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Trip Report Italy trip report: Venice

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This trip report is part 4 of a report that starts at:

Starting at Ortisei (St. Ulrich) in the Dolomites, on Wednesday, May 31, we drove back down to the A22 (and I do mean DOWN, and DOWN, and DOWN), took it to the A4, and the A4 to Venice, where we drove the car as far as you can go with a car in Venice, and dropped it for good at the Piazzale Roma. There we had only to go out the back door of the AutoEuropa office to pick up a water taxi to our hotel. We could have taken a much cheaper vaporetto, but dragging our heavy (rolling) luggage, we instead paid 50 euros for a taxi directly to the hotel. After checking in, we walked around a bit, used an internet caffé to check our e-mail, and then had dinner at the Fiascheria Toscana ' I had a classic risotto with peas, and scorpion fish with clams. We thought it was one of the best meals we had this trip.

This was our second visit to Venice, and it continues to astound me. It's a city, with buses, taxis, fire engines, police cars, delivery trucks, construction cranes, hearses, garbage trucks, and all the other vehicles one needs in a city. Except the streets are canals, and these vehicles are all boats. Having been in Venice before, this time we stayed away from the primary tourist area around St. Mark's square ' we were there only once during our four days. Instead, we walked around a lot, and saw some of the sights we missed our first time there, back in October of 2000. One thing we didn't see this time was aqua alta ' the periodic flooding that inconvenienced us when we were there in October. It's a seasonal thing, and no episodes of aqua alta occurred during this visit.

We stayed at the Ca' Amadi (, in a dead-end alley not far from the Rialto bridge. I think the location was terrific, as it's a bit removed from the crowds of St. Mark's Square, yet not really all that far, if you want to walk it. In fact, being quite central, you can walk from there to most anywhere in Venice. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but our room, overlooking a small canal, was enormous, particularly by Venice standards, with a towering two-story ceiling. Every morning, we'd open our window and watch a group of gondoliers set up for the day. They would then stand on the nearby bridge and try to draw in customers. The Ca' Amadi was once the home of Marco Polo in Venice, so the building was pointed out by all the passing gondoliers. If I was looking out the window at the time, people would sometimes call out, 'Hey, Marco!', or words to that effect. Perhaps Marco Polo once stayed in my room! The staff at the hotel were always very friendly and helpful. They could stand to improve their breakfasts ' they need to add some cheese or other protein, and you got your own coffee from an automated brewer, instead of having it made for you on a real espresso machine, as in most of the other hotels we stayed at.

Thursday, June 1. Our first full day in Venice. We went to the Academia, which has a wonderful art collection, but a very low-tech audio guide. It's a tape, which forces you to go through the rooms in a predetermined order (although you can stop it and start it to set the pace). If you get a guide for two people, you get only one tape player, and two headsets, which ties you together.

We then visited an exhibit of modern art in the Villa Grassi that has not been previously open to the public. Selections from the François Pinault collection entitled 'Where Are We Going?', it will be running in Venice through January 10, 2006. While some of the works were pretty startling (like two full-size genuine cows dissected into half a dozen segments, and displayed in huge tanks of formaldehyde), it largely served to remind Margie and me that there's a lot of modern art that we don't like very much.

We ate lunch at the Trattoria Ai Cugnai, where I continued my seafood theme with a mixed seafood antipasto, and crab served in its shell. Margie had a good omelet. To make it clear how she likes them, I looked up 'well done' in the Collins dictionary on my PDA. It suggested 'bravo'. But a bit more searching turned up the proper translation, 'ben cotto', literally 'well cooked'. (And of course, 'biscotto' means 'twice cooked', plural 'biscotti'.)

The last time we were in Venice, we dutifully bought a three-day pass on the vaporetti, and carried it with us wherever we went, but in three days, it was never checked. That was not the case this visit. Our passes were checked after lunch on our first day, and they were checked several times after that. This stepped up enforcement has been noted on a recent Fodor's thread.

We had phoned during the day, and made a reservation for dinner at La Zucca. On the way to the restaurant, walking down the Salizada di San Stae, we passed a shop displaying some unusual jigsaw puzzles in the window, and we stopped in. They were the work of the shop's owner, Vanni Morandin. He displayed not only puzzles, but real works of art done in wood, using jigsaw and inlay techniques. Many were very beautiful, others more whimsical or humorous (one takeoff of a Salvador Dalí painting unexpectedly had Lisa Simpson in it). In her studies of French, Margie has been recently reading Le Petit Prince, and we bought a piece showing the Petit Prince on his planet, with its volcanoes and baobab tree. The circular planet is somehow weighted so that it stands upright on the table. There's no obvious place that the weight could have been inserted, and Signore Morandin didn't tell me the secret as he carefully custom-packed it in cardboard so I could carry it home un-damaged. The address of the store is S. Stae 1921, 30135 Venezia (Tel. 347-2482637).

Dinner at La Zucca was very good, pleasantly eaten outdoors. The name means 'The Pumpkin', and we each started with their famous pumpkin flan. We could have easily split one ' it was a large and extremely rich concoction. The people at the table next to us engaged the waiter in lengthy discussion to select 100% vegetarian dishes. Not us; I had turkey in a curry sauce, and Margie had duck. Both were quite good.

For a city full of boats, one walks an awful lot in Venice. At the end of the day, Margie's pedometer showed we had traveled 5.54 miles (8.92 Km) on foot. I think that was our highest mileage day for the trip.

Friday, June 2: We went to the train station to buy our tickets back to Milan. I accomplished the entire feat in Italian. I was rewarded by the sales attendant asking where we were from, and then commenting that I was the first American he had met who spoke Italian. My guess is that there were many others, but they take the easy way out when they discover that the attendant can speak English. We bought tickets for the early afternoon on Sunday.

Our intent was to go from the train station to the nearby old Jewish ghetto district for a synagogue tour, which we had missed on our previous trip to Venice. But we had the foresight to phone the Jewish Museum in the morning, and discovered that it was closed for a Jewish holiday '(Shavuos' ' we looked it up later). Since it would of course also be closed on Saturday, that was it for this trip. I guess we'll have to return to Venice some day. No problem ' there are still several weeks worth of activities left for us in Venice.

Arriving instead at the Frari ('Santa Maria Gloriosa'), we found it closed until 13:00 for a wedding. We toured the 'Scuola Grande di San Rocco' instead, and then ate lunch at the Tratoria da Silvio, in their very nice outdoor garden. The food was good, too. I had a great 'Zuppa di Pesche', and Margie had a pizza. By then it was after 13:00, and we went through the Frari, which was magnificent. Walking south to the San Toma vaporetto stop, we took a #1 boat around the bend to San Stae, and toured a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit that will be in the Chiesa di S. Stae until November, 2006. It was a small exhibit, but I wanted to see it, because with our afternoon train on Sunday, we would likely get in to Milan too late to see the da Vinci exhibit there.

We then basically headed back to the hotel, although via an internet caffé. Rather than going over the Rialto bridge, we instead headed to the Rialto market a bit north of the bridge, and took a traghetto across the Grand Canal. We were interested in doing this, since we had never used one of the traghetti before. As opposed to a traghetto in the lakes, which carries cars, a traghetto in Venice is a large gondola that carries only people, on a short ride across the Grand Canal from one side to the other, for half a euro each. The word 'traghetto' means 'crossing', or, in the sense of a boat, 'ferry'. The route back then took us via the Strada Nova, which proved to be a wide, popular shopping street. Although it was not far from our hotel, we had been previously unaware of it.

We had dinner at the Osteria della Botta, an favorite of Fodorite 'Franco'. We were not disappointed. It's a great hangout, noisy and packed with friendly locals. An overworked waitress patiently helped me with the menu. I had the classic 'sarde con saor', sardines in a sort of sweet and sour sauce.

Saturday, June 3, our last full day in Venice. We strolled up to the Santa Maria dei Miracoli, and toured the church, and then walked down to Santa Maria Formosa, and did the same. Then lunch at the Trattoria alla Riveta, which was packed, mostly with locals, but some tourists. We sat next to a table of gondoliers, and I observed how one of them managed to eat fried sardines: sort of like corn on the cob. He held each sardine at the head and the tail, and ate around it, ending up holding a bare skeleton.

We then walked to the vaporetto stop 'San Zaccaria', and took a boat to the Ca' Rezzonico (worth seeing), and went through it, after which we returned by vaporetto to the Rialto. On that trip, we spoke with a photographer who was taking pictures of the motley assortment of rowers we had seen around Venice during our stay. Some were rowing standing, gondolier style, others more conventionally, some in costumes, in a varied assortment of different types of boats. It hadn't occurred to us to ask what they all were.

The photographer informed us that they were all preparing for an annual set of races called the 'Vogalongo', of various types of human-powered craft. She just happened to mention that this meant that on Sunday, the Grand Canal would be closed! We were rather astounded to note that there were no visible announcements of this event, which would clearly affect the entire city. And it would certainly affect us, since we were scheduled to take our heavy luggage to the train station at around noon. Well, apparently not on a vaporetto, nor on a water taxi. Inquiries at the hotel confirmed the photographer's information, although the hotel hadn't thought it worthwhile to inform us of it. An inquiry at the Rialto vaporetto stop confirmed that the vaporetti and the water taxis would stop running on Sunday at 7:30 am.

This episode struck me as typical of Italy, where there's a certain 'What the hell, people will manage' attitude. In discussing it with an Italian man, when I suggested that there were thousands of tourists in Venice, and it might have been nice to find ways to notify them of the disruption this event would cause, he replied something to the effect of, 'but that would take a lot of coordination'. He rolled his eyes, as if to imply that such coordination was beyond the realm of possibility. I thought of the old story about heaven and hell, which I suspect all Fodorites have heard many times: 'Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian and it is all organized by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the cooks are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it is all organized by the Italians.'

I don't want to complain too much about this, as it didn't end up being a major disaster for us, and when traveling, one has to be able to roll with the punches. But remember, we had only found out about it entirely by chance. A conceivable scenario would have been for us to appear at the Rialto vaparetto stop a safe half hour before our train departure, only to discover for the first time that neither the vaporetti nor the water taxis were running. At that point, it would have been impossible to make our train. Yet the trivial method of posting of signs at the vaporetto stops a few days before would have avoided this possible dilemma.

Thinking of what to do, I consulted a map, and counted seven bridges between us and the station, if we wanted to walk. The walk would certainly be possible, but each bridge meant dragging the luggage up and down a set of steps. Between the bridges, it's level, of course, since all of Venice is just a meter or two above sea level (a little less each year). We decided to pack up that evening, and then to go down to the Rialto stop at 7 am, half an hour before the vaporetti were scheduled to cease operating. At the station, we'd try to change our tickets for an earlier train, but failing that, we'd just park our luggage in the 'Left Luggage' room, and find some things to do near the station (such as watching the Vogalongo).

After packing up, we had dinner at 'Il Milion', which was good, although I wouldn't say it was great. The service was quite slow towards the end, but the manager, who had been very helpful, realized that there had been a problem, and to make up for it, he didn't charge us for our desserts and our limoncelli.

Sunday, June 4: We woke up at 6:15 am to get to the vaporetto stop before 7 am, and took a #82 boat uneventfully to the train station. We changed our tickets to a 10:20 am train, and dropped our luggage in the luggage depository. We then hung around and watched the confusion as tourists dragging their luggage off the various arriving trains discovered that the only way to get anywhere was to walk. This included some large tour groups, who, it seemed, were no more informed about this event than we had been. Their tour leaders consulted with the personnel at the ticket booth, their charges gathered around in large crowds as the situation was explained to them, and then they marched off on foot in one direction or another.

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