A few months ago, Richie and I had a Skype date with my sister and her husband. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, they asked if we would be interested in joining them for a long weekend in Venice. The answer to that question, my friends, is always yes. Venice has been on my to-see list from the moment I knew it existed, and yet somehow it’s never quite worked out. Luckily for us, Jen and Steven were planning a cruise that docked in Venice, and our schedules aligned perfectly for a 3-day visit at the end of their cruise.
We decided to fly in the night before their cruise ship arrived, based on funky flight times, and that ended up being a pretty wise decision as Alitalia (the Italian airline) is never. on. time. Our first flight was delayed, then the second. Inside the plane, still parked at the gate, the pilot regularly announced updates every 20 minutes or so. “We are waiting for passengers from another late flight…. We are waiting on those passengers’ baggage…. One of the baggage handlers has gone missing and so has the baggage, so we are waiting…. The baggage man is still missing…. Okay, we think the baggage is possibly all here, only ten minutes more waiting.” We ended up making it to our mainland hotel after midnight (for an expected arrival at 10:20 pm).
Despite that inauspicious start, our time in Venice was wonderful. On Saturday morning, we grabbed a bus from the mainland to the islands, then a vaporetto (a public waterbus) to meet Jen and Steven at the apartment that Steven had found on airbnb. We dropped our bags and set out for a day of wandering the twisting streets and canals.
Our apartment was quite close to St. Mark’s Square, where two of the biggest attractions of Venice are located, St. Mark’s Cathedral and the Doge’s Palace. The Bridge of Sighs connects the palace to the old prison, and is allegedly so-named because prisoners, as they were led to their cells, would take one last look at the beauty of Venice from the bridge and lament their fate, sighing heavily. It sounds very Italian, so it’s probably true.
Venice is sinking, the water is rising, and unusually high tides (called acqua alta by locals) are causing major problems, particularly in winter. The “ground level” of most Venetian buildings is completely unusable at this point, as water has risen too high. The city is working on the problem (with the MOSE Project), but for now, people have tried any number of things, including placing brick or steel barriers around doors and windows that may be too close to the tides.
Along the way, we stopped into a few churches, including this gorgeous church whose ceiling is designed to look like a boat. Very appropriate for Venice.
We continued wandering through the city, popping into stores (mostly on the hunt for the perfect Carnivale mask). We crossed the magnificent Rialto bridge, which spans the Grand Canal. Completed in 1591, apparently the bridge was not a critical hit. Even the architect didn’t expect it to last the test of time.
On the west bank of the canal, we found two lovely mask shops, both specializing in the traditional, hand-painted papier-mâché masks as well as some unusual ones. I debated back and forth at one of the shops, ultimately opting to return another day, but at the second shop, I couldn’t resist.
The shop was called Bluemoon Venice, and I highly recommend it. They have multiple locations, and even an online store, but we went to the location by the fish market, which had an extensive selection and impressive quality. My sister ended up with a gorgeous lion’s head mask from this place as well.
As it was now late afternoon, and many of the sights were closing, we headed back to the apartment for snacks while we hunted up a place for dinner. Navigating in Venice is insane. While the streets and canals have names, finding them can be difficult in some places, and tourist maps aren’t detailed enough to have all of the little tiny streets that comprise most of the island. So how do you find your way? The yellow signs pointing to major landmarks, generally. As our hotel was quite close to San Marco, we followed the signs pointing to that direction.
St. Mark’s Square is a bustling place at all hours of the day, regardless of weather. The earlier fog began to lift and the sun emerged over St. Mark’s, bringing with it even more tourists!
Steven made an excellent choice in picking our apartment – close enough to St. Mark’s for easy access, but set away from the main hustle and bustle of the tourist areas so that it was quiet in the evenings. We also had a rooftop terrace, which was perfect for drinking wine and having appetizers while watching the sun set.
As sunset approached, I realized we hadn’t left on any lights in the apartment and went down to turn some on – I thought the worst thing we had to worry about was falling off the unguarded stairs down from the terrace! But as I reached down to switch on a bedside lamp, I quickly realized we needed the lights for other reasons – a giant scorpion was centimeters away from my hand! I remained surprisingly calm while requesting assistance from one of the guys (“Um… I need a male down here… help please?”), but did not have the presence of mind to snap a picture 🙂 Somehow I still managed to sleep at night – although not in the scorpion room.
The next day, we went island-hopping, first to Murano and then to Burano. In the late 13th century, all Venetian glassmakers were forced to move to the island of Murano, just 1.5 kilometers from Venice, due to fears that a fire from the glassmaking process would destroy the city. As it was a Sunday, most of the glass factories were closed, but there were plenty of shops full of Murano glass chandeliers, lanterns, jewelry, tableware, and decorative objects. One very popular decorative object? Glass scorpions.
Burano is primarily known for two things – its lace and its brightly painted houses. The island is covered with shops selling lace-covered everything. Clothing, tablecloths, napkins, parasols… and my favorite sight, toilet paper holders. Many shops have an elderly woman sitting somewhere obvious and knitting lace to prove that theirs is authentic and not machine-made or imported. Lace isn’t really my style, but even I was tempted by some gorgeous skirts. I asked a shop owner about a particular skirt – it was hand-knitted over the course of 20 days! The price tag definitely matched the labor, though, so my only Burano purchase was a bag of colorful meringue puffs. YUM.
While we were there, the Burano pupparino regatta was taking place. I have no idea what a pupparino is – it vaguely looks like a skinny gondola – but we stayed a bit to watch the start of the races.
We didn’t stick around to see who won, but I imagine it was not the guys in white based on their warm-up performance.
In the late afternoon, we headed back to Venice. The vaporetto from Burano took us to a different stop than we had been using, so we wandered the neighborhood.
Along the way, we debated gondola rides. We had agreed earlier that despite being ridiculously touristy, we (especially Jenny and I) wanted to do it. We wanted to maximize photo-opportunities and weather, so we weren’t sure whether we should hold off until the next day, as sunset was approaching and it might become too dark for a photo. A nearby gondolier overheard and told us that if we took his gondola for a spin now, we’d pay the daytime price and not the evening price (€20 more). Sold.
I absolutely loved our gondola ride. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also a way of actually escaping the masses of tourists, as your gondolier generally guides you through a few of the more peaceful canals before heading to the Grand Canal. You see angles of the buildings and parts of the city that you can’t see from the sidewalks. And you get to hear hilarious stories, if you’re lucky! As we floated down the Grand Canal, our gondolier pointed out some buildings where various films took place. One was a site from the movie The Tourist, with Johnny Depp, and apparently there was an in-person tourist who was so thrilled to see Johnny that she started flashing him from the banks of the canal. A vaporetto driver was so distracted by the breasts that he crashed right into a dock! Now that’s the kind of story you don’t get in your guidebooks.
On our last day, we finally braved the line for St. Mark’s Cathedral. It was well-worth it, as the interior is completely covered with glittering mosaics. Pictures technically are forbidden, but 95% of the visitors were blatantly disobeying, with nearby guards unflinching, so I surreptitiously snuck a few.
Richie and Steven split off to go take pictures around the city, as the haze and clouds that had marred earlier photo attempts was finally lifting. Jen and I decided to go to the Doge’s Palace instead. Our trusty Rick Steves book mentions that if the line to buy tickets for the Doge’s Palace is long, you should pop into the Museo Correr to buy a ticket, as it’s a combination ticket and the line is much shorter there. Rick should say non-existent instead, because we walked right up to the cashier to purchase our tickets. We didn’t want to walk straight out of the museum, since we had sort of paid for it, so we visited a few of the staterooms that were used by Franz Josef and Sissi when they stayed in Venice. As expected, they were ornate.
We bypassed the line at the Doge’s Palace and began our self-guided tour. The palace is interesting, and it’s well-done with lots of English language information on panels as you enter each room, but after awhile everything begins to look a bit similar. Neither Jen nor I are big on reading long paragraphs of information, so we mostly glanced into each room and kept moving. We were able to see the Doge’s apartments, with the rooms where the senate and councils met, as well as the interior of the Bridge of Sighs and the prisons.
We reunited with the guys for a late lunch (I highly recommend Rosso Pomodoro – the best pizza we had the entire trip!) and hunted down our last few souvenirs – one more mask for me, and a Murano lantern for Jen and Steven.
I went back to one of the mask shops I was debating earlier and finally made a decision! La Bottega dei Mascareri is a tiny shop, packed to the brim with masks of all kinds. I was debating between a more traditional black-and-white painted mask and the gold, but the man who makes the masks said the gold was more “me”. And he was right 🙂 Their masks have been used in several plays and productions, including the movie Eyes Wide Shut!
After a successful round of shopping, we headed back towards the apartment. On the way, we stopped in the St. Zacharias church, which reputedly holds the remains of St. Zacharias (John the Baptist’s father) in its crypts. It’s not really wise to have crypts in Venice, unfortunately – they become quite waterlogged.
We returned back to the apartment for one last use of our rooftop terrace. We had just enough time to open our wine and take this picture before we had to bring everything inside for a massive hailstorm.
It’s unbelievable that the weather turned from sunny and almost cloudless into a 3-hour hailstorm, but such is life in Venice. Luckily we had plenty of prosciutto, cheese, olives and crackers to substitute as dinner, because we were not heading out into that mess. We spent the rest of the evening hail-proofing the apartment, snacking, and reading. The sound of the hail against the roof’s tiles was almost soothing!
The next morning, we boarded a waterbus to take us to the airport and parted ways with Jenny and Steven. Sniff. It was so good to see them, and I’m thrilled that we finally checked Venice off my travel list! It was well worth the wait.