Our trains to Venice were surprisingly on time (all 3 of them!) and we arrived just before noon. I stared out the window as we approached, eager to get there, eager to see a place I've dreamed about seeing since I first learned about it. I have wanted to visit Venice for as long as I can remember - a floating city where streets are replaced with water and women wore big ball gowns and glittery masks to parties...yes, this sounded like my kind of city! Of course, the days of Casanova and Venetian balls are long gone, but the interesting city remains. I am so happy that we got to explore this interesting place before it's under water. The awe set in from the moment we left the train station. As we approached the doors, I could hear the hustle and bustle of a busy city. I could see people everywhere, moving quickly down the sidewalk. I knew what to expect, but my jaw still dropped when we walked outside - there was a giant canal where a boulevard should be, and boats where cars should be, and people being picked up by the Venetian version of a bus, the vaporetto boat, to be taken here and there, and gondoliers dressed in their black pants and striped shirts! I felt like I was on a movie set and had to remind myself that this place is real. As we walked to our apartment about 10 minutes away, we took a moment on top of Ponte Degli Scalzi to take it all in - we were in Venice!
We arrived at our apartment, a great little spot in a residential neighborhood, steps away from a square in which families met up after school and children played tag while their parents drank wine at the restaurants on the perimeter. The unit was fine - big enough and with a comfy bed. For the moment, we were happy with our temporary home...little did we know that we would quickly discover why the apartment was only rated 3/5 stars (the lowest rated apartment we had booked thus far) on Airbnb. So I don't harp on these annoyances throughout the entire post, I'll summarize them briefly (or I'll try to) now:
1. The place was supposed to have wifi, but the Vodafone popup page said the data usage limit had been met, and, in order to get the internet working again, another data packaged needed to be purchased. Our host wouldn't fix this. So we spent hours at a nearby restaurant using free wifi to communicate with her each day.
2. The washing machine stopped working mid wash, so we had to ring out our clothes by hand. Additionally, the metal drum inside the machine where the cloths go gave Jake an electrical shock (just a wee one), so you know, that's cool. Our simply stated that she had the electrical system "overhauled" 2 months ago and it is working fine, and that we must have done something wrong to make the cycle stop. She never offered to help us fix it.
3. The pilot light on the stove clicked continuously. All. Day. Long. She told us that we must have flung water onto it and caused the problem ourselves, but never told us how we might fix it. Perhaps we did get it wet (it was literally right next to the sink), but it was clicking from the moment we walked in the door during check in, we just didn't know what it was at that time.
4. She listed shampoo as an amenity, but there wasn't any. I was going to let this one go, but in light of the other issues, I decided to mention it. Her response to this was my favorite, "Shampoo may be that my father has forgotten, I apologize, but I do not seem appropriate to write it because you can find everything in the kitchen for cooking (salt, oil, pepper etc ...)" The items in the kitchen have nothing to do with the presence of shampoo.
5. The listing said breakfast was provided, but I would hardly call what was in the kitchen "breakfast" - small individual servings of marmalade (like you would find at a diner), leftover butter from previous guests, and biscuits (not like southern biscuits, there were those oversized crackers), and instant coffee. Thanks, I think.
Anyway, our host was terrible. We would have felt a lot better about our stay at the apartment, and probably would have given it a better review on Airbnb had the host even tried to be understanding or helpful in anyway. She merely blamed us for problems in her home. All she needed to do, if the issues really could not be fixed before we left, was say something like, "I'm sorry about these issues. I'm trying to get them fixed but probably won't be able to get to it until after you leave. My apologies for the inconvenience." I hate when people insert themselves into a hospitality environment, but hate to serve and help people using their services. Why have this business if you refuse to take responsibility for it? Ugh! Ok, gripe over.
Back to our great visit! Despite the issues with the host (and the smell of sewage that we'd get a nice whiff of every so often...I'd hate to smell Venice in the summertime), we loved Venice! We took the advice of Rick Steves, "Don't be afraid to get lost! You're on an island and you can't get off." With that in mind, we walked in every direction, down small corridors, over tiny canals, up and down steps. We were never actually lost, though; thanks to a fantastic app, Maps.me, we knew where we were the whole time. Maps.me is a GPS app that works offline, so since we don't have a data/cell plan while we're traveling, we can download the maps of countries we're going to when we are connected to wifi, and then have a working GPS! I don't know how else we would have found our way around Venice without that little blue dot showing us where we were - using an old fashioned paper map would have been exceedingly difficult! Armed with Maps.me, we set out to explore. Rick Steves came in handy yet again - we used his app, Rick Steves Audio Europe, and listened to his walking tours! The app is free and you can download all kinds of content, our favorites being the guided walking tours. With our headphones, Rick Steves apps, and handy GPS, we toured the Frari Church where we saw works of art by Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Donatello, and more. We wandered around St. Mark's Square, comparing each of the three sides and their different architecture (noticing that Napoleon's addition tried to blend the style of the previous 2), listened to the dueling orchestras at the three fancy restaurants on the square, watched people buy birdseed from peddlers so that pigeons would climb all over them (ew ew ew ew ew!), admired the Campanile bell tower, watched the copper statues at the top of the clock tower strike the bell with their mallets on the hour, and wandered the exterior of the pink palace of the Doge.
Rick Steves also took us on a tour of the interior of beautiful St. Mark's Basilica, explaining much of the works of art there that we wouldn't have otherwise noticed, like the story of Noah's Ark that is laid in mosaic on an arch in the entrance hall. My favorite piece in the glistening gold, mosaic covered, elaborately detailed basilica was, of course, the Horses of St. Mark. While the replicas stand outside on the terrace for all to see, the originals are inside, protected from the elements. I love the history of these great statues - everyone loved them so much, they were stolen many times! They started in Constantinople and taken by the Venetians in 1204. In 1797, Napoleon took them to Paris where they were used in the design of the Arc de Triumph. In 1815, the horses were returned to Venice and that's where they stayed.
The last Rick Steves tour we did made use of the vaporetto! We boarded at the top of the Grand Canal, and rode all the way down to St. Mark's, listening to him describe the history of the area and the incredible palaces that lined the water. We did this at night for a few reasons - to ensure that we would get seats in the front of the boat so we could see everything (most of the tourists were done for the day), to see the interiors of the palaces drenched in golden light from the ornate chandeliers that hung in each room, and to end up in St. Mark's Square at night. What a magical place it was! St. Mark's Square at night is simply stunning. The crowds and pigeons are gone, water bubbles up through the drains as the tide comes in and reflects the uniform white lights that line the buildings, the orchestras take turns playing beautiful music...it was perfect to sit in the square taking pictures, listening to "Time to Say Goodbye", in the warm air next to my husband.
The only thing that had not yet gone to bed were the peddlers selling selfie sticks, glowing flying things, and roses (just like in Rome). These guys were relentless, and we, sitting with our water bottles and cameras looking like ultimate tourists, were perfect targets. We said "No grazie" to about a dozen rose sellers, growing a little more annoyed with each one. Then, one salesman said "for you, because you are so nice, gratis!". "No thanks" I said again, but Jake wanted to see just how "gratis" this teeny tiny rose would really be. "Gratis?" Jake confirmed. "Si! Si! Gratis for you!". So Jake took the rose, gave it to me, and said thanks. The man was gone for about 7 seconds when he returned, "just one coin? one coin please?". We said no, and I held out the rose for him to take back, which he swiftly did. Nothing is free in this world! Not even a rose at the end of the night! We sat in the square for awhile longer, watching a newly married couple running around in their wedding attire (dress and all), taking pictures. The groom was holding a big bouquet of roses, each stem looking just like the one the peddler tried to sell me. He, of course, was approached by a rose man. Instead of speaking to the peddler, however, he stuck out his arm, holding his bouquet like a sword, and danced around as if he were fencing. We laughed as the salesman retreated in defeat! Before heading back to our apartment that night we stopped by the restaurant to check our email. As we sat by the water, a gondola glided by, the gondolier piloting from the back, and his friend, a man laying down in the boat on his back with a beautiful voice filling the evening air with opera. We could hear him coming and going for several minutes. As we listened we put down our phones and took in the treat that he gave us. I love Venice after dark!
Second to sitting in the beautifully lit square and catching the gondola singer, my favorite part of our Venice visit was getting up early and exploring before the crowds emerged. We saw St. Mark's Square in the early morning light before it was littered with people. We saw the gondoliers polishing their boats before setting out to find people yearning for a ride. We saw servers doing their morning side work, setting up patio tables with great care, putting cushions on each seat, and 2 table cloths on each table. We saw little old Italian ladies fling open their shutters to welcome the morning sunlight. We saw delivery boats making their rounds, strong men throwing jugs of wine to their partner on land. We saw the milkman, the postman, and the trashman, all making their stops from the water. We also got to walk through the fish market. By now, you probably know that I love open air markets - I love seeing everything that is being sold, and watching people interact and buy things. This market was particularly neat because there was so much happening, and so many things I have never seen before - fish with names I couldn't pronounce that looked like they came from deep dark water I'd be too afraid to swim in, fresh crab and shrimp trying to make their great escape from their boxes back to the water (not knowing about the giant seagull waiting below the table), men with sharp knives cutting up fresh squid, their hands covered in black ink...it was awesome! Jake and I loved watching the city come to life. As the tour groups started to congregate, we went back to our apartment to relax and eat lunch.
Food in Venice, like the rest of Italy, was also quite good. We were particularly impressed with the pizza (but still, nothing beats the Cajun Chicken Pizza from Kenmare, Ireland). Since we had a kitchen, we decided to cook a bit, too. Clearly we had to cook breakfast every day (because leftover butter and crackers were not cutting it - what is this, prison?), and we also indulged in touristy, multicolored pasta, sold at a stand near the Rialto Bridge. It wasn't the best pasta we've ever had, but it was fun to eat! Unfortunately, my least favorite meal of our whole trip so far was our last dinner in Venice - we were on the hunt for calzones. We had one more meal to enjoy in Italy and we had yet to eat any calzones, and we were determined to find one! Well, we found one at a restaurant near the train station, on a tourist trap street where menus are in 10 languages and hosts stand on the street like used car salesmen trying to coax you inside. Since our train was leaving in a couple hours and we didn't want to walk all the way back across town to the non-tourist neighborhoods, we decided to just go into one of the spots with a less greasy-looking host out front. Up to this point we had heeded the advice of others - do not eat in tourist traps! And now we know why - the food sucks. Oh, the wine sucks, too. I tried to not be dramatic about it, I tried to say "eh, it's alright." But my husband knows me well and called me out on my lie, "You hate it." "Ok fine, I hate it." Well, now we really know not to eat in a tourist trap restaurant again, if we can help it!
While that was my least favorite meal experience, my favorite meal experience was actually quite simple. For lunch one day, we ordered sandwiches from a takeaway spot called Majer (I even ordered everything in Italian! Thanks for the tips, Abby!), and took them out by one of the canals. We sat on the steps, sharing our sandwiches, as we watched people buying produce from a market boat just across from us. This floating produce shop had everything - peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, herbs - all colorful and overflowing from the baskets. Then something interesting caught my eye, a man with a machete carving up big, beautiful, perfect artichokes! The moment I noticed all of those crates full of perfect artichokes I smacked Jake's arm and excitedly demanded "Look! Look at thooooose!" And then I realized the man was cutting off all of the leaves, whittling the giant bulbs down to just the hearts. All of those perfect leaves falling to the floor of the boat. It was artichoke murder! I would have rescued some to steam back at our apartment, but I didn't have the patience to prepare them in that kitchen of ours.
Instead, I watched him, as if in a trance, rhythmically cut the leaves off in one motion and throwing the hearts into a bucket of water. Italians must not eat artichokes the same way we do at home! It was fascinating. Before I knew it, my delicious sandwich was gone and it was time for us to continue exploring. That afternoon we also found our favorite Venetian sweet treat! No, not gelato (though we did have that, too). It was the most perfect cream filled donut either of us have ever had. The donut was perfectly moist and flaky, the cream not too sweet...it's always hard to describe how good something tastes so I'll just say it was SO GOOD! Omnomnom! While it doesn't top our sweet treat from Galway, the Rocky Road, it is certainly at the top of the list! Our relaxed meal by the water followed up with a donut for dessert definitely takes the cake (see what I did there?) for best meal. Second runner up was takeout pizza that we got - 6 euros for a large from Pizza 2000 - best deal in town!
One question I'm sure you have is, "Didn't you take a gondola ride?" No, we didn't. But we did think about it pretty hard! On our journey to Venice, Jake and I had even exclaimed, "We're TOTALLY doing a gondola ride! How awesome will that be?!" Well, it turns out, we didn't think it would be as awesome for the price - 80 euros for 30-40 minutes! And, we would actually have wanted to do it at night, so it would have been 100 euros. And if you want a singer, or a musician, add another 20%. Though we had been excited about the romantic idea, we ultimately decided it was not for us on this trip. Besides, we would have felt a little uncomfortable with just the 2 of us and some random guy we don't know making small talk for 30 minutes. When we come back to Venice with friends someday, we'll absolutely split the cost with them and bring a few bottles of wine along for the ride. That sounds WAY more fun. Who's in?
While our host in Venice was a pill, our visit was, overall, quite wonderful. I loved roaming the streets, watching people peacefully drive their boats (there is no road rage...I mean canal rage...in Venice, drivers are so polite and relaxed behind the wheel, always yielding to others without interference!), listening to random gondolas filled with song drift by. I loved knowing that we could never get truly lost, or so far from our apartment that we were stranded. I loved seeing the square in every light, from morning to night. I loved this incredible city and I am so happy we finally saw it!