Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Doing Venetian Stuff: Part Three

And now for the exciting (if completely overdue) conclusion of my Venetian adventures.

View of the Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge

The Doge's Palace

The entire island of Venice is one big tourist scene, but the most touristy part is the Piazza San Marco.

I didn't take any pictures of this place because the whole thing was covered in scaffolding and no matter how I tried to angle my camera to set up a picture, it all looked like crap. The last time I was in Venice, about nine years earlier, there was scaffolding everywhere as well. Get it together, Venice.

So here is a mediocre picture from Wikipedia. It's about as good as mine would be.

Okay, so see that building with the little domes in the background? That's a cathedral, and to the right of it, behind the brown tower, is the former palace of the Doge, the king of Venice (I think).

Inside is where all of the important meetings and war plans and conspiratorial plotting took place. We met up with the wedding gang to have a look around.

More scaffolding. I want a refund.

I don't think I've ever before purchased those little audio tours available at museums. You know, the ones where you get to a certain point in the exhibit and press a number to dial up the corresponding info on the little hand held thingy. But I'm just a wild card these days. Living on the edge.

I went to get us each an audio tour, but then the woman at the desk asked if I wanted two tours at 6 Euro each, or pay 8 for the shared one. When I inquired about that, I was told two people share the same audio tour, using the hand set and headphones. Suddenly interpreting the audio tour set up as indicative of the security of our marriage, I felt obligated to get the couples' audio tour.

The result was being tethered to Devin by 16 inches of wire for the next two hours. So that worked out well. It felt like some manner of corporate team building exercise.

I blame the impracticality and discomfort of the couples' tour as the reason I learned precisely squat about Doge's Palace, aside from a few odd facts. For instance, the Great Room (I may have made up that name) where the Congress (or whatever the old Venetian equivalent called themselves) met was destroyed in some year by "a fire caused by carelessness." That was exactly how it was described in the tour and I found the wording so funny that I stopped listening to the rest of the explanation.

Oh, and one other fun fact: One of the rooms was for the super secret cabinet to the king. There was the cabinet the public knew about, and then there were the other guys. And in the wall of their super secret room is a tiny mailbox-looking thing, where citizens could file anonymous complaints and accusations against anyone else in Venice and the super secret cabinet would read them and decide how to administer justice. It's like the comment card box at Denny's, but deadly!

No photography was allowed inside the palace and since I'm a stickler for rules, I have no more pictures to show you of this excursion. But if I could've taken pictures of anything, it would've been of the graffiti from the prisons. Centuries and centuries of words and drawings carved into the stone walls of the dungeon. You know what prisoners really seem to like? Boobs, mostly. And penises. Yep. Just lots and lots of anatomical doodles. They looked like something done by a middle schooler in detention. But no, they were the work of a 17th century political prisoner. Fascinating.

Pics from the Wedding

The whole fam

Frolicking in the street outside our apartment

The Cemetery

One of the islands in the Venice area is entirely surrounded by a tall stone wall. Inside is the city's only cemetery. (That's a guess. There may be another one.) In contains graves both new and old, and some of well known people, including, said Meghan, the final resting place of Ezra Pound. I didn't really know who that was, so I didn't look for that grave when Devin and I took the water bus to cemetery island for a look around.

The Food

I'm afraid to say that this is the portion of the vacation recap when I turn into Karl Pilkington.

Before the trip and after my return, food was the topic of much discussion with my friends. All that yummy pasta! Right? In fact, I planned to pretty much eat constantly and with reckless abandon, hoping all that marching around the streets of Venice would burn off at least a few calories.

But here's the thing. I don't love Italian food. It's good, but not my favorite. I only make spaghetti at home so much because it's cheap and I'm lazy. When it's time to pick a restaurant for dinner, an Italian place will probably be last on my list. I'm sure I'm making a few enemies with these statements.

The first thing we ate when we arrived in Venice was pizza. It was pretty good. For dinner that night, I ordered gnocchi, but I was given an incorrect translation from the menu of the dish's ingredients and wound up with a plate of gnocchi heaping with ham. The whole thing smelled like hot dogs and butter. I wanted to vomit. The waiter was nice enough to fetch me a pesto gnocchi instead, but by then my appetite wasn't so great. I couldn't eat, or even think about, gnocchi for the rest of the week.

On Monday I gorged myself on fried calamari. Little did I know, this was one of the main dishes served all over Venice, and unfortunately by the end of the week, it was another food I couldn't stand the site of.

On Tuesday afternoon, after waking up ridiculously late, Devin and I sought out some lunch in one of the city's eight million cafes. These cute little places were exact replicas of one another, with a menu of pizzas and pastas, and a display case by the register filled with sickly looking pre-made sandwiches. I was hungry, but by this point already burnt out on Venetian cuisine, so I ordered nothing. I soon gave in and ate half of Devin's sandwich, removing the prosciutto (side note: Venice is all but drowning in prosciutto), which left me with a sandwich of stale bread, spinach, canned mushrooms, and some kind of tasteless cheese.

If I wasn't at my limit before, I was now. But what was I going to do? I was stuck on this island where the only things to do are shop and eat, and the only thing to eat is Italian food. To be specific, Venetian food. It's made up of lots and lots of pork (which I don't eat) and seafood (which I enjoy, but a person can only take so much). Some of the most popular items I encountered were this white fish paste stuff that looks vaguely like tuna and tastes like gefilte fish, and "black spaghetti," which is called something else and is actually spaghetti cooked in squid ink. Look, I'm an adventurous eater. I really am. But I was just done. And I still had 4 days to go.

So I made it through the rest of my stay eating Italian corn flakes with whatever marvelous whole or 200% milk I bought at the store because I couldn't read the label.

Also, gelato.

Italian Ice.

And banana nutella crepes (not pictured). (Not Italian).

When we made it back to the US, specifically the Philadelphia airport, I went psychotic on some Wendy's.

It's been nearly a month since we got back, and I haven't been able to eat any Italian food. Pizza, yes, because I could never turn down pizza. But everything else? Gag. I'm hoping this eventually passes because I have no clue what else to cook.


As you can probably judge, I got a little cranky toward the end of our trip. Say what you will about how I should just appreciate that I got the chance to travel and all that, but Venice for a full week is challenging. It's glorious for 1-3 days.

Being on an island of narrow streets is claustrophobic. There isn't really all that much to do. And there aren't any parks (or grass anywhere), to just sit out and relax for a few hours. I don't need to be entertained every moment of every day; I just need someplace to sit.

So on Thursday afternoon, feeling like we might explode if we didn't find something else to do, Devin and I ventured to Lido, another island in the Venice area. This is where wealthy Europeans buy vacation homes and play golf. It was worth a shot.

Lido was like magic. There were trees! And grass! And sunshine! And cars! And wide streets! And you could see the sky! And breathe the air! I can't even tell you how, by comparison, actual Venice now seemed like a prison.

We merrily strolled along the main road, which had something else I hadn't seen all week: stores that offered stuff people needed. A drug store, a salon, something that looked like an Italian Pac Sun. At the end of the road, we found a public beach with miles of sand and calm, pale blue water. Finally! Some place to sit!

On Friday we returned, dragging the family along with us.

The End

For all the complaining I did (hey, that's just me), it was wonderful to have a chance to get out, hop across the ocean, and do something different. And I bought a cool watch.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Doing Venetian Stuff: Part Two

Home Sweet Apartment

Rather than staying at a hotel for the week -- and really I think there are only a handful of hotels in Venice anyway -- we stayed in a two bedroom apartment. Me, Devin, his parents, his sister Meghan and her boyfriend Dave. Yes all 6 of us snuggly stowed away.

Even though the apartment building, and all the buildings in Venice, are about a million years old and look it... the inside of the apartment was modern and had everything we needed. Including an army of friendly Italian ants. They were all, "Ciao! We justa wanna eata your crumbs. Prego!"

The whole look of the place reminded me of every friend's apartment in the first three years after college. In a good way.

The balcony off the kitchen overlooked one of the smaller canals.

This was nice, most of the time, but in the morning it was sort of like being plunked next to a major highway. Or shipyard. There were loud boats, and loud voices, and loud clanging construction noises. This was a nice dose of cultural immersion, though less than ideal for a group of people attempting to sleep as best they could with a huge time difference.

But the apartment had a working shower and cute tiny tea cups, so I can't really complain.

Over Two Bridges, Then Take A Right

All of the wedding guests received a giant packet about Venice that included maps, directions and assorted tips. One such tip was, "You will get lost. A lot." This didn't worry me as I figured I couldn't get too lost, and even if I did, I was bound to encounter one of the other 90 wedding guests eventually, and hopefully they'd be able to save me.

And of course we did get lost. A lot. Sometimes in the rain (because I'd managed not to carry with me the umbrella I bought and packed especially for this trip). Sometimes at night, while fighting with one another and eating pizza. Sometimes we stumbled upon something new and interesting. Often we passed the same exact thing 6 times in 20 minutes and realized we were really screwed.

But if you're reading this and wondering, "What? Are you too proud to stop and ask for directions?" Allow me to clarify.

Within the very first few hours of arriving in Venice I asked for directions to a pay phone (side note: being without a cellphone is more horrendous than you'd even imagine). I was told by the man behind the counter of a little shop, "It's over two bridges, then take a right." Everyone in Venice speaks near perfect English, btw. Since, at that moment, we were trying to meet up with the landlord of the apartment, we didn't want to wander too far so I didn't follow his directions. But as I came to be more familiar with the lay of the land over the next few days, I realized that had I actually gone two bridges and taken a right, I wouldn't have found a payphone.

Hmmph. Interesting.

In a separate conversation, Meghan explained her and Dave's experience of being lost and asking for directions and she was told by the Venetian she asked for help, "Go over two bridges, then take a right." They followed the directions, which didn't place them anywhere specifically more helpful, but they eventually found their way home.

I was getting to be suspicious about the reliability of these locals.

Then, when walking with Devin's mom to find a grocery store, we spotted a woman carrying a plastic bag from the precise store we were trying to locate. I suggested we just keep looking on our own, but Kathy thought there was no harm in asking. I waited a few feet away as she went up to ask the woman with the bag. When she came back and announced, "She said it's over two bridges, then we take a right," I was not the least bit surprised.

"I don't think that's going to get us anywhere."

We tried anyway. No grocery store. Only resentment.

So here's my tip for you, should you find yourself in Venice in future travels: Don't ask for directions.


Our first day trip was to the island of Murano, which is part of Venice and only a quick boat ride away. This is where they make all of the Venetian glass doodads to fill the hundreds and hundreds of glass shops in Murano and Venice. We even got to see a demonstration of a glass blower making a little horse. The demo and the product were cool, but the guy himself was the main attraction. Smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, picking his nose. This guy has it all figured out.

Afterwards, we wandered around (Venice is for wanderers), checking out the island, which somehow looked more like a fishing town than the main island.

Then we had some lunch to kill time (Venice is for eating... and time killing) and made our way back by Vaparetto (water bus), which is the main form of public transportation in Venice. See how I picked up some local lingo?