Over the last ten years, the majority of my travels have included taking one or both of my children with me wherever I went. While I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to see places near and far with them, I also relish being able to explore a city on my own terms without always having to take into account their eating and sleeping schedules or preferences on sightseeing. So, a few years ago I decided that before the next milestone birthday hit, I wanted to travel internationally, but this time without children in tow. My destination? Italy.
I scrimped and saved over three years, scoured through my beloved guide books and online travel forums, and collected the travel gear needed in order to spend 17 days gallivanting about in Italy. I also talked one of my friends into going with me because I’ve come to realize that I really don’t like traveling alone. Travel is one of those things that I enjoy so much more when I can share it with someone else. I like being able to turn to someone and say, “Did you see that?” or “Oh my god, taste this. It’s amazing.” I like hearing how another person experiences the things we’re seeing and doing. And besides, people tend to shy away from the crazy lady who talks to herself in museums, historic sites, and shops.
When the time came for my friend and I to set off for Italy, my new, trusty suitcase was packed to the gills, ready for some adventures and my travel notebook was bursting with information gleaned from hours of geekish research. I could hardly wait to see all that Italy had offer.
Our first stop: Venice.
Let me just say that all of the clichéd phrases about Venice are true. It is enchanting, mysterious and in a state of elegant decay. Venice doesn’t hide the fact that her buildings are in need of repairs; rather, she shows them off to the hoards of tourists who grace her waters and walkways, tempting you to imagine – just imagine! – the gilded fronts of her palaces, the decadence of Carnivale, and the sheer grandeur of life as a Venetian during the Renaissance. I didn’t find it hard to let my imagination wander while I was there.
It was easy to see why the place has drawn thousands of visitors each year over the centuries. The state of disrepair of the once grand palaces and buildings in any other city would be deemed unsightly if not tragic. But not in Venice. The water of the canals gently lapping at the entrances to these places seems to lull you into its charms, making you forget that the paint is peeling and the birds have had their way with the beautiful rooftop spires. Never mind the subtle sweet scent of decay that wafts over you as you pass a building with its doors open. You are in Venice. What other city in the world is built on wooden pilings driven into the lagoon hundreds of years ago to avoid barbarian attacks?
Even though we were both jet lagged, we were both completely awestruck as we took the water taxi from the airport across the lagoon and then slowly entered the Grand Canal, Venice’s main drag. The palaces and buildings fronting the canal seemed like they were on display just for us, a Venetian welcoming party of the most decadent variety.
We disembarked at our stop and rolled our little suitcases over the ancient cobblestones to the b and b where we were staying: Campiello Zen, located in the residential area of Santa Croce.
It is run by a friendly couple, Susanna and Andrea, who most graciously offered their help in getting us oriented and fed. Staying in this part of Venice, as opposed to the more touristy area around Piazza San Marco, kept us from the fray of noise and commotion and gave us the chance to see how the locals live, eat and play.
A big part of your time in Venice is just figuring out how to get from point A to point B. A map is definitely needed, even if you just feel like wandering with no particular destination in mind. Eventually, you’ll want to make your way back to your hotel and unless you have a photographic memory, you will need the map. And a good sense of direction, which I had originally prided myself on until I tried to get us from the b and b to the Gallerie dell’Accademia museum in a timely fashion. After ten minutes of walking and thinking we were going in the right direction, we ended up at the Grand Canal mere yards from the b and b.
My friend decided to literally take matters into her own hands and took over navigational duties (and thus earning the name “Mappy” for the rest of the trip). I begrudgingly handed over the map and followed behind her like a little kid. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it allowed me the chance to actually look at everything as we walked to the museum: balconies and loggias dripping with lush greenery and flowers in glowing shades of crimson, fuchsia, and purple; kids poking their heads out of their windows five stories high; and alleyways so narrow I could easily touch the buildings on both sides with outstretched arms.
Finally arriving at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, we were relieved to see that it wasn’t very crowded despite its proximity to Piazza San Marco and the throngs of people there visiting the gorgeous basilica (more on that below). We spent a leisurely 2 hours immersing ourselves in the gorgeous collection of paintings before heading into the Piazza San Marco for lunch.
Directed by our b and b hosts to a sandwich shop there, we ordered our first meal at the counter and then quietly admonished ourselves for feeling so self-conscious about speaking Italian. While neither of us was anywhere near fluent, we both had done some practicing before leaving on our trip. Yet beyond the simple “grazie” and “per favore”, I found my cheeks flushing when I attempted to ask if the panini I was pointing at was vegetarian. (We later learned to ask “senza carne?” when trying to order meatless food. For more tips on traveling as a vegetarian or vegan in Italy, check out this post from Walks of Italy.)
Prior to leave the states, I had booked us a time to enter the Basilica San Marco for that afternoon so we headed there next. If you don’t want to wait in a very long line to enter, you definitely need to book ahead. With our tickets in hand, we were able to walk right up to the front doors and enter within a few minutes. The Basilica is a major tourist stop for many who visit Venice, especially those who arrive by cruise ship and are in the city for the day. The piazza itself is crowded with visitors as well as vendors selling touristy trinkets.
The first basilica built in this location was a temporary building within the duke’s palace and was constructed in 828. It is said that Venetian merchants traveling in Alexandria at this time stole the body of St. Mark the Evangelist and brought his body to the basilica. The basilica was burned in a rebellion in 976 and then rebuilt in 978. The present basilica has remained essentially the same since 1063.
Once we were inside, the noise of the square quickly faded and a reverent quiet welcomed you. No photos were allowed but I can tell you it was gorgeous. The mosaics on the walls were stunning.
Next door to the basilica is the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s (Duke’s) Palace. (It’s also a good idea to book tickets for entrance to the palace because long lines form here, too.) Opulent and grand, a walk through the palace shouldn’t be missed.
The Doge’s Palace was not only the home of the Doge (elected ruler of Venice), but also was the seat of the government of Venice for centuries. The palace was the venue for its law courts, its civil administration and, until its relocation across the Bridge of Sighs, the city jail. It was constructed in two phases starting in 1301 and was finally completed in 1450. The architectural style is what is refered to as ‘Venetian Gothic’.
Earlier in the day, we had asked our hosts at Campiello Zen to suggest a restaurant for dinner. They highly recommended La Zucca restaurant and promptly made us a reservation for that evening when we agreed to try it. I have never had such amazing lasagna as the one I ate there and have yet to find a comparable one since.
Later that evening, we managed a few more Italian phrases and bought the 48-hour unlimited use vaporetto pass. I wanted to take the vaporetto (water bus) down the two-mile length of the majestic Grand Canal while the sun was setting. The light reflecting off the ochre and white buildings seemed to make them glow. Then, as dusk fell, lights and lanterns made them shine like the beautiful ladies they once were in centuries past.
An adventure in itself, the vaporetto ride only took about 25 minutes and then it deposited us near the Piazza San Marco where we went to hear the famous dueling orchestras playing their tunes to the crowds seated at the cafes. Mappy and I sauntered back and forth between the two cafes, listening just long enough to hear a song or two before heading back to the other one. With a ceiling of stars, a gentle breeze and a cup of gelato in hand, it was one of the most memorable nights of the trip.
Nighttime brings out Venice’s lovely, mysterious side. The mobs of tourists have left, lanterns are lit, light dances off the water, and the locals come out for their passeggiata, or evening stroll. The passeggiata is done throughout the country and is one of my favorite things about Italy. Entire families can be seen ambling slowly and holding hands or licking their gelato as friends and neighbors nod and say “buona sera”, good evening. (Don’t you just love the Italian language? It just tumbles gracefully off the lips and dances its way to your ears…)
Our second day was spent wandering somewhat aimlessly in Venice and Guidecca, the island across the lagoon from Venice. In Guidecca, we found our way to San Giorgio Basilica where we took the elevator to the top of the campanile, or bell tower. This was a great tip from our b and b host as a way to get incredible views of the city without having to hike a gazillion stairs to the top or having to wait in long lines in the hot sun as we would have encountered at the bell tower by San Marco Basilica. A quick ride to the top rewarded us not only with a cooling breeze (it was getting mighty hot down there), but also a chance to see the red tile roof tops snake their way through the city across the lagoon.
After we made our way back across the lagoon on the vaporetto, I had one more thing I really wanted to do before I left Venice: take a gondola ride on the Grand Canal. Unfortunately, that would have set us back about 80-100 euros (roughly $135). But since I had done extensive reading in the months leading up to the trip, I had discovered that the locals use gondolas called traghettos to zip back and forth across the canal as needed throughout the day. A traghetto ride only costs 50 cents and while brief (it takes about five minutes to cross the canal), it gives you a sense of riding in a gondola. Typically the traghettos are packed tightly with locals standing shoulder to shoulder but we happened to catch this traghetto at a slow time so we were (thankfully) able to sit down.
Once we were on the other side of the canal, we sauntered over to the large, stone Ponte Rialto, Rialto bridge. Produce and fish markets are spread out along the bank of one side of the canal as they have been for centuries. One of only four bridges that crosses the Grand Canal, the Rialto Bridge was completed in 1591 and has three walkways: two along the outside and a wider walkway inside where two rows of small shops that where jewelry, linens, Murano glass, and touristy trinkets are sold.
As afternoon spilled into early evening, Mappy and I decided to be Venetian and enjoy a spritzer in the piazza closest to our b and b. As the sun began to sink behind the buildings, we both came to the same realization: Venice was truly magical. It wouldn’t have taken much to convince me to stay longer.
Our introduction to Italy was all that I’d hoped for and more. We wondered aloud if we had just finished the best part of the trip even though we had fifteen more days in Italy and five more cities to visit. Ever the optimist, I reassured my friend we had many more adventures to take, though Venice had set the bar pretty high. I knew then, as I know now, that I wasn’t done with Venice. Like so many other places I’ve visited, Venice is definitely a place I will someday find my way back to.