I recently returned from visiting Rome, Florence, Tuscany and countless tiny medieval towns throughout Italy and overall, it was glorious. My last stop was Venice, the piece de resistance of my trip. Perhaps you've heard the old saying "some fantasies are better off not realized''; tell that to my pounding heart as I glimpsed the first body of water while meeting my train at Stazione de Venezia Santa Lucia.
Upon arriving in Venice, I schlepped my overly packed bags to the public transportation bus that cost 6 euros (9 dollars) rather than pay 100 euros (150 dollars) for a private water taxi. My hotel graciously offered to meet me at the train station for 160 euros which would have been around US $240. I already had the shock of how expensive Europe was going to be when I cashed in my U.S. dollars for euros in Los Angeles, gosh, half was already gone and I hadn't yet boarded the plane.
From the moment I set out to live my fantasy, I was swallowed up by hordes of tourists surging forward to get on the water buses, nevertheless I was in Venice! As the packed water bus moved slowly forward, I spotted a gridlock of gondolas which was nothing compared to most American freeways at rush hour. Actually, I thought it was sort of hilarious looking; no romance here.
Finally I arrived at Hotel Luna Baglioni, a stone's throw from Piazza San Marco and located right next door to the famous Harry's Bar where Earnest Hemingway used to hang out. Yes, my hotel was a lovely luxury hotel with a sumptuous breakfast in the morning. I was pleased with my choice though for those with other priorities, a clean 3-star hotel or nice B&B with breakfast is a suitable choice.
I dumped my bags and didn't even unpack, I was just too eager to get out into the city; little did I realize that getting lost in Venice is not just a euphemism; it is a reality. Perhaps, I thought, the original Venetians created the countless maze-like narrow streets to confuse marauders and immigrants fleeing from Roman cities near Venice such as Padua, Aquileia, Treviso and Concordia and the undefended countryside from Germanic invasions and Huns.
Never would the early Venetians have envisioned their city, impenetrable other than by sea, now mobbed in the narrow streets and countless little bridges. I had to actually walk sideways, duck, weave and bob my way through the crowds.
At last, I was standing in Piazza San Marco Square, which Napoleon once called, "the finest drawing room in the world." St. Mark's Square is surrounded on three sides by the arcades of public buildings, the Procuratie Nuove (south), the Procuratie Vecchie (north) and the Ala Napoleonica (west). After collapsing in 1902, the much-loved Campanile, the Bell Tower of San Marco was rebuilt and restored.
Poised with my camera to take lasting photos of these historic structures, I attempted to shoot a few photos but was jostled about by hordes of wildly out of control school kids on spring break, tons of honeymooners, packs of Europeans enjoying the strong euro, old couples, young couples, kids, babies and dogs. It was a Venetian Zoo and this seemed to be the epicenter. After a half dozen attempts to get a photo I was frustrated by the myriad of people's faces, arms and backs of heads. As well, there were endless lines queuing up to see Palazzo Ducale (the Doges Palace), Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Galleria dell'Accademia. I gave up in frustration.
A sinking feeling rapidly replaced my initial enthusiasm and excitement. Venice had turned into a carnival town! It had a Carney-like feel to it with street hawkers appearing every few feet selling fake designer bags and sunglasses, kiosks everywhere selling cheap tchotchkes to tourists hungry for a piece of the dream. I sought to glimpse past all of this in an effort to envision what once was.
Though I found the prices more than a bit shocking in Florence and Rome, this was truly exorbitant. Gondola rides priced at around 62 euros for 50 minutes seemed like a rip off, although, a twilight romantic gondola ride, a bottle of champagne and a serenade for a couple in love at double the price seemed worth the pricey tag.
I was getting hungry for a great meal, but alas, I learned quickly that the touristy restaurants were to be avoided at all costs. They were outrageously priced for the poor quality food served at over the top prices, like US $30 for something that was supposed be entrée sized. My little pieces of salmon floating in a strange pink sauce were tough and fishy smelling and at another place the veggies were soaking in oil. I was shocked at how they were getting away with it. Perhaps that was why so many tourists seemed to be filling up on pizza and gelato.
I met up with some fun Austrians at Harry's Bar which was packed with folks paying outrageous tabs of 15 euros, (22 bucks) for Harry's famous Bellini's, a drink christened in the 1930s by bartender Giuseppe Cipriani concocted with Prosceco and white peach juice. This was the granddaddy of all tourist traps, but, they have a fun history and quality food, so the outrageous prices may be worth it.
Back on the boardwalk I conjured images of Atlantic City so I got off the beaten track and went down a few of those so called charming small streets. The ancient city smelled pretty bad with flies everywhere and garbage floated in the canal water. I wondered what had become of the charm and seduction of Venice, perhaps to some; this is part of the charm.
In reality Venice is like a great lady not aging gracefully. Her grandeur lay underneath all the wrinkles. I found it amazing to learn from a local Venetian, that the population of the city was dwindling dramatically, people were fleeing in droves; they can't take the tourist mobs either, which may account for the ubiquitous neglect.
Despite the mobs and price gouging, Americans were plunking down their hard earned bucks on junk, inflated services and bad food. Such is life, we make our choices and live with the results, but many should know what awaits them.
The most memorable moment I had in Venice was leaving for Marco Polo Airport in the very early morning. Still dark, there was the real grand lady as she had been centuries ago. No one was out, just me in a speed boat with the captain slowly maneuvering the silent streets, empty gondolas gently rocking in the still waters. As the shoreline receded, I saw outlines of San Marco's Basilica; the buildings as they must have appeared centuries ago with the darkness dimming any commercial signs. The amazing monuments and statues cast their reflections upon the water. Here at last was the magic of Venice that eluded me, the special moment that made the trip worth it. How sad that I was fleeing the carnival it had become.
This is not meant to discourage people from traveling, it is the one of the most enriching things you can do in your life. Perhaps though, we can make wiser choices of where we travel and know the pitfalls ahead of time. The most important lesson of all, is that our dollar doesn't go very far once away from home.
For those compelled to travel, or simply checking one more thing off their bucket list, go, but at least bargain with the vendors with whom you deal overseas and do your homework before hand about recommended places to eat and stay. Realize that when you get home, those ridiculous souvenirs on which you spent wads of cash will end up gathering dust on the top shelf of some closet along with the holiday decorations.
Just be aware that you will need to look past the mobs, hawkers and greedy vendors to discover the true beauty of Venice.