A friend of mine has just won an all-expense-paid trip to Italy, including a week in a cooking school in Tuscany. This will be her first trip to Italy and she's adding an extra week of travel after her class ends. She's very excited; but I think I may be even more excited, because I know what wonderful sights await her!
This has reminded me of my very first trip to Italy, which was extraordinarily short and occurred entirely by accident. Still, that brief glimpse, which was of Venice, utterly hooked me on Italy, an addiction I haven't been able to shake (not that I have even tried.)
My initial taste of Italy involved only a handful of days in Venice, and was unplanned, utterly unorganized but magical.
I had been on a business trip in Europe and had planned to spend several personal days at the end in Paris, before flying home from there. However, my work in Germany took a sharp turn, and on the final day of my business, I found myself with two colleagues in the Veneto, only about an hour north of Venice. When our work finally wrapped up that evening, my colleagues and I decided that it made the most sense for us to go down to Venice for the night and make travel arrangements from there.
Some contacts arranged a van to drive us down to Venice and also booked three rooms for us in a hotel very near the train station (definitely not an area that I would now pick!) However, this occurred almost 10 years ago and at that time Italian internet connections were iffy, my web-surfing abilities almost non-existent and so there weren't really any options. Besides, who cared -- I was going to Venice!
It was probably about 10 p.m. when we arrived at Piazzale Roma, the closest point to Venice itself that our driver could reach with his van. He gestured roughly in the direction of the train station and took off, leaving us with a heap of luggage, including various laptop computers, briefcases full of files and suitcases packed with business clothes. Talk about over packing! But when we set out two weeks earlier, no one expected we'd be schlepping our luggage over so many bridges of Venice.
Off we went. The night was black, but the lights twinkling off the Grande Canal were breathtaking. So were the three or four bridges that we crossed enroute to finding our hotel. We followed the signs directing us along the Grande Canal and finally over what must have been the Scalzi Bridge. I was so disoriented, yet so utterly amazed and thrilled to be in Venice, that I barely remember how we found our way to the train station and a minute past that, to our hotel. Adding to the confusion, as we slowly made our way into Venice, we encountered wave after wave of teenagers bearing musical instruments of all types. They must have all been participating in some kind of brass band festival earlier in the evening. The effect was pretty surreal.
Eventually we found the hotel, dumped our luggage very quickly and dashed out to find a nearby pizzeria which was just closing, but agreed to feed us. It was almost directly across from the train station -- again, not a restaurant I'd now pick. Still, at that time it didn't matter. The pizza was glorious and the wine perfect, as we sat at a table on a terrace beside the Grande Canal, under the stars. I was enchanted.
After we ate, my colleague Dan turned in while Aileen and I decided to walk for a while. It was well past midnight and the streets and bridges deserted. I had never been in a city without vehicle traffic, too-bright street lights, and noise. As we walked, whispering because it was so dark and silent, I was amazed at how mysterious Venice seemed to be.
The following morning I woke up late, and rushed to my window. I will never forget that sensation of my first daylight view of Venice. The sight of hundreds of red-tiled rooftops, so characteristic of Italy; the sound of church bells and people chattering on the street below stopped my heart. My tiny window looked down on the street and towards the train station, not a particularly incredible view. But it was first real vision of Italy and I was (and remain) completely smitten.
I decided to stay a second night and see a bit of Venice. I found a cheap flight from Venice to Paris, where I was expected to met a friend...in hindsight, I realize that should have cancelled my Paris plans and stayed on in Venice. But that didn't occur to me at the time.
I spent that wonderful day in Venice wandering the streets -- no map, no travel guide, no idea where I was or what was going on. But none of that really mattered. I couldn't believe my luck in suddenly landing in Venice! I followed twisting calles, totally lost, peering in windows, dodging crowds, stopping in shops, always marvelling at the lack of motorized traffic and the remarkable age of the streets and buildings.
Two things that I knew about Venice and that I wanted to see for myself: the Rialto Bridge (I remembered The Merchant of Venice: "Many a time and oft on the Rialto....." and I also wanted to see San Marco. Alas, the magnificent St. Mark's was under scaffolding, so I comforted myself with a gelato.
But I found the Rialto and it left me gobsmacked. I had never before seen a bridge such as this -- so wide, that it held shops! Right on the bridge! People really could do business, right on the Rialto! Over the Grande Canal! What a wonderous thing. By the way, the first photo shown here, courtesy of Concierge, shows the view from the Rialto; the second, looks towards the Bridge of Sighs which links ancient prison cells to interrogation rooms in the Doge's Palace.
To this day, I remain addicted to the beauty and wonder of Italy.
Anyone else recall their first trip to Italy?!