Today was pretty uneventful as we dedicated the whole of today to retail therapy at the outlet mall. There are several outlet malls in Italy. However, the one that was highly recommended by my friends who have been to Italy is located near Florence. I searched online and found The Mall Firenze houses major luxury brands such as Burberry, Ferragamo and Versace, among a list of luxury brands. However, not part of The Mall Firenze, other brands like Prada and Gucci are located within a few minutes, a walk from The Mall Firenze. There are direct bus services connecting Florence to The Mall Firenze. Tickets can be booked on the official website of The Mall Firenze (accessible here). The direct bus service to The Mall Firenze is located slightly outside the city, next to Firenze Santa Maria Novella Station. As we wanted to maximise our time in the outlet mall, we booked the first bus (8.50 am) to The Mall Firenze and the last bus back (7.20 pm). We headed to the bus terminal after breakfast at the hotel. As we left slightly later than planned, we almost missed the bus. Fortunately, we made it in time for our bus to The Mall. The bus ride to The Mall Firenze took about 50 mins.
And the Shopping Begins
We arrived at The Mall Firenze just before the shops opened for business. I thought taking the first bus was a good idea as there weren’t many people taking the bus nor would there be a crowd in the shops. We did a scan for the shops and their locations upon reaching The Mall and came out with a shopping plan. We would visit the shops further away from The Mall, followed by those within The premises of The Mall. Shops in The Mall Firenze open at 10 am. We visited Prada and CK and found some excellent bargains. By lunchtime, we had visited about 50% of the shops. Generally, we were pretty disappointed with the goods on sale in the shops. We found that most shops, such as Balenciaga and Ferragamo, have a very small shopfront. Consequently, the goods on sale were very limited. Some brands occupy larger retail space, such as Burberry and Gucci. However, we did not find anything worth purchasing at Burberry, while Gucci sells mostly full-price items. There is only one cafeteria at The Mall selling food. However, the
Foreign shoppers outside the EU can obtain early tax refunds of up to €999.50 from the Tax-Free Lounge at The Mall. We wanted to eliminate unnecessary wait at the airport when we left Italy and went to the Tax-Free Lounge to obtain an early Tax refund. The process was straightforward. All of us got our early tax refund within 20 mins. After sorting out our tax refund, we decided to check out Versace, located below the Tax-Free Lounge and outside the bus pick-up point. We managed to get some good deals on Versace. After Versace, we took the 7.20 pm bus, headed back to Florence, and had dinner at a Chinese restaurant opposite our hotel. Afterwhich we rested early today as we would be visiting Pisa the next day.
Our plans for today took a 180° turn from what we originally planned. We wanted to visit Dorsoduro and the San Marco regions, followed by a lunch on Venice’s southern part of the shoreline. Our little escapade yesterday unintentionally covered these places and churches we wanted to visit. So we had to swap things around and visit the sights we were meant to visit yesterday. The flexibility of customising our plans is what I like about free and easy travel (amongst other things).
We planned to take a Venetian water bus (Vaporetto) to Piazza San Marco, and the nearest Vaporetto stop is just one bridge away from our hotel. We did some simple maths when getting the tickets and concluded getting a 24-hour day pass made more economical sense as we planned to travel from sight to sight using Vaporetto. A single trip costs €9.50, which only allows us to travel up to 75 mins, while a day pass costs €25, allowing us to travel multiple times within 24 hours. Granted, we at most have 12 hours in Venice before our train to Florence in the afternoon, but we still thought it is more economical to get the day pass.
Taking a Vaporetto is like riding on a bus, there are fixed stops where the boat stops to drop off or pick up commuters. To get to Piazza San Marco, we took service #2, which plied the entire Grand Canal. I would say seeing Venice on land and from the canals feels different. I thought taking the Vaporetto gave us a more “Venetian” feel. Buildings that we saw on land look different from seeing them on the canals, as though these buildings are built to have their front facing the canal, showcasing the intricate architectural styles and grandeur for people to see from the canal. As the Vaporetto plies through the Grand Canal, some buildings look familiar and some not so. All the buildings have some docks on the ground floor for their owner or visitors to alight from their private boats. We saw Venetians going about their daily life as the Vaporetto moved us through the Grand Canal. We soon arrived at our stop San Marco – San Zaccaria.
Back to Piazza San Marco
No visit to Venice would be complete without visiting Piazza San Marco, the city’s main public square. The piazza is home to Venice’s three most famous landmarks – Basilica di San Marco, Doge’s Palace and San Marco Campanile. Our first stop of the day was to ascend to San Marco Campanile, which serves as the bell tower for Basilica di San Marco. Standing at 99m, the campanile is the tallest structure in Venice. Pre-booking tickets was unnecessary as we travelled to Venice during the low season. There was no queue for the campanile when we arrived at the bell tower. Entrance to the campanile costs €12, which includes elevator access to the top of the tower. At the top, we were treated to a bird’s eye view of Venice and the lagoon. We could see a sea of red-tiled roofs compactly built next to each other to maximise whatever little space on the floating city of Venice, and occasionally grey domes and bell towers sparsely prop up to the sky. The little canals we crossed yesterday were hardly visible from the campanile. On the south side of the tower, we could see small islands sprouting out in the lagoon. From here, we could also see the entire Piazza San Marco. The top of the campanile is home to a set of five bronze bells hanging on blocks of thick wood, reinforced by rusting metallic frames. The number of people allowed up to the top of the campanile was tightly controlled, so it did not feel crowded. Visiting the campanile for a 360° view of Venice is highly recommended.
We spent 30 mins at the top of the bell tower and headed down. As we had not had breakfast, we ventured into the alleys near the piazza in search of breakfast. Some croissants and sandwiches later, we headed back into the piazza, wanting to visit Basilica di San Marco. As we walked towards the basilica, a queue for the basilica formed. After about 2 mins of standing at the back of the line, which did not seem to move, my friends and I thought entering the basilica was a waste of time. We did not intend to visit Doge’s palace as we spotted scaffolding on one side of the palace, thinking they might be closed for restoration works. At this point, we headed across the lagoon to our next destination.
Across the Venetian Lagoon to San Giorgio Maggiore
San Giorgio Maggiore is our next stop today, an island opposite Piazza San Marco which houses Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiore. This church is one of the most pictured buildings in Venice as it is one of the domed buildings visitors would see across the lagoon from Piazza San Marco. We hopped onto Service #2 again to cross the lagoon. The ride to San Giorgio Maggiore gave us a great view of Piazza San Marco from afar. As we were walking out of the Vaporetto stop, one of my friends spotted a poster with some colourful buildings and asked if we would be going there. At this point, I had to make some last-minute changes to include Burano in the list of places we will visit today. I planned to visit Murano for their famous blow glass, and with this new input, we will include a visit to both Murano and Burano. However, we had to keep our check-out and train timing in mind as we were scheduled to leave Venice for Florence later in the afternoon.
Chiesa San Giorgio Maggiore is mainly brick built with a facade cast in white marble. A statue of Christ stands on the top of the front entrance to the church. The church’s interior looks bright and airy, thanks to the high ceiling and windows near the dome that allow plentiful sunlight. The church is a perfect spot to get away from the crowd in Venice, as we did not see a lot of people visiting the church. There seems to be some art exhibition ongoing at the church. A high metallic sculpture hangs in the middle of the church. Perhaps it is my non-artistic nature, and I find the sculpture an eye-sore to the church’s otherwise simple yet elegant interior. We ventured into a small room by the side of the main church, where we found more art pieces on display. Following what was marked to be the path to guide visitors to the church, we spotted a sign to the bell tower. Entrance to the bell tower costs €8, which we did not even bother to consider going up the tower as we had just been to San Marco Campanile earlier. Instead, we headed back into the church and ended up in front of the main altar. The main altar consists of a copper globe supported by four bronze Evangelists with God the Father standing on top. Passing the altar, we wandered outside the church. This is where we spotted an opened gate and assumed this was the way out. As we walked towards the gate, a staff member called and told us this area was out of bounds to visitors. We explained we were exiting the church and heading towards the pier. The friendly staff then escorted us out of the church. As we were waiting for the next Vaporetto to take us back to Piazza San Marco, we saw the beautiful view of Piazza San Marco offered by San Giorgio Maggiore.
Burano: Island of Colourful Buildings
Our next stop is Murano and Burano. To get to these islands from Piazza San Marco, we needed to take Service #4.1 or #4.2 and change to Service #12 at Fondamente Nove. We felt a little hungry when we arrived at Fondamente Nove and headed into the only cafe by the pier to take away some food for lunch. As we walked towards the pier that Service #12 stopped by, I noted the time and told my friends we had to change our plan again. It was already 1.30 pm, and we were supposed to return to our hotel by 4 pm. The boat ride to Burano took longer than we anticipated, and we decided to visit Burano first, and if time permitted, we would stop by Murano. The ride to Burano took 15 mins. When we arrived at Burano, we decided to give Murano a miss, given the little time we had left. At the same time, we noted the timing of the next Vaporetto leaving Burano. We had to catch the next boat leaving Burano. If not, we would miss our train to Florence. We only had 45 mins for Burano.
To get to the colour houses on Burano, we walked along the street from the pier that leads into the island (follow the crowd when in doubt as visitors mainly come for the colourful houses). There was a small crowd visiting Burano, but overall, it did not feel crowded. As we followed the crowd into the town, a short walk later, the colourful houses lining a canal immediately came into our sight. The presence of the canals on Burano, cutting the island into smaller islets, makes this place feels like a mini Venice minus the crowd. We walked along the canal, taking pictures along the way, and reached a bridge that seemed to be at the end of the island. We spotted a bell tower that seemed to lean slightly to one side. However, the lean was not apparent when we saw it in Burano but was more apparent in pictures. We did not venture further from the bridge as we had to catch the next Vaporetto. We crossed the wooden bridge and walked back towards the pier. Along the way, we saw more shops that were open for visitors to buy souvenirs. We made it to the pier with 5 mins to spare before the next Vaporetto arrived. To get back to our hotel near Venezia St. Lucia train station, we alighted at Murano and changed to Service #4.1. The ride back to Venice took about 30 mins. We made it just in time to check out and immediately rushed to the train station. Luckily, our hotel is just two bridges away from the train station. We managed to get to the train station with some time to pack some pizzas for our train ride to Florence, the third city of our trip.
Night Stroll in Florence: The Birth Place of Renaissance Art
The high-speed train ride from Venice to Florence took around 2 hrs. It was already dark when we reached Florence (it was only 7.30 pm). Since the night was still young, we headed out to explore Florence after checking into our hotel and settling in our rooms. Florence is a very walkable city with everything being very close to each other. We made our way to the Piazza del Duomo, which the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore calls home. The Duomo looks plain at first glance compared to Duomo di Milano. There weren’t any carvings, nor was it decked out with intricate statues like the Duomo in Milan. The whole facade of the cathedral looks 2D, like some cardboard cut out. As we walked closer to the Duomo, we could see the whole facade of the Duomo decked out in white marble. 13 statues lined up on top of the main entrance to the Duomo. As the Duomo was closed when we visited, we only managed to snap some pictures of its exterior.
Our next stop is Ponte Vecchio. As we were walking towards Ponte Vecchio, we made a detour to Piazza della Signoria, one of the places we wanted to visit in Florence. There are a bunch of sculptures under an open aired building and a replica of the statue of David in the Piazza in front of a castle-looking building with a tall tower sticking out from the centre of the building. This replica is standing in the exact location that the actual statue of David occupied for centuries before it was moved to its current location in Galleria dell’Accademia. This castle-looking building is the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence.
We continued our walk towards Ponte Vecchio after snapping some pictures in Piazza della Signoria, which was about another 7 mins walk. Ponte Vecchio is a medieval stone arch bridge built over the Arno River. It is the only bridge in Florence spared from destruction during World War II. There are shops on either side of the bridge, occupied by jewellers, art dealers, and souvenir sellers today. Ponte Vecchio still exudes old-world charm with the two-piece wooden doors of the shops, which look like something from medieval times. Shops on Ponte Vecchio were closed when we arrived, and there wasn’t anyone else coming to this bridge, which made the walk across the bridge very tranquil. The best place to get shots of the entire Ponte Vecchio was from the next bridge further down. We headed to Ponte Santa Trinita to take night shots of the Ponte Vecchio. From this bridge, we managed to capture Ponte Vecchio and the tower of Palazzo Vecchio soaring into the Florentine skyline. After a few more shots of Ponte Vecchio, we returned to the hotel to rest for the night and recharge our energy for tomorrow’s shopping day.
Today marks the day of our travel to the second Italian city in our ambitious Italian trip. We are heading to Venice, the City of Water. Venice was founded in the 5th century, and the city was built on over 118 small islands in the Adriatic Sea. Venice became a major maritime power in the 10th century. It is no secret that Venice relies on a series of waterways and canals, which gave the city its unique characteristics.
We started our day early today. We booked the 9.35 am train leaving Milan Central Station to Venice St Lucia Station to maximise our time in Venice. Two train stations contain the word “Venice” or Venezia in Italian. The Venezia Mestre is the station outside Venice Island, while the Venezia St Lucia. After a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we made our way to Milan Central Station, which was only 7 mins from the hotel we were staying in (compared to the 30 mins to navigate around the first day we arrived). We arrived at the platform early for our first Italian interstate high-speed train ride. Two main train companies providing high-speed rail service in Italy: Trenitalia and Italo. The former is a state-run company, and the latter a private company. In terms of pricing, I found Italo to be slightly cheaper than Trenitalia, plus they serve small snacks and drinks onboard for first-class passengers. However, regarding seat comfort, Trenitalia looks more comfortable (from the pictures I saw online). The train ride from Milan Central Station to Venezia St Lucia took 2½ hours.
We arrived at Venezia St. Lucia Train Station, the entrance to the City of Water, on time at 12.20 pm. As we were walking out of the station, a large green-domed building sitting right across the Grand Canal was the first thing we saw. No one can miss this 18th-century church with its enormous green dome and Neoclassical architecture. This church has somewhat become the face of Venice. As we were walking around taking pictures and at the same time walking towards our hotel, we were greeted by porters asking if we required a porter service to transport our luggage to our hotel. Well, since our hotel is one bridge away (the Venetians gives direction using the bridges as a landmark) and is a mere 5 mins walk from the train station, we declined any porter services.
Our hotel lies right across Ponte della Costituzione, one of the four bridges across the Grand Canal. This stone alternating with tempered glass bridge is the newest bridge to be installed across the Grand Canal. Moving our luggage up the Ponte della Costituzione was challenging as there were no ramps, meaning we had to drag our luggage step by step. Luckily the steps are pretty wide and shallow. Crossing the bridge, I started to use Google Maps to navigate to our hotel. This is when I found Google Maps to be unreliable. The app kept directing us to go in circles and indicated our hotel was right in the middle of the bus terminus in the middle of Piazzale Roma. After walking in circles for 10 mins, I decided to use another map app – Movit, which directed us across another smaller bridge (luckily, the Venetians installed a ramp on the bridge) to our hotel. We made it to our hotel and checked into the beautiful Hotel Papadopoli.
Getting Lost in the Venetian Labyrinth
After settling into our rooms and rested for 30 mins, we started our exploration of Venice. The plan today was to visit the big three sights in Piazza San Marco: Doge’s Palace, St Mark’s Basilica, and St Mark’s Bell Tower, followed by a rooftop visit in Fondaco dei Tedeschi (DFS Venice and Ponte di Rialto. We started walking across a bridge where we could see a bell tower afar; this bell tower became our leading mark as we thought this was the Bell Tower in Piazza San Marco. Next, we walked along the canal, crossing any bridges that we thought might lead us to the bell tower we saw on the balcony of our hotel room. A few bridges later, we arrived at Campo San Pantalon, landmarked by Chiesa di San Pantalon. This brick-built church is one of the few churches in Venice to be characterised by an unfinished facade. The unassuming church is dedicated to San Pantalon, a saint of midwives and co-patron saint of doctors who practised medicine free of charge. We did not stay here for long as this looked like a small church. We walk across the bridge in front of Chiesa di San Pantalon. The narrow street opens up to a huge square, and little did we realise we had arrived at Campo Santa Margherita. Rows of shops and restaurants surround the piazza. A lone withered tree occupied the centre of the Campo Santa Margherita, and a little north from the tree rests an unmarked monument (or this might be a flag pole). Few shops remained open around the sleepy Campo Santa Margherita, partly could be due to the off-peak tourist season. Further down Campo Santa Margherita, we came to another brick-built church – Santa Maria dei Carmini. Santa Maria dei Carmini appears larger than Chiesa di San Pantalon and is decked with a marble entryway with a statue of Madonna and Child. We did not enter this church as it looked closed.
We crossed another bridge to the other side of the canal as we walked along the canals, not knowing where we were (I intentionally put away my Google Maps for once and tried to “get lost” in Venice). We spotted Chiesa dell’Angelo Raffaele as we were walking along the canal. As the church is on the other side of the canal, we did not even attempt to find a bridge to enter. We continued our walk along the canal, past some narrow alleys and into what seemed to be residential areas. There is no one else walking on the streets except for us. As we were walking, we spotted a car park! This is the first time I have seen any cars in Venice (other than the bus terminus at Piazza Roma). At this point, I gave up wandering around and started to whip out my phone and Google for “DFS Venice, ” our destination today. At this point, I realised we were in the southwestern part of Venice, where no tourists visit. We followed the recommendation given by Google Maps and walked along the southern coastline of Venice. We soon found ourselves on the grounds of the University of Venice. After our toilet break at the university, we continued our journey towards DFS. Some small alleys are so narrow that only one person can walk at any time. A few minutes walk later; we found ourselves in front of a small church: Chiesa di San Sebastiano. The white marble facade church is rather plain, with a figure of St. Sebastian wounded by arrows at the top of the church. This church looks small and uninteresting. We continued our walk towards DFS Venice.
A few bridges later, the small alleys we had been passing through for the entire after were replaced with more canals. Small canals merged to become bigger canals. Soon we arrived at a wooden bridge built across a big canal. This is where I realised we were back at the Grand Canal. This wooden bridge, Ponte dell Accademia, is one of the four bridges that span the Grand Canal cross near the southern end of the Grand Canal. The bridge is named after the Accademia galleries. Standing on the bridge, we spotted a huge building sitting by the mouth of the Grand Canal, with huge grey domes. The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute is one of the icons in Venice. Ponte dell Accademia offered us one of the great classic views of Venice that was captured in many photos and films on Venice. After taking pictures, we continued our walk to Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Two piazzas later, we arrived at our destination.