Thursday, July 06, 2006

Train from Venice to Rome

Venice & Rome, May 2006: Day 5
> Previous day: Venetian glass, art and shopping; Murano and Dorsoduro
I had worked out that it would be probably be quicker to walk to the railway station in Venice than to take a vaporetto along the winding Grand Canal. But the thought of pulling my suitcase down narrow lanes and over bridges didn't really appeal, so I set off early and enjoyed one final boat journey.

I arrived at Venice's station - Stazione Santa Lucia – in plenty of time for my Italian Eurostar train. As a solo traveller it can often be difficult stowing your luggage away and finding your seat number when everyone is piling onboard, so I prepared myself as best I could. The timetables displayed inside the station gave me an indication of the normal platform for this service. Then train plans on noticeboards on the platform depicted the normal formation of the carriages, so I positioned myself and my suitcase and waited.

When the large train arrived I was glad of my forethought. Luggage space was surprisingly limited, and I had to compete with porters loading on large piles of cases (I wondered if this service was open to independent travellers or just to lucky tour groups). I discovered a convenient storage space between seatbacks for my suitcase, and relaxed. I found my seat (all seats on Eurostar trains are numbered and reserved) and had made myself comfortable by the time my fellow-passengers arrived, competed for their seats and panicked over their luggage disposal.

The direct Eurostar train takes about four and half hours to travel between Venice and Rome, so I was pleased to find that my neighbours were a quiet and pleasant group: a Canadian couple and an Australian quartet, all middle-aged. We were able to chat about Tuscany (the destination of the Australian couples) and about the relative merits of ice hockey, cricket and Aussie Rules, or to read peacefully.
> Trains in Italy
I had booked my seat online a few days earlier for €39 (saving a few euros with one of the special offers; if I had booked earlier I could maybe have saved more). I had chosen a window-seat, albeit facing backwards, so I was able to enjoy the view as I travelled south. I had selected Trenitalia's 'ticketless' option, which, as the English name suggests, means you can travel with only a printout of your confirmation, or a reference number. The ticket inspector (capotreno) has a look at this and then prints a ticket for you when they arrive. I used to be nervous of this system, but it's always worked fine for me (admittedly a couple of times on previous journeys the inspectors' computers weren't working and they couldn't check my ticket, but my information was accepted regardless. Oh, and once a young male inspector felt the need to usher me into an empty compartment to note down my reference number, but I wouldn't read anything into that.)

The journey was smooth and reasonably uneventful. My Australian neighbours alighted in Florence and a young Italian took the seat next to me. He spent most of the journey to Rome on his mobile phone, having an affectionate conversation with his uncle and aunt and detailing all his career prospects.

For no apparent reason, the train was delayed 55 minutes along the way. An announcement in Italian and in English advised us to claim a 50% refund on arrival in Rome. Lacking time, I had to leave this to the following day, when I returned to Stazione Termini and queued for an uninterested clerk, who gave me a badly photo-copied form in Italian. I dutifully filled this in, rather optimistically appending my UK address. I wasn't particularly hopeful, and as I have heard no more nearly two months later, I think I can assume this is one area where the Italian railway system is not so efficient. (Just don't get me started on the UK rail network where operators do reply to such claims, but only to deny any responsibility for the frequent massive delays).

Anyway, when I arrived in Rome from Venice I had no time to recover from the long journey. I had to race across town to the Fiocca Bed & Breakfast, where I had booked a room. The helpful owner, Andrea, met me, carried my case, and showed me around. Then I had about 10 minutes to freshen up and dash out to the theatre.

This had been the hottest, sunniest day of my holiday so far, but I had no time to appreciate the weather. In Rome, weekend theatre performances start early (a 6pm start on Saturday), and I was soon collapsing into my seat in the Teatro dell'Opera. I watched the ballet Faust, which was interesting if not wildly enjoyable. The cast is usually only announced at short notice on posters in Rome, so I had booked without knowing which dancers I would see – and I was rather disappointed to miss a Kirov star, Andrian Fadeyev, who was having an evening off.
After many Italian negotiations ('We're waiting to hear from a friend,' 'I'm the other side of town,' 'Let's speak again after 9,' 'We're running late, can we meet after dinner?') I managed to meet up with friends at around 11:30 for drinks. I'd forgotten how late things happen in Rome.

First I had to brave the replacement bus service, which is replacing Metro line A in the evenings for the next couple of years. This was crowded and unpleasantly sweaty ... next time I'll try to avoid the service.

We walked to San Lorenzo, a popular and scuzzy student area where young drinkers, much scruffier than your average Italian youth, line the pavements outside bars and 'Irish pubs'. After drinks - introducing both 'pints' and cider (sidro, I believe) to the Italians - we set off again for a very Roman experience. The Circolo degli Artisti is a kind of young person's social club – or maybe a free nightclub – almost impossible to define in English. Down unlikely streets crammed with parked cars and scooters, this complex of buildings and gardens offers a couple of dance-floors, live gigs, a rose garden where groups of young Italians drink, chat and smoke things they shouldn't. The evening we visited, admission was free, and I was left to wonder both what the noisy venue's legal status was, and how on earth it made any money (or maybe that's not the point). There were actually a few drunk people there, but as normal in Italy, the majority were drinking little or nothing.

We caught a circular nightbus by the white Roman marble of Porta Maggiore, and I returned to my B&B after a long and somewhat varied day.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Venetian glass, art and shopping; Murano and Dorsoduro

Venice, May 2006: Day 4 (part 2)
> Previous entry: A Venetian honeymoon gone wrong
It was a sunny day, though windy, as I set off early to see some art. The gorgeous paintings by Carpaccio in San Giorgio degli Schiavoni provided a lovely start to the day - very refreshing for the soul after the troubles of the night.

Next on my list was Santa Maria Formosa (Curvaceous St. Mary). The church is pretty good, but personally I think the name is even better.

Then I walked northwards past the hospital (another one of Venice's most beautiful buildings, offering glimpses of ornate halls). From the ferry stop at Fondamenta Nove I took the vaporetto past Venice's cemetery island to Murano. Murano is an island most famous for its glass-makers – who were apparently pursued and assassinated by the Venetian state if they took their secrets abroad. I'd been warned about tacky souvenir shops and gaggles of ripped-off tourists but I was pleasantly surprised.
Fruit, veg and flower boat in Murano
Murano is a pleasant island, although the area around the glass shops tended to be lined with other foreign tourists. I enjoyed the more domestic scale of the buildings, and was struck by a fruit-and-veg boat moored in a canal. The glass shops ranged from tacky to stylish. I picked one which was obviously a workshop, and which displayed militant posters declaring war on 'chinese glass'. I bought a tasteful glass ring as a souvenir of my Venice trip.

I ate lunch in Campo S. Stefano, a little square on the far side of the canal with lots of outside tables laid with cheery bright yellow tablecloths. Ignoring the generous range of seafood on the menu, I opted for tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms. The meal wasn't special, but I was entertained by a bold and aggressive sparrow with eyes on my bread. It tried hopping onto my lap, snatching bread from my hand, and did eventually get away with a strip of pasta. A few tables away a loquacious red-faced man emerged from the restaurant's interior to display a dead fish to a tableful of diners, his fingers thrust proudly through its gills.

While on Murano I added to the day's tally of churches with visits to S. Pietro Martire (a nice Giovanni Bellini painting of the Virgin with a doge) and Santi Maria e Donato (super mosaics in the apse and on the floor). Even the churches here have glass chandeliers, and I also saw a glass Madonna in a shrine overlooking the canal.

I returned from Murano to San Zaccaria by taking a boat around the eastern end of Venice, including some shore I hadn't yet navigated. The journey took nearly 50 minutes, but I had an outside seat and it was an enjoyable ride. I saw several teams in boats training for a regatta.

I wanted to do some more glass-shopping in Venice, and I returned to a shop I had found previously. It was mid-afternoon but the shop was shuttered so I ordered a cold orange juice at a cafe table outside and asked the waitress when the shop would re-open. 'He doesn't have an orario' (timetable), she replied, 'but I expect he'll be back soon'. Knowing Italian time-keeping I was slightly doubtful, but I sat at my table alonside this pretty canal and enjoyed the scenery.

Sure enough, the glassblower soon returned, and helped me select several of his handmade little glass figures as gifts for my friends. 'Do you know the story of Pinocchio?' he asked me. I replied that I didn't think the whole story was very well-known in England – I, at any rate, had never heard the whole tale. So as I compared miniature wizards and courting couples, he told me story with plenty of flourish, up to Pinocchio begin eaten by a whale.

Then it was back to my hotel, glass figurines carefully boxed, to collect my suitcase and change accommodation once more. Sorry to leave the Campiello, I headed along the Grand Canal to my next hotel, the Tivoli. This was in Dorsoduro, a lovely area which combines picturesque canals and a few of Venice's greatest tourist sights with a surprisingly laidback 'local' feel. This is where young people head out at night to drink and meet friends.

I spent the afternoon exploring the little lanes and canals in the area, taking far too many photographs of every scenic corner. One of the most interesting sights was another fruit-and-veg-boat, selling fresh produce to passers-by. I saw a gondola dragged up on its side to be mended, parents wheeling buggies along, and young students sunbathing along the Zattere shore.

Dinner was a plate of pasta in a pleasant bar close to the hotel on Crosera San Pantalon. Called the Improntacafe, the place tried rather too hard to be Milanese-trendy, though service was friendly. Glass-fronted and on a busy T-junction, it was great for people-watching. I saw a blind young man feeling his way past with a cane, and tried to imagine being blind in Venice. Of all places.

A picturesque evening wandering the illuminated passageways, bridges and squares, and my last day in Venice came to an end.

On foot in Venice

I decided that one of the things about Venice which charmed me the most wasn't the art, or the beautiful palazzi, or the canals (although obviously they played a major part). I loved the pedestrian lifestyle and the friendly scale of movement. Unlike Rome, say, where only the unfortunate and the foreign use public transport, here in Venice everyone has to take the ferries. And walking isn't a third-class option; it's the norm. After the difficulties I've experienced in Rome trying to meet up with friends at night when they all hop about on scooters or in cars and I'm struggling with buses, I found the Venetian system very egalitarian. Everyone has to take the boat and to walk, it's as simple as that. Instead of roads, Venice has pedestrian lanes where people can hail their friends, and stop for a chat. It's healthier, too - I doubt there are many overweight Venetians.

> Day 5: Train from Venice to Rome

A Venetian honeymoon gone wrong

Venice, May 2006: Day 4 (part 1)
> Previous day: The Lido, a Venetian quest and a new hotel

My hotel in Venice was lovely, but I didn't enjoy the good night's sleep I was expecting. The night turned out to be memorable for entirely unexpected reasons.

Long after midnight I was woken by two fellow-guests; a German couple in a room around the corner. There were knocks, remonstrances and strings of abuse.

I don't understand much German but my tired brain began piecing together what was going on. The woman had apparently locked her boyfriend/husband out of their bedroom. He kept knocking and urging her to open the door in an exasperated undertone. She responded with a long rant in loud, sulky (and drunken?) tones. Sometimes he would get tired of arguing and go away for a while, but her loud self-pitying monologue continued regardless.

The walls of the hotel hadn't seemed particularly thin, but this disagreement made it impossible to sleep, as well as being rather more disturbing than the cheery sounds of conversation or laughter would have been. Eventually I stuck a tousled, bleary head around my door, at which point the German husband looked very embarrassed and disappeared downstairs. I actually felt rather sorry for him, as the nagging diatribe continued from within his room.

Breakfast the following morning was smart and refined, and the room around the corner was already being cleaned. It was as though this couple (honeymoon guests? Romantic tourists? The mind boggled) had never been. Until I heard other guests complaining about their interrupted sleep, and the conversation became a general comparison of notes. Some holidaymakers had complained to the night-receptionist, they said. They had been unlucky enough to occupy the room next door, and thought the loud-voiced woman must have been ranting into her mobile phone. We all marvelled at a Venetian holiday that could degenerate into such a nightmare, and piously expressed our horror and our sympathy at such a state of affairs.

The locking-out scenario certainly made a change from the other tourists I encountered: most were couples on the holiday of a lifetime, on a second honeymoon, celebrating their children leaving the nest or travelling with a new spouse. Venice didn't seem to me the sort of place you would come to with the partner in a rocky relationship. But maybe this young-ish couple thought a romantic trip would patch up existing problems? Or maybe they had learned too much about each other and the recriminations had started? Perhaps they were on their honeymoon and the bride already regretted it and was telephoning an ex-boyfriend? Maybe the local wines had caused the mischief? There was a lot to wonder about, and as I had lain there, sleepless, I started to wish I had a better understanding of German.

> Day 4 (continued): Murano and Dorsoduro

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Lido, a Venetian quest and a new hotel

Venice, May 2006: Day 3
> Previous day: Torcello, Burano and an evening on the Grand Canal
I was changing hotels today, moving my base from the Lido over the Lagoon into the centre of Venice. I thought I ought to explore the Lido first, so after breakfast I headed out for a walk. The Lido is a narrow strip of land separating the lagoon from the Adriatic, and I was rather disappointed that, apart from some faded grand hotels, I hadn't found much evidence of the elegant sea-bathing world of the film Death in Venice. My one expedition to the sea-shore ended in a wide street where various ugly structures blocked my view over the shore. By way of consolation I decided to visit the one historic sight my guidebook mentioned in its brief account of the Lido.

In this quiet season, outside passeggiata hours, I found the Lido's streets disconcertingly empty. Alone, female and walking away from the tourist areas I felt somewhat conspicuous. Still, I'm used to this in Italy. A few passing car drivers stared. A smirking man offered me a lift - on the luggage trolley he was pushing.

The walk along the lagoon shore was fairly interesting. Venice lay sparkling just over the waters. I watched the various types of water-traffic, passed a little boat filling up with fuel and crossed the access-road to a jetty where a larger ferry lay awaiting its cargo.

I was disappointed when I reached my goal, however. The church of San Nicolò is a significant building, the destination for the Doge's annual procession (now performed by the Mayor of Venice) of the Festa della Sensa (a symbolic marriage between Venice and the sea). But while the ancient exterior was simple and attractive, I didn't find the interior particularly exciting. I lacked a detailed guide, and I couldn't find the tomb I had hoped to discover (that of Nicholas / Nicola Giustiniani, a twelfth-century Benedictine monk who was compelled to leave holy orders in order to marry and beget heirs for his noble family before returning to his abbey on the Lido).

Returning, I passed the walls and locked gate of Venice's old Jewish Cemetery, an atmospheric and overgrown graveyard which, according to a sign, dates to the 14th-17th centuries.

Taking the vaporetto 1 from the Lido over to Venice we passed in front of a massive cruise liner, the Carnival Liberty. This dwarfed everything in the lagoon and suddenly cast Venice in a very different light. High, high above us the ship's decks and vantage points were packed with the tiny figures of passengers crowding for their first glimpse of Venice.

Back over the waters in Venice I checked into my impressive new hotel. Around the corner in Campo San Zaccaria I ate a light lunch in a little bar with a few indoors tables. Then I set off on a quest.

On my previous trip to Venice with two friends, we wandered home from dinner, hoping we were heading in the right direction for our hotel. We passed many lovely sights in the moonlight, but the most impressive of all was a jewel-like Renaissance church in coloured marbles. I remember gazing open-mouthed at this unexpected and perfect building. The image of this chapel haunted me and I needed to find it again. I studied my guidebook and maps to identify the most likely candidate. Then I set off to visit Santa Maria dei Miracoli.

The church was exactly as I remembered, and just as beautiful by day as by night. Stepping inside was breathtaking, like walking into a jewel-box. An English-language tour group were being lectured on architectural history by a young guide who confessed that the church didn't make her feel spiritual. To me it seemed magical, but maybe that's different.

The rest of the afternoon I spent wandering around Venice's lanes and canals, before taking ferries on the routes I hadn't yet experienced. I travelled along the less-touristy northern shore, past the vast walls of the Arsenal, before alighting at San Pietro. This residential island, attached by bridges to Venice, gave me a refreshing taste of the everyday. The terraced buildings here were on a humble scale, and laundry hung over the lanes and waterways. It was too late in the day to enter the church of San Pietro, which has a dramatic campanile and a pleasant grassy forecourt, but I admired the exterior before heading back along the busy Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, past the statue of Garibaldi (above a pool filled with turtles), to the Riva degli Schiavoni shore.

St. Mark's Square isn't really a buzzing or cool place to go at night, but I popped along in the evening to see what was happening. The two grandest cafes, Florian's and Quadri, had competing sets of musicians playing on opposite sides of the square – mostly lively waltzes. I decided the Quadri orchestra had a slight edge, thanks to the panache displayed by their synchronised-movement musicians. The audience was split between well-off older couples sitting at the outside tables and a motley rabble of cheaper tourists and school parties standing around behind them. I could understand why couples on their dream holiday might want to sit there, but the night wasn't warm, the piazza had a rather dead, cluttered feel to it despite the music, and it really seemed like a congregation place for tourists who had no idea where to go after dinner. (I'd recommend Campo Santa Margherita or hidden back-street bars for a livelier atmosphere and less touristy vibe).

I was staying at Hotel Campiello, which was my favourite hotel of this trip. It was smart, comfortable, good-value and offered a free internet point as well as a handsome receptionist. However, my one night in the hotel was ruined in the most unromantic of fashions. Read the next instalment of this travel journal to learn more.
> Day 4: A Venetian honeymoon gone wrong; exploring Dorsoduro