Day 9 • Saturday, May 14, 2005 • Venice, Italy

As my parents promised, Italy was quite different compared with the Germanic countries. My first glimpse at just HOW different occurred at our first Italian rest stop en route to Venice . Hans told us that the Italian rest stops are like mazes and they want you to get lost, confused, and buy all sorts of crap. After having my first genuine Italian meal (a quarter of an entire pizza—what do you expect from a rest stop?), I headed for the toilets. This was it, the moment of truth. I paid the attendant (no fancy turnstiles here), and entered a stall (1). This was lovely. Cigarette butts, no toilet seat, and a toilet brush that obviously hadn't been used lately. I already wished I was back in Austria . Hopefully it would get better from here.

As I left the rest stop, I thought I was hallucinating. Is that snow falling from the sky? No, just white fuzz drifting from who knows where. We got back on the bus, ready to see Venice . I noticed Alberto wasn't looking so hot. Alberto, our resident Brazilian, was quite the drinker. Maybe because there were so many Aussies and just one Brazilian, Alberto felt he had to keep up with them, and prove he could hold his own. Alberto already won the stein contest in Munich, drinking SIX steins of beer, which is almost unheard of. Anyway, in the mornings we noticed Alberto was a bit of a zombie, and only at 7pm did he come to life (with a drink in hand). Here he is in mid-morning, still a dazed zombie (2).

Finally around 2pm we arrived in Venice . For the first time on our tour, Hans warned us about gypsies, what they looked like, and to wear money belts. For the first time I was nervous. Even wandering around London after midnight didn't make me nervous, but the thought of someone trying to pickpocket me ensured I was extra cautious. Hans went over some of the highlights, and suggested that while in Venice , we should “get lost.” Based on the maze of streets and canals, that should be fairly easy. We took a boat from the mainland to Venice , near the famous Bridge of Sighs (3). This bridge connects the courthouse and jail, so that if a criminal is convicted and sentenced to death, as he passed over the bridge, he would get one last look at beautiful Venice and sigh.

The Bridge of Sighs was also where we encountered our first gypsy. Per Hans's instructions, we ignored him. He looked pitiful and was missing his legs. As Hans explained, most gypsies come from Eastern Europe, and if anyone is born with some sort of deformity or physical handicap, they are exploited and placed in high-profile touristy places in Western Europe (loads of them in Italy) to make money. What makes me sad is that these people beg for money and don't even get to keep it. It goes to their…I don't know the proper gypsy term, he's essentially their pimp.

As we walked closer to St. Mark's, I had a weird déjà vu, and even said, “I feel like I'm in Las Vegas at the Venetian.” I guess that means the designers of the Venetian did an excellent job, but I think it took just a little bit away from the whole “I'm really in Venice !” experience. I managed to get a few pictures taken of Mikki in front of St. Mark's Bascillica (4), Piazza San Marco (5), and the two of us in front of Campanile di San Marco (6) (which is what initially reminded me of the Venetian in Vegas) before we were wisked away to a glass-blowing demonstration (7).

Venice is famous for glass blowing, and it was pretty cool to see someone create various objects right in front of us (a vase, a cat) (8) (9). Considering how famous Venice is for its glass, it's pretty much a given that you have to buy a hand-blown souvenir. I didn't realize it at the time, but Hans was very clever to take us immediately to the demonstration, and then to the store afterwards (10).

Why? Because then we wouldn't realize that we could buy the same exact things from the souvenir shop next door for a fraction of the price. Of course, then Hans wouldn't get a kickback either. Perhaps I sound a little bitter, but only because I was under the impression if I wanted to buy glass, this was the place to do, so I bought a Christmas tree (about six inches tall), complete with ornaments. I'm not complaining, because what I bought was beautiful. I just wish I had made a more educated purchase. By the way, the Christmas tree cost me €35, and I saw very similar ones at other souvenir shops for about €10.

After the demonstration Mikki and I went looking for something to drink. In the process I discovered that Venice doesn't have any public trash cans. I had wondered around looking for someplace to throw my empty bottle away, and eventually had to go back to the place where I bought it and have them throw it away. This was perfectly normal to them, but I thought it was really weird. No wonder the canals are so dirty. Everyone must dispose of all waste in there.

Since Hans recommended that we “get lost” in Venice , we tried to do just that. We wandered around Piazza San Marco's shops for a while, then decided to take a water taxi over to the Rialto Bridge area (11) for a very cool view of the Grand Canal (12) (13). It is a very beautiful and bustling bridge. There were loads of vendors all over trying to sell glass, masks, pashminas, and knock-off designer purses. When we were heading back to Piazza San Marco for our scheduled Gondola ride, an African man tried to sell us a fake Gucci. He tried to pass it off as real and would sell it “only” for €65. When we told him no thanks, he immediately dropped the price to €40 trying to make a sale. This information would be very helpful later on.

Just in case you think Venice is this magical place, I must unfortunately burst your bubble. While it is a very unique city, the canals are not romantic (in my opinion at least). Like I said, people dispose of waste in the canals. That includes sewage. Yes, that kind of sewage. Amazingly, the whole place doesn't reek, but it certainly doesn't make me sad that we missed our gondola ride (14).

Due to a heavy downpour right as we were to meet for our gondola ride, we decided to skip it. A lot of tour books insist on doing it, but I didn't feel like we had missed out on anything. With our new free time, we decided to get some food. It was about time we had some REAL Italian food.

We slipped into a restaurant, and enjoyed calamari, wine, fresh bread, and I don't remember what else with Sophie and Jessica, who were using this tour as the jumping off point before traveling the world for a full year. How awesome! Even as I am writing this travelogue months later, they are traveling around seeing the world. Why isn't there some option like that in the US ? Some more Contikis showed up and sat at the table next to us as we were finishing up. They were on the Simply Italy tour and had chosen to do a gondola ride in the rain, but assured us we hadn't missed much.

It was getting dark out (15), and we still had plenty of time to kill, since there was an optional dinner that we were skipping. We didn't have to meet up with the group until around 9pm, so we had probably 2-3 hours to kill. By this point Mikki and I were both over Venice . Yeah, it is picturesque in all directions. Yeah, the food is good. Yeah yeah yeah. No matter how awesome it is, Venice is still a series of islands, so the only way to get off them is via boat, and ours wasn't coming for a while. So we decided to make the most of our situation.

During the downpour, I nearly bit it numerous times. Rain + marble sidewalks = dangerous walking conditions for someone with no-tread flip flops. So I went in search of new footwear. Venice practically shuts down at 7pm, so finding a store that was open that sold flip flops was going to be a challenge. No problem, I'm a super shopper. I can handle it. After getting lost several times, we finally found a chain store that was open later and sold flip flops. Actually, they sold a lot of women's flip flops. I chose some that had decent tread and were navy and white striped, which reminded me of a gondolier's shirt. These would forever be called my gondolier flip flops.

With my mission accomplished it was time to buy a bag to carry my stuff (old flip flops, glass Christmas tree, other souvenirs, etc.). For this we decided to take on the Africans with the knock-offs. I had spotted one ginormous bag that was so absurdly big I had to have it. I found someone selling a Louis Vitton and decided to get this guy to go as low as possible. He originally wanted €75, but I offered €15. He scoffed, but then offered it for €50. Hmm, that was easy to get him to drop it that much. Let' see how much further he'll go. Eventually I talked him down to €20, and as soon as I agreed, he tried to up the price. There was another guy selling the same bag in a different print nearby, so he had to sell it to me for this or I'd take my business elsewhere.

After I got my new fake LV luggage, Mikki wanted one too. The other guy had one that was a Roberto Cavali knock-off, so I told her she could have the LV and I'd buy the Roberto Cavali as long as I got it for €20 also. The guy couldn't believe that I had just bought the same size bag from his competitor for such a cheap price but agreed to sell it to me (but not before he ran a lighter along the side of it, claiming it was real leather, and showing me the quality stitching that went into it (16).

New monster purchases in hand (17), we managed to find our way back to Piazza San Marco, where we bought some gelato and key chains before meeting up with the rest of the group near the Bridge of Sighs . No one could believe we had bought these ridiculous bags. We laughed and told them it was because we were bored. Hans was very impressed with our negotiating skills. He had told us not to spend more than €10-15 for one of the knock-off purses. He couldn't believe that we had bought luggage for only €5 more. We took the boat back to our bus, and then onto our hotel, which was no where near Venice .

And as for the Italian accommodations, they were also terrible in comparison with Germany 's and Austria 's accommodations. The bathroom was pretty gross, the bedding was stained and old, and the towels were tiny and rough. Since we had new luggage, we repacked all of our stuff, and got organized for the warmer days ahead.

I headed down to the hotel bar to see if anyone was doing anything. Sure enough, Alberto was there, and in honor of him and my new knock off, I renamed my Roberto Cavali my Alberto Cavali. Jen, Dane, Simon and a few others were there, but I decided to call it a night and get some rest. I wanted to be ready to go for all there was to see in Rome .