Milan & Venice – Italy
After spending three glorious weeks travelling around Greece, continuing on to Santorini, Venice and Rome back-to-back at the end of July is nothing short of moronic but our itinerary had been designed for 2021 not 2022, and I had decided to take the slap in the face instead of making yet another whole new set of travel plans. Turns out that may have been the wrong course of action because now I’m sat in a hotel room writing about a country I longed to travel, which has turned out to be utterly shite up to now. So, this is my disclaimer before unleashing the rant, I understand the timing of my visit isn’t ideal, I understand there is much more of the country to see, I understand that as someone who doesn’t like cities travelling to cities in high season introduces a certain degree of bias, but I can only write about my own experience, and right now I can confidently say that Italy, yes Italy, is the worse country I have ever travelled around.
Our original itinerary involved flying from Santorini to spend three nights in Venice but in a wee plot twist we had to catch a train to Milan for the night. The first mistake was I booked the train tickets for two hours after landing in Venice which in the current climate is brave and predictably our flight was delayed by an hour due to a ‘medical emergency’. Unpredictably our bags were some of the first to appear on the luggage belt in Venice which we took as a good omen. With our bus tickets from the airport purchased from a ticket machine, we found the bus, threw our bags in the hold and presented our tickets to someone standing by the coach door who told us curtly that we needed to validate the tickets in a little yellow box just behind us. I turned around, stuck my ticket in the box which came out with a corner missing, turned back to the arse, presented the ticket and was duly let on the coach. The QR code on the ticket must have been there for aesthetics. Waiting for the coach to leave, someone boarded and politely asked the driver when the first bus departed Venice back to the airport the following morning, he was sharply told to check the timetable at the station in Venice. We arrived at Venice bus station with minutes to spare, walked at pace (I refuse to run to catch transport as it’s a sign of disorganisation!) over a bridge to the train station, hopped aboard the correct train and found our seats only to discover a young family sat in them, and so not to cause a fuss we sat down in other seats and I spent the following two and a half hours anxious someone was going to tell me to get out of their seat.
On arrival to Milan, we had to get to the hotel before 9pm otherwise they would charge us a heap of euros for a late check-in as appears the way in Italy. With that achieved we headed down the street to find somewhere to eat and ended up in a very local, very fancy restaurant where our guessed dinner choices turned out to be bloody lovely. Upon asking for the check, it arrived along with a plate of cream filled pastries covered in chocolate sauce and a side of sorbet. Italy was looking up. Upon examining the check, it turns out that Italian restaurants like to charge their guests for the use of condiments and any extras they give you which you never asked for in the first place. I think it may even cover the cost of the cutlery! However, in the case of this particular restaurant their dessert was well worth the charge. Our reason for being in Milan was for my Better Half to sit an English exam and so we were up for breakfast in the hotel as soon as it opened at 7.30am. Breakfast had been laid out and so we helped ourselves, but we hadn’t paid in advance as we were told we could pay at breakfast. As no one from the hotel was to be seen we didn’t bother paying. With exams in progress, I headed out to explore central Milan which isn’t a bad city to be fair with a rather extravagant main square and an extremely impressive cathedral. My main interest lay in all the English flags flying everywhere alongside the Italian flag and upon enquiring I discovered it was in fact the flag of Milan. Oddities kept creeping in though. On meeting the good lady for lunch, the restaurant’s bathroom was found to have a squat toilet which was slightly unexpected. After lunch, while discussing the daily racism faced by a Syrian med student in Italy who wanted to practice in the UK, a Mercedes driver attempted to run us over because he couldn’t wait for us to round a parked car that was in our way; where he expected us to go, I have no idea. Still, Milan was ok. Although it was bloody hot and so we headed straight to Burger King at the train station for two large cokes in anticipation of it being half ice. No ice available. Warm cokes in hand we boarded the train having to get back to Venice before 7.30pm before we would be charged for a late check-in.
Venice is suffocating in every way; the heat, the volume of people, the stench, the fact it’s sinking into the lagoon. Let it sink I say and may it become a wonderful diving attraction. Again, I have little doubt we would have a different experience at a different time of year and the city is beautiful, but it has sold out to commercial tourism exchanging its soul for endless shops selling tat and gondola rides costing €80 for 30 minutes. It didn’t help that on our first evening when looking for somewhere to eat the waiter got pissed off after we dared to ask for a table for 2 and aggressively told us there was no pizza available before sending us to sit out by a canal at a table next to a stinking bin colonised by flies and wasps. There were plenty of tables away from the bin and so I walked away. As an Englishman it’s not in my nature to make a fuss and I personally can’t stand making a scene and put up with quite a lot, but Italy was starting to grate and for the first time ever I walked away from a restaurant after already sitting down. The next restaurant I should say was very nice with excellent staff, but then we would soon learn that the best service came from workers not from Italy.
Because of Milan, we had only one full day to explore Venice which turned out to be more than enough time for people who weren’t prepared or that interested to go inside every historical building. Simply walking around Venice is extraordinary with the majority of people behaving as though they have never seen a canal, a bridge, or even a boat before. It’s like you’re not allowed to cross a bridge unless taking a heap of photos, which is of course what we did. Fighting through the crowds, past the endless shops and restaurants we targeted the famous Piazza San Marco, a huge area of nothingness flanked by grand buildings with a large tower and a church at one end. St Mark’s Basilica (the church) has been described as one of the most easily recognisable in the world, but it was new to me and although it looked impressive on the outside, as a novice, the whole square was no more impressive than many landmarks throughout Europe. I know I sound like an ungrateful prick, but I simply couldn’t find an ounce of excitement for any of it. As recommended by our hotel host, we did hop across to the island of Saint Giorgio Maggiore to wonder through an impressive church and take a lift up the tower that offered spectacular views of the city. Only a five-minute boat ride away it was far enough to escape the crowds and my spirits began to lift, only to be rocked by an expensive lunch of pizza and coke. But no matter, for we decided to make the 40-minute boat ride out to Torcello, first settled over 1,500 years ago and believed to have spawned modern-day Venice it now has a permanent population of about 12. Other than a 1,000-year-old basilica and the bottom of an empty wine glass there wasn’t a great deal to see, but the sight of trees, grass and a large blue sky above our heads was enough to initiate a slightly more relaxed state. The tourists remained of course but in far fewer number, the tiny canals had visibly flowing water that didn’t stink and the bridges provided a far more attractive photo opportunity. Overestimating the size of the island we retreated back to the island of Burano just five minutes away. Here we hit the jack pot.
An island a little bigger than Torcello and much smaller than Venice, Burano is extraordinarily beautiful and surprisingly peaceful. I think the unexpectedness added to the occasion, but the town is like a mini-Venice with less pomp, far more colour, and takes itself far less seriously. The houses and shops that line the canals are painted bright yellows, blues, greens, pinks and every other colour you can think of. Open and airy with a tolerable level of people Burano was a joy to walk around, and they even have a big tower that is leaning significantly. As the day wore on, we retired to a café for some wine and were surprised to find ourselves surrounded by old locals enjoying a drink and sharing yarns, and when we went hunting for a restaurant there was only two that we could see and we found ourselves sat in peace, eating incredible food, served by lovely staff, watching people go about their evening on a wide street that was closing down for the night instead of overflowing with tables, chairs and diners. Catching the boat back to Venice as the sun set, loaded on wine, was a memorable way to see out the day and surprisingly our walk back to the hotel even failed to dampen our mood. Venice at night is a different beast, the supressing heat is replaced with atmospheric lighting, the backstreets empty and even the main streets become slightly more navigable, all allowing glimpses of a Venice that was and what it should probably return to. On the narrow street to our hotel, we nipped into a delightfully tiny wine bar that was out of sight from the crowds but always busy with locals and visitors that bothered to explore. The owner was straight to the point with his wine and attitude but warm and welcoming allowing me to finish the day almost able to display some affection to the city. Unfortunately, I couldn’t have been happier to leave, yet also happy in the knowledge that we had discovered that the best part of Venice isn’t in Venice.