“Open my heart and you will see graved inside of it, ‘Italy’.” – Robert Browning
Italy: The Genesis
Living in Kuwait I knew that I needed to fulfill 3 major things for my Christmas break:
- I needed to see my Mama Bear.
- I needed to travel to a part of the world that was new to me.
- I needed to have good food & good wine. Enough of this dry country business, at least for a while.
My Mama Bear and I discussed the possibility of going to Egypt for the holidays but due to the recent unrest and travel advisories we decided that it can wait. After all, the pyramids have been there for thousands of years already – I think they’ll be there for a little while longer.
Living in Kuwait, despite being incredibly difficult in many respects, definitely provides the luxury of ease of access to SO many amazing travel destinations. Friends of mine traveled to Sri Lanka, Israel, Germany, Paris, Austria, South Africa, United Arab Emirates and India. For reasons I cannot explain, both my mom and I came up with the exact same alternative to Egypt: Italy. It wasn’t particularly inexpensive and it certainly wasn’t a balmy beach destination. But we wanted to go. I immediately started researching companies with which to tour and I found an amazing company that I highly recommend. We booked with Gate 1 – which is based out of America, but as a Canadian expatriate living in Kuwait I had absolutely no problem communicating with their head office and making sure that all of the details were taken care of.
Venice: Or, The City of 1,000,000 Stairs
Okay, of course I’m exaggerating. But, it certainly feels like there are a million stairs. I used consider myself to be physically fit. I was running 7k-10k every other day, climbing about 200 stairs once every two weeks and of course, eating healthy. That is, I was doing that back in Canada. In Kuwait, unfortunately, it is generally not a good idea to be outside in work out gear (especially in our neighborhood – which is, of late, growing increasingly unsafe for women). Furthermore, it’s extremely difficult to eat healthy and maintain any kind of physical fitness. Add in my awful new habit of smoking shisha and this produced a recipe for disaster in a city like Venice where walking and climbing endless stairs and bridges is an absolute must.
Having said all of this, I found it to be a welcomed change of pace and despite being in a lot of pain for the first few days, my muscle memory kicked in and I felt like I was almost back to my normal level of fitness!
Enter my first tip for Venice: Wear good walking shoes.
We saw most of Venice by foot and we decided to forego a ride in a gondola because it felt too kitsch and it was certainly way over priced. A lot of our tour-mates decided to take the gondola ride and absolutely loved it! Whatever floats your boat, so-to-speak.
Venice: The Maze
As much as I love the spontaneity of traveling, I am also an extreme Type A personality and not only do I need to have maps of the city I am in, but I derive much more enjoyment out of a place if I have some information about the buildings and the sites that I am visiting. Thus, my bookcases at home are filled with travel guides. My love, P, sent Fodor’s Travel Intelligence: Essential Italy with my Mama Bear as a surprise Christmas present! (Complete with miniature Christmas tree, decorations, a string of lights, and some other goodies. I am spoiled!) I recommend anything from Fodor’s or Lonely Planet (my usual go-to for all things travel related). My travel guide explicitly tells you to get lost in the winding streets of Venice and I think this is the soundest advice that the guide can give you.
This leads me to my second tip for Venice: Get lost. Take wrong turns on purpose. It’s so much fun and there is an adventure waiting to happen around every corner.
My Mama Bear and I were doing really well navigating throughout the six districts of Venice, or sestieri: Cannaregio, Santa Croce, San Polo, Dorsoduro, San Marco and Castello. Our hotel was overlooking the Grand Canal in the Santa Croce sestieri and it was fortuitous, because we were able to locate ourselves on the map and start off toward the general sestieri in which we hoped to go. My personal favourite district was the Cannaregio or the “Jewish Ghetto.” It was the most serene, the most picturesque and the least commercial. Our tour guide explained that the word “ghetto” in Italian came from the word borghetto which literally translates to “Outside the city walls,” or “fortified settlement” depending on which source you use. According to our guide, a lot of Jews used to live on the island of Borghetto but were forced to move to the Venetian mainland as a result of a local war that broke out. They settled in Cannaregio and it has been called the Jewish Ghetto ever since. I’ve seen many different historical accounts of this information online – so I am simply recounting to you what our guide told us on the tour! Feel free to add any information or correct me in the comments!
We were in Venice for two extra days before our tour started and we spent much of our time wandering, sometimes late into the night, through the narrow streets and alleyways in Venice. We felt really safe doing so, though, because there were always a lot of people out walking around. We stumbled across some of the lesser known areas in Venice and we ate at some quiet, yet delicious restaurants away from the hustle and bustle that you find at St. Marks Square or the Rialto Bridge – also away from a lot of the price gauging, too!
Venice: The Tourist Spots
We didn’t, however, shy away from the popular places. I highly recommend going Piazza San Marco and touring the Palazzo Ducale or Doge’s Palace (you know, if you’re a huge history buff like I am). It is steeped in art, history, and architecture. Visually, it’s stunning and if you have a guide you really can learn a lot about 15th century Venetian politics. The Bridge of Sighs is, of course, a hot spot, but I personally found the massive, airy interior of the Palace to be much more awesome (yes, the literal definition of the word). The courtyard provides an enchanting view of the way in which the Palace was built over the centuries. With various additions, and even a fire in 1570, from construction beginning in the 10th century stretching all the way to the late 16th century, the Palace contains elements of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. It really is a sight.
Following an open-mouthed look at the courtyard, you ascend the Scala d’Oro or Golden Staircase – and just when you think things can’t get any more incredible, you enter into the chambers with massive vaulted ceilings covered with works by some of the most impressive artists of the day. The Palace even houses the world’s largest oil painting – by none other than Tintoretto himself. I was thoroughly amazed during the entire tour of the Palace and would have loved to take a second walkthrough in order to really appreciate everything because – holy sensory overload. No photos allowed inside beyond the Scala d’Oro. I was certainly grateful to be able to take in the sights without the distraction of trying to get a good shot!
We also went to the Island of Murano to see a demonstration on glassblowing. It was spectacular. It is a dying art because, as our emcee told us, most young men do not want to enter a trade that takes over 30 years to master. It is no longer an economically viable career path for young Italians these days. According to the emcee, Dale Chihuly – with whom I am totally and utterly obsessed after seeing his work in Montreal – worked at their factory when he was fresh into the trade. We watched a master of the craft blow a vase as well as a glass horse – altogether taking about 5 minutes time. Afterwards, we were invited into the 15 showrooms where different types of glass ornaments and decorations were on sale for a pretty penny. For example, a chandelier can cost up to 15,000 Euros. I was tempted by their offer of free shipping, but ended up not buying anything.
Our wonderful tour guide surprised us with an early Christmas present which prevented me from feeling sad about not purchasing anything during my time in Murano!
“The best part,” she said, “it’s calorie free!”
Some of my favourite memories of Venice include just strolling down an unnamed street taking in the sights around me and listening to snippets of Italian from the conversations of passersby. Four days was just enough for us to get a good sense of the city and see a lot of its hidden gems as well as its major attractions.
Next Up on the Blog: How Tuscany – and Florence – stole my heart