Sprocketts by the Bay

Sprockett family adventures as California residents

A Rick Steves Week in Italy

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We didn’t think it would happen twice, let alone twice in one year, but Dan and I had back-to-back European meetings again this October. I was participating in an expert meeting on clinic-based family planning quality hosted in Bellagio, Italy (ending on a Friday this October), and Dan had a collaborator’s meeting on an early onset IBD in Munich (starting on the following Tuesday). So of course we had to take advantage of the long weekend for a little getaway and, after browsing the many possibilities and considering just how many countries we could visit over that weekend, opted for a more relaxed trip to include Verona and Venice.

My "hardship post" for the week.

My “hardship post” for the working week in Bellagio, Italy. It turns out that when you put a bunch of passionate, dedicated people together in a room in a beautiful setting, you can be extremely productive!

Bellagio retreat center on Lake Como in northern Italy. Not a bad view, eh?

Bellagio retreat center on Lake Como in northern Italy. Not a bad view, eh?

Following the Bellagio meeting, I had a few hours to explore Milan before taking the train to Verona where Dan and I had scheduled to meet. Knowing there was no way to see it all and that I would just have to know in my heart that I’ll have to return for a proper exploration of Milan, I visited the Duomo and La Scala Opera House.

Accompanied by a Rick Steve's audio tour, I spent about an hour roaming this beautiful church. It is the fourth-largest church in Europe and built fully out of marble.

Accompanied by a Rick Steve’s audio tour, I spent about an hour roaming this beautiful church. It is the fourth-largest church in Europe and built fully out of marble.

With a short meander through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, where it felt oddly opulent to see Prada, Louis Viton, Gucci, Ferrari (the clothing, not the car, store), Armani, and Massimo Dutti stores tucked in one next to the other, I arrived at the La Scala Opera House, accompanied by another Rick Steve’s tour of the common areas and stage.

This famous opera house opened in 1778 and also houses a museum of stage pieces, music, and art associated with its impressive performance history. New bucket list item: See a performance at La Scala.

This famous opera house opened in 1778 and also houses a museum of stage pieces, music, and art associated with its impressive performance history. New bucket list item: See a performance at La Scala.

Using very easy to navigate and reasonably priced public transport, I then headed back to the Milan Centrale train station to collect my bag and board a train to Verona to meet Dan, who was arriving from Munich on a connecting flight.

We planned to meet up at our Verona hotel, spending an evening and a day there before heading on to Venice. Upon reflection and safe arrival, I realize neither of us was what I would consider sufficiently prepared to successfully (read: un-stressfully) meet up in Verona. So it is mostly luck that we both had just enough information to actually make it from our respective transportation options to the Verona hotel: Dan with barely enough cash to exchange for Euros for the bus fare (when the ATM card didn’t cooperate) and no maps, and me with Google Maps walking directions from a far too scaled-out version of the map.

On my part, I tried to follow the map, quickly realizing that a) my map following skills are rather poor, which is why I usually rely on Dan to navigate us around and b) my map was at too great a distance and gave up, following signs toward the “Historic Center” of town and hoping… Well, I don’t know what I was thinking was really going to happen, so I was quite lucky to take a fortunate pause, look across the street, and happen to see the name of our hotel. Dan had a similar airport to bus station to hotel story.

After putting my bag down, we headed out to explore a bit of Verona and enjoy dinner. The food. Oh! The food is so delicious in Italy. While out, we discovered that we happened to be visiting Verona during an Italian wine festival weekend. For only €15 we could sample 10 Italian wines from vendors set up along the historic walking path we had planned to follow (again, thanks Rick Steves for the walking tour map) the next day from the Piazza Bra to Verona’s Duomo.

So what else could we do on Saturday but enjoy a lazy, late breakfast and then start our wine tasting adventure? As we walked, we passed the key historic sites and enjoyed 11 samples (we got a bonus!) of fine Italian wine.

Verona Colosseum.

Verona Colosseum.

Juliet's balcony, or the balcony on which they say Shakespeare based his story. You can even buy a ticket to see Juliet's tomb. I'm still unsure how that works for a fictional character.

Juliet’s balcony, or the balcony on which they say Shakespeare based his story. You can even buy a ticket to see Juliet’s tomb. I’m still unsure how that works for a fictional character.

Piazza Erbe

Piazza Erbe.

Strolling along the river in Verona at the end of our wine tour.

Strolling along the river in Verona at the end of our wine tour.

Five hours later, sufficiently, ah, “wined,” we boarded a train to Venice for our last stop before heading our separate ways: me back home and Dan on to an academic meeting in Munich.

Venice is a city unlike any other European town I have visited. We knew navigation would be difficult, thanks to cautions from Nick and Laura who had visited in the summer months. Yet, our willful ignorance had us ready to navigate, in the dark, with minimal maps (a Rick Steves map and some screen shots from Google Maps on my phone) to our back alley hotel somewhere very near St. Mark’s Basilica. We set off from the train station, naively following “San Marco” signs, winding through narrow streets lined with tall buildings that completely cut off any form of reference you might otherwise identify, up and over bridges, up and over bridges, up and over…you get the point. And then there is was: St. Mark’s Basilica lit up in all it’s evening beauty.

St. Mark's Basilica at night.

St. Mark’s Basilica at night.

Thanks to a screen shot map that marked the shoe store, “Tod’s,” we eventually (after a few wrong passes) found our hotel. Only to find it locked. And no one answering the door. Or the phone. (Thank goodness for a European SIM card I carry for work!) Our obnoxious banging on the door brought a neighbor out who pointed us toward another property owned by the hotel where we may possibly be able to check in. Dan went to scout it out, with no luck.

We managed to sneak into the hotel when someone else was exiting and knocked on every door of the small establishment until, with luck, a Brazilian couple who spoke impeccable English opened the door. They kindly offered us the WiFi password, a restroom, and the opportunity to sleep on the floor of their room if we weren’t able to get in touch with the hotel’s front desk. After several additional calls and emails, the guy who was “waiting in the street” to let us in finally showed up…nearly two hours after our arrival (which had been communicated in advance via email so this person would be there to open up for us). Apparently someone had forgotten to forward the phone messages to the “wait-in-the-street-not-creepy-at-all” guy. We were perturbed, to say the least. But a bottle of Prosecco we received later from hotel staff to make up for the trouble helped to soothe a few wounds.

Venice, once one of the most powerful cities in Europe, was built on a lagoon by driving wooden stakes into the sandy ground of some 118 islands and floods some 100 days/year.

Verona sets out elevated walkways to manage the rain.

Verona sets out elevated walkways to manage the rain.

The streets are a maze of narrow pedestrian walkways, bordered by tall buildings, and marked by small foot bridges. There are no cars in Venice, which is part of what has driven up the cost of living — everything must be handtrucked through the city for delivery. It is beyond easy to get lost with the 2000 alleyways and 400 bridges, so thankfully Dan and I knew this going in and were comfortable taking our time and enjoying the beauty of the waterways…even when we didn’t quite know where we were on the map.

My handsome husband posing on a bridge in Venice.

My handsome husband posing on a bridge in Venice.

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Beautiful Venice.

One of my favorite activities in Venice was taking the vaporetto (water bus) from the train station along the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Square. A gondola ride can run you upwards of €80, but a vaporetto is less than €8. The ~45 minute trip (if you take the slow boat) is well timed with, yes, a Rick Steve’s audio tour that makes you feel like you got a high end tour of the city for a steal.

Cruising the Grand Canal on a vaporetto and enjoying our Rick Steves audio tour.

Cruising the Grand Canal on a vaporetto and enjoying our Rick Steves audio tour.

The Grand Canal that runs through Venice.

The Grand Canal that runs through Venice.

We also enjoyed our Rick Steve’s audio tour of St. Mark’s Basilica and the view from the top overlooking the plaza.

A view from the top of St. Mark's Basilica, looking toward the Grand Canal and the Doge's palace.

A view from the top of St. Mark’s Basilica, looking toward the Grand Canal and the Doge’s palace.

The surrounding square is a hub of activity, with restaurants, souvenir shops, and gelato stores lining the edges. At night, three different restaurants offer live music, impressively coordinated so that the bands don’t overlap. But for free, you can enjoy a dance in the square (which we did!) while hawkers try to sell you spinning toys and roses.

We also strolled over the Rialto Bridge, toured the Frari church (another Rick Steves audio tour), and walked past the Bridge of Sighs (connecting the Doge’s Palace and the jail).

Dan at the Bridge of Sighs.

Dan at the Bridge of Sighs.

We ended our time in Venice with an hour and a half, slow ride water bus from St. Mark’s Square to the airport — a very fitting way to bid arrivederci to Venice and to Italy. Although Spain will always be the most near and dear to my heart, as the first place I traveled internationally, the first place I studied internationally, the first place I worked internationally, and my second language, Italy has moved into a close second. I came home determined to start making my own tomato sauce (because it was just so much better there!), but I may have to go back a few more times to really get it right…

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