From Paris to Milan on Easyjet, one Europe’s low-cost air carriers that offer ridiculously low rates (example fare: Milan to Brussels for E23) by taking advantage of EU aviation fuel subsidies, nailing unwary travelers with a smorgasbord of hidden fees, and operating more public transit or a taxi service than a full fledged airline. Jared, Matt, and Carly were waiting for us at Baggage claim, looking dazed and weary. They’d only flown and hour and a half but were still on Barcelona time: wake at noon thirty, wander in the afternoons, eat dinner around 10-11, party till morning, and do it all over again. Jared was carrying a backpack full of soaked laundry, the result of an unresolved drier mishap. Dylan was rumored to be meeting us somewhere in the vicinity but no one was sure exactly where. He was supposed to have left Barcelona at 6am and nobody had heard from him since, I was hoping that he was at least in the country.
Within the hour we’d acquired two rental cars and a Dylan and were caravanning down the A4 towards Lago di Garda with little idea of where we going to stay the night. Rolling in our Peugot hatchback, we stopped at a massive service station that spanned the autostrada via covered bridge to try and find a snack and WiFi. Note: gas station coffee in Italy is amazing, straight espresso (cafe) has a government maximum price of E1.10 (roughly) if you purchase at the bar, but if you sit down and a waiter delivers it to you, the establishment is allowed to jack up the price as they see fit. Cheap Italian wine is eminently drinkable and comparable to a $10-15 bottle in the states, a E10 three-pack of Barbera went down very smooth upon our stop for the night in Densenzano.
Our group of 6 had no set plans going into Italy except to spend a day touring Venice and a few day in somewhere in the mountains, preferably the Dolomites. We landed in Desenzano, on the southern shore of Lago di Garda by chance and found a favored weekend getaway for the wealthy Milanese. The fashionable, makeuped rich are usually not my brand of fun but Desenzano had it’s charms: lakeside promenade, and narrow backstreets where we found a proper meal, good house wine, and a waiter that wasn’t afraid to tell us if something on the menu wasn’t worth eating. I don’t want to know what Horsefray is, but added atop a crème sauce covering perfectly cooked Gnocchi, I’m content to remain ignorant .
From Desenzano to Verona (quickly: Roman arena with modern, stadium seating, old pedestrian city center, way too many tourists, the house that a fictional Juliet didn’t actually live in, but you can get four pairs of Italian boxer-briefs for E20), Verona to Venice. Our Rick Steves (that goofy Mid-westerner you might’ve seen on PBS) guidebook called Venice “a puddle of elegant decay,” but just to the south of Venice’s main island, the narrow strip called Lido looked more like a Mediterranean garden. Posh and clean but without the labyrinth canals, we scored two three-bed hotel rooms for E70 a night per room. Sure the windows didn’t really close, swarms of mosquitos invaded at night, there wasn’t an elevator, and the room featured it’s own share of decay, but I could fit in the bathroom and the majority of the folks wandering the streets below were speaking Italian.
Our first morning in Venice we prepared to enter the hornet’s nest of packaged tourism by buying a couple bottles of cheap wine, pouring one in a non-descript metal water bottle, and hiding the other in my pouch for safe keeping. I remained willfully ignorant of Venice’s tourist attractions, expect for the fact that Piazza San Marco was the center of the hive, to be avoided at all costs until the cruise ships had disembarked for the night. As such, we heeded a sensible piece of Rick’s advice and did our damndest to get lost.
Now Venice is a strange city to wander, and certainly not one for the claustrophobic. Once you reach the city proper the building walls close in around you, there are few places one could reach out and fail to touch both sides of an alley. Apart from the main avenues that offer the typical cornucopia of luxury goods and chincy souvenirs, most of the side streets are quiet enough to feel ghostly and it’s easy to imagine the city as it might have looked hundreds of years ago. Venice is one of the few places I’ve been where my expectations were met near perfectly, the city was exactly as I’d imagined it: elegant, slightly morose, and too unique to be fully ruined by the hordes of tourists.
The tourism in Venice is decidedly international and though it’s always easy to tell continental Europeans from Amurhicans and the British from the Japanese, it wasn’t easy for my undiscerning eye to tell locals from other European tourists, unless, of course, I spotted a stylishly dressed loner with no baggage moving swiftly and decisively through a series of alleys. Thus it was hard to tell if we ever really made it off the beaten path or we had simply managed to elude our fellow countrymen. Not that it really mattered, we managed to wander Venice for five hours without ever feeling the full crush of the crowds, finished our bottles of wine and picnicked on slabs of cheese and some fresh bread on a quiet canal near a little frequented water taxi stop. Did we ever succeed in getting lost? Sort of. I never knew where I was but I never felt lost, the island’s much too small for that. Just keep wandering and 30 or so canal bridges later you’ll find yourself exactly where you want to be: sitting at the dead end of an alley, outside an Osteria (which I was sure was a cognate, but really a type of typical Venetian restaurant and has nothing to do with shellfish) that features a daily menu with no translations or illustrative photographs. Naturally the food was amazing, the house wine was excellent, and finding exactly what we’d been looking for left us feeling very expansive.
The only problem was that a perfect meal is near impossible to top, and as impressive as the ornate facades of Piazza San Marco were, I for one felt as if I’d seen all of Venice that I needed to see, and was already itching to escape the urban maze for the mountains.