Tuesday, October 4th
19:52. In five minutes, our train will begin its long journey from Venice to Paris. We will, with any luck, be sleeping for most of the trip. We shall arrive in Paris at 9:16, and our hotel appears to be relatively close, although any walk feels long with 20 or 30 pounds on your back. Hopefully we will be well rested and ready for a full day of exploring, as the weather forecast suggests that our good weather is about to turn. The weather here in Venice seems to have been unseasonably warm, about 27 degrees compared to an average of 21. The forecast for Wednesday in Paris looks good, but Thursday is supposed to be about 16 and rainy. Which is exactly how I remember Paris. We are unsure of our route, but at 13 hours this is a very efficient way to travel such a long distance. And reasonably cheap, too. We purchased the tickets well in advance, for 45 Euros apiece.
Venice, we are all agreed, was excellent. Despite the hordes of tourists milling about aimlessly, everywhere in Venice was a joy to look at and wander about. We all agree that we are part of the problem, no illusions about that. We are tourists, and we came to Venice for exactly the same reasons as everyone else. Although I must say that the tour groups do exacerbate the problem. It can be rather tedious to spend five minutes trying to cross one tiny bridge near the Doge’s Palace, simply because three different tour groups have chosen to stop right in front of the bridge, all next to each other. Move it, people. Once again, no hypocrisy here. We are going on our cruise in November, and we are expecting to enjoy ourselves. I just hope that in port we don’t end up following some guide largely ignoring us as she recites her script into her microphone, our brightly coloured earpieces marking us as total nubes as we march from one point of interest to another. Venice, I would say, is a city that does not require the use of a guide. In fact, following a guide would prevent you from enjoying wandering from place to place aimlessly, seeing what you can find and what turns up, which is exactly what we enjoy doing.
We did some good wandering, and I think we managed to see some of the areas of Venice that most tourists don’t visit. Not that there was much going on there, I suppose. Just streets, and canals, and old decrepit palazzos, and palazzos on the edge of a canal with colourfully lit interiors and a man with long dreadlocks standing in his underwear in a boat in front of the door, and the edge of Venice, and residential areas with cats in the window but no souvenir shops evident. In one deserted area near our hotel, we found a really nice Baroque church and enjoyed looking at its overblown but beautiful facade in peace. Later, we read in the guide book that Titian’s house was just down the street from the church and he’d done a nice painting inside the church (his local, I guess). No one goes there, though. It’s not on the cruise ship tour’s itinerary.
The cost of boat travel in Venice is extraordinarily expensive for visitors. One trip on the vaporetto, which is the Venetian equivalent of a bus, costs 6.5 Euros one way. You can get a pass that lasts from 12 hours up to 36 hours which is a better value but still unreasonably expensive. Luckily for people who live in Venice, the actual cost of water travel is quite reasonable, with a yearly pass available for just over $300. We took the#1 line vaporetto on the route down the Grand Canal, to see all the lovely palazzos that you can’t see except from the water, after waiting out the 24 hour transit strike. We also, on the Rickster’s recommendation, took the traghetto twice. These are gondolas that take people across the Grand Canal at key points to save them having to walk to one of the 3 or 4 bridges that cross it. The ride takes just a couple of minutes, but is basically like a short, shared gondola ride for just 50 Euro cents apiece. Great fun. Alison and I rode standing up, like the locals do.
The cost of going on a traditional, romantic gondola ride is exorbitant, at 80 Euros for a 20-30 minute ride. I hear a water taxi driver offering to take a couple on a big tour, 40 minutes, for 110 Euros. The funny thing about watching people in gondolas (and there are many of them to watch so apparently many people have way more money to waste than we do) is that most of them are either videotaping their journey or snapping photos the entire way. How fun is that? If you really want the full Venice experience and are willing to slap down the cash, surely you should just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Apart from wandering around, we hit three of the must see places, all of which are on Piazza San Marco. First we went up the Campanile, which gives you a spectacular view of Venice. They are in the process of putting titanium rod reinforcements around the foundation in an effort to control cracks that have been progressing for the last fifty years. The first Campanile was built in ????. In 1902, Venetians heard loud noises coming from the Campanile and saw a big crack running up the whole height of it to the bell tower, and the following morning it collapsed into Piazza San Marco. It was rebuilt in 1903, but clearly the more modern engineers weren’t quite as successful at accommodating the unique requirements of Venice’s “ground”. While we were at the top of the tower, the noon bell rang. Which doesn’t sound like much, except that it was a gigantic metal bell swinging back and forth about two feet above our heads for around a minute, and it was loud.
A man on the train just offered us some food from the trolley. A tray of food, salad and pasta, was 19.50 Euros, except that the cost was so outrageous we can’t really believe he just said that. We actually thought he had said 9 Euros. We ate today (and yesterday) at Brek, a chain of “self-service” restaurants that Susan discovered on the internet. If you’re in Venice, just go to the train station. If you walk out of the station, turn left, and walk 50m then you’ll see it. Don’t be fooled by the 5 Euro sandwiches in the case at the front of the place; walk to the back and you’ll be richly rewarded. We paid 2.10 Euros each for a nicely sized bowl of a delicious tuna penne with heaps of olive oil (I can’t remember the Italian name, Penne Fortigliana or something like that), and shared a big 4.2 Euro bowl of salad with chick peas and beans and corn and all that. Yesterday, our splurge meal out there was 26 Euros, for Pasta Pomodoro (tomato sauce) for the girls, and Risotto Spinaci i Gorgonzola (you can figure that one out) for the grownups, a shared 4.2 Euro bowl of salad, an iced tea, and a half litre of red wine. Compare that to the “tourist menus” offered by all the restaurants on the tourist trail, the entry level of which includes a pasta or a pizza, a salad, and a half litre of water, for around 10-12 Euro. We did much, much better. Considerably less atmosphere, maybe, but way better value, and the food was really good.
Today, by the way, we picked up some wine on the way to the train station. This particular store, one of six in Venice, will fill your bottle with one of a number of varieties of local wine. We chose a litre of Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.70 Euros, which the nice man decanted from the barrel into a reused plastic water bottle. It is quite good and is currently enhancing our train ride.
Where were we? Oh yes, after the Campanile we hit the Doge’s Palace. This was the single most expensive activity on our trip so far, at 46 Euros (OMG) for a family pass. However, the Doge’s Palace is the single most ridiculously impressive set of rooms on the entire planet. Every time we went into a room, I thought, “Wow, this is a large, extraordinarily lavishly decorated room. Surely, the next room can’t be this extravagant.” Not only the walls but also the ceilings were covered in carved gold leafed wood and paintings by 15th to 18th century artists. And then, the next room would be equally large and extravagant, or perhaps even more so. The hall of the Grand Council was huge, and when I say huge I don’t even really know just how big it was, except that it is apparently one of the largest rooms in Europe. Imagine the gym of any high school. Double the size. Now cover one of the smaller end walls with the largest canvas painting in the world, by Titian (technically most of the work was done by his son). Now cover all of the other walls with paintings. Then cover the ceiling with paintings, framed by gilt carved wooden frames. That’s the hall of the Grand Council, and it is ridiculous. The girls were a little glazy-eyed with the Doge’s Palace, Alison more so than Sunny, who recognized more the import of the building and the paintings, but they quite liked the adjoining prison, which looked like quite an awful place to serve a sentence. Alison felt bad for the criminals who couldn’t afford a nicer cell on an upper floor and had to suffer in the darkest, dampest basement cells. There was an exhibition there of some of the doodles and drawings found on the cell walls over the years; apparently, artistic ability and criminal tendencies aren’t on the same gene, because these baddies were no artists.
The next day we went to Basilica San Marco. The architecture is very Byzantine, with onion shaped domes, a Greek cross basilica shape, pointy arches, and gilt mosaics. I think that seeing Haiga Sophia first was probably a good thing, as many aspects of Basilica San Marco are similar. Touring the Basilica was free, which was nice. It was quite spectacular, and we had an informative tour using Rick Steve’s Venice book. It was amusing seeing all of the tour guides giving their speeches in front of the signs which said “Silence” in several different languages and gave specific prohibitions against verbal explanations. After working our way through the Basilica, we visited the San Marco Museum in the upstairs of the Basilica, which at 3 Euros a piece (Alison free) was an excellent deal. It afforded a great view of the Plaza, allowed us to wander around the upstairs of the Basilica, and gave us an up close and personal encounter with the famous 4 bronze horses. These particular horses are dated anywhere from 300BC to 300AD. They were stolen by the Venetians from Constantinople, stolen from Venice by Napoleon and placed on top of the Arc de Triomphe, and then returned to Venice after Napoleon was finally done away with.
So, after Venice, night train to Paris. That’s night train number two, for those who like to keep track of these things.
By the way, we finally found Falafel for the first time. Yeah!