Thursday, March 10, 2016

Venice: Day 1

Back in 2005 I was visiting my grandmother's house in rural northern Italy with friend from college. It was the dead of winter, all of the local shops and attractions were closed for the low season, and we had nothing to do other than sit around and help my grandmother sort through accumulated old mail and paperwork.

After several days of boredom, my friend suggested we go to Venice, about a 2 hour train ride away. Although it seemed like exactly the kind of adventure we needed, I convinced him we shouldn't go. Why? Because I was afraid to venture out of my comfort zone and fail as a traveler. The unknown was too overwhelming: not knowing where to park the car at the train station or how to validate our tickets, fear of getting lost upon arrival, of being vulnerable to scams, of having a crappy touristy experience and not the authentic locals-only adventure I so craved (but was unable to seek out for myself, much less be the leader for the two of us). So we stayed put, and I felt a mix of defeat and guilt and sadness which I tried to hide from my friend.

Now, just over a decade later, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to slay the dragon. This trip to Italy, I'd scheduled in a week alone after spending two weeks at the family house with my mom. I started planning a solo trip to Venice, ready to deal with all those fears and see if I could enjoy my own company even if I stuck out as a tourist and made all the mistakes.

The journey started on the autostrada, as our family friend Marino suggested that I drive instead of take the train. Immediately I had a fear-conquering opportunity as it was pissing down rain and the two lane highway was full of big trucks and on-your-ass drivers. Thankfully I had a good reggae soundtrack and just kept my knee aligned down the middle of the lane (my dad's number one best driving tip ever) and the windshield wipers on high.

After about an hour and forty minutes I arrived at Piazzale Roma, the place where the highway dead-ends after the long causeway over the lagoon (no cars in Venice, obviously). I chose a garage and handed over the keys (Garage San Marco, 30 Euro per night). Good thing I only had a small roller suitcase and a purse because it was freezing, super windy, and raining hard. I could barely manage my bags, hold my umbrella, and look at my map every five seconds. My hands went numb from the cold and I wished I had a lot warmer jacket and more layers. The cold in Northern Italy in the winter is NO JOKE. But I managed to get on the Vaporetto #2, bust out my emergency stock of hand warmers (essential item this trip!), and enjoy the ride down the Grand Canal to San Marco stop.

I'd booked a single room at Hotel Becher, near the historic Teatro La Fenice, and set out to find my way. I quickly learned that Venice is a labyrinth of narrow streets and canals, and you most definitely need a map in your hand at all times. Formal addresses are devoid of information, listing only the neighborhood (sestiere) and a number. Happily there are actual street names painted on the sides of buildings, plus handy directional arrows pointing you toward landmarks. 

I eventually found the hotel, checked in, and took refuge in my super warm room. What a relief to be inside, away from the horrific weather. The room was small but comfortable, and there was a canal view that made up for the few amenities that I actually missed (most notably an in-room coffee maker or tea kettle). Also, that canal means lots of noise - tourists and singing gondoliers at all hours, trash boats, water taxis. I'd say earplugs are a must-have on the list for travel to Venice, especially if you are a light sleeper or have any desire to open the window and let in fresh air. 

After getting settled in the room and warming up my extremities, I decided to venture out and get some lunch. My first experience with a "Table for one" at a nice restaurant. I wandered the maze of streets near the hotel and eventually decided on a cute place called Rosa Rossa on Calle Mandola. I had spaghetti al nero di sepia (spaghetti with squid ink and calamari pieces) and a glass of red wine, and enjoyed journaling while I waited for my food.

In the afternoon, I visited the museum at Palazzo Fortuny. It was a total sensory delight, with a dark interior and art displayed in front of floor-to-ceiling damask textiles. Also, the museum was pretty empty which added to the feeling of having stepped back into another era. 

One of my favorite spaces was Fortuny's atelier. Can you imagine having this as your go-to place to paint and sculpt? Divine, to say the least!

I also appreciated seeing all the block prints and samples for Fortuny's famous textile design. Endless inspiration for creating patterns. I highly recommend visiting this museum if you are at all into interior design, fashion, and fabric.

I spent the rest of my first day in Venice aimlessly wandering, which is one of my very favorite things to do in a new city. The rain made it a pretty miserable, but the light was magic for taking photos and there weren't hordes of people in the streets.

Around every corner was a perfect photo opportunity: crumbling walls, faded paint, narrow streets, architectural elements from multiple centuries, flower boxes, colorful storefronts, and seemingly endless carved details and embellishments and layers of art. 

The best part by far was the lack of crowds. And that rainy evening light! Totally worth enduring the suck weather.

After several hours of walking and photographing, I was ready for another meal. I chose a place called Le Chat Qui Rit that is a wine bar and restaurant on Calle Tron, in San Marco district. Another "Table for one, please!"

This was possibly my best meal in Venice: I ordered branzino with a mix of cooked and raw asparagus, caramelized onions, and a presentation that was pure art. I also enjoyed a glass of pro secco and some local sauvignon blanc by a maker called Attems. The service was friendly, the atmosphere was lively, and I felt welcome to hang out as long as I liked. In fact, if I had to make a recommendation of where to go as a solo eater for a nice meal in Venice, Le Chat Qui Rit would be my number one choice.

I ended the day feeling full, warm, and satisfied with the day's exploring and adventures. I tried to sleep despite lingering jet lag and the noisy canal. Next up: Day 2!


Stacie said...

How fun!!!! So the squid ink spaghetti was really good? When I first saw it, all I could think was, 'worms?!?"...looks like a fabulous trip!!!

Ali la Loca said...

~Stacie - That pasta is legit good. Although I used to eat it as a kid, so that helps in overcoming the somewhat gross visual.