Italy was absolutely fantastic. I've been wondering how I'm ever going to put into words how amazing this holiday was for us, and how I'm going to make it all come alive, and I've realised that it doesn't really matter - what matters is the experience we had and what we got from it. I'll give you the highlights so you know what we did and where we went, but it was so much more for me than just a series of going places and seeing things. It was my Turkey; my little slice of paradise; my chance to finally feel like I fulfilled the desperate need for a holiday of my own. And it was just beautiful and enchanting to boot - 10 out of 10!
We left work on Thursday for Gatwick airport, and the usual travel drama started pretty much as soon as we arrived. We'd checked in online, thinking ourselves rather clever for avoiding the queues. Ahem, yes, so we thought. We were standing by the flight boards looking for our check in point, and to our growing dismay, our flight was nowhere to be found. After a few heart stopping moments of checking and re-checking the print-outs of our flight times, we realised we were in the wrong terminal. Say it with me: eish! When we finally got to the right queue, it was as long as Pinocchio's nose and we realised that checking in online merely means you get to choose your seats - it doesn't negate the need to queue for 45 minutes to check in your bags. So much for that then. ;-P
We arrived at Marco Polo airport at 11:00pm Italian time after a delay on our flight. I only had a rough idea of how to get to our hotel from the airport; I googled it numerous times but the directions were never 100% clear, and there seemed to be an awful lot of options, some of which we figured wouldn't be available to us that late at night. Luckily for us, all the Italian airport staff were very friendly and spoke English, so we found the right bus without too much hassle. Our hotel was little more than a hostel really, which was to be expected as I found and booked it it on Hostelworld.com. The difference here was that they only had private rooms, and ours had an en-suite bathroom, which was an enormous relief. Up to this point, we hadn't yet had to share a bathroom with strangers on our travels, something we've always sworn to avoid. I can't imagine anything worse that needing the loo while some whiles away their time in the shower! That first night we basically arrived, checked and went straight to bed, keen for an early start the following day. That "early" start only occurred when we woke at 9:15am, and as a result missed breakfast. Our hosts were a bit of a tough crowd though - we came through for breakfast at 9:45am and they said we were too late, despite previously telling us breakfast was served from 8 - 10am! No matter, breakfast in Venice sounded like a better option anyway. Luckily we were really close - just 10 minutes from Piazzale Roma by land bus. Contrary to popular belief, it's only mainland Venice which sits on water; the surrounding areas in the province of Venezia are all land-bound and really ugly as well!
What to say about Venice? It's everything I expected, and a few things I didn't. It's beautiful in a shabby, historic sort of way; all old delapidated buildings and narrow cobbled streets. It has far more walking space than I expected; in fact, over the last few decades the Italian government has made a point of filling in the land so you can pretty much walk anywhere you can go by boat, with the obvious exception of the outlying islands. We took a ferry from one end of the Grand Canal to the other, and stopped at Siestere San Marco, the last of Venice's 6 districts, or sestieri, and the one for which the city is most well-known. We walked through the crowds to Piazza San Marco, and saw the famed Basilica di San Marco, the Campanile (tower) and main square with thousands upon thousands of pigeons. It is illegal to feed these "flying rats" in Venice, as this encourages them to stay, and their acidic droppings erode the old buildings into which the government has poured millions of Euros for reparation. Of course, this doesn't deter tourists in the least, and many brave (stupid?) souls get right in the thick of things for that holiday snapshot of themselves wearing a pigeon coat. I really wanted one to sit on my arm, but it took me a while to work up the courage, for where came one, came all, and I wasn't going to walk around for an entire day smelling of bird shit. Finally I coaxed one up, sans food I am proud to say, and I too have that horribly touristy photo of me in San Marco square grinning inanely while imitating a bird perch. Gotta love the cheesy holiday pics!
We chose to spend most of our time in Siestere San Marco, as trying to fit in all 6 districts would definitely have taken more than a day, and we wanted to enjoy our day and see as much as we could without feeling too rushed. We did a 4km walking tour using the map in the Lonely Planet Guide, and it was surprisingly accurate despite being 5 years old! It took us through every corner of the district, past all the major landmarks and some minor ones. Shoes and I are not big on arts, museums or history lessons, so mostly we just made approving noises everytime I read something like: "And coming up on our left is Palazzo di Garibaldi," but we didn't really stop and stare or anything. We stopped at interesting things, like leaning bell towers and gondola traffic jams - I have a fabulous photo of four gondolas stuck in a narrow canal; I only wish I could have captured the rising Italian tempers as the gondoliers hurled what I can only assume was abuse at each other for bad driving skills!
Money just disappears in Venice. We specially didn't buy any trinkets or go clothes shopping, besides the Venetian masque to add to our souvenir collection - we plan to have a mantelpiece one day tastefully displaying mementos from our travels. Still though, it's like a black hole. You just have to look at your wallet and money falls out of it. We stopped for lunch mid-walking tour, and shared a pizza at a little Piazzeria on the water. We'd been warned by our trusty travel guide not to sit down for meals because of the cost, but after 3km of walking and with at least another 3km to go, a rest was needed. Shoes had a beer of some sort, and I had a spritz - an Italian late afternoon / early evening favourite of white wine, soda and bitters. I chose the dry one, sorry for me, because the heavy dose of bitters ensured that I screwed up my face like a chipmunk everytime I took a sip. Still, when in Venice, do as Venetians do, and I drank it all.
After lunch we went to make plans for our evening. This meant finding a pub which was going to show the SA vs England match. Luckily, our travel guide again came to the rescue - can I just stop here briefly to give full marks to the Lonely Planet Guide, and if any of you are thinking of travelling anytime soon, don't leave home without one - ok free advertising over. We consulted the list of sports pubs, and found one not far from where we'd had lunch. After a quick trip there to ensure they were in fact showing the game, we continued in our way, Shoes now completely satisfied that he was going to get his sporting fix later on.
Two things that we didn't do which I really regret were both the result of our decision to take a trip to the island Murano. Venice's two most well-known islands, Murano and Burano, are off the mainland and require a fairly lengthy ferry trip to get there. Murano is home to Venice's glass-blowers. They were moved there from the mainland in the 13th century because of the risk of fires associated with the temperatures at which glass is made. Burano is the lace island, where the few remaining lace-makers remain, and is by all accounts much prettier than Murano. Our plan was to take a boat to Murano, and from there get another to Burano, as the boats to Burano from the mainland left only every hour. When we got to Murano, we were told the next boat to Burano would take 40 minutes to get there. As we'd already travelled for 40 minutes to get to Murano, we decided we didn't want to spend all our time on boats, as we'd rather be in the city soaking up the culture (sans art and museums, of course!). So we went to the glass blowing demonstration, which was awesome and definitely worth seeing, and then hopped back on a boat to the mainland. On the way back, I started lamenting the fact that we hadn't gone inside the Basilica di San Marco. When we'd been in the square previously the queues to go in had been horrendous, so we elected not to go. However, as we passed it again on our way to the Murano boat stop, the queues had decreased considerably, and I said to Shoes, maybe we should go in now. But we decided to get the boat to the island as it was getting quite late. I knew the Basilica closed at 5pm, and on our return trip from Murano I said that I thought we should come back the next morning to see it, as of all the things in Venice that is the most magnificent sight. Shoes wasn't keen, and so we decided to make a run for it as our boat docked. We docked at 4:55pm, and legged it back to the Basilica in time to join the queue.... and then have the gates close right in front of us. I was not to be deterred, however. While the guard was distracted talking to some other tourist, I slipped behind him and around the gate into the entrance hall. I was well pleased with myself... until a guard indicated in an animated stream of Italian that I couldn't go in. I was wearing a top that showed my stomach, and apparently your torso has to be fully covered to enter. We had nothing with us that I could use, so just as we thought we'd outwitted the system we were turned away. If we ever do go back to Venice, that will the first place we start! Ironically enough, just 45 minutes later I was cold, and Shoes bought me a top from one of the tourist stalls. The wisdom of hindsight..... The other thing we didn't do was go on a traghetto. Traghetti are public gondolas, and they are used for getting across the river if you don't feel like walking all the way to the next bridge. They pack as many people as possible onto one gondola, and everyone has to try keep their balance as the gondolier ferries them across the river. After the Basilica debacle, it was already after 5pm, and unbeknowst to us, the traghetti, and indeed most other tourist attractions, shut down at 5pm. Everyone asked us if we were going to go on a gondola ride, that being the first thing people think of when they think Venice, but at 80 Euros (£60) for an hour and a further 25 Euros for every additional 30 minutes, that was a third of our budget for the whole day, so it was something we had ruled out early on. The gondoliers are very cute though, in their stripy black and white t-shirts, and several of them were singing Italian opera to their admiring customers!
We arrived at the pub at 8pm, an hour before the big match. Earlier on we'd seen an enormous cruise ship being pulled into the harbour by a little tug boat, and soon enough the staff from the ship found their way to the pub for an evening of pints and rugby. There were Saffas, Kiwis, Aussies, a couple of English and a sprinkling of Italians, and everyone seemed to be cheering for SA! Besides a small incident where the very fiery Italian barman got extremely upset with one of the patrons and literally picked him up and hurled him out the door of the pub - the conversation was all in Italian, so we never figured out exactly why - it was good fun, and we won, so all was well with Shoes' karma. Afterwards I took a very drunken Shoes to another little bar for just one more, and the place we found had a Rasta MC rocking the mic with some Italian reggae. Good old Bob obviously transcends culture and nationality. ;-)
Then it was home to bed, ready for our trip to Lake Garda the next day.