Italy: Benvenuti in Italia

This morning started bright and early; no time for snuggling in our comfy, fluffy bed today.  We were up and at ’em and headed to Schiphol by 8am.  Check-in was a breeze – we barely had our passports looked over, let alone inspected and the security check was equally as fast without having to remove the laptop or our shoes.  K did get a bit of a frisking since he went through with Prilosec in his pocket (with aluminum packaging…duh).  He got all flustered about thumbs down the front of his pants.  I giggled and asked him what he expected in Amsterdam.  I thought he should have just enjoyed the fact he didn’t have to pay for it!

We grabbed a couple of donuts from a little stand for our breakfast, made our way to the gate and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  We finally boarded the plane just minutes before our scheduled takeoff time.  I barely remember taking off before I was out.  I opened my eyes just as we were descending into Copenhagen and totally geeked out over the number of offshore windmills near the airport!  What a great idea.  We had a very brief (27 minutes, to be exact) layover in Copenhagen, and then we were off to Venice.

Venice Airport/Transportation:

We landed in Venice around 3pm with no transportation scheduled and no frickin’ clue how to get from the airport to San Zaccaria.  I was thrown for a bit by the language barrier plus not being able to just walk out the door and hop into a cab.  We had a printed e-mail from our hotel giving us multiple options for arrival, but weren’t sure which was the best.  We assumed the water option (water taxi or water bus) would be the best since there seems to be more water than mainland, so we decided to go Alilaguna.

We grabbed our bags (which both made it again this time!) and wandered around a bit trying to get our bearings and figure out how to buy tickets.  We found a few ticket machines and got in line.  But when we made it up to the machines, I had no idea what to do – I could decipher some of the Italian, but not all of it and couldn’t get the English option to work.  I knew that we wanted Alilaguna, but I wasn’t sure which line to take.  And I didn’t have exact change.  So I gave up and walked away not 100% sure what to do.  (I later found out you can’t buy Alilaguna tickets at the kiosks anyway.)  We found the Alilaguna counter around the corner from the arrival hall near the exit, paid €13 each for the tickets and headed outside toward the docks.

The walk to the docks was about 10 minutes at a fairly quick pace.  There was a covered sidewalk leading down to the docks, so it was easy to find – though we did feel a bit like herded cattle, following everyone down the narrow sidewalk without much room to maneuver around slower walkers in front of us.  Down at the docks, we found the sign for the Alilaguna red line, and walked out onto the dock and into the enclosed, floating platform to wait for the boat to arrive.  As we waited, it grew increasingly crowded and claustrophobic inside, and the platform really rocked and swayed under the shifting weight and wake.  (Good thing neither of us get seasick.)  After about 20 minutes, the boat finally showed up.

As we stepped onto the boat, there were men who grabbed our bags and stowed them near the door for us, separated into groups based on which stop we were taking.  We were one of the first on and snagged a seat near the window.  Score!

RKAlilaguna

We assumed it would be a short ride from the airport to San Zaccaria since there were only three stops in between.  Boy, were we wrong!  We pulled out at the snail’s pace of a large ferry boat, not the speed boat pace that I was expecting.  Once I realized it was going to take a while, I sat back and peered out the window, enjoying the scenery.

The lane that we were traveling in was lined with wooden pilings, several feet apart, each with a single sea gull sitting on top, staking his claim to his perch.  Off in the distance we could see the Venetian skyline.

AlilagunaView

Occasionally, a speed boat water taxi would fly past us, or a barge would lazily drift by.  It took us approximately 50 minutes from the airport to San Zaccaria.  We also made 5 or 6 stops rather than the 3 noted on the map.  This was our first exposure to things happening on “Venice time” regardless of the structure and timetables.  We should have realized this was a sign of things to come later in the trip…

We stepped off the boat at the San Zac stop onto a stone walkway edging along the canal.  The walkway was wide, and lined with gift shops and restaurants.  Street vendors peddling all sorts of items were dotted along the walkway – some with kiosks, some with everything spread out on blankets on the ground.  It reminded me a bit of the Battery Park area in NYC.  The waterfront was extremely crowded with large groups of people and tour groups everywhere.  It was a bit like cattle herds shuffling along.

We started off toward Piazza San Marco to find our hotel, dragging our bags awkwardly behind us along the uneven stones, up over bridges and back down the other side, trying not to wheel over anyone’s toes or lose control.  Just a short 5 minute walk and two bridges later, we found ourselves at the intersection of Calle degli Albanesi – more or less just a narrow alleyway between two buildings.  We walked up one block and turned into an even more narrow alleyway; narrow enough that K could straddle the alley with one arm and leg on either building and climb up the walls.  After a few steps, the alleyway spilled out into a small, building-encircled opening.  To the right was a small patio area with six umbrella-covered tables right outside the door of our hotel.

KVeniceWall

Ca’ dei Dogi:

Ca’ dei Dogi is a small boutique-ish hotel with only six rooms, each decorated differently.  We chose the Batik room for €150/night – extremely cheap for Venice, and still really nice.  This was one of Rick Steves top picks for Venice, so we knew it had to be a decent place.

We walked into the lobby of the hotel to find a very small reception area with a small table, chairs and a computer with complimentary Internet.  Behind the small desk was the owner, Stefano, who was incredibly friendly and welcoming.  He checked us in quickly and carried all of our bags to our room for us, despite our insistence that we could carry them ourselves.  He led us up a narrow stairway to the third floor and opened the door into our small but ample room.

The room was dominated by a queen sized bed in the middle of the far wall, covered in neutral colored linens with a large bronze colored batik decoration hanging on the wall above the bed.  On the wall opposite the bed was a small TV mounted from the ceiling above a very small armoire built into the wall.  To the right of the bed was the bathroom, not much more than a small closet, but functional nonetheless.  The pocket door helped to conserve on space, and the stall shower, sink, bidet and toilet were neatly fit inside.

CaDeiDogiBatik

Photo: http://www.cadeidogi.it/rooms.htm

Perhaps the best part of the room was the wood-framed glass door that opened onto a small balcony.  The balcony was barely large enough for the table and two chairs it held, but it was nice and secluded and looked out immediately across to the facade of another building just across the way.  Just over the rooftop, we could see the back side of the Doge’s Palace – covered at the moment in scaffolding and billboards due to construction – and if I stood on my tippy toes I could see just the very tip of the Campanile Tower in Piazza San Marco.

DogesPalaceView

Stefano explained to us before he left that the maintenance guy had dropped something into the sink this morning, cracking the porcelain.  He puttied the crack – it it was barely noticeable to us – but he apologized profusely and left a complimentary bottle of wine for us in the room.  Very generous, and a nice start to the stay.

Once Stefano left, we situated our things in the room, rested on the hard-as-a-rock bed for a few minutes and then – after listening to my stomach growl for a few minutes – decided to get out and explore and find some food.  We started out back to Calle degli Albanesi and turned away from the water, wandering further into the city to explore.  We strolled along down an alley until we reached an intersection, then made a split decision whether to veer off on the new path and which way to turn.

Ristorante Al Conte Pescaor:

After a bit of wandering, we stumbled upon Ristorante Al Conte Pescaor – a quaint little restaurant with a nice patio seating area.  And they were open.  Unlike a lot of other places this early in the evening.  The waiter seated us at a nice table right at the edge of the patio area.  We were the only people in the place so we had the patio area to ourselves and undivided attention of the waitstaff.

We started off with a typical Italian meal – we both ordered lasagna and a bottle of merlot.  We didn’t wait very long for the food, and when we finally dug in, it was so worth it.  This was hands-down the best lasagna I’ve ever eaten; just the right ratio of cheesiness to sauciness and perfect pasta.  I could have eaten two or three servings, I think.  We decided on tiramisu for dessert and it was equally as delicious.  Definitely a great choice for our first Italian meal.  We were pleasantly surprised to when the bill came to find that dinner wasn’t all that expensive either.  We paid €70 for two entrees, a nice bottle of wine, a bottle of water, tiramisu and espresso.

I polished off the last of the wine and K had a tiny espresso and we sat for a bit chatting and enjoying the warm, garlic-filled air and letting our food settle.

RMerlot

KEspresso

After dinner, we decided to follow the signs posted on the buildings leading us to the Rialto Bridge.  It was like a scavenger hunt, following the signs with “Rialto —->”, turning in the direction of the arrow and then searching madly for the next sign amongst the clutter of other signs, advertisements and other chaos covering the building facades.  Some were easy to spot; others were pretty difficult to pick out.  As we approached the Grand Canal, following the signs, we crossed a small bridge over a narrow canal and spotted a group of gondoliers.

Gondola Ride:

I know that the gondolas are mostly tourist traps and overly expensive, but on our honeymoon how could we pass up the cheesily romantic ride?  They told us it would cost €90 for a ride.  We told them we didn’t have the money on us and would have to come back.  They asked how much we had, we told them €60 and they said okay.  I’m not sure if it’s customary or acceptable to haggle with the gondoliers, but it worked for us.  So down we climbed into the gondola and off we went.

RKGondola

It was just after sunset and the sky was still slightly backlit, the air was still warm, and all we could hear along the canals was the slice of the oar through the water and the serenade of our gondolier.

GondolaSky

After a few minutes in the narrow, silent canal, we made a turn into a large, wide-open canal, and there in front of us was the Rialto Bridge, lit up and gleaming in the dark – the Grand Canal.

GrandCanalRialto

I am so happy this was our first glimpse of the Grand Canal – gliding down the waterway, lights from both sides reflecting off the water, buildings along both shores shadowed in the twilight, groups of people crowding each shore eating, drinking and socializing, and the two sides of the canal spanned by the fabulous white Rialto Bridge littered with people on top, all lit up and hanging against the gorgeous sky – a dark electric blue just about to fade to complete darkness.

It was extremely romantic and breathtaking to experience the canal this way.  I snapped a few photos as we slowly drifted up the canal, then cuddle back next to K with my head on his chest, lost in the magic feeling as our gondolier continued to serenade us.  As people atop the Rialto Bridge waved, clapped and took photos.  As we continued past the bridge and further into the dark canal, illuminated now only by the twilight sky.

This was such a wonderful experience.  Well worth the €60 we spent.

Rialto Bridge:

We climbed out of the gondola and continued on, hand-in-hand, headed toward the Rialto Bridge.  The steps up to the span of the bridge were lined with shops and cafes – all of which were closed by this point – and there were people evvvvverywhere.

We climbed up to the top and stood amongst the crowds, peering down onto the canal where we had just been, dimly lit by the lights along the edges of the canal and the moonlight.  We took a few photos and then continued on, across the bridge to the opposite side.  The photos came out a bit dark, but using the flash doesn’t capture the ambiance correctly – the tiny sliver of the moon, the reflection of lights.

RKRialto

We strolled along the walkway, leisurely, taking in all of the sights, smells and sounds around us.  The opposite side of the bridge was lined with restaurants that had large outdoor seating areas along the edge of the canal.  The food smelled good, but the places were horrendously crowded, and the prices were fairly steep as well.  We wandered to the end of the walkway, lingered for just a minute admiring the canal view, then turned away from the canal back into the narrow alleyways.

GondolaCanalNight

As we wandered, we stumbled upon a great little bar – I wish I remembered the name of it, or even where it was.  What first drew us inside was Eric Clapton on the TV inside (and the fact that I was about to wet my pants and needed a toilet).  We stepped through the open doorway into the dimly lit, small area.

In front of us was a very small, lit up deli counter with some cheeses and sausages inside, behind which was the bar tender and a few shelves of wine.  The furnishings were dark wood, scratched and worn.  The lighting was a combination of orange hued, candle-shaped bulbs hanging from the ceiling in small, single-bulb chandeliers, multicolored strands of rope lights strewn haphazardly about the walls, a few lit candles placed along the bar area and the glow coming off of the big screen TV in the corner of the bar.  The walls and ceiling were covered – every.single.inch. – in graffiti from past patrons; dates of travel, random sayings, names and other nonsense.  Thrown in the with graffiti were album covers of blues and classic rock bands, as well as posters and framed photos of the same.

WineBarWall

The place was really a wine bar, so there weren’t many beers to choose from.  There were no Italian beers on tap, so we settled for Arcobrau and a small plate of cheese and sausages and hopped up at the bar.

ArcobrauBar

We scarfed the delicious food and drank a couple of beers while enjoying the music and mood of the place before we paid the tab and moved along.

KArcobrau

RArcobrau

We ducked out of the bar and back into the alleyway, heading back in the direction of Piazza San Marco, this time following the “San Marco —->” signs back through the city.  We emerged into the plaza, through the large iron gates, on the opposite side from our hotel.  Our first view of the enormous space was at night after the crowds had gone; the only people remaining were along the perimeter at several restaurants with outdoor tables and live music.  With the glow of the moon and the Italian music for ambiance, it really was a great first impression of the piazza.

We stopped briefly to dance in the square, enjoying our surroundings and getting caught up in the romance (and perhaps the dizziness of the Arcobraus) before moving along back toward the hotel.

When we got back to the hotel, we sat out on the terrace enjoying the warm evening and the cool, delicious bottle of wine Stefano had left us.  From our balcony, we could very, very faintly hear the commotion of music from Piazza San Marco.

VeniceWine

We took out our map and tried to decide where to start in the morning – determine whether we should brave the crowds of San Marco and Doge’s Palace first thing in the morning, or whether we should just wander and lose ourselves in the city again by daylight.  We ultimately decided to ditch the planning, see what time we wake tomorrow and take it from there.  But at least we have an idea of where things are and what we definitely have to see before leaving.

So now the wine bottle is nearly empty and the night is turning into morning.  We’re exhausted from waking early and traveling.  I think it’s time for bed.  On this awful, rock-hard Italian bed.  I miss our comfy, fluffy nook in Amsterdam.

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