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March Update: Sorrento, Florence, Venice, and Salou, Spain

Hello from Salou, Spain! I was thinking this morning that it might be nice to write up a blog post every once in a while, newsletter style, to summarize what we’ve been up to in-between my longer posts that go into further historic detail about the places we’ve seen. So, here we go! The last place I checked in was when we were in Sorrento, Italy, about a month ago.

Sorrento

Sorrento is a great location from which to tour the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the two nearby islands of Capri and Ischia. The Circumvesuviana train travels from Sorrento to Naples and leaves about every half hour. In addition to Naples, we used this train to get to Pompeii and Herculaneum. For some reason, Google Maps doesn’t show the Circumvesuviana as a travel option, so keep this tip in mind if you’re planning a future trip. The train is a little older and rough around the edges, but it does the trick at a decent price. The trip from Sorrento to Naples is meant to take around an hour and fifteen minutes, but sometimes it can take longer (up to an hour and forty-five, in our experience).

The Circumvesuviana station in Sorrento is also where we caught a coach bus that took us along the Amalfi Coast. We bought a couple of day passes for it at the station. The bus we took went from Sorrento to Amalfi with stops at several towns along the way. It was a fun and exciting trip; exciting because the roads along the coast are really narrow and tight! Now imagine navigating that in a coach bus. Neil and I were very happy to not be the ones driving. Instead, we both got to enjoy watching the scenery while being guided by a professional driver who has done that route many times.

Travel to the islands of Capri and Ischia require a ferry. We went to Capri, but didn’t make it to Ischia this time around.

Sorrento is definitely a resort town. Things were a little quiet while we were there, as it was still the off-season. I did enjoy walking through some of the streets and seeing the many lemon and orange orchards that are located within the town itself. The weather was decent while we were there. We still had to wear our rain jackets when we went outside, but it was nice enough that I could forego jeans and wear a dress (with leggings). It was a little colder along the Amalfi Coast, where there’s not as much shelter from the wind.

Florence

After Sorrento, we went to Florence for a week. Unbeknownst to us at the time a cold front, the “Beast from the East”,  had rolled over Europe just in time for us to get to this new city. We couldn’t figure out why it was so much colder in northern Italy than southern Italy. Yes, it was still mid-February, but we had gone to Rome at the beginning of January and it wasn’t that cold, then! I was relieved to find out later that I wasn’t just being a wimp—a bookstore clerk told us that it was the coldest week Florence had seen for 33 years.

The Ponte Vecchio Bridge, which has jewelry shops across its span. The bridge dates to 1345.

We really liked Florence. It has lots of cute shops and restaurants. I had a delicious plate of the best pasta I’ve ever had; it contained giant pieces of ravioli and a fresh lemon sauce. Yum! There are lots of art galleries and museums as well, since Florence is the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. We checked out the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery (the Boticellis were my favourite), Le Gallerie d’Accademia (which contained Michelangelo’s famous statue of David), the Palazzo Vecchio, a Sunday market, the Piazza Michelangelo, and the Galileo Museum. It was a busy week, but I still feel like we barely scratched the surface of all the places that there are to see. It’s a fun city to walk around in, although we didn’t do as much of this as we might have otherwise because it was very wet and cold. But our apartment overlooked a nice, quiet garden and, once, I saw a cute calico cat, which made my heart very happy.

Here she is! She looks annoyed, but I’m sure that’s because she couldn’t come in the window to see me.

We would definitely go back to Florence. There are some other parts of Italy that we considered going to such as the Cinque Terre and Tuscany, but it didn’t really suit our style of traveling for this trip. Neil is still working as we travel so we’ve found that the best way for us to accommodate his responsibilities with our desire to experience our current location is by staying in a major centre for about two weeks at a time. To fully appreciate Tuscany and the Cinque Terre, I think we’ll come back when Neil has time off, so we can spend entire days enjoying all the cute villages and wineries.

Pinocchio was written by a man from Tuscany, so there are lots of Pinocchio-related items to be found in tourist shops and merchandise stands throughout Italy. I thought these puppets were cute.

Venice

It snowed in Rome for the first time in six years the night before we were set to travel to Venice via train. We didn’t know this when we set out from our Florentine apartment, but the trains were majorly delayed. Ours had to go through Rome, so it ended up being 6.5 hours late just getting to Florence! The Florence train station is not enclosed so it was freezing and chaotic in there. Thankfully, Neil found us a coffee shop where we were able to while away the time in moderate comfort. Still, by the time we made it to Venice that evening, we were chilled right to the bone.

There are hundreds of islands in the lagoon area that make up Venice. Some are bigger than others. The main area of Venice itself is a series of tiny islands connected by canals and pedestrian bridges. There are no roads for vehicles in the main area of Venice; you’re not even allowed to have a bicycle! It’s easy to see why though as the streets are narrow and crowded with people.

Neil and I didn’t stay in the main area of Venice, but instead our apartment was located on a nearby island called Lido. Lido is very long (12 kms) and narrow (you can walk from one side to the other in five minutes). It serves as a breakwater between the main parts of Venice, its lagoon, and the Mediterranean Sea. There are roads on Lido, and motor vehicles are allowed there (residents only, I think). Lido is where the Venice Film Festival takes place in September, and has long strips of beaches.

To get between all of the islands, travel is by water taxi. When Neil and I were there we purchased 7-day passes to help us get everywhere. The passes were good for the vaporettos (water taxis) and the bus we used to get between our apartment and the ferry terminal on Lido. It also worked on the bus that took us from Venice to the airport. The passes are not cheap, but it is the only way to get around.

It was still really cold, wet, and even snowy when we were in Venice. Even though the weather wasn’t the best, I am glad we still went. Venice is fascinating and hauntingly beautiful. It was built in the years following the collapse of the Roman Empire, when marauding Germanic tribes forced locals to go out into the waters of the lagoon to build a city where they would be free from attack. There were some islands and sand bars located out there already, but they expanded the possible living space by using trees that were 15-20 feet long and driving them down through the water, through the sand, and into the hard clay below. A heavy, waterproof stone platform would then be placed on top of these wooden foundations, and houses and marble palaces alike were built atop the stone. The trees didn’t rot because the oxygen-free environment in the water, beneath the stone platforms, kept them preserved. Some of these wooden foundations are over a thousand years old! So many trees were used that there are entire mountainsides in Croatia and Italy that remain barren to this day.

A typical marble palace located along the Grand Canal.

The rising water levels are, of course, an ever-present danger. It’s estimated that the city of Venice has sunk by six feet in the last 1,600 years (around when it was first built). It has sunk nine inches in the last 100 years alone. Bottom floors of buildings have been surrendered to the ocean. There are strict building codes in Venice that have prevented many of its medieval buildings from being changed in any way. It is very interesting to take a boat ride through the Grand Canal and to witness the fading glamour and grandeur of these old palaces.

The door on the bottom floor of this building has been bricked over, giving up access to the first floor, as the water level has gradually crept up.

In addition to rising water levels, Venice is a city that is at risk of being loved to death by tourists. (Yes, I am aware of the irony of me being a tourist and making this statement). The city has debated the merits of continuing to allow large cruise ships to stop in the city, and this remains an ongoing discussion. A ban on wheeled suitcases was considered at one point, but I think might have too hard to enforce. “Barbarian” tribes were what once chased the Venetians out onto the water; in a reversal, hordes of tourists are now pricing the locals back onto the mainland. It’s hard to find the real cultural heart of the city amidst all the shops of mass-produced knick-knacks and to figure out which ones sell products that are actually locally made. But if one makes the effort to dig beneath the mass-produced Carnevale masks and endless shops of leather Italian handbags, it’s a rewarding experience.

Venice is definitely worth going to. I haven’t seen anything else like it, and I probably won’t again. It’s a lot of fun to just wander around and take pictures. There’s something interesting around every corner! We just had to watch where we were going to avoid any unexpected plunges. If you’re planning on a trip to Venice and you have room in your luggage, I would recommend packing a pair of boots. There are some street vendors selling what I think are one-size fits all plastic boots that fit over whatever a person is currently wearing. I’m not sure how well they work or what they cost, though!

Salou

Neil and I are currently in the oceanside resort town of Salou, Spain. While we were freezing our butts off in Florence, waiting in a line outside the Duomo Cathedral, we decided that after Venice we would be going somewhere hot and sunny. There is nothing to do here except walk along the beach, and that is just fine by us. We were feeling a little burned out and needed a couple of weeks where we could just relax and not worry about missing out on things.

The beach.

Palm trees and cherry blossoms? Okay, we can stay.

A Note About Postcards

For the first part of our trip, Neil and I were really into sending postcards back home. Some of those were postcards that Neil had made. Berlin is the last city where we were really caught up with doing that. Since then, our interest has waned for a few reasons. In Denmark and Sweden, everything was really expensive. (I found that things generally cost 2-3 times as much as what we would normally pay in Canada). So we decided to wait on sending our next huge stack of postcards for when we were somewhere a little more affordable. In Italy, I’ll admit that we were both feeling a little down. We were both feeling homesick, burned out, and struggling with low energy. Neil has been busy learning German and Spanish. He’s been studying since the beginning of our trip, but lately he has shifted into a whole new degree of intensity with his lessons. We might still send out some postcards if we find some we really like and some free time in which to write them. It just hasn’t been a top priority lately.

All right, I should wrap this up. I told myself six hours ago that this would just be a quick, casual post that I would race through before getting back into another lengthy, history-heavy post. So much for that!

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6 Responses

  1. Someone will need to tell you this, Leah, so it might as well be me. Your “quick casual” post was just as interesting and well written as all your other posts. It’s always a pleasure to learn more from your experiences. Please continue.

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