Friday, September 2, 2016

Mediterranean Travels: Venice

After talking with some friends, and wanting to maximize my proximity to the whole Mediterranean region, I decided to take a cruise. The one I found that worked in the time frame I had available and went to all new (to me) places turned out to be an MSC cruise on the Orchestra. Eight days, seven nights, to and from Venice. Stops in Italy, Greece, and Montenegro. Close to perfect.

I did not have great experiences booking the tour or coordinating with either the travel agent or the cruise company, and I went into the vacation with a bit of trepidation. But, I would have a balcony cabin on the stern of the ship and could at least enjoy amazing views, even if every other thing went wrong.

I left work a couple hours early on Friday and flew to Venice via Rome. The flights on Alitalia were fine; there were no frills (entertainment), but they were also empty. So audiobooks it was! Rome was a bit of a cluster, and I barely made it to my gate before boarding time - just in time to see the board record a 20 minute delay. We left almost an hour late but landed only 30 minutes late, so it wasn't horrible. I arrived at the hotel at 11:54pm and sprinted to the bar to order some pizza before it closed. I stayed a bit outside Venice, and there was nothing else around for miles. That pizza tasted mighty good at midnight, I'll tell you.

I slept quite well and woke up to breakfast on leftover pizza - yay! I took my time getting ready and planning my day and made it to the train station (right behind the hotel) in plenty of time for the next train. The train was empty, and 30 minutes later I alighted in Venice. I was last here in 2007 for two days and remember the heat, the crowds, and the expense. It was lovely but not magical. I had a more leisurely pace today with no expectations, and I enjoyed it much more this time around. 

I started the afternoon by wandering through San Polo until I found the restaurant a friend had recommended. I arrived at the tail end of lunch time and had a lovely table in the leafy courtyard. It had rained in the morning, but it was clear and sunny now, with perfect temperatures. I lingered over caprese salad and a calzone, enjoying people-watching as much as the food. After that I browsed several shops as I made my way towards Rialto Bridge. I hadn't visited this bridge in 2007 and shouldn't have bothered today - it was packed with tourists, the bridge was under renovation, and the sun was bright. I took the Vaporetto to Saint Mark's Square to marvel at the lack of pigeons and do more people watching. After a quick glimpse at the Bridge of Sighs I jumped aboard one last Vaporetto - in the bow, as Rick Steves told me to - and cruised the entire length of the line back to the train station. 

The trip back to Quarto d'Altino was quick and uneventful, and after a lackluster dinner in the hotel restaurant I took full advantage of fast internet and did a ton of photo uploads and FaceTimed with my parents and Grandma. 

On Sunday I took the hotel transfer to the port and - to my happy surprise - was checked in and on board in less than an hour. I had plenty of time to wander and explore after dropping my small bag in my room. Lunch was a rushed, overwhelmed affair - everybody was eating at the same time, and space was at a premium. I missed half of the buffet apparently - I was wondering where the non-carb options were! But the soup and salad were good. 

I opted for an overpriced pedicure to get flip flop ready before joining the safety drill. Afterwards I camped out on my deck for 90 minutes as we started the engines and cruised out of Venice. The pilot boat was right below my balcony, and the stern of the boat offered phenomenal views of Venice from the Grand Canal. I only left my perch to make it to dinner, where I met my tablemates for the week - a couple from Atlanta and family of four from Ann Arbor. Service was lackluster, and the food was lukewarm, but I hope it was just the first night. We'll see. I skipped the evening show for a chance to relax and unpack and prepare for the week ahead. I think I remember why I didn't 100% love the cruise I did in college - the crowds. I'm going to try and embrace the experience for what it is, even as I've realized that I much prefer my small safari camps in remote African parks as a preferred way to get away from it all. But this isn't getting away - this is exploring Greece! So, open mind.

First glimpses of Venice

My initial forays through almost-empty streets in San Polo were lovely

An obligatory gondola shot

The Grand Canal

Piazza San Marco

Saint Mark's Basilica

Still a few pigeons
St. Mark's Campanile (I went up it in 2007)

Doge's Palace

Lion statue, symbol of Venice

Bridge of Sighs

Gondoliers hard at work

Just an ordinary afternoon phone call

Cruising the Grand Canal by vaporetto

The Rialto Bridge, with some of its construction siding falling off and an obnoxious billboard given entirely too much space.

When the sun hit the bridge right you could see some of the actual features under the construction siding.

Pilot boat as seen from my balcony

Leaving from the Port of Venice meant a lovely ride down the Grand Canal out to sea

Piazza San Marco, Campanile, Doge's Palace, Basilica as seen from my balcony

And we're off!
Arrivederci Venice!

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