Trading Gondolas for Gondoliers

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You’re in for a treat this week for our weekend in Venice, Italy as this is the first time Jordan’s photos have been completed by the time I wrote the post!

I’ve made jokes before on how we’ve visited a few cities that have nicknames “Venice of the (insert geographical area here).” The list includes Stockholm, Annecy, and Bruges, and I’ve always wondered why Venice, Italy was the standard. “Why not call it Stockholm of the East,” I would joke. It wasn’t until returning to Venice that I was humbled and remembered why Venice was the bar to beat. 

Venice is actually around 120 small marshy islands interconnected by hand-dug canals and bridges. These islands initially were uninhabited except for a few people here and there. But the Venetians were sick of being invaded. They knew they had to do something, so they decided to build on the marshy islands away from the mainland. The islands now protected the Venetians from attacks as the horses couldn’t cross the water. 

After the Venetians moved to the marshy islands, what happened can only be explained as luck. 

blue gondolas in water Venice Italy blue sky day
Gondolas tucked along the water’s edge

As the Venetians built infrastructure for the city, they used wood blocks along the canals to stop the water from seeping into the land. Water and wood are not the best combinations, right? Wrong. The wood they happened to use turned out to be water-resistant. The saltwater composition also doesn’t have the same compounds as freshwater to cause the wood to rot. So if you can believe it, the wood is stronger now than it was hundreds of years ago when first installed. Due to the build-up from the water, the wood is as hard as stone!

And that’s not the only luck the Venetians had. When enemies did try to invade Venice, all the invading men mysteriously became sick and died. The Venetians were immune or knew how to treat the local marshland diseases that were no match to their enemies. Again, what luck! These protections allowed Venice to flourish and become a prosperous economic trade center. Today, Venice is a city full of history, art, and stunning architecture that’s stood against all odds. 

Grand Canal in Venice at sunset
Grand Canal in Venice at sunset

My first trip to Venice was with my sister as part of a two-week trip over Christmas in 2013. We stayed in a hilariously romantic hotel (for two sisters) with gold details adorning every inch of the hotel room, including the wallpaper. The hotel staff would say, “Ciao Bella,” every time they saw us, and the memory of locals saying “Ciao” in fast repetition lives in my mind. 

My sister and I would wander throughout the streets of Venice, taking photos around every corner. We even tried the local Venetian dish, black squid ink cuttlefish pasta, and swore never to try it again. I’m an adventurous eater, but I could not get past the color. The waiters were offended we didn’t finish the plate. It’s the same as the green or purple ketchup from the early 2000s. It may taste fine, but there’s a reason that it was a bust!

girl on bridge in Venice
sisters on bridge in Venice
My sister and I in Venice, December 2013
girl standing next to canal in Venice

Jordan had never been to Venice before, but we jumped on the opportunity to jet-set off for a weekend when we saw direct flights available from Lyon. Sightseeing would be a welcome break from the multiple weekends of skiing. What better way to spend the weekend before Valentines’ Day than in Venice? The flight was only an hour, transporting us from a city too congested with traffic to a car-free paradise. 

We only had three things on our itinerary: take a gondola ride, eat pasta, and have fun. Unfortunately for me, I’ve done such an excellent job over the years telling Jordan how disgusted I was by the black ink pasta. I couldn’t convince him to give it a try.

Bridge in Venice italy with colorful houses on either side
Venice is full of buildings with character

The weekend was also the kickoff of the Venice Carnival, a tradition dating back to the 12th century and back for the first time after a two-year pandemic hiatus. The mayor promised Carnival would happen, even if smaller than usual. It wasn’t easy to find information on the schedule of events, but we now think that may have been intentional. We searched website after website, and it looked like some things may still be happening. So, we took a chance. At best, we get to experience Venice Carnival. At worst, we get a romantic sightseeing weekend in Venice. It’s a win-win situation. 

Venice Carnival is best known for its elaborate masks that can be purchased year-round as souvenirs. The initial celebration started almost 900 years ago after the Venetians took to the streets to celebrate their victory against their enemy. For the following centuries, locals would indulge in music and dance for several weeks a year while wearing masks to hide any differences of class or status. Now, the Carnival has transformed into three weeks of fun and celebrations leading up to Ash Wednesday.

Venetian masks in Venice
Venetian masks in Venice

After settling in our hotel Friday evening, which also had gold-adorned accents throughout the room, we set out for apero hour. The place I initially found for us to grab a drink was full, so we walked into a place right across the street. And out of all the places in Venice it could have been, it was instead a British pub full of English-speaking visitors. Whoops. However, they had a Clemson pennant hanging by the door, so maybe it was meant to be after all. 

We woke up early Saturday morning to get a start on the day. With it being the first weekend of Carnival, we weren’t sure what to expect but didn’t want to miss any action. We started the morning at St. Mark’s Square (also known as Piazza San Marco), and it was already full of sightseers. Some enjoyed the morning sun while sipping on coffee at a table outside. Others were waiting in long lines to enter Saint Mark’s Basilica or Saint Mark’s Campanile. But most, like us, were snapping photos of the square. 

A handful of tourists (probably 15%) wore masks to celebrate Carnival. Pop-up stands in the square sold masks of every shape, size, and color. I thought about buying a mask, but practicality won. My blue eyes are no match against the sun without sunglasses! From what I saw, more people wore face masks than Carnival masks. Venice had just dropped its outdoor mask ordinance the day before we arrived. 

girl wearing black jacket in saint mark's square on vacation for the weekend in venice italy
venice italy
saint marks square
One of Jordan’s panorama photos of Saint Mark’s Square

After leaving the square, we wandered along the water’s edge with no actual end destination. As we walked, we passed the famous Bridge of Sighs (or Ponte dei Sospiri), both beautiful and tragic at the same time. Visitors have a tradition of taking a gondola ride under the bridge and kissing loved ones. It sounds romantic until you learn the history of the bridge.

The 400-year-old bridge connects Doge’s Palace, the residence of the elected leaders (called doges) of the former Venetian republic, with the New Prison. Prisoners crossed this bridge from their court trial into their jail cell. As the story goes, the bridge’s name comes from the sighs of prisoners when they saw the outdoors for the last time through the tiny windows. 

Fun fact! Casanova was one of the most famous prisoners housed in the New Prison and the only one to ever escape. Maybe there weren’t enough women in prison for him to woo?

girl smiling in front of bridge of sighs venice italy
gondola going underneath bridge of sighs in venice italy

We spent the rest of the day strolling (in French, we love to call it “flâner”) around the narrow streets of Venice, exploring only a handful of the 400 bridges in the city. Even if we wanted to take on the impossible task of visiting all 400 bridges, almost a fifth is for private use. Can you imagine navigating your private boat through the canals to your house only accessible by a private bridge? Sounds dreamy.

As it turns out, we didn’t see much of the Venice Carnival that we expected. The mayor canceled the water parade we thought was happening, and the other events were private and expensive. What we did see, however, was still cool. 

Groups of friends who sported coordinated onesie outfits were surely up to fun shenanigans. Couples modeled coordinating masks as they stepped alongside each other—a few dedicated Carnival goers even dressed in full head-to-toe costumes. A few street performers put on acts in different squares. Children had bags of paper confetti they would grab handfuls of and throw in the air. Seriously, the confetti was throughout the entire city. While I thought it created a lot of unnecessary trash, the Venice mayor seems to think it’s more sustainable than plastic confetti. And then there were people like us, just happy to be there and take it all in.

Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy
Famous Rialto Bridge. We have finally found a way to add Jordan’s panorama photos to the blog!
weekend venice italy next to bridge

In the afternoon, we chose to take a right-of-passage gondola trip. After skipping out on the iconic experience with my sister, I knew Jordan and I couldn’t miss it. We traded in our ski gondolas for water gondolas as we found the perfect spot to set out and explore the waterways of Venice. I read online that one of the best spots for an off-the-beaten-canal experience would be finding a gondolier near Ponte dell’Accademia, one of the four bridges across the Grand Canal. This decision was the best we made all weekend. Other than all the pasta we ate, of course.

Except for the few minutes on the Grand Canal, our gondola ride was quiet and serene. In a city full of people, it felt like we were the only ones there. The gondolier lightly hummed music as he navigated the gondola through narrow canals and past other docked boats. Occasionally, he would stop and point out something interesting, like the original gondola shipyard at Squero San Trovaso. The gondolas have to be built somewhere, right? And master gondola makers have made traditional gondolas right in the middle of the city for almost 300 years. The ride lasted about thirty minutes before returning to the same spot we departed.

gondola ride going underneath bridge venice italy
Our gondola ride!

If you ever make your way to Venice, the best advice I have for you is to not take a gondola ride in the super touristy places. The gondolas that we saw in that area looked more like a Disney ride as the canals were busy and gondolas lined behind each other the entire time. 

On Sunday, we took a water taxi across to Murano, the island famous for its hand-blown glass. Murano glass can only come from the island of Murano, much like how it’s only Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France. Artisans have been hand-blowing glass in Murano for over a thousand years. After arriving in Murano, our first stop was to see a glass-blowing demonstration at Linea Murano Art

boat in water in front of colorful buildings in murano island, venice italy
canal with colorful buildings on either side in murano island italy
girl and boy smiling for photo murano italy

When we realized the demonstration was only in Italian, it was too late to speak up and ask for it in English or French. So we listened to other attendees “ooh and ahh” as we sat there wondering what the heck the presenter was saying. I think we got the gist of it, though, through watching his colleague blow the glass. I’ll be honest, watching the red ball of lava-looking substance transform into art was mesmerizing. We watched as the master glass-blower transformed his first piece into a simple vase. The second piece, however, was most impressive. 

The master glass-blower put a ball on a rod and briefly inserted it into the hot oven. After it was hot enough to work with, he lightly blew in the rod to elongate the ball. Once it was more of an elongated oval in shape, the glass-blower transformed the piece into an elegant horse rearing on its hind legs in a matter of minutes. We watched as he pulled each extremity from the ball, perfectly shaping the horse’s form. He used shears to detail the horse’s tail and mane detail to finish. The master glass-blower made the process look so easy, even know I know it’s nothing of the sort.

glass sticks of all colors murano glass blowing factory italy
Colorful glass sticks incorporated during the glass blowing process
glass blowing process murano italy
glass blowing process murano italy
Creating the horse from start to finish.
glass blowing process murano italy

After the demonstration, we knew we would have to settle for admiring the Murano glass from afar. Our track record generally includes breaking fragile and semi-fragile things. Even if it made it back to France (and finally the United States), we knew one of us would accidentally break it. We did take a chance on buying a glass-blown Christmas ornament, so fingers crossed, it will fare better than some of our other breakable items.

The remainder of the morning was spent window shopping in Murano before returning to Venice. On our way back to Lyon, we were blessed with the most beautiful sunset as we flew over the French Alps. We could even see the lights from the groomers on the ski mountains! But don’t worry, even though we traded in our ski gondolas for the gondolas in Venice, we will be back to the Alps soon.

Click Here to view our photos from Venice!

sunset over the French alps view from an airplane

Next week officially marks two years in France. Stay tuned for a special two-year post and an announcement on what’s next for us!

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4 thoughts on “Trading Gondolas for Gondoliers

  1. Absolutely love the photos. Love Venice too and it brings back memories of the one (and only so far) time I was there. I’d love to go back. Brenda

  2. Beautiful pictures, wonderful write-up. I am reminded of a book written by Iain Pears called “The Titian Committee”. It is hilarious and relates how the characters are always getting lost. There is also a mystery series based in Venice that is very good written by Donna Leon. That is how I visit places, through books. I am glad you have the opportunity to see them in the flesh!

    1. Hey Nancy! I have not heard of that book. Thank you for sharing, I will have to add it to my list to read! I love immersing myself in a good book, but I find less and less time to do so!

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