Monthly Archives: May 2013

A treatise on Italian road signs

8:30am (2:30 am NH time) and ready for the road!

We’ve made in home successfully, after a 17-hour day involving a vaporetto, two planes, two buses, and a car.  And a LOT of TV.  This time we were on Delta rather than Alitalia, which meant a substantial downgrade in the quality of the food and coffee, but a large improvement in the amount of English-language programming available.  The girls watched approximately a year’s worth of TV on the trip home.

Now that we’re back, and our traumatic driving experiences are beginning to fade into memory, I want to revisit an earlier portion of our trip.  During our many hours of driving in the Tuscan countryside, closely scanning the surrounding landscape for clues as to where we were or bystanders from whom we could ask directions, we had the opportunity to observe a lot of road signs.  The Italians seem to really like signs (though not signs that tell you useful things like “Rt 55 North”).  Here are some of my favorites.


This set of five signs, depicting various road hazards, appeared approximately every 50 feet in Tuscany.  If the Italian government could just tell everyone, “Look, anywhere in Tuscany, at any time you’re likely to encounter sharp turns, skidding cars, rain, snow, gracefully prancing animals, and falling rocks,” they could save themselves a lot of time and trouble.  The “winding roads” one is particularly comical to anyone who’s every driven in Tuscany.

Also, fleeing tourists!  No, wait.  We eventually figured
out that this sign was for a school bus stop.

Below is another one I liked.  You’ll see that the version on the left says “frana,” which presumably gives Italian speakers some clue as to what they’re meant to be excited about.  But we saw those like the one on the right multiple times, too — just a random exclamation point on the side of the road.  “Be vaguely alarmed!  About some unspecified danger!”

Also, what’s that up and down arrow
thing on the bottom supposed to mean?
Speed limit is 30, more or less?
These are the girls’ “alarmed” faces.

This one I never figured out.  We saw it a lot.  Sometimes there was one lump, sometimes two.

And I’ve saved the best for last.  We came across this one in Florence.  I have absolutely no idea what it’s supposed to represent, but I’ll offer an award for the best guess.  (Without the strange blue man and the hearts, it would be a standard “do not enter” sign in Italy.)  Anyone?

And lest you should think that cars have all the fun, here’s the type of warning sign that you’ll see in car-free Venice.  There was actually a fair-sized series of signs where a winged lion was stopping tourists from doing something stupid.  At least it’s not just the Americans that they think are stupid.  That’s not even our flag!  It’s the BRITISH people who are stupid.

P.S.  And when we got home, this is who was waiting for us at our neighbor’s house.  4 out of our 6  new additions have been named in honor of our Italy trip: Siena, Lucolena (for the village nearest our villa), Joya (for the villa dog), and Pulcina (“chick” in Italian).

One last visit to St. Mark’s Square

Courtyard of the Doge’s Palace

Lunch in the square
Our final day of Venice and of Italy.  We’d thought of getting an early start to beat the crowds, but we awoke to pouring rain — so we stayed in and did some family reading instead.  Luckily the rain stopped around 10 am, and since it was the only substantial rain of the whole trip, we weren’t complaining.
Today’s agenda was to return to Piazza San Marco (a book we listened to with the girls that was set in Venice, The Thief Lord, says that everyone in Venice visits St. Mark’s Square at least once a day) and see some of the sights.  Foremost on the list was the Doge’s Palace.  (This, along with some of the other landmarks on the square, is referenced in ANOTHER book set in Venice, The Magic Treehouse: Carnival at Candlelight.  Lanie is obsessed with The Magic Treehouse so this made things considerably more interesting for her.) 

As with the Colosseum in Romewe were able to beat the ticket line by buying our combination ticket at the rather less popular Correr Museum.  And the museum was pretty cool!  We all loved the exhibit of crazy carnivale dresses, and I was impressed by the exhibit that had every coin ever minted in Venice, starting in the year 820.
While waiting in the LONG line for St. Mark’s Basilica (we couldn’t avoid that one) we got to watch the hour strike twelve, which is marked by two statues repeatedly striking a bell.  The same clock tower also contains the world’s first “digital” clock, which flips over every five minutes.  (See a photo plus Lanie’s rendition here.)  
The Doge’s Palace was a great stop and an amazing study in contrasts.  First we walked through the very sumptuous and ornate state rooms, with their impressive art and architecture.  Then we turned into a stone passageway and were suddenly plunged across the “Bridge of Sighs” and into the grimmness of the prisons.  We were able to explore the many levels of prisons and see the graffiti that had been left there by generations of prisoners.  (I think the kids liked the prison better than the palace.)

Optical illusion floor in the Doge’s Palace

From Bob:
            Venice is a walking around theme park interspersed with a boat ride or two.   Each street, bridge and side alley calls out to be explored.   Even the smallest passages have the potential to lead somewhere interesting.  On the other hand, some streets seem like major walkways, but then they just wind up in a dead end.  
            I suppose it’s easy to get lost, but we’re sticking to pretty well-traveled territory.  Our apartment is a short walk from the Rialto Bridge, which is right in the center of the town.   To get back and forth from there to Piazza San Marco, we follow signs painted on the sides of buildings.  Sometimes the arrows on the signs point two different ways.  You can get to Saint Mark’s this way or that way.  Take your pick.  Don’t bother with street names – our apartment is on the Corte della Ca’ Amadi, but I doubt anyone would know where that is.  Just follow the arrows on the wall back that say “per Rialto.”  They’ll lead us home. 

View from the palace

           Although there was a fair amount of foot traffic as we searched for a restaurant tonight, things have calmed down from our first night, which was a Saturday.  There were lots of people singing in the streets that night.  And drinking.       

            Tonight we followed some interesting side streets and found the first of the three things we were looking for: a place for cicchetti, which are Italian bar snacks.  Most are fried things , like peppers and zucchini.  There were also some meatballs and ricetta balls, but can’t honestly say I’m wholly sure exactly what I ordered. It all tasted good eaten off a barrel in the street outside the bar, though.
            We were not quite as successful with quest number two.  For our dinner restaurant we kind of succumbed to a high pressure waiter who popped into the street while we were reading the menu.  What we really should have done was peek inside to see if anyone was already in there.  They weren’t .
Last look at Venice from the Bridge of Sighs
            To be fair, the food wasn’t bad.  It was just a little uncomfortable being the only ones in the restaurant.  We had tried to avoid this. We waited until 7 pm before shopping around for a place to eat – we weren’t going to be those pitiful tourists who showed up for dinner at 5:30. Eventually people trickled in and the place was half filled by the time we left.   It wasn’t the enchanting Italian dining experience that we had hoped for, but I enjoyed my sole, and at the next table was a German (or maybe British) fellow who looked just like Larry Bird.  That was pretty cool.  German Larry Bird was having a fine time, too.   GLB’s happiness was contagious.  I was in a pretty good mood when we left.
            So then we kicked about for our third goal of the night, a gelato bar.  If you’re in Italy, you’re never too far from one of those.   From there, it was just a matter of following the “per Rialto” signs until we saw the pink church.  That’s all you need to know about navigating in Venice.  Also, pick a different restaurant then the one we picked.   Unless German Larry Bird tells you differently.
St. Mark’s Basilica


By land and by sea

“Main Street” in Murano
Venice is beautiful, magical – and crowded.  Except for early mornings and late evenings, the larger streets near our apartment are thronged with people.  But today we found that it’s very easy to get off the beaten path.  We were making our way to a place called “Fondamente Nove” to catch the vaporetto to Murano, the neighboring island famous for its glass.  Since we had no particular timetable, we just started wandering in the general direction we wanted to go.  There were many twists and turns, narrow alleys and low-clearance tunnels.  We had no idea where we were, but since Venice is a pretty small island we figured we couldn’t go too far wrong.  Eventually, we came out right where we needed to be.  Being lost on foot is much more pleasant than being lost in a car.
Crowds of Venice
The boat’s first stop was at Isola di San Michele, which is a walled cemetery island very close to Venice.  We decided to hop out for a quick look, and like everything in Venice it was beautiful and fascinating.  Burials are tough here, so people are buried for 10 years or so and then dug up so the graves can be reused.  But the whole place was immaculately maintained and cared for. 
Then, on to Murano.  Murano’s “main street” (a canal) is lined with glass shops and some glass factories.  There were many, many negotiations with all the girls about what types of things would be practical, affordable, and (most importantly) possible to get home in one piece.  Eventually, exhausted by discussions in front of every glass shop, I just told them to buy what they wanted.  They all spent much or all of their remaining trip money, and then we could move on with our day. 

We spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring Venice by foot and boat, taking the slow boat all the way down the Grand Canal and reading about all the buildings we were passing.  We checked out the Piazza San Marco, which is huge and beautiful and very, very popular.  (There were some wooden bench-type things piled up in a few places, and our guidebook says that when rains are heavy the square floods, and the benches are laid out to make pathways for those crossing the square to walk on.  Given the level of the crowds, I cannot even imagine how this is possible.)
During afternoon rest time I actually managed to find my way to a market and procure ingredients for dinner, then find my way back to the apartment again.  (This is no mean feat.  The first time we left our apartment, I realized we didn’t have any paperwork on us that had its address.  So, Bob and I actually videotaped the route, including street signs, on our camera, just in case.  I was imagining us wandering around the Rialto Bridge in the middle of the night, desperately trying to find someone who could help us locate an unspecified apartment in an unknown location – not good.)
Piazza San Marco
The best part of the day was the evening.  We had the kids rest in the afternoon so we could stay out a little late and see the city by night.  We rode the vaporetto, much less crowded now, to Piazza San Marco.  The kids were dragging so we considered just riding straight back rather than taking the short walk to the square, but we decided to power on and were so glad we did.  By night the crowds were thinned and the square was magical, with the beautiful surroundings and these little blue lights shooting up in the sky everywhere (which turned out to be cheap helicopter toys being sold by the ubiquitous street vendors, but they were still pretty — and best of all, the girls had spent all their money and couldn’t buy them).  Orchestras were playing and the crowd was having a great time.  And we all slept well that night.
From Bob:
                Sorry if I complained too much yesterday about how expensive this trip has been.  I really was very ignorant.  This trip did not begin to get expensive until we hit Murano, which is an island only a short vaporetto ride from here.  Murano is famous for its glass factories.  You can get anything you want here made out of glass.

                And the girls wanted everything they saw.  There were all types of little animals and decorations and who knows what else made out of glass.  Most of it was hand-blown; however, during a glass blowing demonstration at one of the factories we learned that some of the items being sold as Murano glass in Venice, and even there on Murano, were actually cheap imitations from China.  This gets the glass makers very angry, and, of course, it ensured that none of our family would settle for cheap imitations.  
                When you see the girls, ask them what they bought.  It’s a slightly bizarre menagerie, but at least it was funded by gifts from grandparents.  Our main concern now is finding a way to cart these things home. 
                We spent a good deal of time on boats today, which was very pleasant.  The water appears to be a nice green, healthy color, though it’s probably very dirty, given all the people and boats around here.  It smells like the sea, but not like high tide.  There are waves, but not so much that we got seasick.
                We rode down the Grand Canal, too.  Twice, even – once in the day with Jen reading from a guidebook (that’s an indication of how calm the ride was, she was able to read and not get motion sick) and once at night.  The guide book recommended going at night so you could look in the windows of the grand palaces at the grand chandeliers made of Murano glass.  I can only imagine what one of those things costs.

                We also had a nice rest time in the middle of the day.  I have been in Italy long enough that I feel like I deserve a pause, too.  I napped well, and so did Lanie.
                We ate in and then took our evening cruise.  At St. Mark’s square we found the dueling bands that our guidebook told us about.  At three places along the square there were six-piece bands playing on small stages.  The square is big enough that all three could be playing at once and not interfere with one another, but it seemed that tonight only two were playing at a time.  Jen and I even got in a little dancing on the square.  That might have been my favorite part of the day, and not even because it didn’t cost anything.

Arrivederci, Toscana

Farewell to the villa
Today was the day to say farewell to our villa and the Tuscan hills.  And I have to say that it was quite impressive that all twelve of us made it out of the house, with all our possessions (as far as I know), well before 10 am.  I’d told all three girls the night before that they should get dressed and packed up as soon as they woke up, since they’re prone to morning lounging.  Nevertheless I was surprised to awaken at 7 am to Nadia standing by the side of my bed, to tell me that she was dressed and packed and could she go out and play with the dogs?  This is not the way that school mornings go at home.  I think she’s been sneaking some of Chris’s high-test Italian coffee. 

The Brookses somehow mustered up the will to get back on their bikes and headed off down the very steep driveway, while we and Stefano took plenty of pictures.  When we headed out in our car a little while later, we were surprised at how far they’d gotten.  (Though they were already taking a coffee break.)
Our plan was to spend a few hours in Florence en route to Venice, and things went well initially.  We found signs for the (free) parking area we were looking for, and actually made it there with little difficulty.  Unfortunately, it was overrun with people and cars and our chances of finding a spot seemed slim to none.  With no Plan B, we had to revert to our “follow the Centro signs” strategy, which definitely failed us.  (I had several maps, but all of them were completely unhelpful for one reason or another.)  Also, Florence has a “restricted zone” that we were afraid of inadvertently blundering into, and very confusing parking rules.  At one point we found a spot on the street (whether near the center or not, we had no idea) with no signs indicating we couldn’t park there.  But the lack of meters and the fact that every other car had some kind of permit displayed made us suspicious.  Eventually I found some information on one of the pamphlets Wendy gave me that indicated only residents are allowed to park in spaces marked with white paint.  Tourists spaces are in blue.  How they expect people to know this is beyond me, but we were happy that we’d avoided a repeat of ourDC experience.
Ponte Vecchio in Florence
By the time we’d found a legal place to park, and walked the substantial distance from there to the center, we didn’t have a whole lot of time to do anything.  We strolled around, looked at the famous Ponte Vecchio and the outsides of a few buildings, had a quick lunch (and of course, gelato) and then it was time for the long walk back to the car.  So, we’ll have to come back to Florence again someday.

It really, really appeared that the trip to Venice would be smooth.  Almost the whole route was on the autostrada.  We didn’t take any wrong turns despite a couple of near misses.  We actually GOT TO VENICE, within a couple of blocks of where we had to drop off our rental car.
And then we were foiled by gas stations.

I will not bore you with the details of our quest for gas, but suffice it to say that gas stations are one area in which THE U.S. KICKS ITALY’S BUTT.  That’s right, Italy.  You may win on food, history, art, community, driving skills, and gelato, but WE WIN ON GAS STATIONS.  For example, you would not usually find the following in the U.S.:
 – Gas stations closed indefinitely for “change of staff” (with no staff evident)
 – Gas stations closed indefinitely for “the pause” (afternoon siesta) or for no apparent reason
 – Gas stations whose only payment option is feeding bills into a machine that does not give change, so if you happen to need to fill your car you need to keep putting 20 euro notes in and seeing how far you get
  – Gas stations where the only exit option is to take a right turn which will take you off the island you’re on and back to the mainland several kilometers away.
But eventually arriving in Venice, leaving the car behind, and hopping on the vaporetto (water bus) into the city proper was magical.  Our apartment is right in the middle of things, but in a quiet alley so street noise doesn’t keep us up.  We took a stroll around the city, found a produce market and a bread seller, and made ourselves a very nice pasta dinner with lemon garlic sauce.  It was Saturday night, and the city was hopping.  Bob and I threw open all the windows and listened to laughter and accordion music drifting up from the streets below before going to bed.
From Bob:
Grandma has commented to us that people are going to think we’re millionaires because of our Italian trip.  We are doing several things to make things not so expensive – our accommodations, while awesome, are not particularly dear.  Split between two families, the villa was very reasonable, particularly since this is the off season.  In a few months, it would have cost twice as much as it did. 
Dinner prep was a group effort.  Except for Bob who
fell asleep.  But he did have the heaviest bags to carry
up to the third floor.
Our place in Venice is really nice.  It has a kitchen, a bedroom, a loft and a pull-out couch.  It’s about as expensive as a hotel room would be, but we’re not all squished up on top of one another.  Also, the kitchen lets us cook some of our meals, which probably saves us some money.  Jen should share in this blog how she came across this place so other people can do the same.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it has something to do with the Internet.  This is a great place to stay – just the right size, and it’s right in the middle of things. 
That being said, this is still an expensive trip.  The prices seem reasonable, and maybe they are, but we have to mentally tack 25 percent on everything because it’s in Euros and not dollars. Also, they keep sticking us with hidden fees – restaurants charge a seating fee (though we’ve stopped tipping, so that evens out a little); there’s a three-percent surcharge on credit card purchases; and who knows how much the banks are charging for ATM withdrawals.  It’s really tough on us tightwads.  Today we found that the car rental company wanted us to leave our car in a parking garage and that we have to pay the night’s parking because they won’t come get the car until tomorrow. 
The shop windows in Venice were VERY enticing.  On our
second day I gave in to temptation and bought us a
selection of desserts from the bakery above.

Then again, the car was pretty good.  I got my Charles Reid vibe going while driving around the A4.  Plus it was a diesel.  We started with 18 kilometers on the odometer and put on more than 1,000 km over our travels from Rome to Venice.  Many were tough miles, too, up and down the twisty roads of Tuscany.  I still can believe we returned it without a scratch.  It even rained today during the drive, washing off all the dust from the villa’s driveway.  And yet there was no appreciative Europcar official to hand the keys off to.  That was a little disappointing.  I’ll just have to imagine them appreciating my diving tomorrow morning.
But, yeah, this place is pretty expensive – particularly Rome and Venice — and, Grandma has a point.  Even though I’m saving the family lots of money by not ordering my own gelato and simply sampling everyone else’s   Seriously.  We get gelato a lot, and at two to four Euro a pop, it starts to add up.)  The thought is that we won’t be coming back to Italy any time soon, so the expense is more like a novelty than a lifestyle direction. 
If we were to come back, though, I wouldn’t mind coming here to Venice.  The combination of car-less streets and viable public transportation over water give this city an otherworldly feel.  The varied, mostly-ancient and slightly decaying architecture helps this, but it’s the car-lessness that really does it.  Grammy and Grampy are in Hilton Head this week and they like to talk about car-free streets down there, but everyone drives around on golf carts, which is hardly any better.  Half the cars in Rome are smaller than a golf cart, and still they make a commotion when they turn down one of the small side streets where people are walking.  No golf carts here.  No Segways.  The Brookses couldn’t even bring their bikes into Venice.  They had to stay on Lido, which is an entirely different island. 

Most of the commercial transportation here takes place by boat.  Jen says if we look closely we may see brown and yellow UPS boats zipping around.  Already I’ve seen water ambulances and fire boats.  On the streets, large boxes are hauled by hand dolly.  Men wheel them around calling out “Attenti!” to get pedestrians to move out of the way.  It’s odd to think that every trinket and every expensive watch and every suit and every piece of women’s underwear on display in all the stores here had to be carried in by hand.   Not to mention all the pizza.

Lanie’s contribution to the blog

Lanie’s artwork of Venice.

The winged lion and book
The clock (with ringer statues) in the
Piazza San Marco
…and here’s the photo version.

And of course the gelato stand.  She can tell you what each of these
flavors are.