Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Venice, Italy

Venice is one of those special places on the planet that is iconic. Nearly everyone has heard of Venice and has a mental image of what it looks like, with palazzi surrounded by canals and sleek blacks gondolas pared by men in striped shirts with straw hats. And the thing is, that's basically what it looks like. It's one of those rare tourism experiences that meets your expectations almost completely.

The first time I visited Venice was nearly 20 years ago, and I remember getting lost in narrow maze-like streets between buildings, finally winding my way around to a small canal with an ornate bridge crossing the water, and seeing the path disappear once again between 18th century buildings. Every now and then the path would open up into a small piazza by a larger canal, and we could pause to watch the fascinating passing mix of taxi boats, gondolas full of tourists, garbage boats, and boats delivering supplies to shops and restaurants. It's not an exaggeration to say that Venice is a city where the streets are made of water. If you can't do it with a boat, you can't do it, basically.

Carter always likes seeing the garbage boats. They cruise along the small canals and have a crane arm that picks up dumpsters, just like the garbage trucks you see everywhere else.

This was something I hadn't seen before: a hearse.

The gas stations in Venice are set up for the boats, of course.

We took a train from Rome to Venice -- a slightly stressful affair, since we'd missed the train we had tickets on and has to buy new ones, and couldn't find three seats together. I had visions of sitting two rows behind Carter the entire time, but in the end the train wasn't completely full and it wasn't a problem. The train passed through beautiful Italian countryside, past fields of sunflowers and hills crowned with medieval-looking villages. We finally rolled into the train station at Venice, and trundled off with our bags in search of a water taxi. Eighty euros later, we were at our hotel, the relatively new Hilton Molono Stucky on the island of Giudecca. Venice is made up of many small islands; it was originally built on the marshy islands off the coast of Italy by a population of farmers who we're trying to avoid the invading Huns. They learned to build their houses on top of platforms supported by posts driven down into the marshy ground. That technique was perfected over centuries, and the city eventually became one of the richest ports in Europe.

People still live and work in Venice, but it is easily one of the most touristy cities on earth. On any given day in summer, the tourists appear to outnumber the locals - especially when there are several cruise ships in port. Even in the off-season, it's common to look around and find that everyone you can see is holding a camera. Because everything has to be brought on by boat and hand-carried from the canals, it is a very expensive city to live in (and to visit). I'm not sure what percentage of the locals work in the service industry in support of tourism, but I imagine it's significant.

We had only three nights here -- this is the part of the trip where we had decided to pick up the pace, so we could see a little more -- so we tried to get out and make the most of them. On the first day, we headed over to Murano, an island famous for its handmade glass. The Vaporetti boats are the bus system in Venice, and they're very easy to use to get around, as well as providing you with fantastic views of the city as you go.

Waiting for the bus.

And then enjoying the view.

Carter kept himself busy on the long ride over to Murano.

From Murano, we headed over to Piazza San Marco and wandered around in the area until we found the Hard Rock Cafe, where we paused for a few drinks. It was overcast and rainy that day, but the city is still an amazing place to be even when the weather is bad.

The next day was beautiful, however, so we took full advantage of the opportunity to take in the city's sights. There are always fantastic sea creatures to be seen in the city's fish market.

The view from the Rialto bridge is very lovely.

Venice doesn't get much more iconic than this!

I'm not sure if I have a better sense of direction now or if all of those narrow walkways are just better signed, but we had no trouble navigating our way from the big market by the Rialto Bridge, where we had lunch, all the way over to Piazza San Marco, pausing to admire the architecture and charming canals along the way.

These tiny little walkways between buildings are amazing.

I have so many pictures like these, and they're all gorgeous. This is exactly what you would imagine Venice might look like, and it just does.

On a lovely day, the view from San Marco's bell tower is amazing.

We had to stop a bit in the Piazza San Marco so Carter could chase pigeons.

When we planned the European part of the trip, we asked Carter if there was anywhere in particular he wanted to go, and he chose Venice. I think he had a fantastic time when we were here last summer, and he was excited to be back. And one of the things he really wanted to do was go for another gondola ride. This is a very touristy thing to do and horrifically expensive (usually at least 100 euros for a half hour), but it's an amazing experience to glide through the canals and look up at the buildings and just soak it all in.

The Bridge of Sighs.

That night we had a reservation for dinner at a favorite restaurant over in the area where we stayed last summer. We had a drink in the piazza where Carter spent so many evenings playing last year, and we enjoyed watching him run around again.

We even stopped by to see the apartment we stayed in with family last year. (I think it was on the top floor.)

Venice is a beautiful place to be in the evening too.

One of the classic dishes of Venice is risotto. It's something that isn't hard to make, but it's hard to make well. The texture of the rice in the dish pictured below was absolutely perfect. I'm going to have to practice more to get mine to turn out closer to this. I think I'm cooking it at too high a temperature...

This is something else I want to work on when we get home: eggplant parmigiana. I'm talking about this fantastic version right here, not the over-breaded and over-cheesed versions you so often get in Italian-American restaurants. This was simple and perfect: brined eggplant slices, dipped in breadcrumbs and seared, layered with a simple, flavorful tomato sauce, and topped with a little bit of cheese before baking to perfection. I'm going to figure this one out! (Or have fun trying, anyway.)

And that wraps up Venice! From there we flew to Munich, Germany, which I'll cover in the next post. 

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