(November 2001: It's not getting there very fast is it? There are some good pictures of the trip I'd like to put here - maybe this winter)
We also decided not to have the car for our time in Rome, because of stories about awful traffic and murderous driving. As it turns out, we shouldn't've had one in Florence either.
Most people, when we tell them we went to Venice, ask if it was smelly. Apart from this one canal it didn't smell at all. Apparently until the '60s the canals were regularly dredged to keep them navigable, and this removed a lot of the smelly material (nautical term). When dredging stopped the crud built up and produced the notorious smell, but dredging resumed in the early '90s and the smell is virtually gone now.
Built on over 100 artificial islands linked by over 700 bridges, space is at a premium, and the buildings rise high above the canals and narrow streets, so if you take just a couple of turns from tourist magnets like St. Mark's Square or the Rialto Bridge you can easily find yourself alone with just the sound of your footsteps echoing off the buildings. Each island has a "Campo" - a square which was once the centre of the island's commercial and social life, complete with a church and a well.
It's unique environment doomed - or blessed - the city to be a snapshot in time, as demolition and rebuilding is virtually impossible. This is especially noticeable from the Campanile in Piazza San Marco. This bell tower was built in 1903 after the original inexplicably and suddenly collapsed. So the exact place where Galileo demonstrated the first telescope to the Doge no longer exists, but you can be in the same - er - place, if you see what I mean..
The strangest thing about the view from the Campanile is that you can't see any canals! The buildings are so tall and close together that the canals are hidden at the bottom of the ravines. It's a good place to get oriented and gain an appreciation of the shape and size of the city. We went up there for the sunset - which was beautiful - and carefully arranged to be up there on the hour when the huge and deafening bell struck.
The Doge's Palace was fairly interesting with some good art. The best bit was being able to walk across the Bridge of Sighs to the prison. It was nice, too, to stand on the balcony overlooking the Lido and the Academia, watching the boats and gondolas come and go.
In the evening, we had our obligatory gondola ride. It was very expensive (L.120,000 for a 45 minute trip), but (we argued with ourselves) less than half the price of a one-hour helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon. A big difference between the helicopter and the gondola is that the helicopter is per-person and the gondola is per-gondola - so if you get four adults in the gondola it works out pretty cheap (well, less heart-stoppingly expensive anyway).
The gondola operators have a vague code of practice which sets a range for charges and trip durations etc., but it doesn't stop them fleecing tourists if they think they can get away with it. Apparently the most expensive gondolas are around San Marco and Rialto, and the price goes up markedly near sunset.
Walk too close to the ranks of gondoliers at San Marco and you'll get offered the trip of a lifetime for only L.180,000. Ask about the route, then say it's very expensive and walk away. Before you get to the next rank the gondolier will run after you offering a handy reduction ... It's the kind of stuff I don't enjoy, especially on holiday. We went with the second gondolier we spoke to, and had a good ride under the Bridge of Sighs, around some small canals, onto the Grand Canal, under the Rialto Bridge, and back past our hotel to San Marco.
Meandering around the streets, we veered towards eastern Venice, passing through the ghetto. This was the original ghetto, where the term originated. It's the Jewish area, where the Jews were confined during the Austrian occupation, and only allowed to work as doctors and lawyers (I think). There are some good memorial frescos on the walls of the campo.
Our wanderings eventually brought us back via Rialto to San Marco. After lunch we went to the Peggy Gugenheim museum of modern art, which contains many treasures, not all of them crap.
Being first in the queue is a wierd experience. You're not really "in a queue" if it's just the two of you waiting at the door. Other folk clearly didn't think so either, as they stood around uneasily, waiting for a "queue here" sign I spose. Then some folk bravely stood behind us, and then others, and finally we reached quorum and all the little globs of people standing around congealed into a queue behind us.
The Basilica is awesome, the mosaics around the walls, the architecture ... and the history. St. Mark's body is (apparently) buried at the altar. The gold altarpiece is one of the best examples of the fabulous crass excesses of organised religion, a huge jewel-encrusted gold sculpture with panels depicting ... er ... religious stuff.
The idea that the remains of one of Jesus' disciples were contained in the altar hit me hard. Since RE in school I sort-of assumed that the bible was a work of complete fiction. Later, as I read more, I grudgingly acknowledged that it - or at least, the New Testament - has some historical veracity. Then, being somewhere where accurate written records go back more than 2,000 years, I started to believe that the people existed too. Of course, there's quite a difference between believing the accounts of physical events and accepting the metaphysical, but I moved a step nearer to being religous, and that really shook me. I kept thinking about it for the rest of the holiday ... especially in Rome.
The museum of the Basilica is a must-see. The four magnificent bronze horses are inside, as are birds-eye views of the church's interior. What I enjoyed most though, was to be able to go out onto the balcony among the copies of the horses and overlook Piazza San Marco. From this vantage point, the effect of the perspective trick is fully realised (the Piazza tapers away from the Basilica to give an impression of increased length). Facing the Basilica are the buildings used by Napoleon during his occupation, and he called the Piazza "the drawing room of Europe". Facing each other are the two exclusive cafes: One is a favourite haunt of royalty and Hollywood psuedo-royalty, and has (apparently) an exquisite restaurant upstairs. It was, however, a favourite of Austrian officers during their occupation so is shunned by real Venetians (although I prefer "Venusians") who patronise the equally exclusive place across the square.
From Vicenza we drove to Verona, where we planned to see the open-air opera at the Arena. We booked two tickets for the 9pm performance of Carmen, with seating in "la gradinata" ("concrete steps") at L.35,000 each. We got to the arena at 7pm, hired some cushions and found ourselves some step. The sun set, the moon rose and the arena filled so there was barely room for another person on the steps, although the middle and higher-price seating was almost empty (the Arena obviously has it's price balance wrong!). Occasionally a member of the audience would pop up and do a bit of impromptu opera singing and be given generous applause, which added to the atmosphere.
Eventually the opera started. The sound was completely "natural", which from our position meant very quiet and muffled - a bit disappointing. The costumes and sets were good though, and in the market scene there were real animals on stage, which we thought was pretty brave. The first act lasted 50 minutes, with a half-hour interval. The second act lasted nearly as long. We were in agony by the end, and I was almost nodding off. We'd only seen half the opera we paid for, but we'd seen as much as we wanted! We made our excuses and left (at midnight).
When (at about 3pm) we eventually got around the bloody thing, we headed for the autostrada for Bologna. On the way, we saw an attractive lady waiting for a lift by the side of the road. A little further down, we saw some attractive twins waiting for a lift by the side of the road. A little further along we saw a man stopping to offer another attractive lady a lift. Realisation dawned ... it seemed very wierd to us. Obviously we've seen prostitutes hanging around street corners in cities, at night, but this was on a road between towns in the middle of the afternoon. Now we know why the Italians have such long lunchbreaks :-). More likely, perhaps, is that this trade arises because they have such long lunchbreaks ...
Verona's cloudy start had given way to bright sunshine around the lake, but as we drove down the autostrada it started to rain, and eventually became very heavy, so that most traffic stopped. The rain quickly passed and by the time we got to Modena the sun was shining again.
Our hotel in Bologna was tricky to get to. It was very near the centre of town so the streets were narrow and busy with a complex one-way system, which our map didn't show. Neither did it show the street with the hotel. Ah well, at least we could park nearby ...
We fancied treating ourselves to some Bolognese cuisine and booked a table at the "best restaurant in Italy", the Notai just off the Piazza Maggiore. However, when we got there we couldn't find anything on the menu we fancied. The thing is, the Italian cuisine we wanted to sample were the great pasta dishes, and pasta seems mainly to be an introduction and poor cousin to meat dishes. We can get good meat dishes of any kind, anywhere in London, so we went instead to a family-run trattoria and had an excellent (and cheap) pasta meal.
After the Ducati factory we drove to Maranello near Modena to the Galleria Ferrari. Modena is Italy's "motor city", with dealerships for every domestic manufacturer and many others including Ford, Rover, VW, BMW, Mercedes, Rolls-Royce, Porsche ... but Modena is best known for it's supercar factories: Bugatti, Ferrari and Lamborghini.
We were a little disappointed that we saw only three Ferraris on the roads around Modena and Maranello. The Galleria Ferrari was the size of a large car showroom, with most of the Ferrari road cars and a couple of racing cars represented. It was good to be able to get so close to the cars. The Testarossa was notable by its absence, but the F50 made up for it I suppose :-)
After leaving the gallery we drove past the factory gates, just as the workers were leaving. It's strange, but working in such a holy place you'd sort-of expect the folk to look a little different, to show some sign that they appreciated what they did, but they don't show any outward signs of their honoured positions!
From Maranello we embarked on what turned out to be a tour of local vineyards. In fact we were looking for Sant' Agata to worship at the gates of the Lamborghini factory, but it seems it was a different Sant' Agata we found ...
On the roads returning to Bologna we saw more of those attractive ladies waiting for lifts. Bizarre.
Bologna is one of the Italian towns where wealthy families once competed to build the tallest towers as a display of their wealth and power. The largest still stands, and offers a good viewpoint over the city. The tower leans somewhat, but nowhere near as much as it's neighbour, which is so wonky that the top half was removed for safety.
After leaving Bologna we made straight for Florence, along a road which wiggled, tunneled and bridged through the hills of northern Tuscany.
When we arrived in Florence, we got immediately, spectacularly and hopelessly lost in the maze of narrow streets and one-way systems. Like a medieval London, Florence is a nightmare to drive around, and for some reason we were stupid enough to assume that our meagre hotel just yards from the Duomo would have plentiful parking. After a couple of hours of orbiting the centre, getting nearer and then being flung further away than ever, and at one point driving right around the Duomo in the strictly-no-vehicles bit, we eventually gave up and phoned the hotel. We were told there was no parking, but to bring our car to the door of the hotel (which involved driving the wrong way down a one-way street, ignoring a couple of no-left-turn signs, and parking in a tow-away zone).
An out-of-town parking company then came to collect our hire car and take it away somewhere. It would have been nice to know that the car was useless in Florence, but as it was we paid to rent the car and to park it. Ah well.
After the rigours of the day we immediately fell asleep for a couple of hours and then went for a very good (and again, pretty cheap) meal at the popular Trattoria Za-Za.