Italy, Chapter 3: Venice!

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We arrived in Venice at night. You’ll have to excuse the blurriness of my photos but you know, there was a lot going on and I didn’t exactly have time to set up a tri-pod.

It was magical. It’s a huge insult to say this but the closest thing I could think of to compare Venice to in my very small exposure to the world was that it felt like being on the Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland. That’s how surreal everything felt. I half expected the lights to come on at some point and I’d see ceiling panels in the ceiling. But there was no ceiling. We weren’t on a set. It was real.

It’s a really weird feeling, being in a village full of lights and surrounded by water on all sides. Water at night is just a creature all it’s own. Ask anyone who’s ever taken a cruise and gone out on top of the boat in the middle of the night. It is vast and creepy but also beautiful. Everywhere you looked there was water. Water was in place of streets and sidewalks.

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We caught a water ferry and slushed away off to our hotel for the night.

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Our hotel, The Hotel Palazzo Giovanelli, was something else. Teresa, our friend the travel agent, gets special privileges sometimes because she refers her customers to luxury hotels like this.  As her companions we got to take a sneak peak at how the rest of the world travels in style and let me tell you, IT IS QUITE THE STYLE! When I come back to Venice as a millionaire this is where I am going to stay. It was gorgeous AND very very old.

It makes you wonder how many generations of nobility have stayed here and how many ghosts might haunt this place? Thankfully I didn’t encounter any ghosts but I did encounter many staff members who had impeccable manners. It was really a special treat.

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Pretty bed, pretty chandelier, pretty bathroom…Not too shabby! And our view was the courtyard that you see in the first hotel picture. That was our bedroom with a terrace over-looking the courtyard. I can only imagine how magical the view of the Grand Canal was. Swoon!

So yes, we had a very nice stay there and no PTSD was experienced.

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The next morning we set out to see Venice by daylight. The first thing we did, and I highly recommend this, was take a gondola ride. You might think it is cliched and you could skip it but I would beg to differ. There is nothing like riding around in a gondola, experiencing the deftness of the gondolier first hand. They are masters of boat maneuvering! I couldn’t even believe how quick and clever our gondolier was. A little tilt here, a little nudge there, a quick push off a brick wall and a lean to the left and we were swishing by other boats with only a hair of clearance.

Our gondolier’s name was Pierre (of course) and he steered our boat in and out and around the tiniest canals filled with major boat traffic like he was walking down the street. That is what the water canals are to people who live here. Just another sidewalk! They grow up riding down canals (and falling in, Pierre told us) like it’s no big deal. It’s just a way of life. Can you imagine?!!

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We took a quick jaunt down the main canal and I was star struck. The open water, the buildings packed in together like sardines. Curves and lines, different textures and time periods all smashed together in a juxtaposition that made your eyes dizzy. Chapters and chapters of history all squished together before us. It was all just too much to take in!

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We obviously managed. It might have been a blessing in disguise that I had my camera stolen in Milan because I could focus exclusively on taking pictures with my phone camera and I wasn’t fumbling around with equipment and accidentally dropping it in the water.

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I loved the small canals. There is stone everywhere. No dirt, no grass just lots and lots of marble and stone. There is no rhyme or reason to the canals and where they streets and alleys connect. It’s like a giant maze. One alley will be narrow then it will off shoot into a larger street which dead ends in a canal… I did feel a little bit like a mouse in a maze with only my natural sense of direction to help me.

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The textures… everything is old and falling apart romantically! If only we could take some of this old world charm home and apply it to our bathroom that needs to be remodeled because the shower leaks. It just doesn’t work like that back home though. Old peeling paint and messily spackled cement is just not as beautiful as it is in Venice. Oh Venice, you age so well….

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As you can see boat traffic is a thing. But we never crashed once. Not even a scrape!

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After the gondola ride we headed straight for the famous Riato bridge. Along the way we happened upon a fish market. I had fun taking pictures of seafood that I would never ever eat. That’s the thing about me and visiting exotic locations on the sea. The local food is completely lost on me because I won’t touch it. I hate all sea food (except the very rare salmon sushi). Even seaweed grosses me out. So I pretend I am a vegetarian when I am visiting sea ports. It’s just easier. I don’t want to insult anyone over their cuisine. I’m sure it is very good. I just happen to have an aversion.

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This is the view from the Rialto Bridge. It was crowded with tourists taking the exact same photos we were. We had to wait our turn to get a shot by the railing. But you can see why it is so popular. It’s very very pretty no matter how many times you see it.

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The wonderful thing about visiting Venice in October though is that it was only slightly crowded. Christine told us that in Summer it’s just one long line of tourists everywhere. I can see why the locals are so annoyed. It’s almost like they have to carry on their daily lives on the rooftops to avoid the crush of tourism. By summer standards Venice was a ghost town but by my standards it was just how I like it.

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Shoppity, shop, shop! So many things to see and buy. I did fall for a few bags of lemon risotto (that I completely flubbed up into mush when I got them home) and some tasty lemon salt.

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I did not buy a mask though. At this point my suitcase was already stuffed to it’s capacity (with homemade items from Varenna and Bellagio) and there was no way I could squeeze in a fragile mask.

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We visited St. Marks Square twice. Once all three of us and then Christine and I went back in the early evening while Teresa schmoozed with the hotel staff. The unfortunate thing about getting robbed was that the thief also took my phone charger so I was beholden on Teresa to share her charger. She was very generous but during the time I visited St. Mark’s Square during the golden glowing light of sweet time, my phone was stuck in the hotel getting charged. I should have bought a new charger but I didn’t think of that until the very last day, like an idiot.

So I didn’t get to take any pictures of St. Mark’s Square during sweet time. But believe me, it was beautiful. We had the most lovely time sitting on the square drinking iced coffee and munching on biscuit cookies. It’s funny I’ve had biscuit cookies a million times but never fresh like they were here. I think the cookies I’ve had in the states are actually the same cookies except they are shipped from Italy and therefore stale! Tasting them freshly baked was out of this world! I spent time drawing in my sketchbook and enjoying the lack of a phone. Sometimes unplugging from your phone can be absolute bliss. Of course the documenter in me was aching to take photos but I was forced to just sit there and enjoy.

At one point a group of older gentlemen started singing mountain folk songs in the middle of the square. They just stood in a circle of old men singing their hearts out. Their voices harmonized and echoed off the surrounding marble walls. I got the chills listening to them! And guess what? One of them was Christine’s cousin (or uncle, I’m not sure) so they had a little reunion and everyone got hugs.  I felt like a local for a moment and vowed that when I get old I am going to join a singing group and travel the world singing. There is so much more to life! I see no reason to stay home watching television and getting depressed.

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We walked along the Adriatic Sea just taking everything in. I saw a woman modeling, artists selling art, young back packers lounging, at one point a cruise ship even pulled in. It was all the different kinds of vacationers on display. Everybody wants to see Venice and with good reason.

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I really love to take pictures of the locals though. I like to pretend I am a National Geographic photographer getting a slice of the local life. If anybody wants to hire me as a travel photographer I am over here waving my hand enthusiastically. Pick me!

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I’m sure this photo has been taken thousands and thousands of times but it is so special to me because I was actually there. I can feel the warm breeze, I can hear the lapping waves, I can hear Christine calling me to speed walk to the other side of the island to see even more amazing things.

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We had the best food in Venice. Pizza, Pasta Arrabbiata, Burratta Caprese and plenty of bottles of red house wine! I will never eat at Olive Garden again. Not that I was a fan anyway but soggy pasta is now dead to me. There is no reason to ever eat soggy pasta again.

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All the waiters flirted with Christine and Teresa because of course they are cute (duh) and their broken Italian endears the Italians. Everybody loves a tourist that at least tries to order in Italian. By the end of our trip I even picked up a few words. Italian is very similar to Spanish and by context I found that I could understand a lot. Speaking it not so much but I definitely got the gist of what was being said.23-textures-of-venice-1

Mostly, I love the rhythm and sing-song-y-ness of Italian. Everything has an upswing and a downswing when it is being said. I could copy it in a minute but unfortunately this is a blog and not a podcast. If you know me in person ask me to share how the Lake Como ferryman announces the destinations. It is unforgettable.

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Ah, locks! Not much to say about these but they were romantic like everything else in Venice. I am definitely bringing Payam back here someday. Payam was worried that it smelled in Venice and I don’t really think it did. It wasn’t fresh like a daisy or anything but the smell of the water wasn’t repellent. Just old and musty maybe but there was enough fresh crisp autumn air that I hardly even noticed it which reinforces my theory that fall is the best time to visit.

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Venice is full of curiosities. Every which way we turned there was something new.

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Remember that coconut fountain? They have fruit cup fountains too!

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And windows. Windows and windows and windows. I could make a whole coffee table book full of photos of windows in Venice. Every single one unique and different from the last. No homeowner’s association rules here!

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My travel mates took a lot of cute photos of me adventuring. Sadly, I don’t have high resolution copies of these images but I might have to track them down. I do love a travel photo of the back of someone’s head. It just makes you feel like they are going places. And I am!

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And then it was time to go. I kissed Venice an air kiss goodbye and promised that I would visit again.

Next up: Florence!

Italy, Chapter 2: Varenna, the Sleepy Village that Soothes the Soul

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We left Milan depleted. We were sad, scared, worried and trying desperately to stay optimistic in the face of adversity. The bad guys won but we weren’t going to let them ruin our trip. They just wore us down, temporarily. We were happy to be on the train heading for brighter horizons. Christine promised us that we would love Varenna. It would be just the place to cheer up weary travelers.

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And it was! The closer and closer we got to Varenna, the brighter and cheerier the day seemed. The sun came out, the buildings were painted in yellows and golds, the fall foliage burst all over the scenery with bright red and crimson leaves. It was so pretty!  The dreary graffiti-strewn city walls passed away behind us. We were in the countryside now and it was beautiful!

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We got off our train and hobbled our luggage up the cobblestone streets to our bed and breakfast. Here’s a thing about Christine: She’s a speed walker. Sometimes she doesn’t know where she is going but that doesn’t slow her down at all. She goes even faster in the wrong direction so she can figure it out sooner and report back to us, saving us some steps. However, Teresa and I were not familiar with this method of fearless leadership so we breathlessly tried to keep up and then shook our heads in bewilderment when we ended up very much going the wrong way. Eventually we figured this out and stopped trying to keep up with Christine. But it took a while. We were quite the bunch of pals racing all over in confusion.

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Varenna is a little village perched on the hillsides of Lake Como. It is so adorable. It feels like it’s set back in time. There are no Seven Elevens. There are no Big Gulps or Walmarts or chain restaurants. Everything is perfect and quaint and charming. In between the buildings are narrow corridors of steps leading down to the lake. Every corridor is different and boasts a view more beautiful than the last. I could live here. I could seriously buy a cottage and live here forever. It was like coming home.

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Our Bed and Breakfast was a gold building and our room was on the fourth floor. No more entry-level windows for us! We were good and high up and we felt it in our butts as we bumped our luggage up four floors of concrete steps.

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Outside our window,  just a block down was a church that rung it’s bells jubilantly every half hour and not necessarily in the right order. I could swear it rang twenty times at 7am. Time to get up and go to church apparently! Everybody is Catholic in Italy and there are a LOT of churches.

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The top left window was ours. In the night, the shutter swung open and made a loud banging noise. Both Teresa and I woke up with a start. We were sure we were getting robbed again and ran around in the dark of our room, checking our luggage to make sure nothing was taken.

Of course nothing was taken but it shook us up for good while and we had trouble falling back to sleep. It’s amazing how much scarier and illogically you can think when it’s dark. In the daytime you are fine but when it gets dark all kinds of things go bump in the night.  This is the PTSD I was talking about and it’s still with me now that I’m back in America. I can only imagine what soldiers deal with. We only had one night of terror (not even a night really, maybe a few hours). No wonder so many veterans are suffering. I’m much better now but I’m just saying it kind of stays with you long after you think you are fine.

Anyway, we did sleep and we woke up to a glorious morning in Varenna. We had been expecting bad weather on our trip. That’s what our weather apps predicted when we were back in the states but we had nothing but beautiful perfect fall weather. It was amazing. I cannot recommend traveling in the fall enough. The air is crisp but not cold. You can hike without sweating. You don’t have to wear boots or cart around coats. It’s just pretty. I especially appreciated it since I live in Southern California and I have thin blood and no experience with real seasons.

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This is the church that bonged it’s heart out at seven in the morning. Such a cheery little church wishing everybody would get up already and go say their prayers.

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I did love this church. I am not Catholic but I think if I lived here I would attend this church faithfully. It was so small but majestic. I especially loved the Amelie-esque painting of a woman saint. I don’t know her name. There is more information here but I can’t seem to find anything since I am a cursed speed reader.

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You get it right? Look at this village? Can’t you just see me holed up in some apartment, illustrating books for days without the internet interrupting me? I could be so prolific! My travel mates didn’t think I’d last though. I’d get bored soon they said. I’m not so sure. I think I could take this kind of boredom.

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I mean, really. Look at these views. And it snows sometimes! Imagine the fun of that!

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If you get bored of Varenna you can always hop on a ferry to Bellagio. The real Bellagio that the casino was named after in Las Vegas. I like this Bellagio a lot better. They don’t have any fancy waterfalls synchronized to music but it is not a loss at all.

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Everyone is stylish in Italy. All the time. All the men wear tapered pants and funky socks. Even the grandfathers and boring professors, police men and gardeners.  I bet even the thief who robbed me was wearing very cool shoes and a sporty jacket. It’s just the way it is. I learned very quickly that my hole-y jeans and white t-shirt were three shades of snoresville.

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In Bellagio we had lunch. We cheered with Apperol Spritz, like you do. It was very delightful and the pasta was always al dente. We had caffé lungos after lunch which is espresso with a bit of water so you get more volume. The Italians know how to do coffee. We all knew that but seriously, it is the BEST. They don’t have paper cups. Everyone gets glass. They don’t serve anything large. Twelve ounces is for those disdainful Americans. You get a wee little cup and you will appreciate that wee little cup.

I did! I really did. Even in the airport I got a cappuccino and it was the best cappuccino ever. I just loved Italian coffee. Not unlike how I loved Parisian coffee. Maybe I just hate American coffee.

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Then we shopped. I bought a lot of really nice handmade items for friends and family back home. I love supporting the local artists and Italy has them in loads. No imported crap from China here. You can actually talk to the artisan about his work for as long as you like and then he’ll wrap it up for you in a pretty red package! I was in love.

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Up and down the corridors we trekked, getting buns of steel as we went.

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There were so many nooks and crannies to explore. No main drag or strip mall in sight. Just little shops and coffee bars, tiny restaurants and apartments with laundry hanging outside their windows. If you looked up charming in the dictionary it should have a picture of Bellagio and Varenna.

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We ferried back to Varenna after our little day trip to Bellagio and sorted out where we should have dinner…

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Pizza, drinks or panini anyone? We didn’t eat from this little panini truck but if I lived here I would.

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Of course I had to have gelato and it was delicious! Sadly, gelato and ice cream are wasted on me. I have sensitive teeth and even though I love the taste, I don’t completely love the experience of my teeth being frozen off. But I took one for the team. Bug told me I had to have stracciatella because she read the book “Love and Gelato” last year and has been a huge gelato fan ever since. It was pretty good but I really loved the lampoon (aka raspberry) too. Most of all I loved the view of the boats where we sat on a cobblestone curb and ate our gelato. I could get used to that.

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That night we ate dinner on the water too. The food wasn’t as amazing as it usually was but we didn’t care because we had seats RIGHT ON THE WATER! How often does that happen in America? Not very often. We shut the restaurant down, talking late into the night and drinking wine.

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It was all so peaceful. Nothing like Milan.

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The next day we had breakfast in this cute little restaurant that cinched my love affair with Varenna. It was so charming! It reminded me of Zinc back home but a thousand times better. There was no fancy expensive marble counter top. Just regular formica and the exposed brick of a hundred years ago. A sparkly chandelier hung from the ceiling and pretty bottles lined the walls. It was an Instagrammers dream. Nothing fancy individually but everything together fancier than anything I could dream up.

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Breakfast was amazing. All that on a cookie sheet. See why I could live here? Le sigh.

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After breakfast we took a hike up the hillside to visit a cemetery. I would love to be buried here with that amazing view. My relatives would love to come visit me and picnic on my grave!  But Christine told me sometimes cemeteries have 30-year reservations and after 30 years they can dig you up and move you to make room for new dead bodies. Can you imagine that? They dig you up after 30 years and if no family member claims you and buries you somewhere else, you are moved to some mass grave and forgotten?!! What? That seems crazy. I think I’ll just be cremated and save everyone the trouble.

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The cemetery was very small and most of the people seem to have died in the 50’s which is long after their 30-year eviction notice so maybe they are lucky or just well cared for.

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After the cemetery Christine and I attempted to hike to a castle further up. We weren’t intending to hike all the way up to the castle but we ended up doing it anyway because Christine is a speed hiker and I am competitive.

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It was a really pretty hike. The path was narrow and winding along narrow crevices that opened into breath-taking views. Every once in a while we would happen upon an alter to the Virgin Mary and there were little notes and pictures stuck to it. It was amazing to me that so many people had taken this hike, maybe as a pilgrimage to pray for their loved ones. I think it’s a really beautiful way to deal with grief. A lot better than anti-depressants.

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Just be outside in all this beauty and take it in. It heals the soul. But all that view-taking-in made us late and we had to run down the mountain like crazy mad billy goats to catch a train! Christine sped-hiked and I practically threw myself down the mountain with flying dirt and gravel leading my way. It was pure comedy. I have a twisted tendon on the back of my knee for a souvenir.

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But of course we made it. And then we were off to Venice!

Next up: Venice