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The first sight of the Canalasso after I alighted from the Aerobus at Piazzala Roma. Also, arguably the best photograph I have taken thus far.

 

Fast Food Technology
I left Barcelona on a €62 Vueling flight to Venezia. I patronized a McDonald’s, and I saw these ordering kiosks. I am all for moving the market to remove human labor from menial tasks, including but not limited to: taking fast food orders; checking out at the grocery store register; checking in for an airline; booking flights; making medical diagnoses; and doing preparatory legal work. As I get older, I realize how fast people can fall behind technology and cultural attitudes, and I do not want to become a curmudgeonly Luddite. Just as I see lines at the grocery store register and cinema box offices, people were queuing instead of using these efficient devices. The thing was instant and user-friendly. If you see one of these in a restaurant, then use it! McDonald’s was also one of the first merchants to promote using credit cards for small-ticket purchases, so the corporation knows what it is doing.

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Skynet by McDonald’s

 

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Ponte della Costituzione, designed by the controversial Santiago Calatrava, who is notorious for ludicrously expensive and structurally questionable architectural designs. This bridge opened in 2008, and there are only four crossing the Canal Grande. One thing that becomes immediately apparent is that the actual walking time takes longer than the straight-line distance between two points because one has to find one of the four bridges that cross this canal. While that may be annoying at times, the lack of bridges makes the Canal more pleasing visually.

 

First Time in Italy!
Venezia marks my first stop ever in Italia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the historic (tourist) area of the city holds only 60,000 people. Since I started my trip outside the U.S. on November 3, I knew that I would be visiting Europe in the offseason, when the weather is supposedly not as good. I see charm in seeing any place in its natural climates, so timing a vacation has zero importance to me. When I visited Paris, Sevilla, and Barcelona, either the lack of tourists was not as apparent or the cities are so large anyway with their endemic populations. However, in Venezia, the low season is obvious. I am often walking the streets alone. Several times, I have entered famous sights wondering if the ticket office was closed since there were no people to be seen. The queues are nonexistent in December.

Venezia is literally a sinking city due to its location in its immediate lagoon. Billions of dollars will be spent on trying all sorts of scientific solutions to stem the rising tides and resulting flooding. I have read that the city suffers from the crushing weight of tourists, but I have seen none of that. I walk around the town, imagining what it must be like during the summer with people everywhere and in the piazzas. The city is one of the most beautiful anyone can ever see. Like Buenos Aires, many of the buildings are literally crumbling, yet the real estate prices uphold due to the concept of elegant decay.

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Unbeknownst to me, Repubblica di Venezia was a world power for 1376 years that spanned nine modern-day countries. It is amazing to think that this tiny tourist trap of a town was the capital of an empire for so long. The United States has only been around 238 years so it has another 1138 years to match the reign of the Venetian Republic. Do you want to take the over or under?

Venezia is the world’s only pedestrian city. There are no cars, bicycles, Segways, or wheelchairs. The city is absent of the constant din of these vehicles that other places suffer. There are plenty of scaffolding and construction equipment to repair the aging bridges, walkways, and buildings. Since there are so few people in December, the city has been extremely quiet.

There is almost no nightlife in Venezia, outside of La Biennale di Venezia and Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica della Biennale di Venezia (Venice Film Festival). If you do not eat before 20:30, you are in trouble of finding an open restaurant. In Barcelona, I could always find many supermarkets open 24-7. I have not seen a single convenience store in Venezia. Every third store sells Murano glass trinkets and Venetian ball masks, but I would prefer if they were all replaced by outlets that sold Snickers bars and Coca-Cola. It is basically impossible to find Coca-Cola for less than €2 since they are sold mainly at restaurants. Food is 25% more expensive than here than in Barcelona.

Technically, Venezia is an archipelago of 117 islands, with 409 bridges connecting the 177 canals. Due to circuitous navigation and the delight of getting lost constantly, it can seem to take many minutes to get anywhere. However, the historic area is only five square kilometers! I have walked all six sestieri.

When I first got off the Aerobus (€6), I was determined to walk to my hotel. The best route is only 2.1 kilometers, but it took an hour because I stopped several times to admire the architecture and canals, and I crossed at least eight bridges. Carrying my luggage up and down each of the bridges was quite a workout, so much so that I was hot even in short sleeves, despite the effective temperature here being as low as 40 °F. The bridges have steps with short risers and do not offer ramps. I could have clumsily dragged my bag up and down the steps, but I could feel judgment were I to have done that because the wheels make so much noise. Since the city is in such delicate state with the risk of going underwater and the buildings crumbling, the Venetians are well aware of how the wheeled bags of tourists cause noise pollution and accelerate the deterioration of the ancient walkways and bridges.

For three nights, I stayed at the Hotel Codega. Since the city is so small, every hotel has a good location. Mine is 300 meters from Piazza San Marco. The hotel room is tiny, only 12 square meters, but wonderfully makes use of its space. Understandably, any open door easily gets in the way, but I do not feel cramped at all. The bathroom is particularly inventive, as it somehow fits a great rainfall shower.

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View from my hotel bedroom

 

Venetian tap water is delicious. I am one of the increasingly rare first-world people who deigns to drink tap water wherever I go, or even in the United States. In my short life, Venetian tap water ranks right up there with that of Barbados for best taste. I have often posited that most snobbish bottled water drinkers could not taste the difference between the brands or even between the tap and bottle. Per capita, Italiani are the world’s largest consumers of bottled water, although I bet Americans are not far behind. The Venetian tap water is so good that it is literally bottled and sold as-is elsewhere!

The beggars I noticed were mostly old women. They were the most pitiful of the homeless I have seen so far because they prostrated themselves with a cup in two hands, forehead to the ground, in perpetual silent prayer. I visited seven religious buildings in Venezia and a few of them had signs stating not to give money to the nearby panhandlers, which I found ironic because there was a repeated story depicted in painting in some of them of how those people who give alms will be saved. Apparently, tourists entering the churches are exempt from alms-giving!

The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute sits on a precarious piece of land at the mouth of the Canal Grande. The view there is scenic, reminding me of the false tranquil ending to Casino Royale. As I entered the basilica, an old woman who was loitering there kept muttering “Santa Maria,” and demanding alms from entrants. Looking haggard, she was clearly not an employee of the basilica. More importantly, there was a sign right above her head that said “Free Admission,” predicting the presence of beggars like her. As I walked in, she grabbed my arm, as if to signal there were an admission fee. Of course, I was aware of the free admission and wanted to align myself with the wishes of the holy basilica by not patronizing her. Moreover, having recently dealt with far more aggressive touts in Marrakech and possessing comparatively Samson-like strength, I easily threw her off my arm and walked into the alms-free zone.

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Your familiar American sidewalks do not exist here. Walkways are stone or tile, which become slick, easily causing slips. In addition, November and December cause regular flooding, due to seasonal winds and tides. I have now encountered flooding for the second time on this trip–the first time being in Morocco. Here is what I saw the first morning I tried to walk to Piazza San Marco:

The water got a foot deep, and the locals wear fashionable galoshes. Unprepared tourists can buy disposable plastic waders for €8. I waited three hours for the water to recede before visiting the sights at that square. Due to the constant flooding this time of year, the rain, and the high humidity, the walkways are always wet.

I saw Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra at Teatro La Fenice (capacity 1000), one of the most famous opera houses in the world. Simon Boccanegra is not a good first opera to see because of its complex plot! Even though translations are provided, meaning is always lost, and some of it was grammatically flawed, even accounting for archaic use of language. Still, I was glad to have attended a performance there.

Aside from two vaporetto trips, I walked in Venezia. I only used the vaparetto because I wanted to be on the water at least once, and it was the only way to see San Giorgio Maggiore, from which some photographs at the end of this post are taken. The lagoon is a unique mysterious aquamarine color. Gondolas and water taxis can easily run more than €100. Even the vaporetto rides I took were two minutes in duration. They usually cost €7 for one trip!

I departed Venezia by train at the Santa Lucia station. A group of 12-year-olds approached me and implored me to follow them. I had plenty of time until my departure time, but my natural tourist guard immediately though this was some kind of scam. Then, I thought how unlikely it would be for a bunch of English-speaking Italian kids to pull this scam off in a big train station. As it turned out, they were doing a school assignment where they had to secure the English-speaking time of a tourist for several minutes, of which I obliged.

There was a homeless man in his 20s. He was social and could play badly on the public piano. He asked me for a cigarette, and I produced a fresh pack of Marlboros for him and said, “It’s yours.” He asked excitedly, “Can I give you a hug?” I countered with a handshake, and he was happy. Although I do not smoke, I try to carry cigarettes for moments like this.

 

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Ponte di Rialto, the first and best of four bridges in Venezia. This stone arch bridge was finished in 1591, and it’s still safe to use!


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Piazza San Marco at night

 

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The entire city looks gorgeous like this.

 

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Scuola Grande di San Rocco (€10), the sight I most wanted to see and the first place I toured. It may as well be renamed the Tintoretto Museum because it contains almost exclusively huge canvasses of his on the walls and ceilings, displaying biblical scenes.

 

Summary
I had recently heard from the guy I met in Barcelona that there is not much to do in Venezia. I have to disagree with him, as I enjoy art and architecture to fatiguing levels. I am seeing so much art in Europe that one can take it for granted, but I have reminded myself that I have only spent a grand total of two months on this continent. I have taken a slight academic interest too, as I am not religious, likening all these Christian and Catholic stories to Greek and Roman mythology. Still, I like to know the stories behind the art and architecture. It’s a shame that history repeats itself though. Many lives were lost and much money was squandered in commissioning these buildings and paintings. Venal politicians and corrupt businessmen will always exist. Personal and business failings are a footnote in the history though. Everything is celebrated with little reservation.

I would like to have visited more of the other islands, such as San Lazzaro. I did not go up the Campanile di San Marco, although I did the far less famous one San Giorgio Maggiore.

List of things I did
Scuola Grande di San Rocco (€10)
Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni  (€3)
Palazzo Ducale  (€16, included Museo Correr)
Museo Correr (included in admission for Palazzo Ducale)
Teatro La Fenice  (€25 for cheap seat on fifth level)

Seven Churches!
Basilica dei Frari  (€3)
Basilica SS. Giovanni e Paolo (€2.5)
Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (free)
Basilica di San Marco (free)
Chiesa Santa Maria dei Miracoli (€3)
Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore (€2.5)
Chiesa di San Salvador (free but elevator to campanile was €6)

Venezia footprint

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The water level can rise so high that stairs get underwater. On extreme days in Venezia’s history, more than 80% of the city has been underwater.

 

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Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, in the Baroque architectural style.

 

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View from the campanile on San Giorgio Maggiore

 

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