Day: 222 & 223
Towns / Cities Visited: 142
Countries Visited: 24
Steps Taken Today: 27,807
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,695,096
We awoke at our leisure on our two hundred and twenty second day, with only vague plans to do anything productive. We had two days to enjoy Venice, and with our list of attractions to visit not being all that long, we decided to take the morning off and spend some time catching up amongst this house full of adventurers. As with all good catch ups, ours was held over a meal, and what better way to lift the spirits of weary travellers than with a big breakfast, cooked by myself and my almost equally food-loving older brother.
It wasn’t until the early afternoon that my mother, partner, and I trotted off to the bus stop to head into the famed canal-riddled city of Venice to see a little of what it had to offered. Despite our lighthearted merriment and food-fuelled optimism, we were to face an obstacle we had not run into in quite some time, a public transport strike. After being unable to find anywhere open to buy a bus ticket despite it being in the middle of the day on a Friday, we headed over to the bus station and soon discovered that, according to a small section of a notice actually translated into English, the bus companies were only running limited services for the day, I’ll assume due to abysmal pay. Still, we remained hopeful and decided to wait at the bus stop to see if any services would actually roll up and trundle us away on our day’s excursion. After half an hour though, we were about ready to pull the pin when a friendly man pointed out that it was possible to get to Venice by train; thus, following his directions, we made our way to the nearby train station. Now, to say that the place was chaotic would be an understatement, as locals and visitors alike scrambled to try and find any form of transportation to the famed city, and yet it would seem that the train companies had also joined the boycott and services were few and far between. Despondent, we huddled together and made the joint decision that it was all too hard. There was little assurance we’d be able to find transportation back, that wasn’t an overpriced taxi, even if we did manage to make it there, and, as such, we dragged our feet back to our Airbnb to try and enjoy my final day of being twenty-seven.
Making the most of the remainder of the afternoon, we set about writing some blogs, and doing general life admin, before venturing to the shops to buy food for a hearty evening meal. If we weren’t going to enjoy the sights of Venice today, we were going to drown our sorrows in pasta, garlic bread, alcohol, and pleasant conversation. The evening was filled with just that as, once again, my brother and I whipped up a massive meal of carbs with a side of carbs. The drinking and talking carried on long into the night, and I’ll be honest, it wasn’t until 4am, when my partner rolled out of bed to find me, that Leighann and I tottered off to bed.
Unsurprisingly, I awoke to the mid-morning sun of my twenty-eighth birthday somewhat seedy. With a little hustle though, we, that being the usual trio sans the No Fixed Adventure pair, were still out the door by ten, heading to the now wonderfully easy to catch bus. Before long we reached the edge of Venice, where vehicular traffic ends and foot traffic becomes thick but undisturbed by motorised means. We decided to begin with a short ferry ride to one of the smaller islands, and thus we wandered over to the ferry terminal and bundled onto a waterbus. Now, being someone who has a penchant for sea sickness as the best of times, it was a somewhat uncomfortable journey as my stomach battled the waves and lingering hangover all at once. Still, I was not to be deterred from enjoying the adventures of my first overseas birthday, and thus I soldiered on.
The ferry pulled up alongside the island of Murano a short time later, and, with my feet finally back on solid ground and surrounded by the cool autumn air, my nausea subsided enough to wander to our destination without hassle. For some of you, it will be obvious as to why we were here, but for those of you who are unaware of the most noteworthy product of Murano since the 13th century, it is glass. Venetian glass is famous the world over, but we had not come to purchase some, purely because travelling with or posting glass trinkets was not really an expensive and fragile endeavour we were to keen to explore; rather, we had come to learn about the process and history of glass making in the area. What better place to gain that desired education than the Murano Glass Museum? With that in mind, we weaved our way past the countless glass filled souvenir shops, to the entrance of the museum which as run here since 1861.
Purchasing our tickets, we wandered inside, and began our visit by watching a video on the intricacies of glass making over the centuries. As with most videos of this sort, I found it truly mesmerising to watch glass go from inconspicuous mixes of sandy crystals to stunning pieces of art in the skilled hands of glass smiths. Eventually, my travel companions managed to tear me away, and we proceeded to explore the chronologically ordered rooms of the museums collection, made up almost entirely of pieces donated by local glass factories. There are Roman artifacts here from as far back at the 1st century AD, when glass was thick and often opaque do to its impurities. Following this there are examples of the decorative glassworks from the 15th — 19th centuries, when the wealthy flaunted their status through the display of elaborate trinkets; as well as more modern artworks, which prove that the tradition of quality artisan glass making is still being passed down from generation to generation, even if finding young apprentices is becoming a hard task.
There is also many display cases showing off a technique which was revived in the 16th century by Venetian glass makers from a 4000 year old practice born in the Middle East; murrine glass. These gorgeous pieces are made by creating canes of glass containing an image which can only be seen when the cane is cut into discs, much like those lollies you see with have writing or pictures on the inside. These decorative discs are also sometimes melted beside each other to form fused sheets which are, in turn, used to form bowls, vases, and other homewares. The sheer detail of some of the internal images is truly mind boggling and I was entranced by them for quite some time. As I ogled the beauty of the pieces, I was taken back to the memory of my sugarwork classes at William Angliss Institute, and how wholly frustrating it could be to try and blow sugar into perfectly even baubles or pull it into artful shapes without it becoming deformed or shattering as it cooled, much like working with glass, but at far cooler temperatures. It was with that thought that my respect for the artists expanded. Both mediums are troublesome to learn, and can be broken with the slightest knock; it takes decades to master the intricacies of the craft and all of the art here is a testament to the men and women who dedicate themselves to this age old tradition.
With our venture into the wonderful world of glass at an end, we made one last circuit of this tiny island to admire its architecture, before hopping back on the waterbus and returning to the central hub of Venice’s main island. By now our alcohol fuelled sickness had ebbed, and with the sun high in the sky, hunger took its place. Now, given that it was my birthday I, quite rightly, insisted that our first nibble for the day should be gelato. Despite my twenties coming into their twilight, I refuse to grow into sensible celebratory food decisions, thus with lemon gelato in hand, we started to weave our way though the warren of lanes and over countless bridges which connect the spits of land veined by the waterways. We admired the gondola filled canals when they popped into view, and the rustic architecture when they were hidden. The city is quite small, so getting totally lost is somewhat of an impossibility; that being said, finding anywhere specific is almost equally as challenging.
At this point I will admit that gelato does not constitute a full meal, and, as such, we ducked into a little restaurant tucked away from the tourist laden centre, and settled in with a few pizzas to help get us through the remainder of the day.
With food shaking off the last of the hangover, we took some time to head into the heart of Venice, meandering past the endless souvenir and mask shops, and commenting, as I’m sure so many others do, about the sheer unbalance between the number of locals compared to the number of tourists. After a good wander, we stopped once again for gelato because, well because it was my birthday and that’s what I wanted to do. I might not be willing to fork out the exorbitant fee for a gondola ride, but I was sure as hell forking out for extra ice cream. Continuing on towards the famous Piazza San Marco, we dropped into a shop stocking all the things this girl loves: globes, clocks, hourglasses, compasses, or anything that screams ‘things you would have on display in an Victorian style study’. They also had a huge collection of wax stamps, and my partner spoilt me by purchasing an intricate ‘A’ stamp and some purple wax to go with it, for all those times I wish to seal my letters like a Victorian era aristocrat.
With our retail therapy complete, we arrived in Piazza San Marco, luckily for us, outside of its daily flooding times, and, after some quick photo taking and architectural admiration, we wandered off to our other attraction for the day; Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace in English. This Gothic style landmark overlooking the water was built in 1340, and was the residence of the Doge: the supreme authority over Venice, elected for life by the area’s wealthy landowners, when it was a republic for 1100 years between 697 and 1797 AD. There were, of course, other residences before the erection of this palace; however, they no longer remain. Like so many other palaces throughout history, this one was extended and refurbished numerous times, and was also partially destroyed by a number of fires, leading to its current appearance differing greatly from its original design. Still, it is no less beautiful for such changes. After its stint as a republic, Venice was ruled by Napoleonic forces, then fell under Austrian rule, before finally joining Italy in 1866. By the end of the 19th century the palace was falling into disrepair, and the government set aside money for its restoration, moving its municipal offices out of the building. Nowadays, and since 1923, it has been open to the public as a museum, thus we headed out of the hustle and bustle of the piazza’s crowds, past the long line of punters waiting to buy tickets, handed our pre-purchased ticket to the gatekeeper, and darted in to explore.
Walking into the quiet of the courtyard at the centre of the beautifully built palace, it becomes clear that just because Venice didn’t have a monarchy, doesn’t mean it didn’t have rulers with extravagant tastes and seemingly bottomless funds being drawn from its residents to pay for them. The graceful arches, intricate stonework, detailed bronze wells, stoic Romanesque statues, gilded clock, and marble adorned grand staircase attest to this fact wholeheartedly. Saint Mark’s Basilica, which looms at the far end, and used to serve as the Doge’s chapel, only further bolsters the importance of the site in the history of the city.
Cloaking our bags, we passed between the flanking statues of Mars and Neptune, which guard the grand staircase and represent Venice’s power by both land and sea, and made our way inside. The palace is massive, with rooms large and numerous, most either named after noteworthy doges, for example the ‘Erizzo Room’; after defining characteristics of the room, for example the ‘Four Doors Room’; or after their purpose, for example the Senate Chamber, or the Chamber of the Council of Ten. They almost all have fascinating histories to share, but you’ll have to go and learn about them yourself I’m afraid. I can’t spoil it all for you.
Now, If you thought the exterior was grandiose, its doesn’t hold a candle to what lies within. The building may have run more like a parliament house than a royal palace during its heyday, and as such the furnishings consist of far more committee member benches than luxurious armchairs, but the ceiling and wall decorations easily rival any monarchical home across Europe. The frescoes painted on the ceilings, surrounded by their painstakingly applied plasterwork decorations, are breathtaking to say the least. You can almost count the tens of thousands of hours that must have gone into their creation. Many of the wooden doors are equally as detailed, and it kind of makes you bleed for the poor souls who have the painful job of having to dust the nooks and crannies of such intricate art. As can be expected, the majority of the paintings have a biblical or mythological theme, although some represent important parts of Venetian history, and there is a series of portraits depicting the first sixty or so doges along with scrolls listing their achievements. Also akin to the other grand buildings of similar time periods, excessive gilding is well and truly the fashion here. The mixture of dark woods and luminous gold exude a richness that republics are most certainly not commonly renowned for.
Funnily enough, despite the countless stunning paintings, it is the black curtain which replaces one of the doge’s portraits that is the most fascinating. You see, this particular doge, who had ruled in the 14th century, had attempted, rather poorly, to install himself as a dictator. Things did not end well for him, as he was eventually executed, and his portrait was expunged from its place here, although it was not replaced, its blank space a reminder for all following doges that their position may be for life, but that life may be ended if they do wrong by the people of Venice.
There is little by way of interior furnishings, aside from the wooden benches that line many of the walls, which were installed to accommodate the council members during meetings; however, some of the rooms now house a collection of historical weapons and armour, which make for a fascinating flit through.
After a quick peek out of the balcony, over the inner courtyard, we delved down into the depths of the palace, to visit the darker side of the palazzo. Crossing the famed Bridge of Sighs, so called because it is believed that the prisoners would sigh when crossing it as they glimpsed their last view of freedom and breathed their last gulp of fresh air before being incarcerated, we reached the darkened halls, strong cell doors, and pockmarked stone walls of the prison interior. It is in such stark contrast to the glamorous rooms we had just left, that it was almost jarring. The heavy cast iron bars on the windows of this vaults, furnished with nothing more than wooden plank beds, hark back to a time when imprisonment lacked any form of creature comfort. Even the courtyard in the centre, with its simple well, is surrounded by the ominous overlook of thick barred windows.
From the highs to the lows, we had come out the other side, our visit at an end, and dusk changing the landscape from a bright bustling city, to quiet lanes twinkling with the warm lights of restaurants.
Despite the large array of eateries, we would not be having our evening meal here, as my brother had offered to cook a special birthday dinner, and thus we made our way back to the bus, and were tumbling back into our accommodation as dark fell. I stepped through the door to quite the surprise. Based entirely on the fact that a few days ago my mother had mistakenly said I was turning 29 rather than 28, a running joke of how old I was had sparked. So what should I find when I walked inside but the handiwork of Steven and Leighann’s afternoon of arts and crafts hanging on the wall; a banner declaring ‘Age is just a number, so we chose 42’. My apparent move well into middle age was accompanied by a ’45 today’ badge, and juxtaposed by Peppa Pig flags. Dinner was possibly the larges steak I’ve ever been faced with, and which apparently the butcher had been thoroughly shocked over when my brother had told him he wanted five of them. Served along with mushroom sauce and novelty vegetables, it may not have been the prettiest dinner, but damn was it delicious. Of course, you can’t round off a birthday without cake, and harking back to our childhood family tradition of always having ice cream cake, my brother pulled out, rather appropriately, a Viennetta log topped with a ‘50’ candle. I may have been aging by the second, but that silly little cake made me feel like I was seven all over again. With my third stint into frozen desserts for the day, it was a perfect end to a birthday I won’t soon forget.
Never in my wildest childhood dreams, whilst inhaling the sweet, unctuous vanilla ice cream and tantalising crack of chocolate that is a Viennetta, did I see myself eating the very same cake in Italy one day. Yet here I was, surrounded by the people who make any room feel like home, thoroughly confused about how old I was supposed to be in that moment, cutting a spoon through a slice just as I did more than two decades earlier. For some people birthdays are all about extravagant parties and bountiful gifts, but I for one would take my texta scrawled banner, cheap supermarket cake, and a room full of people who cared enough to get it all together for me any day. Memories, my friends, memories are far more valuable than any material possession, and to those four souls who filled the anniversary of my twenty eighth journey round the sun with them I say thank you.