Naomi's Italian Diary
Summer 1991

The following pages are excerpts from a very detailed diary which I kept on a year-long trip around Europe and Asia, on my way to take up a new job in Japan. I will continue to add to these pages until I have included the best journals and photographs from my journey.

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Part 1: Venice and San Gimignano

Links on these pages lead to additional photographs!

28 June -- Arrive in Venice early in the morning on the overnight train from Vienna, but the line to change money was so long. We had to change money before we could even call the youth hostel or any hotels. So we just decided to get back on the train and head for Padova (about 15 minutes by train). We changed money quickly and rang the hostel, checked in and were back in Venice by 1 PM. It looked like the pictures. Unfortunately it was only half-exciting to be there. Maybe I was tired or had just seen so many places in the last two months that I had been dreaming about my whole life that I just could not get completely excited about finally being in Venice. I knew this and the realization the Venice just did not give me the thrill I had expected was disappointing and disconcerting. I have found that there is nothing hard or mysterious about travelling. Anyone can do it; it's what you get out of it that counts. Maybe that is what Mark Twain was trying to get across in The Innocents Abroad. Here were a bunch of people, seeing all of the great places of the world, but what did they gain from it? I hope I'm getting more than they are.

Anyway, back to Venezia. We basically wandered around all afternoon and got a good feel for the place. We tried the #1 traghetto (ferry) which goes the whole length of the Grand Canal out towards the Lido. It was great. The sun was shining, the houses looked great and to top it all off, we got to see the carabinieri (military police) arrest some guys on another boat. The carabinieri had about five guys on each of several boats and they all had these submachine guns (uzis?). Very interesting first meeting with these police who are everywhere in Italy. Venezia looked a lot like all of the pictures I had seen, but it was great the be there. Wandering around the little streets was very interesting. There seems to be one main road that goes from San Marco (the church in the main piazza) to the Rialto bridge to the train station and the many smaller streets off that.

The small streets tended to dead end at either a small piazza or a small canal. Lots of little canals and small bridges with great views and laundry hanging out from people's windows. Lots of small shops that close up tightly so when they are closed you have no idea that there is a shop at all; it just looks like a closed door. Everything seems to shut down at lunch time from about 12 or 1 PM until 3:30 or so. It is a little inconvenient since that is a good time to shop -- it's too hot to be walking around town. Lots of really touristy places along the Rialto bridge make it a really disappointing place. Jewelry, cheap clothes and fruit stands litter the general vicinity. There are many nice shops, too, though very expensive. The best part was wandering down the smaller streets which were in general quite deserted and peaceful. The main street had tourists and tourist shops, but at least when I was there it did not seem mobbed by tourists. There were loads of people in the main square, but none on the little back streets, so we could soak up a little Venetian atmosphere. I am really starting to like this place!

29 June -- Padova and Venice: Head back out to Venezia from hostel in Padova [about 15 minutes by train] to actually do something today. Start with the Accademia gallery. Saw some great medieval pictures and then Venetian Renaissance. It was quite a small museum and they have a limit of something like 180 people it at a time. There were 210 when we arrived so we had to wait for 32 people to leave before they would let us in. I went alone afterwards to a villa called Ca' Rezzonico [Ca is short for casa] which was typical of the 18th century villas with lots of ceiling paintings, Venetian chandeliers (Burano glass, made on one of the other islands in Venice) and original furniture and wallpaper or wall paintings. There were some portraits by the local portrait painters. Unfortunately, the best villa, Ca'd'Oro, was closed for restoration. Went into the Doge's Palace but I wasn't dressed properly for San Marco's cathedral (no shorts or bare arms allowed). Next time, I guess. Doge's Palace was amazingly lush and lavish, gold, great carvings, fantastic paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, and all the Venetian biggies. They wouldn't let you take photos inside but I snapped one of the Bridge of Sighs looking out to one of the smaller islands and I hope it came out because it was the last one on the roll. Then the stupid camera started rewinding automatically and I was afraid a guard would hear it and I would get in trouble. I had to turn the thing off to get it to stop rewinding and then I was afraid that it wouldn't start again later. Luckily it did.

It was raining and I decided not to climb up the Campanile, the extremely tall belltower overlooking Piazza San Marco. The view just was not worth the effort or the expense. I decided to go to San Gimignano on Sunday rather than Monday, in order to have more time there before heading to Siena for the Palio, and it was so difficult to drag myself away from Venezia. I really wanted to spend more time there. It was beautiful, but up close many houses were quite old and falling apart. Maintenance seems to be unknown here. I know that the city is hundreds of years old, but I could not help thinking that it wasn't going to last much longer without some serious repairs! After two days in Venezia and Padova I had a really good feeling about Italy, but I'm not sure why. The people in the shops and restaurants seem very nice and friendly. I was really glad because I had been dreading coming to Italy for some reason. I thought that it would be hard to travel here and that I would get a lot of hassles. I thought that it would be inefficient and run down and that the people would not be nice. After the Northern part of Europe where traveling is so easy and predictable, I was thinking that I may not even want to go to Italy, but after only two days in Italy, I started to relax and enjoy it. One disappointing thing about Venice -- I never did get to ride in a gondola!

30 June -- Venice to San Gimignano: Head out for San Gimignano by train via Firenze and Poggibonsi. I love that name. It just rolls off your tongue. Po-gi-bon-si. My kinda place. I met a girl in the station who is also going to SG so we waited together for the bus for about an hour or so. A man helped us figure out the schedule and where to buy tickets. [Apparently in Italy you are supposed to buy the bus tickets before you get on, usually from a tobacco or newspaper shop. Sometimes you can actually buy the tickets on the bus, but it is pretty rare.] We waited in a little cafe near the bus stop and had some gelato. You can't actually get to SG except by bus since it's on the top of a little hill. It was only about 20 minutes on the bus. It was a very nice ride and you can see SG from a distance, lots of towers jutting up into the sky. I got the feeling that this is a place sort of stopped in time; very old and not changing anymore, just stuck sometime back in history. I wish that I could have taken a photo from the bus, but it could never have captured the feeling that I had when I first saw it.

The town itself is enclosed by a wall, with just a few houses, shops, streets, and a small piazza that have spread beyond the original boundary. We ended up hiking all around the outside instead of cutting through the middle, but in the end we found the youth hostel. It is a small town so the hostel was in a good location. You re ally can't have a bad location in a town this small. We entered through the wall of the city, just behind the hostel and checked in. When I went for a walk around the town later it was amazing. The first sensation is of the color. The whole town is al most one color. A deep brown color that I would later learn to associate with Toscana (Tuscany). I suppose that it is because the bricks used to build the city take on the color of the earth, so each town has its own distinct color. In San Gimignano, the streets were narrow and the buildings tall, three stories or more. I got the feeling of being closed in on three sides, but with a very high, airy feeling above. It felt safe. There was not a feeling of claustrophobia that you might expect from such closely-packed buildings. All the houses were attached in one long block except where the streets intersected. There were very few cars in the town and none in the center. They are only allowed on the residential streets by the residents.

I walked around at sunset to get some photos, but could not find any place that could really capture the essence of this town. I walked past an old man who asked me a few questions after he saw my tripod. I wished I could understand more Italian because it wo uld have been fun to talk to him. I ate dinner at a little pizza place and met some Brits who were here for town-twinning event (as they put it). They were morris dancers and step/clog dancers (which I had never heard of, so I took their word for it). We all had a beer and then went back to the hostel.

Continue to Part 2

If you want to learn more about Italy, check out my favourite books on travel and history in Naomi's Bookshel f.

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Photos of Italy: Venice | Siena | Florence | Amalfi Coast | Isle of Capri | Sicilian Islands

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All text and photographs Copyright 1991-2001 (c) Naomi S. Smith