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Report 582: An Independent Driving Tour of Europe - 2001

By JaniceB from Ontario, Canada, Spring 2001

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Page 13 of 15: Venezia & Monterosso al Mare, Italy

Jun 06, 2001 14:20

Let me bring you up to date on our trip from Austria into Italy. After we left Unterpinswang in the Tirol, we headed to the Swarovski crystal factory near Innsbruck. Although we enjoyed shopping in their on-site store, the actual crystal place we paid to enter was a huge disappointment. Our recommendation: don't bother. It was a huge waste of money and time. It's very avant garde with displays of strange manikins covered in crystals, very small-time light shows and average music ... we didn't get it. We thought we'd get to see the making of the famous crystal objects, but there wasn't a craftsman in sight. Also, as seems to be common in Europe, the organization and display of their sales materials is very inadequate. Big chaos. Oh, well.

Following Innsbruck, we began to head through the Brenner Pass into Italy. We descended through the mountains for the next couple of hours ... constantly going downhill. The Brenner Pass itself is an unbelievable feat of engineering. The roadway snakes through the pass and down the valleys ... four lanes across ... at a fairly even rate of descent and basically clinging to the valley wall. Almost the entire way is built up above the valley floor, as if you're travelling on a high bridge for miles and miles. It's nothing short of spectacular. Unfortunately, we did it in rain.

Soon after we entered Italy, we noticed that the homes and farm buildings tended to look more broken down, and not well looked after. This seems to hold true for most of what we've seen in this country. That doesn't mean to say there aren't attractive places, just that the cultural tendency seems not to focus on building exteriors. It was quite a change from what we'd seen in northern Europe.

We drove most of the day through rain, at times very heavy and windy. Then, as we left the mountains near Verona, the storm finished passing us by. However, we then changed our direction and headed east toward Venice, chasing after the storm. As we drew closer and closer to this famous city, we overtook the storm and drove again in heavy rains. Despite the poor visibility, we managed to find Venice itself and parked in one of their only parking lots (cars are not permitted on Venice's islands). We loaded up with the backpacks we were using for our two days in Venice and began to look for the route to the vaporetto (waterbus) so we could get to the hotel.

Picture this: We're in Italy for the first time, we're carrying our luggage, we're blinded by the downpour and winds, we can't find anyone who can direct us to the vaporetto (I'm not even sure which direction the water is), it's getting late (after 6 pm), the information and banking facilities at the parking lot are closed, there are hordes of tourists waiting around for their tour busses in the pouring rain (they're leaving Venice), we're hungry, I can hardly read my map for the rain ... You get the picture?

Even today, three days later, Mom keeps chuckling about her image of me -- standing in the pouring rain, my hair hanging in strings, trying to read my map.

We finally stumbled on the vaporetto waiting area (by this time, we're practically wading through the water), and found the right place to catch the boat. It arrived before long and we boarded with many, many other people. We all crowded into the covered sitting area, the windows were steamed up and there was no way to read the names of the vaporetto stops, it was crowded and we were very wet. It was so bad, I don't think Mom thought about the boat capsizing and drowning once!

I had studied the map of Venice and knew (theoretically) where our hotel was. I knew that the boat we were on would take us down the Grand Canal. I knew our stop was called Academia and that it was located by the third of three bridges across the Grand Canal. I kept peering out the doors and wiping away the mist from the windows and eventually was pretty sure it was time for us to disembark (neither the driver nor the assistant announce the stops). I was right, and we stumbled onto semi-dry land. We stepped hesitantly into the street (walkway) and headed toward the building I was sure the hotel was in. I knew that the Hotel Galleria occupied one floor of the palazzo (palace) directly by the bridge. Logically, this meant there were other businesses or apartments located in the same building on other floors -- therefore, there was probably more than one door. I also knew the building directly fronted the Canal, so that left three other sides of the building where we might find the door. But -- lo and behold -- there was the door we wanted right in front of us. What a relief! We could get our of the rain, I could dry my hair (absolutely soaked), and maybe we could find dinner!

Venice is terribly expensive. I had really looked to find a hotel that wasn't the most expensive and that would give us the best experience and location for the money. I made the right choice in this case, but expected modest, if not plain and small, rooms. To our delight, the room we received looked out directly on the Grand Canal and was quite large. The ceiling was about 12 feet high and beautifully painted (with serious cracks at no added cost). The furniture was fancy, although a bit beat up. We enjoyed this room -- even if the breakfast was meager (croissants, rolls, a tiny bit of cheese, coffee).

Dad checked with the receptionist, and she recommended a restaurant to us, just a few streets away. By this time it's 7:30 pm. We found the restaurant quite easily (narrow alleys about four feet wide, Momspeak -- "Rick, do you know where you're going? Rick, we can't go in there! Janice, what do we do now?" Dad just kept going and we followed.).

We were disappointed to find that the restaurant was "completo" or full. We didn't have a reservation. They were willing to prepare a couple of small pizzas to take back to our room and we were happy enough with this. But, while we were waiting for the pizzas, a table became available, so we got to eat in style after all. However, by this time, we realized we were way too tired to enjoy a leisurely meal, so we settled for a small serving each of spaghetti with salmon. It was delicious.

Let me break into this description of our time in Venice (or Vienna) as Mom and Dad keep mistakenly calling it, to tell you about restaurant meals in Europe. I call these dinners "Meat on a Plate." We've been served German Meatballs (one large finely ground somewhat flattened meat pattie in the middle of a dinner plate, surrounded by a sea of gravy), veal all by itself on a dinner plate, salmon and fish from the Gulf of Liguria on a plate, venison on a plate, deer on a plate, sausage on a plate ... and so on. If there are any vegetables involved (which isn't always), they're served separately or earlier or later. We never get all the food at once or together. Very disorienting. Last night we had the Gulf fish on a plate served with a huge scoop of mayonnaise. The food is all delicious, but the serving of it is a constant surprise. Another surprise to us is the fact that everything is charged separately, including condiments. McDonalds charges extra for ketchup. The nice restaurant we went to the first night in Venice charged for the bread they had left us on the table. One helpful thing is to order from the Tourist Menu. Really helpful for tired, confused tourists. They give you several options in several courses. You just point to one for each course and you pay one set price for the whole meal. Good system. I'll come back to this later.

Back to Venice. We had a great sleep and after the meager breakfast headed out for the main sight in town, Piazzo San Marco. Actually, the entire town of Venice is one big sight. There's so much to see and, as Mom kept saying, "It's SO old!" But, most tourists head first to the St. Mark's Basilica and the area around it. You've probably seen all the photos -- pigeons everywhere. One landed on my shoulder. The enormous piazza (or courtyard) is full of tourists, even first thing in the morning. We saw a long, long line of them standing patiently down half the piazza. So, of course, we joined them! While Mom & Dad held our place, I walked to front to discover that we were waiting to enter (free) the church itself. Good choice! I went back and joined them for a while, and then decided to go and see if I could find tickets for us to tour the Doge's Palazzo next door. This was another good choice.

While Mom and Dad continued to stay in line and fight off the pigeons, I wandered around the palazzo in search of the ticket office. I eventually found it and joined the line-up for tickets -- I hoped. There were no signs and I was just guessing I was in the right place. It's good I went early; when we did enter the palazzo an hour later, the line-up was about four times longer. So I stood in line. And stood. And stood. I kept wondering if I should give up and go back to Mom and Dad. But I stood.

Finally, I was one person away from the ticket seller (again, really bad organization). That one person in front of me engaged in a classic, stereotypical Italian exchange, although it was conducted mostly in English. The woman wanted to buy tickets for two adults and three students. The seller explained the students had to have student ID. The woman insisted the seller could use her eyes and see that they were students. The seller waved the printed ticket rules in front of the woman's face. They began to yell at each other. The woman dragged two of her kids to the ticket window and yelled that, of course they were students, any fool could tell. The ticket seller yelled at the woman. The ticket seller yelled at her fellow ticket sellers. I simply watched in awe and hoped they wouldn't yell at me. Finally, it was my turn. I didn't dare ask for senior's prices! I meekly asked if we could enter at any time (many tourist sights have timed entrances, where you can only enter at the specific time printed on your ticket). The ticket seller was very calm and told me any time today would do. I heaved a sigh of relief, grabbed the tickets and ran back to Mom and Dad, sending pigeons into flight with every step!

This adventure had taken so long, Mom and Dad were first in line many times! We entered the church and were really taken with the spectacular mosaics on the floor (they're very famous), not to mention the rolling floor. It feels as if you're walking on rippled ice. The years of winter flooding and the settling of the subsoil at this part of Venice has given a pronounced roll to the floor. The "peaks" of the floors are about 20 feet apart. It's the most peculiar feeling. Dad keeps wondering about the basic structure of the building. We didn't notice any other problems with the walls or ceilings at this location.

After admiring the church, we headed over to the Doge's Palace and were really impressed with what we saw there. Big, big, big paintings, including the largest canvas painting in the world (by Tintoretto), lots of 24-carat gold ceilings, marble staircases, more paintings (travel writer Rick Steves calls them wallpaper). Venice in her heyday had a larger city gross product 50% greater than the entire country of France at that time. It was the most powerful political entity in Europe. That was back about 600 years ago.

After all this walking (it was about 45 minutes to and from the piazza and hotel) we headed back to our room for a rest. (Lunch was a sandwich eaten on the cold marble steps of the piazza, again fighting off pigeons.) Walking in Venice is a challenge. There are innumerable canals, crisscrossed by small bridges that are always arched and stepped (hard for Mom). The bridges are always arched in order to accommodate the classic gondolas and other boats. We had hoped to have one of those expensive gondola rides but, after stopping on one bridge to watch them course past (with singing gondoliers!), we decided against it. We could smell a lot of fish. And other things. So, on we walked.

We spent a couple of hours in the afternoon riding the vaporetto -- a great way to view the palazzos -- and getting lost in the back alleys, before riding the vaporetto again. It was a lot of fun. In the evening, we went back to a square we'd found, Campo San Stefano. It had lots of late afternoon sun and a restaurant that served food on a Monday! Most restaurants are closed Mondays. I can't imagine what they think tourists do on these days. Fast? We had a great meal with live music (accordion, clarinet, & two guitars) and headed home to our room where we hung out our windows and watched the boat traffic.

The next morning, we rode the vaporetto like experienced Venetians back to the car park and headed across Italy to the Italian Riviera. We took some back roads and saw rural, pastoral Italy. At one point, we stopped for lunch in a little trattoria, or cafe. I think it was the Italian equivalent of a truck stop. Mom and I had our first experience with a toilet that was just a hole in the floor. We opened the door, took one look, and hurried back to the table. "We can wait," we told Dad. And we did! That town we discovered later was a walled city built in the 1500's (I looked it up).

Soon after that, we got back onto the Autostrada (big toll highway) where they have much better bathrooms and headed through beautiful hills and mountains to the coast -- where we are now. The Cinque Terre (five lands) is a very old, very remote part of Italy at the bottom end of the Italian Riviera. These towns were first mentioned in some early Roman writings. They're actually five tiny fishing villages that cling to steep cliffs above the Mediterranean Sea. The big attraction is their remote location, the beautiful coast and the trail that snakes from town to town. They're barely accessible by car. Some of them aren't accessible by car! Need I mention that Mom was seriously traumatized by the drive here? Probably not. I imagine you've noticed the pattern so far.

We're staying in Monterosso al Mare and it took about 20 km of snaky, skinny roads to get here. Sometimes there was room for two cars to pass, sometimes not. Mom's one consolation is that on the way out tomorrow, our car will mostly be on the "inside" side of the road.

This morning, Dad and I planned to take the local train to town number 5 (we're in number 1) and hike at least one or two parts of the trail. Unfortunately, a few minutes after we left the hotel, the skies opened and we had another heavy rain. We gave up on the trails and found this internet cafe instead. Oh well, we've enjoyed wandering this little village, with its crooked streets and very vocal residents.

Just in closing for now, let me tell you about supper last night. Our room includes not only breakfast, but supper as well. We arrived in the dining room on time and were shown to our own table. There was a menu waiting for us ... tourist menu style. Our only problem was twofold: the menu had not a word of English and neither did the waitress. We finally deciphered enough to pick out meat vs fish dishes, but our primary way of choosing our dinner selections was, as Mom says, to close our eyes and put a finger to the list of options ... "I'll have ... that one!" It worked pretty well! The tiramisu (dessert) was fabulous. I think I'll have that again tonight.

Well, we'd better sign off for now. I think I see a little sunshine peeking into this dark hole filled with computers. (This place is so Italy ... the music being played in this internet cafe is loud opera. It's great!) Love to you all!

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