The Floating City

Whenever I hear someone speak of visiting Venice, it’s to say one of two things:

  1. “The most romantic place in the world”
  2. “It smells like garbage. Too Crowded”

The first speaker will tell you of their honeymoon and will offer up their wedding date, eyes glistening as they imagine the endless canals. The other usually makes this statement with a dismissive wave of the hand while making a scrunched up facial expression.

Venice is divisive. And because of that, I loved it before I visited. A fierce opinion on something piques my interest. If someone answers “How do you feel about that movie?” with “It was ok” I probably won’t see it. If, however, someone answers “I loooved it. OMG you don’t even know” or “It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen” I’m immediately 200% more likely to get my butt into a theatre. If ever I say “It was fine” I say so vehemently, with narrowed eyes. I’m more angered by something when I’m neutral than I am when I hate something. Be memorable. Be an anecdote. Don’t make me forget about a [enter any noun] the next day.

When we bought our train ticket to Venice from Munich my mom went googly eyed with “I’d love to see…”, and my coworker stated “Don’t even…” Game on.

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I may have arrived in the city slightly biased in its favor due to the voyage through the Swiss Alps that took us there. Though I spent seven hours on the train, I spent half that time staring out the window with my jaw dropped.

The second we de-trained however, an announcement was made in half a dozen languages warning of pick pockets. We quickly learned that checking our luggage overnight would cost upwards of 90 euros, and were immediately accosted by dozens of vendors the moment we stepped outside.

I promptly understood there is indeed a lot you can hate about Venice…

…and a lot more you can love.

We booked our hotel months in advance, and at that point the city was 80% percent booked for a Saturday in June. It wasn’t cheap. It’s just as they said, I thought. I’ll have panic attacks on bridges, in restaurants, while looking at cathedrals. I’ll be swarmed and stuck and all the while the streets will reek of trash.

But while it can be incredibly crowded, turn down a sidestreet free of shops and don’t be surprised if you’re the only one there. You may need to wait a moment to take a photo of the Grand Canal at your preferred spot, but you’re still looking at the Grand Canal. The water taxis are jammed (onboard one was the most claustrophobic I felt in the city), but while passing an apartment gorgeously decorated and lit up against the darkness, two small girls waved and danced as we passed in front.

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Trudging my suitcase across the cobblestones en route to our lodging (Carl is smart enough to manage a backpack), we arrived at Residenza Corte Molin — A three-room inn owned by a wonderful yet dominating woman who immediately filled us in on the history of the building. Napoleon docked his ships just beneath our heads she stressed, told us exactly how our 12 hours in Venice should be spent miss your train to Florence and spend the day going to Murano instead,  and managed to insult both me and my footwear simultaneously — I guess those shoes will be fine for a few hours, you won’t be able to take it for longer though so do you have sneakers?

Because we’re polite, and because I’ve never thrown down over someone insulting my flats before, we waited for the full 20 minutes of history, hazing, and map circling til we went into the room to freshen up. Moments after locking the door with our ancient key, we were met with a steady knock and presented with bellinis and what I’d describe as “high end party mix” — Lady, you can knock my shoes anytime if you’ll back those words up with complimentary champagne.

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The next few hours were filled with taking a single turn and immediately getting lost (you will get lost, that’s part of the charm), checking out the Grand Canal, and visiting the famed Acqua Alta bookstore where we did see the book tower and the cats, but also had to contend with the dozens of folks trying to fit into narrow passageways two at a time — Overall it’ll create some pretty photos, but I’d say it’s totally missable, especially for any bibliophiles who are going there to actually peruse the stacks.

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I was concerned about the food in Venice. The city gets 20 million tourists a year — that’s roughly 55,000 tourists every day. And with a population of 260,000, that means at any given time the city is comprised of 20% tourists. And we’re not talking a desert destination like the Grand Canyon. We’re talking a city. With so many foreign mouths to feed, I worried that we’d end up somewhere totally “meh” for dinner. Where the entrees featured specialties like spaghetti and meatballs for 30 euro.

We had one dinner in the city, but we made it count. No matter where I travel, even in my home city, a solid rule to live by is “you want to eat somewhere without a reservation, you go when it opens”. And while it may not be very fashionable to be one of the first folks sitting down, good food is paramount to a successful trip. A couple of minutes of research brought us to Al Ponte Storto Osteria con Cucina at 6:45, just 15 minutes after they opened.

Snagging a seat outside, we had a canal in front of us that sat wonderfully still during the two hours we spent at the table. When our server brought me an aperol spritz (the first I’ve had and a staple of the city) I felt incredibly peaceful. Then the food began to arrive and I became ravenous for more. There was octopus with green peas and potatoes. Cuttlefish swimming in ink and berry sauce. A soft egg resting beside asparagus and topped with speck. Fresh pasta with eggplant, dotted with tomatoes and bufala cream…It was all heavenly. The server was also informative and attentive — Unlike some places that are trying to churn tourists out at an exponentially rapid rate, we felt welcome and unrushed.

When we finally lifted our butts from our seats and patted our bellies in contentment, it was the witching hour, when that gorgeous yellow glow haloes absolutely everything. This is a city whose buildings look like a watercolor even before they’re reflected from the canals — A city that lives in shades of pastel. A city whose colors have bled in the rain and bleached with the sun.

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The Bridge of Sighs is illuminated in the coming darkness as if it’s being showcased in a film; the last of the sun is laser focused on the curve of the bridge and the pattern of its windows. Nearby, boats tied together rock against one another underneath ornate street lamps.

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There’s something so theatrical about Venice — The gondoliers are dressed like mimes, the facades of your average apartment are bedecked in glamourous balconies and window awnings, and the bleeding colors look like the city itself is weeping. The islands are sinking further each year, and compounded with the rising seas of climate change, Venice is expected to be underwater within 100 years. It’s like being best friends with an aging film star. The combination of beauty and decay is mesmerizing, filled with a sadness that’s impossible to look away from.

With the sun finally set, we slowly meander back to the inn but not before stopping for gelato: The first of the dozen+ we’d have during our two weeks in Italy. I ordered a cone (un cono) of pistachio with cherries swirled throughout while Carl ordered stracciatella — A sweet cream chock full with bits of chocolate. And I’m not talking milk chocolate. I’m talking a rich, dark chocolate, such that even a fleck of it packs flavor.

A few rules to live by with gelato — If the array you see in front of you is Willy Wonka-esque in its color palette, go elsewhere. The best gelato is made of fresh ingredients and doesn’t use artificial coloring. My most cherished rule, the simpler the flavor the better. Just one lick of Carl’s stracciatella and I was blown away. Cone after cone of the good stuff, and nothing would come to beat stracciatella or hazelnut. You’ll never regret going simple with flavors.

Licking our conos we watched the way the city transforms itself in the night. Venice is so dense, its alleys so narrow, that the darkness is, well, darker than other cities. With no cars it feels like walking around in Jack the Ripper’s London, except there’s nothing menacing about. Because we went to bed before midnight I feel like I can’t truly say what happens at night though; 2am is when the drunks and the gargoyles really come alive.

Some places have residents who rise for the sun, like Boulder or Sedona, chock full of yogis and joggers and mountain climbers, where the street style is active wear. Venice is not one of those places. If you want to avoid the crowds, rise early. At 7am the city is yours. The canals are still. The gondoliers hats are hanging at home. The trash cans on the street overflow with paper plates and beer bottles and gelato cups. As soon as we step outside our inn we find the remnants of a rose strewn on the cobblestones. Across the street an old woman stands in the window pondering the empty streets. Water taxis, jammed the night before, are nearly empty, and those onboard appear to be on their commute.

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Venice belongs to the latest to bed and the first to meet the sun. I can fully understand getting caught in a crowd and having that taint your experience, but if you care to wake before 8 you can waltz into a cafe, order an espresso, and slowly sip it while standing at the bar with the locals, who make small talk with the barista. You can enjoy the calm before the storm. Within the 15 minute window we ordered our elixir we went from having plenty of room to touching elbows with our neighbors.

A rush occurs around us as we walk back to our inn. There’s a definite ebb and flow to the city; as reliable as the tides. I see the swarms of crowds in khaki shorts and fanny packs filling the streets at 9. At 7pm, this same crowd will trade in the tourist garb for full length khakis and sundresses. And so it goes, from the beginning of Spring to late Autumn, until the cold and the seasonal flooding scares away visitors.

We check out of the inn with the maid. I’ve been in Italy less than 24 hours, but already I know this woman alone is worth the journey. Late 50’s, she greets us with an energy that catches me off guard in the AM. She speaks fast and feverishly and within a moment it becomes clear she doesn’t speak English.

And yet, with her animated gesticulations and a recognizable word thrown in every so often, she’s able to say everything that needs to be said: “Did we pay the city tax when we arrived?”. “Have we had anything from the minibar”. After several enthusiastic nods of the head, we’ve come to the end of this process, at which point she grabs us by the shoulders and kisses our cheeks, her dark lipstick leaving a mark on our faces. As she leans in a memory hits me: it’s the memory of my grandmother hugging me as a child. Whether it’s because they share the same fragrance or because this woman conducts her life in such a warming glow, I do not know, but I’m transported.

That’s what I love about travel, it brings back the places you’ve already been, the moments that have been lost, and lets you see them somewhere new, as someone new.  These revelations always seem to be triggered by something fleeting. If you’ve decided that you’ve measured up a place and stop paying attention, you can miss the moment that will shape your whole experience.

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You’ll miss the old woman standing in the window at 7:00am, her white, waist length hair shrouding her nightgowned body as she watches the streets below, the steely queen of her living room.  You’ll miss reflections in the water, more beautiful than the scene they’re mirroring. You’ll miss the rose petals strewn across the street, their stems feet away, and never get the chance to wonder just what happened here the night before. The cats on balconies peering out from plants. The load of white laundry left out to dry. You’ll miss a myriad of moments presenting themselves as they’ll never be again.

Maybe it was because it was the first city I visited in Italy, or because we stayed on precisely the right block, or that the dinner chef was in a good mood, but I can see myself coming back again, falling more in love, getting lost and lost and lost to my heart’s content…

And at no point did it smell like garbage.

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