Checking out of our hotel, the Arcoveggio, was easy. They were the only ones who actually took the credit card from Booking.com to cover the room (we still had to fork over the room fee, which I paid in cash but probably could have put on the card) and our walk to to the train station took no time at all. The ride itself was beautiful, with mountains in the distance and a long bridge leading to the Venice train station. Upon entering the city, we chose to walk, rather than take a water bus so we could really get the lay of the (is)land.
See, Venice, as you know, Venice is a city in Northern Italy made up of a 117 small islands joined together by bridges and waterways. There are no cars in the city since everything is done by water. This means if you want to get around, a water bus or water taxi is the way to go. Or you walk.
The city itself isn’t very big and can easily be crossed on foot in a couple of hours. Of course, when you don’t know where you’re going and there are thousands of tourists, it takes a bit longer and gets a bit frustrating. As we would learn later, even though it’s not very large, things are always much further than they seem. Our first of two planned days, though, found us walking along the Grand Canal, the primary waterway which bisected the city in a huge, sweeping “S” pattern. From where we came in, we wanted to get almost exactly opposite, to the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square).
Of course, before you get there, you hit the Rialto Bridge, the oldest bridge spanning the canal. Like the Ponte Vecchio, the Rialto now houses a number of high end shops and even more tourists pushing against each other for the perfect shot of the Canal and the amazingly photogenic city. Naturally, we crossed the bridge before realizing that since the canal double back on itself, we were actually on the side of the canal we needed to be on so we had to cross back before we could make our waty to our destination Piazza.
This is the central square of the city, home of several of the major sights, including the Doge’s Palace, the Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower) and St Mark’s Basilica, which became our first stop. Like a number of the great churches, the basic entrance is free, but a trip too the interior museum, which included passageway to the upper balcony, had an entrance fee. We paid it and got an up close look at the stunning mosaic work the Basilica is known for. From a distance it looks like normal gold leaf paintings, but when you can actually examine it, you see it’s made of thousands of small, cut tile. The amount of work involved is staggering. It’s like a million piece jigsaw puzzle with no box cover for reference. We also went outside for a view of the Piazza and the various columns from a nice height. Rasa stayed away from the edge, but again enjoyed the amazing view.
Leaving the Basilica and heading next door to the Doge’s Palace is an easy walk. The city, though, understanding what the big draws are, has instituted a new plan whereby you can no longer just get a ticket for the Palace. Instead, you get a joint ticket with entrances tho several of the museums in an attempt to encourage visitors to see more. As far as we were concerned, we bought our tickets and if we had time, we’d check out the rest, but it wasn’t high on the priority list.
The Doge’s Palace, though, is an amazing place. The entire square at one time housed and served as offices for the members of royalty and various office holders, the Doge being the highest ranking. Except he wasn’t really. He had no actual power beyond a diplomatic role. In fact, the political history of Venice is incredibly convoluted and full of missteps and back tracks. It wasn’t even part of Italy until fairly recently, being a sovereign state (and quite a rich and powerful one at that). The Palace itself is home to one of the largest open rooms in any palace in Europe as well as fantastic original art and the “shield room” is heaven for anyone who enjoys maps and globes. There’s also the Bridge of Sighs (not to be confused with the Bridge of Size) where prisoners were taken on their way to their cells and given a last look at freedom.
By the time we left the palace, our bellies were grumbling (well, mine was. Rasa doesn’t actually eat) so we grabbed a bit on the go and finally made our way to the Tourist Information office. Honestly, they were the least helpful, least friendly tour office we’d encountered so far this trip. They just seemed fed up with tourists, which is fair enough — unless that’s your job! What we did see when we were there was a special for gondola rides.
The gondola is a definite Venetian thing. We actually discovered the next day the gondola industry is a rather controversial thing in Venice these days, being controlled with an iron fist by the same families who have had the concession for decades. One cannot simple become a gondolier without being a member of a family involved. This has led to a number of protests and unrest among the Venetian populace. The gondola rides themselves are well regulated and prices are standardized at €80 for a 40 minute ride, no matter how many people (up to 6) are in the boat. The tour office was offering a better individual price (which also made more money, ultimately, for the gondolier) so we jumped at it, wanting to take a Gondola ride. The single daily departure time wasn’t too distant, so we walked around, took some pictures and met up at the departure point when we were supposed to.
The ride was a blast, starting off on the Grand Canal and moving quickly into the smaller side canals of the city. The gondoliers are all first rate, able to steer their crafts with a precision so tight the almost feel like they’re on a track. On our boat was a nice young Australian couple on school holiday and a French couple (who only spoke French so we found out nothing about them). Coming off the boat we said goodbye to our tour mates (they were continuing on to a city walk as part of a joint tour – which was never even offered to us and the cost to upgrade was the same as the individual tours so we said no, opting for a free walking tour the next day).
It was getting a bit late in the day but we decided to check out the Campanile di San Marco (the Bell Tower of the Basilica). There was an observation deck up top and while we were tired, the view looked like it would be great. Rasa wasn’t sure about climbing all those stairs, so I went to find out how many their actually were… and was told there were no stairs, it was accessible by elevator only! We were sold and up we went, with Rasa complaining about how she SO wanted to climb. We weren’t disappointed by the view, either. You could see most of the islands from there, and the photo opportunities were perfect. It did get a bit crowded though so we didn’t stay too long, opting instead to come back down and take in the street level sights as we made ourway back towards the train station. Our hotel was about 25 minutes away, in Padua (less expensive than staying in Venice proper) so eventually that’s where we were going.
On the way, I had to use the facilities. The public ones were charging €1.50 which I thought was outrageous so we wandered until we found a nice little cafe. I figured it was better to have a coffee, sit and relax for a bit and use theirs than pay for a public toilet. Honestly, I don’t get paying for it when it’s in such disrepair. Just makes no sense to me. Furthermore, the public toilets all close at 7:30 at night so if you’re out past that, the canals themselves become repositories. And this is only a small part of the sewage problem the city faces (and why it stinks in the heat of the summer – and even somewhat in the cool of January).
As we walked, we got lost, figuring we could always get back to where we needed to be – we were on a small island after all. It was impossible to get too lost. Where we ended up though was a nice, non-touristy residential neighborhood. We eventually hit the edge of the city, albeit on the opposite side of where we needed to be. After some confusion when asking for directions, we managed to get back on track and found a train to Padua.
The hotel there was again close to the station. Our room was pleasant and the shared bathroom, this time, was upstairs at the end of the hall. Not ideal but wasn’t too bad. The proprietor was very friendly (again asking for cash) and tried to tell us there was a restaurant nearby for dinner. We put our stuff in our room, freshened up briefly and headed out to find where he was talking about. We couldn’t and ended up with a fast food meal before retiring for the night.
Back in the room, though, we received an interesting introduction. A friend of a friend was also traveling around Europe and would also be in Venice the next day. We made plans to meet up at noon then set our alarm for another early adventure.