10 April 2005

back from europe

been away for over two weeks and i still feel it was too short. not that i didn't enjoy the trip; i did immensely. but the truth is, significant other and i probably crammed too many places in one trip that except for one, we felt bad having to leave each place just as we were getting warmed up. at least i did. all told, we went to six major european destinations in 17 days, including a couple of day trips. it's the curse of the corporate holiday handout. you can only take so many holidays a year, you feel like you need to make the most of it. so you end up planning to go to many different places in a short span of time, you end up taking in not enough of them. of course we could have chosen to stay longer in one or two cities, but it's the curiosity, you know, made more easily doable by the convenience of train travel. and hell if it wasn't fun! here's what we did:

venice. three full days, which means excluding the days we arrive and leave. i fell in love the night we arrived, even if it meant hauling our luggages through three tall, stepped bridges from the bus station. venice's innate charm springs at you the moment you see and smell its canals. walking its cobbled streets and crossing its arched bridges are just as fun as taking the water buses that run the stretch of the grand canal, which truly lives up to its name, not least due to the characterful facades of the buildings on both sides. since venice is one of significant other's dream destinations, and we were there in time for her birthday, we took the expensive gondola ride. twice. yes, our gondoliers did burst into song, and no, neither sang o sole mio. but even in broad daylight, the ride upholds its reputation for being romantic, especially when you enter the quiet tiny canals. and i don't care if we, like other googly-eyed gondola riders, became the subject of camera-toting tourists taking pictures from bridges, it was worth it. here's what it looked like, but the couple below isn't us. i'd never look quite as good wearing a straw hat with a red ribbon.

day trip to verona. i'm sure verona is a fine city, but can i help it if i felt that its top attraction, casa di giulietta, is a rip-off? it's the verona government's unimaginative interpretation of juliet's house, with the famous balcony that romeo stealthily climbed up to as its highlight. for ordinary folk, the building as a residence may impress, but shakespeare would probably cringe if he saw it. if you ever decide to pay juliet a visit, you'll do better than spend 4 euros to get inside her house. just stay outside and read visitors' love notes in different languages, pasted all over the walls of the courtyard, or take snapshots of male tourists rubbing the right breast of juliet's bronze statue, supposedly for good luck in love, which this overzealous dude probably needs:

florence. three full days is clearly not enough to absorb the art and architecture of this gem of a place. and yet, for some reason, it's easy enough to get bored here. it's small, and every corner or square looks like the one you've just been. oddly, the same can be said of venice, but venice never for a moment loses its charm, perhaps because the changing colors of the old buildings and reflections on the canals under the sun give you a different perspective each time you cast a glance at them. of course, florence more than makes up for this with its artistic treasures. two of the obvious highlights are the uffizi, which houses the ethereal the birth of venus and galleria dell'accademia which houses michelangelo's sensual rendition of david. picture-taking isn't allowed in both museums, so if you want to immortalize david in your photo album, you'll have to settle for a good reproduction of it in front of the palazzo vecchio at the piazza della signora. let's cut to the (uncut) chase, shall we:

day trip to pisa. there weren't as many tourists here as i feared, but even if there were, that surely wouldn't have lessened my appreciation of this place. yes, we went straight to the leaning tower, which is actually a bell tower that accompanies the cathedral and baptistry next to it. (apparently, most cathedrals in europe combine all three in one structure, but the italians like to do things differently. the duomo, the cathedral in florence with the famous dome, is another example.) all are magnificent structures in marble, but pale in comparison to the taj mahal which i've already rhapsodized about somewhere below. a curious structure -- it leans about 4.5 meters from the top because of the soft soil underneath -- the leaning tower brings out the silly in us. while most would pose as if they were pushing the tower up, this guy does it a bit differently:

rome, one full day. we've been in 2002, but we had to fly out of rome to get to amsterdam anyway (long story) so we thought we'd spend a couple of days there. it turned out to be fortuitous, because we arrived on the day the pope passed away, and we were able to hear the mass in his honor at st. peter's square the following day. i'm not a catholic, nor religious, but being there and seeing the outpouring of respect for a great man proved emotional for me too. frankly, it made me rethink of the reasons i converted away from catholicism, and although in the end my convictions against it as enforced by pope john paul didn't change, being able to reflect was an enriching experience.

amsterdam. three full days, and definitely worth coming back to. we arrived very late at night, and the morning we stepped out of the hotel, took the tram, and crossed the park leading to the van gogh museum, and nearly got run over by a bike, i said to myself, i can live here. that's always been one of my measures whether i like a place or not, and i'll do anything to move to amsterdam. it's pleasant, it's pictureseque, the people are straightforward and friendly, there is diversity among the people and in effect the cuisine, and i love the fact that bicycles like the one below rule the road. forget the red light district and the accessibility of marijuana, you can get your high for free walking alongside the canals, or very cheaply (29.95 euros a year) appreciating its museums. i'm happy the start and the end of our trip were also its highlights.

we stayed at bed-and-breakfasts during the whole trip, and i recommend every one of them. in venice, we stayed at albergo marin, which is kept spotlessly clean by its friendly owner, gabriele. they also serve perfect cappuccinos. albergo marin is located in the santa croce district, which is far from the main attraction of st. mark's square, but i like it because being away made us explore the areas that receive less tourist attention, yet we remained very close to the waterbus and train stations. in florence, luigi hosted us in his small and homey althea rooms, located in the quiet santo spirito district. it's tucked away from the noise of the historical district, yet only 10 minutes or less by foot from piazza della signora. there are also a couple of good places to eat in the santo spirito square. osteria santo spirito is delightfully innovative, and cafe ricci is frequented by friendly locals. in rome, 58 via cavour is probably worth less than the amount it charged us, but again the location is tops, somewhere in between the colosseum and the spanish steps, and a two-minute walk from the termini station. in amsterdam, hotel washington made for a convenient stay in the museum quarter. our room was huge, the bathroom was impressive, and it was good to listen to english tv programming again after nearly two weeks of nothing but italian.

next project: summer break. last year i trekked in the ruwenzoris of uganda and 'did kili' (reached the summit of kilimanjaro) in tanzania. i haven't any plans yet this year.

where are you going next?

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