After the Cinque Terre, I went for a one-night visit to the lakes district of Northern Italy. Specifically, to Lake Como. This lake, halfway between Milan and the Alps, is gorgeous. I saw the main sights of the city of Como as well as a lakeside villa which was used as the filming location for some scenes on the planet Naboo in the Star Wars prequels, which I enjoyed.
I stayed with the father from my host family who is from the area and now lives in Switzerland, just over the border. This counts as my first visit to a European country other than Italy, even though he lives about 100 yards over the border in an area that speaks Italian, I’ll count it. He grew up in the lakes area and showed me around, and we enjoyed a few nice meals in Como.
After Como, I went to Venice. Venice, with its canals and strategic location, was a powerhouse of trade in the late middle ages. Unfortunately, today its transportation system is a bit dated, and it isn’t successful in the modern global economy. It’s been steadily losing local population for many years. It’s not really a major Italian city for working and living like Milan, Florence, or Rome are… but it’s a major tourist destination and one of major historical relevance. It does have a strong economy for the locals who remain, but the economy is highly based on tourism. At this point, tourism is as much a part of Venice as anything else. It’s also very expensive. With no room to grow outward and historical preservation laws that prevent much changes to the buildings, the laws of supply and demand have driven prices up highly. Also, the cost of shipping goods into the city are high due to all the necessary boats.
In spite of all this, I loved Venice. Forget whatever you’ve heard about dirty, smelly water. The water was a nice blue color and yes, it smelled like the sea, but it was nothing offensive or pungent. The first day I met another traveler staying at my hostel, my age, visiting from Mexico. Her and I toured the main sights and had a nice lunch.
The second day I walked around alone and wandered the streets. The city has main tourist streets with signs that direct you to the next destination. It’s amazing how turning even a block or two off the main streets, you’ll escape the large crowds and have a whole Venetian street to yourself. I did a few museums and sights, but honestly the main sight is the city itself.
My hostel was located on another island which required using a boat to get to the main island. Venice has a system of “Vaporetto” public transportation which operates just like a city subway or bus system except it’s boats. The stations are these white docks floating around the city, and you board and take the boat where you need to go. It’s a great way to take a leisurely tour around town as well.
I also visited to the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, which has been the home of a Jewish community for 500 years. It’s the birthplace of the word “ghetto.” The Jewish people lived in an area near the foundry, which is “geto” in Venetian dialect. Eventually “ghetto” grew to mean the neighborhood, and eventually the word spread to other Jewish areas of European cities, and then to any segregated area of a city. I visited the Jewish museum which was an interesting small museum and synagogue.
After two full days in Venice (3 nights), I journeyed south to Florence. Florence is the capital of the region of Tuscany, where the peninsula of Italy begins, and the Alps of the north give way to the rolling green hills and more temperate climate you probably think of when you think of Italy.
I checked into my hostel and immediately went back to the train station. Pisa, a smaller city and home to the famous leaning tower, is only an hour away by train. I went to Pisa, saw the tower, and had a pizza for dinner on my first night. Pisa is not a bad little city on its own, either.
The second day in Florence I visited the Galleria dell’Academia, home of Michelangelo’s famous David sculpture. For me, art museums can sometimes be difficult, as I’ve noted in some other posts. However, the David was amazing.
The statue is the image of the young biblical David, just before or just after he slayed the barbarian Goliath. The statue symbolized the new era of the Renaissance, slaying the ignorance of the middle ages. It stood in Florence’s central square, Piazza della Signoria, for around 500 years, before it was brought inside a museum and restored, where it still stands now. Today there is a copy in the main square where the original used to stand. After the art museum, I went to a raised Piazza across the river from the main part of the city which offers amazing views.
I decided I was enjoying Florence and I wanted to take an extra day. Florence, in my mind, was a beautiful and very livable Italian city. While Venice is a quick and expensive visit, Florence demanded slowing down and enjoying some downtime there. I also wanted to take a daytrip to nearby Siena. I rearranged my bookings for Rome to enable me to spend an extra night in Florence.
The second day I enjoyed some pizza and gelato and went to a large public garden. It was a bit rainy but still beautiful. Then at night I met some friends from the hostel and we went out to enjoy the city at night for a few hours.
Yesterday I went to Siena. Siena was Florence’s medieval rival, but it was eventually overpassed by the now larger city. It’s a perfectly preserved medieval city with a great main square “il Campo” or “the Field.” They have limited car traffic in the center city so it’s a pedestrian paradise with shops and restaurants lining every street. The brownish-red color “sienna” found in Crayola crayons and elsewhere is named after Siena. Nearly everything in the city is colored that way because it comes from some sort of local stone. This gives it a slightly different look than other Italian cities which I enjoyed.
I visited a museum called Santa Maria della Scala which was originally one of the first museums in Europe. They cared for orphans and the sick. There are large frescoes of the hospital’s activities in the main hall which were interesting, because most frescoes in Italy are religious in nature so these were different. There were also catacombs beneath the museum and other exhibits. The museum ticket also included a visit to the nearby city hall where there are frescoes on the “effects of good and bad government.” Siena in the middle ages was a pioneer in secular republican government and these frescoes show two different representations of the city on opposite walls – one has a tyrant with devil horns ruling the city and the city is in ruin, while the other has justice and her scales, and a prospering city and countryside.
I went back to Florence and spent the night. I was sad to leave this morning as I definitely enjoyed the city. Now I’m on a train to Rome. After a quick stay in Rome (since I’ve already been there) I’m going to Naples and Southern Italy. I’m excited and nervous because the visits to my ancestors’ towns are coming up soon.