When you think of Venice Italy while sitting in your office cubicle, immediately your mind transports you to a gloriously romantic city laced with picturesque waterways that flow between enchanting pastel buildings. Here couples exchange kisses as they float around on gondolas while the gondoliers sing in operatic voices accompanied only by the trickling sounds of their paddles in the water. When I arrived at the entrance to the Grand Canal in Venice, I was expecting to be whisked off my feet with romanticism and charm. I soon discovered, though, that a solo traveler on a tight budget has little chance of falling in love with Venice.
As the over-stuffed ferry shuttled me and at least fifty other fresh-off-the-train tourists down the wide central canal of the city, I was giddy with the reality of cruising through the legendary Venice. I was here! The facades of the many buildings lining the canal were just as I had imagined. They really were built on water. I could see the smaller canals snaking through them. Oh my god! A real gondola! However, the enchantment wore off as soon as I got off at the Rialto Bridge valperetto stop. I had to shove my way past deathly-slow tourists in their drone-like lingering in front of stores. Just when I thought I was moving at a normal pace, the people in front of me would suddenly stop to look at fancy masks or shiny objects through the windows. The atmosphere was not one of romance, but of consumerism.
The only affordable lodging I could find was a hotel that basically put me up in a closet. The location was good though, walkable to any major attraction. Unfortunately, everything in Venice is pricey, from lunch to wine to apparel, so I felt very restricted. I was now on the last leg of my Italy trip, so the pile-up of foreign transaction fees on my credit card statement were starting to weigh on my capriciousness. I discovered that gondola rides were almost $100 for a 40-minute ride –yes, you read that right– one hundred dollars!!!! I got lucky a couple of times and found restaurants with laidback atmospheres that were priced fairly. Like all similar places, they were a good distance off of the central tourist pipleline and hidden behind an entryway that doesn’t necessarily invite you right in. I learned that if you feel like an intruder when you first walk in, it’s probably a legit Italian place to eat.
Here in Venice I had the most startling meal of my trip. The receptionist at my hotel vaguely recommended this place (she circled the approximate location of a restaurant she couldn’t remember the name of on my map), and as I walked by, I saw that it was a hip little place hiding in the side streets. Like many Italian apertivo locations, there was a counter in front where you can order a drink and some appetizers and just stand to enjoy –no bar stools– and a back area if you decide you want a full dinner. I tried a chardonnay and some meatballs and sat outside. The meatballs were fantastic, so I had to have dinner. Kind of a mistake. I realized shortly after I got seated at a little back table that only tourists sit here; all the locals just chill by the front with appetizers. Well, I was going to get through it. “Menu please? Oh it’s on the chalkboard? Okay. No I’m good, you don’t have to translate.”
I sat at my little table staring at the chalkboard of Italian dishes dumbfounded. I had no idea what most of it was. I could recognize the names of pastas, but I had no idea what went with them –gambretto? pettine? mazzancolle? Crap. I didn’t read about those in my Italian phrasebook and as I scrambled through my dictionaries, I could only find some of them –shrimp, scallops… I didn’t want to ask the waitress to translate the whole menu, but when she came over she could tell I needed help. She read off some items –squid, yuck! clams, ukk! octopus, ahhh!!– I definitely was not a fan. I’m not a lover of seafood, especially all the weird mushy stuff and things that live under rocks. She got to one item and said it was thick pasta with “groun”. “Ground?” I wondered. Did she mean ground beef? Hmm, I could do that. So I hastily ordered that dish to end the embarrassment of not knowing my Italian foods well. I munched on bread, thought about life, and finally my dish came.
The horror I had to stifle when I saw what was on my plate was unforgettable. I uncomfortably smiled at the sweet waitress as she left me to eat my WHOLE, GIANT CRUSTACEANS!! They looked like shrimp, but were much bigger and freakier. (I learned afterward that they were “prawn”…. Ohhhh that’s what she said, not “ground”!) The long antennae were jutting out like grass and the shriveled eyeballs were staring at me in their deadness. I didn’t even like shrimp scampi, never mind whole mutant shrimp laying on my pasta waiting for me to crack open their shells and eat their guts. Eww. Eww. Eww. Despite my disgust and squeamishness, I refused to be a wimp. I was in Italy, Venice in particular, and since this was a traditional Venetian dish –as Venice is known for its seafood– I had to at least try. I managed to eat all the tail ends of the ghastly creatures, and it was actually pretty tasty, I have to admit. The head parts were another story, and I simply cracked them open to make it look like I ate them. I could only handle so much and had to tap out after I forked away the third piece of crispy antennae in my pasta.
As I waited to pay, a group of gray-haired American women bounded in, attempting not a word of Italian, loudly speaking English, and expecting the same restaurant customs as they would receive in the states. They sat down, expecting fast service and informative menus, but were ruffled when told that the menu was on the board in chalk. I think this was one of my favorite moments of my trip, when these four old American ladies looked up at the Italian menu, of which they probably couldn’t read a word, and their faces said it all.
Other highlights of my time in Venice were climbing to the top of the bell tower and Saint Mark’s Square. I got a panoramic view of the city, which made the city less intimidating than what I had experienced on the ground by wandering the labyrinth of side streets. It was fascinating to see the boundaries of Venice. It really was a city built on water, an island. Unfortunately, I missed out on the Peggy Guggenhiem museum, which was closed on Tuesdays… of all days! And I was too late to get inside Saint Mark’s Basilica. I visited one museum, the Accademia, which housed many famous Venetian paintings. At this point in my museum-going, I thought to myself that I had definitely seen enough baby Jesuses and Marys for a lifetime. Italy loved its Christianity (duh, Meri… the Pope lives there.)
I had planned on spending 5 days in Venice, originally thinking I could relax along the canals while sipping wine; maybe I would meet a man who would romance me around town for a couple of days. Nope. I felt that Venice was like a theme park aimed solely at money-wielding, clueless tourists. No one lives in Venice anymore. It’s too expensive. There is no nightlife. Everything shuts down by 10pm. I walked around the city after 9:30pm looking for a fairly priced, non-touristy place to eat and felt like I was in a ghost town. The streets and canals that were so romantic during the day when graced by lovers were now frighteningly dark and narrow alleys that would be the perfect setting for a mugging. Instead of a relaxing dinner in a courtyard overlooking a canal, I spend my last night in a grocery store trying to buy snacks.
So Venice just didn’t do it for me, the disclaimer, of course, that I was a solo traveler. I can imagine couples and families having a delightful time. Also, at this point in my trip I was starting to get rather homesick. This Italy trip was my first time traveling alone and in such a foreign location –3 weeks was a little ambitious I realized. Loneliness was beginning to bother me. On top of that, I still had some unexpected loose ends to tie up at home in terms of my past relationship. The stew of emotions I was struggling with while in Venice undoubtedly tainted my experience. I made the call of switching my flight home for four days earlier than planned. Although I had to pay a $250 fee for this, I was sure I would save money in the end since lodging and food was averaging around $120 per day. And that was on the cheap side! Traveling sure is expensive!
After my two-day stint in Venice, I was excited to spend my last days in Rome. I wondered if I loved Rome so much simply because it was my first experience with Italy. Did I just not enjoy Venice because I had enough of traveling at this point? Would Rome still have the magic I felt at the beginning of my trip? I’d soon find out!