Friday, 20 December 2013

My first solo trip - to the Queen of Adriatic - Part V

Buon Natale! It's Christmas!

It was again the chimes that woke me in the morning, this time, a number of them ringing in harmony. Maybe it's the water, the narrow lanes and the cobbled stones that make them reverberate so gracefully. The bells sound so different in Venice.

It was Christmas and a very sunny one as well.
It was a holiday in Venice and most places and shops were closed from the evening before. I had not properly visited San Marco church yet and was yet to go to Castello sestiere. The plan was to cover both, come back for lunch and then maybe go over to see the Tintoretto that I had to skip yesterday due to time constraints. Then I remembered the Scuola Grande di San Rocco was closed on Christmas day. I left the decision for the afternoon for later.

After breakfast, my first stop was San Marco. The tide had been in overnight or in the early hours and the Piazza was flooded. The stepping tables had been laid out. There weren't many people around and I peeked through the door. After seeing it dazzle the night before (My first solo trip - to the Queen of Adriatic - Part IV), the normal look was very gloomy. I decided, I had seen it at its best, so changed my plans and started walking towards Castello instead.

There are quite a few things to see in Castello and they were showing up on my map. I had to get a new one from the reception as the previous map Marco had given me was tattered beyond use, though I still needed it for the precious notes. For some reason I was not much inclined today to plan on a touristy route or visit churches even. The sun was out and it was very warm. I just wanted to keep walking and see what I felt like doing. It was another of those 'I won't go by the plan' day that I was suffering from. I watched the gulls shrieking in their flight and fed the sparrows. By the looks of it, it was starting off to be a lazy day.
I kept on walking by the sea, ignoring anything that looked the least touristy, till I encountered an archway. I was first not sure if I should enter the place, but then my curiosity got the better of me. It looked interesting after all. I am glad I went in. I had entered a very different world. The streets were empty and I could not imagine a place like this could exist in one of the world's most popular tourist destination. Not only was this a place isolated from the mad rush, topographically it looked different too. There weren't any canals criss crossing, the roads were wider and drier. Even the houses looked very different, maybe because they had not crumbled in the damp and were not covered in moss.
The place was very residential. There wasn't another tourist around apart from me. An elderly gentleman approached, pointed at my camera and jokingly asked if I was a tourist or a local? He didn't speak much English. He asked where I was from. When I said I was from India, he invited me to have coffee with him later. He smiled, wished me a good day and left. 'Buon Natale' I said. I had tried my best to communicate with him and was surprised that my Italian was good enough to do that - or may be not. As he left I realised I had no idea where or when I was invited for that coffee!

I walked around the neighbourhood. Clothes were let out to dry and were hanging picturesquely all around. They were laid out like decorations. The colours reflected on the walls as they fluttered in the light breeze. Funnily enough, I couldn't stop myself from taking innumerable pictures of washing let out to dry!
As I walked past the narrow lanes, I could hear people talking in their homes, children playing, screaming, shouting and laughing, the sound and smells of cooking, a few people were carrying bag full of groceries, there were ladies chatting by doorways, an elderly lady was sweeping the lane outside her door as the pigeons flew around her. I was suddenly very home-sick.
Castello developed from a naval base and the evidence was everywhere I went around. The Arsenale was built around the 11th century and used to be world's largest shipyard. It has the reputation of the earliest users of the assembly lines. Rumour has it that they could turn out a galley from start to finish in a single day. I went past the front and walked around the place. I was still not at all in a mood to do anything more than that. Wandering around, clicking along, I went past the gardens and ended up in the same place a couple of times. I realised I was going in circles so decided it was time to return.
It was already noon and I remembered I still had to see Roberto's friend, so wandered back to San Zaccaria. Today I decided to to take a longer route to the Rialto. On way watched the gondoliers doing brisk business. They were in their flirting best. It was very amusing as they offered free rides in return of special favours, even bargaining on the extent of favours to be bestowed.
Rialto on Christmas day was a very different sight. The place was bursting with energy. I had not seen this many people in Venice in the past couple of days. People were literally queuing up to get their clicks on the bridge.
This time, I did manage to find the shop. Unfortunately Roberto's friend was sick and was at home so I spoke to the assistant, and she said she would pass the message. I had my lunch at the Self Service again, this time the girl at the counter suggested I tried out the Lasagne. It was quite nice actually.

The sun was glorious and I wandered around the Rialto and San Polo.
I don't know whether it was the late night, or the pangs of home-sickness earlier in the day or the impending end to my visit, I was feeling rather melancholy. I found a quiet corner away from the restaurants and the tourists on the Grand Canal and sat there. The light was nice and I was taking pictures, maybe the same picture I had clicked hundreds of times before, but was so good to see the busy holiday life rush around me.
I knew I had to leave soon as I was to get ready for the concert, but felt very lazy to move on. As I sat there on my own, a gondolier kept on persuading me to take a ride. I definitely did not have the 120 Euros to spare. The price went lower, the bigger ride for the price of the shorter one - no, I can't spend 80 Euros either. Then it was a temptation to photograph the Rialto bridge in the setting sun and also a look at Casanova's house. No, am still not interested. Giving up, he brings along his fellow gondolier and introduces him to me as Daniel. He explains him in detail how much he has offered and then asks him to take me out instead. The new guy, who definitely had very cute looks, decides to bring down the price further. 30 Euros he said for the last ride of the day after which he will take me out for coffee. All I needed to do was wait an hour or so. I had been amused through the day by the antics of the gondoliers but this one actually took me by surprise. I definitely could not accept that, definitely not at that impossible price. They seemed to be genuinely disappointed as I laughed away his incredulous offer. As I was chatting to Marco later about my day, he tried to prevail on me that I should have taken it. That sort price is never offered he said. I was not convinced, and that was just because of the price! I did feel a slight repentance though.

The sun was about to set and the place was painted in a golden hue. As the short winter day was ending, I bid the disappointed gondolier couple goodbye and returned back to the hotel to get ready for my evening.
As we chatted about my day while I went to collect my keys, Marco asked if I would like to visit the terrace of the Paganelli main building. He said it offers a magnificent view and guests are served drinks there during the summer. I readily accepted. I was not disappointed. Venice opened up in front of me in the beautiful setting sun.
At least I knew where to have my food tonight. Marco had asked if I like fish to which I responded it depended on how delicate or strong the flavour was. He suggested me to try a typical Venetian food - Seppie in Nero - Cuttlefish cooked in its black ink and served with spaghetti or polenta. According to him, it looked totally black but tasted awesome. I was hooked.

The restaurant was close to the same place he had suggested for lunch, near the Santa Maria Formosa - the name, unfortunately I do not remember. So there I was in the evening, ready for my culinary adventure. This time, fortunately, I found my way.

I ordered my food with a red wine. At least I could wash it down if it got too difficult. The food arrived soon. I was not carrying my camera, but this is a picture from the web. I found a few images which had attempted to spruce up the look of the dish, with a sprig of parsley or shreds of carrot laid beside it. But to tell the truth, it is very difficult to make this food look any better. This is genuinely how it looked.
Once I recovered from the visual shock, I tentatively moved the stuff around with my fork for a bit to gather the courage for the first taste. It didn't have a strong smell, so that was something positive to start on. Eventually made up my mind and decided to give it a go. I was expecting a strong fishy smell, but was pleasantly surprised. There was a faint flavour of sea-food but the sauce was very rich and had flavours packed in. As Marco had put it, it looked awful but indeed tasted awesome. I do agree it was better if I ate with eyes closed. The portion was huge and I managed to finish almost the whole of it. Felt very guilty about the state I left the white napkin in, but it was not my fault!

I had to walk back to the other end of San Marco for the concert and it did good to my overeating. The evening at San Vidal was mesmerising. The church was providing the perfect acoustics for Vivaldi's Four Seasons. There were about fifty people in the audience and all seat were taken. The concert ended with a standing ovation from the audience.

The program finished at about 10 pm and despite my nervousness, I had an uneventful walk back to the hotel, means, I did not get lost. I was enjoying the quietness of the streets and the cold winter air and decided not to return to my hotel room yet. I was leaving Venice the next day and was already saddened by the thought of it. It was late but I was by the canal experiencing the night. The gondolas were gracefully bobbing in the waves, as if being swayed to sleep after a hard day at work. I walked by the San Marco basin and then sat on the steps. My last night in Venice, I wanted to spend a few moments with her before I went to bed.

The final day

I woke up early for the sunrise. I sat by the water and saw the darkness gradually dissolving in the orange till Venice was covered in a golden glow. The Bridge of Sigh was photographed again.

It was my last day in Venice. My first solo trip starting of with mini disasters had developed into the most wonderful experience I have had. See the stories unfold in four parts:
My first solo trip - to the Queen of Adriatic - Part I
My first solo trip - to the Queen of Adriatic - Part II
My first solo trip - to the Queen of Adriatic - Part III
My first solo trip - to the Queen of Adriatic - Part IV
It was soon to end in a few hours.

It was an early start for me today. My flight was at 4pm from Marco Polo and I had to get the vaporetto by noon. There were a few places I still intended to visit before I left. However, I had decided not to carry my camera with me today. I was not feeling like watching the world through the lens and whatever remaining few hours I had, it was to be relished without disruption. Moreover, the light was too difficult to photograph as there would be too much shade in these early hours, which also meant I would be delayed waiting for the light and that perfect picture.

By now I was starting to have a feel of how to get around Venice without getting lost. The places were starting to get familiar and I could actually cover the distances within designated time if not earlier. I had even started to gain confidence to try alternative routes.

As I had not been to the other islands, I had not seen the opposite side of the San Marco basin yet, though the airport ferry-bus would take me through those waters only. I planned to visit the northern part of Castello and a few churches on the way.

My first stop was the Santa Maria dei Miracoli. It had been recommended as being the best example of early Venetian architecture. The church facade was beautiful but the interiors were far more fascinating. The place was covered in marbles, white and coloured ones with intricate artwork. I am no expert, but the place looked magnificently different from the other churches I have visited. I was missing my camera. I walked around the church for some more time to take all in.

The next church was the Santi Giovanni and Paolo basilica, one of the largest in Venice. It indeed was one huge place. The church was the traditional burial place for Venice's doges and also of Giovanni Bellini amongst other renowned personalities. It took me much longer here than I thought as I was transfixed in the Rosary Chapel. For the second time I was repenting not bringing my camera. Though I think that is the reason I remember these places so well. I was filling myself in with the beautiful sights as if to compensate for my camera.

Leaving the basilica, I walked around the majestic Campo which also hosted the hospital - being in Venice, not surprisingly, this was an architectural beauty as well. I then trotted over to the sea side. I was surprised to see snow covered range on the mainland in the distance - I think they were the Dolomites. I was missing my camera for the third time. I stayed and watched a very different world from the San Marco Basin go past in those early hours. I decided then and there, going out without a camera is the most stupid thing to do and from next time onwards, I should be less emotional and more practical. Rather than deprivation, I need to practice restrain! Fir the time being, I consoled myself saying I would have been further delayed if I had it with me.

After some more hovering around and resisting my temptation to walk over to the Arsenale, it was now time to return. I decided to come through Piazza San Marco before going back to the hotel for checking-out. The Piazza was very busy and for the first time in the past three days, I found a queue at the gates of the church. the chock-a-block tourist season had arrived.

Marco was finishing off his shift when I went to say him goodbye. We exchanged email ids and he asked me to send him my photographs of Venice. He offered me to take me around Venice the next time I visit, to some interesting non-touristy places. I was supposed to teach him photography in return. The last time we spoke, the offer was still valid.

The ferry-bus raced through the sea, stopping at Lido and Murano. It took an hour and a quarter to reach the airport on the main land. As I was back on firm ground and walking towards the terminal, I heard a very familiar sound approaching - a car! I realised how much I had got used to the calmness of a traffic free life in the past three days. I had already started to miss the place and was longing to return even before the flight had departed. I know I didn't see much of Venice, even less than what people can fit in a couple of days of their trip. But I was satisfied I had seen enough to want me to come back again. Of course I was hit hard by the romanticism the place has to offer. The music of the church bells would stay with me for a long time after I had left. In addition, the Venice I had seen was beyond its tourist spots and museums. The ubiquitous churches round every corner do not advertise themselves to the tourists, but they have a grandeur that can only be felt. In the tourist humdrum, there also revolves a normal life, a life of the common people. As I walked aimlessly in the streets, I could feel the different character each of the sestieres had to offer. From the first sensation of panic on losing myself in the innumerable alleys of Venice, I had learnt to start enjoying the experience instead - the reward - finding another hidden jewel in my unplanned destination. And finally, the friendliness of its people, their warmth and passion - that is something I will treasure forever.

Next time I visit, I will definitely be a tourist. And definitely try to find out Daniel and ask for the 30 Euro ride - inflation considered!

Trip Digest

Travelling from Milan, I purchased the tickets from the Milan Central station the day before. It is also possible to buy the tickets online from the Trenitalia website: The website is also available in English.

I stayed at the Hotel Paganelli which is a few steps away from San Zaccaria vaperetto stop. The airport ferry-bus also goes from here. Hotel website:

From San Lucia, the ferry-bus or the vaperetto leaves for San Zaccaria. Tickets are to be purchased prior to boarding. Venice day passes are available as well if someone decides to go round on the water rather than walk.

I have been told that Gondola rides are far more expensive on the Grand Canal than on the smaller canals criss-crossing the city. Do not forget to bargain.

Venice may be seen in a day or even one month may not be enough. What needs to be seen is a personal choice. There is a lot of information on the internet available. It is good to go through them prior to travel and then decide what one wants to do.

Goitaly on is definitely helpful:

I also found the following sites quite useful:

The major churches and museums have their own websites which will have the detailed information.

Photography is not allowed in most churches even though the rule is not strictly enforced. However, if someone asks to turn it off, it is better to. Flashes are not allowed.

The only museum I visited was the Accademia and they do not allow backpacks. They have to be left at the reception for a small charge.

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Monday, 16 December 2013

My first solo trip - to the Queen of Adriatic - Part IV

The magic continues

I woke up with the the chiming of the church bells. The sound seemed to reverberate through the courtyard, into my room. It had an ethereal feel to it. It was difficult to stay in bed after that. Looked out of the window and it was raining. It was Christmas eve.

I had read about the San Polo market and that was on the top of my list for the day. I had to be early before it closed for the day and also for Christmas. From there the plan was to visit the church of Santa Maria dei Frari. I would then walk over to San Toma and get a shared gondola ride to San Angelo. Taking a shared gondola taxi was a cheaper alternative to the famed gondola ride if someone wants only to have a feel of it. Crossing over to San Angelo, I would then walk over to the Accademia galleries. That was the plan for the day. In the evening I had to queue for a seat at the midnight mass in San Marco's cathedral.

I stuffed myself full in the buffet breakfast and was on my way soon. Today I reached Rialto within the scheduled 15 minutes. It was raining and I didn't make many photo stops either. The same walk had seemed to be miles the day before and not without reason.
A gloomy start to the day
A gloomy Bridge of Sighs - sounds appropriate
It was raining and it was difficult to move around the San Polo market. It was quite noticeable that most of the fruit and vegetable stalls were owned by Bangladeshis. One of them actually gave me their approximate numbers in Italy which I do not remember now but was enough to leave me staring. I had heard about a large population in Rome and the Vatican, but was unaware they had moved in to Venice as well - globalisation was happening everywhere and fast.
The San Polo fish market was indeed a treat to the eyes. Many of the aquatic creatures on display I had only seen on TV or in books or merely read about. Some I didn't even recognise. It was indeed a sea-food lover's paradise, the fresh catch put out for sale. The place was bustling with customers.
From the market I started for the Frari. The feel of the streets was starting to change and there appeared to be more locals than tourists. Here, life was different. It may be because the rain was keeping the tourists in.
The quaint churches in every corner was inviting and it was difficult to ignore them for long.
The reflection was working wonders in overcast conditions. Every place was begging to be photographed.
No wonder, despite trying to map every campo and ponte, I was soon lost.

I was standing there in the middle of the street reading my map and trying to find my bearings when a very frail, aged lady approached me, pointed at my map and asked me something in Italian. I guessed she was asking where I wanted to go, so I mentioned Santa Maria. She aked 'Frari' or 'Salute' and I answered Frari. She then gave me the directions to suite my limited Italian and her sign language itself was adequate. She pointed to the left and said 'sinsitra sinistra' 'uno ponte, due ponte, tre ponte' making the shape of a bridge and counting one, two and three. So I had to keep going left and after three bridges I would be at the Frari. I said 'Grazie' and was moving on but she held my arm and pulled me towards her and gave me a bear hug. She pointed to herself and said 'ottantatre' and then took out eight fingers first and three. Pretty impressive for an eighty three year old, I should say. She was still being very affectionate, smoothing my hair, pinching my cheek, and I did not mind. I was away from home for a long time. Finally she kissed me on both my cheeks and said goodbye. 'Arrivederci' I said and was on my way again, feeling very mushy.
I got hooked on to Bellini at the Santa Maria dei Frari. The three dimensional effect in the Madonna and Child brought about by the clever use of colour kept me gaping. It was beautiful. However, it mentioned no photography inside and being a place of worship, I obeyed even though no one was watching. Here is a picture from the web.
From the church I was on my way to San Toma to cross the Grand Canal. I wandered over to the church of San Rocco. A permanent exhibition was on in the Piazza depicting the genius of Leonardo Da Vinci, showcasing his inventions. The models were created in wooden structures - each a mechanical wonder.
San Rocco
The Scuola Grande di San Rocco exhibiting Tintoretto's detailed work was on the Piazza as well. I was in double mind whether or not to visit it. I was very much tempted, but did I have the time to visit? I still had a lot to do before it got dark and the Accademia galleries were already in the plan. Moreover I had to go back to San Marco without getting lost again. Kept debating and then decided against it. I was missing so much in Venice, another one added to the list. I definitely needed another trip, if not more. I was already skipping lunch to accommodate my plan. Grabbed a frittata from a roadside cafe and finally gave in to a cappuccino.

Deliberating whether to enter
If I remember right, it cost me about 2.50 Euros to cross over on the gondola. It was a short ride and there was nothing romantic about it, so cannot say it was an alternative. However, I had a water-level view of the place.
This is how he arrives in this part of the world
Back to San Marco
I was back to San Marco and was on my way to the Accademia. I was passing the church of San Vidal at Santo Stefano when I noticed a poster advertising a Vivaldi concert by Interpreti Veneziani to be held in the church. I purchased a ticket for the next night.
San Vidal
Preparing for the evening concert
To get to the Accademia galleries., I had to cross over the Grand Canal again to Dorsoduro connected by the Accademia bridge.  The weather was drab and dreary and being indoors didn't hurt much or else, I am not at all a museum person. And of course, I had the chance to see some more Bellinis. He is the son of the soil after all.
Accademia bridge
Grand Canal with the Santa maria del Salute
Spending about a couple of hours at the Accademia, I started my walk back to the hotel. I had to shower, have my food and then line-up for the midnight mass at San Marco's. I had never been to a midnight mass before, and was looking forward to the experience. The walk back was uneventful apart from that I got lost once and had to retrace my steps. It was dark now and without my torch. Fortunately the Christmas lights were helping with my map reading.
Murano glasswork display at a hotel reception
At San Marco a Christmas concert was in progress. I spent some time in the beautifully lit Piazza before heading back to the hotel
After my shower I dressed in my festive reds and was ready for dinner. Marco had mentioned a restaurant near the Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Unfortunately I don't remember the name now. As I started I knew where I was going, but not for long. I ended up in a dark alley and all shops in it closed and no restaurants by the name I was looking for. It was Christmas eve after all and most of the restaurants were anyway closed. However, when I mentioned this to Marco later, I realised I was in an altogether wrong part of the town. I had taken the wrong bridge on my way. Moreover, he had suggested the restaurant for lunch. It had closed for Christmas in the evening, so wouldn't have helped anyway.

I was looking for an alternate place and definitely looked lost. A very good looking Italian waiter was trying to bring in customers and he persuaded me to come in promising a window table to be set up for me. I wanted to check the price first as the restaurant looked quite fancy. They were affordable, so I went in. He kept his promise and I got a window seat separately set up for me. He suggested I have the spaghetti with fungi. It would be very nice he said, and nice it was! The spaghetti was with wild mushrooms, tiny ones and looked very delicate. They tasted glorious. Since trying it at the restaurant, pasta with exotic mushrooms, olive oil and a sprinkle of ground pepper has become one of my favourites and I often cook it at home now. I finished my immensely enjoyable food and had to decline the dessert. The guy then asked me what I would be doing later in the night. If I was looking for some company I could come around after 11pm when the restaurant closes and join all the guys from the restaurant for a drink. It was nice of him to ask, but I already had my plans in place. So thanked him and apologised. It was time to join the queue at San Marco's.

The queue had just started to build up for the midnight mass that would begin at around 11:30 pm. By 10 pm, the queue was serpenting through the Piazza. There were some locals and throngs of tourists, like me. I had decided to give the camera a rest as I did not want to intrude in the festivities. We were let in at around 11pm and I managed to get a front seat, the long wait paying off. The cathedral was filled to the brim, all seats taken and people were left standing. There was not an inch of space left. The ceremony started. As the procession came in, the lights on the ceilings came on. The whole cathedral interiors shone with a golden light. Magnificent art appeared on the ceilings. It looked mesmerising, out of the world. The ceremonies began. To tell the truth, I did not follow much of what was going on, but it was intriguing. Some of the rituals surrounding the birth of Christ reminded me of Janmasthami, the celebration of the birth of Lord Krishna. This further re-instated my belief that all of us have a common beginning somewhere.

The ceremony went on for an hour or so. As people started dispersing, I said my prayers and left. The cathedral was still glowing in gold.

It was well past midnight but the place was very busy with people returning from the midnight mass across the hundreds of cathedrals. Bells were chiming all around. I spent some time by the canal before retiring.

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