Monday, April 09, 2007

Easter trip to Italy from 3/31 to 4/8

It was a cold and rainy day to start our trip. On the way to Milan, we stopped off in the city of Lugano, a small town in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland. It’s a very scenic spot on the lake and benefits from a tropical climate, complete with palm trees, but offers nothing in the way of attractions. So we cut our trip to Lugano short and proceeded straight to Milan.

We arrived into Milan on Saturday afternoon and were greeted by much nicer weather conditions (upper 60's and sunny) that lasted the duration of our trip. As we arrived late in the afternoon, we explored the city for a couple of hours, and retired early for our big trip to Venice the next day. Venice is actually an island built on a lagoon. It can be accessed by train or boat. Various canals weave in and out of the city and all eventually lead to the Grand Canal, the main waterway cutting through the heart of the city. We started our trip by taking a water bus down the Grand Canal to the southern part of the island. We arrived at Piazzo San Marco, a great big square where the pigeons eat right out of your hand (see picture). In this area we saw the following amazing sites: San Marco Basilica, Torre dell Orologio, Palazzo Ducale, and more. We completed our walk through the San Marco district by walking up to the Ponte di Realto (famous bridge over Grand Canal) and Mercado di Realto, an open air market where venetian masks, linen and glass products are popular. We then walked through the San Polo and San Croche districts heading in the direction of the train station on the northwest part of the island. We were hoping to take a gondola ride, but between a long relaxing lunch and taking in all the sites, we ran out of time and had to run back to the main station to catch our train (something that became a ritualistic end to all our day trips).

We saved Milan for Monday so that we could have a chance to go to Santa Maria delle Grazie, the church that houses Davinci's Last Supper to see if there were any cancellations for the week (reservations to see the Last Supper have to be made a month in advance). Unfortunately our travel guide failed to mention that everything was closed on Mondays. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we were not going to see the Last Supper this time around, and proceeded to see the best outdoor sites that Milan has to offer. By far the most impressive area was around the main cathedral, called The Duomo (meaning cathedral - there are many "duomos" in Italy, but they called this one simply "The Cathedral"). The outside of the cathedral itself is very ornate with a seemingly infinite number of spires and statues. Piazza Duomo (Duomo Square) also contains the Royal Palace. Connecting Piazzo Duomo and Piazza della Scala, home of one of the most important opera houses in the world, is the most impressive shopping galleria we have ever seen called Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (named after the first king of Italy). This gallery has some very high end shops and a very upscale McDonalds to boot. We also walked along some other very nice shopping areas but could not convince ourselves to buy. We concluded that we are bargain shoppers and not fashion shoppers. We walked through Giardini Pubblici, a beautiful park where JP took a carrousel ride (Sydney attempted, but at the last minute decided to let her big brother go it alone). We took a gelato (Italian ice cream - a little creamier than American ice cream) break and decided to let the kids have their own - bad idea - after a few minutes, both were covered in gelato.

Our race to see as much as possible in six hours started with a trip to the tourist office which was an imposing steel and glass structure in the middle of Piazza Solferino, a spacious tree lined square laid out around two extensive flowerbeds with a very impressive fountain called Angelica representing the four seasons and the equestrian statue of Ferdinand, Duke of Ferdinand. The tourist office was partially converted to a museum after the 2006 olympics. The mostly tree lined streets of Torino are very picturesque with porticoed walkways containing plenty of shops and restaurants. One of our first stops was to Piazza Castello a large open square containing Palazzo Madama, the Royal Palace, Chapel of the Holy Shroud (dedicated to the burial cloth in which Jesus' body was wrapped after the crucifixion, next scheduled for display in the year 2025), Church of San Lorenzo, Royal Library, and Teatro Regio. Most of the big cities have a "royal palace" that served as home to the old Italian kings but now usually serve as museums. We also strolled down to Piazza Vittorio Veneto, one of the largest squares in the world, across from which sits the The church of the Gran Madre di Dio, which was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. We inspected the Mole Antonelliana which is the National Museum of Cinema and the symbol of Torino. It is a unique looking skyscraper, built at the same time as the Eiffel Tower in Paris (1889). We walked through the Piazza Della Republica, Piazza Savoia, and Via Garibaldi, one of the longest pedestrian streets in Europe, on our way back to the train station.

Verona is most well known as the home of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare supposedly based his play on actual characters. Therefore, we saw the "actual" balcony that inspired the balcony scene from the play as well as the tomb where the character based on Juliet was burried. We also saw an amazing outdoor arena, much like the Coloseum in Rome. With the kids down for their afternoon nap, we had a chance to fly through some museums before making our final sprint to the station to catch our train.

Genoa is a beautiful old port city and home of Christopher Columbus. We started our day with a trip to the aquarium, the largest in Europe. From there, we went on a walking tour on a board walk along the coast and then through the winding narrow alleyways of the historic center called caruggi. The caruggi are filled with shops and restaurants and are the exact mental image that your mind creates when you think medieval Europe. The corrugi are connected via various plazas, one of which was the most impressive we had seen so far called, Piazza de Ferrari. We saw the home of Christopher Columbus in Piazza Dante, a very beautiful cathedral called San Lorenzo, and some very architecturally impressive buildings and museums along the street Via Garibaldi. Of the various cities we saw on this trip, the two port cities of Venice and Genoa had to be our favorites.

The next day, we took a 40 minute train ride from Milan to Como. Como is known for its large lake, along which are several small towns, one of which is Belaggio. This is the town that the famous Las Vegas hotel is named after. So we made our way from the train station down to the water. After having a quick bite in an open air market, we hopped on a boat for a tour of Lake Como on our way to Belaggio. The town is quite small so we were able to take a lap around and see the highlights in about an hour. There was nothing special about Belaggio besides the name, and it seemed to be somewhat of a tourist trap, so we did not prolong our boat trip back to the town of Como. Upon our return, we had quite a pleasant surprise. While I was checking out the inside of one of the churches, oscar winning actress Hilary Swank walked right past Sandy and into a cafe. We walked into the cafe to confirm the sighting, and sure enough, there was Hilary, in spandex, t shirt, and no make up. She is shorter than she appears on camera and not as elegantly proportioned as you see her in photos. However she has a great big smile and is very polite. She had just declined the restaurant owner a photo when we walked in citing that her attire was too casual. Sandy pressed and said we would just do the face. Hilary apologetically declined, indicating that she was without makeup. Not wanting to disturb her vacation any further, we said we understood and said that we were big fans - she thanked us and went on her way. She went back to her table outside and sat with what appeared to be a gay male friend, and an older couple, most likely her parents. We were disappointed about not getting her photo, but were happy to meet a famous person. We finished up our tour of Como by checking out some churches and other buildings and caught our train back to Milan to eat, pack, and rest up for our final stop in Florence.

FlorenceWe wanted to re-establish our Italian hub from Milan to Florence, given a 3 ½ hour train ride, but having been unsuccessful in making a hotel reservation on Easter weekend, we were forced to do Florence as just another day trip and take the night train back to Zurich. Thanks to Sandy always packing plenty of games and activities for the kids, the jam packed train ride was not as bad as we thought it would be. Florence is probably the most culturally impressive city in Italy, filled with beautiful cathedrals and museums. The city itself was packed with tourists, so lines to get into the more popular places were quite long. We went first to Galleria dell Accademia, home to Michelangelo’s David, but we found the line to be too long and moving too slowly to wait. We instead visited the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, and the green and white marble Baptistry of San Giovanni. From there, we proceeded south to Palazzo Vecchio and the Basilica of Santa Croce, which houses the tombs of Michelangelo (last name is Buenarroti), Galileo, Marconi (inventor of the radio), and Machiavelli among others. We crossed Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in the city containing a plethora of jewelry shops, to Piazza dei Pitti containing the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens. The square in front of the palace is slopped and was filled with hundreds of sun bathers when we passed by. We visited the church of San Spirito and then proceeded back to the train station. We passed by another merry-go-round where this time Sydney summoned up all her courage and took a ride with her big brother. Despite a look of terror on her face throughout the ride, she was determined to maintain her role as JP’s shadow, and was very proud of her accomplishment. We found a cafĂ© where we sat and had a coffee before catching the night train back to Zurich.

Last ski weekend

On the last weekend of March, on Saturday, Jim and I ventured to skateboard and ski by our selves (a good friend babysat for us); It was a challenge and we had a lot of fun. On Sunday we took the kids sledding for the last time this season. We also got ready for our Easter trip to Italy.