Venice welcomes us with open, money-grabbing arms. Everyone wants us to buy something – the Italian men patrolling the station (“cheap accomodation, very very cheap..”), the African men on the streets with rows of designer insignia handbags laid out on white sheets, or pretty blue lights they throw into the air that float elegantly down to your feet – be careful not to watch too closely… “I DON’T WANT IT!” I demand as he tries for the third time to push me into buying one. Later others will throw similar lights to the air and point up at them, trying to get me to look. I’m not falling for that again.
We didn’t manage to find a couch in Venice before leaving Ljubljana and none of the people I contacted on CS have sent a text message, so first we need to find internet. Easier said than done. By the time we find an internet cafe it’s almost 10pm and not only has nobody replied, the price of internet is €6 an hour. It’s “only” €2 for 15 minutes though, which gives just enough time to locate the Veneto SOS Couch Venice Group and leave a message with my phone number. We cross our fingers and head off to explore the city while waiting for the barrage of couch offers to arrive.
Now, this may sound very uncultured, ignorant or naive of me, but I really had no idea what Venice would be like. I even asked the man who dropped us at the airport if Venice had a metro. He looked very surprised and replied “No… it’s all water!” “Oh,” said David and I in the back, “oh, wow!” I didn’t even know it was an island. I knew there were a lot of waterways, of course. I knew there were canals with gondolas and that’s what it’s famous for, but I had no idea that that’s all there is. So, I was not prepared for an Escher-esque labyrinthine network of waterways and bridges, narrow cobbled streets and ancient Roman architecture seemingly built right on the water. I was not prepared for the most beautiful, surreal and expensive city in the world*
The hitch here from Ljubljana was tough. We waited three and a half hours to get out of the city, then got a lift 1km to a service station, where we scraped together remaining scraps of dignity before finally getting lifts of any distance – from the head of the military health service in Slovenia and a musicain in a 9 seat car, driving all the way to Venice to catch a flight to Germany – except he wasn’t really going into Venice, but to a city nearby, and a mis-calculation on my part meant we completely missed the last service station and ended up at the airport with him. We gave up and caught the shuttle bus to the island for €5 each. The Military Health Man seemed astounded that we should want to go to Venice. He said it’s far too surreal for him. I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but it definitely made me want to come.
After wandering with our laden backpacks we are very tired. It’s been a long day, but we still haven’t heard from any couchsurfers and the cheapest bed in a hostel dorm seems to be €22. It’s looking like a rough night at the station for us. I leave David sitting on the steps with our bags and go off to reccy a green space on our map in case it’s a suitable wild camping spot. It’s inaccessible: all parks on the island are walled, gated and locked. They don’t want the likes of us around. While looking I see a sign: “Rooms for friends – low prices” and follow it down a long alley and over a little bridge to a big gate with a lot of doorbells. None of the names next to the bells mention anything about rooms or friends. I’m on my way back to the station with the bad news when a girl passes me going the other way. My intuitive alarm goes off and I stand on the bridge to see where she goes, kicking myself when I see her go through the gate. She’s out of site by the time I get there, but I’m not going to let that happen again. When another woman comes along, I stop her and ask about the sign. She walks with me again to the gate and together we look at the bells with the light from my phone. I explain our situation to her and this wonderful woman offers us a bed in her home, in the gate next door. I am delighted. The woman, Francesca, walks back to the station with me and we tell David the good news: no sleeping at the station for us!
Francesca turns out to be an actual genuine angel, with a mischeivous smile, an open heart and a lot of energy. She lives with her teenage son, who’s in bed when we arrive. We tiptoe around as she cooks us pasta and talk in whispers about our travels and her life in Venice. In the lounge where we’re to sleep is her son’s laptop. David and I point excitedly at the stickers on the lid: antifa, a squat symbol and a big anarchy ‘A’. He’s got stickers on his door too. Francesca sees me looking and I point “your son is antifascista!” She looks to the heavens “yes, thank god – it’s the only thing!”
In the morning Francesca makes us breakfast and invites us back for lunch. We can leave our things here while we go to explore the city. I love this woman. How can we have been so lucky? She says if we’re quick we might see the floods. There was an alarm this morning but I slept too deeply, although David heard it. “Acqua alta” (high water) has become a fact of life in Venice. The water level regularly rises above the level of the squares and streets, flooding them. You can get an acqua alta map at the tourist offices, showing the higher, dry routes and the ones with walkways. What I took to be piles of market tables the day before are in fact raised walkways ready to be erected when acqua alta hits. There’s also a tide measuring station and a noticeboard that shows a live tide reading and predictions for the next few days.
It’s a beautiful day and I’m conned into paying an extra 50c to take my coffee by one of the many, many canals. I was told it was five cents extra, but the man later blames his own bad English with a cheeky smile. Cafe’s and bars have two prices: one for sitting, one for standing. A medium beer, sitting, near to San Marco can easily be €7. What a tourist trap of a city. Museums, churches, maps, toilets… “Nothing is free in Venice,” says the man in the shop in which I enquire about the city-wide “free” wifi I’ve been told about. It’s free for residents, but they need your address and ID.
I wish I could go back in time and see it in it’s heyday. Now it seems Venice is a city of tourists. 60,000 people live here on the “island” (actually 117 small islands connected by 409 bridges over 177 canals(!)), but it seems like there are more tourists than residents and the tourist industry is the main source of income. The city has an average of 50,000 tourists a day. The population in the historic centre (the island itself), has halved over the past decade and I wonder if that’s because most of the buildings are now hotels, restaurants, guest houses and mask shops – rather than actual houses. I do find one locals shop, following a sign scrawled in biro on the side of a building “supermarket –>” I follow a narrow alley and enter a small archway which somehow contains a full-size supermarket. It’s cheap, and a good thing too as dumpster and table-diving are both impossible here.
There are no cars in Venice and I was so tired when arriving it’s not til now that I realise what’s different. Beyond the land entrance at the northern edge of the city where we arrived on the bus, transport on the island is entirely on water or on foot. No wonder it’s so quiet.
I spend my morning getting lost in the waterway labyrinth and exploring the Jewish Ghetto. At lunch we meet Francesca’s son, who gives us the address of two autonomous Social Centres – Rivolta in Mestre on the mainland and Morion here on the island. We spend most of the afternoon crossing the island to find it. We find hundreds of identical Venetian mask shops (mostly actually made in China), but the social centre is closed. Shame. Graffiti throughout the city tells the tell-tale sign of anarchists, but we have yet to find any apart from Francesca’s teenage son.
I treat myself to a Vaporetto waterbus back, only realising after paying the €6.50 fare how easy it would have been not to pay. Blackriding a boatbus would definitely have been a novelty, but least it’s cheaper than the €80-100 gondola rides.
The angel Francesca lets us stay another night. We leave a note and some chocolate in our room in the morning and hug her goodbye. She calls me back from the window because I’ve left my laptop lead, but when I look, she’s sneaked some chocolate into the bag as well. She’s given us some traditional Venician biscuits too. None of this is vegan but we eat it anyway. Italy is bad for me.
Later, I found this on the CS Venice Wiki: “Venice is home to 112 Couchsurfers as of March 2008. It’s considered one of the toughest places in the world to find a couch.”
*in my limited experience.