24 hours in Venice

Posted: April 3, 2010 in Uncategorized


Oct 15th, 2009

As if the weather had been denied a visa at the border, my train from Innsbruck crossed the snow-covered pass of the Alps, the leaden skies of the past few days still dropping more snow, and in the space of no more than a couple hours descended into lush green valleys beneath clear blue skies. At the same time, the surrounding countryside and villages transformed from Germanic chalets and pastures to pastel villas and vineyards. I had officially entered Italy.

Given my train was a commuter rather than an express, it made countless stops as it wound through the valleys, and the urge to get off at one of them was overwhelming as we passed quiet mountain lakes lined with trees and footpaths, sun-drenched rows of grapevines, and crumbling castles perched on surrounding outcroppings, the train stations themselves drowsy and often empty. Even the train driver at one such stop unhurriedly got off the train and disappeared for what I had to assume was a bathroom break, reappeared to wash his face from a spigot near a row of hedges, and chatted idly with another conductor lounging at the station before taking his place again and setting us back on our way, none of which seemed to disturb anyone on the train, happy as we were to gaze out the windows or remain engrossed in our books. My disappointment in not following through on this urge to stop short of my goal grew the moment the train made its final stop at the edge of the foothills and I transferred onto the train that would take me to Venice, the landscape suddenly transforming from charming and green to flat, featureless suburbs as far as the eye could see. I held on with the grim determination that Venice would not let me down.

Thankfully, with the same suddenness that I had left the mountains, the ocean cut short the pallor of industrial wasteland and made way for the scattered islands of Venice still packed to the edges with its unmistakable centuries-old buildings. Minutes later the train pulled into the station, and passing through the last remaining shred of modern architecture that is the Santa Lucia train station, I was standing on the edge of the Grand Canal, staring at a living city of buildings that in many cases have been around since before my home continent of North America had even been discovered by modern civilization.

Setting into the city to find my hostel, I immediately discovered first-hand Venice’s one real problem: the people who built the city were not exactly the best planners. Issues of the entire place constantly sinking notwithstanding, navigation is a major problem in Venice. For starters, except for the ferries along the Grand Canal, the only way to get around the city is on foot. The streets themselves are typically barely wide enough for so much as a bicycle, and even that’s made impossible by the number of people, steps, and bridges along the way. Even on foot, the streets wind, branch, and generally wander off in any direction that seemed a good idea at the time, sometimes ending abruptly at a small canal, all completely independent of the concept of actually getting from point A to point B. This is made worse yet by the fact that the streets are all deceptively given names, and the buildings all have addresses, giving you some hope that you can in fact find something by its address amidst the chaos. This, it turns out, is rather an elaborate practical joke, since not only do the streets randomly stop only to pop up again halfway across the city, but even the locals themselves have no idea how this address system works. As I discovered firsthand, you could be literally around the corner from your destination, and anyone you ask will simply look at you blankly and shrug. Because of this construction of chaos, my first learning experience in the city was an important lesson on how to find your way through the streets of Venice: you can’t. Instead you sort of take a general heading, like a ship at sea, backtrack when you hit a wall or canal with no bridge, which is often, and don’t expect to get anywhere on foot in a hurry.

After two hours of this I finally located the hostel in the most fitting place; down a dead-end street, in an unmarked building with a worn buzzer plate identifying it among the other residents as simply “Museum”. A few moments of uncertain waiting later I was buzzed in and greeted just as unceremoniously at the upstairs front door by a tiny Japanese girl in bunny slippers and pajamas who informed me that my bed in the men’s dorm was not built yet, so in the meantime I could store my backpack in a disused atrium in the back. The inside of the place was as ornate as it was empty, the soaring chambers with faded frescoes and aging chandeliers furnished with some folding chairs and tables and a few ratty couches. It had apparently at one point been a mansion belonging to one of the wealthier residents of Venice; now it felt like a forgotten building occupied by squatters on holiday.

Setting out again with my fresh knowledge of holistic street navigation, I wandered for a while marveling at the sights and sampling incredibly cheap but fantastic wine and bruschetta. As I pondered my next glass I recognized one of the passing pedestrians as one of the few guys who had been lounging on the couches at the hostel and flagged him over. Rigo turned out to a soft-spoken LA native recently unemployed from Hitachi and and touring Europe for 3 months on his severance, that enviable position so many people daydream about at their desk. Since we were both headed to Piazza San Marco, we decided there was safety in numbers getting lost in the hedge maze of the Venice streets, and plunged ahead together. Some hours later we managed our way back to the hostel, briefly stopping to pick up a liter each of incredibly high-quality wine for a mere 3 euro to go with dinner.

Since dinner was hosted for free by the hostel, everyone converged again on the dining room from their own various sightseeing over the day, and it turned out the women outnumbered the men by at least 3 to 1. As usual it was an eclectic mix of the token Australians, two girls from New York, a Brit from Stoke-on-Trent who was astounded that I’d actually heard of it, a Frenchman undertaking the unenviable task of chaperoning his very Muslim female friend through Europe, and a smattering of others who’s stories and names I didn’t catch. We ate, I killed my bottle of wine with surprising ease, and a group of us wrapped up the night following our hostess Nina, a bouncy, minuscule Italian girl, and her boyfriend to a local pub to drink outside in the chilly piazza. Shortly after we had settled outside with drinks in hand we were joined by another group from what I gathered was a sister hostel in the city, in tow behind an American guy in his twenties who had decided that an appropriate substitute for learning Italian was to simply speak English with a horrible Italian accent, as if his idea of the perfect cultural preparation was to watch all three Godfather movies. It was a testimony to the good nature of the locals that no one hit him.

The next morning was amazingly hangover-free, something I quickly came to revere about Italian wine. Unfortunately, I was one of the few that seemed to be on such good terms with it. Powering through the toast and coffee breakfast, I skipped the attempt to queue for one of the only two working showers, both in the girls’ dorms, said my goodbyes, and took off to wander again. By noon I felt I’d done justice to the place, having covered a significant amount of the city and picked up a small bottle of grappa as a souvenir from a tiny wine merchant, its shelves lined not with bottles but with giant plastic drums affixed with spigots to fill your own bottles. Recycling and bulk buying its best.

Returning to the hostel I grabbed a quick shower, packed, and headed to the train station, getting about halfway when it dawned on me that I didn’t remember seeing my Railpass while packing. A quick check of my pack confirmed with a sinking feeling that it was in fact missing; a check of my watch showed I had just minutes to spare, and I took off at a run back to the hostel. In my mind, I desperately hoped that it had simply dropped behind the bed, and that I had not finally fallen victim to the dreaded threat of hostel theft. While I had the means, I was not eager to spend the considerable amount of money to replace a half-used Railpass, which through a sadistic pricing scheme seem to increase exponentially in price by the hour the closer you get to your departure time. However my luck held out, and not only did I in fact find my Railpass tucked out of sight on the floor under my bed, I made it to the train station and found an empty seat to collapse into no more than a few minutes before the train to Bologna jostled to a start, almost exactly 24 hours after I had arrived. Italy was off to a good start.

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