Venice, Italy: Seeing the place before it sinks.
We almost missed our train to Venice, but fortunately, it was running 10 minutes late. Watching the destination board update itself was like gambling. “Come on, Venezia! Daddy needs an on-time departure!” Learning from our past experience with EuroStar, we upgraded to first-class for this leg (a mere $20 extra), trying to avoid the unwashed masses and get a bit of legroom.
We arrived in the train station at Santa Lucia around 2pm and took the No. 52 water bus to the back side of Venice where our hotel, Alloggi Barbaria, was located about as far away from everything as you could get without being in France. Still, the tiny hotel had been renovated in the last six-months and it showed. The place was in perfect condition compared with our previous hotels. It even had fixtures and amenities built within the last epoch!
After unpacking, we trekked across the city to find AE Oche, a pizzeria Fodor’s had enthusiastically recommended, only to find that it, like every other restaurant in Italy, was closed between 3pm and 7pm. Starving and irked, we went to a deli and got some cheese, salami with fennel and a Coca-Cola Light to eat while we sat watching workers hose off the floor of the local fish market. That’s an appetizing smell.
Energized by caffeine and calories, we then headed to St. Mark’s Square, the center of Venice. The piazza there is enormous, comprising several acres of Corinthian columns and Roman arches stretching around the place as far as you could see. The church of St. Marco is every bit as overwrought as Italy’s other Catholic scare-palaces; it is carved with intricate designs based on crucifixions, beheadings and the like.
Once an open market for simple Italian farmers to ply their crops and wares, St. Mark’s is now an upscale outdoor shopping center complete with dueling classical quartets and cafe seating. Most of the shops boast names and price tags too rich for anyone but the Donald Trump set. The cobblestone piazza butts up to the Canal Grande, where empty gondolas sit being gently rocked by the waves of passing ferry’s. We sat on the water’s edge for awhile, soaking in the sun and licking Gelato, possibly the best dessert ever. (Mmmm, Pistachio.)
The next day we headed to St. Mark’s church and found a line outside longer than the one at the Duomo in Florence. Rather than waste 4 hours, we opted instead to hit the Museo (US$22). We saw the World’s Largest Oil Painting and the Bridge of Sighs — a final view of Venice (and freedom) for prisoners before their ultimate, extended incarceration. We also saw an impressive government building decorated during the time when Venice was the wealthiest city in the known world. Swanky.
We spent the remainder of our time on the island-city window shopping and getting lost a lot. Finding your way around Venice is harder than finding a quiet picnic spot in Rome. Venice is a veritable maze until you stop trying to follow the useless Italian maps and let the small signs posted at alley intersections be your guide.
By the time we were about to leave Italy, we finally opted to “do as the Romans did when in Rome, er…Venice” and we slept from 3pm-7pm. Refreshed and bored, we went shopping again, and then on to the Dosoduro neighborhood of Venice for dinner at L’ Incontro where we had horse-meat and goat. Mmm, meaty. And, of course, a liter of entirely passable house wine for 8 Euros.
We got an early start thanks to a 4am attack of mosquitos through our open window. Catching the $7.50 slow water bus (No. 1) that runs the Canal Grande, we avoided paying the exorbitant $100 Gondola ride rate (Sure, the water bus was hardly romantic, but we’ve been married for 7 years and that Gondola has already sailed).
Back at St. Mark’s, where the “bus” dropped us off, we had gelato again and went up the bell-tower for an aerial view of the city. Amazingly, the buildings were so close together that you couldn’t even see the canals. By the time we came down, the line at the church had thinned, so we went and saw all the crazy gold mosaics and different artistic styles, all mashed together in a patchwork of religious fervor, gaudiness and lack of restraint.
Back in our room, we packed to leave, dragged our bags out to the water bus stop and waited for our ride back to the train station. The first “bus” was so crowded we literally couldn’t get on. (Compared to water buses, sardine cans are really under-utilized). The next one was every bit as crowded, maybe more-so, but we couldn’t wait any longer, so we barged on crushing two old ladies underfoot. I barely made it on before the conductor closed the gate with my luggage actually sitting on the outside edge of the boat. The poles that closed the sliding gate pushed through between my legs.
Until the next stop, I was hanging on for dear life trying to avoid dumping my worldly belongings into the Mediterranean Sea. It was a tad nerve-wracking.
After a few more locals piled on at the next two stops (others simultaneously got off, thankfully), we made it to Saint Lucia Stazione with all of our belongings still dry. With some time to spare, we had a bite to eat and hastily wrote postcards.
Our train into Paris was a sleeper car which had space for four adults to lie down, sort of. Taking the sleeper car, we figured, would let us sleep the eleven-hour trip from Venice to Paris, while avoiding a hotel stay. The only snag in the plan was the French couple we ended up traveling with. Neither of them knew a lick of English and neither of us knew a lick of French. What followed was several awkward hours of hand gestures and facial expressions one step above that of chimpanzees. Amy spent the next few hours brushing up on her High School French.
Later that evening, we surrendered our passports to the conductor who came around (so they wouldn’t have to wake us when they went through French customs at 3am). Around 10:30pm, we went to get a drink in the restaurant car and when we returned, the French couple had set-up the beds and were trying to sleep. It seemed early to us, but we later found out why they were so interested in sleep; at 5am, they got off the train. A few hours later we were woken up by the conductor returning our passports and informing us that we were pulling into Paris. Or so we gathered, as he spoke only French.