Saturday, November 24, 2012

Venice: Like No Other City on Earth

Venice is a great place to visit, but I understand why its population is quickly shrinking.  While 16th century Venice city planners were probably giving themselves a pat on the back for their successes, I'm surprised that 21st century Venice city planners are not committing more suicides.  

Sorry that's a cruel joke, Venice was not intended to be viewed through the lens of a practical engineer, but rather the lens of a hopeless romantic.  Fortunately I'm both.  It is true that Venice is on it's way to becoming a tourist-only museum; it takes a special kind of person to live here full time, and their numbers are few.

One of my favorite pictures for no particular reason

I heard many of the ground floors are empty due to flooding

Closest we got to gondola (why I'm hopeless)

Just another old church - I've lost track of what's what, there are so many

As the only guests in our hotel, the staff put out 2 hardboiled eggs, 2 croissants, and some nice coffee.  Kerry grabbed both eggs.  We then caught the vaparetto back to Venice for our first full day exploring the city.  First stop was the market.

Me admiring more seafood I can't buy - next time we book a room with a kitchenette

Cuttlefish before
Cuttlefish after, I can't tell if the ink actually tastes like anything

Then it was time to walk over to San Marco to tour the church.

We found it using only a compass and the free tourist map from the airport... well the signs helped too.

Kerry tricking a pigeon into thinking she had food for them, they wised up quick

View from the bottom

View from the top!  This view is worth 8 euro(?).

Luckily we visited on the quarter hour.

We then hopped on a vaparetto to tour the grand canal, thanks to Rick Steve's Audio Guide mp3s which we downloaded to our phones.  These give you some nice bits of information abut the history of the magnificent buildings lining the canal.

Kerry got a front row view during our self-guided tour

I question how "romantic" this is with massive boats buzzing by you chopping up the water.

"You don't say, Rick?"

The mailboat

We had one more tour stop that turned out to be the best:  the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari.   We saw one of Donatello's wood sculptures, and final resting place of his bo staff.

Jethro Tull fanboy street performer near church

The Friari is big, but not much from the outside.  Beautiful paintings that I can't take pictures of inside, though.

After this visit I decided I'm a fan of Titian; he did some pretty interesting things with paint that I would have never appreciated had it not been for Mr. Steve.  

After this, we were pretty much worn out of looking at things, so we decided to wander and find a place for a glass of vino, and we did a bit of window shopping.

Stopped in a local grocery store and had a good laugh:  Pasta shapes!  Collect them all!

Shops in a narrow alley, probably selling those creepy carnival masks from Eyes Wide Shut
I was right!

It was common to hit a dead end

Stopped for some wine, and they broke out into a tasting session - but then found out it was not free :(.  It was fun listening to a wine presentation in Italian.  Well, I assumed it was wine; I could only make out bianco and rossi.

Best window shopping display in Venice.  A mannequin holding a mannequin baby, wearing a thong that spells out "Love My Virus" in rhinestones.  So bummed they were closed.  A quick post-trip google search later I found this blog post which talks about her experience in this store - Fiorella Gallery.  Here.  She links to the store's actual webpage, but I'll warn you it's weird and uptight folks may find it offensive.

After a late dinner of mediocre, overpriced pasta (we were so hungry, I didn't care that much that I could have made it better myself at home), we headed home to rest up for our 2nd full day.

It started with a bicycle tour around Sant Erasmo (using the hotel's free bike rental).

Dangerous stunt:  self shot while riding.  Don't tell Carol!  Her camera was fine.

Kerry hadn't ridden a bike in years, but as they say, it's like riding a bike.

In America my Ford Ranger looks small...

The local cemetery - beautiful fresh flowers everywhere

A goat

Burano from far away

and then a long vaparetto ride to Burano...

Burano from up close - like walking into a painting

The leaning tower of Burano - it will have have to do, as I'm not sure we'll make it to Pisa this year.

Walking down the street is like going through the home improvement store paint swatch section

Perfectly acceptable house color; wonder what HOA meetings here are like?

Feral hunting cats, classic 3-point tactic:  remain motionless until a bird lands within striking distance.

And then to Murano...

Glass garden

Murano is certainly odd.  Just loads of artistic glass shops; but they almost hate tourists.  You walk into a store and they just can't wait for you to break something.  I saw a glass trout that was going for 6000 euro.  We quickly made our way to a nice cafe for the WC, lunch, and prosseco.

I should time out to say that toilets in Venice are tricky.  When you're out all day, you have to plan bathroom stops with food or drinks (a viscous cycle), or pay the 1.50 to use the public WC.  

For dinner we headed back to Venice to find another restaurant and more walking in different neighborhoods.

Found chestnuts roasting on an open fire!  First time, they're like sweet potatoes, kinda.

The 11 pm vaparetto is nice and warm.

Well, that about wraps it up... we had a morning flight out the next day, so we had an early start to allow time for all the transfers between boats and buses.  It was a weekend to remember for the rest of our lives, and many travel lessons were learned.  Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Prologue to Venice: Like No Other City on Earth

The weekend of November 10 was [mostly] quiet as Kerry and I spent it in town again.  While the weekend didn't deserve it's own blog post, now that we're more seasoned expats and have gotten bored of silly UK/US comparisons, I do want to share one highlight.  We were invited over for dinner with our wonderful neighbors; a retired couple who know how to have a good time.  We started out at a proper pub, loaded with taxadermied wildife, where we gents had 2 pints each.  We then made our way back to their house where I had another pint with a prawn appetizer, and then the four of us collectively took out 2 bottles of wine with the take-and-bake pizza.  After enjoying our hostess's wonderful homeeade creme brulee, they broke out the amaretto and congac.  Hours of wonderful conversation later (when I noticed Kerry was sipping on straight congac and saying how good it was) I knew it was time to bid our hosts farewell and stumble home across the street.  The next morning I could only hope we didn't say anything too embarrassing.  But I can't wait to return the favor at our bungalow!  

Before I get on to our Venice experience,  first and foremost I must thank my coworker Carol who let us borrow her camera.  She was a lifesaver, as the photos we took in Venice are irreplaceable.  What happened to our camera?  Well, as I was in a rush to get in the car to get out of the cold rain in Swansea to return home, I threw my camera in the armrest cubby, and slammed the top down.  The Audi I'm renting has this horrible design where there's a plastic support rib on the inner wall of the armrest cubby lid which applied sufficient pressure to my camera's LCD screen to cause failure.  I was nauseous with regret!  There's no way we can afford another camera.  It still takes pictures but you can't see what you're taking a photo of, or know what the settings are.  Luckily we found a service that will repair it for roughly half the cost of replacing it, but that still stings.  

Lesson learned - the outcome of haste is always a lot more painful than you bargained for.  Haste clouds judgement and causes stupid mistakes.  This year is about constantly being in unfamiliar situations, and it's all the more important to keep a level head.  Sometimes it's too easy to get worked up over the unknown and I lapse into this weird paniky hyper vigilance mode, especially in other non-English speaking countries.  But, even here in the UK on occasion I've had to stop and take a deep breath (usually related to traffic).  But seriously, it's not THAT different, so just chill out dude.

Well that was a bit too cathartic, but I'm not going to delete it.  I did just change the title to Prologue, so that means this will be a 2-part post.  

So finally let's talk about Venice.  It started like most of our trips with a 3:30 am alarm clock to get to the airport.  Birmingham has some great deals on offsite car parking, but the level of complexity we experienced to park made Rube Goldberg look like Jack Welch.  It's still not clear to me how we got to the airport, but sometimes people tend to pick up the slack for you if you appear to be incompetent.  A similar situation came up after we landed, where the ticket machine which issued us the discount Venice bus passes for the weekend was broken. The bus driver told us to go to the ticket office and the ticket office said just to get on the bus with the voucher I printed out.  Fed up with it, we just got on the bus and the driver gave up his argument (only after giving me the classic Italian hand motion, which reminded me of this scene from Raging Bull).

"I got no choice!"

The ticket machine in Venice did work, so we were had unlimited access to the vaparetto (Venice's boat bus system) for 3 days.  

Enough jibber jabber, pictures please!

On our first vaparetto experience a taxi boat nearly missed ramming into us.  Instead it just glanced off the side.  Hand gestures were made. 

Just after the taxi incident as an elderly Italian woman started talking to me as I nodded and smiled.

This stop could not have come any sooner!

We did not stay on Venice proper, but we found a good deal on a nearby island, Sant Erasmo.  It is a quiet farming island that is sparsely populated with wide open spaces.  It could not be more opposite than Venice, which is literally packed from edge to edge with buildings.

The vaparetto park and ride on Sant Erasmo; we had to walk.

Our bus stop
Beautiful clear weather all weekend!

We were the only guests the first night - the hotel was owned by a woman from Iowa who has lived in Venice for 30 years
Hotel neighbored a vineyard
After a quick nap after the long morning we had, it was back on the vaparetto to get lost in Venice and try to find a place for dinner.

Rialta bridge at night

The grand canal!

Sliver of a moon over the city

We rested on the elevated walkway in a dry San Marco's Square

San Marco's Square 3 days before we arrived

Around 9 pm we randomly went into a fun looking restaurant and had a decent meal.  With Barcelona under our belts, we were ready for the late dinner.  It's well known that everything in Venice is expensive, little did we know this was the best deal we would have found all weekend.

A decent wine that reminds us of our hometown of Valpo, IN

Room keys were attached to skeeballs - they were left hanging in the lobby while you were out, and front door was never locked.  There was no one a.t the desk

So I'm going to pause here for now.  Our first 1/2 day in the city was fun just wandering and getting lost in the winding alleys.  Venice is a magical city, like no other.   (I just realized this is probably because there are no cars, scooters, or bicycles to be found, walking only.)