Most of us love travelling, but having to stay home during these unique times, can be quite frustrating. Thanks to the folks at Rogers TV and YouTube, my travel show is doing very well and gives me a fantastic opportunity to reminisce about some great locales around the world.
One of my favourite memories was a recent trip to the north of Italy. I flew direct to Venice, arriving at Marco Polo airport, where my guide whisked me off in a water taxi to beautiful St. Mark's square. It was built in 1100 as the central government area for the Republic of Venice and thrived until 1797, when the republic surrendered to Napoleon. The square is the most visited part of Venice, with up to 20 million tourists a year (pre-COVID), nearly half of all the annual visitors to Italy.
The bell tower of St Mark's Cathedral is one of the most recognizable symbols of the city, and stands surprisingly separate from the church with the same name. I was amazed at the spectacular views from the belfry, nearly 100 metres from the ground.
Across the square is St. Mark’s Basilica, built in 828 when Venetian merchants stole the relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria, Egypt. The church was burned in a rebellion in 976 and reconstructed into its present form in 1017. The upper levels of the interior are completely covered with bright mosaics.
Next to the Cathedral is the Doge’s Palace built in Venetian Gothic style in 1172.The palace was the residence of the Doge or magistrate, the supreme authority of the Republic of Venice. A corridor connects the palace with a prison, and is known as the Bridge of Sighs, named for the moans from prisoners who took a last look at freedom through the small windows en route to their cells.
Of course no trip to Venice is complete without a traditional gondola ride. For centuries, gondolas were the chief means of transportation, and are steered by a gondolier. Their primary role today is to carry tourists on rides at a fixed rate of 80 Euros or 130 dollars for 40 minutes. More than 500 gondolas travel the 50 kilometres of waterways drifting under 409 bridges, and along 177 canals in this city with a population of 270,000. Venice's gondoliers invest about €20,000 ($30,000) for a traditional hand-built wooden gondola with a useful life of about 20 years.
The Grand Canal is the main waterway of the city and carries the bulk of Venetian transportation, as automobiles are banned throughout much of the city. If you're thinking of a summer house on the grand canal, be prepared to spend in excess of 1.5 million euros or 2.3 million dollars for a two bedroom unit.
From Venice I continued to Verona, home of several Shakespearean tragedies.
Verona, with its 700,000 inhabitants is one of the main tourist destinations in northern Italy. This is due to its artistic heritage, as well as shows and operas. Many of these are held in the ancient amphitheatre built by the Romans around 30CE.
Verona is the setting for Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, two fictional characters based on a story in ancient Italian Literature. The house, questionably said to belong to the Capulet family, was an overgrown ruin, restored in 1905 by the city as a tourist destination. The famous balcony was added in 1928 by a film studio who used the location for a silent rendition of the famous play.
Verona, like most Italian cities has a wonderful outdoor market where most anything can be purchased. The square is adorned with statues and fountains, which surround the market stalls. The Sunday Market is a hodgepodge of gramophone players, Fascist-era bike parts and lots of alarm clocks – a real mix of antiques and junk where you could spend all day browsing.
I left Verona and travelled south to Florence, home of amazing art and splendourous culture created through the ages. Florence, with a population of nearly 400,000, lies in the heart of Tuscany.
I crossed the River Arno and viewed the many bridges including the most famous, the Ponte Vechio. It is a medieval stone closed-bridge and is noted for having stores along its sides. Butchers initially occupied the shops, but the present tenants are jewellers, art dealers and souvenir sellers. The bridge was built in 996 and was the only bridge not destroyed by the Germans during their retreat in 1944. This was allegedly due to an express order from Adolph Hitler, who cited its historical importance.
Florence is an art lover's paradise. Its art galleries, especially the Uffizi Gallery, are home to many beautiful paintings by the great masters. Opened in 1765 the Gallery was built as a home for the great art collection which belonged to the Medici family.
One of my favourites is the Academia Gallery, where Michelangelo’s famed statue of David proudly stands. The artist was so detail oriented, he made the head and upper body, respectively larger. By doing so, the statue looks proportionate when viewed from a normal person's point of vision.
Just outside the galleries is Palazzo Vechio or Old Palace, which is the town hall of Florence. This massive, romanesque fortress overlooks the main square and the gallery of statues in the adjacent Loggia dei Lanzi. The square is one of the most significant public places in Italy.
By far the most impressive cathedral in Florence, is that of Santa Maria de Fiore or Saint Mary of the Flower. Located in the centre of the city, it is the main church of Florence, and was completed in 1436 after 150 years of construction. There was a 50 year moratorium on construction, after sacred relics were discovered. Decoration of the exterior lasted a bit longer, finally being completed in 1887.
The interior of the church is extremely large and appears almost empty. It was created that way to coincide with the intent of religious life. Above the main door is the colossal clock face with fresco portraits of four Prophets or Evangelists. This one-handed liturgical clock shows the 24 hours of Italian time, which ends with sunset.
The church is particularly notable for its 44 stained glass windows, the largest undertaking of this kind in Italy in the 14th and 15th century. They are the work of the greatest Florentine artists of their time.
Across the street of the Basilica is the Baptistery of St. John, renowned for its three sets of artistically important bronze doors with relief sculptures. The doors were dubbed by Michelangelo as the Gates of Paradise.
Christianity was once the main religion of Florence, and still accounts for 30% of the population. The 1600 Jews of Florence worship in the Great Synagogue of Florence, constructed just over a hundred years ago. During World War II, Nazis occupied the synagogue and used it as a storehouse. When retreating, German troops placed explosives to destroy the synagogue. Fortunately, Italian resistance fighters managed to defuse most of the explosives.
Every so often I become adventurous, and I decided to walk to the top of Michelangelo plaza, high atop the hill of San Maniato. It was a good 45 minute uphill hike, but the views were spectacular with St Mary’s Basilica stealing the show. The vista captures the heart of Florence, and will leave you breathless.
Northern Italy is a beautiful part of the world and once life gets back to normal I would highly recommend a visit.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com