Sunday 15 December 2013

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

I always knew I would struggle trying to document my Venice experience. The problem is not only the volume that I would have to process. It was the realisation during my trip itself that there is more to be felt in these mystic surroundings than can be captured in photographs or words. The place has such deep impact that on quite a few occasions, I didn't even feel like taking my camera with me. The experience of being there has to be absorbed through every sense, the lens then becomes a barrier. Not everything needs to be or rather, can be documented. I think this is true for every travel destination I fancy - the subtle charm and the overwhelming impact on the senses that beg to be experienced again and again. Venice is on my list of 'do it again' places. After this visit I realised, I have not seen it yet.

What I am putting down here is the best justice I could do. Definitely it would have been better if I had written this down a lot earlier while the memories were still fresh. In the past two years, the details have faded, only the essence remains. Going through my photographs definitely helps.

Venice - Queen of Adriatic

The high speed Frecciabianca took two and half hours from Milan Centrale to reach Santa Lucia train station in Venice. I definitely had my front facing window seat. It's always easy that way to stay glued to the window sipping on my cup and not feeling sick. Familiar names like Verona and Padua, made more famous by Shakespeare, raced passed. They will have to be covered on another trip, maybe in another life. The train finally left the mainland at Mestre, the Venice train station very popular with coach travels offering cheaper holidays, and was now on the Ponte della Liberta or the Liberty Bridge that connects the main land with the island. The view changed dramatically. Venice appeared amidst the huge expanse of azure blue sea, dazzling - and in that first glimpse - indeed the Queen of Adriatic.

It took me a while to get off the train as I was still recovering from the first impact. I was the last passenger out, not that there were many. I am sure I was grinning on my own. It is said that our sense of smell is strongly linked with our memories. As soon as I stepped out of the station, the smell of sea was all around, but with it came back memories of childhood. I had a very vague recollection of our family trip three decades back, the memories still lingered.

Arriving 'in style' - not me of course
Venice had been on my plans as a Christmas destination for the past few years, but finding the right company had always played the spoilsport. I had always been questioned about visiting Venice in winter. I was told it would be uncomfortably damp and cold and smelly from the stagnant waters. Simultaneously it was also mentioned that the place would be chock-a-block with tourists and everything will be closed on Christmas day and most places closed during the festive season. As I stepped out in the sun, I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't any of these. The weather was much warmer and stayed like that throughout my trip, apart from a very rainy Christmas eve. It turned warm enough on Christmas day to even move around in my jumper. And the crowd did not appear till Christmas either.

I was booked at the Hotel Paganelli at San Zaccaria, which is just round the corner from San Marco's and the Bridge of Sighs. I had seen the bridge in all possible moods that the weather was to bestow. The hotel itself is a few steps from the San Zaccaria vaperetto stop. I was lucky to have found the hotel on a deal and had double and triple checked the location just to ensure it wasn't a mistake. I am glad I booked it, not only for the location but also for Marco, the friendly receptionist at the hotel. As I walked in from the vaperetto, he was at the reception desk. I was always fumbling with my crude Italian that comprised of vocabulary I could count in a single hand, but kept on using it anyway.

So, on entry, wished him 'Buongiorno' and then my standard 'Come sta?' This was most of the time followed by my response 'Va bene' and sometimes a 'Tuttu bene'. When he started speaking in fluent Italian, I gave up! 'Non parlo Italiano' and hoped for a safe haven - 'Inglese?'. Of course he knew how to speak in English - a relief.
The clock tower - San Marco's and Doge's palace
Arriving at San Zaccaria
I was early for check-in and so we chatted along for a bit. He did know a thing or two about travelling because he was quick in understanding what I was looking for. I didn't know then that he was an avid traveller and spoke a host of languages fluently. Out came the Venice map, the markings and the recommendations. I was not yet aware what I was going to experience, so did not take the path markings too seriously. It's in the map and I will find it, have done this before and needless to say, was quite confident - which I later realised was slightly misplaced.

I was booked in the annex building a few feet away from the main building. It overlooked a courtyard or Campo, but I am never in my rooms much to enjoy the view. The room was cosy and had a classical decore with velvets and brass, it suited the place.

I was eager to dump my bag and go out into the streets. The sun was shining and it was already past noon. The plan was to go to Rialto first and say hello to Roberto's friend and from there go over to the Christmas market on the Strada Nuova. On the way back I would spend some time at Piazza San Marco before retiring. Well that was the plan that did not include contingencies - distractions!
The annex building, I was on the first floor
The courtyard
Venice is divided into six sestiere or districts. The main tourist destination is on San Marco. There are four bridges spanning the Grand Canal. Rialto connects San Marco with San Polo. If I were to go to the Christmas market, that would take me to Cannaregio which also has the Jewish Ghettos. I had already been to Cannaregio earlier in the day as that's where the Santa Lucia train station is located. I was expecting to cover all the sestieres in some parts at least in the almost four days I had in Venice. I did not have plans to visit any of the other islands either. I quite clearly remembered Murano from my childhood trip to the factory where the skilled workers were deftly blowing up colourful glass. I remember a bulbous green globe transform into a graceful swan. It was indeed magical but I did not want to rush my current trip. Looked possible then to see a lot in Venice, it was all within walking distances of within an hour, was it not?
So, thus planned, I set off for Rialto. All I had to do was keep an eye on the map and follow the signs of 'PER RIALTO'. However, on my first attempt, ended up at San Marco's instead. I had somehow managed to make a U-turn at some point in those few feet. I had deliberately kept this place lower down in the list as I did not want to be distracted and delayed on my first day. So, pulled myself away and this time was very careful not to take my eyes off the map and always watch out for the intermittent 'PER RIALTO' signs. It was not going to be that way. There were too many interesting places and happenings all around. One skipped bridge just because I had found something interesting further ahead meant I was in an altogether different place. The streets rarely met back, and so there I was again - lost! It takes about 15 minutes to walk to Rialto from San Zaccaria. It took me well over an hour, not only because of my unintended detours, but every nook and corner was begging to be fascinated at. I was gradually realising navigating in Venice was not like normal city walk. The magic of Venice was starting to sink in.
The bridge of sighs still gloomy while everything across it dazzles
All I had to do was to follow the signs of PER RIALTO without getting distracted. The question is, how did they manage to bring that car in there!
Rialto was busier than San Zaccaria but not yet crowded. There were restaurants dotting the banks of the grand canal. People were busy taking photographs and being photographed on the bridge. The white bridge was gleaming in the bright afternoon sun. One of the four bridges on the grand canal, this is the oldest and the most magnificent as well. Being the main thoroughfare at the centre of the Venice financial hub, it takes up a lot of foot traffic. As a result, after being burnt down and having collapsed a number of times, the old wood bridge was replaced by the present stone bridge in the late 16th century as a permanent solution.
I decided to have my lunch there, as all the restaurants Marco had suggested were in a different part of the town. I needed a quick bite and nothing fancy, so popped in at the Self Service. The food was nothing to die for, but wasn't too bad either and was cheap, saving me Euros for a better meal later at leisure. I remember having a meaty penne pasta after much deliberation and eventually finding the least cheesy option.

After my quick lunch, I got directions to Roberto's friend's shop from the girl at the counter. I lazed around the Rialto for a bit more, clicking the gondolas, the gondoliers and the people around.
After enough lazing, I went in search of the shop, but couldn't find it. Decided it will be better to keep it for some other day. I left for the Strada Nuova instead, this time, without getting lost. There was only one main street to follow after all and I could not go wrong.
Gondoliers looking for business
Stalls selling food and various objects started to crop up. The market wasn't very busy yet. I walked around the place aimlessly taking everything in. 
I was starting to think of going up to the Jewish Ghettos. I had read about the place and also about the nice food available there, so thought might have my dinner there as well - it was already dusk. However, as my very enjoyable luck cold be - more distractions. 
I encountered this group of street performers setting up their show. I settled down there on the cobbled stones. It ended up being one fun-filled hour with loads of feet tapping singing and spirited fun dancing. A huge crowd had gathered, everyone was cheering and some had even joined in the dancing. 

It was already dark by the time the performance finished. The men and women in black started walking towards Rialto and I followed them. The Christmas market was now in full flow. It was very busy and there were bright stars twinkling overhead.
As planned, returned to San Marco, I was starting to get a feel of the place now and did not get lost. Was a disappointed to see much of the place was being refurbished, especially the bell tower but the Piazza was still beautifully lit. There was a small nativity scene set up beside the cathedral.
I ordered a pepperoni pizza take away from one of the restaurants. Funnily, the place seemed to have a lot of Bangladeshi waiters, I thought that happened in UK only. I watched my pizza being made. When I unwrapped it, still hot, back in my room, it tasted very fresh and delicious.

As I lay in bed that night, I could hear people in the courtyard. It was a main thoroughfare and there were people around most of the time. The silence of the night interrupted by their voices, laughs and their shoes clicking on the cobbled stones.

I drifted away to dreamland.

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