Wednesday, January 09, 2002

Riding the Rails to Venice

Riding the Rails to Venice

Breakfast was a busy place at the Innsbruck hotel. There seemed to be a group meeting that we had to compete with to get our coffee, but we ate hardily knowing that we had a long train ride ahead of us with nothing to snack on. From what we noticed with our many comings and goings from the hotel, we think that there were only two other guests there at the time we arrived. They checked out the next morning, leaving us as the sole survivors. You would think we would have been treated like royalty who would tell the minions what a great place this was and encourage tourism. It did not happen.

We left the hotel, but 8:30 and our timing for the tram was almost perfect. We only had a minute to wait before one came rocking down the tracks headed in our direction and the direction of the station. It was with a bit of sadness that we left the mountainous scenery behind, but assured that the beauties of Venice awaited us was enough to lift transform our attitudes to the travel mode once again.

Double checking on our track number, we had ten minutes to spare. The train was right on time. We found our first class compartment, but none were completely empty or without reservations waiting. Since we opted to not make a reservation, we knew we would have to share. We chose the one with only one person in it. He had already been on the train and has spread his things out across the seats. Since we know this trick and have used it successfully ourselves, it did not dissuade me from entering and making myself at home. Ron followed and within minutes, we were equally spread amongst three of the six seats. The only drawback was that he was a cigar smoker, but that was not going to deter us from moving once we had settled in. The ride to Verona was calm and quiet. He did not speak to us and we both read, so we did not even speak to each other for almost the entire three and a half hours. A good book is the only companion you need on a long train ride. That and naps make the ride complete, unless you are taking one of the special scenic route trains, the scenery can usually be missed without regrets. The book that held my interest until the last page was, “The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers”, by Betsy Lerner. It was written with humor, but also very informational.

At Verona, we had to change trains and make our connection to Venice. I was a bit concerned about money. According to CNN and BBC World report, the Italian bankers were on struck due to the Euro conversion and their Minister of Finance resigned. Reports were that the bank machines would be empty by the end of the day on the 8th and there would be no one to refill them. I had thought about getting money in Innsbruck at the train station, since it is now Euro in both countries, but it slipped my mind. In Verona, I saw someone at a bank machine and thought I had better stock up while having the chance. Those pretty and crisp Euro notes popped out at me without a hitch and I had a feeling the machine would have been just as accommodating if I had asked for seconds, but it seemed I should leave some for others.

With thirty minutes to spare, Mr. I Live in a Different Time Zone Than the Rest of the World, wanted coffee and a snack. It Italy, in the little cafes, you do not just go up and order what you want and pay for it. You have to decide what you want ahead of time, pay for it and then turn in your receipt for your purchase. If you remember the Ireland episode, Ron’s ability to make snap decisions regarding food is about as quick as trying to boil water when you have to rub two sticks together to get the flame first. I am standing there watching the lines to pay get longer and longer as a flood of people are barging ahead of me. The Italians never learned to queue and although I do know how to curse with the best of them in Italian, it did not seem like it would be in my best interest at the time. We did get our snacks and Ron had the satisfaction of the train being late. In all of Europe, you can set your watch by the trains being on time, except Italy.

Having studied the train diagram twice and we knew that the first class compartments would be in Sections D and E and we were standing there waiting patiently for the train to arrive. The train arrived. It had five less cars on it then the diagram showed and those cars did not stretch much beyond the B section, leaving us to run up the platform in order to get on the train. There was no first class section. We slummed in second class, which was actually quite comfortable, but the entire train was non-smoking. Thank gawd, it was only a two and half hour train ride.

We knew we were pulling into Venice when both sides of the train were flooded with water. This was my fourth time in Venice and Ron’s second, but neither of us have spent longer than a day here. The last time we came to spend an overnight, it turned out our hotel was in the next town, also with a Venice in the name. By the time we trained in and out of The Venice, to get back to our hotel, we did not see much. All of my previous times were day trips on my way to Rome or Florence. We had three nights booked and we were going to see some of Venice time around. What had prompted this trip was the fact that both of us had read “Miss Garnet’s Angel” and the book is placed in Venice. The book was so appealing that we had to see some of the sights that Miss Garnet had seen, which escaped us on past trips. Of course having forgotten the book in Budapest, memory alone will have to service our needs.

In the hotel information center, Ron went to get directions to our hotel and his map, while I waited outside shoving away water taxi drivers, hotel hawkers, and other tourist merchants. Shortly after, Ron arrived with a map in hand and directions to take the number 82 water bus to San Samuele stop and then it would be a short walk from there to the hotel. Since Venice is formed by buildings on stilts that were built a hundreds of years ago with canals as streets, there are no land vehicles. All transportation is by walking over narrow streets with the occasional square, ascending over footbridges or by waterbus, water taxi, or the romantic gondola.

The aura of Venice penetrates my soul immediately. At first glimpse of the buildings with their aged faces looking haggard, but proud still, they softly speak to my soul sotto voce, the history that has occurred in this city and the love that has been shared with millions over the years. The water is the life force of this city pumping new blood to each vein to cleanse the body of the city anew bringing people from one section to the next to maintain the vibrancy. I have read repeatedly in many travel reviews that people either love Venice or they hate. There does not seem to be a middle meeting point. I guess I am one of the great admirers since I keep returning for more. This city is in trouble as it is flooding more often then in years past. It is easy to see from the lines of discoloration on the walls that the water has reached over to flood the streets at various times. There is also some discussion about the city sinking.

As I am standing in line waiting to purchase our transits tickets and deciding whether or not the seventy-two hour pass will be more economical in the long run then the forty-eight hour pass, Ron is lagging behind speaking to a young attractive presumably Italian woman. When he approaches me, he is explaining that she has a transport pass to sell for three euro cheaper than what it would cost us. She turns to me to say that her father purchased it for her, but now she needs to return to Rome sooner than planned and cannot use the pass. Over the years, Ron has been approached by ever schemer know to the traveling public. In the early years, I had to pull him out of some potentially dangerous situations that he refused to believe would be dangerous until reading about them in travel books and articles. So, I was not surprised that this young woman would pick him out. I showed her pass to the ticket sales clerk, he verified that it was good for seventy-two hours once it was validated and that it would be all right to purchase. I gave her the fifteen-euro and bought another pass for eighteen euro and change.

At the waiting area for the waterbus, we easily deciphered what direction we needed to go since the route signs are well marked. The bus arrived and we made our way the three stops, to San Samuele. From there, we followed the directions of the tourist lady and tried finding our way to the hotel. We did not! We asked directions. We got lost again. We asked directions again and we got lost again. We arrived at the bus stop at 4:00 pm, it was now 5:30 pm and we were no closer to our hotel than if we stayed in the next town over with the other Venice in its name. Finally, we asked this older couple, who seem to be getting younger everyday now that I have had another birthday. They explained in Italian that Venice is broken into four districts and San Paulo is a district and not a street. We had been looking for the street San Paulo, thus walking in huge circles with dysfunctional directions from the tourist office as well as the strangers on the street. The couple suggested that if we have the phone number, we should call and get the street address within the San Paulo district. Thanks to my Spanish, I was able to understand what they were saying. We thanked them profusely and said good-bye after asking where we could find a pay telephone.

At the plaza where they directed us, we found a bank of pay phones. Of the ten phones, only one took coins. All of the rest were phone card phones only. The one coin operated phone did not take Euros, just Lira, that ‘old’ stuff. We did not have a lira to our name. As I was about to practice my best Italian string of profanity, I turned to find the older couple standing behind us. The woman had her phone card in her hand and inserted it into the telephone. Ron called and received the corrected directions. I offered them money for the time lost on her card, but she adamantly refused. Again, we thanked them repeatedly. Then it dawned on me that Miss Garnett was not the only one that had angels in Venice. We had our own angels with their wings hidden under their coats, their halos dimmed so as not to betray their identity, but yet they were there to rescue us in our time of need.

After taking the waterbus once again and getting off at the corrected stop, we were able to find our hotel in a matter of minutes. Due to the shortage of visitors all over the world, especially the North Americans, the hotels have been deeply discounted. It would have been impossible to find a budget hotel in Venice a year ago. Now we found a lovely room with a double bed in a very nicely decorated and modern little hotel that is a block away from the waterbus for the equivalent of $50.00 a night. That was a bargain we could not pass up.

Dropping our stuff on the bed, we set out to explore Venice. Using the waterbus once again, we went to San Marco’s Square, the most famous tourist attraction of the city. It was close to six by that time and many of the shops were closing, but the square is magnificent in its humungous glory. The square itself is huge and desolate, but surrounding it on two sides are dozens of shops that range from clothes, to masks, to puppets, to glass. Venice is know for its masks, due to its famous Mardi Gras celebrations and also for Murano glass, which comes from this area. You can find glass in any shape, size, form, or color to meet your decorating needs and desires.

Following the narrow streets going up and down and this way and that, we looked in dozens of shop windows. This is a shopper’s paradise and the sales are good right now due to the lack of tourism. Walking through the streets is like walking a maze. No street lasts for long and you are forced to choose left or right and a few times, there is no choice, but to go back and start again. This is a cartographer’s nightmare, since in order to show all of the streets, alleyways, and accesses that are used daily for getting from one place to the next would require a map the size of a large wall mural in order to fit all of the names on it. Some streets or walkways have names that last longer than the street or walkways does and many have similar names. It is not surprising that people can give you directions if you know the landmarks associated with where you want to go, but few know the names of the streets that will take you there. What we did find due to Ron’s sense of direction and his being inspired by Miss Garnett, was the wall relief of the Archangel Raphael with the child and dog as was described in the book. Later, we will look for the statue.

Getting close to 8:00 pm, we found our choices for restaurants were narrowing at an exponential rate. Shops and restaurants close early, many by 6:00 pm. We had wandered by a self-service restaurant that looked appealing and headed back to it. Due to the cold weather, I had a yearning for soup and the bean with pasta sounded like something from my childhood. Ron chose a plate of pasta. The soup was close to what my grandmother used to make during the winter months and I was transported back in time to her Italian kitchen filled with aromas that could awake dead senses and soothe the soul.

Walking the bridges to return to the waterbus, we crossed over gondoliers sailing the canals with passengers. Their shiny enamel black boats with gold ornaments sailed slowly and soundlessly as the gondola captained his boat from the rear, with a strong hand. Couples were nestled under blankets seemingly enjoying their ride in the moonlight. As the boat passed by poles painted, blue and white or red and white stripes as they sailed by added to the image that is dominant of one’s vision of Venice.

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