I can’t believe it’s been nine months since I was in Venice, and I haven’t written about it yet. That is almost criminal. Let me fix that right now.
As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I had two solo days in Venice–one before my cruise, and one after. I figured it would be plenty of time to explore Venice thoroughly and maybe even have time to take a boat out to the islands of Burano, Murano and Torcello. What I didn’t count on was arriving in Venice sick to my stomach, without my usual energy.
When I first arrived at my hotel on the mainland in Mestre, I was overjoyed to find that my room was ready so I could lie down for awhile. I didn’t actually feel well enough to head into Venice until mid-afternoon, so a good portion of my first day was wasted. But eventually, I felt a little better, so I headed across the street to the Mestre train station and bought my round-trip ticket into Venice.
Here are my first impressions:
Venice Day 1, Pre-Cruise
I arrived in the city by train. The trip over the water was surreal. Visiting Venice has been a lifelong dream for me, and I felt as though I were still dreaming. When we arrived at the train station, I took advantage of the public restroom, since I had no idea when I would find another. It only cost 1 Euro and was clean, so I definitely recommend using it before setting out to explore Venice if you’re arriving by train.
I really lucked out in regards to the weather on this trip. Both of the days I spent in Venice were sunny and warm and perfect for being outside. It rained during the cruise sail-away on Saturday, but that didn’t affect me at all.
When I exited the train station, it was to a stunning view of the Grand Canal. That alone made this my favorite train station in the world.
Looking out on the Grand Canal, with the sun sparkling on the water, the gondolas and vaporettos everywhere, was a blissful experience. Honestly, Venice is one of those cities where you don’t have to do anything specific except wander and take in the views and it’s still going to be a great day.
But eventually, I realized I should try to find Piazza San Marco, so I set out in the general direction, using signs to guide me.
I could have taken a vaporetto directly to the Piazza, but the front desk agent at my hotel had encouraged me to walk in Venice, so I did. It was a long and winding walk. Along the way, I passed over so many bridges I lost count. It was also a very hot day, I’d been awake for over 24 hours and still wasn’t feeling 100%. Despite all this, I was completely charmed by the city.
The other thing I needed to do immediately was find an ATM for Visa cards so I could withdraw some cash. I kept coming across ATMs, but I couldn’t tell if they would accept my card or not (and all of them were in Italian, with no English option I could see). When I finally found a Visa machine, there was no English option right away. But I studied the buttons for a few seconds, and one of them looked like it might be the Italian version of “international withdrawal”, so I took a chance and pushed it. Whew–it worked. At that point, it offered an option to finish the transaction in English so after that, it was a piece of cake. I don’t know what I would have done if the damn machine ate my card.
There’s practically a gelato stand on every narrow street here, along with sellers of murano glass and carnival masks everywhere. I was a little surprised at one point to look up and see a Disney store in the middle of Venice. I found the Hard Rock Cafe, and a little beyond that, the Rialto Bridge. The Bridge was under construction, so one half of it was covered in a faux Rialto Bridge wrap:
When famous tourist destinations are as old as the Rialto, they do need renovations and restoration once in awhile, so I understood that. The wrap didn’t bother me at all; I actually thought it was pretty clever. What ruins the view is the advertisement for the art exhibit right in the middle of it. There are a million bridges in Venice, and they had to hang a big honking billboard on this one??? Sigh.
From there, I kept trying to find Piazza San Marco, but I kept walking in circles before I finally saw the clock tower, and I knew that I was close.
I passed through an archway and voila! There it was: St. Mark’s Square, or Piazza San Marco. It was crowded with pigeons and tourists and cloth-covered tables of the restaurants ringing the square. Once I found the Piazza, I knew I’d be able to find it again, so I backtracked to the Hard Rock Cafe for a bite to eat. (I didn’t want to eat in the Square because I’d heard it was very expensive.) It was about 3pm, but I was exhausted and needed to sit and drink something cold and get a little more food in my stomach.
I tripped walking in the store entrance and one of the sales girls laughed at me. (Nice, Italian sales girl. Real nice.) I was shown to a seat upstairs along the balcony where I could watch people getting on and off the gondolas down below. It was a pleasant view.
My waitress more than made up for the tactless sales girl downstairs by being a real rock star–so friendly, so helpful; she couldn’t do enough for me. I definitely did not want anything alcoholic, so she suggested a drink that I can’t remember, but it had juices in it and was exactly what I needed to rehydrate.
Because I know you’re thinking it: Yes, I know it’s lame to eat at an American chain restaurant when you’re in a city like Venice, but my stomach was still a little iffy, and I thought I’d be able to find something mild and “safe” and light to eat there. I was wrong. Everything on the menu sounded too heavy, too greasy, or too spicy, but I knew I had to eat something, so I ordered a classic burger and fries and barely made a dent in it.
After that respite, I returned to Piazza San Marco for photos and more exploring. There were renovations going on at St. Mark’s Basilica as well (what are the odds that two major tourist attractions would be under renovation simultaneously?). Needless to say, my photos of it won’t be going on my wall at home. Still, once you get close up to it and can really take in all the architectural details, you realize why it’s so famous. The details are so intricate.
I wandered back out to the Grand Canal via the Piazzetta–a little square just off San Marco that opens to the Grand Canal–then along the Canal toward the Giardini ex Reali (the Royal Garden). I walked through the garden, which is just a plain little park area, but it is lush and green and has many benches for resting.
Outside the park are various kiosks selling art and more of those carnival masks and other souvenirs and trinkets for tourists. By this time, I was exhausted and decided to head back to the train station to return to the hotel. But I knew I couldn’t possibly walk all the way back through the winding streets of Venice again (especially without getting lost), so I bought a ticket for the vaporetto.
The vaporettos can be very crowded, but it’s an experience everyone should have in Venice. The view from the water along the Grand Canal is so romantic (yes, even alone!) and gorgeous. If you were going to use the vaporetto a lot and get on and off, then the 24-hour tourist card would be your best bet, because each one-way ride is 7 Euros and that adds up after awhile. But since I only rode it the one time, 7 Euros was fine.
Back at the train station, until I was ready to return to Mestre, I sat on the edge of the Canal and just enjoyed the view of speedboats and vaporettos and gondolas going by as the sun grew lower in the sky. It was peaceful and lovely and probably one of the most perfect moments of my life.
Venice Day 2, Post-Cruise
I took a cab from the cruise terminal to Mestre to drop off my luggage at the Hotel Plaza, then headed back across the street to catch the train back into Venice. As I waited on the platform, I spoke with a nice couple from Australia who were on their way to the Norwegian Jade for the Greek Isles cruise. Small world. They asked me questions about the ship, and it was fun being able to give them my perspective. We rode in the same train car into Venice, and I wished them bon voyage as we parted ways.
When I arrived at the train station after the cruise, I bought the 24-hour vaporetto pass, which wound up being a waste of money, since I only rode the vaporetto twice. I had expected I would use it more, but because Venice is so walkable, I just didn’t. I should have just bought individual tickets. Oh well.
The first thing I did was return to Piazza San Marco. Venice was much more crowded this day than it had been the previous Friday–probably because everyone from the cruise ship was there! There had apparently been some sort of major concert in the Piazza that morning, and there were still rows of chairs standing in the shade of the surrounding buildings. I finally found the Bridge of Sighs and got some photos, but then got the heck away from there, because it was shoulder-to-shoulder people, and it was making me feel rather claustrophobic. There were incredibly long lines waiting to get into the Basilica and Doge’s Palace. The crowd levels were insane.
When I started getting hungry, I walked away from Piazza San Marco in search of a real Italian restaurant without the high tourist prices–or the crowds. Not far away, I found a little pizza place that claimed to be the oldest pizzeria in Venice. There was plenty of outdoor seating and it looked busy, so I figured it was probably pretty good. It was.
The pizzas here, while very tasty, are really too big for one person with a light appetite (that would be me), but dammit, I really wanted to eat pizza in Italy, so I ordered one anyway. I also ordered a beer (Birra Venezia Bianca) and a water.
It was very nice to be able to relax in the shade there for awhile, people-watch, and enjoy the vibe of Venice. The water bottle they brought was more than I could drink and I hated to see it go to waste, so I shared it with the two ladies from Manchester, England sitting at the table next to mine. This broke the ice, and we started chatting. One of the women’s sons had given her this trip to Venice with her friend as a birthday present. What a generous son!
Later, as I wandered down narrow alley after narrow alley window-shopping (because I sure as hell couldn’t afford to buy any souvenirs), I stumbled across a gelato stand and bought myself a chocolate gelato for dessert. After I had my Venetian pizza, beer, and gelato, I was pretty content. It was the quintessential day of sightseeing–and eating–in Venice.
Basically, everything I did on Saturday was what I had hoped to do the previous Friday but couldn’t because I was sick. Of course, this meant I didn’t have time after all to sail out to the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello, which I had also wanted to do that day. But that’s okay. It was another warm, sunny day, and I was happy just wandering around in Venice.
When I was ready to head back to my hotel, I hopped on a very crowded vaporetto back to the train station. A couple of times, it bobbed sharply in the water, and everyone standing on deck let out a “WHOA!” and then laughed nervously when we didn’t fall into the water.
That was it for my first experience in the city of Venice. While I stayed outside of Venice on this trip by financial necessity, I think if you can afford it, it would be absolutely lovely to stay in Venice. I’m sure it’s a completely different experience first thing in the morning and late at night when the day-tripper tourists are gone. I’d certainly be willing to find out firsthand!
As an aside, I just want to thank those of you who have contacted me via email and Twitter to express concern about my long absence from blogging. It’s been five months since my last post here. Don’t worry; I’m fine. The quick story is that I had to take a break from blogging for awhile to focus on a number of other “real life” priorities that needed my time and energy. I may not blog as frequently as I once did, but I’ll try to post something more regularly in the future.