It's been some time since I traveled solely for the purpose of seeing a new place. Over the past few years, nearly all of my non-work trips have been to play in ultimate frisbee tournaments in admittedly spectacular places like Waimanalo, Sarasota, Washington, D.C., and Seattle.
My trip to Venice was something else entirely - travel for the sake of having the privilege of simply being in a new place for a while and seeing the best it has to offer. I wasn't supposed to spend a whole 11 days there, but sometimes you book your return flight for the wrong Monday and find yourself scrambling to find accommodation just a week before departure. Luckily, my college roommate Chris was on spring break the same week and decided to join me.
I touched down Euro-less at Venice Marco Polo airport and after wrangling some cash from an ATM that spoke only Italian, made my way to the boat stop. This trudging vessel took its time getting there, but after a little more than an hour, I disembarked at the San Zaccaria stop and attempted to make my way to the hostel where I was staying until Chris arrived. Stepping into a strange place is becoming one of my favorite feelings. It's like taking an evolutionary step backwards, where you run mostly on instincts and senses that modern life too often dulls. This displacement can be mildly terrifying, but it's a jolt we all need more often than we realize.
Venice in the winter is surprisingly cold, and I ended many days with clumsy, numb fingers but plenty of photos of the fantastic costumes and gorgeous city. During my first few days, the Carnevale had not officially started, and although the city was getting its act together for the influx of tourists, the streets were pleasantly empty. After finishing my work for the day, I headed out those nights to wander and discover.
To me, this was the best part of Venice. You might walk through San Marco square or over the Rialto bridge, then minutes later find yourself on an abandoned street lit dimly but for the glow of some charming cafe or pizzeria. Several nights, Chris and I frequented Campo Santa Margherita, where we found a self-styled speakeasy serving classic American cocktails, many with an Italian twist. Despite being the only known place to have a drink after 9:30 PM, Campo Santa Margherita was predominantly Italians, and we found it welcoming and relaxing. Venice is definitely not known for its nightlife.
The Carnevale in Venice is less about the till-dawn parties a la Rio de Janeiro as it is about upholding a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Scores of dedicated participants don elaborate costumes and custom-made masks to roam the streets and pose for photographers and tourists throughout the week and especially on the weekends. I became captivated by the duality of the costume and the person wearing it - with most of the top-notch costumes, the only exposed area to define the creature as human were the eyes. After the streets of London, where passerby do not make eye contact with one another, this was a startling phenomenon.
The week passed mostly on the inside of cafes or our rented apartment on the far west end of the city. I was working remotely, and Chris was completing work for his master's program and startup. We ventured out some late afternoons or evenings to eat, drink, or take photos, but mostly the weekdays were a chance for immersion in the Venetian culture. The city has a great pride in its history, and just walking around the city, you sense the gravitas of a place that was once the center of the developed world. This sentiment must steel the Venetians and their city against the onslaught of tourists and the accompanying pressures to convert every ground-floor door into a gift shop. For this, I commend the Venetians mightily.
During the second weekend, the streets swarmed with a crush of tourists those narrow alleys were clearly were not designed to handle. Moving feet could take minutes at critical choke-points, and if the weather hadn't been pleasantly north of freezing with a crisp, blue sky overhead, I might have abandoned them entirely. I will, however, cop to spending half of Saturday in the original location of Cafe del Dodge, which also happened to be my favorite cafe in downtown Palo Alto while I was at Stanford. A TV in the corner was even showing a homemade documentary about the opening of their shop in Palo Alto.On Sunday, Chris left to catch an early flight and I packed my things and found a cheap hotel with a rock-hard bed near the bus station for my last night in town. I then loaded up my small backpack and allowed myself to be swept away with the crowds - there wasn't another option, actually - and drifted from place to place throughout the day snapping photos.
On this final day, I finally bought a mask after making sure that it was made locally, not in China. This is a big deal to Venetians, and rightfully so - the plastic knockoffs have encroached on the craftsmanship of a genuine Venetian Carnevale mask, and they are a cheap imitation at best.
The sunset that evening glowed orange and red, and I found a long water taxi dock and photographed a miraculous sunset. It was the perfect way to cap off my first-ever trip to Italy - but you can bet I'll be back just as soon as I can.