Our train was set to leave from Station SM Novella at 7:30am. We leave our apartment at 7am and we are completely alone on the streets. This is a Friday morning and just like every day in Florence, it starts late. On the way to the train station we pass TWO huge McDonald’s across the street from the station and meet Rachel at the McDonalds that is inside the station for a caffè macchiato. That’s three McDonalds too many for Florence.
We board the train with no problems and we are in the first class premium seats. These are extremely comfortable and they even come around with a food cart and complimentary drinks. After a short ride on the high speed train the Frecciarossa we get off in Bologna for our connection to Venice. Bologna train station was so confusing! Our arrival to Bologna was 5 minutes late so we had to sprint around the station trying to find our platform – luckily we all made it with one minute to spare. This second train was a slower regional train and we were in the lowest class seats – these seats resembled a slightly nicer Metra.
After about 3 hours of train, we had arrived! Even stepping off of the train it was beautiful and obviously very different from Florence. We had a free walking tour booked for 11am through La Bussola free Venice tours and we got completely lost trying to find the meeting point at Campo Santo Stefano.
Free walking tour
We really worked up a sweat trying to get to the meeting point on time and then the tour guide showed up 15 minutes late… we were already skeptical of this “free” walking tour and our tour guide Adam had not made a good first impression. After introducing himself he made us sign up for a “club” because the city of Venice doesn’t approve of free walking tours so we had to sign up for a club that allowed us to “explore the city as like-minded individuals talking about history and culture”.
Our group of 20 people walked to the next Campo and talked about the old water collection system of Venice. To get clean drinking water, Venice had rain catchers set up all over the city that lead to wells where people would get a bucket of water. I forgot to take pictures of these wells but we kept running into them everywhere. At the same Campo, we also talked about how Venice was first built when it was basically a swamp land. They had to jam wooden bases into the mud as far down as possible and surround those wooden bases with brick. As the tides go in and out of Venice, it moves the islands with it. On the left is a picture showing a very crooked tower – this tower is built perpendicular to the ground but the ground has moved.
After about an hour into the tour we had completely forgiven our tour guide, Adam, because he was super awesome in general and gave us so much information about historical to current Venice that I can’t even begin to write down everything I learned.
Piazza San Marco
We stopped at a few more places on the way to St. Mark’s Plaza (Piazza San Marco) – this is a place I recognize from pictures but when we arrived it was a lot smaller than I imagined it. Maybe it was because they were building something that took up a big portion of the piazza in preparation for Carnivale. Adam gave us some history about San Marco, the basilica and Doge’s Palace and here is what I remember: Venice was not originally based on religion, each island had their own church. At some point they decided to make up a back story surrounding San Marco. This story is told on the front of the basilica. Venetians smuggled the bones of San Marco from Egypt(?) under a basket of pork. About the Doge’s Palace: the Doge’s were elected from the aristocratic families of Venice (these families were established based off of wealth when Venice was just starting) and they only came to work in the Doge’s Palace – they did not live there in extravagance like you would imagine the Palace of Versailles or the Schonbrunn palace in Vienna.
We were allowed some time to go into the Basilica – no pictures allowed L but there was no line and it was free! On tourist season people wait an hour or more to get into the Basilica. The inside is huuuuuge and the entire ceiling is made of real gold. I snapped a sneaky picture as we were leaving. One of my favorite parts was the floor – while everyone had their necks cranked back to see the impressive ceiling, I ended up looking at the floor a lot.
After San Marco, we passed by the Bridge of Sighs which was pretty underwhelming. The story behind it was that you would walk over this bridge before going to jail for the rest of your life. Apparently this story is completely made up and the Venetians had a very fair judicial system in place.
A really cool place that Adam showed us was a used book store called Aqua Alta (aqua alta is the name for the floods that frequent Venice when there are high tides). The book store was amazing! A really cool little stop that we would not have thought of going to without the walking tour. There were used books in almost every language, walls and stairs made of books, cats and “hot priest calendars” which is apparently a thing.
Outside of the book store, there was a man making Venetian masks that we could watch through the window. The story behind the masks reaches further back than Carnivale. When Venice was just a sea port, it was like an Italian Las Vegas where people would sin so often they needed to wear masks to hide their identities while gambling and going to brothels. Adam also gave us a little talk about buying authentic souvenirs to support the dying specialty professions such as mask making and glass blowing. There are so many cheap and fake replicas that it is driving locals out of the city. Venice loses 2 residents each month.
On the way to the next destination, we stopped in a little alley and Adam pointed out a dark corner in the alley that had something resembling a cement bench in the corner. Apparently Venice used to have a huge problem with public urination – especially in dark corners such as this one. To solve this problem, they installed these devices in dark corners so if a man tried to pee there, it would splash all over them. After pointing this out the first time, we started to notice the devices all over the city!
For lunch, Adam suggested a place to eat cicchetti (Venetian tapas). The restaurant (Ostaria al Ponte) had a huge variety of tapas in a glass case and after picking out which ones you wanted, they would warm it up for you. I got some very garlic-y shrimp, an aracino ball, and a mini pizza pie with zucchini on it. All were very good! Some other people got a spritz aperol (even though it was freezing outside). Another tip from Adam was that while in Venice you should never pay more than 3 euro for a spritz – anything more and you are being ripped off. The 20 minute break passed quickly and we were on our way.
The group was allowed some time to take pictures of and on the Rialto bridge. This bridge is kind of the Venice equivalent of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. It is a big bridge with shops and it very touristy.
On the way to our next stop, we walked by another great example that showed the Venice islands moving. This door was completely sideways! Another quick stop at this corner and we talked about how Venice’s floods are slowly destroying the city. Each year the aqua alta gets higher and the salt from the sea saturates the brick and you can see the change in color. They attempt to save the buildings by adding plates in the brick to stop the spread of water…but they haven’t been working and have needed to add two plates into this specific wall. If you look really closely you can see the metal plates in the corners.
Crossing by this bit of water, I made a comment along the lines of, “Wow! Look at how muddy the water is here!”. At that point, Adam stopped and thought it was a good moment to explain Venice’s sewage system! The water running through Venice is basically just a big sewer. The mixing of “mud” and water was cool-looking but I wish I thought it was still just mud. Apparently Katharine Hepburn was shooting a movie in Venice where she had to fall off a gondola for many takes – she suffered from a chronic eye infection for the rest of her life.
For the last official stop of the tour, we went to Chiesa di S. Pantaleone to see Fumiani’s masterpiece on the ceiling. It is the biggest oil on canvas painting ever and took about 25 years to complete – Fumiani fell from the rafters and died just before finishing it. We weren’t supposed to take pictures so mine kind of suck because I was trying to be sneaky.
That stop marked the end of the tour and we each gave Adam a small tip for being awesome. The tour was supposed to end at 3:30 but he kept us entertained until afte 5:00pm! Before parting ways, Adam offered to show us how to take a traghetto – a gondola that jots across the grand canal – because you can’t go to Venice without riding a gondola! It was really great that we were with him for this part because the first traghetto stop we went to was mysteriously closed. It was a complete maze getting to the next one so we would never have found it without his expertise. We were on the traghetto for less than 2 minutes but that was enough to get the gist of it.
At this point we really didn’t have enough time to do anything else other than walk to the train station and get a bite to eat on the way. We stopped into a store to get some pastries for dinner (sorry, not sorry) and also bought some post cards as souvenirs. We got to the train station earlier than anticipated, so we walked down a few dark alleys and found a place to grab a small bite of real food. Adam had mentioned during the tour that if you walk by a place where there are Italians drinking wine out of very small wine glasses then you must stop in because that means it is more authentic!
On the train back we all sat together, despite our tickets being in different cars, and reflected on how great our trip was! It definitely made me want to do a walking tour in eat city I went to for the rest of the semester. Venice was overall very different from Florence – or any other place I’ve been to – and I feel like through the tour I really understood the culture and history there. I was also really glad that none of us had gotten pickpocketed and that we had gone before the herds of tourist come the next day for Carnivale. Everything ran smoothly until they came to check our tickets and Rachel had accidentally bought a return ticket for the next day… the Trenitalia worker did not cut her any slack and made her pay a hefty fine right there on a spot 😦