Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Monday, February 18, 2013

CARNIVAL!


So, what to do and where to go in the winter? I usually head for the nearest beach, as my regular readers know, but this year I decided on something a little bit different: Venice, Italy, and Carnival! Venice has its mid-winter celebration in February, sort of like Mardi Gras, so there it was; my February Getaway Of course, I knew it would be cold, since it will be early February, but what the heck. Once decided, of course, my planning rapidly proceeded to the next stage: transportation and accommodation. I thought it might be fun to take the trains to and from Venice; other friends had done so, and I like traveling by train, so why not?
I hopped down to the MAV office in mid-Budapest and booked my ticket on the overnight train, first a three-hour jaunt from Budapest to Vienna, then leaving Vienna around 9 PM and arriving at Venice’s St. Lucia station at 8:30 the following morning (St. Lucia train Station fronts onto the Grand Canal, so I could take a vaporetto water taxi to a station near my hotel; how cool is that?). For the train, I had my choice between a sleeper car and a seat for the night; I figured I could sleep sitting up, so took that option. The price was a little more than flying, around $150 US, but the trip itself should also be more fun and relaxing. We shall see.
Next was the hotel. Venice during Carnival is a popular destination, so I expected rates would be a touch higher than usual, a supposition which was confirmed when I started searching the Expedia site for hotels. The hotel I settled on was expensive, but it was right in the middle of Venice, near St. Mark’s Square, so what the heck; you only live once, right?
And then it was time to go! I entrained from Budapest mid-morning on Thursday, February 7. Upon arrival in Vienna I had a few hours to kill, so thought I’d see what had changed around the area of the Westbahnhof. It turned out everything had changed since my last visit in around 2001. The train station itself was brand new and beautiful, but without the character of the old station. Ah, well, all good things…
I walked around the area for a while and had a nice dinner of pepper cream cutlets and quenelles (whatever the heck they are) at a nearby gasthaus (where they still allowed smoking in the bar area!) then headed out for the 12-hour trip to Venice. I was alone in my compartment for the first stop or two, then was joined by five American college students studying in Austria. That made the six-person compartment pretty cramped, but we all survived the journey. They were nice kids and I enjoyed meeting them.
We arrived at San Lucia train station in Venice around 8 o’clock the following morning, Friday, February 8. The weather was sunny and cold, around freezing, and would only get up to around 42 degrees F during the days ahead. I said goodbye to my new friends and caught a vaporetto water bus down the Grand Canal to the at St. Mark’s Square. Following the directions given, I wended my way through the narrow streets of Venice and found the Hotel dell’ Opera, tucked away on a side street, with a narrow walkway in front of the hotel, which bordered onto a canal, where gondolas glided smoothly by in the early morning frosty air. Excellent.
The hotel was a nice three-star place, small but clean and neat. The main lobby had stone floors, the purpose of which I didn’t realize until one night when I came in late and found the walkway in front of the hotel, along with the lobby, under about an inch or so of water from the high tide. Gotta love Venice. Anyway, a spacious room with no view at all. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming. I was able to get into my room right away, which was nice, as I needed a shower and tooth-brushing badly. I was even able to get breakfast, which, it turned out, was the exact same meal every day, adequate but boring after a couple of mornings. But that’s being picky.
So, it was check in, clean up, grab a quick bite and head out to St. Mark’s Square, only about five minutes away on foot. The ambience and beauty of Venice was just as I remembered it from my last visit, many years ago. Venice is unremittingly, exhaustingly, overwhelmingly photogenic. Every few feet there’s another building or statue or shop window or person or bridge or rowing gondolier that screams to have its picture taken. I shot almost 300 pictures during my six days there and could have done more if my batteries had held out (including the ones in my camera).
Anyway, that first morning I did as I usually do when in a new place: I wandered all over, getting a general feel for the layout and places to visit later in detail. I walked from St. Mark’s Square over to the Rialto Bridge and on up the banks of the Grand Canal, taking in sights and sounds and checking out all the people in costumes and masks. I found the Irish Pub and stopped for a light lunch of sandwiches and Tennent’s beer. A welcome relief, as it only took me a short time to realize that Venice has no place for the weary tourist to sit down! No benches, no chairs, no stone slabs by the sides of the streets, almost nothing. I did finally manage to pass by a very small square which had several benches, but by that time they were still filled with snow so were of no use to me.
I had only been in Venice for a few hours when, as I was walking around St. Mark’s Square, I heard someone call, “Hey, Gary!” Yep, it was a casual acquaintance from Budapest; amazing, it seems to happen nearly everywhere I go. Anyway, Carnival has to be seen to be believed. The initial sights and sounds and crowds were an assault on the senses, but I persevered and took it all in at one big gulp on that first day, saving the subtleties for later. I had a killer hot chocolate at a small café near the Campanile and decided a short nap was in order, especially after my light sleep the previous night on the train. By early evening I was awake and ready for anything.
My first foray was back across the Rialto Bridge to search for a good place to have the well-advertised cichetti, which I presumed to be Venetian tapas. The only place I found that night that served them was staffed by one harried waiter who obviously didn’t want to take any more of his precious time to serve yet another Carnival tourist. I waited several minutes to be recognized and seated, but to no avail. So if one day find yourself walking down Calle Giovanni in Venice and spotting the Osteria alla Antico Dolo, give it a pass.
My luck was out that night for Venetian tapas. I walked back across Rialto and, as is also my usual wont, I stumbled across the Devil’s Forest Pub, one of the places I had found on the Internet and intended to visit. Now was as good a time as any, and it turned out to be a real pub; I was happy. A light dinner and a couple of pints of Harp helped settle me after my long walk, helped along by the bartender who, although from Venice originally, had worked in New York for many years and was a fount of local information. Always good to visit an Irish pub.
By that time it was around 9 PM and as I crossed St. Mark’s Square again I noticed it was nearly empty of people. Now, this was on a Friday night during Carnival, so I was surprised not to see revelers dancing in the streets with abandon. I didn’t realize then that high tide was due shortly and the square would be flooded, which is why everyone had gone elsewhere. I guessed it was time for me to work my way back to the hotel, which I did, but with a stopover at the B Bar in the Bauer Hotel for a nice glass of Russian vodka. By 10 PM I was back in my room, wondering what to do next. Oh, well, a little more rest never hurt anyone, especially since the weekend was coming up with the promise of a lot more excitement – I hoped!
Since I had, as usual, overdone my first day of walking around the city on the stone streets, getting out of bed the following morning was somewhat of a chore. Aches and pains, muscles sore from too-long non-use (Beijing was back in October!), plus, dare I admit it, even a touch of age creeping in. I hate that. But a couple of aspirin and I was ready to face the day and see what Carnival had in store for me.
For those unaware of it, the word Carnival comes from two Latin words, Carne (meat) and Vale (it leaves). Obviously, since the religious holiday of Lent is approaching, and eating meat will not be allowed, Carnevale is the last celebration/party to be held before the enforced abstinence. And the Venetians do it up right.
My first stop after breakfast at the hotel was the local Tourinform office, to see if there was anything I had missed on my Internet search for places to see and things to do, and also to check the locations of several places I wanted to visit. For those who have never been, think of Venice as a big bazaar, a huge souk, filled with narrow, winding streets, small and medium and large squares and shops of all types, from tacky souvenirs to designer emporiums. Included are small restaurants, cafes, snack bars, hotels and small outdoor markets. Some of the streets are so narrow you can touch the sides with your outstretched arms; in fact, one street I was on was barely wider than my shoulders.
But the energy! Everyone was happy and smiling, even, presumably, those people behind the masks. And yet the crowds were generally well-behaved, aside from the crush when someone had to stop and take a photo in a narrow side street and foot traffic backed up for a mile or two, but even then no one pushed or shoved or complained. It was a revelry, but not a drunken, nasty, ugly revelry. Everyone was having too much fun.
So, once more into the breach. Back across St. Mark’s, to see what the sunny, clear and cold daylight held in the way of costumes and party-goers, then over Rialto and along the sides of the Grand Canal (NB: there are only four bridges over the Grand Canal, so one must cross when one can), through the Rialto outdoor Market (lots of seafood on offer) and generally getting ‘lost’ in all the many side streets and small bridges in the area. Which is easy to do, so take along a good map. I wanted to go back across the Grand Canal and even I realized that four bridges wouldn’t handle all of the people who wanted to cross the Canal. I then stumbled across (I do a lot of stumbling across things) on a gondola service that was exclusively to get across the Grand Canal. Only two euros per person, and a fun way to get around. Obviously, my Tourist Muse is still looking after me.
I had lunch at a small osteria, finally getting some of the vaunted Venetian seafood with pasta and white wine. Of course, I shopped along the way, picking up souvenirs for family and friends. I dropped all my purchases off at the hotel, and once again set out for the Irish Pub, where Italy was playing Scotland in the Six Nations Rugby Tournament that afternoon. I wouldn’t make all of the matches, but since Italy had defeated France the previous week in a stunning upset, I wanted to see if they were still on form. Sadly, they weren’t, and Scotland crushed Italy 34-10. But the pub was heaving and a good time was had by most, despite Italy’s loss.
As it was then around 6 PM, dinner sounded good and I chose the Bacarol Jazz Café and Restaurant, based on the reviews I’d seen on the Internet. Plus the ambience was interesting: the ceiling was covered with hanging brassieres, supposedly all donated by previous female diners; unfortunately, no donations were made during my time there. I opted for the mussels starter, a fried seafood platter and wine. I’m not sure if it was me or if the restaurant was overworked that night, but the seafood was just adequate, nothing special – which it should have been, for the price. In fact, the entire dining experience that night was not what I had anticipated from the reviews of this place I’d seen on Trip Advisor. First of all, I was seated next to the toilet entrance, not a good start. The waiter was helpful but unfriendly and the food took a long time to arrive. My final disappointment came with the bill, which had a 12% ‘service charge’ added on to it, a practice I really dislike. But even worse, at the bottom of the bill, in large black print, was the sentence, “Service charge does not include tip.”
Well! A really bad ending to an otherwise mediocre meal. If the ‘service charge’ - which is not what it implies, i.e., a charge for ‘service,’ which is what the waiter supplies - what the heck is it? Just some extra charge the restaurant sticks on to stick it to unwary diners? Too bad for the restaurant and waiter, then, as I added my own annotation to the bill – Service charge does, in fact, include tip! – and repaired to the Devil’s Forest for some steadying liquid libation. Let the restaurant and waiter fight it out.
I needed a spirit uplift, and found it with several Guinnesses and a shot or four of vodka in between. And then came the remainder of that Saturday night that I have tried not to repeat from past unfortunate experiences, but, alas, was unable to do so. Get that? I enjoy my beer and alcohol and, when things are going well and I’m partying and having a good time, I don’t always watch how much I imbibe and at some point in the evening I have that last drink that puts me over the top and nearly everything from there on out is a complete blank. Apparently, from previous reports, I remain a happy reveler and appear on the surface to be aware of what I’m doing, but, in fact, I am not aware at all. I blank out and remember almost nothing the next morning. With some brief, minor exceptions: several times during the night I will ‘come out’ of my blank-out phase and remember scenes and actions for a few minutes or so, but those are the only things I remember. Yes, I know it’s not pretty, but that’s what happens if I don’t watch it.
And that’s what happened that Saturday night in Venice. I remember standing at the bar, hoisting a Guinness and chatting with some Germans, and that’s all until I woke up in bed the following morning – except for my few lucid moments on and off during the night. So here’s what I remember of that night:
I remember leaving the Devil’s Forest and found it was raining, and then – Blank Out! I came to myself standing in a dark corner and peeing into a canal; a guy dressed as Dracula walked by me and hissed at me, at which point I turned and peed on his foot, then – Blank Out! Suddenly I was standing in St. Mark’s Square, face raised to the heavens, light rain mixed with snow falling on me, trying to take a photo of the night sky; a policewoman helped me under the arcade and out of the rain, then – Blank Out! I came around to find myself hugging Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles while Jesus took our photo, laughing like crazy – Blank Out! Then I remember hanging onto Elvis’s arm and asking him to sing Hound Dog – Blank Out! Next I was climbing out of a gondola, not knowing how I got into it – Blank Out! I blinked against the darkness and looked down to see Snow White kneeling in front of me and fumbling with my zipper and muttering something that sounded like, “I hope there’s no dwarf in here.” – Blank Out! I swear the next thing I remember was doing a linked-arms hora along the bank of the Grand Canal with people dressed as cows – Blank Out! Then I was inviting a couple dressed as Julius Caesar and Octavia back to my Hotel for a toga party (TOOOGA, TOOOGA!) - Blank Out! And, at long, long last, I woke up the next morning when my eyes slammed open in response to hearing a Bollywood song on the TV, which I had forgotten to turn off. I didn’t have a hangover, not even an upset stomach, but all day long I couldn’t make a fist. Must have been an interesting Saturday night – sorry I missed most of it.
Sunday morning even the hotel breakfast tasted good, but I was still hungry so, after a shower and shave, I headed out to find a restaurant, where I had a large pizza with salami, anchovies, mushrooms, peppers and extra cheese, washed down with several Moretti beers. Aaaahhh, satiated!
It was cold again on Sunday as I wandered the streets looking for some interesting action. I was forced – forced, I tell you! - to stop in various stores to check out their wares and to keep warm. First was the Borsalino store, featuring those wonderful Italian hats. I thought, well, maybe, if they aren’t too expensive, but as I sampled the hats and checked out the price tags I realized $500 was just a touch too much to pay for a hat. Another pizza lunch was in order, so I subjected myself to the pushing, shoving, jostling crowds of people trying to navigate the tiny side streets of Venice. At least during Carnival, the tourists and locals and madding throngs seem to have no concept of foot traffic etiquette nor of the Brownian Movement of the streets, so it was basically every man and woman and child for him/herself. By the time I was popped out of a narrow street by the crowd I was hot and sweaty and desperately in need of some sustenance.
After my second pizza of the day, I found myself next to Harry’s Bar along the Grand Canal near St. Mark’s Square, and thought it was time for me to revisit this Venice landmark and have one of its signature drinks: the Bellini. I’d had my Singapore Sling at the Long Bar of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and now it was Harry’s turn. The Bellini was invented here for Ernest Hemingway one morning when he had a ferocious hangover. It consists basically of sparkling white wine and crushed peaches, and is a highly addictive concoction. I only had one at Harry’s, since it cost 15 euro, but immediately found another small osteria and had several more at only 3.50 euro each. Much better deal, and afterwards I was feeling no pain. It was nap time.
Rested and ready again, I flung myself into the melee of Carnival. After a short gondola ride across the Grand Canal in yet another vain search for cichetti, I walked back to the Hard Rock Café near San Marco for an all-American meal of yummy burger and fries. Afterwards, the streets were still crowded but St. Mark’s Square was not; it seemed the people started fading away somewhat earlier than I had anticipated. Ah, well, such is life.
Monday barely dawned grey and cloudy and full of….snow! And it continued snowing all day long! But neither snow nor rain nor gloomy day shall stay the Carnivaler on his appointed rounds, so I was off again, bundled up and head covered, into the mouth of the storm. I finally found my long-searched-for ciccheteria and had some Italian tapas: chicken legs, peppers, polenta and fish paste. Like their Spanish counterparts, I naturally presumed the cicchetis were charged by the plate, with 2-3 pieces of food items per plate. Boy, was I ever wrong! Italians charge by the piece! So a chicken leg costed out at 3 euros each, peppers at 2 euros, etc. For one beer, three chicken legs, four small peppers and a tiny little serving of polenta with fish sauce on top came to…25 euros! Gasp! Screwed again! Will it ever end? When will I ever learn? If not by now, probably never. Sigh.
On my way back to the hotel I stopped off and bought a ticket for that night’s performance of the Venezia Theater, a play depicting the history of Venice at the Teatro San Gallo. The weather was by then so crummy I repaired to the B Bar and spent the afternoon ensconced in its warm and cozy embrace, reading and sipping Russian vodka and chatting with the costumed guests who were, like me, not brave enough to brave the elements. Great way to spend Carnival, hah? The fact that the afternoon news carried the breaking story of the pope’s coming resignation merely added to the surreal atmosphere.
Prior to the theater, I wanted to check out an advertised spa near the hotel for a possible massage and steam the following day. I found the storefront easily enough and, I’m sure you’ll believe this, it was closed for at least the duration of Carnival, if not longer. My luck continues to hold. I had a light snack then hit the theater for several Bellinis before the performance. I had a nice chat with Glenn the Bartender, from England, while waiting. Always get to know the bartender. The 90-minute play was fun and interesting, consisting of four actors playing all the roles and taking the audience through the various stages of Venice’s history, including the founding, rise as a trading ‘nation,’ arrival of the Black Plague, the traditions of Carnival, etc. A worthwhile evening, although at 35 euros a touch overpriced (NB: 1 euro = $1.35).
It was still snowing and blowing after the play, but I needed dinner. As I walked I found most of the restaurants had closed, probably due to the snow, but I did stumble on (again!) a place called Vino Vino, just around the corner from my hotel. Spaghetti and meatballs plus red wine topped off the evening just right. When I finished dinner, I slung my jacket around my shoulders and darted out of the door and around the corner to my hotel. I had to go down three steps and, upon hitting bottom, realized that the tide had come in and the walkway in front of my hotel was awash in about an inch of water. My shoes were not happy as I squished my way to the lobby which, I also noted, was about to be inundated by the tide. I slunk upstairs and crashed for the night, hoping my shoes would be dry by morning.
Okay, Tuesday, my penultimate day in Venice. By that time I’d done pretty much everything I had come to do, had visited the restaurants and bars, had bought the tourist gifts, had posed with the costumed revelers and had taken gondolas across the Grand Canal. Besides, this was Fat Tuesday, the last day of Carnival. I spent it once again walking around the city, this time searching for some special items I wanted to buy, but again had no luck. Long walks for nothing. And there were still no places for the tired walker to sit down and rest for a while. I had an early lunch of tramezzino (half sandwiches) and drinks and then hit St. Mark’s Square one last time for the closing ceremonies. The square was packed as the Carnival flag was raised to the top of the Campanile (bell tower) and then taken in. Another Carnival was over and the costumes would be put away again until the following year. And the faithful would not eat any meat until after Easter.
I sashayed over to the Devil’s Forest for a final evening of beer and camaraderie in my favorite atmosphere, and whiled away the next few hours with good beer and good music, talking to a couple of Norwegians I met at the bar. Finally, one more pizza and a couple of Moretti beers rounded out the evening.
Wednesday, February 13, was my last day in Venice. My train didn’t leave until 9 o’clock that night, so I had the entire day to kill. I should have taken a tour of the Lido Island, but instead checked out of the hotel by 11 AM and walked around some more, seeing if maybe Carnival’s prices had come down a touch so I could afford a few more souvenirs. Or bottles of Bellini to take back to Budapest for the summer. I walked around parts of the city I hadn’t seen and found out I hadn’t seen them for good reason: there wasn’t much to see. I had lunch at the Caffe alla citta di Torina, a tasty offering of pasta and shrimp and zucchini. Around 3 PM or so I took my final vaporetto back up the Grand Canal to the train station, checked my bag and walked around another area I hadn’t seen, the Piazza Roma, which sounded like it might be fun and turned out to be Venice’s main bus station. Sigh.
After an early dinner at a small restaurant, I found another of the very few Irish bars in town and whiled away the evening communing with Arthur Guinness. Not a bad way to spend an evening. Around 8 PM I unchecked my suitcase and found my train and compartment and settled in for the long ride back to Vienna. This time I only had one traveling companion, an Italian who didn’t appear to speak English, so we were both happily left alone to snooze most of the way. In the compartment next to mine I did meet another Budapest resident down for Carnival, Kumar from India, but in business in Budapest, and we had a nice chat. I also hooked up with him in Vienna and we rode back to Budapest together. Always nice to make a new friend.
So, that was the Carnival of Venice. Some ups, some downs, some pluses, some minuses, but mostly another interesting and worthwhile adventure. Doubt if I will return again, and assuredly I won’t be making that train trip twice, but I could easily get hooked on the Bellinis. Until next time.

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