October 26, 2013

The Big Fish in the Lagoon

“If you want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”  Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Italian writer

Carol writes:  Our ferry ride across the English Channel back to France went without a hitch.  Once again, we were impressed with the English Channel ferry system; it really was efficient and quick!  From the stern of our French ferry at the base of the White Cliffs of Dover, we waved a fond “cheerio” to the UK and headed back to the land of “bonjour.”


Our ultimate destination for the next month was sunny and warm Italy!  We were both looking forward to a good dose of sunshine and warm Mediterranean days.  For the sake of efficiency, we decided to take the toll roads through France and Italy for the 900-mile drive to Venice.  We had no idea how expensive the French toll road system would be, so for our first stretch we experimented by hopping on just out of Calais.  We rolled along at a marvelous highway speed for about 120 miles, then pulled up to our first toll booth and handed the attendant our ticket.  When she asked us for the equivalent of $42 for our 120-mile segment of excellent French highway, we experienced monumental sticker shock!  We did the math for 900 miles and then made some quick navigational changes for Jill, our Garmin lady.  We changed course to the slower free roads that in many cases paralleled the tolls roads—sometimes for miles at a stretch.  Gas was also quite a bit “cheaper” off the toll route, relatively speaking.  As we looked back on our decision to abandon the toll roads, we felt it was the right one.  There were plentiful free French campgrounds along the way, we saved on gas and tolls, and we enjoyed the immaculate French countryside.  The scenery in the mountainous French/Italian border region was spectacular!

When we crossed into Italy three days later, we conducted another test drive on the fast and efficient Italian autostrada toll roads and found the cost there to be much more reasonable and definitely worth a few extra dollars for their speed and efficiency.    

VENICE:  The captivating water-bound city of Venice, with its web of canal “streets” and plethora of boats instead of cars, has always captured our imagination, for it holds such a unique place among the great cities of Europe.  We selected a campground in an area called Punta Sabbioni, located at the end of a peninsula which was just a short 30-minute commute by ferry to Venice across the bay.  We were having a beautiful sunny day so, after quick showers and donning our finest campground attire, we headed to the ferry for our first Venice experience.

The city of Venice is virtually an island in the Venetian lagoon on the Adriatic Sea, with only a narrow 2-mile highway and rail causeway connection to the mainland.  Venice is shaped like a fish--and it is the Big Fish among a hundred or so islands that dot the lagoon. 

The main tourist port of entry was in the ‘belly of the fish’ near St. Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace.   As we drew close to our ferry landing, we were astounded at the beautiful and picturesque Venetian shoreline.


The lighting was excellent, and cool Venetian colors set the perfect scene.  The “streets” of Venice were somewhat narrow canals, like this one spanned by the famous “Bridge of Sighs,” where prisoners of a bygone era were said to have made a final nostalgic sigh as they headed off to prison in the Doge’s Palace.

The Grand Canal winds its way through Venice in the ‘body of the fish.’  One of the best thrills in Venice is a ride on the Grand Canal—either by means of very pricey private gondolier rides,

expensive water taxis or, for a much better deal, by means of the local public transportation system—a boat called the vaporetto.

Our first view of Venice’s famous St. Mark’s Square with its impressive St. Mark’s Basilica and iconic bell tower was thrilling! 

Sometimes the pictures with both of us that we have taken by other tourists don’t quite convey our best expressions, but if it’s the only twosome picture we have, we may go with it…

St. Mark’s Square, which is famous/infamous for its gigantic pigeon population, lived up to its reputation.  Pigeons were everywhere!

As the sun set on Venice, the city became even more beautiful and romantic.  If you are going to splurge a few euros on a special treat, dinner at a restaurant along the Grand Canal would be a good choice.  We had a great meal at the foot of the Rialto Bridge, one of the world’s most famous bridges.


When you travel for an extended length of time in Europe, you are bound to have the unpleasant experience of having a planned labor strike affect your plans.  We had missed out on seeing the inside of the abbey at Mont St. Michel in France four months ago due to a labor strike that had caused early closure there.  In Italy, a general strike by transportation workers was scheduled for October 18th, our second day in Venice.  We were told that meant no canal vaporetto rides would be available in Venice.  In fact, all public transportation in the entire country would be at a greatly reduced volume.  Our campground host had told us about the strike when we checked in, so we felt fortunate that we had found out about this ahead of time so we could plan accordingly.  We adjusted our touring schedule to accommodate fewer ferry crossings and no vaporetto service on the canals for our second day. 

Our destination the next afternoon (strike day) was the Doge’s Palace, the seat of Venetian government and home of the ruling doge for over 400 years.  The inner courtyard was palatial in every sense of the word.


The interior rooms had walls festooned with paintings by several Italian grand masters.  The ceilings were like a palace on steroids.

The prison section had been cleaned and tidied up but was grim nonetheless.

Pictures were forbidden inside the Doge’s Palace; however, some of the best views of Venice were from the palace windows that overlooked the harbor area.

Sometimes a strike can offer an opportunity that otherwise wouldn’t have been considered.  Because of the strike, the last ferry back to our campground was early--around 6 p.m.--so that meant we had an unplanned wonderful 30-minute ‘sunset cruise’ back to Punta Sabbioni.  A nearly full moon made the ride most memorable.


On our last day in Venice we visited St. Mark’s Basilica.  We were surprised to find that the combination of high tides and the previous night’s full moon had been enough to cause very minor flooding during the night in St. Mark’s Square in front of the basilica.

And it hadn’t rained at all the previous night!  Venice has a well-known enormous problem with rising sea levels.  In addition, it is slowly sinking into the compacting sediments that it was built upon.  During the rainy season much of St. Mark’s Square has to be covered with raised walkways, and it floods about 100 times a year!  I hope some excellent civil engineers are hard at work on a plan to save this World Heritage city.

St. Mark’s Basilica is known for its fabulous mosaics--on the walls and on the ceiling as well as the floor.  Pictures were forbidden, but it was easily apparent to us that sneaking a few was a common practice.


One of the most interesting sites in Venice was its back “streets and alleys.” 

It was fun to roam off the beaten tourist track…with frequent rest stops to soak up the ambience.  Our new favorite afternoon drink has become what is called a ‘spritz’, an orange-colored white wine cooler…which we will learn to make for our enjoyment back in Colorado.

We spent the last hour of our last day in Venice by cruising the rest of the Grand Canal that we hadn’t seen.  We slowly maneuvered our way to one of the coveted vaporetto rear deck outdoor seats, then sat back and soaked in the scene. 

We passed by a big cruise ship terminal area just as some of the big ships were getting underway.   Surprisingly, we were very close to one that was being towed out of the harbor after the ship’s passengers had experienced their precious day in Venice.

And so it was with us, as we savored our final view of Venice on our last ferry ride back to the campground.  In the words of Rick Steves, we were leaving Venice with wonderful, happy memories of our visit to a wonderful “puddle of elegant decay.”

“A well-spent day brings happy sleep.”   Leonardo da Vinci





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