Kittie Howard

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Venice Charms

Originally a settlement on Italy's mainland, Venice's inhabitants relocated to a series of man-made islands in the nearby marshy Adriatic Sea in order to escape plundering bandits. By the late 13th century, Venice had grown into a major commercial and sea power.

Although we're staying in Lido de Jesolo, across the Bay of Venice from the city, last week we were part of the huge influx of tourists who visit this remarkable city with stone buildings that rise out of the sea, as if by magic when viewed from the distance. After a convenient bus ride to the ferry port and a relaxing, air conditioned 45-minute ferry ride, we approached Venice.

As with other visits, my heart thumped with excitement. Venice is eternal. Venice is beauty. Venice is romance. Venice is imagination.

Some highlights:

Our ferry docked feet from the Metropole, one of the most expensive hotels in Venice. Well-heeled tourists arrive by private taxi and dock at the hotel's private landing behind the hotel. If you saw "Casino Royale," one of the scenes was at the landing. But the real reason I mention this hotel is because it was once Europe's first orphanage. During Venice's lively history, mistresses of the city's elite would leave their babies on the doorstep for the nuns to care for. Those girls who had beautiful voices filled choirs. Others learned lacemaking, their handiwork sold on Burano, one of Venice's islands (that is especially beautiful in the morning). Vivaldi, who wrote the opera "The Four Seasons," worshiped in the orphanage's church. Several years ago, one of the Metropole's receptionists showed Mr. H. and me the circular stone stairway that had led to the balcony where the choir sang. Now cordoned off for safety reasons, seeing well-trodden steps was an awesome experience.

San Marco's (St. Mark's) church in the piazza. The exterior pressure washing finally completed, the church is magnificent! The doge's palace is to the far right. Musicians play in the evening across from the church.

Venice spreads out from San Marco's. This canal runs from the Grand Canal, in the far distance. There are no cars, etc. in Venice. However a causeway does link Venice with Italy's mainland, with a parking lot for those who own cars.

Wikipedia's photo of the Grand Canal and the Rialto (shopping area) is much better than mine.  One year we took a water taxi to the Riato's back entrance (fish market) and continued onward to the Rialto Bridge, eventually returning to San Marco's. Signs with arrows help the tourist return.

Along the way, so many shops. This linen shop caught my wistful eye.
The latest fall fashions on display. 

Except for the piazzas, passageways are narrow throughout Venice. Everything comes in by boat. 

But it's a short boat ride for the famed Murano glass from the nearby island of Murano.  Because Venice was so densely populated, fire was a constant threat centuries ago, especially from the furnaces where artisans made the blown glass. And also because these glass blowers were like rock stars in their day, the Venetians decided that it was easier to protect themselves from fires and keep these artisans under closer watch if the entire operation moved to Murano. Artisans who divulged glass-blowing secrets had to escape Murano quickly or else suffer the severe consequences. Although they don't show very well, the clowns in the photo are extremely intricate, with attention to the smallest detail and brutally expensive. A bit of caution: Although there are many affordable Murano glass souvenirs, always labeled as such,  the Chinese have flooded the market with very cheap imitations (wine corks, letter openers and the like) that initially look good but often crack later.
Amid all the shops, these actors in the theatre district  handed out flyers advertising a play during a festival the following weekend.

Of course, Venice wouldn't be Venice without a gondola ride. This is one of the passenger loading areas.

And one of its many canals.

Nor would Venice be Venice without a nice coffee and a treat  while the gondolas glide by . . . ahhhh!

Next stop: Vienna, Austria. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Welcome to Amsterdam!

Our Royal Dutch Airline KLM overnight flight from Washington, D. C. to Amsterdam was on approach to Schiphol Airport. A massive windmill farm filled a section of the North Sea below. Morning breezes effortlessly turned their sleek white blades as the Netherlands' shoreline came into view, a view that soon revealed another of the country's reclamation projects. A portion of the North Sea had been diked off. Pumps drained the trapped water to create new land that would enlarge the airport's runway capabilities in the immediate view and create more farmland in the larger view, much like the patchwork of green fields and and irrigation canals that came into view as the plane circled somewhat in preparation for landing.

The Netherlands, about the size of Maryland, is a compact country with strict zoning ordinances, where even the semblance of wasted space, say, near an intersection of highways, is turned into a park, however small, with leafy trees, flowers and benches. We knew from previous visits to the Netherlands, but especially from a visit five years ago when we rented a car and toured the country for a week, that most of the Netherlands consisted of farms and quaint villages. Although it surprises many, the Netherlands is the world's second largest agricultural exporter, with the United States as the largest exporter.

As the jet's wheels hit one of Amsterdam's elongated runways made possible by a previous reclamation project and we rumbled toward the terminal, Mr. H. remarked, a certain amount of awe in the former military man's voice, "Schiphol's huge now, at least twice the size of Dulles (the Washington, D. C. international airport)." And, so, five years since our last visit -- but this time on foot, with a multi-day bus/rail pass for longer city trips -- we began our five-day exploration of Amsterdam, a city we love, a city that 2,400,000 call home.

Some highlights:

The Netherlands's constituion mandates that Amsterdam is the capital of the constitutional monarchy, but the actual seat of government is in The Hague (Den Haag), where the World Court is also located (a gorgeous building we visited some years ago.) Approximately 800,000 live in Amsterdam central, with about 2,400,000 in the larger metropolitan area, making it one of the most densely populated cities in the world. But because of the city center's horseshoe-shaped layout, the many canals, and the city's amazing transportation infrastructure, we never felt lost in a sea of humanity. We were only a couple of miles from the city center, with nary a pedestrian around, when I took the above photo. We'd paused to listen to the birds chirp, Nature's iTunes.

During a walk along another canal, the driver of this electric car (so marked on the door) parked near a boat as cyclists rode by. It's impossible to overstate the Dutch's forward approach to environmental measures.

I love street vendors, and Amsterdam has a lot, ranging from displays of old books, to paintings, to  jewelry to odds and ends. However, don't be deceived. They are strictly regulated.

Flower shops abound. I thought prices were very reasonable. When we returned, about an hour later, these bouquets of flowers had been sold. In Rotterdam, the Netherland's second largest city -- and a major port, much as Amsterdam is a financial hub -- there's a massive covered area where thousands (!) of tulips, in a jaw-dropping panoply of color, await overnight shipment to all parts of the world, another reason why Schiphol is so huge. KLM's cargo jets work the time zones so that tulips arrive fresh daily. Of all the tours I've been on during our travels, that unbelievably gorgeous and utterly huge collection of tulips remains a definite highlight.

Before leaving North Carolina, a neighbor asked if Europeans understood English.  The answer is unequivocally yes in the Netherlands. Very aware the Dutch language doesn't travel far, the government embarked upon teaching English in its schools decades ago. Although it's possible to encounter those of a certain age in the countryside who aren't fluent, it's almost impossible to encounter anyone younger than, say, 40, who isn't fluent in English. (Most Dutch also speak German.) 

This pelican in the Royal Zoo roamed rather freely, more intent on peace and quiet away from a nearby squabble among his feathered family than my camera. The pelican is also Louisiana's state bird. (Even though I have a love/hate relationship with zoos for obvious reasons, I couldn't help but wonder if he'd like to return to the marshes/bayous and alligators. Probably not, I finally concluded.)

Outdoor cafes seemed to be on every corner and always filled. We stopped here for a beer and a snack. Okay, I'll fess up, my snack of choice was Dutch fries dipped in a mayonnaise sauce. But even with the city rail pass, we averaged seven miles a day walking, so I justified the calories. Before various states legalized pot, Amsterdam's "brown" coffeehouses or pot houses were extremely popular with Americans, with long lines waiting to get in (but excluding yours truly as I've never been interested in that stuff . . . not being judgmental, it's just not for me). But not so much now as the novelty has worn off. However, counter image, Amsterdam has seriously tough laws for those who do hard drugs. Like passing on the right in Germany/Austria, just don't do it!

Anne Frank's house, a must-see stop for anyone visiting Amsterdam. The BBC is presently working on a documentary about Anne Frank, as told through the memories of one of her surviving friends. The horrors of what happened during World War II -- or any war -- can't be forgotten.

An outdoor bronze display of Rembrandt's "Night Watch" (beneath the painter's statue) that was magnificent, almost as magnificent as seeing the painting in the Rijksmuseum. Consistently rated one of the finest museums in the world, the Rijksmuseum also contains 400,000 volumes of books/manuscripts climatically housed in tunnels beneath the building as there isn't enough space in this already huge complex for everything. Truly, the day's visit was an artistic feast of Dutch history. Mr. H. particularly loved the boats and military uniforms through the ages. 

But as one feast ends, another begins. Yours truly at Schiphol.  Next stop: Venice.