Day 21 - Sun Apr 24 to Venice
(Chris) Ahhh the church bells struck at 7am. And 7:15. And 7:30. And 7:45... you get the gist. So Arrividerci to Civita. We got into the car, with our pals from Portland who we gave a lift to the Orvieto train station. That was an adventure unto itself (it always is when Jen and I are trying to find things!), but we got a good look up close at Orvieto, a much larger hill town perched on a cliff-banded hill. We managed to drive through some pedestrian-only areas and unfortunately looked like the stupid Americans we were (though we wouldn't complain if there were a few more basic signs telling where things like the train station were).
Then the long drive to Venice. The stretch back to Florence was easy enough, and I was driving probably closer to 140 with spurts at 150+. From Florence to Bologna the road turned twisty, which was bad for our topsy-turvy mini-minivan. But after Bologna (where we tried to stop for lunch, but there was manic traffic to an event at the stadium, we guessed maybe a football match) it straightened out again. At one point I was fortunate enough to see 2 tiny yellow and red specks in the rear-view mirror... which turned out to be 2 Ferraris whizzing by so fast it made us seem like we were standing still! Would be fun to be rich I guess. We stopped at... you guessed it, Spizzico, for a pizza lunch (I think I've had pizza for lunch like 10 straight days now, this Spizzico was very good so I didn't get in trouble from Jen this time).
Overall, driving a car is incredibly expensive over here. For about 8 hours of highway travel in a small car, we paid $60 for 1 ¼ tanks of diesel, and about $40 in highway tolls. Plus the cost of our rental car. We are really quite nervous about driving in France as we plan to have a car for 3 weeks.
Finally, about 5-6 hours later, we arrived at the Venice airport. We looked for a car-return center, but it turns out you just park it in a rental lot and walk the keys into the terminal. We wasted a bunch of time there trying to do WiFi (because Lonely Planet said you could), and then caught a ferry to Venice proper.
By this time it was dark and raining, but Jen navigated us right to the hotel. I think it's the last thing we found easily in Venice, as this is possibly even more confusing than driving in Florence. Anyway, our hotel host was extremely nice, and our room comfortable (though funny it was bright red everywhere... redrum, and also the bed was softer than I could have possibly imagined, and also a set of twin beds pushed together. Not sure why the Europeans do this, as it rarely works out well). We found a last-ditch place for dinner after our 2 choices from the book were closed on Sundays. Note this is more important in Europe than the US, Sundays and holidays really change the availability of things a lot more.
Day 22 - Mon Apr 25 Venice
(Chris) The first half of the day we really wasted trying to take care of errands (such as finding internet
The streets appear to have 2 main varieties: brightly lit, with hundreds of shops that sell one of the following sets of things:
• Expensive junk. Carnival masks. Figurines.
o Expensive glass junk (subset of junk).
• High fashion. Handbags. The very top names.
There was very little of anything else on these streets, except for street vendors pushing roses and cheap knock-offs of the expensive stuff (like Louis Vitton handbags, just like in Manhattan). The other type of street is dark deserted alley.
After lunch the weather changed dramatically, to a sunny blue sky. We finally got around to seeing some sights, such as St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco) and the Doge's Palace. The Doge, in the 15th-17th centuries I think, was the ruler of Venice, the most powerful city in the world. Venice had a monopoly on trade between the Far East and Europe, and was cleaning up financially. Anyway the Doge as you might imagine had a grand palace of marble filled with wonderful Venetian art. The Doge was technically elected by the upper class, but it worked out as more of a theocracy. Also I guess they were big on punishment and torture.
The Palace had a glorious armory, displaying numerous weapons (swords, pikes, crossbows, pistols, and many combo weapons - sorry no pictures allowed as with most museums) that I have only seen in movies and videogames. They were displayed in such a way that you could really see them. The armory at The Tower of London was much bigger and had better displays of armor, but for weapons this was truly superior.
Later, after gelato (of course!) we took a slow vaporetto (water bus) down the Grand Canal, which serpentines through the middle of Venice. Most canals are only 20' wide to accommodate gondolas and smaller boats, but the Grand Canal is more like 200' wide with only 3 bridges over it, and has a lot of commercial traffic on it. Our ride was mostly at night, pretty, and allowed us to see many of the key sights of Venice. Venice is not very big, maybe 3x5km, and the tourist area is a subset of that. But with so many turns and canal crossings it feels much bigger.
We found a wonderful place for dinner where I had some delightful salmon pasta (I am getting pretty tired of the same Italian food over and over) and shared a good cut of beef with rosemary and balsamic. Interestingly, I've always associated Caesar salad with Italian food, but they do not have it here, anywhere. They also don't dip bread in oil & balsamic, though they have both close at hand. We like the food in Italy better than in Greece, but in Greece the bread tended to be better and there were far more bakeries. I think I like the pizza better back home. The pasta is always cooked perfectly here, al dente, and the sauce is always portioned out just right and mixed in before served.
We went briefly to St. Mark's square, where it was partially flooded, probably from the rain earlier. This happens so often that they have handy little wooden suspended walkways stashed all over that they break out when it floods.
Day 23 - Tue Apr 26 Venice
(Chris) This morning we started with touring St. Mark's Cathedral. Interestingly, they have the bones of St. Mark in there, but they had to go steal them from his original burial place in Egypt centuries ago to give Venice more prestige - truth is stranger than fiction I suppose. The main selling point of the cathedral is that the ceiling is covered in golden mosaics, with a middle-eastern (Byzantine?) flair. Very impressive and different.
Piazza San Marco, in the sunshine, truly lived up to expectations. People milling about, thousands of pigeons, on a giant square framed by St. Mark's Basilica. Early in the day we fed the pigeons (I was reluctant at first but it turned out to be great fun, see pics).
After a long trek to cheap pizza, we went to Venice's Accademia (which is different than Florence's Accademia), to see Venetian art. There were several fine pieces yet I'm not sure that I'd recommend it. Though Rick's art guides are helping us a great deal in navigating and understanding the museums. We talk about Rick Steves a lot and I think at this point here's how we'd grade him:
Destination Picks A-
Packing Advice A
Hotel Picks B
Restaurant Picks B- (this was more like a C until last night which was excellent)
Fine Art Help / Museum Guides A (I don't think we were expecting him to be this helpful)
Directions / Maps / Connections C-
After an uneventful side trip via vaporetto to a non-touristy residential area (Santa Elena), we had a horrible dinner at a self-service place near our hotel that I chose. To make it up to Jen, we had cappuccino and dessert in St. Mark's Square, in front of the dueling orchestras. Essentially in St. Marks there are 3 very good 6-piece orchestras playing popular tunes outside in front of dozens of café tables, vying for your tourist dollar. Now this is no average affair... we typically pay around €2 for a cappuccino. Here we paid a €5 cover charge each, and then €7.50 for each cappuccino, making those the most expensive drinks we'd ever had! We knew in advance but wanted the experience anyway. We also shared an €11 dessert that would have cost $2 in the states. Total bill, €36. Ouch.
Mom, I'm sure you're curious but we skipped the glass-making at Murano 'cause we heard it was a hard-sell ripoff.