Venice Undercover

Venice; a chart-topper amongst people’s list of their favorite European cities, and my next and final stop as what I now refer to as my Tour of Italy (and much better than Olive Garden’s version.) Stepping off the train from Florence, I will admit I had high expectations after hearing so many rave reviews. I was imagining the romantic labyrinth of narrow, cobblestone streets under cover of nightfall; weaving through the canals as striped-shirted men in hats melodically rowed young couples merrily down the stream, life being but a dream and all that. But this, this was not the Venice I had seen in my imagination, or the movies, or even those tacky reproduced paintings of the Rialto Bridge. This was real Venice. This was Venice with the lights on and no makeup to cover it’s blemishes. In it’s most honest form, I came to appreciate Venice for what it really was: Italy (almost) underwater.

Literally the first picture I took exiting the train station, so my first impression of Venice!
Literally the first picture I took exiting the train station, so my first impression of Venice!
Now, let’s think for a moment about what makes Venice special to so many people. Any one else thinking canals? Because I sure as heck am! But, take the canals away and you have essentially any other city in Italy. Sure, there is some stand out architecture, a beautiful basilica and potentially a few other interesting places to visit, but above all, the thing that makes people want to visit Venice is the temporariness of its state, a temporariness that can be visually and viscerally experienced by the canals. It’s one thing to say something is sinking, and completely another to not only say it, but see it as well. That is the allure of Venice, and for those unenchanted with the limited time only offer that this city seems to capitalize on, Venice can be a bit of a let down.

For me, I’d say that it didn’t live up to expectations, but I am glad that I visited. Though now, when people tell me they’re going to Venice, I don’t recommend they stay too long (three days at the absolute most). Once you get used to being surrounded by alleyways of water, you do get a little bored. And tired of getting lost! After all the fun I had left behind in Florence, Venice just wasn’t as gratifying. However, there are still a few things I would recommend doing should you find yourself there. The first being, Murano Island.

The crowded vaporetto, or water taxi (and the only means of transport in and around Venice.
The crowded vaporetto, or water taxi (and the only means of transport in and around Venice.

One of Murano's many shop-lined streets.
One of Murano’s many shop-lined streets.
You may recognize the name Murano, as it is usually followed by the word glass; and, yes, this island is home to some of the most illustrious blown-glass sculptures (and sculptors) in the world. Getting off the vaporetto at a stop of the same name and walking 50 paces down the first street, I began to realize the magnanimity of what this identity meant to the island. Shop window after shop window, filled to the point of combustion with figurines both small and large of practically anything you can imagine! Continuing on, it wasn’t long before one of these small little hole-in-the-wall factories offered a free demonstration of a glass blower hard at work. Although I was a little late to the show, I didn’t miss much. In a matter of 30 seconds, this guy had already turned a lifeless hunk of glass into a perfect sculpture of a horse on its haunches. Not two minutes after that was he finished with a beautiful vase. Knowing very little about the art of glass-blowing or how much time it takes to perfect such a skill, I was completely blown away!

Just some of what you can expect to see on Murano. While this sculpture is free to ogle at, you can see much more at the island's Museum of Glass.
Just some of what you can expect to see on Murano. While this sculpture is free to ogle at, you can see much more at the island’s Museum of Glass.

A vase and horse made right before my very eyes, so I can tell you, it's legit!
A vase and horse made right before my very eyes, so I can tell you, it’s legit!
It wasn’t easy to follow that act, but a little Italian gelato definitely helped sweeten the deal. If my terrible pun didn’t cause you to navigate away from this page, I first want to thank you, then also tell you that that was the end of my time on Murano. It is a small cluster of little islands tied together by a network of bridges and consists mostly of glass-blowing factories or shops. It is an interesting place to visit and watching that demonstration was certainly a highlight of my time in Venice, but don’t plan to spend a lot of time in this place. As I quickly realized as I walked around, it is a pretty quiet place and most things can be seen in two or three hours at the most.

The bridges that keep the islands of Murano together.
The bridges that keep the islands of Murano together.

The last look at Murano, in it's small island glory.
The last look at Murano, in it’s small island glory.
I got to Venice in the afternoon and originally had planned on tackling the city sights the following day and, thinking that Murano was going to be a bit more of a thrill, I had devoted what remained in that first day to seeing it. However, after pretty much seeing it all in a few hours, I figured I might as well get my bearings in the big city I came to see.

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St Mark’s Basilica by sunset.

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Coming into St. Mark’s square, the unequivocal hub of the city.

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Venice as seen from the Rialto Bridge, with the quintessential gondolas and all!
The first evening in Venice was more recon than anything else. Since I was planning to spend the following day seeing the sights, I wanted to spend that first night just getting familiar. But that St. Mark’s Basilica sure is impressive! Even just from the outside, it is certainly a sight to behold. After circling the square a few times (as counterproductive as that may sound), I decided to catch the next vaporetto back to my hotel and call it a night. During my stay in Venice, I wasn’t actually staying in Venice proper, but rather on a small island outside the city called Lido. I hadn’t made accommodation arrangements until the last minute and as such was staring down the barrel of a rather expensive bill had I stayed in the city. Lido, while about a 35 minute ride away, is a much more economical option for those so inclined (such as myself). However, do beware, because Lido by itself is a pretty boring little island and the only real activity is to catch the water taxi to Venice.

The following morning, I got a decently early start in order to get into the city before the hoards of tourists descended upon the light list of free attractions. St. Mark’s was top of my list, and apparently everyone else’s. One can never be too early to go to a church, I suppose. What was interesting was, compared to my brief visit the previous night, the line to get in was elevated on platforms due to the rising of the water level. After asking around, it seemed this was a pretty common occurrence I mean, after all, the city is sinking. Nonetheless, it was almost a bit sobering to see all these people raised two feet off the ground in order to avoid the pools of water that had gathered down below. Maybe Venice doesn’t have that much longer after all…

The platform leading into St. Mark's Basilica that I assure you was not there the previous day that I visited.
The platform leading into St. Mark’s Basilica that I assure you was not there the previous day that I visited.

Inside the basilica. Photos taken (without flash) under covert ops as picture taking is generally discouraged...
Inside the basilica. Photos taken (without flash) under covert ops as picture taking is generally discouraged…

Another sneaky snapshot.
Another sneaky snapshot.
After touring the basilica, I walked around the city a bit in an attempt to find a few notable shops and restaurants, but had a hard time telling one dark alleyway from another so I eventually just gave up and headed to happy hour at an ecclectic little place called Bacaro Jazz that I had read about on Yelp. Walking in was quite an event, for the first thing you will notice is the plethora of brassieres suspended from the rafters. How they got there, I do not want to know, but I imagine there is a reason European women have gotten a reputation for rejecting this essential item. Interesting decor choices aside, I would definitely recommend this quaint spot, not only because it is located so closely to the Rialto Bridge (and thus much easier to find than other bars in the area) but also because their happy hour was fantastically inexpensive! €5 drinks was something I thought was practically unheard of in Italy, but not here! It is the ultimate place to try out all the fancy Italian liqueurs you can’t find in the states.  My curiosity was the Aperol Spritz, a deliciously orange colored beverage full of fruit and bubbles that was filling the wine glasses of cheeky connoisseurs all over the city. And now I know why!

Bacaro Jazz? More like Bacaro Bras!
Bacaro Jazz? More like Bacaro Bras!
Without an abundance of funds, Venice (as I soon found out) somewhat loses its charm. Of course there are tons of shops and fancy restaurants and designer boutiques, but these activities really weren’t in the cards for me. Aside from seeing the church, grabbing a drink,  and walking around a bit, Venice was a little lackluster. And here precisely is my point; people see Venice in the movies and think that it’s a vibrant city with elegant architecture and unique features but what it lacks (in my opinion) is the palpable vitality of it’s neighboring cities, like Florence. Venice is pretty, but I didn’t find it worthy of being a favorite European city, though I know others will disagree. It is as they say: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

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Despite my overall feelings about Venice, this is probably one of my all time favorite photos from the trip.

Another brilliant deal at the farmer's market, €10 for a plate of fried fish, polenta cake, and glass of sparkling wine!
Another brilliant deal at the farmer’s market, €10 for a plate of fried fish, polenta cake, and glass of sparkling wine!

Of course, I wasn't the only one to recognize a good deal when I saw one! Some people waited all week for this, and I can't say I blame them!
Of course, I wasn’t the only one to recognize a good deal when I saw one! Some people waited all week for this, and I can’t say I blame them!

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