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Day 4: Venice

The Paradise called Venice. The land of Gondolas, Glass and Water. Not necessarily in that order. My first glimpse of Venice was ethereal to say the least. Buildings painted colourfully in red, yellow, green and pink shades against the backdrop of mighty large sheets of water. Large Gondolas standing proud, side by side in the green tinged blue waters. Narrow canals snaking their ways into the streets where normally roads are expected to be. Friendly Gondoliers all wearing uniforms of black pants and black-and-white striped shirts. The gong of the bell from a distant Cathedral. Souvenir shops doting the pier selling the famous Venetian masks that were nothing less than a riot of colours assaulting the senses(my only regret from the entire Europe trip being the fact that I didn’t buy a mask from there as a souvenir 😦 ). Tourists wearing hats and summer dresses thronging the sidewalks and cathedrals. Now that was Venice in a nutshell!!

Once in Venice we first decided to take a walk along the pier, taking in the beauty of place as we walked. The guide showed us a narrow bridge connecting two buildings, one of which was supposed to be the prison and the other, the palace from where the guards kept watch. The bridge was called Bridge of Sighs cuz apparently the lonely sighs of the prisoners kept echoing all over the place. Seems there’s only one person in history who managed to escape from that prison in Venice – our very own charismatic Casanova!!! After walking around quite a bit, I was quite impatient for the Gondola ride – it had been a 23 year old dream!! Finally it happened. Me and P in a Gondola with another Hindi speaking couple. The gondola rocked and swayed as it inched along the recesses of the canal, finding its way into the heart of the city. We passed ornate bridges that crossed the water above our heads, painted old houses which had blooms of cheerful flowers growing out of their windows and cozy little inns and hotels that seemed to directly spring out of the running waters. Wowwww! It seemed like another world I had come to. The world of charm, peace and the quiet gurgle of water beneath your feet. I just sat there dumb, not even wanting to click pictures afraid that the second that took to click the picture, that moment would be lost forever. The Hindi speaking couple with us was trying very hard to pull P into conversation but with the least success. They spoke to him in nonstop rapid hindi for 15 minutes before I intervened to let them know that P doesn’t understand a word of it. Oh! They nodded sadly and kept talking to him in Hindi anyways!!! Poor P, all he could do was fix his face into a plastic smile and keep nodding at regular intervals. 🙂

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Taken from the Gondola during the ride!

Other than the Gondolas, Venice is extremely famous for glass. It is said that in the old age, only Venetians knew the art of blowing glass and the glass blowing factory in Murano was the first of its kind in the world. Glass to be used anywhere for any building in the world had to come from only one place – Murano in Venice. So that was where our next stop was. The Murano Glass Factory.  We saw a wow-some demo of how glass figurines are made out of molten glass. All the guy needed was 5 minutes to make a beautiful glass horse with his bare hands!! After Murano we continued to walk around Venice, roamed about the Cathedral which is another architectural wonder (Sigh!! I’m tired of saying this…), sipped hot latte against the backdrop of gondolas… One word to describe the entire experience  – EXOTIC.

Have you ever had pav-bhajji and channa samosa on a boat, overlooking Venice city, listening to live Italian music being played on an accordion?? I did exactly that on the way back from Venice. What an eccentric combo it was!! Chattering in Hindi, Bengali and Thamizh, pav stuffed in the mouth and dancing to Italian music on a rocking boat in Venice! If ever there is a never-will-be-forgotten moment, here was one  🙂

Three days in Italy were enough to make me fall in love with the country. One thing that made me really love the place was the language. Yup, Italian is a lovely lilting musical language much on the lines of Spanish or French. The Italians love their vowels and sprinkle them all over speech like seasoning over a sweet dish. English looks old and blunt in front of Italian. The plain old airport becomes ‘airporti’, restaurant flourishes into ‘ristorante’, exit changes form as ‘uscita’ and even the simple yes becomes the mellifluous ‘Si’. Simply loved the language! While in Italy, let’s talk about the people too. The Italians are very good looking people and what more they are some of the most stylish people in the world. You can never pass a poorly dressed Italian on the roads. They wear very chic clothes at all times and carry them off with even more élan. The people are friendly and cheerful too but wary at times. There are more reasons than I can count on why i loved Italy – the Art, culture, language, people, history, what not???

Ok Chalo, be good now and say bye to Italy. We are already on the way to another lovely country full of mountains, curves, landscapes and snow – AUSTRIA!! We could see the change in landscape and geography, the stark difference between two countries in sheer demographic terms as we crossed borders from Italy into Austria. If Italy was all mellow, slight ups and downs, hills and ruins, Austria was totally rugged, mountainous and green everywhere. Austria was from where we could first set eyes on the distant snow covered Alps peaks and the excitement, thrill everyone felt was darn infectious. As the coach twisted and turned its way through the mountains into the Austrian heartland, people around went, “hey click that!!!”, “Wow!! Look at this lake!! Isn’t it awesome!!” and you couldn’t agree less. As we entered the more populated towns and villages, we were totally charmed by the colourfully and artistically painted tiled homes with cattle tied at the backyard. We were staying at a small, very picturesque town called Innsbruck and the guide desperately tried to show us some Churches, bridges and some building with a golden roof along the way. But I had eyes only for the scenery and greenery around and if I wanted to see golden roofs I might as well have visited Tirupathi back home!!

Day 5: Swarovski Kristallwelten, Austria

Day 5 started with the travel to the Swarovski factory in Innsbruck. Swarovski, the Mecca of crystals. I knew it would be a magnificent place having seen the pictures and all, but nothing prepared me for the green grandeur that the entrance to Swarovski was! It’s a huge green giant from the mouth of which water spurts out forming a crystal pool of water in front of the entrance to the underground chambers inside which the crystal museum and factory are nestled. It is believed that the giant protects the whole place which contains the most expensive pieces of crystal jewellery ever made in the world. And I thought it was more magnificent to look at, than actually being formidable. Wanted to put a picture of the giant but sadly I got over excited by the place and posed for all the pics taken there so all the photos have my face in the foreground 😐 😐  So here’s a pic of the giant taken from good ol’ internet.

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The Giant at the Swarovski Entrance

Inside the underground there’s a treasure house of crystals. As you enter there is a 11 feet high wall encrusted entirely with crystals making it the most expensive wall in the world. Then there is the largest cut crystal in the world on display along with a crystal decorated replica of our very own Rana Pratap Singh’s horse Chetak!! And once you enter the museum you know you are in the world of glitter, light and beauty at its best. Crystal made art work, paintings encrusted with crystals, underwater replications (there is even a giant octopus made of crystals!!), celestial objects made of crystals, crystals on the walls, floors, chandeliers, wherever you look!! It’s the marvellous world of crystals and nothing else. Words would never do justice to the place. You just have to be there, see that!

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The bejewelled Chetak!!

You can never come out of Swarovski without buying a single crystal (I’ll eat my head if you could!) and I bought a beautiful pearl and crystal necklace for mom as a birthday gift. She loved it and wondered why I hadn’t bought her a matching earring set too!! Mothers!!!

Ok, enough roaming done for the day. Let’s call it quits and drive back to Innsbruck for some dinner and sleep. Our next stop is going to be another utterly delightful place so keep guessing and till then goodbye!!

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Day 3: Pisa, Florence

Before beginning the rewind across day 3 I must tell you how difficult it was for us to spend foreign currency for the first few days. Especially currency that had like approximately 65 times more value than Indian money. Yeah the Euro stood at 67 Rupees whereas the Pound was at a whopping 77. And obviously the first couple of days we were still thinking in terms of Rupees and converting each Euro to Rupee before spending it. P, especially who is more money conscious than I, found the very thought of spending 134 ‘Rupees’ (2 Euros) for a coffee absolutely horrifying. At the coffee shop,

Me: P, Let’s have coffee here. I’m parched.

P: Ok, let’s check out the prices first. (Gives the menu a glance and jumps like a snake just bit him on the toe)

“What??? A Cappuccino costs 134 Rupees??  What do these people think of themselves?? That we tourists mint money and bring gunny bag loads of it??”

Me: Chill man!! It’s only 2 Euros for them!! They can’t help it if it’s 134 Rupees for you, right?

Now P educates and enlightens me on the importance of being money efficient (I call it MISERLY/STINGY) in an ‘alien country’ (as if Italy was in Mars) for the next 15 minutes, at the end of which I lost all my desire for coffee or even plain water. But not giving up, I played my last trick.

“Ok, fine. I don’t feel like I can drink coffee after you’ve lectured me like this. You don’t have to get me anything. Let’s move”

P: (triumphantly) Good. Let’s move. We’ll find an Autogrill. Cappuccino’s only 1 Euro there.

Me:???

This happened with coffee, tea, souvenirs, an apple and anything I happened to run my fingers through in any shop. After the 3rd day, P realised he had to stay ever hungry, ever thirsty and return home only with smelly socks and clothes instead of souvenirs if he wasn’t willing to spend more than a euro at a time. And the calculations and conversions stopped there. I finally got my cappuccino!! 🙂

Now that I’m done with the coffee story, yeah, I’ll move on. The third day started with a trip to the quaint town of Pisa, famous world over for its Leaning Tower.It was love at first sight with Pisa. It simply redefined the word ‘quaint’ for me. Lush green meadows, old fashioned slope roofed red brick homes, pond and pools here and there, the place was just ohhhhhhh-sooooo- QUAINT. And then the Leaning tower itself was a beautiful piece of work. The Tower is actually the bell tower attached to a Church. It had started leaning over to one side during construction itself and work on it was stopped for a while but then it was started again and completed over a period of more than 170 years! Today it stands tall and proud, albeit slightly slanted against the backdrop of total greenery and a majestic church. The church and the tower together are so soothing to look at, that one would just lose track of time merely admiring them. Like I did. 🙂

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The Church and the Tower

 After they managed to uproot me from the Leaning Tower and get me into the bus, we moved on to Florence. Florence is another city steeped in Art and Science. Florence was THE seat of Renaissance. In most Roman cities, the most important tourist sites that you are taken to visit are 1) Cathedrals 2) Piazzas and Florence was no different. We were to be going to the Santa Maria Del Fiore Cathedral first and I thought, “Another Church?? Wonder how many they have around here!” But after setting eyes on the domed Santa Maria Cathedral, I changed my mind. I would see even a hundred churches if they were all going to be as splendid as this one. This Cathedral was totally magnificent. It is so huge that you can never cover the entire church in a single photograph unless the shot is taken from miles away. The exterior of the church is done in three types of marble – white carara, pink and green and it is said that all the money was spent on doing up the exterior of the Church that not much was left to work with on the interiors. The dome of the Cathedral is a Byzantine beauty and the Church is an eclectic yet beautiful mixture of both Byzantine and Renaissance architecture. Everything in the Cathedral right from the altar to the candle sticks were so artistically done that all I could do was watch wide eyed and dumb struck. Take a look for yourselves.

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 A view of the Florence city. The huge dome seen at a distance is the dome of the Santa Maria Del Fiore


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A view of the dome from inside

I came out of the Cathedral in a daze but Florence wasn’t going to let me off its grip that easily. We took a walking tour of the city and every single turn I took, every street corner I passed, I was barraged by Florentine Art – marble sculptures, majestic churches, old world museums, renowned paintings, frescos, art work in the open, what not. I was almost reeling when we entered the Piazza Della Signoria. In Italy Piazza stands for a ‘Square’, as in Trafalgar Square or more closer, the M.G.R Square near the Marina: P The Piazza Della Signoria is a large square which has the Fountain of Neptune, a marble sculpted fountain from the 16th century and probably the only functioning Roman acqueduct in the world today, at its centre. At one corner of the Piazza is the Uffizi which is one of the finest museums in the world, housing the renowned works of Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Donatello, phewwww… As you walk along the road outside the Piazza you find sculptures of Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Sis Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei doting the streets as casually as you would find statues of politicians along roads way back home. I gasped and almost fell at the feel of a Leonardo sculpture but P had the presence of mind to pull me back. Then there was the Santa Croce Basilica which contains the tombs of, hold your breath again, Galileo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli. Phewwww!! Wait, I need to gulp down some water NOW!! If mere writing about it is so overwhelming, imagine how I must have felt when I actually saw, felt and smelt all these places! When I actually stood in front of Michelangelo’s tomb! Wooooowwwwww!!

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The Florence city from a bridge near Piazza della Signoria

I was pretty much a nervous wrecked case of Stendhal Syndrome by the time the tour of Florence was over. I desperately needed a break from heavy duty sightseeing and Venice was going to be that break. So there, see you tomorrow in Venice. Take out your hats and wear your best skirts. Off we are to Venice!!   

P.S: Forgot to mention that I had pizza in Pisa (he he it rhymes!). I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Italian pizzas have really thin bases more like our stuffed naans, and are yummmmyyyy!!! Our 2-inch-thick-seemingly-rubber-base pizza hut guys would do well to learn it right from the Italians.

P.S.S: Was also surprised to see our very own ‘Bata’ shop snuggled in between Ferragamo and Gucci in Florence!! Didn’t know that Bata was such an international brand!

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Day 1: Rome

One thing I really hate about non Indians is that they don’t wash after they pee. Ok, I’m starting this post on a disgusting note but I was equally disgusted with all those hotels I stayed at. None of them have running water provisions required by all Indians to maintain basic sanitary cleanliness. Do none of those foreigners wash at all? Probably they’d say ‘Bah! Wonder why these Indians have to wash after every pee! ’ Different Views Different Cultures. But we are like this only yaaa!!! I, for one suffered extremely in this aspect and tried to use the water glasses as mugs. P went one step ahead and tried to use the dustbin as a bucket !! If there was one thing I missed about India, it’s the wash taps in the bathrooms.

Now to cleaner and less disgusting topics. The first day in Rome was more of a haze. It had started to darken a wee bit when we landed there. So we just had dinner and decided to walk a bit round the city. The thing about Rome is that it is so steeped in art that you can’t possibly walk ten steps without stumbling upon some ancient Roman ruins, a 17th century marble sculpture or a world famous Cathedral. And I absolutely loved Rome for that. In fact, not just Rome but the whole of Italy for that matter has taken painstaking care not to lose its cultural identity to the development and modernisation. The homes and hotels mostly maintain very native, distinct architectural styles (this I noticed all over Europe) and don’t let skyscrapers stream roller over them. So when you walk around Rome, you see a few modern skyscrapers, some old fashioned homes, Gothic Cathedrals and Roman Ruins all on the same stretch of road and believe me, it’s such a treat to watch!!

Our first stop was Trevi Fountain or Fontana di Trevi.  A beautiful fountain sculpture, the work of which was started by Nicolas Salvi in the 1730’s and completed after his death by Guiseppe Pannini. The fountain looks fabulous in the night and is all the more beautiful when its thronged by people of all kinds – young lovers cuddling in one of the fountain’s corners, hippies with ice cream cones in their hands, tourists who click pictures from every possible angle. It’s a lively colourful place at night. And yeah, I ate my first Italian ice cream near the Trevi Fountain. Nothing very special, probably cuz now u get Italian softies as close as Creamy Inn near home. The ice cream there didn’t taste any different but it was an enormous cone and I loved licking at it sitting in front of Fontana di Trevi. 🙂 🙂

 The Trevi Fountain at night

The Trevi Fountain at night

Day 2: Rome, Vatican

The next day we set out to explore Roma and Vatican. Driving along to see the colosseum, the guide gave us a talk on the early Roman Empire and showed us the various monuments that had been built during different eras and guarded zealously by the Romans ever since. Like I said earlier, I was truly amazed to see the century old monuments and ruins being preserved through all these years without bull dozering them down for glass and concrete prisons. The Guide used to throw sentences like “Oh, there! That was built by Agustus Caesar” or “This ruin belongs to the time of Romulus who founded Rome” and I used to gape with my mouth forming a huge O in awe.The first stop was at The Colosseum, which is all the more alluring because part of it is already destroyed and the other half is also in ruins and shambles. Nevertheless, its a colossal structure (is that why it’s called the Colosseum??). But it was hard for me to imagine 50000 Romans sitting there on Sunday afternoons, amused and laughing at their own men being mauled by wild animals and sometimes even two men fighting for their own lives. Couldn’t believe that THIS was the past time of people who were supposedly so cultured. The Colosseum was imposing but personally I thought it is over rated. Probably it deserves to be among the wonders of the world for just one reason – standing the test of time for more than a few hundred years.

 The Colosseum - A view

The Colosseum – A view

 The next stop was at the State of Vatican City, the smallest country in the world. Vatican stretches across approximately 100 acres of land and is separated from the Rome city only by a wall. The actual population residing in Vatican City is only 900. Yet Vatican City has its own government, stamps and even coins. Entering Vatican brought a tinge of excitement to the nerve ends. The Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican is the seat of The Pope and Roman Catholicism. It is considered to be one of the holiest places on Earth. But what appealed to me above everything else was only one word. MICHELANGELO. Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel attached to it both bear the stamp of the genius of Michelangelo all over them. The construction of the Basilica fell into many hands and finally into the very capable hands of Michelangelo whereas the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted by him is next only to none in the art world as one of the most beautiful, difficult and iconic art works of all times. In addition these buildings contain some of the most revered works of Botticelli, Raphael and other gods of art. So stepping inside the Basilica was like stepping into a temple of art. The Basilica is an awe inspiring sight by itself. Huge and majestic, you fell dwarfed by the very sight of it. And once inside, each pillar, each column, each sculpture screams Beauty as loud as it gets. Architecture is music frozen in space and time. And there’s no better Architecture to prove it than the Basilica. Frescos, Mosaic tile paintings, sculpture style perspective paintings, sfumatos, gilded bronze work, you name a style and you can see it in the Basilica. Words can never do justice to the grandeur of the place, so see below.

 

The St Peter's Basilica from outside

A view of the Basilica from outside

When you enter the Basilica, on the right hand side, you see The Pieta. The Pieta is very famous sculpture by Michelangelo depicting Mother Mary holding the dead body of Christ in her arms and mourning. It is so real that it almost brought me down to tears. The Mother looks so young, so vulnerable and so filled with grief that you can almost feel the pain within her soul.

Note: Bad picture taken through glass panes

 The Pieta by Michelangelo

The Pieta

And then there is the Sistine Chapel. Entering the Chapel is like entering another world. The world of Angels and Demons, Heaven and Earth, Ecstasy and Suffering. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel depicts scenes from the Bible ranging from the creation of Adam to the day of the Last Judgement. I had goose bumps by just thinking of the fact that Michelangelo stood on that very ground where I was standing and painted that ceiling square inch by square inch. The fresco is one among the most vivid and colourful ones ever painted and at the end of it, it is said that Michelangelo even wrote a funny poem about all the illnesses he incurred while working at the painting.

 A portion of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

A portion of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

There is another interesting story connected to the Chapel. Legend has it that when the Chapel was first opened to the public, the Master of Ceremonies (don’t remember his name!) was totally critical of Michelangelo’s work because almost all the frescos were nude. He said that the paintings were suitable for a bar or a restaurant but most definitely not a Church Chapel. And Michelangelo took his revenge by painting the man on the same ceiling as a fresco burning in hell surrounded by a serpent!! Geniuses do have their own means and methods, don’t they?? 😛  

Note: Later the MC did of course get his way and clothes were painted on top of Michelangelo’s original paintings.

Another striking piece of Art were the perspective paintings. These paintings were done with so much depth and perspective that they look more like three dimensional sculptures than paintings done on canvas. Truly awesomeeeee!! When I stepped out of the Basilica and finished my tour of Rome, I understood why they say ‘Rome was not built in a day’!! A day?? Certainly not!!

Take a look

 A perspective painting on the Chapel ceiling

A perspective painting on the ceiling

I could go on and on about each and every inch space in Rome but whether I run out of space or not, I would definitely run out of words. At this rate this travelogue would go on never ending like our saas-bahu mega serials. I’ve just covered one part of Italy. Florence and Venice remain! They would wait until the next part and so would you!!

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So there I’m back. Back without a bang. Back with back ache from 14 hours of air travel, back with jetlag from being in three different time zones in a single day, back with chronic sleep deprivation . but back with a ton full of memories and 4 GB of photographs. Back from Europe!!!!!! So you out there will have no choice but to endure my rants, musings, witty(!?) observations, personal comments, thoughts and everything else about Europe for as long as I feel like writing about it. For me it’s going to be a memoir kind of thing so I’ll put down every single detail I remember, so poor you who’s reading this!! Wouldn’t blame if u skip the stuff!

It was the first time I boarded an international flight I think. No, I’ve been on Air India international flights but they are like our MTC buses. Somehow Air India pilots always manage to drive planes like our drivers drive old buses down bumpy roads. And the food is TERRIBLE to say the least. And all the air hostesses are above 40 (Ok, that’s not MY problem, but a girl can talk for the guys too right??). So Emirates to Dubai was a very welcome change with its personal movie and television collection, drinks every half an hour, video games and an international cuisine. But the seats were far too crampy and there was absolutely no leg space. But I was far too excited about the trip to mind any minor details and the six hours to Dubai flew in a haze. Saw some chick flick in bits and pieces, downed a few soft drinks and phoof! We were in Dubai.

Quick Question: Which is the largest maze in the world?

Very Quick Answer: Dubai Airport.

Dubai Airport is a very beautiful, well maintained maze built out of glass and steel. To take a connecting flight there you have to haul your luggage and go up three escalators and come down two again and walk around a labyrinth of unending corridors to locate the exact gate which you have to board from. And it’s not easy cuz they have around 250 gates to board from. But they do have sign boards with clear cut instructions every ten steps. Dubai is considered to be a shopper’s paradise but as far as the airport is concerned, shopping is nothing short of a monetary nightmare. It is duty free alright but all the stuff is triple the cost at which you can get it outside so there’s no point whether its duty free or not. It’s darn costly anyway. A Filmfare which costs 60 bucks back home is 15 Dirhams in Dubai which is roughly 170 bucks!! So non film stars and non filthy rich, beware of ‘duty free’ shopping in Dubai.

After an hour’s duty free ‘window’ shopping in Dubai airport, I took the connecting flight to Rome. Another interesting thing happened on the Dubai- Rome flight. The leggy air hostess gave us a mouth watering menu to choose our lunch from. Me and P immediately started discussing excitedly whether we should take the lamb sausages or the sautéed mushrooms and fluffy omelette when the same leggy air hostess came back with a covered plate, smiled sweetly at me and asked, “Ma’am you’ve ordered the Hindu meal?”

Me and P in unison: NOOOOO

She: Here’s your Hindu meal.

We: But we never…

She smiled sweetly again, thrust the plate on our food tray holders and left us gasping.

The Hindu meal was a mess with some Upma like thing tasing like mud and some frighteningly red coloured beetroot halwa for dessert. So much for lamb sausage and fluffy omelette!! We looked with forlorn faces at the air hostesses who passed by for the next ten minutes, imagining they’ll suddenly realise their terrible mistake, pull the tray from us, give it to the sari clad ninety year old grandma with the prayer beads in the next seat and give us our sausages instead. But nothing of the sort happened and we ate the muck with long faces. We later found out that all Indian passengers had Hindu meals thrust on them as well. Whether this is the standard lunch protocol Emirates follows for its Indian flyers or whether our travelling agency really did opt for Hindu meals for all its (poor) passengers, we’ll never know. But watch out for Hindu meals if you are flying Emirates.

Four hours later, Rome was in sight. I first saw it as a cluster of buildings interspersed with hills and lined by the sea on one side from a height of 3000 feet above sea level from the flight window. Italy, the land of Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Galileo. The land of Romulus, Caesar and of course The Godfather. The land of Art, Science and Culture. More on Italy, its people, places and all else with pictures (if I manage to dig some out of the 4 GB mess) in the next post. Tchau!!

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