Venice was like a mix of street fair and boat show- especially along the grand canal near the Rialto bridge, where we stayed at an airbnb. Boats of every size moved along the water and provided a number of services- trash, delivery, transportation. Restaurants had tables set up on the sidewalk, with fresh seafood laid out on ice or in tanks next to the building, and a narrow space for pedestrians to pass between the building and their seating areas. Google regularly failed us as we tried to navigate the slender alleys. Occasionally it would lead us to a dead end against a canal, insisting that if we swam across the polluted water to reach the road on the other side, we would get to our destination (a big no-no in Venice). It was hard to be mad, even when you were lost. Each wrong turn led to a new discovery; A shop selling wild costumes and masks, doors hovering over the canal, a hidden and secret church that was both an art gallery and a place of worship.
Grocery Shopping in Venice
Grocery shopping in Venice was pretty similar to Rome, except the shop had tiny aisles. Claustrophobia demanded that we spend way less time there than we did in the Roman grocery store. They once again had the packaged cornetti alla chocolate, individually packed and seriously addicting (I bought 4 packages while we were there!). The best part was that they had gnocci, frozen and easy to cook! My joy was quickly diminished by the checkout process. A woman with a heavy British accent obviously did not understand Italy’s system of “queuing”. Everyone was in the usual mass to get to the counter, although it the closest to being a line that I saw so far in Italy, and told my husband “You need to go to the back of the line”. Considering she had just stepped to the side of the mob, which we had just waited in, Joel just rolled his eyes. Her husband (who was a good foot shorter than mine) just mouthed “don’t worry about it”. Welcome to Italy, random British lady. We ran into another snafu when we tried to buy a tomato- we were good kids and used gloves to pick it up, but did not realize that it had to be weighed and labeled before we went to the payment counter. The cashier was very obviously annoyed. Another cultural difference to be hurdled!
Venice at its most magical
Venice was at its best at night. The first night we stayed, we carted around a few beers and wandered up and down the grand canal. It was not nearly as crowded. Locals would gather in the piazzas, set up tables and chairs, and play games or eat. The gondolas and water taxis seemed to float on pure light. We just walked until we were tired, and then used the GPS to find our way back to the airbnb. On one of our flights, I watched a documentary about Venice. The documentary claimed that during the day, tourists outnumber locals, as the majority of them come in on cruise ships for a few hours and then leave. Apparently this is damaging the local economy, so if you’re interested in visiting Venice, they recommend staying overnight. I would recommend it just because it stunningly beautiful.
Our first official day in Venice was spent seeing the major sites on the main island. Piazza San Marco, the basilica, and the Doge’s Palace were overrun with tourists. We waited in line to see the Basilica, which moved quickly despite snaking across the square. Once we had made it through the line, I realized that I was wearing shorts- a problem when entering churches in Europe. They charged me 1 euro for a square, paper kerchief that I had to wear around my waist. My husband, who was also wearing shorts, did not have to purchase the kerchief. I was so annoyed with the double standard. While the churches are absolutely beautiful and worth seeing throughout Europe, I am not a fan of the sexist dress code requirements. I also could have avoided this by purchasing a scarf or bringing my pasmina with me (I left it at home), but what makes my knees less appropriate than my husbands? We were herded through the main sanctuary like cattle, and every sight off the main area was an additional cost. After our experience here, I was done with churches for a while. We skipped the Doge’s Palace, which had a 20 euro entrance fee. By this point in our trip, I was coming to the realization that I didn’t need to see every big tourist site just to check it off some list. I was far happier in the places that brought me personal joy, that weren’t expensive or crowded. This was our first time traveling overseas, and I started to rethink how I was planning my vacations. Rather than focusing on the “sights”, I decided to start planning my vacations around spots that are beautiful or relate to my interests. In Rome, I insisted on seeing the Colosseum and the Forum, but the main tourist sights could be frustrating, hot, and expensive to navigate (so many people, so many vendors). They weren’t at all giving me the experiences that I was hoping for while I was in Europe for the first time.
Places that brought me personal joy
Bookstores, graveyards, art, learning and nature are all things that bring me joy. While traveling through Italy and France, I found that these things were what I enjoyed the most. The best parts of Venice were:
The Libreria Acqua Alta
The name translates to “the bookstore of high water”. Venice regularly floods in the fall, winter, and spring, due a number of circumstances occurring at the same time (source). The bookstore protects their books from this by putting their books in bathtubs, gondolas, and other waterproof bins. There were two exits into the canal- one a staircase created out of books, and another that was a set of double doors that opened out onto the water. Everything about this bookstore brought me joy- from the piles of books on every available space, to the creative storage methods, to the random chandelier. Despite the fact that all the books were in Italian, I was still tempted to buy one, just to say I got it there (and who knows, maybe I’ll learn some Italian..). I did not really have enough space in my luggage for a lot of souvenirs though, so I decided against it.
The Island of Lido
The beach island of Venice was so fun and gorgeous. This island was different than any of the other islands- it had streets, rather than canals. The beach was free, although if you were willing to spend the money, there were a lot of fun things to take advantage of. We wandered the beach for a little with a beer in hand, purchased cheaply at a Tabacchi off the main drag. There were some gorgeous little gazebos that you could rent out (50 euros for 2 for the whole day), footbaths, and a number of bars and restaurants. We had a pizza and a couple of drinks at the Blue Moon Restaurant on the beach. Everything was good except the Sangria, which had olives in it. I speculated that Italians consider it a fruit, not a vegetable like we do in the States.
Google again failed us as we tried to find this, and we again had to rely on the locals to give us directions. The multi arch stairway is so impressive to see in person, and the little garden underneath it is like a little reprieve from the unrelenting brick buildings of Venice. 7 euros to climb it was a little steep for us (pun intended), but it was lovely to look at. Bolvolo translates to “snail” in Italian, which is very fitting. Photos of the city from the top look beautiful, so if it fits in your budget to climb it, I would argue that you should.
San Michele Island- The Graveyard Island
The graveyards of Italy and France were the highlights of my trip. Some people might find that creepy, but I worked on restoring graveyards for a program in middle school, and I think they are just fascinating. Italians generally include an image of the deceased on the graves. Usually a ceramic plate with their image printed on it, but there were also statues, busts or photos protected beneath sealed glass. Many of the graves were actually mausoleums with a place for the living to kneel and pray, with decorative ironwork doors.
Murano is the historical glass blowing island of Venice. It’s very similar to the main island- canals serve as the key form of transport. Most of the shops sell art glass in fantastic colors and shapes- some of my favorite shops featured chandeliers that looked like they popped out of a Dr. Suess book. The main piazza contained a huge blue glass sculpture exploding from the concrete. It was a struggle to find a glass blowing demonstration- we arrived during Italian lunch time, which usually occurs between 1-5pm. Many restaurants stay closed until 7! We did end up getting to see one demonstration, and had a chance to explore a few shops, but we didn’t stay on the island for long. The art was everywhere and absolutely gorgeous.