We snuck into a private compartment on the train from Naples to Rome. It was a cozy experience. So cozy, in fact, we may or may not have been caught in the middle of some certain adult activities; though that’s a story for another time! We were also sheltered from the creepy man who stalked the corridors selling bottles from a plastic bag, calling out “Acqua, Prego” every few moments. Our train from Rome to Venice was the polar opposite. Being an overnight train, there were only sleeper cars and packed 6-person compartments. We skimped out and crammed into a compartment with 4 other people, seats facing each other. While the other passengers were nice and we chatted for a while, it was very difficult to get any sleep.
Venice by Morning Light
The train pulled into Santa Lucia Station around 4:30 in the morning. The rather ugly station deposits you on the West bank of the Grand Canal, giving you quite a first view. We crossed the canal to the south on the city’s newest bridge, nicknamed the Calatrava. The bridge was first installed in 2008 for the 60th anniversary of Italy’s Constitution and created a controversy due its contrasting modern style with Venice’s otherwise traditional medieval architecture. On the stroll to our hostel, we caught a wonderful sunrise that bathed the streets and buildings in a beautiful golden light. Tucked in an alleyway off Campo Santa Margherita, we had a private room in a hostel called Backpackers House Venice. We dropped off our packs and dragged ourselves back out into the large cobblestone square. Debris from the previous night’s party was scattered all over, but a man was hard at work cleaning it up for the next round.
Initially, we were tired and crabby and desperately wanted a nap. However, as we navigated the narrow streets, crisscrossing canals over intricate footbridges, the beauty of Venice really began to set in. This is “The Floating City”, a city built on 118 tiny islands separated by 150 canals and interconnected via 431 bridges. It is a city made for walking and we soon realized the early morning hours were the best time to do just that.
St Mark’s Square
We made our way across the Ponte dell’Accademia, following signs to the mostly empty Piazza San Marco. In the shadow of St. Mark’s Basilica, a photographer scattered bread crumbs to attract the famous swarms of pigeons, as a couple tried to pose for wedding photos amid the chaos. To the south, the large bell tower loomed above. At 323 feet, the tower is the tallest building in Venice and was originally built as a lighthouse to assist boats navigating the lagoon. We circled the square, taking a moment to sigh accordingly below The Bridge of Sighs. It earned its name as it was the last view convicts had before their imprisonment. Moving away from the square, we lost ourselves in the maze of tiny streets, eventually popping out at the iconic Rialto Bridge. One of four bridges that span the Grand Canal today, it was the only up until 1850. It was currently under renovation, as everything in Europe seemed to be, yet we were still able to stroll under the covered stone archways and peek in at the expensive stores within.
Venice by Night
As it was now almost noon, the streets had become noticeably overcrowded. In the summer, over 150,000 tourists visit a day, briefly tripling the population. To avoid some of the crowds, we found a nice spot to dangle our legs over a side canal and popped open a bottle of wine. We talked and laughed, munching on breakfast and sipped our wine. When the food and wine was gone, we made our way back to the hostel and hit the sheets, snoozing until almost 7 that night. Arising from our slumber, we were delighted to find the streets once again were mostly empty. Night had set in, and the dim street lights cast a faint yellow glow on the brick buildings. Reflections off the canal mirrored the glow, giving the whole scene a romantic, Hollywood feel. We made our way to a delicious dinner, albeit a 3 hour one, of stuffed zucchini and pasta. Afterwards, we wandered the streets snapping photos and trying to capture the magic of this place.
Murano- The Island of Glass
The next day we left Venice and took a boat across the lagoon to its neighboring island, Murano. Famous for its glass making, Murano is much smaller with a population of only 5,000. Its history with glass began in 1291 when the Venetian Republic ordered all glass makers to move their foundries to Murano in an effort to prevent any large-scale fires of Venice’s mostly wooden buildings. For centuries, they perfected their trade and Murano glass is still highly sought after today. On this particular Sunday, however, the city was eerily empty. It seemed like everyone had turned to glass! And glass, was everywhere. Almost every store front was filled with glass products, from chandeliers to vases to thumb-sized animal souvenirs and everything in between.
We perused the shops for a while before heading into a garage of sorts where a furnace was burning. A sweaty middle-aged man proceeded to pull out a ball of glowing hot glass and twirl it with incredible speed. I have no idea how he managed to keep it intact without flinging globs and melting our skin, but somehow we came away unscathed. In less than 10 minutes, he made a vase of mixed colors as well an intricate giraffe, all the while explaining the whole process to the onlookers. It was an incredible demonstration.
Back in the crowds of the mainland, we went on a gelato spree buying like 10 scoops in less than 30 minutes. There was raspberry, dark chocolate, banana, mango, melon, and watermelon.
Our tummies full, we plopped onto a vaporetto (waterbus) and cruised up the Grand Canal. Gondoliers drifted by, their iconic striped shirts and straw hats visible for a long ways after. We floated past creamy colored hotels, wooden poles for docking boats jutting out of their waterfront. When the dreamy ride was over, we walked back to the hostel for quick nap. That night we explored the city by moonlight, trying again in vain to capture its splendor.
But Venice’s magic, like so many other places, can only be experienced. It cannot be portrayed in a simple picture because its beauty isn’t a tangible thing. It isn’t just the sight of a passing gondola, or the enormity of St. Mark’s Square, or the sound of the gentle lapping water of the canals, or even the faint smell drifting in from the lagoon. No, Venice is enchanting because of its feeling, its vibe, its romanticism, and its nostalgia. It is something you must experience yourself.