Friday, March 07, 2008

The Way to Arrive in Venice, and Most of the Famous Stuff

It’s a foggy overcast start as we steam gently into Venice. Somehow arriving by boat seems to be the appropriate way of arriving in this city, and we pass the Doge Palace, St. Mark’s Square and some of the other tourist highlights remarkably close up before docking in the north-western corner of the city.

The Venetian flag

People take photos of our enormous ship from the shore as we are pulled along by a pilot tug boat. I caught a slightly smaller Anek boat in the fog the following day which gives you an idea:

There’s a free shuttle from the ship to the bus station, and my hostel is just a minute away from there, not that I know it yet – without a map I walk blind until ending up at the train station, Santa Lucia, from where I have my bearings, having been here a couple of times before.

So I’m in a dorm room next to the window overlooking the Grand Canal - can’t complain really!

View from besides my bed towards the station

It’s not cheap though, about 30 euros for a dorm bed. After leaving my bags, I head out first for an Italian breakfast – a cappuccino and a pastry, at Brek, which is in Lista de Spagma, just to the left of the station as you come out. It starts coming back – I wandered round here last time I was in Venice. Coffee over, I go looking for the hotel we’ll be staying in tomorrow, Locanda Sant’Agostin.

It’s a bit of a mission, and I seem to come upon it more by chance than design. Then again, this is the way you do things in Venice. Navigation in Venice is a case of just walking until you find somewhere you recognise, then recheck bearings and plunge back in.

Maps will never show all the little alleys or bridges that exist, and grand churches are two a penny, so the best you can do is to be in the right general area then just wander.

Next up, laundry, also in Spagma. 6 euros plus three for dryer. Damn, I should have done this in Athens. I receive a few quizzical looks as I walk in shorts and t-shirt to the Laundromat given the biting wind. Whilst I wait for the laundry, it only seems appropriate to pop next door to Da Luca E Fred, a marvellous old-fashioned local eatery with lots of small rolls and bite-sized snacks piled up.

I judge from the old men there that the thing to have is a glass of wine with something to eat, and so it is. I end up having a Cabernet wine, a small salami roll, a “disco” of battered fried aubergine with some exciting things inside it, held together with cheese and a cocktail stick, and the finale, having seen them just come out of the kitchen, a long stick with several pieces of calamari and a slab of polenta at the top. Total cost, about 6 euros. Venice can be done on a budget – as long as you don’t need to sleep!

Picking up some food at the Coop supermarket - fruit, bread, salami, and eat back at the hostel which doesn’t have a kitchen. Some Indian guys come and go, Infosys types who are using their placements to explore Europe a bit. Some wine helps the food down, and a Japanese chap turns up with fast food. We head out for beers, and it ends up being a late one. Next morning I check out and head over to the station to pick up Dad and Lewis. Amazingly, despite coming through Italy for the last several hours, the train is bang on time, coming in at 9:39am, having left Paris last night at 7:42pm.

People stream off, no sign of them, and I start to wonder whether they’re actually on the train. Not having a mobile phone really does leave you in the dark sometimes.

Arriving into Venice by train is a fabulous way to come in, as you step off the train and you’re in the middle of town, the Grand Canal passes right by the station concourse. In fact, I’ve only ever arrived here by train (apart from boat this time), how Carbon-friendly of me. Anyway, presumably in first class they don’t have alarm clocks as Dad and Lewis are last off the train!

We head over the bridge, and walk to our hotel, which is tucked in the middle of town, in the San Polo area. The rooms are Sant’Locanda are not ready till 2pm, so we drop bags and head out. The reception guy asks where the fourth guest in our party is, I point at my backpack, we all laugh, except Dad, who in all seriousness says “I think he means Pippi”.

It’s a ten minutes walk to Rialto, one of the famous bits. There’ graffiti on it, which is a bit of a shame, but otherwise it’s a beautiful (and touristy) as ever. Crossing the bridge, we double back round to the train station - Pippi is arriving soon, coming from the airport. But first some breakfast. Dad and Lewis are looking for a cooked breakfast, but they’ve come to the wrong country. We end up back at Da Luca E Fred, where we have a plate full of small rolls and nibbles, tea, and, of course, three glasses of draught red wine. When in Rome..!

We arrive in the bus station just in time to catch Pippi, so of course we complain about the length of time we’ve been waiting for her. Again, a trek through the maze to reach our hotel, which prompts Pippi to agree it was probably best we did meet her in town (original plan was that she’d make her own way there). More gear dropped and out. We decide to head to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, which is near the Academia, which we don’t have the strength to tackle today.

Of course, part of the fun of Venice is getting a bit lost. The key is just to keep walking, and eventually you’ll pop out somewhere you can locate on your map.

Err, need a boat to go this way!

Passing a nice looking ice-cream parlour, Pippi and I try to stop Dad and Lewis, but they charge on. Oh well, we pop in and pick up, amongst other flavours, Chocolate mousse ice-cream. Delicious! The other two don’t seem to have noticed us not being behind them, so we make our own way to the Guggenheim, enjoying the looks as we appear triumphant with our near-empty cones. The Guggenheim here is a fairly small collection, sculpture and a variety of modern art. Unfortunately though, despite the presence of some artists I generally quite approve of, like Chagall, Klee etc, it’s not very good – they’ve managed to pick pieces that I don’t much like. And the rest of it, Pollock and plenty of Cubist stuff, is just rubbish (IMHO!). The best bit is the waterside patio at the back looking out on to the Grand Canal.

Famous view

By now we’re starving, especially those who didn’t have two scoops of creamy delicious gelato (is it gelati or gelato?!), so we go in search of lunch.

Gondolas, at 80 euros for 40 minutes, gulp!

The pretty Ukrainian girl in the hostel had suggested a restaurant on a corner a couple of streets from St. Mark’s Square, but it didn’t seem to exist when we looked for it, so we passed through St. Mark’s

The square

Saint Mark’s

Which has some incredibly harsh rules these days, including no sitting down or eating, punishable by a 50 euro fine!

We passed the Bridge of Sighs, so called because of the noise of prisoners passing across it

and carried on along the waterfront, trying to get away from the touristy areas which generally means get as far from Rialto, St. Mark’s or the Academia as you can! Strangely the fog was rolling back and forth, sometimes exposing us to the sun, other times blanketing everything and reducing visibility to twenty metres or so.

By now it’s so late that most restaurants are closed, so we settle for a touristy spot in a square for pizza and a beer. It’s so cold out in fact that we decide our pizzas will be cold before we have a chance to eat them, so we head indoors.

After eating, Dad takes charge of navigation, makes us walk for ten minutes before we realise we’ve come back to exactly the same spot where we had lunch. I take charge, and we go back to the hotel for a siesta and some internet access. For some reason they’ve blocked Blogger, how irritating! Out for dinner, we have a couple of recommendations from the hotel, one of which we try – Vivaldi, a smart old-fashioned place with a waiter serving us who resembles Einstein. I have carpaccio of beef then salted cod. It’s quite good, but pretty pricy. We round it off and toast my 500th day of travelling today with grappa, the Italian spirit made from grapes, which is a taste we haven’t yet acquired, especially for Dad and myself who have the more dry grappa. Comparisons with a blend of nail varnish remover and tequila are harsh but probably accurate.

A nightcap at an unfriendly bar near the Fish Market, then home. For some reason, there are mosquitoes about. I don’t understand how they survive, it’s surely too cold for them? Anyway, they are there and are clearly tough little sods to be alive, so perhaps opening the window was a mistake. Lewis and Pippi both get chomped in the night.

Breakfast the next morning, just outside our room, is continental, served by a very friendly but slightly mad woman who speaks not a word of English but does make a good cappuccino. We head out trying to find tickets for the Milan Arsenal match tomorrow at the San Siro. They’re not available on the internet, and it takes hours to find the Banco Intessa branch that purports to sells them, but we eventually are told that no tickets are available, despite the stadium being fairly enormous. Dubious!

So, mission over, we head out to see some islands. Whilst we wait for the boat, we sit at a waterside café. I am suspicious, the waiter seems a bit too smooth and doesn’t have a drinks menu for inspection. Sure enough, 29 euros for a beer, hot chocolate and couple of cans of lemonade. Extortion. Our ferry boat costs us 14 euros a head for a 12 hour travel card.

The boat heads out into the archipelago, to Lido, then the mainland, and we have to change boats at Punta Sabbioni on to a smaller one to our destination, Burano island.

Burano is known for its lace, which Pippi is interested in, and colourful houses, which I thought might be quite nice. Indeed, as we pull up, we see canals running into the island lined with beautiful bright coloured two-story houses.

There must be some coordination going on, as no two adjacent buildings are the same colour. We go in search of food, and end up in a busy pizzeria with outside seating.

It’s a bit nippy as we’re not directly in the sunshine, but very pleasant and peaceful, as is the whole island – definitely a different pace from Venice proper.

Couldn’t wait for me to take the photo

Typical girl, just picking at the salad

There wasn’t much missing from my pizza

The pizzas we order are enormous but tasty, washed down with a carafe of wine. After lunch, a disaster – the Lace Museum is closed for renovation! What will we do?!

Buy some cakes and look for ice cream of course.

Pippi considers going for a swim

We try for the next boat, but end up on the wrong side of the island and so miss it, but catch the following one half an hour later.

The archipelago

This one goes on to Venice proper, but we alight at Murano, as I have a cunning plan to change on to a water-taxi that will take us from here right up the Grand Canal. All would have been well but for us just missing it and the next one being an hour later. Still, it is interesting to see Murano too, which is famous for glass-blowing, and is clearly a bit more industrial and less pretty than Burano.

Murano glass

So we end up on a different service, which amusingly (for some) loops round Murano stopping at all five stations before coming back to where we boarded!

Murano high street

It then crosses to Venice proper, still stopping at every station along the way, but all is well as it’s warm on board and we have seats, so can snooze. Off at the train station, we make use of the travelcards by taking a boat along the Grand Canal, which is lovely to see at night. The buildings are lit up and of course there are the reflections. Clearly lots of these old palaces and houses are now hotels, but I wonder how many of the grand houses are still in use by the aristocracy.

From our hotel, we go for dinner, with Dad in charge of navigation. It’s still early for food, so we carry on to the station and buy our tickets to Florence (Firenze) for the following morning. Trying to get back to our chosen restaurant, we get lost again, and eventually Lewis and I have to take charge. The vegetarian-friendly restaurant is completely full, and so we head back to Birraria near our hotel, again getting lost on the way! The place is good except for one thing – the waiter doing most of our serving is exceptionally surly to us for no apparent reason, a shame as the food is quite good and the other waiter, an Indian chap, is really nice and friendly. Dinner is a couple of litres of wine, ravioli, a buffalo mozzarella salad. No nightcap tonight, we have an early start, though we pick up a couple of beers from Pizza 2000 (I love that name) to have in the room.

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