Saturday, March 31, 2012

Venice - Is it worth the hype. Part 1

I asked myself this question many times before we finally visited in 2010. Venice is one of those universally loved places. The minute you say the name, people start gushing about how romantic it is and how it is the most beautiful city they have ever seen. They go on and on about the canals, the narrow alleys, car-free streets, gondolas and elegantly decaying buildings. So why did I worry if I would really like it. No, I am not conceited enough to think that I am unique and won't like what millions of tourists love. In fact, I am as generic as they make them. I love creaky old structures, cobble stone streets, quaint stores and historic places.

My biggest problem with Venice is its overexposure. If I were to compare it with a bollywood actor, it would be like SRK. He is EVERYWHERE! In movies, on tv he is advertising for everything from pepsi to pepsodent, hosting every award show (next time please do something other than making every foreigner say " Main ulloo ka Patta hoon".) and at cricket matches saying "Korbo, Lorbo, Jeetbo' at every chance he gets. Somebody kill me before he bends backwards, pushes his chest forward and opens his arms (DDLJ style).
My point here is that we all have seen Venice - in postcards, in movies, in magazines, and in half of your friend's photo albums. The last few movies Casino Royale, Italian Job and the tourist were extensively pictured in Venice. It is like reading the book before seeing the movie and one is sure to disappoint you.

A fellow traveller once told me - "When you get off the Santa Lucia train station and walk out, you get your first view of the Grand Canal and it is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen". Here is the thing - I have seen this view in so many movies that I was afraid reality would be disappointing. Plus, in the last few years I heard more complaints than compliments. " It is too hot and humid". " the water from the canals stink", "There are more people than pigeons on St. mark's square", "Everything is super expensive" and the clincher - "food is not great". How can I go to a place in Italy where the food is not good?
Anyway, we decided to go to Venice because it was convenient. I was with friends touring Sicily for a week before Saru joined me in Venice. I wanted to drive through the Austrian Alps and Venice was a perfect starting point with a good international airport. I landed in Venice early in the morning around 7 am after spending a sleepless night almost freezing to death at the Rome airport (don't ask). I got out, bought myself a water taxi pass and took one to St. Mark's square. It was a beautiful morning with a nice cool breeze. Venice was just opening up for business and it was beautiful.

I love staying at different types of accommodations. Over the last decade, we have stayed at campsites, cabins, hostels, hotels, B&B's, farm houses, haunted houses (remind me to tell you the story of this creepy home in Hawaii where mangoes would fall on the asbestos roof and scare the crap out of us in the night, or the spooky home in Shasta where they had crosses and pictures of angels at every corner ), and this one time at an Alpaca and Llama farm in Canada. This time, I came across a website where you can book rooms in a monastery!! For 100E (trust me, that is cheap for Venice), we stayed in a 14th century monastery that was a stone's throw from St. Mark's square and Rialto bridge. The room was clean and large by Italian standards and more importantly, it had modern plumbing. Quaint and charming is good, but a girl needs a shower with good water pressure. The lovely nuns at the monastery sent me a hand drawn map showing the directions from the Vaporetto station to their place. Let me tell you one thing. When you have a place like Venice with narrow alleys and bridges every few meters, following a hand drawn map counting the number of lines and matching them with streets is impossible. I was hopelessly lost. Luckily for me, gondoliers stake out at every bridge hoping to lure hapless tourists into the trap they call gondola ride. 80E for a 20 minute ride in the back canals where you get to see peeling plaster of dilapidated buildings and panties hanging from clothes lines. No-Thank-You! And what is with the hideous looking striped shirts and red scarves!! Anyway, these guys know Venice in and out and were able to point me in the direction of "Instituto San Giuseppe", the monastery of St. Joseph where we were staying.

Saru was landing that afternoon, so I rested for a couple of hours and went to the airport to receive him. I had not seen him for 10 days, so I was really looking forward to meeting him. Like the seasoned traveller that I am, I guided him from the airport to the ferry terminal and soon we were on a boat towards the hotel. We were oblivious to the sights of Venice as I talked non-stop telling him all about my trip to Sicily. He was only too happy to get back his FM Radio service (that is what he calls me because of my ability to talk on demand. He claims he married me just for that). For the first evening, we decided to do nothing, but walk the streets of Venice. After all, the biggest attraction in Venice is Venice itself. The place was packed with tourists. One could not walk a few steps without dashing into somebody. See....that is why I don't find Venice very romantic. Yes, we were holding hands, but that was more out of fear of losing each other than love. Yes, we were checking each other out every few minutes, but that was because we were worried about pickpockets. Romantic for me is a peaceful place in the mountains or by the sea with few people. I mean, how is one supposed to make out if you have hundreds of people around you. I thought Amsterdam in spring was far more romantic than Venice. Hawaii is incredibly romantic with its deep blue ocean and all that hula dancing.

As we were walking, we saw a giant cruise ship leave the town, taking with it, thousands of annoying tourists. The day-trippers left, the sun was beginning to set, sky was turning a deep blue and that is when the magic of Venice began. Dimly lit streets lead to beautiful piazzas surrounded by illuminated monuments. Darkness of the night covers up centuries of decay while the flood lights accentuate the beauty of the buildings. A strange sort of calm descends on the town and you can hear the soft crash of the waves on the wooden piles. Lanterns are lit along the canals, restaurants are filled with customers and the gondolas glide by at a slow pace. We walked aimlessly for a long time before settling down at a canal side restaurant for a long dinner and retired back to our monastery before the 11:00 PM deadline (Oh yes, the nuns don't want you partying till 2:00 AM).

It was a pleasant night, not too warm. As is the case with most hotels in old towns in Europe, there was no fan or air conditioning. The husband, who is crazy-addicted to a fan, cannot sleep without a hurricane over our heads. We opened the giant French windows to let the air in forgetting the fact that Venice is full of canals and a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. Soon....they were buzzing in our ears. We open the windows, those little monsters come in. We close the windows, there is no air for the suffocating husband. Catch 22 indeed. So- here we were, meeting after 10 days, on what was supposed to be a romantic night together....squatting mosquitoes. Both of us, with magazines in our hands were walking around the room, jumping on the bed and killing mosquitoes. The folks in the next room must have wondered about all the jumping and the inappropriate noises coming from our room. If only they knew.....
Next morning, using a lot of sign language we asked Mother Superior (oh was a functional monastery) for a fan. She kept saying " Ventilator? Ventilator?". I assured her that the ventilation in the room was fine, but needed a fan. She did not get a word of what I was saying. Finally, Saru took a piece of paper and drew a fan and she smiled "Ventilator" (translated to fan in Italian). She also gave us a mosquito repellent - bless her soul!.
Next morning we set off to see the sights in Venice - The St. Marks Church, the Doge's Palace and many others.

Venice - Is it worth it? The answer in Part II