Hotel Campiello. It took the fading sunlight at dusk to unmask its mysterious location.
“Is this it?” A little dazed and confused we all four traded frantic looks.
“No,” Jay exhaled, standing now.
“Is this it?”
None of us knew exactly what we were looking for.
We collectively lost our confidence in our ability to recognize our destination in time.
“No,” Jay said less sure than he let on.
But, then it was.
And as we feared, we almost missed our harbor stop struggling and lugging, well, luggage, up the steps to the deck and then walking across the gang plank before the public boat pulled away.
Public Boat Alilaguna Line – 30 Euros for Two
Then the fishing began.
We fished through our notes, both printed and in my iPhone, for directions from the harbor to the Hotel Campiello.
We wandered around in crowds of tourists like us and in tour groups unlike us.
You know how it is when you rush around searching for something so urgently that every other sense shuts down?
We almost missed the unique smells of salty air and ignored the clean ocean breezes on our skin.
Even back home in California there’s something unique about the mix of diesel fuel and vacation smells you notice when crossing the bay between Balboa Island and Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach.
Venice delivered its own brand, a type of pungent fragrance lingering lightly in the air.
Elle shot an apprehensive glance to Emma and whispered, “I don’t see any street names, do you?”
“No,” Emma replied looking uneasy now.
We approached an open air cafe.
I wandered down an alley next to it just at dusk with a few dark shadows beginning to linger.
Jay and I shared puzzled looks. Shouldn’t it be here?
Up and down the harbor we strolled looking for clues, our rolling suitcases trailing us like a shadow.
Something smelled fishy.
Emma looked doubtful. “Aren’t we staying just east of St. Mark’s Square?”
“I think so,” I said feeling confused and mildly annoyed.
“It’s supposed to be near the Bridge of Sighs, where is that?” Jay asked scratching his head.
“We’re supposed to see a half of dozen boutique hotels recommended by Rick Steves.” Elle said with a look that signaled her energy was draining.
“Any more clues?” I wondered.
“This is the Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront promenade, right?” Emma confirmed. Looking at her notes as she continued,
“Steves says to look for hotels, like ours, that rub drainpipes with five-star, palatial hotels where the wealthy stay in Venice.
Its 16 rooms lie just 50 yards off the waterfront in a tiny square.”
And it used to be a convent in the 1800s.”
Did Mark Twain Visit the Convent?
My mind drifted sideways from its purpose at the thought of the 19th century.
I wonder if Mark Twain strolled along this very water front?
I vaguely recalled he too traveled to Venice, Florence and Rome.
In the fall of 1878 Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) stayed in Venice with his family.
According to his three volume Autobiography, “They arrived on the evening of 25 September after an exhausting day’s travel from Bellagio, on Lake Como. They stayed at the Grand Hotel d’Italie, whose south side was on the Grand Canal.”
Now what about us?
We too felt exhausted and frustrated.
Our own hotel shouldn’t be this difficult to find.
“Shouldn’t we ask?” Emma and Elle offered.
“C’mon, you’re kidding, right?” the two totally lost, cave-dwelling, hunter-gathering guys sheepishly snapped.
Finally, we returned in defeat to where we started, to the open air cafe.
The ladies politely asked for directions hoping the server would understand English and be willing to aid pathetic tourists yet again.
He pointed to “my alley” which served to shore up my fragile instincts.
We retraced my steps thirty minutes earlier on uneven cobblestones when I concluded we were nowhere close to the hotel supposedly yards away from the water front.
Great instincts, horrible observation skills.
But, there it was down one of the kinds of “alleys” we were destined to appreciate in every other Italian destination we visited.
A lit sign above a doorway.
It took the fading sunlight at dusk to unmask its mysterious location.
It felt like a scene out of a roaring twenties flick.
A hidden door.
A secret knock.
A buzz and we were in.
Once inside we became charmed by the hotel keeper, who quietly demurred when I asked if she were the owner – “Not yet,” she said, “but someday.”
We instantly agreed with how Rick Steves described it as “lacy and bright” decor with the feeling of tranquility that fills you.
Two things were on our collective minds – dinner and bed.
We found our rooms and quickly returned to the lobby for a local restaurant recommendation, not too far away so we could find our way back by following Italian bread crumbs.
Wait Until 7, Never Leave
“Di Foffani Francesca,” she said.
We discovered something new to us.
Most Italian restaurants don’t serve until after 7pm.
And, while the good old truck stop rule of thumb applies in the US, it doesn’t here.
No crowd at seven means nothing about the quality of food.
Locals don’t seem to show up until 8 or 8:30 pm.
And that’s just the beginning of the trickle until the noise and fun begins later in the evening.
Oh, and Rick Steves was right when he said, in Italy you can order a meal and linger all evening.
No manager or restaurant owner expects to turn the table as many times as she can to boost her profits.
There was this small, intimate restaurant somewhere in LA or maybe Beverly Hills whose gimmick was to take your order, choose not to fill your water glass unless you insisted (during the multiyear drought and all) and then turn an hour glass over when your server returned with your order.
As the sands of time obeyed the physics of gravity and the last particle fell, she returned with your bill and shoed you out so someone else having waited an hour eagerly took your spot.
Patrons loved it.
Di Foffani Francesca, Castello 4687, Venezia : 82 Euros / 41 Couple
- Coperto (Cover Charge) – 3 Euros each
- Pizza Margherita Gourmet – 15 Euros
- Calamarta Frutti Di Mare – 15 Euros
- Lasagna Melanzane – 16 Euros
- Cabernet – 21 Euros
- Acqua Nat 1LT – 4 Euros
But, here in Venice at Di Foffani Francesca we couldn’t even get our server’s attention even when our patience wore out.
Nor for that matter after other meals in Venice, or later in Florence or Sienna or Cinque Terra or any of the Tuscany towns or at the end of our trip in Rome.
Even when we felt patient, relaxed and mellowed out (by American standards) we still couldn’t figure out the protocol for settling our bill.
But, here we were exhausted by the fourteen hour flight, jet lag, and we just wanted to pay.
But, enough about that now.
A Day Ahead
Was it Wednesday night or did I wait until Thursday morning?
We intended to stay a day ahead of our itinerary, so with a train trip coming up, our first in Italy, I went online using the hotel’s WIFI to book a train.
Which was an epic fail.
A no go with my iPhone, even after getting help from the new guy at the front desk who also lost his patience.
Let the Vacay Begin
At our prearranged time we huddled around a small table in the lobby to eat a version of what each of our other hotels offered free for breakfast.
Twelve months ago we debated where we would go, what we would see, which hotels we’d book, how much time we’d enjoy at each destination and how much we wanted to spend for the whole vacation.
We’d meet and discuss where we should go, why we were interested and how much time we wanted to devote – two to three days at the most – so we didn’t feel rushed.
Six months had gone by.
Our itinerary had been locked down.
We didn’t know much about Venice other than stories about Casanova and gondolas attracting us originally for a romantic celebration of our anniversary.
After the Delta – KLM – Air France – Customs – windshield-less beginnings, could we regain that feeling?
Or would this be more of a task?
Check it off your bucket list because, “they” told us we had to.
That was in our planning stage.
But here we were, day one in Venice.
We pulled out notes and began recalling bits and pieces between bites.
Elle and Emma fumbled through their separate, but well-worn pages of identical guide books to answer the question, “What did Rick Steves tell us we should know to fully appreciate and experience everything we could?”
He wrote that Venice is the best preserved, medieval-to-Renaissance, big city in Europe.
I’m a fan of the Renaissance and Leonardo da Vinci.
So, I wedged in a little history into the conversation, “As the Second Italian War broke out in 1499, Leonardo da Vinci fled Milan for Venice, where he was employed as a military architect and engineer, devising methods to defend the city from naval attack.”
“Really?” Jay shrugged.
I missed his body language and continued to lecture everyone.
Leonardo had left Florence when his patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici, sent him on a mission of peace to his rival, the Duke of Milan.
But over the ensuing years Leonardo became a “hired gun” to Italy’s feuding powers, such as the Borgias and the Doges of Venice shoring up defenses and creating maps of their regions.
I concluded my exposition with, “His keen mind was very much in demand.”
“Who knew,” Jay said while reaching for a banana.
More about Leonardo when we reach our next destination, Florence I promised.
Arriving in Venice by boat tipped us off to some other facts.
Just the FAQs Ma’am
Elle and Emma brought Jay and me up-to-date according to their guide books.
We’re surrounded by hundreds of islands.
And over 400 bridges and 2000 alleys
About 25 miles of canals drain Venice proper into the Grand Canal.
Those 45 small waterways are known as rivers to the locals, “Rio Novo”.
They reminded us that we chose to base our accommodations in San Marco, the heart of the city as a convenient way for our launching romantic adventures.
A Little History for Context
We wanted to experience the Piazza San Marco, the Rialto Bridge and maybe the Accademia Bridge.
Oh, and the Campanile – the dramatic bell tower in St. Mark’s Square.
About 1500 years ago in 518 A.D. Venice provided refuge from marauding barbarians protected by its lagoon.
During the middle ages Venice managed a profitable East-West trading route and prospered.
About three hundred years later, the bones of San Marco (St. Mark) were smuggled to Venice in 828 A.D.
If you were a fan of the Netflix’s series about Marco Polo like Jay and I were, aside from the airport’s name, we wanted to know what his connection to Venice was?
Jay said he remembered Netflix focused on the trade routes into Kublai Khan’s Asia, but didn’t remember anything about Venice.
“Me either,” I said
I found out later that Marco Polo joined his father and uncle for almost two and half decades before returning to Venice.
Their epic journey ended in 1295.
Marco Polo returned with his fortune converted into gemstones.
By then the Republic of Venice had been embroiled in several wars with the Republic of Genoa for dominance in the Mediterranean Sea, each having established their claims on foreign lands.
Feeling patriotic, Marco funded a galley and went to war.
He was captured in 1296 and spent several months imprisoned.
During his jail time he dictated his adventures to his cellmate, Rustichello da Pisa, which became “The Travels of Marco Polo.”
While some of the tales may have been embellished, exaggerated or supplemented by da Pisa’s own accounts, Christopher Columbus found enough inspiration in the Far East descriptions that he wrote annotations in his copy planning to visit China, India and Japan himself.
Time is of the Essence
Facts are facts and history is history, but we didn’t have much time allotted for Venice as it was.
So, we quickly grabbed our maps and tour books off the table and struck out for St Mark’s Square which was almost around the corner from Hotel Campiello.
Back to the wide stone promenade, the Riva degli Schiavoni, along the water’s edge.
Okay, one more fact.
In the ninth century the promenade was constructed from the silt dredged from the lagoon, with enough to cover the distance between the Old Arenal and St. Mark’s Square.
In the 21st century, we marched with purpose up and over bridges with ramps.
We dodged in and out of the flows and globs of bunched up tour groups taking selfies.
A Day and a Half’s Worth of Exploring St. Mark’s Square by Noon
Standing in front of the Basilica, eyeing the heavy door of wrought iron and glass, Emma and I popped in our ear buds to take Rick Steves tour from his app.
In our rush, Jay and Elle forgot their earphones back at the Campiello and tried to share one set with a left in Jay’s and a right in Elle’s ear.
We saw the line forming at the Basilica, but decided to follow Rick’s numbered itinerary full of descriptions of museums, cafes, and sights to take in within the square.
But, our tour didn’t sync with Elle’s and Jay’s.
And it became more difficult to follow the clues to where Rick was taking us.
So, Jay pointed to the opposite corner and we followed his lead.
We employed the Disneyland strategy. Board the train at Main Street station. Circle the park checking out where shortest lines prevailed. Disembark and head to that attraction.
We circled the square without a train, but with lines of people all around us.
We found some shops.
Or I should say Minnie and Daisy did.
We guys, Mickey and Donald, focused on where all four of us needed to be with enough time to tour the Grand Canal by boat, as if there was any other way.
And take a Gondola ride.
Oh, and tour the Basilica.
Which Emma and I did by ourselves, since Elle had met her stamina limit walking all four sides of the square and in alley way offshoots during our morning exploration.
Elle and Jay returned to a cafe near our hotel for rest.
Emma and I quickly moved through the line.
We couldn’t believe our luck as we caught a break when various groups thinned out.
Inside small clusters of tourists clogged the way, but we found room to maneuver weaving in and out of the throngs.
Rick Steves whispered highlights in our ears and sometimes Emma and I were synched to the “same page.”
He told us about how the basilica had been constructed less like the elongated St. Peter’s cathedral that we were yet to see at the end of our itinerary in Rome.
We glanced in amazement with each other listening intently.
Not having anything else as a comparison, we moved on with the flow of tourists, and barely noted that the sanctuary epitomized a Greek Cross.
I recall in Dan Brown’s “Inferno” he writes a lengthy passage describing a critical plot point about St. Marks.
Brown’s main character, Robert Langdon, waxes poetically or better yet scholarly about, “St. Mark’s was so eastern in style that guidebooks often suggested it as a viable alternative to visiting Turkish mosques, many of which were Byzantine cathedrals … one’s passion for Byzantine art could be satisfied with a visit to the secret suite of rooms just off the right transept in this church, in which was hidden the so-called Treasure of St. Mark—a glittering collection of 283 precious icons, jewels, and chalices acquired during the looting of Constantinople.”
Nearly completing the tour within the flow of other tourists, we paused momentarily to admire the splendor of the Pala d’Oro — the Basilica’s altar — a “fused tapestry of previous works” like Byzantine enamel in a Gothic frame.
And, according to Langdon aka Brown it is, “adorned with some thirteen hundred pearls, four hundred garnets, three hundred sapphires, as well as emeralds, amethysts, and rubies ….”
With its interior lined in solid gold tiles, it’s no wonder that St. Mark’s was known locally for centuries as the Church of Gold.
Emerging from the dark interior of St. Mark’s Basilica into the bright sunlight signaled it was time to return to the harbor and meet up with Jay and Elle for the second half of the days activities – returning to the lagoon and adventuring into the Grand Canal.
What Emma and I hadn’t realized as we passed the massive, sprawling complex of buildings on our left towards the harbor where tourists queued in wrap-around-the-block lines was the Doge’s Palace.
Where did we go wrong?
Someone once said that St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace were built by the doges for the doges.
Like dukes who controlled the territories in places we hadn’t yet visited on our itinerary, Doges ruled Venice — possibly numbering as many as 100 over the ten centuries which first began in 697 A.D.
While their dynasty came to an abrupt end in the late 1700s when Napoleon conquered Venice, historians (and clued in travelers) find their story of power and glory riveting.
- We missed visiting the huge museum in the palace for one, and the opportunity to experience its chambers, living quarters, courtyards and prison network.
- We missed making the connection to the Doge’s Palace while taking one of our first scenic photos, behind Emma in a tight canal bridged by an enclosed tunnel — the Bridge of Sighs.
Apparently those sighs weren’t passionate sighs from couples in love, but from misery, as the walkway connected the palace with the prison.
Prisoners died in their cells and others cried out in anguish and moans which echoed out into the canal.
Casanova and Campanile
One prisoner held for over 15 months, but who escaped with the help of his keeper was the great lover, Casanova.
We had been so intent on finding our way to St. Mark’s Square that we paid little attention to anything else.
And that included the towering redbrick bell tower, Campanile di San Marco, which served as a beacon so lost travelers navigating the maze of canals could instantly find their way back to St. Mark’s Square.
Demonstrating that one cat had exhausted eight lives previously, it became the only victim in 1902 when the entire 300-foot tall tower collapsed including with the golden Archangel Gabriel previously perched at the top.
Hours later the line to tour St. Mark’s Basilica itself had started and stopped differently.
This time tourists lined up on raised platforms.
Yes, I was right.
The others hadn’t believed me when first puddles began appearing in the square.
And eventually deeper water followed.
So the line needed to be elevated to keep their shoes and socks high and dry.
Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon character supposedly had visited St. Mark’s Square on a research trip.
In the novel he had made an off handed comment, “No worse than Venice in flood season. (The square) had been under a foot of water, and he had walked from the Hotel Danieli to the basilica on wooden planks propped between cinder blocks and inverted buckets.”