Monthly Archives: January 2012




First stop: Arrive in Venice on Tuesday, December 27, 2011.

Happy New Year! I just returned from a wonderful 10 day tour of Italy – traveling with the University of Mary Washington Philharmonic Orchestra. They performed beautifully and it was a fantastic experience. I am happy to report that Venice is still surrounded by water, the Tower of Pisa is still leaning, and the beautiful sculptured fountains, columns from the Ancient Roman Forum, and the majestic Coliseum remain standing today. One missed step permitted me to get an up close and personal look at the breathtaking marble floors so common in Italy – they are cold and hard! Fortunately for me, I wear the colors black and blue very well. We also enjoyed visiting the small towns of Padua, Lucca, Pisa, and Assisi. I will document our trip in multiple logs, beginning with our first destination: Venice.

Upon arrival in Venice, we boarded our private vaporetto (water coach bus) and transferred to St. Mark’s Square. Venice is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The city stretches across 118 small islands in the marshy Venetian Lagoon along the Adriatic Sea in northern Italy. The saltwater lagoon stretches along the shoreline between the mouths of the Po (south) and the Piave (north) Rivers. After a walking tour of the historic old town, we dined at the Ristorante Antigo Trovatore for dinner.

I was amazed, and challenged, by all the bridges and steps. There were no handicap access ramps over the bridges. We saw many young mothers carrying strollers and babies up and down the multitude of steps and over the wooden bridges. In the center of all the streets were stacks of long planks of wood on metal stands, looking a lot like picnic tables stacked up on each other. These are the walkways that are put in place during the high tide and rainy seasons. These walkways are about 2 miters high and sometimes the water levels rise over the tops of them as well. Without the walkways, folks have to wear long boots to stay dry during the wet season. We were lucky to be there at low tide with very little forecasts of rain.

We toured Doge’s Palace, the seat of government and residence of the Doge of Venice for over 600 years. We walked through the prisons and crossed over the beautiful and legendary Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs), so named because it was the last glimpse of daylight a prisoner would see before he was beheaded. Venice’s famous Bridge of Sighs was designed by Antonio Contino and was built at the beginning of the 17th century. Spanning the Rio di Palazzo (Palace River), the bridge was intended to connect the Old Prison and interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the New Prison, which was situated directly across the river.

There are several theories as to how the Bridge of Sighs got its name. The first, and most popularly regarded theory, involves the prisoners that walked across the bridge on their way to the executioner. The prisoners would “sigh” as they crossed the bridge, probably catching their last glimpse of the outside world before their execution. Even though by the time the bridge was built many executions at the hands of the inquisitors had ceased, many prisoners did cross the bridge and may not have seen freedom ever again, or at least not for many, many years. Another story tells that if a couple kisses under the bridge while drifting below on a gondola at sunset, they will enjoy eternal love. Thus, the “sighs” are said to come from lovers who are overwhelmed by the romance of the whole scene. This romantic view was created by the Poet Lord Byron with his writings: “I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs, a palace and prison on each hand”. At any rate, the Bridge of Sighs is a beautiful sight, stretching high above the canal, and is generally known as one of the finest examples of bridge architecture in the world. Italian Renaissance in style, the 36 foot wide bridge is made of white limestone and 2 windows with stone bars sit at the summit of the enclosed bridge. The bridge took about 2 years to complete, with construction starting in 1600. There are many sculptures across the bridge depicting sad and angry faces. There is only one sculpture with a smiling face. Other bridges in the world have taken on the name ‘Bridge of Sighs’, including one at the Allegheny County Courthouse in Pittsburgh, PA.

From Tronchetto Pier we boarded our private vaporetto (water coach) and departed for Padua where the UMW Philharmonic orchestra performed its first concert of the tour at Teatro la Perla. Padua was long the academic heartbeat of the powerful Venetian Republic, and far before that, an ancient Roman stronghold. For this reason, it was one of the most important medieval and Renaissance cities in Italy. Dante and Copernicus studied in Padua and Petrarch and Galileo taught there. We dined at Ristorante Antica Trattoria Antenore.

While the orchestra rehearsed for the concert, some of us walked the streets in Padua. It was a charming little town. We found a small coffee shop where they served cappuccino with chocolate shavings in the form of a happy face on top. The folks in the small shops we visited did not speak English. We did note, however, that many Italians speak German as a second language, so when we had trouble making ourselves understood in English, I would bring out my rusty old German and was always able to get the help we needed. I became the group’s spokesperson on many of our independent meanderings. We bought postage stamps, batteries for cameras, and chocolate cherry cordials (with liqueur) and basically enjoyed just walking around Padua. It was fun being in another country at Christmas time and seeing all the decorations. Many were quite different from what we are used to seeing in the states. Manger scenes were very elaborate and life-size. The scenery around the displays was as authentic and important as the manger scene itself. Our Padua concert was well attended and the high caliber musical education of the audience was obvious. They really enjoyed our performance which included the Music for the Royal Fireworks (from the Royal Wedding of William and Kate) and My Fair Lady, which was always requested as an encore. We invited them to sing along with White Christmas and it was fun to hear it sung in Italian. It was exciting to walk around the small town and see large posters with our Philharmonic orchestra picture everywhere. We returned to our Hotel Belle Arti in Venice around midnight.

One of the highlights of our Venice stay was the tour of the famous Vecchia Murano glass factory. They were making hand blown Venetian vases at the time of our visit. The store display was amazing and I was afraid to move for fear of causing a major catastrophe of broken glass. The glass jewelry was unlike anything I had ever seen. Talk about fire – the earrings sparkled like diamonds. An apprenticeship for blowing glass in the factory is between 12-15 years. We watched as the masters worked and it was awesome.

On a personal note, I had 2 goals that I wanted to achieve while in Venice. I wanted to take a gondola ride and I wanted to purchase an authentic piece of handmade Venetian Lace. On my mission to find some fine handmade laces, I found only one small shop. The wall display contained some beautiful examples of Venetian Lace pieces. I wasn’t convinced, however, that it was all handmade. I became a little suspicious when I was shown a box of 25 or more identical dresser scarves – and I do mean identical. I kept looking for some small sign of handwork versus machine work. I got out my magnifying glass and closely observed the stitch patterns for the smallest clue that would reveal it was handmade. I could detect no sign of handmade thread carriage. The costs were very expensive and I wasn’t willing to pay a high price unless I was thoroughly convinced the item was made by hand.

Venetian Point Lace is one of the needlemade laces whose outlines are edged with rich scalloping in high relief. The design (motif) is traced on paper and then holes are pricked through the tracing at regular intervals through a background black paper. The tracing paper is removed and the black paper is mounted on a fairly coarse linen, used double. The foundation for the motif is made by laying 3 – 5 strands of thread, which will be used in making the lace, over the motif outline and then couched down with small stitches at the intervals of the holes in the black paper template. Once the design outlines are all couched in place, then the fill stitches can be worked in each section of the motif. The last step in Venetian lace making is to add the richly, dense buttonhole stitch over all of the outline stitches and adding the scallop edgings to the design. When the lace is completed, the small couched stitches are removed from the back of the linen work cloth and the lace motif is free from the working surface and becomes a free standing lace motif. The Venetian lace I saw was beautiful, but very expensive and really did have the look of machine made-lace rather than hand-made lace.

At 7:30 on Thursday morning, December 29, we checked out of our rooms and headed for the pier where we caught our boat to Tronchetto. We said good-by to Venice and I left without taking a gondola ride and without purchasing a sample of Venetian Lace. Venice really is beautiful and I would love to return someday. The weather was around 50 degrees and sunny, food was excellent, people were friendly, and the vaporetto ride was relaxing. The local folks had great legs and seemed to be in excellent shape from all the walking and it was nice to not have any moving traffic on wheels. I did wonder about handicap folks – very few bridges had handicap access ramps. I saw young mothers carrying infants and strollers up and down the many bridges connecting all the islands – what a workout!

As we left Venice, on our way to Florence, we made a quick impromptu stop once again at Padua in order to visit the second oldest university. After a 15 minute walk up hill to the university, we were greeted by renovation scaffolding and could not enter the building. We grabbed a “lunch to go”, returned to our bus, and headed on to Florence – thus ended the first phase of our tour.