We've moved from Baltimore, Maryland USA to Venice, Italy in pursuit of living our dream!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Think Pink

A big "Grazie mille" to everyone who lit candles, sent up a prayer to the heavens and/or extended positive energy on my behalf yesterday.  Your efforts were very much appreciated.  Many of you have sent emails and messages asking if I had received any word on how the voting went. Again, thanks so much for keeping me in your thoughts. I spent a very anxious day yesterday waiting to hear something.

I mentioned that I had zero expectations. I take that back. I fully expected the results of the vote to be a big resounding rejection. They had no good reason that I could think of to take me into the group. I had not had breast cancer surgery. Even though according to the by-laws they could vote in "supporting members", in my opinion I didn't cast a compelling reason to grant me that status either. I am not Venetian. Why in the world would they need to have an outsider in their midst?  And, I am not fluent in Italian, nor in Venetian.  Why bother to deal with someone who can't readily communicate with you?  If I were them- seriously- I would have cast a negative vote. So you can see I had convinced myself there was not going to be a  happy ending out of this for me.

Late yesterday afternoon, I received an email from Donatella.  I almost had a heart attack when I read it. Donatella's note announced that  the ladies had voted to  welcome me into their squad. That's right. I am now Venice's newest Pink Lioness. We celebrated last night.

This morning, there was another email from Donatella, this time she opened the message with "Ciao, Lionessa".  That's me- a lionessa!

I need to buy something pink.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Baglioni Hotel's The Great Beauty Experience

I rarely, if ever, blog about anything other than my life in Venice. Today is different. I'm writing about our recent weekend in Rome. I've been to Rome before. Several times. I've done all the touristy spots- the Colosseum, the Trevi fountain, the Pantheon, the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Roman Forum, the Spanish steps, and more.

This trip was different, a very special experience.  I had been invited along with a small group of bloggers to be the guest of the Baglioni Hotels for a weekend at their hotel in Rome, the Regina Baglioni, to participate in a special 2 day package they offer, The Great Beauty Experience,  in celebration of the recent Oscar winning film, La Grande Bellezza.  How lucky can I be?

La Grande Bellezza, a film by Paolo Sorrention, starring Toni Servillo as Jeb Gambardella, showcases well known locations around Rome, in addition to a few that are off the tourist radar. In many ways, the city has a starring role in the movie. Baglioni's 2 day experience includes a special tour featuring many of the locations featured in the film.

There is so much to say about our weekend Roman holiday, I am going to have to break it up into several posts. Today I'll focus on the tour.

Saturday at 9am we gathered in the lobby of the Regina Baglioni  for a brief meet and greet, then were escorted to a luxury vehicle to begin our day long adventure.

First stop- Piazza Navona.

Beata, our expert guide for the day, shared information about the history of the Piazza, the sculptures and their famous artists.

We made the short walk from Piazza Navona to Campo dei Fiori, then to Palazzo Farnese, the current home of the French Embassy, and on to Palazzo Spada. Inside Palazzo Spada we got to see the corridor, a famous optical illusion designed by Francesco Borromini, up close. Until you see it close up it's almost impossible to believe that what appears to be a life size statue at the end of the corridor is only 60 cm high in reality.

Because no photos are allowed inside the gallery, this photo was taken from behind a glass window, so you cannot see the statue at the end of the corridor well.

Back in the car, our next stop was up on Aventine Hill where we visited the scowling face fountain of Giacomo Della Porta, located near Via di Santa Sabina.  In the movie, Jeb stops here at the fountain to wash off his face after a long night of partying Roman-style.

While we were here, I snapped this photo of a group of nuns who had taken a minute to wash off in the fountain also. Do you think they also been up all night painting the town red?

Just beyond the fountain is the Giardini degli Aranci at Parco Savello. From the garden you have a grand vista over the rooftops and domes of Venice. This view is simply spectacular. I can understand why this garden is a favorite spot of romantics.

A short walk down the street from the Giardini degli Aranci  brings you to the Piazza dei Cavallieri di Malta
(Knights of Malta) and the famous keyhole in the wooden door.  If you peer through this keyhole, you can see St. Peter's Basilica framed by the trees in the garden.  My photo doesn't do this view justice. You just have to come see for yourself. Better yet, take the tour.

The Tempietto San Pietro in Montorio, said to be the site of the martyrdom of St. Peter, is the location of a wonderful scene in the movie. A  mother searches for her lost daughter, who is  hiding on the lower level of the Tempietto, and can be seen through the hole in the mosaic floor (see  photo below.).


Gianicolo hill (Janiculum, in English), said to be Rome's eighth hill, has lots to see and beautiful overlooks of the city from several spots. The Fontana dell'Acqua Paolo, one of Rome's largest fountains, also called il Fontanone- the big fountain- was built in 1612 to mark the end of the Acqua Paolo acqueduct, which was restored by Pope Paul V, after whom the fountain is named.  One of the film's early scenes is shot at this fountain.

A short walk from the fountain is the canon at Gianicolo hill. The canon is the very first scene in La Grande Bellezza. Because the canon is fired daily at noon, we chose to save this location for later in the tour rather than begin here, so we could be there when it was fired off.  If you do the same, remember that the canon is very loud when it goes off!

Just above the canon is the statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi. There are never enough statues of Garibaldi, and this one is one of Italy's finest.

From Gianicolo hill we returned back to the Regina Baglioni hotel on Via Veneto for a gourmet lunch in the Brunello Restaurant and lounge More on this in my next post. 

Following the gourmet meal prepared for us by the chef, we continued the second portion of our day long excursion. Next stop, Terme di Caravalla, or the Baths of Caravalla.  The baths, built between 212-216 Ad during the reign of Emperor Caravalla are the second largest public baths in Rome. For me, the baths were one of the highlights of the day. I would love to return to explore inside. 

In the movie, Jeb encounters a giraffe at this location. Today the baths are used as a venue for the Rome Opera. Can you imagine enjoying an opera here on a perfect summer evening? 

Clearly the most breathtaking sight for me was our visit to the Roman Acqueduct. Said to be one of the greatest achievements of the ancient world, I was awestruck standing along side it, in absolute amazement at the sheer scope of this massive waterway, and the ingenuity it must have taken to build it. This portion of the acqueducts near the Appian Way was built in 312 BC,and was part of the complex waterway that carried water into the city of Rome.

The tour wouldn't have been complete without a drive-by of the Colosseum. This is the view from the rooftop terrace of the apartment used by Jeb in the film. Who wouldn't want this view while having morning coffee on the terrace?

We had one last stop to cap off our incredible Great Beauty tour, and that was to catch the view from the Penthouse suite of the Regina Baglioni.  In the movie, there is a fantastic party scene on a rooftop deck in Rome just overlooking this famous Martini sign.  See the movie, you'll know just where we were at. 

 The day wouldn't have been possible without the three people you see in the photo below, our charming companions for the day.

Grazie mille to Beata, Stefano and Raffaella.

Beata, our guide, expertly wove Rome's history, art and the film, La Grande Bellezza into an educational, informative and hugely enjoyable adventure. 

Stefano, driver extraordinare, managed to maneuver us in, through, and around Rome's traffic laden streets all day with efficiency and good humor, getting us to exactly where we needed to be, when we needed to be there. 

Raffaella, the Regina Baglioni's Sales Manager, worked tirelessly to put the weekend package together, allowing us to be treated like royalty.

Grazie mille to Baglioni Hotels,and the entire staff of Regina Baglioni for an incredible weekend. 

Could it get any better than this?  Yes, in fact, it does. Check my next blog for more of the Great Beauty Experience. 

And the dream continues....

                                                    (photo thanks to Pink Lioness in Venice)

I've been reluctant to talk about what happened after my glorious afternoon row with the Pink Lionesses, but I've decided it's time to add more to the story.

Yes, I did go back and row that Friday. Twice in one week! I couldn't have been more blessed. When I arrived on Friday I got very enthusiastic greetings from my fellow rowers, which bowled me over completely. Truth be told, for as long as I've lived in Venice already, I have found Venetians to be quite closed. They stick to themselves. I've not had an easy time of it making friends, aside from expats. But among the locals, I am pretty much ignored. I did not come to Italy to marry an Italian, I don't  have other Italian family here in this area, and don't have school age children. The normal ways to integrate into local life weren't going to work for me. So to be greeted so warmly took me by surprise. These women truly have big hearts.

The row was fantastic. I was expecting to take the same route we did on Wednesday, with a left turn onto the Grand Canal and up all the way to Ferrovia. Instead, we took a right turn and headed towards St. Mark's.  As we rounded Dogana Point, Francesco steered us across the Giudecca Canal. We rowed between San Giorgio and Giudecca Island passing the Cipriani Hotel and out into the open lagoon. We then rowed towards Lido, almost to Sant'Elena!  I could see Ca'Hendersoni from the boat!  We rowed over to San Servolo, then over to San Clemente, and headed back towards Giudecca, passing La Grazia.  Cutting through a canal on Giudecca island we entered the Giudecca Canal, then cut across a canal in Dorsoduro which took us to the Grand Canal by the Guggenheim, and then finally back down one more canal where we all disembarked. Rowing on the open lagoon is quite different than on a smaller canal. This afternoon there were quite a few waves, so we all came home drenched- but smiling. Even me!

The next Monday, I received an email from Donatella asking me to meet on Wednesday to meet with the capogruppo (the head of the group), whom I had not yet met as she had been away on vacation. I was also instructed to come prepared to row, and bring a change of clothes in case we got soaked again this time.
A third row! I was in heaven.

Meeting Anna, the capogruppo, was a bit intimidating for me. She questioned me about why I had asked to join the group, if I was intending to stay in Venice, and if so, would I plan to be active in all the group's activities, including all the non-rowing events. I was fearful my Italian speaking wouldn't be good enough, but I did my best to stammer through my answers. At this point, I had zero expectations.  After the question/answer session, we suited up and went rowing. This time three rowers from the Pink Lioness group in Mestre came over to Venice to practice for the Vogalonga, the huge rowing event coming up on June 8. We rowed in open water again, and yes, we came home soaked. But happy.  I was sitting at the rear of the boat this time, doing my best to row as well as I could. The time before I was a disaster. At one point Francesco yelled out "Karen, megio!" (Karen, better!), which was great encouragement for me.

 After another wet row, we returned to the Maggazino del Sale to clean, dry and put away the boat. As  I was leaving for the day, I got another "Come row with us again next time" invitation. Yes, I went home really happy.

The next day I received another email from Donatella, telling me she had had a phone call from Anna, the capogruppo.  Anna thought I was serious and sincere about why I wanted to join the Pink Lionesses. Yay! I passed that round! Next they would all vote on accepting me as a "supporting" member, meaning I could not particpate in certain events that were only for regular members (a regular member being one who has had the surgery). That was more than ok by me!  The vote is to take place  at their next meeting on May 30 meeting, and in the meantime  I should not row until I heard the results of the vote.

Honestly, I will be completely shocked if I get accepted into the group. There are only two other supporting members and they have a very different association with the group than I do. They were instrumental in helping organize the Venice chapter of the Pink Lionesses and getting the sponsorship of the Bucintoro rowing club.  They really don't have any good reason to bother having me around.

The other day I was sitting on the Zattere enjoying some sun when along came 4 of the Pink Lionesses. They had just finished a row and were on their way home.  They stopped to chat with me (wow- Venetian women stopping to chat with me??  Did that actually happen?), and they reminded me of the vote coming up. I mentioned that I didn't expect to be voted in, and their response was "Don't be silly! We'll see you soon!"

The vote is this Friday. I need all the positive energy in the world, so if you are out there reading this, please send some good thoughts my way. Nothing would please me more than to be able to participate with these marvelous women. Wish me luck.

ps (the photo above was taken on my first row out into the lagoon, and I am in the photo, but I'm hiding right behind the woman with the pink headband in the front!)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Another of my Venetian dreams comes true

For several years now, whenever I watch one of the boating events associated with one of Venice's festivals, for example the Regata Storica or Vogalonga, I have seen this group of local women dressed in pink rowing in a dragon boat with the name Pink Lionesses.  The photo below was from the Carnevale event in Cannaregio canal in 2013.  Every time I've watched them row, I wished I could be rowing with them. Today that wish came true.

A few months ago, I decided to try to see if I might join their group. There was an email address on their website listed as a contact, so I sent off a message. I got back a response inviting me to attend a holiday dinner they were having. Unfortunately, timing didn't work out for us, so I did not connect on that occasion. 

About 2 weeks ago, I decided I should take another try at contacting them. I shot off another email. This time I received a response inviting me to come row with them that Friday.  As my luck would have it, I wasn't free then either. So I responded with my thanks and asked if I might get a rain check some other day soon.  Yesterday I double checked my calendar, I was going to be free the following day, a day the ladies have a practice row. I sent off an email to Donatella,  the woman who had responded the last time, asking if I might come on Wednesday.  I got back a "Yes!".  I was instructed to show up at the Bucintoro rowing club in the Maggazino del Sale on the Zattere at 3 pm, wearing sweats and tennis shoes. 

Excited and elated, I set off for the Maggazino del Sale on the 4.2 vaporetto today.  I had had zero experience rowing this kind of boat, but was eager and willing to learn. Just as I was arriving, a few other women were also walking in the door, wearing pink jackets. Easy to recognize.I was in the right place. A few seconds later, Donatella entered the room and walked right up to me smiling a huge smile. After brief introductions, I got the two kisses on the cheeks welcome! Then Donatella sits me down and says we need to talk.  She explained that the requirement to be a member of the Pink Lionesses is that you must be a Breast Cancer surgery survivor.  I knew the group was associated with supporting survivors of Breast Cancer, but I didn't know you had to be a survivor. I thought supporting the cause would be enough. I also thought they had a large number of members. They have 15 members here in Venice. 

Donatella went on to explain more about the organization, and how rowing is a very therapeutic way to recover from breast cancer surgery. Sadly, since I had not had breast cancer surgery, I could not be a member. After thanking Donatella for her time, I was about to head for the door. She gave me her big smile again and said, "But come row with us today. Let's see how you do."  She took me upstairs to meet the other Pink Lionesses, they lent me a pink jacket, outfitted me with an oar and a pink life jacket, and we went outside to get the dragon boat into the water. 

Here are 5 of the women in the boat about to be lowered into the Giudecca canal.  A few women go into the water with the boat, then they row around to the next canal where everyone else boards the boat. I got the last seat, partnered with Donatella.  She gave me some tips about how to make the correct stroke with the paddle in the water. Before I knew it, off we went.

I caught on quickly. This is much easier than rowing in the Venetian style standing up.  In the dragonboat, you sit down, like a canoe. There is one person in the tail end steering and yelling out instructions. Francesco, the young man handling that job was fantastic, as were all the women rowing with me today.

There is something special about being in a boat rowing down the Grand Canal. I could barely believe I was actually there, doing something I'd only dreamed of.   As vaporettos and gondolas with passengers passed us, everyone cheered and applauded the pink lionesses.  I wanted to cheer for them myself, but I had a paddle in my hand that needed to be dealt with.

We headed up the Grand Canal towards Rialto. When we got under the Rialto bridge, the women all shouted "Ciao, Ragazze!"  Donatella leaned over to explain they were giving a special tribute to all the other women who had not survived their battle against breast cancer.

As we approached San Marcuolo, we slowed the pace and came to a halt. Each pair of women, starting with the first row, then proceeding row by row to the back, exchanged places on their bench. Donatella explained the changing of positions allows each woman to exercise the muscles in both shoulders and arms each time they practice. Right after we switched positions, we turned the boat around and headed back towards Dorsoduro.

We rowed for an hour and a half.  The women talked and joked amongst themselves as they rowed, but I was afraid if I got in on the banter I'd lose my concentration and wouldn't keep up with the pace of rowing. We made our way back to the canal where we'd boarded the boat to disembark.  As we helped one another out of the boat, each of the women asked me how I liked it and if I was tired. My shoulders were feeling it a little, but I just loved every minute of it.

After every row, the boat is washed before it is put away. I got to join in on the clean up activities too. It was a little sad to have to take off my pink life preserver and jacket.

 There are almost no words to describe how honored I was today to be welcomed by  and to be in the midst of this group of courageous, strong,  beautiful women, and to be allowed to share in something so special. I could not, and would never understand the struggle these women have gone through and continue to face on a daily basis.

As I said my goodbyes, the women called out "Come row with us on Friday!"