DM and MM's Italy/France 2012 Diary

Day 11 - Piazza and Basilica San Marco

Tuesday, 8 May, 2012

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Three ninja turtles down! After seeing Raphael's tomb in the Pantheon and a letter written by Michelangelo in the Capitoline Museums, today we went into the Genius of Leonardo Museum here in Venice. I was excited when I saw it and we paid the €7 entry fee before thinking too much, but alas it turned out to be kind of a tourist trap, being simply a collection of full scale models of several of Leonardo's inventions. They were all fairly new and mostly built of wood, with some canvas for the wings of the various flying devices. It was actually kind of interesting and it was very hands on in that you could operate roughly half of the machines by turning cranks or pulling levers and so forth, but the place contained nothing of actual Leonardo vintage and wasn't worth €7. There were a few half-hearted replicas of some of Leonardo's notebooks and a tiny gift shop, and that was about it.

Leonardo's tank
A wooden model of Leonardo's tank, Genius of Leonardo Museum


We are back in fairly early after our 19:00 dinner booking.

We slept in this morning, only getting up at about 08:30, then heading down to the breakfast room, where Tony was in the middle of his breakfast. They had a selection including cereals, milk, yoghurt, fruit, cold boiled eggs, sliced meats, bread rolls, croissants, and various condiments. I simply had two bowls of muesli with plain yoghurt, while M. had one with milk, followed by a bread roll with a Nutella-like spread. Tony bid farewell on his planned trip to Lido for today, while we finished our breakfast.

After eating, we set out for Piazza San Marco, taking some back streets until we were forced into more touristy areas by necessity. It was on this walk that we stumbled across the Genius of Leonardo museum, and were suckered into looking inside. Right across the small campo was a more promising looking art gallery, but it had a small queue of people outside and we didn't want to spend too long dawdling. We did peek into the church nearby though, looking at a few paintings and intricate decorations.

The Gondolier
Crossing the Grand Canal on a traghetto

We crossed the Grand Canal on a traghetto instead of at the Ponte di Rialto, since that gave us a more direct route to our first planned stop, which was an art supply shop called Arcobaleno ("rainbow" in English). I'd hoped they would have marker pens, and specifically highlighters there, but the shop turned out to be very old school, in that it didn't even sell paint - it sold powdered pigment in dozens of bright colours, plus steel tins of the various oils and whatnot that are used to mix your own paint! They had brushes and paint spatulas, and some pastels and papers of various sorts. There were charcoal sticks, but the closest thing to normal writing tools were pencils, no pens at all apart from nibs and inks. So I bought a pencil, which had a marbled paper pattern on it, for €2. I saw similar pencils later at other shops for €3, so at least that was a relatively good deal.

Sketching in St Mark's Square
Piazza San Marco, with Basilica San Marco at the far end

From there we made our way to Piazza San Marco, noticing the tourist density increasing all the while. A large fraction of the square near the bell tower is currently being repaved and was fenced off, with advertising signs promoting the America's Cup World Series races, which begin here on Saturday. We also noticed several souvenir yachts in shops linked to the races. We walked around one side of the square in the shaded colonnade until we reached Piazzetta San Marco in front of the Doge's Palace. There, a queue began to enter Basilica San Marco. It was about 30 metres long and in the sun, but after a quick inspection we decided it was moving fast enough to be tolerable.

(completed next day)

Indeed, the wait was only about ten minutes. As we approached the entrance, I noticed a sign that said that backpacks were not allowed inside, and that there was a cloakroom, not nearby, but a hundred metres or so away across the Piazza and down a side alley! Bunches of other people at the entrance were simply dumping their bags in piles outside the Basilica, but I didn't want to do that with my camera bag, so left M. holding our spot in the queue and raced over to check my bag in. By the time I got back, she was just about to enter the Basilica, and I had to push past several other people in the tightly funnelled queue to reach her before she vanished inside.

Basilica San Marco interior
Basilica San Marco interior

Once in, we had the option to go up to the upper floor, for a cost of €5 each. We climbed the steps and paid at the top. This €5 was definitely worth it, as the upper floor held a small museum which contained some very significant pieces, including the original four bronze horses that adorned the top of the Basilica entrance from the 13th century until 1977, when they were removed for restoration work. It was then decided not to replace them exposed to the elements, but rather to preserve them inside and erect replicas on the exterior. The original horses had been looted from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and, according to a guide I overheard explaining them to some other tourists, they were probably originally made around 200 BC. Napoleon absconded with them to Paris in 1797, but they were returned to Venice in 1815.

Four bronze horses
The original Bronze Horses of St Mark, stored inside the Basilica

Besides these, the museum held a collection of some of the original mosaics from inside the Basilica, which had been covered or replaced over time as the interior had been redecorated over the centuries. The museum also gave us access to the outside balcony, overlooking Piazza San Marco - a sweeping view of one of the most iconic places on Earth. The floor of this balcony was very unevenly worn marble, and we had to watch our step to avoid tripping, but it was well worth the effort.

Piazza San Marco
View over Piazza San Marco from the Basilica balcony

Once done upstairs, we returned down to the ground floor for a walk around the main space inside the Basilica. We noted the highly undulating floor, made of ancient, pitted, decaying mosaics of marble of different colours: white, red, green, black, and a few other shades for good measure. The walls and columns were dark, giving the interior a gloomy feeling, different to the usual airiness and lightness aimed for by more modern churches. This was relieved by the shining gold mosaic work on the upper walls and the vaulted ceiling. Tiny tiles covered the whole expanse, most of them gold, interrupted by some coloured tiles to form pictures of various saints and other figures. The overall effect was stunning, and it was difficult tear one's eyes away from the ceiling.

Kingly mosaic
Mosaic in Basilica San Marco

Towards the altar area was a sign indicating that we could only progress into that space by paying €2 each. We had no idea what was hidden back there, but figured it must be good if you had to pay for it, so coughed up. This gave us access to two things: the tomb of St Mark himself, which was a carved stone sarcophagus under a shining gold altar, decorated with fresh calla lilies. This was roped off so we could get no closer than about two metres to it, but as we watched a guard lifted the rope to let an old woman inside, and she genuflected and knelt and prayed in an ecstatic manner and then went right up and bent under the altar and kissed the sarcophagus. At this point another guard came over and started telling off the first one for letting the woman in, and gestured wildly until she came away from the altar again. I guess someone got into trouble there! The second thing our €2 bought was hidden behind St Mark's tomb, facing away from it, towards the very front of the Basilica. What was merely a large wooden screen from the front revealed something altogether more startling when seen from the other side. It was a huge panel of what looked like solid gold, about a metre high and two metres wide, intricately decorated, and relieved by hundreds of small portraits of saints rendered in some coloured medium. It was truly mind boggling.

Golden domes
Ceiling domes of Basilica San Marco

After seeing these two exclusive items, we rejoined the main route through the Basilica, admiring the floor and ceiling mosaics once more before leaving the cool gloom and emerging into the bright white of Piazza San Marco. I recovered my bag from the cloakroom and then we decided to wander in search of some lunch. We only went a short way before being overwhelmed by the abundance of extremely touristy food places offering slices of frankly awful looking pizza. I stopped to consult the Lonely Planet to see if it recommended anything nearby, while M. looked around a few of the nearby shops. She came back excited about something she'd spotted in a sweet shop, but by then I'd found that we were literally right around the corner from Cavatappi, which the Lonely Planet recommended as a welcome relief from the touristy places clustered around Piazza San Marco.

Panini da Cavatappi
Panini at Cavatappi

We turned the corner and found bar stools at a ledge table against the wall inside the establishment. It was indeed an oasis of calm inside this genuine homely Italian deli amidst the chaos of the madding crowds outside. In this improbable respite, we ordered panini, one with tomato, mozzarella, and salad for M., and two for me since I was very hungry, one with prosciutto and one with speck and Brie. These were hand made to order, not merely pulled out of a pre-made display, and toasted, and they were delicious. A cheap and good lunch thus acquired, we headed out again refreshed after making use of their toilet facilities.

The lagoon
Venice lagoon from Piazetta San Marco

The afternoon we spent wending our way over to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, on the point of Dorsoduro across the Grand Canal from Piazza San Marco. The quickest way there was to use another traghetto to avoid the walk back as far as the Ponte dell'Accademia and back out again. This time the guy wielding the oar at the back gestured angrily at me to sit down - I'm not sure why, because the locals all stand up. Maybe I looked too much like a tourist who might fall in.

Santa Maria della Salute
Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute

At the Basilica della Salute, the first thing we did was to look for the ink spots on the wall that I accidentally left there last time we visited in 2001. We weren't exactly sure where to look, but we narrowed it down to a fairly small area. However we didn't see any spots that looked recent or any different to the hundreds of other blotchy ancient stains on the white marble walls. Presumably the ink spots had faded in eleven years until they too resemble the general patina of age on the church exterior. We went inside and reacquainted ourselves with this unusual octagonal church, looking for and finding some of the dozen or so Titian paintings that adorn its interior.

Outside, we decided to recreate one of our favourite photos, taken of us on the steps by the canal in front of the basilica, looking across to San Marco. I pulled it up on the iPad and asked a young American couple near us to see if they would help. I showed them the original photo and explained it was taken in the same spot eleven years ago. They seemed delighted at our story and were keen to help. The woman (the guy said she was the better photographer) lined up and took the photo for us, with him holding my iPad as a reference. The result looks great.

Further contemplation
Recreation of this photo taken in front of Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute exactly 11 years earlier

From della Salute, we walked back west, crossing over to the fondamente looking across to Giudecca. We passed Gelateria Nico, and I stopped to gut a cup of pear, melon, and peach gelato. They were all excellent and made the walk home in the hot sun more bearable. The walk took some time as we zig-zagged amongst the twisty calle, occasionally stopping to poke our nose into a church we stumbled across. At one point I found a cartoleria and we stopped in to buy a highlighter pen, which the guy had plenty of. I picked a small one in orange, for a mere 90 cents.

Artist mixing colours

We got to our hotel a touch after 17:30 and had to quickly shower and change before meeting Tony in the lobby at 18:30 to make our dinner reservation. On the way to dinner we passed a small Coop supermarket and M. and I popped in to buy some apples plus some insect spray for our room and some repellent for when we are out in the evening hours. M. also picked up a couple of small bags of almonds for snacking on while out walking. Tony had to wait a while for us because the queues at the checkouts were a few people deep. But we made our dinner booking at La Zucca on time and got a nice table inside, right next to an open window looking out across a canal at the al fresco tables from Al Ponte Del Megio where we'd eaten last night.

La Zucca
Our window table view at La Zucca

The place was very nice, with a decor decorated by drawings and paintings of pumpkins in various styles, including a few by children as well as some very professional looking ones. The menu looked amazing too, with a mouth watering selection of dishes, mostly built around vegetables, with a small meat section. We started by sharing the pumpkin flan, which came in a large slice topped with shredded cheese and pumpkin seeds, and a pureed vegetable dish topped with olives, tomatoes, and sesame seeds. For main courses, Tony couldn't go past the lamb dish, which came with fried onions and rice, while I chose the chicken with asparagus and rice. M. selected the vegetable sample plate, which had a selection of the various vegetable dishes of the day. It came with seven different vegetable dishes on it: zucchini, pumpkin and potato mash with cheese, borlotti beans, eggplant, ratatouille, artichokes, and barley.

Pumpkin flan
Pumpkin flan at La Zucca

All of the food was really good, and we washed it down with a carafe of the house red. Of course we couldn't neglect dessert, and both Tony and I liked the look of the pear and ginger upside down cake. It was described on the menu as rovesciata, which when I looked it up in my Italian dictionary app translated it only as an "overhead kick" in football. I guessed it was an idiomatic term for an upside down cake, and the waitress confirmed this when I asked. The cake was nice, but not spectacular. Nonetheless, it was a very good meal all up.

After dinner we returned to our hotel, navigating the route through the twisty calle and bridges from memory as a challenge to ourselves. We managed it easily in the end, though I think any one of us individually might have had some trouble, as we all contributed to the decision making at various junctions. After saying good night to Tony, M. and I went off again briefly to the Ponte degli Scalzi to take a couple of night photos with the tripod. It's not the greatest spot in Venice for night photography but it had the virtue of being only two minutes walk from our hotel. We didn't want to stay up too late, and will do more extensive night photography another night.

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