The Italian Holiday…Milan to Venice (I)
Charles De Gaule Airport : Had the most comfortable journey by Air France from Dubai. 7 and a half hour flight, 2 movies, on holiday to a destination of my dreams. Got off the flight and lost each other. How? My husband and my older daughter got off from the front exit and me and my younger daughter from the rear exit. Those 15 excruciating minutes felt like forever. I had no money, no mobile, no PASSPORT(felt like living the movie “Flight Plan” ). I was thinking of Tom Hanks in the movie “Terminal” where he spent a lifetime in the airport because he had no papers. Before I could think of any other movies in our current situation, I felt a pat on my shoulder and turned to find the rest of the family. Now, if losing each other wasn’t enough, my top- the one I was wearing seemed to have simply ripped off right at the center, from the left to the right, half-way through, like they slice people in those magic shows which everybody stares at wide-eyed. Thankfully I had worn a camisole and carried a jacket, at the last moment, which came in handy.
A very important tip- Always carry a jacket or hoodie when you are travelling and keep a set of clothes in your hand baggage. Never know when it will come in handy.
Quite a start for a holiday! Now that things were in order, we decided to grab a coffee and a muffin until our onward flight. Travel and holidays always make my stomach over-active.
This was the coffee queue!
1:20 p.m. Touched down at Milan, Linete’ Airport. A small airport, second to Milan’s Main airport (Malpensa airport), there was nothing fancy about it. As we stepped outside the airport, the cool breeze (a distinct difference from the warm air during March, in the UAE), tingled our nostrils and kissed our cheeks. There was something so “fresh” about Europe, a feeling that I feel every time I travel to this part of the world.
We decided to take a cab to Milan Central Station for Euro 30.00 as it made sense ( the bus would have costed Euro 20 for 4 people along with the inconvenience of handling the luggage and finding our way from the Bus stop to the station). As we waited for the cab to pull over, we were taken by surprise when the driver stepped out. Oh Man! Dressed in a rugged pair of jeans, glares, leather jacket,salt and pepper shoulder length tresses, he looked like he had just walked out of a Hollywood movie. We could barely bat a lid. Guess with the conventional Italian good looks, our eyes would have to get used to seeing more of this during the next 2 weeks; we certainly weren’t complaining!
Milan Central Station took us by surprise. Huge by all standards, made of marble with traditional European architecture, glass panels on the roof allowing the sunlight to stream in, pigeons indifferent to travelers, strutting around, housed all the major brands MAC, Body Shop- all the brands that one sees in brightly lit malls in UAE. We had to wait an hour or so before our train arrived and the best way to kill time was to grab food. We had our first gellato at Milan Central Station and I can tell you I have never tasted ice-cream as creamy and mouthwatering as that before- a cone with roche’ ferrero ice-cream flavour for 2 Euros. And you get 2 huge scoops!
Milan was like Munich in Germany, Paris in France or any other commercial city in Europe (at least the part near the station that we saw)- graffiti on walls, apartment buildings which looked like matchboxes from outside, parks around the community, walking tracks on the opposite side of the road and loads of restaurants.
With all our luggage,we had to be alert at the station. Europe, more so the railway stations and other public places is known for petty thieves, pick-pocketeers. As we watched each others’ back, a few young men seemed to be providing free customer service to all at the station, in terms of providing the train timings, the platform details etc. These were the guys that you had to be wary of. Also, a number of very young girls carrying babies in a shoulder bag- single moms. There seemed to be a battalion of them. Fortunately the guys we were cautious of, helped getting our luggage to the train for a charge of Euro 20.00 (they would have wanted more but that’s besides the point).
The 2 hour train journey to Venice saw lush green fields interspersed by industries, little stations, villages, cottages and then all of a sudden there was no land, just water,on either side of the train, as we headed towards Venice. The last stop on the journey was Venezio, St. Louis which is …Venice. The station opens to the Grand Canal. We stepped out of the station, but it was dark ,now, and cold and we did not have the energy to explore so we headed back to our hotel, in Quarto De Altino, to retire for the night and come back the next day.
The Crowne Plaza Hotel , is a stop away from Venice was just right, for the night. A steaming hot margherita pizza, wine, soft pillows and a warm quilt was just what tired feet, growling tummies needed.
In broad daylight, the Grand Canal at Venice seemed busy, crowded and far from romantic.
The real thing was…Finally, we were here – the Venice from the “Merchant of Venice” that we studied about in school, the Venice that I had fantasized of decades ago, after watching it as a teenager, in “The Bold and the Beautiful” when Ridge proposed to Brooke (for the nth time), the Venice my dad had spoken about, in his travel stories when we were little. The truth is, it was enchantingly beautiful, with a unique old-world charm. Lots of narrow lanes, small touristy shops and busy. Everybody seemed to be busy eating, walking, chattering happily. Certainly was not smitten by “love” in the air but looked like a perfectly intriguing place to explore for kids and adults alike.
The city was built around 800 years ago and was made up of 80 islands connected through a network of canals. Gondolas (boats) were used to move around the islands. Gondolas are boats with an oar only on the right side. It’s not very balanced in that sense and the gondolier needs to be skillful to manoeuvre these boats through the narrow canals avoiding collision with other gondolas. There is an unspoken understanding where one gondola stops for the other to pass through at every turn in the canal. No traffic signals, no horns and yet no collisions.
After a satisfying lunch of creamed cod, clams, bread, ‘arancini’ (risotto balls) and a glass of wine, we decided to take a stroll around the city. The best way to see the city is by foot or by boat. Footbridges, Canals, Venice’s callis (lanes), Yellow and white signboards, artistes..IT’s simply captivating.
To get a feel of the city and to avoid walking around in circles, a walking tour is definitely a must- at-least on the first day. It’s also very informative. Our guide, Stefano, explained to us that Venice was in fact a lagoon made up of a number of islands. The islands had districts, each managed by a noble family, whose responsibility it was, to take care of the poor and the sick. They believed that if justice prevailed, trade would be taken care of and that would bring in wealth. The districts were divided into campos (town squares), with houses of nobles, commoners, a square and a well in the center for water. The building facades had architecture from the Baroque period and renovations after the war, were in the style of Renaissance architecture. The city seemed like a fragment of someone’s imagination, something from a book which had come to life but had sustained through centuries despite being through war, cholera and floods; it had managed to draw the world’s attention through art, music and trade.Obviously it was as real as any other city in the world…just unbelievably different.
Our walking tour group…
One has to visit the city to understand how business, education, shopping, art, music, theater, tourism,can co-exist within a periphery that can be covered by walking. Everything felt like arm’s distance, like stepping into the “Toy Story”. Beautiful, magical and unreal, is the feeling you are left with. Yet, it’s real, it’s thriving and for a Venetian, there is nothing unusual about his life.
However, lately, there was a fear of the city drowning- one of the effects of global warming. Not fiction, not imagination but a reality that was creeping up silently, round the corner and unless the world does something about it, there was every possibility that Venice would end up being just a fragment of one’s imagination and each one of us bears the collective responsibility for this. Venice had survived the ravages of war but would not survive “development”; if nothing is done. In the last 30 years, Venice has actually submerged a few centimeters.
The walking tour ended with a gondola ride. A serenading gondolier, 13th Century red brick buildings on either side, chipped paint, the soothing sound of water lapping against the steps of the piazzas, the setting sun, and the city seemed transformed by dusk. The city of canals was indeed a city of love!
Getting off the Gondola, on our way back to the station, we stumbled upon St. Marks Basilica. At the far end of the square- “campo” was the grand Basilica, it’s painted dome looking glorious against the gray sky. There were hundreds of pigeons in the square perched up on someone’s head or arm waiting to fly down for bread crumbs thrown by tourists. The pigeons added to the aura of the place. As night fell, the temperature dropped to 5 degrees and it was cold, so cold that our feet froze in our boots (while I totally trust Lonely Planet as a guide on all our travels, here they were wrong. The book had said light sweaters to be worn during Spring; but this place was cold), with the cold wind piercing through our cotton clothes. And it couldn’t be just us feeling cold, because everybody around seemed to be suitably dressed in warm jackets and boots.
Not much of a holiday spoiler because it only meant we had to shop for jackets! Shopping in Venice! How cool is that! And that too with a valid reason that does not tantamount to splurging.With all the major brands, little shops selling artifacts; of murano glass, Venetian masks, papier mache’, shopping in Venice is fun. There are lots of pretty little things to suit all budgets that you can take back for friends, family and yourself.
After a long day of walking and more walking, we were hungry. A delicacy that must not be missed in Venice, are fish cones- (similar to paper cones in India in which you get peanuts), fish tempura- crispy fish, squids and octopus, filled in a paper cone.Hot Italian coffee for us and Gelato for the girls (lemon and coconut), we were ready to bid Venice “good bye”. We left the city with a sense of contentment and fulfillment…one off the bucket list!
the rest of our 15 day trip will be published in future posts…..would like it if you stay with us:)