Viva la Venezia!
Growing up close to New Orleans, I can say that I know a thing or two about living in a sinking city. New Orleans built itself in between water ways, constructing (faulty) levy systems and manmade canals. Situated near the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Gulf of Mexico, it is virtually a giant fishbowl that threatens to fill up every time a big storm comes. It is not the ideal location for a city, but that’s what makes it so special. Years of floods, cracking foundations, and moisture in the air have painted the buildings with a glaze of history that can only be achieved with time. For better or worse, New Orleans still stands and in this way I was reminded of it when we went to Venice. But enough about New Orleans, I came to talk about Venice!
Venice was founded in 1171 on a series of 117 small islands, 400 bridges, and over 150 canals. The buildings are constructed on closely spaced wood piles and rest on compressed clay underneath. The largest canal, the Grand Canal, snakes its way in the middle of the city and smaller canals branch off of it. The only way to get around the city is by foot or boat. What I loved about this was that there were no cars to hit you! I had been in Italy long enough to see that Italians are crazy drivers!
We stayed at a hotel in the next town over from Venice, called Mestre. The prices of hotels directly in Venice are more expensive and since we had a car van, we needed to be able to park it. If you choose to do the same, there are buses all over that will drop you off in Venice. The buses drop you off at Piazzale Roma, where a short walk over an abnormally contemporary bridge begins your journey into Venice. My first thought when crossing the bridge was, “wow, it’s so much louder than I expected”. Although there are no cars in Venice, at the main canal was a traffic jam of boats! There were boats of all size: power boats, gondolas, barges, small fishing boats, and taxi boats. Things do get much quieter as you walk away from the main canal, but it was so overwhelming at first.
The first thing we did was go to the bathroom. This is where we got our first lesson in Italy: nothing is free. They made the simple act of relieving yourself a source of income. Public bathrooms cost anywhere between 1-2 euros and you can even buy a week or day pass! Ha…I think not. I recommend popping into a café or bar and having a quick drink or bite to eat and using their restroom. You might as well get something for your money!
The next thing we did was get our boat passes. The city’s main mode of public transport is the Vaporetto. These giant water taxis bring you up and down the main canal and to islands off the coast. They also give you access to the buses off of the mainland. They are extremely easy to navigate and are pretty affordable (50 euros for a week of unlimited use). I definitely recommend buying the pass; it’s pretty much a necessity!
When I came to Venice, one of the top things on my to-do-list was to ride on a gondola. I even put it on my bucket list. The more I watched them though, the less I wanted to do it. For one, I felt that it was too expensive (80 euros, or about 100$). I also didn’t want strangers taking pictures of me. Gondola rides are the quintessential Venetian experience, so of course everybody takes pictures of them. I imagined it would be an intimate and romantic experience; instead my “intimate” experience would be posted on Sue from China’s facebook wall. However, if you’re still set on riding a gondola, there is a gondola service called the “traghetto” that will take you across the main canal for only .50 euros. The gondola ride wasn’t for me but that didn’t stop me from taking pictures of other people’s experiences!
Piazza San Marco was a highlight of Venice! It’s absolutely enormous and is sure to take your breath away. The piazza consists of the beautifully detailed Basilica di San Marco on one side. There are two bell towers in the square, the Torre dell’ Orologio and the Campanile and on either side are a row of souvenir shops and restaurants enclosed in a building of arched-ways and crosses. In the middle of the piazza are literally thousands of pigeons, a great photo op if you’re willing to risk bird flu. It is free to enter the basilica, but like all of the churches in Italy, you must be dressed modestly. This means covered arms and no short shorts. Not unlike a nightclub in Miami, a bouncer at the door takes a good look at you, but in this case, if you’re dressed like Ke$ha you get kicked to the corner. A pashmina, or some type of scarf, works great for covering up your arms. If you dress like Ke$ha though, you might want to invest in some pants.
After seeing the piazza, I suggest putting the map away and just simply getting lost. At one point, we were unsuccessfully trying to find a building using a map. The narrow alley ways that zig-zag every which way make it almost impossible to know where you’re going. After getting confused and frazzled, I put the map away and realized that I was paying more attention to the map than my surroundings. The true Venetian style is to take it slow and steady. Stop and have a cappuccino or a prosecco (their signature sparkling wine). Sit in the middle of a square and watch the world go by.
But don’t take too long just sitting there! You still have to see the islands of Burano and Murano! I almost passed up the chance to go to Burano. I’m so glad I went because it turned out to by one of my favorite parts of the trip! Burano is famous for their homemade lace. As you enter the island, you are bombarded with shops selling lace dresses, umbrellas, and gloves; all seemingly made on the island (some in China, I’m sure) and all very expensive.
It’s not the lace I loved, but the vibrant colors of the homes. Be sure to roam around in the residential section of the island to see colors you only imagined were possible from neon highlighters.
Once your eyes can’t take the bright colors of Burano any longer, head over to Murano. Here, you will most certainly want to buy one thing, glass. Murano is famous for its hand-blown glass…mouth-blown to be exact. You can buy anything from glass rings and necklaces to glass figurines and vases. They are actually pretty affordable, but, like most souvenirs, they are pricier nearer to the entrance. After buying yourself the glass elephant you always wanted, hop back on the boat back to the mainland.
On the way back, look for the island of San Michele, Venice’s cemetery since the early 1800s. San Michele is so crowded that bodies are only allowed to decompose for a mere twelve years before being dug up. Creepy but beautiful!
Once back on the mainland, check out the Rialto Bridge and the Bridge of Sighs. The Rialto is a bridge across the main canal with shops and an open air market. Annoyingly, it had been tagged by a graffiti artist when I saw it.
The Bridge of Sighs is an enclosed passageway that at one time connected the Doges Palace and the prison. The name was given to the bridge because of the sounds the condemned prisoners would make as they saw their last glimpse of Venice.
Like New Orleans, Venice is slowly sinking, which means you must get there as soon as possible! I loved everything about it (I even didn’t mind the smell of the canals, which I’ve heard can be horrible in the summer time). There aren’t as many historic sites to see as there are in Rome, but Venice makes up for that with its picturesque alleyways, canals, and bridges. It is much easier to get wrapped up in the Italian culture in Venice because everything is quieter and seems to be at a slower pace. I’m glad we started off the trip there because it was a great introduction to Italy and its people. I definitely recommend that anyone going to Italy should add Venice to the list. You won’t be disappointed!
Hope you guys are enjoying my posts about Italy! I can’t wait to tell you about another favorite city of mine: Rome!