A Beautiful Day in Venice

Buongiorno Venezia!

I was up early with the sound of delivery men rolling fresh dairy down the alley to the store around the corner from the hotel.  We had slept with the windows open, to take in the cool fresh night air, but failed to remember that with such small alleys in between so many tall narrow buildings, even the smallest of sounds will echo.  As visitors to a small city that relies so heavily on tourism, it is easy for tourists to forget that this city is your vacation, but it is someone else’s home.  Part of traveling involves understanding the pulse of each city.  In this one, being quiet while walking through alley ways is important, as is giving up your vaporetto seat to the elderly (which make up 2/3 of the city), and, if possible, making the slightest of efforts to speak Italian.  Even just “Buongiorno” and a small smile make all the difference.

In Italy breakfast isn’t nearly as abundant as it is in Germany.  Often the locals are content with an espresso or cappuccino and a coronetto (a less flaky version of the French croissant).  At Hotel Al Piave they had a variety of pastries and yogurt, bread with nutella, jam, meat or cheese, a collection of juices, and of course your coffee of choice, made to order.  If I were to think of the 3 best cappuccino’s I’ve had, they would all be in Italy – hard to beat Italian coffee.  Just taking a moment now to remember.  Mmmmm…..

Being this was my first visit to Venice, I felt less equipped to be able to help my students (or self) learn anything about the city.  The alleyways and canal’s have no real order or structure to them, and I didn’t want to get lost.  I learned quickly that navigating was less cumbersome than I anticipated (and getting lost is actually the fun part), but that still didn’t change the fact that I knew nothing about this city.  I knew it was beautiful.  I knew it was surrounded by water.  I knew it was sinking.  There ends my knowledge of Venice. So I sought out a guide to take us on a walking tour of the city, starting at our hotel, and ending at St. Mark’s.  Luisella (of SeeVenice) may be the sweetest human being I have ever met. And our group LOVED her.  From the moment we met up with her, she welcomed us as her family, with traditional Italian greetings of hugs and kisses.  She took us to the old hospital of the city, the home of Marco Polo, taught us about the cities university and arts history, helped us learn about the famous Venitian masks, taught us it’s history and important to Europe, showed us how Venice deals with flooding, took us over the Rialto bridge, and though the local fish market, past the Bridge of Sighs (named for the prisoners sighing on their way to death), and of course took us to St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco, in Italian) and through the gorgeous Byzantine St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica San Marco, in Italian).

Luisella also taught us about the world of gondoliering.  There are 405 licenses of gondolas allowed in the city of Venice.  To get a license, one must go through a rigorous training course, buy their own gondola (anywhere from €30,000 – 100,000, to be purchased from one of 4 factories in Italy that make them with special supplies and wood), and then of course, wait.  With the city limiting the number of licences, to get one you need to wait for someone to retire, or, die.  There are 50-60 people on venetian equivalent of a spares list, who can get called in if someone is sick, or away.  The licences do not come cheap.  You have to purchase a specific route.  To get a position and route through the grand canal, near the Rialto, or San Marco Square, you would pay about €200,000 for the licence.  A little less if you are off in the smaller canals or less prominent locations.  So though gondola rides are almost 100% for tourists, and though they don’t come cheap, the cost of investing in your future as a gondolier doesn’t come cheap either.  We didn’t take the students on a gondola ride, given the cost (and that gondola rides are considered one of the worlds more romantic forms of transportation, making it an unusual choice for a group of 15-18 year olds), but in the afternoon a third of our group took gondola rowing lessons as their choice activity, and learned how difficult it can be to master the art of gondoliering.  I wish I had pictures of their time to share (given that they were on the water, they left their cameras on dry land), but all I have are their stories, which all sound like this: “I didn’t realize how hard it is,” “wow, that really challenged my core,” and “wow, that is a seriously good work out.”  The gondolier group enjoyed their time on the water thoroughly.  I came across RowVenice through a recommendation online that said to save your money from the gondola ride and invest in gondola lessons – a way more family fun activity, and you get much more time on the water.  I have to say that the company, RowVenice, was amazing.  Professional, great communication, excellent instructors, and overall a joy to work with.  So something to consider if you make a visit to this fair city.

Our three hours with Luisella ended all too quickly.  When returning to Venice I would not hesitate to hire her again.  She is born and bread in this city, and knows every single corner.  I can only image how many more hidden treasures she would have to share with me on our second adventure.  At this point everyone needed some lunch before and afternoon of of choice activity.  As I already mentioned, one of the choices was gondola rowing lessons.  Ray took about a third of our group out on the water.  The other choice was a glass class on the island of Murano.

Getting to Murano should have been easier than it was.  The vaporetto system isn’t always easy to understand.  Boats going both directions will arrive at the same bus stop.  There is bus 4, but also 4.1 and 4.2, and I’m still not sure the difference between them sometimes.  The vaporettos take time to park, unload and reload, and boats don’t stop as easily as buses on land, so it’s rather time consuming.  And so even though we could see Murano, it still took us almost an hour to get on, get across, and talk to our appointment at Colleoni Glass Factory.  I really wanted to make reservations where the kids could blow their own glass.  That would have been ideal.  After Vanessa did glass blowing in Lincoln City I knew how magical it could be, and of course Murano is the most famous place in the world for glass-blowing.  However, it seemed there was very little in the way of interactive glass experiences (outside of demos) in Murano.  I came across Colleoni’s through a post on a Rick Steve’s forum, and there were a few pictures on a Facebook page, so I decided to give it a chance.  For a per person fee (which in my opinion, post class, is not worth it), we got a glass blowing demo (which are available for free everywhere) and the chance to make some christmas ornaments or bracelets.  This meant either stringing glass beads (already made) on a string or gluing coloured glass pieces in a pattern.  While waiting for the glue to dry, or the clasps to be added to the bracelet, you have 20-30 minutes to wander their shop for stuff to buy.  Items like pens and pendents from €10, up to €10,000 chandeliers, and everything in between.  The glass works inside are beautiful, and this system worked because almost everyone bought SOMETHING to take home.  After everyone was finished making their purchase they handed us out bracelets/ornaments, and we were free to go.  The entire visit there was 45-60 minutes, and while it was nice to do something hands on, it wasn’t something really unique to Murano itself (a jewelry making class at Michaels could have achieve the same effect of constructing a bracelet).  Don’t let this put you off of Murano though.  The glass art that is being done there is absolutely beautiful.  Wandering the island and browsing the galleries and shops is an absolute must.  Even watching the glass blowing demo where the artist took a ball of glass and in under 2 minutes turned it into a horse was very impressive.  But as with all travel experiences, use a discerning eye to distinguish the authentic from the tourist-traps.  And this was a tourist-trap.

After we finished at the factory out plan was to continue on to the island of Burano.  While it looks close on a map, Burano is actually a 30 minute vaporetto ride from Murano.  We decided to walk back to the bus stop down the main street, enjoying the views and wandering into a few shops.  However, when we got to the end we found out quickly that the bus stop at the end of the main canal, was not the one that would go to Burano.  But there was no bridge to get to the one we needed – it would be a walk all the way back up the main canal, around the corner and back down the other side – about a 20-25 minute walk.  15 if we powered it.  This would not get us to the next boat in time, which only run on the half hour.  So we thought we’d try to catch a smaller line over to that side, and then switch, but we were in the wrong line.  And then the bus we wanted didn’t come.  And then we had waited to long to do the walk.  Nothing was coming up as we wanted.  We looked at the close and realized that even if we did catch the right bus, then take the 30 minute ride out, we would have only 30 minutes there before having to catch the 45 minute ride back to Venice.  This was going to be a long amount of commuting for a few photos.  We decided to cut our loses and return to Venice.

So we finally caught a bus, and took it back across the canal, getting off at the first stop we visited once arriving back on the main island of Venice.  Of course, as our luck seemed to be, we couldn’t get the whole group (20 of us) on one bus. So half of the group got stuck waiting 15 minutes for the next one in order to make it back.  To our great fortune, there was a gelato shop right across from the bus stop.  The first bit of luck we caught this afternoon.  My group got their gelato and took up a step on the side of the canal, waiting for the other group to arrive and join us in the same ritual.  We then enjoyed a leisurely, google maps guided stroll back in the direction of the hotel.  What seemed like a very long distance on the map ended up being much shorter than I though.  And we stopped.  A LOT.  Pictures on docks, and bridges, and ledges – the light was warm and golden, just as the previous night, and everything looked magical.  In hindsight, our bus chaos may have been the best thing to happen to us.  While it was frustrating not getting to go to Burano as we wanted, it was also nice not to be rushed, and speed walking down the canals to catch bus, where we would inevitably have been stuck standing for 45 minutes as two Italian women fought at full volume while their sons defended them (yes, I saw this happen, on multiple occasions).  In lieu of bright coloured photographic buildings, I was treated to slow walks, with great people, and the kind of relaxing Venetian vibe that was easily the highlight of my day.

We ended up wandering into a square that was the same place we had started the day. A good portion of our group picked up maroon-coloured “University of Venice” sweatshirts – a common sight in European tourist shops (my school have students wandering the halls with many University of Amsterdam, Rome, Venice, Munich and Paris sweatshirts).  These un-official travel apparel have become a highlight for our team.  Strangely enough, one of the first things favourite souvenirs I ever owned was an authentic University of Amsterdam sweater, from the University itself (long before it became a tourist favourite), that I stole from my mother when I was 10.  I developed a fair number of holes, and then one day it just never came back from the wash.

Our last stop before dinner was at the Alta Aqua Libreria – the most amazing bookstore.  Old watered down books turned into walls and stair cases, and of course the clever “fire exit” sign, as the back door opens into a canal.  While I could have photographed this place forever, our group was tired, feet were sore, and dinner reservations were nearing.

And so, with heavy hearts we returned to the hotel, sad to say goodbye to this beautiful city.  Our one full day in Venice was a beautiful one, and has only left an aching in my heart to return.  I dream of days spent wandering the alley’s and drinking bellini’s along the canals.  Maybe even a gondola ride.  And of course photos.  118 islands. 416  bridges.  And I want to photograph every square inch.  And I will.  Next time.

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