Venice. The city of canals, of love, of boats, of vast mobs of tourists, the Amsterdam of the South (Amsterdam is the Venice of the North, so why not the other way around?). One begins to wonder when walking the streets if anyone actually lives in or is from the city. Wandering the alleys and the canals, you hear English, Russian, French… almost anything but Italian. The place is now a kind of adult Disneyland, full of museums and art, but devoid of anything resembling modern life. Or so it would seem to the casual observer.
But first, Verona
We were in Venice twice. Once just my wife and myself. We were staying at an Airbnb in Verona, where we got to witness the balcony from which Juliet once opined, “Wherefore art thou Romeo!” The balcony at the House of Capulet was built about 3 centuries after Shakespeare wrote the play, and was actually built specifically for the tourist appeal. Italians already caught on that people were looking for a balcony, so they built them a balcony! And now also a bronze statue, whose tit you rub and you get good luck… it’s quite shiny now you know.
the fair golden breasts of Juliet
Verona is definitely a town worth visiting, especially if you can see a concert there. They have a coliseum there too, right in the middle of the scenic and tightly packed old town, where they still hold concerts, festivals, and other performances. Just no Christians getting eaten by lions, unfortunately.
random square in Verona
Verona is actually a great place to stay to visit Venice, if you’re only in for the tourist mobs for one day as we were. We had a long weekend, we were living in Prague, and we wanted to see as much as possible. And when wandering around the Disneyland of the South, we got the picture that one day was fine. The last train left at midnight, and in Italy, the inter-city trains were fairly cheap anyway.
Now for Venice
It was then that we made our discovery that there IS life in Venice outside of 50-man Japanese tour groups, and that life starts up around 11 o’clock at night, when Italians finally are able to shake off their hangover from the night before and start up again (a trend I’ve noticed throughout the peninsula, not just in Venice). The scenic little squares and cozy corners get a second life, as the locals left there come out to do their milling, away from the heat, the sun, and the camera lenses. They bring their plastic cups and fill up their own prosecco, not bothering with the overpriced tourist fare.
a random square in Venice in winter
If you can’t handle tourism there, skip Venice altogether. There is a certain magic to the city, but these days it is a catered magic. They cater to the image of Venice, and in that matter, it’s not that different to the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, except that instead of being a tribute to somewhere else, it’s a pure simulacrum of itself. The city gave way to the legend, and now it tries to emulate its own ideal image, whether that’s in pretentious art exhibits or the gondola drivers singing opera.
this guy was not having the sing song
But, despite that, I find myself longing to go back. There are always more museums and more churches to see, more canals to explore. Despite how small the town is, it’s enormously rich, and the different islands offer different atmospheres, from bustling to lazy, with even different foods. I found that restaurants on the main islands were a bit ludicrous (except for pizza, you can always find a decently priced meal in Italy if you’re good with pizza), but then take a boat out to Murano and the prices drop down by half (definitely an island worth seeing and is beautiful in its own regard).
Murano is quite the beaut
The people can be a bit rude. They’re dealing with tourists all day and every day. They know you don’t care about them, and they don’t care about you. I found the same situation in Egypt around the pyramids. It’s Venice and they know everyone is going to come at least once in their life, and they’re not that concerned about repeat visits. Heck, most of the people in the hospitality industry there aren’t even Venetian, so what do they care if you don’t come back? Don’t let that bother you though, as the folk who come out at night are nice enough. But then, also, you can get pretty far in life by being nice to people and smiling.
not everywhere is accessible by foot...
Getting to Venice
As I mentioned, the times I visited Venice, I didn’t even stay in Venice. The first time I stayed in Verona, and the second time we stayed in Mestre, the town that’s just on the mainland. The trains go through the night, so it’s not a huge issue commuting, and Mestre itself though quaint, is nice in a more honest fashion, the people already so much friendlier, but it’s modern and you get none of the romance.
You can arrive in Venice by either train, plane, or automobile. There’s an airport that has water shuttle service directly to San Marco. Cool yeah? If you’re going by plane, I recommend that. The shuttle costs 8 euros a person, just look for the signs for “vaporetti” or “Actv”. Otherwise there’s a really long train and auto bridge, and an auto park just on the Venetian side of the bridge where you can park your car for an exorbitant fee. As you can’t really drive around in Venice (surprise!), I’d actually just find a cheaper place to park in Mestre myself... There are day trains and sleeper trains that go into Venice from Vienna, Rome, and Salzburg.
the famous rialto bridge
We took the sleeper train in once... I recommend against it. It sounds like you'll save a lot of time, but really you just end up kind of beat up, tired, and sort of miserable. Stay the extra night and be fresh.
Getting around in Venice
You have options, and they go by four tiers. The most expensive is to take a gondola, one of those neat little ethnic boats with the guys in the striped shirts. They sometimes sing, they often make jokes, and they make fun of their occupants in quick Italian slang with the other gondola drivers. And fun fact, once a year, many make a pilgrimage up to Prague for the Saint John Nepomuk festival, as he is the patron saint of gondolas. He got that honor for being tossed off Charles’ Bridge by the king because he wouldn’t tell the king what his wife was confessing to him in secret, and the king suspected his queen of doing the nasty with others. So he did what kings did best and had Saint John killed. Gondolas will run you anywhere from 50 dollars to 150 dollars, depending on if you share it with another couple or opt for a private run.
The second most expensive method of transit is the water taxi. Just like their landborn cousins, they tend to be run by sharks who excel at ripping people off. Sadly there’s no Uber water taxi service yet, as far as I know. Weirdly even the water taxis can cost even more than the gondolas depending on the boat driver, so be aware. But Venice is not big, so why even bother with a taxi?
gondola traffic jam
Especially when you have the water bus! These “water buses”, or vaporetti, service various stops around the island, going up and down the grand canal and on the other sides, and they also serve to connect all the other islands in the archipelago. You can navigate the vaporetti system with Google maps, or download the Venezia Unica Guide, which hosts a full timetable and route map as well. The vaporetti are most often than not insanely packed. But if you can manage to squeeze in first, then you can get a great window standing spot and watch the city go by, pretending you were rich like Clooney and riding in your private water taxi.
view from the vaporetto
The water buses used to be quite pricey when I was there. But now checking up on them, it seems they’ve dropped the price (which means I’m due back sometime soon…). Vaporetto run you about 1.50 euro a ride, and they also have a day pass which costs thirty euros and is good for 24 hours after you validate it (the daypass also covers you for the fare to and from Mestre, and the local Mestre buses). That’s called the Venezia Metropolitana 24. You can read more about the tickets here and you can buy them at self-service ticket machines (with English), red or orange boxes that say either “emettitrice automatica” or “Venezia unica point” or using the AVM app.
another view from the vaporetto
The last and cheapest way is to walk. Most everywhere on San Polo and San Marco can be reached by foot. Of course, you’ll have to take a vaporetto to get to any of the other islands, as it’s not like you can swim. I mean, don’t swim. That water has got to be toxic. And I can’t imagine how many dead bodies are floating just underneath that murky surface.
St. Mark's square, not during tourist season
The beautiful and peaceful island of Murano. The tourist crowds don’t make it out as much, and you get the feeling that people actually live there, especially since there aren’t as many hotels. Everything is in general more relaxed, and the people working at the restaurants are much friendlier (as are the prices).
The grave of Igor Stravinsky. There’s a lovely church on the way to Murano, and from that church you can access quite a large graveyard. Somewhere there is the tomb of the great composer, just a marker and nothing fancy, like the man himself.
A glass of prosecco. There are no open container laws in Venice. So just by a bottle of the local brew and grab a seat with your legs dangling off the edge of a canal. Much more romantic than having to squeeze between some large Russian boxer tourist guys at the bar. At those nice sidewalk cafes, they want you to eat and order big, so they often won't let you relax there with just some vino.
Gondola ride. It’s cheesy. It’s lame. But I still haven’t done one and kind of regret that.
Pizza. It’s cheap. Sure, it’s not exactly local, as pizza comes from Naples, and it’s nowhere near as good as Napolitano pizza, but if you’re on a budget, this is the best to get. And you can even sit in a restaurant, order a pizza, and still not break 10 dollars for your meal. Unless you order a beer.
Mask shops. Venetians and tourists alike still celebrate Carnavale, full of masks and fun. The tradition has kept strong, and has kept the mask industry alive and well, so you can find a great deal and variety of odd masks, from the traditional, to the H.R. Giger. There are shops hidden throughout the alleys with these treasures, made often by the guys who own the shops.
Other towns! Like I said, there’s a train station in Venice proper. That means getting around is really easy, and trains in Italy are really cheap. Trieste is three hours away, Verona one hour, Rocca Scaligera just beyond, and Trent two hours.
Just keep in mind that Venice doesn’t have to be expensive, and that there will be hordes of tourists no matter what. Relax and enjoy!