Arriving in Venice by train is an amazing experience. After rolling through many beautiful towns and villages, you suddenly find yourself on a long causeway over the lagoon as you approach the city. Once you’ve wrestled your 1,000-pound suitcase off the train and tumbled through the doors of the train station, you’re presented with an incredible view of the Church of San Simeone Piccolo across the waters of the Grand Canal. It’s a pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moment, to be sure.
There are no vehicles in the city, which makes crossing the street a far less risky venture than most cities in Italy. After a week of saying a quick prayer and putting on running shoes each time I approached a crosswalk, Venice was a haven for my jangled nerves. Crossing the street in any other Italian city isn’t for wimps.
We headed to our hotel, a mercifully short distance from the train station, where we checked in and were led to our room by the porter. The hotel had no elevator, so we began the long, twisting climb to the fourth floor. It wasn’t until later that I noticed the hallway on our floor was on a peculiar slant. You could clearly see that the hall had formerly been the roof, which they just covered with carpet when they added our floor. Apparently the building codes are a little less fussy than ours.
Unburdened by suitcases, we headed out to explore the city. Maps are fairly useless in Venice because most of the “streets” are little more than alleys and it’s very hard to stay oriented when you can’t see any landmarks. We were very lost within 15 minutes, but we saw a lot of interesting things we never would have found otherwise. There are dozens of tiny squares all over the city and in one of them we encountered a group of kids playing soccer while their parents watched and chatted. A moment of perfection.
We wandered around for three hours, occasionally catching glimpses of where we needed to go but unable to get there because we couldn’t cross the canal. Taking a break from being lost, we had dinner at a tiny bistro, where I ate the best pizza of my life. Ravenous, I randomly pointed at one of the slices in the display case and ordered a soda and we ate our meal sitting nearby on one of the cisterns that are dotted all over the city. The pizza was a giant wedge, eaten by folding it in half, and I quickly discovered – to my surprise – that it had tuna fish on it. It was fantastic, although at that point I would have eaten it if it was covered in cigarette butts.
Venice is a lovely, crumbling, sagging city and we saw much of it courtesy of the “vaporetti” water buses. For a 3-day pass, you can hop on and off wherever you like and easily see every part of the city. It took a little getting used to the system, but before long I was helping confused tourists sort it out. Using the vaporetti, we spent a fascinating morning on the nearby island of Murano, home of the famous glass blowers, where we watched the artists create a gorgeous glass horse in fifteen minutes. Incredible. Even though the city is surrounded by water, I was still surprised when I wandered into St. Mark’s Square one afternoon to find it flooded. It was a full moon and high tide, and the city had laid out portable elevated sidewalks to keep us above the water. The tourists would stop to take photos and the police would blow their whistles and keep people moving, like cattle.
Venice truly is a beautiful place with so many interesting nooks and crannies. One of my favorite memories was discovering an old bookshop at the end of a street, with long tables of books out front and a cat sleeping on them in the sun. Inside the shop, the windows overlooked the canal and you could see the water between the planks of the floor. I doubt I could ever find this place again, but it would be a lot of fun searching for it.
Matt Grigsby is a Redding native who has learned how to tell the difference between fresh gelato and machine-made. He owns a beautiful imaginary six room villa in the hills above Florence as well as a very real cottage on the West Side of town. By day he’s a computer analyst toiling for the public good and he dreams of one day owning a robot servant. Matt only uses the fancy ketchup.