- Day 1: Venice
- Days 2-3: Florence
- Days 4-6: Naples
- Days 7-12: Rome
RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→ Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan
Dates: July 20-31, 2014
At this point in our visit to Italy, we have been to Venice, Florence and Naples, and we are currently on our way to Rome. We have eaten an abundance of delicious food and we intend to consume even more over the next week. Rather than waiting for our time in Italy to draw to a close before posting about our adventures here, we’ve decided to tackle each segment as its own post- not unlike how the region was comprised hundreds of years ago. As a cluster of many, many separate city states not yet unified under the lable of “Italy” (which didn’t happen until 1870), what is now Italy is made up of cities and regions that have such different cultures and vibes, it just doesn’t make sense to talk about them all in the same post.
At the end of my post on Croatia, I mentioned that we had a bit of a travel adventure getting from Dubrovnik to Venice. It was certainly our most interesting day of travel yet. It started calmly enough on a morning bus from Dubrovnik to Zagreb. We knew the bus ride was scheduled to take 8 hours, getting to Zagreb around 5pm. We initially had planned to stay with Zenid again, but looking at train timetables we realized that we had two choices- 1 hellish travel day where we try to go straight to Venice overnight, or 2 hellish travel days (long bus ride to Zagreb followed by a 4am train the next day to Venice). We decided both options were unpleasant and to try to marathon through and get it all over with on the overnight itinerary to Venice. The bus ride took about 2 hours longer than scheduled, and the air conditioning was weak at best. Needless to say, we were getting pretty sweaty, and the bus itself was not smelling so great.
When we finally made it to Zagreb, we walked to the train station to await our train. Our itinerary would get us to Villach, Austria at 1:30am, where we would have a layover until 4:30am. We would arrive in Venice around 9am. We made it to Villach uneventfully enough. We sat on a crowded train (some people were sleeping in the hallways because there weren’t enough seats) next to two guys, one of whom was coughing incessantly and downing some kind of medicine that had the word “strep” in it. Yikes! Tim and I took some vitamins and so far I think they worked…
Upon arrival to Villach, we saw that the majority of overnight travels had made little beds for themselves with their luggage on the floor of the station. This seemed like a pretty good idea, so using my underwear bag as a pillow and my towel as a blanket, I laid down on the floor opposite Tim and we hugged our luggage and managed to doze off for an hour or two.
Finally when it was time to board our train from Villach to Venice, we got on the train, only to find that most seats were already taken. We figured, okay, not a big deal, we can just sleep in the hallway like on the train from Croatia. The train attendant had different plans though. Each person that boarded the train was asked whether they had a reservation, and most did not. He was kicking people off left and right, and the next train was not until 5 hours later. Since a reservation was not technically required to ride this train, and since we had been traveling for nearly 24 hours at this point and were quite exhausted, we felt rather adament to stay on this train with our Eurail pass.
My brilliant solution was to hide in the bathroom so he couldn’t kick us off. Clearly I had not fully thought through the implications of this however. I convinced Tim this was our best option (and in hindsight I still think it was), and we snuck into a bathroom stall, locked the door, put the seat cover down and made ourselves at home. Tim sat on his luggage on the floor, and I sat on the toilet. Sometimes this is the best you can get with a first class Eurail pass…
We began to get anxious as time passed. What would the punishment be if we got caught? A mere scolding? A fine? Revoking our Eurail pass? Could they arrest us for this?
To make matters worse, at each stop, we would hear an insistant pounding on the door, to which I would stutter out “Occupied!”. While it may have been merely a passanger, the fact that we heard the attendant’s voice outside talking with others led us to realize it was probably him knocking on the door and that he was standing just outside of our hiding spot. He also continued asking new people boarding the train if they had reservations, and would not allow them on if they did not. Eeeek!
Tim devised an escape plan- ride the train into Italy, since if we can get that far it should be easy enough to find a regional train to get us the rest of the way to Venice. We picked an upcoming stop that had connections to Venice and strategized our plan. We would sneak out once the door of the train opened at that stop, and hopefully sneak by the attendant.
Five minutes before the stop, we got ready with our packs on and stood near the door to our stall, listening for signs of the attendant outside. It was imperative that we be quiet since if he realized at any point that there were two people in there, our game would be up. We also didn’t want to flush the toilet or run any water, since then one would expect to see someone come out of the stall. So you can imagine my annoyance when Tim decided to fidget with the flusher, accidentally setting it off.
Thankfully our stop was soon and once we determined that the doors of our train car had opened to the right (which we determined by merely listening- we had no windows and couldn’t see a thing), we made a dash for it, and even though we walked right by the same attendant, he didn’t stop us. We were free, and we had successfully stowed away in the bathroom of a train from Austria to Italy.
Relieved, and excited to be in the not-so-glamorous small town of Udine, Italy, we confirmed our connecting train time to Venice and headed to McDonald’s across the street to use their bathrooms and free WiFi. So yes, we snuck into Italy in a bathroom and McDonald’s was the first place we went. Probably not most people’s vision of a great start to their Italian trip.
The rest of our travels went off without a hitch. We got some sleep on the next train, and when we arrived in Venice at 10am, we found our hotel after only getting a little bit lost. Thankfully our room was ready when we arrived at 11am and we were able to get in a healthy nap until the early afternoon.
But I digress. What I really mean to make this post about is the uniqueness of Venice. It is one of the most interesting cities we’ve visited both for its past and its present. Venice is famous for being the city in the sea- built up along a series of canals and navigated by bridges or boats (notably the notorious gondolas). We started our exploration of the city with a cruise down the Grand Canal, the main canal in Venice, but rather than a touristy gondola ride which costs about 100 euros, we took the exact same route using public transportation at just 7 euros per person. The public transit boats, or vaporettos, are set up like a bus or subway system. We took line 1 going from the train station to St. Mark’s Square at the other end of the canal. The canal is very much like a normal highway- there are cops, taxis, ambulances and public transit, with the tourist gondolas being similar to the overpriced horse and carriage rides you can purchase in other cities. If you want to ride a gondola like a local, they have them set up at a few points along the canal and for 2 euros they will take you straight across to the other side, saving you a 30 minute walk to the nearest bridge to cross over. With only 3 bridges crossing the Grand Canal, you can imagine this is a useful service.
But frankly daily life in Venice today must be a pain in the ass. The city is covered in stairs, so if you have a stroller with a baby… Don’t even bother. It’s a small city but the lack of bridges means you have to sometimes walk 40 minutes, when, if you could walk over water, it might take you 10. There are tourists everywhere, and a million souvenir shops, but barely any grocery stores.
To make matters worse, the city is under water 100 days out of the year during high tides during the winter. Water seeps up from the ground and can get quite deep. During this time, little tables are set up creating a path from the train station to all the main spots in the city so you can still get around somewhat without getting soaked, but every local has a pair of knee high water boots.
Daily life is so cumbersome in fact that about 1000 people are leaving the city each year. Experts predict that one day, Venice, once the center of an empire, will not be a city at all, but just a museum.
In its heyday, the city was a center of business and trade, making it one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Europe. As recent as 200 years ago it was considered the Las Vegas of Venice (and ironically, The Venetian Casino and Hotel is now the Venice of Las Vegas…), with popular casinos and high rollers visiting from all over Europe.
The center of Venice, then and now, is St Mark’s Square. The square is home to the beautiful and eclectic St Mark’s Basilica, which is a melding of eastern and western styles that works surprisingly well. The basilica was founded in 1063, and it was named for St Mark’s, Venice’s second patron saint, because his body is housed there. This is the Mark of “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John” from the New Testament of the Bible. Legend has it his body had been in Egypt when two merchants from Venice stole it to fulfill a prophecy that his body would rest in Venice. Actually, a lot of things in this basilica were stolen from plundered cities during the Venetian empire.
Also around the square you can find a really cool clock tower from the 1400s that is actually quite similar to the astronomical clock in Prague, but a bit less technically complex. The elected leader of the Venetian city state, the Doge, also resided around the corner in his palace, which is connected to the former prison by an indoor bridge.
After our visit to the square we grabbed out first Italian dinner of pizza and melon, mozzerella and prosciutto, followed by a cheap bottle of wine which we enjoyed sitting out by the canal later that evening.
The next day, we went on a free walking tour of Venice which showed us some unique parts of the city we had not yet seen. Notably, we visited what is now the public hospital but was formerly a palace. The facade is very beautiful and impressive, and having worked in healthcare for the past 5 years, I was excited to see a bit of what this hospital looked like. We also stopped by a unique bookstore where the books are stored in gondolas and plastic boxes to spare them during high tides. Many cats call the store home, as does a staircase made entirely of books. Being a book and cat lover, I really enjoyed this part of the tour.
Venice really is beautiful, and so different from other cities, but its beauty has a sad edge- the canals and water that make it a tourist delight make it a burden for locals and a headache for engineers. Not only is the population of locals falling, but so is the city itself as it sinks and shifts across its many islands into the Adriatic Sea. Its a reminder that nothing is permanent, and even cities that have existed for over a thousand years can fall- an appropriate reminder as we travel deeper into the heart of the former Roman Empire.