Washingtonville Goes to Italy (Part 1)
By David Busch
Smiles, well-wishers, excitement – that’s how we leave for our adventure to Europe. It was July 2nd, school was behind us and summer was just beginning. We were off to Italy. This was our twenty-sixth tour from Washingtonville. We began when Bill Clinton was president and I was a much younger U.S. history teacher at Washingtonville High School. We always leave after graduation to avoid school conflicts. Older siblings in college, parents, grandparents, and friends all join as we explore the world around us. To date, over 1,600 Washingtonville students, friends, and family have traveled to Europe, North Africa, and Hawaii with us. We learn how other people live and it makes the world a bit smaller, and the memories – they will last a lifetime.
After the preliminary checking of passports and roll call we were off. What lie ahead was Venice, Bologna, Florence, Pisa, Cinque Terre, and Lake Como. On the way to the airport there are questions to answer and procedures to go over. “Can we take a gondola ride? Who am I rooming with? Can I swim in the Mediterranean?” We arrived at the airport three hours early, and used every bit of that time. Once aboard the plane we shifted some seats and settled in for the seven hour flight to Venice. Along the way we laughed, planned, wondered, and a few regular travelers actually slept. When traveling to Europe we fly overnight and hit the ground running. It pays to be well rested.
Upon arriving in Venice we met our guide for the next ten days. Claudio met us with warmth and a smile. He was about forty years old and stood about five and a half feet tall. A native Italian from Naples, he was on his third consecutive tour. We had several discussions prior to arrival so he was armed with ideas and a plan. A good tour guide enhances every aspect of a tour and Claudio would prove up to the task. Yes, we had a full tour of Venice planned, but Claudio had also arranged a gondola tour of the canals. We were in good hands.
Entering Venice we boarded a large ferry and headed directly down the Grand Canal of Venice. The canal is famous and often the set of many a movie chase scene – definitely a couple of James Bond movies. The sights are awe inspiring. We learn in school that Venice is a water city, and that it has a major place in Italian history as a place of commerce, art, and architecture. Seeing it in real life is completely different. To see buildings of such beauty and history completely surrounded by water, with only small boats for transportation is truly remarkable. We would spend the next two days visiting and touring this storied place.
Venice is actually a city of many islands. Our hotel was actually on the island of Lido, a scenic 15 minute water taxi ride to the main part of the city. We actually had our own, private water taxis which gave us great flexibility over our schedule. A benefit of our long relationship with EF tours is that we often get perks like this to make the tour run smoother.
We began our actual exploration of Venice with a late afternoon arrival. Venice is a wonderful and crowded city. Each day cruise ships bring hundreds of curious tourists. A good trick is to arrive in the later part of the afternoon, and that is exactly what we did. Most of the cruise groups are leaving then, and the old city opens up to wander and imagine. After a brief orientation walk with Claudio we began our exploration. This was just the beginning. Breaking into small groups of friends we headed down the narrow alleyways and over the walking bridges that Venice is famous for. The main square in Venice is St. Mark’s Square (Piazzo San Marco) and it served as our meeting place. It is a common place for groups to meet so we picked our place. Starting a tour with a gentle orientation and meandering works well after a long flight. We set our own pace and explored as we chose. Church bells clanging and a gently setting sun created the perfect ambiance. Soon enough we reconvened and boarded our private water taxi to head to our hotel on Lido.
On Day 3 after a typical European breakfast –usually on the lighter side – we once again boarded our private water taxi (we felt special) and headed toward the dock on the main island of Venice where we met Maria – she would be our local guide as we walked the city. Wearing headphones called Whisperers, we were able to listen to Maria as she walked us to points of interest and explained Venice’s storied history. She explained that the canals around the buildings have always been a concern but lately rising tides have caused almost daily water in the streets – a consequence of climate change that we don’t often think of. She also explained that Venice is a tourist city now. That means few Italians actually live on the main island and many rent their apartments to tourists. Still, one cannot get past the incredible architecture and the gondolas that move between the buildings.
Soon enough it was time for that must have experience – the gondola ride. Claudio made arrangements for all of us (53) to go together. This meant we’d need 8-10 gondolas in succession. It was a beautiful afternoon as we lined up and boarded our gondolas. There was magic in the air. The Gondoliers often sing Italian love songs, although the one piloting my gondola did not. It was still wonderful to see our travelers smile and gaze as we meandered the tight turns of the canals. Jokes and comments were cast back and forth as pictures were snapped. I find the best thing to do sometimes is to retreat into thought. These gondolas have been used by countless tourists and the canals have been traversed for hundreds of years. Now it was our turn, and it was wonderful. The gondolas meander under ancient walking bridges and alongside old buildings. Some have entranceways directly on the canals. Ultimately we ended up on the Grand Canal for a majestic view of the whole city.
Our next stop was Bologna. The tour was designed to traverse central Italy and visit as many places as we could. Although we were actually headed for Florence, Bologna was in route and a place that many tours skip – but not us. We had time for a healthy afternoon in Bologna and took advantage of it. Bologna is the largest city and capital of the Emilia – the Romagna Region in Italy. It is a city many Italians call home. Seeing life in an area not flooded with tourists gives a different perspective. Bologna is a working city with a population of around 300,000. Its main square (Piazza Maggiore) sprawls with arched walkways, cafes, and medieval Renaissance structures. We spent about four hours in Bologna, climbed some towers for scenic views, ate some great food, and experienced a rare Italian monsoon rainfall. It was very funny. We arrived and left with a bright sunny sky. Out of seemingly nowhere, clouds rolled in and the sky opened up. Streets quickly became streams and people collected under the many ancient archways. We stared in amazement and we laughed. A little rain was not going to dampen our spirits. The rain left as quickly as it came and we were off to Florence.
A quote from our itinerary – “Florence, set deep in the heart of Tuscany, is one of Italy’s jewels. The city of Florence has delighted visitors for centuries with its remarkable architecture. Whether sitting by the River Arno, strolling the beautifully housed streets, or viewing the renaissance masterpieces that fill the city’s churches and museums, one can only be astonished by the feeling of true beauty. Florence is the heart of the Renaissance”
We could not have asked for a better location. Our hotel – The Grand Mediterraneo, was a scant 5 minute walk from the Piazza della Signoria – a major cultural center in the city.
Located on the Arno River and moments from the famed Ponte Vecchio Bridge, it was a luxurious base. Everything was within easy walking distance.
Once again we had a local guide or a walking tour of the city. We used the Piazza della Signoria as a central location and established the Statue of David as a meeting place. Off we went. We saw Giotto’s Bell Tower and the beautiful Piazza del Duomo. We heard the history of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, and passed a tremendous replica of Michelangelo’s David. Our guide was filled with stories of the old city. We even visited a leather crafting workshop. It was a little difficult to concentrate at times as the aroma of baked goods drifted from the various eateries. It was early, but gelato was everywhere. A tour of Florence would not be complete without a visit to the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. Also known as lover’s bridge, it spans the River Arno. Both sides of the bridge are adorned with shops selling gold, silver, and diamonds. In the middle there is a section called Lover’s Lock. This is where lovers come and place a padlock on the bridge to seal their love. Local officials aren’t thrilled with the practice, but tourists persist. At any given time there are hundreds of locks left by lovers who one day promised to return.
Dinner was on our town tonight. That meant we could sample and experiment with friends. Travelers like to wander and find their own oasis, so off we went to explore, sample, and find that special café or restaurant. Meeting time was 11PM in the lobby. Everyone returned on time and we shared stories of food and experiences. It is important to build in time to wander. Exploring and realization are part of this experience. One of our young women teared up when she explained what she had seen and experienced. Her exact words were “I never thought I’d be here. I’m overwhelmed.” “Me too” I replied.
(See Next Week’s Issue for Part 2)