“All cities of the world are, more or less, similar to one another. Venice is unlike any other.” -Carlo Goldoni, “Memoirs” (attributed)
From Florence, it’s a 2.5 hours train ride to Venice. The legendary and notoriously-sinking island city lies within sight, just ahead of us. For some reason, though, the train has stopped short of the station. This would be a bad place to have a fear of bridges, since the one we are on – Ponte della Libertà (“Liberty Bridge”) – is 2.3 mi / 3.8 m long and opened in 1933.
The Venice, Italy lagoon and buildings on the northern part of the island are shown from an arriving train on the Ponte della Liberta bridge.
Ten minutes pass, and the train starts moving again. Another ten minutes later, we are exiting the station. Being next to the lagoon, and the summer heat having already arrived, the humidity is as thick as mousse. The beautiful scenery provides a welcome distraction from the weather. Straight ahead is the Grand Canal, filled with passing boats, and beautiful buildings line the other side of the waterway.
Thankfully, it’s just a few-minute walk to the hotel. Soon enough, we get checked in, cool off in the air conditioning, then head back out to explore. With no particular destination in mind, we wander further away from the train station, then cross over the canal. We stop and eat a quick lunch. I don’t know what inspires me to order a calzone, since I’ve actually only enjoyed about two of those in my life. This one is practically a breadstick injected with air. I made a mistake.
We continue walking and quickly realize we are lost. We have actually been trying to follow the map the entire time, but it hasn’t helped. There are so many alleyways, courtyards, and dead ends that a small, printed map only occasionally suggests your location. But hey, we have no place to be, so eventually we’ll find those landmarks on everyone’s list, like St. Mark’s Basilica, Rialto Bridge, Doge’s Palace, etc.
We spot again what must be the Grand Canal! Since it curves around through the island like a backwards “S”, I can only guess which direction we’re heading right now. We just keep going, and Rialto Bridge soon comes into sight.
The Rialto Bridge is shown spanning the Grand Canal.
Completed in 1591, the Rialto is the oldest of the four bridges crossing the Grand Canal. Its history and unique design make it a popular hangout today. This spot is crowded, but there are a lot of smiles and waving “hello” between visitors on the bridge and gondola riders on the waterway below.
As we continue exploring, the pyramid-topped bell tower in St. Mark’s Square starts to peek over some buildings. Since there are no direct paths here, we keep hoping every change in direction doesn’t take us further away from the square.
After some trial and error, a narrow alleyway opens up to the grand square, revealing the beauty of St. Mark’s Basilica, the Campanile (bell tower), and Doge’s Palace. A cruise ship must have recently docked, though, because this place is jam packed! The crowd tests our patience, so we don’t spend much time here (which is becoming a theme) and take a five-minute walk along the Grand Canal to Harry’s Bar.
Your author, Justin
Harry’s is a famous place, known for inventing the peach Bellini. The drink is 2 parts Prosecco sparkling wine mixed with 1 part white peach puree and traditionally served in a Champagne flute. It’s incredibly refreshing on a hot day but comes at a hefty price – 21 Euros each. For the sake of simplicity, let’s also say it’s about $21 USD.
Thankfully, this bar isn’t crowded, so we pick out a table and order our drinks. We carefully watch our cocktails being whipped up behind the bar, in case there’s some sort of secret ingredient or process, for when we try to make this at home. The puree comes from a pitcher so, sadly, we don’t uncover any secrets.
The Bellini is fantastic. Would I pay this much again, though? Maybe not, although I’d be lying if I said I’m really not enjoying and savoring this (literally) sweet moment.
With our glasses empty, it’s time to wander just a little more, then head back to the hotel. We now know where we are on the map and, soon enough, we then don’t. As night has crept in, this place has become as quiet as a graveyard. A Hard Rock Cafe comes into view. Might as well check it out…
The place is moderately busy, and the music is loud. Just about everyone is singing along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” I take a look around and wonder where all the people are from, singing along with the American rock songs.
As I’m sipping a beer, Janine goes to take a sip of her martini. The woman standing next to her at the bar is turned away from us and overly animated as she tells a story. She quickly turns, bumping into Janine. It was like time slowed down, watching the martini spill onto her dress. FIIIIGGGGGHHHHHTTTTT!!! Just kidding, but this situation isn't good.
Before a bar brawl can break out, the animated woman profusely apologizes and offers to buy Janine a new drink. The bartender says he’s got it. Right away, he gets to making a new martini. To lighten the mood, he puts on a show, flipping bottles and showing us some juggling. Then he drops the shaker, spilling the new drink! This night is getting weird.
When it gets to this point, the best approach is usually to chug your drink and move on. That’s what we do. We stop at a hotel nearby, to ask the front desk clerk how to get back to our lodging by the train station. “Just go right out of here, take the first right, then the first left, and head to the water. A water taxi is there.” We express our sincere gratitude for the help, then head that way.
We find the water taxi, and a man is standing next to the boat.
“Ciao,” I say. “We need to get to the train station.”
“Do you have a ticket?”
“Well you must have a ticket.”
“That’s fine. Where do we buy those?”
“Right over there,” he answers, while pointing to a small market shop.
“Ummm, it looks closed.”
“Okay… Well… Is there anywhere else around to buy tickets? You don’t sell tickets?”
We are getting pretty aggravated at this point. I ask the man to show me where we are on the map. Janine and I start walking. We get lost again… The streets seem unusually quiet… It’s really eerie… We try this path, we try that path… We end up in a courtyard, with no option but to turn around and try another way.
Finally, there’s a straightaway path, with a cruise ship to our left. It’s so massive that it almost feels like we are walking on a treadmill. This area is in almost complete darkness and has a dangerous vibe. A silhouette of a person walks down the path, in our direction. We stay to the opposite side of the walkway, and I instinctively clinch my fists. We pass, and just like us, the person continues on.
The modern, glass bridge I saw from the train station finally comes into view. I’ve never been so relieved. We know where we are again, and that marks the end of our night.
Day two is more relaxed, and we have managed to not spend all of our Euros, so we’ve decided to take a gondola ride on the Grand Canal.
We heard you can negotiate with the gondoliers about the price. That ends up going about as well as the bargaining in “Bad Santa,” between “Marcus” (Tony Cox) and “Gin” (Bernie Mac).
Gondolier: 100 Euros me: How about 80?
He claims it’s a standard rate, but I don’t know. I just had to see if we could save some money.
We start the ride in one of the side canals. “Is this all it’s going to be?” I wonder. Then we get paddled out onto the Grand Canal. Wow! The waterway feels so much wider when you’re in the middle of it. It’s relaxing and fun, although a little unsettling when the larger boats navigate by.
The POV view from a gondola is shown along the Grand Canal of Venice, Italy during the day.
The gondolier sings as we approach the Rialto Bridge. In a reversal from earlier, we are now the people in the boat, waving to people above on the bridge. It’s a lot of fun and this, in part, helps erase some of the stress from yesterday.
Our expensive boat ride comes to an end. The day passes by, and we wrap up our free time in this city with a nice dinner.
In Venice, Italy, a beautiful sunset is shown over the Cannaregio Canal.
Despite its frustrations, the Venice we met wasn’t all bad. To the uninitiated, like us, the place is a tangled mess of confusion. What it does is force you to take your time and pay witness to the complex contradiction of a city very much alive while also in decay. The city was built on sediments deposited by the Po River and is sinking slowly while sea levels rise and residents leave. Considering the uncertain future, I’m glad we got to visit. If the past is any indicator for the future, though, the Venetians will find a way to preserve and share their unique piece of the world for a long time to come.
The Venetian Lagoon is shown. The island of Venice is visible between the center of the photo and horizon.
Until we meet again…
"Getting Lost (Literally) in Venice, Italy" – June 2012 Written by: Justin Kilmer, Edited by: Janine Kilmer
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