Lost in Venice’s Labyrinth

In a place where the only ways to get around are on foot or via boat, Venice – Europe’s largest non-motorized urban area, seems a difficult place to get lost in. But during our 48 hours in the land of gondolas, Gothic churches, masquerade masks, and squid-ink spaghetti, we spent a chunk of our time wandering the streets like confused children whose mother had ditched them (lucky for her).

At least our train ride from Verona’s hills to Venice’s canalways was seamless.

Experiencing Europe’s railway system is especially impressive for an American; how many trains run each day, the affordable price of tickets and how you can reach almost any part of Europe without forking over hundreds of dollars or banging your knees on the seat in front of you for three straight hours on an airplane.

My travel companion Randy enjoys the view of Italian street art from his cushy train seat.
My travel companion Randy enjoys the view of Italian street art from his cushy train seat.

In the U.S., we rely so heavily on air and automobile transportation that trains – an eco-friendly and economical method of transit – are almost a novelty. But just imagine, hopping a high-speed train in the morning, noon, or night that could deliver you from the chaos of New York City to the mountains of Wyoming in a matter of hours. Some say we have Henry Ford and the birth of the automobile industry to partially blame for the decline of America’s railway system. But I digress.

When our train screeched to a halt two hours later, we exited the station’s cement steps and ogled a sight I’ve imagined since I was a little girl: a city constructed entirely on water.

Venice Rush Hour
Venice’s main drag during rush hour.
Ridiculously romantic: Venice at dusk.

Earlier that day while shopping for provisions in a Verona mega grocery store, our brilliant idea to purchase jumbo bottles of olive oil and a case of Italian wine, which cost about as much as one good bottle in the U.S., made us a hilarious site to onlookers and passersby in Venice. Imagine two tourists each dragging their luggage down an uneven, busy cobblestone street, one of them with several backpacks, including one larger than a small child straddled to the front of her (that would be me), while the other has a gigantic mystery box wrapped in a reusable grocery bag and secured with Gorilla tape to his roller-board luggage (Randy). Luckily our hotel was only a few blocks from the train station.

Exhausted after lugging 80 pounds of luggage, wine, and olive oil through the streets of Venice.

We wasted no time purchasing a map of Venice from the hotel’s reception, unaware just how much we were going to need the damn thing, until we lost it, and ourselves, sometime later the next day.

Our rambling journey began that night as we attempted to find an “authentic” streetside trattoria, you know, “where the locals hang out,” fervently recommended by two 20-something Canadian women staying in the room next door to us.

“You can’t miss it,” one of the women chirped, “It’s only a few blocks from here and when we left, they were just started to play live music.”

So yeah, we could just follow our ears and we were sure to find it, the other woman chimed in.

We even pulled out our little Venice map and they traced the routing from the hotel to the eatery for us.

Randy takes his rock climbing skills to the streets, er alleys.

But hours later, Randy and I were still wandering Venice’s maze of alleys. We had pretty much given up on finding this “locals only” spot and were now entertaining ourselves by posing and taking photos in the crevasse-like alleyways that stretch from the main pedestrian avenues.

Haunting art in a Venice alleyway.

Sure, there were plenty of tourist-trap ristorantes on the main drag but we knew these establishments promised buyer’s remorse and bland food. As the clock approached 10 p.m., however, our angry stomachs had the last word and we stopped at the next ristorante we saw.

Not surprisingly, we left feeling violated by the eatery’s high prices, horrible service and generally shitty food, except for a plate of noodles in black sauce that Randy ordered. Admittedly, spaghetti coated in murky squid ink is not the most aesthetic plate. But it’s definitely some of Venice’s finest fare. Squid, along with a handful of other sea creatures, releases black ink as a defense mechanism and this salty, brine-flavored sauce adds zest and a dynamic robust flavor to any plate of boring old noodles. (If only I had a photo!)

The next day we set out for Venice’s most famed and impressive sight: Basilica di San Marco, a Byzantine church built in 1063 comprised of intricate mosaics and decorated in such a lavish design that it was nicknamed Church of gold.  Around 10 a.m., following a complimentary breakfast at our hotel of flaky croissants stuffed with ham and Brie or chicken and pesto, and a generous number of foamy cappuccinos (how I love Europe), we were on our way.

Posted to buildings along every corner are signs with arrows pointing you towards popular avenues. So this can’t be too hard to find, right? At first, we delighted in the adventure; it was a chance to soak in the sights of Venice – the green canalways bobbing with gondolas of anxious tourists; the gondola operators donned in black and white striped shirts and wide-brimmed hats; the cadre of masquerade storefronts stacked to the ceilings with opulent medieval masks; the fragrant pizzerias, and colorful gelaterias and, well, eventually we’ll find where we’re going..?

A young boy inquires about the price of a gondola ride.
A young boy inquires about the price of a gondola ride.

Two hours later, and after walking in circles for much of that time, the defeat from the previous night had returned. As the warm Italian sun rose into the sky and humidity enveloped the atmosphere, the tourists arrived in droves. Soon, many of the skinny streets were shoulder-to-shoulder with sauntering travelers.

During our unintentional 'tour' of Venice.
During our unintentional ‘tour’ of Venice.

When you’re lost in an Italian city what better way to pass the time than with food? So we ducked into a cozy cafe and nibbled on crusty pizza slices topped with peppers, mushrooms and anchovies washing it down with icy gulps of Prosecco. We would soon find Basilica di San Marco but only after several more failed attempts ambling through Venice’s tourist gauntlet. Despite our tired legs, numerous encounters with rude, oblivious tourists and sun-burned noses, every moment of confusion, chaos, and uncertainty was was worth it. And afterwards, we hopped on a water taxi to the island of Lido, where we escaped Venice’s madness, collapsed onto the sand and guzzled a bottle of red wine. Salute.

One of the intricately designed buildings comprising the Basilica di San Marco.
One of the intricately designed buildings comprising the Basilica di San Marco.
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A gleaming gold mosaic on the second floor of Basilica di San Marco.
Basilica di San Marco’s ornate facade.
Snapping a crisp photo inside Basilica di San Marco – where photographing is prohibited – proved no easy feat.
Sunny San Marco Square
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3 Comments

  1. So insanely jealous! I’ve been rediscovering my love for Renaissance painting lately and my studies always bring me to the mosaics and paintings of Venice. I would LOVE to visit one day. Thanks for sharing, and thanks especially for including some of the artwork, which travel blogs tend to leave out. 🙂

    A photographer/blogger friend of mine has posted some great shots of Venice as well, maybe you’d be interested: https://hmunro.wordpress.com/2012/12/29/venice-the-devil-is-in-the-details/

    1. Go nooooow, while it’s still the ‘off-season.’ I would love to visit Venice when it is less crowded. Do you find yourself doing much train travel to other countries from Paris ever? And thanks for the link, I will definitely check it out!

      1. Unfortunately I haven’t traveled much yet outside of France. Although for our honeymoon my wife and I saw a good portion of the Caribbean, including some beaches in Honduras and Mayan ruins in Belize which were fantastic. Like most people I’d love to travel more, but with Paris around whenever I want it, you won’t hear me complaining. 🙂

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