Known to the West as Venice, to the Italians as Venezia and to the goofy traveller trying to pronounce Italian (Ok, I mean myself) Venitchy, we came to know this magical city like it was straight from a fairytale. As you may recall from the movie The Italian Job, which stars Mark Walbherg, Edward Norton and Charlize Theron, Venice is built on swamp land and survives on canals. There are no roads, bikes or subways. Just “gondola, gondala’s.” And you can only enter it through one of a few ways. We arrived by train from Verona, crossing over the thin stretch of track that connects mainland Italy to this small collection of islands and pulled up at the end of the line, the train station, which basically doubles as the doorway into this surreal world.
Trouble struck me early however. As I was in desperate need to get some Florins so I could afford a new cape, some guards saw me pickpocket an unknowing, elderly man. In my hast, I was unable to find a group of courtesans to distract them so I had to sprint urgently through the thin laneways to avoid this pack of chasing officials. Bumping and tripping as I went, it seemed my only escape was through the canals. I dropped my long sword and climbed the nearest tower. As an eagle accompanied me from the top, I performed a Leap of Faith and plummeted into the waters below, leaving my searching enemies scratching their heads and screaming out “Ezio!!”
There’s probably only a handful of people, such as Justin, Leeroy and Jamie, who know what I’m referring to. I am of course speaking about Assassins Creed II, which was partly set in Venice. The exciting part about this was I was finally standing in a city I felt I had already thoroughly explored through my exploits in this game. On more than one occasion, Elisha heard me say “I’m pretty certain I’ve climbed up that building before . . . yes, yes. I’ve definitely scaled that one before – that’s a definite.” And whilst I struggled with differentiating reality from my previous existence in a video game, memories of numerous battles flooded back as both Elisha and I stood out the front of the Piazza di San Marco. Needless to say, whilst Elisha thought of herself as a finely dressed lady in the Renaissance period, I thought of myself as this:
Originally, we had directed our travel path toward Venice on the promise Stu had some free accommodation organised for two nights for us. But with a lifestyle that contained no plans and an empty itinerary, we thought two nights would just not do. Elisha is a phenomenal planner and jumped online to see what she could find. Venitchy is exceptionally expensive at the best of times and we decided to screw the budget for the few days we planned to be there. Elisha struck gold though and found a room on the island for about $140 AUD a night which she then later found on another website for twice the price! We also decided it was better to spend this to be on the actual island as the alternative is to stay about an hour out on the mainland to save maybe half of that but to then have to pay it anyway just to catch a ferry over. And so we booked two nights prior to us joining Stu.
Upon arriving, Elisha wasted no time and jumped online to suss out where all the boutique eateries might be, where the best gelato was to be found and where we could dig our teeth into some authentic pizza whilst at the same time avoiding all the tourist traps that were likely to exist in a place like this. We of course expected Venice to be something like Bruges in that it would attract millions of tourists each year (up to 20 million in fact, that’s right – all of Australia on one tiny island and you claim that we’re full) and would have a hidden “Tourist Tax” on everything that you purchased. To our surprise, we found a lot of things remarkably cheap! Examples being gelato was very often 1.5 Euro, pizza was about 7 Euro and Spritz (Oh how excited you can get at spritz time) was about 2.5 Euro. Knowing full well that you can’t eat gelato or drink an aperitif in Australia for that cheap, please buckle in and prepare yourself to hear us mention both of those numerous times throughout the remainder of this blog.
Our first afternoon saw us very tentatively explore the maze of laneways that form Venice, our eyes regularly searching for the little blue GPS dot on our phones so as not to get lost. The city is so magical and historic, you can almost still hear the whispers around corners where assassinations were plotted and planned in quiet and dark places. Although now of course all you hear is the sound of iPad’s snapping terrible photos and all you do is sidestep tourists trying to do the exact same thing. After some initial exploring, we settled on the bank of one of the canals and breathed it all in with a couple of Peroni’s, watching as happy faces sailed past on the ferry taxis and workers motored by on their small boats.
Always desperate to avoid tourists, Elisha had researched one locality which may have contained more locals than it did iPad bearers. So we headed to the Cannaregio area in search of a restaurant and some pre-meal drinks. Italy has this cool affinity with aperitifs. Literally to the second, at 5pm, everybody seems to be out at a bar to have a spritz. Spritz is a simple cocktail of either Aperol or Campari, mixed with Prosecco and soda water and often garnished with a slice of orange or an olive. It’s just the coolest thing to see and take part in. Unfortunately, this kind of stuff just won’t ever happen in Australia because something as simple as this would cost $9-12, whereas here you would pay under $5. Even the Aperol to make this was only $6 or $7 a bottle whereas Dan Murphy’s charges $24. It would just be foolish to buy this back home, let alone make it yourself, so we thought we had better embrace this as much as we could whilst passing through Italy. And so, “it’s Spritz time” became a very regular saying (or statement rather.)
We found a restaurant afterwards and sat next to a cute, old Italian couple who were already slurping away their spaghetti and sharing a bottle of vino. Unlike a lot of the rest of Italy, Venice’s food scene is rooted in seafood. No prizes for guessing that’s most likely because it’s surrounded by water. Although this may have made it special in the past, you just can’t provide fresh seafood to 20 million tourists passing through and, as such, we were mostly disappointed with what we ate when having seafood based dishes in Venice. After a bowl of ink-squid spaghetti and a bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, we agreed we get far better seafood back home and would maybe leave that for when we returned.
Unfortunately, I can’t handle too much fun at once and so, the next day and whilst we paid $140 to stay there, I sat in my room for 3 hours and watched the Suns play the Hawks. This of course proved a waste of time as I was soon swearing profusely as we plummeted to a 99 point thrashing. In desperate need of a pick me up, Elisha suggested “it’s Spritz time” and we ventured back out to get some Italian culture under our nails.
If I am being candid with you, at times I feared for our relationship because every time I turned around, Elisha seemed to be red in the cheeks and smitten every time she heard an old Italian man speak in his husky accent “buongiorno!” and wave his arms in vivid thrusts. It seemed the only way I could top that was to allow her to stop at every gelato store we passed and fill her belly to her heart’s content. It was just crazy to think how cheap it was here. Less than $2 AUD to eat fresh gelato on the streets of Venice and these little stores seemed to pop up every fifty metres!
That night, we found a small family restaurant that had been open for 80 years (I assume they closed at night time and hadn’t in fact been open for 80 years straight.) We ordered a pizza each and a half-litre carafe of wine. One reason why we liked this little establishment so much was because it had no hidden fees. We were quickly learning in Italy that places often like to surprise you with extra charges, which is really frustrating to someone from Australia where we expect an advertised price to be the total and final price. So far, we had been asked to pay an extra “City Tax” per person per night on the advertised booking price for our accommodation, an extra “Service Charge” so a waiter can bring us our food (seriously, I can just go get it myself) and a “Cover Charge” just because they had put a table cloth on the table before we arrived. All these things get under your skin after awhile (OK pretty much immediately) but there’s really very little you can do. So this place was refreshing as it was just the advertised price and only the advertised price. (First rant over.)
My second rant is to do with just everything that is wrong with the wine culture in Australia. It’s really cool to stop for a meal in Italy and order some table wine. Table wine is just simple, inoffensive wine that doesn’t have a 400% mark up on it like you might find in Australia. You might pay $9 for half a litre of wine to have with your meal in Italy. In Australia, I remember regularly seeing wines that might only cost $9 a bottle in a store for close to $40 at a restaurant. And people pay it!! For reasons that are understandable, Australia taxes the crap out of alcohol. And I have several theories as to why, because you have to ask yourself why countries over in Europe seem to make it so available and so cheap. I think one of many reasons is the alcohol content. Spritz might only be 0.8 of a standard drink. Most wines are only 12-13%. In Australia, we have an incredibly undeveloped pallet which means we want jammy and sugary flavours over structure and quality. To get these strong fruit flavours, grapes are picked later, meaning they have more sugar which means more alcohol. Our whites are often heavier than French and Italian reds and our reds can be anywhere from 14-16%. This means you’re bound to get drunk when sharing a bottle, unlike in Italy where it’s less likely. Old world wines (French, Italian, Spanish) don’t go for upfront flavour but rather structure and understand that the wine exists to complement a meal. New world wines (Australia, NZ etc) tend to go for full flavour, high alcohol and exist purely to support a binge culture. In turn, this binge culture is what the government finds pressure to stop and as such, we find ourselves paying ludicrous premiums for sub-standard wine. Anyways, that was the ranty argument Elisha and I conjured up whilst having too much table wine that night. Umm so yeah. Pizza. We were eating pizza and drinking wine. It was a good night. (On the plus side, we are six days sober whilst writing this.)
We were due to meet Stu and his travelling photographer Jarrad the next day at the apartment on the La Giudecca side but had a few hours to kill beforehand. We left our bags at our hotel and went in search of some more sneaky gelato and pizza. We had read previously that pizza in Venice is horrible and to stay away from it but I’m glad we didn’t take too much notice of this. There were obvious tourist dives that were making utter rubbish but with a little research, there were still plenty of good pizzeria’s to eat at. We found another of these and sat down with our half-litre carafe whilst we waited for the doughy goodness to come out. A walk to the Piazza di San Marco seemed a smart way to then burn some of those calories we had just piled on. It was around midday so the tourists were out in force and it seemed a real stampede just to see the outline of this beautiful construction. A bit too busy, we thought. Maybe time to make our way over to our new accommodation.
We’ve always tried to reject public transport whilst backpacking as we have endless time and little money and most can be achieved with walking. The problem with our new apartment was that it could only be reached by boat. Alas, we had to suck it up and cough up 30 Euro each to buy a 48 hour ferry pass. This was all well and good until the next morning we realised that one of the tickets it had spat out had in fact only been a one hour pass! Totally jipped! This left us for the rest of the trip trying to ferry as little as possible to prevent being caught and standing in a nervous wreck whenever we did have to catch a boat out of fear.
After a little confusion, Stu was able to find us at the ferry stop and guide us back to where he was staying. I really wasn’t too sure what to expect and really expect very little these days after months of sharing bathrooms and cramped rooms. However, the moment we walked in, we were blown away. I’m not sure what the owners did for a living to afford this but Oh My Google! This place was incredible. The lounge room sat behind giant glass doors that led out onto the sunny deck and the apartment backed out onto the water front! Upstairs, another deck overlooked the water and Oh My Google, it was just too perfect. We were really lucky Stu was able to firstly land this and to secondly invite us to share it with him and Jarrad. If I’m honest, I wouldn’t have judged him for keeping it quiet from us.
It was a picturesque day so we spent the afternoon with some beers in the sun and sat watching Venice from across the river. This was why we were travelling! It was so beautiful and was such an incredible afternoon. We thought it would be foolish not to introduce the boys to our favourite new aperitif so Elisha piped up with “It’s Spritz time!” and we made our way 100 metres up the path to a place with a few tables and chairs out in the open. This too was amazing. And was probably where we should have left it. But we decided to stay at this place for dinner and they reserved a table for us. This was the weird part. And Italy seems to have this bad habit of being a little wanky and pretentious. We were drinking our Spritz at the “spritz” tables. We weren’t allowed to take our Spritz’ over to the dining table for that was the “dining” table. Although they could reserve it for us, we had to finish our Spritz at the “spritz” tables firstly. This place proved to be over the top rip-off kings. Whilst I paid $30 AUD for a tiny piece of swordfish and Jarrad paid over $15 for a small slice of lasagne, I think the real sting came when I foolishly grabbed a piece of bread from the bread basket. They had placed this on the table earlier after we had said no to their offer of water (knowing full well this would come with a hefty cost association.) Despite rejecting this, they still put the bread on the table. Apparently, Elisha knew all about this but said very little. So apparently, the moment I picked up a piece of this bread, I was saying to them “yes, we would like to get ripped off with your expensive bread and bottled water please.” Right on cue, they opened two bottles of water and placed them on our table before I had even bitten into the bread. I was to learn this mistake was to cost EACH and EVERYONE OF US 5 stinking Euros! That’s about $30 AUD in total! What was worse was the bread was completely stale! Such a rip! For me, it really killed the evening. Again, as an Australian, you just take things as face value and these little cultural differences were really grinding my gears. But oh well.
Stu and Jarrad wanted to get up early the next day to do some shooting for an upcoming single. It had been many weeks since we had had a reason to get up with the sun so we thought we would join them and enjoy the Piazza di San Marco before the hordes of tourists arrived. After all, I was used to seeing this part of the city relatively tourist-free from my days in Assassin’s Creed. It’s remarkable how different the time of day affects places. We had been here just the day before and found ourselves in a cluster of people. But now, it was empty and peaceful and just mind-blowing. Totally worth the early alarm clock.
Stu and Jarrad then wanted to do some more recording back at the apartment so we thought this was a good time to ferry across to Murano island, a nearby island maybe a half hour ferry’s ride from Venice and renowned for making glass. Again, this may have been true in the past but I don’t think too much glass making went on now. Even so, it was cool to see another island and … oh hell, all we did was find a place to order another pizza and get some more vino into us. What else was there to do when this was all around!
Some friends of Stu’s from Trieste wanted to meet up with him that afternoon so we became a group of six for the rest of that day. We thought splitting the expensive gondola ride between six made a lot more sense than to just do it on our own so with some Bellini’s (another Italian cocktail) in hand, we did the cliché tourist thing and rode around through the canals of Venice for 40 minutes. I of course had done all this before in the video game but I think Elisha really enjoyed it. The girls showed us around some of the parkland further down the eastern side of the islands. We had some more Spritz. “It’s Spritz time.” We had some more gelato and finished the night with some more pizza and wine.
It was our last night in Venice and the four nights had passed incredibly quickly. The moon was full and shone beautifully over the water towards us. We could have sat out there all night on the deck. With wines and beers, we chatted and reminisced and talked about life, journeys, music and travel. It was such a brilliant moment in our travels – to be in such an awe-inspiring location with such incredible people. With just a few touch-ups in the graphic detail and storyline, I think it might have even been almost as good as Assassins Creed II itself.
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