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An Adventure to Venice
by Don and Peg Doman
Since there are no roads and railroad tracks in the part of Venice tourists want to see, most tourist information recommends taking the train or bus.
It seemed less expensive for us to take our two cars and stay a little ways out of town in Mestre. It was less expensive except for the extra three hours we were lost driving around looking for our hotel. We stopped for directions three times . . . one was at a tourist information office, which seemed like a front for the hotel next door – this is where we had the rudest treatment we experienced on our trip to Italy AND Spain. The clerk was busy and simply said, “I don’t have time for this. Turn left and head back towards town, then just ask someone.”
Our problem was we couldn’t figure out which town we were in. We stopped next at a little pizza place and instead of sending Donn for information we sent Sue. Five guys flocked around her offering help and a hand-drawn map. Within five minutes we were walking up to the hotel. The moral of the story? When you're in trouble send a good looking woman to get help.
Hotel Holiday was a very nice surprise. We each had our own room (76 Euro each for the night), parking, and continental breakfast. Although, the bed was basically two twins, each one had a reading light. This always makes Peg happy.
We checked in, got quickly settled and went looking for our bus stop to the Grand Canal. With a mere gesture of “no” the bus driver told us to ignore the one Euro charge. Our bus parked within a hundred yards from the tour boat ticket office. We each bought a 15 Euro bus and boat combination-ticket good for twenty-four hours.
We had been told to ride the entire one hour boat trip around the city and then just like in Rome hop on or hop off where we needed to go. After riding the bus for two days, I’m still not sure if it is best to stand or sit. Inside it can be hot and stuffy. The seats offer a place to sit, but comfort was never part of their design specs. Handholds were never considered in the basic design for standees, however. Standing gets you fresh air, which can be a relief, but you end up stumbling around. The best place to sit is in the stern (about six seats) or the bow (again, about six seats). Whether you are boating through the canals or eating beside the Grand Canal (main street), it’s just plain interesting to watch the traffic.
From The Merchant of Venice in Shakespeare, to Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes, to James Bond and Casino Royale, we’ve seen romantic images of Venice with its gondolas, its bridges, its palaces, and doorways you can step into from a late night rowboat. Real life, even mixed with an occasional floating orange peel or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrapper is still a sight to see.
We rode the boat and came back to St. Mark’s Square. The square is full of pigeons just like every scene you’ve seen on movie screens since the 1930s. You can buy pigeon feed (which they say is mixed with birth control drugs) and have the little doves eating out of your hand. Randy and I watched our collection of backpacks as everyone else disappeared into the church and took a tour. Peg loved the mosaics and opulent gold leaf on every arch and dome.
We decided to have lunch. Taking heed of Rick Steve’s warning that the restaurants nearer the canal are more expensive we headed inward, but found that local merchants also read Rick’s books. The further away the more expensive the prices seemed to be. Eventually, we ran out of time as they began to close for the afternoon. We visited the Devil's Forest Pub for sandwiches and beer, which stays open all day. Our Liverpudlian bartender joined Peter Tosh on CD singing the reggae version (and one of my favorite renditions) of Johnny B. Goode, “Mama said son you gotta be a man, You gotta be the leader of a reggae band.” We had entertainment as well as sandwiches.
After our refreshments and body-moving, happy-time music at the bar we began a slow trip back to the canal. It was slow because of shopping, both window and real.
Peg bought some nice Murano earrings. Peg also bought bracelets and necklaces later on the island of Murano, but in Venice she also bought lady's fans for granddaughters. Other people bought their trinkets as well. Finally Donn pointed out that everything was not closed until dinnertime. Some of the restaurants on the Grand Canal were serving patrons. This was good news.
I was hot and tired . . . and cranky. I was ready to be comfortable, but even though our restaurant was serving outside it was still too warm inside their canopy to accommodate cold-blooded diners. Our waiter kindly disconnected one of the canopy heaters just for me. I was happy. Sue wrapped up a little tighter in her sweater . . . and was almost as happy. Peg then joined us, and complained about the heat . . . unprompted.
The food was excellent, the staff was exceptional, the view was . . . well, we could have watched it for hours, but the food and wine were making us weary. The prices? We were on the Grand Canal, but they were worth it. I would have paid more. Other friends staying at a hotel on the Grand Canal did pay more. Their simple dinner came to over two hundred Euro. Dinner for Peg and I was not simple, but only came to about half that . . . okay, a bit more than half that. This was a rare adventure and I even ordered seconds of a pasta dish. Randy ordered an extra bowl of soup. How often do you get to sit on the Grand Canal with people you love? Why not enjoy it to the fullest? When we left, we were full.
After eating we took the boat back to the main dock, where Peg and I couldn’t find toilets. When we also found out that our bus was full, I gave up and ordered a cab. Eveyone else took the next bus and had seats. When Rob and Vickie, who were traveling on their own, left they also opted for a cab. Why struggle? Make yourself comfortable. Spend a little bit more and take pleasure in the moment.
Back at the hotel we made ourselves at home. I checked our email and then took a shower. Peg had the window wide open. We had lots of freeway noise, but it was cooler that way. The bathroom offered a tub with a half-partition and a handheld shower nozzle. It wasn’t as good as we have at home, but it was welcome. Feeling more like myself I went back downstairs to the bar for some Sprite and mineral water and two plastic glasses of ice!!! The barman, a black African was very accommodating, but our foreign language skills unfortunately matched.
In our room Peg read, while I watched TV. This is quite often how we spend a late evening together at home, but Peg said, “for some reason, while you were watching TV, it annoyed me. I had gotten used to the quiet with no TV in the bedroom.” Oh, well. So much for romance.
The next morning we all joined up at different times for a nice continental breakfast, which featured ham slices and soft-boiled eggs. I think I ate three eggs. They were perfect. One thing I really enjoyed about the hotel was their dining area. There was a private dining area within the larger dining room, which could be closed off. This let our small group enjoy ourselves privately, while a much larger group of Japanese talked and ate just outside the small alcove where we drank coffee and snacked.
Rob and Vickie had beat our arrival time by several hours the day before driving to Venice, but were still lost for about thirty minutes. Driving in the area around Venice is a little confusing. We all grabbed the bus back to Venice. Arriving there we had missed the direct boat to Murano, so it took almost an hour and a half on the boat that made all the stops. This was too much for me. When we arrived on the island of Murano, I quickly enquired about prices for the water taxi for the return trip . . . just in case. We hustled off to the glass factory.
Several years ago I read an article about Murano glass and immediately bought a Murano glass bowl on eBay. It’s a classic bowl from the fifties with a black bottom and gold flecks shining though the red and clear glass at the top. It's one of my favorite pieces of glass art in our home. It’s not worth as much as our Dale Chihuly piece, but I think I like it more.
At the glass factory, some people watched glass blowing and some people shopped in the factory store. There were some very beautiful pieces. Still feeling guilty from his lack of Valentine thoughtfulness, Randy encouraged Sue in the purchase of a “Love Knot” piece. She was thrilled and Randy was okay with that.
At one of the shops featuring other artists and their work, Rob spent a few thousand dollars for a 30th anniversary gift for him and Vickie. It’s a beautiful piece by glass artist Dino Rosini that was featured on the cover of an art glass magazine. This was not an unplanned purchase. To celebrate their anniversary Rob and Vickie drove from The Castello di Pastine to Venice on their own and planned their return so they could wade in the Adriatic. Rob wanted to make their anniversary special, and so knew he was going to buy something to commemorate their trip and their marriage. The mission was accomplished.
We caught a more direct boat back and stepped onto the next bus back to hotel where we had already checked out. We said our goodbyes to Rob and Vickie then had to make a tough decision. We had to either find a place for a quick bite or a decent restaurant. It was 2:20 pm, which meant our time was very limited. We filled the car up with gas and Donn and I started looking diligently for some place good.
As always, you can never find a policeman or a restaurant when you need one. We found ours at 2:50 pm (roughly ten minutes before lunch time is over). I have no explanation of how the English/German sounding name of Old Stieffel came to represent this hole in the wall Italian restaurant. The waitress and management at the restaurant were not exactly happy to see us. The manager (possible the owner) even came into the dining room to tell us that they normally close up at 3:30 pm. They wouldn’t be so lucky that day. They didn’t complain again, nor did they try to hurry us up. They didn’t even rush with their own service or plating. What they did was serve us the best tasting basic Italian food in Italy.
I ordered the mussel antipasto. It came with a huge bowl with plenty of steamed mussels and clams to share. This was the largest bowl of steamed mussels I've ever had, so it was passed around the table several time. The broth was the best I’ve ever eaten and this is a favorite order of mine, so I’ve had a few helpings. As a side dish I ordered polenta (only because I saw it listed on a sandwich board by their front door). They didn’t serve what I thought would be a polenta dish, they served plain boiled polenta in a bowl. I spooned the polenta into the broth and then alternated shoving polenta and bread into my mouth. They both soaked up the lemon juice, the butter, the white wine, the mussel and clam juices, and the fresh basil as well. It was wonderful. The polenta went around the table to share as well.
Donn ordered bruschetta, a tagliatelle pasta dish as well as salad, a pizza, and wine. Donn is a serious eater of good food. He pronounced them all as wonderful.
Peg’s “sucking pig” pizza was only okay, but she swooned over my salmon and shrimp tagliatelle. Everyone enjoyed their food, although the manager did chide Jan because she had added salad onto her dinner plate. This is an Italian cullinary no-no. The rest of us sat there, embarassed for her as we quietly covered up our own shared menu items and clucked disapprovingly.
We are not the only people who were contented by the food and service at Old Stieffel. Here is what someone else had to say on the internet, “Very good service, high quality in Italian food like pastas and pizzas, and specialized in fish. Half the price of restaurants in Venice. I strongly recommend for those who visit Venice and like to eat well.” I couldn’t agree more.
We had the restaurant completely to ourselves. We skipped dessert and left at 4:00. We gave the waitress a nice tip and thanked everyone we saw.
We enjoyed our ride home. The countryside of Venice is fertile farmland, but it looked like perhaps people have been selling their family farms. We saw as many as four or five ancient farm houses sitting in complete disrepair amidst well-tended fields.
We didn't get to any of the Italian car factories in Modena or Bologna, but at one rest stop we got to see a sleek black Lamborghini. Peg wrote down her thoughts about the driver (forty-ish with dark graying hair, skinned back) who stayed in the car, ignoring all us gawkers, and the passenger who went into the Autogrill restaurant (long dark hair down past her shoulders, patterned dark cream skin hugging pants, platform stilettos). After the girl stooped and curled inside the car, Jan said, "She's done everything she could do given what God has given her hoping add-ons made up for the rest." My own thoughts were, "some middle-aged guy with a girl that acted like she was better-looking than she was." I guess we were pretty much in agreement. Our little group stood in the parking lot drinking juice or smoking as we waited for the girl to come out and get into the exotic sports car. The car was left running. Peg said, "It was black, slinky, and pumping out heat." Except for the black part, I thought she was talking about me. As soon as the man and woman got in, the car roared away. We never saw them, again.
We stayed on the major freeway. Traveling between the Florence region and Venice and back again gave us the opportunity to view the landscape. It changes so much. The rolling hills of Tuscany become almost mountainous and then drop down to the plains that lead to the Adriatic coast and Venice. These changes all happen in less than three hours of driving . . . if you don't get lost. Everything was green and beautiful.
Our little group arrived back home about 8:00 pm. Rob and Vickie rolled in about 10:30. We all slept in the next day with dreams of Venice, romance, and a lovely time. And, no, we didn't ride in a gondola. It cost too much.
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