A weekend in Florence and Venice

My trip started with a night train. One of those crowded, six-to-a-compartment, stopping in every village, tickets checked every few hours, night trains. They are such a good idea in theory–don’t waste vacation time traveling, fall asleep in one country, wake up in another, combine the costs of travel and accommodation, romantic 19th century ideas about European travel…but they’re really just terrible. I still use them, for the aforementioned reasons, but every single time, I “wake up” in a new city in a daze of sleeplessness, disillusioned by humanity.

The best time on a night train is from five to six in the morning, when everyone is finally quiet, and the sun is rising, and you can get a coffee and appreciate the new scenes that emerged in the night. The worst time is at three in the morning, when the toddler in your compartment has been crying for hours, and his parents start to turn on each other in  frustration…

Around seven in the morning, I arrived at Venezia Santa Lucia, the little station in the city, fronted by the Grand Canal. It was one of those supremely satisfying travel moments, when a place looks exactly how you have always  imagined. The gondoliers were shouting, the church across the water gleamed golden, and the air smelled like the sea.

First glimpse of Venice!

First glimpse of Venice!

I only spent a few hours in Venice, this morning, as I was making a brief sojourn to Florence, but I soaked up as much atmosphere as possible, had coffee on a quiet canal near the station, and took about a hundred pictures. I would be back tomorrow after an afternoon/night/morning in Florence.

The reason for my brief trip to Florence was simple–when I visited in 2011, I came on a Monday. In Italy, that means no museums. I saw the Duomo, enjoyed the street markets and the winding red and brown alleys…but no Uffizi, no Renaissance art, no Birth of Venus.

the Duomo, Florence

the Duomo, Florence

When planning my Venice trip, it occurred to me that I could zip down to Florence for an afternoon of wandering/morning of museuming, and be back in Venice within 24 hours, having seen the works of Da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli, and all the gang. It was a good choice. Every hall in the Uffizi has a story, it’s a museum that is as invested in its own history as it is in the art it holds.

And it’s right next to the Ponte Vecchio, which is Florence’s last medieval bridge (the Nazis toppled all the others in a desperate end-of-war bid to hold the city) and one of those curious places that could exist in any time of history.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

I also ate a whole pizza and discovered a used English bookstore, where I got a guide to Scandinavia and Claude Magris’s Danube for under 10 euro. So, all in all, Florentine success.

Back in Venice, I was not so successful. I was staying at “Camping Jolly,” a hostel/campground out in the suburbs, for an amazingly low rate. However, I did have to find the place…in the pouring rain. There is a certain helplessness and despair that sets in when your language skills, your map, and the weather are all against you. Luckily, my friend Julie had my back, and thanks to her and Google maps, I finally got to the campsite. For the record, it was a lovely place to stay, a real bargain, but the directions on the website are laughably (later when you aren’t lost) wrong.

Once I was in my tent (with my lovely roommate, a lady from Malaysia) I made an executive decision that I would enjoy Venice a lot more in the morning after some sleep. The campsite had a restaurant and a shop, so I was well set up…except for the pouring rain and unseasonably cold weather.

Our tent village--each one had a set of bunkbeds and a normal twin bed inside.

Our tent village–each one had a set of bunkbeds and a normal twin bed inside.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m complaining too much, because the point I want to make is: none of it mattered. I could have had a hundred misadventures and they wouldn’t have mattered, because Venice was a fairy tale city.

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Yes, it was dirty, yes it was expensive, yes it was full of tourists, yes it rained my whole first day–but people who tell you that Venice is overrated just don’t “get it.” Water is magical, and this is a whole city founded on, and steadily decaying into, water. I’ve always been told I have an active imagination (both when I was a small child, and later when I probably should have grown out of it). I’ve fed my imagination with fairy tales, literature, art…I think I’m so good with children because we see the world through the same lens, the one that can imagine elves in weeds, devils in shadows, kingdoms under the sea.

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There’s real magic in Venice, in the unmarked maze-like alleys, or the tiny churches that all hold treasures of Renaissance art. I spent a whole day exploring the bridges and alleys of Venice on foot, taking hundreds of pictures, getting thoroughly lost, and letting my imagination roam.

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I walked into churches, I drank a bunch of coffee at various cafes, lingered on bridges and visited the big cathedral of San Marco, which blew me away. It’s very different from the other European cathedrals I’ve seen so far. Covered in golden mosaics, it feels Byzantine, “eastern,” and overwhelming in a completely different way from St. Peters in Rome or St. Stephens in Vienna.

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Appropriately, I spent my second day in Venice on the water. I took a vaporetto (water bus) from the train station to San Marco, a glorious twenty minutes of wind in my hair and unique Venetian beauty.

I love vaporetti!

I love vaporetti!

After sitting out in the sun for a while (yes, it was finally sunny!), I took another boat out to Burano, an island in the Venetian lagoon famous for it’s brightly colored houses. The house colors have to do with property ownership in former times, but now, for a color-lover like me, they are a tourist attraction in their own right. I spent a lovely afternoon eating seafood, walking around the rainbow streets, and sitting on the boardwalk. It was a peaceful place, a nice respite from the crowds of the main island, and full of the saturated colors that I find the most inspiring.

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I took another night train back to Austria with (God love ’em) the most annoying fellow compartment mates I have ever met. They crowded in with me, even though there were plenty of free compartments, taking up all the room and completely keeping me from sleeping with their inane commentary. (I can’t block out English anymore, I guess because I hear it so rarely out in public. I have, more than once, moved away from people who speak English in public, because I know I will be stuck listening to them. I might be a terrible person?). Anyway, they didn’t mean to be obnoxious–they were just oblivious beyond belief. But I felt a kind of obligation to them, as they were from a small town in Alabama (my home state) and clearly had never been on a night train (likely any train) before. I did finally get some sleep around 3AM when I just decided I didn’t care about being rude and just got my stuff and moved to another compartment. Night trains, let me tell you.

Between camping, the two-city tango, and the weather, I had lots of adventures on my four-day Italian adventure. But that’s the way I like it–the way travel should be. You have an outline of your plans, but moment-to-moment, things change and you overcome challenges you never expected. But the bottom line? Venice really is like nowhere else in the world. In my memory, it’s surrounded by a kind of dream-like haze. Was it real? Was I there? The pictures say, “yes,” this fairy-city is real, and I got to experience it.

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