Ah, Venice!

We arrived mid-afternoon after a rather taxing trip from Bellagio on Lake Como.

Vaporetto, the waterborne
equal of a public bus
Getting to Venice required rising early, catching a ferry to Varenna, walking uphill four blocks to the train station, a two-hour lay-over in Milan, then finally a train to Venice. We were, perhaps needless to say, a little frazzled when we arrived at the Santa Lucia train station.But walking out the doors and seeing the Grand Canal in front of us (photo at right) literally made our mouths drop open!

Rather than take a private water taxi to our hotel (at an estimated €50) we opted for the vaporetto, which is analogous to the public bus. Our hotel, the Al Ponte Antico, had given us excellent directions about which vaporetto line to take, which stop to get off, and walking directions to the hotel. The vaporetto fare for two (with luggage) was €13, so we saved considerably. EuropeforVisitors.com has a good resource for more information about the vaporettos.

Venice is lovely, of course. But there are some things visitors should be prepared for that aren’t evident in photographs.

Venice is extremely popular. In addition to travelers from outside the area, it’s an easy day trip for people who live in the region, which makes it an extremely bustling city (read: crowded) during the day. We had the misfortune of visiting during school field trip season, so the narrow streets were especially crowded. And kids are kids, no matter what language(s) they speak: their attention is occupied by their cell phones and iPods, and they’re terminally bored regardless of the magnificence of their surroundings.

Canal at night
Despite the crowds, our hotelier assured us that Venice was a very safe city and I can tell you we felt safe no matter where we went, or at what time of day or night. Sure, one needs to exercise common sense, but basic precautions seemed more than sufficient. And after sunset, when the day-trippers go home, things are dramatically quieter. On our last night, we walked about four blocks to a restaurant and were quite surprised by how empty the streets had become by the time we walked back to our hotel.

The Grand Canal is truly grand – but it’s also the city’s main thoroughfare. We were surprised (though perhaps should not have been) by how busy it is; it’s almost like an Interstate highway during the day.

Venice is an expensive city, but there are ways to keep costs under control.

Restaurants and shops get progressively more expensive the closer one gets to the Piazza San Marco. Most shops have prices posted in the windows, so it’s easy to compare prices and see the benefit of shopping farther away from the Piazza when possible.

Murano glass is very popular, and it’s everywhere. However, there are a couple of things to be aware of. All Italian glass is not Murano glass. Glass that is manufactured on the island of Murano carries a sticker of authenticity that cannot be removed without being destroyed (so it can’t be put on an imitation piece). And Murano glass is generally cheaper on the island itself, which is a short ride by vaporetto from Venice.

As an example, we saw a popular piece called “The Lovers” on Murano for about €230. The factory from which we purchased charged and additional €50 for shipping, handling, and insurance. Later, we saw the same piece in a shop off the Piazza San Marco for €410 plus €80 for s/h/i. While that wasn’t the specific piece we purchased, we clearly saved money by going to the source. In addition, we had the pleasure of seeing Murano and watching the artisans at work.

Dining can also be expensive but again, doesn’t have to be. Many restaurants offer what they term a “Tourist Menu.” Just the idea of accepting anything specifically targeting me as a “tourist” puts me off; I want to experience the destinations I visit – the attractions, the culture, the food – the way the locals experience them. But I digress.

These tourist menus typically include an antipasto, primi, secondi, and beverage. However, I thought most that I saw were overpriced for what was offered and probably served far more food than either my wife or I wanted to eat. Beyond that, most of the restaurants we went to didn’t allow splitting one item between two people (though we got around that by ordering the salad for my wife and the entrĂ©e for me, then sharing).

Local osteria across the
Grand Canal from our hotel
Most often, we opted for smaller trattoria and osteria well away from the Piazza and were never disappointed. These are small establishments with a handful of tables set outside (when weather permits) in addition to a few tables inside. (Note: while al fresco means “outside” in North America, in Italy it’s slang for “in jail”.)

We had some delightful appetizers at one such establishment (recommended by a desk clerk at our hotel), and at another enjoyed the octopus salad and cuttlefish in squid ink sauce I mentioned in a previous post. Ask a local, or follow your nose.

Finally, despite signs warning of significant fines for “defacing” public and private property, Venice has a great deal of graffiti. While it’s probably impossible to keep it completely under control, it would be nice if the city was more aggressive about painting over this “street art,” especially on prominent structures like the Rialto Bridge.

All in all, Venice is an absolute must-see!

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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