Venezia – Of Land & Water

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I don’t remember to have ever made Venice a priority on my see-the-whole-world list. The rumours that the city was in reality not as charming as its fame went and that the water stank might have subconsciously put me off. Or was it the clichéd image of lovers cobwebbing the city and proclaiming to be madly in love in gondolas that turned my thoughts from it? Whatever it was, Venice and I did not seem to click. Ryanair changed that for me by displaying a round trip Brussels-Venice for 30€. I was immediately seduced.

Week-end in Venice in mid-November it is! I wake up at 3 am, have no coffee leaving it as something to look forward to when reaching the airport and give it some gas. The lack of caffeine and a worrying sense of orientation typically assigned to women cause me to actually lose my way to the airport by taking the wrong exit. Tricky considering that I also largely deviate from the requirement to be at the gate two hours before departure.

But, as all independent and self-assured travellers, I count on myself to always find my way, anytime, anywhere. Fact! Ok, add a spell of luck to that, too. I make it on time for the boarding: one hour and 20 minutes till Venice and ready for take-off.

The weather in Treviso is surprisingly worse than in Brussels, usually hard to beat: it rains heavily, the cold gets to your bones, and the heavy grey hanging in the atmosphere is amplified by a strong, unfriendly wind. Not the magic place I expected.

From the Treviso airport to Piazzale Roma it’s a one-hour trip. There you are finally delivered to the city…and what a majestic one it is. Even under the heaviest of rains, Venice is still one of the most delightful sights I have ever laid my eyes on. Go off-seasons to avoid the crowds, though: the less people per square meter, the more you connect with the place.

IMG_8685 IMG_8776Venice is very easy and pleasant to explore. To begin with, there’s no traffic. Not in the streets, that is. Here, the traffic has been placed on water: there are water buses, water taxis, ferry-boats, gondolas, all-size boats, all floating around and trying to avoid one another. Upon seeing my very first vaporetti station I almost drowned in fascination. After one day of hopping on-and-off, though, this became as casual an activity as taking the bus on land.

In spite of its famous water transport, flooded Venice is best explored on foot. Its great charm resides in its narrow and very narrow streets, bordered by very old buildings which withstand renovation. The visual shabbiness creates the perfect environment for a magic leap into the past. Venice does not belong to this century. Nor should it.

IMG_8981Walk the streets and you will be plunged back in time. The houses are small, some garnished with mini doors in guise of entrance. They all differ in size, shape and colour at every corner. The beauty of Venice is the possibility to get lost in it. I do not mean that you will never find your way back – it is very easy to orientate in Venice. But it creates a unique labyrinth-like experience to enjoy and play with.

Take one street and forget where you are or where you want to go next. Hesitate between turning right or left, take one of the two and then find yourself blocked in your errand by a wall or a closed courtyard. Turn around and try another street to see where it goes. Some literally end in water. Try the game somewhere far from the horde of tourists in the dim lights of the evening, with the rhythmical sound of your footsteps on the stone pavement and a moving shadow on the wall. Leave the boat to the sleepy lovers; Venice is a playground to roam on foot.

After a full day of rain, the Piazza San Marco is a sparkling pond under the Indian summer sun. People queue up one behind the other on the walkways that have been set up to keep their feet dry. Others put on colourful waterproof boots and walk the Piazza carelessly, feet in the water. Venice welcomes everyone. Culture, art, architecture, luxury shops, a lagoon with islands, all gathered to piece together a splendid fraction of Earthly paradise.

IMG_8955With its (too) domesticated pigeons and sparrows that are bold enough to pick up the cookie crumbles straight from your coffee plate, the illuminating sun that blinds you when reflected by so much water, the drops of rain that make the water from the canal shiver and the gondolas look sad when anchored, Venice has unexpectedly become my favourite city in Europe, by day and by night.

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IMG_8984Why visit Venice:

  • The city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in its entirety.
  • It is Europe’s largest car-free area.
  • It is a unique venue: 177 canals and 409 bridges (says wiki).
  • Famous for its masks and carnival (watch out for the crowd, though).
  • It is probably world’s most popular and romantic place where you can finally declare your flame in a gondola or go as far as propose (if you really must). Then maybe you can take a flight to Los Angeles, get drunk and get married to close the deal.
  • Sunday is particularly charming when the bells from St Mark’s Basilica shake the city.
  • You can buy Venetian/Murano glass objects (if you can afford it).
  • Here’s your chance to drink a very expensive coffee with a view and share your very expensive cookie that comes with the expensive coffee with the pigeons and sparrows that will inevitably land on your table.
  • Because the following people lived here: Marco Polo (a famous explorer after which 50% of Europe’s pizzerias have been named), Antonio Vivaldi (if you like the seasons) and Giacomo Casanova (the most notorious self-declared hypersexual Italian of all times).
  • It inspired Shakespeare to write “The Merchant of Venice”, thus making sure to sour the life of any student in literature throughout the centuries.
  • It is a 1600 year-old city with a wooden foundation, built and maintained on water by very complex technical systems – a man-made wonder that is likely to sink one day. To avoid this, the Italian authorities might want to collaborate with the Dutch – they, of all nations, know a thing or two about how to tame the water.

Visit Venice.

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Bad Company in Campania

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Some journeys are just longer. To others, there’s simply no end. My thoughts exactly as our train halts for the third time in the last three hours in a station which is still not our final destination. I am steaming, sweating, perhaps also swearing on a train in Italy, somewhere between Rome and Ariano Irpino.

Chance and curiosity plotted to get me here. First, my name was drawn at a tombola organised during a wine and cheese tasting event, opening up the possibility for me to spend an agro touristic week-end in the beautiful Campania to which I am now headed. The flight tickets were not included, but for someone who never won anything before, this was no obstacle. The organiser is very considerate: he makes arrangements for me to travel in the company of one of his colleagues. I praise such generosity and cannot believe my luck. But that was before I meet my travel mate.

The lady he sent over is not a gift. Suspicion ramifies inside me that she is on the mission of putting my patience to a test. This I do not have plentiful and she seems determined to put me off balance. Her conversation opening line when we reach the airport is: “I hope no plane crashes today.” I’m dumbfounded: why would anyone mention plane-related disasters 15 minutes before boarding a Ryanair flight? “Last time I was here, one did crash on the platform and our own plane had to be delayed.” Meet Vania. I will be stuck with her for the next endless hours.

While I am quite the independent traveller, Vania acts as if crossing the street on her own were a wild experience. Hence she follows me: I turn left, she turns left. And as she does so, she feels compelled to utter her precious opinions and substantial advice. And she has one for everything. I now finally have someone to coach me on how to eat, where to sit, when and how to look out the window, etc. Vania truly makes one appreciate the golden side of silence.

I hope my nerves would last. The doors close behind me, taking me hostage in the Italian train. But pray the Lord: the seat next to my undesirable partner is already taken! I rush in the hall, rejoicing the prospect of some peace and quiet. But no, Vania cannot let me sit on the floor, and insists I take the only spare seat that lies not far (enough) from hers. Needless to say, there is no refusing Vania. Not if you want to save yourself a headache.

I then search for refuge into music. But even though a perfectly visible cable connects my ears to an iPad which I ostensibly hold in hand for anyone to see, Vania keeps talking to me. Fearing I might be too subtle, I increase the level of my rudeness to point out as clearly as humanly possible that I need a break by diving into a book, doing my best to fake concentration and turn invisible. But there is no stopping Vania: try as I might to camouflage my presence for a little while, she ends up tapping on my knees, making signs that I should look outside.

A window separates me from that wide open field she is so crazed about. I wish she were on the other side. The train has no air-conditioning. The night is falling and we are much delayed now. We’ve been travelling all day: took a plane early in the morning, then a bus to Rome Termini, walked the streets of Rome, and ended up on this battered old train. We are trapped in one of the five carriages that carry too many people it can handle. We sweat in unison. After all, Vania did warn me: “I hope we make it to Ariano. When I travel, there’s always a problem.”

The train squeaks and dies on us at 9 o’clock in the evening: this time, we even get the privilege of an announcement. It says sorry, due to technical problems, overheated engine, all passengers must get off, not going any further. Everyone takes the exit except for Vania who believes we should stay, just in case the train decides to rise like a phoenix from the ashes and move again. I jump out, thinking that reaching the destination would not solve my problem: I still have a whole week-end in front of me with Vania.

Deromanticizing Rome

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I went to Italy, scene of ancient battles, gladiators and perverted pleasures – so delightfully reproduced in movies and TV series (if you think “Rome”, there sure is a lot of reproduction going on) – four days after the 4-0 defeat of the Italian football team by the Spaniards (remember, Russell Crowe in “The Gladiator” was nicknamed “The Spaniard”?). All roads lead to Rome, goes the saying. With Ryanair, the selling point of everything that you have never considered buying while being up in the air, you are left at the Ciampino airport. From there, it takes 40 minutes to travel by bus (and almost the same to wait for one) to the Termini Train Station, Rome. And this, at Termini, is where things actually begin…

When Martin Luther (the guy with the Bible) stepped into Rome, he issued: “If there be a hell, Rome is built over it”. Now, I am centuries apart from this guy, but that day, when I disembarked at Termini, our minds were one. The heat was slightly unbearable (but that’s normal, because I was coming straight from Belgium), the crowd of people was just horrifying, the Romanian gipsies too many and everyone seemed preoccupied with walking on my toes, robbing me, pushing me and all sort of group activities against me. A piece of Dante’s “Inferno”.

After having walked to the metro station in Brussels, taken the metro to reach the station, taken the bus to go to the airport, flown with Ryanair, taken the bus from Ciampino to the Termini station, all within 7 hours, I then needed to take the metro from Termini to wherever my camping for the night was. So I needed a metro ticket. Some ticket machines came into sight, but what a hard work to get to them: how to make your way through the gipsies who gravitate around you like hungry vultures, the visitors who already bought their tickets but won’t separate themselves from the ticket machines, and the Polizia who passively pretended to do their job and chase the gipsies away. I could have bet that they split 50-50 with them.

Anyway, ticket in hand, I look for metro line number 2. Easy as, I thought, knowing that in Rome there are only 2 metro lines. Think twice and bite your tongue, baby! For the way to El Dorado was long. The metro station was actually under construction for Pope knows how long and the only signs towards my longed-for destination were sheets of paper glued to the walls, with an arrow and a 2 printed on. So I followed, for quite some time.

While Rome was not built in one day (and the precious remains definitely testify for that), it was certainly built on seven hills. Hence the uncountable number of stairs that you climb to get anywhere.  Honestly, do not pack too much if you really need to go through the metro station: all escalators do not work. You’ll just end up carrying your luggage on an insane amount of stairs, so it’d better be light (and you’d better not have a heart condition). You’d also better not be handicapped; for I’m not sure Romans are actually prepared to welcome disabled people with the necessary facilities.

So much for the first impressions of a highly coveted and excessively touristic European capital…”Sinistra”, says the voice in the metro to announce that the way out for the next stop in on the left side. “Sinister”, I thought, holding my bags extra close to my body, for by that time I had started to suspect everyone of wanting to rob me.

After the metro, I also had to take a bus to reach the camping site where I was to spend the night. In Rome, buses have still not been provided with on-board systems announcing or displaying the bus stop name. Consequently, you never truly know when to get down. Luckily, the bus I was in was filled with young people speaking English, so I told myself I should just follow them: they looked like the camping type. I eventually got to do the check in at the camping site, cursed myself briefly for having booked there, but then, hey, I actually started to notice that: it was hot the way I liked it, the sun was shining and there was a pool! With water I could swim in!

What I normally do once I dropped and locked my luggage somewhere in a foreign country/city is to immediately grab a map and explore it. But then I was so glad to have escaped the hustle and bustle that Rome was to me that afternoon that I decided to know better than that: I jumped in the bathing suit, took a beer and laid by the pool in the company of a friend who was travelling with me the next day. Only when we finished the third beer and got sunburnt (I do not consider putting sunscreen on necessary, since I only see the rays once a year) did we realise that we had to go to the Termini Station (oh, no, not there!!) to meet up with another travel mate and have dinner.

So there we were, 3 girls from 3 different corners of the world, wandering in the streets of Rome to get some food. Bree, our mate from Australia, was recommended good restaurants in the San Lorenzo area, which we still could not locate half an hour later. I then started to look for my skills in Italian and asked a guy for the direction. What he said to me in Italian confirmed the puzzled look in his eyes: he explained to us that San Lorenzo was a place where people openly sold drugs and put it in your hand without you even asking for it. We “grazie”-ed him and took the first chair of the first restaurant that was not in San Lorenzo and had the best gnocchi alla carbonara and the most delicious wine my lips could have expected to taste. Evening in Rome was good.

Between brackets, it’s true what they say about the Italian men: they truly jump out of the car at the red light, no, not to kidnap you, but just to tell you “You look beautiful”. If that does not make one smile!

During the next 3 days, I had a most wonderful trip to Sorrento, Capri, Positano, Amalfi and Ravello (The farther from Rome, the nearer to God?) with Busabout. I could call this a perfect break, since I fully enjoyed so many of the plentiful flavours that Italy has to offer. So much so that I have to go back.