I’ve run away to Italy. There really isn’t a better place to run away to, with all the little streets to get lost in and the Italian to attempt and the pasta to consume. My first stop was Venice.
Venice is straight out of a postcard – of the hundreds of postcards at the hundreds of stalls that line the colorful, narrow streets. It’s perhaps the most picturesque city I’ve ever been to; every bridge over every canal is a photo op. When I arrived on Monday evening I was too tired to attempt sightseeing. It had only just hit me that I was in Turkey, let alone Italy. My hostel roommates were from faraway places: South Africa, Japan, Peru, and Brazil. I relished chatting with the Peruvian couple in Spanish. My Spanish was halting and rusty but workable, and oh my goodness how I miss it.
On Tuesday morning I took a water bus to Murano. Just the idea of catching a boat like one would a bus is brilliant. Murano is an island outside of Venice that has specialized in glassblowing for centuries. According to Wikipedia, “In 1291, all the glassmakers in Venice were forced to move to Murano due to the risk of fires. In the following century, exports began, and the island became famous, initially for glass beads and mirrors.” There, they create glass masterpieces the same way they have for centuries, and I got to witness a little bit of the process in an open studio demonstration. The entire land mass is devoted to glass: celebrating it and, of course, selling it. There were some really beautiful pieces so far outside my price range that I was content to window shop.
It was still early in the day, so I took another water bus to Burano, a neighboring fishing island that makes lace. Burano is ludicrous in its loveliness. Every building in unabashedly vibrant. I couldn’t stop snapping photos. I ate a big spinach and ricotta pizza for lunch and listened to the older British couples around me remark on the presence of fish and chips on the menu.
On the way back to Venice I met a nice middle-aged couple from Tampa Bay, and we found our way to Rialto Bridge together before parting ways. All along the top of the bridge are little souvenir shops and fabulously expensive jewelry stores. I pushed through the throngs and edged down streets that would be labeled as alleys in Boston to emerge upon Piazza di San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). It is large and impressive, bordered by museums and the grand Basilica di San Marco. I had to save that for another day, as I was refused entry for wearing shorts. I checked out Museo Correr, a museum with plenty of royal artifacts and paintings of Italian landscapes. Unfortunately the library and big parts of the museum were closed, and I had to pass on the new Gustav Klimt exhibit, which cost an additional 11 euro. I took a stroll along the waterfront before heading back to the hostel. It’s almost impossible to navigate Venice. It’s a small city, but it’s the most confusing one I’ve encountered. With all of the canals, short bridges, and curving streets, every spot looks the same. Lacking in breadcrumbs or magic string, I used the signs pointing to the train station to find my way home.
On Wednesday I met up with a BU friend studying abroad only half an hour away in Padua. It was a delight to rendezvous with her in Italy after being apart for a school year. We visited the Palazzo Ducale, or the Doge’s Palace. Each room was bigger and more resplendent than the one before. The brocade-like ceilings bulged with the weight of gold embellishment and rich frescoes. One stunning, imposing room we entered was labeled as the largest room in Europe. All I could think was what a great location it would be for a huge costume party.
Now properly attired, we ducked into the Basilica. Every surface was gilded and luminescent, as though the whole interior wore a halo. I could have sat in there for hours, drinking it in. Hunger drove us to a pizzeria. We devoured large, greasy pizzas before my friend caught her train back in time for class. I went off in search of the Gallerie d’ell Accademia, which proved very difficult to find. As it was mostly medieval art (not my favorite period), it didn’t take long to cover. Afterwards, I walked along the Zattere canal bank, where attractive art students flirted casually and diners toasted the sunset. I popped into a church, the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Rosario, and then people watched with banana- and amaretto-flavored gelato. Ambling homeward through the Dorsoduro neighborhood was calming, an escape from the tourists, and the breeze smelled of flowers and summertime.
I was happy to escape the hordes. Venice was completely dominated by tourists, and though I obviously count myself as one of them, it still bothered me. I couldn’t imagine living there, and, in fact, few Italians do. I was unable to find anything serving real life in the city, like a hardware store or a supermarket. Every shop catered to tourists like me in search of the picture-perfect romance of Venice. Some were quite special though, like an antique bookstore and a store with pressed and stamped handmade paper. Venice made me realize that I take for granted my cities back home. Boston and DC both attract plenty of tourists, but nothing to the scale of Venice.
On my last day I checked out the Jewish quarter (as is my habit). The world’s first Ghetto, it was home to Venice’s Jewish community, fleeing the Inquisition across Europe, from the 16th through the 18th centuries. The area is full of little bakeries, kosher restaurants, and shops selling prints and paintings. I ate a quick snack then I killed time in a pretty square near my hostel, the Campo San Giacomo Da L’orio. I sat back with the colorful concoction I’d seen on tables all over Venice. The Spritz is a drink that comes with either bright orange Aperol or red Campari. I had the Aperol, which was sweet, a little bitter, and garnished with an orange slice and an olive. Refreshing and delicious, the Spritz reminded me of the sugary juice I drank as a kid.
I grabbed my heavy bag and crossed over the Grand Canal for the train station. I drifted into sleep watching the green countryside speed by. Already I was loving traveling solo, and doing so by train felt mature and romantic. Florence awaited me.