Crossing the water into Venice by train in the snowstorm…
I just thought I would give everyone that visual of our first glimpses into Venice!
We disembarked from the train in the big, drafty, white stone Santa Lucia station in Venice. We toted our bags outside and found ourselves standing right on the shore of the Grand Canal surrounded by a surreal snowy, windy world full of boats and canals.
All of the boats were moored to the docks, though, and were being cast around by the blowing snow and wind. Nothing looked real. It seemed like some sort of fairy tale city. A cold fairy tale city. We found a bridge near the train station to cross the Grand Canal and we lugged our bags up the big stairs and across to the other side. We stayed at Hotel Antiche Figure, which was right across the Grand Canal from the train station. The biting wind was cutting through our hoodies as we located Hotel Antiche Figure. It was a very old, quaint-looking building, especially given that it was covered in snow. We pulled our bags inside the door. We were immediately greeted like we were family. One of the women at the front desk hurried to help us pull our bags in and then she shut the door.
“We are having blizzard today!” she said warmly with a soft Venetian accent. “But the weather settles down tomorrow for Carnevale!” (Carnevale, if you didn’t read my last post, is basically the time before Lent. It’s a Mardi Gras equivalent that is the last party before Ash Wednesday.) The blizzard was evidently really unusual because all of the locals were talking about it!
The woman at the hotel spoke pretty good English and told us that if we wanted we could upgrade from our reserved room to a junior suite. We weren’t sure what a ‘junior suite’ was, but she told us it was a bigger room with more amenities. We weren’t sure, but she assured us there would be no charge for the upgrade.
“Better to have happy customers than empty rooms,” she said brightly as she got us out a map of Venice. She pointed out a lot of the main tourist attractions on the map and then got out her coat to take us to the junior suite, which was apparently down the alley next to the main hotel building. She took us down the alley, into the building, and then up to the second floor, and showed us the room. It was big and gorgeous! 🙂 All of the furniture was a painted white and included a vanity with a large mirror, and a big canopy bed complete with large red plush pillows. There were little candies on the big red pillows. We were sufficiently wow’d. 🙂 What a perfect room in which to spend our two-month wedding anniversary and Carnevale (2/12). Fun! The woman actually told us that the room was often reserved by newly-weds. What a coincidence! 🙂
We got settled in the new hotel room (definitely the nicest one we’d been in so far!) and then decided to go down to the little bar/cafe we’d seen in the hotel lobby while we perused the Venice map and decided what to do first. We each got a drink and pondered the map while we watched the crazy wind and snow blowing around outside as the sun started to set. The cafe was small and brightly lit and decorated for Carnevale. Very cozy!
We decided there was no point in trying to go anywhere that night. The weather was crazy and the gondola rides and many other things were closing early due to the weather. We decided to walk around just enough to find a place for dinner and then see what the weather was like the next day (Carnevale!). We only had to walk two doors down to find a nice-looking little restaurant and we went in. There was a big group of Portuguese friends at one table who were outgoing and lent a very warm and friendly air to the small restaurant. Mike and I sat at a table in the corner. Our waitress was very attentive, but not overbearing, and it was a great experience. Once again, it was one of those small Italian bistros that could sit maybe thirty people, tops. Mike and I noticed at once there was an older man there who seemed to the owner. He was the one who prepared the espresso drinks. It seemed to be his special job, because he hung out by the espresso bar and just kind of kept an eye on everything going on in the restaurant from there. It was dark by the time we left the restaurant but it was still windy and snowy. Lots of local Venetians were out taking pictures… and we were more than happy to join in the picture taking! 🙂
It was also pretty cold, so we hurried back to our comfy hotel room. We decided that it was time to watch the last episode of season 3 of Downton Abbey, so we watched that and then took a few pictures of the snow from our hotel room window.
The next day we woke up wondering what the weather would be like. It was the main Carnavale day, so we assumed there’d be things happening regardless of the weather, but we weren’t sure how a big blizzard would affect that.
We headed out to the main hotel building where the breakfast room as located and noticed that the weather was much warmer and it was actually sunny outside. Most of the snow was gone. The wind was still fairly strong, but nothing compared to the night before! We heard from the hotel staff that the previous night things had gotten so crazy that the city had put up sand bags along the street at the front of the hotel to keep the Grand Canal from flooding overnight! However, all water levels were down that morning, and it was sunny so we decided to head out with our cameras, see St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge and see if there were any Carnevale sights to take pictures of!
As with Rome, it was very difficult to navigate in Venice. We had a walking map, but again we had the problem where streets were not named, and they were incredibly windy and narrow and it was difficult to distinguish a ‘street’ on the map from an unmarked alley. However, we had all day, so we weren’t particularly concerned if we got a little lost on the way to St. Mark’s Square. Particularly since our main objective was general sightseeing. 🙂 Also, the hotel staff gave us a wonderful clue which was that, although streets were almost never named, there were a good number of signs indicating ‘Rialto’ (the Rialto Bridge) and ‘Ferrovia’ (the train station, which our hotel was right across the Canal from). So as long as whenever we saw a Rialto sign and followed it, we should get to the Rialto Bridge and nearby St. Mark’s Square. And when we wanted to come back, we just had to follow all the signs for Ferrovia. That sounded manageable. 🙂
Venice is obviously incredibly different than anywhere else. For starters, there are no cars in Venice. If you want to go somewhere, you either walk or you take a water taxi. Also, all of the fronts of the buildings are facing the canals. If you take the walkways and bridges through the city, most of the time you’re seeing the backs of buildings. Also, the buildings go right up to the very edge of the water. In many cases their front steps go right down into the water. And many of the roads are TINY! Much more like alleys than like streets!
However, even apart from these obvious geographical features, the architecture was very different than the classical Roman architecture we’d seen in Rome, the gothic architecture of the Milanese Duomo, and the mostly modern architecture in Milan. Because Venice was historically a central trade city between the Byzantine Empire and Italy, it was a major crossroads and was influenced heavily by Italian, Austrian, Byzantine, and Muslim culture. Historically, Venice wasn’t even part of Italy. For awhile it was its own Republic of Venice, and for awhile it was part of Austria under the rule of Napoleon. Although Venetians speak Italian now, Venice used to have its own language, which results in Venetians having a distinctly different accent in their speaking than the Italians in the other cities we visited. Anyway, the city has an absolutely incredible history! I would highly recommend reading the Wikipedia article on Venice! (Sorry… I know I keep directing everyone to Wikipedia… it just has so much good information!)
But back to my main point; the architecture was very different! Very Byzantine! And it didn’t really feel like Italy, except that the small ever-present Italian bistros were there, the menus looked similar (although more seafood-oriented), and we heard Italian everywhere, albeit with a softer accent.
The culture felt very different as well. Very open and welcoming. Much less busy and hectic than Rome and Milan. Very safe. I’m not saying your wallet couldn’t get stolen there, but it certainly felt much less likely than in Rome! And this was despite all of the street sellers who almost forced knockoff clothing, jewelry, and flowers into your hands hoping to sell them to you. We walked around the city after dark with very little worry. After all of our hectic sightseeing, shopping, train travel, and bus travel, Venice felt so relaxing! There was no question about taxis or buses or subways or trains. We just walked anywhere we needed to go. It was definitely the most magical part of our trip.
We headed on a roundabout path over bridges and along alleys to get to St. Mark’s square. On the way we saw lots of people dressed up in crazy costumes and wearing Carnevale masks… it was so much fun!
Many of the little stores that lined the streets were selling cheap masks, so I bought a red one and put it on. I suggested Mike get one but he wrinkled his nose and said it would get in the way of his glasses. As we walked, we saw live musicians, people in costumes, people selling wares out in front of their little shops… all kinds of people were out and about! And of course, we were in Venice, so there were endless canals to see as well!
For Mike, who has been getting more interested in street photo shooting, there were a plethora of opportunities! So much architecture-wise, canal-wise, and people-wise to take pictures of! We walked past a little stand that sold Gluweine, a German/Austrian type of mulled wine. This was, of course, more evidence that Venice had strong ties to Austria and to the rest of the world and was definitely not purely Italian. Mike had had Gluweine in Berlin, and his eyes lit up when he saw the little stand. We bought a cup of the steaming hot mulled wine and shared it. So warm and spicy! 🙂
We walked through lots of small squares, past lots of tall cathedrals and past lots of little shops and restaurants. We soaked in the sights and the sunshine and took lots of pictures. We also saw a little harbor area full of gondolas!
St. Mark’s Cathedral in St. Mark’s Square was gorgeous!
We wandered around St. Mark’s Square and took a lot of pictures of all the festivities.
Then we decided to eat at a little cafe and head back to the hotel to take a nap and then head out later, once it was dark, to get the full Carnevale experience.
When we got ready to head out that evening we really bundled up. The wind, which had been somewhat mitigated earlier by the sunshine, felt really strong and cold now that the sun was setting. Although we tried to retrace the same route we had taken that morning, we quickly discovered that in Venice it was almost impossible to remember exactly which bridge you’d crossed before and which alley you’d taken. So we mostly tried to follow the way other people were going and look for the Rialto signs (which was surprisingly effective!). 🙂 When we got to St. Mark’s Square everything was a flurry of activity, and it was getting dark! Lots of people wandering around taking pictures, many of them costumed and masked. It had such a wholesome, celebratory atmosphere… we loved it! We wandered around in the streets for awhile enjoying all the lights and all the people spilling into and out of small shops and restaurants and crowding the streets. We stopped for dinner in an amazing little bistro between St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge. It was such a wonderful dark, low-key restaurant with great food and an amazing waiter. So relaxing! There was also a heater near my chair that rotated and so periodically it sent an extremely pleasant wave of heat over me. Sitting in a warm dark relaxing restaurant buried among the little Venetian alleyways was as relaxing as anything you can imagine. We lingered there for quite a while, and it was LATE when we finally headed back to the hotel. Walking in Venice after dark is incredible.
There were still so many people out on the streets at outdoor restaurants, bars, and parties, all celebrating Carnevale. It was so strange for it to be so late and so cold, but to still see people celebrating everywhere and singing in the streets. There was an outdoor ice rink in one of the cathedral squares that was playing recorded music and people were skating away on it. It made me wish Mike and I had ice skates. Darn. Something we forgot to pack! 🙂
We walked quickly since it was cold outside, but there were little parties at various street corners on our way back where people were just clustered together talking and laughing. And I knew from my online reading that there are many costumed balls around Venice on the night of Carnevale, but they are expensive to attend and would probably all have been sold out far in advance so Mike and I didn’t try to find one. But the streets were also full of costumed people going from ball to ball. SO much fun just to walk through the streets and feel a little bit of that sense of community. Back in the hotel, we could still hear people walking by and singing or talking and laughing. Such a fun night! 🙂
This post is already crazily long, so I will stop for now. In other news, it was SNOWING in Seattle this morning. Ironic, right? A day after the start of ‘spring’, and we get the first snow of the season. The last time we saw snow we were in Venice. 🙂 However, given that all the snow is gone now and it’s supposed to get up to 60 degrees on Sunday, I’m not complaining!
I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend! (Maybe even a snow-free weekend, since it is officially spring after all!).