I’m writing this message as I sit on the train that carries us away from Italy to Austria. Our last four days in Italy were great ones, with many memorable experiences in Venice, a city that I was apprehensive to visit.
We arrived in Venice on the 22nd by train. The trip up from Florence was uneventful, but the end of our journey was interesting as we left the mainland and approached the Venetian archipelago by way of a causeway.
Usually, when people think of Venice, they think of gondolas. Aside from being ridiculously expensive, they are terribly slow. The majority of people in Venice, locals and tourists alike, travel by vaporetti, otherwise known as water buses. Once off the train, we grabbed the vaporetto destined for Piazza San Marco, the main square of Venice, and the place closest to our hostel.
Off the vaporetto, we avoided the crowds and San Marco and dove into the narrow alleyways, called calles, of the Castello neighbourhood. We quickly learned that navigating Venice by foot requires a strong sense of direction, as you must simply walk in the direction you need to go, while navigating around the canals via distant calles and occasional bridges. We managed to find the hostel quite easily, checked in, and decided on our afternoon.
As we had done in previous cities, we decided to start with a bit of a walking tour of Venice to see some of the major sights and bridges. We started with a walk through Piazza San Marco. This square is one of the two major tourist attractions in Venice (and is certainly number one of the two). The piazza is an enormous square which is faced by St. Mark’s (San Marco’s) Basilica, the Doge’s Palace (such palace, much wow), the famous Venetian clocktower (about as close to a digital clock as analog clocks can get), and St. Mark’s bell tower, which rises over 300 feet. We earmarked visiting these sites for another day.
We continued on our way through the city, exploring the many shops and churches along the way to the Ponte del Accademia. This is one of Venice’s most famous bridges for two reasons. One, it is made entirely of wood, and despite this, is quite large. The bridge is a beautiful piece of architecture. The second reason it is famous is because it is a lock bridge; a place where lovers fix a lock to the bridge and then toss the key into the canal to seal their love forever. Crossing the bridge led us onto the southern arm of the main archipelago, a quieter, less touristy region. We walked along its length to its end, where it comes together into a point. From this point, we could easily view the rest of Venice (including Piazza San Marco), as well as two nearby islands, Giudecca, and San Giorgio. We took some great photos of Venice from here.
Next, we hopped on vaporetto #1, which takes a winding route through Venice’s Grand Canal. We’d hoped to get great views of the many palazzos that line the canal, but unfortunately, the bus was packed to the brim and we could barely move, let alone see or take photos. We got off a short way into the ride, just before hitting Venice’s most famous bridge: The Rialto.
The Rialto Bridge is a large bridge spanning the Grand Canal. It has a central avenue with storefronts on both sides (much like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence), but also has walkways behind the stores to allow direct views over the canal on both sides. This was a neat thing to walk across and gave good views of the canal when you could get to the railings.
After the Rialto, we wandered around and found a restaurant to eat dinner. We settled on a cheap place with one of Venice’s traditional dishes: spaghetti with black squid ink sauce and cuttlefish. It sounds scary, but aside from being slightly on the salty side, it is actually pretty tasty. If we’d paid a little more for it, we probably would’ve gotten one that tasted even better.
We took a meandering route back across the island, stopping in a few shops along the way, and found our way back to the hostel. We chatted with our roommates and made plans for the next day.
Early next morning, we set out for Piazza San Marco. We were warned that the lines for the bell tower and basilica were very long, so we wanted to get a good position. Unknowingly, we showed up an hour before the basilica opened, so we ended up waiting in line for that long, but did manage to get in right away. As well, a significant line had built up behind us by the time it opened. The basilica was quite spectacular, with 3 enormous domes forming the ceiling of the nave. The walls, ceilings, and domes are decorated with rich mosaics featuring shiny gold backgrounds. We ascended to the basilica’s museum, which housed many original features of the church, including a set of four horses plundered from Constantinople that had adorned the facade of the basilica for hundreds of years (save a short stay in France when Venice was captured by Napoleon), and have now been replaced by replicas. We also were able to go out onto the basilica’s terrace, which gave nice views of the basilica’s exterior features, as well as of the piazza before it. At a measly 5 euros each, the basilica was well worth a visit.
After the basilica, we cross the square to the bell tower and waited in the short 20 minute line to take the elevator to the top. We also rented two audioguides to narrate our viewing of the city from the top of the tower. From there, we got a good appreciation both for the architecture of Venice, but also its history and organization. This was an activity I would certainly recommend.
The weather was excellent when we left the bell tower, so we agreed that we should do something that we had not anticipated doing in Venice: swimming (at least intentionally; the canals are notoriously polluted). A short vaporetto ride away from San Marco is the island of Lido, which is narrow and long enough to close off the lagoon in which Venice sits. It is a natural weather break, and also served as a military establishment to protect the city from attack. Its beach faces away from Venice into the Mediterranean. With swimsuits, towels, and sunscreen in hand, we laid out on the beach.
Now, swimming in the Mediterranean has been a dream of mine for a long time. I was rather disappointed when we didn’t find a place to swim in Naples, and had chalked up that dream to be fulfilled on some trip to Europe in the future. As I said, we did not expect to go swimming in Venice, but after a recommendation by our German hostel mates, we simply had to go.
The sun beat down on us, toasting us at a balmy 37 degrees. We warmed up, then cooled down in the water. I swam a way’s down the beach. The salty water was a refreshing return to the sea, something I’d missed from Nova Scotia. Something I didn’t miss was the cold. This water was delightfully cool in the heat, but warm overall. We spent a few hours at the beach, and as ominous clouds started to roll in, we packed up and returned to the hostel for shelter and dinner.
We had enjoyed our salami and cheese dinner enough that we wanted to do it again. This time, we picked up a different kind of salami, a deliciously fragrant cheese, some crostini (crispy brea slices), cherry tomatoes, some yellow pepper, and a bottle of wine. We enjoyed our Italian meal out on the rooftop terrace of the hostel and chatted with the other hostellers enjoying the fresh air and the view as the sun went down over Venice. Not too long after this, the rain rolled in and we all retreated indoors for the night.
Our last day in Venice was earmarked for the Doge’s Palace and the islands of Murano and Burano. We were glad we’d done the beach before because the rain appeared to be continuing into this day. We donned our rain jackets and made haste to the palace at Piazza San Marco.
Inside—thankfully, the rain started coming down in earnest shortly after we gained entry—we were able to tour the Doge’s (basically the king of Venice, though the position is an elected one; more of a figurehead than true political leader, he did hold sway and influence within the republic) apartments, which were considered small by the standards of the generally extremely wealthy who were elected to the position of Doge (this was meant as a message, to remind the Doge of his ultimate servitude to the state). I found them quite grand, but that’s just me.
The palace also contained the state offices and government halls. The hall for the Senate was richly appointed and grand in scale. It was interesting seeing the room, especially after having appreciated a painting of the abdication of the last Doge in surrender to Napoleon Bonaparte, which took place in the same room.
Even more grand than the Senate’s hall (which housed around 40 senators, and the Doge) was the hall of the Grand Council, which was where great meetings were held. Every aristocrat (basically, man of status in Venice), regardless of the level of their wealth, was allowed to be a part of the Grand Council, and have their say. This could often be over 1000 men. As such the room was enormous, in fact, it is considered to be one of the largest rooms in Europe. The Senate, and smaller councils were also, ultimately, accountable to the Grand Council as well, so the importance of this hall was paramount.
Our tour of the palace ended with a tour of the New Prison after crossing over the Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri). The bridge was so named as, through its windows, guilty convicts passing from the courts in the Palace to the New Prison would sigh as they savoured their last view of Venice before being locked away.
Interestingly, the New Prison was one of the first buildings constructed with the primary purpose of being a gaol (as usually, prisons were simply housed within castles or forts). The cells were also designed to provide better conditions, air, and light for the prisoners, though not all cells succeeded in this aim.
As we finished our tour, the rain had died down partially, but not entirely. We raced home, dodging from awning to awning as we went, and managed to get only as wet as half a drowned rat between the two of us. At the hostel, we savoured the leftovers from our dinner the night before as lunch, and patiently waited for the rain to die down (afraid we would miss our island visits).
Luckily, the rain did stop, and we were able to catch a vaporetto from San Marco, around the main island, past the Island of the Dead (an entire island dedicated to use as a cemetery; it was forbidden to bury bodies on any other island), and to Murano.
Murano is an island a short way away from the north shore of Venice. It is world renowned for the glass blowers who create beautiful pieces of art, as well as cups, bowls, and the like. Famously, the glass blowers of Venice were outlawed from the main island to Murano because their workshops were constantly causing fires in the city. We took in a demonstration in which a master glassworker created a large vase, as well as a statue of a horse (which took a grand total of perhaps 10 minutes to do both), then wandered the city and marvelled at the prices they charge for their work. 65 euros for a single drinking glass? No thanks. We picked up a reasonably priced Murano glass wine stopper so we can stop being such winos when we get back home.
From Murano, we took another vaporetto on the longer ride to Burano. Burano is a beautiful little island that is known for its lace, and its colourful houses. If you’re ever in Venice, this is absolutely a must visit. The inhabitants of the island are required to stick to a certain colour pallet (bright), and they must re-paint every year to keep it vibrant. I won’t bore you with the details, because we basically just walked around, but it is a wonderful backdrop for a walk. Fair warning, everything on Burano is quite expensive (most of the restaurants have a cover charge, and an included tip, on top of already expensive food and drinks), but if you do visit Burano, you can get a delicious pizza for a great price at Devil Take-Away Pizza. It is tucked away off of the main calle, and actually quite easy to find if you simply follow that main road (don’t trust Google Maps, it has no idea). If all else fails, ask.
The evening was getting long, and we had a day of travel ahead of us, so we made our way back to the vaporetto stop, showing up 20 minutes early, and so we stopped at the overlooking bar and had a last glass of Aperol spritz (a delicious drink made with white wine, usually Prosecco, and Aperol that is popular with Venetians), before taking the long ride back to Venice.
The next morning, we were up bright and early to catch a vaporetto the main train station. After arriving, we realized that in planning our trip, we’d used the next train station on the Venetian mainland, instead of the one on the island. Luckily, we were well ahead of schedule and were still able to catch the same train, just leaving a little earlier than expected. This train carried us to Verona, the town in which Romeo and Juliet is set. We’d planned a 5 hour gap between our morning train, and the train that I’m currently sitting on now, in order to leave time for a visit.
Due to the short timeframe, we really had to truck it through the sights, but we managed it all.
First, we walked past the Verona Arena, which is basically a mini-Colosseum that was built around 60 years before the famous Roman amphitheatre, in other words, around 14-27AD. It is still in excellent shape, and actually served as a sort of trial, or proof of concept, as it was used as a model for its bigger Roman brother. It is actually the 4th largest amphiteatre constructed by the Roman Empire, and is still currently in use as a theatre for plays and shows.
From there, we walked on to the main attraction: Casa di Giuletta, or Juliet’s House. Here, we got to see Juliet’s famous balcony, as well as the mailboxes used to mail letters to Juliet, and the gate to which lovers affix locks (common theme, eh?) in hopes of sealing their love in one of the most romantic places in Europe. Of course, Cara and I purchased a lock with a heart on it and sealed it on the gate, each of us taking a key. We then waited our turn to take a photo caressing the right breast of a statue of Juliet, which is supposed to bring love and good luck to relationships. I dunno. We did it.
Then we got out of there, because it was very crowded. We escaped the throng and made our way for the Ponte Pietra, which is a very old Roman bridge, and aside from that, I currently know nothing about it. It was on the tourist map, so we went. The bridge did, however, lead us to the Roman Theatre, which I believe is even older than the Verona Arena, and also offered excellent views of the entire city, and the river snaking through it.
The theatre is on the quieter, less touristy side of Verona. Here, we sought out a local restaurant rated as the best in Verona on TripAdvisor. We found it on a small side road after working our way around some considerable road construction. There, we met our waiter who barely spoke a word of English. At this, we knew we were in for an authentic experience. We both ordered selections from the lunch special, which included bread, a first course of pasta, a second course of meat (Cara got a T-bone steak, and I had veal), as well as water (which you always pay for by the bottle in Italy… apparently tap water is taboo), and a nice glass of wine. All of this for less than the cost of a plate of pasta in Venice. The meal was precisely what we wanted for our last meal in Italy.
With time running out, we crossed back across the river and headed for the train station. We stopped along the way to see the Castelvecchio, a fortified castle used by the rulers of Verona (and now a museum), grabbed our last gelato of the trip as dessert, and then settled down on our platform to await the train.
We spent nearly twenty days in Italy. They were great, but now I think we’re ready for a change. By now, we’ve passed into Austria. I’m watching mountains roll by as I write this, and seeing castles and chalets peeking out of the sides of them. Kind of beautiful, if I have to tell it as a lie. Emotionally moving if I’m telling the truth. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I think I’m going to like our short stay here in Innsbruck. You’ll have to check back to see how it goes.
I’m done for now. Time to focus on the scenery. Cheers!