Friday, February 15, 2013

Return to Venice

Bridge of Sighs
You may not be able to see the carved headboard
due to the adorable, masked girl, my niece.
After my sister, niece, Nora, and I left Assisi, we headed the car north for Venice. Venice is unlike any other place in the world, and I didn't want my sister and niece to miss it. It is a love it or hate it kind of city. When I meet people who have been, invariably, their reaction is strong - "I LOOOOOOOOVE Venice" [me] or "Ugh - I hated Venice. It was dirty, smelly, crowded, and expensive." We knew that Venice would be a challenge with my niece in her wheelchair stroller and me carrying Nora in a baby carrier all day, but we felt that it was worth the struggle. Venice has somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 bridges over canals, and each of these bridges means going up a flight of steps, across a flat area, then down a flight to the other side. I found a couple of articles saying around 100 ramps are installed over city center bridges for the fall marathon, and they leave them up until the spring tourist season begins, so winter is a good time to go in a wheelchair (or with a stroller). Going in November also meant that we were able to book a beautiful, older hotel in a fabulous location to all the sites, lots of charming details such as the most amazing, intricately carved headboards, and best of all, it's very own water entrance.

The water entrance meant that we could meet up with Nathan at the car park* on the edge of town, load all our bags, strollers, and babies into a water taxi, and for 70euros, be dropped off at our hotel. No fussing with lines and luggage to get on the vaporettos that ply the main canal and serve as the public "bus," and while 70euros sounds like a lot of money is a lot of money, riding the vaporetto would have cost us 28euro and left us several blocks from our hotel and at least one bridge over a canal (=steps) to cross with all our gear and children. Plus, back when my aunt and uncle visited in 2011 and we visited Venice, we took the water taxi to the airport and had one of my favorite experiences of our entire time here in Italy. The chance to motor slowly down small canals in the heart of Venetian neighborhoods, then speed up the main canal, provides a glimpse of Venice unmatched by taking the public vaporettos or a slow gondola. And you get to pretend to be a movie star.

Nathan had a three day weekend, so we'd planned to meet up with him, spend two full days, and then go our separate ways, with Nathan flying back home and the rest of us driving home with a little stop along the way. Thank goodness Nathan was there. Remember the multitude of ramps that were supposedly put up on the bridges - we came across one. One ramp. And while I thought I would be able to help my sister with one end of the stroller while wearing Nora strapped to my chest, I was very wrong.

Glass Maestro
Despite the difficulties, the rain, and the flooding (that post will be next), Venice was it's usual delightful place. Our hotel, like many hotels in Venice, offers a free water taxi ride to Murano and a tour of a glass factory. I'd read all about these - that they are heavy sales pitches, don't do one because you can just go to Murano yourself on a vaporetto, and so on. But we decided that with our group of four, why not give it a try. Well I will tell you that all those cynical tour books are wrong. The trip was so lovely. At the appointed time, we walked to the back of the hotel where a tuxedo clad staff member helped us into yet another beautiful, wooden water taxi and we settled in and enjoyed the sights as we wound through small canals until reaching the Main Lagoon and speeding across it to the island of Murano. No crowding onto a vaporetto, fighting to find a seat or standing outside in the cold, and the chance to see the very small, interior canals, places the large vaporettos cannot go. The Mazzega glass factory representative met us at the docking area and led us in to watch a glass blowing demonstration by a glass Maestro (a master craftsman). Their Maestro has been working the glass for over 40 years, and I seem to recall that to become a Maestro takes something like 15-20 years. After the very interesting demonstration, we were led upstairs for the high quality merchandise rooms. The rooms went on and on and were completely filled with beautiful glass - vases and cups, plates and goblets, chandeliers, sculptures, trays, candlesticks, each room opened onto more beautiful things. We were offered coffee, water, and soda while we browsed, and I never once felt pressured to buy. Nothing has price tags, so we did ask about a few items, but in the end, we walked away without purchasing any of the higher priced items. The downstairs shop, open to the general public (the upstairs is not), had several items that are significantly cheaper (and probably not made on Murano, but I didn't ask). We then had an hour to wander the island before meeting our water taxi to return to the hotel. My one complaint is that I would have liked more time to wander around, but then, we always could have just made our own way back to Venice on the public vaporetto.

That night, we heard tell of high water on the way.

*A few tips for travelers to Venice:
- There are parking garages where you can leave your car. Venice is built on water, so you cannot drive around it. You park in one of two piazzas (one closer to the water where you catch vaporettos - boats - or water taxis) and one a little further. Call your hotel and ask if they offer a discount to any one particular garage. Ours offered 20% off at the most expensive garage which is closest to the water taxi and vaporettos. With the discount, we paid only 5euro more per day for safe, guarded parking and the convenience of not dragging luggage all over the back of beyond.
-  Get restaurant recommendations and use them. Good restaurants that are also affordable can be hard to find, and honestly, the bad meals cost as much as the good ones.
-  Buy a vaporetto pass. You will most likely ride a vaporetto a minimum of four times. At 7euro a pop, this can add up. If you are going to be visiting Venice more than once within a five year period, check into getting an Imob card. Just google it. Basically, you provide a passport, an application, and 40euros for a card that allows you to buy vaporetto rides for 1euro or so, and the card is good for five years. I got one on my first trip and have saved so much money in my three trips so far, with a fourth trip coming up.
-  At some point, leave the tourists behind. Just start walking. It doesn't matter where as long as it is not on the main path. Take that alley that looks like a dead end. Explore. But before you do...
-  Get a really (really) good map. Your hotel might offer one.
-  Lost? Keep your eyes up. On the sides of buildings at intersections, there are often painted directions to a main site or to a vaporetto or traghetto.
-  Vaporetto equals small ferry - they ply the main canal and circle the island, and really are the equivalent of a city bus system. Traghettos are public gondolas that cross the main canal from one side to another - there are very few bridges over the main canal, so traghettos can save you a ton of walking. Traghettos are 1.50euros as of November 2012, and are a fun way to have a short, gondola experience (you are indeed rowed across by a man in a striped shirt and red scarf). Water taxis are the most expensive transportation option, but can serve a dual purpose in giving you a private, water experience while getting you somewhere you need to go (airport, train station, hotel, etc.). Gondolas are for the classic experience, not to get you from point A to B - They are expensive, and I've yet to do one as I've enjoyed the first three options enough that I haven't see the need to spend what the gondolas cost.
-  Leave lots of room in your suitcase. Venice has the best shopping in all of Italy. Lush Fortuny fabric scarves/shawls at Venetia Stadium, Murano glass jewelry, handmade paper stores, leather books and home accessories, unique clothing, masks (love, love, love Rugadoro), even the street artists are quite good.
-  Visit at least one of the islands - Murano if you have time for only one, but Burano is well worth the trip. A great day would be morning in Murano, lunch there, and a couple of afternoon hours on Burano before returning to Venice. Both isles are accessible via vaporetto.

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