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Day 14 - May 12, 2005 - Venice, Italy

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That morning was another 7:00 am start.  If I was home, and was that tired, there would be no way I would make it to work.  It's amazing how much the excitement of going to a new city or country every day gets you out of bed.  I had breakfast with Matt, Neil and some other people whom I can't remember.
 
We boarded a wide and short boat.  I had to duck as I walked through it.  We then set way across what is essentially an inlet or a bay of the Adriatic Sea, which we skipped stones in the night before.
 
Before even setting foot in Venice, I immediately noticed dozens of canals, bridges, small boats and gondolas.  It was exactly as I had expected it, minus the presence of a foul odor.  Thankfully, I didn't notice any stench the entire day in Venice.

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MATT AND NEIL ON THE WAY INTO VENICE

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VENICE SCENERY

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MORE SCENERY

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ONE OF THE HUNDREDS OF VENECIAN CANALS

We first set foot right outside the prison, which is adjacent to Doge's Palace, onto one of the many islands that make up the city.  We made our way to nearby St. Marc's Square, the heart of Venice.  This is a rather large square, completely infested with pigeons.  There were many vendors selling pigeon food.  People who purchased this food had pigeons everywhere; on their arms, hair; you name it.  I've never seen such a thing in my life.  Protruding from St. Marc's Square is the familiar campanile, the apex of Venice.  Rex explained that those of us partaking in the gondola option were to meet at that spot later in the early evening.  By the way, I was still mispronouncing the word "gondola" at that point.

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THE CAMPANILE OF ST. MARC'S SQUARE

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DETAIL OF THE BELL TOWER

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THE PIGEON DENSITY IN VENICE

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ST. MARC'S BASILICA WITH THE CAMPANILE

The first stop after learning our meeting point was a glass blowing demonstrating.  Unlike the leather demonstration in Florence and the following lace demonstration, I was actually interested in the glass blowing, despite my expectations of another sales pitch.  I think most of my tour mates shared the same opinion and I'm pretty sure that the entire group was there.  It was very interesting and the glass blower, for a lack of a proper term, was very skilled.  It was amazing how the ball of fiery molten glass somehow turned into a horse.  Following the demonstration and brief explanation of how the profession was usually passed along through the generations, we browsed the shop.  Although the creations were impressive, they were very expensive.

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GLASS BLOWING 1

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GLASS BLOWING 2

After the glass blowing demonstration, James, Vince, Yoon, and I skipped the lace making demonstration and headed back to St. Marc's Square.  Vince and I wanted to go to the top of the campanile, while James and Yoon were turned off by the price.  I forget what the price was, but I needed a view of the city from the top.  The weather was absolutely perfect that day with not a touch of overcast.  While Vince and I paid our admission fee, James and Yoon went to explore the pigeon ridden square.
 
After entering the base of the tower, we entered a rickety elevator.  After a quick ride up, we walked out to a superb view of the entire city.  We could see many different islands in the surrounding area and also cascading off into the distance, in addition to the mainland of Italy.  There appeared to be several different bodies of water, one of which I assume was the Adriatic Sea.  It was an amazing view and, although notably inferior in height, I think it surpassed the Eiffel Tower, as well as maybe any other view thus far on the trip.  I couldn't help but wish for James' and Yoon's sake that they joined us up to the top.
 
Surrounding the perimeter of the top of the tower, were illustrations of the more well known points of interest throughout the city.  Some were very interesting and informative, while others were relatively dull.  We probably spent a half hour up there, before reluctantly heading back down to the bottom.

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DOGE'S PALACE FROM THE TOP OF THE CAMPANILE

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ST. MARC'S BASILICA FROM THE CAMPANILE

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ONE OF THE MANY ISLANDS IN THE DISTANCE

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A VIEW OF THE SQUARE FROM ABOVE

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MORE RANDOM SCENERY

We met back up with James and Yoon and tried not to brag too extensively.  Next, we went to the adjacent St. Marc's Bascilica.  It was a very architecturally interesting place, in comparison to previous churches and bascilicas we had seen.  It was Byzantine style, more similar the well known St. Vasily's Cathedral in Moscow, as opposed to the architectural ubiquitousness of places like St. Peter's in The Vatican or St. Paul's in London (not that this ubiquitousness is necessarily inferior, mind you).
 
As we approached the entrance after the moderately long queue, we realized no bags were permitted inside.  All four of us had bags.  We decided that James and I would go in, while Vince and Yoon watched our bags outside.  It wasn't too extravagant inside, but very interesting nonetheless.  We didn't spend a lot of time inside, because we didn't want to keep Vince and Yoon waiting.  After exiting, James and I watched their bags as they went inside.

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ST. MARC'S BASILICA

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AND ANOTHER

Next, the four of us decided to get out of the tourist Mecca of Venice (St. Marc's Square), and head into the city a bit.  We proceeded down just a random "street."  Yes, it is true what they say.  Ditch your maps and simply get lost in Venice.  I suggest keeping your map in the bottom of your pocket though, as you'll eventually need to rush back to a certain point to avoid getting stuck in the city overnight.  But you'll read about that in a few more paragraphs.  Anyway, we just walked around for an hour or so, aimlessly turning corners and soaking in the unique ambiance of the city.  At one point, we discussed the diversity of our small group.  Here we were, an American, an Australian, a Korean, and a Canadian with Indian heritage.  The Venetians must have been wondering how on Earth the four of us ended up with each other in their city.
 
We all agreed that it was time for lunch.  This would be our last real Italian lunch.  For me, lunch in Italy surpassed dinner at home.  It was something I thoroughly anticipated on each of the seven days I spent in Italy.  We unintentionally ended up at the Grand Canal, which is, well, the main canal of Venice.  It winds back and forth through the city and is topped by three main bridges: The Accademia, the Rialto, and the Scalzi.  We crossed the Rialto and weighed our options, while consulting the menus posted outside each restaurant (something that seems to be nothing less than required in Europe).

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THE RIALTO BRIDGE

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THE GRAND CANAL

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JAMES, ME, VINCE, AND YOON

We all agreed on a particular restaurant right on the Grand Canal.  Due to the incredibly perfect day, we even buckled down and got a table on the sidewalk.  Like in Florence, I again ordered two entrees.  First, I ordered something with the English translation of mussel soup.  If I memorize the entire dictionary, I couldn't accurately describe how amazing that soup was.  After months of deliberating, I consider that bowl of mussel soup to be the best food I've ever consumed.
 
As I was exhibiting verbal ecstasy, Vince was doing the same from his fried calamari.  He stated it was the best calamari and maybe the best food he's ever had.  While I reluctantly let Vince try my mussel soup (just kidding), he let me try his fried calamari.  I'm a seafood nut, but calamari has never really been too appealing for me.  It was, however, the best calamari I ever tried.  It completely redefined the potential of calamari.  I debated ordering an entree of it for myself, but instead I ordered some sort of pasta doused with a variety of seafood.  Vince ordered a bowl of the mussel soup for his second entree.  James ordered the pasta with seafood and I think Yoon just got spaghetti, since he got that everywhere.
 
We ate like kings that afternoon and we relished every bite.  It has become the most memorable and the best meal of my life.  The bill came close to warranting a home equity lone, but I didn't care in the least.  The sidewalk table, right on the Grand Canal, right near the Rialto Bridge, combined with the weather and of course the food made for what was one of the most unexpected highlights of the entire trip.  Needless to say, I acquired a business card and a very vivid mental note of where that restaurant is located.  If and when I return to Venice, it will be among the points of interest.

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ONE OF THE MANY GONDOLAS

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PERHAPS THE GREATEST MEAL OF MY LIFE

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MMM... A CULINARY MASTERPIECE

During the lunch, we discussed how we thought that some of our tour mates were frequenting places like McDonalds a little too much.  Never was this as despicable as it was during that lunch.  The thought of someone passing up the caliber lunch we were having for fast food was appalling.  Just then, Matt and Neil came up to us.  They asked how our lunch was and our response was as if we were trying to sell them a car.  We told them they should sit at the adjacent table and order some food but they informed us that they just ate at McDonalds.  It was as if it was scripted.  It was very funny, but very disappointing for their sake at the same time.
 
After our meal of all meals, we went back to Doge's Palace.  This was a fairly large building, somewhat shaped like the Uffizi gallery in Florence.  There was a good amount of art from the Renaissance in there, as well as a decent collection of Italian weapons.  The palace was connected to a prison by the Bridge of Sighs.  As legend has it, prisoners would get their last glimpse of the outside as they crossed this small, enclosed bridge on their way to be executed.  It was an eerie feeling crossing the bridge into the dark, damp prison.

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THE BRIDGE OF SIGHS

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THE COURTYARD IN DOGE'S PALACE

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MORE FROM DOGE'S PALACE

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THE ONE AND ONLY PICTURE WE TOOK INSIDE DOGE'S PALACE

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THE DUNGEON

After back outside into the more optimistic nature of the city, we set way east to what was some sort of a park either dedicated to or built by Napoleon.  Vince had an unusually high interest in seeing this park for some reason.  I think the rest of us were keen on just roaming through the streets, so we didn't mind.  After arriving in the park, we all agreed that it was pretty dull.  The area surrounding the park was what seemed to be the ghetto of Venice, if such a place exists in that incredible city.  While passing a small pond in the park, we noticed a few turtles swimming around.  My three tour mates became overly excited for this.  Being from my area in the US, turtles are commonplace.  I couldn't get over how excited they were seeing those turtles.  James even video taped them for a minute.  I suppose there are no turtles in Sydney, Seoul or Ottawa.
 
After wandering and being unsure of where exactly we were most of the time, we somehow made it back to St. Marc's Square to meet the rest of the group for the gondola optional.  It was then we again realized the financial inferiority of Contiki's optionals.  We were charged €20 each, for a 45 minute ride.  At six people in each gondola, that amounted to €120.  We approached another gondolier and he initially pitched us a price of €80, for a 45 minute ride with six people.  On top of that, he was prepared to negotiate after we began walking away.  However, since we previously paid through Contiki, backing out wasn't an option.
 
My group for the gondola ride was made up of Kent, Kim, Yvonne, Freddy and Olivia.  While walking towards the departure point, and while on the gondola, we noticed and commented that Freddy had been taking unusual pictures of garbage.  It was a good laugh for the majority of the duration of the gondola ride.  The ride was a good experience and surprisingly not highly overrated, like I expected.  There were some very friendly locals peering out their windows and waving to us as we cruised by through some of the narrow, smaller canals.  No, our gondolier did not sing for us.  He did, however, smoke and chat on his cell phone at an irritating volume.  Personally, I'm glad he didn't sing, but I could've done without the cell phone usage.

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ON THE GONDOLA

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THE OTHER GROUPS' GONDOLAS

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TYPICAL VENETIAN ARCHITECTURE

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THE GONDOLA RIDE

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ANOTHER FROM THE GONDOLA

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STILL ON THE GONDOLA

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THE ENTRANCE TO A HOTEL

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THE VIEW FROM THE GONDOLA PORT

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THE CAMPANILE FROM THE GRAND CANAL

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GONDOLA CLOSE UP

After the gondola ride, which ended at 5:00 pm, we were due to catch the boat back to the campsite.  That night, there was a barbeque back at the campsite for dinner.  While I admit, I was definitely in the mood for some barbeque food, there was no way I could allow myself to succumb to that while in Venice.  Also, the idea of leaving the city that early on what was my last day in Venice was completely unacceptable.  While waiting with the group for that same short, wide boat to take us back to the campsite, I voiced my interest in staying in the city.  Vince immediately expressed his interest to do the same.  We told Rex we were going to skip the barbeque and stay in the city.  She then helped us find out what time the last boat left, to ensure that there would be no chance of us getting stuck in the city.  Soon after, Joanne and Hayley asked if they could tag along, probably because they were listening to us rave about our heavenly lunch we had earlier.
 
As our tour mates filed into the boat, Vince, Joanne, Hayley and I went back through the streets of the city.  There was a sense of apprehension about our choice to stay in the city.  Though deep down, I think the four of us felt superior in a way (not to sound pompous).  We spent some time just walking around, with no real aim or direction.  Venice is, simply put, one of my favorite places I have ever been to.  I could've walked around aimlessly like that for hours.
 
As our stomachs began to growl, we found a nice restaurant.  Vince suggested that we go back to the same restaurant we had lunch.  It was awfully tempting and I could already taste that mussel soup again.  However, something urged us to try a new place.  The restaurant we chose offered a three coarse meal for 18 Euro, which was an unbelievable price.  I don't remember what I ordered, but I remember someone got lasagna and I tried it.  Although it was very good, all of the food there was inferior to our lunch that day.  Still, we had no regrets whatsoever about skipping the barbeque.  We relaxed there for a while and I think it was then that I realized that Venice really was my favorite city of the tour thus far, now surpassing Paris.  I realize that these comparisons and rankings are rather trivial, as they rely so much on very specific experiences while in each place.  Nevertheless, my Venetian experiences that day were unprecedented.

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HAYLEY, JOANNE, ME, AND VINCE AT DINNER

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ONE OF THE THOUSANDS OF ALLEYS

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AND ANOTHER

After dinner, we continued wandering around.  We came across a theater which featured a musical later that night.  Joanne was very interested, but there would have been no way to get back to the campsite, as the last boat left before the musical ended.  We went in and out of a few shops and pubs and before we realized it, we needed to start heading back to catch the last boat of the night.  It was then when our evening got a lot more exciting.
 
We had roughly a half hour before the boat left.  What is the norm in Venice, we had no idea where we were, but we knew we were far from the dock.  In a short time, we realized that we were very far.  We scrounged up the maps we had and began to walk at a significantly faster pace than normal.  While the signage throughout the city was lacking, we decided we should first get to St. Marc's Square.  Given the proximity, we felt comfortable we could find the Accademia Bridge on our own from the square, and we were almost positive we could find the dock from the bridge.
 
In what became a mission within a mission to merely find St. Marc's Square, we encountered a series of four people who could easily make up some of the best and most interesting movie characters ever created in film history.  These people eventually became known to me, Vince, Joanne, and Hayley as, "The cell phone guy," "The guy who walked with us," "The guy who scared us," and, "The guy we scared." 
 
The first guy was on his cell phone.  I somehow built up the nerve to interrupt him and ask him for directions.  He immediately began arguing with whomever was on the other end of the phone.  He was speaking Italian, so we had no idea what he was saying, but we all guessed it was unrelated to our intrusion.  We quickly walked away. 
 
The second guy, "the guy who walked with us," was ironically too helpful.  He began to explain the best way towards the square, but then stated it was too difficult to explain.  He then told us he was going towards it and we could follow him for part of the way.  We thanked him and began to follow.  However, he was walking entirely too slow for the short amount of time we had.  We tried to imply that we were in a major rush, but we didn't want to be rude and simply run away from him.  He did lead us to a random intersection and point us down a street, which we then sprinted down.  Soon after, we were again completely disoriented.
 
The next guy, "the guy who scared us," was a completely eccentric character and it seemed my knowledge of Venetian geography exceeded his.  With a slight language barrier, we were forced to reference our map.  We pointed to St. Marc's Square and asked where we were.  He pointed to wherever we were and stated that the best option would be to go to the arsenal, then we could just walk along the water to the square and it would be impossible to get lost.  Mind you, no one I've talked to since has ever heard of an arsenal in Venice.  Also, he pointed to the complete opposite side of the city that St. Marc's Square or the Accademia bridge was located.  To this day, we swear that he was trying to get us killed or at least mugged (not really).
 
The fourth and final character was, "The guy we scared."  I simply asked him directions to the square and his reaction was mere confusion, probably because he didn't speak English.  However, this confusion gradually morphed into fear.  This resulted in some yelling and running away.  Mind you, my physique is in no way intimidating.  I would be afraid of losing an arm wrestling match against my sister.  I have no idea how I managed to invoke any amount of fear into a fully grown man in the middle of an alley in his home city of Venice.  Vince wasn't much bigger than me and Joanne and Hayley could've both been blown away by the wind.
 
Anyway, we realized that the locals were of no help in getting us to where we desperately needed to be.  Somehow, we found some signs leading to St. Marc's Square and then, following our instinct, we managed to find some signs leading to the Accademia bridge.  By this time, we had been running for over ten minutes.  I think I was the only one somewhat in shape, because I was always the one leading.  Nevertheless, we made it across the Accademia and finally to the dock.  We stepped onto the boat at 8:26 pm for the 8:30 departure (I looked at my watch the second I set foot on that boat).  A mere four minutes was the difference to a very relaxing night, and a night of chaos trying to figure out what train or plane to catch to Austria.  I have no idea what we would've done had we missed that boat.

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THE ACCADEMIA BRIDGE

Because we had been running on and off for the past half hour, we sat on the top deck of the boat to cool off.  The breeze never felt better as it did as we inched off the dock.  We took the much deserved opportunity to just relax and breathe the fresh air.  We snapped some good photos of the sunset ahead of us, while repeatedly taking our last looks at the city of Venice behind us until the horizon disappeared in the dark sky.  We all laughed at the predicament we just got in and out of.  It was a weird feeling knowing that we would remember the last half hour for the rest of our lives.  We discussed how much we loved Venice and we all voiced our confidence that we would one day return.  I made sure I still had my business card from the restaurant of all restaurants.  I missed it already.
 
We arrived at the campsite bar at 8:55 pm.  I remember the time because happy hour ended at 9:00.  I quickly got myself what was one of the most essential drinks ever.  We then sat down and rehashed our story to all of our curious tour mates.  The looks in their faces were priceless and I'm sure most of them were glad they weren't with us.  Looking back, however, I wouldn't change the events of that night at all.  It was scary for a short while, but it's definitely one of the most memorable moments of the whole trip.  I often sit back now and laugh at how close we came.
 
After finishing my drink, I went back to the cabin to drop my bag off.  I had been carrying it all day and I needed to get rid of it.  Matt and Neil were actually sleeping in the cabin, at shortly after 9:00 pm.  I considered using that as my motivation to finally get my early night's sleep.  However, I was much too worked up from what had happened, there was no way I was going to fall asleep then.  I went back to the bar.
 
The people from the previous night were playing frisbee again.  I didn't play though, as I needed to have a relaxing night.  I then split a phone card with Vince and called home to tell about my exciting night.  After the call home, I really wanted to go to bed.  I think I might have told everyone I called that I was going straight to bed.  Of course, that didn't happen.  Matt came out and demanded that I get a beer with him.  Then I started talking to several people, including Vince, Tegan, Heather, Vanessa, and Yvonne.  Yvonne got the Attitude Adjuster, which was the house drink there.  It consisted of something like eight different kinds of liquor all into one cup.  The not-so-enforced rule stated no more than two Attitude Adjusters per person.
 
At about 11:30, I made my way towards the cabin for bed.  On the way there, I stopped at the day sheet to check what time I had to be up the following morning.  Since no trip to bed would be without interruption, luck had it that I ran into Vince and Yvonne at the day sheet.  We chatted for over an hour and I finally made it to bed at the usual time of 1:00 am.