Saturday, July 21, 2012

Venice – The Last of Italy

Venice had the reputation of being the most expensive city in Italy so when we had the chance to stay at a campsite for €11 per bed we booked it for four nights. We made that decision a week and a half ago in Rome. The plan was that we’d be leaving a nice Italian villa in Tuscany, so we wouldd be ready for a few days in the woods. I had expected to splurge on a nice Italian feast our last night in Tuscany. As it turned out, the feast was for the mosquitoes, and we were the main course. Camping had sounded like a lot more fun a week before.

First we took a shuttle provided by the villa to the local train station, then a local train to Florence and finally a fast train to Venice.
We showed up around 2:00 in the afternoon and left our first-class, air-conditioned train to begin making our way to our hostel.
Venice was beauCtiful. Upon leaving the train station we immediately found ourselves alongside the Grand Canal. There are no cars or trucks in the old-town of Venice, but a combination of cobble-stoned streets and canals. There are no buses, but a local-boat that you can take to get yourself up and down the canal. That transportation vessel is joined by tourist boats, showing you all the basic sights, boats full of goods to take to the shops in town and of course, the gondolas.
All that said, there was no boat to take us to our campsite, so immediately upon arriving in Venice, we left. A couple minute walk along the Grand Canal saw us over the “new” glass bridge. It was beautiful, but the steps were “off”. Stairs in the USA are very uniform, so much so that walking up the stairs is almost exactly the same for every staircase. When the steps are long or extra high, we have a tendency to trip.
We took a “People Mover” off of the main Venetian Island and onto another where we found a shuttle to take us to the campsite, just hoping that the little “Air Conditioned” line on the website meant that somehow, we had an air-conditioned tent waiting for us.
The “Jolly PLUS” campsite was actually pretty nice. It was also huge. There was room for about fifty R.V.s, a couple dozen mobile homes and about 100 “tents”, which were canvass walls on top of a metal frame. A communal bathroom and laundry building was centrally located. They were not air-conditioned and featured holes in the side, also known as “mosquito doors”. We changed our four night reservation to two.
There were positives though. There was a restaurant, bar, market and swimming-pool on-site. It meant that we were in a nice little resort-like place, but it could have been anywhere in the world. We didn’t get out into Venice that night, but booked the shuttle for the next morning.
The next day, we purchased granola and yogurt from the little market for breakfast and took the 9:00 shuttle to Venice along with about 50 other tourists from the campsite.
We soon found ourselves back at the train station, except this time, heading into the meaty part of the city. We had purposefully avoided getting a “plan” for the day, as Venice really isn’t all that big and our main goal was to get lost.
Two minutes later, mission accomplished.
The streets of Venice are small, winding, crowded and hot. The Grand Canal is probably 75 meters wide, but most of the canals are much smaller, barely wide enough to have two ski-boats pass in opposite directions. We followed one of these, just to see where it went.
The first spot the street went was to a gelato shop.
It wasn’t long before our little walk-way bent. We found ourselves climbing up and over small bridges in order to get over the canals. They arched high enough for small boats to get underneath, but a man standing on a gondola only had about a foot of space between his head and the bridge.
We found a nice plaza right next to one of the canals, so we stopped for an espresso. While we were sitting, a shipping boat pulled up and stopped. It was low, but quite long and weighed down with boxes and baskets of goods. A man came up with a cart with three sets of wheels on it. Two were on the ground, and two stuck straight out in front, about a foot off the ground. There was no mules, horses or other beasts-of-burden that so often carry goods. These were 100% man-powered.
Once the boat had filled up the man’s cart, he took it immediately to the bridge we had come over. He pushed the six-wheeled cart up to the stairs until the “useless” wheels hit the stairs. He then used them for leverage and in a well-practiced, walking-like motion pushed his wheeled cart up the stairs, then down the other side.
One of the highlights had to be wandering into the shop of a traditional masquerade mask maker. A proper Venetian mask is made out of paper mache, then hand-painted. The cash register doubled as the man’s workbench and you could watch him paper-macheing and making the masks, with a plethora of partially completed masks sitting around him. He didn’t seem as concerned with whether or not we purchased his masks as much as he wanted to make sure we didn’t get any that had been made in China, like the touristy shops sold.
Soon after, we found a large square. There were restaurants where people purchased wine and sat outside, a fountain where a woman was watering her dog and a bunch of Germans throwing a frisbee. We purchased some fruit from a grocery store and ate under a tree. Soon after, we ate a couple pieces of pizza sitting next to a canal. A man who ran one of the gondolas sat nearby smoking cigarettes, hugging to the shade. We had wanted to do one of the gondola rides, but as they ran €120 or so we decided to pass. That’s more than our daily budget. I don’t think that gondola-man had any interest in pushing the boat through the hot sun either.
The sun, bug bites and the fact that I had been sweating for two weeks straight began to get to us. We made our way back to the other side of the Grand Canal, where everything became much more touristy in order to see what it was like and look for air-conditioning.
We walked back a bunch of shops selling gadgets and whatnot until we saw a restaurant adverting AC.
Stepping in was like stepping into a little slice of heaven. Air-conditioning had been rare ever since entering Italy. While there, we met Dr. Arun Sangal, who is a LASIK surgeoun in Dehli, India. Leslie had LASIK before we left, and will need a six-month eye checkup around the time we get to India, so we may be making an appointment.
I knew that Venice was one of the places that Leslie had really wanted to see, so I asked her if she wanted to stay a couple more days, but thankfully, the answer came back no.
The canals of Venice had been fun to see, and the city was gorgeous but we were done. I was dreading leaving the air-conditioned room and heading back into the sun.
We’d spent nights in Milan, Rome, Napoli, Tuscany and Venice and had not had a single one with air-conditioning or a fan. Napoli was the only place we slept where we weren’t worried about getting bit by mosquitoes. It had been a constant battle to remain cool and bug-free. Even the poorer countries of Southeast Asia provide you with a fan and a bug-net. On top of that, Leslie’s allergies had been acting up and we couldn’t get a refill of the albuterol inhaler she had.
Of course, I’m glad we got to see it, and we’ve had some great experiences, but the drive to see new and interesting things was waning, replaced by the desire to get somewhere where Leslie’s allergies weren’t so bad, we weren’t going to be bitten by bugs, and I would stop sweating.
It was time to go north.
A quick glance at my watch showed that if we hustled we could make it to the next shuttle, the campsite and the all-important swimming pool. I thought we had time to stop and see if a bookstore had the fifth installment of the Game of Thrones series I’d been reading as well. They did not have the book. We missed the shuttle.
After another hour of cooking in the hot sun we got the shuttle back to the campsite and a seat by the pool.
Next stop, Munich, Germany.

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