While we may never recoup the cost of our canceled train from Budapest, the value of planning ahead was never more evident than in our two part journey from Vienna to Venice via Salzburg. On both legs of the journey, we had reserved first class seats at exceptionally low fares. With second class stuffed to the gills, first class proved to be a calm oasis with more space and a peaceful atmosphere. Suddenly the advice to forget first class on European trains looked like a situational consideration rather than a must have advice.
With the European Union in continuous upheaval, we were grateful that the regular trains were still running from Vienna. In many ways, the fact that we were traveling to Salzburg and Innsbruck and then points south to Italy, and not crossing the border into Germany, may have actually worked in our favor. Although the trains were full, we would not have to cross what was until just a few days ago an unrestricted open border.
Although our stop in Salzburg was brief, arriving late and departing early, we did have a chance to walk around town a little bit and that resulted in one of those fun little moments. We stumbled across the 150th anniversary of the districts volunteer fire fighters. It was marked by a long parade of citizens from 9 to 90, dressed in distinctive full uniforms replete with banners, full marching bands, and an assortment of happy characters. It was a clearly a very proud day for many of the towns in the area, as each had their own uniforms in various colors and styles. We stayed at the Priest’s Seminary for the night, just across the street from the house where Mozart lived for over ten of his earlier years.
The whole point of overnighting in Salzburg was to cross the Brenner Pass in the daytime, a decision that we did not regret. The journey from Salzburg to Innsbruck was filled with beautiful valleys full of picturesque homes and perhaps the most handsome cows we have ever seen. Our train moved through high terraced tracks and below us were streams, pathways, roads, and farms rich with apples, pears, some grapes, and gardens. Bridges with highways crossed the canyons and valleys high above as the train moved along the mountain side and occasionally through tunnels. At Brenner, the border between Austria and Italy, you began to see lots of fruit orchards and then the Dolomites appear; large chalk like mounds, massive like tortoise shells of rock and trees.
An incredible Chat
On the train we chose a six person first class cabin that was vacant for the early part of our journey. Later, we were joined by Gianni Zuanich and his wife whose seat were in our cabin. As our tickets did not list assigned seats, they were gracious enough to encourage us to stay. With the four of us, it was no problem. There was room enough in the cabin for all of us. Gianni, a resident of Venezia, gave us restaurant recommendations, instructions on how to travel on the waterbus, which tickets to buy, Venetian and Italian history, and safety concerns for while we were in the city. Meeting people who live in the area makes a big difference. His recommendation for La Madonna was excellent. It was perhaps the best meal we had in Venice.
Company makes the journey far more interesting. Gianni and his wife helped fill the time and before long we were making way to our final stop at Venezia San Lucia station, where we would part ways with our seat mates and find our way to B&B Rialto 1082. Gianni was extremely helpful giving us instructions on how the addresses are laid out and how one side of the canal can have the same number as the other side, and which district were we staying in, etc. He made it easy by telling us to take the #1 waterbus and get off a San Silvestro stop on the Grand Canal.
Our first interaction at Rialto 1082 was with Nico, the father of our host Damiano. With just a wee bit of Italian, there was a fair amount of shrugging and nodding, and lots of smiles. Nico was actually very helpful providing directions in Italian. Somehow, “due porto a sinistri”, which we thought meant, “two corners or blocks then to the left” actually meant “two bridges and straight ahead”. Amazingly, after the first bridge, it all made sense and we arrived at our intended restaurant for a meal.
Think of the city as having one large canal in an “S” shape running through the middle of an island, some larger waterways around the main island and a lot of lesser canals here and there, large bodies of water outside of the city center, and many streets “via”, and piazzas in between. Streets are often an alley or a walkway that leads to a square or a plaza, and they rarely go in a straight line for long. There are no cars, as it is all walkable and all in a rather confined space. It smells of age, salt, mold, cats, fish, musk, people, and traffic. You find day to day as you would in any city, garbage pick-up, deliveries, taxis, sewer services, busses, police, charters, and such… all are done by boat as it has been doing for centuries.
The biggest challenge for Venice is the crush of people. This type of atmosphere can lend itself to hit and miss experiences from which it can be difficult to escape. Even with good recommendations and in less traveled areas, there was a beautiful weariness that was relentless. Perhaps what we liked the best was getting out of Venice to Murano and Burano and just being on the water. What was obvious to us was that Venice can give up some special moments, but finding those vignettes requires some real effort, by which time it may feel more like a Polaroid photo. We chose to enjoy the architectural pleasures and count the mass of humanity as a necessary cornerstone that keeps this ancient stronghold from crumbling around itself.
Our last and final train journey carried us from Venice to Lugano, Switzerland via Milano Centrale, where we would buy tickets for a regional train from a machine, dart around (okay-we don’t do a lot of darting around, so this may have looked like a stroll to everyone else in the station) trying to match the information on the ticket with the information on the train board, and eventually figure out that our train was 45 minutes late and that we should stand still. That we did really well. In Lugano, we exited the train, waited for the rain to stop, and meandered three blocks to our car rental agency. For the first time in our trip, we would be in charge of getting us there. Buckle up.