I didn’t want to go to Venice, had no desire really. My partner made the great point though that we were only a couple of hours away and that I might not get another chance for a long time. So it was with reluctance that I stepped off the train in Venice to check off an iconic city from my list for the sheer ability of being able to say that I was there. Call me jaded and spoiled, but that’s how I felt. But then it happened, I saw it and everything changed.
As soon as I stepped out of the train station I was struck in the face with the immediate and sudden presence of Venice. There was a canal, an old building and gondolas; it was looking at a postcard. Very few places have made such an instant impression like that and I was in love. But I was also late. We had a walking tour to with Walks of Italy to meet up with and a scant 15 minutes to get there. Maps were of no use; I was confused, disoriented and clueless.
My instructions said to take a water taxi to St. Mark’s but when I asked the cost and was told it would cost 70 Euro I balked. Surely this was a scam, surely no one actually pays that much for a shortish boat ride and I set out to find out the real way of getting to the iconic heart of the city. You know, the way that locals know but won’t tell anyone. But as it turns out it wasn’t a scam and people do pay that much, I realized on the 45 minute water bus ride to the Piazza San Marco. Not my best decision and while it saved us a lot of money, it sadly also left our tour guide out in the cold for more than an hour.
Not the best introduction to a new city, but those moments of disorientation are liberating and there’s nothing quite like finding your own way around a new place. Still, I was happy to be in the capable hands of a tour guide and the next few hours forever changed my impressions of Venice.
I’d always been told that Venice wasn’t real, that it’s an amusement park city kept pristine for the millions of tourists who flock there every year. That may be true, I’m not sure, but it didn’t feel fake to me, well not entirely. Sure there were more gondola drivers than tourists that chilly, foggy December day but there were also locals going to church and boating back to their island homes. I decided that I didn’t care if Venice was fake or real, I loved it either way.
Our tour with Walks of Italy (which was given to us for free) took us through the secret passages of the Doge’s Palace, an impressive monument to success and wealth and I felt like I was a character in a novel. All my life I’ve read mentions of this famously wealthy city-state, but to be there in the halls of power and to see it firsthand is something else entirely. I could imagine the traders walking up the golden staircase to meet with the power players of Renaissance Venice to see how much money they would make that day. Out in the piazza amidst the pigeons and tourists I could feel the weighty presence of the city’s glory that may be different, but which never really went away.
Venetians aren’t dumb and they have never been accused of that. For centuries they have learned to make money, a lot of money, from those who pass through their gates and tourism is just the latest incarnation of this need to succeed. Walking along the side streets, grabbing some snacks and getting slightly, but not entirely lost I began to wonder why I hadn’t wanted to visit in the first place. In my need for ‘authentic’ experiences and to see new and exotic things I had forgotten one of my own cardinal rules of travel: Places that are popular and touristy are popular and touristy for a reason; they’re usually awesome. And so was Venice, it was fantastic actually.
Comfortable in my newly regained sense of uber-tourism, my partner and I boarded a corny gondola, also with Walks of Italy who I strong recommend, for a corny gondola ride and had a corny great experience. I was happy on the water, the slightly grumpy gondolier singing more to himself than to us and other camera toting tourists floating by waving merrily. I was happy that I had found in Venice something I had momentarily lost, my sense of joy and wonder at experiencing new and wonderful places. More than snapping the photos or the ability to say that I was there, these experiences create intense and pure moments of happiness and joy and that, that is the reason why I seek them out. Like a druggie looking for his next fix, these clarifying, if not corny, moments of travel Zen are worth all of the overpriced taxis in Venice.
We bade our goodbyes to the floating city on the water, the fog rolled in as we left as if Mother Nature came out to signal the end of our visit. What began as a reluctant day trip turned out to be a wonderful experience and more than anything I remembered the basic joy of travel that may have been momentarily lost but which I gleefully found in the City of Bridges.