To Ride or Not to Ride?

Trip Start Jun 12, 2006
Trip End Nov 28, 2006

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Flag of Italy  ,
Friday, August 11, 2006

She said:

I love night. Aside from the gondolas and impossible navigation, I wasn't sure what to expect from Venice before arriving. People told us to go for a day trip and then head for the next town, and when we got to San Marco right off the boat, we almost agreed. However, when day turned to night, we were so happy that we didn't listen because we quickly discovered that if we only came for the day, we would have missed the point. Here's my description of why...

Venice during the day: crowded squares; tourists lining narrow streets, frequently and suddenly stopping for window shopping and picture taking; large tour groups with an amplified leader holding some sort of umbrella or flag; overpriced "touristic" menus; long lines at historical attractions; boat traffic in the grand canal and all side canals leading up to it; and the overwhelming feeling of wanting to be somewhere much less crowded...

Venice at night: near empty streets; minimally crowded campos/piazzas; audible orchestras with open seats around the square; smaller more intimate restaurants on side streets with more reasonable menus (although all the food in Venice, aside from pizza, is overpriced; gondolas closed for the day being splashed with the high tide in the canals; undisturbed window shopping of all the beautiful masks, Murano glass, and Venetian gems left behind by the day's tourism rush; and finally, the romantic feeling I expected from Venice between us, and amongst those who remained in Venice at night.
Enough said?

Another warning we received before leaving was that we should be prepared to get into a fight because we would "for sure" get lost. Well, I am happy to report that we did not get into a fight...about getting lost. Chad has a great sense of direction, and I have found a hidden talent for spotting things, not only on a map, but also streets and desired locations. Of course, the three different maps we were using at any given time also helped! Sure, we made some circles and definitely took the long way many times (although Chad will swear he meant to go that way), but whatever the case, we found Venice to be more manageable than expected. And hey, it only took us a little over an hour to find our hotel after a night of drinks!

There are no cars allowed on the island, and boat traffic during the day is less than desirable. Subsequently, there is a lot of walking required in Venice. Aside from the necessity of working off all the pasta, pizza and gelato we are eating, it is a wonderful way to see Venice from a less superficial standpoint. We walked through the maze of what felt like every street, up and down each bridge, and over all three bridges connecting one side of the island to the other. Although many began to look the same after a while, each had its own uniqueness about it in some way. It was a much better option for us than competing with crowds on the water buses during what felt like rush hour on the water, all day long!

When we arrived to San Marco to find accommodations, we were like deer in headlights... with backpacks! We could barely fit through the crowd with our packs on and were starting to wonder if this should have been a day trip. But, we persevered and made our way through the crowd like New Yorkers trying to get off the subway at Main Street in Queens, eventually finding a hotel. We agreed on a very overpriced "splurge" one star hotel with a fan, a bathroom, breakfast (which ended up to be a roll and a cappuccino), and a priceless window view of intersecting canals where we would spend most of our time while in the room. Venice is very expensive. We found that you really can't sleep, eat, email, or do laundry for less than a small fortune. But it was worth it...

We spent most of the first and second day exploring the island, far away from the crowds and main attractions. I looked at all the buildings, down each canal, and in as many store windows as Chad would allow. We watched as excited tourists boarded their gondolas, and contemplated indulging in a $105-195 per 30-45 minute ride down the canal. We stopped in a little bodega and had a glass of wine on the steps of a bridge. We stood at the counter of a small bar and ate cicchetti (snacks) with a glass of wine like the locals. We watched as the sun set and the island thinned when the tour buses and cruise ships pulled away. Then, we made our way back to San Marco to enjoy the competing orchestras playing at each corner of the piazza.

We went to the Guggenheim museum, situated along the Grand Canal, which had a great collection of modern art. We went to Scuola Grande di San Rocco, referred to as Tintoretto's Sistine Chapel, with 50 of his paintings, the best on the ceiling as seen best by using a mirror. We explored the Jewish quarter and noticed how the buildings were built differently, more upward stories so as to fit as many people as possible in the small "geto" (as it was referred to in Venetian dialect). Apparantly, at one time, Venice was home to approximately 12,000 Jews, but now only houses about 200. We walked and walked and walked some more until once again, the island began to thin out.

The next day, we woke up early in the hopes of seeing the Basilica with a shorter line. No such luck, but the line did move pretty fast nonetheless. We met a very nice couple in line, Ron and Nancy, and almost mistook Ron for Rick Steves himself! Turns out they were a lot like us at our age, and took a trip similar to ours after they got married. They continue to travel now, and we enjoyed our time in line talking with them. We talked of possibly sharing a gondola ride to split the cost, as Nancy and I were in agreement that the price was absurd.

After the basilica, we hopped on a boat to Murano Island. I absolutely love Murano glass and was excited to see how it was made and possibly buy a souvenir. However, the island turned out to be more of a tourist trap to see a quick demonstration and then get you in their store to make a purchase. Still, it was a nice boat ride over there, and it was one of those delirious-laugh-at-anything days when it didn't really matter what we were doing. At some point, Chad turned to me and said, "You know, I used to melt glass on Bunsen burners when I was younger." Apparently his grandfather was crazy enough to allow him to use his equipment in his science class. Through much laughter, I realized that in 8 years of our day to day, this was something I did not know about Chad or his grandfather being a teacher/principle. Although I could not stop laughing at his embellished story of glass making (I suspected), it was fun just to have learned something new about my husband in the middle of Murano island in Venice!

I was especially excited for that night, as we had purchased tickets to a Vivaldi concert. We both really enjoy the symphony and the program said they would be playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Mozart, and Bach. It was held at a small church, and the musicians consisted of 4-5 violinists, one cellist, one bassist, and one man playing the harpsichord. The show was amazing, and I couldn't help but think about you, grandpa, and how you play just as beautifully. I thought about how great you played at our wedding for me to walk down the aisle....thank you again! I closed my eyes frequently throughout the concert and tried to appreciate every note. It was wonderful and serene, and another moment of clarity at just how lucky we are to be on this journey.

After the show, we put the "should we take a gondola ride" conversation to rest. We decided that we would make this our reason to come back for a 10-20 year anniversary, but it wasn't worth what would probably be the equivalent of two or three nights of accommodations/meals in another city. This trip we are budget travelers, and as we suspected, we forgot all about it 10 minutes later when the band played "New York, New York" and we slow danced in the piazza reminiscing...

He Said:

Venice is the only city in the world which can never be confused with others. This was the first line we read in the program before hearing Vivaldi's "Four Seasons", and it was the last thing I thought about when we turned our backs to the Grand Canal and walked into the station to catch our train to Rome.

Venice is a hard place to leave. It's like a waterbed. You sink into it, and it lulls you into a dream. To explain what I'm talking about, I must first describe how we typically arrive in a new city. After we find accommodations, it's usually full speed ahead for that initial burst of exploration. We might not always visit a major site on the first day, but we get a good feeling of the city we're in. In Venice, it was literally hard to get out of bed. After we found a place with a great view of two small canals that intersected underneath our window, we sat there and watched as the gondolas navigated past one another. Alli had to drag me out of the room and its hypnotic view.

I guarantee you that there isn't another population of people in the world that can steer boats better than the Venetians. The gondoliers thread the needle time and time again, somehow slipping behind an oncoming vessel, then turning left while avoiding another boat turning left from the opposite direction, all while narrowly missing the sharp corner of a brick building and the bow of a gondola waiting to turn right, and then steering to the far right side of the canal in order to skirt by a motorized water taxi, which is followed by a group of four more gondolas filled with members of a Japanese tour group, one boat having an accordion player and a vocalist. It is insane, and better than any television show I have or will ever see.

On our first full day in town, my hearing cleared up, and we walked far from the highly trafficked tourist areas of St. Mark's Square and the Rialto Bridge to enjoy the neighborhoods of Venice that most day-tripping tourist groups don't seem to make it to. We explored Castello, an area that many say is the most beautiful and tranquil part of the city. We walked to the Jewish ghetto that got its name from Venice's foundry, which was pronounced "geto" in the Venetian dialect, thus giving us today's word - ghetto. And the highlight of the day was the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which houses Tintoretto's masterpiece ceiling and panels depicting Biblical scenes. Most interesting to me was his version of the Last Supper, in which a dog appears to be joining the dinner in the bottom-center of the painting. Art theorists?

On our second day, we began with a brief yet comprehensive collection of contemporary art owned by Peggy Guggenheim, which now sits in her former palazzo on the Grand Canal. She had all the big names, but it was the more obscure painters that caught my attention. There was a Severini work called The Blue Dancer that was one of the most captivating paintings I have ever seen. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope at a seductive flamenco dancer, and her embellished dress was filled with small sequins pressed right into the paint. As much as I was looking forward to seeing Guggenheim's collection of Jackson Pollack, it goes to show that there is so much great work - in all the arts - that goes relatively undiscovered by the masses.

That night we went to a lounge owned by a young Venetian guy that has taken a big interest in serving quality brands of absinthe. We listened to him explain the drink and its history to other American tourists, and before long we were engaged in a two-hour conversation. He showed us old posters he had collected, gave us a pamphlet he had written with famous quotes from absinthe drinkers, and brought out his old fashion fountain used to slowly drip water over the sugar cube and into the glass. Five cocktails later (with matching local wines for the wife) Alli and I were listing through the Venetian alleyways trying to find our way back to the hotel before an impending thunderstorm. After I got us lost, Alli decided to lead us home that night. We got wet.

On our last full day in Venice, we woke up early to beat the line at St. Mark's Basilica. It didn't quite work. We wound up waiting in an enormous line, but we met a Rick Steves look-alike and had a great conversation with him and his wife that made the hour-long wait seem like minutes. Ron and Nancy were great company, and we all discussed the state of the union, art, and the price of gondolas. Ron had been studying Byzantine art pointed out a corner piece of the cathedral depicting four figures, one with a foot that appeared to be pasted. It turns out that the foot was discovered somewhere in Turkey, and only recently did someone realize that it matched the sculpture at St. Mark's Basilica.

They told us that when they had taken a similar trip after their marriage, they decided not to take a gondola so they could add more days to the end of their trip. Still with the budget traveler mentality today, they asked if we wanted to share a gondola ride with them to split the costs. I think they were just being kind because they knew our predicament, and we made plans to all meet at the sculpture if the answer was "yes."

After our trip to the island of Murano to see its glass factories, we went to the top of the Campanile in St. Mark's Square and enjoyed the amazing view it lent. We went to dinner, and then headed to a church to hear Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." This is my absolute favorite piece of classical music, and it was hair-raising to hear the first piece of "Winter" in the city in which it was composed. I had a Zen moment where I recognized I was having a Zen moment, yet was somehow able to maintain that Zen moment, which is what a Zen moment is all about.

On the way home we had the final debate on whether or not to take the gondola. Alli decided we should make a pro/con list, with the only real pro being that we wanted to see the city from canal level. We thought about Nancy and Ron, and how nearly twenty years after their marriage, they were back in Venice to take a gondola. We thought of regret, and whether we would be sorry for not taking the ride once we left more than having to end our trip a few days early. But most important for me was considering the conversation I had with a gondolier earlier in the day.

The gondolas all have identical decorations on their bows, and the whole time we were in Venice, I wanted to know what it symbolized. It turns out the comb-like formation represents the islands in the lagoon, the Rialto Bridge, and the protectorate of Venice. I also wanted to find out more about their job. I was told they have to go through a training program, and it is very rare for them to own their own boats, which cost no less than 25 thousand euros. There are two main companies that lease them out, much like the way groups rent out taxis to cabbies in New York.

As I was talking with the guy, I told him that I couldn't believe how much people pay for a 45-minute ride. He said it was great for his wallet, but he only wanted to do it for a few years (he was no older than 25). I asked him if he would ever pay 90 euro for a ride around the canals of Venice, and he said, "No way!"

Isn't there some kind of rule about not buying something from someone who doesn't believe in their product? Maybe next time he'll give me a different answer, but for now, I hope Ron and Nancy drop us a line so we can find out what we have to look forward to in twenty years.
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lambs on

Still not Rick Steves
Sorry for not replying sooner, but we've been out of email contact for a while. We really enjoyed meeting you and chatting. It's great to follow your progress via the web now. That's one thing that definitely has changed since we were backpacking around Europe and North Africa 30 years ago. (You are too kind saying it was only 20.)
We ultimately didn't feel we missed a thing by not taking a gondola ride. Cruising down the Grand Canal in a (much, much cheaper) vaporetto was a thrill. We didn't make it to the Guggenheim, but I (Ron, not Rick) did spend time in the Accademia. Lunch was chicetti in a nearby wine bar.
We're staying with old and dear friends in Yorkshire, having attended their daughter's wedding over the weekend. Toasts were announced by a master of ceremonies who has served the same duty for the queen and holds an MBE as a result. We've also been to York, where our daughter and her fiancee are students, and to Whitby, on the coast. Munich, guided by a friend I met last year at Cambridge, was the transition to northern Europe (and cooler, wetter weather -- had to buy a fleece pullover at a thrift shop in Southampton).
Enjoy the rest of your travels, and we will enjoy your descriptions on the web. Let's keep in touch, OK?
Take care.
Ron and Nancy

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