Venice, Italy

I once heard Venice (or Venezia as the locals call it) being described as being ‘hauntingly beautiful’. And it’s true. There is something truly mesmerizing about this place. Walking down the narrow alleyways, crisscrossing over the innumerable small bridges, sampling sweets in the quaint local patisseries, it’s as though nothing much as change over the last few hundred years in Venice, aside from the motorised boats whizzing down the canals and of course, the hoards of tourists. I probably made a bit of a mistake in visiting Venice during August, the height of the tourist season in Europe. Walking down La Ferrovia (what could be likened to the main street of Venice) was like playing ‘try to dodge the tourist’. There were people everywhere. You could barely take one step forward without bumping into something. Enough said. So I’d recommend visiting Venice in the spring or autumn, when you can do the city a bit more justice and appreciate its beauty and captivation to the fullest. But even during the height of the tourist season, you can still find some solace in the back alleyways and canals, which are almost devoid of all human life, except for the patchwork of clotheslines swaying gently in the summer breeze.

My visit to Venice this year could be likened to a marathon. Making a quick stop over (of only a few hours), I raced through the pedestrian friendly streets, seeing some of the highlights of the city, before jumping on the afternoon bus to Ljubljana. I left Verona train station mid-morning, with a new-found friend I meet in the hostel in Verona. She had no plans that day, so decided to come along with me for a day trip to Venice. The train trip took approximately 2.5 hours and we arrived in Venice before midday. Disembarking from Venice Santa Lucia train station, you will find the old city right at your feet. We kept to La Ferrovia and followed the well posted signs to Rialto and San Marco, hoping we didn’t get lost in the labyrinth of street, as I had a 4:30pm train to catch from Venice Mestre (the town/Venice which is ‘part of Venice’ located on the mainland). Luckily, I was able to keep my backpack at the train station in their luggage hold for only a few euros, so I didn’t have to lug it all around the city. We were lucky to have a beautiful sunny day, and the temperature wasn’t too high for the time of year. We had a pleasurable days strolling down the streets in Venice, doing a bit of window shopping, eating some delicious treats and visiting a few of the major attractions, listed below:

A few things not to be missed on a visit to Venice (even if it’s as short as mine):

Piazza San Marco: Perhaps the heart of the city, Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square), is not to be missed. You can get a ferry from many points in Venice to the Piazza, or if you wish to go on foot, follow the yellow signs ‘Per San Marco’ – it takes about a 30-45 minute leisurely walk. One you arrive you’ll be greeted by an onslaught of pigeons, but aside from that, you’ll see a spectacular piazza, San Marco Basilica, The Doge’s Palace and The Palazzo Pubblico with its impressive bell tower.

Basilica San Marco: A magnificent basilica located on the side of the Piazza San Marco. I didn’t have enough time to go inside, but the elaborated carvings, colourful mosaics, awe-insiriping gold sculptures, lavish Byzantine domes, luminous marble work on the exterior are truly breath-taking in themselves.

The Doge’s Palace: Immediately beside the Basilica San Marco is The Doge’s Palace. Again, I didn’t get the chance to go inside, not enough time and ridiculously long lines, but like the Basilica, this imposing building, with its pointed arches, beautiful stonework and gothic embellishes, makes one wonder why they don’t build just amazing and intricately decorated buildings today.

Rialto Bridge: One of four bridges that cross over The Grand Canal, The Rialto Bridge is the postcard of Venice. It attracts tourist from around the world to marvel at its beautiful design, and also for its practical purpose to cross over to the other side of the canal.

The Grand Canal: This is the major highway of Venice. Being the largest canal that winds through Venice, this is the main transportation route for both Venetians and visitors. At any time of the day it is overtaken by ferries, private motor boats, gondolas and maybe the odd little rowboat or two.

Venice’s Lanes and Canals: And last but not least, take the time to wander aimlessly through Venice’s lanes and canals. Take time out from the tourist buzz and experience the peace and serenity of Venice. You will come across beautiful little squares, quaint houses and locals going about their daily business. Even though I was stretched for time, I did take some time out to experience the true Venice, the hauntingly beautiful Venice.

Essentials:

Getting there:

There are trains every half an hour from Venice Mestre station to Venice Santa Lucia. There are also good train connections to Mestre from other towns and cities in Europe. I discovered a bus line from Sofia, Bulgaria to Mestre, going via Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Triest (where it takes a magnificent sea-side route – the scenery was just spectacular) , and continuing on to Padova, Bologna and Florence which runs daily in both directions http://www.florentiabus.it/firenze-sofia.as. If boarding the bus in Mestre, the bus stop is in a back street close to the bus/train station and is unmarked (it looks a little dodgy). But don’t worry, the bus does arrive in time. There are also good ferry connections to the Istra region of Croatia.
Stay:
I didn’t stay overnight in Venice this time around (I was unfortunately very short on time), but when travelling with my parents in 2004 we stayed in Pensione Seguso http://www.pensionesegusovenice.com, located in the Dorsoduro area of Venice, west of San Marco. I remember it being a quaint little pensione, and our room had a lovely view onto one of the canals.
If you’re on a budget, stay in Mestre not the most prettiest of towns, unfortunately, but the prices are significantly cheaper than in Venice. And the train to Venice runs every half and hour and only cost a few euros.
Eat:
Grom Gelato (http://www.grom.it): Handmixed gelato made from premium ingredients found around the world. Grom Gelato also supports the slow food movement, great for all those greenies out there. Try Fico (Fig) and Crema come una volta (an egg cream) – I did and I wasn’t disappointed.
Stop at one of the many patisseries in Venice. Try the giant meringues or the hideously bright green, yet delectable pistachio cookies.
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Verona, Italia.

My 2012 European travels began in northern Italy, with a short visit to the cities of Verona and Venice. When initially planning my trip, I didn’t intend to visit northern Italy, as I had previously visited Venice and the lakes district with my parents in 2004. But I found a ridiculously cheap flight from Sydney to Milan, so I decided to spend a few days travelling overland through northern Italy towards Slovenia and Croatia (stay tuned for some of these photos – Slovenia & Croatia have to be one of the most beautiful placed in the world).

I arrived in Verona by train from Milan (trains to Verona Porta Nuova station depart Milano Centrale station every half hour and the trip takes approximately 1.5 hours). Don’t expect the trains to always arrive on time – Italy is notorious for its unreliable train network. But once you arrive at Verona Porta Nuova station, there are good bus connections to most parts of the city. Make sure you purchase your bus tickets at the newspaper kiosk inside the station, as tickets cannot be bought on the bus. I stayed at Ostello della Gioventu ‘Villa Franscescatti’  http://www.ostelloverona.it/ , a beautiful sixteenth century villa located on a hill overlooking the old town of Verona. To get there, take bus number 91 from platform D to Piazzo Isolo and then follow the signs to the hostel. At 18 euros per night, it’s probably the cheapest accommodation in Verona, and also perhaps the most basic. But the old villa, with its large and spacious dormitories is quaint and usually full of travellers, and being only a 10-15 minute walk from the historical centre, it’s difficult to fault this budget hostel.

Ok, so everyone should know Verona as the home of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. But there is a lot more to this small medieval city than a love story between two fictional characters. The majority of Verona’s attractions can be found in the historical centre, all within an easy walking distance of each other. If you’re strapped for time on your travels, spending a day or two in Verona is quite sufficient. I only spent a day in Verona and managed to see the major sights, as follow:

The Roman Arena: Built in the 1st century, this is the third largest arena in Italy. If you’re lucky enough to visit Verona in the summer, you can watch the Opera with up to 25,000 other people. To see what’s playing when, visit the Arena di Verona website: http://www.arena.it/

Juliet’s Balcony: Probably the biggest tourist attraction in Verona, this house was named Casa di Giulietta, ‘Juliet’s House’, by the Verona tourist board in a clever money-making and tourism boosting scheme. Beside admiring the beautiful Gothic architecture of this 13th century house, you can rub Juliet’s breast for good luck and write your name on the wall like thousands of others before you.

Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore: A beautiful Romanesque church, with a magnificent cloistered courtyard (have a squiz at some of the photos below). It’s a short walk out of the centre, and a little difficult to find without a map, so ask some of the locals to point you in the right direction.

Piazza delle Erbe: One of the many piazzas in Verona, this is perhaps the largest and most well-known (and most full of tourists). It has daily market stalls, where you can buy some fruit and vegetables, if you’re lucky to spot them between the mountains of souvenirs. If you love northern Italian architecture, this piazza is not to be missed. Those quaint little balconies and bottle green shutters – it’s picture-perfect and quintessentially Italian.

Lamberti Tower: You can climb this medieval bell tower, to what I’ve heard, is a spectacular view over Verona. I was sort of time, so I unfortunately, I didn’t climb to the top.

Castelvecchio: Don’t forget to spend a bit of time walking around and exploring this 14th century medieval complex. See the old castle, fortress and ramparts, not forgetting to walk across the bridge to the other side of the river.

Essentials:

Getting there:

The train system, although not always the most reliable, has good connections between cities in northern Italy. The Milan-Verona-Venice line is well-connected, with trains running frequently. Get off at Verona Porta Nuova station, then walk or catch a bus depending on how far your accommodation is, or how tired you are of carrying a backpack or dragging a suitcase.

Stay:

Budget – Ostello della Gioventu ‘Villa Franscescatti’  http://www.ostelloverona.it/ – a beautiful 16th century villa overlooking the historic centre. Eighteen euros for a dorm bed, and they don’t take bookings, however they promise to have a bed for everyone. There are a countless number of dorm rooms, so I suppose their promise is always kept. But I’m not too sure where they’d put you if they happen to be full…?

Splurge: There are countless hotels and bed & breakfasts in Verona, if dorms aren’t exactly your thing. And fair enough, a little pampering never goes astray.

Eat:

Pizza, pasta, gelato. You’re in Italia! Verona has a never-ending list of restaurants and gelaterias. But for the more authentic experience, try to stay away from some of the main piazzas and near the arena, where prices are high and tourists abound.