Big City Tales

Venice: Veni, vidi, vici

August 9, 2013
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Image of Grand Canal in Venice

Vessels of all shapes and sizes navigate the choppy waters of Venice’s Grand Canal.

When travelling in Italy it is hard not to harken back to the glory days of the Roman Empire and the many conquests of its illustrious leaders.  Chief among the lost list of conquerors is Julius Caesar, whose epic battles at home and abroad contributed to the demise of the former corrupt republic and the establishment of a new noble state.

During his reign, Caesar was known for famously crossing the Rhine and the English Channel as part of his expansion efforts, and for coining the phrase “Veni, vidi, vici” following his triumph in Britain.  Given Caesar’s connection to the water, his immortal words are a fitting reference to how it feels as a tourist coming to Venice for the first time.

Being surrounded by water and an abundance of narrow, winding channels can be unnerving, but once your bearings are straight navigating this unique terrain is a breeze, and you’ll find yourself feeling like the mighty ruler himself. Yes, when it comes to visiting Venice, it is entirely possible to say: “I came, I saw, I conquered!”

The Grand Canal

A good place to start your conquest of this ancient marine city is on the Grand Canal where traditional gondolas can be found side-by-side with modern water taxis (vaporettis) and luxury yachts. Whatever your preferred mode of transportation, you’ll definitely need your sea legs to be in shape to get around Venice. The charm of a crooning gondolier will appeal to couples out for a romantic tour of the Venice lagoon waterways; while the speed and efficiency of vaporetti operators will attract those wanting to get from point A to B in short order.

Image of gondolas in Venice

When in Venice, do as the tourists do: take a traditional gondola ride!

The Rialto Bridge

As the most photographed bridge in Venice, the Rialto Bridge has the added distinction of once being the only way to cross the Grand Canal on foot. As beautiful as it is functional, the bridge owes its unique design to architect Anthony da Ponte who constructed a higher than usual arch to allow passage of galley ships common in the 16th century. Other notable features include three walkways, a decorative portico, and merchant shops on both sides.

Image of Rialto Bridge

Opened in 1591, the Rialto Bridge is a busy crossing point between the San Marco and San Polo districts.

St. Mark’s Square / Bell Tower

Anchoring one end of the Venice promenade, St. Mark’s Square is home to the Bell Tower, St. Mark’s Basilica, and the Doge’s Palace among other must-see sights. The large open square provides ample space for outdoor concerts, as well as milling about with the plethora of pigeons who happily make their home here. Stylized street lanterns highlight the master skills of local glass-blowers, who demonstrate their craft and sell their wares nearby, but the main attractions in the square are the opulently designed/decorated basilica and palace that are as equally beautiful on the inside as they are from the outside.

Image of the bell tower in St. Mark's Square

The bell tower in St. Mark’s Square is one of Venice’s most recognized and visited landmarks.

Detail of column in St. Mark's Square

One of the decorative columns in St. Mark`s Square that serve as the gateway to Venice.

The Promenade

Known as the Riva degli Schiavoni, the world-renowned promenade along the Venice waterfront starts at the Doge’s Palace and stretches to the Arsenal, Venice’s ancient shipyard area. The area is typically full of tourists eager to shop, eat, and soak up the Italian sun, which on a summer’s day may see temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius. The promenade is thus the ultimate hot-spot in Venice in more ways than one, and it’s not uncommon to see luxury yachts of the rich and famous anchored along its pier.

For those who prefer a little history and culture over a bunch of tourist traps, the Vittorio Emmanuele II monument and La Pieta church will satisfy your cravings. The former pays homage to the first king of Italy; while the latter was the home parish of Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, who composed and performed many of his early Baroque pieces here.

Detail of Vittorio Emmanuele II monument

Detail of Vittorio Emmanuele II monument located at the centre of the Venice promenade.

The Arsenal

Established in the 12th century, the Arsenal quickly rose to prominence as one of the most unique and efficient ship-building facilities in the world. At its peak in the 1500s, the facility employed up to 16,000 skilled workers who could turn out a ship’s galley in less than 24 hours, a remarkable feat that was due in part to a production line technique that was far ahead of its time.

Nowadays, the Arsenal is not accessible to the public but the main entrance gate can still be admired, and is a worth a trip to do just that!  Considered to be Venice’s first Classical Revival structure, the gate was built in 1460 and its ornate façade ultimately provided the inspiration for other buildings under construction at the time to take on similar stylistic elements.

Image of the Arsenal in Venice

The Arsenal was once the world’s largest shipyard.

With its numerous winding canals, charming gondoliers, and jaw-dropping gorgeous architecture, it’s easy to be inspired by all that Venice has to offer and it truly is a place to come, see and conquer!

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Feast Your Eyes on Florence

July 22, 2013
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Image of David statue in Piazzale Michelangelo

The statue of David in thoughtful repose agrees that the Piazzale Michelangelo offers the best views of Florence, Italy.

Nestled high in the Tuscan hills, the city of Florence offers up one idyllic scene after another.  Be it the incredibly detailed and delicate exterior of the massive Duomo di Firenze (Florence Cathedral), the grandeur of the larger-than-life statue of David in the Galleria dell’Accademia, or the breath-taking panoramic view of the city from the Piazzale Michelangelo, there is plenty to feast your eyes on in Florence.

An Artist’s Haven

Despite the fact Florence may not be Italy’s largest or most famous city, at the peak of its development during the Renaissance the city was a mecca for the great artists of the day who served as patrons of the powerful Medici family.  Eager to demonstrate and show-off their incredible wealth, the Medici spared no expense in commissioning a series of buildings, public landmarks, and works of art that remain to this day amongst the most splendid examples of Italian craftsmanship.

Detail of Duomo dome

Detail of Brunelleschi’s massive dome that crowns the Florence Cathedral.

The Duomo and David

The handiwork of two famous Italian artists, Brunelleschi and Michelangelo, is on display throughout Florence; the most famous of the former being the Duomo dome,  the latter being the David statue.

Mammoth structures in terms of size and artistic impact, the dome and statue dominate their respective landscapes and are amongst the most visited city attractions. While the dome is fully accessible and photographable (you can even climb to the top and take a walk around the exterior), the statue of David is less so with it being housed in a museum meaning that viewing hours are restricted and pictures are prohibited in order to safeguard the integrity of the marble. That said, two replicas of the statue are located in outdoor venues (one in Piazzale Michelangelo, one in Piazza della Signoria) and provide plenty of photo opportunities to capture the splendor of Michelangelo’s sculptural masterpiece.

Detail of David statue in Piazza della Signoria

Detail of Michelangelo’s statue of David in the Piazza della Signoria.

A Sculptural Garden

Along with the replica of the David statue, the Piazza della Signoria features the Neptune Fountain, which symbolizes Florence’s status as a naval power in the mid-to- late 1500s; an equestrian statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici, who is proudly shown on his mount making a triumphant return to the city as its ruling power in 1537; and an imposing statue of Hercules, the mythical hero who is thought to have filled in the swampland Florence was founded upon.

The piazza is also in close proximity to two buildings of historical significance: The Uffizi Gallery that houses the most extensive collection of Italian Renaissance art, and the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) that has served as city hall since the 1300s.

Statue of Cosimo I de' Medici

A triumphant Cosimo I de’ Medici stands proudly in the Piazza della Signoria.

A Famous Burial Ground

Not far from the Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio, the Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross) is noteworthy as being the largest Franciscan church in the world and the final resting place for some of Italy’s most famous citizens, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and Rossini. Given the celebrated status of the dearly departed buried here, the building is also referred to as the Temple of the Italian Glories.

Image of Santa Croce in Florence, Italy

The Santa Croce is the burial place of some famous Italians (e.g. Michelangelo and Galileo), earning it the moniker: Temple of the Italian Glories.

A Bridge Like None Other

Crossing the Arno River, the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is the oldest bridge in Florence and has the unique distinction of having houses/shops built into its design and a pedestrian walkway (the Vasari Corridor) that runs over the tops of the shops. Since the 16th century, the bridge has been the home of goldsmiths and jewellers catering to a wide range of clientele. The Vasari Corridor bustles from dawn ’til dusk with tourists enjoying a myriad of entertainers and some of the prettiest views of the river.

Image of Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio is a bridge like none other…shops on the inside and a walkway over its top.

View From the Top

While the Piazza della Signoria is the heart of old Florence, the Piazzale Michelangelo is the city’s prime viewing location where one of the Michelangelo’s replicas of David enjoys an incredible view from the top for all eternity.

Perched high above the city, David overlooks the Arno River with its series of beautiful bridges, and the mass expanse of the city lying just across the river banks. From this vantage point, the Duomo di Firenze, the Palazzo Vecchio, and other historical sites take on a new perspective revealing the full breadth and glory of these ancient, awe-inspiring structures.

Florence is truly a city of fabulous views and if you’re looking for a place to tantalize your eyes, look no further.

View of the Duomo Cathedral from Piazzale Michelangelo

View of the expansive Florence Cathedral from Piazzale Michelangelo.


When in Rome…

December 29, 2011
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A guardian angel welcomes travellers to her fair city of Rome.

…do as the Romans do, or so the saying goes!

The famous Swiss Guards watch over Vatican City.

Thus, on a hot and humid Saturday afternoon, that means hitting the streets and roaming about with the masses.  Along the way, be prepared to stop and gawk at an impressive array of spectacular Roman ruins and to part with some Euros as you indulge in gelato not once, not twice, but three times (did I mention it was hot, and did I mention it was Rome?); as you partake of the most basic, but oh so delicious slice of pizza imaginable; and, as you shop in the discount designer stores and bargain with gypsy vendors along the street – both resulted in purchases of little black dresses, what more could a girl want?

Yes, Rome has a lot to offer and exploring it on foot revealed one historical masterpiece and visual delight after another.

If you toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain legend has it that you will one day return to Rome!

The cascading water in the Trevi Fountain can be heard for blocks, but when you’re traipsing through narrow side streets it’s not immediately apparent where the noise is emanating from until you round a corner and it suddenly appears out of nowhere in all its grandeur and gurgling glory.  Truly, this is one of the most gorgeous fountains to be found anywhere in the world and is a definite must-see that will undoubtedly produce a few more than fine Kodak moments.

The Pope's window where he delivers public blessings from on Sundays.

Photo opps certainly abound in Rome and here are some other highlights to whet your appetite for all this city offers up to feast on:
The Vatican Museum – Smack dab in the centre of Rome lies Vatican City and the elaborate and well-kept museum that pays homage to the current and past Catholic pontiffs.  The luxurious interior with its tapestry-lined walls and painted ceilings is not to be outdone by the luscious exterior that provides a great view of the Pope’s garden and the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.
St. Peter’s Basilica/Square – Michelangelo’s Pieta is the star work of art on the inside, but there are several other impressive statues in the aisles leading up to the exquisitely carved altar, and there are Latin phrases gilded in bronze and placed high along the walls just in case you needed something more to stimulate your eyes before exiting into the awe and splendor that is St. Peter’s Square.  Designed by Bernini, who also provided the inspiration for interior of the Basilica, the most impressive features of the square are the two colonnades that wrap around four columns deep on both sides, and the numerous full height statues that line the top of the roof.  One saintly figure after another is permanently and proudly on display for believers and sightseers alike to behold.

Exterior shot of the Vatican Museum.

The Colosseum / Arch of Constantine – Home of the gladiators who would ‘fight to the death’ and entertain politicians and the public in equal measure, the elliptical structure of the Colosseum could hold over 50,000 spectators that were spread out in four levels of seating accessible by some 80 entrances.   An earthquake in the 800s AD caused the southern portion to collapse and some of these ruins have been used in other buildings around Rome.

The Colosseum's south side was damaged by an earthquake.

The Arch of Constantine celebrates just one of many Roman war victories over the centuries.

Piazza Navona – This is a large public square/plaza area that boasts some of the finest Italian sculptures, fountains, and eating/shopping establishments.  In the middle of the plaza is the famous Four Rivers fountain /Obelisk and on the northern end is the just as famous Neptune fountain that depicts the god fighting with an octopus.
The Pantheon – Originally constructed as a temple for all Roman gods, this structure is one of the best-preserved in all of Rome and was, in fact, undergoing some sort of restoration when I was there in 2010.  It now serves as a church dedicated to St. Mary and the Martyrs of the Catholic faith.

A small portion of the Pantheon not under restoration.

The dome of St. Peter's Basilica.

The Fountain of Four Rivers in Piazza Navona.

Some of the imperial ruins along the road to the Colosseum.

Ceiling detail at St. Peter's Basilica.

Roof detail at St. Peter's Basilica.

Close-up detail of one of the many sculptures that adorn the Trevi Fountain.


Voila la ville de Paris…C’etait tres magnifique!

December 27, 2011
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The Louvre Museum attracts crowds from morning `til night--on the inside and the outside!

As I was lying on the floor of the Louvre Museum just outside of the Mona Lisa viewing room it occurred to me that being attended to by an ultra-friendly and very helpful American doctor who was trying to get my blood pressure under control was not in the least how I envisioned this tour going!

The famous Venus de Milo statue is just as beloved as the Mona Lisa painting in the Louvre Museum.

With hundreds of museum visitor eyes staring down at me and frantic museum staff trying to push aside said American doctor and ascertain for themselves what was wrong, I felt like I had become the latest work of art on display, but I wasn`t really interested in being viewed.  In an attempt to maintain some semblance of dignity, I tried to ignore the gathering crowd and instead focus my energy on listening to the kind doctor`s words of instruction so that I could quickly regain my feet and rejoin my tour group.  Mortified as I was, my sense of humour did not leave me and I managed to quip that the Mona Lisa simply took my breath away and at least all of this fuss would make for an interesting story after the fact, and it has!

For those inquiring minds who want to know why I had a dizzy spell in the middle of the Louvre, it was due to a few factors that included being jostled about in the mob mayhem trying to get a picture of Madame Mona Lisa in a tightly packed and very warm room, having to stay in this steam-cooker environment to listen to explanations of other Italian masterpiece paintings as part of the tour, and just the mere fact of my immune system adjusting to being on foreign soil.  The whole incident was over just as quickly as it started for which I was grateful as there was so much more to see in this massive museum, and I had yet to explore the exterior gardens and the other gems of Paris that awaited along the Champs-Elysees.

Youthful, lithe and enticing, The Sun King, Louis XIV, graces the exterior of the Louvre Museum.

While the hysteria and antics at the Louvre have provided some of my Paris story fodder, there were other noteworthy occurrences to speak of such as the two faces of Paris that were revealed on a gloomy morning of wind and rain that turned into a glorious afternoon and evening of hot summer sun.

The contemporary and controversial glass pyramid outside the Louvre Museum.

The Eiffel Tower was first-up on the morning agenda so it didn`t make for great picture-taking from the loftiest height in Paris, but nonetheless the great beauty and sheer expanse of the city was evident in walking the perimeter of the tower`s viewing balconies.

Some of the famous bridges of Paris as seen from the Eiffel Tower looking to the west.

La Grande Roue (Ferris Wheel), Paris.

The Louvre Museum tour followed and, although it was starting to clear by the time the tour ended, the sky was still gray as we exited into the Tuileries Gardens and began the march toward the Champs-Elysees passing the Luxor Obelisk, the Pont Alexandre III, and the National Assembly toward the Arc de Triomphe.

L`Arc de Triomphe.

Close-up of carved relief on the Arc de Triomphe.

It was after a light bistro lunch that the sun finally revealed its warmth and the true colours of Paris were revealed.   There is nothing like a vivid blue, cloudless backdrop of sky to bring stark and stoic buildings to life and provide plenty of photographic inspiration.  My feet may have already been aching after making the trek from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe, but Notre Dame Cathedral was beckoning and, feeling well-fueled and no longer light-headed, how could I not return to the sites of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower to capture these Paris lovelies now bathed in sunlight, so off I went back down the Champs-Elysees.  I admit to hopping a cab between Notre Dame and the Louvre because it was now early evening at this point and the sun was starting to descend in the sky; other than that it was all hoofing it on foot and, yes, I paid the price the next day, but it was oh so worth it to see gay Paris in all its glittering and magnificent glory!

The Eiffel Tower.

Steel detail from the Eiffel Tower.

Notre Dame Cathedral.

Stained-glass window interior shot of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Roof-top detail of the Louvre Museum.

The Coronation of Josephine, David`s masterpiece on display at the Louvre Museum.


Minding the Gap in Jolly Ol’ London Town

December 23, 2011
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Even from afar Buckingham Palace has a majestic and royal presence fit for a reigning Queen.

I love London!

OK, so I only had two days to explore this great dame of a city, AND most of it was confined to the luscious and lively west end district, AND it happened to be during the midst of a summer heat wave meaning there wasn’t a single drop of rain to dampen the mood of my visit, but I nonetheless stand firm in my conviction…I love London and here are just a few reasons why:

The British House of Parliament on the Thames River.

The Tube – “Mind the Gap,” you say? “Thank-you, I think I will!”  And with that final piece of advice spoken in unmistakably crisp and clear British diction, my first ride on London’s infamous “Tube” set forth and I was hooked from there.  This amazing feat of British engineering is a labyrinth of long and deep subway tunnels and pedestrian passages that serves locals and tourists well.  Just when you think you can’t possibly go any further toward the centre of the earth’s core, down you go again on another impossibly steep escalator (yes, this is not for the faint of heart or anyone prone to light-headedness!) in search of your platform.  The trains run frequently and overhead digital signs and regular speaker announcements keep passengers well-informed of subway traffic.  The signage and detailed maps also do a great job of getting any wayward travellers back on track!  The Tube is definitely one of the most user-friendly and delightfully polite and pleasant underground systems that I have been on.

Don't be fooled by the cold exterior of this stone gate/archway...a pleasant, pretty and picture-worthy park awaits on the other side!

St. James Park – There’s nothing like spending time in a great green space on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon and that is exactly what jolly ol’ London town served up for the lollygangers and intrepid tourists alike enjoying a stroll about this lovely landmark.   With government buildings/courtyards on one end and Buckingham Palace on the other, there is a lot to take in as you make your way down the wide and scenic pathways.  The ‘Changing of the Guard’ ceremony draws a large and boisterous crowd at the palace, but the park is quiet in other areas for those who just want to sit in repose and soak up the aura of history and nature’s beauty that is all around.

Soaking up the Saturday sun in St. James Park.

Big Ben looms large in all its glory!

Big Ben / House of Parliament Building– Disraeli, Chamberlain, Churchill, Thatcher, Major, Blair…the list of stalwart and strong British Prime Ministers that have graced the parliamentary halls and meandered the streets and alleyways in the government district is impressive indeed!   The House of Parliament stands tall and proud along the Thames River and, not far off at Westminster Palace, Big Ben continues to boom its bell/chimes and maintains its status as one of the most recognizable symbols of London.

Freddie Mercury lives on through the musical We Will Rock You.

The West End Theatre District – From the annals of history to the current day craze of pop culture, there is bound to be a play/musical showing in the West End that captures your interest.  We Will Rock You, celebrating the music of Queen, caught my fancy on this trip and seemed very fitting to join in an audience sing-along of this beloved British band’s greatest hits.  The gleaming, gaudy and golden life-size statue of Freddie Mercury outside of the Dominion Theatre also grabbed my attention!

When good old Queen Victoria was the queen...

Queen Victoria Monument – Drawing inspiration from multiple artistic mediums and materials, the Queen Victoria monument offers much to please the eye at every level that it is observed from.   From the golden glint of the guardian angel perched precariously on one foot at the top, to the stoic, silent and solid stone carving of Queen Victoria herself in the middle, to the glorious green marble guards and lions who sit at the base as the first line of protectors, it is a sight to behold and a worthy tribute to this mighty monarch who ruled for over 60 years in an era of tremendous growth for the British Empire.

Piccadilly Circus / The National Gallery / The Tower of London and so much more – Whether you’re mingling with the mobs of people at Piccadilly Circus, or admiring the myriad of marvelous art pieces at the National Gallery, or crossing London Bridge en route to the magical and mysterious Tower of London there is plenty to see and do, even if you only have two days to explore!

Here are a few more pictures of my short, but oh so sweet, stay in jolly ol’ London town…I will be back!

The Red Telephone Box is a familiar sight on the streets of London.

The London Eye offers great views of the city.

No talking, please! Standing on guard at Buckingham Palace.

An ultra-large 'Ship in a Bottle' on display outside of the National Gallery.

A guardian angel watches over the Queen Victoria monument.

Green marble figures surround the base of the magnificent Queen Victoria monument.