The last leg of our trip through central and northern Italy found us on a 2-hour train ride from Florence to Venice, before another 35-minute commuter train took us to the location of the wedding, the midsize city of Treviso.
At the Florence train station, the Santa Maria Novella (even the train stations in Italy have fancy church names), we found the counter for the rail we were using. In Italy, there is one state-sponsored rail company, but now there are a few private ones; we went with Italo, one of the private lines. Their message board did not list our train yet because it hadn’t arrived. To board the platforms, you have to pass through a security gate and then show your ticket to armed soldiers; based on my experience while lost in the Rome subway system at the beginning of the trip, I was looking forward to not having one of them point their weapons at me, thank you very much. You can’t enter the platform area until your train has arrived. We kept checking the Italo board and the general board for the whole station; our train kept not being there. It was a 10 a.m. train. 10 a.m. came and went. No one seemed alarmed or surprised. I asked one of the Italo ticket agents: “Scuzi, dove il tren?” as I pointed to my ticket. In English, she replied, “It won’t appear on the board until it arrives at the platform; it will get here soon enough, sir.” Just an FYI if you travel to Italy, the whole country runs on the “soon enough” method of things happening. Our guidebook suggested a slogan for the country: “Things always seem to work out in the end somehow.”
So my lovely wife Jen said, “I guess we just wait here until we see our train appear on the board?” We looked around and saw about 20 other people staring at the board, so we assumed as much. After a length of time that could reasonably be described as “soon enough,” the board was updated, and our train was on it. Yay! We rushed to the security gate, where I calmly showed my ticket to the soldier; he grunted and waved me through. We jogged to the platform, settled into our seats, and approximately 20 seconds later, the train departed. Jen and I were like, “Che due palle!” (We were getting cocky with our Italian.) If we hadn’t rushed over there the minute the train appeared on the board, we would have missed it. How many others missed the train because of this? Oh well, as they say in Italy, “Non e el mio problema” (not my problem).
Ah, Venice. You arrive by train at the Santa Lucia station (of course it’s named for a church) right on the Grand Canal. Whenever anyone found out we were heading to Venice for a day, they either said a variation of “you’ll love it, it’s the most gorgeous city in the world” or “ugh, Venice, it’s smelly and crowded and sinking into the Adriatic Sea and did we mention how bad the canals smell?” After spending the day there, we sided with the “gorgeous city” group. Maybe it was the day we were there, but it wasn’t stinky (except for when we stumbled upon the Rialto Fish Market; that was indeed stinky).
Jen had planned for us to take a vaporetto up the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Square. The vaporetto is a commuter boat that holds about 250 people, mostly packed like sardines in the center cabin, but there are a limited number of seats at the front of the boat, maybe 20, that offer the best views. Jen found one, and I hovered near her like a creep and snapped photos. Line 1, the most direct line, takes about 20 minutes, passes the best sights on the Grand Canal, and costs about 7 euros. Compare that to a gondola ride: a friend of mine rode on a gondola for 40 minutes in a tiny canal and paid 80 euros. Yikes! Jen and I like each other, but we’re too cheap to spend that much on a romantic boat ride.
The architecture in Venice is unlike that in most of the rest of Italy, and definitely unlike Renaissance-heavy Florence. Because Venice is in the northeastern corner of Italy, and because the Venetian Republic was a major port of entry for trading partners to the east, there is much more of a Byzantine, Moorish, we’re-not-near-Rome-anymore feel. When the vaporetto approaches St. Mark’s Square and you can see the Basilica de Santa Maria della Salute on one side of the canal and the Doge’s Palace with St. Mark’s clocktower behind it, it’s like nowhere else you’ve been in the world. (Unless you’ve been to the Venetian in Las Vegas. I don’t judge.)
We disembarked and joined the masses of tourists storming St. Mark’s Square the way Napoleon’s troops did in 1797, the only difference being most of us were wearing flip-flops, sunglasses, and Bermuda shorts instead of blue jackets with epaulettes and fringes, plumed shakos, and white breeches. But otherwise exactly the same. After wandering around, we skipped out on the expensive cafes in the square and the fees to enter the palaces and the Correr Museum and found a little side street to explore. You might notice a pattern that we skip out on things that cost money. That’s because (as previously mentioned) we’re cheap. Every year for our anniversary, I give Jen a big box of “I got you nothing this year,” and she likes it. On family vacations, our kids are constantly saying at the end of the night, “Wait a minute, did we only have two meals today?” Also, I give myself haircuts. And so forth.
Venice is known for its glassmaking. Venetian glass has been made for over 1,500 years, and if we had more time, we would have visited the island of Murano, a 40-minute boat ride from St. Mark’s Square, where the glass-blowing industry is centered. We found a shop with all kinds of glass objects and lingered there. I really wanted to get my father-in-law a knife with a glass handle, but Jen talked me out of it by reminding me that airport security would probably remove it from my carry-on backpack, toss it in the garbage, and beat me with loaves of prosciutto. We did get my mother-in-law a necklace. Then we started wandering down the streets of Venice.
Here’s the great thing about the city, especially for those of us whose every blog entry could be titled “Lost in (Enter Italian City Name Here)”: You can’t get lost in Venice if you are walking. Sure, you could stumble over the edge into any of the more than 400 canals in the city, but here’s their trick: although the streets are winding and there are tons of small piazzas, called campi (by some counts, there are about 700 campi, some as big as the Piazza San Marco and some as tiny as the bathroom in our hotel back in Levanto), nearly every intersection had directional signs pointing toward major sights. Jen and I decided to spend the day heading generally in the direction of the Santa Lucia train station, and there were signs saying “All Ferrovia” (to the train station), “Per S. Marco” (to St. Mark’s Square), “Per Rialto” (to the Rialto Bridge). It was awesome.
The only sad-face-emoji moment I had in Venice was when I decided to have a gelato. Jen passed; good choice. We were in a tiny campo, and there was a small shelter with a man selling gelatos. My first clue that it probably wasn’t going to be of the highest quality was that it was a small shelter, so clearly he wasn’t making fresh gelato on-site. The next clue was something we saw all over Italy: even though there’s a ban on smoking in public places, the country is lousy with smokers. My friendly gelato guy was smoking in his shed, or just outside of it. Although I didn’t order the cigarette-flavored gelato, I might as well have. Boo.
Venice was also the first (and only) time we broke down and paid to use a public restroom. We made it almost the whole trip without having to, but we weren’t sure how long our train to Treviso would take (or if we’d miss it, like we almost did in Florence), so we paid the 1-euro fee at the train station to take care of our business before the train arrived.
On to Treviso: The commuter train dropped us off around 7 at the Treviso train station (no fancy name here: Treviso Centrale). When we exited the station, you might not be surprised that we were lost. The train station is just outside of the city center, which is roughly where its old city wall stood. Portions of the wall remain, as do three of the 12 original gates. Again, since there is no grid system to the old portion of the city, we were back to our “let’s try this street here–nope, that’s not it” method of navigation. In JRR Tolkein’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf writes in his letter to Frodo: “Not all those who wander are lost,” referring to Strider (Aragorn), leader of the Rangers. I’d like to see a corollary to that statement: Sometimes people who wander a lot are usually lost a lot. We couldn’t find the bed-and-breakfast that we randomly chose online, knowing nothing about Treviso. It took us 20 minutes to do a 5-minute walk. Acquaintances of ours staying nearby, in town for the wedding, opted for a taxi: the driver looked at them curiously when he picked them up from the station, then drove for approximately 90 seconds to their rental.
When we arrived at our B&B, we had to be buzzed in. I use the term “B&B” loosely. I’m not sure what else to call it. Imagine a building filled with lawyers’ and doctors’ offices. Then take one of those on the third floor, slap up a few drywall partitions, put locks on the doors, add bathrooms in the closets, and presto, you have a B&B. After the host checked us in, he left for the night, and until we checked out, we never again saw anyone on staff in the 2 days we stayed there. Jen was fine with it; I felt as if I was locked accidentally in an accountant’s office for the night.
Starving, we headed out to the one restaurant our host recommended. The streets were abandoned, and judging by the graffiti, we couldn’t tell what kind of neighborhood we were in. Italians love their graffiti; it was literally invented there–the word comes from the Italian graffiato, or scratched. When we got to the restaurant, it was completely empty except for a few servers; 150 open seats in the dining area. One of them asked us if we had a reservation, and when we said no, he said, “Then it’s impossible to seat you! It can’t be done. We are fully booked.” I looked at Jen, then out on the street. Tumbleweeds rolled by. I didn’t know if he was pulling my leg or just sniffed out that we were cheapskate Americans, but we left. We found a grocery store and had a thrown-together meal of cheese, crackers, dates, nuts, and chocolate. Back in our accountant’s office.
The next morning, at breakfast, it happened: We met the Spaniard! But we didn’t know it yet. At breakfast in the employee lounge-turned-dining room, there were two tiny tables. We took one, and two gentlemen came in and took the other. We didn’t speak to them; frankly, we were a little exhausted from trying to communicate with people and just wanted to be left alone. We heard them speaking English under low voices; one of them had an accent. He was taller and handsomer than me, he had an operatic voice, and his beard had its own Twitter account (probably). We didn’t talk with them then, but we would run into them again later.
We had a free day to explore Treviso before the wedding craziness consumed us. Treviso is a midsize city (pop. 85,000) with its own pretty canals; its nickname is the Little Venice of the Mainland. The River Sile runs through it, and in Dante Alighieri’s 1320 narrative poem Divine Comedy, the town makes an appearance as the place “where the Sile and the Cagnan accompany each other.” Its city walls date to the 1500s, and like most of the places we visited, it contained buildings much older than that. There’s a cathedral with long stone steps out front that is popular with teenagers as a hang-out late at night. The most famous native son is Luciano Benetton, founder of the Benetton Group, the clothing company. There are no longer any United Colors of Benetton stores in The United States, but anyone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s would remember their colorful clothing and ads; they are all over Italy and Europe. I told Jen, “The flagship Benetton store is in Treviso, and we have to go there.” She was not on board with that plan. “What are we going to do, buy a bunch of clothes and jam them into our carry-ons?” Still, I planned on visiting at some point. The other claim to fame for Treviso is that it is where tiramisu was invented. I was still drooling over the tiramisu we had back in Rome, so this meant a lot to me.
We strolled around the city and had a good lunch at Pizzeria “da Roberto.” I don’t know who this Roberto is or why they had the parentheses in the name of the restaurant, but the pizza and salad were tasty. A little fancier than what we were accustomed to, and once again we couldn’t get the attention of the servers when we wanted to leave. I body-blocked a busboy as he walked by and tossed a wad of euros in the air to let him know we were ready to pay. That seemed to work.
We hit the Piazza Independenza and came upon the two-story Benetton flagship store. “Jen,” I said, “there it is!” She let out a “meh” and grudgingly agreed to go inside with me. (Italian-film buffs might recognize this area of Treviso as the filming location of the 1966 Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix winner “Signore e Signori,” or as it was known in the United States, “The Birds, the Bees, and the Italians.”) Once we entered the store, however, Jen’s mood changed. She got this hypnotized look in her eyes and was drawn to this multi-colored, knee-length knitted coat hanging on a rack off to the side. “Ooh, I like this,” she kept saying, then tried various ways of justifying buying it and lugging it back to America in a carry-on. Meanwhile, I went upstairs to check out the menswear and came up with nothing. We were short on time, and I was realizing what Jen said was right: How would I jam anything else in my carry-on? So went back downstairs, and I saw that look in Jen’s eyes. No, not that one; the one that said, “I am going to buy that coat, carry-ons be damned.” So we bought it, and she just added a carry-on bag to the pile. I call it Jenny and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
Randomly, we ran into some acquaintances from Australia on the streets; they were on their way to visit other in-town wedding guests, so we joined them. (Three-quarters of the wedding guests would be Italian, and the remaining quarter was mostly Australian with a few of us Americans in the mix.) We were invited to the rental apartment of an amazing Australian woman in her 80s who had basically traveled the world several times over and was still doing it late in life. Her son-in-law accompanied her on the trip; his wife couldn’t make it. I asked him if it was weird traveling with his mother-in-law; he looked at me like I was crazy. “No,” he said, “she’s great. I love her.” Boy, did I feel small for assuming all the in-law cliches applied to them. They served us an awesome spread of meats and cheeses and drinks that Jen and I turned into a free dinner.
The next day was the wedding. Jen had to be picked up early with another out-of-towner from Australia, so I walked her over to the rendezvous spot, and off they went to do whatever women do with the bride on the morning of a wedding. I met up with some friends, and we waited for a shuttle van that took us to the church. Across the street from the church was a nice restaurant that hosted the wedding party and out-of-towners like me; pizza, meats, cheeses, desserts, and drinks were laid out for us. I could get used to this.
The bride (who is like a sister to Jen) and groom have a toddler son who I get to babysit every summer; he spotted me in the courtyard at this restaurant and immediately demanded that I get on the ground and play with his trucks with him. So while all the other adults enjoyed delicious food and sparkling conversation, I was on my knees in my wedding clothes going “vroom vroom” with my little buddy. I’m sure I made a great impression on all the Italian relatives.
The wedding was magnificent. The bride lit up the church when she entered, and the groom was the only person in the room who could match her. The priest spoke in Italian and English; I was asked to do one of the readings (it was a tough call, but I opted for English). Then, halfway through the ceremony, the Spaniard stood up and sang. From deep within his beard that has its own Twitter account (probably) came a voice of such command and presence. Picture Pavarotti, or more accurately, Placido Domingo or Jose Carreras. Wow. After the wedding, Jen and I introduced ourselves to him and his partner, and we all recognized each other from the B&B. Bizarrely, like Jen, they thought it was a “nice place.”
We all crowded into shuttle vans to head into the mountains for the reception. Initially, there wasn’t enough room for Jen to squeeze in, as she hadn’t been in the van on the way to the church. Desperate, I ran over to the best man, Francesco, and explained our dilemma. “Ah, Jenny,” he said, “I am the best man and she is, how do you say, the best woman?” He calmly walked over, spoke to the driver in Italian, smoothed things out, and 5 minutes later another van appeared from out of nowhere. That dude was being a best man like a boss.
Almost an hour into our drive, the van driver pointed into the mountains to show us where the reception was: there were two separate villas in the heart of the Prosecco region (that’s an Italian white wine), one where most of the guests were staying, and then another about 10 minutes further up the mountain where a large house contained only three rooms and the large outdoor garden where the reception was held; somehow, Jen and I ended up with one of these rooms, allowing us to stumble into our bed after the reception ended.
On the grass outside the villa was a long table that sat 100 people. When we went to be seated, I was supposed to be sitting across from Jen, who was next to the bride. A cousin of the groom started speaking in heated Italian to Francesco; clearly, by her arm movements, she was unhappy that she had to sit next to me instead of her husband or whoever. Francesco would listen to her screaming and yelling, say something to her, then turn to me and say, “Everything’s okay. You sit there.” Then she would yell at him some more, pointing at me, I’d say to Francesco, “Is everything okay?” and he’d smile and say, “Yes, yes, everything’s fine. You sit there.” After about 5 minutes of this, he yelled something at her, talked with about five people on the other side of the table, then smiled at me and said, “How would you like to sit on the other side of the table, next to your beautiful wife?” Perfect; he was killing it best-man style.
This being an Italian wedding, there were approximately 187 courses of food served during the dinner portion.
The side of the table that I sat on was backed up to the edge of the mountain. We had a gorgeous view over our shoulders of the surrounding valley that only got prettier as the night went on. Also, our chairs sunk deeper into the grass, and because of the slight slope, people would periodically lean back and fall over. I was talking to the woman to my left, and she tilted back laughing at one of my many witticisms, and down she went. We helped her back up, and not 2 minutes later, the man on her other side took a tumble. We could just stare down the table and predict who was going to fall next based on the number of Proseccos they drank. There was a fence protecting us from falling over the cliff, but I’m hoping someone did a headcount on our side of the table at the end of the night.
My little babysitting buddy was having a blast, but he was all riled up. By the time the dancing started, he was looking for me. I picked him up and started dancing with him, and within a few minutes, he fell dead asleep in my arms. I laid him down in the building on a couch, where he slept for the rest of the night. The groom’s Italian relatives hugged and kissed me for this; whatever they were saying in Italian, I’m assuming they were calling me the toddler whisperer or something similar.
At about midnight, I was exhausted. Jen checked with the bride about how late the reception would go. She laughed and said it was just getting started; she promised that pasta would be brought out soon to rev people up for more dancing. So we danced; a little-known fact about me is that I can clear a dance floor with my moves. Invite me to a wedding and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, at about 2 in the morning, Jen and I dragged ourselves upstairs to our room and collapsed on our bed. From what we heard the next day, the party raged on until 4:30.
Late the next morning was a lovely brunch with the wedding party and out-of-towners; we got to say goodbye to all of our Australian friends and talk some more with the Spaniard. We hitched a ride with some of the groom’s relatives back to Treviso, where we spent one more day relaxing and recovering from the wedding. We found a different hotel this time; it was called B&B Hotel, which was a strange name because it wasn’t what you’d normally call a B&B but rather a chain hotel. The first “B” part was great; it was clean, modern, and comfy, probably the best hotel we stayed in on the whole trip, if lacking in uniqueness. the “&B” part was good, too, but breakfast was an extra cost, so it was more like “B plus B if you want to pay more.” Still, if by some miracle you find yourself in Treviso, I recommend it.
Our 80-something-year-old friend called us up and invited us to dinner with her son-in-law and her, so we hung with them for a really nice evening. We walked over to a pizza place, had good conversation, and said so long in the night. We wandered down the streets of Treviso, and amazingly, we ran into the Spaniard, his partner, and a few other Australians from the wedding. They took us to a gelato place, then we sat on the steps of the cathedral with about 50 teenagers and ate our treats. At one point, I was complaining about the state of the world to the Spaniard, and he said, “Let’s not worry about that now. Right now, just think: we are here, in Italy, with new friends and old, eating gelato on the steps of a cathedral on a wonderful evening.”
Perfect. That was a nice summary of what the trip was all about for Jen and me. I could go on and bore you with the details of the next day’s bus ride to the Venice airport and the 9-hour flight back home, but let’s leave it at this sweet gelato-fueled moment, shall we?