On the Road is a weekday feature spotlighting reader photo submissions.
From the exotic to the familiar, whether you’re traveling or in your own backyard, we would love to see the world through your eyes.
Today we see Italy as I have never seen it before. Not that I’ve ever been there! But I love seeing seeing the unexpected. Almost makes you feel like you were there. ~WaterGirl
Ceci n est pas mon nym
We’ve been to Italy several times, always in the north. Neither one of us felt much of a draw to Rome or Naples or other popular destinations in the south. Instead, the first time we went I picked Milan as a destination, largely based on studying train lines.
I knew nothing about Milan itself but it seemed to be a convenient transportation hub to lots of other places like Venice and Florence. As it turned out, Milan is a wonderful city, more business-y than tourist-y, and we fell in love with it. Switzerland is also close by, and on that first trip we discovered the Swiss town of Lugano which we also fell in love with (but that is a subject for another post).
This trip in 2015 was a business trip for my wife, who had a conference in Milan. So we were traveling off-season, in October.
We had not been to Venice since that first trip to Milan (I think 2004?) so we decided to start the trip by flying into Venice. It turns out that Venice in October is wet. Very, very wet. It rains almost constantly, and all the streets flood at high tide. This is a shot of the main harbor, not far from Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). Not sure if you can tell but the waterline is very high.
A rare sunny day in the Piazza San Marco, looking toward the Basilica (on the far right). This was one of the few cafes that was actually open because it stands on one of the few bits of the square that were actually dry. You can see the water that fills most of the square just beyond where the people are standing.
These colorful rubber boots are sold by vendors at every street corner in Venice in the rainy season, and they are an absolute necessity because sooner or later you are going to have to make your way through 6″ – 1′ of water. We wore them everywhere, hated them, and tossed them as soon as we were on the way out of town.
Breakfast at the hotel in Milan. For some reason the hotel had a James Bond theme. This shot shows the wall full of Italian 007 posters in the breakfast area. Not shown: the giant Sean Connery murals in the parking lot, the display case full of Bond cars and miniatures, or the latch-hooked Bond-007 logo (the silhouette with gun inside the camera iris).
While my wife was in conference I spent one day wandering in, around, under, and on top of the Duomo di Milano, the main cathedral. Here is a shot of the interior.
You can explore the roof of the Duomo. This shot from up top shows some details of the architectural structures decorating the roof, and the Piazza far below.
A gargoyle from the roof of the Duomo, because what’s a cathedral without a gargoyle?
While exploring inside the Duomo, I was surprised to encounter this statue, apparently an anatomical illustration of musculature. It turns out to be a statue created in 1562 called St. Bartholomew Flayed, and that is actually his skin he is carrying nonchalantly over his shoulders. According to this article from the cathedral website, it looks like an anatomical study because sculptures of the time were actually very interested in human anatomy.
I’ll finish with one more odd artistic sight, the church of San Bernadino alla Ossa. It is famous for this chapel, the ossuary. Those are actually human skulls and bones, and every wall of this small chapel is covered with these artistic arrangements of bones. This bizarre decoration was done in 1679 by Giovanni Andrea Biffi.
The picture that was taken from the roof is really something!
I was in Milan and Venice during my 1977 Walkabout (as the Aussies called it). Mostly just on the way from Switzerland to Greece. We didn’t get out of the train station in Milan so my only memory is my buddy jamming his way into the train compartment, me handing our backbacks through the window, then fighting my way on too.
We saw a bit of Venice, but not what you saw – the pictures are great. For instance, back then they weren’t selling rubber boots. I do recall thinking that Venetians had been fleecing tourists since the 1400s and they were very good at it.
Did St. Bartholomew put his skin back on during cold weather?
@Jerzy Russian: Good one.
@Jerzy Russian: No but the shopping district has no shortage of lovely, fashionable coats.
Sorry to go off-topic, but I just got done with the Biden Hamilton fundraiser, which was awesome! Over 100,000 people, half of them first-time donors! And the cast were delightful.
The Duomo is overwhelming, inside and out. The pics are a nice variety and oh, so enticing.
I wonder where all the bones came from….
It’s weird to go from looking at St. Bartholomew, or the bones, back to the hotel breakfast — and to try to grasp that the same species made all those spaces.
Travelers tales of Venice don’t make it seem all that attractive. Between the hordes of tourists in nice weather, and the water in wet weather, is it worth it? Especially for someone with finite travel time/$…?
J R in WV
Have read fabulous tales of Venice, but I personally don’t have any urge to visit anywhere with throngs of tourists. Did not enjoy Firenze / Florence at all, too crowded with rude tourists.
@Redshift: They were very articulate and passionate, but I was worried there wouldn’t be any music. Then at the end they did the “Room Where It Happens,” and it was amazing.
Also, amazing pictures of Venice, which I loved, except everyone was on strike, including the driver and the conductors of the train we were on, who left us out in the middle of nowhere.
There was a fashion for flayed sculptures in the early 16th century. Louis XII and his wife (who was a Medici) are shown naked and flayed in their tomb at St. Denis. I bet the St. Bartholomew sculpture is related to that.
We were lucky when we went to Venice and didn’t have any floods, and I think we had drinks at the same cafe on St. Mark’s Square.
Thinking back, pretty sure they were still working on the St. Bartholomew statue when I was at the Duomo. Bart had to flex all the time, so they must have done the facial expression separately when he was relaxed. Oddly, the model for the gargoyle was a nice little dog, and the sculptor was flying on something…
; – )
That cathedral (Duomo) is pretty amazing. The Galleria was surprisingly impressive, particularly given that it seemed like it was basically an impressive building architecturally made for purposes of providing a mall.
Venice is potentially worth the trip, to see the lowest floors of buildings in the water and get a sense of historic places up close, such as the Bridge of Sighs or the Doge’s Palace. The picture of the Piazza San Marco (the square) does not fit with my memories, as there are no visible throngs of birds going after anything they can scavenge from tourists. Flocks of birds would be more organized than the free for all I recall.
Fun places and great pix.
I’ve heard that native Venetians have been fleeing the city in droves, pushed out by tourists and rich expatriates.
The cruise ships putting into port right in the canals has also been a major sore spot with the remaining residents of the city – though after one of the ships took out a major bit of city infrastructure, I think Venice reinstituted the ban on letting the cruise ships come right up into the city.
I visited Italy during my grand tour about 40 (!!) years ago. I didn’t like Venice for some reason, but adored Florence/Firenze.
That Flay statue! Woa
Chacal Charles Calthrop
@JanieM: it is. Venice is mind-blowing. It is a medieval city built on water, and when you first walk around it it feels like you are in some kind of SF novel. That said, don’t go expecting it to be easy, it’s not Disneyland by any means (although the only person I knew who had a truly bad time visited during winter flooding & got lost trying to get back to their hotel when most of the routes back were flooded).
But for an experienced traveler, used to fending for yourself, it’s one of the world’s strangest and most beautiful places. There’s nothing like it.
@Chacal Charles Calthrop: Thanks. My dad’s parents came from Italy, and by some combination of timing and priorities I have never been there. So it’s still on my list…especially the area around Naples, where my people came from. Your comments and Ceci n est pas mon nym’s pictures, not to mention other travelers’ tales, make me think I’ll have to go trekking up the whole peninsula.
We’ll see how old I am when travel is possible again. ;-)
Nice photos. The ossuary reminds me of the catacombs of Paris. Using skulls and bones for decor os a strange esthetic.
I loves Venice when we visited. On the that struck me was the age of everything. The hotel we stayed in was in a building from the 1200’s. Amazing. I loved wandering through the alleyways that opened into beautiful piazzas.
When I was sixteen, my parents took me and my two sisters on a Perillo tour of Florence, Venice, and Rome, and we spent two days in Venice. On the way there, we stopped in Padua and visited the cathedral where the relics of Saint Anthony were displayed, and my father leaned over to my mother and asked her what the ICD-9 code was for a mummified tongue.
Perillo booked us into the famous Bauer Grunwald, where we had a plain pasta dinner. Early in the morning of Friday, December 27, 1991, in the dark before dawn, I woke my sisters and my father and we walked to Saint Mark’s , empty and frosted with rimes of ice on the flagstones, and I took pictures of my sisters ‘ice-skating’ in the completely empty square. We watched the sun rise from the Arsenal in front of the Doge’s palace. Somewhere, I have pictures of all of that.
We visited Saint Mark’s and the Portuguese Synagogue, and made minyan for shabbos for the tiny Jewish community that still lives there. When my wife and I married, the mezuzah I bought on Murano went on our bedroom doorpost.
Ceci n est pas mon nym
@JanieM: I have the best time if I get away from mobs of tourists and go to ordinary places. Small shops or museums, parks, grocery stores. The kind of places where they don’t speak English so you might want to know a little of the local language, or some French (lots of Europeans who have no English do have French). Or some mime.
Yes, even in Venice it’s easy to get away from the mobs of tourists. And it really is a cool town. Also the Murano glass factory is there so there’s lots of cool glass.
Someone mention the flocks of pigeons who will land on you if you feed them. Yes I’ve seen them, on sunnier days. Big time tourist thing.
Actually all of St Marks Square is a tourist trap and restaurant prices are sky high. But sometimes you have to do a little tourist stuff, it’s unavoidable.
Comrade Colette Collaboratrice
@JanieM: @Chacal Charles Calthrop: El Chacal is right – it’s an almost otherworldly experience. I’ve been to Venice 4 times over the last 25 years (each time in the off season or at least shoulder season) and it’s certainly far more crowded in the past few years than it was in 1996, even off-season. Mass tourism is killing it. That said, it’s unlike any other place on earth, heartbreakingly beautiful and strange. The architecture, on every corner, in every detail, no matter which way you look, is fantastic. The big sights – San Marco, the Accademia, the Doge’s Palace, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, the Frari church – are justly famous and worth the struggle through the crowds, but there are strategies for seeing even those with less hassle. Now that the flood barriers are in place and working, it might be easier to go in the rainier fall and winter when normally acqua alta keeps both locals and visitors pinned down. But you don’t have to get far off the extremely well-beaten path between San Marco and the Rialto bridge to find stunningly scenic backwaters, alleys, bridges, and courtyards that are far less crowded and with more of an atmosphere of everyday life in the most beautiful city on earth. I’ve been nearly alone in San Zanipolo in the middle of a lovely September afternoon when there was probably a 4-hour wait to get in to San Marco. Take a waterbus to Torcello and be transported back to the 7th century, with extraordinary mosaics and stonework, and maybe a couple of dozen companions if it’s not high summer.
Much of the city is almost-abandoned and decaying gorgeously, with flowers and moss springing from every crack in the stones, but there are still children playing in cloisters in the Giudecca and neighbors chatting over afternoon wine and snacks in bars in the Castello. Venice has the feel of a place nearing the end of its long, long lifetime, and I’m pretty sure our grandchildren’s generation will know it mostly as legend and ruin. See it if you can, while you can.
Comrade Colette Collaboratrice
Oh, and Ceci – thanks for the lovely pics and memories! I was in Venice and Milan in Sept./October 2016, and the weather was gorgeous. I never wore the raincoat I brought. Luck of the draw, I guess.
At the end of that trip, which included a five day excursion to the Ticino and Zurich and a visit to the Zurich relatives who saved my grandfather in 1939, we stayed at the Leonardo da Vinci airport Holiday Inn.
Parched and exhausted after a train ride that included my father having his wallet stolen in our compartment, Dad and I went to a find soft drinks with our last lira. The soda machine was shockingly expensive – 3500 lira for a tiny eight ounce can of Coca Cola – so we went to bed thirsty and kept the full can as a souvenir. Back home, Dad gave it to Aileen Tulp, a medical secretary and coder in his office, where she kept it as a souvenir over the years on a shelf above her desk, where it was joined by other cans of Coca Cola from throughout the world, finally ending with a can of Coca Cola from Jordan in 2004. Aileen died right before my wedding that year, sitting in her car. Sudden heart attack. I’d known her for 25 years. Her daughter babysat me.
Three years ago, on Election Day, I visited my parents with my older son and my mother had scheduled the cleanout of my father’s medical office by workers from his state agency – Dad had donated the contents of his office to OPWDD – and there sitting on the shelf above Aileen’s unwanted Swintec typewriter, were the cans of Coca Cola, including the one from the da Vinci airport Holiday Inn.
It’s odd what little artifacts persist through time. Unexpected things.
After reading this thread earlier I was thinking that the only time I went to Italy was when I was a small kid (about 6-8) and my family went there on summer vacation from England. (Dad was in the Air Force.) I don’t remember exactly where we went, but the sand on the beach was blazingly white and blazingly hot. I remember tippy-toeing between beach umbrellas and towels and any patches of shade to protect my feet.
Other things I remember: My father could speak to the Italians! I marveled at that. Later I came to learn that he was fairly fluent in Spanish from living in Mexico for a year or two and was able to put that to use. And he bought me a Donald Duck comic book that (of course) was in Italian. I marveled at that, too. I was a precocious reader, and it was fascinating to see the incomprehensible text in the familiar format of my comics back home.
I love that first picture of the harbor. Very gray, like harbors often are. Not what we expect, but how they actually look.
@Sab: The harbor is my favorite, also. Love all the blues and grays of skies and water.
Great stories! And I really appreciate the encouragement. Venice was never high on my travel list, and you all changed that.
Venice has my heart. It’s best visited in late Spring before the great mass of tourists arrive and it’s usually less prone to flooding than in fall; although September can be glorious if you’re lucky in the weather. Yes, it’s a decaying shell of itself but that’s part of the mystique. Get lost, find some corner you think is nowhere and then surprise! the next square has a famous attraction you couldn’t find when you were looking for it. I haven’t been for 15 years so I imagine all the trends that are killing it are worse than I can imagine, but go anyway if you can.
Mike in Oly
I was raised catholic, and while I shrugged off the faith in my teens I always kept a love for huge churches and cathedrals. The Duomo of Milan has been my number one most wanted to see cathedral in the world. If I ever make it to Italy that would be my first destination. Lovely shots of a beautiful country. Thanks for sharing these.
Chacal Charles Calthrop
@JanieM: glad to hear we’ve changed your mind! Let me echo the other commentators that if you don’t like jostling mobs of tourists try not to visit during July & August. I saw it first in winter and it was otherworldly. Any time of year is better than high season.
I got to go to Venice while spending 2 months in Italy for a class that was based in a small village. That was great though you do get the sense that fleecing tourists has been that city’s core business for millennia. We would catch a train to some town every weekend, grab some food from a grocery and wander the town.
That extended trip made me a confirmed shoulder season traveler; by the time we were catching the train to Milan to get to the airport, the trains were suddenly packed. That was in 1996 and tourism in Europe has only gotten more crowded, just like everywhere else in the world. Our recent trips there have been in the fall, not too busy then.