Thursday, July 29, 2010

European stop 3: Venice, Italy

We took a two-hour train ride from Florence and arrived in Venice on Tuesday, July 6. Aside from the fact that the trip set us back 84 Euros (for two tickets) and the fact that we were seated across from the real-life and twice-as-annoying version of Augustus Gloop, we had a pleasant experience and arrived easily in Venice.

Total time in Venice: 2.5 days, 3 nights

Money-saving tip: 
If you are 29 or under, purchase a Rolling Venice pass as soon as you arrive in Venice, and definitely before you buy any public transportation or sightseeing tickets. When you exit the train station, you'll see booths reading "Hello Venezia." You won't see the Rolling Venice pass advertised, but ask for it, and you'll save big bucks. Our Lonely Planet Italy book told us our passes would cost 2 Euros each, but we wound up paying 2 Euros total for two passes. What did these passes get us? For starters, we bought 72-hour vaporetto (water bus) tickets that would have cost 33 Euros each, but with our Rolling Venice pass we only paid 18 Euros each. And, at the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) we only paid 7 Euros each, compared to 13 Euros each. So, by spending 2 Euros we saved 42 Euros.

Hotel:

Albergo Basilea Hotel Venice
S. Croce-Rio Marin, 817
Price we paid per night: $142
Location: A good location is just about all this hotel has going for it. Located right on the Rio Marin, this hotel is situated away from the bustle of the Grand Canal and San Marco. But, the location offers the best of both worlds because it's only a five-minute walk to the Grand Canal and the train station and bus station.
The Rio Marin and its pretty, quiet ambiance is the best thing this hotel has to offer.
The hotel is a five-minute walk to the Ponte Scalzi, one of the three bridges that crosses the Grand Canal, and the train station is right on the other side of the bridge.
The view of the Grand Canal from the Ponte Scalzi


Room: Ugly decor, wallpaper peeling off walls...general yuck. The size of the room was better than that of the Rome hotel, and the bathroom size was actually similar to that of the Florence hotel. Still, despite not being in cramped quarters, the room's aesthetics and dirty floor took away from our enjoyment of the hotel. How do I know the floor was dirty? Matt called me Mary Magdalene throughout our trip because I got into a habit of washing my feet each afternoon when we came home for a siesta. At this hotel, though, right after I washed my feet and walked back into the bedroom, my feet would immediately be dirty again.
Blah blah blah...decor decor decor.
The bathroom, though, is decent.
Breakfast included? Funny story. We couldn't remember if breakfast was included with our room or not, but when we check in the receptionist gets out a Venice map and starts writing information on it, including the fact that breakfast is from 8-9:30 and that breakfast is, in fact, served in the breakfast room (there are also several signs throughout the hotel alerting you to the fact that breakfast is served in the breakfast room, very helpful indeed). So, our first morning we wake up and head to breakfast, only to be met by a waitress who asks our room number, gets confused, sends us to the receptionist -- the same man from the day before -- who tells us that we do not have breakfast with our room. This is awkward because we'd already filled our plates and started chowing down. Annoyed, we go to the cafe next door and have 4 Euros worth of croissants and coffee. For what it's worth, this hotel had the worst breakfast buffet of all the hotels we stayed in, so, no biggie, just mild annoyance at the poor service.
TV: Crappy little TV from 1984 with zero English-language stations and horrible reception for all the Italian stations.
Internet: You can pay to use one of two computers in the lobby. The price is reasonable and the connection speed is good.
Overall assessment: Of all the eight hotels we stayed in during our trip, this is the only one I would recommend no one book. Not only was the room uninspired and the breakfast situation frustrating, but perhaps most importantly there was loud construction going on outside our bedroom window. This construction began with intense drilling at 8 a.m. I understand that hotels must perform maintenance at times, and I don't expect it to be dead silent, but there was no attempt to do anything to compensate us for this fact...like, say, give us free breakfast, or, better yet, move us to another room.

Food:
Our food experiences in Venice were not as awesome as the ones we had in Rome and Florence, perhaps because food in Venice seems more expensive than Rome or Florence, or perhaps because I caught a 24-hour bug while in Venice and therefore enjoyed everything a little less. (I'm going to blame my brief illness on our crappy hotel, but it's more likely that my quick bug was the result of lots of adjusting to all the germs on lots of public transportation and sightseeing ventures.)

Muro
Location: San Polo (don't focus too much on addresses in Venice...just wander and hope that you find it)
Genre: Modern full-service Italian restaurant
How we found it: Wandering while looking for another restaurant, we stumbled upon this one
What we ate: Shared an appetizer of fried, so-good vegetables (healthy?) and a litre of house red wine. Steph: potato gnocchi in a cheese sauce with spinach and bacon; Matt: pizza with no cheese (which was majorly confusing for the waitress and no doubt the cook as well, but so goes it for the lactose intolerant).
Fried appetizer!
So much gnocchi!
Someone can't finish all her gnocchi...
Total cost: $56
Overall assessment: I was thrilled to see potato gnocchi on the menu, because I was surprised at how few restaurants in Italy served gnocchi. The next morning I felt a little ill, but I'm not going to blame my bug on this food that was quite delicious. This restaurant's decor stands out -- it's modern and looks more like an American restaurant than any place we visited in Italy.

Another spot to look for good food: Campo Santa Margherita. We stumbled upon this plaza not once but twice. On our second night in Venice, when I wasn't feeling too hot, we were looking for a place to eat some light food and watch the World Cup semi-finals match between Spain and Germany, and we found this large plaza that caters to a young crowd. The following night we returned somewhat unintentionally to this plaza and ate an antipasti platter and drank prosecco.
We don't know it yet, but we're almost to Campo Santa Margherita for the second night in a row.
Matt gets cute and artistic before our antipasti platter arrives.

Sightseeing:
Venice is unlike any other city in the world, so some of the best sightseeing is simply walking around and exploring. We did a lot of this, and we also did some more formal sightseeing activities as well. Three days is plenty of time to see a lot of Venice.

A long vaporetto ride from Piazzale Roma to Lido along the Grand Canal
Price: 18 Euros for a 72-hour unlimited ride pass using the Rolling Venice pass, or 33 Euros for a full-price 72-hour ticket
This was probably my favorite sightseeing activity. It involves sitting on a boat and seeing pretty things, so it's likely to be on your top-things-to-do list, too.
Tip 1: Take the number 1 vaporetto from Piazzale Roma (the bus station) to Lido (a large island away from the main section of Venice). This vaporetto will stop at each place along the Grand Canal, but if you're a nerd like me you'll take advantage of this by reading about all the sights in your Lonely Planet guide and take a ton of photos. Each leg of the trip is about one hour.
Tip 2: Although you can board this line anywhere along the Grand Canal, by starting at Piazzale Roma you get your pick of seats, and we chose to sit outside at the front of the boat (most of the seats are inside, and a lot of people wind up standing outside as well).
Tip 3: Yes, gondolas are the iconic symbol of romantic Venice waterways, but they're also really expensive and don't take you very far. If you have the money and prefer the romance of gondolas, go for it, or you can just hold your special someone's hand on the vaporetto and still have a pretty special experience...I mean, you're in Venice, after all.
The big boat is a vaporetto, aka my ride of choice.
Some views from the vaporetto, line number 1.

Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace)
Price: 7 Euros with Rolling Venice pass, 13 Euros full-price adult ticket
What is a doge? It's a duke, and these are the guys who used to have the big authority in Venice. Their palace is pretty impressive but also contains a complicated history that I was not at all familiar with before our trip.
Tip 1: Do a little comparison shopping between the line to get into the Palazzo Ducale and the line for the Basilica di San Marco. They're right next to each other, and when we were there the basilica line was really long while the Palazzo Ducale had no line at all, although I hear at certain times the Palazzo Ducale can have quite a long line.
Tip 2: Invest in an audio guide, but don't feel the need to listen to every last detail. The guide is helpful because there are basically no signs within the palace, but the audio guide goes into too much detail regarding a lot of the art hanging throughout the palace. I don't recommend this audio guide for children simply because it would bore them.
Fun fact: Inside the courtyard there is a stone lion's mouth. Citizens could write anonymous tips on pieces of paper and feed them through the lion's mouth where they were then gathered in a wooden box.
Inside the doge's courtyard, with the roof of the basilica peeking out from above

Basilica di San Marco
Price: Free
The inside of this church is unlike any I've ever seen. The ceiling is almost entirely composed of mosaics, many of which include gold leaf tiles. The church really is a testament to Venice's maritime power and all the plunder the city took from places such as Alexandria.
Tip 1: As always in Italy, cover your shoulders and don't wear a short skirt when you enter the church.
Tip 2: You can go up the basilica's campanile (bell tower), but we opted for another bell tower across the water from San Marco so we could have better views looking into the city (more on that next...)
St. Mark the lion overlooks the entrance to Piazza San Marco
Piazza San Marco is expansive but also exceptionally crowded most of the time, so we did not spend much time there.

Isla di San Giorgio Maggiore and the Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore
Price: Free
This island is directly across the water from San Marco, but there is no easy, fast way to get there via vaporetto. So, we sat back and took a long ride around Venice, this time through the Canale della Guidecca instead of through the Grand Canal. We had a great boat ride and saw lots of different sights, including cruise ships, and then we walked around this pretty church and took the elevator to the top of its bell tower for some outstanding views.
Tip: When you're inside the bell tower, be prepared for the bells to chime...we were not, and someone got a little jumpy.
The island, church and bell tower from the vaporetto
Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore

A view of San Marco from the island
Views from the bell tower

Next up in our European travels...our parting thoughts from Italy before we venture to Spain!

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