Italian road trip – Day 3 – Venice – Part 2

Part 1 of the Venice leg of our Italian road trip ended with our entrance into the Piazza di San Marco. That’s where this story begins.

As you can see on the map, the city of Venice isn’t made up of a single island, but multiple ones. This will prove interesting later on in the post, when you’ll see photos from the Campanile of the Piazza di San Marco (the Bell Tower). For now, let’s see what there is to see in the Piazza. As with the previous post, you can see the photos in the slideshow embedded below, or you can scroll down to see each photo and read my accompanying thoughts.

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Italian road trip – Day 3 – Venice – Part 1

On the third day of our Italian road trip, we left Florence and started on our way to Venice.

This post contains 50 photos, so get ready to spend about 15-20 minutes here. You can see a slideshow below, or you can scroll down to see each photo alongside my thoughts.

First, we needed to find a place to stay for the night. We kept driving and driving, through Modena and on to Ferrara, but no decent hotel or pension presented itself to us. We veered off the highway, hoping to find a nice, quiet pension in the countryside, but we couldn’t see anything. It was getting darker, and we were getting desperate. We were tired after a long day of walking and driving, and we wanted to rest.

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Italian road trip – Day 2 – Florence

Our Italian road trip took us from Pisa to Florence, where we arrived on the evening of February 18th, just as dusk set in. We navigated the Florence streets at night with some difficulty, but arrived at our lodging in due time, where we rested for the day ahead.

Map of Firenze

Here’s us descending the hills of Tuscany into Florence, on the main highway that connects it to Pisa.

See this video on Vimeo

A funny thing happened that evening. We’d been following our somewhat convoluted route through the city, when we reached a bridge we needed to cross but couldn’t. It’d been blocked — barricaded — by the city, for reasons unknown, since no work was being done on the road. We stopped to call for directions. On the other side of the barricades, a line of angry Italians was forming. Apparently the barricades had only been put up that day, and they weren’t happy about it.

One of them, a young, strong fellow in his 20s, had been building up some steam underneath his collar. With no thought of turning around and finding another route, he got out of his car and started to break the plastic ties that held the barricades together, bare-handed. These were thick ties — the same kind used to handcuff people when they’re arrested — yet he snapped them with relative ease. After breaking a few, he figured it was tedious, so he got a sharp hunting knife from his car and sliced through the rest of the ties, then threw the barricades aside and drove right through.

I’d gotten out of my car to have a better look at what he was doing, and stood there amazed. Seriously, it takes guts to have complete disregard for the authorities of a city. On the one hand, what he did was wrong, but on the other hand, he helped us and the many other drivers stuck there. We knew of no other route to get where we were going, and we’d have been lost if he hadn’t cleared the way. and after a short while, reached the place where we were staying — Villa Aurora — a picturesque antique villa perched on one of the Tuscan hills that surrounded the city.

The villa and its surroundings were so beautiful that in spite of my fatigue and the cold weather, I had to make time for a few nighttime photos, after which I slept like a log till early morning.

Tuscan courtyard, night

Interior courtyard at night

We got up with the dawn and after a hearty breakfast, drove into the city to visit. We parked in the subterranean lot behind the railway station, near the church of Santa Maria Novella, then walked through the city for several hours.

A couple of grand hotels

20 eccetto

We visited the Duomo while it was still early morning and the tourists weren’t around, then had the best hot chocolate ever at a place called SergioBar, right in the Piazza del Duomo.

Bell tower

Bronze doorway detail

Morning traffic

Il Duomo II

I highly recommend climbing to the top of either the Campanile or the Duomo, in the morning or in the late afternoon, when the sun casts long shadows on the city. The climb is long and exhausting, but you’ll be treated to some fantastic views of Florence.

Climbing the Campanile

Florence rooflines in early morning sunlight

Tuscan rooflines

Il Duomo

Il Duomo III

After that, we made our way to the Palazzo Vecchio and the Ponte Vecchio.

Scooter city II


Piazza della Signoria II

No Fakes, Thanks

Narrow slit of sky

Didn't I see this in a movie somewhere?

Old lady walking her pooch

We crossed the old bridge then climbed up to the Palazzo Pitti with its hilltop gardens and amazing views of Florence and the surrounding areas, then came back down and slowly made our way back across the Arno to the railway station and our car. Venice was next on our list, but we had to drive a good while till we got there and find a hotel to sleep for the night.

Palazzo Pitti

Hilltop gardens

Tuscan villa

Walled and barred

Where the road divides

Santa Maria Novella

After making our way out of the city, we took the highway toward Venice, then exited somewhere near Modena and made our way toward Ferrara on country roads. It was near Modena that we saw the Lamborghini factory — actually, passed right by it — but it didn’t occur to us till after the fact. That was unfortunate, it would have been nice to take a tour.

We found a small, cozy and very clean hotel on the outskirts of Ferrara and slept there for the night.

Dusk in Emilia Romagna

All the photos you see here and more can be found at larger sizes in the Firenze album in my photo catalog.


Italian road trip – Day 1 – Pisa

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Our Italian road trip started in Pisa on February 18th.

Map of Pisa

A map of Pisa and the surrounding region.

We arrived at Pisa Airport via Ryanair around 11 am. The airplane passed Pisa, then circled back over Livorno and landed.

High above the clouds.

High above the clouds.

On a Ryanair flight above the city of Pisa, in Tuscany, Italy. The Mediterranean Sea is visible in the upper left.

On a Ryanair flight above the city of Pisa, in Tuscany, Italy. The Mediterranean Sea is visible in the upper left.

On a Ryanair flight above the city of Livorno, in Tuscany, Italy.

On a Ryanair flight above the city of Livorno, in Tuscany, Italy.

It was around noon that we got our luggage and rental car sorted out and left. On our way out, we took a wrong turn and found ourselves in the industrial zone outside the city. As long as we were there, we stopped to have lunch. The food was good, but the prices were the same as in downtown restaurants. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to pay the same price, I’d rather have my food in a nice place, not in a hole in the wall near a bunch of warehouses. We left after asking someone for directions, and were soon inside the city. We stopped at the intersection you see below to find our way around.

An intersection in Pisa.

An intersection in Pisa.

We needed to find the leaning tower, and thankfully, there were signs to guide us along the way. Once in the old town center, we found a nice area and decided to stop and visit for a while. We found the parking lot you see below, and parked there.

Downtown somewhere

We stopped here to visit the old town center.

In this photo, you can see the same building visible in the lower right corner above, but from nearby. We parked our car a little ways down this street. The ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato) sign, marked by a round red circle, can be seen here. Make sure to obey these signs while you’re driving in Italy. They mark specific areas where traffic is limited during certain days and hours. You can incur hefty fines if you drive through one of these areas when you’re not supposed to do it.

We found a parking spot on this street.

We found a parking spot on this street.

We started to walk around, taking photos of interesting buildings and spots we saw. Nearby, there was this building with a cross on the roof. It appeared to be a church, but was unmarked and not open to the public.

A building that appears to be a church, yet is without any name and cannot be entered. Pisa, Italy.

Not sure what this is, but I liked the facade.

This building appears to have once been a villa for a wealthy family. Now it’s been converted to a bus depot, called CPT Autoservizi Lazzi. There are ticket counters inside and behind it, there’s a large parking lot where people wait to board the buses.

CPT Utoservizi Lazzi

CPT Autoservizi Lazzi

This is the back of the villa from the previous photo. As you can see, a few smaller buildings are huddled next to it, and what’s left of the old city wall abuts the villa on its left side.


Transfer point for the CPT Autoservizi Lazzio.

The villa itself was built to last, with plenty of attention to detail. Notice the wonderful ironwork protecting the windows, and the late Gothic columns that divide the window openings.

Wrought iron arches

Wrought iron arches

Guess what I found on the other side of the old city wall? The headquarters for the Asociazione Radioamatori Italiani, Sezione di Pisa (Italian Amateur Radio Association, Pisa Club). Glad to see ham radio folks are still around. While Romania was under the clutches of communism, amateur radio was one of the very few ways people could communicate with foreigners. They used to build their own radio equipment, at risk, and try to get in touch with folks in Western Europe. Some would keep in touch with their families, who’d already fled the country, some would do it for camaraderie, and others to keep their hopes up by knowing they had a line to the free world.

Associazione Radioamatori Italiani

Asociazione Radioamatori Italiani, Sezione di Pisa

I liked the juxtaposition of these buildings and their rooflines.

Corsia 5 bus station

Corsia 5 bus station

The sign in the photo below says “Area di atessa sicura”. I’m not exactly sure what it refers to: perhaps that’s a bus waiting area, or a place where you can wait in peace — for what, I don’t know. At any rate, if you’ll look up at the roofline, you’ll agree with me that it’s an unusual corner. I haven’t yet seen a broken roofline at the corner of a building.

Area di atessa sicura

Area di atessa sicura

A building which housed, among other things, one of the restaurants in downtown Pisa.

Ristorante Centrale

Ristorante Centrale

One of the side streets that branched off the main piazza and roundabout that can be seen in this photo.

Morning walk

A typical Italian street

There’s a church that’s visible in the photo above. There’s a mural underneath the awning that covers the entrance. This is that mural, which depicts the annunciation, or the scene when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she’s been chosen to bear the Son of God. I would have liked to go inside the church, but that was unfortunately not possible — it was locked.

Ave Maria gratia plena

Ave Maria gratia plena

But enough about Pisa’s streets. Let’s get to what everyone wants to see: the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Here it is, as seen from the back entrance to the Piazza dei Miracoli.

Leaning Tower I

The Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Duomo

Here’s another view of the tower, from its back — an angle that’s seldom used, and that’s why you see no people in the foreground. Everyone goes to photograph the tower from the lawn of the Duomo, because that’s where they do all those silly tricks where they pinch the tower between their fingers, or pretend to push it with their hands and feet, or… well, you get the idea.

Leaning Tower II

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Here’s a view of the Duomo from its back. This is actually where the altar is located, so if you’re inside it, it’s the front, but such is the way cathedrals are. The back is the front is the back, depending on whether you’re inside or outside.

Il Duomo I

The Duomo of Pisa

These little guys are holding up some family crest — probably the folks who put up the most amount of money to have the place built. Note the smaller cherubim riding on top of something above the water spout. He looks like he’s peeing inside the bowl — a fairly common theme in these older water fountains.

Some cherubim is peeing in the water fountain

Three nice cherubim and one naughty one

Here we go, this is the typical view of the leaning tower, the one that everyone brings back with them.

Leaning Tower III

Leaning Tower of Pisa

And this is us in front of the tower, doing the typical tourist thing and smiling for the camera with the landmark behind us. As cheesy as I think it looks when I see others doing it, I have to admit that it’s nice to have these photos when I look back at the places I visited. By the way, my brother in law, Radu Anastase, took this photo. He’s a talented photographer who at 19 years of age has already had paid work published in Romanian magazines.

Us, at the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Us, at the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Here’s another view of the Duomo, from the nice, grassy lawn that covers most of the piazza. Shortly after taking this photo, a guard came and shooed everyone off the grass — apparently, they don’t want people trampling on it, which is silly. It’s practically a historical pastime to get on the grass and take photos of the tower. They might as well get over it.

Il Duomo IV

The Duomo of Pisa

I like this shot of the tower peeking out from behind the Duomo, because it emphasizes the tilt in its vertical axis.



I was impressed with the Baptistry, the round dome next to the Duomo. It’s older than the Duomo, and might even be a few centimetres taller than the Tower, according to Wikipedia.

The Baptistry

The Baptistry

Here’s another view of the Baptistry, from its front entrance.

The Baptistry, from the front

The Baptistry, from the front

The Duomo’s front is impressive indeed, with all those rows of repeating arches, held up by rows of Corinthian columns.

Il Duomo V

The Duomo of Pisa, main entrance

Notice the bottom row of columns, which is engraved with intricate reliefs. Can you imagine the work that went into making them?

Il Duomo VI

The Duomo of Pisa, from below

The inside was even more impressive. Light streamed in through the windows in the upper level, reflected off the richly adorned ceiling and filtered down to the marble floor.

Inside the Duomo II

Inside the Duomo

This is a panoramic photograph which includes the main altar and main ceiling mural of the Duomo. You can’t appreciate it fully here, but its original resolution is 2835 x 6852, and it’s made up of three individual photographs.

Inside the Duomo VI

A panoramic view of the inside of the Duomo

I chose to process this photograph differently because I thought the subject matter fit this finish better. It’s one of the side walls of the Duomo, the one that faces the Camposanto.

Il Duomo VII

The Duomo of Pisa, side wall

About the same time that I took this photo, Radu (my brother-in-law), took this photo of Ligia. She’s his older sister and my lovely wife, just in case you’re trying to figure out the relationship. She was walking toward us from the Camposanto.

The shadows were getting longer. It was time for us to leave. We needed to arrive in Florence by nightfall. We headed out the same way we came in, through the back entrance, which was less crowded than the alternative.

What you see below is a typical Tuscan landscape. They have those wonderful conifers which grow in the shape of popsicles, and that specific architecture that defines the region. All this photo needs is a few gentle rolling hills and some distance between me and the villas, and it’d be perfect.

Leaving by the back door

Leaving the Piazza dei Miracoli

I saw this Tuscan villa on the way to our car, which was parked just down the street from here. I love this kind of architecture.

Tuscan villa

A Tuscan villa in Pisa

I’d have liked to have seen more of Pisa, but when we only had a week at our disposal and our route was already mapped out, I had to stick to the schedule. It was time to leave and get on the highway. Firenze, the next stop on our road trip, awaited.

All of these photographs (and more) are available in larger sizes in the Pisa album in my photo catalog.


The ancient city of Histria

On the shore of Lake Sinoe in Romania, very close to the Black Sea, lie the ruins of the oldest documented city on the territory of modern-day Romania: Histria. (See satellite view below, or go to Google Maps to explore the full map.) We visited it in September of 2008.

It started its life around 630 BC [reference], built by Milesian colonists from Greece, to trade with native Getae tribes (Geti in Romanian). The Getae were Thracian tribes that occupied Dacia, whose territory is matched in smaller proportion by modern-day Romania. They, and the other people who settled in Romania at later times (like the Romans) are the ancestors of modern-day Romanians — my ancestors.

When Histria was built, its port was literally on the shore of the Black Sea. Over its approximately 14 centuries’ existence, silt deposits from the Danube River blocked off its access to the sea and formed what is now Lake Sinoe. This meant that the city’s importance as a port and trading post slowly diminished as the silt deposits grew to become the current land border between the Lake Sinoe and the Black Sea. It must have been painful to try and salvage the city’s livelihood by finding routes through the growing silt, hoping that ships stuck in the increasingly shallow water would somehow want to come back, should they manage to get away. Little did they know that in modern times, a canal would be cut through the silt shore at Periboin, not far from them.

By 100 AD, the city, who had resisted countless attacks and rebuilt its walls time after time after time, could only rely on fishing as a source of income. It managed to survive another 600 years or so, until it was destroyed one last time in the 7th century AD by the Avars and the Slavs. Its inhabitants moved away, and the once bustling and prosperous city, who had forged an important trading link between the Greeks and the Dacians so many centuries ago, began to decay, unoccupied.

Its name forgotten, it didn’t even appear on maps. Its memory swallowed whole by time, its walls covered by the ground itself, it lay in wait until it was re-discovered by a Frenchman, Ernest Desjardins, in 1868. In 1914, Vasile Parvan, a Romanian, began the first excavations of the site. The archeological digs continue to this day, conducted by various multinational teams. This was how we found it a month or so ago.

It was a warm, sunny, late-summer day when we visited. The heat shone down oppresively while we drove through the flat Dobrogea landscape. Yet a soft, cooling breeze from Lake Sinoe met us as soon as we stepped onto the grounds of the city.

There was a peace and quiet at Histria that I can only find when I visit certain ruins. I stood among the remains of the walls, and thought of the people that lived there before I set foot on what used to be their homes. They were born, lived and died there, making a living the best way they knew how, in a famous city by the Black Sea. The breeze must have been stronger then, since the waves of the sea beat against the city’s very shores.

What an adventurous spirit those Greek traders must have had, to get in their boats and travel far off, in hope of establishing a little colony of their own in an unknown land. How did they choose the site? Likely because it sits on top of a slight hill. Just think, the first few families built little homes out of field stone (there are very few trees around), and through hard work applied over time, grew that little settlement into an important port of trade and a fortress, one rich enough to attract the attention of countless attackers.

As I sat there and listened to the lull of the waves, I understood why they rebuilt after each attacks. The peace between each bout of violence was worth the effort, and the surroundings themselves invited (and still invite) company. Had their direct access to the Black Sea not been cut off, I believe Histria would survived to this day, and perhaps the city of Tomis (Constanta) might have had a different fate.

If you walk slowly among the houses or on the streets at Histria, you too will understand why it survived for so long. It’s hard to leave a place like that. It’s so peaceful, so quiet, so welcoming. You want to spend more time there, looking toward the horizon, hoping against hope to spot your ship, which is making its way slowly but surely toward the small port, bearing goods that will replenish your warehouse and provide for your family for another year.

The full set of photos from Histria is available at my online photography catalog. You’re welcome to view them all there. Mircea Angelescu, a Romania researcher, developed a 3D model of Histria which can give you a detailed idea of the city’s layout over time. More info on Histria can be found at Wikipedia.


Photos from Beach Drive

Beach Drive is a picturesque road that winds its way through Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC and the surrounding suburbs. Although called by different names along its various portions, it starts at the base of the Lincoln Monument as Rock Creek Parkway, NW, and ends somewhere in Rockville, MD, possibly at the end of Dewey Rd. I’ll let you trace it from end to end — it’s fun to follow it on Google Maps — just remember, the road should be inside the wooded areas at all times, and houses shouldn’t line it on both sides.

Certain portions of it are closed during weekends so that cyclists and pedestrians can take walks alongside it without the danger of cars. Road closure details are listed on the NPS – Rock Creek Park website.

Rock Creek Park and Beach Drive are truly one of the places to see in DC. The regular roads can get so clogged at times, and it can become so inhuman to sit in traffic and stare at buildings and cars on either side, that Beach Drive provides a welcome respite from the city.

Literally surrounded on each side by tall trees and bushy vegetation, it’s easy to forget one is in the middle of DC. It’s just beautiful. The only time the road’s proximity to nearby development is seen is during winter, when the houses and the roads are revealed to be only a few hundred feet away or less on certain portions of the road.

Understandably so, my wife and I go there often, and we also take photos. Here are a few taken on a recent trip. Click on each to enlarge it, then click again to view at full size (currently 720 pixels wide).


Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-07


The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Wired News picked up an interesting article from the Associated Press about the NGA (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency), which describes the purpose and capabilities of this youngest of government intelligence agencies. Its director, Lt. Gen. James Clapper (Ret.) is stepping down next month, and he is proud of the work NGA is doing.

Their capabilities are rumored to far exceed those of commercial satellite imagery, and they’ve become very useful in the aftermath of last year’s hurricanes. That’s when they set up mobile stations in the backs of Humvees and provided displaced and worried people with satellite images showing the condition of their homes.

They also work together with security staff in public places, like hotels, to tap into lobby cameras and combine that footage with mapping and graphical data to help secure events or take action in case of a hostage situation or other catastrophe.

My reaction to this is mixed. On the one hand, it’s nice to see a government agency actually helping out when a natural disaster occurs, and on the other hand, I have to wonder about people’s privacy given their serious capabilities.