Florence, Pisa, Venice & Innsbruck
04.06.2012 - 08.06.2012
Early next morning, it was time to travel to a new city, the capital of the Italian region of Tuscany; Florence. Florence was the centre of medieval European trade and finance and one of the wealthiest cities of the time. It is also considered the birthplace of the Renaissance. The historic centre of Florence is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
On the first afternoon we walked to the central station of Florence, Santa Maria Novella, and the meeting point for our day tour. The plan was to visit a winery in the Tuscany region, learn about the process of wine making and taste some authentic Italian wine. After an hour’s drive, we reached the Chianti wine region of Tuscany. This region is a group of villages that produces the famous Chianti wine using only the grapes grown in the Chianti region. The winery and the surrounding vineyards were so scenic and the light drizzle of rain added to the beauty! Upon entering the winery, our guide first showed us all the equipment that is used to crush the grapes, ferment them and separate them. Then we moved to the underground cellars where the wine storage barrels are kept. We were welcomed to the cellars with a rose wine tasting. There were a huge number of big & small barrels made in different kinds of wood for storing different varieties of wine. All the barrels were labelled according to their capacity. We also saw a humongous barrel which could store upto 72 gallons (~273 litres) of fermented grapes. Then, it was time for the formal wine tasting to begin. Four different wines along with pecorino cheese were served to us, the Chianti Classico (2 varieties, one aged more than the other), Chianti Riserva and for dessert, the Holy wine (Vin Santo) which is amber coloured & sweeter in taste. This winery also produces extra virgin olive oil which was served to us with toasted garlic bread during the tasting.
After the winery tour, it was time to head to a small Tuscan wine producing village, Greve in Chianti. The butcher shop in this village is apparently particularly famous for its boar meat. The main piazza was bustling with shops and activity and it was the perfect place to enjoy an evening cappuccino.
The next day started with a visit to the Accademia Gallery to see the very famous sculpture by Michelangelo, "David". It is highly advised to reach early as later in the day queues can be terribly long. The Accademia di Belle Arti ("Academy of Fine Arts") has housed the original David since 1873. (Previously it was located at the Piazza della Signoria, an outdoor plaza with a number of wonderful sculptures). This work of Michelangelo is a masterpiece in the truest sense. One really has to see it to believe it! The perfection of the body to the intensity of the eyes, everything about David leaves you in awe. The Accademia also contains Michelangelo’s four famous unfinished "Prisoners". The original plaster of "The Rape of Sabine Women" by Giambologna is also housed here. There is also a room entirely dedicated to the original plasters of a number of sculptural works by different artists.
The Uffizi Gallery adjoining the Piazza della Signoria is another very famous museum in Florence. It includes works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Boticelli and Michelangelo among others.
We also visited the Leonardo da Vinci Museum, which is a very unique museum, containing wooden exhibits of machines whose designs were sketched by da Vinci in his notebooks. Most of the exhibits are interactive and can be operated. There are water machines, air machines, machines designed for battle and a number of other exhibits where different physics principles have been applied.
A separate section gives an insight into da Vinci’s anatomical expertise. His detailed diagrams of various organs of the body and the foetus in the womb are really astonishing considering that there was no imaging technology available at that time and he had to sketch everything by dissecting corpses!! I can’t even imagine how unbearable the stench of decaying bodies would have been without preservation!
With thoughts of da Vinci’s genius still in our minds, we set off on a leisurely walk through the streets of Florence. Located in the centre of the city, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower), commonly known as the Duomo, is the main church of Florence. It has the largest brick dome in the world and an intricately designed beautiful marble exterior in white, green and pink colours. The Piazza on which it is located and the nearby streets are very lively with a number of restaurants and shops.
We were especially interested to visit the Santa Croce, a basilica located a short distance away from the Duomo. It is the burial place of some extremely illustrious figures in Italian history including Michelangelo and Galileo Galilei. It also has memorials dedicated to other famous Florentines who are buried elsewhere like Marconi and Dante.
The same afternoon we hopped onto a train and made our way to one of the most famous buildings and one among the former Seven Wonders of the World, The Leaning Tower of Pisa. From the central station, Pisa Centrale, there are special loop buses that stop at famous landmarks in the city and thus we arrived right outside Piazza del Duomo, also called Piazza del Miracoli. A cathedral, baptistery, cemetery and the Leaning tower are part of this UNESCO World Heritage site.
The tower looks far more amazing in reality than it does in pictures! The pristine white beauty of all the structures in the square leaves one speechless for a few moments. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a freestanding bell tower of the Cathedral of Pisa. Before restoration, the tower leaned at an angle of 5.5 degrees, now it leans about 3.97 degrees. Contrary to what I believed, this tower is not the most naturally leaning tower in the world. That title is held by the Leaning Tower of Suurhusen, the steeple of a church in Germany. This structure leans about 1.22 degrees more than the Tower of Pisa.
It was comical to watch tourists posing in a wide variety of ways to get that perfect picture of touching the tower! And needless to say, we posed a fair amount as well!
The climb to the top of the tower involves around 296 steps and tickets can be bought from the ticketing office nearby or online. The Piazza has numerous shops selling all varieties of Leaning Towers in various colours and sizes and leaning at all kinds of possible angles! It was great fun trying to find the one closest to reality. ;-)
The next day was only the beginning of a 2 day love affair with the most romantic city in the world, Venice! A visit to the Floating City of Venice is an experience to be remembered. The Grand Canal greeted us the moment we stepped out of the train station, Venezia Santa Lucia. The sight is unbelievable! Numerous water taxis and buses waiting at the jetty ply at regular intervals between various destinations. The city has no road transport and is the only pedestrian city in the whole world! For those who have some extra cash, high speed private boats are a good option to reach your destination. The cruise along the Grand Canal is a beautiful way to get introduced to this gorgeous city. A 24 hour pass is a useful thing to have since boats are the fastest way to travel here (unless you are planning to stay for a longer time and prefer walking, walking and more walking!!). It’s advisable to know beforehand which water bus to take and which stop is closest to the hotel, since there are many stops with similar names and alighting at the wrong stop means dragging luggage across bridges which can be quite tiring!
After check in at the hotel and some awesome olive pizza for lunch, we hopped on to the boat headed for Murano. This island is very famous for its glass production. More than 1000 shops selling Murano glassware are located on this island and many of them have glass-blowing demonstrations at certain times of the day.
Around 40 minutes away is another lovely island called Burano. Numerous colourful houses can be seen here with small shops at the lower levels. The system of “siesta” (afternoon nap) is still followed in this small island. Burano is famous for its lace work but it is quite expensive.
Following the island visits, it was time to do some mainland shopping! All along the Grand Canal, one can find souvenir shops and a must buy is the Venetian Mask. Masks are still worn at the annual Carnival of Venice and the markets are stocked with them in different attractive colours, designs and shapes. Souvenir shops close quite early in the evening and hence it’s best to finish shopping before sundown. Restaurants on the other hand, remain open late.
The next day we decided to stay on the mainland and walk around the streets of Venice. The Doge’s Palace or Palazzo Ducale is the landmark of Venice. The Doge was the supreme authority, the chief magistrate and leader of the Republic of Venice. He was elected for life by the aristocracy. The Doge’s residence is now a museum and one can visit the Doge’s Apartments (rooms where the Doge resided), the Institutional Chambers (rooms where foreign delegations were received, trials were held and justice was administered) and the Prisons. The Bridge of Sighs is a famous corridor in the prisons section. Enclosed and covered on all sides, the bridge contains two separate corridors that run next to each other. The name of the bridge was supposed to refer to the sighs of prisoners who, passing from the courtroom to the cell in which they would serve their sentence, took a last look at freedom as they glimpsed the lagoon and San Giorgio church through the small windows.
Just a few metres from the Palace is the beautiful Piazza San Marco. A lively and huge courtyard, it is surrounded by exquisite structures like the Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Clock Tower and the Bell Tower of St. Mark.
Do take a walk through the narrow alleyways to Rialto Market and Rialto Bridge to get a true Venetian experience! And finally, how can I leave Venice without mentioning the Gondolas!! :-D A traditional, flat-bottomed rowing boat in Venice, they are mainly used these days to take tourists through the narrow canals of the beautiful floating city. Hiring a gondola can be quite expensive and is best experienced only if you have ample leisure time. Even if you decide to skip the gondola ride itself, do take a moment to stop and look at the gondolas. It is a wonderful experience to just stand on a bridge and watch the gondoliers rowing below you singing traditional folk songs in loud voices.
With our short stay thus ending (leaving us hungry for more!!) we set off to complete our European loop. The final leg of our journey was to bring us back to Austria, to a quiet, little, charming town at the foot of the Alps, to Innsbruck! Most renowned for its winter sports and ski resorts, this town has much to offer. The Innsbruck Card, though expensive, is quite a deal as it allows free entry to all tourist attractions and use of all public transportation for 24 hours (there are 36 & 48 hour cards also). We started our day by boarding the shuttle bus to Wattens, a small town about half-an-hour from Innsbruck, to visit the Swarovski Crystal Museum. Wattens is the headquarters of Swarovski AG and this museum features the history of crystal manufacturing, the life of Daniel Swarovski (founder of Swarovski) and a large collection of crystals including works by notable artists.
Unsurprisingly, the largest Swarovski showroom is also located here and crystal jewellery is the best buy!
After the museum tour and a few photos in the gardens with the giant face (it has a waterfall pouring through its mouth, I still haven’t figured out how the giant is related to Swarovski!!), we hopped back onto the shuttle bus and returned to the town for some more sightseeing.
The “Old Town” is the more interesting and touristy part of Innsbruck. It is quite easy to see everything on foot and in one afternoon. The famous Golden Roof was closed for renovation, hence we couldn’t see it but we did visit the adjoining museum which had some interesting information on the life of Emperor Maximilian I.
Very close by is the 51 m high Stadtturm or City Tower. We climbed up the 148 steps of the narrow spiral staircase and were rewarded with a lovely view of Innsbruck town and the surrounding Alps.
In the afternoon, we took a short guided tour with an elderly Austrian lady and learnt a bit about the history of the town. We also paid a visit to the Cathedral of St. James, a beautiful Baroque church.
The AlpenZoo, Europe’s highest zoo at an elevation of 750 m, is also worth a visit. This zoo houses a large number of Alpine species including brown bears, lynx and arctic wolves.
A must do activity in Innsbruck is to take the funicular from the Alpenzoo to Hungerburg station and then a cable car up to Nordekette where you can get up close with the snow clad Alps!
The funicular and cable car rides are in themselves spectacular, offering panoramic views of the entire area. It’s quite chilly up there even in summers, so don’t forget to take your jackets and caps!!
It is worth spending a couple of days in Innsbruck just to enjoy the tranquillity and in fact, by the end of the trip, I had to admit that it was by far the most beautiful place I had ever visited!
15 days had gone by before we realised it, and it was time to go back home. The incredible journey that started at the castles of Germany, peaked at the Mozart concert in Austria and climaxed at the Colosseum in Rome, is and will remain a truly unforgettable experience! Looking forward to many more such travels around the world! :-D