Our train ride to Venice was 2 hours long and we had decided to “upgrade” to first class which the boys thought would be amazing. Obviously, they were envisioning first class as in air travel, but we knew that train first class is merely just a step up from coach class 🙂 Though I’m not sure it was worth the $$ to have someone serve you water, OJ or coke, a newspaper and a goody bag, the boys thought it was pretty cool.
We arrived to the train station around noon on Saturday during the busiest travel week of August and it was a mad house! People everywhere.
From the moment you walk out of the train station, you can just feel how unique Venice is. As a city literally surrounded by water, Venice is known as the “floating city”. We were so fascinated to learn that it was initially built upon wooden platforms held up by wooden stakes driven into the sand by Venetians dating back to the 5th century AD, intended to serve as a temporary home to escape raids on the mainland (source: ancient-origins.net); in more recent years, as Venice very slowly sinks into the sand and steadily becomes closer and closer to sea level, they have dealt with severe flooding, which has been devastating at times…. the city spreads across 118 small islands that are separated by canals and are crossable by the many footbridges that connect them. As such, there are no roads for driving and therefore- no cars, no mopeds, no bikes in Venice. The only way to get around is either to walk or by boat.
We had many heavy bags and so opted for a water taxi, or vaporetto; these are huge barges that carry tourists up and down the Grand canal, stopping at various points. The Grand Canal is a great way to enter into Venice, because you are immediately surrounded by beautiful, brightly coloured Palazzos, palaces, churches and homes which sit on the water and there are gondolas with gondoliers in their striped shirts and big straw hats taking tourists for rides everywhere.
We were met at our stop by our Air BnB host who walked us to our apartment to show us around. While we were waiting at the water taxi stop, the boys discovered a payphone, and were quite entertained by this, since they’d never seen one before!
We found a great spacious apartment off the San Stefano square, near the Accademia bridge (a huge bridge that crosses the big canal).
Once we unpacked, we headed out to find groceries and decided to take advantage of having a big kitchen to make dinner. The grocery store was absolutely nuts. There were people squeezing through the aisles, speaking all different languages, filling their carts with all kinds of things unique to Italy- jars of pesto, prosciutto, big pillowy mounds of Mozzarella, biscotti, truffles, olive oil, etc. It is amazing how even the generic grocery store brand versions of these things are so fresh and such good quality!
We headed out to start exploring Venice. Walking through Venice is unlike any other place I’ve ever visited in that you literally wind down hundreds of narrow alleys lined with small art galleries, studios, restaurants and shops selling various items unique to Venice- Venetian blown glass, carnival masks, lace from nearby Burano, to name a few. Inside and outside of museums and galleries, sculptures in squares, on the walls in alleys, vendors selling paintings in the streets- there is art everywhere.
This sculpture below is 2 huge hands coming up out of the canal as if holding the building up (Ca’ Sagredo Hotel), created by Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn to signify the slow sinking of Venice (source: Mashable.com)
What I love is that even though many of the bigger squares and bridges are packed with tourists, it is not hard to find yourself alone in a tiny alley, and even easier to get lost.
There are hundreds of tiny streets, alleys and footbridges that you climb up and over to cross small canals that wander throughout Venice. Although the streets and alleys are labeled, they are so small and numerous that you can’t easily get around without a map, even Chuck, who I consider to be my own personal live GPS, had a map in hand to study at all times!
We found a small empty square with a cafe and sat to grab something to drink and let the boys run around for a bit. Chuck and I both had recently become quite fond of the Aperol Spritz, an Italian aperitif which we had discovered when we were in Florence. At first, I wasn’t interested in trying them- many of the Italian aperitifs often contain bitters, which I had never much cared for, but after seeing signs everywhere advertising “Spritz and Chips”, we decided to try one, especially if it came with potato chips!
Well, let me just say. Aperol Spritzes have become my new love….Made with prosecco, aperol (an orange flavoured bitter liquor), and seltzer water, a few olives and a slice of orange, they are so yummy and refreshing after walking around in the hot Italian sun. And interestingly, low in alcohol, which means you don’t feel like you need to go home and take a nap afterwards.
The last time Chuck and I had been to Venice was on a trip through Europe we took 20 years ago. We visited lots of great cities on that trip, but it was Venice where I celebrated my 21st birthday. The professor on the trip had arranged for a dinner that night with all 40 of the students on the trip and it was a fun night! I remember my parents calling me at the restaurant from the US and I had to go into the kitchen to take the call (surrounded by several busy chefs working like crazy) since this was the only phone in the restaurant! We had saved the menu from that night, so Chuck was able to recall the name and we decided to see if we could find it? Sure enough, Taverna San Travoso was still there! Such a strange feeling to walk by and try to remember that night. Obviously, things are a little foggy….
The next few days, we spent lots of time exploring Venice and these were some of the highlights for us:
- Museum at San Marco basilica- We walked to San Marco square around noon on Sunday with hopes of visiting the basilica itself, but it didn’t open until 2 so we decided to get in line for the Treasury museum instead. After purchasing a large paper wrap for 1 euro (which is required of all females if your shoulders and knees are not covered-I was wearing a tank top), there is a steep climb up a very narrow, dark stairwell up to a gallery upstairs which overlooked the inside of the church itself.
One of the notable things about the inside of the Basilica is all of the tiny mosaic everywhere all over the walls made with gold which were absolutely beautiful and could easily be seen from up above inside the museum. Also housed there were the 4 original Roman bronze horses (the Triumphal Quadriga) that had been stolen by Napoleon in the 1700s and later replaced (source: Wikipedia) ; they were originally on the outer balcony, but have been moved inside the museum and replaced by 4 replicas. The outer balcony runs around the perimeter of the Basilica and comes with an amazing view of St Mark’s square as well as the Doge’s palace and waterway.
St Mark’s cathedral was built in the 800s and named after St. Mark whose remains were stolen from Alexandria by Venetian merchants and are housed there. It has since been destroyed and restored/rebuilt a few times. Some of the original mosaics are images which depict the theft of St Mark’s remains.
2) Masks- We had discovered that some friends of ours, the Buntins (also from Greenville and also moved to Clermont this summer with Michelin) would be in Venice a day or two overlapping with us and luckily for us, Nicole is much better at planning ahead by researching and arranging fun activities when they travel, so when she sent us a link for a mask-making class for children at an old,famous mask-making shop, Ca’ Macana, we happily joined in the fun!
This was SUCH a fun and memorable morning for us. Masks are a huge part of Venetian history and have been around for over 800 years, largely worn during celebrations and festivals such as Carnivale, an annual festival leading up to Lent but also for practical (i.e.: doctors would wear them during the plague to avoid exposure to diseases) and cultural (to conceal identity, particularly women) purposes.
The handmade masks from Ca’ Macana have been featured in movies such as Eyes Wide Shut, etc. and are long known for their beauty and intricacy. We walked into the shop to pay for our class and were able to look around and try on a few masks prior to starting the class.
I had called ahead to reserve a spot for the boys and was told that for the Beginner Mask Making class that we could just “show up” between anytime before the workshop closed at 5:30 but, apologetically, the class was only held in Italian and Russian and the boys would probably not have a problem still being able to follow along. When we got to the workshop, we totally lucked out: 1) the boys and the Buntin girls, Marley and Truus, were the only ones in the class, and 2) the teacher spoke fairly good English (!!!) After choosing their masks (there were dozens to choose from!) they were instructed to choose the background color and the type of finish they wanted (splotchy, blended, etc).
She came around and taught each of them the type of technique they had chosen and then patiently filled a palate for each with the (many!!!) colors they had chosen for their masks. After drying them and applying a clear glossy finish, they were complete.
The end results were such fun! Each took their time to make a different and unique mask and we were sure to snap a pic of all of them in the alley outside when they were through.
What a fun treasure for each of them to bring back to Greenville and hang on their walls!
3) Food- Ferini- This was a pizza place we had passed a few times that stood out among all the other hundreds of pizza places because their pizza just looked so dang good- the dough was big and fluffy and they had all kinds of breads, calzones, etc being made right in front of us, and so that, along with the smell, literally lured us inside. The 20 minute wait was well worth it.
One thing I love about walking around Italy in the evenings is how the waitstaff at restaurants will stand outside with the menu and kindly try to entice you into choosing their restaurant by pointing out all the different specials they are featuring that evening. I can’t figure out why it doesn’t seem pushy or annoying, but somehow it just doesn’t. They seem so professional, well groomed and work very hard to ensure their customers are happy while dining in their restaurants. And they don’t even work for tips!
We stopped at a restaurant that was featuring a grilled sea bass that sounded so amazing, so we stopped to eat. The waiters were all so kind, accommodating and friendly. The boys had gnocchi and pasta bolognese and I opted for the sea bass. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it definitely was not the whole entire fish on my plate, eyes and all. Lots of work sifting through hundreds of tiny bones, but I would do it again!
Before we moved to France, Chuck and I had talked about how it would be fun to find a unique treasure from each city we visited, preferably something for our home that would remind us of our travels. Since Venice is known for its strong artistic influences, we had hoped to find a small piece of art. This was no small feat. Ironically, there are dozens and dozens of art studios, shops and galleries but it took us all 5 days to finally settle on 2 small pieces. The last afternoon, Chuck and wandered into an art gallery we had walked by dozens of times and found an older man sitting at desk painting a watercolor image of some gondolas at sunset. He was surrounded by easels with oil and watercolor paintings in various stages of completion and he was playing the most beautiful symphony music with the volume turned all the way up; he didn’t even hear us come in. After looking around and through all kinds of paintings stacked on tables, furniture and the walls (some framed, some not), we decided on an oil painting as well as a small framed piece of blown glass art and when we walked out, I was sad to leave. I could’ve stayed for hours. It was truly an experience.
That same afternoon, we decided to take a gondola ride. Our gondolier took us from the Academia bridge out into the Grand Canal and then back through some narrow lagoons. It was a short (and pricey!) ride, 90 euros for 30 minutes, but again, the experience was well worth it. The boys loved it.
After hopping off, we took the boys for gelato and Chuck and I grabbed Spritzes to go from the coolest little bar we had walked past several times.
There were people all lined up standing and sitting up on the wall lining the canal, sharing small plates of sandwiches with all kinds of spreads, olives, nuts, etc. It was still very hot and sunny along the canal, so we wandered back down a long tiny little alley off the waterway which took us straight back to a shady set of steps overlooking a small, quiet lagoon with no foot traffic. It was one of my most favorite moments of our trip. There was something about finding absolute quiet in this insanely busy city that was really sweet. It gave the 5 of us time to sit and enjoy the charm of Venice itself for awhile and not be distracted by all the crowds (and people-watching!!) Even the kids sat there silently looking out at the little boats crawling down this quiet lagoon.
It was back to Florence the next morning for one more night in Italy before heading back to France and working our way back up to Clermont.