Boats, Trains and Automobiles. Part 1: Venezia.

After a full day of work and classes, we made our way to Gare de Bercy to board the Artesia night train to Venice. The train voyage is about 14 hours long and we had 1st class reservations for a private double cabin. I was already very excited on the way to the station but when we entered our cabin, I went positively giddy. Those who know how much of a geek I can be sometimes wouldn’t be at all surprised to find me opening all the compartments, uncovering the sink, running the water, turning over seat cushions to try and find the beds and flipping every switch on and off until I was finally satisfied that I had discovered the function of every element. The cabin was a beautiful, the walls and counters were all light wood trim Formica, the seats were pine green velvet and there was a very nice black and white mural above the seat, which had the look of a woodblock print. The train was also quite luxurious. There was a restaurant car serving a complete dinner, and I mean complete, but for an absurd 30€. There was also a snack and booze bar, from which we procured a reasonably cheap bottle of wine with the last of our cash.

Our room was furnished with 3 beds that folded out from the wall behind the seat, a functioning sink, a cabinet stocked with washing stuff and towels, hangers for coats, luggage racks and really nice reading lights. So we got comfortable, reclining together and staring out of our window into the night and the French countryside with a little wine in hand, some late night snacks, and my copy of the Idiot to read. The train porter came around and collected our passports and tickets to hold for us, then inquired whether we’d like coffee in the morning. When we got tired, it was time to flip down our beds. I of course, impetuous and overzealous as I am, tried to open the second bed first (despite the clearly stated warning printed right below the handle advising me not to) and immediately managed to badly damage the bed. Whoops! After a few attempts at correcting my mistake and trying to open the bottom bed first (as instructed), we gave up and went to find the train porter. The main problem was that the bottom bed’s handle was seemingly jammed, and against all my manly efforts, I couldn’t trip the latch! Of course, the porter gave the handle a good whack and the bed came right down, no problem.

Our train, not all that impressive from the outside let me tell you. This photo was actually taken in Venice, but it fits here better chronologically.

The hallway on the train, all the doors to the left are cabins. The restaurant and bar is just two cars down this way.

Zarita, not interested my photographing every detail of the cabin late in the evening.

So happy together on the way to Venice. Well, at least I was happy.

Zarita very ready for relaxing, while I just had to get a picture of the sink, and forced her to be in it … maybe it was time to put the camera away.

Ok, one more photo, I mean you guys had to see how cool this was. After this train I was totally addicted to trains. I mean, the other trips to Benelux and England were nice, but this was style man.

We had a pretty decent nights sleep, although even with the luxury and comfort of the train, its not the easiest thing to sleep on. Still, a better rest than a plane would ever give you. I did wake up early in the morning when the train came to a stop in Milan. Wow, Milan, Italy. What a trip, I had gone to bed somewhere outside of Dijon and woke up in Milan, on a train to Venice. I was pretty happy and excited, so there wasn’t any more sleep to be had. Much to the dismay of my bunk-buddy, I packed away my bed and sat to watch the ride from Milan to Venice. Surprisingly, it wasn’t all that scenic. I suppose that the train tracks don’t pass through the most posh neighborhoods but still, many of the Italian towns we passed along the way reminded me of Mexico more than Europe. I don’t mean that with any disrespect to either country, since I am quite partial to Mexico and many of the cities I’ve been to there are as comforting as any in Europe. What I guess strikes a resemblance for me is the casual state of disorder. I suppose Italy is still in the process of economic recovery after suffering so hard after WWII.

It was pretty obvious when we were rolling into Venice. The train left the mainland and we passed over water along very long bridge. There were little boats moving to and fro along the bridge. A thick fog had filled the air all morning and now intensified substantially shrouding our destination until we were almost upon it. Then, before we could take it in, we were at the station coming to a stop. An hour late, but no worse for the wear, we stepped off at Venice San Lucia station. Our hotel had contacted me with directions before we left Paris, and made it seem as though it was just a short jaunt from the station. All we were to do was follow a main street straight for a few minutes then make one turn and there we’d be.

Zarita peering into the fog in anticipation.

Venice appears quite literally our of the blue … well I guess the grey.

The absolutely first thing we see upon exiting the station. There was really no explanation at all, just the artists name, the title of the work and list of people responsible for its presentation and some donors. Totally weird. All I can say about it, after so much experience with religious iconography in European museums, is that its Mary and Jesus, post-crucifixion.

I think Venetians take for granted that what they consider to be a straight main street is in fact a convoluted series of winds, forks, bridges and narrow passes. Within 10 minutes (as usual without a map) Zarita and I had wandered way off track. Fortunately, in spite of its absurd layout, Venice isn’t a very big place and with a glance or two at a couple of vendor’s maps (still avoiding an impulse buy) we were back on track. The hotel was in a typical looking rundown building and we had to buzz the front desk to be let in. We forced open the heavy front door and stepped inside the first floor foyer. The place was a dump! Paint and plaster flaked from the walls where it wasn’t already crumbling to bits. The floor tile, once likely ornate and beautiful, was worn like stones on a lakeshore. I noticed how the steps of the stairs, also stone, had deeply worn depressions in them as we climbed to the second floor to the hotel. I began to express my concern to Zarita and assumed total responsibility for the error in judgment when selecting the place.

Then we stepped in through the front door. Wow, judging from the front desk and entry, despite is unimpressive entry, it was quite well kept after all, modern, clean and pleasant. Then, the staff showed us to our room, just 10 feet from the front door. Spectacular! A fifteen to twenty foot ceiling, with windows stretching almost as high. Subtle yellow curtains adorned the windows that opened onto a canal affording a fine view of nearby bridge and square. The floor was marble and a mural on the ceiling gave a classic touch to the room. I think we were impressed to say the least. Unfortunately, the room wasn’t ready so we stepped out for some air, leaving our bags. We explored the immediate area and were pleased to find that the hotel was quite well situated. Very close to the Rialto Bridge shopping are and just a short walk to Piazzo San Marco. We took in the neighborhood, snapped some quick photos and then retreated to the hotel to make plans for the day and take a proper shower.

The Rialto Bridge, one of only 3 that cross the Grand Canal and join the 2 main Islands.

Shopping on the Rialto Bridge.

Zaritchka and me on the Rialto Bridge. A nice man took this after seeing me attempt to myself.

An older and mostly abandoned (not wholly uncommon) stretch of storefronts.

I dunno, I loved this picture. It’s a little grittier than the typical beautiful Venetian scene. It was also one of the few modern things in Venice I saw. I know I know, its just a mailbox.

I thought this photo looked like two separate photos stitched together. In reality, there was an absolutely tiny alley between these two buildings. Typical.

Just an alleyway view of a canal, a dirty disgusting canal, as most of them are.

The view from our room, pretty nice!

Zarita taking a break on the bed. The ceiling was so high, check out the mural on the ceiling, it was an awesome room.

More of our room, and the lovely Zaritchka.

After a refreshing shower, we made plans to start at the Rialto Bridge and cover the area of Venice south of the Rialto and our hotel all the way to Piazzo San Marco, the location of the St. Mark’s Cathedral and perhaps the most famous location in Venice (location of Bond’s hotel room and Vesper’s bank withdrawal at the end of Casino Royal). The Rialto Bridge is one of only 3 bridges in Venice that unites the 2 major islands, which look oddly like two clasped hands (or a big fish eating a little fish, depending on who you ask) and crosses the central water artery, the Grand Canal. Its not that the Grand Canal is all that wide, I just don’t think they’ve built a new thing in Venice in probably 300 years or so and I’m sure bridges were a bit more challenging to erect in the past. Or perhaps that just didn’t need them or don’t care? There are actually a number of islands that compose the city of Venice. Some of these are larger than others and some are easier for non-locals to reach than others. Yet only the main 2, whose names I forget, are linked by bridge. In our 2 days there, I don’t think it would have been practical to spend the effort to reach the others. Most everything we could have liked to see and do was all available on the main 2.

The Rialto Bridge was an impressive sight; it looked a lot more like another building along the Grand Canal than a bridge and in fact housed at least a dozen stores and many vendors. So it made for a nice shopping experience as well as an excellent vantage point for a good view of the city. The street running to and from the bridge was one of the widest we walked in Venice. It was littered with vendors and shops hawking everything from fruit to ties. Mostly though, it was a tourist trap like most of Venice. Shopping in Venice is perhaps the only activity to partake in save for boating and walking. I suppose I’d add eating to that list. Yet, with all the shopping the variety of goods is rather limited. In fact there are really only 2 items available for purchase, glass and papier-mâché masquerade masks. The glass, Murano Glass manufactured on the local island of Murano, is fashioned into everything you can possibly imagine. Ditto for the masks. The quality and subject of the masks varied from place to place ranging from total crap glitter and feathers to breathtaking hand painted fresco looking things. I took to the masks more than the glass. We found a small mask shop on the Rialto Bridge that looked promising. It was run buy a burly bearded fellow who was making the masks by hand as we passed by. The windows of the shop were pasted over with a collage of photos with celebrities and hand written thank you notes from the like of Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg. There was also a newspaper clipping linking this guy with the movie Eyes Wide Shut, which has a pretty creepy masquerade scene in it. I think being linked with that movie would have been enough to get me to buy something, but the stuff he had on display was perhaps some of the most interesting and original we saw while there. So I resolved to get an item. Well, he had something right in my price range that looked awesome. A red devil with an extremely long crooked nose, perfect for a nice Jewish boy like myself!

The store I bought my mask in.

A typical Masquerade Ball costume. They’re so obsessed with this stuff, mostly for Mardi Gras.

After wasting far too much time with glass and masks, Zarita and I made our way through the windy streets towards San Marco, following hand drawn or spray-painted arrows more than our map. Of course, along the way we passed uncountably many mask and glass shops. Somehow, even after all the glass and masks we had seen, we still managed to drag our feet and stop to look at more. Aside from all the little shops, walking through Venice is made harder by the fact that unless you’re on the Grand Canal, or the coast of the Islands, there is absolutely no way to see the horizon, or even a building behind the one right ahead of you. The streets are so narrow, and the buildings just high enough to produce the effect of a labyrinth. It’s a weird feeling because even when you are approaching a major landmark, you don’t know until you’re right upon it. Not unlike the effect the fog had as we entered Venice on the train. So, of course the imposing, impressive grand beauty of Piazzo San Marco is further exaggerated when you come to it from the side streets.

And thusly we stumbled into the square, agape. The Plazza looks like its right out of some renaissance storybook, and of course it is. The Square is filled with pigeons, which depending on your disposition with those winged rats makes it both slightly unpleasant and simultaneously playful and joyous. The main building is a massive several story white horseshoe shaped building that flanks 3 of the 4 sides of the square. The focal point though is the Cathedral. From the outside it lacks the modest glory of Notre Dame and instead shines flamboyantly, built from many colored stones and gilded to the point of gaudiness. Walking inside, the colored stone and gilding becomes overwhelming. The floors are brightly colored stone tiled mosaics of almost Islamic looking knots while the ceiling above is almost fully covered in gold tiles. At several locations on the ceiling, in the sea of gold, colorful mosaics depict epics from the bible from Genesis to the Crucifixion. Still, time and perhaps more importantly the sea has had its toll on San Marco. The floors are badly warped, like a wooden basketball court that has taken on water while the walls appear visibly crooked. Gaudy and time worn as it may be, I somehow was so much more impressed by San Marco, not so much in the fear of God sort of way, more in the great style sort of way. I guess that’s the Italians for you.

Another gritty behind the scenes shot on the way to San Marco.

Zarita sneaking into a private water dock.

Europe is very Catholic. These little Virgin Mary shrines were tucked away all over the place and showed definite signs of worship like candles and flowers.

Zarita in front of the Cathedral of San Marco, get out of the way fat head!

Oops, now I’m in the way.

They had these bare flagpole things in front of the Cathedral. I have no idea what they were about and I don’t think they were actually flagpoles, I just liked the birds flying through them.

This is actually two pictures, one I took and one Zarita took that I stitched together. She wanted to get a picture of the dude in the gondolier suit and I wanted a picture of the gilded top of the building. Voila, together it’s a great picture … and that’s true love!

The arch and a half dome above the entrance to the cathedral. The gilded mosaic scenes are repeated inside (where cameras are not allowed). Here the mosaic is an image of the cathedral itself. Its like infinite images in mirrors, I wonder if there is a mini mosaic cathedral in the mosaic cathedral, and so on.

There were all these kids feeding bird feed to the pigeons and Zarita, who hates pigeons, liked the kids.

Probably the only sepia shot to ever be shown on my blog, Zarita took it.

Zaritchka looking lovely in spite of being surrounded by flying rats.

The setting sun was a stunning deep red in the foggy evening. A view of the building flanking the square that housed the shops and cafes.

Past the Cathedral there was a wide-open path, almost another connected square, that leads to the water. Two massive columns, punctuated by mythical statues, stand tall at both corners where the square meets the water. Together the two columns serve almost as gates to the square. One might imagine that in some capacity or another, San Marco may have well been the entrance to Venice in days by gone. The sun had already fallen low on the horizon and the day was slowly fading to grey but not before passing through an eerie blue dusk that filled the air. All of a sudden, looking south out onto the water, Venice transformed from a romantic and warm place into something more cold and eerie. We took a few minutes to enjoy the remains of the day, gazing out onto the water, the gondolas beating against each other and their berths.

A really pretty, almost middle eastern looking building on the water. There was actually a lot of this type of architecture around Venice.

The dusk made for wonderful silhouettes. Here a statue of someone vanquishing a dragon or sea creature, sits upon a massive column; one of a pair that mark the entrance to St. Marks Square.

Even on this foggy, mid-winter, off season day, near dusk, the square was crowded and bustling with people. Man, I’m actually glad I did Europe in the off-season.

Looking back towards a tower in St. Marks Square, against the soft dusk sky.

The setting sun afire in the Venetian sky.

Taking a little break on the water.

Gondolas beat against their docks.

With the setting sun came a brisk breeze and the cold night. We had been dressed pretty light in the warm day and decided it was a good time to stop back at the hotel to change into something a bit warmer. Actually, it was at this time that I decided to buy the mask from the guy near the Rialto. As with everything I ever do, I had been indecisive earlier and put off the purchase for later in the evening. Well, it was 5:30 and he had said he would close at 6:00. No problem I thought, Venice is so small that as long as we didn’t stop at any more glass shops and made a straight path to the Rialto, we’d make it in no time. I glanced at my map, pointed in the “general” direction of the Bridge and we started walking in the “general” direction. Well of course, a few streets, turns, bridges, dead ends, and passages later we were all turned around and walking in the wrong “general” direction. Moreover it was getting late and now we where short on time. I pulled out the map and we started speed walking (even jogging) through the streets. The key to Venice is either to stroll without care or purpose, or to use the tourist map like it was a Zelda labyrinth map (you know what I’m talking about). Still, there are so many damn streets, all coming out of nowhere or stopping short, that not all of them make it on the map. Conversely, some of the streets on the map either no longer exist, or may had only ever in theory. Still, we got to the mask guy at 6:05 and although he seemed to have left for the day, a light over his desk betrayed him. I waited a few minutes and he came right back to grab a last minute phone call. This distraction and his desire to close up shop worked in my favor. I got the mask 5€ off.

Zarah posing for a quick shot as we dart through the crazy streets of Venice with precious little light left.

After our long day starting with the train and then winding through the crazy Venetian streets, we were good and hungry. We went back to the hotel to change and I took the opportunity to ask the hotel staff for dining recommendations. A very lovely young Italian lady (wink wink, nudge nudge) was very forthcoming and even entertained my clichéd request for something “authentic”. To our utter shock, her recommendation, Osteria Al La Botte, was more authentic than our Italian (a mix of Spanish and bad French) could handle. We were definitely the only non-Italian speaking fools in the place. I was about to say the only English speakers, but that’s false since we did actually make friends with a Venetian couple there that night. To be specific, only the guy was Venetian, the girl was from New Zealand but now married and living in Venice (hence her English skills). She was quite surprised to find us at the Osteria and struck up a conversation to see how we had managed to even find the place, let alone learn of its existence (it was quite well hidden).

The Osteria was in my mind perfectly designed. The first room upon entering was occupied by a very minimal half-circle bar staffed by two young and good looking gentlemen. One half of the bar was open for orders, while the second half was something akin to a deli counter stocked with delicious antipasti ranging from olives to little meatballs to a leg of lamb for the cutting. So, at the bar you could get a glass of house wine for about 2€ and a few snacks to keep you satisfied while you waited for a table in the back dining room. The back room had about 6 tables, seating 4 people each. There was no menu, only a blackboard with quite sloppily handwritten daily specials in Italian. The seating, serving and busing was all handled by one middle-aged woman. Although we had no reservation and there was a rather large party there at the same time, the woman was very nice and made certain we were seated with haste. Of course since she was alone, that still made for a 30-minute wait. No problem, a spritz (the local drink of wine, seltzer and some aperitif) and a few little meatball things kept us happy enough. We had a wonderful meal to end a wonderful day. I, the porcini mushroom linguine and Zarita, a squid farfale dish.

Back in the lobby and stair well of our hotel at night … man it was so creepy.

To be continued (once Zarita passes along some more photos) ...


Boats, Trains and Automobiles. Part 0: Preamble.

For my final week in Europe, which coincided with a weeklong break in Zarita’s classes and her birthday on the 27th, we planned and executed an ambitious tour through France by overnight sleeper train and automobile. We took an overnight train from Paris to Venice on Thursday night, spent Friday night in Venice and then took another overnight train back Saturday night, but this time disembarking in Dijon France. From Dijon, we rented a car and drove all day Monday to Strasbourg France, passing though the Alsace wine country. Finally on Tuesday, Zaritchka’s birthday, we drove back to Paris just in time to get totally smashed in celebration of the 21st and most legal annual celebration of her birth. Obviously, there’s a lot to share so I think this time, I’m going to break the story up into 2 parts.


Of Comics and Cubists

Continuing our commitment to experience art and culture in Paris, we made two more exhibit/museum visits this week; the Herge exhibit at the Pompidou and the Picasso Museum. Herge was the dude who penned Tin Tin (pronounced Tawn Tawn in French), perhaps the most famous French cultural export after Merlot. Picasso on the other hand is the dude who pretty much defined art this century. Well, I’m sure I’d get my head bitten off if I said that to anyone who actually knows anything about art, but as a novice I feel confident that a significant fraction of art I see these days looks like derivative Picasso.

I hadn’t actually been inside the Pompidou, so I was pretty interested in the Herge exhibit both on its own merit and as an excuse to walk into the center. Turned out the Centre Pompidou is best seen from the outside. Unfortunately, having essentially zero French comprehension and only vaguely recalling some Tin Tin HBO series I watched over a summer years ago, the exhibit was a bit underwhelming, especially after the 30 minute wait in line. Still, I don’t intend to denigrate the show, Herge’s cartoon style is definitely classic and even though I have had so little exposure to the comic, I still managed to identify most of the characters and enjoy seeing them up on the wall. Also, I think our totally pathetic French language skills had some positive impact in that we were left to view the panels on their artistic merit alone. Even more, lacking the narrative, we were forced to invent our own to connect the sequences of images, which is arguably more fun.

This picture was awesome, that guy stared right at me, I thought he might ask me to delete the picture.

Tin Tin wasn’t apparently very into math.

Bush’s plan for future NASA moon exploration and settlement.

The Picasso museum was yet another shining example of how great European museums really are. The building was completely unassuming from outside, and actually quite easy to walk right by if you didn’t have a map. Yet once inside its courtyard entry, first impressions melted away. The museum is in a building that at one time frequently served as an exhibition space for Picasso’s work and now it does so permanently and exclusively. Picasso spent most of his productive career in Paris, shunning Spain during a time of great political and social unrest. So, the French revel in taking credit for his artistic accomplishments.

What makes Picasso such a special and important artist isn’t any particular work, style or school, but rather the diversity and extent of his life’s work. Picasso was actually initially schooled in very classic forms of painting, but quickly strayed and explored methods and styles that were often considered groundbreaking or controversial. Throughout his career he went through many periods of experimenting with color, shape, texture, and subject. He was also an accomplished sculptor in addition to painter. The museum does an excellent job of assembling a collection that is representative of his many periods of experimentation with both painting and sculpture.

As I mentioned in my Rodin post a while back, I have been quite intimately acquainted with Picasso since childhood. My parents hung several pieces of his work in our house, in particular the famous sketch of the hands clutching a flower bouquet. I’ve actually always been most frond of his line drawing sketches, in particular the Don Quixote I have hanging in my own room. I didn’t see too much of that work on display, but that was probably for the best as I got to experience things I was less familiar with. I think my favorite works on display were a sculpture of a goat and a series of collage like paintings. Anyway, I tried my best to capture the museum and the works on display in interesting ways, so I hope you enjoy.

I wanted to take this little guy home with me!

Detail of a sculpture of a girl skipping rope. Its so Saturday morning cartoonish.

Much of the museum is in the basement, which feels like you’re descending into a wine cellar or something. It actually makes for what I thought was a very intimate experience. That’s Zarita and her friend Rocks.


I belive that piece is called the Acrobat and I thought the ceiling of the cellar made it look like it was under a big-top tent.

Its not the greatest picture, and I couldn’t quite get it right, but I liked the play between the curves in the painting and the straight edges of the frame, wall and ceiling surrounding it.

Zarita, admiring the art, while I admired her.

The sculpture garden, awesome.

A totally creepy nanny with child sculpture.

The main staircase. The building was incredibly beautiful and classic looking.

I took this sitting on a bench staring at the floor and for just a second I imagined this scene of the people standing at the edge of a cliff with an endless drop into a thick white fog. The only thing keeping them safe was an ankle high fence that you might just trip right over. I think if you squint you’re eyes and stare at this picture you can see it too.

Zarita in front of the coolest collage ever. I wanna make science collages.

I saw the picture of the woman who modeled for this sculpture at the museum. She really looked just like that, I mean just not absurd, but like that.