Waking up in Venice: Day 2
In October, I got to see the Rialto bridge as it’s meant to be: engulfed by mist, silent, and free of crowds.
This first night was an ideal introduction to the city of mystique. And unlike many travelers who think Venice too expensive or not lively enough to warrant a few days wandering its alleys – I can’t get enough of the city.
The following morning Venice was still misty and grey. She is so beautiful that the lack of sunshine hardly matters: the green-blue of the water was surprisingly appealing, the terra-cotta tones of the buildings were matte and soothing, and the people of Venice weren’t going to let a little light rain get in the way of their daily activities.
After my first cappuccino of the day, we stepped out of the front door of the hotel. The traghetto stop, Santa Sofia, was luckily right on our doorstep. Stepping precariously into the gondola, people piled in and remained standing for the wobbly ride across the canal. The gondolier was smoking a cigarette, balancing a beer, and rowing the gondola all at one time.
For 50 cents, we were whisked across the Grand Canal, and into the mouth of the Rialto fish market. Our late night arrival didn’t result in being awake early to see the complete action of the market – but there was something fascinating about this post-chaotic period of winding down.
The fishermen were in animated conversations, wives and children appeared, and everyone was preparing to go to lunch. A good morning of work had been done, and the restaurants were about to fill with patrons in no rush to hurry the meal along. When I think of the lines in Dublin or American cities at lunch time, for sandwiches, salads, or the treat of a cup of soup – I think that the Italians definitely got this one right: time in the middle of the day to sit down to a warm meal, made with simple, fresh ingredients. This winning recipe hasn’t changed for generations.
Anxious to visit some of the Venice I came to know during my last trip, I crossed bridges, confidently made turns, and maneuvered the maze through the city to Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio. I pointed out landmarks on the way: the lady who used to sell us eggs, the shop with the best priced cheese in town, the bakery where I used to begin my mornings. All of these memories were accompanied by a soft rain and a realization: the canals were filled to their tipping points.
And in some cases, overflowing. Stairs into the canals were submerged by water, dogs playfully crashed through puddles and every time a boat passed by a wave of water splashed onto the sidewalk. No one seemed bothered by the presence of the water as they went about their daily activities. We wondered if this was the point of high tide, or if the rain had caused the water level to rise. Something told me that the old lady watching from a third story window knew the answer to my question.
I wandered off the path I knew and was immediately reminded of the intimidating nature of Venice. Streets, squares, alleys, bridges – they can all resemble each other so closely that it is easy to get lost. I tried to remember visual clues – and it is often a sign for ‘garden in rear’ or ‘upholstery shop’ that gave me my bearings and pointed me in the right direction. During this early wandering we encountered a shop selling handmade, paper-mâché Venetian masks for Carneval. While these masks are available throughout Venice and at affordable prices, there was something unique about the masks on display. A sense of craftsmanship was apparent as I gazed through the dark windows. This made me realize something: it was already time for lunch.
I was suddenly brought back to a day in Siena, when hunger struck sometime after 2pm. As Americans, we are used to being able to get what we want, when we want. After sleeping in and having a bit of breakfast, it is easy to not be on the schedule of locals. And yet, you want to be. Half the pleasure of finding the local restaurant is the local people who lunch there daily. The pressure to find a spot for our first Venetian lunch was on.
I recalled hearing a burst of laughter and Italian voices when a door was briefly opened to a restaurant on a slim alleyway. This was the gem I wanted to retrace my steps and find. After a bit of commitment and following my visual clues, we were at the door of ‘Due Collone’ serving pizzas costing 6 to 10 euro. We were a bit late for the Italians, who were already sipping a coffee at the end of the meal, but we were still welcomed into a cozy booth. The Marlon Brando looking waiter / owner told us we could only order pizza (solo pizza…) but we were happy enough with the 50 choices this condition left us with.
I couldn’t read them all by the time our host was at the table, determined (in a friendly way) to take our order. I had learned during my last trip to Italy that pepperoni means little peppers, and if you want pepperoni, you should order a pizza with salami piccante. In the end I ordered a vegetable variety with slow-roasted red and yellow peppers and grilled eggplant. It seemed minutes later the pies were in front of us, perfect melty, fragrant and crusty. We couldn’t be anywhere but the homeland itself.
In the afternoon, we wandered over to Piazza San Marco and a short line tempted us to pay the 8 euro to take the elevator to the top of the bell tower, Il Campanile. The least impressive building of Saint Mark’s Square, it often goes unnoticed by tourists drawn to the magnificence of the church or the sweeping size of the Piazza. This attraction was a perfect example of when not doing your research pays off: I was blown away by the sweeping views.
The sun had peaked out, and cast a golden tone over the red roofs of Venice. We were so high up, you could barely make out the canals in the city – it appeared to be all buildings. Il Campanile granted 360-degree views all around Venice, providing a deeper understanding of the layout of the city. Looking across the water to San Giorgio, we noticed another belltower and made a note to see the city from its perspective another day.
The afternoon had come to an end, and we were once again faced with the eternal and adored question in Italy: where should we eat? Luckily I had the advice of a Parisian friend currently living in Venice, who had revealed to me the best place to eat in town. After a couple hours of resting our sore legs, we set out to find it.