Immersed in the Venetian lifestyle and the art of Florence

(Second of two parts)

Like countless other travelers, we were spellbound by Venice. Our 3-night stay really meant only two full days, but they were two delightful days that we would repeat in a heartbeat.

On queue

We stayed in a residential area off the Via Garibaldi, a wide thoroughfare just a 10-minute stroll along the lagoon from St. Mark’s Square. The frantic pace of much of Venice is left behind when you call this part of the Castello district home. We would not stay again in the same B&B, but we will return to “our Venice.”

We started off our visit at San Giorgio Maggiore’s 11 a.m. Gregorian Mass. It was majestic and a nice way to feel a part of the local scene.

After Mass we took the elevator up to the top of the campanile to get a 5-star view of Venice. The elevator holds only six people, and you pay your €3 fee in the tiny elevator! Waits can be long, but we got in line just before the end of the service, so it was not too bad.

When we returned to Venice proper, we went straight to the ticket office at the Doge’s Palace to try to get reservations for one of the English “Secret Itineraries” tours. Nothing was available for that day or the next, but since there was no line ahead of us we opted to visit the Doge’s Palace on our own (€5.50). We walked right in; 1 p.m. on Sunday must be a slow time.

We spent almost two hours there moving at our own pace. They were setting up for something special, but we didn’t know what.

San Marco

After the Doge’s Palace we tried to get into the Basilica di San Marco, but the line was too long. “Domani” (“Tomorrow”), we told ourselves.

If we’d only known what an unexpected treat was in store, we wouldn’t have been able to sleep. Domani arrived and we headed back to St. Mark’s Square. We soon discovered what the previous day’s preparations were for as we joined the crowd gaping at the filming of a movie at the Doge’s Palace.

The shouted directions were all in English (American accent), and we were told the film was a remake of “Casanova.” While we watched, Mother Nature slowly made herself felt as the puddles in the square became larger. Soon the filming stopped and we found ourselves walking on tables.

An unexpected acqua alta (high water) was emptying café terraces and dampening a few spirits. We removed our shoes and socks, rolled up our pant legs and got in line to visit San Marco’s. What a treat!

Our two days in Venice were proving to be two entirely different kinds of days. The entry line was still long, but the atmosphere at San Marco was charged. Instead of an endless, boring shuffle, we joined a line of splashing, barefoot pilgrims. Not even the “No photos” signs could “dampen” our enthusiasm.

Exploring Venice

It was hard to beat our San Marco’s experience, but the gelato break between St. Mark’s and the Rialto Bridge came close. This was our cheapest gelato (€.80) and one of the best of the whole trip. We soon arrived at the boisterous Rialto Bridge and crossed over to wander through the fish market (closed on Mondays) and to catch a glimpse of the Ca’ d’Oro. We wanted to take a vaporetto ride back to our neck of the woods but had to return to the Rialto to get one.

On the way we stopped at one of Venice’s pay toilets. For €.50 I experienced one of the nicest and cleanest bathrooms in Italy.

Our No. 1 vaporetto took us past a romantic flotilla of gondolas with musical accompaniment (“Volare”) as well as the ornate mansions on the Grand Canal.

We got off at Arsenale to see what we could glimpse of the famous shipbuilding area. This arsenal was capable of building a warship in 12 hours in the 16th century. It is now a military zone barred to the public.

Finding a reasonably priced place for dinner in our neighborhood that night proved to be a challenge. We knew that our “usual” hangout closed on Mondays, but we were unprepared for the number of eateries that were also chiuso. We ended up with some delicious sandwiches on focaccia, but we were rushed to finish them before closing time. (Note: dinner hours in Venice seem to be considerably earlier than in Rome and Florence. We saw many diners turned away because they arrived too late [8:30].)

On to Florence

On Tuesday morning we hopped a vaporetto to return to the Santa Lucia train station and continue on to Florence. Although we were depressed at the thought of leaving Venice, we did manage to get on the right train.

After pedestrian-friendly Venice, Florence proved to be a loud, fast-paced, exhaust-filled city with way-too-narrow sidewalks. We encountered culture shock as we wended our way from our B&B to the heart of the city.

Our Florence B&B was located within walking distance of the train station and Renaissance Florence and was quite near the central market. I had read on Rick Steves’ Graffiti Wall that the Soggiorno Pezzati (Via San Zanobi, 22; fax 39 055 287145 or visit had nice rooms in a nice location for a nice price (€64), except for room 6, which faces the noisy street. We were offered room 6. I gently refused, showing Daniela Pezzati our e-mail stating we had room 1. She laughed and said that meant we had one room, not room 1, since she gives out rooms as they become available.

Luckily, she had a small unnumbered room in the back marked “private” and offered it to us. We took it. It was not as nice as others we saw during housekeeping, but it was clean and quiet, with a mini-refrigerator, coffee, tea and cappuccino fixings and breakfast rolls.

The shower and the toilet shared the same space, which we found to be very efficient and not difficult to adjust to. (Use the toilet before showering or be prepared to wipe it off.)

The whole place was very clean, and the hallways smelled like flowers.

Popular sights

We saw Michelangelo’s “David” at the Accademia (€6.50 plus €3 reservation fee). We were impressed. It is truly a “wow” moment when you walk in, turn your head and spot David.

Unfortunately, it looked like many of the people in line outside would not be witnessing such a scene. Do get reservations, and go in the morning. In the afternoon, the reservation line is almost as long as the other one.

Unfortunately, even with three days in Florence, we could not get reservations for the Uffizi Gallery, so we passed. The lines there were also long. We suggest reserving from the U.S. before leaving home. I guess we’ll just have to go back!

We did visit the Duomo (free) and the Baptistery (€3) plus the very interesting Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (€6), located behind the Duomo. It houses Michelangelo’s “Pietà” (created 50 years after his first one), Ghiberti’s original baptistery door panels, Donatello’s “Mary Magdalene,” Brunelleschi’s dome models and several clean WCs.

Except for Sundays, when it closes earlier, it is open until 7:30 p.m., so it is a good option after the Duomo and Baptistery close at 5 p.m.

Nearby sights

On our second day in Florence we decided to take it easy — we left town. We asked at the information bureau across from the train station about buses to Piazzale Michelangelo, located across the Arno from Florence, and to the U.S. Military Cemetery near Tavernuzze, seven miles south of Florence.

We went first to Piazzale Michelangelo for a postcard view of Florence. (Take bus No. 12 or 13 on the north side of the train station, €1.)

We returned to the train station on the same bus, had lunch nearby, then hopped a SITA bus (at the terminal just south of the train station) to the Cimetero Americano — direction Greve-in-Chianti. (Buy tickets — €3.80 round trip — at the terminal before getting on the bus.)

Only one car arrived during the almost two hours we spent there.

Before entering the cemetery, we suggest you find the bus stop and check the departure schedule to budget your time for the return to Florence. The bus stop is on the opposite side of the road at the far entrance to the cemetery. We had to wait 45 minutes for the return bus; we could have waited in the comfy visitors’ center had we known the schedule.

Notable finds

Our last day in Florence was filled with the “must sees” that we hadn’t yet seen. We were dragging a little by the time I suggested the Santa Croce Church, but David said, “Let’s do it.”

Dio mio, what a find! The church is very beautiful and has an impressive guest list. We saw the final resting places or memorials of Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, Rossini and Galileo and plaques for Marconi, Fermi and da Vinci. And what a surprise to find Bonapartes!

In one of the chapels of the transept are buried Charlotte Bonaparte and her mother, Julie Clary Bonaparte, wife of Napoleon’s brother Joseph. (She was the sister of Desirée Clary of the novel and movie “Desirée.”)

Inexpensive dinners in Florence? We found many places between the train station and our B&B. We frequented Gusto Nazionale on the Via Nazionale twice and enjoyed their menu turistico (€11, including beverage). There are many choices, and the portions are enormous, especially the Greek salad.

Rome overnight

Our flight to the U.S. left from Rome in the a.m., so we decided to take the train from Florence a day earlier and stay in a hotel in Rome near the train station. Knowing we would be in the hotel only one night, I chose a hotel with a quirk.

Hotel Sileo (Via Magenta; 39; fax 39 06 4450246 or visit has a contract with the Italian and Swiss railroads to provide day rooms for the railway workers of the night shift. Therefore, if you rent one of these rooms, you get a great deal, but you can’t get into your room until 7 p.m. For one night, this was not a problem.

We dropped off our luggage at the hotel when we arrived in Rome, and set off to do our last-minute sightseeing. (We found out later that for only €7 more we could have had a room for 24 hours, if one was available.) Our room was very nice, and the location couldn’t be beat.

This hotel shares a building with at least four other hotels. The Sileo is on the fourth floor (yes, there is an elevator) and is recommended by Rick Steves and us. (The cost was €55, or $71, for our room from 7 p.m. to 9:30 a.m.)

Our last-minute sightseeing was devoted mostly to churches. Our favorites include the super-Baroque Santa Maria della Vittoria with Bernini’s “St. Teresa in Ecstasy”; Santa Susanna, home of the American Catholic Church in Rome (next door to Santa Maria della Vittoria), and San Giovanni in Laterano, the cathedral of Rome.

We spent quite a lot of time at the very beautiful San Giovanni in Laterano and its baptistery. We also crossed the street to the Scala Santa, or Holy Stairs, where David climbed the 28 steps on his knees, as many pilgrims do today. It is believed that these steps come from the Jerusalem palace of Pontius Pilate and that Christ climbed them at his trial.

Our train ride to Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport lasted 31 minutes. (The walk through the train station to catch the airport shuttle took almost as long.) These trains run every 30 minutes and cost €9.50.

We drank our last cappuccino at the airport. It wasn’t very good, but it was Italian.

Viva, Italia! You captured our hearts and we can’t wait to return. Ciao!