The Two Sides of Venice

The Grand Canal in early morning

April 4 – 5, 2012

Photo set on Flickr

Day 1

First Impression and the Doge’s Palace

The tripod fiasco had left me extremely mad (read more about it  – “Case 3” in this entry). The grey sky and light drizzle that greeted us outside of Marco Polo airport only reinforced my poor mood – which got even worse when we found out a one-way vaporetto (water bus) ticket to Venice cost €15 per person. Venice’s reputation as one of the most expensive destination in the world had upon our arrival been proven to be well-deserved.

The journey navigating through the choppy water under limited visibility lasted for a full hour that felt like double the time. Getting off at San Marco – San Zaccaria threw me off a little bit. Between the suffocating amount of tourists, Carnival costume wearing street performers and the general circus-like atmosphere, I thought I had just landed in a Disney theme park. Our hotel Gabrielli Sandwirth, a ten minute walk east from St. Mark’s Square on Riva degli Schiavoni, was by far this trip’s most expensive accommodation ($160 USD for one night, booked through Easyjet). Our pitifully small room was 40% the size of its counterpart in Sorrento but also almost 30% more costly.

Lunch was a disaster. We were served microwaved risotto that’s loaded with salt at a family-run eatery close to our hotel. Fortunately in this case, the portion was only a few spoonfuls. In my mind our time in Venice was beginning to feel like a sunk cost. Traveling feels much like playing a game of Russian roulette; catching a few bad breaks like poor weather and inedible food can turn an otherwise premier destination into a regrettable experience.

Canal, gondolas and the Bridge of Sighs

Like everyone else, we ended up at St. Mark’s Square. Places like this are more than attractions – they are tourist magnets. Tourists like to linger around even though there is nothing in particular to do. Some pay for overpriced drinks at cafés or shell out big bucks for gondola ride. A less costly activity is to feed the pigeons even though the practice is supposed to be banned and most others take random snapshots of poorly framed pictures of the square. Most of these tourists seem perfectly content to spend much of their time in St. Mark’s Square and maybe one or two other attractions and happily declare that they have been to Venice.

Oddly, even though the Doge’s Palace is one of the key buildings of the St. Mark’s Square, nobody was lining up outside, though its €16 admission price could help explained why. Those who don’t pay a visit would have missed out on the palace’s vivid projection of the bureaucratic life during the Venetian Republic. The “Scudo” Room and the Chamber of the Great Council are especially impressive.

Castello

Castello, Venice

The clock had just turned 17:30. Our brief tour of St. Mark’s Basilica that felt like a pushing contest had left us exhausted of the encompassing tourist circus. We took refuge by heading down a quiescent alley from Riva degli Schiavoni and soon there were just the two of us.

We were in Castello, the district where the obsolete Venetian Arsenal (shipyard) is located. The gloomy weather fit well with this neighbourhood of crumbling buildings and desolate canals. I generally have a reliable sense of direction but after just a turn or two we had become hopelessly lost. Not that we minded at all; we enjoyed having the area all to ourselves. For the first time of the day, we were able to appreciate Venice for what it is instead of getting sidetracked by other factors.

It took us much effort to find our way back to a relatively promising looking restaurant. The food was passable. Before calling it a night we caught a Vivaldi’s Four Seasons quartet concert at Santa Maria della Pietà (€ 25 per). Always worthwhile to listen to a composer’s pieces in his hometown.

Day 2

Early Morning at St. Mark’s Square

Early Morning, St. Mark’s Square

Immediately after waking up I walked over to St. Mark’s Square, fully pumped up because of the sunny weather, hoping to take some photos of the famous square before the crowd arrived. My wish was granted – at 8:00 am the square was almost devoid of anyone. Only in this state could I appreciate Venice’s beauty – there is truly nowhere else like this on earth.

Being able to roam around the heart of Venice without the accustomed horde of tourists is more than enough of a reason for anyone not to day trip to Venice but actually spend at least a night in the town.

Rialto

Rialto Bridge, Venice

While the St. Mark’s Square is its most famous landmark, Venice’s most photographed spot is undoubtedly the Rialto Bridge. The Rialto district is at the very centre of the lagoon where the S-shaped Grand Canal is narrow enough for a camera to capture the buildings on both sides.

And there is no escaping from the crowd there. No matter where we turned we couldn’t find so much as an inch of space to separate ourselves from the surrounding mass of people. We had a filling buffet breakfast at our hotel so we didn’t have to choose from Rialto’s generally overpriced options. After taking a brief walk and taking some mandatory photos of the Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge, we were relieved to board a vaporetto and leave Rialto behind.

Burano

Burano

I kept telling myself if there’s one place I must go in Venice, it’s Burano. Traveling there would take up our entire afternoon, but to me it was a no-brainer.

From Rialto, we first had to take the No. 2 vaporetto to Ferrovia, then boarded the No.41 to Fond. Nuove before finally hopping on the No.12 water bus to Burano. The whole trip took a little more than an hour.

Burano didn’t disappoint. The brightly-painted houses and their reflections on the canals were a delight to take photos of. Best of all, only a few dozens visitors were on the island and they tended to stay along the main canal. We wandered through the empty side streets pondering if any people still lived there. Soon enough we saw a few housewives sweeping their front yards and a kid ambushing his older brother/friend with a broom.

Venice has long been criticized of being an extremely touristy museum city. These points are hard to contest if one only stays in the popular tourist spots like the St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto, but those who venture slightly away will be rewarded an unassuming side of Venice where locals, often subjugated into being the minority in their own town, continue to quietly go on with their lives.

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