Wednesday, October 31, 2012


The island of San Giorgio Maggiore is one vaporetto stop away from the Venetian mainland. One can even say it's literally within swimming-across-the-Grand-Canal distance, as  one can readily see its landmark church, made of white marble (aptly named Church of San Giorgio Maggiore).

Once you step off the vaporetto and onto the island, turn around and you will be rewarded by an unobstructed view of the highlights of the mainland:

Unobstructed view of the Venetian mainland: Bell tower, Basilica San Marco and Doge Palace.

Here's how the grand, imposing church looks up close:

Church of San Giorgio Maggiore

Another highlight is the San Giorgio Monastery, which also presently serves as the headquarters of the Cini Foundation.  No one, save for a few monks, lives inside the monastery; and it is only open for guided tours on weekends, with tours in English alternating with tours in Italian. Cost is EURO 10.00.

I visited San Giorgio Maggiore on a Sunday afternoon, and was struck by how quiet it was. Hardly anyone around. Eventually, only 3 of us signed up to take the guided tour (2 Italian ladies and moi). Rather than split us up, our friendly guide decided to do her dialogue and spiels in both languages. [She was huffing and puffing by the end of the tour, haha!]
According to our guide, the Cini Foundation (Fondazione Giorgio Cini) was established by Count Vittorio Cini in memory of his son, Giorgio, who died in an airplane accident near Cannes in 1949. It aimed to restore the island (which was destroyed by military occupation), and make it a center for Venetian culture and history.  

Amongst other things, the former monastery is a venue for cultural and art events. It has two libraries, namely: The Longhena Library, completed way back in 1671; and the modern library (“Nuova Manica Lunga"), which both focus on Italian (and Venetian) history and culture. 

Check out the photo of the modern library below. We were totally blown away by its simple, yet elegant design; and functionality (yes, it has Internet connection!). 

Nuova Manica Lunga

The foundation also owns a complete archive of all known works of the great Italian composer Vivaldi (amongst other artists), and offers scholarships for those interested in specializing in Italian culture.

The latest addition to this place is the Borges Labyrinth, a joint effort by the the Fundación Internacional Jorge Luis Borges and the Cini Foundation. It was intended as a tribute to the celebrated Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, and opened on June 15, 2011 (right on his 25th death anniversary).

Look closely and you will see the word "Borges" spelled out. It also reproduced all of Borges' favorite symbols: a stick, a hourglass, a tiger, and a question mark.

San Giorgio Maggiore is defnitely worth visiting on a weekend! Check out their website here for more information on this lovely island.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Burano (not to be confused with the more famous Murano, where the glass comes from) is one of the outlying islands in the Venetian Lagoon; and is known for its lace (a dying art, as only old women still weave it). 

It is also known for its brightly colored houses. Legend has it that it makes it easier for fishermen to identify their own houses in the dark. Not really likely, but let's not quibble :D

The gelato in this store was pretty good, too!

Girl knocking on door.

 When you're in mainland Venice, tours of the three islands (Murano, Burano and the uninhabited Torcello) are offered as a half-day package.  NO need to take one of these, as it is quite easy to go on your own, by taking the vaporetto (water buses).

Taking a photo of people taking a photo.

Look! Even their laundry is colorful!

My favorite shot.

There is really not that much to do in Burano, if one is not intent on buying lace and tourist souvenirs. There is a (of course) small Lace Museum, which i didn't go into. There are a fair number of restaurants which looked interesting. Besides that, its charm is really in the laid-back atmosphere and over-all quaintness of the island.

As i was walking rather hurriedly back to the vaporetto stop, i chanced upon a photoshoot right on the streets of Burano. Five or six models all dressed up in alluring attire; and pretty soon, a small bunch of tourists were gawking (and happily taking photos).  


Yellow dress setting off her dark brown complexion very well.

 I was initially going to continue on walking, but then stopped and thought, 'what the heck, there's another vaporetto coming at a later time anyway', and joined in the fun. 


NO points for guessing whom i thought was the prettiest of 'em all! ;-D

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


I had read about Sant' Eustachio Il Caffe at the CNNGO website, and it was heartily recommended as one of the best coffee places in Rome. Thus, since my brain refuses to work without a good caffeine fix, i made a mental note to try it whilst in town. As the saying goes, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

Customers crowding inside the cafe

Located right at Piazza Sant' Eustachio, which is sandwiched between the tourist landmarks Pantheon and Piazza Navona, Sant' Eustachio Il Caffe was happily (and serendipitously) located literally two corners away from my hotel! YES!!! ;-D  [with matching fist pump]

Started in 1938, they import Arabica beans from such far-flung places as Ethiopia, Guatemala, Galapagos Islands and the like; and the coffee beans are wood-roasted right in their premises.

One of the rare shops that do not take a day off, it is open till quite late (up to 1 AM in certain days of the week). And there is a steady stream of customers at most hours, a mixture of locals/regulars and curious tourists (like moi).

Photo of menu

The ordering process is quite simple: Just go to the cashier and inform him of your order and pay. He curtly nods and says "Prego", and gives you a stub, which you then present to the barista. He curtly nods at you. Then you wait.  He hands you your drink, and upon hearing you say thanks in your best Italian imitation accent, says "Prego." Yup, no put-on cheerfulness ala Starbucks here! (haha)

What adds to the  mystique of this coffee place is that they have a mini-wall or screen which obscures the coffee machines behind the bar. Thus, customers are not able to see how their espresso, etc. are being made. Supposedly this is to guard their "secret" process of making the coffee drinks.

My particular elixir. . .err, caffeine fix of choice was the Gran Caffe' Especial (EURO 2.60), as pictured below.  

By default, it is already sweetened before being served (which is contrary to common practice of other coffee shops), so be sure to specify if you want it "bitter" when you order. 

I don't know what alchemy goes on behind that screen, but this coffee is seriously pretty good. No, not just good; it was great Full-bodied. Bold, yet smooth. No bitter taste. Totally lived up to its billing as the "best espresso" in Rome. I could drink 4 cups of this every day!

Add caption

They have a few outdoor tables. Please be warned, though, that just like other food establishments, the prices for sitting on a table ("waiter service") and drinking while standing at the bar are different. In the case of Sant' Eustachio Il Caffe, they tack on a EURO 2.50 charge per product. 

So, dear reader, next time you're in Rome, do as the Romans (and non-Romans) do, and drop by here for your espresso fix!

Sant’Eustachio Il Caff√©
Piazza Sant’Eustachio 82
00186, Rome, Italy.

Monday, October 22, 2012


I had read online somewhere that Italy has 60% of the world's known artworks. Not sure how accurate this figure is, but there's probably a grain (or two) of truth behind it. 

For the first-time visitor cum culture vulture/museum buff, the array of museums and historical sites to be visited is quite dizzying.  In Rome, the most popular ones are the Colosseum, Pantheon and Vatican (in particular, Michelangelo's ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel). Then, amongst many other sites and museums, you have the Galleria Borghese, composed of 15th- to 18th-century art works.

In Venice, the Doge Palace, Accademia (largest collection of Venetian art in the world) and Peggy Guggenheim Collection (repository of modern art) vie for attention, with many smaller museums trailing behind. 

DAVID (from wikipedia)

In Florence, you have the renown Accademia (where Michelangelo's famous David statue, with its oversized head and hands, reside). Click here for a bit of history on this masterpiece. Then you have the Galleria Uffizi, the world's finest collection of Renaissance art. 

Unless one is a truly hardcore art/history buff, it is best to research beforehand and select what museum(s) one wishes to see. Ask yourself, "what do i want to see?", and forget about what your friends and/or various websites/travel guidebooks say you should see.

In my case, my head was spinning after 30 minutes inside the Uffizi. Really now, how many 17th- or 18th-century Madonna-and-child paintings does one need to see, anyway? Same goes for battle scenes, posed portraits, etc.  After a while, they all start to look the same!  Museo Sovraccarico (i.e. museum overload) set in rather quickly for me, haha.

There were some 'interesting' discoveries, though. Check out this statue in one of the Vatican museums:

Bill Clinton at the Vatican (from Google)
 Looks uncannily like a certain former U.S. president, huh? 

As for the Uffizi, whilst i was along the long corridor to the exit, i chanced upon this delightful work by the 16th century painter Bronzino, titled "The Portrait of the Dwarf Morgante", who was the favorite jester at the Medici court at that time.

Morgante (from

According to the Art.Info site, this work is unusual in that it was double-sided, showing front and back views of Morgante. Here's how he looks from the back. 

Wallah! ;-D

Morgante (from Discovery News)

I don't know about you, but my head ache went away; and i exited the Uffizi with a spring in my step and a wide smile on my face. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012


(This is the start of a new series on my recent trip to Italy, covering Venice, Cinque Terre, Florence and Rome, as part of an Intrepid Travel tour group. Off-hand, i'd say there will be 5 or 6 posts in the series, but depending as usual on my mood and degree of laziness, there might only be this one! :D Your guess is as good as mine, haha)

Parked gondolas, with the lovely island San Giorgio Maggiore in the background.

Riding a gondola (defined officially as a "traditional, flat-bottomed Venetian rowing boat" by Wikipedia) is one of those de rigueur things to do in Venezia (Venice). There is somehow something romantic about sitting on one of these boats, steered expertly by the gondolier (described invariably as a handsome ruffian, with George Clooney-esque rakish charm) and exploring the small back canals in Venice. 

But the Venetian gondola experience does not come cheap. And some people even go so far as to opine that it is an over-rated experience, if not an outright tourist trap.

So, let's talk about the costs. Below are the official prices posted on the Ticket Office. Please note that each gondola can seat a maximum of six (6) persons, so these prices (EURO 28.00/pax for the standard Gondola ride, and EURO 40.00/pax if you want to be seneraded by the gondolier) reflect that. Yup, you will be sharing the gondola with other people! Complete strangers even (unless you are conveniently a group of 6 persons)!

Prices at the Ticket Office

Approaching the gondolier directly is not necessarily an optimal strategy, as online accounts report that they have been known to charge as high as EURO 80-100.00/pax. And of course, should you wish a private gondola ride (i.e. you and your loved one lying on each other's arms, basking in the sunset, whilst the gondolier warbles "O Sole Mio" plaintively), the costs will be steep.

Servizio Gondole

 So, our instant group of 5 bubbly Aussie teen-age girls and one surly jet-lagged tourist (moi) were off, as our gondolier paddled along the Grand Canal. Eventually, we turned into the tight smaller canals for a backstage peek of the less crowded/touristy parts of Venetian residences.

Navigating one of the tight canals

The water at the canals was greyish-green, opaque but not quite murky; and thankfully, did not smell. And hardly any flotsam. One could see, based on the marks on the walls, that the water level can get really high, and portions of Venice (including the lowest point, Piazza San Marco) are under water during certain times of the year.

The water can rise to high levels

The gondoliers tend to be tall, tanned and with muscular arms and broad shoulders (due to the nature of the job), and i was told that it was considered a noble profession, which gondolier families pass down from one generation to the next. 

Ah, for the female readers of this blog, here's a photo of one of the gondoliers:

Gondolier in action. Nice striped shirt and cool shades, huh?

And another one of him working hard to steer the boat. 

So what's my verdict on the whole gondola ride experience? Well, it was a bit underwhelming, really. We didn't hear a peep from our gondolier, for one!  It probably would have made a big difference if he provided a bit of background or commentary.

I guess it's something one has to do ONCE, just to experience it first-hand.   

For those who are interested to learn how to row a gondola (i.e. "be a gondolier for a day"), Row Venice provides 2-hour lessons. Not recommended for people who can't swim though, haha.