Part 1: VENICE
Prior to embarking on a two week Mediterranean cruise, we decided to arrive four days early and see Venice in more detail than we had been able to do on previous trips and stay in Barcelona an additional four days at the end of our cruise. We booked our stay at the Hotel Plaza in Mestre after a long search of hotels in Venice yielded no results that met my criteria. (Easy access from train or bus station, front desk open after 11 pm for our late arrival, moderately priced, free WiFi, and must have a lift) The Plaza ended up being a good choice as it is located directly across from a bus stop and the train station in Mestre. They have a really nice included buffet breakfast and at around $100 per night, it was well within our budget. The Plaza apparently has a lot of English speaking visitors as all the staff spoke English and the signage was all in English. The standard room was quite spacious and actually had giant thick fluffy towels instead of those thin tablecloth like ones you find in some Italian hotels.
We arrived at Marco Polo airport at 10pm, found the ATVO machine and bought two one way tickets to Mestre (€6 each) arriving at the Hotel Plaza around 11pm. Note that the ATVO provides non-stop direct bus service unlike the ACTV which is a local bus with lots of stops. The next morning I went across the street to the train station to see if the multiday travel cards were available for purchase there as we planned to use them for the bus to Venice and also for the vaporetto. I had a few questions about the travel cards so I went to the information desk instead of the ticket machine and to my surprise I found that the vaporettos and some busses were not operating due to a strike. We decided on the train instead and bought two tickets (€1.20/each) to Venice. An 8 minute ride brought us into the Venice train station on a gorgeous day. I had mapped out our itinerary and we used a Garmin GPS to navigate the streets and alleyways. For those not familiar, you will need a GPS or detailed map of Venice to get around as many streets are not signposted. The GPS worked flawlessly unless we were in the narrowest of alleys where we lost the satellite signal. When I would anticipate a lost signal, I would jump ahead for directions and overall it worked very well. It was really nice not to have to stop every hundred yards or so and pull out a map.
Our first stop was the Basilica del Frari (€3.00). A 14th century church that has a wonderful collection of masterpieces including some by Titian & Bellini. The mausoleum of Doge Giovanni Pesaro is a very unusual work that is not to be missed. We next headed south towards Campo Santa Margherita stopping at any churches & museums that we passed along the way. After touring the sites there, we press onwards towards the Galleria Academia to see about making reservations. I had decided against reserving tickets ahead of time on line and boy was I glad. Half the galleries were closed due to the strike. Although tickets were available, we decided to try again another day as we weren’t sure how long the strike would last. We continue our journey to the Santa Maria Della Salute. It’s the large church you can see across the water from San Marco and we’ve always said we wanted to see the inside. It is closed but would be open in a short while. Next door is the Palazzo Grassi, a museum which was not on our list and we weren’t sure we wanted to spend €10 each to see contemporary art since we are not huge fans. Since we were going to have to wait for the Santa Maria Della Salute to open next door, we decided to spend the €10 and it was a wise decision. The art work is interesting, but there is a lounge area in one room where you can relax on sofas listening to soft music. My wife fell asleep there for 45 minutes. She commented afterwards that it was well worth €10 to have clean toilets and a place to rest after walking all morning. Totally reinvigorated, we go next door to the Santa Maria Della Salute which is now open. Extensive repairs are being done to the interior so about 2/3 is roped off. Entry is free, but to see the art in the sacristy there is a €3 fee.
After exiting the Santa Maria Della Salute, I asked a water taxi driver the cost for a trip back to the train station. I knew they were expensive, but the €60 fare was a bit too much for us so we decided to hoof it. It’s about a 30 minute walk if you don’t stop and shop but we were able to turn it into a 90 minute stroll as we stopped and shopped along the way. Our plans were to find a restaurant not far from the train station that I had previously programmed into my GPS but the battery died in my GPS. Without the water busses running, I had used my GPS much longer than anticipated and it finally gave up. I couldn’t remember the street name so we decided to wander along the Lista di Spagna and pick a restaurant at random. After looking at several, we decided on the Bella Venezia. I had the spaghetti with seafood as a first course and a baked fish for a main. Both were excellent. My wife had a salad followed by fish stew which she said was very good. The total with wine was €81 and that included all the extras. I would definitely eat there again.
Back to the train station for a ride to our hotel. The ticket machines are quite easy to use as you can get instructions in English, but I didn’t understand the message it kept giving me that I was putting in too much money. Our ticket total for two was €2.40 and I inserted €2.50. The machine kept giving me the money back until I realized that it was apparently out of change. Once I inserted €2.40, it gave us our ticket. (one ticket for 2 persons) We got on the train and as it began to move I realized that I had not validated the ticket before getting on. That was the longest 8 minute train ride ever. We got off without being checked so no fine this time.
We began our second day with a 12 minute bus ride into Venice (travel cards are valid for land busses as well as water busses). To validate the travel card, you simply wave it in front of a little box on the bus. If you get on a crowded bus from the rear as we did, the accepted protocol seems to be that you pass your tickets to other passengers who will continue the process until your tickets are validated and are returned to you.
Fortunately, water busses are running today and we hop on for a ride to San Marco. The square is fairly busy and water is starting to flow in. There is a huge queue at St. Marks so we decide to stroll west stopping at every church that we passed. I can’t emphasize enough the gems you might find in some of the smaller and less known churches. For example, we tour the Santa Maria del Giglio (€3) and find that it has the only Rembrandt in Venice. When we cross the Academia Bridge there is a gondolier standing there and since we had never taken a ride on any of our previous trips, we decided to inquire about a possible excursion. After reading so many tales on Fodors about tourists being ripped off, I knew to negotiate before the trip precisely what we would get for our money. The gondolier was an older fellow and was very clear about his prices that ranged from €80 - €120. He showed me a map with the exact routes that he used. We opted for one that would take us from the Academia Bridge to San Marco, then using back canals, head north to the Rialto and then a return to the Academia along the Grand Canal. The trip took an hour and we got a full narration along the way. The gondolier seemed to know something interesting about nearly every building in Venice. I felt that we definitely got our money’s worth.
We hop on the vaporetto back to Piazza San Marco, tour St. Mark’s and head north towards Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo. We stop for a quick lunch (pizza & pasta) and then we tour the basilica. There were very few visitors and we both agreed that it was more stunning than St. Mark’s. On to the Fondamente Nuove vaporetto stop where we catch the water bus to Murano. It’s a short trip and we spend several hours strolling around this very walkable island. We return to the Fondamente stop and spend the rest of the day wandering the streets of Venice and hopping on and off the vaporetto. We return to the hotel via bus and opt for dinner at Ristorante Orientale, a very good and reasonably priced Asian restaurant just around the corner from our hotel.
The next day it’s off to our cruise ship and with all of our luggage, we opt for a taxi. One advantage of the taxis over the bus or train is that you are taken directly to the luggage drop of point at the ship so there’s no hauling luggage over long distances.
Our final day in Venice ends with our cruise ship sailing around the western side of Venice, by St. Marks and on to open waters. I know that some of you wouldn’t set foot on a cruise ship for any reason, but for the rest I want to say that the view of Venice from the ship was spectacular! For over 30 minutes we moved ever so slowly along the same route that the vaporettos take. Just imagine taking that vaporetto trip, but instead of from water level, you are 12 stories up. I have some of the most beautiful photos of our trip that were taken from this bird’s eye view of Venice. (And yes, I am aware that Venice is severely restricting cruise ships from taking this route in the future.)
I will report separately on the Cruise Forum the 12 day voyage to Barcelona and will continue here with the 4 days we spent in Barcelona after the cruise.
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Part 1: VENICE