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Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!): VMW's Tips for Venice (read before your trip!)

Life Lessons of a Military Wife (overseas in Europe!)

My goal here is to make your life easier, especially those who are in the unique situation of being a military spouse. Yes...I've been around...but in a good way...and hopefully can share those tips, tricks and shortcuts with you too. I've been on this military bus for over 40 years now. My goals in life are to have a well-run home, few money worries, well adjusted children, money socked away and whatever happiness I can scoop out of life.

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After life as an Army brat, being in the Army myself and marrying a soldier, I can honestly say I have a bucket full of life lessons I can share to help you make your everyday life easier and enlightening. Don't waste your time making unnecessary mistakes and benefit from others who have come before you on your journey through life.

Monday, November 8, 2010

VMW's Tips for Venice (read before your trip!)

I'm back!  I don't always blog about our travels, but for a one-of-a-kind city like Venice, I just gotta.  You know, you read about the Venice of the North (there's one in Belgium, another in Russia) and Venice of the South and a few in between....but truly, there is no place in the world that is VENICE...the "real one", in Italy.  I've blogged before about packing and traveling, just click my Travel category, but I don't think I've ever written a definitive guide that will make it easy to plan your trip and to know what to expect, so here it is!  Follow these tips before you even plan your next (or first) Venice trip!

Since I am always up for a challenge, I thought I would try to plan this trip, so that I wouldn't really have to use my brain once I arrived.  That's why I begged off all internet, cell phone traffic....everything but a few good books!  I even put my 13 year old to work, as I adamantly REFUSED to navigate the map.....and behold, my son is a genius with the map.  I tried stumping him many times a day, but he never got us lost and always got us right to the doorstep of where we were going.  We also had a Rough Guide waterproof map, and at least the Venice edition is spot on (our tourist bureau one had a few streets with different names and some of the little alleyways with no names).  Do keep your map in a large ziploc-type bag along with any other "important papers" you may need throughout the day.


In no particular order, here are my recommendations (again, these are only my opinions, but they worked great for us....or didn't....so learn from them when making your own plans):

  • First things first, gotta take care of transportation!  We knew what dates were off from school, so I ventured over to Ryanair about two months before our trip.  Bingo....5 euro fares per person each way to Venice (or rather Treviso, a 40 minute bus ride away).  I'll be blogging later about Ryanair, but for now, know that 5 euro per person ended up being considerable higher because of airport taxes, fees, priority seating and not taking the late night flight on the way back (the cheapest fares will be the first flight out and last flight in....always).
  • After having that locked in, I started looking at lodging.  Typically, I look at friends' recommendations and LOVE Booking.com (both for ease of use, especially their map views and when narrowing things down....great reviews too and low price guarantees), but this time, I decided to try Hostelworld.com.  I hit a goldmine!  We paid only 30 euro per person per night with breakfast included and were only a 10 minute walk from San Marcos Square.  Our very friendly and helpful "landlady" who did not speak a lick of English, ended up giving us a two bedroom newly renovated apartment by her place.  Why?  Because the bathroom had flooded right before our arrival in our guestroom and since the other two rooms were already booked, that was the plan she had for us.  It worked out perfectly....we loved it, and her place was only a few doors down, so breakfast was easy.  She had a beautifully decorated dining room with a just wonderful spiral staircase leading down to it, and we enjoyed our mornings there as she busied herself in her wineshop downstairs.  Hostelworld puts a small charge on your credit card, and then you pay cash to your host when you leave for the remainder of the bill.  There were no surprises and no additional fees...in fact, she charged us less than what the website stated.
  • Know what things you want to see.  I knew my boys would not sit (or walk) through dozens of museum visits, which Venice has many of with beautiful and important works.  We narrowed our list down to the major tourist sites and then the inside of the Peggy Guggenheim Museum (my son loves Picasso) and the Secret Itineraries Tour of the Doges Palace (highly recommended and can be booked online at Tickitaly or Vivaticket ahead of time...bypass the lines!), the Naval Museum, vaporetto/traghetto rides and some of the interesting architectural gems scattered throughout the city...Murano Island too.  Of course we had a list of movie locations we wanted to visit and brought the movies with us for bedtime viewing.  We even noted some restaurants, cafes, shops and of course the best gelato in Venice at Il Doge.  My favorite sites to research Venice were Venice Rentals and Durant & Cheryl's Venice for Visitors.  I of course read all the guide books and found Rick Steves & the Rough Guide to be the best.
  • We also made sure to visit the Venice Tourism Bureau website to double check any special exhibits (two churchs had da Vinci and Galileo exhibits ongoing), and I breathed a sigh of relief to see that the Venice Marathon was the week before....try to stay away from places that are hosting a major event unless you are going to be in it!  Who wants to pay more for hotels, food....everything and then get lost in the crowd while there?  Don't laugh...I had friends in Paris during their annual gay event weekend....I'll spare you the stories they had to share!
  • Make sure to visualize how you will get to your hotel/B&B and how you will get back to the airport.  We went ahead and bought roundtrip ATVO bus tickets for 9 euro per person.  The ticket booth is right outside baggage claim at Treviso Airport and takes you right to Piazza Roma, last stop for land traffic in Venice.  Since I didn't want to buy the expensive 3 day pass for vaporetto transportation within Venice, we walked to our B&B, which was 2.2 km.  I knew we were going to take a lunch break at a small cafe, so this broke up the walk a bit, and the kids didn't complain....the paninis were that good!  If you don't want to do a lot of walking, there are places near the train station to stay, but in my opinion, that area is just not as nice as San Marcos or Castello or some of the other districts.  Since we had an 8 AM Ryanair flight out of Treviso for our return, and I didn't want to try to walk to Piazza Roma at oh-dark-thirty and stress about making it on time, I chose to stay in a small (but very nice) hotel in Treviso that I found on booking.com that had FREE airport shuttle service.  This worked out great when they came to get us at the airport after coming back from Venice at the end of our trip (and it took exactly two hours which included our vaporetto ride from the Castello District next to San Marco district plus the ATVO bus ride to the airport).  The hotel even had a restaurant, so it was great on our last day being able to take our time to get back....BUT, since our flight left so early, the hotel did not offer shuttle service that early nor did we get our included buffet breakfast.  The owner was so nice though that he made us sack breakfasts and had a friend drive us to the airport...how's that for customer service?!  Bottom line....keep this in mind when booking your lodging in Venice.  This is why many stay overnight near the train station, to catch the first buses back to the airport.  I would never recommend Mestre, which is the ugly industrial area just on the mainland.  We drove by tourists pushing and shoving to get on city buses in the AM, trying to get to Venice...imagine doing that EVERY day of your visit...uh uh.  Also one other alternative to get back to either Marco Polo or Treviso airports is to use the city bus systems or the train.  Stay away from those expensive fly-by-night bus services or the super expensive water taxis....you'll pay through the nose!
  • Look at the weather before you leave.  We knew it was going to be rainy season from mid-October on and brought our galoshes.  San Marcos Square was flooded with high tide every single morning and the tide receded by 11 AM.  Yes there are raised sidewalks, but they can get crowded and don't always lead where you want them to go!  
  • Use the FREE Rick Steves MP3 guides for Venice.  There are a few of them and my favorite one actually has a numbered map guide that goes along with the audio of St. Mark's Basilica.  There are also other websites out there with free and low-cost city guides.  Just google MP3 + name of city.
  • Bring sturdy walking shoes that are comfortable.  I can't tell you how many tourists I saw with high heels or even high heeled boots.  Venice is COBBLESTONED or bricked to an extent and not every surface is as smooth as San Marcos Square.  Walking surfaces can get slippery when wet and make walking uneven.  If you bring a wheeled suitcase, make sure it has bigger wheels or you will ruin your suitcase wheels and announce to everyone on the block that you are echo-sounding your way down the alley.
  • We did bring our GPS, as it has the walking feature, but it kept getting confused in the tight alleyways.
  • The big souvenir items people buy are carnival face masks and Murano glass items.  Be aware that the many sidewalk stalls selling the masks have the cheap 10 euro masks (which are great for kids).  If you want a real hand-made Venice mask, visit one of the many wonderful mask shops in the brick and mortar stores in the area.  The price will reflect the work put into it.  We LOVED the Terminator-style masks at Ca' Macana.  As for Murano glass, if it is not stamped on the back as original Murano glass, it could be manufactured in China or elsewhere!  I know, what a tragedy!  Buy the genuine article directly on Murano Island at one of the wonderful shops there and always check the back.
  • Don't buy a vaporetto pass for your entire stay (two and three day passes are super-expensive).  One way trips are 6,50 euro, so also pricey.  Plan your trip where you only need to use the vaporetto (water buses) for 24 hours.  Adults and kids pay the same price unless your child is a student 14 or older and you can buy a student fare.  More info on Durant & Cheryl's site on this.  We maximized our 24 hours.  Go out to Murano (glass manufacturers), Burano (lace makers), the Lido (the fun beach area; kids love the go-cart rentals too) and every route they take!  Thanks to Napoleon, the beautifully appointed cemetery has its own island, and it can be a nice peaceful respite and photographer's dream.  Of course you'll also find yourself going up and down the Grand Canal multiple times and what fun to match up the palaces going by with your guidebook.  It can also be dicey watching the vaporetto almost swipe some of the gondolas that creep in and out of the many backwater smaller canals.
  • Speaking of gondolas, the going rate during the day is 80 euro (more at night).  Of course if you want singing or music it's more.  Share the burden of the cost by taking six people max in the gondola (it can still be romantic and fun).  We like the Venice Walks and Tours Company (also see their other tours), as you know you are getting someone who speaks English very well and can give you a good tour.  Not all gondoliers are equal, although they all do go through some serious training....in Italian though and there are only about 500 gondolas in Venice.  You can only get that job if a gondolier dies or gives up his license.  Beware of gondoliers trying to jack up prices.
  • Don't buy the counterfeit handbags being sold by shady characters in the back alleys.  Yes, they will approach you and wave that junk in your face.  It is a HUGE fine if you get caught buying one as there is a big crackdown on this.
  • Yeah, everyone goes to Harry's Bar to taste an overpriced Bellini....the cocktail was invented here...at the bar...but big whup...we took a photo of one of our boys standing in front of the sign and were done with it.  You only see celebrities in the upper off-limits area and only tourists go to the bar and pay for their overpriced drinks and food.  There are plenty of other wonderful restaurants, cafes and sandwich places in Venice.  The Rough Guide map has many good ones marked and the farther you get from San Marcos Square, the cheaper things are across the board.  Don't go in Hard Rock unless you collect the shirts or other junk.
  • If you are coming from elsewhere in Europe you won't need plug adapters for your small appliances and electronics.  If coming from the US, know that your 110 volt appliances won't work here...most computers and many electronics are dual voltage though. Check the back of your item or on its adapter/charger and bring a European adapter plug.
  • We spent a half day in Murano and chose to go in the afternoon when the tourist crowds are heading back the other way.  It was wonderfully peaceful!  The glass blowing furnaces are a huge hit with children, and my little one was absolutely fascinated.  I chose to visit a furnace where I had to pay 5 euro, and the kids were free.  The ones that are free have high pressure sales tactics and in my opinion, don't do a very good or long "show".  We saw not only vases being made but also lamps and figurines and no one pressured us to buy anything.  Ask at any of the shops along the main drag how to get to the furnaces.
  • Definitely take the 50 cent traghetto ride.  These are stripped down gondolas manned by two gondoliers that take you across the Grand Canal.  A good map will show you the traghetto crossing points.  You typically stand up but since it was raining and we had a gondola full of tourists, they had us sit on the very edge ledge.
  • In cooler weather, bring layers to wear and have some kind of waterproof jacket.  We saw people with umbrellas, but they were constantly hitting people in the head and having to tilt their umbrellas this way and that in the narrow alleyways....don't even bother.  We stayed warm and dry with our jackets with hoods.  If you are in Europe, visit Decathlon, an awesome sports warehouse with stuff for every kind of sport.  You can get a nice waterproof jacket for Fall and Spring with TONS of pockets for 30 euro.
  • Speaking of pockets, we maximized pocket use in our jackets for cameras, and I wore a pouch close to my body with our passports and money in it.  Pickpockets are everywhere here.  You also can't bring your backpack into St. Mark's Basilica, so be sure to leave it in the hotel the day you visit there or at their baggage drop off area around the corner.  Either visit St. Mark's early when it first opens or an hour before closing.  The crowds can be tremendous during the day, even in winter!
  • Save lots of money by buying bread, cheeses and fixins' for lunch.  The grocery stores are well hidden here and our Rough Guidebook had them all listed.  Within an hour of checking into our apartment, we had snacks and water and drinks to last us through the week.  We always carried a backpack with us with our drinks and then bought some wonderful sandwiches, paninis and pastries for lunch.  Be careful where you eat your picnic, as technically, it is "illegal" to sit down and eat anywhere....try to stick to out-of-the-way areas and parks and don't eat on someone's stoop!  I actually saw a sign on someone's stoop begging tourists not to picnic there:-)
  • Oh the European thing is the scarf wrapped around your neck a half dozen times it seems!  You'll see them at all the sidewalk vendors in all kinds of colors and patters.  Since Ryanair has a strict one carry-on bag policy (yes, your backpack and purse needs to fit in there too), I brought mostly dark and neutral colored fabrics that I could dress up with colorful scarves.  Of course, I bought a few...or more....don't pay more than 5-10 euro for one.  Many have silver bells and trinkets sewn onto the ends too.  Okay, I am digressing and getting off on a tangent!  Again, Decathlon and some of the catalogs like LL Bean have some great sweat-wicking fabrics that don't wrinkle and dry quickly....stick with those when traveling and dress them up with a scarf!
  • One word about special exhibits.  I mentioned two earlier that were hosted in local Venice churches.  I bet this is another way for these churches to try to earn some money.  We unfortunately did not visit the da Vinci exhibit as it was 8 euro for adults and 5 euro for kids....to see reproductions of some of his inventions....now if they had had something original, I might've jumped at that but reproductions?  You can see those anywhere....so, we browsed their little gift shop and had a lively debate where we tried to figure out if they brought in all those bookcases for the Indiana Jones movie or was this church a library before the exhibit...hmmmmm....
  • You can't get lost here...it's an island basically...and if you get off the beaten path without a map, you'll eventually see a sign on the street corner pointing to "Rialto" (the famous bridge), "San Marcos" (the square) or a few other famous landmarks.  So don't be afraid to wander a bit.
  • I just asked the kids what their favorites were besides what I mentioned above, and they both loved the daily specials at Ristorante Marco Polo at S. Lio 5571.  It was very popular for locals and tourists.  They also thought the best paninis were from Al Timon, S. Polo 3057 between the train station and Rialto.  I think we hit every gelato place in Venice or at least half of them...I already mentioned Il Doge (google it, it is by San Margherita Square, which is also the place to have great pizza and watch the students and their antics from the nearby university) and Gelateria Sommariva in Castello 4515.  My favorites included Gam Gam kosher restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto and the one and only department store on the island, Coin which is between the Rialto Bridge and San Giovanni Church.  I also liked the gelato place (one of the only ones that had coconut) by the Ponte dei Pugni Bridge (the fighting bridge with its footprints embedded in the stone).  Do see the Accademia Wooden Bridge, billed as the only wooden bridge in Venice (it is beautiful), but there is also a smaller wooden bridge we found by the Naval Museum and the impressive entrance to the Arsenale...this is when you realize how powerful Venice's navy once was.  And lastly, if you really like architecture, wander the small streets until you find the spiral staircase in the courtyard Corte dei Risi near Campo Manin (look for signs).
  • Yes, at some point you'll have to use the toilet.  Try to use the free ones at restaurants, cafes and museums while eating or visiting them.  Rest assured there are also tourist toilets at all the major tourist sites, but be prepared to pay.  I know one of the city visitor passes covers free toilet use, but I'd be looking at what else the benefit was of buying one!  City toilets cost 80 cents (train station) to 1.50 euro at San Marcos Square.  Stick with the free toilets...they were all clean for the most part.
And that about wraps up our trip.  We stayed for five days, and even with a full 4-1/2 days of sightseeing, there were still a few places we missed.  Know that you won't be able to see everything, but if you come with a plan, you can just really enjoy the execution of that plan and not stress about what to see next or waste money spending more than you should!  We only spent about 250 euro in food and a little more than than in lodging for the duration, so Venice can be done on a budget...and throw in our cheap tickets from Ryanair, and this trip became a blockbuster bargain for the three of us (sorry, hubby couldn't come with us this time).

Would you like to share your tips for Venice?  Be sure to check back soon when I will blog about traveling light and also flying Ryanair which is not your run-of-the-mill experience!

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