Saturday, April 23, 2011

Leaving London for a Lazy Day in Malaga

Thursday, April 21

Returning to Spain was a long ride.  After a subway commute to the train station, a train to the airport, a flight to Malaga, and a bus to my hostel, I arrived at my destination.  I wanted to spend a lazy day in Malaga to visit its Picasso Museum before returning to Sevilla.  On my flight I was accompanied by many Brits on Easter vacation.  But, they should have stayed in London.  The weather in Malaga was awful.  Nearly of Spain has been experiencing a downpour of rain, while London, two weeks of sun.  The world upside down I suppose.  It not did matter much to me; I was not in Malaga for the beach, rather the museums. 

When I arrived at my hostel, everyone was crowed around the television for the "Copa del Rey" final.  Barcelona, known as the best team in the world, fell 0-1 to its formidable arch-rival Real Madrid.  Lots of screaming in the hostel, but I still slept well.  I was put in a room of bunk beds with five french girls (it was technically a mixed room). 

On Thursday, I started my lazy day with the Picasso Museum.  After my fantastic Picasso Museum experience in Barcelona, I wanted to learn more about the eccentric Spanish artist.  I found myself in a screening room for an hour and half watching a Picasso documentary.  And that was just one part of the exhibit.  The paintings collection did not quite measure up to Barcelona, but Malaga still claims some rights to Picasso.  He was born here.  I learned about Picasso's process most of all: one painting inspires something within him that leads to the next painting.  Had he not experimented, he would not have discovered.  I liked the most one painting extracted from Picasso's series of portraits of his second wife, Jacqueline Roque.  The painting seeks to capture her mood with color and line (see below).

 Jacqueline Sentada (seated)

After grabbing a tapas snack, I continued to Malaga's newest art musuem: Museo de arte Colección Carmen-Thyssen.  It features the best modern Spanish painters from a private collector.  Now that I have seen many parts of Spain, I could recognize and appreciate many of the featured subjects and scenes.  Many featured Sevilla, its historic center, Semana Santa, and Feria.  Others featured more of southern Spain, Basque Country, and even Venice.  I was proud to be the only American in this museum. 

 Inside the Thyssen 

I spent the next hour walking around the ancient Roman ruins of Malaga, the beach site promenade, and the Moorish fortress.  I caught the train back to Sevilla at about 5 pm and was back in Sevilla two hours later.  Rain and rest would be the story for the next few days. 

To see photos of this day, see "Malaga 4-21" at

London Day 3 and 4 - Tower of London, Westminister, Theater, and the Rest

Tuesday, April 19 and Wednesday, April 20

I am so glad we got an early start on Tuesday.  We arrived at the Tower of London to enjoy all of the sites before the title wave of tourists.  The Tower of London is really the first castle of the city, built by William the Conqueror.  From here Henry III and Edward I also ruled during the 12th and 13th centuries.  Most curious though is its role as a prison.  Here Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned for a time, as was the future Queen Elizabeth I.  It is also the site of the execution of Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII.  She was falsely accused of adultery and was disposed of at the Tower.

Besides the history of the place as a fortress, palace, and prison, it now serves to guard the Crown Jewels.  This collection is used for coronation ceremonies for the new monarch.  We saw various crowns worn by Queen Elizabeth II, Victoria, William and Mary, and others.  All were extraordinary, containing some of the most precious stones in the world.  We walked right into the gallery and toured the exhibition, all of which took about 20 to 30 minutes.  When we left the Tower of London, there was a line to enter the exhibition that extended the length of the castle interior--probably a two-hour wait to enter.  We escaped the tourist horror, and grabbed a picnic lunch at Pret (our new favorite, great quality sandwiches for cheap).

We made our back to Westminster Abbey.  Because of the site's short hours, we were forced to stand in line with other tourists for about a half hour.  Not bad considering the our luck otherwise.  Besides we would enjoy the fantastic exterior and warm weather.  Inside our jaws dropped.  Westminster Abbey is another phenomenal church.  But, it is unique in that it is an "abbey," meaning burial ground.  It was a hodgepodge of graves from the most powerful figures in English history, all crammed in and randomly situated in the same space.  Many of the tombs featured "death masks" as well, so we could see a vivid likeness of the various monarchs (Elizabeth I as an example).  This was Laura's playground too.  An addition to the abbey, commissioned by Henry VII, matched the incredible detail of St. George's Chapel the day before.  The Abbey is also the site of the royal coronation that includes the Crown Jewels we had seen earlier.  (Now the church awaits the wedding of William and Kate). The tour inside was well worth the wait.

We exited the church to find the sun still shining bright.  We took a few photos of the exterior of the church and the House of Parliament across the street.  We continued to St. James Park, which would lead us to Buckingham Palace.  Everything was in bloom, and we sensed preparations were underway to beautify the scenery ahead of the wedding of William and Kate. 

We made our way back to the Theater district to pick up some fire-sale tickets to the "Children's Hour," an American play about a slander case in a girl's school.  It was written by a native of New Orleans, Lillian Hellman.  It starred Keira Knightley, English actress in "Bend it like Beckham" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."  It was fascinating to see her attempt an American accent; she tried to smooth it out with a New York twang.  It had been a long time since I had seen a play, and this piece was provocative, powerful, and easy to follow.  I am glad Laura insisted we go to a London show.  I felt like a local, although I did not drink or eat ice cream in the theater like they did. 

The next day, we leisurely got out of bed, checked out of the hotel, and explored some of Nottinghill.  Laura had to buy some "William and Kate" trinkets on Portabello Road.  We arrived in Hyde Park to scope out Kensington Palace, where Diana lived after the divorce.  Nearby, we peeked in at the Organery, one of the most famous Tea Rooms in London.  Before long it was time to say goodbye.  I was headed back to Sevilla via Malaga and Laura, back to New York.  We could not have executed our London trip more perfectly.  I was happy to have Laura's company.  I am glad I played some part in making Laura's dream trip to London come true. 

To see the rest of the London photos, click "London Day 3 and 4 - 4-19, 4-20" at

London Day 2 - St. Paul's, Shakespeare, and Windsor Castle

Monday, April 18

Another early start got us to St. Paul's Cathedral before the tourist crowds.  Having heard that St. Paul's along with St. Peter's in Rome and Sevilla's Catedral are the three biggest churches in Europe, we had to add this site to the itinerary.  I did not have a picture in my head of the church, so when we arrived in London I was surprised by its likeness to the Capital building in Washington DC.  The dome is famously photographed during the Nazi air raid of the Battle of Britain.  Most of the church was unaffected by the bombs.

I was most interested by the history and architecture of the church.  Having seen many Catholic churches now, St. Paul's seemed to be just as Catholic, as if it had been built in Italy and plopped in London.  Yet, this was a Protestant church.  Originally, the site had been home to a Gothic church, which gradually deteriorated over time.  St. Paul's was assigned to architect Christopher Wren, who had also designed the William and Mary wing of Hampton Court.  Many were outraged by its Catholic design, but it still came to be.  Inside, the dome is incredible, as is the rest of the ceiling.  Beneath the church is a crypt.  Normally, only one part beneath the altar is reserved for the burial of famous people.  Here, the crypt covers the entire length of the church.  The two most famous graves are those of the Duke of Wellington (who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo) and Admiral Lord Nelson (who defeated the Spanish and French navy at Trafalgar).  Winston Churchill had a grand memorial service here.  And Prince Charles and Diana got married here.  The crypt was Laura's paradise, full of English graves. 

We crossed the river to visit the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theater.  The site uses the same materials and design and hosts a whole season of Shakespeare shows.  The round theater has three floors of seating, all supported by wood.  The material really is not fit for this rounded and rigorous design, but it works here.  Given all the rain in London, it is amazing to think that the shows go on even in the rain.  After our guided visit, we continued to the nearby train station for the day's main event: Windsor Castle.

Within an hour we arrived in the quaint town of Windsor, which is dominated by the grand medieval castle.  The original castle had been built by William the Conqueror, but the site has undergone many additions and renovations depending upon the occupant.  Since the restoration of the monarchy during the reign of Charles II, the castle has been the central residence of the crown.  George III and IV renovated it further, and Queen Victoria loved to stay here.  Today, it is the Queen's preferred residence.  A flag indicated that she was in the building the day we were there. 

Unlike Hampton Court (Versailles-esque), Winsdor Castle really feels like a true castle with round, gray towers and turrets.  We entered and were overwhelmed by the grounds alone.  We were lucky enough to see a version of the "changing of the guard" here, rather than at the tourist trap of Buckingham Palace.  Little did we know that we would see the best church in England here too: St. George's Chapel.  This will remain near the top of my list of best European churches.  It is one of the most ornate Gothic churches I have seen.  Inside (no pictures allowed), I was overwhelmed by the amount of detail, especially in the ceiling.  In the choir, Henry VIII and Charles I are buried.  In the apartments outside, knights, guards, and church officials still live and raise families.  It was nice to see a tourist site still so functional. 

We made our way inside the Royal Apartments (no photos, but see example below), which were extraordinary.  They far surpassed the interiors of Hampton Court.  Every room was different, served a different function, and contained a swath of treasures.  My favorite was the Charles II Dining Room, which captured his playboy personality.  Queen Victoria's colonial treasures were also striking.  In other rooms, you could imagine the Queen hosting special visitors or conducting the traditional knight ceremonies.  The addition item was Queen Mary's Doll House (Queen Mary, wife of George V).  It is the best in the world, complete with full plumbing.  Yes, that means the toilet the size of your thumb flushes. 

Royal Apartments 
Queen Mary's Doll House 

When we existed the castle, we grabbed some ice cream and headed up the road to Eton College, the high school for England's elites.  William and Harry went there, as well as the UK's current prime minister, David Cameron.  There we found another incredible chapel and courtyard.  We enjoyed the quaint English town; it was as if we were in the English movies we have seen.  We returned to London shortly thereafter, grabbing a Thai dinner.  We had hoped to see the Houses of Parliament, but we realized that it would not be open due to the Easter holiday.  But, it was for the best; we exhausted and ready to return to the hotel.

For pictures of this day, see "London Day 2 - 4-18" at

London Day 1: From Churchill to the Tudors

Sunday, April 17

After our day in Sevilla on Friday, Laura and I spent Saturday flying to London and getting settled in our Nottinghill hotel.  We were immediately struck by how open and clean London feels in contrast to New York.  The buildings are lower, brighter, more spread out, and situated between plenty of neighborhood parks.  The sun, which we would miraculously enjoy for the entire stay, was allowed to peak through wherever we were.  Another curiosity was the traffic.  Despite signs on the street aiding pedestrians to "look right" and "look left," Laura and I continued to confuse the traffic flow.  Not only did the Londoners drive on the opposite side of the street, but they all seemed to zoom out from nowhere.  We were at the mercy of the pedestrian walk signals, many of which lasted no more than one or two minutes each time. 

I was also struck by how international London was, both in comparison to Spain and the United States.  Sevilla all of the sudden appeared to be a homogeneous society, everyone in lockstep.  The city reminded me of the United States, but presented a parallel universe.  Every nationality from the former British colonies seemed to be represented.  The number of Africans and Indians surprised me the most, yet they all carried a perfect British accent and were perfectly integrated into the society.  London's youth consisted of people from across the world, all hanging out together.

We got up early ahead of our first sightseeing day, enjoyed an included complementary breakfast at the hotel, and made our way to the Westminster neighborhood.  The London Marathon was underway, filling the streets with people soaking in the sun and the camaraderie.  We descended into one of the nearby limestone government buildings (see above, with Marathon crowds) to visit the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms.  This was the site where Churchill and his closest ministers took shelter and led the country through the Nazi air raid of London--the Battle of Britain.  An audioguide led us through the cramped quarters: the meeting rooms, the bedrooms, and offices.  I could not imagine being stuck down there all day and every day as bombs dropped outside.  Given the destruction the Nazi's caused, I am surprised much of the historic sites remain.  We spent at least an hour and half in the Churchill museum section, which dissected each phase of his life.  We got a great personal glimpse of him, his wit, his intentions, and his daily behavior. 

We emerged from the War Rooms and walked over the river to catch a train to our next site, Hampton Court, and took in the marathon atmosphere.  Within the hour we were down the Thames at the palace where the Tudors and William and Mary ruled.  The English architectural differences struck me at the start.  The palace appeared to me like a sprawling, chimney-lined brick factory with a grand castle entrance.  To some extent, it was just that.  From here, Henry VIII ruled, wielding power by feeding a huge number of courtiers.  We first toured the kitchens that supported the operation, where thousands of meat pies were prepared, and then taken down with boat loads of wine and beer.  Water was considered unsafe at the time, so even children drank alcohol.  Everything seemed to support the image of Henry VIII as bombastic, power-obsessed, and attention-hungry.

We continued through Henry VIII's royal apartments and encountered the Great Hall with its carved "hammer-beam" wooden ceiling (see below).  I enjoyed learning about the role of Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and chief minister under Henry VIII, who helped carry out and administer Henry VIII's conquest of Europe.  Of course, plenty of information about the wives and children of Henry VIII accompanied the tour.  I was reminded of Mr. Pappas's World History class when we focused on the king's separation from the Pope and the establishment of the Church of England. 

The palace was also home to William and Mary, who oversaw a massive addition to the Tudor palace.  Their wing appears like Versailles and overlooks Versailles-like gardens.  After touring the royal apartments in this wing we explored the elaborate gardens.  The sun was at the perfect place in the sky for snapping photos.  The mushroom-like trees reminded me a Super Mario Brothers video-game.  The exotic flowers were perfectly aligned and in bloom.  We also found a maze, which we had to explore.  Thinking it would be easy, I was a little worried after about ten minutes of wondering.  Thankfully, we found the exit and continued to the enormous reflecting pool, purple-flowered vines, swans, and more Alice-in-Wonderland-like gardens.  Upon exit we picked up ice cream to restore blood sugar levels (and celebrated Spain's pre-dinner "Merienda" dessert, I suppose). 

We returned to London within the hour and proceeded to the Covent Garden neighborhood, London's theater district.  There we went to a Rick Steves-recommended Turkish restaurant and enjoyed a massive plate of lamb, bread and hummus, and Turkish samplers.  The dinner was phenomenal, one of the best I have had in Europe.  We would avoid eating London-food the whole trip, instead enjoying the surprisingly rich flavors from London's international class. We continued to absorb the scene near and at London's "Time-Square," or Piccadilly Circus, before heading back to the hotel. 

To see photos from our first incredible day in London, see "London Day 1 - 4-17" at

Friday, April 22, 2011

Laura Arrives for a Local Color Tour of Sevilla

Friday, April 15

Serving as the ambassador of sorts for the family, Laura arrived in Sevilla on Thursday, April 14.  She had been traveling for 18 hours; she was relieved to see me as I suddenly appeared at the Sevilla airport earlier than expected.  Before our departure to London two days later, I would lead Laura through a local color tour of Sevilla.  Compared to many English-speaking tourists, Laura truly got the insider treatment. 

To counter the effect of jet lag, I had to keep her awake a few more hours.  We passed the time by meeting up with some of my closest Spanish friends: Valeriano and Ángeles (and her friend, Loli).  They are all taking the same English class together.  Ángeles and Loli are both older whereas Valeriano is my age.  We have met several times now to practice conversation.  They need the most help with pronunciation (as do I, to some extent).  Most memorably, that night we practiced the "sh" sound (which they have trouble with) and gathered some grins from the surrounding tables.  They took care to include Laura and were excited to be understood by someone who does not speak a word of Spanish.  I was flattered by what they told Laura about me.  They agreed they did not have to talk slowly to me in Spanish, rather I understand them at their normal speed.  They also complemented my accent and level of vocabulary.  Since Ángeles and Valeriano have interacted with some of my peers, they cannot say the same of them.  It was a nice confidence boost for me.  We ordered a swath of tapas for Laura's introduction to the taste of Sevilla.  By the end, Laura was fading; Valeriano advised that she get a good night sleep "to feel like a new person."  "Muy bien dicho" (very well said), I said, complementing his English.

The next day the sightseeing trek began with the Plaza de España, not far from my apartment.  We had started our day passing through the business school and enjoying the typical Spanish breakfast of jamón, toast, and olive oil in the cafeteria.  We continued through the historic campus and the Jewish Ghetto to arrive at our first main sight, the Alcázar.  I had visited this site my first weekend in Sevilla, when it was cloudy and relatively cold.  Visiting it now on a perfect day in Sevilla, I had a different experience.  I also brought a new perspective, having been to many similar sites.  I was reminded that this Moorish fortress was commissioned by Catholic Kings, not Muslims.  Thus, it is in the Moorish style, but all of the symbols and images are of coat of arms or non-religious themes.  It is amazing to think Catholics wanted a Muslim palace.  Laura relished in the connections to her beloved English history.  One part, built and inhabited by Ferdinand and Isabella was also home to Catherine of Aragon, future wife of Henry VIII of England.  It was a good royal preview to our trip to London.  We soaked up the sun (another thing foreign to Laura) in the gardens outside the palace.

We walked for a time around the close-knit Jewish Quarter, the "Barrio de Santa Cruz," before finding a tapas lunch at Vineria San Telmo.  I navigated the Spanish staff and menu, and together we enjoyed some rich Spanish flavor.  Our next central stop was the Catedral.  Again, I rediscovered this site and compared it with my other church experiences this trip.  It also provided a perfect escape from the heat of the day.  Now I know why churches are dark: old-fashioned air conditioning.  We also went to another church to admire some of the Semana Santa floats.  We then enjoyed the "Paseo" at 7 pm, the time when everyone gets up from their nap and goes shopping.  We picked up some homemade special Sevilla ice cream and the traditional Semana Santa sweets for our "Merienda" -- the 7 pm light dessert treat in Spain (yes, in Spain you eat dessert before, not after dinner).  We watched the sun set over the river and crossed the bridge over in Triana.  There we ate some early (9 pm) jamón in one of my boss's favorite historic bars. 

We returned home to find Montse and her friend Carmon and Ceci in the living room.  Montse insisted that we try her Tortilla de Patatas (sorry to Laura, who was already full).  Montse said she had been discussing with Carmon that she wants me to stay in Sevilla.  This was really flattering.  I have always been close with Montse, but ultimately I recognize that I am an American that she has to feed twice a day (and nurse back to good health, like last week).  Now I know I am more than that to her.  This comment affirms our close bond.  I hope to maintain the relationship after I leave, and of course, I will have to return.  Now I know I have a home in Sevilla, and that I am a part of a Spanish family.  I had wanted this from the beginning, and I am thrilled it came to be. 

The next day was reserved for getting to London.  Montse had made sandwiches for the both of us to take to the airport.  Thank you, Montse!  To see pictures of Laura's visit to Sevilla, see

Friday, April 8, 2011

Venice Day 2: More Surreal than We Imagined

Saturday, April 2

We woke up and we were treated to a typical carbohydrate, sugar heavy European breakfast in the Jewish Ghetto hotel.  After a boat load of baguettes, croissants, jam, butter, coffee, and juice we walked to the bus station to catch the vaporetto, or Venice waterbus.  It would take us on a 45 minute tour of the Grand Canal.  At about $8, this option made a lot more sense to us than a $100 gondola ride.  Clara had discovered a Rick Steves audio tour of the Grand Canal on the internet a week earlier.  Therefore, with iPods in hand, we enjoyed a running commentary of the palaces along the Grand Canal. 

Many palaces had a similar form.  A pillared limestone (water-proof) entrance off the water served as the property owner's personal port.  For example, the Turks had their own palace.  They would arrive from Constantinople with their goods from the East, dine on the second floor (made of brick), and spend the night on the third floor.  The architectural style that unites the Grand Canal is Venetian Gothic.  You can identify it through the Venetian pointed arches and clovers (similar to Doge's Palace). 

We finally arrived at the pillared gateway of St. Mark's Square.  Our principal stop for the day was Doge's Palace.  Seeing the endless line to enter, we fled to the nearby Correr (Venetian History) Museum to buy tickets for both sites (so we could enter Doge's palace later and skip the line).  The location of the Correr Museum opposite the Basilica, was built by Napoleon to enclose the square. 

When we arrived at Doge's Palace we admired the courtyard and lamented its policy of no photos inside.  What we would see inside would be the most spectacular ornamentation I have seen in Europe so far.  Doge's Palace was both the residence of the highest executive figure in Venice and the parliamentary halls of the Venetian Republic from about 1400 to 1700.  What was so interesting about the visit was learning about Venice's system of government and then seeing where the political action took place.

The Doge was elected by the city-state's registered voters.  He served for life as the ultimate figurehead.  His power was in his ability to influence each of the councils of which he was one voting member.  We first passed through the personal apartment of the Doge.  We were blown away by the frescoes painted on the walls and the golden ornamentation of each rooms' ceilings.  Then we entered the upper floor, where each body of the government had a separate room.  The culminating room (several hours into the visit) was jaw-dropping.  Its function was of the Great Council, a group of 2,000 members of the voting class that gathered for electoral duties.  In this room is the largest painting in the world: Tintoretto's "Paradiso," a religious scene with an infinite number of figures.  Around the room, each Doge is pictured with a list of accomplishments.  One black veil covers one Doge, who had betrayed the Republic in a failed coup.

Inside Doge's Palace:  Great Council Room with "Paradiso"

Exhausted from the magnificence of each room, we continued to the dark side of Doge's Palace.  First, the judicial chambers, then across the famous "Bridge of Sighs" to the prisons (view from which is below).  It was fascinating that attached to the place of government was the prison of Venice.  The most famous inmate was Giacomo Casanova, the ultimate playboy of Venice. 

Exhausted from the visit, we raced to lunch.  Nicole had actually fainted briefly when we had completed the visit.  The carbohydrate breakfast had produced a physical crash.  We got her a muffin at the palace cafe, and continued to our scenic canal-side pizza lunch at Academia bridge.  After regrouping, we were in no mood to stroll through another museum.  Rather we completed last minute shopping and headed back to the Jewish Ghetto.

That night we ate pasta along a canal in the Jewish Ghetto with Venetians.  I will not forget the complex taste of this pasta; some of the best I have had.  We were also serenaded by an accordion player.  We picked up our last scoop of gelato (tiramisu-flavored for me).  Clara and I were crazy enough to go back to St. Mark's Square to check out the scene at night.  I am so glad we did; this memory will stick out.  The orchestras of the various cafes played while Venetians and tourists alike strolled sea side.  It was surreal, the music making it like a dream.  Everything was beautifully lit.  Clara and I fled at midnight, just as the bronze men on the clock tower chimed the bell twelve times. 

To see pictures of this day, click "Venice Day 2 - 4-2" at

Venice Day 1: Welcome to the Sinking City

Friday, April 1

After a quick (partial, more like) recovery, I muscled an early morning flight and weekend getaway to Venice.  Salima, Nicole, and Clara (all from IU) accompanied me as we all set foot in Italy for the first time.  I came with few expectations; I did not even check the weather.  What we experienced was once again a perfectly-executed and care-free weekend of comfortable temperatures and cloudless skies.

We were most interested in observing the character of Venice.  As we discovered, Venice is not only physically decaying, but culturally as well.  High tide floods the central island, forcing residents and tourists to walk on boardwalks.  Government restrictions on building renovation discourage any new construction.  Besides, getting materials for renovation to the island is difficult enough.  That coupled with high real estate prices prevents Venetians from staying and raising families here.  Basic needs are unmet; I saw few banks for instance, and even fewer commercial businesses.  Today only 60,000 people live in Venice, and people leave at a rate of 1,000 per year.  We were lucky to see the city before further decline. 

During the day, Venice seemed to us like an amusement park for adults.  One main people highway directs tourists to all the major sites.  Along the way, stores alternate between food (overpriced sit-down restaurants, gelato, sweets, pizza), and postcard/tourist shops, Venetian masks/memorabilia, etc.  Gondoliers hustle for $100 rides through the sleepy inner canals.  Considering Lara and I had not seen one postcard shop in Basque Country a week earlier, we now entered the one place at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. 

Despite the touristy dominance, we had a promising cultural introduction to Venice.  We exited the bus station and made our way to the hotel.  Nicole had made reservations for a Bed & Breakfast in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice.  Navigating our way there, we passed a rather lively Venetian scene.  We heard Italian being spoken; we saw a local seafood stand with neighborhood patrons.  Yet, we also got our first indication of the Venetian flight.  Buildings looked run down and partly abandoned, like a ghost town. 

Upon dropping off our bags, we funneled into the tourist highway, as it was the sure way not to get lost.  Our natural first stop was Rialto Market.  This area combines the local food and craft markets; and at midday when we arrived it was the center of the action.  Assuming vendors would understand similar Spanish vocabulary more than English, we received warm responses (at times tongue-and-cheek, as if to suggest, "you are in Italy; please do not confuse Italian with that other language," but all in good fun).  When a seafood vendor showed off his shark for us, Clara gasped "tiburón" (Spanish for shark) to which the Italian mocked, "muy bien" in Spanish.  The girls were and continued to be in a shopping frenzy.  Clara was intent on finding the perfect Venetian mask (of which there were many possibilities).

We arrived in little to time to our ultimate destination: St. Mark's Square.  Though we had seen it in pictures, we were immediately awe-struck, especially with the Basilica.  When we arrived some children were playing with pigeons, typical here.  If you have bread the pigeons are quite friendly.  Some tourists like to cover themselves in bread, lay down and have pigeons swarm them for a perfect photo.  However, it is technically illegal to sit down in the expansive square.  Rather, you must stand or pay $20 for a seat and coffee at the famous Florian Cafe.  Knowing we would be taking in the square the whole weekend, we continued on to the St. Mark's Basilica.  

I had expected another version of the Catholic churches I had been seeing in Spain.  I got it wrong with St. Mark's Basilica.  Known as something like "the church of thieves,"  the Basilica steals its design and objects from other cultures.  The style itself is Byzantine, as if this church were built in Constantinople and plopped in Venice.  Venice Merchants stole the bones of St. Mark from Alexandria and put them in Venice's Basilica where they remain today at the altar.  The horses adorning the balcony were stolen from Constantinople as part of the Fourth Crusade.  Inside, gold mosaics (typical of Islam) depict biblical scenes.  The domes themselves borrow from Romanesque architecture.  Together, the church seemed like a hodgepodge of relics.  The level of detail was striking, nothing repeated, all figures and forms unique. 

From the balcony we admired St. Mark's Square and the section that juts out to the sea.  Just before you reach the water, two pillars suggest a grand entrance.  Atop one pillar is the lion of St. Mark; atop the other the former saint of Venice, Theodore.  We read that the space between the two pillars had an interesting history: (1) it was the only place Venetians could gamble, and (2) public executions (burying people alive) took place here.  Clara, being superstitious, insisted that no one walk between the pillars throughout the trip.  The pillars shed light on a new side of Venice.  It had not only been the trade center of Europe, but at the same time, it was the Las Vegas/Sin City as well.  Merchants donned Venetian masks (hence, the tourist shops selling them) to protect their identity as they cheated on their wives at masquerade balls.

Next, we shot up the famous Campanile Bell Tower to admire Venice from above.  Good thing we did this on Friday; there was at least a two hour wait for the view on Saturday (all for the ten minutes of pictures from the tower).  We arrived just in time to see the famous St. Mark's clock tower below at the hour, where bronze men pound a bell. 

We made our way back to the Jewish ghetto to check into our hotel and relax.  On the way, we enjoyed some cheap, but delicious Venetian street food.  I picked up seafood risotto and later some gourmet pizza.  Later that night, our hotel directed us to a nearby bar where Venetians hang out.  There we enjoyed the Venetian drink of choice: Spritz al Aperol (part Aperol, Prosecco (Sparkling wine), soda water). 

For pictures of this day, see "Venice Day 1 - 4-1" at