Eurotrip 2011, Part 4: Ah, Venice

This installment of my travel journal covers Days 9–11 of my 2011 trip to Europe…

After returning to Florence from my three-night trip to Rome, there was little time to rest as I had to turn right around the next morning and hop on a train to Venice.  I was slightly apprehensive about this trip because I was going alone.  It can be nerve-wracking enough traveling in a foreign country whose language you don’t speak when you’re with a group, but going by yourself kicks things up notch.  However, I would have regretted passing up the opportunity to see Venice during what could likely be my only trip to Italy, so I booked a hotel, bought a train ticket, and off I went.  I picked a good day and time to go as the train was not overly crowded, allowing me to have my own section of seats for most of the three-hour trip.

I arrived in Venice that afternoon and stopped by the information area to buy a city map.  I had decided, since it’s not a huge city, that I would walk everywhere rather than dealing with the water taxis.  As I would soon discover, however, Venice is a maze of narrow streets and alleys.  I would get lost or turned around several times during my two-night stay there.

The view from my hotel.
The view from my hotel

I eventually made it to my hotel and, after getting settled in (and getting my room changed because my original room had a strong, strange smell), set out to do some exploring.  I was quite hungry by this point so I stopped for dinner, where I had mediocre lasagna served by a not-quite-pleasant waiter.

After dinner I continued exploring.  I quickly got over my initial apprehension and welcomed the ability to move about at my own pace without worrying about other peoples’ needs or schedules.  Don’t get me wrong, I still prefer to have company when I travel, but my two days alone here—just flowing through the city at my leisure and letting the magic of Venice wash over me—were the most relaxing of the trip.  It helped that I didn’t have to worry about bus or train schedules (or, in this case, boat schedules).  There’s something to be said for just walking everywhere, and Venice is the perfect city for doing that, being entirely pedestrian (e.g., no motor vehicles or bicycles allowed), even if you do get lost occasionally.

A typical canal with multiple bridge crossings.
A typical canal with multiple bridge crossings
The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal

Eventually, I encountered a gondola crossing.  Since I was unlikely to take a full gondola ride by myself, I figured this little crossing would at least give me some of the experience, so I stepped aboard and handed the ferryman a fifty-cent coin as visions entered my head of the dead paying Charon to cross the River Styx.

My Gondola
My Gondola

Later that night I came across a lovely little tea room along a side canal, where I enjoyed some vanilla-scented Darjeeling and warm apple cake while Big Band jazz played in the background—the perfect prescription for a chilly October evening.  On the way back to my hotel, I did some shopping and called my wife (I wish she could have been with me in this romantic city) before calling it a night.

The Tea Room
The Tea Room

The next day I did a good seven hours worth of walking, taking lots of pictures.

The island and church of San Giorgio Maggiore
Looking across the lagoon at the island and church of San Giorgio Maggiore

Part of my day was spent looking for this pizza place called Al Vecio Canton that had been recommended by Wikitravel.  Speaking of which, Wikitravel is a great source for finding good restaurants, things to do/see, and places to stay, and provides valuable advice on how to get around.  I had just discovered the site on this trip and wound up using it a lot.

Anyway, I walked around in circles for about an hour searching for Al Vecio Canton.  At one point I stopped at this café with a similar name thinking it must be the place, but the pizza did not look appetizing so I left.  Just as I was just about to give up, I decided to enter a hotel on the chance that the front desk manager might know the place.  Thankfully, he did, and proceeded to draw a line on my map from the hotel to the restaurant.  His directions were perfect and I finally arrived.  It was basically a hole-in-the-wall pub in a narrow alley, as the picture below shows, the kind of place that the average tourist would likely walk right on past without a second glance.  For me, however, after a long search bordering on obsession, it was like gazing on the Holy Grail.  I sat down and ordered a beer and a pie called the Diavolo, which was topped with spicy salami similar to pepperoni, but with a bit more zing.  It was delicious, the best pizza I had anywhere on the trip, and totally worth the effort to find it.

The Pizza Place -- Go there!
The pizza place—definitely eat here if you go to Venice

After lunch I made my way to St. Mark’s square.  The lines to see the monuments were long so I decided to just walk around and take in the ambience, which included dueling orchestras around the square (and areas crowded with both people and pigeons).

St. Mark's Square
St. Mark’s Square

From there I moved on to other areas of the city.  At one point I encountered a bizarre art exhibit.  Most of the paintings were too risqué to share in mixed company (such as depictions of superheroes having sex with each other), but to give you an idea of the exhibit’s weirdness, here’s a sculpture that sat out front:

Sculpture in front of bizarre art exhibit
Sculpture in front of bizarre art exhibit

I visited some other exhibits around the city and also wandered into an old church where a man was tuning a harpsichord in preparation for a performance that evening of Vivalid’s Four Seasons.  I considered returning for the performance, but more on that later.  I completed my walk around the city and made my way back toward the hotel, visiting the Tea Room again on the way.  I also stopped at the Ponte degli Scalzi bridge to take some night photos of the Grand Canal.

The Grand Canal at night
The Grand Canal at night

When I got back to the hotel I relaxed for a while, decompressing after a long day of walking.  At the last minute I decided I’d try to make the Vivaldi concert.  However, because I was running late, I didn’t have time to properly refer to the map, so I wound up taking some wrong turns.  I finally made it to the church but just missed the beginning of the concert, so I decided to take a nighttime stroll along the shore looking out toward the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.  On the way home I decided to take in a bit of the Venice nightlife with a detour to a square full of restaurants and pubs where the local college students hang out.  I stopped for a drink and some food before heading home again.  It was quite late by this point and the walk home through all of the narrow alleys and empty squares was a bit creepy—perhaps not the best time to be wandering alone with my eyes fixed on a map, but I eventually made it back to the hotel.

The next day I caught an earlier train back to Florence so that I would not miss the last bus up the hills to the villa, but things did not go entirely smoothly.  More on that and my ill-fated trip to Cinque Terre in the next installment.

In the meantime, you can view more photos from Venice or check out some…

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