Pula, Croatia 🇭🇷
Murray Smith

Venice, Italy 🇮🇹

Murlayna Travel: Yerp 2016

Wednesday, August 17

When we arrived 3.5 hours later in Venice, we endured another passport/security/customs checkpoint (“You can thank George W. Bush and Tony Blair for this” our guide shockingly razzed), then were plopped out into the streets, no information or wifi or people nearby to help get us oriented (since the cruise line people all grouped together to begin their walking tour). We had heard, though, about the ‘vaperetto’ (which are essentially the water-city’s bus/tram lines), so we crossed the bridge to the nearest station and tried to figure out how to buy a ticket. We couldn’t, so we just got on without paying and hopped off as soon as we’d made it to the island of Giudecca (pronounced Jew-Decka, tracing its Semitic ancestry), our new home.

I pulled up the wifi-less map app we’d been using to navigate in situations like these, but had completely forgotten that I should have downloaded the Italy map pack, since we were no longer in Croatia. Out of options there, Laynie entered the closest cafe to ask for directions while I guarded our luggage out front. She emerged quickly with a big smile of her face as we now knew exactly where to go: just over the next ‘ponte’ (bridge), at the end of the first ‘calle’ (narrow lane) on your right.

Our hotel had a fancy lobby with stone columns and marble floors, although an equally typical low-hanging wooden-bean supported Venetian ceiling. We were (again) walked to our room, only a hallway away, which was on the ground floor, canal-side, with a suitable view.

Once settled, we decided to go for a walk around the island to get a lay of the land. We didn’t bring anything with us, nor did we have a plan, but before we knew it we picked one of the cafés we’d walked past upon arrival for our dinner. (It’s worth noting that our hotel only had wifi in the main lobby, which was annoying but would have been okay, had it actually connected at a pace faster than dial-up. It was essentially unusable so throughout our stay we were keeping our eyes peeled for restaurants with that holy sign: “Free Wifi”.)

We’d heard that in Venice they charge you a fee for everything: tablecloth fee, napkin fee, cover charge, etc. So when our waiter plopped a basket of bread on the table, I embarrassed Laynie by inquiring whether it was free or not. The waiter seemed kind of shocked, but I wasn’t sure if it was from the confusion of some mistranslation or just the audacity of my prodding. He somewhat apprehensively replied, “Sure.” A few minutes later, the man in another young couple who overheard all this asked the same question: he over-apologetically and awkwardly fumbled through it though and when his wife couldn’t handle it anymore she practically yelled and cut directly to the chase: “Do we need to pay for this bread??” I couldn’t help but burst out laughing and when they saw this they laughed too, then the waiter joined as we all realized how absurd and silly this was. We all joked around about the crazy Venetian prices as the waiter explained his unwavering 2€ cover charge, and how restaurants who don’t write exactly what they will charge on the menu are “false” and shitty, etc. The spaghetti and lasagna we had there were to die for, and remained our favorite meals for our entire stay in Venice. We spent a European amount of time post-dinner chatting before asking for our bill, for which we tipped handsomely and left our well-wishes for this honest and understanding gentleman.

We decided to hop into a vaperetto to ride over to the main island. We each bought ridiculously expensive 2-day transit passes at the nearest tobacconist, though in practice we rarely actually used the designated scanners since we learned very early that to travel like the locals, you just push the gates hard until they think they are broken, then open automatically — which is both quicker and more satisfying than pulling out your wallet and waiting for it to beep, like a sap.

We took deliberately obscure turns down the various alleys on the mainland, though eventually we must’ve gotten funneled back since we reemerged at the famous/primary tourist destination: San Marco Square. It was busy but we found a step to sit on and watched time pass in the fleeting moments and family photos of passers-by, until the skies suddenly turned black and everyone collectively realized it was going to pour. The various live orchestras paused to put up side-walls to their canvas tents; schools of waiters fluttered out to retrieve their menus and fabric tablecloths; and slowly the bodies thinned, opening up the central grounds as the margins began to swell. Everything kind of froze this way for 15 minutes — but the rain never came, so we eventually ventured out to see if we could take advantage of this lull to get some dramatic photos ourselves.

Satisfied, we headed to the southern ‘boardwalk’ (the main one, that stretches the entire width of the island) to grab a vaperetto back home. Naturally, just as we left the cover of the many arcades bordering the plaza, all the rain that’d been brewing began to fall. Just as soon as it was spitting it was pouring. By the time we got to the nearest vaperetto stop it was like a constant sheet of water falling from the sky. We couldn’t quite get under the overhang because of how densely packed it was in there, so we — and we alone — got absolutely drenched; we might as well have jumped into the canal. It was so unbelievably ridiculous a situation that we couldn’t help but stand there helplessly exchanging glances while giggling like total lunatics, and most of those who saw or heard us joined in with the fun. We finally dripped into the second boat to pass, and by the time we made it home, although we had long since ceased shivering and entered numbness, we enjoyed wonderful hot showers.

The rain stopped, and we spent what remained of the daylight perched on the window sill, guessing what our neighbours across the canal must be thinking/saying as they all sequentially closed their (Venetian) blinds in preparation for sleep.

Thursday, August 18

Thursday morning we took the vaperetto over to Lido, which our cruise/ferry guide had mentioned housed a sandy beach. It did indeed: basically the entire eastern coast is one, although only a small section of it is public since the rest is claimed by exclusive hotels with pay-per-day chairs and umbrellas (only 27€! 😳). We sheltered ourselves under the shade of a strange metal-walkway/false-pier thing, and spent the morning there reading and tanning. The murky green water was not nearly as clear as in Croatia, and we heard reports of jellyfish, although we left with neither stings nor surprises of any kind. (Keep reading for more on the Veneto-region’s water quality.)

We grabbed gelato for the walk/float back (this, debatably, marked the first time that I picked a better flavour than Laynie). Once back on Giudecca we hiked to its westernmost point, which, just past the luxurious and new-ish Hilton Hotel, quickly turned to virtually empty courtyards, parks, and cobble-paved streets — clearly a locals district with virtually no signs of tourism here at all.

Laynie was getting hangry so we jetted over to the other side and stopped at one of the first restaurants with shade. This proved to be a mistake. The prices were high — everywhere in Venice is — so we both opted for the Tourist Dinner, which didn’t appear as bad as it sounds: we had the choice of 4 starters, followed by one of 4 mains with 4 sides, then dessert! All for only 24€ each (service charge and cover charge included)! I had macaroni bolognese to start, then decided to live dangerously to try the Milanese Veal Steak with Potatoes. The pasta was decent, if bland, and the steak and potatoes was a thin cold cut, deep fried, served with French fries. To be fair, I had no idea what Milanese-style means (still don’t), but this was lackluster cafeteria food at best. Laynie’s salad and chicken were slightly better, and the chocolate gelato to finish was a welcome relief, but definitely not worthy of an $80CAD price tag after drinks.

Next we went to a grocery store we’d found and grabbed yogurt to store in the mini fridge for breakfast, plus a beer for the ride home.

Having spent enough money for the day, we attempted to use the lobby wifi to do some research into Venice and what we should do with our one remaining full day. I was especially curious about the infrastructure of the city and surrounding islands: how the supports/foundations were built, how the waste water is handled, where the drinking water is treated, and so on, but hadn’t seen a single tour, museum, pamphlet or anything on the topic(s). I asked the receptionist, but she said there isn’t really anything like that, a fact that still amazes me now: how can no one else want to know about the technology powering the modern world’s only water city?! In crawling through the Wikipedia pages (no images, they wouldn’t load) and others, I realized it’s because all of it is super shitty, literally.

In the Middle Ages, Venice was once a leader in sewage tech given that the tide would naturally ‘clean the streets’ that overflowed with garbage and waste in other, land-locked cities. That time has passed, however, since the system remains unchanged today. Although there are apparently some septic tanks and rules in place about those, practically all liquid waste is still piped directly into the canals, which explains both why it is forbidden to swim in them, and why Venice smells so pervasively revolting. Shockingly, since the water levels have risen roughly 120–150 centimeters since then, the annual floods that hit Venice like clockwork every winter (like, there are actually schedules so locals can plan their day appropriately) engulf the first stories of most of the buildings. This leads to things like sofas that rest on stilt-like stones year round, but more alarmingly, to massive disinfection efforts since the surging water is obviously dangerously polluted. It kind of made us rethink our visit to the nearby Lido beach…

Fortunately, drinking water is a different story: the old wells that used to siphon rainwater through mud and sand as a natural filter have all been sealed shut for centuries, replaced by a more contemporary aqueduct from the mainland. The water here flows in constantly-running fountains like in Basel, and tastes delicious (though you’ll still never be able to order it at a restaurant). The foundations are a bit more complicated, but the big realization we both had is that none of the island is actually ‘floating’ as the stereotypes had lead us to believe; rather, the whole archipelago is actually built in a lagoon, which used to be a sort of marsh, so it isn’t actually that deep. In fact, most of the rios/canals are only 2–5 meters tall, dredged between the man-made petrified-wooden-stake-laden seabed, the exact details of which I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.

Anyway, all this cool info had gotten us yearning for more, so we booked a free walking tour of the ‘hidden gems’ variety for the following day and hit the hay.

Friday, August 19

This was our last day of the entire trip, and I still hadn’t finished my book, so we went to a park-looking district we’d seen from afar when visiting Lido to find a spot on the grass to read. We walked around past the football stadium, naval base, and some more quiet locals-only areas before settling under the shade of a vertically-challenged tree with a slightly-more-green-than-typically-Venetian view:

By the time we’d finished our tuna and crackers and read our hearts out, a small posse of pigeons had surrounded us. Earlier in the trip we’d made a habit of honoring all the notable avian personalities with names starting in ‘P’ (for Pidgeon), but by now we had run out and had to switch to P-swapped monikers like Pandrew, Pally, and Phristine.

We explored more of the surrounding area and discovered some pretty cool stuff: a tree-covered boulevard in Venice’s Forest District, another weathered soul with crutches, and some monuments, including one with a freshwater pond at the bottom within which a colony of turtles (and their eager, hyperactive children) frolicked.

Numerous lanes and dead-ends later, we stopped for snacks so we’d have some energy for our tour. Then, on our way to the meeting point, we grabbed some gelato, and this time, for sure, mine was better: Laynie’s lemon & mint looked delicious, but she ultimately ditched it unfinished because it was so leafy. My melon flavour, however, tasted like eating the cantaloupe itself. 👌🏻 Somewhere along the line, we lost track of time and realized half-way there that we were going to be late. It didn’t help that the last bit of the trip was on foot, and in an area we hadn’t visited before. We arrived 7 minutes late but luckily the tour hadn’t left the court yet so we easily caught them, missing nothing but the introductions.

The first stop was a perfect example of the kind of hidden gems that we in store: an angled concrete ramp hovering above the ground at knee height in the corner of a nearby church: it’s purpose, we learned, to prevent men from peeing there, since it would therefore drip onto their feet. Pretty ironic that Venice has historically had public urination issues given you might as well just pee into the canals — it’s going there anyway.

Our enthusiastic young guide Lucia was full of such idiosyncratic tidbits and we were treated to a fascinating wealth of smaller details like: why/how the house numbers work (and why there are so many numbers on windows, or on seemingly nothing at all, or 4 completely random numbers on the same thing); why there are letters blacked out on so many street signs; and we even got to tour the old Red Light district, including the “Ponte de le Tette” (the Bridge of Boobs, pictured below), whose two overlooking windows used to publicly preview the goods for sale.

A couple hours and four sore feet later, we’d gotten to see, smell, and appreciate Venice from a very non-touristy point of view, which we really enjoyed, so we tipped well and ultimately wished we’d done right when we arrived instead. There were five other free tours like this (one for each of the sections of the city), and all of them had similarly high-scoring reviews; if we had wanted to, we could have done all of them for less than the price of one of the usual 80€ tours!

I’d say “good to know for next time”, but honestly neither of us will go back to Venice; it’s overrated and expensive and didn’t particularly impress us in any regard. Sorry.

We had another lackluster dinner on the way home, followed by some good gelato, and another super-mart bought beer for the road. I had to pee really badly by sunset so we spent some time looking for a darkened path so I could get sweet relief via the canal (there are no public washrooms to speak of).

We took the vaperetto through the grand canal on a route we hadn’t been through before — one that circles under all four of the main bridges (only one of which is modern, and looks like Calgary’s Peace Bridge, except in this case, terribly out of place). It swooped past the main bus/train terminal where we switched lines to finish the rest of the loop trawling past a couple of the ginormous cruise ships parked for the night in port. The trip finished with 15 minutes without stops, and by now there were only a handful of people left on the boat, so we were treated to a beautiful, quiet, breezy-but-still nighttime sail in which to gaze at the illuminated creations surrounding us. It’s unspoken moments like these that reinforce why I love evenings/nights so much.

Saturday, August 20

We knew we had to be up early to make our 11:30 flights on time, so at 07:00 we awoke, checked out, and made our way to the Hilton where we could begin our 1h40min shuttle boat to the airport. It was basically a vaperetto but made fewer stops, had more room for luggage, and wrapped around the outer islands, finishing with a half hour straightaway to the airport guided by a road of sunken telephone posts decaying in the seawater.

After a long walk from the pier to the main terminal, we somehow had the only airline without a massive, hour-long queue (there are no electronic machines in the currently renovating Venice airport), then sat with poor wifi in an equally poorly air-conditioned waiting area by what we brain-fartedly thought was our gate. Actually, I messed up which number that was and only at the last second when I saw “Final Call” for Toronto on a nearby TV monitor did I double check! We ran to get there on time but luckily/somehow we weren’t the only ones and didn’t cause any delay at all. This 8 hour flight went smoothly with media apps and surprisingly delicious hot pocket wraps on board.

Our flight from Toronto back to Calgary was super turbulent (which Laynie hates, and made me air-sick), but we made it. My parents came together to pick us up and hear stories as we drove home, storming by Wendy’s for some long-awaited comfort food before succumbing to the jet lag at something like 05:30 Europe time.

Well, That’s Us!

It was an incredible trip with everything from deep introspection to uplifting connection — where wonderful moments of love and intimacy contrasted perfectly with grandiose feelings of awe and experience. We planned as little as we could in advance, and although that had some obvious drawbacks, I think it succeeded fabulously; traveling brings something different to everyone who yearns for it, and for us, we exceeded our expectations, just as expected.