Europe Trip 2013 – Part Five: Venice, Italy

This summer Peter and I went on an adventure to Europe. With the help of a stellar memory and my obsessive journalling, I’m sharing those adventures with you.

Part One: Duisburg, Germany

Part Two: Fritzlar, Germany

Part Three: Bern, Switzerland

Part Four: Lake Como, Italy

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What can I say about Venice? How can I describe a city that is completely unlike any other in the world?

Crowded. Chaotic. Beautiful. Decadent. Venice is a city full of secrets. Around every turn is a surprise. It’s a city that, no matter how many pictures you’ve seen or how much you’ve heard, you are not prepared for.

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As we arrived by train we were suddenly travelling with water on both sides of us. Santa Lucia station is as hot and crowded as any other and we made our way quickly outside where it was hotter and more crowded. A large bridge crosses the canal; kiosks selling souvenirs to tourists, porters offering to carry your bags are everywhere. A perk of travelling with a backpack is that these “porters” don’t bother you.

Peter and I made our way straight to the vaporetto, having discussed our action plan on the train already. (Standing around a train station looking at a map signals you out as a target.) After some confusion over which vaporetto (water taxi) went where, we were able to figure out the automated ticket machines. As far as we could ever tell, the numbers assigned to the vaporettos were completely at random but we wanted to travel the route that would take us down the Grande Canal and to San Marco.

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Vaporetto at a station, with San Giorgio in the background.

We pushed straight through to our B&B, dripping with sweat and longing to throw our bags down. The streets were narrow and crowded until we turned a corner and, suddenly, silence. No one around. Across a small bridge and to a black gate where we rang the bell and our host was waiting. Three floors up, we were at our Venetian home.

We stayed at the Corte Campana, a B&B recommended by Rick Steves, and had a fabulous experience there. Our host, Riccardo, was friendly, welcoming, and had excellent suggestions any time we wanted them. Highly recommended. Riccardo greeted us with a map, restaurant suggestions, and kleenex to wipe the sweat off our faces.

It was late afternoon by then and so, after dinner and a change of clothes, we headed back out to really take a look at Venice. Simply wandering through the streets really seemed like the best way to discover the city. Turn down streets, cross bridges. You will get lost. But you’re on an island so you’ll always find yourself again. Most streets are narrow, some are crowded, lots bring you to the edge of a canal and so you turn around and find another way.

We found Rialto Bridge, which has kiosks right down the centre, and ordered gelato from a woman who spoke no English and laughingly corrected my pronunciation of “vaniglia”. (The “g” is silent.) We walked through narrow side streets that opened into surprising squares, usually with a church. The water frequently laps at the doors of buildings. In some places you can see where there was a walkway or steps but the water has risen or the buildings have sunk.

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So many of the buildings are sumptuous, elegant, and crumbling. There is nothing to add to Venice and nothing you’d want to take away. Venice is a city full of palaces, slowly rotting, slowly sinking.

It’s not hard to see that it was once the richest city in the world. Or why it’s always been a tourist destination. How could it not be?

Eventually in our wanderings we entered a square full of smoke. A church, San Giacomo, hosted a fundraiser. Live band and barbeque. There were men grilling huge stacks of meat. We ordered a rack of ribs, potato salad, and two beers and sat at a picnic table in the square to eat our first Venetian dinner and listen to the band.

From there we walked back to San Marco square, which feels like the centre of Venice, dominated by a huge tower and the ornate San Marco Basilica. We found a spot to sit down at the base of the tower and took it all in.

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The square is quieter in the evenings but never empty. People pose for pictures or feed the pigeons or simply stand and gaze. Restaurants have set up tables and chairs all around the edges, and small orchestras play at different points. One beginning the moment another song ends. The waiters wear tuxedos and the tourists are all well-dressed, especially the women.

Men sell fake purses or plastic toys every few stops. At dusk, as if by some previous agreement, they all switch to roses, which they attempt to thrust into a woman’s hand in hopes that the man she’s with will pony up.

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Saturday morning, immediately after breakfast, we headed to San Marco Basilica to check the line-up, which was already stretched around the corner. Riccardo recommended trying later in the day, after the cruise ships had left, so we headed to the Saturday fish market at Rialto instead.

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Unwittingly, we had chosen to visit Venice during a Biennale year. This takes place every odd year in Venice and involves countless art exhibits and displays around the city. Some behind doors where you pay for entrance, some in squares, much of it for free. Our wandering took us the Accademia where we were able to see some of the exhibits from artists around the world.

One of Riccardo’s suggestions was to visit the San Giorgio tower rather than the San Marco tower. Cheaper, shorter lines, and the view is roughly the same. San Giorgio is a church located on an island across from San Marco square so we braved the vaporetto to make our way there. I stood in a long line to ask which route we should take and then got zero help from the lady behind the counter but we eventually made it.

San Giorgio. The purple statue is part of the Biennale.

San Giorgio. The purple statue is part of the Biennale.

San Giorgio was quieter and felt more secluded. The temperature had crept up to thirty-eight degrees and Peter and I both wore pants. Churches throughout Italy request “modest dress”. This means no exposed knees or shoulders. Some churches enforced this more than others but we felt that respecting the rules was the right thing to do. No matter how sweaty we got. If I had thought about this in advance, I would have packed at least one long skirt but as it was, all my skirts and dresses stopped above my knees. So I put on a t-shirt and rolled my pants up to just below my knees.

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At the bell tower, you pay to use the lift (there are no stairs) and are then rewarded with a panoramic view of Venice. A warning: the bells are still in use and they are loud.

Seeing as we were already dressed modestly, Peter and I decided to try and make it back before San Marco Basilica closed that day. Turns out, right before closing is the perfect time, and our wait was less than ten minutes. San Marco enforces the dress code more strictly – at the entrance they sell orange surgical sheets so you can cover up.

The basilica is the definition of ornate. We couldn’t stop staring at the floor, laid with a multitude of gorgeous glass, as if a beautiful vase had been shattered there. The wealth is astoundin.

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As the guards began to usher people out, Peter and I sat down in the gift shop and studied the elaborately painted ceiling. As we followed the paintings along we realised we were looking at the story of Joseph, in great detail, told through drawings. It was a special moment of recognition and understanding how people hundreds of years ago learned about the Bible.

That evening we wandered again, through stores, picking out small souvenirs, until we stopped for dinner at a shabby pizza and kebab place in a quiet square. We walked in and greeted the man behind the counter.

“Hey mister,” he said to Peter. “Pizza? Kebab?”

Kebab, Peter said.

“Okay. I make special. You like spice?”

The kebabs were amazing. We ate in the square outside, sitting on the steps of a large, covered well, drinking Orange Fanta and people watching. At the wine bar next door a group of young men stood outside, drinking and talking loudly. One of them was dressed as a king. A birthday or a bachelor party, it seemed.

A middle-aged man with a plastic bag of crumbs stopped across from us, holding out his hand and whistling at the sparrows until they landed on his shoulders, his arms, in his palm. The pigeons came too, of course, larger  and more aggressive, but the man shooed them away, aiming his sprinkled crumbs carefully for the smaller birds. They seemed to know him and lighted down easily.

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Sunday morning, after breakfast, we headed straight to the Doge’s Palace, the seat of Venetian government, where we wandered through opulent rooms where the senate and council once met. Each room was heavily decorated – busts and paintings, art covered the celings. Art was used to demonstrate the strength and fairness of the government. Or religious art of Jesus and Mary, to show how Venice was blessed by God. The tour ends with the Bridge of Sighs, a prisoner’s last glimpse of the sky before imprisonment.

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Outside the Doge’s Palace.

After lunch we set out to find San Frari church. This church still contains its original art,as it was intended to be displayed. Where other paintings or statues have been removed to be placed on display in museums, or taken away by Napoleon, San Frari has held on to its art, including work by Titian and Bellini.

We got a little lost on our way but spotted an older couple with a map, speaking English. We asked if we could look at their map and they obliged.

“Are you Canadians?” they asked.

“How did you know?” we wondered.

By our accents, apparently. And also our tans. Or lack thereof. They were from Calgary.

In one of our last bouts of exploration, in a quiet area of Venice, we came across this plaque:

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“Giovanni Caboto? Why does that name sound familiar?”

Then we realised that the anglicized version of this name was John Cabot. As in the man who discovered our nation. In high school history though, we only ever heard his name in the Francophone version. Turns out, Cabot was a Venetian and this was a plaque given to Venice by Canada. You know, to thank them for finding us.

I can’t wait to go back to Venice one day.

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