Amazing Roma – an open air museum

I had booked a hotel close to the Trevi fountain so as soon as I had checked in and dropped my bags in my tiny room, I headed out for a walk to the fountain. While I had seen lots of photos of the fountain on the web, it still did not prepare me for the first time I saw it in front of me. The narrow streets leading to it suddenly widening and there in the middle of a sort of junction, right on the side of a historical building was this elaborately carved fountain.

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As I walked about the streets, it felt like walking around an open-air museum. This post is a photo tour of the visual treat that Rome turned out to be.

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Piazza di Spagna

I visited the Keats – Shelley house overlooking the Spanish steps. This is the house, where John Keats died at the age of 25. The library in the house, with its collection of 8000 volumes, was not there during Keats time. The house also showcases English writers, such as P.B. Shelley and Mary Shelley, Lord Bryon etc. who made Italy their home during the early 19th century.

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While in the other cities, I had for most parts had a loose itinerary that I modified according to my mood, it was not so in Rome. I felt the city’s past called out loudly to the visitor and claimed one’s attention. I felt that I had to visit some of the historical sites and ended up packing in a whirlwind tour in my three days there.

The next day, I visited the Colosseum, the Roman forum and Palatine Hill in the morning and the Largo di Torre Argentina in the afternoon. Having had to memorize the first part of Antony’s famous speech at Ceasar’s funeral, from Shakespeare’s play, during my childhood and having spent hours practicing voice modulation on that speech, I felt I needed to see the place where Ceasar was assassinated. In the midst of a bustling place surrounded by modern buildings on all sides, the tiny square with the ruins of the theatre of Pompey where Ceasar breathed his last is closed off to the public but can be viewed from the outer perimeters.

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It was a very hot summer day in Rome so I stopped to enjoy a lemon granita on my way back to the hotel. Granita became one of my favourite food during my time in Rome.

On my third day, I visited Vatican city in the morning and then wandered about the city in the afternoon, visiting Circus Maximus, which was the largest venue for public games in ancient Rome.

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Circus Maximus

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Aventine Hill

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I ended my day with a visit to Altare della Patria (National Monument to Victor Emmanuel, the first King of unified Italy).

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National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II

I guess when one visits Rome for the first time, one does tend to try and pack in as much sightseeing as one can fit. Hopefully the next time I visit, I will take a more leisurely pace to enjoy the city better.

[Other posts part of the travelogue of my 2008 travel around Italy – Torino, Venezia, Firenze, Siena and San Gimignano, Vatican City]

I am linking this post to City Tripping #47, hosted by Wander Mum and Mummy Travels.

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Visiting Firenze, Siena and San Gimignano

Continued from Torino and Venezia

I reached Firenze Santa Maria Novella station before noon and after some delay in trying to get directions and the right bus to my B&B, I managed to reach Via Dei Pepi, which was close to Piazza Santa Croce. Diana Pepi, one of the owners of L’Acacia, came downstairs to help me with my bags. Diana and her mother, Rosali, occupied the top floor, living in two of the apartments while renting out the third. My room was a pleasant surprise as it was large and comfortable, a contrast to the rooms I had stayed at in Torino and Venezia.

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Diana mentioned that it was San Giovani’s day in Florence and therefore a public holiday. She added that there would be a 15th century football match at Piazza Santa Croce that evening due to which the road where the B&B was located would be closed and if I wanted to go out, to make sure that I took the L’Acacia visiting card so that I would be let back in the road.

Since I was feeling tired, even after having lunch, I decided it would be best to rest a little before going out again. It was around 5p.m. that I went downstairs to go on my walk around the neighbourhood. I heard loud noises from firecrackers and crowds coming from the direction of Piazza Santa Croce and I hesitated to go out. A group, all painted in red, ran past the gate screaming towards the Piazza. I seriously began to doubt if I should go out at all. However, after some time, the street seemed quiet, very quiet, so I thought I would venture out. I stepped out of the gate and saw the two ends of the street had been blocked and lots of medics and police, with shields and batons at the road blocks. It took me a few seconds before I decided that having come downstairs, I would at least go to the nearby supermarket to buy something for dinner. As I walked up to the barrier, the police looked questioningly at me. I said, “I want to go to the supermercato” and pointed in the direction away from the piazza. The police impatiently nodded and said, “preggo.” I walked past the painted, shaven heads of medieval football fans and walked down the street in the direction of the supermarket mentioned by Diana. The street was totally quiet and except for the football fans, there was no one else around. There was a very tense sort of excitement in the air about the place. I decided that that evening was not the right time to be going about exploring the city for the first time and that I should simply go back to the apartment after stocking up on snacks and water bottles at the supermarket.

After shopping, I walked back to the blocked street. When I approached closer, I noticed that there seemed to be verbal altercations between the police and the crowds. As I reached the crowd and said, ‘scusi,’ I think my face must have displayed my nervousness because the men who had been shouting at the police started making way for me and was telling those in front to let the signorina pass through. I was happy to reach my apartment and room and watched segments of some Italian movies and dubbed American TV series for the rest of the evening.

At breakfast the next morning at Rosali Pepi’s apartment, the friendly cat and the dog in the house came to greet me. After breakfast, I walked to the Santa Maria Novella station to the meeting point for the bus tour to Siena and San Gimignano. I located my tour bus easily and after the guide checked my name in the list, he noted that I had mentioned walking difficulties in my booking email to them so asked to let him know if the pace was difficult for me at any point. The tour operators were nice and the guide did check in to see if I was alright and comfortable occasionally throughout the day trip. The bus started on time and we left Firenze through Porta Romano passing the village of La Certosa, a nice area with a monastery on a hill. I think that would also be a nice place to stay at, the next time I visit.

Upon reaching Siena, the guide divided us into four groups: two English speaking groups, one French-speaking and one Spanish speaking and assigned us four local guides. My group’s guide was funny and informative.

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Our walking tour took us through interesting, winding streets crowded with people until we stopped at a small square with a statue. She said that it was an important part of the city, where the headquarters of the Siena bank – Montei dei Paschi was located. This bank founded in the 12th century is the oldest working bank in the world. She mentioned a local joke about the three dreams that every Sienese had in their life, which also illustrated the importance of this bank to the Sienese, “to work at the Montei Dei Paschi, to withdraw or deposit money at Montei Dei Paschi, to retire and get their pension money from Montei Dei Paschi”.

DSC00812Then, she pointed out an interesting wall tile, which had the mascot of the contrada. She added that Siena was divided into 17 contradas or communes and each had a mascot. The tiles were placed on the walls of buildings on the borders of the communes to indicate where the communes started and ended. She said within these contradas, there were friendly communes and enemy communes. She joked that though she was from the ‘porcupine’ commune, which was the best according to her, her son Filipo unfortunately was not of the same commune but that of her husband’s as the local practice was that daughters would belong to the mother’s contrada and the sons to the father’s contrada. Every year there was a contrada ceremony where every baby born that year would be introduced to the senior members of the commune and be given a certificate stating the baby’s full name and the parents name and provided lifetime membership in that particular contrada.

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We walked on to another square where there was a statue of the legendary wolf and Romulus and Remus. The guide jokingly said that the Sienese who were jealous that the Romans had a legend with regard to their founders decided to create a legend of their own. According to the local legend, when Romulus killed his brother Remus, the two sons of Remus escaped and fled away from Rome. They reached this hilly area and decided to start their own city here and that the city derived its name Siena from the eldest son of Remus.

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Our walk took us next to the entrance of the Duomo. The guide ushered us in, skipping the ticket lines. There were areas cordoned off and renovation work was taking place. She said that the entire floor was made of very old beautiful tile paintings and graffiti but that most of it was boarded up to preserve them. In two areas where renovation work was ongoing, they were visible to the public. We visited the library of the Duomo, where we were asked not to speak as the paintings would be damaged by moisture. However, the crowds which were in the tiny library did not seem to take heed and continued to speak as they went around the library and out.

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After lunch, we resumed our journey and travelled to San Gimignano. After making sure I noted the time that I had to be back in the bus, I bought myself an extra rich chocolate gelato from a hand-made gelato shop and happily set off on my walk around the ancient and scenic town. I had read that its medieval residents had built the towers to show-off their status and that the families had competed against each other to build higher and higher towers as height was then equated to power, wealth and status. However, most of these towers were later destroyed by invading armies and only a few remain today.

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The next day, I decided to go walking around the city in the morning. I walked to the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore first. It was closed at that time in the morning and as I was asking when it would open for the day, some workers opened the door to go through and I had a glimpse of a beautiful ceiling.

DSC00980From there, I walked to the San Lorenzo market and explored the market a bit before walking on to the Uffizi gallery area past the Republicca square. I didn’t go into the gallery as I was not in the mood to look at paintings or sculptures, despite the city being famous for its artwork, and preferred to be outdoors. So, I walked on until I reached the Ponte Vecchio and walked across the interesting bridge and back.

DSC01067I had a spa appointment in the afternoon and as I found that Pisa was on the way to Montecatine Terme, I decided to get down midway at the Pisa station. I got my onward train tickets first so that I would not have to hurry back till the last minute. I assumed for some reason that Pisa would be within walking distance of the station. As this was an impromptu side visit, I had not read about how far the tower was or the route to it from the station before arriving there. The Filipino couple who had been standing behind me at the ticket counter and with whom I had been chatting while waiting in the queue said that they were planning to take the taxi and asked if I would be interested in sharing the cab with them. I said yes as I thought I might as well save time and maximize my time at the tower. However, there was a very long queue at the taxi stand that must have had hundreds of people waiting for a taxi. It was around lunch time so there were hardly any taxis around and the line did not seem to move. We considered exploring the bus stand but after waiting another half hour, we realized that all the bus drivers seemed to be on a lunch break.

I realized I had to choose between the thermal caves at Montecatine Terme and the leaning tower of Pisa. I decided to return to the station and continue as I originally set out to do. Wishing the couple a good visit to the tower, I got on my train bound for Lucca and had a lunch of grilled tomato and mozzarella sandwich. The grotta was a nice experience with the different thermal caves labelled heaven, purgatory and inferno. I returned to Firenze energized after my spa visit. I think at this point in my travel I did indeed need re-energizing than a hurried glimpse of a famous, ancient tower.

To be continued… Vatican city

[I am linking this post to City Tripping #45, hosted by Wander Mum and Mummy Travels]

Wander Mum

Exploring Venezia

I made straight for the tourist desk when I arrived at Venezia Santa Lucia station and got my 48 hour Hello Venezia travel card, which would provide me unlimited travel on the water buses for that time duration. I had detailed instructions, that I had printed out, on how to get to my bed and breakfast place. Accordingly, I took Line 1, after validating my ticket at the entrance to the boat lines, the main line that went along the Grand Canal and got off at 5th stop at Ca D’Oro. From there, I walked down a short street called Calle Ca D’Oro, then turned left at a large street named Strada Nuova. I suppose I must have taken the wrong turn somewhere here. I ended going up and down tiny streets and bridges, lugging my bags along under the stifling afternoon sun, but not finding the next place, on my printed instructions, which was a little square with a well. No one seemed to know anything about where any street was located because the people walking by all seemed to be tourists and the shopkeepers apparently didn’t live there or explore the area.

I finally managed to get some helpful response from an elderly man, who thought that Ponte Chiodo could be on the parallel road to the one I was on. Since there was no short cut from the road we were currently on, I had to go all the way back to the main road, Strada Nuova and find the right turning point. He was a very kind person, who offered to walk back with me to find the tiny square with a well. We crossed the square and went down a little street branching off its left corner. When we reached the end of the street named ‘Calle Priuli’, he pointed out the little iron bridge saying that I must cross it to get to my albergo.  I was delighted when I crossed the bridge and found that the street name was now  Calle de la Raccheta, as it was where my guesthouse, 3749 Ponte Chiodo, was located.

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I rang the bell of the guesthouse with relief and the person who opened the door looked very Sri Lankan. I found out as I was checking in that he was also from Colombo. After giving me the keys to the gate, house and my room and showing me around the ground floor particularly where the tea and coffee things were located, he gave me a map of the city with some of the restaurants that they recommended marked on it. After chucking my luggage in my room, I left for St. Mark’s square as I had booked a walking tour. However, by the time I reached San Marco and made my way to the starting point of the tour, I found I had missed my tour group and I realised that it was impossible to locate them as there were so many tour groups around the place and thousands of people.

Bell tower and Basilica from steps of St. Mark's square

Feeling the heat of the sun draining me, I thought it would be best to explore indoors than walk about under the sun.  So, I went to the Palazzo Ducale museum entrance which was the closest to me and got the St. Mark’s square museum ticket, an entrance ticket to the four museums around St. Mark’s square, including Palazzo Ducale and one other museum from a list. That was a wise choice for me as the Doge’s palace provided a cool refuge and great photo angles. 

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A nice angle

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What fascinated me most was the bridge of sighs which prisoners walked across to their prisons in the old days. The bridge apparently was named so because of the sighs of the prisoners looking out through the lattice work for their last glimpse of freedom and the sky.

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View from within Bridge of Sighs

I finally came out of the side entrance and found St. Mark’s basilica on my right, but I wasn’t able to go inside since entry was closed after 5pm. I walked around the square before deciding to go back to my room and rest.

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The next morning, I decided that I would go for a boat ride to the islands, after breakfast. When I sat at one of the tables in the garden, a man who was mowing the grass looked up and greeted me with, ‘Buon Giorno’. I returned his greeting and he put his mowing machine to a side and introduced himself as Mattia, the owner of the guesthouse. He asked me what I would like to have with breakfast and went inside to make my capucchino.

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While I had my breakfast, Mattia came over for a short chat and asked me if I was planning to visit St. Mark’s square and the islands. I said I had visited St. Mark’s square the previous evening and planned to visit the islands today. He threw up his hands and said that he didn’t know why some website had put up these two locations as must-sees because all tourists simply went only to these two. “Is Paris only the Eiffel tower?” he asked rhetorically and continued, “There is so much more to Venice that people miss out on.”

“What would you recommend for the visitor to Venice?,” I asked.

He paused his tirade and thought a moment before saying, “A simple walking tour of the city as a start would give so much more insight to the beauty of the place.”

“Well, perhaps you should put up your recommendations on your guesthouse website,” I suggested.

He looked as if he had not considered that before and replied, “It is a good idea. I will consider doing that if only to stop myself repeating my frustrations to each visitor.”

After breakfast, when I went to his office to settle my bills as I was leaving early the next morning before the office opened, Mattia took out a map of the city and made a drawing of the walking route that he liked and suggested for the first time visitor to Venice. I decided to take his recommendation, as he was a Venetian and it was hard to come by Venetians in Venice, and follow the route.

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I walked along Strada Nuova towards the Rialto Bridge area, passing an interesting, bustling market and some gondolas on the way.

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Then, I had my first glimpse of the famous bridge at the end of the narrow street.

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As I edged closer, the crowds increased.

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I walked over the bridge where stalls were set up selling souvenirs and trinkets and went to the other side.

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Proceeding through streets that were quiet in some places and busy in others, I felt like clicking my camera at anything that I found cute: a little dog standing at a shop doorway, parked gondola, pigeons at a water pump, Venetian masks in a shop window etc.

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I reached Chiesa Dei Frari, which according to Mattia, was the second biggest and important church in Venice after St. Mark’s basilica and which he personally liked more. Chiesa Dei Frari was rather huge and imposing. I was not in the mood of exploring the church indoors but chose to sit on some steps nearby and simply enjoy the view from that angle. There were artists painting and selling their artwork near the entrance. Right across from me was an antique bookshop beside a street called Calle De La Passion.

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After enjoying the views, I decided to make my way over to Campo Santa Margherita, which Mattia mentioned was around the university area and thus more quieter and less touristy. I was delighted when I accidentally captured on camera a pigeon swooping down, while taking a photo of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari during this bit of walk. Pigeon swooping down church side

I passed a tiny square called Campiello S. Bocco, after this, and this square seemed to be a busy residential area, with people hanging out their clothes, buying things at the grocery store, collecting water in buckets from the well fountain in the middle of the square, flowers being sold in a shop. It looked like I had walked suddenly into the midst of the private lives of the people of Venice.

I walked on till I reached Campo Santa Margherita and searched for a shade from the scorching noon sun. I found a bench under a lovely, large tree.

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After resting and enjoying the sight of stalls with fresh fruits in the square, I walked on towards Ca’ Rezzonica. Mattia had recommended it as a nice museum and as it was included in my St. Mark’s square museum ticket, I decided that I would go and visit the small palace museum. Going in the direction that the museum was located, I passed a fruit and vegetables boat shop. Fruit and vegetable market

After visiting Ca’ Rezzonica which was quite nice and had lovely views from its windows, I decided to go back to my room so that I could recharge my camera’s batteries while enjoying some lunch and resting my tired feet.

In the evening, I felt like taking the postponed boat trip to the islands, even if I would not have time to get out and explore the islands. So I walked to the Fondamente Nuove line and took the boat to Murano and Burano. I directly went to the back of the boat and out into the open seating area so that I could enjoy the view and the sea air. Feeling the sea breeze is one of the things I really enjoy, particularly on a boat ride. The route took me past  a tiny islets with ruins.

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The first stop was Murano which didn’t seem appealing with its factories lined up along its coast. My favourite island was Mazzorbo, which had the cutest looking streets with houses painted in all shades of colours lined along its small streets. A blue house would be adjacent to a yellow house or a pink house. I felt that I would like to stay in Mazzorbo or the neighbouring island Burano, if I had the opportunity to revisit Venice.

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When the boat returned to its original starting point at Fondamente Nuova, I decided to extend my boat trip by taking the boat to Lido, which was the stop where the Grand Canal Line 1 ended. From there, I had a nice ride along the Grand Canal, passing San Giorgio, San Marco, Accademia, Ca’ Rezzonica, Rialto and Ca’ D’Oro.

Along the Grand Canal

 

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When I left Venezia the next morning, I was happy with my 48 hours in the city and hoped to return some day to revisit.

How was your first visit to Venezia? 

To be continued…. Firenze

[I am linking this post to City Tripping #44, hosted by Mummy Travels and Wander Mum]

MummyTravels

Glimpses of Torino

I had the opportunity to visit Torino for a conference during the summer of 2008, and decided that I would extend my trip by a few days to explore some parts of Italy after the conference. While most of my time in Torino was spent at the conference, I did manage to visit a few places in the evenings with a fellow conference participant. One such place I visited was the Mole Antoneliana or the National Film Museum which had a panoramic lift that took one to the top from where you could have amazing views of the city.
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View from top of Mole Antoneliana 4.JPGThe museum itself was interesting with a large, central hall where movies were screened continuously on two big screens. Visitors could sit on comfortable reclining chairs and enjoy the ongoing movie.

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Walking around that museum was like walking into a set of some movie or other. Each room or stall had a movie theme as the inspiration for its decor and the movie itself playing in a unique part of the room: on the lab table of a laboratory movie set, for example. Many sets were dedicated to Hollywood movies and actors and actresses.

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I enjoyed my short walks from my accommodation at the university residence hall to the university, through the piazza Castella.

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Piazza Castella

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View of Palazzo Madama, from piazza Castella

Built in the 16th century, Palazzo Reale, or the Royal Palace of Turin, houses the chapel of the Holy Shroud though the shroud has been moved elsewhere now. I did sign up for a tour of the palace but opted out of it at the last minute.

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View of piazza Castello and palazzo Madama in the rain, from a window at Palazzo Reale

I preferred to enjoy the delicious food, particularly the pizza and hand-made giandujotti, at the outdoor cafes and cioccolateria on via Po, as I was indoors the whole day at the conference.

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My favourite from my stay in Torino is the place I visited in the afternoon on the final day of the conference – the Basilica di Superga.

View of Basilica di Superga from Mole Antoneliana

View, from Mole Antonelliana, of Basilica di Superga atop the hill

The travel from piazza Castella to the basilica itself was a memorable experience. My friend from the conference and I had got onto the bus, that the tourist information desk staff had asked us to take to go to the basilica. According to the staff, there would be a little hill at the end stop of the bus route, from where we would need to take a short tram ride up the hill to the basilica. Since it was the last stop, we didn’t bother to check with the driver. Only when the bus finally stopped and we were the last passengers on the bus, we realized we were nowhere near any hill. We then checked with the driver to find that though the bus number was correct, this bus had been coming from the basilica. He asked us to stay on in the bus, as he was going to leave for the basilica, after a short break. Fortunately for us, we were not in any hurry as our only plan for the rest of the day was the visit to the basilica and to have a dinner in a nice restaurant to celebrate the end of the conference. We were also happy to see quite a bit of the city, through our prolonged bus ride. On our way back to the basilica, we passed piazza Castella again.

Basilica di Superga 2I had read that the basilica had been built in order to fulfill the vow made by Vittorio Amedeo II, when the region was about to be invaded by the French troops.

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Altar at Basilica di Superga

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Shrine of Mary at the Basilica di Superga

Another view of dome from within

The beautiful dome

It was a lovely church in a very peaceful location and I found the interior very calming. After spending some time there, we decided to visit the basilica museum as well, especially as we were in time for the guided tour. The view of the dome from the inner courtyard was lovely, especially when viewed through the arches in the corridor.

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The next morning, I left pleasant, quiet and welcoming Torino to travel by train to Venezia. I found some passengers, an elderly couple and their grandchild, already in the small compartment where my seat was. The couple were chatty and after some initial conversation hiccups, we managed to find a way to communicate in mixed Italian, French and English. They were curious to know why I was in Italy and whether I was travelling alone. They actually told me, “Brava,” for travelling solo all the way to Italy from Sri Lanka, which they thought was a country somewhere in Africa. It felt like being with one’s grandparents who found everything that you did admirable. The grandson, who knew some English from school, was curious to  know about Sri Lanka especially whether it was  a rich country, whether there were monkeys, whether it snowed and whether it was a peaceful country. When two teenagers got on board and came into our compartment, the jovial grandparents started chatting them up as well. It was a very funny and enjoyable train journey, akin to travelling with family, until the trio got off at their destination in Milano cheerfully calling out, “Arrividerci.”

To be continued in Part II… Venezia.

[I have linked this post to:

*Monday Escapes #38, hosted by Packing My Suitcase and My Travel Monkey

**City Tripping#43, hosted by Wander Mum and Mummy Travels]

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Wander Mum