Found it - the Ponte di Calatrava

The Dolomites tour was over. After breakfast Sandy and I got on a van with Randy and Regina to take us to Conegliano. It was about a two hour drive and from there we could catch a train to Venice. Marco rode with us and got off at one of the towns along the way. He had one day off and was going to spend it at the house of a friend. The next day he would catch the train and go to the Venice airport to meet the group arriving for his next tour. I thought the Dolomites tour was awesome but I can see where it could quickly get to be too much of a good thing.

The train ride took about an hour. We all got off at Mestre, the last stop on the mainland before the train crosses the water to the city of Venice itself. We said goodbye to Randy and Regina. They were going straight to the airport to catch a flight back to London later that day. Sandy and I were going to spend two days in Venice before heading home. Sandy had never been to Venice. I had been there once before but it had been in the middle of winter and it had been cold and snowing. I was anxious to see what it was like in summer. I would learn to be careful what I ask for.

The Grand Canal

The city of Venice is built on a group of 118 small islands (or 117 depending on which source you check) in the middle of a shallow lagoon at the mouths of the Po and Piave rivers. Many of the buildings are not actually on land, but are built on wooden pilings sunk into the lagoon. The only access, other than by boat, is via a 2.4 mile causeway from the mainland that has a two lane road and a railway line in each direction. The Santa Lucia train station is right at the end of the causeway. The road also ends there at the Piazzale Roma, where there is a bus station and a car park. Within the city itself there are no roads. All transportation is via boat, on the many canals in the city, or on foot along pedestrian pathways linked by over 400 bridges. It's pretty amazing to me that in the twenty first century, a city of 60,000 people can function without cars, trucks or buses. The entire historic city and the surrounding lagoon are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

An example of the helpful street signage in Venice

We were staying at the Hilton Garden Inn in Mestre, on the mainland near the end of the causeway. Since we weren't sure how to get around in the city itself, this seemed like a safer choice. We were able to get to our hotel easily from the Mestre train station. It was just a ten minute taxi ride. We weren't sure how easy it would be to get to a hotel in the city itself, especially hauling all of our luggage, given that there were no roads or cars. It also looked like it would be easy to get to the Venice airport from the Hilton. Since our flight home was in the morning, we didn't want to deal with the hassle of getting out of the old city with our baggage. Plus Sandy could use her Hilton points to cover our stay. Although the idea of staying at a classic hotel right on a canal seemed like fun, this was much more practical. In the end, the best part of this decision turned out to be that the Hilton was a modern hotel that had air conditioning.

We found out that we could buy tickets for the bus into the city right at our hotel for a few euros. By noon we had caught a bus and were on our way. The ride to the Piazzale Roma took less than ten minutes.

Sandy in the Piazza San Marco

The moment that I stepped off the bus we accomplished one of our goals for our visit to Venice.

Earlier that week we had been talking about visiting Venice at dinner. Marco mentioned that we should check out the new bridge across the Grand Canal. It was very controversial because many Venetians did not think it fit in with the architecture of the city because of its modern style. Randy said that he and Regina had spent several days in Venice recently and he had walked all over the city. He did not remember any modern bridge over the Grand Canal. When pressed, Marco did not know where the bridge was and couldn't remember the name either. So we had a controversy. We said that we would do our best to be on the lookout for any modern-looking bridges over the Grand Canal and would report back to the group if we found any. But since we would only have two days in Venice, we wouldn't be able to devote a lot of time to searching for the bridge.

It took us less than ten seconds to find it.

As I was stepping off the bus I looked up and there, about a hundred feet away, was a very modern-looking, steel and glass bridge. It was the Ponte della Costituzione (Constitution Bridge), usually just called the Ponte di Calatrava since it was designed by the architect Santiago Calatrava. I took a picture and that evening I emailed it to everyone in the group.

Carnival is a big thing

Later that evening a reply came back from Randy. It said simply "Photoshop!"

Even before we got to Venice we knew what our greatest challenge would be. The forecast said it would be close to 40 degrees celsius, or about a hundred degrees fahrenheit. Add bright sun, high humidity and no wind, and the heat index was predicted to be 115 F. We were prepared for it to be hot, but as soon as we started walking we realized that it was going to be Really Hot.

We decided to start with the big tourist attractions, heading first for the Rialto Bridge. It wasn't easy. In this part of Venice there wasn't such a thing as "through street". Most walkways would go for a block or two and then turn ninety degrees, or end in a T-junction, or in a small piazza. There were signs that pointed the way to "Rialto" or "San Marco", the two places we wanted to go, but they were confusing and inconsistent. Sometimes they would point one direction. Sometimes they would seem to point totally the wrong way. Sometimes junctions wouldn't have any signs. Sometimes they would have multiple signs, pointing several directions for the same destination. My favorite was a spot where two signs pointed opposite directions for San Marco/Rialto.

Shopping for paintings - scenes of Venice

At least we had a map that I had bought in Boise and with it we were able to make general progress in the right direction. Eventually we reached the Rialto Bridge, the most famous bridge over the Grand Canal. It has shops along both sides of its walkway - probably pretty prime retail space. It is indeed a beautiful structure but the effect was spoiled by construction. There was a crane towering over the bridge and scaffolding all over it. So no pictures of the bridge on this trip.

Crossing the bridge we made our way to the Piazza San Marco, a large square which includes the Church of San Marco and it's Campanile, the Doge's Palace, and other famous and beautiful buildings. Again there was scaffolding on San Marco as part of the church was being restored. There were also crowds of tourists everywhere, although that was pretty much true everywhere in Venice.

We had been going for about two hours and had walked all the way across Venice. The heat was really starting to get to us. Plus we hadn't eaten since breakfast, although we were more interested in something to drink than to eat. After we started back we passed a restaurant that had an indian gentelman out front encouraging people to come inside. We weren't two sure about an indian pizzaria but he said that it had air conditioning and that was enough for us. It turned out to be pretty good and we took a long time to eat lunch, enjoying the break from the heat.

One of the over four hundred bridges in Venice

We had seen the main tourist sights that we wanted to see, so after lunch we did some serious shopping. Glassmaking has been an art on the Venetian island of Murano for hundreds of years, and Murano glass was everywhere. There was a lot of beautiful but quite inexpensive jewelry. As we walked through the city before lunch we had checked out a lot of shops that we passed along the way. Now that we had an idea of what was available, we went back to make our purchases. Near the Rialto bridge Sandy found some nice jewelry that she bought for herself. I picked up quite a few pieces to use as Christmas presents. Sandy also found a beautiful Murano glass vase that she bought that is now on display in our family room. We found a nice painting of a Venice scene which is hanging on our wall. And of course, I bought a couple of tshirts.

Late in the afternoon we were totally worn out from the heat. We found a shady spot at a sidewalk cafe along the Grand Canal where we could have a beer. By now it had cooled off a bit and we just enjoyed watching all the traffic on the water.

A small patio restaurant on a quiet "side street"

Then it was time to head back. We had trouble finding our way back to the Piazza Roma but eventually made it and caught the bus back to the hotel where we had dinner at the hotel. It had been a good day but we had done a lot of walking and in the extreme heat it really took a lot out of us.

The next morning when Sandy woke up she didn't feel well. Something from the day before didn't agree with her, or maybe it was just too much heat. She decided to take the day off and sit by the pool at the hotel while I went back into the city.

I decided to explore a different part of Venice. I crossed the Grand Canal on the Ponte di Scalzi, another beautiful (but old style) bridge. There were actually some main streets here, lined with even more shops than the area that we had explored the day before. All the streets were filled with vendor stands as well, not just those near the Rialto bridge. Some were selling tourist stuff, some were selling foodstuffs and other things for the locals. Where we had been yesterday wasn't even the main shopping district! It was easier to navigate here as well since the shopping streets were much longer and straighter. I managed to reach the Rialto bridge by following only three streets rather than having to weave through a maze.

Relaxing with a cold drink at a sidewalk cafe by the Grand Canal

I even found the McDonalds, although it was very low key. No giant golden arches. All it had was it's name on the awning over the entrance, just like any other shop along the street. I probably would have walked right by it if I hadn't been looking for it. It was nice that in a city as beautiful as Venice, a buisness like McDonald's tried to fit in rather than blast out its marketing message. In the interests of time I had lunch there. I didn't want to leave Sandy sitting by herself all day at the hotel.

Today I was doing serious shopping. For things we had seen yesterday I was checking as many shops as I could to find out where we could get the best deals.

It was even hotter than it was yesterday, or at least it seemed that way at the time. I found that I had to take breaks every so often, buying a cold drink and finding a shady spot to stop and rehydrate. This was hard work, like doing a big climb on one of our hikes in the mountains.

A gondola on the Grand Canal

It took me longer than I expected but I did well. I found some nice colored wine glasses. I got two bottles of lemoncello, one for us and one for a gift. I added to my Christmas present stash with some more Murano glass jewelry. I found a nice watch and some other presents for Sandy. It was a good opportunity to shop for her without having to be sneaky since she wasn't along. And of course, I got some tshirts.

It was four in the afternoon by the time I got to the Piazza Roma. I was tired and ready to be done with the heat. All I had was a short bus ride back to the hotel. When the bus came I piled on with a crowd of people. I was standing and the bus was literally packed with people. On every side people were pushing up against me. It wasn't very comfortable, especially since everyone was drenched with sweat. Unfortunately we must have hit a shift change. Our driver grabbed his stuff and got off the bus. We waited there for what seemed like forever but was probably about five minutes.

Just a typical neighborhood Italian restaurant

Finally our new driver got on and we drove off. If it was hot walking around, it was unbelievable in the bus - hot, humid and stuffy. It was probably the only time in my whole life that I thought I might actually pass out from the heat. I just focused on staying calm and breathing deeply. I knew that it was less than ten minutes to the hotel. The bus seemed to be incredibly slow as it drove the two and a half miles across the causeway. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't will the bus to go faster. I really wasn't sure that I was going to make it but I did manage to hold out until my stop. Getting off, into the one hundred degree heat, was an incredible relief. Whew! It was like that moment when the dentist has been doing a root canal, and he finally steps back and says "Ok. All done."

Sandy and I had a relaxing evening. I showed Sandy (most of) my purchases from the city. I drank a lot to rehydrate. And we had a nice quiet dinner at the hotel.

Our wine glasses from Venice

The next day we had a long trip back to the US. We flew from Venice to Newark where our next flight to Chicago was late. We should have missed our connection home, but you can always count on United. Our flight to Boise was late too and we made it in plenty of time.

It had been a really good trip. It had come at the end of a time that had been difficult for me, and the chance to get away and into the mountains really helped me sort out my emotions.

And it was good to see Abby, The WigglePup, when we got home.