Being a student in the CIMBA program means you’re constantly throwing yourself into one thing after another. This weekend, Lynn, Mark and I threw ourselves into Trieste, Padua and Venice. When we returned Sunday night, we threw ourselves back into homework and haven’t had time to breathe until now.
The first leg of the trip was a CIMBA-run Friday trip to sights near Trieste. First, our super-touristy buses stopped at Redipuglia, a World War I memorial and former battleground. It’s a huge, concrete-and-marble expanse that holds all the graves of the 40,000 known soldiers who died in the war, plus the remains of 60,000 unknown men, in a terraced motif. What struck me about the memorial was the stark contrast between its very white and cold expanse and all the trees and little houses dotting the countryside around it. After staring at a sea of green interspersed with little yellow and orange houses, the brightness and unnatural quality of the memorial was a little shocking–appropriately so.
Next, the bus stopped at Castello Miramare, built right on the cliffs overlooking the Adriatic Sea in the late 19th century. We didn’t get to go inside (we were only there for an hour, so the 4 euro admission price didn’t seem worth it), but we saw the pretty grounds via many staircases and even a little tunnel, and we made our way around the perimeter of the castle to the expansive balcony overlooking the ocean. The view of Trieste from the castle was outstanding, if a little hazy.
Then, after the bus dropped off the 3/4 of the student body who had decided to visit Ljubljana, Slovenia, three of us strapped on our backpacks and wandered around Trieste proper for a while. The city was full of beautiful, crooked alleyways that were perfect for the casual wanderer. The city clearly bore the mark of many different Western cultures, as it should given its location and involvement in so many land disagreements. In the same square was a canal that recalled Venice’s reign over Trieste, a church with Roman columns that hearkened back to its Roman roots, and a Serbian orthodox church, which reflects its interesting east-meets-west geographical position.
In the late afternoon we caught a train to Padua and got to our B&B by nightfall. The couple who owned the little hotel, a large converted house, barely spoke any English–good news for me, because I got to practice my Italian; bad news for my friends, who knew not a word. Also staying at the hotel was a handful of students from Cal Tech, backpacking around Europe before the school year began. (I still can’t believe that most of the CSUs, UCs and U of O haven’t even started yet!) One girl was originally from Bucharest, Romania, but in the first five minutes of conversation with her we could barely pick up any accent at all.
When we woke up in the morning, we set off for the Cappella degli Scrovegni, where we had to reserve tickets online ahead of time to see Giotto’s famous frescoes. Much of his art had been damaged by a combination of centuries of neglect and exposure to polluted air, which caused the paint to peel. Since the 1960s, preservers have been trying to restore the frescoes. They’ve set up a complex system of air-churning machines and special waiting chambers to make sure the doors of the chapel aren’t opened and exposed to the elements for extended periods of time. They only open the doors for visitors every 20 minutes, and photos aren’t allowed…although we took a ton in the chapel’s lovely green grounds while we waited.
After the chapel, we found our way to the historic city center and took to street wandering for a few hours. We stumbled upon a few blocks of the biggest Italian names in fashion–Prada, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, etc.–then found more affordable goods at an outdoor market in Piazza delle Erbe, one of the city’s main squares. I was glad to see there were very few tourists; everyone in the city center seemed to be locals or area visitors taking a day trip to go shopping.
We saw and went inside several churches, but the most impressive by far was the Basilica of St. Anthony, where the actual remains of Padua’s patron saint sit in a tomb inside the sanctuary. The church, as you can see from the picture, is impossibly huge inside and out. It had about 20 chapels inside, and at every one there was at least one person kneeling or stopping to whisper a “Hail Mary”. The basilica is obviously considered a sort of Catholic pilgrimage destination to Italians.
Hilariously enough, we were so sick of Italian food that night that we decided to forsake pizza and pasta for bar food at Le Chevalier, an Irish-style pub with a French name, Italian menus and good ol’ American food. We watched a pathetic Rome soccer game while we munched on french fries and burgers.
Let me just preface my impressions of Venice with this: we knew from the beginning that we were crunched for time and that we’d only be able to spend four or five hours in the city. On top of that, the weather was crummy and prevented us from doing some things we had planned, like wandering around for hours and grabbing a coffee in St. Mark’s Square.
That said…Venice is overrun. It’s Disneyland. While it looks exactly as I pictured it, and while no other city looks anything like it, there are so many people there that it’s hard to remember to look around you when you’re pushing through the crowds. There are lines everywhere: we waited 20 minutes to check our backpacks for the day at the train station, 10 to get tickets for the vaporetti (water taxies), another 10 to actually get on a vaporetto, 20 to go up the bell tower in St. Mark’s Square, 10 to get into the Doge’s Palace…and the line was so long to get into St. Mark’s Cathedral that we skipped it altogether, something I wish I hadn’t had to do.
I sincerely hope anyone else who goes to Venice has a better experience than I had on Sunday. It’s a beautiful city, and I think if I’d had more time to enjoy it, I would have found different parts of the city that were less crowded by foot traffic. I also would have found places where English was not the primary language, since the whole point of visiting a foreign country, to me at least, is experiencing a culture different than your own. I didn’t get that foreign experience in San Marco, or on the Rialto Bridge, or on the vaporetti, so I hope to return closer to winter and find that Venice really is the beautiful, romantic city I always pictured it to be.