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.

Lake Bled: A Tourist Trap In Slovenia You Really Must See

Lake Bled
Sean McLachlan

If you don’t already know that Lake Bled is the most popular tourist attraction in Slovenia you’ll know it the moment you arrive. There’s a casino. There’s a Shamrock Irish Pub. There’s even one of those tourist buses made up to look like a choo-choo train. It’s horrible.

But look out across the emerald-green water sparkling in the sunshine and all that disappears. Instead, you see a storybook landscape – a lush little island with a church spire peeking out over the greenery, snow-covered Alps beyond and, on one shore, a steep cliff atop which looms a formidable castle. It’s like something from Wagner.

The best way to see Lake Bled is to take a slow stroll around it. A path makes the entire 3.7-mile circuit. Most of the hotels and nearly all the businesses are clustered into one small town, so you soon leave the noise and people behind. Much of the walk is shaded and you can admire the lake from all angles. At one point there’s a sign for Osojnica hill. A moderately challenging 15-minute climb will reward you with fine views of the island and its church.

Most visitors head up to Bled Castle, one of the most impressive of Slovenia’s many castles. It’s a 16th-century fortress/manor house built on 11th-century foundations. While picturesque from afar, I’d recommend not visiting it because you’ll spoil the illusion. As soon as you enter the front gate someone shouts, “Smile!” and snaps your photo. When you leave they’ll offer you an image of yourself looking slightly surprised and confused for only €6.50 ($8.60).

%Slideshow-599%Once you make it past the photographer, you can visit an old-style print shop, where you can buy handmade prints; or you can visit the wine cellar, where you can buy wine; or you can visit the smithy with its fake forge and array of metalwork for sale. The only redeeming spots are the fine little castle church with its 16th-century frescoes and the views over Lake Bled. Since you can get just as good views from Osojnica hill for free, there’s really not much need to come here.

While Bled Island and its Church of the Assumption are equally touristy, they feel slightly less spoiled than the castle. At least people aren’t trying to sell you something all the time. The approach is nicer too – instead of slogging up a steep hill, you’re rowed across the lake on a gondola. When I went to the lakeside to catch a boat, a tour bus pulled up and disgorged a huge crowd of South Koreans, mostly women in their 50s with a couple of camera-toting husbands in tow.

We all piled into three gondolas and set out. The women in one of the boats started singing and their voices carried nicely over the water. I shared the stern of my boat with two ladies. Everyone thought this was funny for some reason and started snapping photos of us. The lone Korean man in our boat stood up to take a shot and, figuring I’d give him something to talk about back home, I put my arms around the two women. They started giggling. For them, at least, I’m still a young man.

The photographer gave me a wide grin and took our photograph. After he sat down one of the women turned to me and said, “That’s my husband.”

Oops.

The man must have overheard because he laughed. Then he pointed at me and said, “You kimchi.”

I swear to God that’s what he said. “You kimchi.”

Maybe Gadling’s resident Korea expert can shed some light on this?

Once we got off the boat, the oarsman grumpily announced that we only had half an hour. That’s plenty of time because the island is tiny. A quiet little path goes around the edge. It took me barely five minutes to make the circuit even though I kept stopping to take pictures. Then I rejoined my temporary travel companions in the church.

The church has some lovely 14th-century frescoes but that’s not why people come here. They come here to ring the bell. There’s some local legend about how it gives you luck for some reason or other. I didn’t bother to write it down since it was probably made up for tourists anyway. Still, I wasn’t about to pass up the chance for some good luck and I got in line with the rest. A sign on the floor gave strict instructions not to swing from the bell rope. Most of the women did anyway.

That bell rang and rang. Since a steady stream of visitors passes through the island, you can hear that bell ringing from early in the morning until sunset. It hardly ever seems to stop. Lake Bled has a lot of luck to give.

The women thought I was very strong because I could ring the bell without swinging from it. Thanks, ladies! Maybe that was the luck the bell had for me – the admiration of a crowd of middle-aged South Koreans. It’s not much, but how much magic do you expect from a tourist trap?

Despite all this nonsense, is Lake Bled still worth a visit? Oh yes. It is simply beautiful. Even in a steady downpour it had a majestic quality to it, and when the clouds broke it became one of the most beautiful spots I’ve seen in 25 years and 34 countries of travel. I would suggest visiting Lake Bled but actually staying at the less-visited but equally beautiful Lake Bohinj in Triglav National Park. More on that in the next post.

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

Coming up next: Hiking in Triglav National Park!

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!

In Fine Style: The Art Of Tudor And Stuart Fashion Opens At The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

Tudor
The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, London, is putting on a fashion show, although the fashions are more than 400 years out of date.

In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion” examines the luxurious clothing and jewelry worn by British monarchs and members of their court. It focuses on the two dynasties of the 16th and 17th centuries with everything from ornamental armor for a teenaged Prince of Wales to a bejeweled case for storing the black fabric patches that Queen Mary II stuck on her face to emphasize the whiteness of her skin.

Many of the items are on display for the first time, such as a diamond signet ring given by King Charles I to his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, in 1628. It bears her cypher and the royal coat of arms. Another never-before-seen piece is a pendant of gold, rubies and diamond with a miniature portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. There are also some elegant articles of clothing like a pair of lacework gloves.

Of course, most costumes and jewelry from this period have disappeared, no matter how important their owners. To augment the exhibition there are more than 60 portraits showing royalty and nobility wearing their finest, including a startling portrait of a Duchess dressed as a man.

“In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion” runs until October 6. If you make it to London before July 14, you might also want to see Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsarsat the Victoria & Albert.

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The Cabinet Of Curiosities: Collecting The Wonders Of The World

Cabinet of CuriositiesBefore there was the museum, there was the cabinet of curiosities. Starting in the 16th century as Europe expanded its horizons during the Age of Exploration, the rich and powerful began to collect curios and display them. Their collections were eclectic – everything from strange weapons from distant islands to beautiful coral formations.

The objects were all put together in no particular order in one room or cabinet, which was sometimes called a Wunderkammer (“Wonder Room”). This blending of natural history and anthropology with no accounting for geography or time period allowed the viewer to see the world as a whole in all its rich diversity. Many of these collections became the nuclei for later museums that are still around today, while others are still preserved in their original state.

Ambras Castle
in Austria has the Chamber of Art and Curiosities, a collection most famous for its many portraits of “miracles of nature”, mostly people suffering from deformities, plus this guy who managed to survive a lance being stuck through his head. There’s also a suit of samurai armor, silk artwork, mechanical toys and plenty more.

The Augsberg Art Cabinet in the Museum Gustavianum in Uppsala is a beautiful little piece with all sorts of panels and drawers devoted to various themes such as life, death and religion. Click on the first link for a cool interactive exhibit.

The tradition of the Wunderkammer is kept alive by some museums. The British Museum in London has the Enlightenment Gallery, which is jam-packed with busts, fossils, Greek vases, rare books, weapons, and Asian religious statues. The Museum der Dinge (“Museum of Things”) in Berlin is a fascinating if somewhat random collection of, well, things.

%Gallery-186870%In Los Angeles there’s the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a bizarre collection of sculptures made from single human hairs and displays of dubious cures from the days before modern medicine. Strecker’s Cabinets of Curiosities in Waco, Texas, proudly displays its prize item, a humpback whale skull measuring 19 feet long and weighing 3,000 pounds. An Iron Age jug sits nearby. Random associations are what Cabinets of Curiosities are all about.

But why not start your own? A bit of travel or rummaging through yard sales can get you a constantly growing collection that will become the envy of your friends. You can even open it up to the public like the owners of Trundle Manor in Pittsburgh.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]