If someone asked you to describe Venice, Italy, your answer would probably include romance, gondolas, Venetian glass, and authentic Carnival masks. You might mention the Grand Canal or the Piazza San Marco. Maybe you would discuss whether the city is in fact, sinking, as many people claim. You would probably not discuss the tourist-glutted streets or the ever-lingering smell of high tide that pervades the city. Venice is one of the most well-known cities in the world. It is the backdrop for Hollywood blockbusters such as The Tourist, Tomb Raider, and The Italian Job. In these movies, the city is always as a hidden gem or an ancient wonder. In real life, the city is beautiful but overcrowded, and more touristy than authentic. It has become an expensive tourist town, where it is very difficult to actually find any locals. The areas of Venice that I appreciated the most were those that truly displayed Venetian workmanship and skill. It is for this reason that two of my favorite locations in Venice were the Carnival mask shop and the Murano Glass store.
Pretty early in the afternoon, we stumbled upon a mask shop, one among the many lining the small, windy streets. It turned out to be one of the coolest shops we saw all day. The shop's 'No Pictures' policy was abandoned by the owner once he realized we were all going to purchase multiple masks. Once we were allowed to take pictures, the shop turned into an hour-long photo shoot. If there is one way in which our group has bonded over the past eight weeks, it is over the fact that we all love taking hilarious posed pictures. The mask shop was no exception. Before long, we were wearing a variety of animal head masks, elaborate feather-covered masquerade-style masks, and long velvety capes. All of the masks were designed by the shop owner's uncle. Each one was unique, beautiful and intricate. Many of us who had not intended to purchase anything changed our minds after trying a few on and falling in love with them. A few of us joked that we plan on wearing our masks around the house as frequently as possible once we arrive back in the United States. After laughing and snapping photos for more almost an hour, we all purchased our masks and moved on down the road to a Murano glass shop.
Venice is known for Venetian glass, which is now mainly produced in the city of Murano. All of the stores along the streets contain glass pendants and jewelry, wine stoppers and silverware, claiming to be Murano glass. However, we learned very quickly that most of these products are not genuine Murano glass. Counterfeit Murano glass lacks a stamp of authenticity and a pamphlet describing the production process. Many shop owners prey on stereotypical 'ignorant tourists' to purchase regular glass under the assumption that it is authentic Murano. The shop we found at the end of a long touristy road was a genuine Murano glass manufacturer. The first room of the shop contained a huge horse, completely made of green Venetian glass. Inside, thousands of beautifully handcrafted pieces lined shelves and tabletops. It was easy to get lost in the shop, trying on jewelry and picking out souvenirs for our families and friends. The difference between real Murano glass and the counterfeit glass that lined the streets was clear in this shop. Each bead was a masterpiece here, and we all found ourselves awestruck by its beauty.
After the mask and the glass shops, we got to go on a gondola ride inside the city. This part of the day was a necessity. None of us wanted to visit Venice without going on a gondola. Our ride was brief, lasting around twenty minutes. Throughout our time on the gondola, we spent equal amounts of time taking pictures and pinching ourselves. Many of the stops on our trip have induced this pinching mechanism in us. We constantly stop, surrounded by beauty, and say to each other, 'I can't believe we are in Venice, on a gondola!' or "I can't believe we are taking cheesy pictures with the Leaning Tower of Pisa!' The gondola ride was peaceful and surreal. We took some time out of the trip to interview our gondola 'driver.' We discussed the conversion to the Euro and Venice's integration into the European Union. He said that the conversion to the Euro practically doubled the prices everywhere. He also told us that he was born in Venice but moved out because it has become strictly a tourist town that is simply too expensive to live in on a daily basis. Our gondola ride reminded me of an amusement park ride. We had to endure crowds and long lines to get on, and it was short, but exhilarating.
We spent all day in Venice. Before we got on the water taxi to go back, we grabbed some gelato, savoring each bite all the more because we knew it would be our last opportunity to eat Italian gelato. Venice was an interesting stop for us. It was super-touristy, but with a backdrop of ancient beauty. It was not one of the places, like Capri, that our group talks about wanting to live in or go back to at the first opportunity later in life. However, it was definitely an experience, and we had a great time all together.