12 June 2012. To start off with, I must mention that seeing Venice before it sinks was one of the top things on my bucket list. So I was really excited that I was finally going to go there, even if it was only for one night.
We had quite a drive ahead of us (though I knew that the drive to Rome the next day would be much longer) so breakfast was at 7. By then I had formed the habit of packing my bags before going for breakfast so that I could make use of the full 30 mins allocated if I needed to. I’m pretty sure this was when the chocolate croissants started, which were amazing. At 7:30 we had to once again meet at the bus to get it loaded, and off we went.
We reached the service stop a little after 10am and spent around 45 minutes having a bite before hopping back on the bus for the final stretch. I was so thrilled to be back in Italy because I loved it when I went in 2009. I could not wait to have gelato again and, more importantly, to have proper pizza this time. On my first trip, I only spent 3 days in Italy, which comprised of two days in Rome and one day-trip to Florence. So it was really rushed and I didn’t get to do everything I wanted to, like have proper pasta or pizza.
We got to the mainland around 12:30 and still had to cross the bridge which would take us to the port where we’d take the vaporetto into Venice. As we were crossing the bridge, we were behind a truck that was carrying some construction-type supplies. It was slightly annoying being behind that truck because it stopped several times to pick up guys in orange vests who were waiting for it. It must have been very frustrating for Driver Steve; it certainly was for us!
I had never been on a bridge that spanned such a wide body of water before, so it was really interesting for me to see water on either side and of course Venice in front of me. After we crossed the bridge and Driver Steve parked the bus, we made our way to the vaporetto. We walked alongside the water where all the water taxis were docked and I was surprised to see so many Indian (as in from India) men trying to sell stuff on the side such as these blobs of rubber that would ‘splat’ on the ground when you throw them, then form back into a ball. Indians really are everywhere!
We boarded the boat, which was a little awkward because we had to descend a rather small staircase while trying not to hit our heads. I’m actually not sure how we fitted all 51 of us in there. It really was a squeeze. I found that it made the ride into Venice longer because we were so close together, and I felt a little weird because there wasn’t really any fresh air coming in, which is never a good thing if you want to avoid getting sea sick. Someone managed to get a picture of all of us (Tina, I’m sure it was you?) as we tried to admire the waterway. I was quite thrilled watching the boats alongside ours as it was as if it was a highway on water. I had never seen anything like it and was so glad that I was sitting next to a window so I could get a good view. Timing is everything when you get into a place with lots of people!
There were around 3 cruise liners there that day too. I thought it was a lot, but according to Steve, there are normally at least a dozen or so. I’d really like to see that one day because those cruise liners dwarf the city, and I think they may just completely block the city from view if there’s enough of them!
We also saw a mega yacht, the kind you see in those tv shows about super rich people. I wonder who it belongs to.
As we got closer I could see the Doges Palace and the bell tower that stands in St Marks Square. Now, for those of you who are gamers, you would have come across it in Assassins Creed 2 which was set in Venice. The bell tower was one of the viewpoints and Basilica San Marco was the venue for one of the assassination targets. Because of Assassins Creed, I knew the layout of the area around St Marks Basilica pretty well. Yeah yeah, I know how geeky that sounds and I’m sure you must be shaking your head, but its true.
I know that there is a bridge that you cross just before getting to the Libreria, which sits next to the Doges Palace, and that there’s a rather large building straight in front, behind a tall pillar with a lion at the top. I know that this building is next to the bell tower. At the bottom of the bell tower lies another little enclosed structure. I’m not sure what on earth is inside there, but I know its there. Most people who have been to or read about Venice would know the shape of the piazza and the white building that encloses it, so I can’t claim to know this from a game, but it did make it more familiar. Its very geeky to say that I was more familiar with it because of Assassins Creed, but its true! In a tiny way, I felt like I had been there before.
Go on, shake your head again.
When our vaporetto finally docked and we got out, I was overwhelmed with the crowd. It was like how shopping centres are during Christmas. Steve waited for us all to gather round before we could make our way through the crowd to the point where we were to meet our walking tour guide. By now I tried my best to stick as close to Steve as possible so that I wouldn’t get left behind and that I’d be able to stop for a few moments if I needed to take a picture. So by the time the rest of the group caught up, I’d be done and would have enough time to scurry to the front again.
We stopped for a few moments to take pictures of the Bridge of Sighs (and, technically, it was the first canal we saw) and about 50m on, we stopped outside the Doges Palace with the two towering poles in front of us, and the sea on our left. I got my first full view of the bell tower from there, as well as St Mark’s Basilica. I couldn’t wait to see St Mark’s from the front, but we had to wait a little while for the tour guide to arrive.
When she eventually did, she asked us to grab an audio set from a guy with a box full of them. We had to test the headset to see if we could hear her. Mine worked, so I was good, but it didn’t last very long. My headset decided to die (at least by an 80% reduction in volume) barely 5 minutes into the tour. So, like with Steve, I had to try to walk as close as possible to the guide in order to pick up what she was saying. In some places it was really difficult because of the crowds, especially in the main piazza.
I took a minute or 2 to take it all in. I’d been wanting to go to St Mark’s Square for years, so being there filled me with happiness. It was a beautiful day, too, and the air was clean and fresh. There was a light breeze from the sea. I was told that Venice can get smelly, but I didn’t experience that at all. As we walked in the piazza, I watched as some people fed the pigeons. I’d never seen that many pigeons in my life, and the guide joked about being killed by one. They literally were everywhere, and it was so cute watching some toddlers chasing them.
In the background I could hear some live music being played, and when I turned around I saw some people sitting at a restaurant facing the piazza, sipping on some wine. Behind them was a small band consisting of a pianist, a violinist, and three men playing a clarinet, a double bass. and an accordion. The guide told us that only the richest people can afford to eat in the piazza as a glass of wine cost something ridiculous like €100 (if not more). After being told that, I just had to give those patrons another look. I had to wonder what kind of job they must be doing to be able to afford to sit in such a place. I also wondered if it was really necessary to spend that much on food when they could be putting that money to better use. Personally, if I had that much money, I’d travel. I’d leave behind the world that I know and spend months and months in different places. Wait a minute, maybe that’s what some of them were doing? Nah, I highly doubt it. God knows.
The guide then took us through some narrow alleys and showed us things like the level to which the water can rise on some days. It was fascinating. She also showed us how all the shops were raised a little above the ground and that you’d have to step up into them.
It was actually getting hot after some time and I regretted carrying a jacket. It was such a pain to carry around, and it didn’t even match my red T-shirt which I had to wear because Russia was playing that day in the Euro 2012 and Alex and I both had to wear red to show our support. I wasn’t thrilled about wearing a T-shirt in Venice because I wanted to get good photos taken, but in order to keep the tradition-of-supporting-your-Euro-country-that-lasted-only-a-few-days alive, I decided to just wear my Innsbruck shirt in any case.
As we walked, we passed some pizza shops and I then noticed the massive size of the pizza slices. The pizzas seemed to be at least 0.5m in diameter, so the slices that came off them were huge. There’s no way one could eat it with one hand unless it was folded. I tried to calculate the average price of them, too, because I knew that depending on where you buy it, the difference can be at least €2-€3. Eventually I came to the conclusion that it cost between €2.50 and €3.50 for a slice, and some places (not many) even included a cold drink. I was definitely going to get myself a slice after the tour.
When we came out of what I now know was the final alleyway of the tour, where we were was unmistakable. I immediately turned to the right and said out loud, in a sigh, “Rialto”. The guide turned to me and said “Si, Ponte di Rialto!”, with the same twinkle in her eye that I think I must have had. We were walking alongside the Grand Canal. It was teaming with people, of which at least 80%, I’m pretty sure, were tourists. The crowd was more dense than Piazza San Marco because the area in which to walk was much smaller.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the bridge, and I couldn’t wait to get to it. The walk there was a bit of a blur because of the crowd, and I walked as if I had blinkers on because all I remember seeing clearly was the bridge. Flashes of Assassins Creed came to mind again, even though the bridge only slightly resembles the way it was done in the game (the version of it in the game was supposedly what it looked like in the 1400s). Even in the game, the area surrounding the bridge was filled with street vendors trying to sell typical Venetian souvenirs such as masks. My goal was to get a mask, in fact, even though I still have no idea when I’ll ever put it to use. I wanted one that fitted my face. I wished that I could have visited during Carnivale, even though I could only imagine how insane the crowds would be then.
Finally, we got to the foot of the bridge and started our short ascent. There were shops on either side of the bridge, including some very touristy ones. But my attention quickly went to my left so that I could face the Grand Canal. It was something else. I took a deep breath as I admired the beauty. I blocked the noise of the people around me out as I looked around. The afternoon sun hitting the water made it all the more beautiful.
The Rialto bridge marked the end of our tour through Venice, and the guide took us down another short street to get away from the hustle and bustle of the Grand Canal in order for us to hand back our audio sets. Steve was there waiting for us, too, because we had to go to a Murano glass factory.
We had roughly 30 minutes to ourselves before we could go, however, so Alex, Adam (the bald Australian), Kameron and I decided to go together to grab some pizza. We barely walked a few metres before I lost Alex, and the guys eventually split up shortly after that. I think the crowd played a part in that because it was just too crazy since we had walked back in the direction of the Rialto Bridge. I had seen some great pizza shops there so I went back. When I got there though, it was so confusing that I didn’t find the pizza shop that I had seen barely 20 minutes earlier. Really, its not like the Rialto Bridge is that big. I hadn’t even passed the half way mark. I feel disappointed now that I didn’t even cross the bridge. We simply didn’t have enough time.
I then decided just to walk around the vicinity and remembered that Steve was waiting for us and that I had only about 15 minutes to get pizza before he left for the glass factory. I started making my way back and saw some girls from my group hovering around, so I went with them and found a little shop nearby. We each got a slice (humongous, of course), and “mmm’d” and chomped our way back to Steve. I think the slice I got was about €3.50, which wasn’t too bad considering how big it was.
I finished my slice while waiting for the others to come back from their short galavanting. Steve showed us how to get back to St Mark’s Square, too, as we had to meet him there later so that we could go together for the gondola ride and then supper.
When we got to the glass factory, I was disappointed that we couldn’t take photos, because it really was a sight to see. There was such a huge range of glass items ranging from tea sets to dragons, of every colour imaginable. It was a feast for the eyes. We went upstairs in order to get a demonstration on glass blowing. There were some steps for us to sit on, which I was glad to see because I was exhausted from standing nearly all day. An Italian man who resembled the Hulk was going to make some items for us. It was a little mind boggling seeing such a big man, with a huge chest and arms, handling such a delicate item and performing such detailed work so effortlessly. He said he had been doing it since he was about 15 years old (or was it for 15 years? I can’t remember which but anyway) which made him an expert. It was very obvious that he was, especially after he crafted a horse. There’s no way we could even tell that it was a horse until he was nearly done with it. The speed at which he did it (he had to while the glass was still hot enough) was astonishing too. His skill had to be admired. I think people with raw skill like him are lacking these days.
When he was done, the guy who was talking us through the glass-blowing procedure asked us to follow him downstairs where he’d tell us more about the glass itself. Downstairs was actually the shop. My mother had told me about Murano glass before my trip, and I really wanted to pick up something but I was a bit unsure about carrying glass in my bag for the next 10-12 days. I figured even if I got something small, it would be ok because I’d at least have a souvenir.
What I remember most about the talk that we were given was that the glass is coloured with different minerals. Depending on the mineral you use, the glass would turn out a different colour. The most expensive coloured glass that you can get is the ruby red one. Why? The mineral they use is gold.
Unfortunately I left the shop with nothing. I really wanted a little cup or a glass, but it just felt wrong to buy only one and not the set, so I left it totally. Maybe I’ll get something the next time I go to Venice (if its still above water).
On my way out I bumped into Sam who was plotting to take a photo of a woven version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper for her Yaya. Apparently she was told that photos of that weren’t allowed, but it seemed as though she was a professional at taking photos sneakily and made it look as if she was digging in her handbag when she actually had the camera part of her iPhone sticking out of the zip. Well played. Well played.
We sat outside the shop, on a bridge, for a few minutes waiting for the others to finish shopping. I wanted to go to St Marks Basilica and also get a mask so I made my way there. I actually don’t know how I found my way back there other than by using my general sense of direction, because I didn’t use the map at all. I was pleased with myself when I saw St Marks Baslica in front of me, and as I came out of the last narrow street before the piazza, I saw Tracy sitting on the open space next to the basilica, eating an ice cream. I asked her where she had bought it from and she pointed me in the direction of the shop. I think she was eating a rather peculiar flavour too, one which I never would have tried. I remember it being half pink and half green (Tracy, correct me if I’m wrong?). She told me what flavours it was but I’m not very good at trying outrageously new flavours myself so I decided to pass on those. I quickly went to the shop that she had pointed out and got myself an ice cream. It was most probably a cappuccino flavour since I was familiar with that one. I guess gelato of any flavour is good.
I came back to the piazza and met up with Tracy again. Travis had been scouting the area all that time so it wasn’t long before he joined us. We sat for a few minutes, people watching, until some women dressed in white came to chase us away, along with some other people who were resting their legs. We found it very strange because we were just sitting on a step, not on some sacred monument. There was nowhere else to sit either. We asked them where we were expected to go, and they just stubbornly replied that they didn’t know and that we must just not sit there. Some people went back but they were chased away again. I chuckled at those women. It seemed as though they had nothing better to do. I don’t know where they came from.
The three of us all wanted to go into the basilica and Travis had found out that entrance was free but that they weren’t allowing bags inside. Travis had one and decided to take a chance and join the queue with it. The queue got long very quickly, so we joined at the right time. Thankfully it moved quickly too, and we only stood in it for about 5 minutes, if even. No one stopped Travis when we got to the front, and we headed inside.
Like all the churches I’ve been to, even with so many people, it was very peaceful and quiet. It was however noisier than what I remembered of St Peters church in Rome, which is far bigger and can fit a lot more people. There was only one general path that everyone could walk in, and I didn’t find it as beautiful as St Peters church so I wasn’t as fascinated, but I took pictures nonetheless. I also saw some other girls from my group but we were all on our own mission so we didn’t really chat with each other.
When we got back outside, I only had about 30 minutes to find myself a mask before the rendezvous with Steve for the gondola ride. I knew that if I ventured beyond the piazza, the chances of me getting lost would be very high because Venice is notorious for its confusing layout. Its dozens and dozens of little bridges wouldn’t make it any easier. I actually wanted to get lost in Venice, but I simply didn’t have the time in which to do it. During the tour I had also checked out the prices of masks all over the place, and it seemed as though nearly everyone sold the big, face-fitting ones for €10, so I wasn’t going to pay more than that. Its not a bad price either.
After visiting a few vendors in the piazza, I finally found a mask that I liked. It was purple and pink, with little gold bells and some gold glitter on the face itself. After my purchase, I happily made my way back to the group. Of course people noticed my packet and were curious to know what was in it, because I was obviously not the only one who did a little bit of shopping. There was much delight when I pulled out my mask. I think it would have been cool if a couple more people bought one too, it would have been a very nice photo op! Nevermind, we got some photos anyway. We actually took several similar to the one below because whenever we were done taking one and split up, someone else whipped out their camera and we had to scramble back together again. We must have gotten at least 6 like these!
While we were still waiting for the last few people, Steve asked if we could guess the number of lions in and around St Mark’s Square. No one came even close. Apparently there are around 1000 of them! God knows when we would ever had time to count all of them. Still, it was fascinating learning that fact.
When everyone had gathered, we followed Steve across the piazza (which was much more empty now) on our way to the gondolas. We all agreed earlier that we wanted to order champagne for the ride, so when we finally got to the gondoliers, we got ourselves into groups of 5-6 and decided among ourselves how many bottles we wanted. I was with Alex, Jose, CC, and the two Canadian girls Serena and Ariel. We decided that 2 bottles would be sufficient, and at about €10 per bottle, it would work out to barely €3 each.
While we were waiting for Steve to get the bottles, we became aware of another Contiki group a few metres away. This was only because we heard people cheering Jye, the 18 year old Australian boy from my group, as he was talking to one of the girls from the other group. I saw Sam run to give him a rose to give to her as well. It was very sweet seeing him give the girl the rose. I found out later that it was actually his girlfriend and that our tours crossed in Venice. How cute!
We then lined up and Steve handed us our bottles of champagne. There were two different ones available, so we got one of each. The gondolier held our hands in order to steady us as we stepped onto the gondola. In order to balance the weight, I sat at the bow, right in the middle. Our gondolier wasn’t particularly friendly, neither was he as good looking as I’d hoped. The only check box I could tick on my imaginary list of what a typical gondolier should be like was that he wore the signature blue and white striped shirt and a little scarf. He hardly smiled and looked constipated. He didn’t even sing.
Besides the gondolier, the ride was very pleasant, except in some instances where the wind seemed to tilt the gondola to one side, which forced me to shift my weight to counter it. It was very awkward because the wind seemed to be winning, and I ended up trying not to slide in the direction in which it was tilting. I watched the other gondolas following ours, and we even bumped into one of them. We came really close to at least 2 other gondolas, so I took the opportunity to get a photo of one of them. I don’t know how Elliot is always ready for a photo; he didn’t even know that I was getting my camera out. Turned out to be a great shot.
The waterways fascinated me because even though I had seen Venice numerous times in movies, I still hadn’t seen the minor details. The only other place I had “seen” doors that lead straight onto the water was in Assassins Creed 2. It was as though people could park their boats right outside their homes, step onto a step, open a door, and voila!
Venice takes the idea of open air cafes to a different level. I love open air cafes, but here they sat alongside the waterway, with gondolas docked right next to them. There were flowers lining the railing of one. I even came across a restaurant that had an area protruding onto the waterway that was big enough just for a table for two. The only reason why I knew it was a restaurant was because I saw the menu propped up by the vase in the middle of the table. You could not even see the rest of the restaurant, which must have been inside the building. Could they get more romantic?
We finished off our ride in the Grand Canal. Seeing it from the water was amazing, and the sunset made it so dramatic. When we stepped off our gondolas, we gathered round Steve again so we could walk to dinner, which was one of our optional extras. I think everyone opted to do the dinner.
We got to our restaurant in an unsuspecting narrow street, and the dim lighting made for a great atmosphere. I found a table with Tiffany and Kelly, and we were greeted with awful red wine. I had only really tasted red wine twice before, many years ago, and I didn’t like it then. I didn’t like this one either, it was way too strong and bitter. It was at that moment that I realised that I prefer white over red. Semi-sweet, to be exact.
What we had for dinner that night was a blur. I remember getting an entree of cold meats, then something else, then a seafood platter, then pasta. By the time we got to the pasta, we were already full. We had forgotten that this was the dinner that had 7 courses! Just as we were about to tuck into the course we were on, the next one came. It was as if the food kept coming. I don’t even remember all the pastas we had, but I know there were 3. The best one, I thought, was the green one. I don’t even know what was in it, but it was basically tagliatelle (I think?) with some kind of green sauce.
We left the restaurant absolutely stuffed. Not to mention slightly tipsy from that horrid wine. Thankfully we did get some white wine too, so I had that instead. We walked back to a much larger boat to get back to the mainland, and had the opportunity to enjoy our last view of Venice. Most of us went upstairs because the view was better, but the staircase to the top was so steep and narrow that it felt more like a ladder. I had to be so careful walking up it because I had my huge green handbag from Austria, as well as my jacket, and the packet with the mask in my hands. I couldn’t wait to sit down when I got to the top because I was afraid that I was going to lose my balance.
Sam and Coralie hijacked the radio and put on their own music. So the two of them began dancing and provided us with some hilarious entertainment. Jye also joined in eventually. It was really funny watching them. The crazy music and laughter in the background was a great way to end the day and enjoy my last view of the Bell Tower and St Marks Basilica.
As it got darker, I knew that it would not be my last visit to Venice. I will definitely go back one day.