Thursday, December 11, 2008
Not a Normal City
Dateline: Venice, 10/16/08 - 10/20/08
"Venice is not a normal city." That was the response of the man at the desk in our hotel, when we told him we were confused by the street addresses. He's right; Venice is unlike any other city I've been to. There are no cars or other land vehicles anywhere in the city. The public transit system consists entirely of boats. People walk everywhere. Every other store has colorful glass jewelry in the window. I was in heaven!
The instructions to get to our hotel from the train station were: take water bus #1 to the Ca D'Oro stop, then the hotel is a one-minute walk. One minute turned into at least 20 as we got lost and had to ask a few people for directions. We soon found out that's what life as a tourist in Venice is like. I didn't find the city map to be much help, and I got impatient when Jim would stop walking in the middle of the street to consult the map. I learned to go with the flow.
We thought we figured out the street address system after a while. Venice is divided into six districts, or sestieri. Addresses seem to be assigned by sestieri rather than by individual street. We stayed in Cannaregio, where a restaurant might have an address like Cannaregio 4624. If you know which side street the restaurant is on, you can use that as a clue, but otherwise you walk along the main street of Cannaregio until you find the 4600's, then start looking on side streets.
On our first full day in the city, our plan was to take the water bus, or Vaporetto, all the way down the Grand Canal to Lido, a beach resort where I remember staying with my parents in 1965. The ticket booth at the Ca D'Oro stop was closed, so we went to a nearby tobacco shop and bought one-day transit passes. While we were waiting for the boat at Ca D'Oro, another tourist told us that there was a transit strike and many of the boats were not running. We had just wasted 34 Euros on our one-day passes! We quickly changed plans and instead walked to the huge San Marco square, the center of the city.
In San Marco we were approached by a man who asked us if we wanted to visit the island of Murano and tour a glass factory. We did; it was on my list of things to do and I thought we might get some good glass bargains there. Because of the transit strike, the factory was offering a free taxi ride. The man helped us into a water taxi and we had a surprisingly long and rough ride to Murano. At the glass factory, we were greeted by a woman I came to think of as our minder. Each of the few families visiting the factory had their own minder, who explained the glass making process and sat with them during the demo. After the demo, in which a glass artist made a vase and a horse, the minder took us to the showroom, where we saw lots of beautiful and very expensive glass pieces. I thought we would never get out of there without buying something, especially after they paid for our taxi ride, but after a bit of looking we just said we were done and the minder walked us out.
We walked around Murano a bit, had lunch, and found some less expensive glass stores, but it seemed that the stores in Venice proper were just as good and not as expensive. We managed to get a Vaporetto back to San Marco, using our day passes. From there, Jim went to a museum while I took off in search of some bead stores I had on my list. Atmosfera Veneziana is a beautiful store where I had no trouble spending over 60 Euros on some glass beads to add to my small Italian bead collection. I was proud of myself for finding the addresses on my own, then finding my way back to the hotel. On the way I stopped at several of the ubiquitous glass stores, buying some pendants which I plan to use with kumihimo braids or other beading projects. Many of the glass stores had a few baskets of beads. There was also a bead store not far from the hotel, on our way to almost every place we walked; I visited several times before settling on a few things to buy.
After all the Medieval and Renaissance art in Florence, we were happy to see some 20th-century art at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Guggenheim was a wealthy American who lived in Venice, and the museum is in what used to be her home.
Our hotel served a perfectly adequate breakfast, as did the hotel in Florence, with the same selections every day. We were always looking for places to eat breakfast out, but never found a suitable place in either city. There were bakeries with beautiful pastries in the window, but they didn't serve coffee or have tables. There were bars that had coffee and were open in the mornings, but their pastry selection did not look as interesting. This seemed to us to be something lacking in Italian life. They need some Cafe Borrone equivalents.
When it was time for us to leave Venice and fly to Rome, we asked at the hotel about options for getting to the airport. We could walk to Ca D'Oro and take a Vaporetto to the bus station, where we could get an airport bus. We could walk a longer distance and get a boat that would take us directly to the airport. Or for 100 Euros we could take a water taxi that would pick us up at our hotel, which had a back door that opened to one of the canals. Although we were tired of schlepping our suitcases, we ruled out the water taxi option because of the expense. We made a dry run of the walk to the airport boat and decided it would be too far with suitcases, although we had lunch at a lovely restaurant near the boat stop. That left us with the Vaporetto/bus option. I was nervous as I usually am on travel days: Would the timing work out right? Would we be ok walking in the dark at 6 a.m.? Would we have trouble getting on the Vaporetto with our suitcases? But everything worked out fine. The Vaporetto showed up right on schedule; no transit strike that day. We had a nice, last view of Venice in the dark from the Grand Canal. As we got to the bus station and saw land vehicles for the first time in 4 days, it was a relief to be on dry land again, but I was also sad to be leaving the magic of this not-normal city.
Two weeks is about my limit for foreign travel. I start to feel the stress of being in an unfamiliar culture and trying to deal with an unfamiliar language. On our last couple of days in Venice, both of us came down with bad colds. By the time we got to Rome my cold was at its worst, and I was a couple of days beyond the two-week limit. I was really ready to go home. We spent an afternoon touring Rome, most of it on a hop-on hop-off bus, and also searching for a pharmacy where I could buy tissues. My last night in Italy was a sleepless one, not helped by the fact that I hated our hotel (on the outskirts of Rome, near the airport) and that I had taken an Italian cold medication that seemed to make me more congested. It was followed by a miserable 12-hour flight to Dulles, during which I couldn't find a comfortable sitting position, and then a somewhat better 6-hour flight to San Francisco, which I mostly slept through.
I loved the trip to Italy: the small town life of Montisi, the dazzle of Florence, and the magic of Venice. But I was also glad to get home and start our new life, with both of us now retired. More on that in a future post.