Part 7: Nice
I wanted to see in person how a city functions when its streets are canals. I also heard the city was slowly sinking so I should visit sooner rather later.
- Thursday, 30 October: Arrived in Venice by train. Took vaporetto water taxi to hostel.
- Friday, 31 October: Walked around main island Venice. Short trip in Giudecca.
- Saturday, 1 November: Took last vaporetto ride around main island. Departed Venice by train.
Venice was indeed a unique town. As many people had said, it had become a town of tourists, and it seemed so. I had glimpses of locals when I visited Giudecca, one of the outer islands.
The strange thing about being in city of canals was that after spending half a day in the thick of it, walking everywhere, seeing gondolas float through the waterways, it was quite a shock and almost an insult when I saw cars and buses on roads near the train station, which was where the island portion of Venice that most people knew connected to the mainland and less-well-known portion of Venice.
I took three trains from Nice to Venice, stopping at Ventimiglia and Milan. I purchased the Nice-to-Ventimiglia ticket at Nice station when I arrived in Nice, and I booked the other two train tickets on ItaliaRail a few weeks earlier.
Nice to Ventimiglia train
The Nice-to-Ventimiglia train was relatively short, and it felt like a commuter train because the train car looked more like an urban subway’s, and there were people in business attire getting on and off at the same stops.
This train also gave me a final view of the beautiful French Riviera, before passing through Monacao and taking me away from the coast.
Ventimiglia to Milan
The Ventimiglia-to-Milan train was longer, almost four hours. I booked a first-class seat, which just meant I sat in a car that had isolated compartments of six seats (three facing the other), with slightly more room. There was also a trash can and a mini-table by the window, which I sat next to.
The view was pleasant; it definitely had a southern European look, whatever that means.
Milan to Venice
My connection at Milan was tight; by the schedule I had fifteen minutes to disembark one train and board another. I looked up Milan’s train station platform map online, which looked relatively straight-forward. Depending on the scale, I could probably make it if I half-ran.
I did make it, with surprisingly some time to spare. I booked a first class ticket as well, but that had a different style from the previous train. The car had an open plan. I sat on one side of the train in a one-seater behind another one-seater The other side of the train had two-seaters with tables.
There was an attendant pushing a cart down the aisle asking what the passengers would like to drink. Everyone also seemed to get a bag of cookies, with a choice of flavors. I believed the choices were cream or chocolate. I chose cream because I knew I didn’t want chocolate but I figure “con panna fresca” was the generic option, even though I didn’t know exactly what it was.
The view of Italy from the train continued to be quaint, especially with the sun starting to set on this day of train travel.
Arriving in Venice
By the time I got to Venice, it was already dark. But it was only about 6pm, so there were still a lot of people inside the train station as well as outside. Even though I looked up the vaporetto water taxi system before, it still took me a while to figure out which of the three stations (routes) I should go to, where to buy my ticket, how the boarding process worked, how to read the real-time electronic schedule.
After a bit of back-and-forth, I figured out the station I should board and took my first vaporetto ride. The vaporetto went down the Grand Canal, through a large, important-looking bridge, which I found out later was the iconic Rialto Bridge.
I got off near the San Marco stop and walked through Piazza San Marco (before I realized what it was) to my hostel.
I discovered early on that hostels were rare in Venice. And they either had bad reviews and horror stories or expensive. So I looked to Airbnb and found a few places, including one where it’s set up like a hostel. I was a little concerned because the listing felt kind of scrappy and unofficial, but I placed my faith on the reviews and booked it.
I was given turn-by-turn directions in the confirmation to get to the hostel. Part of me thought how thoughtful, and the other part wondered why there wasn’t an address. In retrospect, this was probably a good idea, since Venice rarely had street names, so the directions definitely won over any address that could be provided. I even tried to rehearse the route on Google Maps and Street View, but the layout was too imprecise and photo quality too poor to figure it out. When I finally arrived at night, I followed the directions very closely and was surprised to find it after only a few mis-turns.
I buzzed the hostel from the entrance and, as usual (like in London), awkwardly explained in the intercom as quickly as I could that I had a reservation and implicitly asked if I could be let in. Once in, there was a large dark empty lobby with a closer path on the right and a farther path on the left. I went to the path on the right first and noticed the name of the hostel, so I took the tiny little elevator up to the correct floor. The elevator car was slightly larger than a phone booth, and I likened it to a music recording booth.
At the door, I was greeted by a young woman, and I repeated what I said on the intercom while she looked at my with a blank face. Looking back, she probably thought, “I know you had a reservation. Why are you saying the same thing?”
She was finishing up helping with another group of guests, and then it was my turn. We were in the living room at this time. The woman pulled out her records, asked for my passport, told me about the hotel tax, which I could pay in cash or credit card, but for simplicity, I just paid in cash right then and there. She checked me in, gave me a set of keys, showed me and around the “hostel”, which seemed more like a large apartment reworked to be a hostel that could sleep more people.
The young woman’s name was Mirabella, I believe, and she spoke English with a different accent than Italians. She ended most of her sentences with an inflection as if she decided at the last second to turn the sentence into a question. I found out later on she was from Poland, and she was in Venice to work for a few months before moving back.
Perhaps it was the language barrier or the culture difference, but she was soft-spoken but very direct and serious, almost to a point where she had no sense of humor. On the second day, I was having lunch in the kitchen and she was preparing and cooking a full meal, seemingly for either a guest or the owner. I complimented her for making something that was smelling so good, and I said as a joke that I was jealous. She was a little amused and smiled, but continued concentrating cutting vegetables.
It seemed that she pretty much did the day-to-day chores and tasks, from checking in guests to changing sheets and housekeeping for the next guests. She did these things so swiftly that it looked almost effortless.
According to the listing, I was supposed to be in a room shared with another person. But I found out quite quickly that one wall in our room was completely open to the multi-bed room next door. There were no curtains or anything to divide the rooms; it was just open, almost like one room. I didn’t mind so much, since it’s so blatantly open, everyone knew to be respectful of noise and general chatter.
The room was pretty spacious. It could definitely fit another bun bed and that was still be enough room. It had a bunk bed, a tall closet, a standing fan, a chair and a long table. There was an power outlet near the bunk beds, but it was used by my roommate who was already there. The power outlet was on the opposite side of the room next to the chair and table. So I had to plug my flimsy universal power adapter, which wiggled a little bit from the outlet, and I had to protect my phone by sitting in the chair and couldn’t go anywhere else.
There were two large windows that look out to other buildings, separated by a canal below. From my window, I could see the Campanile of St. Mark’s church sticking out from St. Mark’s Square, and I could hear the bell quite clearly at certain times of the day.
The bed was pretty standard. Judging by the other furniture in the hostel, the bunk bed was most likely also from IKEA. The frame was made of thin metal strips, and that made a noise with big movements.
There were two large cupboards next to the bed to serve as storage, but there were no metal loops to attach locks to.
There were two bathrooms we had access to. One was closer to my room so I used that more often. It was a standard household bathroom (though somewhat spacious) with a bathtub, sink, toilet, and bidet.
There curtains in the bathtub was actually too short in width, so I had to be careful where I aimed the showered when I took showers.
The toilet was next to a large window, and opening it would allow me to look up to other buildings, and presumably others to look into the bathroom. But it was possible to leave the window open a little to get some ventilation without being exposed.
There was a living room with couches and coffee table in the middle of the hostel. There was a radio playing local stations during the day, and there were also plenty of literature about traveling and Venice.
There was no food provided, but the kitchen was fully stocked with equipment. I assembled my store-bought salad using the dishes and utensils, and I also made tea using an electric kettle. After I was done eating, I washed my own dishes and dried it next to the sink. Mirabella later came and put the dishes away, which I felt bad for.
The kitchen had a world map with little arrow-shaped Post-its for guest to mark where they were from. Mirabella told me I could put mine. At first I was hesitant, thinking it was silly, and Mirabella chuckled at me. But later on, I thought it was such an awesome idea I put my name up there. This map went on to inspire me to do something similar in my home.
There was Wi-Fi available, and it was medium-to-low speed compared to urban areas in the States. The login information was written down and put up in a picture frame in the living room.
Right outside of the hostel apartment was the staircase to the ground floor. There was a skylight that captured a lot of light that trickled down to the bottom floor. That, combined with the open ground floor lobby, the hostel’s spacious layout, and the window views, this unit was designed very well, and I felt that this was just how Italians design buildings to take advantage of the lighting and to make daily life more grand and beautiful.
Walking and vaporetto. I pretty much walked everywhere. There were no cars beyond the train station area. It’s all foot traffic, especially through narrow alleys and little bridges. It was actually quite nice to just walk freely and not have to watch out for cars or have the air polluted with exhaust.
I used the vaporetto four times: oonce to get from the train station to the hostel, twice to get from the main island to Giudecca and back, and once to take a tour around the main island before I left Venice.
Each vaporetto station had an entry path and an exit path. Most stations would have a ticket booth or machine at or near the entrance. Popular stations would have digital signs listing waiting times for the next arrival. At the entrance of each station, there was a plastic box on which to place the ticket for the RFID or something to mark the ticket as used. Then passengers would head to the waiting area for the next vaporetto. A vaporetto would arrive, passengers on the vaporetto would get off first, then waiting passengers would get on.
In the center of the vaporetto was the boarding area, but during the ride, passengers could stand in the open air. At the front of the vaporetto was also an open area for passengers to check out the view. In the rear was covered seating with clear but weathered windows, and the area would often get humid, especially if there were lots of passengers. Depending on the station, passengers would disembark on different sides of the vehicle, so passengers standing in the middle would be asked to move. All that would protect passengers from falling off the boarding zone during the ride were thin, sliding metal guard rails.
- Time of year: Late October/Early November.
- My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
- The temperature was generally cool. Perhaps walking a lot in the middle of the day required taking off layers until the body cooled off.
- On vaporetto rides in the open water, it actually got kind of chilly from the wind, even with my jacket on.
The people working in Venice were usually very straight with customers. I think it’s because Venice consisted mostly of tourists, and the workers were used to being direct and clear to avoid any confusion because of language differences. They would ask me to double check I knew what I wanted. At the grocery store, the cashier made sure I was aware I was on a cash-only line. At a gelato shop, the lady made sure before she scooped that I knew the caramel flavor costed 2 Euros instead of 1.5. At a bakery, the lady made sure I was paying for the takeaway (to-go) price and not the eat-in price. By each incident, it felt almost rude to ask me the obvious. But collectively, it’s more understandable why they would do that, and it actually seemed kind of courteous of them.
Again, since Venice was such a tourist town, most people who worked there could speak English, even with limited vocabulary. But I still made a solid effort to say “Grazie” with each interaction. I was able to recognize words from a few signs through repetition, like “ristorante” (which was obvious) and “trattoria” (which I didn’t know exactly, but it was similar to a restaurant).
Getting Lost on Purpose
Since I was only in Venice for less than forty-eight hours, I did not book any tours. Like Nice, I decided to just walk around and explore by myself. After grabbing a buttery croissant near the Rialto Bridge, I started my deliberate plan to get lost in Venice. I basically walked down roads and alleys as I wished, picking a path that looked interesting, turning around at dead ends, checking out shops, and repeat. There were plenty of restaurants, gelaterias, bakeries, and Venetian mask shops, but very few places interested me.
Initially, I tried to remember my direction and the path that I took. But after a few turns, I would have forgotten anything before my last turn. I was totally lost, but I felt totally fine, because it was my intention to get lost, and I had no agenda for the day, other than to eat when I got hungry.
Somewhere in my quest to get lost, I stopped by a bakery and got two craisin buns. It may be because I was a little hungry from only a croissant for breakfast and I was walking to get lost, but those buns were fresh, warm, and delicious.
Starting somewhere between Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco, I managed to make my way to the other side of the island at the train station.
I wanted to get to Giudecca, the southern island, so I could get a photo of the main island. Since I was already at the train station from my meandering morning, I bought a 24-hour pass and took a vaporetto over to Giudecca.
The ride went down a long canal slowly before reaching the “open” water. But once out of the canal, the boat sped up, picking up the wind. The breeze felt nice at first, but the constant stream got annoying and also a bit chilly.
The vibe in Giudecca was the opposite of main island. There were very few people around; the shops were less nice-looking and looked partially open. It almost felt like an abandoned port city.
I only walked on the road by the water, but looking down alleys and canals showed a different side of the island. The sunlight was hitting the walls and the water a very gentle way, and instead of looking abandoned, it just looked like a quiet town relaxing and savoring the afternoon with the sound of slow-flowing canals and birds playing above a welcoming alley.
I tried to take photos of the landmarks on the main island, but it was too far away. With little else to explore on Giudecca, I took the vaporetto back.
Final lap around the island
On the morning of my departure, I had a bit of time between checking out of the hostel and getting on my train. So I decided to make my 24-hour vaporetto pass worth its money by taking a water tour around the north side of the main island. I tried to make the most of the ride by standing in the center/boarding area of the vaporetto and taking in the view.
There were many stops along the way, and it occurred to me then that there were a lot of outer islands that looked interesting that I could have explored. Like Nice, I discovered these things only after I arrived and it was too late to do anything about, because I had done less research than the other places on my trip. However, even with more planning, I would still probably do what I did and just take it easy and wander.
Near the end, the chilly open-air wind was getting to me, and I had to get inside to warm up. The vaporetto ended its route by turning into one of the canals, which had rows of brightly-painted buildings, almost as a way to welcome me back to town and to send me off.
A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.
After checking in and dropping off my stuff at the hostel. I did a little exploration of the area, and somehow ended up near the Rialto Bridge. I passed by many gelato shops, glancing at the flavors and the prices. I was still getting used to Venetian prices so I was kind of picky and holding out on a reasonable price. Finally, I just picked a place that was open on my way back to the hostel.
To be honest, I had trouble telling the difference between gelato and regular ice cream. The gelato was good, and it satisfied my sweet tooth. It was plenty good enough for me.
The next day, I got another gelato, this time at a shop at Piazza San Marco. I got caramel flavor, which costed extra. It was very sweet and full.
Croissant and Craisin Bun
I bought a plain croissant at a bakery-cafe near the Rialto Bridge for breakfast on my second day. It tasted fine, though it was a bit buttery and too airy to be filling.
So in my morning of intentional wandering and getting lost, I stumbled upon another bakery-cafe near [square] that was selling craisin buns, among other dessert pastries. I bought two just in case, and I was glad I did, not because it was airy like the croissant, but it was dense with soft doughy bread and little drops of sweet craisins and I wanted to eat more than one.
Self-assembled grocery store salad
For lunch, I was going to try to go to a restaurant, but nothing really interested me. So I resorted to going to the grocery near my hostel and assembled my own salad like I did in Nice.
The grocery store was well stocked and had a wide range of goods, from fresh meat, seafood, and produce, to processed foods and typical home supplies. But it had tight aisles that can easily get clogged if someone stood at an intersection.
I got a prepackaged salad, canned tomatoes, and a pack of sliced salmon. I went back to my hostel and assembled it in the kitchen. Just like in Nice, the salad pack was too much for one plate, so I split the portion into two servings. It tasted as a self-assembled store-bought salad would, although the canned tomatoes were very sweet and juicy.
It was also nice to make the salad in the home kitchen at the hostel, with the faint sounds of the the crowds a few blocks away magnifying the calmness of the hostel. At the same time, the early afternoon sun drew a lot of indirect light into the kitchen, giving the space a more even glow. It almost transported me to another time, either my childhood or a the “olden days” portrayed in movies.
Before I arrived in Venice, I came upon a recommendation online for a place in Venice that sold fresh pasta. I thought I should check it out if I happened to be in the area. It turned out that that place was literally around the corner from my hostel. It probably took twenty to thirty steps to walk to that place. But it only opened for a few hours in the afternoon every day.
So after some more exploring around town in the afternoon, I headed back to the hostel to pick up some pasta on the way. When I got there, there were people outside with white cups of pasta in hand. But fortunately, there weren’t that many people inside. In fact, the customer area and sales counter was a tiny space, probably the size of a king-sized bed, with the kitchen in the back. There was a few big TVs hung from the ceiling showing the menu. There were also printed signs that request customers to not take photos.
The menu showed many types of pasta and sauces, as well as meat and vegetarian add-ons. It also recommended that customers eat the pasta immediately or on the go instead of saving it for later. I supposed that was to preserve the quality. I was not concerned because I could just bring it to my hostel a few steps away instead of sitting and standing in a narrow alley outside of the store.
While I was waiting to order, I noticed that there were a bunch of guys behind the counter working, but they seemed really casual, just talking amongst themselves. Once in a while, one of the guys would come up to the counter to serve out an order, and many of the guys would watch the customer pick up the food, probably out of habit. While they seemed to know what they were doing and were doing it well, the way they carried themselves reminded me of slightly more mature college bros who had little experience with customer service, or the stereotypical young men from Boston exhibiting a lot of bravado and overconfidence. In some incidences, they seemed to have little patience and wanted customers to pick up the food as soon as it’s called. To be fair, maybe it had to do with Venice being a tourist town and the people who worked there learned to be direct.
After I ordered, I got some coins for change. So I tried to put them back in my wallet, which already had more coins in it. Before I could drop the coins in, my order was ready. Not wanting to make the guy wait, I gripped my open wallet of coins with one hand while trying to grab the pasta with the other. But I loosened my grip of the wallet in the process and dropped all my coins on the floor. The guys behind the counter made an “awww” sound in a way that sounded like a combination of ridicule and sympathy: “Aww, look how klutzy you are, making a mess in the store” and “Aww, I’m sorry that happened, I hope you recover quickly, partly because we have a business to run here.” I shook my head smiling, acknowledging my unclassy moment.
I ordered a fusilli with marinara sauce. Honestly, it tasted fine. it was the first time I had pasta in Italy, and I thought it was a little undercooked. I had come to realized this was Italy’s definition of “al dente”. It probably meant the same everywhere, but it was a level of doneness that I was less used to. It was fresh indeed, but the sauce and steaming fresh pasta ended up leaving a lot of water at the bottom.
Having had a taste of hot food for the first time in a few days, I went back later that evening for dinner. I got a spaghetti with another tomato sauce. Again, the harder-than-I-was-used-to al dente pasta with sauce that watered down near the end. Still, it definitely filled me up, and I would still go back and try the other pastas and sauces if I ever return to Venice.
Store-bought raisin buns.
After getting the freshly made craisin buns in the morning, I developed a craving for buns. So I picked up a bag of many, many raisin buns, thinking I could fill also up on it on the following day’s train ride.
But somehow I managed to eat most of the bag that day, leaving only a few left the next morning that I figured I should finish, especially since I had little room in my luggage. The buns were definitely store-brand quality, and the raisins were few and far between. At least they were cheap and filling.
My Roommate’s Squid Ink Pasta
One food I didn’t know about was squid ink pasta. I only found out about it when my roommate came back at night and told me he had some. He also showed me by sticking out his black tongue. He told me it was a thing in Venice and he sought it out as one of the things he wanted to eat. He showed me pictures he looked up online, and I squirmed a little but was impressed by him.
I booked a ticket via ItaliaRail direct to Rome. While waiting on the platform, I checked out a few convenient stores and bought some overpriced snacks. I was going to get a pre-packaged sandwich for the train ride, but I could see the condensation on the inside of the clear plastic film, and the texture on the cut of the sandwich looked like it had been sitting out for a bit too long. So I only had my snacks to last me the nearly four-hour train ride.
From My Travel Log
30 October 2014, 11:04am, Ventimiglia, train heading to Milan
- There are two Italians traveling and sitting across from me. The old guy kept looking at me, so he’s probably wondering where I’m from. The lady next to me left the room so I took the chance to ask the two travelers where they’re from. They looked really friendly and the different from the lady I sat across from on the way to Nice. I kept looking up how to say “going” for you plural. I never learned it so I assumed it’s “andiete”. Finally, I asked “Dove andiete” and the lady responded a place that I’ve never heard of. Then the guy asked in English “Where are you from?” And I said “the States” but they didn’t understand. So I said “Stati Uniti” after a bit of thinking and remembering, thankful that I looked it up earlier. I’m glad I made the effort and now I feel more comfortable (though still awkward!) since we didn’t say anything else other than that I’m going to Venezia.
- I also feel home when I’m on the train or a plane because I feel like I belong there, like I’m supposed to be there, and people are there to serve my needs and they speak English. When I’m where I’m supposed to be, I feel safe. That sounds very obvious, and the converse is true. But it’s kind of important to me, I realize.
- That said, I’ve had those “I am here” feeling many times, Cuzco in that spot from Google Street View, Tromsø a little when I look out airplane window and when I saw the Arctic Cathedral, Paris a little when i see it in that park area. The moment comes and goes and I try to hold onto it but still try to experience it instead.
- For the past week, I realize more the today is short. I tried to think about what I’ve done in the past few days and why it’s gone by so fast, and it seems that I haven’t done that much. I sleep relatively less, I go online more. I spend time waiting for lines, traveling on the train. I take time to shop and buy groceries, I take my time getting to spots. My regard for time is so minimal that I feel like I’m wasting it on this trip. But being in Italy, I’m supposed to be mastered the art of doing nothing. If I’m not doing anything, what should I be doing so I don’t feel so guilty. I should be doing something that makes me feel good. So maybe take a nap, take a shower, watch movies. Heck, I’m on f-ing vacation, I should do whatever I want. So that should set me up for Italy.
30 October 2014, 4:07pm, Milano -> Venezia train
- The trains are so relaxed about seats switching. Also, first class is nice. We’ll see how second class feels when I ride to Rome. It boggles my mind how quickly the day has gone by. It’s almost 5 PM and I started taking the train at around 9:30. Seeing the sun on its way down already makes me feel like I’m not spending a day and my time wisely.
- Looking at the sunset, I remember how it was just as beautiful in South Africa in Kapama, in Paris on Montparnasse, on the train from Paris to Nice, ABQ.
- For some reason, I still hold the mentality that I’m going to be miles away from easy access of food. I guess that’s from both my trip to Nicaragua and from flying long flights. But every place I’ve been to, except Thornhill lodge in SA, have easy access to food whenever I want. But in the next places, Venice, Rome, Beijing, Tokyo, Hawaii, they should all have food access, like supermarkets. The parts I need to watch out for I guess are train from Venice to Rome, flight from Rome to Beijing, Tokyo to Hawaii, and Hawaii to SJC, and maybe the trips to and from the great wall.
- Italians on Milan -> Venice train who were nice and offered me treats
- Lady next to me on train who spoke/knew English and made me feel fine without saying a thing to me.
- Mirabella (Airbnb staff)
- Korean roommate who was nice and answers questions with a smile
- Guy who sold me croissant
- Lady who sold me two raisin buns and tried to clarify in English that it’s takeaway
- Lady who rung up my groceries of sad salad and explained in English it’s a cash-only line
- Lady who sold me two-scoop gelato and made sure in English that caramel is €2 a scoop
- Manager-looking dude who tried to clarify if it’s fusilli or spaghetti even though I never said spaghetti
- Guy who handed me the pasta while I had an open wallet and made me drop my coins
- The other guy who sold me pasta but was much nicer about it.
- New roommate from Beijing and Germany who told me about squid ink pasta and gave me advice about Beijing subway.
- San Diego friends who gave me a small sense of home
- And the girl who traveled for three months with two more to go who gave me a small sense of motivation subconsciously to keep going on my trip.
- Give yourself extra time from getting lost.
- Better yet, don’t have a destination in where you’re going, except maybe for a general direction. If you’re mentally ready to get lost, it’s very fun walking around. If you get tired of being lost, there are signs all over town leading you to landmarks, like “Ponte di Rialto” and “Piazza San Marco.”
- Travel to at least one of the outer islands for a different atmosphere and probably a lot less people.
If you have questions about specific experiences of Venice, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.