Stepping out of the train station and into the warm sunlight, visitors to Venice are immedietly awash in the sights, sounds, and yes, smells, of Venice.
Venice: Love at First Sight(s)
The train station exits onto Venice’s bustling Grand Canal, and it makes a spectacular site to behold. The black gondolas with their striped gondolier drivers, the beautiful white bridge elegantly stretching across Venice’s murky green canal, and the chatter of tourists shopping at trinket souvenir stands greeted me, and I took a moment to take in the old city that was once a symbol of European wealth and grandeur. Immediately in that first moment, I was in love with Venice.
Walking to my hostel however, that love soured quite quickly, as I was forced to lug my suitcase up and down countless bridge stairs. I figured I could avoid the hefty 7 euro vaporetto water boat ride (the sole means of city transportation) to the stop near my hostel by walking, letting me get acquainted with the city while saving some money.
I think I’ve finally learned, when you first get in to a new city, it’s usually worth it to pay a bit more to get to your hostel easily. It took me an hour to get to my hostel, and by then I was soaked in sweat, and had to drag my suitcase up and down the Rialto Bridge, one of Venice’s biggest bridges and most crowded tourist sites, three times, going back and forth since I wasn’t sure where to go! These kinds of experiences have the danger of giving a negative first impression of a city that may be hard to shake.
Luckily, Venice is far too charming and delightful to stay angry with it for long. I have a terrible habit of setting myself up for disappointment. I always am dreaming of grandeur and setting expectations too high. Naturally I had a vision of Venice from the romantic tales I had heard. Remarkably, Venice met and surpassed even my fantastical expectations.
Sweet Dreams Hostel
My hostel was gorgeous, covered with wooden rafter beams, elegant furnishings, a pool table, and a view out onto one of Venice’s minor canals, it was a real steal. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure the place had bed bugs- I still have terrible pulsing bite marks from my stay (sorry, I know that’s gross).
I grabbed a glass of wine, which in Venice usually isn’t more than 3 euro, had some gelato, planned my next few days, and then went to bed.
The next day I met a mother and daughter couple who were sharing a dorm room with me. They invited me to spend the day with them. The daughter was my age and was in the Air Force National Guard. In a few weeks, she’d be off to Afghanistan, so she and her mother were doing a month long bonding travel trip before she left.
Pros and Cons of Travel Company
They were really fun and it was great to have the company, although I got a taste of why it sometimes pays off to travel alone- while I wanted to focus on seeing sites and museums, they were more interested in shopping. We spent the majority of the day visiting every souvenir shop in Venice (at least it felt that way!)
It was all right with me because we still got to explore the city, and they really were great people. That night we tried to find a restaurant I had read about in my guidebook, but it was closed since the owners were on vacation. We ended up sitting down at a random place, where the meal was all right but pretty mediocre. I never understand why some people just sit down the first place they see! It makes no sense to me- you are only in a city once, why wouldn’t you want to make sure you have a good meal? It’s so easy to find advice too, whether from accommodation staff, online, or guidebooks!
Anyway, we were hungry and out of options, and it ended up being a good thing we grabbed a seat, because soon it started to downpour! Luckily we were safe beneath the restaurant’s outdoor canopy, as we watched others running and huddling under building balconies to escape the rain.
St. Mark’s Basilica
The next morning (after a bit of shopping, of course) the three of us visited St. Mark’s Basilica.
The main basilica was closed, so we could only visit the museum. I had downloaded a free Rick Steve’s Audio Guide that explained details about the more interesting mosaics and statues. The mosaics were incredible – so detailed and gorgeous!
Next we strolled down through St. Mark’s Square, took some photos, and stopped for lunch. The mother and daughter wanted to do some more shopping, so I took my leave to visit Doge’s Palace.
Doge Palace in Venice
The Doge was the chief magistrate, aka the top dog in the Government. Like so many narcissistic leaders before, the Doges were often thought to have been hand picked by God to rule.
The palace is pretty brilliant, with hallways of gold, enormous, airy halls with detailed frescoes proclaiming Venice’s riches, virtues, and power. It’s huge though, and I was soon exhausted after wandering through the judicial rooms, armory, and prison.
The prison was especially interesting because visitors are able to cross the famous Bridge of Sighs, which goes from the palace to the prison. The story goes that prisoners would cross the bridge and be allowed one last look out at the glory of Venice, and would sigh with longing.
Next I visited St. Mark’s Basilica again to see the actual inside of the basilica. The gold mosaics were breathtaking, and seemed to make the very air glow.
Canal Ride on the Vaporetto
After visiting the basilica, I went back to the hostel to rest and drink my Franziskaner Weissbier– my favorite beer that I discovered last year in Germany and found in the local supermarket in Venice!
After a little siesta, I got on one of the vaporetto boats I avoided earlier. I had downloaded a Rick Steve’s audio guide of the Grand Canal, in which Rick Steve points out interesting palaces and sights as you cruise down the canal.
The sky darkened as I sailed around Venice, watching the city slowly transform into night. The tour ended at St. Mark’s Square, with the square lit up gloriously at night.
Small music ensembles duel across the plaza, signing and performing at the various cafes. These are no street performers, but seasoned, excellent musicians and singers. “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic seems to be a favorite, as I heard it three times in one day. Also performed was “Do Re Mi” from Sound of Music, as well as some more classic and possibly authentic Italian pieces.
Sitting down at the cafes with performers may set you back a pretty penny – just a coffee at these places can be closer to 8 euro, and you pay a cover for the performers too! Or you can take the cheap-o option like I did and just stand around the terraced cafe, getting a just as rewarding view and a listen while enjoying some gelato.
Heading back to the hostel, I ran into my old mother and daughter friends! We grabbed a bottle of wine and said our farewells before going to bed.
Last Day in Venice
Although the atmosphere and location of my hostel was perfect, the management left something to be desired. The owner could barely speak English, to the point where he had trouble understanding me when I simply said, “Can I stay one more night?”
Never a smile, the guy seemed very stressed and anxious constantly. I couldn’t understand why Hostelworld reviews had raved about the staff here. As it turns out, another guest informed me that the hostel was under new ownership – the new manager had only had it for one month!
His lack of organization was apparent when I approached him on my last night to make sure check out time was 10:30am, as I thought it was. This was at 11pm. He told me then that I had to change rooms. “What?” I asked, astounded. “Umm, it’s 11pm.” The room I had been in was a top loft, with five beds. Two of the girls had left the night before, and when the two other guests in my room asked for another night, he told them they’d have to move to a different room, but I assumed that was because he had booked other guests for that room the following night.
It’s a bit hard to explain, because even I don’t really know what the situation was. All the beds that had been in the room earlier were gone, except for mine. He said it would “no longer be a room” the next day, which is why most of the beds were dissembled. He ended up conceding that I could stay that night in the room, if I packed up and was out by 8:30am.
So basically I got a giant private room, which was nice, but since my bed was right next to the window for cool air, the sunlight woke me up very early (I lost my eye mask three hostels ago).
It wasn’t so bad, since on my last day in Venice I woke up bright and early at 6:30am, leaving a whole day for final site seeing. Although I do suspect I was attacked viciously by bedbugs there, which was not pleasant at all, as I still carry the itchy bites.
Frari Church: The Unsung Gem of Venice
After a quick breakfast, I set out to find the Frari church – one of the lesser known and, according to Rick Steves, most under appreciated sites in Venice. I got turned around several times getting there, but finally ended up at Frari church.
The church was built by Franciscans, who favored the natural style, which is why many of the paintings in the church feature Mary and saints in a natural setting, as opposed to the old school practice of formal, stoic icons.
I have to agree that the Frari church is under appreciated – there are some great works of art there. I got the whole scoop on the church with another one of Rick Steve’s handy audio guides. The Frari church was also considerably cheaper than other sites in Venice – just $3, or $1.50 for students. That’s less than just entrance into one of the treasures at St. Mark’s Basilica.
While it was interesting to hear about the paintings and learn about Titiane (Tullio Lombardo), Venice’s most famous and skilled artist, I was fascinated with the church’s relic collection, complete with pieces of cloth, jewelry, and several hands.
In case you don’t know much about relics: relics are objects that are somehow connected with saints, and therefore holy and valuable for churches. Relics have varying degrees of value – body parts like hands, tongues, bones, what have you, are 1st class relics. Then the next level would be clothing worn by the saints. I believe there is a 3rd level, although I’m not sure what those would be – maybe just things the saints touched? I’m not sure.
Many older churches are founded on a prized relic – St. Mark’s Basilica claims to have St. Mark’s bones buried under the alter, which were stolen from “the infidels” as it were. Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica has…well, you guessed it, St. Peter’s bones. When I was in Rome five years ago (as opposed to more recently) I did a special Scavi crypt tour, where we got to see the bones that are believed to be St. Peter’s.
Anyway, this relic collection had quite a few body parts and other bits, although they weren’t labeled, and Rick Steve’s strangely glossed right over it in his audio tour. Come on Rick, don’t you know nothing captured an audience like blood and gore?
My other favorite piece in the Ferari church was Canova’s tomb. The main shape consists of giant marble pyramid, with a door to the inside of the tomb. Outside on the steps, figures bring laurels and offerings to lay by the tomb, the visitors distraught with grief. My favorite part of the tomb is the giant stone winged lion. Even he looks forlorn.
As it turns out, Canova actually made this tomb for the great and revered artist Titian, but after Titian and Canova died, some art big wigs decided they liked a different design for Titian’s tomb better, which sits just across from the church. I much prefer Canova’s design, and I bet Titian would have too.
After the Frari church, I set out to return to St. Mark’s Square to do yet another Rick Steve audio tour of the square itself, and soak up some final information about the beautiful square that Picasa called, “Europe’s largest drawing room”.
Getting Lost in Venice
It is highly recommended that you make an effort to simply get lost in Venice. Many tourists will only walk the same route from the Rialto Bridge to St. Mark’s Square, and miss out on the intimate alleyways and secret canals that snake through this incredible city.
Yes, you simply must get lost in Venice. If you have a half-way decent map or any basic sense of direction, you may find it quite difficult to get properly lost. I on the other hand, being a well-seasoned world traveler, have become an expert in the art of getting lost. In fact, I rarely manage to go anywhere without getting lost. I’ve truly honed and perfected this valuable skill.
This day, I must have been at the top of my game, because I got ridiculously, overwhelmingly, sickeningly lost. You know you are at “that level of lost” when you are faced with an overwhelming urge to kick or stab anyone walking slowly in front of you, with mercy for children and the elderly utterly abandoned.
After racing around, following any glimpse of yellow signs, and doing my best to keep down tears, I collapsed on a set of stairs. I knew I had done something very wrong. I looked at my map – I had gone in the most absurd, insane, zig-zagging loop the loop. Angry at myself and the world, I spent another half an hour hiking back around to St. Mark’s Square, where I rewarded myself with a cold beer and sandwich.
I did the audio tour of the square, some last-minute souvenir gift shopping, and some solid people watching, soaking in my surroundings on my final day in Venice.
The Venice Lion
Being an animal lover, it was fun for me to note all the winged lion statues, mosaics, paintings, engravings, and door knockers around Venice. The winged lion is the symbol of St. Mark, and also the icon of Venice. The lion atop the giant pillar at St. Mark’s Square is actually over 2,000 years old. How incredible is that?
Venice and Its Decline
It was pretty cool learning about the history of Venice. The canaled city was once rich beyond imagination, functioning as the key middleman between east and west trading routes. Venetians rolled in the money, building extravagant palaces along the Grand Canal and living the general high life.
Venice remained high and mighty for a long time, and you can see the riches and power really got to the Venetians’ heads after awhile, especially when touring the Dodge’s Palace. Eventually though, with the discovery of the Americas and new trade routes, Venice’s wealth started to decline.
The city still remained popular though as a European Las Vegas for the 19th century socialites. Especially during carnival, Venice would be packed with mask wearing partiers. The practice of mask wearing was implemented to keep identities secret when men and women went off to engage in less-than-savory activities. The masks also served a cool purpose in that during carnival, and rich and poor celebrated side by side, with social classes temporarily erased as the masks put everyone on level playing ground.
CORRECTION: So actually I believe the very first use of the masks was by doctors. The giant, long-beaked, bird-like masks around Venice are similar to the ones doctors would wear during the Plague, hoping that the mouth covering shapes would protect them from contamination.
Now the masks serve as reminders of Venice’s frat-partying past. Rising sea levels have resulted in water-logged palaces of glories gone by. Venice is virtually a city in decay, and many wonder how long it will last. Even if the city is physically salvable, the resident population is declining , and people fear that Venice will become a museum-city rather than a city of legitimate life.
Although tourism continues to boom in Venice, groceries and other staples are expensive since everything must be imported. Strict housing restrictions are enforced to protect historic homes, but it makes renovations a nightmare. These factors, partnered with the fact that Venice floods about 100 times a year, means only the elderly die-hard, long-time residents persevere.
Despite my complaints earlier about getting lost in Venice, it really is absolutely essential to wander off the beaten track. I can’t tell you how hilarious it is to stroll down a narrow alleyway and just come face to face with a green, watery, dead-end canal, with no choice but to turn back.
I’ve always had a love of the sea, and Venice is an swashbuckler’s dream.