This morning we woke fairly late again. I could really get used to this leisurely waking with no alarm. I wake feeling so rested, despite how late we stay out and how much wine we consume before bed. We got up and showered – which was an interesting experience in itself – and dressed for the day. The shower is teeny tiny – barely big enough to lift my arms to wash my hair without banging my elbows against the wall, and even trickier to bend over and reach my legs and feet. On top of the cramped little space, there’s a frickin’ emergency pull cord in there too! So as I was balancing on one foot, trying to bend over and wash my legs, I also had to make sure that I didn’t lean against the wall as I went and pull the emergency cord on my way down. Nothing like an adventure before we even leave the room!
We finally headed downstairs – too late for breakfast and starving – to ask for recommendations for lunch. Stefano’s wife, Susanna, was at the desk this morning and pointed us toward Trattoria alla Madonna near the Rialto Bridge for a more “authentic” Venetian experience – more off the beaten path than the restaurants lining the Grand Canal, and supposedly some of the best seafood in Venice. I’m really not a seafood fan, but K likes all that yucky stuff, so we decided to check it out.
Piazza San Marco:
Off we went – first headed to Piazza San Marco to see what was going on there. That didn’t last long, as I would have rather jumped into the water in front of a speeding water taxi than walked through the piazza at this time of day. There were several cruise ships in port and way, way, way too many people and tour groups wandering the square. Everywhere we looked there was a herd of people-cattle, earphones in, following a guide waving an annoyingly printed handkerchief around to keep them all herded together. Not to mention the pigeons dive bombing everyone’s heads as they made a beeline for the breadcrumbs and other random food that oblivious tourists were tossing out for them. Amidst all this chaos were the vendor kiosks, strategically placed 3 feet from one another, selling the exact same things as all the others.
It was madness. I am so not a crowd person. This whole scene made me feel like hyperventilating a little. Really. I couldn’t get myself out of there fast enough!
We quickly headed out of the square, following the “Rialto —->” signs again, back to the Rialto Bridge. We crossed the bridge and headed down the canal, past all of the touristy, overcrowded restaurants on the canal, turned down a small alleyway and wandered down until we came to the doorway.
Trattoria alla Madonna:
We were warned that Trattoria alla Madonna is a popular place, particularly with the locals, so we were ecstatic to find that there was no line when we arrived.
We stepped inside to find a moderately crowded, bustling little place, but no host stand or anyone to seat us. We wandered through the entryway, not sure whether we should seat ourselves or not. After a few minutes of sort of loitering just inside the door, looking lost, someone finally approached us to seat us.
We walked past several refrigerated cases with seafood and dessert displays on the way to our barely-big-enough-for-two table, placed a mere 6 inches from the two tables on either side of us. The waiter was less than friendly and seemed to be extremely rushed, despite the fact that the restaurant really wasn’t that crowded.
We sat for probably 10 minutes before another waiter finally came to bring us water and take our order. I was a bit disappointed in the menu options, given I’m not a seafood fan. The only non-seafood options were gnocchi and cheese ravioli. I chose the ravioli, K had seafood risotto and we washed it down with a bottle of pinot. It took another 10-15 minutes for yet another waiter to come back with a basket of bread and our wine. And other 15 minutes for still another waiter to bring us our food.
The food was okay. The ravioli was good, but I wasn’t overly impressed. I guess I shouldn’t have expected too much since they’re known for their fresh, delicious seafood dishes. K liked his risotto as well, but still said it wasn’t as good as the lasagna from last night. I definitely agree. However, given the price (€31) for two dishes, water and wine, I can’t complain too much. I walked in starving and left full and happy, but I probably wouldn’t go back.
Rialto Bridge Market:
After lunch, we walked back up near the bridge and wandered through the Rialto Market. The market was a wonderful Venetian experience – to join the bustle of the locals picking up their daily ingredients. The restaurants pick up their daily ingredients here as well, so everything is very fresh. Lots of people showed up with hand carts to transport everything since there are no cars in most of Venice.
The market lined the Grand Canal, just around the corner from the Rialto Bridge. There was a large tarp-covered area under which spread a sea of stalls filled with lemons, peppers, cauliflower, zucchini, olives, oranges, bananas, melons and many other fruits and veggies.
Just on the other side of the tarp-covered section was a large building with open archways, covered partially with red curtains, under which was the fish market stuffed full of shellfish and other varieties of fresh fish – so fresh that it didn’t even smell fishy, even in the hot afternoon air.
Visiting the markets made me wish we were staying a few more days so that we could take advantage of making some of our own meals with the fresh ingredients.
After our trip through the market, we tucked our map away and wandered on, around through the neighborhoods, exploring and content to be lost. We made our way down quite a few little streets, past cafes with umbrella-covered tables lining the perimeter, past upper-level homes with the day’s wash hanging from the line spread across the face of the building, through a courtyard with a bubbling water fountain and security fenced building entrances.
We wandered for a good while before rounding a corner and finding ourselves at a dead end – nothing but a couple of steps leading down into a green tinted, small canal. As we turned to head back the way we came, we passed several other couples headed down the same path, maps in hand, trying to find their way out. Luckily I’d remembered just how we’d gotten ourselves into where we were, and I was able to find our way back out with several others following. It’s definitely easy to see how you could get hopelessly lost here if you weren’t paying attention. The little alleys and canals are like a maze. And with the tall buildings everywhere, it’s impossible to see anywhere other than ahead and behind you. There is no panoramic view from down on ground level.
Al Ponte de Rialto – Gelato:
Eventually we wandered back across the Rialto Bridge, stopping at a few of the shops along the way to check out the glass wares and other souvenirs. Back on the San Marco side of the bridge, we decided to stop for our first gelato at Al Ponte di Rialto – a little place just steps off the Rialto vaporetto stop. K chose a single scoop of fragola (strawberry) and I was a piggy – because I couldn’t choose between two flavors – and got a double scoop; one caffe (coffee) and one vaniglia (vanilla).
Let me tell you, I think gelato may have ruined ice cream for me forever. I never thought that I would really be able to tell a difference, but it’s there. The gelato is much creamier and smoother and so delicious. I can tell my thunder thighs are going to be in trouble on this trip now that I’ve discovered gelato.
We walked as we finished our gelati – back toward Piazza San Marco to see how long the lines were for the basilica and the Doge’s Palace. To our surprise, the piazza wasn’t nearly as stuffed as it had been earlier this afternoon. A few of the cruise ships had gone and taken quite a crowd with them. The line for the basilica was only a few people long, so we hopped in line and were in the door within no more than a couple of minutes.
Basilica di San Marco:
From a distance, the front of the basilica wasn’t as impressive as it could have been, due to the ginormous scaffolding covering the construction or restoration or whatever it is on the front.
As we passed through the entryway of the Basilica di San Marco, there were several guards making sure that no one had cameras in hand, that no one was carrying bags of any sort (aside from small purses) and that everyone was dressed appropriately. They were very strict about the dress code policy and were turning girls away for bare shoulders and skirts that were too short. I had a pashmina that I used to cover my shoulders, and that was perfectly fine.
We walked past the guards and entered the basilica to find enormous, golden-colored archways, five large domes and millions of tiny mosaics everywhere. The tiles along the floors were phenomenal – one of the few details I managed a discreet picture of – and made me want to run home and tile the kitchen and bathrooms.
The ceiling and walls were covered in mosaics of Biblical scenes – angels and other figures I couldn’t identify. Near the entrance was an amazing depiction of Noah’s Ark. Each of the domes had small, arch-shaped windows around the circumference, sending light into the basilica to play off the golden colors inside.
As grand and impressive as all of the tiling was, we spent about 10 minutes walking around and we were done. We didn’t want to spend the money to tour the additional areas (treasury, baptistry and altar) so we just toured the main part of the church.
Once we were done at the basilica, we headed to the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) to check out the line situation. To our surprise again, there was barely a line. We stood in line for roughly 10 minutes to buy tickets and in we went.
Our first stop was in the large courtyard to take a photo of St. Mark’s Basilica in the background.
From the courtyard, we headed up a grand marble staircase under an arched ceiling adorned with frescoes framed with marble and gold.
Really, our only reason for visiting the palace was to cross the Bridge of Sighs and tour the prison on the other side. In order to get there, we had a series of rooms ahead of us. We followed the crowds through several rooms with displays of portraits, sculptures, frescoes and furniture.
One room was dominated by two enormous globes and several wall hangings displaying world maps dating back several hundred years. Over one entryway, there were towering marble pillars with enormous marble sculptures framing the doorway, seemingly built for giants.
In other places, there were giant wooden doors with crazy faces carved into them.
There were also many, many lions with wings – the icon of San Marco – throughout the building.
We continued through several rooms used for meetings, courts and other important business years ago. At some point, it all started to run together for me. I started to lose interest and walk faster, reading fewer of the descriptions until we got to the Armoury – the last stop before the bridge and prison. The Armoury had all sorts of old weapons on display – guns, bows, crossbows, canons, knives, swords, flails (the spiky ball chained to a stick) – as well as armor – masks, helmets, shields, full-body suits, horse armor, etc.
We even found an old chastity belt that looked absolutely horrendous!
It’s slightly sadistic, but this stuff was way more interesting to me than the artwork and blah, blah, blah of ancient politics. There were also a couple of windows in the Armoury that looked out over the lagoon. I was barely able to see out of them up on my very tippy toes, but managed a couple of good photos.
One last stop before the Bridge of Sighs – no clue what was in this room. At this point, I was on a mission to get to the bridge, but I loved these windows and the partial view of Basilica di San Marco enough to slow down and take a few photos.
Bridge of Sighs:
We continued along and filed onto the Bridge of Sighs – the bridge that prisoners would cross on their way to the prison after being sentenced, and – romantics say – would sigh as they caught sight of the lagoon and San Giorgio through the marble decor windows.
The bridge had two sides, separated by a thick stone wall. On the way into the prison, we crossed the side furthest from the lagoon. It was a very narrow, chilly marble passageway with no windows to the outside. There were small squares cut in the stone between the sides of the bridge that allowed a small amount of sunlight from the other side to filter in.
The bridge eventually spilled out into the prison, and a worn stone path continued around the perimeter of the building, flanking all of the cells in the interior. There were several low clearance spots along the ceiling where most people had to duck (but since I’m 5-foot-nothing, I didn’t have a problem).
The cells had thick stone walls and fairly large windows, covered by thick iron bars in a gridded pattern. The cell windows allowed the daylight from the outside windows to enter the prisoner’s cell. Even with the daylight filtering in, it was very dark and dingy in the cells. The doors were wooden structures with multiple (3-4) sliding lock mechanisms.
Inside the cells were wooden platforms that were used as beds; no linens and no comfy mattresses.
There were a couple of solitary confinement cells with no windows or “beds” at all – just cold hard rock to nap on. The doors to the solitary cells had smaller doors built into them to allow meals to be passed through.
It’s very hard to imagine life inside a prison like this. Today’s American prisons look like the Four Seasons compared to this place. ::shudder::
After a quick tour through the prison area, we walked back across the Bridge of Sighs – this time on the side facing the lagoon. The lagoon side had beautiful decorative windows – a flower pattern cut out of the marble, through which we could see the lagoon (siiiiiiigh), and in the more immediate foreground, a large crowd of people gathered on a bridge near the water to take picture of the Bridge of Sighs.
We realized looking out the window that the lagoon is, in fact, beautiful, but the view is somewhat ruined at the moment by giant billboards covering the palace and prison walls on either side of the bridge outside. The palace is undergoing renovations, and while they’re renovating, they have scaffolding outside the building hidden with horrible advertisement billboards.
We also realized that we stood on that bridge below with the crowds on our way in yesterday and we didn’t even realize that the Bridge of Sighs was suspended between the billboards. We were so consumed with the giant blemish of advertisements on the marble facade of the buildings that we totally missed the bridge! Really, I think I’d rather just see the scaffolding.
We exited the palace and headed across the piazzetta to get in line for the Campanile Tower. The line here was the longest we’d seen, but we decided it was worth it to see Venice from the sky. So we stood and waited, as pigeons dove from the tower, down over our heads to the ground, praying we didn’t get crapped on by one. (Don’t try and tell me this is good luck. Only people who have actually been crapped on by a bird say this.)
After about 15-20 minutes we made it in the door to the desk, paid and got into the elevator – smashed in with about 40 other people – and rode to the top. We stepped out to find, firstly, a ridiculous crowd of people, most of whom were completely inconsiderate and refused to move out of the way for anyone else to get a quick photo or view, and secondly, amazing views of Venice from all sides. We took our time, walking around to each side – fighting the crowds all the way around the perimeter – taking in the gorgeous views on all sides, taking some photos and then smashing back into the elevator to go back down.
For the mere €8 it cost, it was definitely worth it, but holy crap, they could really use some crowd control up top!
After all this walking and touring and bustling around, we still had a couple of hours to kill before restaurants would open for dinner, so we headed back to the hotel to call and make arrangements for our arrival at our Rome apartment later in the week. On the way, we were able to get a photo of the Bridge of Sighs from the outside – now that we knew it was there between those horrendous advertisements. (Really, isn’t this bad? Please tell me I’m not the only one who sees this as a gigantic blemish on the face of Venice.)
Back at the hotel, we took advantage of a little downtime and enjoyed the beautiful weather as we polished off a bottle of wine on the terrace. I was surprised as we sat there, staring at the back side of the Doge’s Palace, that we couldn’t hear any of the commotion that we knew was present on the other side of the walls in Piazza San Marco.
This place is really peaceful, secluded and awesome.
We don’t have enough time in Venice to spend time sitting in the room, so once the wine was gone, we decided to get back out and explore. We walked back out toward the water and headed east (the opposite direction of Piazza San Marco), past the San Zaccaria vaporetto stop where we hadn’t yet explored. We didn’t find much other than gift shops and decided to go in and see what treasures we could find.
All the shops had gorgeous glass trinkets, all made on the island of Murano, just off the coast of Venice. In one store, I picked out a beautiful blue glass dish with a tree inside. The tree trunk is painted on and the top of the tree is small glass beads of different colors. Our only other purchase was a pair of sunglasses for K who can’t seem to hold onto a pair for more than one vacation at a time.
After the shopping, we wandered along the water, reveling in the brilliant glow of the sunset, letting the last bit of daytime warmth settle on our shoulders. If I could have bottled this radiance and packed it away with me, you bet your sweet ass I would have. Really, how amazing is this sight?!
Taverna dei Dogi:
Taverna dei Dogi is the restaurant in our hotel. We walked in and right away the waiter recognized us as hotel guests. He was very friendly and seated us at a nice table, tucked into a private little space in a corner, right near the front window. When we arrived right at 7:00 as they were opening, we were the only two in the restaurant, so we had undivided attention and it was very peaceful and wonderful.
We started with prosciutto and a bottle of sauvignon blanc, which came out almost immediately. After all the walking and exploring between lunch and then, the prosciutto was devoured quickly, and the wine went down a little too smoothly. For our main dishes, I chose spaghetti bolognese (boring, but again, one of the only dishes on the menu without seafood) and K chose seafood spaghetti.
As we sat and waited for the food to come out, a large tour group came into the restaurant. All of a sudden, our quiet, private little dinner was turned into an uproarious experience with overly boisterous tourists packed into the restaurant, filling every able around us, talking at the tops of their voices from one table to another and screaming from one end of the table to the other. I’m not sure they realized that the other end of the table was literally 4 feet away and every single person in the restaurant could hear them; not just the person at the other end of the table.
Luckily we didn’t wait long for our food to come out. After 10-15 minutes, we had our meals in front of us. My spaghetti looked delicious – for a boring plate of spaghetti – and was much more delicious than the ravioli at Trattoria alla Madonna this afternoon. K’s spaghetti came out heaped with mussels, oysters and giant prawns. It looked completely disgusting to me, but he swears it was delicious and much better than the seafood risotto he had this afternoon.
The only downside to the meal was that the portions were rather small, and even after the prosciutto and bread, we were still hungry. So we ended the meal with tiramisu, and it was really good. Really. Good. Again, I think my thunder thighs are going to be in trouble in this country. But oh, it’s so worth it!
Our entire dinner experience was probably no more than an hour. Had it not been for the noisy crowd that infiltrated our quiet, we probably would have stayed longer and enjoyed the experience. As it was, we finished our food and out out of there as quickly as possible.
For the price (€65), the level of service and the quality of food, the restaurant was really quite wonderful. I would definitely come back here again.
After dinner, we walked back to the hotel and got everything in order to leave tomorrow. We contacted the landlord for our Florence apartment to arrange for our arrival tomorrow, left our kind words for Stefano and Susanna in the guest book downstairs, watched some TV and unwound.
Now it’s time to get some sleep so that we’re ready to get up and head out early tomorrow. Today was a cram-packed day. I’m looking forward to some down time on the train tomorrow to read and nap. Oh, yeah…and Florence.