Friday, September 9, 2011

Italy: La Dolce Vita - Venice

This post kicks off reporting on the second phase of our June 2011 trip to Europe - our journey to Italy. Also, I will be building a set of photos on my Flickr Photostream to supplement the pictures you see in the posts.

Some of you may already know we spent a week in Romania right before this, and if anyone wants to read or revisit our adventures there you can check it all out in one convenient post I've put together that accesses each episode and photos.

Arrival In Venice
Flying into Rome from Bucharest, Diane and spent a couple hours on layover in the airport before our flight up to Venice. Three things happened during this time: First, the cold hard reality of how little our U.S. dollar is worth compared to the Euro became blatantly clear. Of course we knew this going in, but after a week in Romania where the reverse was true, this felt even worse than if we had just showed up in Italy directly from home. Second, we had lunch. Third, Diane bough some seriously cool shades at one of the boutiques at the airport. Soon enough, we boarded our plane and flew to Venice.

Arriving at the Venice airport is just like arriving anywhere else by air in Western Europe. However, once you've collected your bags, the way you get to the city is by boat rather than taxi, train or car.

After chugging our way across the lagoon for about 40 minutes, we alighted at one of the drop off stations in the main part of the city. Our next challenge was to find our hotel amongst the maze of streets and canals that make up Venice. I knew generally which direction to go and which piazza we were looking for. But, no matter how good a map you have of Venice, it cannot and does not account for all the little streets and narrow passageways that confront you. Suffice it to say we did a pretty good job of finding where we need to go. (Left: A quiet canal right near our hotel.)

All the while, of course, we were taking in the scenery as we dragged our bags behind us. For indeed, every turn brings a new and picturesque view – a little canal with boats, a bridge, old buildings, painted shutters, small piazzas, art on the wall and on and on. It’s tempting to stop and take it all in as you go. But, we’d been on the road all day, tired and it was getting hot. So we kept going on our best guess at where our hotel was. And sure enough, we got there no problem. After checking into our nice room at the Hotel Bernardi (our room was in their anex building) in the San Marco neighborhood (but very near the Cannaregio neighborhood) we washed up and went out to a nearby street to get lunch, a cold beer and watch people walk by. Relaxation at last!

Meeting Up with Family and First Evening
Later that evening we met up with Diane's sister and her husband - who were on vacation in Europe and obviously Venice at the same time as us - for an evening stroll and dinner. As you walk through the streets of Venice, just how different this city is from others screams out at you. No cars, no scooters, pedestrian only, wide thoroughfares, small passageways, big obvious bridges, crooked alleyways, small out-of-the-way bridges, cheerfully colored buildings, crumbly facades, church steeples, a boat roaring by followed by a quietly paddled gondola and more. All of this contrasts greatly with most cities of the world. And it's fun to experience simply as you walk around on a warm evening. (Above: Piazza San Marco from the water.)

This night we hit appetizers at a little walk up counter on a typical Venetian piazza. Just walked up to the window and ordered a fresh basket of fried seafood and vegetables. Simple. Delicious. Later we had dinner at Alla Vedova, a great little osteria serving typical Venetian dishes. Given that we'd had a long day coming in from eastern Europe, we called it a night after this and turned in. (Left: Basilica San Marco.)

First Full Day
Refreshed and ready to go, we dedicated most of then next day hitting the highlights of Venice - especially since our relatives had not seen them. Strolling the crooked crag streets we emerged at Piazza San Marco in the brilliant sun. Everything within view - Basilica San Marco, the campanile tower, Doge Palace and all the surrounding buildings - were lit up brightly all vivid and attractive. Crowds were gathering, but we sensed we had beaten the majority of the hordes that would no doubt show up soon. So, we jumped in line to get into the Basilica. Now, if you've never seen this church, it's unlike virtually any other anywhere. Beautiful onion domes, gold interior and spires all make this a worthy visit. Oh, and it's free to get in.

Next we ascended the campanile tower. This is something Diane and I had not done 15 years earlier when we visited Venice, so we were excited to get a view from up there. With the sun hotting everything up by now, we braced ourselves for the hike up the stairs to get up there. Imagine our pleasant surprise when we finally entered the bottom of the structure and found out that an elevator takes you to the top. Nice! Jetting up inside this old tower in a modern elevator, we exited at the top inside the bell tower. The first thing we noticed was the welcome breeze, cooling us down. Looking around, you could easily see the layout of the island city and marvel at the canals and red tiled roofs everywhere.

Back down at ground (or island) level, we dropped Diane's sister and husband off at the Doge's Palace as we had already seen the inside. As they toured the palace, we struck out to look around the back alley streets and get some lunch. After a while we settled on a little restaurant on a hidden piazza. As it turned out, a good choice! People: pizza, salad, beer and a view of an ancient little does not get any better than that! And that's the fun of Venice. Getting a bit lost and stumbling onto an unexpected place or a restaurant and just saying, "what the Hell, we'll check this out." Delightful.

For our afternoon activity, we decided that instead of re-visiting the better known museums of Venice to re-see Renaissance art that we would check out something completely different...a modern art museum situated in the Palazzo Grassi. We picked up our relatives and headed out on a vaporetti water bus up the Grand Canal to the museum. For the second time this day, we were rewarded for getting off the beaten track. Featuring very interesting pieces from the personal collection of French billionaire Francois Pinault, each room had something new, different and thought provoking to ponder. That, and it was nice and cool in there compared to outside. An afternoon well spent. (Right: View along the Grand Canal.)

Next up was a well deserved rest up at the hotel. Refreshed, we hit the streets for a progressive dinner in which we went to successive osterias to get small plates collectively called cicchetti (loosely pronounced chick-et-tee) Think Italian tapas. (Left top: La Cantina; Left bottom: Osteria al Bomba.)

We hit places on or near the Strada Nuova. We started at Osteria al Bomba just off the main drag tucked away on Calle De L'Oco. They featured seafood. Wonderful! We then walked up to La Cantina where we had delightful meats, olives and home made bread along with only-can-get-it-there beer. Finally, we ended up at  some random place that turned out to have a good special of fried seafood. Sorry, don't remember where. But it was on Strada Nuova near the Ponte Pasqualigo.

Second Full Day
This day was all about getting out on the lagoon and visiting some of the other pretty islands right near by. OK, this day was really about doing that while also finding and buying a nice Venetian glass chandelier. With these goals in mind, we boarded the water bus and made our way. Alighting at the main Murano dock, we quickly started checking into the various glass houses to see what was on offer and how much.

To my novice eye, Murano is basically a small Venice - but less crowded. It was nice to walk around without the crush of tourists you get in the main destinations in Venice proper.

Anyway, back to glass shopping. We hit three different shops. One was a large but interesting place with a lot of options. We felt pretty good about this place and the guy we were talking to, but given that it was the first place...we decided to keep looking and perhaps come back.

Next we stopped at a huge shop with a load of inventory - much of it indeed beautiful. However, the problem here was the sales guy who showed us around. He was fine walking us through the galleries and talking about the different styles, but he was extremely elusive when it came to pinning a price to anything. We had a bad vibe here - either we were being set up to be taken advantage of OR the guy just didn't respect us and thought we were just "lookers" out of our league looking at this stuff. Oh well, his loss as we bailed out of there. (Right: View of the main canal on Murano.)

Our third shop was a small, family run operation that had an amazing collection. Instantly we thought this might be the place where we scored our Venetian chandelier. We looked, we talked to the proprietor, we hemmed and hawed, we picked out the 2-3 we liked best...and then we said we would think about it over lunch and come back if interested.

At this point we had a nice picnic lunch we had packed along with us consisting of fresh bread, salami, cheese, wine and olives - just sitting on the street curb and enjoying.

Next we went to the Murano Glass Museum. This is a nice visit if you go there because it shows you the history of glass in the area, artifacts and explanations of the various styles of glass creations you see when looking around the rest of the island.

Following all that...we did go back to the small shop and we did buy a chandelier. Suffice it to say that we are very pleased with what we bought, where and from whom. We recently hung the thing in our house and, I have to say, it looks great!

With the primary goal of the day achieved, we made our way by boat over to another island called Burano. This is a smaller still Venice-like island town. Brightly colored buildings and quaint canals lined with shops, boutiques and restaurants make up most of the island. Here, they are known for their lace and textile work, and so as not to deprive ourselves, we bought a few items. At this point it was getting late in the afternoon, so we hopped the boat bus back to Venice. The trip from Burano takes about 45 minutes. (Left: Colorful buildings of Burano.)

Rested after a couple hours in our hotel, we made our way down the Grand Canal and over to another part of Venice where we had a water-side dinner at a restaurant called I Figli delle Stelle that looked back at the main part of the city. With the sun going down and good food on the table, this proved a great way to end our time in Venice. (Right: View from our table at I Figli della Stelle.)

The next day we simply checked out of our hotel, went to the train station and boarded our train bound for Florence - thus ending our stay in Venice.

My thoughts looking back on our visit are that the city is as beautiful as we remembered and I am glad we did some different things this time compared to last time we were there - that we did not spend our days simply and only looking at Renaissance art and rather we got out on the water, to little neighborhoods and into interesting places like that modern art museum. My advice for anyone going to Venice with only two full days to spend there is: do one day of "the classics" and one day "out and about"...and of course eat well by dining one night at a nice traditional place and then dine another night by "cicchetti hopping" around a neighborhood.

Next post up in this series is a re-cap of our time in Florance and Tuscany. Check on back for that in a week or two.

NOTE: All pictures in this post taken by Marc Osborn. No use of the images is permitted for any purpose without prior written permission from Marc Osborn.

No comments: