cemetario, which is exactly what it sounds like...the cemetery island for the lagoon. It is quite beautiful and well tended, but it is also expansive. Several tour loops are laid out for visitors, and we begin to wander through sections dedicated to nuns, monks, and soldiers. Everything we see is rather modern and uniform. I'm sure there are older, more atmospheric sections of the cemetery, but photos are not permitted and we have a lot we want to see today, so we cut our visit short.

Next stop is the glass-making island of Murano. We forgo the museum, and wander the streets instead, visiting various glass shops.



We Are Here.

We Are Here.

Some have great prices, but don't specify that what they're selling is Murano glass. Others have signs that proudly proclaim that no Chinese glass is sold there.

One of the many art installations in the piazzas of Murano

One of the many art installations in the piazzas of Murano

We pick up a few genuine Murano glass souvenirs, small things that will be easy to transport home without risk of breakage. We stop for a wonderful porchetta panini in a small shop that makes sandwiches to order, and browse some more.

A great sandwich shop

A great sandwich shop

...and a great sandwich. Oh, and some art, but mostly a great sandwich.

...and a great sandwich. Oh, and some art, but mostly a great sandwich.

We stumble across Fiore Fiore, and stop in to find the owner at work making a small glass butterfly. Here's proof that this is genuine Murano glass! We purchase it as soon as it is cool enough to touch, and chat with the owner about (what else?) the Italian economy.

Sorry, inside, no Chinese glass.

Sorry, inside, no Chinese glass.


We walk to the Faro lighthouse to catch a vaporetto for our next destination, the island of Burano, renown for lace making and for the brightly colored homes. It is a small, scenic place. Many homes have curtains in front of their doors, trying to get a modicum of privacy from the unending procession of tourists peering in their windows.





We intend to wind up our lagoon trip with a visit to the abandoned island of Torcello, but our best intentions are betrayed by our tired feet and the lengthening shadows. We board a vaporetto back to Venice proper. Naturally, in true Zukini fashion, we decide to take a short cut, and get off at the San Pietro stop, figuring it will be a quick walk to our apartment. How hard can it be? We have the San Pietro Campanile to use as a landmark. We find that, in Venice, unless you know the SPECIFIC route to take, NOTHING is a quick walk. We get lost again, wandering through the twisty lanes of San Pietro until we finally reach familiar territory.

This evening we decide to try Trattoria Sottaprova on Via Garibaldi. TripAdvisor reviews are sharply divided on this restaurant, but a guest journal that was left in our apartment gives it good reviews. We're not disappointed, and we thoroughly enjoy our meal there, the highlight being a pasta dish with fresh shrimp that is quite delicious. We share a bottle of wine, and weave our mellow way back to the apartment, passing down Viale Garibaldi. At the foot of the Viale is a glass building, a combination of a greenhouse and a bistro, called Cafe La Serra...tonight, they're having some sort of a dance event there, and everyone is dancing the Tango. It's a found moment of perfect enchantment.

Tonight, we pack up and prepare for our onward journey. In the morning, we'll be taking the Frecciargento high speed train south to Naples and onward to Sorrento, but for tonight, we bid Venice a fond farewell. Our visit here has been all too short.


Posted by Zukini 20:13 Archived in Italy Tagged burano venice lagoon murano clock_tower l'orologio Comments (0)

Riding the Rails to Sorrento

rain 69 °F

Thursday, May 16th starts with a rainy morning. Today's the day when we'll be vacating our apartment in Venice, and beginning the long trek south to our destination in Sorrento.

We check out early, wrap our luggage with plastic trash bags, and make our soggy way to the Vaporetto for the ride to the Ferriale stop, the rail terminal. The waters of the canal jostle us about, and the vaporetto is very crowded with commuters, tourists, and a large group of very young French students on an outing. We find a spot to stand where we're relatively dry and relatively stable, and wait out the crush.

This will be our first experience with the Italian train system. We've booked second class seats on the Frecciargento ("Silver Arrow") from Venice to Rome. This is a high speed train that should take about 5 hours to make the trip.

Finding our way through the train station to our platform ("binario") is simple. We're glad we're traveling light...there are no porters or baggage compartments on Italian trains...if it doesn't fit in the overhead or behind your seats, it gets stacked in a common luggage area at one end of the car. Having taken an Amtrak ride many years ago from Philadelphia to Florida, I'm very pleasantly surprised by the comfort of the 2nd class accommodation. Mrs. Zukini and I have facing seats, with a table between us.

Our carry on bags fit handily in the overhead rack above our seats, and train whizzes through the Italian countryside, affording brief views of the rolling hills of the Veneto, Tuscany, and Umrbria on our way south.



We're surprised at the discomfort we feel in our ears each time the train passes through one of the many lengthy tunnels. I surmise that the train passing through the tunnel at high velocity actually causes either a bit of a vacuum or a bit of a pressure wave, but our ears block and pop each time we dive into one.



The train, unlike a plane, is the perfect vehicle for lulling us into a stuporous slumber, and we doze frequently during the trip.

Some 5 hours later, we coast into Napoli Centrale, the hectic Naples train station, roughly a half hour late. Before the trip, we debated the choice of paying a pittance to take the Circumvesuviana commuter train from Naples to Sorrento, or to hire a private driver for a substantial fee. In retrospect, after seeing some of the crowded conditions on the Circumvesuviana we experienced later in our trip, we're glad we sprung for the big bucks to hire a private driver.

Emmanuele from Astarita Car Service is waiting for us at the end of the platform, and takes command of our luggage. We drag him around the terminal for a bit...we're looking for the Tourist Information Office, with the intention of purchasing the Campania Artcarde Tutto Regione, a combination ticket that will give us access to transportation and museums throughout Campania at a discounted rate. Unfortunately, the card is being revamped (with higher prices) and temporarily unavailable.

Emmanuele escorts us out into the chaos of Naples, seats us in a very nice Mercedes sedan, and skillfully navigates the insanity that Neapolitans call a daily commute. Once we're out of the crush of Naples traffic, he starts to chat with us, and inevitably, the subject turns to the state of the Italian economy.

It takes about an hour (with some truly breathtaking views) before we reach our destination in Sorrento. Our apartment rental is on a limited traffic street, so Emmanuele parks his car about a block away, and escorts us to our apartment. Our rental agent is no where to be found. I attempt to call her, but I get to practice my Pimsleur Italian almost verbatim. "Il numero non e il numero giusto."

In a coincidence that repeats itself many times during our trip, the owner of the apartment takes exactly that moment to call ME. He sends Anita, the agent, around immediately, and we bid Emmanuele a fond farewell.

The apartment itself is in a historic old palazzo. After passing through the massive front door, we make our way up the stairs to our rooms. The apartment is nice enough for what it is, pretty spacious. The kitchen is poorly equipped...there's no toaster or kettle (electric or otherwise), and the coffee maker, a small moka pot, is rusted and disgusting.




There's a small balcony over the noisy, shop filled street below, and a loft bedroom. The bathroom sink is cracked, and the shower is caked with mold and mildew.



Every drawer and cabinet in the place has a torn piece of notebook paper with a full, written inventory of every cup, knick knack, and button taped to it, and most have zip ties securing them closed. There's no TV, just an 80's era boom box. We both feel like we're invading someone's grandmother's house. Of all the vacation rentals we've used, this one is the most unwelcoming. We feel like intruders rather than guests.


I setup my laptop to check in with my job, and find that the WiFi we're supposed to have in this apartment doesn't exist. I call Piero for an explanation. He tells me they had trouble with the DSL line and had it disconnected, but if I stand on one foot with my left arm in the air in the corner by refrigerator, I should be able to get a signal from a neighboring apartment. Good thing I had the foresight to get that data plan for my phone, which will now act as my modem as well.

Sorrento doesn't really have the feel of a destination to me. It has more of the atmosphere of hub, a base of operations for other, more attractive locations. The shops selling lemon products and ceramics, the restaurants with eager touts rushing to explain their menu if you accidentally glance their way, all give the impression of a place that is trying too hard to impress, trying too hard to show you a good time.

We freshen up, explore the town, then head to Zi'Ntonios, a restaurant that had been recommended to us by Emmanuele (he's friends with the owner). We enjoy a delicious meal there, with stuffed zucchini flowers, ravioli, and a wonderful baked fish, and our waiter, Carmine, is a joy.


We meander the streets of Sorrento until it's time to return to our palazzo. Next installment, we'll be heading out on a day trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum.


Posted by Zukini 17:30 Archived in Italy Tagged venice naples sorrento trenitalia frecciargento Comments (0)

A Trip to the Past: Pompeii and Herculaneum

semi-overcast 69 °F

It's Friday, May 17th, and today we're going to be heading to Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano) for some history. For those of you who don't already know, these two cities were buried during the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79, entombing them until they were rediscovered in 1599.

We're going to use public transportation for our trip today, and we've purchased a set of Unico Campania 3T tourist transportation tickets. These tickets allow us unlimited use of the bus and commuter train network throughout Campania for 3 days, and are priced at 20€ each. With the number of bus and train segments we're planning on using, we've worked out that it's about a break-even proposition, but it saves us the trouble of having to buy tickets at Tabacchi shops.

We walk up the hill to the Sorrento station for the Circumvesuviana commuter train, for the roughly 40 minute ride to Pompeii Scavi.

Riding the Circumvesuviana

Riding the Circumvesuviana

Pompeii is a sprawling site, covering the space of a small city. We pick up a map at the ticket booth, but they're out of the accompanying guidebooks. It's windy (we've been told that the area is experiencing the effects of sirocco winds out the Sahara, resulting in windy, unsettled conditions), and dust devils of dirt and grit sweep across the site.

The Forum

The Forum

We come across the storage areas, where pottery, amphorae, and architectural fragments are being kept. Here, we also find some of the plaster casts of the victims of the volcanic eruption. When the site was excavated, archaeologists would occasionally come across voids in the volcanic ash covering the site. They injected these voids with plaster, and when the ash was chipped away, they would find the plaster had taken the form of the unfortunate people who had suffocated in the ash fall.

These plaster casts are moving and tragic, but also so forlorn. Here they sit, some in glass cases, some not, almost as an afterthought in a cluttered storage room.






(Some of the casts are in context at an area called the Garden of the Fugitives. We missed that area entirely during our visit.)

As we work our way through Pompeii, we seek out some of the more famous buildings. Unfortunately, due to neglect and the elements, some of the buildings have experienced significant degradation (there was a collapse at the House of the Gladiators in 2010). For this reason, some of the major buildings are padlocked or chained.


We do have the opportunity to see the House of the Faun. This is of particular interest to us...it contains two iconic artifacts of Pompeii, the elaborate "Alexander the Great" mosaic, and the "Dancing Faun". Both of these, visible in situ, are reproductions. We had the opportunity to see the originals back in 2011 in the Naples Archaeological Museum (see my blog entry "Sweet Napoli" )

Alexander the Great defeats Darius

Alexander the Great defeats Darius


The Stabian Baths

The Stabian Baths


Teatro Grande

Teatro Grande

An Ancient Bakery

An Ancient Bakery

The afternoon wears on, and we'd like to get in a visit to Ercolano (Herculaneum). Ercolano, a seaside town, was also destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius, but the primary culprit there was a searingly hot pyroclastic flow, rather than the slow accumulation of ash that suffocated Pompeii. It is a much smaller set of excavations, as it is under the existing modern city of Ercolano, so only a few square blocks are available to visitors.




The portions of the excavation that are open to visitors are in an astounding state of preservation. Frescoes that once adorned stately homes are still relatively intact, with vibrant colors.




Ancient infrastructure is still in place. We pass a Thermopolium, where it looks like the food counter is waiting to be stocked. A cutaway in a nearby wall shows the sophistication of ancient Roman plumbing.



In some homes and shops, the intense heat of the pyroclastic flow carbonized all of the woodwork into charcoal.



In other homes, fragile mosaics and beautiful frescoes have been preserved.




A restoration project is ongoing, and we have the opportunity to watch a conservator at her painstaking work.

Exiting the site, we pass the old warehouses beneath the town, with openings facing the sea. Many sought refuge here from the relentless onslaught of Mt. Vesuvius. Centuries later, their cracked and scorched bones were found, huddled in groups in these warehouses.


It's been a rewarding day. Pompeii is vast and iconic, while Ercolano is a small, intimate glimpse into the destruction of a community. Both are deeply affecting.

We head back to Sorrento on the Circumvesuviana. Tonight, we'll enjoy a dinner at Zi'Ntonio's again, feasting on their fine Neapolitan style pizza.


Next installment, we'll be heading to the island of Capri.


Posted by Zukini 14:30 Archived in Italy Tagged ruins naples pompeii herculaneum vesuvius ercolano scavi circumvesuviana Comments (0)

The Island of Capri

sunny 84 °F

It's Saturday, May 18th, and today we're day-tripping from Sorrento to the island of Capri. We'll be taking a jet boat over to Capri, so our first order of business is to make our way to the marina, far below the city center of Sorrento.

How do we get from here to there?

How do we get from here to there?

The easy solution is the 1€ elevator, conveniently located at the public gardens next to the Church of S. Francesco, which brings us down to the level of the marina. From there, we trek around the base of the cliff to the busy marina. We see the large jet boats at the far end, so we walk over that way. The boats are here, but not the ticket office!

We head back to where we started, and find the ticket offices at the entrance to the marina. Only one class of service is available, so we buy a couple of tickets, and then head back to, of course, the furthest berth.

The jet boat is loading as we arrive, and we're funneled into a line that brings us to the top deck, in the stern. All the seats are taken, so we are pressed up against a locked, glass door by the crowd.


It doesn't look like it's going to be a comfortable ride. We manage to turn ourselves around, and through the glare, we're able to see what beckons beyond the locked glass door.


That large empty area is the premium class seating, but there's no premium class on this sailing, so the cabin sits woefully empty. We help remedy that situation when a crew member squeezes his way out the door, and we squeeze our way in. It's a fairly comfortable ride, once we've got some nice cushy seats.

When we arrive at Capri marina, the boat disgorges hundreds of passengers, all pretty well intent on getting the funicular railway to the town itself, perched on the mountainside above us. We stand on line for the funicular, and when we reach the turnstile, we learn that we have to buy our tickets first...at the other side of the piazza. I guess it would make too much sense to sell them at the actual funicular station.


An hour later, we are back on line, and board the Funiculare.

Nearing the top of the Funiculare

Nearing the top of the Funiculare

We wander around Capri for a brief while, but our real goal is to ascend Monte Solaro, so we grab one of the little buses to Anacapri, further up mountain. There, we board the chairlift to the summit of Monte Solaro.

Going up!

Going up!

Nearing the Top of the Chairlift

Nearing the Top of the Chairlift

It proves to be a spectacular piece of real estate. A visitor center at the peak affords unbelievable panoramic views. Just relax while I share a few:





Finally, it's time to descend. Rather than return the way we came, on the chairlift, we decide to hike the path down Monte Solaro to Anacapri. The path is mostly rustic, packed earth and crude steps, but it's not particularly difficult if you're in reasonable shape. It certainly is peaceful, devoid of tourists, beautiful.




During the trip down, we see dozen of small green lizards, one of the two indigenous lizards here on Capri. The other is the Blue Lizard, but they're only found on the Faraglioni rocks.


Along the path, we find these <br />Stations of the Cross

Along the path, we find these
Stations of the Cross


Descending into Anacapri, we make a short visit to the Chiesa Monumentale S. Michele, known for the exquisite Majollica tilework that covers the floor of the church. A boardwalk is set up around the perimeter, so that visitors can view the tiles.




We catch our return bus to the Marina from a stop just prior to the main piazza in Anacapri, which allows us to get a seat before the crowd packs on. As evening arrives, we cruise back in to the marina at Sorrento, where we'll take another 1€ elevator ride to the top, rather than brave the 270 steps.

The Excelsior Hotel, as seen from the marina.

The Excelsior Hotel, as seen from the marina.

Tonight, we'll dine at Zi'Ntonios again, where I enjoy a luscious linguine with lobster, and Mrs. Z. has some great pizza with grilled vegetables.


Next stop, the Amalfi Coast.


Posted by Zukini 14:30 Archived in Italy Tagged capri Comments (0)

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