Monday, August 22, 2011

The Best Day of our Trip so far

When we woke up in Venice I was super keen to get over to the city so we decided to head over for breakfast, although our idea of breakfast turned out more like lunch. Our campsite was only 100m from the ferry terminal and the ferry ride was exciting all on its own, seeing Venice unfold before us, sparkling in the morning sunshine reflected by the sea. I took way more photos than necessary, even just from the ferry, because I knew my Mum and sister would love it there.

Even Courts got excited when we got off the ferry near the entrance to the Grand Canal and we were actually in Venice. Our campsite had provided a map of the city with recommended walking trails and I had used it to pin point the main sights so we could see them first and then just immerse ourselves in the city. We walked along the edge of Venice and headed down the Grand Canal. At times there was no path on the edge of the Grand Canal so we wove in and out of alleyways, over smaller canals and through small squares until we reached the Accademia, a wooden bridge spanning the Grand Canal that has been there since the 1600’s.

Not far from the other side of the Accademia we stopped to eat. Being close to St Marks Square but not within sight of it, the prices weren’t insane but they were borderline. Courts had pasta and I had a Panini with a coke. They put lemon in coke in a lot of places in Europe and at first it was weird but now I’m thinking I need a lemon tree.

Having had our fill we followed the direction of the vague signs that pointed to St Marks Square. I say they were vague because the signs were so far apart and there were many slight corners and twists in between. However, we made it from one to the next without getting lost so the route must have been logical at some level. It was really exciting coming across the square itself, which we entered through an archway that perfectly outline the basilica across the square.

Plazas and town squares aren’t really something we have at home, not like they do here. We have Aotea square at home in Auckland and I suppose people have lunch there and it’s sort of a meeting point but it’s really not the same as a European plaza. St Marks is probably my favourite that we’ve seen so far with architecture that feels immense and awe inspiring despite the relatively plain nature of the three non-basilica sides. Each of the three full sides (the basilica closes in the open end) has high end cafes, bars and shops that I could never afford to enter, while the middle is full of street vendors.

Despite the warnings of mass crowds and pick pocketers, the crowds really weren’t that bad. We’re learning now that if you can handle the heat (Courts is not in favour of it but I don’t mind) August is one of the best times to visit the hot European countries because the locals are all on holiday so the crowds are localized only to the tourist spots and traffic is far less than normal. We did however still bypass entering the Basilica itself – the queue was crazy long and in direct sunlight.

After a detour to the nearby Hard Rock we crossed in front of the Basilica and past the presidential palaces, again finding ourselves essentially on the edge of Venice. We didn’t spot the Bridge of Sighs but then we didn’t really know what we were looking for so we may very well have crossed it. The wide open edge of the city was in direct sunlight and full of market stalls. Most of them sold souvenirs or cold drinks and all were full of tourists. It was starting to get very warm and beyond the must-sees like the basilica we really weren’t interested in doing anything touristy. Rather than continue on towards the Arsenale or navy quarter which had been recommended by the campground, we ducked into a shady alley and proceeded to lose ourselves in Venice.

I would thoroughly recommend the route we took that morning prior to getting lost – from the Fusina ferry stop we walked along the edgeof the city to the entrance of the Grand Canal and then down it, crossed the Accademia and then followed the signs to St Marks. From St Marks we walked towards the visible water and then followed the edge past the palace towards Arsenale. It allowed us to cross off all the main sights (except maybe the Royale Bridge) and see some amazing  lesser-known churches and halls as well as get a taste of the narrower alleys and less touristy life of Venetians. It only took an hour or so and then the day was free to spend however we wanted without wondering if we were near the next must-see.

We had been told by numerous bloggers and guide books that the best thing to do in Venice is get lost. Having now done so, I whole-heartedly agree. We found numerous dead ends but also found that the narrowest of alleys (seriously, it was a squish for a similarly sized person to pass me going the other way sometimes) led to some amazing spots. Beautiful residences covered in flowers and moss, mask shops aplenty including ones where you can watch the masks being made, carnival costume stores, gelato on every corner. Steps leading into the canal were dotted with people dipping their toes and we joined in, eating pink grapefruit and black chocolate ice cream in the shade.

We came across markets, found a surprising McDonalds (the only commercial mainland shop or food place we saw), perused Murano glass for far longer than Courtney would have liked and sampled real Venetian baking. We found hotels only accessible by boat, including a couple with new platforms that made the door height much lower but did stop your feet getting wet in the sinking floor. One clock tower was on a definite lean as the ground below it gradually gave in to the sea.

Twice we asked locals to show us on our map where we were at the time but distractions often prevailed over directions so despite intending on making it to the Rialto Bridge we never did. We did however make it much further, right to the other end of the snaking Grand Canal. Instead of paying the government-regulated minimum Gondola price of 80 Euros for 40 minutes (they don’t even sing like they do in the movies) we paid 6.50 for a one-hour bus pass – Vaporetti or water-bus that is – and took the Number 1 line from the far end of the Grand Canal, all the way along to the entrance we started at and back almost to St Marks Square past the end. We could have got off right by the ferry home but we were happy with our seats on the sun deck, passing under the Accademia and the Rialto as well as palaces and hotels, soaking in the setting sun and the Venetian life.

We wandered slowly from St Marks square back the way we had walked when we first arrived and ate even more gelato while waiting for the ferry. The ferry home seemed much quicker as they usually do and before long we were back in our cabin (oh, glorious cabin) packing for our departure in the wee hours of the morning. Venice was easily my favourite day of the entire trip so far, and to think in the rains of Munich I considered skipping Venice to avoid the rain. Packing up in the rain was the best decision I made all trip.