Category Archives: Italy

Venice Italy

Five Free Things To Do In Venice

For anyone heading to Italy, Venice will probably be one of the first destinations that you aim for. A historical maritime trading republic cloaked (literally) in golden opulence, Venice’s “golden age” in the late middle ages and early modern period left it endowed with a unique legacy of neo-classical bronze artwork and architecture. It is this legacy that still continues to astound millions on a yearly basis. 

Unfortunately, this attractive wealth and prestige means that Venice can end up as a very expensive place to visit for the uninformed. However, you don’t necessarily need the bank balance of a Doge to enjoy the city if you know what you are looking for. Here are five of the best Venetian attractions that are absolutely free to visit and explore.

Ghetto Ebraico di Venezia

Venice Italy
One of the lesser known parts of Venice, the historical Jewish ghetto still forms the hub of Orthodox culture in the city. Exclusively home to Venice’s Semitic population between 1516 and 1797, the series of enclosed squares offers an authentic look at the traditional Venice that many feel has been lost in some of the more “touristy” areas. The five synagogues are well worth visiting, and Kosher restaurants abound for those so inclined. Please remain respectful while visiting; the area is still very much an active neighbourhood, and the Shabbat (Friday evening and most of Saturday) is almost universally observed.

Basilica di San Marco

Although many churches in Venice increasingly charge for entry, the iconic early twelfth century St. Mark’s Basilica remains completely free to visit. The spectacular Italo-Byzantine façade and soaring, elaborate exterior arches mark out the cathedral as one of the finest examples of classic Catholic architecture in existence. Inside and outside, the famous golden mosaics, latticework and painted domes provide visitors with a glimpse into a world of beautiful religious artefacts and artwork. Please keep in mind cultural concerns, in that you must be what the Catholic church considers “dressed respectably” to visit. Bare shoulders or limbs (above the cuff or lower leg) are generally forbidden for religious reasons.

Rialto Bridge

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A trip to this iconic building should be added to every traveller’s list of necessities (amongst travel insurance and so on.) The symmetrical white clad stone structure is instantly recognisable, and is considered one of Italy’s finest examples of late renaissance design. Built in 1591 to bridge the districts of San Marco and San Polo, the Ponte di Rialto gives (and contributes to) fantastic views of the heavily trafficked, world famous Grand Canal.

San Giorgio Maggiore

This small, unassuming island lagoon houses some of Venice’s best known landmarks. The seventeenth century church gives the island its name, and the striking marble façade is well worth seeing. It is also worth making time to take a good look at St. Mark’s Campanile. One of the defining symbols of Venice, the bell tower and clock mechanism are available for viewing if you pre-book a guided tour.

La Zecca (The Mint)

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The historical mint of Venice may not immediately strike you, but it is one of Venice’s best kept secrets. The mint served from the sixteenth century as Venice’s main source of currency, and the elaborate, rich decoration that remains in place is reflective of that former status. Often home to special exhibitions, the building now houses most of the main reading rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.

Florence Architectural Gems

7 Architectural Wonders of Florence, Italy that are not to be missed

Florentine ArchitectureFlorence. Perhaps no other city in the world evokes as many cultural, artistic, and architectural visions as the capital of Tuscany in Italy.  Home of the Renaissance, this city filled with museums, palaces, and churches holds a huge number of the world’s cultural treasures. Perhaps, the most important of  Florence’s sites are the Baptistery, the Ponte Vecchio, and the Cathedral, but the San Lorenzo library is certainly the finest example of Michelangelo’s architectural gift and should not be missed.

Those who are on last minute holidays or seeking the Italian Renaissance, need only look upon the palaces, buildings and squares of Florence for each of them are masterpieces.  Many of them built by the most admired artists of all time. In Florence, when you want to see the work of Michelangelo or Brunelleschi – there is no need to go indoors to a museum.

1) Piazza della Signoria is an L shaped plaza in the heart of Florence that serves as the historical and cultural center of the city. While unremarkable in terms of design itself, it is the surroundings and the history of this piazza that make it a must visit location.  Surrounding the piazza you will find The Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzao Vecchio, the replica of Michelangelo’s David, statues by Donatello, Cellini and others and as if that isn’t enough, the Piazza marks the place where both  return of the Medici family was and the famous Bonfire of the Vanities took place. The radical priest, Girolamo Savonarola who burned the books and treasures of the Florentine elite was later himself burned in the square – the exact spot is marked.

Florence Architectural Gems2) Palazzo Vecchio which literally means “Old Palace” is still the focus of the piazza. It was built in 1302 asthe seat of Florentine government and is still used for the same purpose. As such, only portions of it are open to the public. This was the original palace of the Medici family. The clasic blocky castle-like architecture is not centered on the tower for a reason, it was actually built around a tower which is far older and served as the substructure of the current tower.  This is a Romanesque building with many Gothic elements.  Inside is a treasure trove of courtyards, salons, and more than a few priceless artistic works.

Bridge of the Arno Florence3)Ponte Vecchio is a wonderful closed spandrel bridge which crosses the Arno at its narrowest point and is believed to have been first built in Roman times but is first mentioned in the year 996. The bridge still has shops along side it and a hidden walkway along the top so that the Medici didn’t have to expose themselves to the public when crossing. It was originally constructed in wood but wasdestroyed by a flood in 1333 and rebuilt of stone in 1345. Culturally interesting is that right on the bridge is the place where the concept of bankruptcy was born. The statue of Cellini in the center is surrounded by a small fence festooned with padlocks. Lovers will lock the padlocks and throw the key in the river to bind them together forever. A sign surrounded by locks forbids the practice. Urban legend says that the tradition was started by a padlock shop owner on one side of the bridge. Smart move.

4) Torre della Pagliazza is also called the Byzantine Tower and the Straw tower. This is regarded as the oldest building in Florence (7th century) though there are several other candidates that might fit that description better, but none of them quite so wonderful as Pagliazza Tower. The tower today has been incorporated into the very nice Hotel Brunellesci but was once accommodation of a different sort – a female prison. This is the origin of the name “Straw tower” – female prisoners were given a bit of straw, a luxury denied to male prisoners.

Florence architectural gems5) The Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistery of St John) is also said to be the oldest building in Florence though it was built in the 10th century and so is not. Still, it is old and the stories of it being the oldest are based on the fact that it sits atop earlier structures – one even rumoured to have been a Roman temple to Mars. It is particularly famed for its three sets of wondrous bronze doors which have only recently been put back in place after extensive restoration and preservation work was done on them. The three sets were made by Pisano, Ghiberti including the famed East doors called by Michelangelo “The Gates of Paradise”. The Bapistery is built in a Florentine Romanesque style that served as inspiration for the later Renaissance styles to emerge in Florence.

6)The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore also simply called the Duomo of Florence was built from 1296 when the first stone was laid.The dome created by Brunelleschi with its exquisite facing of polychrome marble panels and the cathedral itself designed by Arnolfo di Cambio (who also designed Palazzo Vecchio). The dome is the largest brick dome ever constructed (completed in 1496) and the cathedral remains one of the largest in the world. The competition between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi was fierce to see who would get the commission for the dome – when it was awarded to both jointly, Brunelleschi feigned sickness until Ghiberti bowed out thus leaving full credit to Brunelleschi. The drama between the two is the stuff of great film and literature. The dome itself is made of more than 4 million bricks and pre-saged the mathematics that were later used to define it. Brunelleschi’s innovations served as inspiration to a young apprentice who worked on the dome’s lanern – Leonardo Davinci.

Basilica of Florence7) The Basilica of San Lorenzo Library is in the center of Florence’s straw market district and is where most of the Medici family are buried. This building is also claimed to be the oldest in Florence and has a pretty good claim since the church was consecrated in the year 393. The building was designed by Brunelleschi and contains Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library. The entire complex serves as an important bridge between the old architecture (pre-renaissance) and the new architecture which followed it.

Christmas in Copenhagen

Top Three European Christmas Destinations

Christmas in Europe is delightful, no matter where you go. The marriage of old world charm with unique traditions makes for a lovely holiday. Here are my picks for the Top Three European Christmas Destinations of 2012.

1.Copenhagen, Denmark – Tivoli Gardens

Christmas in CopenhagenChristmas in Copenhagen is nothing short of enchanting, especially in Tivoli Gardens. Tivoli Gardens is the second oldest amusement park in the world, originally opening on the 15th of August in 1843. It is a popular attraction throughout the year, drawing well over four million visitors annually. But you haven’t experienced Tivoli until you have visited for Christmas.

A complete and total fairytale, every holiday season the park and gardens are transformed into a winter wonderland unlike any other. There are over four miles of decorative lights, in addition to almost two-thousand fairy lights used to illuminate over four hundred trees. The glittering weeping willows and the giant Christmas tree are a spectacle to behold.

If you are traveling with children, they will be delighted by the forty-five meter toboggan run, the chance to sit with Santa in his sleigh, and by Pixie Ville. Pixie Ville is home to Tivoli’s mechanical pixies and elves, and you can watch them frolicking in the snow, ice skating, and settling down in their igloos. You can catch a further glimpse at the pixies preparing their celebrations when you chug by them on the Christmas Express. Keep an eye out for Santa and Mrs. Claus!

Even if you’re vacationing without wee ones, Tivoli is still worth the visit. The Christmas market is made up of over seventy decorated stalls that line the garden walkway. Here you can purchase a wide variety of handmade Scandinavian gifts and delectable treats, like iced donuts, caramel apples, and warm, mulled wine. Enjoy your treats as you tour the impressive ice sculptures, and then work off the calories by dancing the evening away to some live holiday music.

If you plan on making the trek to Copenhagen this year, you can expect to see the usual Danish décor replaced with a Russian theme. This includes a brightly colored reproduction of the famous and beautiful St. Basil’s Cathedral. Visit Tivoli between December 26th and 30th, and end the evening with an impressive fireworks display.

2.Rome, Italy – The Vatican

Chistmas with Papa in RomeThis is not a trip I would recommend for families traveling with small children. The late hours and long masses are sure to make them sleepy and restless. However, for those wishing to celebrate Christmas in a deeply religious fashion, midnight mass at the Vatican will provide a moving experience.

You will need a ticket to attend this mass, as it draws quite the crowd. Tickets are free, but it is best to request them in advance to avoid rushing around, or worse, not being able to get in. Even the lines to present your confirmation and pick up your tickets can be extremely long, so dress accordingly. December in Rome can be rather chilly, another reason you may want to avoid bringing wee ones to this event.

Holy Father Benedict XVI will preside over two Christmas masses. The first will take place at midnight on Christmas Eve, December 24th. The second will take place on Christmas day, December 25th, at noon.

3.Nuremberg, Germany – Christkindlesmarkt

European Christmas MarketsCan you think of anything more charming than a Bavarian Christmas? Maybe it is just because I have an Austrian grandmother, so I grew up with rum balls and nutcrackers, but I find Christmas in this part of Europe absolutely magical. Germany is famous for its Christmas markets, and you won’t find another market like the one in Nuremberg.

Every holiday season, on the eve of advent, the market is officially opened following a prologue from the Christmas Angel. Dressed in golden robes with golden, flowing curls, the beautiful Angel ends her speech with, “You men and women, you who were once children, too, be a child again today. Rejoice when Christchild now invites you all to see this market. Whoever comes to visit will be welcome.”

You will find nearly two-hundred stalls selling their wares. From handmade crafts, ornaments, candles and wreaths to fruit cakes, spicy gingerbread, and mulled wine. This is the perfect spot to find a unique ornament that you can cherish for Christmases to come.

Children love the Christkindlesmarkt, and not just because the place is crawling with irresistible sweets. A ride on the steam train or around the old fashioned carousel is fun for the whole family. The House of Stars offers a plethora of ever-changing children’s activities, and every Tuesday and Thursday, the Christmas Angel will be there to read their favorite fairytales.

Melissa Rae Cohen is a travel writer from Portland, Maine. She recommends Auto Europe for your next car rental!