In this, our fourth year on the road, we are travelling with two laptops, the old Mac Book that we bought in Malaysia at the end of our first year, and the new Mac Book that Raj gave me as a gift when we came home at the end of our third year. We debated long and hard as to whether we should weigh ourselves down with two computers, but there is no doubt now that it was a good decision. Anil keeps himself busy following all him favorite cricket matches and when there is time, and we can both be using the wireless connection, he likes to read newspapers from around the world.
Towards the end of our stay in Florence, he was browsing the New York Times on line and a link to an article in the Travel Section caught his eye. The headline read 100 Hotels In Europe For Under $150. He looked through the article and noted there was a listing for Venice. We are travelling with a Lonely Planet Mediterranean Europe from 2007 (the 2009 edition was just released in September, after we had left Canada) and we are finding it very out of date for mid-range hotels. Venice is reputed to be the most expensive city in Italy, and we were having trouble finding an acceptable place to stay there.
We checked out the B&B that was listed on the NYT’s site, and found that it was completely booked in October, except for the four days we planned to be in Venice. It seemed like a good omen to us. The website for the B&B made it clear that they were located on the mainland, not in Venice proper, but that didn’t phase us at all. We would have to take a bus to reach the town where they were situated, and the host would meet us at the bus stop to carry our luggage to their home. A deposit was required, and we paid using PayPal. We didn’t feel we were taking a risk; there were photos of the building and the room, and a description of the area where we would be staying. If we weren’t happy, we could always leave and pay more to stay in Venice itself.
We arrived by Eurostar at the train station conveniently located right beside the Grand Canal. We had to cross to the other side of the canal, and when I consulted the guidebook, the map showed me that we were very near to one of the tree bridges that makes crossing on foot possible. It makes it possible, but not easy if you have luggage. There are steps to go up and steps to go down again, lots of them. It is an old bridge; otherwise one would expect it to have a strip in the middle that was smooth so that people could pull their bicycles, strollers or luggage up easily. Once we were across, it became apparent that there were two more small bridges that we would have to cross. These allowed pedestrians to cross over canals that were linked to the Grand Canal. Welcome to Venice!
As we heaved and hauled our suitcases over the second bridge, I looked towards the bus station and could see a large new bridge stretching from one side of the Grand Canal to the other. It was clear that it was built recently, because there were still construction materials on the underside. This bridge was not on the map in our guidebook, how could it be? I’m curious to learn if it is included in the 2009 edition of Mediterranean Europe; I’ll certainly look to see when I get my hands on one.
If we had known of the new bridge, we could have crossed over one bridge instead of three, and I imagined that the new structure was built to accommodate all the people moving from the train station to the bus station with their luggage. When we finally arrived at the ticket office for the bus depot, I asked Anil to stay put for a few minutes while I ran over to check out the new bridge. To my surprise, it had stairs along the entire width of the bridge and people were struggling with their luggage just as we had earlier. What were the architects thinking? I wondered to myself if there was a strong vaporetto lobby in Venice. They would definitely see a drop off in business if everyone travelling with luggage could cross the Grand Canal easily whether arriving by train or bus.
We joined the queue for bus tickets and were a little confused as to which ticket to buy. The tickets on sale covered all forms of transportation in Venice except the private boat taxis and were available for 12, 24,36, and 72 hours. Our B&B host had informed us that the bus to the town where she lives is included in the ticket cost, but we were staying longer than 72 hours, so we just bought a one-way ticket for the trip and waited till the next day to buy the multi-day pass.
The bus ride to the town passed through the port and industrial areas of the mainland and on into the small towns beyond. The ride was comfortable enough, and before long we were riding alongside a small canal and into a little village. The driver indicted that our stop was approaching; we had asked him for assistance when we got on, and he did not forget us. We crossed over a little footbridge, level thankfully, no more heaving luggage up and down steps, and called our host. She was awaiting our arrival, and before we knew it, she arrived in her small car, welcomed us with open arms, threw our suitcases in the truck and sped off into the village.
It had been a long day and we weren’t up to travelling back into Venice that evening, so we took Monica’s advice and walked along the small road through ploughed fields to a popular restaurant for dinner. It was cool that evening and we were glad we had warm sweaters and small mittens to keep us cozy. This restaurant was not for tourists; it was Friday night and the place was hopping. There was no menu touristica, but they did have some menus in English so we were able to order easily, eat well, and waddle back to our B&B for a good night’s sleep.
The next morning we met Chris, Monica’s English husband. After breakfast, he took us out to the back of the house and fixed us up with bicycles for the ride back to the village, and the bus stop. The bikes had definitely seen better days, but they were rideable, and we were used to coming across such bikes in Vietnam and China, so we weren’t put off. Monica told us later that there are some guests who refuse to ride the bikes and walk to the village instead. We took everything in stride; it was all part of the adventure, after all. We set off with the map we were given and enjoyed riding through the Italian countryside in the fresh morning air.
The trip took us longer that anticipated, but we did arrive at the small canal and spotted the church steeple off to our right, not to our left as the map indicated it should be. No matter, we locked up the bikes, purchased our multi-day passes at the nearby shop and boarded the bus. Before we knew it, we were back at the bus depot in Venice ready to explore the city. Our guidebook suggested that the best plan of attack is to take a vaporetto down the Grand Canal all the way to St. Mark’s Square. This way, one gets an overview of Venice and, after seeing the sights in the Square, it’s great to plunge into the small streets branching out into the city. This is what we planned to do.
We walked over to the floating platform, moored to the dock and asked a very bored looking man if this is there we caught a boat to Piazza San Marco. He pointed to the one we were standing on, and the one next to it, no smile, no interest in helping us at all. We shrugged and stayed where we were, it seemed the next boat would arrive shortly and we would be on our way up the famous Grand Canal. Several vaporettos sailed past our dock without stopping and when one finally did, it was headed in the wrong direction. I was confused, but we boarded anyway.
Once everyone was aboard, we pulled out into the canal and headed away from what I took to be Venice proper and motored out towards the docks where several massive cruise ships were anchored. I consulted the maps I had and realized that we were going around the southern side of Venice, on a route that ended at St. Mark’s Square, but that didn’t go down the Grand Canal. Oops! No matter, we were going to be exploring the city thoroughly over the next three days; we would have another opportunity to cruise along the Grand Canal. We were just happy to be in this famous city, to have the sun shining above us and the clean, blue water below us. We’ll take Venice any way we get it.
Well, almost any way. When we got off the vaporetto at Piazza San Marco, we were dumped right into the middle of tour group central. Anil had counted nine huge cruise ships in port, and when you imagine that each of these ships carries two to three thousand passengers, you can imagine the crunch that happens when the ferries from the boats deposit all these people at the Piazza. The narrow sidewalks that stand between the buildings and the water become clogged with tour groups attempting to follow their guides, who are walking slowly holding some sort of sign, flag or colourful umbrella above their heads so they don’t lose their charges.
We scurried past the slow pokes and on into the Square where there were far fewer tourists. I took plenty of photos and we even posed for one together after helping out a couple from Thessaloniki, Greece, who wanted a photo of themselves in this famous spot. The Square was lined with restaurants, but few tables were taken as the weather was coolish, and most tourists that afternoon were part of tours and there was no time for a leisurely coffee. After admiring the Basilica, we set out to explore the quiet canals and lanes of the city.
I won’t go into any detail of how we spent the next three days getting to know Venice, but I will tell you a few things about the city that I never knew. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that Venice was set in a lagoon not far from the Adriatic coast. I happened to be watching television one day when a program was on about the efforts that engineers are making to ensure that Venice isn’t swallowed up by rising sea levels. It was then that I learned that there are barrier islands that separate the lagoon from the ocean, and that ships make their way in and out of the lagoon through narrow gaps between these islands.
The origins of Venice date back to the 5th and 6th centuries when the inhabitants of the mainland found themselves besieged by barbarian tribes and they took refuge on the islands in the nearby lagoon. They built their homes and businesses on the islands, joining them together by bridges and moving about on the canals that separated the islands. There are 117 islands in total, over 400 bridges connecting them and at least 150 distinct canals. Little did the early residents know that in the 21st century, their descendants would be invaded by up to 20 million visitors each year.
I took so many photographs that I had a hard time selecting the ones that I wanted to share with you. As it stands, you will still have to plough through a lot of photos, I’ll leave it up to you to decide when you’ve had enough. I would have liked to spend more time in Venice after the sun set, but the temperatures dropped dramatically and we had to take the bus back to our bicycles, locked up beside the little canal, and ride through the dark country roads to reach our B&B. It would have been entirely different if we visited in the summer months, but then we would have had to deal with significantly more tourists, sultry weather, and long lines for a seat in any restaurant we chose to dine at. While this was not the ideal time to visit Venice, it wasn’t the worse either and we had a great time.
At the end of our second day, we headed to the bus stop and just as we boarded the bus, Monica appeared out of the crowd and motioned for us to get off the bus and join her. She had spotted my yellow jacket, probably the brightest jacket in Italy this late in the fall season, and wanted us to change buses and join her, Chris and their younger son, Marco. They had taken the day off themselves to come to Venice and had left their car on the mainland near the city. When we asked about the bikes, they told us not to worry, we could leave them overnight, walk to the bus stop in the morning and ride them home again the next evening.
Monica was thrilled to tell us about how they had spent their day. It turned out they were invited to join friends who had access to a private boat and they spent a couple of hours cruising on the Grand Canal and some of the neighbouring canals. Though Monica was born and raised in the area, she had never been on a private boat nor seen the sights of Venice from such a privileged vantage point. Official rates for a ride in a gondola start at €75 (€95 from 8pm to 8am) and the private boats are even more expensive. I was so happy for Monica and her family. It was clearly an experience that she will remember for a long time to come.
The next morning when we were about to set off on our walk to the bus stop, I commented to Monica how the route was much longer than she had implied it to be and that it would probably take us almost an hour to walk to where the bikes were locked up, where we would catch the bus to Venice. She said there was not way it should take us an hour, and when we consulted the map again, we realized that we had missed the very first right-hand turn. By taking the second right turn, we had almost doubled the distance to the village, and that explained why we had seen the church steeple to the right of the point where we reached the canal, instead of the left. I was happy the walk was going to be shorter, I was keen to spend more time walking in Venice, than along the country roads.
We were happy with our rides on the vaporetti and in the traghetti (poor man’s gondola), that are used by Venetians to cross the Grand Canal when there’s no nearby bridge. Monica had told us to be sure to make a crossing in a traghetto, because locals always stand up in them as they cross and the experience can be quite thrilling, all for the price of €1. We were sure to try one out, but we were the only ones standing, the other tourists sat down and stared at us like we were out of our minds. I had read the posted instructions before climbing in, and knew that Monica had been right on, passengers were supposed to stand; it makes it possible to carry more passengers per trip.
After exploring Venice quite thoroughly, we made side trips to nearby islands to take in the sights there. We visited Burano with its colourful houses and women who specialize in making lace by hand. Their creations were beautiful, but expensive. We were warned that anything affordable was probably made in Asia. We also make a trip across the lagoon to one of the barrier islands, Lido. There is not much to see or do there at this time of year, the two things that draw visitors are the huge beach and the Venice International Film Festival, and neither of these are ‘on’ in mid-October. After leaving Lido, the fame it carries has inspired other places to cash in on the cachet of the name; we motored over to Murano, the island studded with forges where glass has been made for centuries.
One afternoon, we went to the tourist information office to get details on how to travel from Italy into Slovenia and Croatia. We were surprised to learn that the only train leaves at 11pm and arrives in Ljubljana at 1:30am. Not our cup of tea for sure. There was a bus/train combination but it meant waiting at a train station for several hours in the middle of nowhere. This coupled with the fact that northern Europe and parts of Slovenia and Croatia were experiencing even colder weather than Venice made us cancel our plans to travel overland through eastern Europe and head to Rome on the Eurostar. We have learned when travel details become difficult and the weather is not co-operating, something seems to be telling us to make other plans. Anil found a terrific fare on Turkish Airways between Rome and Istanbul, and just like that, we changed our plans and decided to plunge even further into Italy. I love the flexibility we have to make plans as we go along. Wouldn’t have it any other way.
After our third hearty breakfast with Monica, we loaded our luggage into her car and she delivered us to the bus stop. By now we were experts and once off the bus, we crossed only one bridge, the ‘Glass Bridge’, on our way to the train station over the water. As Anil struggled to drag his suitcase up the steps, a Thai Buddhist monk came from behind, grabbed his suitcase and carried it across the Grand Canal. Anil was stunned, and me, even more so. I had to manage on my own. Anil, quick as ever with his memory bank, said “Khawp khun khrap”, thank you in the Thai language. What a great way to end our visit to Venice.