Oh no! Nooooo! I can’t believe I just said “Venice”! Noooo!!! Never had I wished so hard to be able to turn back time! Just one minute. Or maybe even 2 seconds would have been enough. Suddenly, tears rolled down my cheeks and I felt like jumping into a hole in the ground and bury myself alive.
Next to me, Kerstin couldn’t stop laughing. The more she laughed, the more I cried. We were both sitting in her car. Queuing. Waiting to pick up our order in a Mc Donald’s Drive-in. Next to our car, stood a gigantic blue bin… which stank of oily burgers and fries. There couldn’t possibly be a less romantic spot on Earth. And I could not possibly have found a worse place and a worse moment to reveal to my wife where I was going to “kidnap” her after Christmas Day. The location where we were going to spend the romantic Twixmas week that I had been planning in secret for months!
No, the stupid me could not have kept my mouth shut for once. No, I had to talk like a waterfall after a long stressful and tiring week at work… and then make that stupid mistake by saying something as meaningless as “yeah… I didn’t have time to get a Christmas present for that colleague, you know, but I thought I could just buy her something when we’re in Venice…”
Venice… Venice! Yes, Venice! One single innocent word. But the ONLY word I was not supposed to pronounce until Christmas Eve! Until the moment Kerstin opened my Christmas present.
Now thinking back, I know that it was funny. Ridiculously funny. That’s why Kerstin kept laughing so loud. And I know that I overreacted. But it was way beyond my control. And to be honest, I’m still angry with myself. And disappointed.
For years, I had planned many surprise trips for Kerstin. I loved the secrecy of the planning, and I had always managed to keep the secret alive, up till the very last moment. For Bergamo, she didn’t find out until we arrived at the airport. And when we road tripped through Burgundy from Tanlay to Vézelay, the destinations were revealed to her upon each stop on the road.
Planning surprise trips for my wife was somehow my hidden talent. And I was proud of it… until the moment I failed. Boom! Big time.
But perhaps one needs to fail at a particular incident every now and then. So that this specific situation can be followed by a series of perfect events. This is exactly what happened with our trip to Venice. For our whole trip was so perfect that sometimes I still wonder if Venice was not merely a dream…
Venice from the sky
It started with that aerial view from my window seat on a December 26. We were gazing at the majestic Alps, trying to figure out whether we were flying over France or Switzerland.
For a moment, our minds had wandered off to old travel memories and we had talked about Chamonix and Lake Annecy. But all of a sudden, the rugged mountain range was replaced by a cityscape. Not a mass of grey buildings and matchbox cars like in Paris. Nor an overwhelming grid city like Los Angeles. Unlike any place we have flown into, Venice from the sky seemed like a blurry dream.
A diffuse morning haze lingering above Venice drew us into the city. Water was stretching as far as the eye could see and it was hard to distinguish between the water- and the skyline. A lagoon was glistening in the early sunlight. Like a snake, Venice’s Grand Canal slithered through the city, dividing it into two. Among the maze of red rooftops, we spotted a few white domes, and the iconic Campanile di San Marco. But when our plane started to land, little did we know about these majestic Venetian buildings…
Venice from the Grand Canal
The first impression of a person, a book or a place matters a lot to me. Because no matter how much time passes, the first impression will stay with me forever. Most of the times, I cannot control the first perception. But when a possibility presents itself to make our entrance into a place memorable and worthwhile, I choose that option. Even if it means that we would have to pay a bit more.
When we walked out of Marco Polo airport, most people headed to the bus or train station. Traveling to the city center by road is the less expensive option. But we chose to take a water bus. For Venice is a water city. And the arrival scene of Angelina Jolie in The Tourist had convinced me that we should enter Venice on a boat.
Watching the waves crashing against our Alilaguna boat, as it moved forward towards Venice’s cityline, stirred up our enthusiasm. Like two little schoolgirls, we sat next to each other, holding tightly on our luggage, smiling at each other while looking out of the boat’s windows.
When we reached the Grand Canal, the boat slowly moved forward along majestic Venetian Renaissance and Baroque palaces. One next to another, the historic monuments blossomed in the morning sunlight. When I spotted the red façade of the 17th century Palazzo Fontana Rezzonico, my heart started to pound, while Kerstin couldn’t take her eyes off of the 15th century Ca’ d’Oro. By the time we reached the Rialto Bridge, I still couldn’t believe we were finally in Venice.
Venice from the Ego Boutique Hotel The Silk Road
Oh, you must be Mei and Kerstin! Welcome to our hotel! Never had we been greeted more warmheartedly than at the Ego Boutique Hotel The Silk Road.
I had booked a hotel about three months prior to our trip. But one week before we left Luxembourg, I stumbled on the Ego Boutique Hotel while looking for places in Venice related to Marco Polo and the Silk Road. The few photos of this hotel that I found made me dream… So, I contacted Ekaterina, the hotel owner, who explained to me that their hotel was brand new. It opened only a week before Venice was hit by one of the worst acqua alta in the 20th century. Due to the high waters, they had to close down the hotel for a while. So, we would be among their first customers, and she was happy to offer us a good deal.
I didn’t hesitate long to accept her kind offer and canceled the hotel I had booked before.
When Ekaterina personally led us into the Imperial Suite, all the decor and furniture down the smallest detail left us speechless. That night, we stayed for hours in our private jacuzzi, relishing the Venetian dream we had been living from the moment we spotted the city from the plane.
And that dream continued the next morning, as we savored the view of the Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge right from our king size bed.
Venice from the Basilica di San Marco
Three hours later and a tasty gourmet breakfast in our stomach, we finally managed to leave our hotel. Venice was void of crowds. Stores were opened, restaurants were being delivered their daily fresh ingredients, and here and there we came across a few tourists strolling around with their smartphones.
When a narrow street led us to the Piazza San Marco, we stood aghast in front of the iconic plaza. No tourists. Hmm. Where is everyone? Acqua alta had clearly scared away many people.
Both the Campanile and the Basilica di San Marco drew us towards them. We couldn’t find a line to queue, since there was no line. As we entered into the Basilica, I told Kerstin that no one would ever believe us when we’d tell them how empty Venice was…
Known by the nickname Chiesa d’Oro (Church of gold), the Basilica di San Marco in Venice dates back to the 11th century. The floor, pillars and lower parts of the interior walls are entirely in polychrome marble, whereas the upper levels and ceilings are covered with dazzling gold ground mosaic (about 8000 square meters!).
With a distinctly Byzantine design and a Venetian style of the Renaissance art, the Basilica kept us inside longer than we had expected. We were mesmerized by its opulence and couldn’t stop looking up at all the details. And once again, we were caught in another Venetian dream…
Venice from the Doge’s Palace
We didn’t see the Palazzo Ducale (or Doge’s Palace) immediately when we walked across the famous Piazza San Marco. Perhaps, we were too focused on the Campanile and the Basilica next door. But once we laid our eyes on the Doge’s Palace, we couldn’t take them off of its facade built in Venetian Gothic style.
Founded in 1340, the Doge’s Palace served as the residence of the Doge of Venice (the chief magistrate and leader of the former Republic of Venice). But it was also the seat of the government until 1797 when the City fell at the hands of Napoleon. In 1923, the palace was transformed into a museum.
The weekend tourists arrived in bunches, when we were ready to enter the Doge’s Palace on the third day of our trip. Thanks to the 3-in-1 museum ticket that we bought the day before, we accessed the museum without queuing.
From the palace’s apartments to the institutional chambers, the whole building is profusely decorated. We spent almost half a day inside the Doge’s Palace to examine all the architectural details. And let the historical paintings on the walls and ceilings guide us through Venice’s past and make us dream away…
Venice from the Bridge of Sighs
There are more than 400 foot bridges in Venice. The Ponte dei Sospiri, or Bridge of Sighs, is one of the top tourist spots in Venice. From the outside, this enclosed arched bridge that passes over the Rio di Palazzo doesn’t really look interesting. But what’s interesting is the reason it is called the Bridge of Sighs, as well as the view of Venice from the inside…
Built in 1614 to link the city’s (new) prison to the interrogation rooms in Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs was the last corridor that the convicts passed through before imprisonment. Legend has it that prisoners sighed while crossing this bridge as it was their last chance to look at freedom through the bridge’s small windows.
When we stood inside this enclosed bridge, peeking out at the crowds standing on the Ponte della Paglia who were looking back at us, we imagined what the convicts must have felt back then…
The Venice of Marco Polo
About a year before our trip to Venice, we started to read the Travel memoirs of Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant and explorer who traveled from Venice to Xian along the Silk Road between 1271 and 1295. That’s when we decided to follow Polo’s footsteps and to explore the Ancient Silk Road in China in the summer of 2019. Spending our Twixmas trip in Venice, where Polo was born and grew up, was therefore the perfect way to end our year.
However, to our surprise, it wasn’t easy to find any historical place related to Marco Polo in Venice! After spending a whole morning strolling around every little corner of the city, through narrow streets and along quiet canals, all we could find was Marco Polo’s house.
The house cannot be visited, and the only noticeable element is a small and discreet plaque on its facade, on which it is written that Marco Polo lived here. Standing two meters below that plaque, we both scrutinized it for a minute. Behind us, a gondola made its way under the Calle Scaleta. All of a sudden, the gondolier’s singing voice disrupted the utter silence and propelled us back into the 13th century. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I caught a glimpse of Marco Polo behind the window… or was I just dreaming?
Venice at sunset
Some say that sunsets are always the same, wherever you go. I like to think that whoever says this has never really experienced a sunset with his or her full senses. For us, sunsets are linked to memories. And to feelings of specific moments, as the ones you remember because you held hands, or kissed.
From Malta to San Francisco, from Santorini to Halong Bay, each of the sunsets we laid eyes on and felt have burnt their last violet sunray in our heart. But when the Venetian sky started to blush and slowly turned into crimson, we had to hold our breath. And make space in our heart for this specific sunset.
Standing at the bay, we looked out into the open lagoon. The tower of Palladio’s church in the distance invited us over to the island. But we felt good where we were, in front of the ebony gondolas, lined up between wooden poles and gurgling wavelets.
“In the end, there’s always this city. As long as it exists, I don’t believe that I, or for that matter, anyone, can be mesmerized or blinded by romantic tragedy.” – Joseph Brodsky
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