Venice. It's really like that.

Friday, October 16, 2009

You know that picture of Venice you have in your head? Yeah, me too. Well, I am happy to report that Venice is exactly like that. Perhaps this was naive, but I had no idea it was going to be so… VENICE. All of it. There doesn’t seem to be a square inch of Venice that isn’t perfectly exactly like it should be.

This could be anywhere. It’s all like this.

I walked out of the train station on Friday and the first thing I saw was the Grand Canal, and I was simply blown away. It was right there and it hit me like I haven’t been hit in a while. I admit that I’ve been getting a bit jaded on this trip. “Oh, another fabulous European city. Ho-hum. What? A roman ruin? Uh huh, what else have you got? A 13th century cathedral? A world class museum crammed with masterpieces? Whatever….” Please don’t hate me for saying that. I know a lot of you are reading this in Canada where the temperature is dropping, and Thanksgiving is over, and the days are getting shorter. You’re probably wishing you could trade places with me, or at least reach through the computer and give me a good slap. I know that. And if I could trade places with some of you for a weekend, I’d honestly do it. But not in Venice.

On that first day I dropped my stuff at the hostel (and updated the “Last Known Location” and map on the blog, of course), and then headed out to do the LP walking tour of Venice. As the Good Book says: “When you arrive at the train station, don’t follow the crowd down the main drag to Rialto and on to San Marco. Make a tour of it and take the long road!” And so I did, and I was glad of it. I wandered along the streets and (remarkably) only got lost once, and just drank it in. I must have been walking for at least an hour before I realized one of the things that made it feel so different (other than the canals, of course, which aren’t exactly new for me… St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Bruges, Ghent). It’s that there are NO CARS. None at all. I think I realized this for the first time when I saw these:

Ambulance boats!

If it’s not on a boat, or on a cart, or on foot, it doesn’t move in Venice. (Well, actually I saw a little motorized luggage cart thingy outside the train station, but that was it. And it may have been electric.) This means that the place is soooo quiet. And it’s completely free of exhaust fumes and road rage and traffic lights and gas stations and parking lots and overpasses and roundabouts and cars on the sidewalk (Portugal, I’m talking to you about that last one). And you don’t have to look both ways before you cross the street, because you’re NEVER crossing the street. It’s all sidewalk. It’s bloody magic, and very human.

Well I say it’s all sidewalk, but of course there are lots and lots and lots of canals. And a really unbelievable number of gondolas, along with loads of other small boats, and water taxis, and police boats, and ambulance boats, and UPS boats, and cargo boats, and garbage boats, and private boats, and the vaporettos (They’re the bus boats, and the map that shows the routes looks just like a metro map, but it’s for boats! It’s so cute!). But it’s the gondolas you notice. The guys really do wear the striped shirts and the straw hats, and there are about 9 squillion of them. Really, I can’t imagine that the tourist traffic can sustain that many gondolas (especially at about €80 for 40 minutes, according to the LP). Most of them seem to be sitting idle, or parked side by side by side, with gondoliers hanging out in clumps nearby (And how cool would that be to put on your tax return? Occupation: gondolier. Seriously.)

Well, I guess there kind of are parking lots…

On my first full day in Venice I met Jocelyn – a single-serving friend from my room at the hostel - and we ended up hanging around together all day. It was just the kind of chance meeting I’d been hoping to have more of on this trip, and it was great. We took the vaporetto to San Marco, had a quick look around the Basilica, and then went for a coffee so Jocelyn could look at my LP (She was travelling without a guide book! God, that’s like an acrobat working without a net; I gives me the willies!) She only had a day in town, and a limited budget, and a love of all things to do with boats, so she decided to check out the naval museum and didn’t object to me tagging along. The museum was not bad, and really big. Big enough that we zoomed through it near the end because we both really needed some lunch.

Jocelyn, at lunch (Hope you don't mind making a guest appearance...)

And then on a bit of a whim, we decided to get a vaporetto over to the island of Murano, where they make all the Venetian glass. And they make a lot of glass. Pendants, earrings, vases, chandeliers, rings, masks, plates, glasses, crying clown statues, bottle stoppers, barrettes, hat pins, beads, necklaces, bracelets, complete sets of Simpsons characters… there must be a hidden army of glass-blowers and melters and twisters and shapers on that little island. There is a glass shop approximately every thirty feet in Venice, and it's the same on Murano. Like with the gondoliers, my first look at a glass shop was exciting. Then I though, “Oh, another glass shop!” and then, “Seriously, more glass shops?” until finally I was (wait for it)… simply glazed over (Sorry about that, but it had to be said. Also, it was actually Jocelyn’s line.)

We did have a look into a few of the workshops that supply the glass shops, and we got to see some of the maestros blowing glass. It was fascinating and impressive, but hard to photograph them in action.

Here’s a look at the first workshop we went to, where we were accosted/befriended by the slick Italian-suited salesman who chatted us up even though it was clear we were not going to order one of his €10,000 custom-made black glass chandeliers. I wanted to, but it would have been a nightmare to pack.

I went to Piazza San Marco too, of course. In fact, it’s hard not to go to San Marco because even though Venice is an absolute maze of tiny winding streets and canals and bridges, there are special signs all over that point the way to San Marco and Rialto if you’re heading even vaguely in that direction. And coming away from San Marco there are signs that point to Ferrovia (the train station and, happily, right near my hostel) and Piazzelle Roma (the bus station). It’s actually pretty hard to get really lost in Venice. And even if you do, it’s so small that it doesn’t take long to get back on course.

Most of them are even fancier than this, and some are just graffiti.

So… San Marco. It was big and fairly crowded but not as crowded as I expected, probably because it’s mid-October and the temperatures were quite chilly the whole time I was in Venice. There are some famously posh cafés on the square, with terraces set up and live bands playing (and I’m not just talking about the Wandering Accordion Division here, I mean risers set up with jazz trios and string quartets and grand pianos and such). The LP warned that prices in San Marco are heart-stoppingly expensive, but even with the warning I was shocked when I checked out the menu at Café Quadri. An espresso – a single shot of espresso that costs about €0.90 at an average neighbourhood bar – was €5.70. No, that is not a typo. Five euros and seventy cents. God, for that price it should come with an espresso machine for you to take home with you. And a pint of beer? €11.50. Needless to say, I did not partake, no matter how many grand pianos there were.

The terrace of a café on San Marco

The water is everywhere in Venice, and just like on tv there are houses and hotels and other buildings with doors that open right onto canals - no sidewalks between the front of the houses and the water. I’m guessing that the other side of the buildings open onto a street, but you don’t see that from the water side. And it’s all really run down, or crumbled, or stained. The whole city looks like if you gave it a good shove it might just crumble. It certainly adds to the charm of the place, though, and makes it feel a bit less Disney-like, but I do wonder why one or two people haven’t had the urge to break out a can of paint in the last 200 years.

See what I mean?

Yep, you really can't get away from the water. There are times when it rises and comes right over the sides of the Grand Canal, or into San Marco. At major tourist spots like that they set up risers called passarelle to keep people dry. Then when the water goes down teams of men come and dismantle the passarelle and stack them up in the square.

The line to get into the Basilica San Marco, standing on passarelle

At other places, though, the water just does what it wants and people deal with it. I don’t know what they do in houses and businesses. The LP says that the rising of the water and the sinking of the city mean that the water level has gone up somewhere between 23 and 60 cm in the last 100 years, so I think that a lot of the lower floors of those big places along the grand canal are left vacant these days. (Though I’m dredging that up from some half-remembered Rick Steves TV show that I saw about a year ago. But really, I can’t imagine how it works in those places. Even if you live on an upper floor, if you access the place from the canal side you must have to park a sturdy pair of rubber boots at the door at all times just to make your way through the front parlour and up the stairs.)

Bring those rubber boots with you to lunch, too.

Mostly though, it was great just to wander the streets in Venice. I took a lot of photos that are all over at Flickr, though eventually I stopped taking pictures because everywhere you turned was worthy of a photo. Venice is… hard to describe. Even with all the tourists (and there are lots, even in October) it’s not hard to wander down a side street and be all alone in a three-foot wide lane, or staring down a narrow canal at someone’s washing hanging on a line (they must have industrial strength clothespins). It’s the first place I’ve been so far that felt really, really different. Different, and charming and fantastic. If you’ve been there, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, well, I’m sorry.


Kathryn said...

I am SOOO happy you loved it. I know I did. And I know exactly what you mean about it feeling different. It has the most amazing vibe. We, however, bought a rather large piece (or two) on Murano that we had shipped back to the US - all arrived in tact. But, Holy Expensive Batman! I hope you enjoy Florence - I remember something about doors on the cathedral and walking up a lot of stairs in a bell tower? (Really, after awhile, they all blend together.)

FLF said...

What memories you are bringing back for me! As I sit in chilly Wpg, contemplating my long run this morning (the first after a hip injury) I wish I was back in Portugal, and Venice and... and...
sigh. We found lovely little bars on the "side streets" of venice... and had wine and italian style tapas for a minimal amount. Enjoy exploring, FiF

jill said...

What about the gelato? have you had any yet? that's one of my biggest memories of my 3 days in Venice. I ate gelato for every meal except one, where i decided to try a pizza, but then of course had gelato for dessert! I love reading your blog, it brings back great memories of past trips! keep on truckin'!

Laura C said...

One of my absolute favorite places, I'm glad you're enjoying it. I'm behind on my reading (catching up) and was so happy to see where you were when I clicked in this aft.! Enjoy that wonderful place. The girls will love these pictures, a place with no cars.

Lisa said...

Yes...I've been there (waaaaaaaaay back in 1989) and completely agree with you. You can't get lost, it's strangely unnerving yet comforting with no cars anywhere. Claustrophobic would go nuts in some of the narrow alleyways...

The only thing different for me was that a pigeon sh*t on my head when we were there partaking in some street pizza and wandering some of the alleys...gross...


John Bardos - said...

Beautiful pictures! I am seriously jealous.

rebeccius said...

Great post.

Oddly, Venice has all but worked its way off my Italy must do/see list. Perhaps it's the over-hyped/mass tourism factor, or maybe I've just been reading one side of the story here. Seemed to me that the general consensus out there was that the city had lost (most of) its "charm", and that you weren't missing much in leaving it out.

But I have to say, this post has forced me to seriously reconsider!


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