Venice: Grand Vistas And Little Details

Venice
Sean McLachlan

On my first day in Venice I walked the streets without a camera in order to savor the beauties of this unparalleled city. I was leaving the next afternoon so that morning I got up at dawn in order to catch Venice at its abandoned best.

It’s a different city, more peaceful. You can linger on a bridge or take a shot from the middle of a street without getting trampled. You can capture the way the light plays on the water or on the side of an old, crumbling building without half a dozen heads getting into the shot.

Venice has a different character in those early hours. Instead of gondolas, cargo vessels ply the canals making deliveries to this city without cars. The streets are empty but for local workmen cleaning up or getting ready to open up their shops and kiosks. The only other tourists are lone photographers like me. My idea was a pretty obvious one, after all.

The low-angled light makes for some nice play between the tops of the buildings shining golden in the morning and the still-dark recesses of the alleyways and narrow canals. The low-angled light puts faded details into higher relief, like the faded Latin inscriptions on the lintels of church doors or the weathered escutcheons on Renaissance palaces.

%Slideshow-693%The early hours are also the time for visiting the big attractions. There’s something eerie about seeing the Piazza San Marco with only half a dozen people in it. One pair was a newlywed couple. A tuxedoed man was fiddling with the camera while his stunningly beautiful wife, decked out in her bridal gown, gave instructions and adjusted her veil. Beyond them the Grand Canal shimmered in the early light. I’m sure their wedding photo is the envy of their friends.

As stunning as these broad vistas are, Venice rewards a close look. There are details in the buildings and streets that make for great close-ups. In the Piazza San Marco, for example, you have this little bronze figure, one of a set.

At the corner of St. Mark’s Basilica is the square’s most historically important work of art, a porphyry statue of four armored men clinging to one another in mutual defense. I’ve wanted to see these little guys for years.

They’re the Tetrarchs. In 293 A.D., the Roman Emperor Diocletian decided the empire was too big and had too many enemies for one man to rule. He created the Tetrarchy, with an Emperor and a Caesar for both the West and the East. They were supposed to rule in harmony but of course the rivalry more often than not led to civil wars. In another century the Western Empire was a nonentity, while the Eastern Empire, known today as Byzantium, lived on until the 15th century. This famous statue originally stood in Constantinople but was stolen during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and brought here.

Many people photograph this statue, yet miss something even more interesting a few feet away. On a stone bench at the entrance to the basilica there’s a strange design scratched into the surface. It’s been almost worn away by centuries of bottoms, but you can make out a square within a square, partitioned into several segments. This was a Renaissance board game that people would play while whiling away the hours on the plaza. It’s a reminder of the regular folk who lived in Venice in the shadow of the great rulers, artists and priests.

This fired my imagination. Perhaps some other detail will fire yours: the dusty icons in an antique shop, the mosaic advertisement for a pension set into a street, the half-finished Renaissance fresco in the entryway of an obscure church. When you’re strolling around Venice or any great city, keep an eye out for those little details that catch your fancy as well as the grand views that everyone admires. That way you’ll end up with a photo album uniquely your own.

Strolling Through Venice Without A Camera

Venice
Wikimedia Commons

I’ve wanted to visit Venice all my life. Who wouldn’t? It has the reputation of being the most beautiful city in the world, and with my love of architecture my first glimpse of it was going to be a lifelong memory.

After a rainy week in Slovenia, I arrived in Venice on a gloriously cloudless afternoon. I had less than 24 hours in the city before family obligations would take me home. After checking into the Hotel Alex, a basic but wonderfully central one-star hotel, I left my camera in my room and headed out.

Wait, I left my camera in my room? Yep. I wanted to savor Venice without the distraction of trying to create abstract memories. Living in the moment is one of the five reasons to leave your camera at home.

(Of course I did take photos on my second day, otherwise my editor would have had an aneurysm. Those are coming up tomorrow.)

With so little time I was free to enjoy Venice without a must-see list. My time was too short to visit even a tenth of the places I knew I wanted to see, let alone all those I didn’t. So I saw nothing, or more precisely I saw whatever the city gave me. I decided to take a suggestion from Stephen Graham’s classic travel book The Gentle Art of Tramping and go on a zigzag walk. A zigzag walk is a simple travel plan. You start by taking a left. Then at the first opportunity take a right. Then left. Repeat. You will soon be happily lost and seeing things you never thought you would.

Taking a left out of the hotel brought me to a strange little bookshop with a “Going out of Business” sign in its window and a display of odd books with titles like Il Libro dei Vampiri. I’d come across Venice’s only occult bookshop, which was about to close after 24 years because the owner was retiring. I had a pleasant chat with one of the employees, helping him plan his first trip to London, and bought a worry stone for a friend. These are little jasper stones with a groove worn in one side. You rub the groove to reduce stress. My friend is a government employee in a European country and is inextricably linked to her nation’s slow slide into the Dark Ages. If anyone needs a worry stone, she does.The bookshop had sucked me in so quickly I hadn’t even seen anything of Venice yet, so I determined not to go into another shop for a while and wound my way through the city’s narrow lanes, my gaze lifting above the shopfronts to admire carved balustrades and Renaissance coats of arms set into a background of faded, flaked paint from which the rich Italian sunlight was able to coax a hint of its former brilliance.

Luckily I looked down as well as up, because another left took me down a dank little alley that ended abruptly at a narrow canal. There was no railing or sign. The pavement simply ended.

A gondola glided by so close I could have touched it, its wake slapping against the mossy stone foundations of the buildings to either side of me. Water dripped from a carved cornice above to fall into the canal with a loud ploink.

It was quiet here. I was alone and the sounds of the city sounded muffled and distant. Leaning against the wall, I looked out and saw a white marble bridge arching over the canal a few feet away. The map could have told me its name but I didn’t bother to check. People filed past while a gondolier wearing the trademark straw hat and black-and-white striped shirt sat on the railing calling out, “Gondola ride. . .gondola ride. . .”

On a zigzag walk if you come to a dead end you retrace your steps until you can make a another turn. That took me from the cool seclusion of the alley to the warm, crowded sunlit bridge. I sat down near the gondolier and looked down the canal flanked by tall, narrow houses decaying in that graceful Mediterranean manner. Burgundy and peach paint flaked off to reveal islands of plaster or brick, or clung onto their backing long enough to fade to near whiteness. On windowsills and rooftop terraces were sprays of greens and reds and yellows from carefully tended houseplants.

I sat there maybe five minutes and that gondolier must have had his picture taken a dozen times. Nobody took my picture. In fact I think they all framed me out of the shot. What, a dreamy eyed travel blogger doesn’t symbolize the essence of Venice?

Another zig and a zag brought me to San Paolo Apostolo with its unassuming 15th century exterior hiding a rich collection of art. But first I was drawn to the Romanesque bell tower, which for some reason was situated across the street from the church. Tufts of grass grew from between its crumbling bricks. A low door of thick, ancient oak barred entry. Above it was a Latin inscription. As the radio from the trinket shop across the street played Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds I ran my fingers over the faint letters, worn nearly smooth by centuries of weather and curious tourists. I made out the date 1459 and nothing more.

A pair of lions flanked the doorway. One was fighting a serpent, the other held in its forepaws a decapitated head that looked at me with a serene expression. I headed inside the church to admire the art, including a Last Supper by Tintoretto and Piazza’s St. Silvestri Baptizing the Emperor Constantine (an important moment in the death of paganism). Every church in Venice is an art gallery. Then I continued my jagged course across the city.

Or at least I tried. Canals and dead ends kept forcing me retrace my steps, and after another half hour I found myself back in front of my hotel just when I was in urgent need of a bathroom.

Angels watch over the tourist who abandons his timetable. Soon I was back on the streets. My camera remained in the hotel room.

Like Castles? Go To Slovenia

castles, LjubljanaThe little nation of Slovenia is situated on a crossroads. On the southeastern edge of the Alps and on the way to the rest of the Balkans and to central Europe, it’s seen more than its fair share of invading armies.

No wonder, then, that this country that’s slightly smaller than New Jersey has some 700 castles. Many are in ruins thanks to those invading armies, while others were dismantled during the Communist era as “symbols of feudalism.”

Luckily many survive. The one most visitors see first is Ljubljana Castle in Slovenia’s capital. It dominates the city’s skyline from a high hill. This easily defended position has been fortified since prehistoric times. The present castle dates from the 15th century with extensive expansions and remodeling in later centuries.

For many years the castle was used as a prison, with important prisoners stuck in cramped, dingy cells while the less fortunate were put in a stone pit covered with an iron grille. Some were hauled out of their confinement to work the well pump, which was turned by a big wooden wheel in which the prisoners walked like human hamsters.

Just inside the front gate was another well, this one a fake. A little water at the bottom masked its real purpose, as a secret tunnel to the outside. A small crawlway in the side led to a spot just outside the wall, and just underneath the castle toilet. This wasn’t too pleasant for any messenger sent through there, but it did ensure that enemies wouldn’t happen upon the entrance.

%Slideshow-589%From atop the watchtower you’ll get sweeping views of the city and much of the country too. On a clear day you can see a third of Slovenia, even as far as the Austrian border, marked by a chain of jagged peaks to the north. Also don’t miss the 18th century chapel adorned with the colorful crests of the provincial governors.

One of the best places to see castles in Slovenia is Kamnik, a small town 45 minutes by bus from Ljubljana amid the foothills to the Alps. There you can easily visit three castles in one day and get a taste for some of the hiking Slovenia has to offer, all in an easy day trip from the Ljubljana.

Kamnik was an important town in the Middle Ages and had to be protected. On a hill at the center of town is Mali Grad (“Little Castle”), dating back to the 11th century. One square tower and some crumbled walls remain, as well as an unusual two-story Romanesque chapel with some Renaissance frescoes. On another hill at the edge of town is Zaprice Castle, built in the 16th century and more of a fortified manor house than a castle. Its sentry towers provide a good field of fire into town and during World War Two the Gestapo took it over as their local headquarters. Now it’s an interesting and child-friendly museum of the region’s history. The lawn has an open-air exhibition of old granaries.

Both are worth a visit, but the best of Kamnik’s three castles requires a hike up a steep hill close to town. Climbing a dirt trail through forest, every now and then the foliage breaks to provide views of the town and the Alps beyond. Then, after twenty-minute, moderately strenuous walk and a final switchback, you come across a castle gate nearly covered with greenery.

This is Stari Grad (“Old Castle”). Built in the 13th century, it has crumbled into an overgrown, postcard-perfect place offering the best views in the local area. The Alps take up a large swath of the view and the town and outlying fields are laid out below. It’s a quiet spot, and a perfect place to while away some time admiring the scenery and wondering about the people who once lived in these decayed ruins.

Note: the train is well marked for the entire route except for one fork in the trail, where the directional arrow is misleading. See the photo in the slideshow to know which way to go. If you go the wrong way (50% chance considering how clear the sign is) you’ll end up ascending an even bigger hill. It offers nice views too, but lacks a castle.

Check out the rest of my series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History, and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Lake Bled: A Tourist Trap in Slovenia You Really Must See!

Photo Of The Day: Alhambra’s Palacio De Carlos V

Mike Rowe, Flickr

Capturing a stunning combination of architecture and weather, Flickr user Mike Rowe took this black and white photo at the palace of Charles V, contained within the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain.

Commissioned as a royal residence close to the Alhambra palace, the 16th-century building is a square, two-level structure done in the Renaissance style. It’s also home to two museums: the Museo de la Alhambra and the Museo de Bellas Artes. With this photo perspective, you certainly get a feel for the grandiose scope the building.

Have a photo that captures the essence of travel? Submit it to the Gadling Flickr pool for your chance to be featured on Photo of the Day.

Ljubljana: Why Slovenia’s Cool Capital Needs To Be On Your Bucket List

Ljubljana
Sean McLachlan

Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, has been trumpeted by travel writers for a good 10 years now, yet this artsy little city of 270,000 still doesn’t get overrun with tourists. Perhaps it’s because it’s surrounded by better-known countries like Italy and Croatia; perhaps people confuse it with Slovakia; perhaps people still have old Communist imagery in their heads. Whatever it is, you can visit this cheap, fun capital without being trampled by photo-snapping hordes like in Paris or Prague.

This is the first photo I took in Ljubljana and it sums up my impression of the place: family-friendly, lots of culture and a few surprises. Like why there are all those shoes hanging up everywhere.

To get oriented I took the Ljubljana Free Walking Tour, which lasted a bit more than two hours and was hugely informative. A local university student named Neja led us all over her city’s historic center and gave us a great introduction to Ljubljana and Slovenia. She even explained the shoes. University students throw them up there at the end of term. The “shoe wire” I photographed is right next to Cobblers Bridge but apparently that’s just a coincidence. There are several wires adorned with footwear all over town.

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The historic center is a delight for anyone who likes colorful architecture. Vienna Secession, a central European take on Art Nouveau, was big here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and colorful examples flank the river that runs through the center of town. There’s plenty of Baroque buildings too along with an unfortunate scattering of concrete Communist monstrosities. Apparently living and working in an attractive building was thought to be symbolic of capitalist decadence or something. Fortunately most of the worst examples of Communist ugliness are outside the historic center.Architecture isn’t the only culture you’ll find. Ljubljana is a great place for drinking and dining. Slovenia has a distinct cuisine that I’ll cover later in this series. The city’s restaurants offer a wide sampling of other cuisines too, especially Italian. The bar scene isn’t as active as most European capitals but is good enough for a night out. One odd little place is Pr’Skelet at Ljubljanska cesta 1b, where you go down into a cellar made up to look like a medieval dungeon filled with skeletons. Their cocktail menu is numbers more than 180 strong mixes. Try more than a couple and you’ll end up as part of the decoration.

Like the nightlife, shopping is not too extensive but still worth checking out. Antique and bookshops abound, and the farmers market next to the Triple Bridge by the river is worth going to for local delicacies such as wine, honey, mead, fruit and produce.

Most visitors head on up the hill overlooking town to see Ljubljana’s castle, the nation’s most popular attraction. Slovenia is at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and has lots of great castles. I’ll be talking about them in my next post.

The city has several good museums. The best is the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum with its large collection of folk art and interactive displays about life in traditional and modern Slovenia. Numerous video panels feature interviews with Slovenians young and old about everything from contemporary views on religion to being a World War II partisan. It’s a really good way to learn more about the people you’re visiting.

An even better way is to hook up with the local Couchsurfing community, which runs weekly meetings open to all. I went to one and had a great evening learning about the country, sampling various unusual liquors and ending up with more invitations to go out that week than I had time to accept. As I’ve mentioned before, Couchsurfing is more than a free place to stay, it’s also a ready-made community welcoming you with open arms.

One thing that struck me again and again while meeting Slovenians was their repeated assertion that they are distinct from the rest of former Yugoslavia. There’s a common saying here: “Yugoslavians are brothers in blood, cousins in language, and foreigners in culture.” One said his nation was different than the rest of the former Yugoslav republics because it had spent many years as a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while they had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

The civil war in Yugoslavia is still fresh in people’s memory, even though Slovenia managed to avoid the worst of it. One university student, too young to have many clear memories of the war itself, almost broke down in tears as she talked about it. The war hasn’t left scars; it has left open wounds. I haven’t been to any other parts of former Yugoslavia but I imagine the emotional damage of the people there must be far worse.

Despite a harsh past and a troubled economic present, Slovenians seemed determined to enjoy themselves. Parks and cafes are full and people take long strolls along the river. Through most of their long history, Slovenians have been ruled by other nations. Independence has given everyone new hope.

One big advantage to the little nation of Slovenia is that it’s cheaper than most of the rest of Europe, certainly cheaper than any other nation that has a piece of the Alps to show off. A nice single room in the heart of downtown was 64 euros, breakfast included. A meal for one with wine rarely went over 15 euros. And since the city is so small you probably won’t spend anything on transportation costs.

So if you’re looking for a relatively cheap European destination with plenty to offer, consider Slovenia, and check out the rest of this series for more information.

This is the first in a new series, “Slovenia: Hikes, History, and Horseburgers.”

Coming up next: Like Castles? Go to Slovenia!