It feels like it was almost another lifetime ago, but a month ago we were in Venice. In my mind, I tried to set very low expectations for the city, as I feel like it's a place that's fairly hyped up and iconic. I feel like I'm almost always disappointed when I have high expectations, so I kept them low, and despite the freezing cold temperatures, Venice was amazing.
We left Malta very early on a Tuesday morning, so we arrived with plenty of time to see the city before the day was over. After dropping our bags off at our B & B (which was great, by the way - check it out if you're ever looking for a place in Venice, Fisheye B&B is cute, reasonable and central) we walked around and looked for some lunch. We ended up with some pizza - Italy, you know, it's everywhere - and in our experience, usually pretty good too.
At 3pm we took a free walking tour that the company's website (Venice Free Tour) said should last for two hours...three and a half hours later it was still going strong. It was so cold that we tried to bail a time or two, but our guide sort of guilted us into sticking around so we stayed until the bitter end. It was interesting for sure, but also, without a doubt, much too long.
D - Agreed! The walking tour was way too long, and as is the case with most free walking tours, the content is probably very dependent on which tour guide you get. One of the nice parts about the tour is that it included a (very) short gondola ride across the Grand Canal (pictured below). Probably like many other tourists who don't know any better, I was expecting to have a gondola ride at some point in Venice while planning our trip, until I came to the sad realization that they are ridiculously expensive. These gondola "ferries" are a good way to sort of get a gist for the experience, without sacrificing your first child or food for the week.
When the walking tour (finalllllly) ended, we got falafel with some of the girls we met on the tour from South America. Last night I was just saying to Danny that the only thing I really miss about America is people. On the flip side though, one of my favorite things about traveling and being abroad is people. We have met some really fascinating people from around the world - many of our friends in Madrid are from the U.S., but not all - there's one from Singapore, one from Canada, a couple from South Africa, one from Italy, one from Columbia, one from Germany, and well, I think you understand. It's possible to seek out an international community almost no matter where you live, but it's easier in some places than in others, I think. Anyways, we had dinner with two girls around our age who were traveling around Italy and other European countries during parts of December and January, and we had a great time sharing travel and life stories before we parted ways.
D - So true! It's great getting to meet people from all around the world, if only for a short conversation or dinner!
We stopped by St. Mark's Square after dinner before we made our way over bridges and through narrow pathways back to our B & B for the night. When I think back to that evening, I remember being so cold - and I don't think I've been so cold since! - but Venice was so just magical. Venice has a population of only about 260,000 people, but sees about 15 million visitors a year - a staggering figure, really, but being there at such a chilly time during the off-season meant that we didn't see many of those tourists.
The next morning we had a tasty breakfast at our B & B, including some fresh squeezed orange juice. Although Spain is big on orange juice, it’s pricey, so we still hadn’t had any at this point, so I was really excited when I saw that the breakfast included fresh juice. Danny was nice enough to do the hard labor for me as the juice was DIY!
D - As Shannon mentioned earlier, we had a great experience at our B & B and our hosts were so nice! They also include a pretty good breakfast, which often lands near the top of my priority list when choosing a place to stay!
We’ve been a lot of places with riverwalks before – San Antonio, Pueblo, Madrid, just to name a few, and I’m not particularly shy about the fact that I love being near water in general – oceans, lakes, etc., and Venice felt a bit like one giant riverwalk. Which is basically the best thing ever, in my mind. So when we walked out of our door in the morning, and we saw the canals, and then everywhere we walked all day long, we were beside canals (or not far from canals), I just couldn’t get enough.
First on our agenda was the Doge's Palace, so we walked (across bridges and over and along canals!) back to where we finished our evening the night before, as it’s right around the corner from St. Mark’s Square.
We took Rick Steve’s guided tour of the palace (via our guide book) and went from room to room, oohing and aahing over the grandeur of the gorgeous rooms and their ceilings. The Doge's Palace has served three purposes over the years, beginning from when it was built in 1340. It was originally the residence of the Doge of Venice, who was the head of state and leader of Venice when it was a republic. There were 120 doges between 697 and 1797, and this was their home, as well as the seat of Venetian government and justice for many years. From 1923 onward it has been a museum, and we got the see the courtyard, the prisons, and many grand halls, staircases, and weapons, and ceilings.
We ventured back out into the cold and somehow Danny got talked into making himself into a bird whisperer of sorts, and as he stood still in the middle of St. Mark’s Square, as a few other brave souls were doing, and waited...soon our photographic dreams came true.
Yes, a few pigeons landed on Danny, although not at the same time, and I managed to capture it on camera. We gave up a short time later and got some lunch (one of our worst meals of the trip, as we ate in the square – it was cheap, but it was in a touristy area as we wanted to remain nearby for the afternoon so we paid the price – terrible but cheap food) and afterwards decided to give the pigeon baiting another try – and this time we had more luck as we some crumbs leftover from lunch. Only just this week did I find out that it is illegal in Venice to feed the pigeons, and I feel badly that we did so, and we wouldn’t have had we known. So sorry, people and pigeons of Venice!
D - Despite how the photos may appear, I was actually very brave with the pigeons.
We spent the first part of the afternoon at the Museo Correr, which gave an overview of the history and art of Venice. It was included with our ticket to the Doge's Palace, and while I wouldn't say that it's a Venice "must see," I enjoyed the restored former apartment rooms and the views of St. Mark's Square as we passed through the coffee shop (although we didn't linger, it seems like a beautiful place to stop for a treat and to watch the action below, even if you don't visit the museum). It's connected to the National Archeological Museum, and it's a bit confusing as to where one ends and the other begins - the layout isn't great and the signage is lacking, but other than that, our visit was very positive.
When we left the museum, the sun was out for the first time since we left Malta! Inside of going into another palace or museum, we decide to take advantage of the moment and walk along the edge of the island, from St. Mark's Square and the Doge's Palace to the Parco delle Rimembranze. It was still quite cold out, but the sun gave us new energy to be outside and put everything in a new light.
We had a quiet evening - I believe that we were planning Milan and watching Rick Steves' take on the city from bed in our B & B while we dipped bread in our microwave cups of barley soup (we decided that quick food in Italy is usually pizza or pizza, or the occasional greasy falafel joint which can be found in any good-sized European city, and this particular evening we were looking for something warm and hearty but not necessarily pizza or falafel, so found a grocery store, which was a miracle in and of itself, and found some really quality soups to go with some fresh bread and it was one of our best finds in Venice!).
The next morning we woke up to fog and I was so excited. If it was going to be cold, we might as well have some iconic Venetian fog covering the canals and bridges, right?!
We warmed up inside of the Palazzo Mocenigo - an interesting mix of costumes, perfume, and refurbished 18th century rooms. When Danny (who planned Venice for us, just like he did Berlin!) told me about the Mocenigo, I thought it sounded bizarre but also neat. Perfumes? We can definitely skip that. But costumes and period clothing? I was intrigued enough by that to let the perfume weirdness slide. It ended up that there was only a small roomful of costumes, and many rooms devoted to perfume (it's kind of a big deal in Venice, it turns out) and it's manufacture, but we really kind of got into the whole perfume thing!
We walked to Santa Maria della Salute and found it closed, so we wandered around a bit and decided to go back to a place we saw on the way and grab some lunch.
We ate at Venice Pasta's Academy (I promise that's spelled correctly! I keep wanting to write Venice's Pasta Academy, but it's definitely Venice Pasta's Academy) and it was one of those meals that was just meant to be. The day before I was explaining to Danny that I think a restaurant with to-go boxes of pasta would do really well in Venice, or Italy in general, because pizza is very portable and cheap, as is falafel, both foods that cater to travelers that want quick and cheap meals. And depending on where you eat either of the aforementioned, they can be good, too. Not always, but sometimes.
So I was saying that a similar model but for pasta could be really awesome, and even if other people weren't interested, I would really appreciate it because I often wanted to eat pasta but it seemed that usually the only option to do so was at a sit down restaurant, and that wasn't usually in our budget. But then we stumbled upon Venice Pasta's Academy, where you can choose from a variety of pasta types (all homemade in house!) and a variety of sauces, and then they'll make it to order, all for six euros and served in a portable take out box! They switched our order (I got the sauce I wanted but with Danny's pasta, and Danny got his sauce but with my pasta) but it was still amazing. The price, the food, the value - I'm not often in a place to make recommendations when it comes to travel because we don't always eat or stay at recommendable places, but I heartily recommend Venice Pasta's Academy.
D - One unexpected challenge from our trip was how differently we're wired regarding food. If you know me at all, you know I spend about 70% of my brain power at any given time thinking about my next meal, so without realizing it, I was expecting to eat a lot of every countries' specialties (pizza and pasta in Italy, waffles and chocolate in Belgium, etc.). In contrast, while Shannon enjoys a good meal, she would rather spend our money on experiences that will create memories. When we realized this at meal times, it definitely led to some conflict. Throughout this trip I learned that I am waaay too emotionally invested in my food, and I often elevate the desires of my stomach above serving and loving my wife. In addition, she's right. Though we ate a lot of good food on our trip, I remember our experiences more fondly. All that being said, Venice Pasta's Academy was a wonderful way for both of us to get what we wanted: excellent food at an excellent price.
Next on our agenda was Ca' Rezzonico, a palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal with period furniture, Venetian glass chandeliers, and a large collection of art spread over three floors. I really enjoyed the homes-turned-museums that we visited, as they were a change of pace from the museums we'd been visiting in other cities, as they often combined furniture with art and other mediums (perfume, costumes, Venetian glass, etc.).
After we finished at Ca' Rezzonico, we walked back to Santa Maria della Salute so we could have a look inside once it reopened for the afternoon. It requires a bit of effort to get there as it's not exactly in the center of things, but once there, it's worth it primarily for the views of Venice. The church itself, while imposing and beautiful from the outside, isn't all that unique on the inside in my opinion, at least not if this isn't the first church you've seen in Europe. However, the small square surrounding it offers a look across the water to St. Mark's Square and the Doge's Palace, and it seems there are boats constantly humming along too - water taxis, private taxis, people going about their every day business. It was one of the best views in Venice - and least crowded, too - although of course we were there in January.
At this point, we walked back to St. Mark's Square and toured the basilica. We'd tried the day before but arrived just as they were clearing everyone out for the day. We used Rick Steves' free guide again, and entrance to the church is free as well (well, at least most parts of the church. You can pay for the "extras" - the balcony, museum, treasury, etc.) The church has been nicknamed the Chiesa d'Oro (Church of Gold) because of its opulent interior Byzantine mosaics, and it really couldn't be more different from Santa Maria della Salute. A Venice must-see for sure.
St. Mark's Basilica wrapped up our trip to Venice, so we headed back to the Fisheye, collected our luggage, and walked to the train station. We may be more used to taking planes, coming from a large and spread out country that runs on road trips and plane travel, but man, trains are the way to go. So easy, so comfortable, and often times, so cheap. We took a two and a half hour train to Milan for about $12 a person and didn't have to go through security, weigh our bags, or arrive early. It was a breeze, and when we got to Milan, we were in the middle of the city, unlike most airports.
But back to Venice. Despite the cold temperatures we encountered during our trip - it was in the high 30's and low 40's - we had a great time. I was happy just to walk over bridges and along canals and marvel at the city built on the water, so all of the nice museums and palazzos were just a bonus for me (and a great way to warm up, too!). I'd love to go back and see Venice at a more pleasant time of year, however, I know that with that comes hordes of tourists (not unlike myself) and increased prices and a whole different feel.
D - Looking back on Venice, some of my highlights were the Doge's Palace, the two palazzos we got to visit, St. Mark's and St. Mark's Square, and just walking around and soaking in the beauty of the city. The Doge's Palace and the palazzos were great for getting a glimpse into the former grandeur of Venice's high society life, and it's always refreshing to see a church that is different and unique in Europe (the outside of St. Mark's looks like it was decorated by bandits and conquerers).
Venice is a fascinating city that faces many challenges - a decreasing, aging population, gradual sinking, commercialization, flooding, and so on. There's no easy fixes, but as young people, like the owners of the B & B we stayed at and our walking tour guide, are choosing to move back to city and fight for positive changes, there's hope for the future of Venice.