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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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