So we were off from Paris to Venice by way of Bologna, Firenze, Bologna… no I didn’t stutter. We passed through the town twice during this train trip.
The Train ride was pretty interesting. We booked a private room so as to avoid having bizarre roommates spending a night with us (Craig was leery of oddballs like the train ride in “Trading Places”). Katie misunderstood “dinner included” vs. “dinner at the dining car” – so off we went to the dining car shortly after taking off.
We shared a table with an elderly Englishman who had been living in the Bordeaux region of France, as well as a fiftysomething Frenchman who was a native Parisian. He apologized a couple times for his English, but had no reason to. Was nice to have an extended chat with company over several courses of dinner and a couple bottles of wine. They had both been to the US and made jokes about our bread and cheeses. (The Frenchman joked that you couldn’t tell one cheese from another here). I jokingly retaliated, “yeah, but all your ethnic food is terrible. So it’s 100/40 every day where I live, our bread, cheese, and fruit are inferior. but at least I can score a good burrito or tasty Thai meal when I want!” (I did also explain we did have some actual bakers and such, it’s just a matter of finding them vs. supermarket convenience.) All in all we had a good time with jokes and laughs, although the final laugh was on Katie and Craig when our portion of the bill arrived. Most expensive meal in Europe!
We went back to our cabin shortly thereafter and crashed, waking up in Bologna. Our first stop there during this train trek. We got to take in the countryside as we moved away from Venice, towards Florence, and Craig got a crash course in ordering coffee – Italian style – at the Florence train station. Coffee (called Café) is basically a shot of Espresso. Thanks to our Eurail pass, tickets were cheap for first class (Prima Class) and even cheaper for Second Class… which we had to take to our next destination.
We arrived at roughly noon in Venice. Was a beautiful day when we arrived – but apparently some rain the day prior and the tide resulted in some flooding that morning. The city officials had to break out the “emergency sidewalks” – basically almost benches that sit another 2 feet off the ground to provide a dry, but extremely narrow, walkway.
Venice itself is an amazing city. It is surreal. And it’s kind of odd in a way. Whereas the Eiffel Tower defied expectations – being grander than I imagined – Venice merely lived up to expectations. But that’s the thing… knowing you are going to a city of beautiful 500 year old buildings (each worthy of a snapshot) built on pilings driven into a marsh… all slowly disintegrating before our eyes… a veritable warren of streets and alleyways, more bridges than Tucson has payday loan places. Oh, and replacing main street, trucks, and cars with canals, gondolas, and vaporettos… your expectations are the surreal to begin with. It’s like no place on earth.
The above in mind, getting around Venice is simultaneously enjoyable and incredibly frustrating – if you let it frustrate you (i.e. you have 10 min to find a restaurant somewhere vaguely nearby to make your reservation). The place is a labyrinth. Maps are practically useless. We bought one map and got another from the hotel. Armed with two different ones, we often times still could not make heads or tails of where we were. Maps are basically good for two things – monuments and vaporetto stops. Basically, you pick the vaporetto stop to get you in the zip code, and can utilize landmark to get a rough idea of where you are. Half the alleys don’t ever seem to make it to print… so if you ever go, expect to get lost. Even plan for it. It’s worth it. You will see wondrous things just wandering around… The city is so amazing even the mundane is wondrous. And, besides, it’s a collection of islands, so it’s not like you’ll end up wandering off the reservation.
Our hotel, Hotel Al Codega, was, per the various folks who chimed in at Trip Advisor, very difficult to find. People noted it took, on average, about 45 minutes to find the place. Wary of this, Craig found a pic another traveler took of the entryway (the hotel is located in the interior of a square, with a non-descript opening leading into the square. The hotel also sent us a map… We found it in under five minutes after disembarking the Vaporetto at the Rialto stop. And me without my orienteering merit badge. This gave us a false sense of security in regards to our ability to navigate the city. Once checked in, showered up, and in fresh clothes, we hit town.
We found our way to the fabled Saint Mark’s Square… and Saint Marks had scaffolding covering the left third of it’s façade. Scaffolding would be a recurring theme. We got horribly disoriented leaving the square and heading back to our hotel. How badly? We left from the West end of the Square, and thinking we were going North by Northwest, managed to loop entirely around and re-enter the same square from the Eastern entrance.
Upon deciding our plans for the evening, we grabbed a bit to eat at Pizza D’al Sporto. It’s a pizza place in an alley. The entire place is maybe the size of a bedroom, and the customer area is limited to a single counter with two stools – and the counter is so small that if you put the crust against the wall at the far side of the counter, half the slice would hang over the forward edge. They have a couple pies on display, you pick your slice and they toss it into the oven to reheat, very similarly to how a lot of ‘za by the slice places in the US serve it. Fast, cheap, easy, and, oh, so good. Just the prosciutto on top of my slice was mouthwatering. It was seriously better than 95% of the pizza I’ve had. And this was just the premade, reheated stuff.
After we satiated our appetites with a couple slices of heaven, we commenced with our evening plans headed over to the legendary Harry’s American Bar, where Hemingway was known to frequent when he went out for the social few… and where the Bellini was (allegedly) created. It was expensive and it was touristy (expensive and touristy would be a recurring theme while in Venice), but worth the visit. The barkeep gave Katie a wink and shared an eye roll look with Craig in regards to the clearly inebriated woman sitting in the next stool over. “Yap yap yaP! You should come to South Beach! Miami is so nice! Yap yap!” (as if she really wanted the Harry’s bartender to stay in their Miami guest room – or as if he would take them up on their offer. He lives in Venice! )
Next it was off to the battle of the bands. Or rather war of the orchestras, or whatever at Saint Mark’s Square. We paid a hefty table tax and got a nice bottle of wine at Italy’s oldest café, Caffe Florian. (Expensive and touristy… check!) Sadly, while the six musicians played some amazing classical music, flamencos and tangos (would we tango, as the Venetians do, until the sea rises?), etc, the “other” orchestra drew a larger crowd with more contemporary tunes. Our “team” did draw the gawkers over, however, when performing a Sinatra (My Way) – Deano (That’s Amore) – (some other wildly popular Italian song whose name eludes me) medley. Our wine was served with a spread consisting of nuts and potato chips. Yup. Apparently nothing goes with a 48E ($60) bottle o’ vino like Ruffles… those ridges!
We capped the night off with another slice o’ za from D’al Sporto. And for the first time in Europe, seeing as how we had been waking up bright and early on our own, opted not to set a wake-up call… and promptly slept-in until 11am. I guess we needed those 12 hours of sleep!
We set no real agenda for the day and just explored to see where the winds… or vaporettos … would take us. Enjoyed some paninis at a little café in a square we just stumbled on for lunch, crossed some bridges, took lots of pics, and took a nice break in a shaded restaurant for some birra alla spina.
During a brief stop back at the hotel, our concierge was able to help Craig out with a difficult task. As Rick Steves quoted, “Finding a non-touristy restaurant in Venice is like finding one in Disneyland.” I asked Stephano, a local man, where he would eat, and not only did he provide us with a suggestion, he also made our reservations for us.
So off we went to enjoy the mandatory, touristy, but expensive (take a drink!) gondola ride. 80e ($100) gets you 45 minutes… and it was worth it. The seats are so plush, the ride so slow, had we done this after dinner I likely would have lapsed into food coma. Our gondolier took us on some smaller “back-alley” waterways, but also took us though the Grand Canal by the Rialto Bridge. The view was fantastic, particularly at the leisurely pace along with our guide/ride’s descriptions of various buildings.
We got horribly lost en route to the restaurant Trattoria Da Ignazio… leading to some frustration on Craig’s part. A passing Englishman heard our plight (well, us staring with futility at a map while Craig spouted, “where the hell are we?!” and assumed we had a plight) and helped point us out on a map. We made our reservation thanks to his help! We were sat in a table in a pretty cool courtyard and Craig did his best… finding Italian a bit easier than French, he was able to pretty much order his way through dinner. We also scored points with the waiter for selecting a Venetian wine from the menu (the wines are ordered by region, then by type, rather than by type… i.e. White, Red). The choice scored the full “Magnifico!” compliment backed up with the lipsmack/finger kiss gesture. Katie had a wonderful lasagna, while Craig had a magnificent prima course of linguini with funghi (mushrooms, which were in season) based on a light olive oil sauce (rather than red) which brought out he flavors of the shrooms.
Craig then proceeded to lose said cool points and scored a big laugh at desert. Having eschewed pointing at the menu, or even reading from it when ordering in an effort to appear more commanding of the language, he was stressing over confusing the Italian for strawberry, fragole, with the similar-sounding fagioli (beans, as in pasta fagioli), he inadvertently asked the waiter for formaggio alla gelato (cheese and ice cream). This caused the waiter to break out with a big guffaw and give the red-faced American a shoulder clap… Ever willing to fall on the comedic sword, when our strawberries and ice cream arrived, “Ah, formaggio alla gelato! Tante Grazie!” I thanked him for the cheese and ice cream.
Our last evening as capped as we headed back to our hotel, a bar in a square which our room overlooked was featuring a local band… so Katie and I got a couple birra alla spina (draught beer) and watched these 20yo Italians kick into a set of old time rock and roll… like Elvis and some Cash. A bunch of locals and tourists, milling about and enjoying enthusiastic covers of “Hound Dog”… good times and a great way to close out our stay in the most surreal city in the world.