Eighteenth Email- Assisi, Florence, and the canals of Venice

Sent 9.4.06


This email is a continuation of my previous email describing my start of break in Rome; you may want to read that before this one if you haven't already. I left off with Tom and I heading to Assisi for the afternoon. It was a great pick for a daytrip, as there aren't a lot of things you feel obliged to see; it was more just taking in what you wanted to. There are several churches in the small city; we only visited one, the Basilica di San Francesco d'Assisi. This church obviously gets its name from St. Francis of Assisi, and was very different from the churches in Rome. It consisted of a lower and an upper church, which is something I hadn't seen before. Similar to the way he lived his life, the church was not overbearing but rather simple, especially the lower church. As we were leaving the church, we managed to catch a beautiful view with the sun and the clouds over the valley below. I actually captured it on camera, but it was pretty amazing to see in person. The view from the hillside town was very nice to begin with, and the weather that day made it even better.

After the basilica, Tom and I walked around the city, climbing a lot of hills to work our way further up to a good view. We eventually stopped in a piazza to get some food and drink. We first found a nice café with €3 glasses of good Italian wine, and then moved back down the hill to a take-away pizza restaurant. It wouldn't have been a complete meal without some gelato to finish. The train to Florence was a nice leisurely ride to finish out the day. Even without reservations, we got a room in the first hostel we tried for only €19 a night with breakfast and internet included. It was a cool hostel to walk around because they allowed guests to write on the walls. We found a few pieces of ND graffiti, including an ND logo and the "Play like a Champion" sign drawn out in crayon on a stairwell ceiling. We couldn't think of anything original to write after seeing all of that.

Our first night of sleeping in of the trip (until 8:45 am) was much needed as we hadn't had a full night of sleep in a few days. We also woke up to our first and last day of bad weather on the trip. It could have been worse, as it was only a light rain, but of course Tom and I failed to think and bring umbrellas. It did clear up by the afternoon so we were able to manage for the morning. We started our Florentine sightseeing with a trip to the Duomo, which has an incredibly ornate exterior, with more marble colours than I've ever seen. We stayed there for a while to look around and to stay out of the rain. The interior is quite plain in comparison to St. Peter's, but is still impressive in its own right. The dome itself is also very interesting with a nice portrayal of the Last Judgement. Eventually we headed out into the rain and made our way past and through some other churches, deciding to do something different- go to the science museum. We had seen a lot of art so this would be different, and it ended up being quite interesting. There were a ton of old scientific instruments ranging from astronomy to meteorology. As we left the museum, the rain finally began to clear up making the afternoon more enjoyable. We walked around the city a bit more, sat down for some lunch, and headed over to the Accademia (the David statue) where we had reservations. Making reservations was clutch here; it was a €3 fee but it saved you an hour or more waiting in line.

The Accademia is not a huge gallery, which is nice because you aren't overwhelmed with too much artwork. Two things catch your eye in the gallery- Michelangelo's unfinished Prisoners sculptures, and his David. The layout of the gallery is done well and shows you the progression from block of marble to finished sculpture. The least finished of his sculptures comes first, and the state of completion grows as you walk down the hallway towards the David, which can be seen the entire time. David is an amazing sculpture- the size of it isn't as apparent when you see pictures in a book. He stands five meters tall, which is a bit over 16 feet. Seeing the detail in it is amazing- there are veins popping out of his arms. While standing there looking at the David, we also had a random encounter with three other people who live in our dorm here in Dublin. It is pretty crazy to just run into people in Europe. The funny part is that it happened again with different people later in Venice, where we stayed in the same hostel as some other Notre Dame Dublin kids.

After being wowed by the David, we headed back to our hostel to get some dinner, and then headed out for the night to meet up with a girl studying abroad for the year in Florence. This girl, Alisa, was a friend from home of Tom's girlfriend, who Tom had never met but his girlfriend thought we should all meet up. Talk about a possible awkward situation. It ended up working out fine. We set up a meeting point in front of the Duomo, and Tom and I waited there for her to arrive. While waiting, we tried to figure out our plans for the next few days. We had booked a hostel the next night in Venice, so knew we needed to arrive there at some point. Tom at this point said a great line: "Dinner in Venice tomorrow?" We both agreed that would be cool, but it was just funny that you could say something as crazy as that and have it really happen. Alisa soon showed up, and we greeted each other like we already knew each other, so it wasn't too awkward. We headed to a bar along the river that she knew served free tapas (appetizers), and free food is never something to pass up. She recommended we try the Florentine invented cocktail, a Negroni. Without a good reason to say no, we happily obliged and gave it a try. It was pretty good, and had a bit of a punch to it. We spent the night sitting outside on a heated patio by the river, talking about all sorts of stuff from colleges (she actually goes to USC, how ironic) to our study abroad experiences so far.

The next morning we started off with another church. Because we headed there relatively early, the stained-glass windows were very well-lit by the sun and lit up the stone columns that stood nearby, making the church seem very colourful. We then headed off to the Uffizi gallery where we had reservations in the early morning. This is yet another "textbook" art gallery where you have seen many of the works before in books. It was a lot more painting than we had seen before, so it was interesting in its own right, but Tom and I both agreed that after this gallery we were a bit 'arted out'. The day was looking to be beautiful, so we headed across the river after the gallery to climb up to Piazza Michelangelo which was supposed to be a great view of the city. We were both quite hungry, so we first stopped at a buffet-style take-away restaurant that served up some of the best shish kabobs I've ever had, with a good selection of vegetables and three or four different meats. We definitely needed the uphill walk afterwards to burn off some of those calories that we consumed with that meal.

Piazza Michelangelo lived up to its hype. The sun was out and you could see all of Florence below us as well as the mountains surrounding the city. We stayed up there for a while, enjoying both the view and the weather, and then made our way back across the city to our hostel to get our bags. The train station was just around the corner and we bought our tickets for the trip to Venice where we still planned to get dinner. A general observation- Florence was a much more "Italian" city than Rome, although that sounds like a weird statement to make. Rome had its own character, one that would likely be called "Roman". Florence let us know that we really were in Italy.

The trip to Venice brought us through Bologna where we changed trains and then continued on to Venezia Santa Lucia, the train station on the island where the historic city lies. Our hostel that we booked which was really a hotel with a few dorm rooms with beds that they sold individually, was on the island. Some hostels are on the mainland, which doesn't give you the full Venetian experience. We arrived just after night had set in, so got a beautiful view of the Grand Canal as we walked out of the train station towards our hotel. We didn't find it right away, but it's hard to get too lost because we knew we didn't have to cross a bridge, which constrains you to a relatively small piece of earth. After checking in, Tom and I headed out to a canal-side restaurant where we enjoyed a nice meal of gnocchi (an interesting pasta that I recommend). We once again split a bottle of wine, which is my vote for best wine of the trip, although sitting next to a canal in Venice may lend a helping hand to that decision. We then did a short night walk around part of the island, where we came across an Italian karaoke night taking place out in a small square. We eventually ran into some fellow ND domers (I mentioned them above) at an Irish pub near our hostel. Tom and I broke down and ordered a Guinness; it's hard to abstain from such a good beer even if you are in Italy.

The next day Tom and I joined the other five ND kids for the day, starting out with a vaporetti (water bus) ride down the Grand Canal to the only large square on the island, Piazza San Marco. You see a lot of different architecture and artwork stretched out along the canal when taking the boat. Once we arrived at the Piazza, we spent a while just walking around and taking it in. One thing that many people notice but may not think about is the lack of any car-related sounds- all you hear are the pigeons and the people. I've probably never seen so many pigeons in one place in my life as in this square, and I don't care to see them again. We soon headed into the Basilica where we looked around for some time. It had a museum upstairs as well, which we checked out. Going to the museum also allowed you out onto the balcony of the church which overlooked the piazza below.

Our group split up after getting some lunch, and I spent the afternoon looking through some stores and deciding to climb the campanile (bell tower) of the Basilica. The weather was not the greatest as it was a bit hazy, but the tower still gave good views of Venice and some of the surrounding islands in the lagoon. On a clear day it is supposedly possible to see Croatia across the Adriatic Sea. I then went for an extended walk around the island, going through a definite non-tourist area where I came across a gondola building and repair shop, which would seem weird in any city but Venice. We eventually all met up again that night with two more fellow Dublin domers who we knew were coming into Venice. With our sizeable group of nine, we headed out to a restaurant to have a nice canal-side dinner. Our final stop for the night was a bar where we indulged in the Venetian drink of choice, a Bellini, a mix of peach juice and sparkling wine. It is a bit pink to consume on a regular basis, but no reason not to try everything once.

Venice was a pretty amazing city, and completely different than anywhere else I've been. The canals really are everywhere, and so are the bridges crossing them. Other cities have pedestrian areas where cars aren't allowed, or only allowed at certain times, but this is not the case in Venice. Not seeing a single car for a day is a pretty amazing feet in today's world. A car couldn’t go anywhere with all the stepped bridges to cross, and all deliveries have to be done by hand. The hand carts used for deliveries are even specific to Venice, with another set of wheels in front that makes the cart easier to roll up and down steps.

I'll (hopefully) talk about the rest of my Italy and Southern France trip in the next email, and Belgium soon after. As always, email me if you have any questions or comments.

Keep in touch,

Dan McGee

Mobile: +353 87 056 4163