Travel Diaries: Woes of Venice

What comes to mind when you think of Venice?

If you’re anything like me, you picture gorgeous gondolas all decked up, floating in romantic water canals. You probably imagine picturesque bridges spanning the canals, with quirky cobbled streets, narrow little alleyways and breathtaking views at the Piazza San Marco. The Venice in your mind is probably warm and sunlit, scented with the mouthwatering aroma of pizza. You imagine green-blue waters, creamy white bridges topped by a bright blue sky. Such a serene picture …

Now, blot out the sun. Add in an everlasting, uniformly dense fog, decreasing visibility to maybe 5 feet. Paint the skies a stormy grey. Add some blustering winds which make the gondolas on the dock creak ominously on grey-black waves, straining to escape from their restraints, as if they were wild animals pulling on their leashes to skewer unsuspecting souls with their pointy spear-like ends. Oh, and turn down the temperature to about zero degrees Celsius. This is the Venice I walked into.

My week-long Euro trip had just kicked off with a bright cheerful day in Lisbon. Venice was the second stop, and one I’d been eagerly looking forward to. But the moment I got off at the airplane, I looked around in dismay. Venice was glum and broody, bordering on creepy, and just plain inconvenient. After getting off the water taxi with three heavy bags each, and facing a supposedly short walk to our hostel, Swetha and I rapidly discovered that the beautiful cobbled streets we had so admired were rather hard to roll our strolley bags on. Instead of moving smoothly, the bags encountered renewed resistance at each ‘cobble’, leading to an annoying thunk! thunk! thunk! every second, sounding incredibly loud in the deserted streets. There were no people around, the idea of cabs was laughable, and while I was sweating with exertion inside my winter coat, my poor bare hands were getting increasingly chapped and numb from the icy cold. Of course, the cobbled streets turned out to be the easier part of the journey – because that is when I faced the bane of my entire trip: the bridges.

You know how bridges are supposed to be? Smooth inclined ramps. Not steps. It’s a bridge, what if you want to roll something along it? How do you use wheelchairs on it, and in this case, heavy strolley bags?

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A quick illustration of Venetian bridges.

In this case, I had to physically pull each bag in turn, walking backwards on the steps, and yanking the bag up, step by step – using both hands and all of my not-so-formidable strength – there was no way I could carry bags in the one-handed conventional way (To put my task in perspective, I had major difficulties in just pulling this bag off the conveyor belt at the airport. This is the problem with travelling to India – you can never travel light!). So it took me a good twenty minutes to drag my bags across each bridge, followed by a few more minutes trying to catch my breath and get back some feeling in my numb fingers, followed by…yup, thunking my bags across cobbled streets again. So glamorous, I tell you! Of course I hadn’t packed my gloves in any accessible compartment of my bags – so to add to the ridiculous sight of bumping my bag across the annoying staircase of a bridge, I was now also sporting orange-and-white ankle socks on my hands to prevent frostbite. It should be noted that these are the most respectable socks in my colorful arsenal.

After our 15-minute walk to the hostel (as predicted by Google while connected to the airport WiFi) morphed into a painfully long stretch of two hours, we were already behind schedule. We dropped off our bags with infinite relief, washed up and left to go exploring, since it was almost time for the sun to set and the day to get darker still. We headed out in the icy cold, armed with nothing but a giant paper map – only to promptly get lost in the eerie fog. It’s not easy to navigate when the streets aren’t labelled, the alleys are about 4 feet across, forcing you to walk single file only, and visibility is minuscule. Adding to the surreal nature of this walk was the fact that there were no people in eyesight or earshot. On occasion, a ray of light would cut through the fog – lighting from tiny shops lining the alleys. Normally I’d be thankful for any form of brightness, but all that these lights illuminated were storefronts with racks and racks of grotesque plague masks put on display.

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I didn’t actually have the guts to take pictures of these masks – this is an image I found on Google.

NOT HELPFUL.

We eventually found the closest pier, and got tickets to board the water taxi. I was exceptionally relieved to see other people, as this made the place feel less of a surreal ghost town. The water ride was still rather unnerving though – somehow people were really quiet, and all you could see was the glow of distant lights cutting through the fog, and the ominous creaking of gondolas parked along the waterfront which was audible even over the thrum of the water taxi. Black waves were lapping against the water taxi, I was still shivering, and my phone wasn’t working because of my rash choice to do this whole trip ‘old school’, meaning no phone signal or mobile data – desperately missing civilization by now. This is normally that part of the horror movie when I’m yelling at the stupid protagonist to get out of there NOW!

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This is approximately when I realized I preferred my adventures in book format only.

And finally, we reached the famous Piazza San Marco. I’d heard a lot about this place – how Napoleon supposedly called it “the drawing room of Europe”, the glorious Doge’s Palace full of paintings on the ceilings, the giant courtyard outside, which is known to flood every now and then (probably not very fun to wade in, but so cool to Instagram!). I’d seen photos of the Campanile, and read about how it collapsed and had to be rebuilt in 1902. And the Bridge of Sighs! This was THE place to be.

And lo and behold! The Piazza I saw resembled some sort of sepulchral ghostly land. Like the grey area between life and death – a perfect location for a seance! This only served to increase my shivering, although I adamantly blamed it on the cold. This was absolutely surreal, how did I end up here? Why wasn’t I home in bed instead? I looked around in vain for the Campanile – it was supposed to be a significantly large tower at one end of the courtyard, but was nowhere to be seen. Swetha pointed out one part of the sky  which seemed blacker than the rest, so we assumed there was a man-made structure high up there blocking out the light, and so walked resolutely in that direction. We bumped into the low railing around the Campanile before we looked up and saw a dark structure looming above us – ah, so there it was! By this point we were laughing helplessly – this day was really not going as planned.

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Piazza San Marco. Not quite what I was expecting.

After getting lost a bunch of times on the way back, we finally managed to get back to the hostel, only to find that their heating was minimal. So I pretty much had to climb into bed wearing all my winter gear, and curl up into whatever it was that passed for a blanket. Venice was NOT fun. I should have just stayed in Lisbon …

Much to my relief, day 2 turned out to be significantly less foggy. It also helped that by now I knew what to expect, and was better prepared for it, both mentally and with my gloves finally replacing the orange-and-white socks. Being able to see because of the daylight definitely raised my spirits. The narrow alleyways, which had unnerved me so the night before, now seemed delightfully quaint.

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Where the streets have no (or barely legible) names!

After having a lovely breakfast with deliciously viscous hot chocolate, Swetha and I decided to return to the Piazza again for a do-over. This time it was a lot easier to navigate our way to the pier, the water looked more green-grey than grey, and we had no luggage to carry. And yes, the courtyard looked so much better in the daylight!

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Piazza San Marco, Take 2.

We wandered around the Doge’s palace, admiring the architecture outside, and all the gorgeous paintings inside. There were panels and panels of paintings, stretched out across the walls in hall after hall, by the likes of Titian, Bellini, and Carpaccio. Intricate paintings across the ceilings, some painted figures life-like enough to be mistaken for statues.

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This particular painting inspired a new game for Swetha and I : Painting or Statue? We were wrong more often than we’d like.

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Tintoretto’s Paradise covering the entire wall in the Hall of the Great Council. It is one of the world’s largest oil paintings!

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A twenty-four-hour clock!

After checking out the opulence of the Palace, we then proceeded towards the other extreme – the prisons. We walked through dark claustrophobic cells, through the famous Bridge of Sighs. This beautiful arch bridge connects the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace to the prisons. It was named by Lord Byron, for the sighs of prisoners who would get their final glimpse of Venice through the stone grills of the enclosed bridge.

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The Bridge of Sighs from outside. So beautiful yet so grim at the same time!

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The (last?) glimpse of Venice from inside the Bridge of Sighs. Glad I didn’t commit any crimes here!

The one thing I made a point to experience in every city during my Euro trip was to climb to a vantage point of the city to look out at the view. I managed to do that in Venice on the second day when I could finally see the Campanile in Piazza San Marco and climb all the way to the bell at the top.

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Campanile di San Marco. Galileo supposedly demonstrated his telescope to the Doge of Venice here in 1609!

Here are multiple views of Venice from upon the Campanile. It’s pretty imposing, even in the (relatively cleared-up) fog.

Swetha and I ended up having a lovely dinner by the Rialto bridge, with outdoor seating, a heater right above us so we wouldn’t freeze, and a view of the pretty lights along the Grand Canal. This authentic Italian meal warmed me up to Venice like nothing else. The jarful of tiramisu at the end was pretty much heaven in a jar. Relaxed and happy – by this point I almost understood why Venice is hyped up so much.

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Mmmmm! 🙂 Tiramisu is probably the ONLY non-chocolate-based dessert I like.

 

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The view of the Grand Canal from the Rialto bridge! We had dinner under the red-topped canopy on the lower right.

The next morning, we packed up all our luggage, and headed over to the train station to go to Florence. By this point we had mapped out the path with the least number of bridges for luggage-dragging (four bridges), the amount of time it took to lug our bags across each bridge (ten minutes), which pier to get the water taxi from, which pier to get off at closest to the train station – so it was a very coordinated and well-executed journey. While the first day in Venice had us stumped, by the end we’d managed to hack it! We got to the station in good time, and feasted on authentic gelato from Venchi, and I was grinning from ear to ear. Venice wasn’t so bad after all!

So what’s the conclusion – would I recommend Venice to anyone? I definitely had a pretty bad first day, but I do believe that judging Venice in the winter fog is tantamount to judging NYC by Times Square at New Year’s Eve – which is plain stupid. So yes, you should definitely go to Venice – but go in the summer. Go when it’s warm, and the sun stays out past 4 p.m. Don’t carry more than a backpack. Go for a day trip and don’t stay overnight. And definitely eat all the food: the bruschetta, the pasta and dollops of tiramisu. Totally worth it!

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