Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Day in Venice

It was September first; our cruise was officially over, but we had one last day of vacation to spend in Venice. After breakfasting at our hotel, we went looking for the tobacconist where the hotel clerk had told us we could buy bus tickets into the city. A block from the hotel, we met a gentleman on a bicycle who spoke no English, but who nevertheless understood what we were looking for and tried to help. Unfortunately, this being Sunday, the tobacconist was closed. However, when our new friend realized that we wanted to ride the bus and not buy cigarettes, he guided us to a newsstand where we could buy tickets. The owner of the newsstand didn't speak English either, but one of his customers did, and helped us communicate that we wished to purchase four round-trip tickets to Venice.

We had been warned that the city would be crowded. This was the day of the annual Historical Regatta, and the Venice Film Festival was also going on. I could have sworn there wasn't room for us on the bus, but we managed to squeeze in—and at each stop between us and Venice, more passengers squeezed in. When we reached the end of the line at Piazzale Roma, we burst out into Venice like circus clowns exploding from a tiny car.

In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain describes his arrival in Venice by gondola:
We reached Venice at eight in the evening, and entered a hearse belonging to the Grand Hotel d'Europe. At any rate, it was more like a hearse than any thing else, though to speak by the card, it was a gondola. And this was the storied gondola of Venice!—the fairy boat in which the princely cavaliers of the olden time were wont to cleave the waters of the moonlit canals and look the eloquence of love into the soft eyes of patrician beauties, while the gay gondolier in silken doublet touched his guitar and sang as only gondoliers can sing! This the famed gondola and this the gorgeous gondolier!—the one an inky, rusty old canoe with a sable hearse-body clapped on to the middle of it, and the other a mangy, barefooted guttersnipe with a portion of his raiment on exhibition which should have been sacred from public scrutiny.
Things have changed since Twain's visit. Although there are still enough gondolas to satisfy the tourists, the primary means of transportation for locals is the vaporetto, or waterbus. At the terminal, we purchased four 12-hour passes that would allow us to ride the bus and vaporetto for the rest of the day. Our first stop was Piazza San Marco. Between the vaporetto stop and the piazza, we passed the famous "Bridge of Sighs," where prisoners supposedly sighed at their last glimpse of Venice as they passed from the Doge's Palace to prison. Judging by the size of the windows, they couldn't have seen much to sigh at.

Gondolas Beneath the Bridge of Sighs

There were lots of people in the Piazza San Marco. There were also lots of pigeons and winged lions. The pigeons were real; the lions were not. Of the lions, Twain wrote:
They say St. Mark had a tame lion, and used to travel with him—and every where that St. Mark went, the lion was sure to go. It was his protector, his friend, his librarian. And so the Winged Lion of St. Mark, with the open Bible under his paw, is a favorite emblem in the grand old city. It casts its shadow from the most ancient pillar in Venice, in the Grand Square of St. Mark, upon the throngs of free citizens below, and has so done for many a long century. The winged lion is found every where—and doubtless here, where the winged lion is, no harm can come.

Winged Lion in Piazza San Marco

It was lunchtime, so we stopped near Piazza San Marco for our first taste of real Italian pizza. We ordered two: one with ham, artichokes, and mushrooms, and one "frutti de mare," with mussels, shrimp, and calamari. Knowing that we were Americans, the waiter did not think that would be enough food for the four of us. He recommended the Venetian Special, with shrimp and arugula.

Venetian Pizza and Boots of Beer

From Piazza San Marco, we headed to the Rialto Bridge. Venice is a maze of canals and narrow, winding alleyways. Fortunately, if you want to get from Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge—or vice versa—there are prominent signs to direct you. (I'm not sure what you are supposed to do if you want to go anywhere else.) Along the way, we passed many shops selling the beautiful carnival masks that Venice is famous for. While we were in one of the shops, the power went out. I imagine that this is a frequent problem in a city whose infrastructure is under water. (You don't even want to think about the plumbing. Being a plumber in Venice must be a nightmare.)

Carnival Masks

Rialto Bridge was packed with spectators for the regatta, so we did not venture onto it, for fear our additional weight after consuming three pizzas would cause it to collapse. We took some pictures, then boarded another vaporetto. We wanted to ride down the Grand Canal before it closed for the regatta.

Ponte di Rialto

We got off near Ponte degli Scalzi and found a quiet cafe, where we stopped for espresso. We then walked back to Piazzale Roma and took the bus back to the hotel. We would miss the regatta, but we were all tired of crowds—and just plain tired.

After a few hours' riposo at the hotel, we were ready to return to the city. This time, we avoided the mob of tourists near Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal, instead losing ourselves in a maze of narrow alleys and canals that were less traveled. We weren't afraid of getting lost—we knew that sooner or later we would find a sign directing us to Piazza San Marco or the Rialto Bridge.

Venice in the Afternoon

At dinner time, we stopped at Birraria la Corte in Campo San Polo, where we were seated in a lovely courtyard lit by the setting sun. I decided to be adventurous and try Venice's specialty: spaghetti with cuttlefish, in a sauce made from cuttlefish ink. It had a subtle flavor that is difficult to describe, so I won't bother trying. I'll just say it's not bad, and was officially the strangest thing I ate on the entire trip.

Cuttlefish Pasta with Ink Sauce

When we arrived at the restaurant, we had noticed that temporary walls had been set up, fencing off about half of the piazza. When we left, we discovered the reason. This was the location of a temporary outdoor movie theater for the film festival. We didn't stay for the movie—a documentary about Bernardo Bertolucci—but headed back towards the Grand Canal. As we left the piazza, we met our first and only Venetian cats. Three of them greeted us from the open second floor window of a house on the piazza. They had barely a trace of Italian accent.

Back at the Rialto Bridge, we stopped to admire the work of a local artist. We bought a small painting from him to remind us of our visit. We climbed the steps of the bridge, and, at the top, found a crippled, hunchbacked beggar, to whom we bequeathed what was left of our change. On the other side of the bridge, we boarded a vaporetto back to the bus terminal at Piazzale Roma.

When Mark Twain visited Venice in 1867, he was appalled that what had once been "a haughty, invincible, magnificent Republic" had "fallen a prey to poverty, neglect and melancholy decay." And yet, he described a magical night on the Grand Canal, when "Every gondola that swam by us, with its crescents and pyramids and circles of colored lamps hung aloft, and lighting up the faces of the young and the sweet-scented and lovely below, was a picture; and the reflections of those lights, so long, so slender, so numberless, so many-colored and so distorted and wrinkled by the waves, was a picture likewise, and one that was enchantingly beautiful." Our trip down the canal was nothing like that—and yet it was. Modern Venice is still "enchantingly beautiful" in its way, and it's not difficult to picture its former glory.

In Venice Tasso's echoes are no more,
And silent rows the songless gondolier;
Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone—but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade—but Nature doth not die,
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear,
The pleasant place of all festivity,
The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy!

—George Gordon Byron

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Murano and Burano

We arrived in Venice, the final stop on our cruise, while we were having our final breakfast on board the MS Ryndam. We went out on deck to watch the sun come up over the city as we pulled into the harbor.

Sunrise in Venice

We left the ship for the final time and boarded a boat for our final excursion—a visit to two of the Venetian Lagoon's forty islands: Murano and Burano. On the way, our guides pointed out the sites: Piazza San Marco, the Arsenal (Venice's navy shipyard), San Michele (the island that serves as the city's cemetery), and—of greatest interest to the majority of us—Elton John's house on the Grand Canal.

Piazza San Marco

On the island of Murano, which is known for its glass factories, we visited... (wait for it) a glass factory. We saw a glassblowing demonstration that was fairly interesting (if you had never seen a glassblowing demonstration, which most of us had), but the real purpose of the visit was, of course, to get us to buy something from the gift shop. Most of the beautiful art glass was outside our budget, but Loretta found a few small trinkets that did not require taking out a second mortgage.

Beautiful Murano Art Glass We Did Not Buy

On the island of Burano, which is known for fishing and lacemaking, we were told by our guide that, if we wished to skip the lacemaking demonstration, we could have an hour to explore on our own. I felt sorry for the lacemakers, because I don't think anyone went to the demonstration. We were all far more interested in exploring the streets lined with brightly colored shops and houses. According to our guide, the reason the houses on Burano are painted so colorfully is to keep the fishermen from going home to the wrong house (and wife).

Colorful Burano Houses

Kevin and I enjoyed a beer at a quiet cafe while Susan and Loretta did the obligatory shopping. We may have escaped the lacemaking demonstration, but we weren't about to leave Burano without something made of lace.

Colorful Burano Lace Shop

Our tour boat returned us to the harbor, where we retrieved our luggage and boarded a bus to take us to our hotel just outside Venice. Remembering what a nightmare the check-in was in Barcelona, Susan and Loretta raced into the lobby to be first in line while Kevin and I stayed outside with the luggage. We were fortunate that our bus was the first to arrive. As bus after bus stopped to unload more guests, the line got longer and longer. It was nearly an hour before Loretta came out to tell us that we had rooms, but to keep quiet about it because no one else did. They were checking people in as rooms became available, and it was a slow process. People were losing patience. Tempers were running high. We quickly and quietly moved our luggage up to our rooms, so as not to be at the center of a riot.

Cruisers Waiting to Check in at NH Laguna Palace

By the time we were installed in our rooms, it was after 3:00 and we had not yet had lunch. We sneaked past the angry mob in the lobby and walked up the street in search of a restaurant. We found several, but most of them were closed for the afternoon "riposo." There was only one place that was open: a quiet little wine bar with a limited menu. The waiter didn't speak English, but he was friendly and eager to please. He recommended the chicken and the "boofalo mozzarella," and we ordered both. Showing him our map, Loretta asked him what we should see in Venice. He replied, pointing out the locations on our map: "Piazza San Marco... Ponte di Rialto... Grand Canal vaporetto." (A "vaporetto," we had learned on our morning boat tour, was a water bus—the primary means of transport in Venice.)

It wasn't long before we started to see people from our cruise wander by, looking for a place to eat. As they passed the open door, we waved them in and told them this was the only place that was open. Soon our quiet little wine bar was packed. We gave up our table to a group of our fellow cruisers and adjourned to the hotel for a riposo before dinner.

Dinner was at another nearby restaurant called "BEFeD," which advertised itself as a brew pub, although they only served two kinds of beer: lager and "red." The menu informed us, in fairly good English, that the name came from the initials of the four owners, and that their specialty was grilled chicken: "the ideal food to be eaten in a genuine way according to local tradition and to the Mediterranean diet"—"genuine way," we deduced, meaning with the fingers. The chicken was tasty, and the beer wasn't bad. There were also bowls of peanuts, the shells of which, the menu told us, "must be thrown rigorously against the floor."

It was pleasant sitting outdoors by the canal, drinking red beer, eating chicken in a genuine way, and watching the little girl at the table next to us rigorously throw peanut shells against the floor, then rigorously stomp on them.

Tomorrow: Venice!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Kotor and Ravenna

The next port of call on our APHC cruise was Kotor, Montenegro. Here is a picture Loretta took from the deck of the ship:

Kotor, Montenegro

It's a lovely scene, isn't it? That's all I ever saw of Kotor. It's what I could see from the window of our cabin, which is where I spent the entire time we were in port.

In my last post, I wrote that when we left Naples, I felt like I was coming down with a cold. The first symptoms weren't so bad: just a cough and sniffles. However, approximately twenty-four hours after we witnessed the eruption of Mount Stromboli, I was awakened in the middle of the night by rumblings in my bowels signaling an impending eruption of my own.

I will spare you the grisly details. Suffice it to say, I had a rough night. When morning came I felt much better, but I had taken the last of the Imodium. The ship's sundry shop would be closed until after we left port, so I made my way down to the ship's medical center to see if they could provide me with some, just in case.

The doctor on duty said she had "good news" and "bad news." The good news was that she had Imodium, which she gave me (or rather, sold me)—along with Tylenol and Dramamine (neither of which I needed) and several disposable thermometers (although I did not have a fever). The bad news was that I would have to be isolated for twenty-four hours from the time of my last "eruption." I was not allowed to leave our cabin, and no one was allowed to visit (not that anyone would want to)—except for Loretta, who was free to come and go unless she got sick. Not even our steward was allowed to enter the cabin. Instead, a "sanitation team" would do the cleaning.

As I returned to the cabin, I thought of Mark Twain and his friends who, in The Innocents Abroad, sneaked ashore when their ship was quarantined at Athens. These days, with magnetic ID cards that track everyone who boards or leaves the ship, such a thing would be impossible.

At least we didn't have an excursion planned. Susan and Kevin took a tender ashore to do some exploring. I told Loretta she should go with them, but she insisted on staying on board with me. We began filling out the six-page survey the doctor had given me, listing everything I had put in my mouth for the past three days. (You should try it sometime. It's a real test of your memory to recall everything you have had to eat and drink in the past 72 hours.)

When the sanitation team arrived, Loretta had to leave. There wasn't enough room. I felt like Groucho Marx in the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera, as men in masks and plastic gloves piled in, stripped the bed, bagged all towels and linens, and sprayed and wiped down all surfaces with disinfectant. Oddly enough, they did not remove the towel origami pig our steward had made us the night before. They left it on Loretta's bedside table. They did, however, spray it with disinfectant.

I discovered that being sick on a ship isn't all that bad. The ship's crew pampered me almost as much as my mother did when I was sick as a kid. Room service brought me a tray with broth, crackers, and ginger ale. The front desk called and offered to send down books and DVDs. I told them "no thanks." I had Mark Twain on my Kindle, along with several dozen other books, but I spent most of my time watching the ship's satellite TV—mostly made-for-TV movies I would never have watched at home. I slept a lot, too—often dozing off during one movie and waking up during the next. I was confused when King Arthur and Sir Lancelot in The Mists of Avalon suddenly turned into Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in Pirates of Silicon Valley, and when Bill Pullman as The Virginian metamorphosed into Mandy Patinkin as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Loretta came and went. She saw some of the shipboard entertainment and went on deck to take pictures so I could see more of Montenegro than could be seen from our window. The sanitation crew came and went, stripping the bed again (though I had not slept in it), wiping everything down again, and giving the pig another spritz of disinfectant.

I slept well that night and awoke feeling fine. It was our last day on board the MS Ryndam, and I intended to make the most of it. I paced the cabin, waiting for permission from the medical center to leave "the brig." Finally, the call came at 7:45: I was free!

Over breakfast (just oatmeal and bananas for me), Susan and Kevin told us about Kotor, and Susan showed us her pictures. It's a quaint, pretty city, known for its large population of cats. We were sorry to have missed the cats. We talked about how much we all missed our own: Molly and Murphy, Dickens and Zorra.

Kotor Cats Dining on Sardines (photo by Susan Logue Koster)

After breakfast, there was a meet and greet on the Lido Deck with Garrison Keillor. Susan and I stood in line: Susan with a copy of his latest book, I with the souvenir t-shirt Loretta had already gotten most of the other entertainers to sign. When my turn came, I told him what a wonderful time we were having (not mentioning the twenty-four hours I spent in quarantine), and how much we enjoyed the Alaska cruise seven years ago. I asked him how he thought this cruise compared with Alaska. "This one's good," he replied. "Anywhere you can be on a boat with people singing." I handed him my t-shirt and told him my name; he signed it and handed it back. I looked at what he had written:

Hi Don! It's you.
Garrison Keillor

While we were having lunch, the ship arrived in Ravenna. We took a bus into the center of the city and explored it on foot, without guide or guidebook, map or GPS. I don't know if it was because I felt so much better after being sick for twenty-four hours, or because it felt so good to be outside after being cooped up in the cabin, but I loved Ravenna. The city was charming, the weather was perfect, the crowds—well, that was the best part. There were no crowds. We strolled through peaceful, quiet streets, alleys, and piazzas—past Dante's Tomb, Teatro Alighieri, the house where Byron once lived, and another leaning tower (apparently there are leaning towers all over Italy). When we were tired of walking, we found a quiet cafe in the sun-drenched Piazza del Popolo, where we sat in the shade and drank prosecco.

Piazza del Popolo, Ravenna, Italy

Before we left town, we went into a grocery near the bus stop and bought several boxes of cookies to bring back to co-workers. We thought they were Italian cookies, but it turned out they were imported from Germany.

Someday, we hope to visit Germany and buy some Italian cookies there.

Courtyard in Ravenna

Adieu! Adieu! yon silver lamp, the moon,
Which turns our midnight into perfect noon,
Doth surely light thy towers, guarding well
Where Dante sleeps,
where Byron loved to dwell.

—Oscar Wilde, Ravenna

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Ruins of Pompeii

In Napoli, where love is king,
When boy meets girl here's what they say—
When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie
That's amore!
We had hoped to sample a big pizza pie in Naples, the fifth port of call on our Mediterranean cruise, but there just wasn't time. We had to see The Ruins of Pompeii. Here's the description from the brochure:
From the pier, it’s a 45-minute ride by motor coach to the remarkable ruins of Pompeii, perfectly preserved since the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in AD 79. On a guided walking tour you will learn about the excavation techniques that have uncovered this city remarkably intact and what the residents were doing at the time of the eruption. You'll gain an insight into the lives of the ancient Romans as you discover baths, theatres, temples, markets and the huge forum.
Not surprisingly, a lot of people on the ship wanted to see Pompeii, and multiple buses were required. Susan and Kevin were assigned to a different tour than ours. Our guide's name was Massimo. As we set out, he pointed out Mount Vesuvius and explained that it was dormant, but not extinct. He said that it probably would not erupt today, but if by chance it did, we were welcome to join him in running a brisk half-marathon back to the ship.

Mark Twain visited Pompeii in 1867. (You can read his account here.) Little has changed since he was there—including what he refers to as "the only building in Pompeii which no woman is now allowed to enter." Women are allowed to enter it today, of course, and it is one of the most popular attractions in Pompeii. Susan and Kevin's group saw it. Our group didn't, but Massimo told us about it: the sailors who frequented it, the "friendly girls" who worked there, and the naughty illustrations that still adorn its walls.

What we did see was what was left of the baths, a typical house, the temple of Apollo, and several bakeries and restaurants. Massimo kept us moving. Whenever another tour was about to overtake us, he would exclaim, "Andiamo! We are being invaded again!" and off we'd go.


And then we came to the bodies.

At the show that evening, Garrison jokingly boasted that he did not go to Pompeii. He accused those of us who did (including his wife) of having a ghoulish interest in dead bodies. I suppose there may be something to that. When our group came to the glass cases holding the bodies (actually plaster casts of bodies, but here and there you could see a bone peeking through), we were all drawn to them like moths to a flame. What was fascinating, horrifying, and heartbreaking about them was that, from their poses, you could see the surprise and terror in which they died.

Victims of Vesuvius

But to me the most interesting thing about Pompeii is not seeing how the people died; it's seeing how they lived: their houses, temples, businesses, streets, and elaborate plumbing and drainage system. Their engineering was remarkably sophisticated. Unfortunately, Massimo told us, their lives were shortened by the toxic lead they used for just about everything; it can be found in the paint, the mortar between the stones, and, most unfortunately, the plumbing. This was probably their second biggest mistake. (Their biggest mistake, of course, was building their city beneath a volcano.)

Vesuvius and the Ruins of Pompeii

That night, the captain announced that we would be passing by an active volcano—Stromboli—and if we got up early, we might see an eruption. We set our alarms, and at five a.m. we stumbled out of bed, threw on some clothes, and made our way up to the bow of the ship. Ahead of us we could barely see the outline of a mountain against the dark sky, with a dim orange glow at its peak. We all stared at it for several minutes. I believe everyone was thinking of Mount Vesuvius and its victims. I know I was.

That morning we squeezed past Sicily through the Strait of Messina, rounded the toe of Italy's boot, and headed north toward the Adriatic Sea. This was our "at sea" day, and I planned to spend most of it sipping mimosas (for the vitamin C) and napping. I had returned from Pompeii with a hacking cough, and now I had developed a runny nose. Clearly, I had picked up a virus, but it was only a cough and sniffles. It could be a lot worse, right?

As it turned out, it was.