Travel Diaries: Exploring Florence

After falling in love with Lisbon and being shocked by Venice, the next stop on my Euro trip with Swetha was Florence. By the time I left Venice, I was in exceptionally high spirits. We’d figured out how to navigate the cobbled Venetian streets and cross all the beastly bridges, we’d had delicious gelatos at the train station, and we were heading south – which had to be warmer than where we’d just left. We found rather luxurious window seats in the train, and as I pulled out my Kindle, sitting in a warm spotlight of sunlight and watching bright blue skies over bright blue waters – life was pretty great.

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Here is the next (long-overdue) chapter of my European adventure:

After falling in love with Lisbon and being shocked by Venice, the next stop on my Euro trip with Swetha was Florence. By the time I left Venice, I was in exceptionally high spirits. We’d figured out how to navigate the cobbled Venetian streets and cross all the beastly bridges, we’d had delicious gelatos at the train station, and we were heading south – which had to be warmer than where we’d just left. We found rather luxurious window seats in the train, and as I pulled out my Kindle, sitting in a warm spotlight of sunlight and watching bright blue skies over bright blue waters – life was pretty great.

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The view from my train seat!

 

When I walked out of the station, I was filled with a wonderful sense of self-confidence and assurance I had never felt in a new place before – this feeling of knowing a place before actually seeing it. It was both exciting and comfortable, without any apprehension or anxiety. Florence was bright and sunlit, there were wide paved streets, I’d already mapped out our 11-minute walk to the hostel, and this time Swetha and I would have an actual room all to ourselves, which we weren’t sharing with four or five other girls. Such luxury! Such excitement! Nothing could ever go wrong.

But of course, we spoke too soon. Three minutes into walking, the handle of Swetha’s much-battered bag broke off.  After bumping our bags up and down the bridges of Venice, this didn’t come as a complete surprise, but it did make our lives harder. Now we were in a new city, facing an additional challenge of repairing or replacing a strolley bag before we left for Rome. While we had two days to deal with that, the immediate problem was of mobility – it was hard enough carting around our many bags while they were all intact. Anyway, this had a straightforward solution – we just hailed a cab to take us to our hostel (unlike Venice, Florence had actual roads and cabs! Already an improvement). We leaned out of the windows and pointed out the sights, the markets, the street artists.

Within no time, the driver dropped us off at the address we had. This turned out to be two imposing doors in dark mahogany, which wouldn’t budge unless we were buzzed in. The guy renting out the apartment was nowhere to be seen, so we waited until some other tenant of the building let us in. Once inside the lobby, we were faced by four long flights of stairs. There was a rickety glass elevator, which we called and called, but wouldn’t come to the ground floor. There was no way our bags would make it up the stairs, and of course none of us had functional phones to call our landlord – all because we decided to go old-school, and didn’t get data packs, or any kind of international roaming. So much for Florence being problem-free.

Eventually hunger won out, so Swetha and I left our bags inside the deserted lobby, pulled the mahogany doors shut, and hurried into the little deli next door. While I ordered some pasta to go, Swetha sought help from the proprietor, who took pity on us and called up our landlord himself. Ultimately, our very first meal in the lovely city of Florence ended up being cold pasta on the stoop of our building – so we could eat, guard our bags, and keep look-out for our landlord, all at the same time!

Finally, finally, we got to check in, the landlord taught us how to operate the elevator (first climb up the stairs to the first floor, call the elevator there, ride it to the ground floor, and THEN put your bags in to take upstairs – how silly of us to assume otherwise!), and we were off.

Our first stop for the day was the church of  Santa Maria del Fiore. Being a close walk from our hostel, Swetha and I just strolled over to the cathedral complex in Piazza del Duomo. The facade of the cathedral looked beautiful, the bell tower stood tall and proud, but we rushed inside, to see the frescos painted on the famed octagonal dome.

 

At this point, Swetha and I had our first disagreement of the trip – she wanted to walk around the streets, and chat with the local artists to get a feel of the real Florence, while I wanted to go the touristy way, and climb all the 463 steps to the top of the Duomo and the viewing gallery outside, to get a panoramic view of the city just while the sun set.

So we agreed to split up, and meet in about 4 hours. Now this may not seem like a big deal, but at this point of time, this was very much out of my comfort zone. I’ve always claimed that I can either explore an unknown setting with at least one known person, or be all alone/with unknown people in a known setting. Wandering around a new city without the only person I knew sounded mighty uncomfortable, especially since we had no working phones to contact each other at any time.

But we did agree to meet up at a specific time, at a very specific location (this Christmas tree located exactly across the basilica entrance), and headed off on our own ways. And as I started climbing up the 463 steps to the top of the Duomo all by myself, I started feeling really good about it. It felt quite empowering  – the realization that I didn’t need company to explore a new city, I could actually just do it on my own.

The climb wasn’t as tiring as I’d expected. Even though the steps were narrow and poorly lit, the occasional glimpses of outdoors were enough to spur me on.

 

I struck up conversation with other people, tourists and locals alike. One particularly cute Italian guy seemed to find my India – New York – Italy backstory just as fascinating as I found his stories of Dante’s Inferno and the seven levels of hell. So instead of feeling lonely and intimidated, I ended up finding a companion who told me interesting tales, took photos of me (he owned a selfie stick, which I pretended not to judge), and took me out for authentic Italian caffè. That’s a pretty successful outing in my book. Plus, the view from the top of the dome was staggeringly beautiful – it was so worth the climb!

 

 

And after a few minutes, the whole sky above the Tuscan countryside turned a blazing golden. It literally felt like I was on top of the world.

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After climbing down from the dome, I wandered around on my own, went to the museum near by, and checked out some of the exhibits. I decided to do some shopping – sauntering in and out of shops, buying tiny Italian leather purses, calendars, bookmarks, and magnets. I walked into a store which had an entire Harry Potter display, and squealed with joy –  these kind of things make a new place feel instantly like home. Pottermania is quite universal – although I’d definitely expect it in a city originally called Firenze. 

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By the time I met up with Swetha, we both had lots of tales and photos to share. We had a nice dinner, washed down with a dollop of gelato, and then headed home. While it was pretty great to finally have a room to ourselves which we didn’t have to share with five others, we did realize (after much struggling) that we didn’t really know how to pull the main doors shut and lock them. So we finally settled for locking the inside door, barricading it with a chair and hoping for the best. Pro tip: if you aren’t springing for an expensive hotel, just reserve a hostel room you share with multiple people – don’t attempt to find a cheap room for just two people and expect much security!

The next morning, we headed straight for the museums: the Uffizi Gallery with its long corridors full of statues, and artwork famous enough that it looked incredibly familiar when I did stumble upon it, such as The Birth of Venus, and La Primavera, which I learnt meant ‘spring’, and wasn’t just a type of pasta sauce. Both of these paintings were large enough to take up a whole wall each.

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The Birth of Venus
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La Primavera

 

We then went over to the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David, which was as imposing and detailed as it’s made out to be. We also saw a display of the first ever versions of the piano, created by Bartolomeo Cristofori.

 

We ended the day on a serendipitous, magnificent note – street musicians! It was late in the evening, and we were walking around a plaza with incredibly detailed statues, lit-up fountains, the cheerful gurgling of water in the background, and the scent of warm pizza in the air. And in the middle of this casually beautiful scene: a handsome musician, playing plaintive tunes on his violin. Not the kind of music that makes you clamor around, bop your heads, and tap your feet with the beats – but the kind of mesmerizing music that creeps up on you, and fills up your soul with melancholia and pain, tinged with hope and the promise of love. The sort of music that swells up inside you, and clutches you, raw and true, so tightly in its grasp that your eyes well up with emotion hard to define, and you have to remind yourself to breathe. It was a moment out of time, out of space – a moment when all your barriers fall away, and the crowd is hypnotized and swaying to this music resonating deep inside, dropping their illusions of normalcy and sophisticated banter – we weren’t just a mix of tourists and locals individually dealing with our specific triumphs and losses – in the moment, we were all raw, real humans, unified by emotion. Our lives and issues may be different, as are the ways we cope, but we all recognize and respond to basic emotion.

 

Finally, after a lovely dinner which involved a baffling mix-up with our order (I swear we ordered something chocolate for dessert, but ended up with a single glazed pear), we headed back to the hostel. Since this was our last night in Florence, we finally had to figure out a solution to the broken bag problem. So despite being exhausted from all the sight-seeing, we headed off to various bag stores to ask about prices, and if they took cash or card. Of course they all needed cash, and that involved a detour to the foreign exchange counters, which were, of course, closed this late at night.

We finally decided to wake up early the next morning and tackle the problem before leaving to catch our train to Rome. This ended up being a whole series of unfortunate mishaps in itself – involving running back and forth in unexpected rain, forgetting to take passports to the foreign exchange, checking out the market right across the street for sturdy bags that weren’t expensive Italian leather, and trying to find a cab in the narrow alleys where our hostel was located – until finally managing to fashion a makeshift handle for Swetha’s handle-less bag using a strong belt. It wasn’t ideal, but it was enough for us to drag the bag all the way to the train station, just in time to catch the train to Rome.

Thus concluded the Florence chapter of my Europe adventure. I liked it a lot more than Venice – there was certainly the old-world charm and culture I was looking for, but it was interspersed with just enough modern conveniences to survive comfortably. I’m particularly fond of Florence because that’s the first place I realized how independent I could be – it was the first city I felt brave enough to tackle without a companion, without knowing the local language, without an internet connection. Florence was where I realized it’s fun to figure out everything on my own. And yes, in every city I’ve visited after Florence, I’ve made it a point to go off exploring all by myself. So thank you, Firenze, for that little bit of personal growth. I’ll see you soon!

Alone in a Foreign Land: Part Adventure, Part Challenge

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I have been living away from home for a long time now – it’s almost a decade since I moved out for the very first time, as a naive sheltered 17-year-old girl. Nearly five of those years have been spent in New York City. That’s half a world away from India, away from where I grew up, away from all the people I love the most. I have had to build my support system from the ground up, while also learning to navigate the streets, conduct research in a new lab, and understand the culture of a foreign city. It’s been quite the ride, and I have lived and experienced every moment to the fullest – the highs and the lows, the twists and turns, the victories and delights, and all the bumps and bruises. And while I have many, many thoughts on how my life has turned out based on all the choices I have made so far, it’s hard to sum up what this phase of my life has meant to me. What does living all alone in a foreign country entail? Is it the best of times, or the worst of times? Is it a glamorous adventure, or the toughest of challenges?

The best part of living abroad by yourself? Most definitely the independence. The freedom of living life on your own terms, and exploring the streets of a strange and exciting city. The sheer independence of not having anyone to care about what you wear, where you go, or what time you get back home. The ability to test your own limits and set your own curfews. The liberty to spend your money on whatever you deem necessary, be it Seamless deliveries at midnight, or a cute mermaid tail blanket just because you saw it and now cannot live without it.

Living abroad by yourself is when you can immerse yourself in a whole new culture. It’s fascinating to observe how fast people walk, the left-right escalator etiquette, the public transport system. And if you live in NYC, every now and then you’ll come across a new location which seems strangely familiar – before you realize, oh right, countless movies and TV shows have been shot here. Oh, these are the steps in Central Park where Blair and Chuck from Gossip Girl got hastily married. This is the Roosevelt Island tram which White Collar’s gorgeous Neal Caffrey climbed up to escape capture. You can scout out all the famous locations, but you can also hunt down tiny little bookstores, in alleyways you wouldn’t wander down in the dark, and find new hidden cafes with nondescript doors and wonderfully eclectic interiors. Everything is ready and waiting to be discovered – like being in a real-life choose-your-own-adventure book with multiple chapters and endings just waiting to be explored.

Living abroad on your own also leads to self-exploration. You end up surrounded by a completely new culture, and you get to decide if you want to hold on fast to your own culture, adopt the new one, or find your own unique blend of old and new – your own set of beliefs and rules, and use them to fine-tune your moral compass. Living abroad is the time when you can figure out who you truly are, far away from all the expectations and societal pressures – getting some distance is what allows you to recognize those, and realize how much you’ve unquestioningly internalized. You can now question what you’ve never questioned, behave in a way you’d never have imagined, figure out the person you truly are – underneath all the people-pleasing, expectations-fulfilling, rule-following persona you’ve developed over time naturally and unthinkingly because that’s just the way it was. Living abroad allows you to remove all those masks and uncover how unconscious your core beliefs and biases are. It helps you grow into an authentic, messy, real version of yourself – and forces self-discovery like nothing else. Living abroad is an exciting, thrilling, and fascinating experience – I highly recommend it!

 

What’s the worst part of living abroad by yourself? Once again, the independence. The anonymity of being all alone in the crowd, and not having anyone who cares about what you wear, where you go, and what time you get back. There’s nobody who would automatically check in on you. It’s surprisingly easy to become isolated. You’re all by yourself in a completely new place, and every step is a new challenge – from finding the nearest grocery store and navigating unfamiliar social situations, to filing for taxes, and getting your social security number. Coming home at the end of the day can feel dreary, because you’re welcomed only by your (most likely, unmade) bed, and perhaps a plant or two. There’s no warm food on the table, no warm companion to ask how your day was. There’s no automatic social interaction after coming home, unless you specifically make plans with friends. You’re completely by yourself, and while that sense of freedom is liberating, it can also get lonely.

Also, the whole process of figuring out who you really are and testing your limits and beliefs is not easy. It’s unnerving to question what you’ve always held true. The transition period while you’re coming to terms with loosening your grip on the old belief system, and building a new one? It’s uncomfortable. It’s disturbing, because all of a sudden, ideas are fluid instead of rigid – and if you can’t rely on what you’ve held onto for twenty-something years, what’s the guarantee that this new system will serve you? All the absolutes start dissolving into relatives, there is no perfect right or wrong anymore. While building your own system from the ground up is essential for personal growth and self-awareness, the process can be rather bewildering . Change is good, but change is also hard, and while adventures are really exciting, they are by nature quite terrifying as well.

 

Knowing what I know now, would I do it again? Would I head out on a whole new adventure, or would I prefer stability and familiarity? Will I spread out my wings and fly out to a whole new phase of my life, or will I hang up my boots, and say, enough flying, I’m done – I know who I am now, and am happy with it, so now, after having accumulated all that experience and knowledge – watch me put down my roots now?

I’ve thought about it long and hard, and my conclusion is: while the idea of safe familiarity is tempting, so very tempting at times – I am an adventurer at heart. I’m always looking for the next challenge, the next hurdle, the next battle. I am not the kind of person who would be happy to settle for just good enough – I always want to be better, do better, strive for more. That path isn’t always easy, but it’s the path I choose. It’s the path I want. The bumpy one, with the crazy ups and downs. Because while the lows can be devastating indeed, the highs are just so incredibly rewarding. The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory. So bring on the next adventure. And watch me fly!

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!