L is for Lost (in Paradise)

The question I get asked every time I catch up with someone since we have returned from our trip is “What was your favourite bit” and it is so indescribably hard to choose a favourite place after two months where I saw and experienced so many amazing cities. I have loved 90% of the places we have been to, and people regret asking once I start thinking out loud about what an amazing place Europe is. But, long story slightly less long, if I had to choose one city that really blew me away, one city that I fell head over heels for, it would be Venice. Maybe it was because I wasn’t expecting to love Venice, after so much hype around this little city located on a lagoon I wasn’t that excited. Italy itself I knew would deliver in terms of food, but in general I kind of thought the highlights of our trip were done.

How wrong I was.

We arrived in Venice after a ridiculously long but beautiful train ride and walked in the burning hot Italian sunshine to our little basic room in a suburb just outside of the city of Venice called Mestre. We were exhausted, and without much excitement for Venice we decided to just use the afternoon to look around Mestre and do a much needed laundromat run, whilst drowning ourselves in ridiculously cheap sparkling water to fend off heat stroke (and to think it wasn’t even the middle of summer). We grabbed dinner at a little “Snack Bar” which turned out to be common throughout Italy and are an amazing, cheap way to grab food and drink in Italy.

This little snack bar kind of became our second home in Mestre, mainly because Venice itself is ridiculously expensive and this place did pizza, pasta and beer (aka everything we needed to survive, at a ridiculously cheap price). Plus the people were friendly and it was always stocked with enthusiastic, noisy, gesturing Italians. The people didn’t speak a word of English, and I was struggling to adjust to speaking Italian but somehow, in Italy not knowing the language wasn’t really an issue. Who knew hands were so great for communicating.

Our second day, after spending a restless night in a relentlessly hot room, we caught a morning bus into Venice itself (after a cappuccino with the locals at our new local). We stepped off the bus and immediately headed in the opposite direction to the main street that our hotel had recommended as an easy way to hit the sights. Best decision ever. Who would choose one large street, crammed with tourists and tourist shops over small walkways winding alongside canals, empty of tourists and with little hidden shops and restaurants full of locals. We got lost within five minutes and that was the best part of the day. Every turn, every little path held a new surprise, from peaceful canals, magnificent churches somehow hidden behind a corner, tiny little pizzerias and gondoliers suddenly appearing around corners.

It was breathtaking. I have never been so quickly taken with a city but there is something so utterly unique and characteristic of Venice that we had smiles on our face the entire time. I was drawn into a little shop, almost empty apart from the owner and stocked from floor to ceiling of handmade venetian masks. We ooohed and ahhed at the beautiful masks and the owner who was so wonderfully Italian couldn’t resist telling us all about Venice’s Carnivale where the city packs full of masked Venetians. He donned a cape and a mask and then dressed me up to so that Edd could snap some photos. It would have been creepy if it was anywhere else, but in Italy this enthusiastic attitude just made so much sense. He wasn’t trying to push a sale (my immediate fear) but was so incredibly proud of his city, his traditions and his talent that he wanted to tell us all about it. He was just one countless Italians who made them one of my favourite nationalities to interact with.

We stopped in at the Scuolo Grande di San Rocco where we admired the huge number of works by Tintoretto, concentrated in one beautiful building. They had basic wooden mirrors to walk around and see every artwork on the ceiling without hurting your neck, a detail that was kind of genius. It was quiet, peaceful and full of incredibly religious imagery but it held nothing to the city itself so it wasn’t long before we were back on the streets of Venice, exploring (read- getting lost again).

We ate deliciously hot calzone, stuffed full of fresh tomato, basil and mozzarella whilst sitting canal side as the gondoliers went past, occasionally with a song proudly belted out. We made our way through winding streets in the general direction of Piazza San Marco, but we were drunk on Venice’s charm and a short walk took much longer as  we lapped up the views that only Venice can offer, couples celebrating a surprise engagement over a glass of prosecco, Gondoliers waiting for eager explorers, melting gelato in the hand of every second tourist and those beautiful emerald canals that play host to it all. With no cars, bikes or scooters everyone is on foot, which is great after a month of nearly being run over countless times.

We eventually met up with the many tourists at Piazza San Marco, staying long enough to gaze adoringly at the pink marble of the gothic Ducale palace and laugh along with many others at the pigeons who were more than a little daring. It was busy but the piazza is so grand and spacious that it doesn’t feel crowded until you try to leave, back into the narrow streets. We attempted to follow the Lonely Planet walking tour, and kind of succeeded, catching the main sights such as the Rialto bridge and the ancient seafood market. But no where did we enjoy Venice more than when we took a wrong turn, ended up in some little courtyard and decided to break for either gelato, a spritz (venetian cocktail/wine mixer) or both.

At the beginning of this trip, 8 hours of walking felt like murder. In Venice I could have kept walking forever (well I would like to think so) but eventually we took a rest and sat beside the canal with half a bottle of Prosecco, the Venetian answer to champagne. I tried and failed to blog, too distracted by the beauty of this unique and wonderful city, and its local characters who come along as part of the deal.

I have never fallen so hard and fast for a city. With Venice, I was head over heels from the moment I took a wrong turn.

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My first photo in Venice.

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In our new favourite mask shop

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I won’t caption all of these…because they will all be the same. Take me back

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The Grand Canal, which was a whole other type of beautiful

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Waiting

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Waiting

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Piazza San Marco

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The guy who sang for all of us who watched. It was one of those moments that was so perfect you kind of expected a flaming meteor to come down and kill everyone…just me? Oh.

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I took photos of the canals mainly, but the architecture and churches were also beutiful

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Attack of the pigeons.

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This little girl was braver than most of the adults, just sayin’

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Piazza San Marco

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The Ducale Palace

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Looking out over to some islands

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Walking tour begins

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But soon we were lost and crossing over more unknown but charming canals

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My kind of mask

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From the Rialto bridge

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The Rialto Bridge, prettier to look at, a little too busy to try and walk over

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A Spritz. Prosecco, soda water, some kind of italian liqueur and an olive? I wasn’t paying much attention, but everyone else had one.

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Saying good bye was hard, even though we were returning the next day.

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I is for Impressionism

Apologies that these blogs are coming a bit delayed for those who keep up with us in other ways, I will try to do my best to catch up to where we are at the moment so that it all works a little bit better.

After a very average nights sleep (I swear you could feel every bed spring and hear every single guest arriving at 4pm with all of their suitcases banging up the stairs) we got up just in time to grab a croissant from the free breakfast service the hostel provides. It was enough to get us set and ready for our first day exploring Paris. We were pretty excited although Paris had decided to hold off on the good weather and give us clouds and rain instead. We started our explorations at the Arc de Triomphe as it was an easy metro ride (although trying to buy the 5 day metro pass as I was still getting used to French was less easy). Despite the bane of my travel life (scaffolding) the monumental arch in the middle of the biggest and least organized roundabout I had ever seen was quite a sight to behold.

We made our way down the iconic Champs élysées, I admit I could not stop singing the song the entire way down. I think I might be the worst tourist ever. I was determined to find the hyped up Ladurée (the patisserie who created the modern day Macaron) and was almost put off by the giant lines leading out of the beautiful store. Luckily we persevered and queued up along with countless tourists and Parisians (easy to spot with their impeccable sense of dress and the small chihuahua poking its head out of a Dolce and Gabbana handbag that costs more that all of my clothes put together). We drooled over all the amazing cakes and chose a few of the many macarons to take away and eat later. I don’t think I have ever had such a spiritual experience in a cake shop before.

The wonderful road (I feel like road is too normal a word for Champs Élysées) ended at the Place de la Concorde, formally the Place de la Revolution as this was where countless upper class and the occasional monarch were publicly executed during the famous French Revolution. Nowadays, instead of a guillotine there is a impressive Egyptian obelisque in its centre with large marble statues surrounding the courtyard. It was pretty but also very busy with cars going in any possible direction with no real sense of order. We almost died a couple of times before we realized that a zebra crossing is not the same in France and cars do not stop for you until they get a red light. It also didn’t help that I kept looking in the wrong direction expecting cars to be approaching and then they would appear from the other side like some kind of deadly surprise. Ah, being a tourist is a stressful experience. I promise to always be kinder to confused tourists in New Zealand.

We crossed the beautiful Seine (in the rain) to find the Musee d’Orsay for our first dose of art and after queuing for a fair while we were security checked and let in to the rather breathtaking building. We bought a museum pass to avoid the long queues for the rest of our stay in Paris (which I highly HIGHLY recommend). The art in the museum was wonderful and comprised all of my favourites but the part I knew I would love the most was the Impressionist gallery up the top. I don’t think I have ever seen so many magical works by Monet, Renoir and Degas all in one spot. The gallery also had a lot of beautiful sculptures in the huge interior halls.

With the croissant long forgotten we were hungry for lunch so found a nearby cafe where no one spoke much English. As expected, it was challenging to find something vegetarian but you can always trust the French on their bread and their cheese so we did just that and got a couple of coffees along with two french rolls stuffed with the most delicious melt in your mouth camembert, better than any I had bought in New Zealand.

With the rain holding back we wandered back over the river to the Tuileries via a bridge weighed down with countless padlocks declaring love. The Tuileries were a good example of the Parisian gardens that are very ordered and structured, with gravel to walk on and grass that was for eyes not feet. There was also a big man made pond with deck chairs encircling it where People sat under the clouds and watched the ducks. It was quite a strange sight but we followed suit regardless (any chance to rest my wary legs).

Our next stop was the Musée l’Orangerie which is situated at the end of the Tuileries, just before the Place de la Concorde and was a museum covered by our Pass so we figured we should pop our heads in. There was a manageable collection of works both by artists I didn’t know but also by a lot we knew and liked. but the real drawing card of the gallery and something that makes it unmissable in my opinion, regardless of whether you like art of not, were two rooms designed by Monet in his later years to be a sanctuary for Parisians and a place for peaceful introspection in the bustling city. The two joining rooms were almost like white cocoons but on each long wall was a giant immersive painting of Monet’s waterlillies that he grew rather obsessed with. These works in my opinion are Monet at his finest, exploring his water lily ponds with an impressionist eye but with a very modern abstract feel. We weren’t able to take photos but I will try and find an image of one and insert it below, although it is nothing like seeing it full size and in a room with three other similar but different giant studies.

Magically, we came out of the gallery to find the sun shining and the Eiffel Tower glinting off in the distance (it is something I already miss but the sight of the beautiful tower in the distance is the thing that made me want to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming). After a quick snack on a delicious but slightly smooshed macaroon we moved on, crossing the river yet again to head up towards Les Invalides and then wander the streets until we finally came up to the Eiffel Tower in all its turn of the century glory. With the sun shining behind it the tower was spectacular and it sunk in that I had finally made it to Paris, after many years of wanting to be here. Couples sat in the grass, and everywhere you looked people were trying to fit the icon into a selfie. It was the perfect way to finish our first proper day in Paris, walking under the Eiffel Tower (where there was a game of the French Open playing, I cant think of any better way to watch Tennis) and then up to the Trocadero (still not quite sure what this was).

I cant remember what we did for dinner apart from demolishing the rest of our Macarons but knowing us and France it probably involved bread and cheese that we bought and took home with us where we collapsed in our room and tried to find the one thing that was playing in English (an activity that becomes quite regular). Either way, a day with too many highlights which I think means it was a pretty wonderful day.

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1. Roar
2. Arc de Triomphe
3. Chaos in the cake shop (next fast and furious movie maybe)
4. Inside the Musee d’Orsay
5. Refuelling
6. Weighed down with love (not the padlock bridge but one of many padlock places across Paris)
7. Monet’s little Parisian paradise
8. The sun makes its first appearance
9. The river Seine
10. Walking towards les Invaldides
11. Little lamp babies
12&13 Just a little bit breathtaking (dangerous for an asthmatic)