Venice for the Underachiever

Not exactly the crack of dawn, but early enough for me

Not exactly the crack of dawn, but early enough for me

I flew to Venice recently for a long weekend. I've told you about the crazy low airline prices in Europe, but what I don't think I've gotten across is how painful it is to take advantage of these deals. The cheap fares are always, that's always, at the extreme end of the functioning human day. You leave at o' dark thirty and return at an hour of semi-consciousness. Unlike American airports, where these hours mean empty terminals when you can actually get your Starbucks coffee in under thirty minutes, in England our little airports are primarily mobbed in the wee hours. If you're a fan of urban zombie movies, you'd feel right at home in an English airport at 4 am.

The cheap airlines also fly in and out of small airports, the ones originally built to service the supply needs of industry miles and miles away from the city it's named for. So touch down simply means you're in a new country. It doesn't mean you're at your final destination. Add the airport transfer at $20, the cost of airport parking, the restaurant take-away because I wasn't awake enough at 3:30 to feed myself, and I'm probably spending as much to go to Venice as it would cost me to fly to Las Vegas and stay at the Venetian.

There's always someone around the backstreets of Venice to prove you were there

There's always someone around the backstreets of Venice to prove you were there

The upside was I was in Venice before noon with a full day ahead of me. I met my Airbnb host and sat down with him in the apartment where he pulled out a city map and proceeded to mark every fabulous restaurant, pizzeria and gelato store on the map. When my stomach started growling I begged him to stop. 

 

"Oh, no! I should stop? I haven't yet told you about the bakeries!"

"Yes. Stop right there and take me to one of these bakeries."

 

Old world laundry

Old world laundry

The weather was lovely and my host took me to "the BEST!" bakery in town. I ordered a flaky biscuit topped with pesto and cheese and a cream puff that looked as though a can of shaving cream had exploded inside it.  I finished off with a Macchiato and set off to explore, figuring my energy stores wouldn't need replacing for at least an hour.

Everyone says, 'Get lost in Venice!' as though you'd need to be deliberate about it. I say, manage to not get lost in Venice and you truly deserve an award. Half the people on the car-less streets have their faces buried in their smart phones trying to follow the little blue arrow on the little blue line. Trouble is, the building walls are so tall and so close together that often the little blue arrow can't lock onto a signal and is dancing to its own little drummer. This makes Venice a hoot for people watching. Pitch up at a small square off of which branch five different streets and you will observe the head bobbing, body twirling confusion of non-natives trying to line up with their destination street.

The other thing you get told to do when visiting a new country is to be an adventurous eater. Since I was sleep deprived and giddy, I ordered something off the menu my first night which, in Italian, sounded like nothing familiar and, since it was the'specialità della casa' I figured I couldn't go wrong. Sometimes adventure can go wrong.  Placed in front of me was a pile of cheese chunks flanked by three types of jam; red, yellow and green. This wouldn't have been so wrong had I not eaten, a few hours earlier, a pile of cheese chunks with jam. So piles of cheese on a plate are the special in more than a few Venetian restaurants. Be adventurous, but get a translation first.

Instead of taking in an opera at Teatro la Fenice, where tickets were a minimum of $300 each, I found Musica a Palazzo. For $90 you experience opera in the round.  That evening I saw the highlights of La Traviata performed inside a gorgeous Baroque building to an audience of around eighty. There were three acts and after each we moved to a different room for the next scene. Each room was painted with a dizzying collage of angels and saints and puffy clouds. There were gold gilded mirrors on every wall, candles lit on sills and surfaces. The audience members sat on folded chairs around the performers, who were close enough to touch.  The singers' proximity created a lot of added drama, especially near the end when Violetta kept fainting to the floor during her protracted aria towards death. Her performance is what saved the person next to me from getting drooled on as I kept nodding off. Not even I can sleep through the wails of a soprano dying of tuberculosis.

Without a doubt I needed to sleep in the next day. Until ten o'clock no less. And then I needed to read a good book because I had no small human to tease out of bed with words of encouragement then threats and finally the kind of bodily harm that sets him to laughing until he can't breathe. So I enjoyed a good book in bed until at least noon when I could feel a caffeine withdrawal headache coming on.

Off the tourist trail

Off the tourist trail

When walking in Venice you have a few options. Stay on the main roads near the Grand Canal and you're likely to stay oriented and never be in want of food. But you're also going to be weaving around mobs of tourists, walking through other people's photos, and fending off the advances of selfie stick vendors. Or you can venture off into the lesser known areas where you quite likely will see only laundrettes, shoe repair stores and find yourself heading down dead ends or into side canals without a bridge. Fortunately, even the sleepy parts of Venice have coffee. A few hours later I'd seek out a bar serving cicchetti (the Italian version of tapas) and spritz. I don't normally drink alcohol before five pm, but I don't normally live in Italy. So I figured since it was the Italian thing to do, I might as well play along. A spritz is an easy habit to get into. It's light, refreshing and pretty. You mix prosecco with soda water, add a splash of Campari, a few slices of orange, and you get a nice little buzz on to take you through to dinner.


Burano without the fog

Burano without the fog

Even though I diligently put together a 'must do' list of the sites I wanted to see, I essentially did none of them. Why? Because they were expensive and I preferred to spend my limited funds on platters of thinly sliced prosciutto and heaving plates of al dente pasta. I needed at least two scoops of gelato daily. Besides, I could listen to the duelling orchestras in the Piazza San Marco and pay 2 euros instead of 12 for my coffee by standing at the bar behind the stage instead of taking a seat on the square. I could travel to the outlying islands by way of my 48 hours vaporetto water bus pass and snap photos of the brightly painted houses of Burano's fishing village. More than once I walked through open doors just to see what I would find. One evening I found myself inside an eclectic gallery filled with abstract paintings and contortionist sculpture. The owner was so desperate for human contact he spent a half hour explaining to me how one of the artists captured his photographs in complete darkness using a flashlight. I ate pizza along the shorefront and watch the towering metropolis of a cruise ship float by, flanked on all sides by tug boats. But mostly I walked. And walked. And walked. The fact that no cars exist in Venice just makes you want to cover every little, medieval, meandering side street in site. Often you're rewarded with the appearance of a perfumery, a handmade shoe store or a tiny shop selling paper printed with the wood cut crests of old Venetian gentry.

The day my flight was scheduled to leave at 10pm I figured I should make an appearance at the basilica which dominates the Piazza San Marco. I arrived ten minutes after it closed. With the exception of the night at the opera, where I could hardly keep my eyes open, I managed to miss every tourist highlight of the city. Even the famous Rialto bridge was buried deep beneath restoration scaffolding. But I left Venice completely satisfied and happy. I had absorbed the charm of the winding, watery city, eaten oodles of perfect pasta and swoon-worthy gelato. Travelled up and down the canal, even managing one morning to get up early and onto a boat before the cruise ship masses descended. The weather was perfect. A cat joined me most days on the apartment terrace. I left feeling full up with satisfying experiences and realized that my mom pace and philosophy had carried over to my new adult life: never schedule more than one thing per day, preferably inexpensive or free, eat frequently and smile a lot. Now, time for another spritz.

My terrace interloper

My terrace interloper

Mom, this is the best pizza you’ve ever made. It tastes better than chocolate!
— ZFW