We took the train (first class holla) to Venice (Venezia). I was told that the city would probably be humid and smelly during the summer because of all the water canals. I was told it was touristy and not much more. The main thing to do is San Marco and gondola rides. But Venice is so much more.
Getting out of the train station is beautiful in and of itself, seeing the sparkling waters reflect light in front of a huge domed structure with grand columns.
However, we took the wrong vaporetto and it dropped us off on the southern part of the islands, when our hotel is closer to San Marco. We lugged our suitcases up the stairs of bridges for about two miles to the next stop and finally arrived in the packed San Marco square, where we had to further drag suitcases through the mobs of people because guess what it’s a festival this weekend.
It was quite the adventure, and I really can’t think of many worse places to drag suitcases than through a crowded square on a hot day with many stairs and bridges all around. It was seeming like Venice would be nothing more than gondola rides.
To introduce ourselves through the aggravating city, we took walk over the Accademia bridge. It was just as picturesque as I imaged (yes, I use that word a lot). I can’t believe the concrete islands just meet the water perfectly at all the manicured corners. Did the builders create the islands in the water, or did they create the water around the islands? It’s patterned and charming to look at. The gondola rides are indeed very touristy — sometimes there are traffic jams now as four try to cross under a bridge side-by-side all at once. Sheesh, globalization. The water here very polluted as well – we’ve seen floating watermelon and plastic bottles alike.
Walking over the bridges was still very cute, and the Accademia itself was enjoyable since it overlooks the Grand Canal and our vaporetto didn’t travel that route to take us to the hotel (but south of the southernmost island). It’s filled with dilapidated palaces lining the large waterway and tons of private boats zooming down. A few party boats passed with lei-donning people dancing and hollering. Must be the festival!
When it comes to the debate about Venice: Nightmare or Heaven, however, the top of the nightmare list would be our dinner the first night.
We preordered a set menu for $350 but we got the tourist menu or something because the main dishes were disappointing. Fried fish, chicken and vegetables, or a very dry beef medallion that looked like Salisbury steak from a school lunchroom. Ugh! The primi piatti were quite good, though. The lasagna I had was probably the best I’ve had – with soft homemade pasta in a ceramic dish surrounded by delicious cheese. The dessert, tiramisu was also good and very coffee-flavorful. But for $350 for four, it was so disappointing. Supposed to be the best in Venice, a very nice restaurant for a special treat, and was just average, worth 10 euro.
On the way back we passed through San Marco square lit up at night. There is some scaffolding on the building but otherwise it’s pretty pristine. It’s the biggest piazza so far; a group of musicians set the mood by playing in a small string orchestra.
For the festival, apparently there was a firework show over San Marco and we did know about it in advance but I was just too tired and was in no mood to sit in a square at midnight. I know, lame.
So far we weren’t very impressed with Venice, from getting lost to a disappointing special dinner.
This morning after a cold hotel breakfast, the hotel’s private boat took us from behind the hotel to Murano island at 9 a.m. The ride is more into the open sea instead of through canals so it was windy but a nice day.
We docked a glass factory and saw a private demonstration of a master create a vase and a horse figurine in under 10 minutes.
He only spoke Italian so we had a guide explaining the process. They use white powder and heat it up. Since it cools quickly, they work very fast. It was insane watching him blow on the glass and shape it and cut pieces off with one flick of the wrist. He was certainly an expert. He took a blob on molten glass and pulled out two front legs of the horse, curved a neck and then two bottom legs and the tail in a few seconds.
After the demo, we toured the showrooms full of glass tea sets and chandeliers (um if anyone wants to get me a wedding gift in 10 years… this is the place). They also had a more commercial store with little items like perfume bottles, jewelry, figurines, little candies.
For the next few hours we wandered up and down one canal in Murano pretty much. It was SO charming and beautiful. Murano is basically what tourists imagine Venice will be like, except the real Venice is overwhelmed with annoying tourists. Murano has the real charming experience of sitting by the canal, browsing small shops, feeling the sea breeze and smelling salty air.
Every store along our main canal sold glass, so we kept popping into every one of them to look for the best deals or our favorite colors. Eventually we decided to take the road less travelled and turned down a small alley path. No one was there and we were alone, walking along a paved street looking at the gates of houses nearby. Metal was rusting and some wood fences had shards of glass on top to ward away intruders. We saw a sign for a super market into a dark door, but we kept following signs up and up stairs and finally found a really cheap grocery store.
My sister and I went downstairs to buy some souvenirs at more glass shops, but my parents stayed and bought lunch – a whole chicken for 4,50 euro and some veggie chips and Kinder bars. Very cheap! We emerged from the back street onto the main canal (it connected over) and followed it up towards a huge blue glass sculpture display. Nearby was a little park where we enjoyed our lunch: greasy chicken fingers and all.
While my family finished up, I went for a stroll down a really empty street. It reminds me perfectly of a Old West set from a movie (okay maybe a little more mediterranean). But it’s white with some graffiti but boarded up houses that are exactly flat and all in a row. It’s a little colorful, but muted.
At the end of the street is a short wall and then the ocean. It’s so bright and sparkly. To the right I pass by a lighthouse and then right at its base, near the Farro vaporetto stop I finally found it: a Murano glass beach.
It’s a tiny patch of rocky beach about 5×5 with tons of pebbles, garbage and broken pieces of glass. As a beachcomber, this was so exciting to explore. Not all the pieces were done (far from it) but even collecting shards of undone glass in weird colors and shapes was joyous for me. My sister joined and we looked for weird melted pieces of glass and red, purple, and orange chunks or multicolored. Most of mine was uncooked as I said, but still a fun memory to keep in a bottle somewhere.
Murano ended up being one of my favorite places in Italy, along with Cinque Terre. Murano is the idealized version of Venice, complete with glass, canals, parks, ocean and quieter streets. Next time I’m staying on Murano and visiting Venice, instead of the other way around.
The rest of our afternoon was spent taking a vaporetto along the Grand Canal.
For dinner, we went to a restaurant my Italian friend Shira recommended. It’s called Trattoria Al Gazzettino and it more than made up for our disappointing dinner the night before. The owner was really friendly. They gave us wine and appetizers while we waited for a table. My dad had a special order to have tomato sauce added to the pasta with clams and when my dad asked, the owner said “Why did you come to this restaurant?” and my dad said “To be happy” and the owner laughed and said of course he can have what he wants. Although I disagree with special ordering while in Europe, it was nice of them to be accommodating. Trattoria Al Gazzettino has good seafood — I had a seafood risotto that was jam packed with clams and shrimp. A giant prawn sat on top. It was less cheesy and rich than risotto I’ve had before but I think that’s because it was seafood — the Italians said seafood and cheesy don’t go together. It had a sort of bar-like atmosphere with casual dining.
After our dinner, they even gave us free dessert (a fruit tart and some cookies with alcohol) and a goodbye gift of a bag of pasta. Such a win! Love it. It’s a maze to find but with GPS, you can make it to this family-friendly restaurant.
Verdict: despite a nightmarish first night, day 2 was heaven. Venice may be touristy, but you can find pockets that are truly glorious.
In retrospect, I think Venice was my favorite city (of the three legs Venice, Rome and Florence) that we visited. It feels weird to say (I’m almost embarrassed) because Rome is s historic and Florence is so celebratory and cultured. However, as a beach-lover, I found Venice to be extremely beautiful and relaxing. There isn’t a busy list of things to see; it’s a place to explore.