Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Honeymoon in Europe - Part 4

Day 9: Venice

Venice started off a little rocky for us.  First of all, we got in super late at night on Sunday, September 26.  We knew this would happen when we decided to stay longer than originally planned on Capri.  The extra time on Capri was totally worth it, but our arrival in Venice was even later than we thought it would be (I think it was around midnight when our train rolled into the station).  So we were both pretty tired and crabby after the long uncomfortable train ride.

As soon as we stepped off the train, we realized the temperature in Venice was much colder than it was in the Amalfi Coast.  Shivering in the cold only compounded the bad mood we were both in.

Then came the difficulty finding our way to the hotel.  Up to this point, I'd taken care to print detailed maps and directions to every hotel we were staying at and researched the public transportation options in advance.  Except this one.  Mike made the reservation, and he chose this hotel because he'd stayed there before, so I figured he would know how to get there.  I was wrong.  To be fair, I may have done a poor job communicating to him that I was leaving the travel arrangements to the hotel up to him.

So there we were, cold, tired and hungry, standing in the train station with no clue how to get to our hotel.  We decided to call the hotel and ask for directions, but we had the hardest time working the darn pay phone! When we finally figured it out, and reached the hotel, we discovered that the night desk employee hardly speaks any English (although he was trying very hard to be helpful, and eventually offered to meet us at the Vaporetto stop and guide us to the hotel from there).

So we set off to catch the Vaporetto (Venice's public transit boats).  This late at night, they don't run very often, and of course we had difficulty figuring out which route we needed to take in which direction.  After what seemed like forever, we finally made it to our stop, met up with the guy from the hotel, found our way to the hotel (the La Locandiera - actually a very nice hotel in a great location!), checked in, made it up to our room...and CRASHED.  I don't think I've ever been so happy to crawl into bed.
Our hotel room in Venice
The decor was, as you might expect, rather Venetian!
The next day (Monday, September 27) our poor luck continued.  It was still uncomfortably cold, and we hadn't packed much in the way of warm clothes, so that made things unpleasant from the get go.  But there was a lot we wanted to see and do, so we layered up and ventured out into the city.

Our first stop was a very old church, the Basilica S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.  The church was neat to see, but just after we got there, it began raining cats and dogs!  We took our sweet time touring the church, hoping it would let up so we could continue sightseeing.  An hour later, it was still raining hard.  We eventually had to pull out our umbrellas and make a run for it.

Now when you're in a city full of street-level canals, it doesn't take much rain to get flooding in the streets.  So we kept having to take detours and jump puddles to avoid soaking our shoes.  Moreover, the narrow streets of Venice are not well suited for loads of tourists and their umbrellas.  Can you say slow-shuffling pedestrian traffic jam?  Trying to get anywhere was a huge headache.  We briefly considered trying to get inside one of the museums where we wouldn't mind the rain as much, but most of the things we wanted to see were in St. Mark's square (the main square in the middle of the city and gateway to the central attractions of Venice).  And St. Mark's square floods so badly, they have to put up raised walkways just so people can get across.  But the raised walkways are narrow, and all I could think of was how horrible it would be to get bumped off.  So we decided the best thing to do was to head back to our hotel and wait out the rain in our warm cozy bed.  Best. nap. ever.

Later that afternoon, when it finally stopped raining, we went out for a little walk around the city.  It didn't seem quite as cold as it had been earlier, but I wasn't taking any chances.  So when we passed a shop with some affordable-looking coats in the window, I stopped to check it out.  And I'm glad I did, because I ended up with my favorite souvenir of the trip: a cute short beige trench coat for just 22 euros!  I still wear it all the time. :)

Then we went out for an amazing dinner at a super fun restaurant: the Trattoria alla Rivetta.  This was easily the highlight of the day.  And I'm not saying that just because it was kind of a crappy day - it was actually really, really good food and friendly service (the seating is a little cramped, but that's common in Italy)!  If you go, be sure to get there early because it's a very popular place, but teeny tiny, so it fills up soon after opening.  The wait isn't all bad though.  They give you a glass of complimentary wine to sip on until a table opens up. :)

We wrapped up the night by going after some cheap wine.  One of our tour books (I think we have Rick Steves to thank for this) described places around Venice that sell wine from kegs very cheaply.  You bring your own bottle and they fill it up with wine, which you pay for by the milliliter.  Pretty sweet!  So we did what any budget traveler who enjoys wine would do: bought the biggest water bottle we could find, chugged the water, and then got it filled up with cheap wine!  In retrospect, I think getting 2 or 3 smaller bottles would have been a better idea.  Then we could have tried a few different kinds.  Hindsight is always 20/20, right?
Cheap wine in kegs.  Loved it!
Our 1.5 liters of wine
It was in Venice that I discovered, and fell in love with, Prosecco (we later went back to the wine keg place and got some Prosecco in a water bottle too).  It's a bubbly sweet white wine that is just delicious!  To this day it's one of my favorites.  I also tried a Bellini (a cocktail that originated in Venice) for the first time - that was also super tasty.
My first Bellini
Sipping Italian wine in our hotel room cheered us up and made for a happy end to a cold and rainy day.

Day 10: More Venice

Thankfully, by our second day in Venice, the weather had greatly improved.  On Tuesday, September 28, the sun came out and dried up most of the flooding in St. Mark's square, so we were finally able to venture out there.

First we toured the Doge's Palace.  THAT was really cool!  The Doge was the ruler of Venice back when it was a city state.  The palace is an amazing collection of ornately decorated rooms and works of art.  Unfortunately, they didn't allow pictures inside so I can't show you.  But it was a pretty impressive palace/museum!
Entrance to the Doge's Palace
Courtyard inside the Doge's Palace
After touring the palace, you cross the Bridge of Sighs (so named because it was the place where prisoners got their last view of Venice before getting locked up) and go explore a medieval prison.  It was a mostly dark, narrow, somewhat claustrophobic maze of passageways and prison cells.  But I found it very cool (I don't know why, I just like old stuff - and this was clearly very, very old!).  Pictures were allowed in here, so I took lots. :)
Prison courtyard
Other end of the courtyard
Glimpse into a teeny tiny cell
Cell door
Next we went inside the Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark's Cathedral).  Again, no pictures were allowed inside, but just try to imagine a giant church where every surface is adorned with beautiful, intricate mosaics depicting biblical scenes and pictures, all on a brilliant shining gold background.  I could barely believe what I was seeing!  I can't even imagine how much time and painstaking effort went into decorating that church.  It was neat to see the different artistic styles in the mosaics throughout the church since they were completed during a number of different artistic periods across a span of several centuries.  There are some good pictures of the interior on this website if you're interested.
Here's a view of the ceiling mosaic that I took from outside on the balcony looking in (technically, I didn't break the rules!)
A closer look at the ceiling mosaic - can you believe how detailed it is?!
After wandering through the Cathedral, we paid a little extra to climb the stairs and see the collection of art and treasures at the top.  The collection includes the four original life-sized bronze statues of the Horses of St. Mark (they were moved inside for protection; the ones currently decorating the outside of the Cathedral are replicas).  You also get to step out onto a balcony for a great view of the square below!
The four outside horses
Even the outside of the church has mosaics!
Looking down at St. Mark's square from the Cathedral balcony
Those chairs awnings surrounded by chairs are where the orchestras play at night (more on that later)
And that's the Doge's palace next door
With these two big tourist attractions out of the way, we decided to take it easy that afternoon and just wander around the city a bit.  For me, the neatest thing about Venice was just exploring the little back canals, so we did that for awhile.
We watched the time carefully and made it back over to the Rialto bridge just in time for sunset.  The Rialto bridge is one of 4 bridges spanning the grand canal.  It's the oldest, and probably most famous, of the four.  There are shops along the bridge, and it's always very busy.  But it offers a great view of the Grand Canal - the main water thoroughfare in Venice - so it was the perfect spot for a photo op.
This night, we decided to save some money by grabbing a pizza (luckily Italian pizza is cheap, delicious, and ready in about 5 minutes, so it's the perfect dinner to go!) and having dinner back at our hotel.  Of course we washed it down with some Italian wine in a water bottle.  It was a nice relaxing end to a busy day!

Day 11: More Venice

On Wednesday, September 29, we headed across the Grand Canal to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (in English, the Basilica of St. Mary of Health).  The church was built as an offering for deliverance from the plague, which devastated Venice in 1629 and 1630.  There is still an annual procession to the church in thanksgiving for being delivered from the plague.

The church inside is very pretty.  The walls are white and it's bright with natural light.  I thought the decor inside was quite a bit simpler than many Italian churches I've seen, which I found really refreshing!  

At the back of the church, there's an elevator you can pay to ride to the top of the tower for an incredible view of Venice.
Look, it's St. Mark's square!
Leaving the church, we hopped aboard a Vaporetto and rode all the way up the Grand Canal.  It's basically a cheap tour of the heart of Venice.  We were lucky enough to get seats outside, so we just sat back and enjoyed the ride!
Mike studying the map to see where we're going
This is what the inside of a Vaporetto looks like - kind of like a bus, but it's a boat!
And this is the front of the Vaporetto, where the driver is
And this is a Vaporetto stop - again, kind of like a bus stop, but for boats!  Well, I thought it was amusing. ;)
Here we're just entering the Grand Canal
This is the first of the four bridges that cross the Grand Canal
This marks the beginning of the "main stretch" of the Grand Canal

Bridge #3 (unfortunately, I don' t think we saw bridge #4; or if we did I forgot to take a picture!)
St. Mark's square from the canal.  Look at all those gondolas!

We eventually got off the Vaporetto and went to see the Ca' Rezzonico, a museum dedicated to 18th century Venice.  I was intrigued by this museum because the building is actually the palace of a wealthy Venetian family.  The rooms are furnished and decorated as it if was a palace. Paintings, sculptures and other 18th century Venetian artifacts (such as clothing, crafts, etc.) are displayed throughout the palace, but it doesn't feel stuffy and boring the way many art museums do.  I really liked it, and I'm not usually much of a museum person.

Then we just walked around some more. :)

Day 12: Last Day in Venice

On Thursday, September 30, the final day of our stay in Venice, we took the Vaporetto over to the island of Murano, which is famous for its glass making.
It's basically one store after another full of things made of glass.  Lots of lots of figurines, Christmas ornaments, chandeliers, name it, if it's made of glass, you can find it here!  So naturally, it ended up being a shopping day - with an overwhelming number of souvenirs to choose from!  But I had fun.  And I didn't go too crazy (I just got a pair of earrings and a necklace for myself, a Christmas tree ornament for Mike and I, some glass beads for my sister Mary and a glass fish for my dad, who collects fish art).  Mike was a good sport, but eventually reached the end of his shopping tolerance and went to find us some gellato. 

When we got back to mainland Venice, we dropped off our purchases at our hotel room and had dinner.  After dinner, we took a gondola ride.  I had no idea how expensive these rides were, and when I found out, I almost changed my mind.  It's $100 for a 30 minute ride!!!  Mike finally talked me into it, because it was our honeymoon and all, and who knows if we'll ever make it back to Venice (the city is sinking you know).  We went at dusk so we'd get the best combination of romantic ambiance, while still being able to see where we were going and take some pictures.  It was fun, and a good "once in a lifetime" experience, but I don't know if it was $100 worth of fun.

Here's some photos from our ride:

After our gondola ride, we went to St. Mark's square to see the "dueling orchestras" play.  Basically, there are two restaurants in St. Mark's square that have little orchestras that play at night.  They take turns playing songs, and people can sit and listen if they buy something to eat or drink (alternatively, you could just stand and listen for free as many people do).  Of course everything on the menu is really overpriced, but it was our last night in Venice, so we decided to splurge a little.  And for admission to a concert in Venice, Italy, it's a pretty good deal.  We each got a glass of sambuca to sip on while we sat back and enjoyed the beautiful music for about an hour.  It was so lovely and romantic! 
Then we headed back to our hotel.  Just a few short hours of sleep later, we got up at 3am to head to the airport.  We said goodbye to Venice and headed off to our final destination: Paris!

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