Saturday, August 15, 2015

Wanderings in NYC

I've been in New York City for the past two months, and though I've visited the city before, living here for an extended amount of time is a really different experience. I was able to take more time to wander and explore the parts of the city that are off the beaten track. Here are some of my favorite discoveries.

Between Greenpoint and East Williamsburg in Brooklyn is a creative industrial zone with wide open vistas for admiring the sunset and Manhattan in the distance. There are old factories and warehouses, beautiful street art, and a stillness and emptiness that is hard to find in the city. 

Keep going south, and soon you'll approach the hipster-laden streets of Williamsburg. Near the waterfront is a little park that houses the food truck festival Smorgasburg during the weekends. On a weeknight, it is peaceful and quiet, and offers magnificent views of the skyline. People were sitting, talking, and reading next to the water.

Another cool area in Brooklyn is on the edge of the Gowanus neighborhood, near the Smith Street/9 Ave subway station. This industrial neighborhood on the surface seems quite rundown, but has some signs of revitalization.

Right underneath the main subway overpass is a mass storage of secondhand furniture behind a chain-linked fence that I dubbed the furniture graveyard.

Across the street was a big warehouse full of secondhand knickknacks including furniture, books, appliances, lighting, doors, and everything else you could possibly imagine. We had a fun time examining the goods and oddities in this place!

A fun summer time excursion is Governor's Island. I took a day trip to Governor's Island from a ferry on the southern tip of Manhattan. The ferry only costs $2 roundtrip and takes less than 10 minutes to reach this historic island. There is plenty of green space, and galleries and special exhibits within colonial era houses. People were picnicking, riding bikes, and generally just enjoying the sunshine and the unique artwork.

Another cool island right by Manhattan is Roosevelt Island, right in between Manhattan and Queens. you can take a big cable car over the river to Roosevelt Island, for the cost of a metro ride. Many people actually live on the island, but the southern side is a lovely park called the Four Freedoms Park, and it is pristine and well-designed.

The steps and paths are made of beautiful white marble. They are easily stained, so visitors are not allowed to bring food and drink past a certain point of the park. After you climb the steps, you are greeted with this stunning perspective. At the point of the triangle is a large bust of Roosevelt and an inscription of his words. The park was empty on a weekday morning, and definitely worth a visit!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Piazza San Marco

St. Mark's Square is the heart of Venice, and undoubtedly the site of the most popular tourist attractions, including the grand St. Mark's Basilica and Doge's Palace, where the Doge lived during the glorious days of the Venetian Republic. We were lucky to stay only one street away from this area, as our hotel was tucked into one of the alleyways that runs parallel to the square. 

The Basilica is beautiful, even when under extensive renovation. The line at this time of year, in early March, wasn't bad – we waited about 10 minutes to get in. The main part of the building is free but there are some exhibits and a museum that you have to pay a few euros to get into. It’s a nice basilica – but not super memorable, especially since I’ve seen so many in Rome.

Venice was an independent republic for about a millennia. The Doge was the ruler of the republic, and resided in a beautiful palace known as Doge's Palace. Today, it is a popular museum that showcases the history and art of the Venetian Republic. Below is the central courtyard of the palace.

There is a general admission fee to tour the rooms of the palace, but we decided to take a guided tour for a few extra euros, in order to get a behind the scenes look. The main part of the Palace reminded me a bit of the Vatican Museums – lots of preserved rooms with historical importance, focused on the justice and administration of the Republic of Venice. There is impressive artwork, archival features, and you can also tour the prisons across the Bridge of Sighs, where the enemies of the Republic were kept. The regular ticket is 16 euros, which includes the other museums in St. Mark's Square.

We did the Secret Itineraries Tour, 20 euros, which took us behind the scenes into the older prisons, an interrogation room, the roof of the palace, and some of the administrative offices. This was an informative 1.25 hour tour, and I enjoyed learning about the more in-depth history of the Venetian Republic and the Palace from the guide.

On the tour, our small group got to escape from the larger tourist crowds, and see some interesting chambers and displays behind the main rooms of the Palace, like the weapon collection in the attic and even a room that was used for interrogation and torture.

Venice has such a fascinating history and there are so many books and films written about its mysterious and political intrigues. I'm really glad I got to learn about this aspect of the city while I was there. Though expensive, Venice was one of the my favorite places in Europe, and it was such a memorable experience. I hope to go back someday!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Last Stop, Venice!

Venice was the last point of our trip in Italy. Known variously as the City of Water, City of Bridges, and City of Masks, it is composed of 118 small islands, connected by bridges. It’s one of the most gorgeous and unique cities I’ve been in. All transportation is done through the canals – there are no streets at all, just pedestrian walks and bridges that link various parts of the island. Ferries and private gondolas transport people throughout the city.

We were here for three days, just enough time to see the major sites as well as some of the outer islands that are less popular with tourists. There are lots and lots of tourists, especially on San Marco island near the Basilica, San Marco Piazza, and the Rialto Bridge. In this area, lots of restaurants and shops cater towards visitors, and it can get overwhelming trying to navigate small alleyways that are crowded with people.

The further out you go, like to the west, near the shipyards, the more you can see more of the local essence of Venice. Get off the main paths that lead between tourist attractions, and find yourself lost in hidden courtyards, narrow alleyways, and quiet canals.

It’s very easy to get lost wandering the maze of alleyways, as GPS signals are very weak, most streets curve and wind and end suddenly at a canal, and there are no real street signs or numbers. Don't rely on Google Maps here. Soon enough, you will stumble upon a larger street with signs that point you to the major attractions, so rest assured you won’t be lost forever. I pride myself on being quite adept with directions, and yet there were a few times where I was confused and had to refer to a map. 

Though the whole area of the city is made of tiny islands connected by bridges, there are also several larger, more distinct islands, separated by the Grand Canal, a larger stretch of water. As I mentioned, San Marco is the main island for tourists. There are ferries that make scheduled runs among many stops, and they can take you in between islands. 

The ferries aren't cheap (about 7 euros for a one-way pass), but they do beat the price of hiring a private gondola. Some say that riding on a gondola is a quintessential experience in Venice, but I think that viewing the gondoliers singing and rowing, from a bridge, is just as fun!

Besides a few major attractions, the best way to experience Venice is just to walk around and explore the little nooks and crannies. Dining and lodging is quite expensive compared to the rest of Italy, as all supplies are shipped to the islands from mainland. I'll talk a bit more about the specific things we saw and did in a later post.

Many businesses start to close in the evening, around 8 or 9PM. This is not the place to come to for nightlife - you might want to head to Bologna for that! However, there are sunset and night views from the waterfront near the San Marco Piazza.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bologna, A College Town

Bologna, the seventh largest city in Italy, is not the most popular on the tourist trail, as it is often overshadowed by its famous neighbors - Venice, Milan, and Florence. However, it was on our train route up north, so we decided to stop by for a night and a day.

Bologna is a university town – it has the oldest university on continental Europe, founded in 1088. The university pervades the entire city, rather inconspicuously – its buildings blend in with the surroundings. It’s a rather small city – a few kilometers across, walk-able if you have a day to explore. 

The architecture is noted for its porticos, the covered arcades that run through the city alongside the streets. In fact, Bologna has 28 miles of porticos in total, and they come in all sorts of architectural styles. 

We saw some plazas, churches, and street markets. The city center was quite lively when we visited, with several performing groups out on the streets. There was a fun band, a quartet of young men that drew an admiring crowd.

Bologna is also known as the gastronomical center of Italy, and according to the locals, it's difficult to get a bad meal. On the recommendation of some residents, we went to a hole-in-the-wall pizza place in the student district called Casa Pizza on Belli Are. This place is quite popular with students on a budget - one large pizza is only 5 euros. 

We were too ambitious and ordered two pizzas, one with a variety of meats, olives, and mushrooms, the other with potato and bell peppers. As you might imagine, we were nowhere near finished with these two pizza pies at the end of the meal.

To walk off our full stomachs, we decided to climb the famous tower in the center of the city. It’s a surprisingly long and steep climb – just when you think you’ve reached the top of the staircase, you reach another level with even more stairs. There are also lots of other people climbing so it’s rather slow at times, as people create blockages on the steps. You are rewarded at the top with a panoramic view of Bologna. Apparently, the local myth is that a student will not graduate if he or she reaches the top, so you probably won’t find students going to the tower.  

We also stumbled across two street markets. One flea market sold interesting antiques (furniture, art, books, jewelry, curios) near the Church of Santo Stefano.

At dinnertime, we tried the apertivo tradition at Caffe Zamboni – you buy a drink at a bar and get free access to a buffet of various platters of food, including pasta, veggie sticks, cheeses, and fruit salad, and various breads. The food wasn’t the best quality, but it was a good deal, considering you get the drink and the food for 8 euros total.

One day is enough to see the main sights in Bologna. . It was a good opportunity to see the life of a mid-sized city, but there was nothing too remarkable about it in my opinion. It has much of the same vibe as other Italian areas – small bottegas dominated by South Asian immigrants, specialty shops, pretty winding alleyways, markets, big piazzas, churches - Perhaps it is more exciting for students who want to experience the nightlife. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Around Cinque Terre

Part of the pleasure of being in Cinque Terre is the easy access one has to the other villages. The local trains run regularly among the five villages, and there are also both coastal and mountain trails that link them. During the course of our three days, we were able to visit all of the villages, each with its own unique characteristics and personality. 

Corniglia, situated on a promontory was the first village we visited after Riomaggiore. To reach the center, you have to climb 365 steps from the train station, one for each day of the year. Therefore, it usually is recommended for tourists not to stay overnight here, as you would need to lug all of your bags up this way. Corniglia has nice winding alleys and a great look out point where you can have a view down the coast. 

Manarola, another village in Cinque Terre, has a main street that leads down the harbor. One of the restaurants near the water has great gelato!

The next day was brighter and sunnier - lucky, because we were planning on making the famous hike between Monterosso and Vernazza. Monterosso is a larger town, the northernmost of Cinque Terre, and has the feel of a seaside resort. There is a wide swath of sandy beach, perfect in a warmer season for swimming and laying out under the sun.

The two-hour hike between Monterosso and Vernazza leads you up into the mountains in between the two villages. The trail is not marked particularly well, and we actually found ourselves up in some farmer's terraces because we lost the main trail. Several times during this hike, we would accidentally wander off the path and into farmland.

Eventually, we found the stone steps of the main trail, as it led away from the terraces and into the heavily wooded side of the mountain.

As you descend over the side of the mountain, you are rewarded with a beautiful view of the next village, Vernazza, which lies on a spit of land curling out into the sea.

The harbor area makes for a nice stroll. Though there was some construction happening in the village because it was the off season for tourism, that hardly detracted from our enjoyment. 

We spend some time looking out to the sea from the harbor, before getting more gelato from a little place in the village (No day was complete without a little bit of gelato!). Then, we took the train back to Riomaggiore, packed up, and got ready to leave Cinque Terre for the next morning. I really loved this little gem of a place in Italy, and additionally enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the off-season.