Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

The long-winded-niest travelogue on the internet!


Venice, Italy

Posted on 11/23/03

Venice was one of the cities that I had been given substantial amounts of forewarning about. The Venice entry in my Timeport notepad was so extensive before I even set foot in the city that every time I added something to it, the effort it took to save the document nearly crashed the operating system. I had notes on the crowds, the prices, the best bars, the frequent flooding, the attitudes of the snobbish, socially stunted, lingual perfectionists at the vaporetti ticket booths… Whoops, scratch that. I discovered that last one for myself as soon as I stepped foot out of the Venice train station.

Vaporetti are basically boat buses that serve the refreshingly car-free Venice metropolitan area. The people running the vaporetti are of the caliber that you’d expect from, low-paying, hateful, mass transit related jobs. Imagine a 20 year veteran of the New York City subway, give her a language pet peeve with a hair trigger and that’s what I had to deal with when I tried to buy my first vaporetto ticket. I approached the booth with the intention of having an all-Italian exchange with the attendant. This wasn’t much of a stretch as I had recently committed a moderate amount of content from my Italian phrase book to memory. This limited vocabulary supplemented with a few slight adjustments to my Spanish - which amounted to speaking Spanish with an Italian accent - made my Italian passable enough for minor exchanges like ordering food, asking directions or having an in-depth conversation with a two-year-old.

A vaporetto stop/dock.

The woman selling tickets at the vaporetto stop in front of the train station was primed for hostility when it was finally my turn to buy a ticket. The line had been unusually long and slow moving. By the time I was about three people away from the window, I had assessed the root of the problem. The attendant was doing her best to make every transaction as difficult and laborious as possible. I had witnessed the people ahead of me, tourists and locals alike, getting agitated and, especially in the case of the Italians, demonstrating their discontent with the now familiar bellowing speech level and arm flapping. When it was my turn the woman glared at me with insolence for having the unforgivable nerve to want to ride the vaporetto. With my best accent and pronunciation, I requested a ticket in Italian. She furrowed her brow in utter mystification. I slowed down my request, hitting every vowel and consonant as perfectly as I could. She closed her eyes and shook her head as if to suggest that the effort of trying to comprehend my request was giving her vertigo. Then, with seeming profound effort, she repeated the phrase back to me in question form, exactly as I had said it, but with the accent on one of the words on a different syllable. I said yes, that is what I meant to say, in a steely tone. “Three-fifty” she said in English. I gave her a five and she flung the ticket at me so hard that it nearly flew over my shoulder and then tossed my change on the counter, a one euro piece and five 10 cent pieces (because giving me a fifty piece would have been far too generous for a boorish person such as myself), causing the coins to scatter. I didn’t move. The gauntlet had been thrown down. We stared at each other for a beat. I had nothing to lose by standing there a little longer. My eyes narrowed in a menacing manner as I slowly and deliberately started to collect each coin, one-by-one. She blinked first, lost her cool and looked to the next person behind me, trying to start a new transaction, but I still had three coins to pick up and with me and the Barge parked side-by-side in front of her window, no one was going to slide past me. I milked the collection of the last coin, which included some feigned difficulty in picking it up, as she appeared to be nearing a stigmata episode. Once I had pocketed the change and grabbed my ticket, without making any attempt to start moving away, I caught her eye again and said “thank you very much” with a tone that suggested that the word ‘thank’ be replaced by a choice F-word. I could hear her teeth grinding as I leisurely and triumphantly guided the Barge onto the vaporetti dock. I pitied the poor woman. There was no way she could have known that I had lived with some of the worst roommates in modern history and I was hence the Bruce Lee of passive-aggressive combat. She got off easy as far as I was concerned. I could have copped a stutter. An Italian stutter! Oh that would have almost been too cruel!

I was not looking forward to the hostel situation. Something deep inside me told me to call ahead from Verona and check on the bed availability at my desired hostel in Venice. To my utter astonishment, the hostel I wanted was full. I had not encountered a full hostel since September. This was but a tiny preview of the tourist infestation problem in Venice, even in mid-November. The only other reasonably priced hostel option in Venice was the goddamn Hosteling International affiliate. My self-righteous vow to shun all HI hostels back in Lyon had only seemed to strengthen my fate to wallow in accommodations misery under the discomfort and restrictions of the HI organization. I braced myself for the worst and was still surprised at the depths of the conditions. The only deviation at the Venice HI hostel was that most of the staff were actually friendly and helpful. Otherwise, it was business as usual. The rooms were overstuffed and cramped. The beds were World War II era, slingshot, spring beds and I theorized if you propped one up at a 45° angle, then jumped off the roof into it, you could launch yourself across the canal (I didn’t get any takers). And the perennially ghastly breakfast that would have been inadequate even by African relief group standards. The one and only saving grace was that I was placed in a room at the front of the building which afforded an amazing view of the canal (pictured).

As always, misery breeds good company. I spent the first night chatting with a wacky brother/sister duo who were, get this, hitchhiking through Europe. Yes, these two lunatics were hitchhiking in 2003. I was astounded and grilled them for details. They explained that they were from “outside Alberta, Canada” and apparently they had just decided one day to see how far they could get through Europe with their thumbs and clean-cut Canadian charm. Actually, I had to admit that if ever there was a modern day, sure-fire formula for hitchhiking, these two had found it. To start, they were both young, scrubbed down and looked about as threatening as day-old bunnies. The guy, O’Ryan, was a dead-ringer for Topher Grace, who plays Eric Foreman on “That 70’s Show,” not only in looks, but also in mannerisms, speech and humor style. Spending time with him was like watching a one man cabaret show. His depiction of their visit to Breast, France was priceless. (I later learned that Breast is spelled “Brest” (thanks Jerry!) Still, how cool is that? How come no one told me about Brest, France?) The girl who was lovingly referred to as “Freak” by her brother so often that I never managed to learn her real name, was very pretty, disarmingly bright and engaging, despite being the brainchild of the ominous hitching adventure through Europe. She also had the smallest amount of baggage that I had ever seen on a backpacker. Her main bag was about the same size and just half the weight of the Office and she had a second, even smaller bag, about the size of my mom’s purse that was somehow holding an entire sleeping bag. Taking a good look at them, I had to confess that if I was driving down the road and saw this fresh-faced pair, so wholesome in appearance that they made the Brady Bunch kids look like hooligans, I suppose I would have picked them up too. Though I was still concerned about the potential for them being picked up by a cannibal with an affinity for human skin window dressings. They countered with numerous anecdotes about all the generous people that they had encountered all over Europe’s highways. They had tales of being driven right up to the door of their hostel, people inviting them back to their homes (at one point being given the keys to the house and told to make themselves comfortable as the owner drove off to work) and going on unreal streaks in the U.K. where people were stopping to pick them up before the driver who had just dropped them off had disappeared off in the distance. But they also admitted that they had once spent six hours on the side of the road in the rain in Germany (no surprise there), spent the night in a ditch when they couldn’t get a ride on a desolate road and scaled the wall and camped out on the grounds of a hostel that had closed for the season the week before they arrived. I pictured being in those situations with the Barge and my laptop. I’ll stick to paying the ridiculous train fares, thank you.

These "Pace" (Peace) signs are everywhere in Italy. Hint, hint.

The next morning, I was accosted and befriended before I knew what was going on by a guy from Seoul, South Korea. He was traveling by himself for two months and was obviously having the time of his life. This guy had an amazing, unassuming, knack for approaching people. It was so smooth. One minute I was innocently packing my bathroom kitbag and within seconds I had a cute little Korean memento in my hand and I was being shown digital pictures from the Def Leopard concert he had attended in London, which he testified as being the highlight of his travels. He was irresistibly friendly and excitedly told me about his travels. I got so caught up in talking to him that we both got yelled at by the cleaning staff for dawdling in the room past the morning lock-out deadline. As I scanned through the pictures in his camera, I saw scores of pictures of other strangers that he had randomly approached all over Europe. Men and woman of every nationality were victim to his innocuous charisma. This was especially impressive to me as the guy’s English was choppy at best, though I theorized that this quirk probably furthered his ability to befriend people without setting off their weirdo alarms. While talking to him, I began to appreciate the challenges that the poor guy must face every single day while traveling through Europe. Being an English speaker cut loose in Europe isn’t nearly as intimidating or frightening as only having a weak grasp on English and nothing else but your wits and guile to get you through the daily trials that European travel can present. If I ever got desperate, I could just look around and find an English speaker in earshot just about anywhere, but how many Korean speakers do you stumble across in Europe? Personally, I’d be petrified.

Venice is very old. Older than dirt. Settled before there was hair. It is built on 117 small islands and the only way around town is on the 150 canals or on foot. There is not a single car, bike, scooter or skater punk in Venice. The terrain of the city makes it virtually impossible to navigate it with anything on wheels. You cannot go very far without encountering a bridge or steps or ancient stone walkways, with gaps so big that they would stop a skate board on a dime and throw the rider into a canal, which would actually be pretty cool in my opinion.

Unfortunately, unless you are Jesus, you will have to use some form of expensive water transportation during your wanderings around Venice. Particularly if you stay at the HI hostel which is predictably located in the most inconvenient spot in the city. Since there are no 300 foot high mountains or partially derelict buildings 10 miles out of town, the HI people were forced to establish the hostel across the massive Giudecca Canal which has no bridges that connect it to the rest of Venice. A single vaporetto ride costs a whopping 3.50 euros ($4.12), so to take the sting out of this unavoidable expense, you either have buy a multiple-day, unlimited ride pass or just hop on without paying. The free-ride alternative, I found out later, is not really a huge risk for tourists. If you get busted, all you have to do is say that you have no money. The agent will dutifully take down your home address so that they can send the fine to you in the mail and then belatedly inform you that they almost never send fine notices to out-of-country locales because the money they make from the laughable few people who actually send in the requested fine doesn’t offset the expense of the international postage. Unfortunately, by the time I learned this loophole, I had already coughed up the 18 euros for a 72 hour pass.

By 15 minutes into my first foray into Venice, I was ready to burn the two euro map that I bought at the tourist office. Venice is such a hopeless maze that “maze” isn’t a strong enough word to describe it. After consulting my thesaurus, I decided that a new word had to be created to do justice to the streets of Venice. The word is “Extreme-giga-maze-hard-core-to-the-max-Gomer.” I plan to copyright it. The impossible task of documenting each and every street, alley, tunnel and winding dead end in Venice, combined with the half-hearted attempt at street signage makes serious navigation only possible through very large landmarks. Addresses in Venice are totally useless to anyone besides a Venetian mail carrier. Anything that isn’t within 25 yards of a major landmark might as well be invisible, because there is no way that you’re going to find it on purpose. After abandoning the map, my explorations consisted of taking the vaporetto to a part of the city that I wanted to cover and just plunging into the Extreme-giga-maze-hard-core-to-the-max-Gomer of streets and hoping that I would find another vaporetto stop before I died of old age. It’s really that bad. One day I actually found my way into Venice’s one and only true residential section (most of the “locals’ actually live across the lagoon in uninviting, industrial Mestre). I discovered after walking in hopeless circles for 45 minutes that I was completely trapped. Just for kicks I pulled out my map. I sort of knew what corner of the city that I was in and I tried to get my bearings only to learn that there was just one little conduit leading in and out of the neighborhood and finding the way out at that point was about as likely as me finding God. Eventually I just starting walking in a straight line, knowing that I would eventually run into water and then try to ascertain where the nearest vaporetto dock was. This only took 25 minutes and the exploration of five watery dead ends (pictured).

I was really digging not having to dodge cars on narrow streets in Venice, but the crowd conditions almost eclipsed that perk. Even in November, the number of slow walking, confused, bumbling Rube Tourists in Venice made the streets more clogged than a summertime Saturday afternoon at the Mall of America. The state of the walking conditions is so bad that the tourism bureau actually addresses it on its “10 Suggestions for a Pleasant Stay in Venice” welcome card. Right there at number three it says “Keep right when walking in the city street,” right next to “Never stop on bridges.” Of course, even after having it spelled out for them, the Rube Tourists still didn’t have the cognitive capacity to remember these simple, kernels of common sense. They walked side-by-side in droves down the left, right and middle of the street and then stopped and formed impenetrable semi-circles on the bridges so that as you squeezed past them and they had the audacity to give you dirty looks when you jostled them, you were tempted to grab one of them by the camera strap around their necks and jerk them over the railing into the filthy water. Needless to say, there is no getting anyplace in a hurry in Venice. Once again, I was forced to put the brakes on my burn-rubber walking pace. Eventually my only goal while in Venice was to find a totally deserted street. It only took me three days, but I found one. Since the second most scarce item in Venice is a public bathroom, I celebrated the moment by peeing into the canal.

The two euro map from the tourism office came with an “Easy Guide” to Venice and its islands. This was an absurd misnomer. The “Easy Guide” nearly cause my brain to hemorrhage the first time I went through it and read about the 127 things that I had to see in Venice. This included 56 churches, 48 palaces and museums and the remainder guildhalls, theatres and “Places of Interest.” I read about 1/3 of the thing before I said “(expletive) it.” It was going to take me all afternoon to just read the goddamn thing. I tossed it and decided to just let fate (and gelato) lead me to the coolest sights in Venice.

The only place in the city that you can find with your eyes closed is Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square). The Piazza is by far the largest open space in Venice and is hemmed in by the gigantic Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Procuratie Vecchie/Nuove arcades and the Correr Museum. The entire square is like out of a fairytale. The raised flood walkways take a bit away from the magic of the surroundings, otherwise you’d swear you were in Wonderland. If you ever get bored admiring the buildings you can watch the half dozen pigeon attacks that are taking place at any given moment. The pigeons in Saint Mark’s Square are the boldest pack of birds I have ever seen. There are thousands of them and they don’t think twice about flying up out of nowhere and landing on your head. That’s if you do nothing to draw them. If you want an instantaneous coating of pigeon shit on your jacket, all you have to do is buy a bag of seed from one of the wise, raincoat sporting pigeon seed vendors and you will have about 500 new winged best friends in seconds. People can be heard screaming intermittently all over the square when a friend or loved one decides to get mischievous and throw a handful of seed all over the victim and stand back with the camera as the pigeons swarm in like piranha, devouring every piece of seed, lint and mole on the victim’s body in seconds. It’s great fun.

Despite appearances, the Basilica's tower is not leaning. It's a photographic optical illusion. To see Venice's real leaning tower, click here.

These raised flood walkways are all over the city. It floods so often that they don't ever bother packing them away.


With no other direction provided for me and being a newly, glassy-eyed Lonely Planet disciple by this point, I followed their directions to take the Number 1 vaporetto for the long cruise down the Grand Canal which winds through the middle of Venice. The ride not only helped with the daunting task of getting oriented in Venice, but with the numerous stops the vaporetto makes at key locations I was able to take a ton of great photos without getting off my ass for 30 minutes. I took note of the boating conventions on the canal which seemed to only consist of one rule: Whoever gets there first has the right-of-way. There’s no attempt to stick to the right hand side as vaporetto stops are on both sides of the canal, requiring them to knife across all “lanes” of traffic to hit their stops. The large boats do whatever they damn well please while the smaller boats and gondolas pretty much just sneak through wherever they can find a lane. Despite the potential for disaster with this lawless, every-man-for-himself navigation method in the canals, I never once witnessed a single accident or even a near-collision during the four days that I floated around Venice. Eventually I was forced to wonder, with there being with no cars in Venice, what the upper-crust, stylish kids got on their 16th birthdays? A motorboat? And the less lucky kids got what? A canoe?


What I didn’t realize immediately was that everything in Venice had to be dealt with through the canals. It wasn’t until my third day that I saw a garbage boat, which looks like a mini-barge with a crane attached to the back. Collecting the garbage is a two person job. One person guides the barge down the canals and mans the crane that loads the garbage from the street into the barge. The second person, who presumably pulled the short straw that morning, gets the unenviable task of running around the neighborhood with an oversized wheelbarrow, collecting the garbage from homes, businesses and street bins and periodically ferrying it back to the barge, where the crane guy puts down his cigarette and cell phone, maneuvers the crane to pick up the entire wheelbarrow and upends it into the barge.

A Dali melting clock.

Look! It's the Leaning Tower of Venice!

From my standpoint, the worst part about Venice’s canal dependency is the emergency medical service. I witnessed an ambulance pick-up while I was eating lunch in a Tex-Mex restaurant a few doors down from the HI hostel on my first day. The boat swerved up to the walkway in front of the restaurant as I was digging into my “Tex-Mex” lasagna bolognaise. One guy jumped out with, I kid you not, a chair with handles and two wheels and ran off. A minute later he was back with an elderly, female passenger. The swells on the broad Giudecca Canal were pretty rough at the time and the poor woman had to get out of the wheelbarrow chair and jump into the boat under her own power. This seemed like awfully brutal treatment to me. You might only have a really bad cold when the ambulance picks you up, but by the time you get to the hospital, you could have a broken hip or suffer a near drowning.

After two nights at the HI hostel I got the hell out. The main issue that forced me to switch hostels, aside from the loud, squalor conditions, was that there was no reasonable place for me to plug in my laptop and work. Well, there was one place for me to plug in, right next to the coffee machine in the dinning room, but the owner of the “restaurant” (it was a rudimentary cafeteria at best), who also happened to maintain the vending machines harassed me both days that I tried to get some work done. He claimed that having my laptop plugged into the same outlet as the coffee machine was causing it to have performance problems. This ludicrous reasoning seemed to be his attempt to exert his control over the cafeteria area, which he seemed regard as his little kingdom. Also, the service window happened to be behind where I was sitting and my close proximity to the window was supposedly driving away patrons. Now I admit that I’ve looked better, but I didn’t think that my appearance was so bad that it was causing people to lose their appetites. So after spending two days having a battle of wits and determination with the Canteen King and sleeping with my ass sagging eight inches lower than my head and feet, I fled to the Santa Fosca hostel across town, which was quiet, a short walk from the main train station and had the extra charm points of being located on the grounds next to a 600 year old church.

I made one stab at trying to buy a nice meal in Venice and while it wasn’t horrendous, it wasn’t worth what I paid for it. After a little digging I was left to conclude that Venice simply does not have decent dinning options, no matter how much you want to spend. Pretty much every square inch of indoor space has been given over to tourist crap and knowing that Rube Tourists don’t know good food from Vegemite on toast, the Venetians have stooped to serving what amounts to elegantly presented gruel. When I finally got the opportunity to ask some locals where I could find decent food in Venice, they promptly and unanimously responded “McDonald’s.” I decided to take their advice (figuratively, not literally) and ate out of the pizza counters for the remainder of my stay in Venice and saved my food splurges for Bologna and Florence.

After four days of rewarding roaming through the streets of Venice, my crowd anxiety exerted itself and I made plans to find some personal space relief in Bologna.

Go to Bologna

Back to the travelogue index


©Leif Pettersen 2012