Venice at 7 a.m.

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St. Mark’s Square — by far the most popular tourist attraction in all of Venice (and a very easily accessible one, at that) is usually swarming with tourists, street artists, guided tours (the WORST to walk through), and the like. In a word, it’s packed. And it’s difficult to get any shots of the square without holding your camera high above your head — in which case, you’re already cutting out half the shot.

venice18Above: at the far end of the square, an array of chairs for the Ca’ Foscari graduation ceremony.

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Above: gondolas ready for tourists.

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Above: the entrance to Venice’s impressive belltower stands in the middle of the square.

One morning near the end of my stay, I forced myself out of bed around 6 a.m. to try and catch the square when it was (relatively) empty. Of course, to get perfectly tourist-free shots you would have to be there at sunrise, but I found that 7 a.m. sufficed — I was able to get some gorgeous photos before the onslaught of tourists, vendors, and over-bright sunlight set in. There were a few others in the square — mainly shopkeepers opening up, Venetians bringing in beverages and produce by boat, and other photographers like myself. It was a Sunday, and the far end of the square was filled with rows of chairs for the Ca’ Foscari (University of Venice) graduation — a tradition meant to emulate the American graduation ceremony style.

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Above: an arched walkway beneath the Doge’s palace.

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It’s not such a popular tourist spot for no reason, of course. St. Mark’s — the quintessential image of Venice throughout travel guides and in the minds of wanderlusting individuals everywhere — is an expansive plaza and the historic “entrance” to Venice. It is home to the former Doge’s palace (the ducal palace of Venice) and its adjoining prison (now both a museum), the bell tower of Venice, a massive library, and the Byzantine-era St. Mark’s basilica. The square is trapezoidal and lined with cafes and small shops, where tourists happily shell out 10 euros for espresso. Two stone pillars mark the lagoon-side entrance to the square, one with the winged lion — the symbol for St. Mark (the patron saint of Venice) atop it.

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Above: one of the stunning views from the edge of the square.

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In ducal Venice, executions of political dissidents and enemies would take place between the two pillars — a fact which many tourists are oblivious to. The pillars are a beautiful marking of the city, inviting the viewer into the square, but their violent history provides an interesting perspective. Some say not to walk through the pillars — it’s considered bad luck! (Other political prisoners who didn’t have the luck of being executed were sent to the ducal prison, nearly always a life imprisonment and one with barbaric prison conditions.)

venice9Above: a cafe overlooks the Venetian lagoon.

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Above: a view from one of the many arches that surround the main square.

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Above: arch detail, looking up.

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Above: nearby shop stands are shuttered, waiting for the day to begin.

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Above: details in the archway ceilings.

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You can also easily catch a gondola from the stop at the square — although I wouldn’t recommend it. Gondolas, contrary to popular belief, are not a mode of transportation (at least nowadays), and are only offered as “rides.” It can be a fun experience, but it will set you back a good 90 euros (!!!) and most gondoliers are less than pleasant (at least they are when you’re kayaking in “their” canals, which was my first encounter).

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Above: a boat delivers supplies to a local hotel.

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Above: more supplies stacked under a Venetian archway.

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Anyway, despite the effort of getting up early on a Sunday, it was worth it if not just to absorb the atmosphere of the square without its usual mob of tourists. Even if you’re not after a great photography shot, if you’re ever in Venice, take the time to do this one morning! It’s hard to see it during the day with so many loud/annoying people around, but experiencing a placid St. Mark’s without the crowds really allows you to soak in all its Venetian glory — weathered architectural, stunning views, and all. And, of course, you’re reminded why Venice is such a magical city in the first place, and why it has captured the imaginations of millions.

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venice4Above: roses abound — vendors sell them throughout the day for a euro.

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Above: pigeons are everywhere!

{Credit: the images in this post were taken by me. Please ask permission before use — thank you!}

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Climbing Florence’s Dome

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Florence’s Cathedral (and dome) at night — from Wikipedia; I don’t have any photos this good!

Although I have now (unfortunately) returned from my forays in beautiful Italia, I still have plenty to post! We took a phenomenal weekend trip to Florence and enjoyed delicious food (far better than Venice, I must say), art at the Uffizi, and gorgeous views from the top of Florence’s famous duomo (“dome”). The climb was a little rough — 463 steps in the most claustrophobic staircase I’ve ever experienced — but the views were well worth it. Some proof:

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Florence is a small city — at least compared to Rome — and is nestled in the heart of Tuscany. As a result, the food lives up to its reputation and the city is full of Italian charm. Today, it is a hotspot for high-end shopping as well as art buffs. Historically, Florence was a  vital center of art, and many of the city’s talent painters, sculptors, and architects were pivotal players in the Italian renaissance. (Florence was also constantly in rivalry with Venice, but more on that later.) This history is critical in understanding Florence’s duomo.

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The Duomo as seen from the Uffizi Gallery.

So a little history, courtesy of my art history class (and because it’s actually an interesting story): Florence’s dome — a massive structure perched on top of the gorgeous church of Santa Maria del Fiore — was engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi, the winner of a design competition in 1418 (he’s also buried in the church’s crypts). Although the (octagonal) nave of the church was completed in 1380, a dome was never put in place until after the 1418 competition. Why? Because the architects had built a church so large that no engineer knew how to construct a dome so massive.

ingressoSide entrance to the church.

facadeFacade of Santa Maria del Fiore (“Saint Mary of the Flower”).

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The bell tower of the church — dwarfed by Brunelleschi’s dome, to put things in perspective.

Traditionally, engineers would use a beam from a large tree which spanned the width of the dome’s base. This beam was essential to construct because it gave workers a platform from which to suspend tools. Santa Maria del Fiore’s dome, however, was so wide that no tree could span its width. So construction was halted until 1418, when Brunelleschi surpassed all other architects (including his rival, Lorenzo Ghiberti, who had beat out Brunelleschi for a coveted contract to sculpt the doors of the church’s baptistry) with a genius structural plan: create a double dome. (*Okay, this is a simplification — there were many other architectural features that made Brunelleschi’s plan brilliant. But this is the core of it.) See a diagram below:

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Brunelleschi’s dome was finally built, and today a smaller dome is seen from inside the church, while a larger dome faces the outside. This shelled structure allowed workers to climb between the shells of the dome to finish construction — which is how we can climb to the top of the dome today. He also developed a new scaffolding system for workers to build inside the dome, which solved the problem of tool suspension.

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One of the flying buttresses which support the top of the dome.

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The duomo was completed in 1436. At the time, it was the largest dome ever constructed and remains the largest brick dome in the world. It is both an architectural marvel and a testament to the ingenuity of Brunelleschi — and it’s also one of Florence’s greatest (literally) tourist attractions. Although not nearly as popular as the Uffizi gallery or the statue of David, the dome was the highlight of my weekend in Florence and well worth the historic climb.

view2Have you visited Florence or climbed Brunelleschi’s dome? I’d love to hear about your experience!

Rome in Black & White

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A couple weekends ago, I visited Rome with a few friends. (I also have yet to find quasi acceptable internet anywhere in Italy, hence why this post is a bit late in coming.) The city is very much one of both the past and present, effortlessly interweaving the energy of megacities like New York and Cairo with the quaintness of Paris. It can be both vibrant — during the heat of the tourism season — and calm — 4am at the Trevi fountain — and every street has its own magic. Rome is bursting with young professionals, and it is easy to make new friends in hip, up and coming areas such as Trastevere. The food scene is also to die for — perhaps it has been the excessive amount of Venetian tourist meals I’ve eaten in the past three weeks, but almost every restaurant we visited served mouthwatering fresh caprese salads and otherwise delicious fare. (If you’re interested in some recommendations, let me know!) Although an expensive trip, Rome is a city I’m glad I didn’t miss. I will be back here someday, exploring every beautiful little thing this city — a crossroads of ancient and modern — has to offer.

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The Colosseum

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View from Castel Sant’Angelo — Dan Brown, anyone?

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The Trevi Fountain

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St. Peter’s Square
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Interior of St. Peter’s Basilica
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Interior of St. Peter’s
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St. Peter’s Basilica
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The Vatican Museum
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The Vatican Museum
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The Vatican Museum
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Vatican Museum staircase
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Vatican Museum staircase
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The Vatican Museum
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Overlooking Piazza del Popolo
If you’re ever in Italy Europe, you should block off a few days to see Rome. There’s a reason it’s still one of the most famous cities in the world, and the atmosphere here is like no other. Don’t miss it!
Hope you enjoyed these photos! Soon I’ll be blogging about visiting Florence, food in Italy, and lots of other delicious/beautiful/awesome things — stay tuned!
{Images by me. Please do not use without permission.}

The Chocolatier of Venice

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It’s been about two weeks in Venice, and so far the biggest surprise has been this: the food in Venice is mediocre at best. Much of this, I believe, can be attributed to the rampant tourism industry, and tourist menus abound on almost every street, unless you wander far away from the crowds. Even then, you’re going to be paying a lot for a so-so meal, unless you’re careful. This is not to be pessimistic though — there are some great places to eat if you take the time to seek them out! They’re just hidden from the daily crowds or cost a small fortune.

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But even though Venice is not known for its food in the way that Rome and Florence are, the desserts are still spectacular. I think I average about two gelatos a day, sometimes more (and I’m really not picky about ice cream, so it’s relatively easy for me to find a gelato place I’m happy with). So, naturally, when I repeatedly read about “the best chocolate shop” in Venice, I had to go. Immediately. Vizio Virtù is easy to find and absolutely fantastic — if you’re ever in Venice (or Italy, for that matter), do not miss this place!

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Simply put, this place is divine. It’s nestled in the neighborhood of San Polo, right by the San Tomà vaporetto (waterbus) stop. The façade is quaint and unassuming, and the shop is small but pristine. When I was in France a few years ago the chocolate was amazing, but I don’t think even that could compare to this.

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Of course, it’s ridiculously expensive. I tried the chocolate-dipped candied oranges (about 1 euro each) and the caramel chocolate bar (7 euros apiece). It’s definitely worth a stop though, even just to try a few of the by-the-kilo candies, and I can’t recommend this place enough — everything is exquisite. This place is a gem in Venice (a place where the food scene pales in comparison to the rest of Italy).

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In addition to chocolates and jellies from the case, they also offer gelato, mousse, freshly baked brownies (which I have yet to try), and pre-wrapped chocolates, which are great for taking home — if you can make it that far.

Directions: Take the vaporetto to the San Tomà stop. Walk until you reach a T-shaped intersection and turn left; the shop is on the right. Open from 10am-7:30pm, closed Sundays.

Hello, Summer (and Italy)

Canal Grande Chiesa della Salute e Dogana dal ponte dell Accademia

So this is exciting. This summer I will be studying abroad in Venice, Italy, land of the 20 million tourists. I don’t speak  a word of Italian (YET), but I’m looking forward to learning it. As fast as possible. Also on my to-do list: avoiding tourist rip offs, avoiding tourists (impossible, I know), and pretending I’m not a tourist. (You see, I loathe tourism.)

Anyways, given:

a) my propensity to sometimes neglect this blog (sorry)

b) the fact that Venice is gorgeous and full of history which is often overshadowed by its tourism industry, and

c) that Venice is probably on the eventual travel checklists of most normal individuals (if not — what’s wrong with you?),

I will be blogging about my experience at least once a week, posting photos and hopefully providing some tips on how to see the real Venice, not just the side reserved exclusively for unwitting, non-Italian-speaking Western tourists. (Disclaimer: this is contingent on whether or not I can convince anyone that I’m not a tourist…which is partially untrue, but I am there to study! So it’s, like, different, right?)

See you back here in a week or so. Ciao!