Venice is a distinctively different place than the city we left just a few hours before, and it was easy for us to get lost- figuratively and literally- within moments of crossing the Grand Canal.
Our stay in Venice had a bit of a rocky start. The first moments were not so bad; as our train from Florence approached the city, we were the last two people left in our car. People rotated off at each stop, and new people took their spots, until we reached the first stop in Venice where the whole train emptied out. Fifteen minutes later, the train slowed to a stop at our station, and a few moments later we were looking out at the Grand Canal.
Our hotel was right around the corner—in fact, we could see it from where we stood on the steps of the train station—and as we made the three minute walk we were approached by no fewer than three porters asking if they could take our bags for us. Two of them were understanding when we thanked them but turned down the request. The third was a bit more unyielding. “The streets are busy,” he told me. “It is safer for me to take the bags. It could be a long walk.” When I pointed to our hotel- by now just 500 feet or so in front of us, he looked annoyed when he could no longer make an argument for why we needed to employ him. I shook it off. Pushy salesmen are everywhere.
We checked into our hotel and were a bit dismayed to find that, while the view of the canal was lovely, the street noise was not. We were on the second floor, and it sounded like the people outside were in our room with us. We decided not to worry much about it (hey, you can’t control everything!), and we set out to find something to eat and do some sightseeing.
Bad Beginnings: Many Selfie Sticks and One Terrible Meal
Sightseeing came first.
Venice is filled with tiny streets that weave a complex web populated with homes, restaurants, and shops. With our trusty Google Maps app on our phones, we didn’t mind walking aimlessly in any direction before consulting the map to redirect back toward where we wanted to end up.
We found a few less populated streets that felt like what we imagined real Venice might be like (if there can still be such a thing with how popular a tourist destination it is!), and eventually we found ourselves back at the same bridge we crossed when we first set out to explore.
A quick note on pet peeves and travel. We all have them; and they can be entirely situational. For me, that day, it was the salesmen. Perhaps it was because they seemed so pushy when we first arrived, when they insisted we pay them to transport our bags. As Adam and I looked out over the boats sailing along the Grand Canal, I was somewhat taken off guard when a loud voice broke into the memory I was creating.
I turned around to see a man holding a dozen or so selfie sticks, in all colors. I shook my head. He seemed to think I didn’t understand.
“Automatic autophoto?” He asked as if to clarify what he was offering me.
“No thank you,” I told him. I turned back around. Adam rolled his eyes; he’s not a big fan of the street salespitches, either.
“Selfie stick?” the voice asked again. I whipped around, annoyed now, to find the voice was not the same; a different salesman was offering me a different selection of selfie sticks. “No thank you,” I said, maybe a bit more firmly than necessary. The man backed away and moved on to the people next to us.
“So this is how it’s going to be,” Adam said, a note of sad resignation in his tone. I nodded. Adam took out his camera- a Canon DSLR, the one we use for our best photos- and held it up to capture a shot of the Grand Canal.
“Selfie stick?” another voice asked. We both turned around. A third man held out the goods he had to sell.
“You can’t use a selfie stick with this kind of camera,” Adam said. The salesman considered this, clearly a bit taken aback by this particular response.
“No,” he admitted. He looked down at the products he held, and, seeing nothing that would work for us, he held them back up to us anyway.
“Would you like a selfie stick?” he asked once more, restarting the sales pitch. I felt a bit bad for turning my back to him without a verbal response. He didn’t seem bothered, though; he somewhat quickly moved along to the next group.
“We should go before this happens again,” I said to Adam.
“Selfie stick?” asked a fourth voice.
“Yes, we should go before you cause a scene,” Adam agreed. Three more offers later, we disappeared into the crowds of tourists without making a purchase.
We counted at least seven selfie stick salesmen on just that one bridge. The incredible number of people pushing the same products made me somewhat irritable, more irritable than usual, so I figured I must be hungrier than I thought. We decided to make dinner a priority. My research had uncovered a gem of a restaurant that seemed to cater to a local crowd, was off the beaten path, and, unlucky for us, was apparently closed on Sundays.
Our situation was tricky now. We had an incredibly early departure to Lake Bled the next day, which meant finding a meal quickly was important because getting to sleep early was just as important. I very badly wanted to pick a place off the main road in hopes the restaurants that cater to locals would be of a higher quality, but we decided to settle for a place on the main road on the way back to the hotel. We stopped to read a menu and were immediately approached by an all-too-eager manager, who insisted that we be seated right away and review the menu at the table. Unfortunately for him, the selfie stick sales force was still fresh in my mind, and I didn’t want to be coerced into picking a place for dinner. We moved along.
We ended up moving along several times before finally sitting down.
It seems anyone who shows even the slightest bit of interest in a restaurant is quickly greeted by a manager who does not want to stop talking until a tourist is worn down to the point of sighing and being guided to a table, accepting that their fate has been decided for them. We let our guard down at a restaurant just a few minutes from our hotel, where we were seated outside among a handful of other groups who looked just as tired as we did. Our server approached us for our orders, which we placed (lasagna for Adam, pasta for me). When we said no to both wine and appetizers, our server frowned and disappeared. Our meals were served some time later; they looked like they had just come from a microwave, and our suspicions were confirmed when each bite alternated between scalding hot and freezing cold. Frustrated, it took close to a half hour to get our check- every time we would request it the servers would just walk away- and it was later than we anticipated when we finally made it back to the hotel. The air conditioner in our room didn’t work, the street noise only got worse as the crowds fueled themselves with alcohol, and after a few sleepless hours I was somewhat pleased when it was time to get ready to leave Venice. I had been there for one evening, and I was done with it.
Our trip to Lake Bled and Ljubljana refreshed my weary traveler’s soul, and after almost 24 hours away we returned to Venice ready to give our second and final day there another chance. When we returned around 11 PM, we were approached by only one person selling glow-in-the-dark necklaces and laser pointers. Already I felt better.
Great Endings: Wine, Cicchetti, and New Friends Make It All Better
The next morning, our final day in Venice, we awoke with enough time to repack our suitcases and check out before walking 10 minutes down the street to meet up with a food tour we had booked through Urban Adventures (a company who provided some tasty and memorable experiences in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore). This tour was focused on wine and cicchetti, which are Venetian tapas that are sold all throughout the city.
Our first stop introduced us to prosecco and a surprisingly tasty deep fried anchovy and cheese sandwich as well as fried olives. I like anchovies if they are in Caesar salads, but they aren’t usually an ingredient I would seek out, especially in what was effectively a fried grilled cheese sandwich. This was very good, though, and a good base for the large quantities of wine yet to come.
There were six stops in total, and each one opened us up to new local flavors and wines that were different than those we became familiar with in Tuscany. The sparkling Riboto we tried during our fourth stop was so good I can still remember its crispness; it’s one of the glasses I enjoyed that was so unique and would be so hard to find elsewhere in the world. We snacked on cicchetti with flavors I had never experienced before, like the cod bruschetta that had a creaminess and consistency of tuna salad but a taste that was nothing like the sandwiches I eat so often at home. The bars and restaurants we visited were so far into the web of Ventian streets and canals that there was no hope of finding English on a menu- a thought that brought me great comfort in our search for a more local experience- and I was grateful that with every bite of food and sip of wine the taste of our terrible first meal was pushed further and further from my mind. I doubted any of these places used a microwave.
The tour we took also introduced us to some fun facts we might not have discovered on our own. Upon arriving in Venice, the front desk manager at our hotel was very eager to book us on a gondola ride, where a 30 minute ride would cost us at least 90 euro. That’s a lot of money for what, to us, amounted to a boat ride on an unpredictable path that may or may not provide the photo opportunities we wanted, so we accepted that crossing a canal by gondola just wasn’t in the cards for this trip. However, another option exists for those who just want to make the claim to have taken a gondola ride in Venice: the commuter gondola. For just a couple of euro for tourists (and much less for locals), you can squeeze into a gondola for a two minute trip across a canal. It’s a terrific service for locals who have places they need to be, but for us it was a chance to say- honestly!- that we didn’t leave Venice without setting food in a gondola.
Our second surprise came as we passed a store that proudly boasted they had wine on tap. Picturing a giant keg of wine somewhere, I was curious. As it turns out, it is entirely possibly to fill a bottle- even a water bottle- with wine at some shops in Venice. We had plane tickets out of the city that night, so we didn’t partake in this incredible discovery, but a few others on our tour were very happy to dump out their water and replace it with wine. Having never seen this before, much like the milk vending machines we saw in Ljubljana, I found this to be proof that humanity really is moving in the right direction.
We had a few hours left in Venice as our tour concluded, and along with a few new friends we traversed the city- splitting three bottles of prosecco among six of us as we went- making our way through the city as we marveled at the beauty of simple canals around one corner and majestic buildings like St. Mark’s Basilica around another.
When the time came to say goodbye to both our tour group companions and the city itself, we did so with mixed feelings. The first day had been so very bad, and the second day had been so very good; why the change?
We all experience travel differently. I’ve long been a bit sad that my visit to Rome in 2009 didn’t leave me with a love of that city that so many people have for it. If our visit to Venice had been limited to the first day we spent there, we would have remembered it overrated, a place with bad food that tried its hardest to separate tourists from their money. Instead, our second day was so good that it overshadows the impressions and mistakes we made when we first arrived.
When we think of Venice, we’ll remember walking the narrow streets with a local guide who made us feel at home in a foreign place, trying food and wine that tourists will never experience if they stay on the main roads. We’ll remember laughing and sharing stories over glasses of prosecco. Mostly we’ll remember that any rough start can still lead to a great ending. As our stay in Venice drew to a close and our plane took off into the night sky and away from Italy, we were happy Venice had been our great ending.
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we booked a tour with Urban Adventures, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected Urban Adventures based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review.