Monday, 24 February 2014

On the steps of kings and queens: Versailles uncovered

I don't know anybody who hasn't heard of Louis XIV, the Sun King, or of Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France, who lived at the time of the French Revolution and was guillotined in what is today Place de la Concorde. Versailles is the place to learn about the history of the kings and queens of France, and to imagine  the life of the courtesans in the 18th century, when the king together with a bunch of aristocrats decided the fate of people everywhere in Europe.

Entrance to Versailles

Going to Versailles isn't exactly low cost. The entrance to the palace is 18€, and even more if it's summer and there are musical fountain shows (25€). The food inside the castle is also extremely pricey, but you can exit, find a small restaurant in town, and then enter again and visit a different part of this huge estate. Another thing to take into consideration is the ticket to get there: Versailles is in zone 4, and you will need a special ticket that costs about 6,50€.

You need a whole day to see Versailles. I started from the palace itself, as it comes more natural when you enter the main gates. I suggest that you buy a passport ticket (18€), so you have access to more or less everything. In alternative, you can visit the main palace alone (15€), or the smaller ones (10€). There are also additional tickets for guided tours of the opera house and the chapel, if you are really into the history of Versailles (16€). You can however see the chapel during your regular tour from the outside. About visiting Versailles in winter and why it wasn't such a good idea I have already written in this post. The best season to see it is probably spring. 

Chapel, Versailles
The royal chapel

The Hall of Mirrors is the most impressive of the rooms you will see on your visit, but also the most crowded. It is a long ballroom that features 17 tall mirrors and many golden statues. One thing that struck me about the palace of Versailles is how much gold and golden decorations you see. There is so much of it that your eyes will literally hurt! The style has been imitated so many times everywhere in the world that it can almost look kitsch to people who don't know the importance and influence of Versailles on the rest of the European courts and palaces.

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles
The Hall of Mirrors
My second favourite room was the queen's bedroom, where the decorations are just exquisite. Some things about Versailles are unbelievable, for example when the queen gave birth courtesans could assist, and what is more she also had to receive guests in her bedroom.

Queen's Bedroom, Versailles
The queen's bedroom, Versailles
One thing that disappointed me is that you don't visit many rooms during your tour. I also regret not looking for an audio guide, as there is only cursory information in the rooms. As a matter of fact, I only found out later that it was included in the price of the ticket.

Another room inside Versailles

The gardens of Versailles
View of the garden from inside the Queen's apartments
The gardens

Fountain Versailles
The main fountain in Versailles

The gardens of Versailles are huge. There are even mini-trains that  take you to different parts of the gardens, but you have to pay to get on one of them (€7,50). If you don't want to pay more take into consideration that you have to walk at least 30 minutes to reach the Grand Trianon, and even more for the Petit Trianon and the queen's hamlet, hameau de la reine.

The gardens are full of geometric paths, carefully tended flower beds and hedges, with statues and buildings scattered everywhere. Pools of water and fountains decorate this beautiful place. It is a pleasure to walk around and discover the hidden gems of the gardens.
Gardens, Versailles
Another picture of the gardens

My friends and I decided to walk towards the Grand Trianon. After all, we didn't pay the full price only to see the main palace! The Grand Trianon is a smaller palace within the grounds of the estate, built so that the king could escape from the etiquette of the court and have light meals with his secret wife. After the Revolution, Napoleon lived here with his second wife Marie Louise. It is lavishly furnished, and it gives you the idea of the life at court: the king and the queen were not always relegated in the main palace, but had other places where they could enjoy life without many restrictions.

Grand Trianon, Versailles
A room of the Grand Trianon

Another such place is the Petit Trianon, a favourite retreat for Marie Antoinette. It is yet another ch√Ęteau, built for one of Louis XV's mistresses, the infamous Madame de Pompadour, who unfortunately died four years after its completion. At the time, the king's chief mistress  had a semi-official status and had her own apartments within the court! Unfortunately, I didn't visit this part of Versailles because on that day it was very cold, and after walking from the main palace to the Grand Trianon my friends and I were tired and freezing. This means that I need to go back to Versailles!
Grand Trianon, Versailles
Another room of the Grand Trianon

How to reach Versailles

Can you believe that Lonely Planet's Paris city guide doesn't give you any suggestions on how to reach Versailles from the centre of Paris? Versailles is about 12 miles from the centre of Paris. To reach it you can take RER C, which is a train that serves Paris and its suburbs. Get off at Versailles - Rive Gauche, which is the closest train station to the chateau, only five minutes away. You cannot use your usual T+ ticket, but you need to buy a special ticket, because Versailles is in zone 4. Depending on where your accommodation is located, you can also take the "transilien L" train. It leaves you at Versailles Rive Droite, 15 minutes away from the chateau. I think a return ticket cost me 6,50€ .

Friday, 14 February 2014

I can't believe this is England: exploring Cornwall

For nine months in 2010, and then again for six months in 2012, I lived and worked in London. When you live in such a big and chaotic city, you can easily get bored of the asphalt jungle, of the crowds of people crossing the street, not to mention of endless grey skies. Since I had already explored England, Scotland and Ireland to a certain degree, I wanted to go to a part of the country that felt completely different. I almost booked a getaway to the Lake District, and I was seriously thinking of going to Wales for a change, but in the end the pictures on the web convinced me to tackle the long train journey to Cornwall.

Cornwall, on the westernmost corner of England, has a temperate microclimate, and therefore different plants can grow here, like cactuses and strange colourful flowers. My train left from Paddington station early in the morning, and as the English countryside passed in front of me, I could see many different landscapes: strange rock formations, huge bridges, and even a harbour half buried under the sand.


Cornwall sea
The sea in St.Ives

Friday, 7 February 2014

Three things that will strike you about Slovenia

I've only been to the north-western tip of this small country, riding the train from Nova Gorica to Bled and enjoying this lake town and its surroundings, including  the less famous but equally stunning Lake Bohinj and little jewels like the Vintgar Gorge. I can't therefore be considered an expert in everything Slovenian, but I'd like to write about three things that struck me in this beautiful country.

Lake Bled
Lake Bled
1) The mix of influences

Slovenia is an original mixture of the culture of the Balkans with that of Central Europe, with a zest of Italy, which is just around the corner. I felt incredibly at home in Slovenia, in spite of the different language and the difficult relationship that my country, Italy, had with Slovenia in the past because of language minorities and wars.

Just to give you an example of the influences that this country has to deal with, the waiter at the restaurant where I stopped on my way to Savica Waterfall knew how to say "skewer" in Italian, which is not exactly a word you use everyday. On the other hand, in the bar near my hostel, they had excellent cappuccino but no croissant, which every coffee place in Italy has in the morning. When I asked the waitress what people have for breakfast in Slovenia she humorously answered "kebab! And smoking cigarettes...", probably because she was selling kebab. I still don't know what Slovenians eat for breakfast, but I know that a cappuccino in Lake Bled is not unlike an Italian one!

For a visual example, just look at the  wrought-iron dragon in this picture taken inside the castle in Bled. The design makes me think of Eastern Europe for some reason.

Museum in  Bled (Slovenia)
Museum inside Bled Castle
I can easily imagine this castle with conical roofs dotting the landscape of Hungary.
Conical roof Bled
Conical roof at Bled Castle
And some of the chalets I encountered while hiking could have been Austrian houses.

Chalet, Slovenia
Chalet in Slovenia

2) The architecture

What makes the architecture of Slovenia so pleasant to see is the harmony with the surrounding landscape, rather than the artistic achievement of the single buildings. It looks like somebody put the buildings and built the houses taking in consideration the fact that one day tourists will come and snap pictures.

Bled (Slovenia)
The castle in Bled perched on a rock

Church, Bled
Gracious church on the island in Lake Bled

They say that Communism produced some monsters in terms of architecture, big ugly buildings that will look out of place everywhere, but I didn't see many of these.

3) The respect for natural beauty

The most obvious things about Slovenia, is its almost rustic charm and its natural beauty, still uncontaminated. Even where human settlement has arrived, it looked as if respect for the place was always taken into consideration. To me it seemed that Slovenians were always walking on tiptoe, as not to intrude on their nature. Wherever you look there are mountain trails, and possibility to do outdoor sports. Hiking is particularly pleasant in this country, and I've seen plenty of people.

Lake Bohinj
Canoeing at Lake Bohinj
The azure of the water of lakes and rivers will make you think that somebody has added soap in them, but it's clearly not the case. As a matter of fact, Slovenians are renowned in Europe for being particularly eco-friendly.
Relaxing in Lake Bohinj
Relaxing in Lake Bohinj

Did I convince you to visit Slovenia?

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Ghetto of Venice

"So now we will pass through the ghetto", I said casually while leading my new American friends through the calli of Venice.
"Oh my God" said one of the two young couchsurfers with surprise and apprehension, " is it dangerous?".
Little did they know that this was a completely different kind of ghetto, not a place of segregation, poverty and crime within an American city, but an area of the town where historically the Jewish population used to live, with restrictions certainly, but also in relative wealth. The word ghetto - which was later used for Nazi Jewish quarters in Eastern Europe or for racially segregated neighbourhoods in the United States - was in fact born in Venice to indicate the area where Jewish people were confined in the past. Its origins indicate a possible foundry that existed on the island that was chosen to accommodate the growing Jewish population of Venice in the 16th century.

Ghetto, Venice
Campo del Gheto Nuovo

Today the Jewish ghetto of Venice is, at least according to me, one of the most charming places in all of Venice. It is formed by a campo, the only one in the town without a church, and by several narrow streets. If you are not looking for it, you might as well miss it. Campo del Gheto Nuovo is a peaceful place, with children playing, the occasional Orthodox Jew walking by, and buildings taller than the ones you can see in the rest of the town. This is because the Jewish population of Venice was restricted to this area, so people built taller houses to accommodate everyone.
Tall Houses - Ghetto (Venice)
Tall Houses in the Ghetto

Ghetto, Venice
Children playing at the ghetto

It is almost impossible to distinguish the synagogues from the outside, as they were expressively built not to be ostentatious from the outside. You can identify one of them by a series of five windows with green shutters representing the first five books in the Bible. You can see another if you look at one corner of the square: that strange wooden structure with a small dome is the place in the synagogue where the ancient scriptures are read in one of the old historical synagogues. I think one of the reasons why Venice, and this area in particular, is so charming has to do with the state of decay of some of the houses and palaces, as if a veil of nostalgia made Venice more special.

Angolo ghetto, Venezia
A corner with the synagogue visible
The Orthodox Jews you will see in the square are not native of Venice, but they relocated from other parts of the world. Understandably, Venetian Jews nowadays live all over the town, and not only here. In a corner of the square there is a monument that remembers the Holocaust, with the names of all the people who were deported. It is indeed a touching monument, but don't make the mistake of associating the neighbourhood with this only.

Ghetto (Venice)
The monument commemorating the people who were deported
As a matter of fact, the area is peppered with art galleries displaying the work of Jewish artists, a couple of shops selling Jewish items, especially candleholders, and a kosher restaurant. The latter is not bad, if you fancy a change from the average Italian menu. What they offer is a mixture of Italian and Middle Eastern dishes, and they have a very nice and filling appetizer dish for €9,80. I find the area more lively than most Jewish streets or neighbourhoods in other Italian towns, like Ferrara. There are also a couple of bakeries, and a museum in a corner of the main campo.

Ghetto (Venice)
Kosher bakery

To visit the aforementioned museum, you can pay the normal entrance fee (4€) or ask for a joined ticket that will also give you the possibility to visit three synagogues with a guided tour that starts every hour, in English and Italian (10€). Don't visit the museum without the guided tour of the synagogues, because that's the highlight of a visit to the ghetto. The tour is very informative, and the guide will answer every possible curiosity you may have about the Jewish community in Venice. And of course, you'll have the opportunity to see the old synagogues and learn about the different congregations and the life of Venetian Jews throughout the centuries.

Ghetto (Venice)
A corner of the main square
I suggest that you don't miss passing through the ghetto while you're in Venice. The area is not far from the railway station. Just take the street that starts on the left of the train station (don't cross Ponte degli Scalzi), and go straight until you reach a bridge (Ponte delle Guglie). After passing the bridge, turn immediately to your left following the canal. Here you should see a yellow sign helping you. It's written in both Italian and Hebrew. Turn right under the stone doorway when you see a restaurant with tables along the canal.

The ghetto is not an overtly touristic area of Venice, and there are quiet canals all around it, so it's perfect for a pleasant walk on a sunny (or not so sunny day).
Ghetto (Venice)
The quiet Fondamenta degli Ormesini, near the ghetto
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