DAYS 1&2: ISLANDS OF SUNSHINE AND GLASS
AT A GLANCE
Hotel: Al Ponte Mocenigo (two nights, pre-tour)
Key Words: Per favore (please), Parli inglese (Do you speak English?), Grazie (Thank you!)
Highlights: Basilica dei Frari, Murano, Burano, our daily gelato, and breakfasts in the hotel courtyard
Number of steps: 25,403
We arrived in Venice a couple days before our tour began so we'd have plenty of time to adjust from jet lag and get to know the city on our own. We stayed at a completely charming hotel called Al Ponte Mocenigo, a local, family-owned hotel with beautiful rooms and a gorgeous courtyard where we ate breakfast each morning and enjoyed a glass of wine each evening before heading out for dinner.
As soon as we arrived off the bus on Venice's main island, we used our guidebook to make our way to the vaporetto (water bus) stop. While Maggie had been taking some free online classes in Italian before the trip, we relied heavily on our pocket phrase book, and thanks to some handy phrases we were able to quickly get tickets to our stop and find our hotel in no time.
We have to thank Rick Steves here for making this part of the journey so easy. While our tour had not yet officially begun, we had all the pieces in place to make our way around. We'd found the hotel through the guidebook, and Maggie grabbed a copy of the conveniently-sized pocket guide to Venice since we'd be there on our own a few days.
Back Door Basics: A few words about language
We truly believe that language shares the soul of a people, and allows you to communicate and think about concepts in words that English just doesn't always know how to express. In Italy in particular, everyone we encountered was enormously friendly and helpful. We probably could have made our way with just English, but learning some key phrases and hand gestures helped us connect to people much more quickly and authentically, and it was so much fun! By the end of the trip, we were able to go into shops and have simple conversations or order a cappuccino and snack completely in Italian. So worth the effort!
Once settled into our hotel, we decided to power through the jet lag and hit the streets! After a wonderful Italian lunch, we followed one of the suggested walking tours in our book to get a sense of the layout of our side of the island, visiting campos (squares) and shops, and stopping into the Basilica dei Frari for some of our first art of the trip: a Titian and a Bellini.
Finally, we decided we'd earned a rest. We found a lovely little restaurant named Osteria Mocenigo, which the desk manager at the hotel had recommended and where he had kindly reserved a table for us for dinner. An incredible meal of pasta and wine, and then bed for some well-deserved sleep!
Feeling refreshed and excited for the day ahead, we decided to take advantage of the sunshine (it actually rained a lot while we were in Venice...) to make our way out to the other Venetian islands. Venice is such a beautiful place for strolling, and we had a wonderful time making our way on foot to the other side of the island - which only took a half hour! We bought tickets for the day to the vaporetto around the islands.
First stop: San Michele, an island that is the cemetery for all Venetians. While they respectfully asked us not to take pictures, we can share a view of the island in the gallery below. It was a truly gorgeous day, and we liked the chance to enjoy some quiet and a contemplative stroll before diving into the bustle of Murano.
Murano was a bit crowded, but still a beautiful island well worth the visit, full of color and lively shops with incredible glass and art. Maggie couldn't resist the chance to buy a lovely, handblown glass lamp (which the artist kindly was able to ship home to the US so she didn't have to carry it with her!), and we both were completely delighted by a live glass-blowing demonstration.
Finally, on to Burano, a lesser-known island where they make linen and lace. Burano is quieter and more residential - lots of laundry on the line and fewer tourists. English was definitely not as much of a given here, so that phrase book came in handy once again! We weren't to know that our tour would be heading to Burano in just a few days (Reid gave us some good surprises), but it was so beautiful we didn't mind a bit! All the houses on Burano are painted in incredible colors, with brightly decorated window and doors. I don't know if it's true, but one of the Italian people we ran into said that the houses are all painted bright colors because the traditional trade of the island is fishing; after a long day on the water (and a long evening out drinking wine with fellow fishermen...), the men used the distinctive colors and doors to make their way back to the right house!
DAY 3: THE GRAND CANAL
AT A GLANCE
Hotel: Il Pensione Guerrato (first night of the tour)
Key Words: Buon giorno (Good morning/hello), Due (two), Biglietti (tickets), Vaporetto (water bus)
Highlights: Rick Steves Audio Tour of the Grand Canal, and meeting our guide and tour group!
Because we spent so much time walking the day before and knew the evening would be a big one once we met our tour group, we decided to take it a bit easier. Once again, resources from Rick Steves jumped in to make the day fun and easy. We hopped on the vaporetto to Piazzale Roma, where we started the audio tour we'd downloaded on our apps, and enjoyed learning about the architecture and history of the Venetian homes and offices along the Grand Canal.
A leisurely lunch, and then we moved our bags to check in at the Pensione Guerrato, our home for the first three nights with our tour group. The location could not have been better - just steps from the Fish Market and the Rialto, and in a wonderful neighborhood full of cicchetteria (great little bars that specialize in a kind of happy hour snacks).
At four o'clock, we headed downstairs to the breakfast room, and there they were - our group! A perfect-sized collection of folks from all over the US and even a few non-Americans. Our tour guide Reid got right to business with lots of helpful tips and ground rules for establishing our shared travels together over the next several days. We really appreciated the clarity of expectations - and the super fun introductions! Maggie lives in Minnesota and Priscilla lives in Ohio, and we were excited to both meet people from our neck of the woods.
And then we were off! Reid took us on a fun (if slightly damp) walk to get to know our neighborhood, and eventually we made our way to the restaurant where we shared our first group meal. We were having such a good time we forgot to take any photos of our plates, but the chef prepared an excellent menu with three courses that showed off the best of Venetian cuisine (including lots of seafood, of course!). We were enjoying our conversation with our new friends Sandra and Larry so much that we decided to linger over an extra glass of limoncello before making our way back through a romantic light rain and collapsing in bed.
Back Door Basics: Get Lost!
Enjoy Venice the way the Venetians do - slowly. The best times to enjoy wandering the city are in the morning before 9:00 and after about 6:00 in the evening. These are the times when tourists from the cruise ships aren't around, and you can see the markets, shops, and restaurants as a local would. And, don't be afraid to get lost. Remember, Venice is an island, and a small one at that! Enjoy wandering the labyrinth and talking to the people you meet. You'll find your way home eventually, and have adventures along the way!
DAY 4: SAN MARCO AND THE SOUL OF VENICE
AT A GLANCE
Hotel: Il Pensione Guerrato (second night)
Key Words: Prego (You're welcome), Mi scusi (Excuse me), Mi dispiace (I am sorry), Quanto (how much?)
Highlights: Seeing the lights turn on at San Marco, gelato at the Doge's Palace, and the Piazza San Marco by night
We woke up excited to begin our first full day with our tour group - and what a day Reid had planned for us! Despite the occasional drizzle, we enjoyed a beautiful, fresh walk across the city with our local guide, Elisabetta (who happened to be the wife of the gentleman who ran the hotel we stayed in our first two nights). The best part about staying in the city, rather than visiting it as a stop on a cruise boat, was that we were able to enjoy Venice in its quiet hours, as the locals wake up and the streets are empty and calm.
While we'd seen the Piazza San Marco from the vaporetto, (fun fact - it's the only square in Venice that's actually allowed to be called a piazza!), that was nothing to visiting it in person. It turns out there was an unplanned visit by a French official, and the entire cathedral was closed to visitors for a couple hours. But, thanks to our expert guides, we were able to switch up our itinerary and then cut right to the front of the line for the cathedral when it opened up again.
In the end, we entered at the perfect time: we were there at the exact moment that the interior lighting turned on for the day. The lights warmed up slowly, starting out at a deep amber and then brightening and whitening over several minutes until the golden mosaics inside the domes completely glowed. The moody clouds only added to the beauty of the view from the terrace, heightening the color of the water and shooing away some of the tourists so we could enjoy the view of the square.
Later, we visited the Doge's Palace - Maggie's inner political science geek loved learning about the traditional justice system and administration - and appreciated the chance to dry off. By the time we wrapped up in the palace, the sun came out and we were able to go and find our daily gelato! We slowly made our way back to the pensione to rest our feet a bit.
Despite the rain, we followed Reid's recommendation and decided to brave the choppy waters of the canal to head back to San Marco. There was something magical about the night, with the piazza full of mist and glowing from the lampposts and the paving stones shining as bright as a black mirror. We enjoyed proscuitto, cheese, and the famous chips as we listened to live music and had the waiters' attention all to ourselves.
Back Door Basics: Rain or Shine?
Don't be disheartened by the weather! A little rain or cold can thin out the crowds and lead to your most memorable stories!
DAY 5: A LIFE OF LOVE AND WATER
AT A GLANCE
Hotel: Il Pensione Guerrato (third night)
Key Words: Regata (boat race), Avanti (ahead), Al traverso (on the other side, abeam), Parata (parade)
Highlights: Another beautiful morning stroll across Venice, art history lessons at the Accademia, and an afternoon cheering on gondola racers at the Regata Storica
Our final full day in Venice was especially exciting, and we couldn't wait to get started. We began with another beautiful, quiet stroll across the island as we made our way through the tourist-free alleys (or calles) to the Accademia. This was the first of many visits to learn about Italy's rich art history - it felt like we were able to fit an entire semester's worth of knowledge in just a few days. Elisabetta joined us once again, as well as a second guide who had a PhD in art history and seemed to know the answer to any question we might have about the symbolism, context, or methods of the various paintings we saw. This grounding was going to be important as we traveled further down the peninsula and across the later periods in art history.
Later that afternoon, we were in for a true treat: the Regata Storica. This huge event only takes place once a year, and we happened to be there on the lucky weekend. The festival celebrates the history of Venice dating back to the earliest days of the city, when the first Venetians pioneered long, flat-bottomed boats that they propelled using long poles to navigate the sandbars of the lagoon. The regata entailed dozens of races for teams of all sizes and ages, and began with a parade down the Grand Canal celebrating the historical houses of the city. After days of rain, the sun broke clear and it seemed that all of the city - and even most of Italy - crowded along the banks of the canal to cheer for their favorite teams or costumes.
For our final night in Venice, Reid had one last delight in store for us: the requisite (and magical) gondola ride. We all met Reid on the Rialto bridge and after a short walk arrived at the gondolas. Reid cleverly situated us so that we had one boat with music in the midst of our little flotilla. The ride showed us Venice the way it was meant to be seen - at water level. We noticed doors, bridges, lights, and ceilings that we never would have seen any other way, and the view of the Rialto lit up at night and silhouetting the image of our gondola singer is something we'll never forget.
Back Door Basics: Cicchetti
Cicchetti are finger snacks and tasting dishes that are a common treat Venetians share during what we would call "happy hour." Best way to find your local cicchetteria? You can always ask your tour guide (Reid was able to suggest an entire route for us to follow where we could taste the best places), but don't forget the real experts - the Venetians! Don't be shy about asking for suggestions at the front desk of your hotel, or from people you run into during the day. Everyone we met in Italy was very friendly and helpful, eager to share the delights of their country with us. Who knows - they might even invite you along!