The Honeymoon: Venice

Our one full day in Venice was my 35th birthday, and it was AWESOME – my best birthday yet! Getting there, not so awesome. Although I adore Paris and just about everything in it, our experience at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport was horrendous. The check-in process was so slow that the workers behind the counter had to come out periodically and scream for people on a flight that had already been postponed and was still about to leave and then parade them past all those in line in front of them  – and that was BEFORE ridiculously-slow security. We barely made our flight and got into Venice’s Marco Polo airport around sunset.

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We took a vaporetto water taxi from Marco Polo to our hotel, which took about 45 minutes – super-slow but pretty! I came in from the train station in college, so it was neat to enter town from the water and see the lanes they have roped off like dotted lines on a road. We followed a map and walked down several narrow, stone roads lined with shops and restaurants, and somehow Barry led us to our hotel. Our room was beautiful, yet like Paris, quirky: in a city of famed glassmakers, the chandelier was amazingly ornate, yet the shower door was…we’ll go with diminutive.

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We stopped into a nearby restaurant and had yummy, simple homemade pastas, red wine, and a fresh strawberry dessert. Aside from seafood, most food has to be imported to Venice, so eating in this city was really interesting to contemplate. One issue we ran into immediately (at Vino Vino, a pasta restaurant on a narrow cobblestone street near our hotel) was lack of ice and fresh tap water. Every restaurant only offered bottled water, not refillable tap water in glasses, and no one had ice, so Barry couldn’t get a cocktail anywhere! The housemade lasagna and fusilli (and more red wine) made up for the extremely slow service.

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I know pretty much every hotel window in Venice has the same view, but when we woke up on my birthday, I opened the shutters and was rewarded with this gondola passing by as if on cue:

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We went first thing in the morning to Piazza San Marco, and we stopped into a little shop for a quick breakfast and one of my favorite culinary treats of the entire trip: a Nutella cappuccino. I had recently stopped drinking caffeine, but I made an exception for this thing of beauty.

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In the square, we went to the top of the Campanile tower to get an overview of the city. From one side, you can see the mouth of the Grand Canal opening up into the lagoon, the barrier island of Lido, and beyond that, the Adriatic Sea. From the other side, you look over the tiny islands and can see how they all fit together. I thought “the bells of St. Mark’s” rang from here, and there are huge bells, but I don’t think they ring, as they would deafen the people inside! We saw what I think are the real bells nearby, atop the Clock Tower. The clock is amazing –  it reads in “army time,” the hours correspond with the 12 astrological symbols, and it’s been there since the 1400’s. The red clay tile roofs stretched for miles, and it was so neat to see all the gondolas lined up along the water.

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Then we went into St. Mark’s Basilica. The striking thing about this cathedral is that the walls, ceiling, and columns (and floor, for that matter) are covered in tiny mosaic tiles. From far away and in darkness, you can’t tell, but they turned the ceiling lights on while we were there, and suddenly, it was like a different place, glowing gold. It illuminated intricate mosaic Bible scenes all over the domed ceilings and arched walls. I also loved the infinity symbols beneath our feet; we saw many old places on our trip, but knowing we were in a building that has been around since the 11th century took some of the pressure off of my here-and-now concerns.

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We got our first gelato of the day (pistachiooooooooooo) and set off on a wandering adventure through one of the most unique cities on Earth. We happened upon the Museo Della Musica di Venezia inside an ancient church, where we found dozens of violins, flutes, mandolins, and instruments I’ve never heard of before that were hundreds of years old, played by Vivaldi and his contemporaries. As lifelong musicians, we really appreciated seeing these instruments in front of our own eyes in a city where so much music history actually took place. There was a plaque on the building across from our hotel stating that it was where Mozart stayed and played during Carneval in 1771, and it talks about the “pure poetry of the musical genius and grace.”

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We stopped for a bite to eat when we found a pizza place serving slices on the most brilliant, triangle-shaped, walk-and-eat paper pizza holders ever invented. We ate on the steps of a canal and enjoyed the lapping water, greedy pigeons, open square and multitude of languages swirling around us. We also found the Rialto bridge, the oldest (and decidedly prettiest) in Venice. We attempted to gamble at Casino di Venezia, the oldest casino in Italy (Wagner died in a wing of the building!), but it cost 5 Euros, and they wouldn’t have let Barry in wearing shorts, anyway. We settled for spending those 5 Euros in what appeared to be the tiniest casino in Italy, which felt like a closet – not as fun, but I do love decoding slot machines in foreign languages and currencies.

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We explored the Gallerie dell’Accademia, which houses a huge collection of pre-19th-century Venetian art. That included a really fascinating exhibit of Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings on paper, which starred The Vitruvian Man! I recognized it instantly but didn’t know it was Da Vinci’s way of practicing drawing human bodies in correct proportion. Because paper was so expensive, he always used both sides, so most of the drawings were displayed in double-paned glass.

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Our splurge for the day was a gondola ride, and I’m so glad we decided to do it. No matter how much of Venice you walk, it’s completely different from the water. We had heard stories about gondoliers taking advantage of tourists, but the first one we talked to quoted us exactly what we’d read it should cost. He didn’t speak much English, so we couldn’t communicate much, but he was fun to watch because he was very deft. The side canals are very narrow and fill up fast, so at certain spots, multiple gondolas line up end-to-end, just like rush hour on the highway – this guy kept us from hitting them, walls, steps, and bridges by what seemed like millimeters with just one oar. He answered his cell phone a couple of times (using a headset), which was an odd juxtaposition. We passed under bridges, and he had to duck. We toured some side canals with their low bridges and then came out onto the Grand Canal, where we floated down to and underneath the Rialto and back. At this speed, it’s easy to see the changes in building materials that show the passing of time, like rock layers as you move down into the Grand Canyon. We saw bricked-up, former arched doorways and windows, garage openings at water level for boats to dock, iron braces all over the walls at different heights to keep the buildings from crumbling as they shift, and several feet of algae and discoloration where the water covers the buildings during high tide. It was a really wonderful way to see the city, and I recommend springing for it if you take all the trouble to travel to Venice!

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Dinner that night at Birreria Falnciani was one of my favorites of the trip. We read that the restaurants in St Mark’s square are overpriced, but we found one with a patio just to the side of the church within view of the square that looked fine – Barraria Falciani. Part of the expense of eating in Venice (Italy in general, for that matter) is that they separate protein and pasta into two courses, but hey, we were only there for one night, so we just had fun. They gave us a basket of free pizza bread, which was carb-redundant but yummy. Again, they had no cocktails for Barry, but he had an excellent meat lasagna, and I had seafood spaghetti with mussels, zucchini and shrimp in a butter sauce. In the spirit of adventure in a lagoon city famous for its seafood, he got a whole lobster, and I got cuttlefish sauteed in its own ink, served with polenta squares. I’m a bit skittish when it comes to seafood, but I’m glad I ate as the Venetians do, because it was all really fresh – buttery, smooth and tasty. We split a huge piece of tirimisu with cinnamon and whipped creme and listened to the drifting sound of a Vivaldi concert in the building next door. Sitting in the shadow of a 1,000-year-old church on a cool, Fall evening with my new husband over an excellent, hand-crafted meal to the soundtrack of live Vivaldi was a very special experience.

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As we wandered back home, we found an American-style bar, Caffe Brasilia, that had ICE, which meant COCKTAILS. I had a pink bellini with Prosecco (I didn’t realize the bellini was originally Venetian!) and Barry had Cuban rum, illegal in the U.S. The crowd inside danced to American classic rock on the jukebox, and we sat on the patio and enjoyed the fresh air. Although it was late and we needed to be up early to catch a train for Rome, I just didn’t want to go back to the hotel because the day would be over. I made Barry stand on the bridge outside our hotel and soak in the VENICE for about 20 minutes before I conceded and went inside. Aside from being with the rest of my family, it was the best way to spend a birthday I can think of, and I’m so grateful for it.

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