Carpe Diem: Eurotrip 2016

The Day Venice Kicked Our Asses

Venice was eventful if nothing else. I had been to Venice before, so this was one place where I kind of knew what to expect. Having been to the UK, the Netherlands, and Germany, I now realized that Italy is not one of my favorite European destinations. It’s hot, touristy, and you always have to be on your toes when it comes to scammers and pickpockets. However, we still managed to have some fun wandering Venice.

We started at the hotel for breakfast. I had a pastry and some salami, and as a treat, mixed some Nesquick in with my coffee. I’m pretty sure the Italians are onto something with that one. From the hotel we walked to the train station through a suburban Italian neighborhood. It was only 8:30 AM, yet the air was already dense and humid, not to mention hot. We were off to a good start.

We boarded the train and were immediately greeted by the beautiful aura of air conditioning. I would have been happy to stay on that train all day, it was so refreshing. Even the chairs were comfortable and we passed by lovely views. When we reached the train station, we switched modes, as well as the comfort level of transportation. We all crammed onto a mini ferryboat with another tour group, below deck, crammed shoulder to shoulder with the person next to you in a poorly ventilated space. The boat ride lasted for about 20 minutes but it felt like we had crossed the Atlantic on a prison boat from the 17th Century.

Once we arrived in Venice, I wanted to kiss the ground. Of course, our first activity once getting to the city was to go on a gondola ride. Back onto a boat we went! Now, if you have either read my other blogs or heard my prior gondola story, you know that my first gondola ride was a little traumatic. It had a bad combination of too many people in the boat, a 2 year old sticking his hands out of the boat, a grouchy gondolier, choppy water and general panic by the members of our boat. One thing I was looking forward to about my return to Venice was the redemption of the gondola ride. I crossed my fingers and prayed this time would be better. I hopped into the boat with Olivia, Madison, Steph, and the couple from Singapore, (whose names I forget but are lovely). We were off to a rough start on the Grand Canal, as the water was rather choppy and we were kind of nervous wrecks. Every time the boat would tip a little too far to one side, everyone gasped and had a mini panic attack. Once we got to the smaller canals it was actually quite peaceful. The town was quiet in the morning, and the water was calm. The only thing that could have made it better was if the water didn’t smell terribly. The romance of the gondola is kind of downplayed by the smell of sewage. Regardless, my gondola mulligan was a success, and I can say now that I’ve enjoyed a gondola ride in Venice.

We had about an hour to kill before our walking tour, so Madison, Steph, and I took a stroll around the Piazza San Marco, gelato in hand. I got a flavor called Venetian cream, which was like a sweet cream with chunks of what tasted like brownies. It was to die for, and it helped downplay the heat of the Italian sun if only for a moment.

After our stroll, it was time for the “Secrets of Venice” walking tour. We had little whisper units that allowed our tour guide to speak into a microphone and then we heard her through earpieces. That was pretty cool, although we oftentimes lost reception whenever she went around a corner. Overall we learned a couple of neat things along the tour. For example, how the Venetians stole the remains of Saint Mark from Egypt and then built the Basilica around his tomb. Also, how glass was invented in Venice and how it took forever for surrounding areas to replicate their methods. One of my favorite factoids was about how the Venetian mask came to existence because Carnival, the pre-Lent celebration, was often attended by important members of Venitian society, and they didn’t want to be seen with their mistresses in public, so they would hide their faces behind masks. Considering the fact that we were planning on having a masquerade dinner, I got a kick out of that fact.

After our walking tour, we attended a brief but fascinating demonstration of glass blowing. We watched a man pull a blob of molten glass out of a furnace and then using pliers, grips, and the air from his lungs, shaped it into a fancy glass vase. Then he chucked it back into the furnace and reached back in for another blob of glass. Using similar techniques with his pliers, he pulled and shaped the next blob into a glass horse figurine. I’d seen the glass all over town, but it was fascinating to watch him actually create it. Afterwards we had a look around the shop. A few people bought some glass jewelry. I already have some, so I didn’t buy any.

Following our jaunt around town, we had five free hours to romp around the city for dinner. Of all the cities to have extra time, Venice would have been my last choice! First of all, it’s hot. Walking around is difficult, because it’s so hot you just want to give up, fall over, and be roasted like a strip of bacon. Also, I’ve been there before, and it’s not a city that has a lot to do. If we’d had more time in Amsterdam or Munich I would have had so many options for extra sights or activities, but really the only activity in Venice worth doing is getting lost, or going inside the basilica (but nobody wanted to go in with me).

We chose to do a couple of things. First, we wanted to buy masks for our Venetian masquerade dinner. Olivia, Madison and I made our way down to some canal-side shops and each picked one. That was an activity that took five minutes. From there we wanted a bite to eat. We wandered through the alleyways until we stumbled across a little café that had smelled amazing when we walked by. We walked through the door and were again greeted by the tears of angels—I mean air conditioning. Our waiters were two charming Italian men who were totally giving us a hard time, but in a playful way. Asking us why we weren’t staying in Venice, that we should stay longer, live there forever, bring our whole tour group back to their restaurant. “There’s too many of them!” “No, no, how many?” “43.” “Oh. Okay well bring them back, we can fit them if they stand.” They were charming and nice. They also complimented my Italian, so that made me happy. The three of us split prosciutto-wrapped melon, a prosciutto and oregano pizza and a mozzarella, tomato, and arugula pizza, joined by a fine bottle of Prosecco. The Prosecco was pricey, but worth every drop. We sat there in the café for about two or three hours, eating and chatting and sipping our sparkling wine. If there’s a better way to experience Italy, you let me know.

We were getting sleepy after a big meal and two glasses of wine each, so we wanted to grab iced coffee on our way back to St. Mark’s square. We wandered the alleys a bit, searching for a café. Eventually we stumbled upon one and ordered two café lattes, iced. If you order regular coffee in Italy, they give you espresso. The employees there were funny, when we asked for iced coffee, one man hesitated and said, “Yeah, we can make that,” which made me think we were ordering off menu. We watched them make the drink, which involved pouring crushed ice, espresso, and milk into a blending canister (the ones you sometimes get milkshakes out of) and mix it all together. He handed us the drinks in paper cups and we were on our way. On our way out a different waiter told us “goodbye sexy ladies,” and we all laughed on our way out. The drinks themselves tasted like less sweet and more liquidy Frappuccinos. I wasn’t mad, it was like a caffeinated slushie.

We found our Contiki family back at St. Mark’s square but we still had an hour to kill before going to dinner. Considering we were a stone’s throw from the bell tower, we decided to go up it to kill our last bit of time. When we got to the top, I saw the most beautiful sight of Venice I’d seen before. If you go to Venice, you must go up the bell tower. I didn’t do it my first time in town, and it is absolutely gorgeous up there, with panoramic views of the city as well as the outlet to the sea. Simply gorgeous. We were taking some photos, and I was about to snap one of Olivia and Madison when we heard a deafening crash, the kind that causes the air to vibrate and your insides to quake. We all shrieked before realizing that, while in a bell tower, you are subject to the threat of the bells actually tolling. We watched them swing back and forth; creating those loud bangs at all different pitches. While incredibly loud, it was also a really amazing experience. How often do you get to feel the vibrations of near-ancient bells while they toll in the evening actually observing as they oscillate back and forth? It was cool! Do the bell tower if you go to Venice; it was definitely a highlight.

We gathered the family and trouped down the canal to the restaurant for dinner. We all put on our masks on our way. It was so funny how each of the masks showed off the personality of the wearer. Mine was stark white and sparkly, and matched the lace scarf I had purchased earlier. I kind of looked like a bird combining the two. At our table, there were six of us, Candice (from Canada, isn’t that cute?), Kelsey (my roomie), the wife of the Singaporean couple, Olivia, Madison and I. We settled in for the dinner, which included four courses of delicious things. First there was the antipasti, roasted vegetables, bruschetta, and fried calamari. Everything was fresh and flavorful. Next were the “starter dishes,” two types of pasta, a white pasta with cream sauce and bacon, and the infamous squid ink risotto. Matt made all of us try the risotto. Apparently people had always been put off by it, and had refused to try it, despite its delicious reputation. The reason: squid ink sauce is black. I’ll admit, it looked pretty gross sitting on the plate in front of me, but after trying it, I can say it was pretty darn delicious. The white pasta was tasty as well; the kind of al dente pasta that you can tell is handmade with love.

We also had two varieties of wine at the table, a white chardonnay and a red cabernet sauvignon. I steered clear of the red for a while, as I usually despise cabernet. Kelsey was the same way, but after seeing Candice drinking it, she decided to take a sip of hers to try it. She made a scrunched face afterwards. “That’s awful!” she said, “It tastes like ham! That’s ham water!” We had no idea what she was talking about. After finishing my white, I poured myself a glass of cabernet. I imitated the German men at the wine tasting: held it up to the light, sniffed the glass, swirled it, then took a sip. I smacked my lips a bit, and I could feel Kelsey’s gaze on me, waiting for the verdict. “It does NOT taste like ham!” She protested and we went back and forth on the issue. “That’s the hammiest beverage I’ve ever tasted.” Apparently the ham tastes different in Australia, because it doesn’t taste like that in America. I picked a piece of bacon out of my white pasta and held it up to her. “Look, ham…” We were all laughing.

While waiting for our main dishes, a saxophone player came out and played some tunes for us. He was very good. He kept attempting to get the couples on the trip dance with one another. He got a few of them to bite, but not all. He played a very sweet version of “All My Loving” that we sang along with, also “That’s Amore,” “Under the Rainbow,” and played us through the “Chicken Dance.” Fitting, that we did the chicken dance in Italy instead of Germany…

He collected his tips and left just in time for us to get our main courses. I got chicken cacciatore, which came with a side salad. The chicken was so juicy and sweet, and the salad was good, despite the fact that there was no dressing on it. After that was dessert, tiramisu. I preferred the gelato, but the tiramisu was palatable. I usually don’t like it, but it was okay here.

Next we trouped out of the restaurant to take a cheesy selfie in our masks. We were all standing outside the restaurant, chatting with the canals in the background. It was dusk and the streetlamps had just started to wake up. The sky was all shades of blue, pink, purple and orange. I heard a few shrieks among the crowd as we all stood there. I looked to see what they were looking at, and I realized that Dylan, one half of one of the Australian couples, had just proposed to his girlfriend Shannon along the bank of the canal. As they hugged and cried, the entire Contiki crew started cheering and shouting. “Whooo! Congratulations!” We stayed at bay for a little while and then all ran across the street to them, giving them a giant group hug and giving more congratulations. I was tearing up, and Olivia had full-on tears streaming from under her mask. We couldn’t decide who was more excited, Shannon, or Matt, whose mouth was wide open. “I’ve never witnessed a proposal before!!! This is the best!” Everyone was in a good mood after that.

We took our group photo with our masks with the canals behind us. Soon after, we were back on our ferryboat. This time we had the whole boat to ourselves, and the windows let in a current of air. It was a much more relaxing ride home. The train, however, was not air-conditioned this time. We sat, sweating, counting the minutes till we could get back to our room. We had been in the city for 13 hours, and the day was finally catching up to us. We eventually poured ourselves back into our hotel, tired, sweaty, and ready for bed. It had felt like we’d been to the end of the world and back.

I enjoyed my day in Venice. I wasn’t sure I would, considering I had been there before, and there wasn’t much new to do. But new highlights of the glass blower, a Venitian luncheon with Prosecco, feeling the bells stop my heart in the bell tower, and witnessing a romantic sunset proposal kept things fresh. I’m not sure I’ll return to Venice, so if that was my last day there, I think I ended my Venetian experiences on high notes. Grazi, Venizia. Ciao.

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