RangeR BoB's Trip to
Florence and Venice, Italy
Veteran's Day Weekend, 1996

This is the plain text version. There is also a copy with pictures.

I took a 4 day weekend around Veteran's Day. I decided to take a bus tour of Italy. This tour included a day in both Florence and Venice, Italy and a short stop in Lucerne, Switzerland on the return trip.

The tour was organized by a German company. I paid my $200 and I received transportation, two nights lodging, and a guide, a nice German chap named Uwe (oo-vay) who was quite knowledgeable and very friendly and helpful. He explains well without droning on.

On Friday afternoon I hopped on a bus and headed out for Mannheim, about an hour north. This is the rallying place for all of the tour buses.

I switched buses and got aboard a large cruise-o-liner type of bus. More spacious than a Greyhound. There were about 40 folks on the tour. Several couples/families, youngest child about 6 (a good thing, no screaming kids), 4 infantrymen back from Bosnia, 7 dental hygenists. And BoB. We all kinda toured around the whole trip in loose confederations of friends.

We left Mannheim around 9:00 and drove south through the night. We crossed the Swiss border at Basel. Our route took us through the Alps and their many tunnels, including the longest hiway tunnel in the world, over 10 miles (16 km) long. I slept thru most of this. We passed into Italy in the wee hours of the morning and headed on to Firenza (Florence to us).

Firenza is located about 1/3 of the way down the boot of Italy, inland about equidistant from either coast. It is north of Rome by 100 miles.

We stopped for a breakfast early on in a rest stop north of the city. These are popular in Europe, kinda like a truckstop in the states, but with more cars. They are very classy structures, often multi-story, and are very clean and cheery. There is usually a nice restaraunt upstairs, souvenier shops etc, and then bathrooms below. Food, fuel, souveniers & high prices.

Firenza (Florence)

Firenza is a very busy city, and except for the (touristy) city center is a hurly burly of cars, trucks, motor and bicycles. The city is on the Arno river, and was once surrounded by a rather tall wall. This wall was dismantled, but the towers and city gates remain, now completely surrounded by the more recent downtown. There is little "Modern" archetecture in this part of Italy. The locals prefer to build in the old style, with grand arches, stone work and much extra detail. Every roof is tile, and new buildings are purposely chipped up and sand blasted to make them look "old".

We hit Firenza around 9:00 and began our tour. First we went and saw a beautiful cathedral. This would be a repeating theme throughout the trip...

A mainstay of any trip to Italy is visits to their many cathedrals. Any money a community had in Italy seems to have gone into their cathedral. This went even more so for the rich towns like Firenza and Venizia. Literally an unfathomable amount of money went into these things. They were built hundreds of years ago and are so daunting and awe inspiring to see now. Intricate sculpture and marble work. Multicolored stripes of different color marbles for the outsides with gorgeous guilt and mosaiced and painted domes inside. Breathtaking. There honestly isn't enough money or time in the modern world to build things like this, it would be so labor intensive. And yet, here is a nearly 1,000 year old pile of bricks with a 500 year old facade of POLISHED MARBLE and elegant stained glass. Can't even describe it.

Firenza is well known for its leatherworks, so we went and saw a demonstration on leather and gilding work. Of course this is a way for the shop to increase its business. I did buy a cool coin purse to keep my foreign money in, a nice reversible belt, and a pair of boots. Total cost = 93,000 lira. I carried with me about $200 in lira, the Italian currency, which is hovering around 1,450 lira to the dollar.

We were on our own for lunch, so we ate in a local place and had pasta (what else?) and I had some Gelato, God's Gift to icecream. Light and fluffy, but with all of the punch of Blue Bell. These places weren't too bad as lunch could be had for around L9,000.

The afternoon was spent walking about and exploring the many shops and cathedrals in the city. Even the public buildings were beautiful and ornate, many of them 500 or more years old.

On our way to St Mark's Square, There was some sort of ceremony for a public official while we were there, so we got to see the Caribinieri (Military Police) riding around on their Moto Guzzi Motorcycles and marching about in their jackboots and martial uniforms (Think Mussolini, the uniforms haven't changed a bit). I found it interesting that all of the common soldiers were clean shaven, like in most armies, but the cycle guards almost to a man had Van Dykes (goatees.) The guard outside the court house also carried a Berretta M-12 Submachinegun. Not something you see at the Travis County Courthouse!

Many of the buildings and markets are built on historical foundations. We passed a building with sculptures dedicated to the major guilds in the city.

We saw the largest cathedral, St Marks, and it has one of if not the largest ancient domes still extant. Beautiful sculpture and marblework, with a huge bell tower beside it. The friezes and mosaics inside have to be seen to be believed.

This cathedral is the burying place for many of Florence's leaders and artists, including Machiavelli and Michaelangelo.

There is also a Baptistry building across from the Cathedral, and it has the most intricate doors. Cast bronze carvings of scenes from the Bible, the doors took over 15 years to make.

Firenza is a city of bicycles, scooters and mopeds. Everyone from the punk kids, to old men, to young ladies in skirts and high heels (!) were riding mopeds or scooters. A car would be insane in there, and much of the city is closed to cars, or at least limited. The streets follow the classic medieval planning concept that anything that wasn't a building must be a street. Very chaotic, I don't see how anybody drives over here.

(Italian tax laws are insane for vehicles, making scooters a much cheaper proposition.)

Italian tourists are more formal than we were. They apparently comment on how comfortably we dress for our trips. We schlepped around town in our blue jeans and sneakers with sweatshirts or leather jackets (it was chilly in the morning, though the sun was out late afternoon so I ditched my jacket). Meanwhile the Italians wore suits if they were older, or nice trendy clothes for the younger men. More than 1/2 of the women wore dresses, nylons and big, chunky high heels, and went clopping about the cobblestones. Quite a contrast. There were a lot of lovely people on the streets, but those of us who tried to flirt with the folks in the crowd failed dismally. And were embarasing to the rest of us...

I truly enjoyed wandering the streets of Firenza and seeing all of these great works of art. There is a museum that holds, among other treasures, the original David by Michaelangelo, and a whole ROOM of busts and sculptures. Admission was L12,000.

The busts were on the walls and were on 1/2 dozen rows of shelves, each shelf holding maybe 100 busts. In the center were another hundred or so plaster and marble sculptures. Upstairs is a collection of medieval altarpieces collected from various churches, convents and monasteries which were deconsecrated or purged during several periods of Italian history. Beautiful gilt work and painting work on the panels, with various figures or scenes from the Bible depicted.

We also passed a museum with a collection of Salvador Dali pieces. Admission was steep, you couldn't take photos, and we were museumed out, so I pirated this quick picture and we bailed.

After a long day, we walked to a nice local tourist restaraunt. Here they acommodated large tour groups like us. Big jugs of mineral water and house wine (very dry, from the local Tuscanyregion.) They served us a big platter for each table, family style. We had spaghetti first, then porkchops and potatoes and a salad.

As an aside, nobody drinks tap water in Europe anymore, because the waterworks were all destroyed in the Wold Wars, so people never switched back. The tap water really is terrible, though.

We had a table for 4, and we were chow hounds, so we scrounged food (and wine!) from the other tables when we had obliterated our own.

Since it was my birthday, they brought me a scoop of chocolate ice cream with rasins covered with magic shell and with a candle. We sang happy birthday, and then we all got Spumoni.

We boarded the bus and headed out of town a ways to what was ostensibly a four star hotel. It was kinda small, and the beds were tiny. I shared the room with one of the dental techs, and we had a quiet sleep.

Up early the next day, with a light breakfast (we all grumbled) of rolls and coffee with milk. Straight the coffee could be used to strip furniture, but with a bit of sugar and about 50% milk by volume, it is luscious stuff that will get your heart started. Rolls and jam were a decent meal, but I had to raid other tables (again) to get enough to eat.

Venezia (Venice)

We drove towards Venezia(Venice), which is northeast of Firenza on the Adriatic sea, across the water from Bosnia (where I will NOT be going ;-} ). This is a city that they built into a lagoon in order to escape invaders. There is a network of 150 islands connected by 400 bridges. All of the islands have been supplanted by wooden piles. St Mark's Square, where the grandest cathedral is, rests on 100,000 oak trees driven into the lagoon (sea) floor. The piles are all infilled with dirt and rocks, and seem to have held up well. The buildings are entirely masonry and stone, with grand facades and tile roofs.

Venice is where the disease Malaria got its name Mal = bad, Aria = air. It was believed to be caused by the stagnant air of the lagoon in summer, which I imagine was stifling. Instead it was from the mosquitoes that frequented the murk of the lagoon. Luckily while we were there, there was a fresh (chilly) breeze off of the sea and no bugs!

The weather was cool and overcast, with drizzle during much of the day, though not during the gondola ride :).

There are no cars or scooters on Venezia that I saw, so other than a relaxed bicyclist or two, it is all pedestrian. You can walk across it in under an hour, so why bother?

Venezia can only be reached by ferry boat, and even the ferry leaves from an island away from the main land accessed by a highway bridge. The ferry takes about 1/2 hour to traverse the channel. The view is gorgeous. The Ferry enters the Grand Canal. Venizia is kind of hook shaped, the big gap in the center is the Grand Canal, probably 1/2 mile wide or wider, and deep enough for Naval cruisers and assault ships to berth near shore. After getting off of the ferry, we walked a bit and then took a classic gondola ride, with about 8 Gondolas for us and a couple of musicians (lady on accordian, man singing) We all joined in when she played Stevie Wonder's "I just called to say I love you". The gondola ride was about an hour and included a long trip along the grand canal followed by a trip along many of the smaller canals. Gondoliers don't actually push the gondola, but scull it with a paddle.

One of the things about a city built in the middle of the ocean that has lasted for 10 centuries is that the buildings really show their age. Many of the buildings are no longer inhabited on their first floor because they are periodically flooded. This is becoming more of a problem lately because Venice is sinking. Extraction of freshwater from under the sea for drinking as well as the general rise in sea levels this century has exacerbated the problem. This can cause serious problems for some of the landmarks of the town.

After the ride, we went past some cathedrals (notice a pattern?)

We went to a glass blowing shop, and watched a master make a bud vase with handle from two blobs of 800 degF glass. Really cool demo. He got the intricate pattern on the outside by forcing the hot glass into a metal mold with the pattern cut into it. After that he blew the vase, which kept the same pattern across it! He then clipped it off the metal tube, and fused it back on the tube in reverse so he could take a fresh blob and fuse on the handle. Then he took a set of long pliers and sculpted the handle with a couple of quick pulls!

Of course, they are doing the demos so we would spend money, and the stuff they sold wasn't cheap....Decanter, and 6 glasses $400, but they picked up the freight... lovely gilded patterns fused onto the glass, which was tempered so that you had to drop it off of a high table or throw it to break it.

There is also a school that teaches lace making, and shows how to do it by hand, a very laborious process. We got a demo from a nice Australian lady... Anyway, they wanted to sell us stuff, too, but I didn't buy. After that we walked around town and bought things. Some were really inexpensive (earrings for L4000, sweatshirst for around L25,000. to expensive, like the glass and leather.

One of the commercial areas is the Rialto bridge, which is full of shops and such. It was a nice place to stroll. Venezia in general has a lovely atmosphere, very relaxed and comfortable. Many of the buildings in the area are adorned with memorials to some important(?) personage.

We again had a lovely tourist dinner, pasta (with choice of sauce, I had seafood) and I had a fried fish combo, with calamari, shrimp, and small fish, like minnows (heads and all). It was O.K. for a big restaraunt.

Again a nice ferry ride back to the bus. It was quite chilly by now (maybe in the 50 degF range). On the bus and off a ways inland from Venice, to a really nice hotel that lived up to the 4 star billing. Nice, big, well done room with this tiny TV set a mile away from the beds. Sauna and weight room (closed on weekends, of course).


Monday morning, another small breakfast and off on the bus. We pointed the nose north and drove on across northern Italy on into Switzerland. The northern part of Italy and southern Switzerland have much in common. South of the Massif, a large rock body that that long tunnel goes through, most Swiss speak Italian. North of the tunnel, they speak either German (mostly) or French. A small minority speak Romansh, which is vaguely related to Latin, but is a queer dialect. There is no "Swiss" language.

Switzerland and Italy both are confederations of territories (City-states, really) and as nations are younger than the U.S., Italy having formed in the 1860s.

Switzerland, officially called the "Confederation Helvetica" formed in 1815 after the quelling of Napoleon. It started in the town of Schweitz, with folks rebelling against Hapsburg rule. Eventually all of the folks in the area who rallied around the idea identified themselves with the "Schweitzers" and the nickname "swiss" was born.

We stopped for lunch in the Italian part of Switzerland and I got Ravioli, salad, and a big square of cake with berries on it and a glass of grapefruit juice for $23.00. Yep, Switzerland is pricey.

Switzerland is not part of the EU, and as a result, things are VERY expensive. I bought myself and a cohort a meal at McDonald's in Luzerne (her idea, she got a Royale with Cheese) and it was DM(Deutsch Mark, German currency)27.00 US$1.00 = DM1.41 so I paid almost $20 for two combo meals. What a rip off. Chocolate in the truck stops was SF(Suisse Franc)2.60 for 100g. US$1.00 = SF1.25. I can buy the same bar in Germany for $.75.

Once through the tunnel, we stopped off in Luzerne (Lucerne) for an hour. Again more lovely architecture, but in a more Middle European style, rather than the Mediterranean style favored in the south. There is a covered bridge across the river that feeds the Lake Luzerne that dates back to 1300, and is all wood. Unfortunately, most of it burned 2 years ago, but has been reconstructed.

So we wandered a bit, looked at the architecture, and pet the swans and ducks looking for handouts.

One characteristic of Switzerland and Germany is the understood level of trust. It is not uncommon to see a raft (herd? pod?) of bicycles outside a public place and nary a lock among them.

Crime is very low here, and all men 18-45 are given weapons (pistols, rifles, light machineguns) by the military. So much for the idea that weapon ownership causes crime.

Then back on the bus for more rides thru Switzerland. The Alps were much lovelier in the daytime!

We entered Germany in the early evening, stopped for a snack, then on to Heidelberg. They dropped about 6 of us off in Heidelberg, where we started. The bus went on to Mannheim, and I bummed a ride back to my hotel (about 3 miles by the crow but 10 by road.)

So for around $200 for the trip and another $300 (in various DM, SF, Lira and $) I had one hell of a birthday/Veteran's Day holiday.

Since I don't have a car, and don't know many folks here, these tours seem to be a great way to go. I could have spent that much cash just renting the car & hotel, but not had the company or the guide...

I plan on more of these little trips, so I'll keep you posted.

RangeR BoB

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