Monday, June 15, 2009

Venice is for... Me

On Tuesday morning I left Paris for Venice.  I had added Venice into my itinerary because it just seemed like something I needed to see.  I didn't know what to anticipate, though, and beyond gondolas, I honestly wasn't expecting all that much. I had read that I only needed two days to see Venice but had built in three because with all the traveling, it's hard to pick up and go again after only two days.  

Once I arrived in Venice, I took the bus from the airport to Piazzele Roma.  This is as far as you can get with ground transport.  From there, it's either a private water taxi ($$$) or a vaporetto, which is basically like a ferry bus with stops throughout the canal.  I opted for the vaporetto, and it was very easy and cheap. It was also a great introduction to Venice, which was so picturesque and with the canals, obviously so different than where I had been so far.  Four stops later I was at my vaporetto stop right in front of San Stae Church.  From there I had instructions to get to the hotel, which was just one street and a private bridge away.

The hotel, Al Ponte Mocenigo, was great.  It was small - only 10 rooms - and included breakfast each morning in a really beautiful outdoor courtyard. I was surprised that nearly everyone staying there was American.  Because they had to move my room after one night (and I offered to pay in cash), they gave me a greatly reduced rate well under my daily budget.  Hotels in Venice during the summer are expensive, so I was lucky to find this place.  Also, it was far removed from the touristy areas, which I found out later was a good thing, and near some really great restaurants, cafes and bakeries (now that I'm a bakery junkie and all, that is important to me - the madness has got to stop).

I spent the day on Wednesday wandering around and seeing the tourist sites - the Rialto Bridge, St. Mark’s Square including St. Mark’s Basilica, the Clocktower, Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs.  I went in and out of shops where I could actually afford things and stared in the windows of all the big designers where I couldn’t - Gucci, Missoni, Chanel, Louis Vuitton.  

My splurge for the day was a 15 Euro bellini - yes, a cocktail that cost nearly $21.  And it was tiny.  But it was delicious and worth every penny, or Euro, uh, cents.  I was at Harry’s Bar, which claims to have invented both the bellini and carpaccio.  The bellini and carpaccio aside, I wanted to go there because it was a favorite place of Ernest Hemingway’s.

On Thursday I debated whether to take a gondola ride.  Yes, it’s probably a tourist trap, but it looks like fun.  Two things held me back - one, it wasn’t the kind of thing I ever envisioned doing alone (I’d rather wait to go back with someone some other time) and two, it cost 80 Euros.  That’s $110 and beyond my budget, so a gondola ride was most definitely out.  I had read about a traghetto, though, which is another means of public transportation and is a way to cross from one side of the Grand Canal to the other.  A traghetto used to be a gondola, just stripped of its fancy chairs and trimmings.  Also, instead of one gondolier maneuvering the boat there are two - one in the front and one in the back.  The best part is it costs .50 Euro.  That’s 70 cents.  It seemed like a no brainer - I’d still get the feel for riding in a gondola and it was $109.30 cheaper.  There are seven traghetto stops throughout Venice, so I just went to a traghetto stop, waited in line for the next traghetto, paid the money to the guy and got on board with several other people - mostly locals, it seemed, as opposed to tourists.  Traditionally instead of sitting like on a gondola, you stand during the crossing, so I stood.  The crossing was short, but it was fun being out in the middle of the Grand Canal.

After my traghetto ride I walked through Venice's fish market and fruit and vegetable markets. Beside the fish market was a restaurant called Pronto Pesce, and as I passed it I noticed a sign in the window that Anthony Bourdain had eaten there last year and recommended it on his show.  I stopped in for a look.  It was a tiny little restaurant with just a few bar stools to perch at a little ledge in the window.  Some people opted to stand outside while they ate.  All the food was behind a counter and was pretty much different varieties of tapas.  Everything was in Italian but not being traditional Italian food that I was used to, I had no idea what I was seeing.  The man working there was very helpful and tried to explain what each thing I pointed to was.  I ended up with three tapas (each 2.50 Euro) and other than a brioche with swordfish, mascarpone and tomato, I have no idea what I ate despite his explanation, but it was very good.

The people in Venice were so nice.  I don’t say that just because I had come from Paris and the stark contrast was apparent.  (Parisians weren’t so bad - just a bit standoffish and aloof.)  Even going into a small hardware store to buy yet another power adapter (long story but this is the fourth power adapter I've bought AND I brought one with me - I didn’t know Italy’s adapter was different than the rest of Europe), the shop owner joked with me about whether I was an Obama or a Bush American.  He liked my Obama American answer.

The streets in Venice were like a maze - very narrow and winding through the town.  The odd thing is that I found it easier to navigate there than almost anywhere I've been so far in Europe other than London.  The streets were very well marked, the map the hotel gave me was easy to navigate and there were signs pointing the way to all the major tourist attractions, so I never felt lost.  I went out one night because I wanted to see the city from the Rialto Bridge.  The streets were not well lit at all, so I did worry about finding my way, but I didn’t have any problems and it was worth it being able to see the city at night.


All in all, Venice was one of my favorite spots so far on the trip.  Its only flaw was on cruise ship day.  St. Mark’s Square was teeming with pigeons and American tourists, neither of which were pleasant.  And yes, I realize I am an American tourist as well, though when someone speaks to me in Italian and I nod my head and smile and seemingly have an entire conversation with them and they never realize that I have no idea what they said I hope that I’m blending in.  :)

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