This summer, my daughter embarked on her first European holiday without me. I am proud, excited and saddened all at the same time. We’ve done a lot of traveling together over the years and I have essentially watched her grow from a pre-teen to a young woman on the verge of going to university in the presence of Europe’s greatest places. In fact, we reference everything based on where we went a particular year. Oh, that was the year we went to Rome. Even still, it is sometimes difficult to keep the years straight.
So of all the places she chose to go first (with a travel companion), she chose Venice. Not bad taste if you ask me. I took her there in August 2013 when she was 13 years old. I think it is one of the few places that needs to be experienced in different ways, at different ages. I have been there four times and when my daughter decided to go on her own, it got me thinking about my own experiences in Venice and what they have meant to me. Maybe one day, she will also write down her own ideas on her own blog (I keep encouraging her).
There is a difficulty in writing a post about Venice in a travel blog and that is that there are already thousands of posts by all levels of travel bloggers talking about their trips to Venice. I am not interested in rehashing the same travel advice and details that you can find all over the internet. Sure there will be advice but it is going to come from the emotional impact of this city. I am not going to tell you the best time to get in line at St. Marks. What is the meaning of Venice to me? That is what I am sitting down to write about. What Venice is to me is built up of my own experiences both good and bad and the emotional impact they had. What comes to my mind when I think of Venice? How does it make me feel? In a way, I am revisiting Venice again but thru the chambers of my heart and hope that my brain cooperates by dishing out a few memories here or there.
Venice is one of those places that even though it has a lot of ‘wow’ things to see, it is a place where we desire to have an emotional connection with. We want powerful, emotional memories of Venice. When we talk about a Venice trip to another person, sure we will mention how beautiful St. Mark’s Basilica is, but what we really want to talk about is some memory that we shared with another person. Something that made a relationship more vibrant. Or maybe this is just what I want and everybody else sees things differently. But a friend once told me that she absolutely refuses to go to Venice unless she is with her soulmate. That may be extreme, but definitely Venice is a place that shouldn’t be experienced alone.
Yet I was alone the first time I set foot on Piazza San Marco back in 2004. Unless you are coming from the water, you don’t see Piazza San Marco until you enter it thru one of the alley ways. The impact that it has when you come out of one of the alleys into this grand, epic square for the first time cannot be forgotten, nor adequately described. Since that moment as a googly-eyed inexperienced 32 year old guy, Venice has left me with both experience and many experiences.
When I close my eyes, what are the moments I remember? Here are a few.
It’s got an orange slice in it.
Venice can really do a number on the legs. Every street, campo, and piazza beckons to be explored and it is easy to fall into the ‘keep going’ trap. But stop for a second and ask yourself Are you really enjoying the moment? If I could do one thing differently about all my trips to Venice, it is spending more time just soaking in the atmosphere. Letting the atmosphere come to me, rather than burning myself (or a partner) out by seeking endless canal scenes. The Fondamenta Zattere is a wide walkway on the southern side of the island. There are kiosks selling Aperol Spritzes and usually music playing in the late afternoon and evenings. It is the perfect place to let the ghosts of Venice into your heart to inspire conversation, contemplation, and connection. And a little bit of alcohol doesn’t hurt in that matter as well. It is the moments that I’ve stopped being a tourist when I’ve enjoyed Venice the most. And itsabrewtifulworld so an adult beverage must be in here somewhere.
Just call me Matteo
Cramming your day with museums and churches is a good way to check out the top ten sites list on Trip Advisor, but that sort of agenda can feel hollow years later. Many of the moments that I feel in my heart from being in Venice were when I would take time to engage in something that I already do at home. For example, exercising. Taking a jog in the morning. Reading a book on a park bench in the shade or at the beach. Going shopping at the local markets. Not eating every meal at a restaurant. You know, living a little bit like a Venetian. Having an Airbnb with your own kitchen is a wonderful thing in a place like Venice.
My daughter’s being eaten alive
Venice’s history is filled with death and war. We go to the Basilica to see the bones of a dead Saint and the hallways of dead Doge’s who killed in order to bring those bones to the city to make it famous. Meanwhile life is going on all around Venice. Especially in the pigeon population. One of the great moments in Venice when I felt alive was when my daughter was auditioning for a remake of Hitchcock’s The Birds on the piazza. It was a moment when we weren’t walking aimlessly thru a beautiful church pretending to be interested. We were just being there and having fun in the moment. I could have stood there all day watching her. It is the times when I stopped to appreciate life that I remember and I wish I had done that more often.
The next Canaletto
Speaking of Matteo, did you ever notice that out of all of the great Italian artists and composers, none of them seem to be named Matteo? If your name is not Giovanni, that shouldn’t stop you from exploring your artistic side. Anyone can be forgiven for taking pictures of every street, canal, building, and square in the city…. multiple times. It is a remarkably beautiful place. But how much do you really care about all those pictures later?
Venice sparks the imagination and as such the most memorable pictures of Venice for me are the ones that leave something to the imagination rather than trying to tell the whole story. Instagram is littered with thousands of filter freaks all trying to create that magical photo which captures the essence of Venice rather than giving a literal translation of it. There is a reason they do that. Venice is an absolute playground for photographers of all levels and even the most unimaginative person with a camera is bound to accidentally take a few shots that really bring out the emotional impact of Venice. I like to think I lucked out a few times myself. But in reality, the best photos you’ll ever have of Venice are the ones of the person you are lucky enough to be there with.
The Ultimate Day in Venice
I don’t think I have ever achieved the ultimate day in Venice. Just bits and pieces of experiences that when I add them up create my idea of the ultimate day. Some of these things I still haven’t figured out, like the perfect place to eat dinner. I’ve made too many mistakes in that category so for that I can only conceptualize.
- Wake up before the tourist crowd and do some outdoor exercise or engage in some morning creative personal activity (e.g. writing) outdoors.
- Find a local market and buy some local products for a picnic lunch.
- Visit a site (e.g. St. Mark’s Basilica)
- Eat the picnic lunch (or prepare and eat it back in the Airbnb)
- One of either Doge’s Palace, Accademia museum, or Guggenheim museum – only 1 and don’t overstay. 1 hour.
- Power nap (big believer in the power nap!)
- Take a boat ride thru the Grand Canal which loops around the southern part of the island. Get off at the Zattere stop.
- Aperol Spritzes and lounging on the Fondamenta Zattere
- Stroll thru a neighborhood AWAY from Rialto and Piazza San Marco to find a place to eat. Grab a few cicchetti first. Don’t ever go looking for a restaurant when you are already starving.
- Eat dinner in a place preferrably where locals eat.
- After dinner walk to Rialto for a little shopping
- Gelato on Piazza San Marco
In the above case, it helps to be staying in the southern part of Venice (near Accademia) as it reduces the amount of walking necessary.
So what is the meaning of Venice?
Venice is a place that I wish I had been guided more by my heart than my guidebook. There is something special about it that makes us want to have special memories from it. But we can so easily squander those by filling rather than feeling. The times I got it right are the times I remember most and will cherish as long as I live. I am fortunate that life has given me the opportunity to re-visit it time and again. Maybe one day I will finally get it completely right. Or maybe my daughter will come back from her trip and teach her old man a thing or two. As I write, I am waiting for her return, avoiding the temptation to ask too many questions because I’d rather find out in person. Venice has come to be symbolic of the stages of my daughter’s life. It also symbolizes my own self-reflection and growth. The dichotomy of love and love lost. Strange that a city would do that. Venice is special. There is something about it that makes us want to hold something eternal and sacred from it. And to the most extreme believers in that, it belongs only to oneself and the love of your life. It’s really hard to argue with that.