This time last week I was in one of the world’s most iconic cities. Venice is one of those places that feel immediately familiar, even if you are visiting for the first time, simply because you have seen reproductions of it that many times – on screens, in photos, in daydreams.
Venice was the destination of choice for my birthday this year, and a little something else that happens to fall on the same day, also worth celebrating. I wasn’t really thinking when, 5 years ago at my 21st birthday bash, I got together with my boyfriend Jesse. In my tipsy, happy state I didn’t stop to consider that this meant for the rest of time our anniversary would fall on my birthday, and as such two of the biggest milestones worth celebrating in my life would fall on the same day. Poor planning Rachel, very poor.
Because 26 isn’t a particularly special birthday, but 5 years for a relationship kind of feels like an important one, Jesse and I decided to go somewhere both of us wanted to visit; somewhere that, much as I hate cheesiness and overt sentimentality, seemed apt to celebrate 5 years together... so we chose one of the world’s most romantic destinations. I know, I know...
Like any such popular destination, Venice is jam packed full of tourists. And I mean Jam. Packed. Upon arriving, yes it is magical and surreal and amazing, but having been fed all these images of a quiet, serene place, facing the reality comes as a bit of a shock to the system. Crowds everywhere to push through, people aggressively selling roses and tacky tourist gimmicks, and selfie sticks hitting you as you try to enjoy the beautiful views. Although I suppose we should know to expect it, it’s just not what you imagine when you think of Venice really, is it? You think of quiet canals, salty air, pigeons in Saint Marco’s Square, and quaint trattorias where you can happily pass the hours sipping at delicious wine.
The thing is, all these elements you imagine to be so quintessentially Venice are still there, there is just so much gimmickry and so many masses of people that get in the way of experiencing it all in a way that feels authentic. And yet despite there really being too many people for the space here, the fact that there isn’t - and never will be - a single scooter, a single car, a single roar of an engine in the streets of Venice, means there is a definite magic and serenity you simply don’t find anywhere else. This is a place where people take their time getting to where they are going and enjoy the process of getting there... how could you not when the process is this picturesque? It’s a beautiful place and really, who am I to complain? Am I not, after all, one of the very tourists who so crowd the place? (Well actually not quite... you wouldn’t catch me with a selfie stick in a million years.) I just wanted to see it all minus the crowds, minus the mayhem.
So it was that I made a decision I never thought I’d make by choice in my entire life... I got up at sunrise to walk the streets of Venice, to enjoy the calm before the storm and see it as I always imagined it would be (see above for example of said storm. Can't a girl get a classic bridge shot without all these people in it?! Especially that dude to my right who has got some serious lean going on). This may not sound like an extreme thing but for anyone that knows me; trust me, it is. Oh, how it is. My ex-flatmate, Brynne, had been told I was not a morning person before we moved in together, but upon actually witnessing this first hand she said, “Yeah, you said you weren’t a morning person, but never have I seen someone who actually just doesn’t function as a human like you in the morning.”
Perhaps this lets you know how much I am NOT a morning person, how wild and crazy an idea this was for me. Let me tell you now... it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I saw a whole different side of the celebrated city... I saw it waking up in the morning, the locals going about their business while they could still move easily through the narrow streets. I saw the gondola drivers uncovering their boats for the day’s work ahead, shouting down the canals to each other in Venetian dialect I couldn’t understand a word of (it doesn’t sound a thing like Italian). I saw groups of old local men squeezing themselves into tiny espresso bars where they all stood shouting into each other’s faces in that passionate way Italians do, even though they're only discussing the weather, laughing with the bar staff, and gesticulating wildly with their hands, their tiny coffee cups threatening to slosh over. Saint Marco’s Square, crammed within an inch of its life by day, was all but empty – except the pigeons of course, who I took a moment to stop and say hello to. Note to travellers: when in Venice, embrace the pigeons.
If you ever find yourself a little disillusioned or overwhelmed with the touristy-ness of a city, I recommend getting up early to see it in a whole different light. Not the mention the early morning sunlight really does add a feeling of magic you just don’t get during the day. And the best part? We had a whole city of dainty little espresso bars at our disposal, devoid of tourists, so it was easy to get a quick, strong coffee to get me through the early start. (I’m still not a morning person though.)
Ah Venice, you're all sorts of magical, crowds or no crowds.