In hindsight, Venice was my first true love. Not only did I fall in love with the place but also with the experience. As with any first love, Venice holds a special place in my heart. Let me explain.
At the tender age of 15, my naïve eyes opened wide to the world when I landed in Italy – my first trip abroad (after my first ever flight!). While the first 4 days in Rome were a wonderful time of cultural sensory overload (the mouth watering pasta, the frantic drivers, the ancient history), I didn’t fall in love until Venice.
You see – my first overseas experience was a 3-week foreign exchange. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to live with a Venetian family for 2.5 weeks. Experiencing daily life, attending high school with their daughter, walking the back streets of Venice with my host father – a gentle, proud Venetian policeman who got a twinkle in his eye when he shared stories of his city and its history.
This “cultural immersion” planted a seed in me that has only grown stronger over time.
Thus, though not always consciously, in every trip after that point the goals of my travels were to try to experience a culture rather than to see a place. Living in New Zealand for 2 years was surely my greatest example of that dream fulfilled.
I have visited Venice for a day or two several times since my teenage initiation, but this time I have returned to Venice for 8 glorious days – with the sole intent of savoring the experience rather than checking sights off my list.
Times have changed a bit – as I live in a flat with Jeff and a friend, courtesy of AirBnB. But on Day 1, I already find myself re-living my first trip. Nutella on melba toast for breakfast over coffee, opening the shutters first thing to let in not only the light, but the history, the tolling bells, the pigeon’s coo, and that sense of anticipation of a glorious day to be lived.
So on that note, welcome to our journey through Venice!!! On this trip we are doing are best to stay away from the tourist areas in favor of exploring the back streets of the 6 sestiere (neighborhoods) of Venice, as well as the outer islands.
For a reminder of geography – Venice is shaped like a fish.
The sestiere of San Marco is the most touristy – since it contains St Mark’s Square and Basilica as well as the Doge’s Palace. This is a must see on any tourist’s to-do list in Venice, so we tried to stay away as much as possible, since the 3 of us have already toured these sights on previous visits. Our AirBnB was in Castello, nearer to Cannaregio and San Marco – for central positioning on the island and fairly easy walking times to all sestiere.
For further introduction to Venice (and St Mark’s) — enjoy the below view from the campanile (bell tower) of San Giorgio Maggiore, the light green outlined island across from San Marco in the above picture.
Since our first full day was a Saturday, we tried to go as far afield from other tourists as possible – which landed us at San Giorgio Maggiore and Giudecca. The view atop the campanile was beautiful, without waiting in the long lines for the campanile in St. Mark’s. Score!
Below we focus on St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace. By far, this is the most crowded place in Venice. Crowded with people, pigeons, pickpockets, and the like. Oh, and history…(wink, wink). There is a reason it’s the most visited place, after all…
We toured the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and got our first taste of the Biennale – the art festival that happens every odd-numbered year. There were several art exhibits throughout the grounds and we are sure to see more during our time here.
Wandering around San Giorgio Maggiore reminded me that Venice is a boater’s paradise, as evidenced by the numerous yachts docked there! Typically my first thought of Venice is always of the history, but these boats brought me back to the reality of present-day Venice. Unexpectedly, I found myself thinking of the British Virgin Islands, another sailor’s delight…
From San Giorgio Maggiore, we strolled Guidecca, enjoying the lack of crowds, while refamiliarizing ourselves with the “sense” of Venice. Canal-side cafes and narrow canals filled with a myriad of colorful boats, bridges, and laundry hanging out on the line. This reminded me that while Venice is a tourist’s paradise, amidst it all Venetians live here.
We had our first positively delectable pasta lunch here too. Mmmmmmm.
From Giudecca, we took the water taxi around the island and through the Grand Canal, refamiliarizing ourselves with the area. One thing I had either forgotten or had changed since my first time here were the cruise ships. There were 5 mammoth boats in port – no wonder the touristy areas are crowded! Aye carumba. Thankfully, these are parked far away from historic Venice, making them less of an eyesore.
Once in the Grand Canal, we had our first spotting of Venice’s other famous site – the Rialto bridge. This area is always abuzz with people, boat traffic, and gondoliers. We hope to explore this area later in the week – particularly the famed Rialto (farmer’s) market.
We got off the watertaxi at the Rialto and made our way back to our neighborhood. We found our local grocery story (inCoop) and stocked up on prosciutto, bread, cheese, wine, nutella, fruit – all of the necessities.
Top that with an outdoor dinner alongside a historic church, and I’d call that a great first day in Venezia!
A Venetian treat – Vogalonga
On Day 2, we were treated with a Venetian specialty – the 43rd annual Vogalonga. Vogalonga is an amateur boating event/regatta where rowers of all shapes and sizes come from around the world to participate in this non-competitive event. The course is ~30km long, starting in the Grand Canal outside of St. Mark’s square, going up the lagoon to the outer island of Burano, and re-entering mainland Venice through the Cannaregio canal.
[Notably, other than signs at the Watertaxi (Vaporetto) stations indicating altered service times that day - there were no other advertisements indicating this event was going on...good thing we knew about it before we left!]
As for the participants, there was everything from single kayakers to sculls full of 10+ people, and from (seemingly) drunken (or uber boisterous) virile young Italians to crews of older men and women proudly wearing their Vogalonga registration bibs as they prepared for the event. Some boats bore their country’s flags, while others supported a cause (eg, Susan G Komen), and others were in it for the experience.
The event began with the chiming of the bells at 9am, as well as a cannon shot to mark the occasion.
After the start, we jumped on a watertaxi to see more of the islands before watching the rowers re-enter the mainland around noon. The atmosphere felt very much like a marathon scene – except of course with boats instead of runners.
After having our fill of rowers…our stomachs told us it was time to find a cafe and some lovely Italian pizza. So that’s where we’ll leave you for today…