Venice is Very Nice

Okay guys.  Venice. Venice, right?               So we had to take what I believe counts as every single type of ground transportation short of Segway (trademark) in order to reach the airport.  Having finances foremost in our minds we cancelled our cab (like 70 euros to the airport, uh say wha?) and instead got up at 4, dragged our bags on foot, onto the metro, onto a surface train, onto a bus, on to a moving walkway (thought I’d forget the moving walkway mode of ground transportation didn’t you!? HA!) and up a disappointing number of steps to get to the airport where we boarded a plane, taking one of the main modes of air travel available to humans, all the way to Venice, where we then deplaned, dragged our bags for twenty minutes to the Alilaguna Water Bus blue line, thereby completing the trifecta of travel, aka the sextuple-single-single. The water bus dropped us at its first stop in Venice and let’s face it, people call it pretty because of how damned pretty it is.  It’s like Labyrinth if there was more beautiful canals and less David Bowie crotch fantasia.  It is literally impossible to find your way from one place to another unless you happen upon a stream of people indicating that you are on your way hopefully to someplace important, and sometimes away from someplace important.  Luckily, no matter where you go Venice is still an enchanted maze of twisting, crumbling, shoulder width alleyways that cross marble and stone bridges over canals that wander off lazily in either direction. Our accommodation, recommended by trip advisor as 51st best B & B in Venice (nothing but the 51st best for my baby!), was the Hotel Vecellio, right across the street from the water bus stop and therefore looking straight out at the lagoon and at Murano, an island a short ferry hop away.  After a spirited chat with the owner Matteo we learned we’d be staying at the Annex to the Hotel Vecellio which was around the corner and down a teeny alley.  This was a perfect and for Venice incredibly spacious room with a huge for Venice bathroom.  Breakfast at 8-10, a lot of day and Venice to explore, so off we go. Here’s the thing about us.  The only time we’re not the shiny happy people you all know and love is when we’re hungry, and we hadn’t eaten yet, so we struck out at random, a small map in hand… actually let me just say, maps in Venice are useful only if you’re an Indian tracker in the old west.  There are no cars in Venice (imagine how hard it is to throw away the garbage, move furniture or restock your restaurant) and therefore no real streets.  They have a different word, and sometimes multiple different words, for alleys, alleys with an archway, alleys with shops, covered alleys, bridges, paths by the water, paths near a church, plazas near a church, alleys with courtyards, areas near a plaza.  So say your stupid little map indicates you should take Calle (street?) Madonna.  That path has that name for about twenty feet, then because you go under an archway, it changes, but not just the first part, the second too.  So now you’re at Sestiere Reggio, which is about to hit a plaza with a church in it, and now you understand that when there IS a name for what you’re walking on it, no guarantee in itself, it can sometimes have literally three different names in just one section of walking.  Couple this with the fact that three quarters of the alleyways aren’t listed on google maps or anything else, none go for more than 50 feet without a 90 degree turn, t-intersection where both directions lead into a canal, a gypsy woman just chuckin’ curses at passersby and a dead end where you have to answer a winged lion’s three questions in order to receive a fine locally made glass tchotchke.  This sounds like a terror nightmare but is actually sort of the point and only once did we get lost and have to answer that lion’s questions.  They were mostly sports so I did okay. Rather than a blow by blow account of each of the four days here I’ll just hit the highlights and discoveries. Venice is a tourist trap.  The whole city is built to get money from you, but with smart internet research (Celina) you can find amazing deals and even the few places locals hang out.  Being food tourists and secret snobs (hey Josh, it’s me, your wife. It’s only a secret to us, I think). we didn’t want to order off the menu turistica (a three course thing in most restaurants that always involves that hallmark of Italian cuisine, the French fry) of one of the countless traps lining the main thoroughfares.  We wanted to taste real Italian food.  In Venice, that’s seafood.  As far as we could tell the amount of green on the island is limited to a park in the south corner, everything but fish has to be brought in daily by boat, so with the goal of good Venetian bites we generally started each day’s journey. There are a few things to know about Italy.  The French café culture, where all the chairs on the patio face the sidewalk like you’re sitting in a theater and you just sit and drink teeny strong coffees for hours on end while looking at beautiful people, doesn’t exist here.  Instead, between noon and three there is a break, all the shops close and suddenly the countless little bars and trattorias are packed with locals first having a quick coffee, then a glass of wine and a sandwich.  Every single place you go into, sweet shops, restaurants, bakeries, has a bar and serves coffee and liquor.  And behind the counter are a myriad of different small sammies for cheap that you order, they fire in a Panini press, and you eat while standing.  But this isn’t typical bar food because it’s speck, or fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and olives, etc.  It’s something unique to here that is a cheap and delicious way to grab a bite.  Plus, there’s a two hour nap built in for me before things get started again!  Wine gets ya that early in the day man.

Weena enjoys a quick espresso with hideous old Italian ladies!

Another delightful sneaky snack for the pennily pinched is happy hour.  Some bars have a buffet they set out and for around ten bucks each you get a drink (the common after work one here is a Spritz, Campari and soda or an orange colored slightly sweeter Campari cousin and soda) and as many trips to the snack table as you want.  It’s mostly different types of bruschetta, little bread bits with various smears on there.  Anchovy, or fresh ricotta, or the traditional tomato, garlic, basil.  Plus one heaping, steaming bowl of fresh pasta with veggies, or a risotto with some seafood in there.  So at 5:30 you pile in, grab a seat and a very strong drink and start shoveling food.  Then, when you’re done your drink, off to someplace else for more spritz’s or wine and a dazed but warm and romantic wobble through the alleys hopefully towards home.  Everything shuts down at 8 except restaurants and bars, they shut down at 10 or midnight, especially in the off season where we are, so they even have early bedtimes!  It’s like Josh heaven! We were lucky enough to be here on a Saturday, market day, and we crossed the Rialto bridge, one of two that goes from the outer ring of Venice (where St. Mark’s Cathedral and square are) to the inner island where, like, that market I was talking about is.  It’s an open air farmer’s/fisher’s market and people crowd down to get the freshest catches from the Adriatic sea.  On the cheap eats tip we found a place called Muro’s which was a hopping bar and snack place inside that, on this day and this day alone,  has an outdoor patio where for 7 euro you get a glass of fizzy chardonnay and a huge bowl of steaming, lightly battered and fried whatever looked good at the fishmongers an hour ago.  We sat in this beautiful plaza waiting for them to haul out the steaming platter of squid, shrimp, sardines and scallops and hopped in line.   Did you guys know squid doesn’t have to be chewy?  It can be as tender as the perfectly al dente pasta.  The light but salty breading on everything was all the seasoning you needed, no sauces or anything.  Plus, for whatever reason I’ve recently become addicted to Sardines (they’re really good for you) because eating them, bones and all, makes me feel like a man.  A man who may be concerned about his omega-3 fatty acid intake but a man nonetheless.  This giant serving of perfectly fresh, perfectly cooked seafood that tasted of the sea but had no fishy smell at all, with the crisp white cutting through the little bit of oil, while sitting outside with thirty people all talking with their hands in the cold clear day… it was exactly what we’d hoped for.

(note how my part fits seamlessly into Venetian architecture)

I ate squid ink pasta.  It’s a local and very popular dish.  It came out and they weren’t kidding.  That shit is black yo.  It’s like spaghetti after an oil tanker crashed on it.  The squid ink is the sauce and is salty and oceany, again not fishy, and is actually amazing and delicious.  The fresh pasta is so wonderful here, cooked in super salty water so even on its own it’s a delicious thing.  Old news but your pasta water should taste like the sea before you add your pasta.  Also, add a little of the pasta water to your sauce after, the starch thickens the sauce naturally.  Here’s my concern though.  I’ve eaten beets and I’ve eaten asparagus.  I know how quickly those can become the boss of your guts.  They’ll take over the place and boss all your smells and fluids around and suddenly you’re positive you caught an STD from the toilet seat the night before (an impossibility here given that often its literally just a tiled hole in the floor.)  So um, after ingesting a pound of what is literally ink… everything came out normal.  Where did that ink go guys?  Where? Venice was the most powerful city and culture in the world for a bunch of centuries (research guys, I do it for you).  They’re major claim to fame in the tourist attraction line nowadays is St. Mark’s Cathedral and Square.  It attracts people from all over the world who, according to every sign, website and guidebook, are all pick pockets.  It is breathtaking though.  The square itself is a giant open rectangular courtyard, which considering every other inch of the place is jam packed with teetering buildings is all the more breathtaking, flanked on three sides by long wings covered in beautiful arches and pillars.  Added in three stages (the last by Napolean, that total dick), they show you three styles of architecture in one eyeful.  I think they are baroque (insert if it ain’t baroque don’t ba-fix it joke here), renaissance and neo-classical.  Does that mean anything to you?  Not to me either, but at the time, looking at them, I got it in a magical way.  At the other end stands a giant bell tower (that fell over once, ha!) the world’s first digital clock with two dudes hammering a bell at the top, flaps that show every ten minutes and an ornate clock face with the 24 hr clock on it.  Then, finally, the cathedral itself.

St. Mark's Cathedral and the Bell Tower

The Venetians, when they were the bosses of everything, went on a bunch of crusades and stole everybody else’s best stuff so this is like a greatest hits of the Byzantine era.  Steal a bunch of marble pillars?  Jam em on there.  Enslave some Bysantines?  Get em to gold leaf up the place.  Got four beautifully sculpted giant bronze horses?  Yoink!  They’re ours now bitches!  You’d think it’d look hodgepodge but instead it’s like one of those few antiques stores where everything fits. An interesting note on the religion of the time.  Europeans, particularly western ones, celebrate Jesus’ life, he’s an inspiration because he showed us by example how to be awesome.  Us new worlders seem hell bent on only celebrating his death.  He died for your sins so you better be good.  It’s a leading by example rather than by guilt thing that I hadn’t considered before.  As a result, churches here are a lot less about crucifixes or weeping folks at the foot of a dead guy and are instead about him doing the fun magic tricks with the wine and fishes.  St. Mark’s floor plan is the greek cross, just a plus sign symbolizing perfection, not the traditional cross we know which is another reminder that some guy did this thing we didn’t ask him to and now it’s on us to be nice or he’ll come get us if we say his name three times in a mirror (I’m getting my bible stories mixed up.) The coolest thing about St. Marks, and the reason it’s so important, is that one of the many things the Venetians stole was literally the corpse of St. Mark.  The guy who wrote a bunch of the bible.  A couple dudes stole his bones, brought them here and buried them under the church making Venice an instantly recognized religious center and increasing it’s power tenfold.  So we walked on top of one of the guys that wrote the bible’s bones.  That’s cooler than the time I met the drummer from Gowan’s band!  In the treasure room of the church, which completely non-ironically costs extra to enter, they’ve got crystal chalices from before Christ came on the scene, they’ve got ornate jeweled swords, AND they’ve got just a ton of bones of important people.  You know the guy at the gates of heaven?  I’ve seen his shin bone.  I’ve seen St. Mark’s femur.  The way they display them is they forge a golden or metal arm or leg with a window in there, then they put the bone in the window where it would be in that newly cast leg.  For sure those things are all coming together to form some ancient android super saint who’ll kick a bad guy’s ass (Captain America 2!  Coming this Christmas).  That’s cool stuff right?  Bones of bibilically famous guys.  Also, the church itself was real pretty.  No pics inside though… unless you a ninja!

Ninja Pic! That dome is the story of Adam and Eve!

We didn’t do the gondoliers.  It’s that thing where you say you like something about someone and then they kind of automatically don’t do that thing ever again, or they  consciously do it from then on ruining the fun?  Venice is like that.  TEAM DEAN: Oh Venice, we love those guys with the hats that sing while punting around the canals!  VENICE: Oh yeah?  In that case here’s billions of them.  And you said you liked glittery masks right?  Have we got a surprise for you! On the advice of my mom we did just take the aquabus which runs the whole grand canal, then out into the sea to another small island, then back, for like no dough whatsoever.  PLUS, on the way back we went by a gondolier where the guy was singing some opera, so it was like a twofer. There are dogs everywhere here and since it’s pretty chilly, the stones of the city just emanate cold, they all have clothes on.   It’s funny.  Another funny thing was that we saw a lady sneak up behind a guy and jump out and scare him and he literally yelled “Mama Mia!”  They actually say that! Our last night we had to change hotels, the one we were in was closing for some holidays.  We moved to a bed and breakfast in the same neighborhood but this one was actually just a lovely old couple’s home.  As chance would have it we had noted them the night before as we had a nightcap nearby because they were feeding a dog chips.  They were kind and they’re home was lovely and clean and spacious.  It did feel like a grandparents house, there were even hard candies in a dish, so we couldn’t get too overwhelmed by the romance of the city cuz ew, who wants to wake nana and gramps?  Sadly, the sweet old man that ran the place had MS so he was pretty herky jerky.  This was only mildly disconcerting until he brought us our boiling hot pot of freshly brewed coffee in the morning.  It was like a slow motion nightmare, his kindly, smiley face stuttering towards us with an old school espresso pot still red hot from the stove, lave hot blips of coffee popping out here and there.  We escaped unscathed, unscalded really, said good day to their spry 14 year old cat Dada and had one last jaunt. We found a teeny pizzeria completely unmarked down a teensy tiny alleyway which was so awesome and cheap and awesome.  Super deep dish pizza with a little mozzarella and dried salami on it.  While we were there they kept pulling giant beautiful loaves of bread out of the pizza oven and as though by intuition each time one came out another local would pop in, get a fresh warm loaf and a slice.  Then we sashayed into one of the bakeries.  It being around one o’clock it was packed with people standing around drinking either wine or coffee, we sidled up and ordered a couple cappucino’s, in Europe everything is cheaper if you order it at the bar, sitting automatically doubles the costs, and saw these fresh doughnuts they were just setting out.  We ordered a couple and listen people… holy kablam.  Picture the lightest fluffiest airiest beignet, make the outside a little crispier, roll it in cinnamon and sugar, then fill it with custard or sabayonne.  Then eat that warm.  Then change your pants. All in all, Venice was more than we could have hoped.  It’s a mystical place that you can’t describe.  You walk with no idea where you’re going, find a stunning church every thirty steps, cross bridges, turn randomly, and somehow find yourself in an even more beautiful part of town than the already beautiful part of town you were in.  It’s like a cartoon of itself in a lot of ways, a decaying, crumbling, sinking ancient city filled with either shiny gore-tex clad tourists or old, crumbling locals shuffling about with their dogs.  There are so many places trying to look like it, Disneyland or Vegas, that we’re almost used to the idea of it, but to actually walk those echoing narrow alleyways and pause on a bridge over a canal to kiss in the chilly air is an experience that can’t be duplicated in any city anywhere in the world.

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