Venice was one of the cities that I had been given substantial amounts of forewarning about. The Venice entry in my organizer was so full of notes on accommodations, bars, restaurants, food, crowds, prices, crime and frequent flooding before I even set foot in the city. Every time I added something to my organizer, the effort it took to save the document nearly crashed the operating system.
Venice is very old. Older than dirt. Settled before there was hair. It is built on 117 small islands and the only way around town is on the 150 canals or on foot. There is not a single car, bike, scooter or skater punk in Venice. The terrain of the city makes it virtually impossible to navigate it with anything on wheels. You cannot go very far without encountering a raised bridge or steps or ancient stone walkways, with gaps so big that they would stop a skate board on a dime and throw the rider into a canal, which would actually be pretty cool in my opinion.
Unfortunately, unless you are Jesus, you will inevitably have to use some form of expensive water transportation during your wanderings around Venice, particularly if you stay at the Hosteling International hostel which is predictably located in the most inconvenient spot in the city. Since there are no 300 foot high mountains or partially derelict buildings 10 miles out of town, the HI people were forced to establish their hostel across the massive Giudecca Canal which has no bridges that connect it to the rest of Venice. A single vaporetto ride costs a whopping 3.50 euros ($4.12), so to take the sting out of this unavoidable expense, you either have buy a multiple-day, unlimited ride pass or just hop on without paying. The free-ride alternative, I found out later, is not really a huge risk for tourists. If you get busted, all you have to do is say that you have no money. The agent will dutifully take down your home address so that they can send the fine to you in the mail and then belatedly inform you that they almost never send fine notices to out-of-country locales because the money they make from the laughably few people who actually send in the requested fine doesn’t offset the expense of the international postage. Unfortunately, by the time I learned this loophole, I had already coughed up the 18 euros for a 72 hour pass.
By 15 minutes into my first foray into Venice, I was ready to burn the two euro map that I bought at the tourist office. Venice is such a hopeless maze that “maze” isn’t a strong enough word to describe it. After consulting my thesaurus, I decided that a new word had to be created to do justice to the streets of Venice. The word is “extreme-giga-maze-hard-core-to-the-max-Gomer.” I plan to copyright it. The impossible task of documenting each and every street, alley, tunnel and winding dead end in Venice, combined with the half-hearted attempt at street signage makes serious navigation only possible through very large landmarks. Addresses in Venice are totally useless to anyone aside from a Venetian mail carrier. Anything that isn’t within 25 yards of a major landmark might as well be invisible, because there is no way that you’re going to find it on purpose.
After abandoning the map, my explorations consisted of taking the vaporetto to a part of the city that I wanted to cover and just plunging into the extreme-giga-maze-hard-core-to-the-max-Gomer of streets and hoping that I would find another vaporetto stop before I died of old age. It’s really that bad. One day I actually found my way into Venice’s one and only true residential section (most of the “locals’ actually live across the lagoon in uninviting, industrial Mestre). I discovered after walking in hopeless circles for 45 minutes that I was completely trapped. Just for kicks I pulled out the map. I sort of knew what corner of the city that I was in and I tried to get my bearings only to learn that there was just one little conduit leading in and out of the neighborhood and finding my way out at that point was about as likely as me finding God. Eventually I just starting walking in a straight line, knowing that I would eventually run into water and then try to ascertain where the nearest vaporetto dock was. This only took 25 minutes and the exploration of five watery dead ends.
I was really digging not having to dodge cars and scooters on the narrow streets of Venice, but the crowd conditions almost eclipsed that perk. Even in November, the number of slow walking, confused, bumbling Rube Tourists in Venice made the streets more clogged than a Saturday afternoon at the Mall of America. The state of the walking conditions is so bad that the tourism bureau actually addresses it on its “10 Suggestions for a Pleasant Stay in Venice” welcome card. Right there at number three it says “Keep right when walking in the city street,” right next to “Never stop on bridges.” Of course, even after having it spelled out for them, the Rube Tourists still didn’t have the cognitive capacity to remember these simple, kernels of common sense. They walked side-by-side in droves down the left, right and middle of the street and then stopped and formed impenetrable semi-circles on the bridges so that as you squeezed past them and they had the audacity to give you dirty looks when you jostled them, you were tempted to grab one of them by the camera strap around their necks and jerk them over the railing into the filthy water. Needless to say, there is no getting anyplace in a hurry in Venice. Eventually my only goal while in Venice was to find a totally deserted street. It took me three days, but I found one. Since the second most scarce item in Venice is a public bathroom, I celebrated the moment by peeing into the canal.
The two euro map from the tourism office came with an “Easy Guide” to Venice and its islands. This was an absurd misnomer. The “Easy Guide” nearly caused my brain to hemorrhage the first time I went through it and read about the 127 things that I had to see in Venice. This included 56 churches, 48 palaces and museums and the remainder guildhalls, theatres and “Places of Interest.” I read about a third of the thing before I said “(expletive) it.” It was going to take me all afternoon to just read the goddamn thing. I tossed it and decided to just let fate (and gelato) lead me to the coolest sights in Venice.
Saint Mark’s Square
The only place in the city that you can find with your eyes closed is Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square). The Piazza is by far the largest open space in Venice and is hemmed in by the gigantic Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Procuratie Vecchie/Nuove arcades and the Correr Museum. The entire square is like out of a fairytale. The raised flood walkways take a bit away from the magic of the surroundings, otherwise you’d swear you were in a wonderland. If you ever get bored admiring the buildings you can watch the half dozen pigeon attacks that are taking place in the square at any given moment. The pigeons in Saint Mark’s Square are the boldest pack of birds I have ever seen. There are thousands of them and they don’t think twice about flying up out of nowhere and landing on your head. And that’s if you do nothing to draw them. If you want an instantaneous coating of pigeon shit on your jacket, all you have to do is buy a bag of seed from one of the wise, raincoat sporting pigeon seed vendors and you will have about 500 new winged best friends in seconds. People can be heard screaming intermittently all over the square when a friend or loved one decides to get mischievous and throw a handful of seed all over the victim and stand back with the camera as the pigeons swarm in like piranha, devouring every piece of seed, lint and mole on the victim’s body in seconds. It’s great fun.
With no other direction provided for me and being a newly, glassy-eyed Lonely Planet disciple by this point, I followed their directions to take the Number 1 vaporetto for the long cruise down the Grand Canal which winds through the middle of Venice. The ride not only helped with the daunting task of getting oriented in Venice, but with the numerous stops the vaporetto makes at key locations I was able to take a ton of great photos without getting off my ass for 30 minutes. I took note of the boating conventions on the canal which seemed to only consist of one rule: Whoever gets there first has the right-of-way. There’s no attempt to stick to the right hand side as vaporetto stops are on both sides of the canal, requiring them to knife across all “lanes” of traffic to hit their stops. The large boats do whatever they damn well please while the smaller boats and gondolas pretty much just sneak through wherever they can find a lane. Despite the potential for disaster with this lawless, every-man-for-himself navigation method in the canals, I never once witnessed a single accident or even a near-collision during the four days that I floated around Venice. Eventually I was forced to wonder, with there being with no cars in Venice, what the upper-crust, stylish kids got on their 16th birthdays? A motorboat? And the less lucky kids got what? A canoe?
What I didn’t realize immediately was that everything in Venice has to be dealt with through the canals. It wasn’t until my third day that I saw a garbage boat, which looks like a mini-barge with a crane attached to the back. Collecting the garbage is a two person job. One person guides the barge down the canals and mans the crane that loads the garbage from the street into the barge. The second person, who presumably pulled the short straw that morning, gets the unenviable task of running around the neighborhood with an oversized wheelbarrow, collecting the garbage from homes, businesses and street bins and periodically ferrying it back to the barge, where the crane guy puts down his cigarette and cell phone, maneuvers the crane to pick up the entire wheelbarrow and upends it into the barge.
From my standpoint, the worst part about Venice’s canal dependency is the emergency medical service. I witnessed an ambulance pick-up while I was eating lunch in a Tex-Mex restaurant a few doors down from the HI hostel on my first day. The ambulance boat swerved up to the walkway in front of the restaurant as I was digging into my “Tex-Mex” lasagna bolognaise. One guy jumped out with, I kid you not, a chair with handles and two wheels and ran off. A minute later he was back with an elderly, female passenger. The swells on the broad Giudecca Canal were pretty rough at the time and the poor woman had to get out of the wheelbarrow chair and jump into the boat under her own power. This seemed like awfully brutal treatment to me. You might only have a really bad cold when the ambulance picks you up, but by the time you get to the hospital, you could have a broken hip or suffer a near drowning.
I made one stab at trying to buy a nice meal in Venice and while it wasn’t horrendous, it wasn’t worth what I paid for it. After a little digging I was left to conclude that Venice simply does not have decent dinning options, no matter how much you want to spend. Pretty much every square inch of indoor space has been given over to tourist crap and knowing that Rube Tourists don’t know good food from Vegemite on toast, the Venetians have stooped to serving what amounts to elegantly presented gruel. When I finally got the opportunity to ask some locals where I could find decent food in Venice, they promptly and unanimously responded “McDonald’s.” I decided to take their advice (figuratively, not literally) and ate out of the pizza slice counters for the remainder of my stay in Venice and saved my food splurges for Bologna and Florence.
After four days of rewarding roaming through the streets of Venice, my crowd anxiety exerted itself and I made plans to find some personal space relief in Bologna.