Italy, Austria, Germany, & Hungary
March 7th-18th, 2005
Our second journey through Europe began in the city of Venice, Italy. Venice is a city of stunning beauty, friendly people, and excellent cuisine. I can’t think of a better place to start an exciting cultural backpacking trip through Central Europe. Our journey would take us through a total of four countries (Italy, Austria, Germany, and Hungary) over a period of ten days, and each country added another layer of beauty to the palette, but it must be said, that Venice added more than one might expect. The city of Venice is alive with exquisite light and bustling activity. Around every corner you find a new and exciting panorama of life, anything from crisp, clean, laundry hung out to dry in the soft breeze, to gondoliers doing their best to persuade any passerby to stop and take time to see the city from his gondola. The best part of Venice is wandering around the canals in search of a new and fascinating scene, don’t worry if you take a wrong turn and end up at a dead end, just set out and keep walking and exploring every corner you can find. One thing you can be sure of is that Venice will enchant you with its captivating sights.
Once we arrived at Marco Polo Airport it was a short bus ride to Venice, from the bus stop we started walking the canals in search of a nice hotel. We found the Hotel Ai Mori D’Oriente, which we had read good things about, and checked in around noon. As we waited for our room to be ready we decided to go explore the city, we left our heavy backpacks at the front desk, and grabbed only our daypacks.
The ancient city of Venice has many faces. It is blessed with a treasure trove of art, architecture, and history, not to mention a fantastic social scene. Built on more than 100 small islands, Venice has more than 150 canals crisscrossed by 409 bridges. As I mentioned before, getting lost is part of the Venetian experience. You’ll want to stroll along the canals by foot, or float peacefully along in a gondola or vaporetto (water taxi), jumping ship to explore whimsical back street squares where lines of laundry dance in the wind between spectacular baroque buildings. It is here where you will experience the real Venice.
Our walking tour through this fairy-tale scenario began in the afternoon, on a wonderful spring-like day. The sun was shining and the temperature hovered near sixty as we made our way toward the Piazza San Marco. The Piazza is dominated by two of the city’s most sought after historical sights – the Basilica San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. Here you will also find the 323 foot high Campanile, where a lift will take you to the top for magnificent views of the city, the lagoon, and on a clear day, the Italian Alps. Mind your ears if you happen to be at the top on the hour, as the ringing of the five huge bells are likely to be a bit deafening. Once you return to the square from your lofty perch be sure to buy some food for the pigeons that flock to any kind tourist with a handout, and when I say flock I mean flock. Be forewarned, if you have food you will be a roosting platform!
We continued to wander about the city for the rest of the afternoon, taking in views of the Rialto Bridge, and the many beautiful churches including Santa Maria della Salute. At around 5:00 pm we decided to partake of some of the local cuisine. We dined at Ristorante-Pizzeria Maltbran on pennette alla arrabiato and margarita pizza, followed by tiramisu for dessert. Dinner cost about 30 euros, including two soft drinks. The food was incredible and the service was great, and this was the case throughout Italy.
The next day we set aside for a tour of The Lagoon Islands of Murano and Burano. The main islands are well served by the vaporetti, and a ticket for the navigazione laguna tour cost 8.50 euro. We boarded the boat at F. Nuovo for the short ride across the water to the island of Murano, which has been the center of glassmaking since 1291. A tour of the island must include a walk to the beautiful church of the Basilica dei Santa Maria e Donato. The church is the island’s architectural highlight and it includes Byzantine columns and a colonnaded apse. The floor of the church is also an intriguing sight; medieval mosaics create geometric figures and mythical creatures, some of which incorporate pieces of ancient glass from the island’s foundries. Unfortunately, photography is not permitted inside the basilica, so don’t be disappointed when you arrive with your camera only to have to leave it packed away.
Our second, and final destination on our tour, was the island of Burano. Known for its colorful buildings, lace, and leaning church tower, Burano is a definite highlight. We boarded the ferry destined for Burano from the Faro stop on Murano. The buildings of Burano are truly a sight to see, the brightly colored houses can make any day seem warm and sunny. Luckily for us, the day was indeed warm and sunny, making the colors even more vibrant. Each house displays its own unique color, and together they form a whimsical palette fit for an artist. The buildings that line the canals make for an even more beautiful scene, as their reflections in the water add yet another dimension to the landscape.
Burano is the perfect place for enjoying a leisurely lunch in an outdoor café. Just pick any restaurant perched along the canals and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere of buon appetito.
Back in Venice we walked once again to San Marco, this time for views of the Bridge of Sighs, from there we continued on toward the Accademia Bridge and Santa Maria della Salute. The sun was just beginning to set and the warm glow was penetrating the stone of the buildings along the Grand Canal. The view from the bridge during this magical hour was magnificent! We wanted to linger and take in the light, but we knew the last rays would soon be illuminating Santa Maria, so we hurriedly made our way to the church. Thankfully, our timing was perfect, and we were able to enjoy the fading light amid the monumental church before returning across the Grand Canal in the twilight via treghetti, or gondola.
With the sunlight now gone, we headed toward the Rialto Bridge for some night photography. The cafes that line the banks of the canal near the Rialto spring to life when the sun disappears. Candlelight fills the evening with a warm glow, inviting patrons to stop in for a romantic dinner.
After a little shopping we stopped in Trattoria Le Campane for a splendid meal. On order was spaghetti pomodoro, grilled sole filet, and salad for me, while Pick had the lasagna Bolognese, grilled pork chop, and salad, and for each a glass of wine. For dessert we had tiramisu and topped it off with a cappuccino. Our dinner was delicious, and at a cost of 40 euros total it was also a pretty good bargain. The walk back to the hotel was refreshing, and it gave us time to reflect on our Venetian visit. We both agreed that Venice was now one of our favorite cities, and it saddened us to leave, but we were consoled with the fact that more great cities awaited.
Early the next morning, after a fantastic continental breakfast at the hotel, we packed our backpacks and hiked to the train station. It was time to set out for the mountainous region of the north, but first, a stop in the fair city of Verona.
Verona is one of northern Italy’s most alluring cities, its ancient streets, noble palaces, Roman Arena, and quiet café lined squares are every bit as romantic as you would expect of Romeo and Juliet’s city.
The Arena, Verona’s Amphitheatre, is the third largest remaining Roman Arena in the world, and the focus of our visit. A tour of the arena renders one speechless. Standing atop the tiered stone seats, peering down into the arena, you can just imagine the bloody battles that once took place between gladiators and wild beasts. Today, opera performances and other plays are what draw people to the 25,000 capacity arena. The interior of the arena is in remarkable condition, as it has survived virtually intact, but the outside wall was not so fortunate, only a portion of it remains.
Piazza Erbe is another highlight of Verona. In the square, ancient streets lined with outdoor cafes and market stalls draw you into the European ambience. We stopped in the square to rest our feet for awhile while savoring a meal under the warm Italian sun, we dined in the piazza just steps from a 2000 year old fountain.
After a lunch of pizza and pasta we decided to climb the 368 steps of the 275 foot Torre dei Lamberti, a tower that provides a magnificent view of the city and fine views of the Alps. After that bit of exercise we went in search of a refreshing treat, and we found it at the Gelateria Mazzini, where we sampled some excellent Italian ice cream.
Back at the station we boarded a train headed for Bolzano, Italy. This two hour journey took us past castles and mountain vistas before arriving in the Tyrolean city of Bolzano. An interesting mix of Italian, German, and Ladin, Bolzano is a unique destination. It was a short walk from the train station to Piazza Walther/ Waltherplatz, the historical center of town. A few streets over, in the Piazza Grano Kornplatz, we found the Hotel Figl, a traditional hotel full of character. We checked in to our room at a rate of 93 euros and then set out exploring. We walked past churches and buildings that were stunning, until we ended up at a quaint little restaurant called Scheun Bierstuben, where we had some great strudel and Wolfsteiner beer.
After a great nights sleep at the Hotel Figl, we set out for the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology. The star attraction at this museum is The Iceman, or “Otzi”, a unique 5000 year old glacier mummy. The Iceman is preserved at the museum via a specially designed cold storage chamber that has a small window for viewing. His clothing and trekking gear are also available for viewing while at the museum. Seeing these incredibly well preserved artifacts is well worth the 8 euro admission fee. (Note to English only speakers: No items are described in English.)
Next on our list of things to see was the mighty peaks of the Dolomites, commonly known as the Italian Alps. We caught a bus from the Bolzano train station up to the town of Alpe di Siusi, from there we took a gondola up into the snow covered mountains of the ski resort. The mountain scenery was spectacular, as was the winter hiking. We followed the well groomed path called Passeggiata Invernale / Winterwanderweg until it felt like we could reach out and touch the jagged peaks of the Sasso Lungo Range (Read more about this hike on our sister websiteNatural Born Hikers). On our return hike we decided to stop in the Hotel Restaurant Ritsch Schwaige in order to warm up and taste some local specialties. We had goulash and wurst that was delicious, and a strudel with vanilla cream sauce that was to die for!
The Dolomites were so gorgeous in winter that it was hard to imagine how stunning they would be in summer. Someday we will return in summer and do some serious hiking, but on this trip our little excursion would have to do. We returned via the scenic bus ride back to Bolzano, ready to board a train to our next destination of Brenner. We arrived in the tiny open air train station of Brenner at 6:30 P.M., the town was dark and there were no hotels in sight so we opted to jump back on a train and head on to Innsbruck, Austria. Now all we had to do was figure out when the next train to Innsbruck was set to depart, and this was no easy task! There were no people in sight, it was freezing cold outside (about -4 Celsius), and there was a disconcerting lack of signs. We finally saw a station worker walking along the tracks and flagged him down, we asked if he could tell us when the next train left for Innsbruck, but he spoke very little English and we spoke very little Italian and even less German. Fortunately he understood our question, it was just figuring out how to relay the answer that was difficult. Finally he took a stick and wrote in the snow the departure time of 7:36 P.M., we thanked him profusely and will forever remember the experience of communicating despite a language barrier. We had 25 minutes before the train would depart, so to stay warm we did a few jumping jacks and a little pogo, just to remind us of our punk rock days.
On to Austria
Click here for info on purchasing photos
Copyright 1989-2008, Natural Born Hikers, All rights
Send comments on this web site to firstname.lastname@example.org