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Il bel paese: PART 1– Venice, Italy {travel log}

Most experiences in life are hard to digest at the time the experience is occurring. As much as you look around you and try take in all the details—the smell, the feel in the air, the scenery, the colors, the way you feel—it’s not always up to the conscious part of your brain to choose which moments to indelibly embed into your memory bank. It’s not like studying or memorizing a language. It’s not about succeeding in remembering what you want to remember. It’s about feeling the experience again effortlessly, and letting what is in your mind’s eye wash over you once again when something triggers the reminiscing.

I have always been fascinated by that reality, and while Neil and I were in Italy, this was even more on my mind. I do remember several times trying to take it all in….so overwhelmed with beauty—alleys to explore, scenes to photograph and goings on that piqued my curiosity. But once again, I had no power over choosing which moments truly stayed with me. I think that is one reason I am so enamored with photography. Because when I click the shutter, I have chosen to freeze that frame in time…that scene…those colors…. In hopes of someday looking at the images again and reliving the moment I thought was worthy of reliving…even if your brain didn’t fully record it in the readily accessible way that it did others.

I will be posting a few—probably 3—blogs over the next few weeks about my trip out of the country. It was a wonderful, albeit exhausting, vacation, though it started out rocky with a canceled flight and subsequently losing 7 hours that could have been spent in our first destination—Venice.

Or Venezia as it is known “over there.” (and I still wonder to this day why the rest of the world doesn’t call locations what they are actually named..)

So yes…let’s start with Venice. (And I know most of you will just flick through this to look at the pics…but I thought I’d document the actual trip here so others who are planning similar trips can use it as a resource for either help or inspiration…and let’s face it…my mom and sister want to know details. Haha) So my apologies if it drones on and on. I think the 2nd and 3rd posts will be way shorter because many of the nuances of the culture are noted early on.

We got in about 5:15 p.m. Italy time (10:15 a.m. back home). After the most miserable international flight thanks to very little sleep and an excruciatingly painful butt and back from the uncomfy seats that only exacerbate my own spinal probs, we finally landed in this fascinating city. We took a private transfer from the airport to a water taxi on the Grand Canal, and from there, we were dropped off at our hotel… Palazzo Giovanelli. On the way to the hotel, I think my eyes were glazed over because as much as you see photos of Venice, and as much as I know that there are no streets, but only walkways and canals, it is so other-wordly to fully be immersed in this car-less culture.

Everything seemed so fake, but in that good “pinch me, this can’t be real” way. I felt I was on a worn out, but much-loved, movie set. The buildings are not perfectly kept up. In fact, most were downright decrepit if you look closely. But knowing this city is 1500 years old, you can easily cut it some slack, right?

I myself was curious as to how the city stayed afloat…I thought maybe it was just an island with canals dug out of it…but I guess the buildings are instead built on petrified wood piles, so the foundation is nearly stone-like and therefore decay and termite-proof. (And there are some theories that the city is sinking, but several efforts are in place to help prevent it)

The first pic I took on my iPhone upon pulling into our hotel dock. This is the church of San Stae next door to our hotel.

The first evening we got in, after we settled into our rather small hotel room, we went for a walk in search of dinner. (Osterias, cafes and trattorias are rampant; and it was refreshing to not see any chains like Applebee’s anywhere…) One of the first scenes before us had several locals and tourists cracking up. I couldn’t even believe my eyes.
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Along the way, my mouth was often agape (thank gosh there didn’t seem to be many bugs because if there were, I’d have swallowed a few as my antipasti), and I would find myself staring at a building, a wall, a door, an ornate fixture, and getting lost in thoughts about all the possible stories that have unfolded over the centuries within reach. The dilapidation was undeniably charming, and not just because I’m a photographer. Couple that with the natives’ décor of fresh flowers or hanging laundry, and I was seriously in awe.

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There is a mystical serenity that blankets the alleys and plazas. Because the walls are all around us, sound didn’t carry far, so we felt somewhat alone no matter where we went. Alone, but not lonely.

Sometimes, we’d catch wind of a flurry of voices or laughter from down the lanes, alleys or walkways, and it reminded me of the muffled sound of fun after you step outside of a party—you know, that comforting notion that you’re being independent, perhaps clearing your head, but civilization is not far off.

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At every turn, I wanted to take a picture. But thanks to Neil’s already festering annoyance (it’s rough to travel with a photographer if you yourself aren’t one!!) and my own fear that I’d run out of battery power (I left my charger at home accidentally!! And only had 3 batteries!!!), I tried to not overdo it knowing it was only the first night.

We found ourselves in a large square plaza at dusk, populated by tourists and locals alike, including several boisterous kids who had turned the brick beneath their feet into their soccer field. We chose a café called Cico Bar with outdoor seating and palatable prices. I ordered something crazy…. Spaghetti and Meatballs. Haha I thought I’d try something so typical the first night and see if it even compared to that which I can make myself or get at a restaurant 5000 miles away. Neil got a tortellini in a cream sauce with pancetta. Both were quite yummy, however, I feel horrible saying that for being IN Italy, I wasn’t overly impressed. It was actually a tad too spicy. Neil’s mom makes better sauce. We did get gelato (yum!! I opted for Nutella flavor!!!) that first night, as well as stocked up on bottled water. (We’d heard the tap water was fine to drink, but I dunno… I just didn’t want to risk it since we were so far from home.)

A lovely view of our hotel at night.
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So the first night’s sleep was much-needed (we hadn’t slept in over 30 hours!!!) Because our room was on the ground floor, I could easily hear the lobby music. I fell asleep to Phil Collins. And I woke up to him, too. As it turns out (I later learned), many Italians are huge fans of American music, but tend to embrace the 80s/90s songs and good ol’ Phil is a top fave. We heard. Him. Everywhere.

The hotel had a great breakfast…and they called it the AMERICAN breakfast, which was also the same at the hotel we stayed at in Rome. We’re thinking that the believe Americans eat lunch meat, cheese and scrambled eggs for breakfast.

We had a morning appointment to tour the Doge’s Palace via a Secret Itinerary tour. Now, most people know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line (which I can’t say without thinking of Deana Carter’s HOW DO I GET THERE lyrics…). But apparently, Venice never has heard of that concept (and probably not Deana Carter either.)

There is no such thing as walking straight on a road to get anywhere, so we opted to purchase a 48-hour pass on the vaporetto (waterbus), and took that from the stop right outside our hotel (San Stae) to the St. Mark’s stop for the Doge’s Palace. The vaporetto was awesome in its convenience, and quite cool to experience, too. Look at all the prettiness we’ve seen along the way….
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I took two pics…one on my iphone and one on my 5d Mark II. Which one do you like better? (and can you tell which is which???)
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And then there was something coming at us….
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as it got closer, we saw it was a kayak race. I found it so fitting that the turquoise and red ones were winning. 😉
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We made it with time to kill. The Doge (translated to “duke”) was the Republic of Venice’s highest elected chief of state for thousands of years. Whomever was chosen for that position was chosen for the duration of his life, and under his rule, it was attempted to build a mini-empire. (This practice continued until 1797, when shorty-pants Napoleon took over the city.) To see pics of the actual building, click on the link below or google it.. it was so busy that any pic I got just wasn’t pretty enough to do these justice buildings justice.

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So we toured the buildings where these administrative offices were kept, but we went behind the scenes to the prisons and the rooms where the judges would hear out the cases. We learned about the system of justice called the Bocca Di Leone, which allowed a Venezian to write an anonymous letter, snitching on another citizen or member of authority. (This concept actually fascinated/haunted Mark Twain, which he referred to in one of his many writings.) The concept? Insert letter of denunciation into lion’s mouth and let the accused be judged. Various lions around the city were there for a range of denunciations. The main one on the Doge’s Palace entrance served as the portal to report tax evaders. (The lions are missing from the other two slots.)
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The most fascinating part of the tour was learning the story of the real Cassanova. You know, he was the one who was notorious for being a seductive womanizer. Most men were not fond of him, so it was no surprise that he was in the crosshairs of the law-enforcers, but since no proof could be found regarding his dalliances in adultery, he was arrested for having forbidden books on witchcraft. But he wasn’t just good with the ladies….he had a knack for manipulating prison guards and being a MacGuyver with limited resources. He ended up escaping rather than serving out his sentence, and later was corralled by Italian government to become a spy. (I must note that I was romanced by this story so much that I wanted to know more about the man whose name still today is used so flippantly. But I was disappointed to learn that by looks alone, he was not someone who would make MY heart go pitter-patter. He must have had charisma. ) To see for yourself, be sure to click on the link in his name above.

One of my fave pics of the trip.
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The prisoners walked between the interrogation rooms and the prison, and here is their last view of the world outside before they were imprisoned…the Bridge of Sighs….(which now could be renamed, “bridge of tourists who want to emulate sardines”….
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After the tour, we did a quick walkthrough Saint Mark’s square…
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but we were rather annoyed with the heavy influx of tourists so we bailed and returned to the less-populated neighborhoods. Even the Rialto Bridge was a mess of people…though still beautiful.
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I needed to use the restroom, but all the horror stories are true, finding a decent place to do so is not easy or desirable. We learned the best way to do it was to find a bar, buy a bottled water and then use their toilettes. Well, in this one instance, I chose a restaurant that was a bit too hoity-toity and they only served very large glass bottles of water, for $4 euros (which would have been $7.) I must have looked desperate because I instead offered the guy –and thank gosh he spoke English– $1 euro to just use the bathroom. He had to ask permission, but luckily, the answer was yes. Phew!!! So just know that is what you must do when you gotta go. 🙂 Also here I’d like to inform you if you don’t already know…that the restaurants that DO have a toilet room, oftentimes don’t have seats on the toilet. I myself am not a hoverer (I think it’s gross and too uncomfy) so I always had to clean off the rim first, then I cloaked it in layers of toilet paper before sitting down. TMI? Haha Sorry. It’s helpful to know ahead of time!!!

We found ourselves across the Grand Canal from where our hotel was in what I think might be my favorite sestiere (neighborhood)….. Cannaregio. (Neil didn’t think the neighborhoods looked any different, but he’s not exactly trained to notice the finite distinctions in beauty…)

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And that is when it happened. They say it is something you MUST do while in Venice. And we did it. We got lost.
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Neil was not amused (it might have been my fault, though in my defense, for being a cartographer, he sure didn’t “own” the map). But do you think I cared? Did you not SEE the pics above??

Gotta love European style…

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Once we got unlost, we freshened up and headed back out for dinner. We found a sidewalk restaurant that looked cozy and warm not far from the Rialto Bridge and here we had a delicious seafood risotto.
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The Rialto Bridge at night…if you ignore the cluster of bumbling gawkers…is a bit prettier….
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The last day we forwent the popular trip to Murano Island (that is where they make that beautiful glass), and instead went one stop further on the ferry and went to Burano Island. Some views on the journey…
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Another dog playing the role of Captain…
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Here is where they specialize in lace. I bought a scarf…and we also had subpar paninis. But the island itself is so cheerful and delightful….it’s like wandering around a maze painted by a kindergartener. We talked at length with a store owner (at a place called Marco’s) about living on Burano Island, and learned that the homes in the Venice Lagoon are so darn expensive, that the government will pay 40-50 percent of the sale price for first-time home buyers because they are that desperate to keep people living there. (Population is going down.) The catch is that you have to stick around for quite a few years to make the government’s investment worth it. He also talked about how badly the walkways flood during the winter wet months…saying their store often times is 3 feet deep in water. But he shrugged and said, “Life continues, doesn’t it?” And so it does.

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I had bought noodles like these as a gag gift a few years ago…but I saw them EVERYWHERE in Italy. Do you see what it is?
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Back on the main island of Venice, we walked around to our last dinner there…
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Our last night’s dinner in Venice was at my favorite restaurant we went to while there, called La Patatina. I had baked mussels and clams ( LOVE LOVE LOVE!!! ) and wine! Neil had some seafood pasta. Also decadent. You’d think here is where I would tell you that we wanted to send off our time in Venice in a romantic way, via a gondola ride through the canal. But that was not the case. We contemplated it, surely. But for a 30 minute ride after 7 p.m., it was going to cost us $100-120 euros (which is nearly $200 in US funds). We decided we had walked enough and ridden the vaporetto enough to be content. I know, I know! Such a missed opportunity!!! But, “Life continues…”

The next morning, before our train to Lucca, we went to the Rialto market to see what that was like.

I was repulsed to find shredded horse meat (I couldn’t help it!!!)
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and was overwhelmed with the freshness of smells. I felt so inspired to cook when seeing all the seafood, though some of it scared me, and even got a bit daydreamy about living there and going to get what we’d need fresh each day… but then I come to my senses and thought about how small their kitchens most likely are and after living in an apartment and duplex before getting my own house, I realize that enjoying where you cook is just as important as enjoying WHAT you cook. 😉

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So that closes out the majority of trip in the Floating City. But here are a few other notes I filed away:

1. Italians eat really late. This proved even more so in Lucca and Rome, where restaurants didn’t even open until 7:30 or 8 p.m.

2. The restaurant and shop owners didn’t like to make change with coins, or take credit cards. If they did do it, they seemed put off by it.

3. We are lucky that other parts of the world take the time and effort to learn English. We take it for granted and I feel like English-speakers just expect everyone to know “our” language, but we don’t do the same. I just wish I could learn quickly because Spanish and Italian would be so incredible to truly master. I know Spanish enough to communicate if needed, but definitely have a way to go!

4. I saw a few markets, but I don’t know how Venezians buy toilet paper or other staples, much less the things that aren’t necessarily needed, such as board games or office supplies. I think it’s sad that I don’t think I could live without a Target-like store. I want choices…and cheap alternatives.

5. I found myself embittered when I’d see signs of commercialism around the city. Banners hanging from buildings advertising things. I wanted to yell, “NO! Don’t go the way of America and other countries!! Stay pure! Stay away from billboards!!”

6. When you order water at restaurants, they will ask whether you want still/natural or sparkling/carbonated/frizzante… We always ordered “still”….and then they bring it out usually in a glass bottle that you pour into glasses.

7. And for salads, there is no ranch or even Italian dressing. You get olive oil and either red wine vinegar or balsamic. (I prefer red wine vinegar….)

8. Wine is good. Italian wine is better. (and so reasonably priced!!!)

So that’s it, folks. The next leg of our trip was to Lucca and a day trip to Cinque Terre. Stay tuned.

if you’re interested in purchasing any prints…you can do so now that I have all the photos online.
Go here.
And use the discount code Italy11 in the next 30 days to get 15 percent off of your order! 

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