Last night I was watching an eerie seventies movie called ‘Don’t Look Now’. This Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie psycho thriller was shot entirely in Venice.
It beats me why a goosebump-inducing film should be shot in paradise. Nevertheless sweeping shots of the city with its green-domed churches and the Grand Canal brought back memories of a weekend spent in Venice last year.
As Sutherland and Christie walk hand-in-hand through Piazza San Marco or St Mark’s Square, the most popular hotspot of Venice, I was transported to the courtyard swarming with pigeons in front of the St Mark’s Basilica.
It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon, but we were tired, hungry and lost wandering aimlessly in search of an elusive youth hostel mentioned in our guidebook. Since we hadn’t made the bookings in advance, the hotels were turning out to be too expensive with even the modest ones asking for 60 euros per night.
Our entry to the city had begun on a sad note. Three members of our group of seven had to leave within an hour of arriving at the Santa Lucia rail station. They had mistakenly booked the return flight for the same evening instead of the next day.
What a mistake to make. We felt bad for them, it was a mood spoiler. Much of the excitement was lost.
Earlier in the day, we landed at Milan’s Bergamo airport from Berlin and on a whim decided to take a train to Venice. The central train station was more than an hour’s bus ride but it took nearly two hours because of an accident on the highway.
Bad luck it seemed had followed us into Italy.
Things had started going wrong right from the beginning when we left for Berlin’s Schonefeld airport early in the morning.
The problem was two of us had two different route maps to reach the airport. Mine, I believe, was the most accurate one but we did not take it. Our friend from the Philippines had her way because her map appeared to show a (non-existent) easier route than mine!
After much confusion and asking around we reached the airport a few minutes late but thankfully the flight was delayed.
We grabbed a quick bite and a shot of espresso before taking the bus ride to Milano Centrale from where we took a slower Trainitalia regional train to Venice.
Train to paradise
It took an hour more than the faster Eurostars but was easier on the pocket. I somehow couldn’t give up the habit of thinking in terms of rupees even after nearly two months in Europe. So 40 euros meant about three thousand rupees, too much for a 200-km ride!
The journey from Milan to Venezia was nothing much to write about. In fact, after travelling through much of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, the Italian countryside looked quite unimpressive.
We had just crossed a town called Brescia and staring out of the window I couldn’t help thinking that the view could be from any of the richer farm lands in India. At that instant my Pakistani friend said Abhi this could be Punjab and I said ya this could be our Punjab too!
Maybe I missed something because I’m told Brescia is a beautiful historic town in the plains of Lombardy!
And so we reached Verona where we needed to change trains for Venice. Now the name Verona, does it ring a bell?
Puffing at a cigarette after nearly three hours on train, something was gnawing at me because I couldn’t quite place what it was about Verona that sounded so familiar. And then it came. Of course the city of Romeo & Juliet.
But we had only 20 minutes before the train to Venice arrived. How I wanted to see Juliet’s balcony! There is actually a 13th century villa (Casa de Giuletta) with a balcony as described by the Bard, who turned Giuletta into Juliet when he reprised the Italian writer Luigi Da Porto’s novella and made it famous.
Also, there’s a bronze statue of the fictional Juliet and legend has it that if you gently rubbed her right breast it will bring you good luck in love (no wonder I couldn’t go there!). I’m told that the right breast is shinier than the rest of the statue because of all the rubbings by the love-struck tourists!
But I write too much about a place I couldn’t see.
Finally in Venice
We reached the Santa Lucia station in Venice sometime in the late afternoon. After our unlucky friends left for Milan to catch their flight back to Berlin, we stood at the station’s courtyard overlooking the Grand Canal mesmerised by the sight of the Gondolas that we had seen only on TV.
I was reminded of the Hindi song “Do lafzon ki hai dil ki kahani…” picturised on Amitabh Bachchan and Zeenat Aman riding a Gondola in The Great Gambler.
Now what? An impromptu trip to Venice is not what sane people do. We had to find a place to stay the night.
Short on money, short on time and famished we got on to a Vaporatto — the ubiquitous water buses operating on the Grand Canal, the main thoroughfare of the city.
The Lonely Planet guidebook decided our destination — Piazza San Marco, the city centre of this cluster of 117 islands that make Venice. It is perhaps the only city centre in Europe that has no motorised traffic because Venice has no roads only waterways.
On the way, passing through many a landmark that one had heard of such as the Ponte di Rialto — the oldest bridge on the Grand Canal built in the 12th century — it began to sink in that I was indeed in Venice.
The Gondolas lolled by with cozy couples enjoying the balmy air and soaking in the romantic sights. Some had even musicians on board in traditional attire playing violin as the couples cozied up to each other. If only I earned in euros!
And so we landed at the Piazza San Marco stop after a good 30 minute ride that took us through some breath-taking sights of this romantic city.
After a bout of photo ops and chasing the hoards of pigeons at Basilica courtyard we decided to do the rounds in search of a youth hostel mentioned in the Lonely Planet.
Wandering through the alleys, half our mind was occupied with the thought that we had to soon find a place to stay the night.
Finding the address to this elusive hostel was turning into a futile exercise. We were wondering how mails are delivered in this city where all buildings seem to be seamlessly merged with barely any numbers identifying the addresses.
The sun was dipping fast and we had to find a place soon. After a while we gave up the search and in our desperation started looking for hotels that looked comparatively cheaper. We were ready to shell out more just to dump our bags, take a shower and go out again exploring Venice with a relaxed mind.
But most of the cheap-looking hotels weren’t cheap at all and to top that were booked. Tired, hungry and nowhere to go we sat down on the steps of one of the 455 bridges that connect this city.
It was then that one of us discovered that the guidebook mentions another youth hostel. That cheered us up a little and we set out for the island of Gieudecca that finally gave us a refuge in this expensive paradise called Venice.
While finding our way back to the waterbus station of San Marco we walked past landmarks like the Doge’s Palace and the prison where the legendary seducer Giacomo Cassanova was imprisoned and from where he escaped, the only prisoner ever. He memoir titled “The story of my escape from the Piombi” become an equivalent of modern-day bestseller bringing him worldwide fame.
Another nugget of information I would have missed had I not overheard a tour guide telling a bunch of tourists about the Ponte Die Sospiri or the Bridge of Sighs!
Romanticised by Lord Byron, this bridge connecting the prison and the Doge’s Palace gets its name from the legend that condemned prisoners would sigh at their last view of Venice through the two windows of this enclosed bridge before being executed.
We reached the Gieudecca island on the other end crossing the channel and the cruize ships lined up. Our stop was Zitelle, a Sicilian friend told me later that zitelle in Italian means an old lonely woman who couldn’t get a husband!
Nice name for a place that has a church by the name of Le Zitelle which once was a refuge for young maidens who couldn’t get married. Hence the name Zitelle.
It was next to this church that we finally found refuge — the international youth hostel that charged 25 euros a night. Phew!
After a nice warm shower and a change we step out to get our dinner — our first meal of the day. And what a meal it was at an open-air place by the sea. Spaghetti with a tangy meat sauce and a potent Sicilian red wine!
The day ended well. The four of us took a walk around the island for sometime and retired for the day. The next day we left for Milan for a half-a-day in the fashion capital of Europe.
Much of Venice remains to be explored. I’m hoping there’ll be a next time!