Friday, May 20, 2016

Venice - Cannaregio Home Swap + Life in Venice

The city proper of Venice is actually made up of a mainland portion that is connected to the rest of Italy, and a series of surrounding islands including the largest set of islands that make up the historic centre of Venice, as well as smaller satellite islands including Murano, Burano, Torcello, and San Michele. These largest islands (commonly known as and henceforth referred to as "Venice") are broken up into six districts or sesteri, including San Marco where the Doge's Palace and Basilica San Marco are located, San Polo which is home to the Rialto Bridge and Dorsoduro where the Peggy Guggenheim Museum can be found.  Our two-week home swap is at the north-most tip of the north-most district called Cannaregio (Italian for "Royal Canal"), the most heavily populated of the six districts.

Cannaregio is the main hub of transportation for getting in and out of the historic city, with a railway and road bridge connecting it to the mainland where the Marco Polo airport is located.  The central train station Venezia Santa Lucia is situated at the north-west end of Cannaregio, providing access to other near-by Italian cities.  Since our home swap apartment is located right on the Venetian Lagoon and right next to a boat station, the easiest way for us to get there from the airport was to take the Alilaguana boat shuttle for a 30 minute ride from the mainland.  Once we arrived at the boat station, it is merely a matter of walking down the ramp and turning the corner to reach our accommodations.  This certainly beats dragging our luggage up and down a bunch of twisty, narrow streets and over multiple bridges as we have watched other tourists do as they search for their hotel.

Although Cannaregio is a residential area and much less touristy than the other districts, it still has all the unique features of Venice including picturesque canals and bridges, narrow windy streets with quaint shops, charming bars and restaurants, ornate churches and palatial buildings.  Having our home base in this district allows us enjoy all the beauty of Venice without dealing with the crowds on a daily basis, but still puts us close enough to quickly and easily access the tourist sites, either by foot or by boat.  We are also in close proximity to grocery stores, butcher shops, bakeries, and fruit and vegetable stalls, so that we can eat some of our breakfasts and dinners at home.

We have a stunning view of the boat station, the lagoon and the nearby islands and have spent many a late afternoon out on the balconies observing the Alilaguana and Vaporetto shuttles approach and depart, weaving in and out of the boat dock with pinpoint precision.  A few times we saw several boats approach at the same time from different directions.  There must be strict rules of engagement as to who has priority.  In the evenings, it is very relaxing to sit in the living room and listen to the lapping of the waves.

It is also fun to watch as motor boats, sailboats, kayaks and various types of rowboats go by.  One morning we spotted seven gondola-like boats out on the lagoon participating in a Venetian-style rowing race.  There were four people to a boat and they were rowing with long oars while standing up like gondoliers but moving at a much quicker pace.  Two men in a motorboat were trailing behind then, yelling out "Molto Bene" as encouragement.

While the kitchen and bathrooms of our apartment are very modern and recently renovated, the d├ęcor in the other rooms have the feel of an Italian Palazzo.  There are marble floors in many of the rooms, no less than four gorgeous Murano Glass chandeliers and some of the furniture were styled with shapes and patterns very similar to ones that we saw when we visited the 19th Century Palazzo Ca'Rezzonico.

Our home swap hosts graciously allowed us to invite guests to stay with us for a few days, so we asked our friends Yim and Murray to join us.  This was convenient to do since the apartment has a spare bedroom and bathroom.  Unfortunately we could not easily return the favour since our condo only has the single bedroom.  It was fun being able to watch for the arrival of the Alilaguna and rush out to greet our guests from our balcony.  We really enjoy the dynamics of sharing part of our home swap adventure with another couple and looked forward to an exciting 5 days together.

Our home swap apartment has a washing machine but like many European homes, there is no dryer.  Instead clothes are hung outside to dry, either on a clothes rack or more often, a clothesline that dangles out onto the street.  In one case, we saw laundry dangled over a canal and hoped for the owners' sakes that they were well fastened to the clothesline.  Probably because the dryer is not common, the washing machines seem to have an unusually long and vigorous spin cycle to compensate. 

General garbage (dry and organic waste) is collected every day except Sunday in Venice, while recycled paper and cardboard waste is collected on Monday/Wednesday/Friday and plastics, tins and glass are picked up Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday . Although a few residences have traditional garbage bins (which look mostly for collecting various types of recycling), the normal tradition for garbage is to hang plastic bags of it on hooks dangling out of the front windows or beside the front door.   We even noticed some plastic bags on hooks dangling up high from the second or third floor balconies and wondered how they would be retrieved.  Perhaps they would be further lowered down to the ground since I can't image the garbage men going up to get them.
In Venice, the Vaporetto boat shuttles (not the same as the Alilaguna airport one) provide the main source of public transportation between the various districts and to the other islands.  The main lines 1 and 2 travel through the tourist areas including traversing the span of the Grand Canal, as well as the bus station (Roma), train station (Ferrovia) and the car park (Trochetto) on the mainland.  From  the Vaporetto stop closest to our home, we can pick up Lines 4.1 and 4.2 which head to the Murano/Burano/Torcello islands or the 5.1 and 5.2 which circles around the coastline of Venice.  Both of these lines stop at the bus station where we can transfer to the main lines 1 and 2, but we have found that it is much faster just to walk south through Cannaregio to get to the Grand Canal to pick up those lines directly, rather than traveling all the way around the island.

For non-residents, if you pay for individual trips, each ride is €7.50 regardless of whether you are going one stop or multiple stops. This makes it very expensive to get around by water (even though this fare is still significantly cheaper than private water taxis or gondolas which run from €60 to €100 for the boat-load).   The thing to do is to buy a Vaporetto boat pass for unlimited rides during a set period of time. The passes are available for purchase at the major Vaporetto stations or at any tobacco store and you can buy one for 1, 2, 3, 5 or 7 days.  The pass is activated by the scanner the first time you use it and keeps track of how long it is valid for.  We purchased a 7-day pass for  €60 and got our money's worth by the 3rd day, so that all subsequent rides will now be "free".  The passes work on a 24 hour clock which means that since we activated our 7-day pass at 11am on the first day, we can still use it for one more ride on the 8th day as long as we get on before 11am.  In some cases, the easiest (or only!) way to get from one side to the other of the Grand Canal that winds through the middle of Venice is to hop on a boat that crisscrosses the canal and take it for one stop.  Having an unlimited ride pass makes this financially viable.

Unlike the Alilaguana airport shuttle which limits the number of passengers that can get on each boat, the Vaporetto seems to be a free-for-all.  Just like our Toronto subways and streetcars, if you can squish in, you can board.  Because there is no real industry other than tourism and since most of the sites and shops don't open until 10am, the "rush hour" in Venice starts a bit later, seeming to span from around 8:30am to 11:30am when heading towards the tourist areas.  During these times, it is lucky if you can find any standing room at all, let alone a prime viewing spot by the rails or a seat in the covered section, or for the extremely fortunate, an outside seat in the front or back of the boat.

What we did find was that if we traveled off peak hours, such as returning home late in the evening or in the middle of the day, we were able to secure one of the good spots and were rewarded with a cool breeze, a seat and an excellent view of the scenery and landscape.  On the last valid morning of our boat pass, we rode a packed 5.2 boat out to Lido, the beach resort island, intending to take a quick peek before hopping on the 5.1 back to Venice before the pass expired.  Since no one goes to the Lido in the morning just to return 10 minutes later, we had our choice of spots on the boat and had some excellent views of Lido as well as the Arsenal and the Castillo district.  Unfortunately in our short period of time on Lido, I could not find the beach, but did spot people riding rental bicycles.

Life in Venice is dictated by the canals and waterways, which influence all aspects of daily activities.  Both the ambulance and police (and presumably firefighters) navigate on the waters to reach their destinations.  We watched as a police boat pull up to a dock and three police officers got out and walked into a cicchetti (tapas) bar–the Venetian equivalent of stopping for donuts?  At the eastern tip of Dorsoduro, we noticed a policeman with a radar gun measuring the speed of the passing boats.  It would have been exciting to witness a highspeed boat chase and takedown but no such luck!

Any goods imported into Venice are loaded from trunks onto boats at loading docks on the mainland and enter Venice by water.  We have watched transport boats go buy carrying everything from boxes of fruits and vegetables, to liquor, to appliances.  Many boats have a built in crane that is used to hoist the items ashore.  For larger items that need to be delivered to an upper floor, the crane lifts them up and through the windows (which are larger than the doors in most canal houses).  In Castillo, we even spotted a fruit and vegetable stall that was run out of a docked boat.

Especially in residential districts like Cannaregio, we were perplexed when we passed by canal houses with boats docked beside them, but no visible door for entry.  Wondering how this worked, we received our answer as we watched a man as he opened the shutters of a ground floor window, hoisted his bag through it, and then climbed in himself.  Hopefully we were witnessing an owner returning home, as opposed to a robbery in progress!

Spending almost two weeks living in the heart of historic Venice, and especially in Cannaregio, has certainly been a unique and wonderful experience.  There was so much to see and do before we even started to visit the actual tourist sites.

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