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Italy’s city of water: majestic, but a challenge to navigate

May, 2009

I took an overnight ferry from Patras, Greece to Ancona, Italy with three Canadian girls I met while travelling. Our sights were set on Venice, Venezia in Italian, the enchanted lagoon of northeast Italy.

When we docked in Ancona, we sent Laura to make the phone calls to find a hotel. After 20 minutes she returned, frustrated and confused. “What does ‘Pronto’ mean?” she asked. We didn’t know. “Each time I call a hotel someone picks up the phone and says ‘Pronto,’ then I ask about the rooms and then they hang up.” We later learned that “Pronto” is simply the way Italians answer the phone, and most of them don’t speak English. During her second round of phone calls, she eventually found someone who did, and reserved us a room.

The city of Venice is composed of 18 small, interconnected islands within a lagoon off the Adriatic Sea. About 31,000 people live on these islands. The city is small enough to explore entirely on foot. Boats are the standard method of transportation, and there are no cars in Venice, giving the city a sense of calmness.

From Ancona, we hopped on the train and headed north. About five hours later we heard the conductor announce “Venezia.” My mother had given me specific instructions to get off the train, turn right and walk toward the Jewish ghetto. I took charge and led the group as we made our way. It was dark and cold. We walked and walked. Something didn’t seem right. Where was the water? Scared and confused, we asked some Italian men at a café where we could find our hotel. They did not speak English. We pulled out a map of Venice and they laughed. Clearly, we had gotten off at the wrong stop. Apparently there are two train stops called “Venezia.” Who knew?

We took a cab to a bridge, walked across, and finally found our city of water. We felt lucky to have booked our hotel ahead of time, as we met several unprepared travellers roaming the street late at night looking for a place to stay. Our hotel – Alloggi Gerotto Calderan – had big, bright rooms with high ceilings. We paid about 75 euros for a room for the four of us. The hotel was just steps away from the Jewish ghetto. The first and oldest ghetto in Europe, it is 500 years old. The original term “ghetto” refers to this Venetian ghetto, which once housed 5,000 Jews, who were forced to live there. Venice’s active Jewish community of about 1,000 maintains five synagogues (two which are operational), a yeshiva (an orthodox Jewish school), a kosher restaurant, several Judaica shops, and a Chabad (an ultra-orthodox Jewish group).

The next morning, two Chabad boys invited us all to attend Chabad’s Shabbat dinner. It was the most beautiful Shabbat dinner I have ever experienced. There were several long tables set up along a canal. About 30 people – some local Venetians and many travellers from all over the world – came together for the meal.

Our first Italian café experience was interesting. I ordered a hot chocolate, and my friends all ordered coffee. We had to pay extra for a table. The waiter brought my hot chocolate out first. The girls ooed and aahed. It looked like a melted rich milk chocolate bar. Their coffees came out shortly after – mini mugs with about two sips of coffee in them. There must have been a mistake, we insisted, but no; in Italy, a coffee is a shot of espresso. Who knew?

The Piazza San Marco is one of the most famous squares in Italy. It is home to the Basilica di San Marco, the exquisite Palazzo Ducale, several ritzy art stores, cafés and hundreds of pigeons. We took a small tour of the remarkable basilica, nicknamed “Chiesa d’Or” (church of gold) for the decorative gold both inside and outside. It has Byzantine architecture. The marble floors are uneven, like water, due to the shifting of the foundation. It’s a remarkable sight.

The Palazzo Ducale is Venice’s pièce de résistance. Built in the 14th century, it was used as the senate house, the hall of justice, an administrative centre, and a prison until the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. As we walked through the great halls, each one more exquisite and extravagant than the last, filled with golden walls and grand works of art, I couldn’t help but imagine it as my home while I study at Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice.

The shopping in Venice is like nowhere else. The city is known for its glasswork and Venetian masks. I bought several pieces of glass jewellery, but the masks wouldn’t survive in my suitcase.

The four of us took a peaceful, $90 half-hour gondola ride around the city. We made sure to choose a handsome gondola driver, who sang to us in Italian as we floated through the majestic city of water.

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