When I left Rome two years ago, I didn't have high expectations for coming back to Italy. Venice was always on my mind though. It's generally an expensive option to arrive at even in Europe, but when the opportunity arrived to take a ferry from Athens to Venice for only about seventy Euros, I jumped at the chance.
After about two days on an Anek ferry we arrived in port. I had assumed we'd be arriving into the same port with which most cruise ships do based on internet research, but his was not the case. We arrived somewhere in the middle of no where (I still have no idea where it was). The port wasn't even finished being constructed and I disembarked into barbed wire fences and gray pavement. It reminded me of the pictures of the military base at Guantanamo Bay, this place being slightly less welcoming. Security was a tent, and flashing my U.S. passport while carrying a 40 liter pack earned me a smile and a wave through the border control. I quickly learned I had no idea what to do once I was through and now faced with a long road to what appeared to be nowhere. I turned back and asked "English?", and to which I received a tent of heads shaking no. "Bus to Venice", I concisely asked as hands begin motioning in an Italian manner and words of misunderstanding began filling my brain in some puzzle like way. "Grazie", I responded knowing no more than I had before I asked.
A woman who had been on the ferry passed me walking down the center of the road between the crash barriers, rolling her designer luggage behind her. "I'll follow her", I figured. Eventually we ended up at a tiny building with a coffee machine. Coffee's nice, I thought. "small cups", I smirked. There I found a gentleman who spoke English and worked for the port. He arranged for a port shuttle to pick us up. The woman that I had been following asked if I spoke French, to which I said yes. Apparently she was as confused as I was from this whole expedition and was equally seeking transport to the train station. The irony of speaking French in Italy didn't undermine how invaluable speaking a second language is (take that you Spanish-class haters who said I'd never actually use it). Furthermore, after being dropped off by the shuttle at a campground in rural Italy, I found my knowledge of French helped with understanding enough Italian to eventually make two additional bus transfers into Venice. Not to say it wasn't without difficulties, but about three hours after arriving at port, we arrived in Venice.
I said adieu to my French traveling partner, sending her to the train station with the best translation I could offer. It was now time for me to find yet another boat to arrive at my hostel. This time it would be Venice's Vaporettos. Think of it as Venice's Metro system, except that the stations are docks and the Vaporettos (the boats) are the trains. Indeed you have to purchase a rather expensive Vaporetto pass and validate it, just as you would in any large subway system. Unfortunately, it's very pricey on a student budget though I (reluctantly) purchased a two day pass for 30 Euros. That represents about six days of meals for me back in Cardiff, which likely explained the cringe on my face as I inserted my card. While I'd never suggest that anyone should break the law, it is possible to use stations without a turnstile (even those you can enter the exit), and not pay the exorbitant fee. Of course I was there in the off-season (January), but I was never asked for my pass once. Even if you're busted, the fine is only 52 Euros plus the cost of a ticket. It's a risk of course, but I have a feeling that if you look like the poor student traveler, rather than a plump rich Westerner, they're not going to care much.
While the Generator Hostel was only 15 Euros a night, you do have to consider the cost of the Vaporettos (unless you like a cold swim). As with all the online reviews, the privacy issues are real (the shower has clear glass), but I didn't really care. It's a smashing location on a separate island from the main island, but it has a supermarket and a million dollar view. Food is cheap at the hostel (an entire pizza and beer is less than 10 Euros down in the cafe), and it makes for a comforting refuge at the end of the day. Everyone there was completely lovely, including my roommates, all ten of them. The rooms are a bit cramped, but it's nothing you won't find in other hostels. Each bed has a light and a socket. I didn't find the same sort of socialization that occurred in Athens, but considering that it was the middle of the week, it was a transitory period for everyone there. That's not to say it wasn't nice. The biggest caveat is that there is no wi-fi on the top floor, and sadly, the place should have a fireplace.
My first day in Venice had me longing for Athens. It's very touristy with tons of Americans all re-enacting their romanticized version of their dream vacation. Traveling alone, poor, and with a certain level of dislike for commercialization, I'll admit I wasn't a fan of Venice on day one. Remembering how great the pizza was in Rome, I attempted to find a window serving this prized Italian treat. What I received was about the worst food I had ever eaten. To make matters worse is that street-food does not exist in the main tourist corridor (for the most part), as it is filled with overpriced cafes beyond my means. I laughed when I witnessed the Wild West Steakhouse and became bewildered by why anyone would buy a Big Mac while in Venice. No I'm not completely stupid, I'm certain there are some people from outside of the West who long for their first Burger King, but the psychocentrism of the Americans I witnessed, tumbling in for a Happy Meal, left me wondering if there was anything of a real Venice left. Did they finally figure out that the sausage is tuna on the pizza?
Of course I'm able to make these observations through some odd sort of cosmic luck that seems to leave me invisible to other Americans these days. I just don't set off the yank's radars anymore as I did once upon a time. This became obvious to me as a couple from Pittsburgh came up to me and tried to use broken Italian. "Do I look even the least bit Italian", I snarked in my head as I was about to answer. Before I could reply, two girls from Minnesota stepped in line at the restaurant where we were at and ordered in English. Suddenly it was like an American reunion between the four of them, and I was left standing there with a perplexed look on my face trying to figure out what happened.
We were of course at Antico Forno, the best pizza place in Venice. The second day was turning out much better than the first. Located in a back alley by the Rialto footbridge, its filled with locals. I had done my research on day two. They make this amazing Pizza Alta (a thick crust), which is to die for (I recommend the ham and mushroom.). It's relatively cheap too. I can't recommend this enough if you're in Venice.
The day wore on by getting proper lost. I found parts of Venice that tourists don't return from. Hidden alleys, secret passages requiring you to practically crawl, and fabulous architecture that made me realize Venice isn't too bad if you stay away from the more touristy sections. I must confess that my mobile data was not working while in Venice, so there were no Google Maps. Venice is extremely complicated to navigate without some form of digital guide. I also highly recommend doing your research before getting to Venice. Restaurants like Trattoria da Romano out on Burano is an example of one of the best places to eat in Venice that you'll never find on the main island. One of my favorite parts of the whole trip was visiting the supermarket and buying some authentic Italian meats and cheeses (for about 10 Euros) and having a picnic on the embankment. Spending some time in Italy, you'll quickly understand the cappuccino is for breakfast, and macchiato is for the rest of the day. Believe me when I say that there's nothing like a macchiato on a cold rainy Venice day.
To make a long story short, everything in Venice is expensive. Even the churches will charge you to see their treasures. Venice is a money pit best left to those arriving by private yacht. The commercialization is overpowering and at times distasteful. Yet with a bit of persistence, one can still find a beautiful, relaxed Venice. I'll never regret going to Venice, but I don't think I'll ever see the city the way I had dreamt about it prior to going. Go to Venice, eat some risotto, some gelato, and giggle at the Americans on the gondalas as the Italian gondolier wheezes to propel the blanket wrapped couple up the Grand Canal. It's an amazing city that both breaks your heart and empties your pocketbook. It's a city at war with the sea and its own image. It steals from the rich to preserve the past, yet if you persist past its facade, you find a timeless part of Italy that's so unbelievable you'll wonder how many travelers leave without ever finding it. In essence, the best of Venice is hidden beneath the surface, already lost, but it can be found if you find it within yourself to look for it.