Venice Gondoliers Should Take Breathalyzer And Drug Tests, Their Chief Says

Venice
Wikimedia Commons

The president of the gondolier association of Venice says all boat operators in the watery city should be screened for alcohol and drugs, the BBC reports.

Nicola Falconi suggested this after a video was posted on YouTube showing a hazing incident of a new assistant gondolier who was ordered to strip naked and jump in a canal. This was just the latest of numerous reports of inappropriate, boozy behavior.

We can add this to the other scandals hitting Italy’s tourism industry, including a group of tourists being charged $84 for a few ice cream cones, dozens of baggage handlers arrested for stealing bags at several Italian airports, and the continuing decay of many of the nation’s underfunded ancient monuments.

On my recent trip to Venice, the gondoliers I saw were all behaving professionally. I have heard a few secondhand stories, however. Have you been to Italy? What was your experience there? Tell us on the comments section!

Gifts From Slovenia And Italy

Slovenia
Sean McLachlan

When a trip is over, it’s always nice to open your suitcase and have a little bit of it still with you. I enjoy bringing gifts back to my wife and son so they can share my experiences. While on a recent trip to Slovenia and Italy, I kept an eye out for things they might like.

My trip started at a book festival in Gorizia, Italy. In between the book stalls of Italian publishers and the big tents where authors gave talks, I noticed several West African guys going around with backpacks full of used books for sale. They admitted they didn’t have work papers but they were still out pounding the pavement in the rain. This bit of entrepreneurship didn’t occur to the 12 percent of Italians who are unemployed. Or perhaps they couldn’t be bothered. The difference between people from the Third World and the First was never clearer.

One guy had a book on African cooking. Since my wife reads Italian and wants to learn how to cook African cuisine, I had found my first gift. I also picked up a couple of Italian cooking magazines in Venice. Selfish gifts? Oh yes. I’m looking forward to seeing some of these recipes on the dinner table!

In the unselfish gift category I got some Slovenian honey for my honey-loving honey. It’s a great choice as a gift because it tastes different in every region. I also brought back a bottle of Slovenian wine, another taste that varies from region to region.

Also popping out of my suitcase was a T-shirt for the kid. He loves it because there’s a “dragon” on it (actually it’s a griffin). A couple of refrigerator magnets made their way home too. You can never have too many refrigerator magnets, because you can never receive too many postcards and you need refrigerator magnets to hold them all.

Looking for more gift ideas? Check out our posts on gifts from Estonia and gifts from Japan and Greece. And drop by the comments section to share what you like to bring home!

Venice: Grand Vistas And Little Details

Venice
Sean McLachlan

On my first day in Venice I walked the streets without a camera in order to savor the beauties of this unparalleled city. I was leaving the next afternoon so that morning I got up at dawn in order to catch Venice at its abandoned best.

It’s a different city, more peaceful. You can linger on a bridge or take a shot from the middle of a street without getting trampled. You can capture the way the light plays on the water or on the side of an old, crumbling building without half a dozen heads getting into the shot.

Venice has a different character in those early hours. Instead of gondolas, cargo vessels ply the canals making deliveries to this city without cars. The streets are empty but for local workmen cleaning up or getting ready to open up their shops and kiosks. The only other tourists are lone photographers like me. My idea was a pretty obvious one, after all.

The low-angled light makes for some nice play between the tops of the buildings shining golden in the morning and the still-dark recesses of the alleyways and narrow canals. The low-angled light puts faded details into higher relief, like the faded Latin inscriptions on the lintels of church doors or the weathered escutcheons on Renaissance palaces.

%Slideshow-693%The early hours are also the time for visiting the big attractions. There’s something eerie about seeing the Piazza San Marco with only half a dozen people in it. One pair was a newlywed couple. A tuxedoed man was fiddling with the camera while his stunningly beautiful wife, decked out in her bridal gown, gave instructions and adjusted her veil. Beyond them the Grand Canal shimmered in the early light. I’m sure their wedding photo is the envy of their friends.

As stunning as these broad vistas are, Venice rewards a close look. There are details in the buildings and streets that make for great close-ups. In the Piazza San Marco, for example, you have this little bronze figure, one of a set.

At the corner of St. Mark’s Basilica is the square’s most historically important work of art, a porphyry statue of four armored men clinging to one another in mutual defense. I’ve wanted to see these little guys for years.

They’re the Tetrarchs. In 293 A.D., the Roman Emperor Diocletian decided the empire was too big and had too many enemies for one man to rule. He created the Tetrarchy, with an Emperor and a Caesar for both the West and the East. They were supposed to rule in harmony but of course the rivalry more often than not led to civil wars. In another century the Western Empire was a nonentity, while the Eastern Empire, known today as Byzantium, lived on until the 15th century. This famous statue originally stood in Constantinople but was stolen during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and brought here.

Many people photograph this statue, yet miss something even more interesting a few feet away. On a stone bench at the entrance to the basilica there’s a strange design scratched into the surface. It’s been almost worn away by centuries of bottoms, but you can make out a square within a square, partitioned into several segments. This was a Renaissance board game that people would play while whiling away the hours on the plaza. It’s a reminder of the regular folk who lived in Venice in the shadow of the great rulers, artists and priests.

This fired my imagination. Perhaps some other detail will fire yours: the dusty icons in an antique shop, the mosaic advertisement for a pension set into a street, the half-finished Renaissance fresco in the entryway of an obscure church. When you’re strolling around Venice or any great city, keep an eye out for those little details that catch your fancy as well as the grand views that everyone admires. That way you’ll end up with a photo album uniquely your own.

Strolling Through Venice Without A Camera

Venice
Wikimedia Commons

I’ve wanted to visit Venice all my life. Who wouldn’t? It has the reputation of being the most beautiful city in the world, and with my love of architecture my first glimpse of it was going to be a lifelong memory.

After a rainy week in Slovenia, I arrived in Venice on a gloriously cloudless afternoon. I had less than 24 hours in the city before family obligations would take me home. After checking into the Hotel Alex, a basic but wonderfully central one-star hotel, I left my camera in my room and headed out.

Wait, I left my camera in my room? Yep. I wanted to savor Venice without the distraction of trying to create abstract memories. Living in the moment is one of the five reasons to leave your camera at home.

(Of course I did take photos on my second day, otherwise my editor would have had an aneurysm. Those are coming up tomorrow.)

With so little time I was free to enjoy Venice without a must-see list. My time was too short to visit even a tenth of the places I knew I wanted to see, let alone all those I didn’t. So I saw nothing, or more precisely I saw whatever the city gave me. I decided to take a suggestion from Stephen Graham’s classic travel book The Gentle Art of Tramping and go on a zigzag walk. A zigzag walk is a simple travel plan. You start by taking a left. Then at the first opportunity take a right. Then left. Repeat. You will soon be happily lost and seeing things you never thought you would.

Taking a left out of the hotel brought me to a strange little bookshop with a “Going out of Business” sign in its window and a display of odd books with titles like Il Libro dei Vampiri. I’d come across Venice’s only occult bookshop, which was about to close after 24 years because the owner was retiring. I had a pleasant chat with one of the employees, helping him plan his first trip to London, and bought a worry stone for a friend. These are little jasper stones with a groove worn in one side. You rub the groove to reduce stress. My friend is a government employee in a European country and is inextricably linked to her nation’s slow slide into the Dark Ages. If anyone needs a worry stone, she does.The bookshop had sucked me in so quickly I hadn’t even seen anything of Venice yet, so I determined not to go into another shop for a while and wound my way through the city’s narrow lanes, my gaze lifting above the shopfronts to admire carved balustrades and Renaissance coats of arms set into a background of faded, flaked paint from which the rich Italian sunlight was able to coax a hint of its former brilliance.

Luckily I looked down as well as up, because another left took me down a dank little alley that ended abruptly at a narrow canal. There was no railing or sign. The pavement simply ended.

A gondola glided by so close I could have touched it, its wake slapping against the mossy stone foundations of the buildings to either side of me. Water dripped from a carved cornice above to fall into the canal with a loud ploink.

It was quiet here. I was alone and the sounds of the city sounded muffled and distant. Leaning against the wall, I looked out and saw a white marble bridge arching over the canal a few feet away. The map could have told me its name but I didn’t bother to check. People filed past while a gondolier wearing the trademark straw hat and black-and-white striped shirt sat on the railing calling out, “Gondola ride. . .gondola ride. . .”

On a zigzag walk if you come to a dead end you retrace your steps until you can make a another turn. That took me from the cool seclusion of the alley to the warm, crowded sunlit bridge. I sat down near the gondolier and looked down the canal flanked by tall, narrow houses decaying in that graceful Mediterranean manner. Burgundy and peach paint flaked off to reveal islands of plaster or brick, or clung onto their backing long enough to fade to near whiteness. On windowsills and rooftop terraces were sprays of greens and reds and yellows from carefully tended houseplants.

I sat there maybe five minutes and that gondolier must have had his picture taken a dozen times. Nobody took my picture. In fact I think they all framed me out of the shot. What, a dreamy eyed travel blogger doesn’t symbolize the essence of Venice?

Another zig and a zag brought me to San Paolo Apostolo with its unassuming 15th century exterior hiding a rich collection of art. But first I was drawn to the Romanesque bell tower, which for some reason was situated across the street from the church. Tufts of grass grew from between its crumbling bricks. A low door of thick, ancient oak barred entry. Above it was a Latin inscription. As the radio from the trinket shop across the street played Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds I ran my fingers over the faint letters, worn nearly smooth by centuries of weather and curious tourists. I made out the date 1459 and nothing more.

A pair of lions flanked the doorway. One was fighting a serpent, the other held in its forepaws a decapitated head that looked at me with a serene expression. I headed inside the church to admire the art, including a Last Supper by Tintoretto and Piazza’s St. Silvestri Baptizing the Emperor Constantine (an important moment in the death of paganism). Every church in Venice is an art gallery. Then I continued my jagged course across the city.

Or at least I tried. Canals and dead ends kept forcing me retrace my steps, and after another half hour I found myself back in front of my hotel just when I was in urgent need of a bathroom.

Angels watch over the tourist who abandons his timetable. Soon I was back on the streets. My camera remained in the hotel room.

Currency Exchange: What You Use Matters

currency exchange
craigfinlay/Flickr

To International travelers, the name Travelex should sound familiar. They are the largest airport currency exchange operator in the world. But a recent currency exchange study comparing the cost of using Travelex, some of the largest U.S. banks and credit cards revealed what experts already knew.

CardHub’s 2013 Currency Exchange Study compared the cost of the currency exchange services offered by 15 of the largest banks in the U.S. as well as Visa, MasterCard and Travelex. The study proved that using a no foreign fee credit card is the way to go on spending internationally. Banks charge an average of exchange rate of 7.1% and Travelex charges 15.5%.

Worried about using a credit card outside of the U.S.? Don’t be. Credit cards also provide fraud protection for just that reason.

“Even if a consumer uses a credit card with foreign fees – the average foreign transaction fee is 2.24%, according to CardHub’s latest Credit Card Landscape Report – he’ll still save 4.86% on currency conversion relative to the services offered by banks and 13.26% compared to airport currency exchange providers,” said CardHub CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou in a HeraldOnline report.

The best banks for currency conversion? The CardHub study indicates Northern Trust and Harris Bank lead the pack as they did in the 2012 and 2011 editions of the study while U.S. Bank and SunTrust hold the bottom two spots. On average though, banks are better than Travelex, saving an average 8.4%.Still, many travelers do not feel like they are fully packed for an international trip without some local currency from the country they are visiting. They want to arrive with local cash for a cab, food or supplies they may not have been able to bring on the plane.

“It’s just one of those things that have been traditionally recommended,” says Papadimitriou. “But with the banking system becoming increasingly digital, it makes sense that the easiest way to buy things in a foreign currency is with plastic.”

Credit cards are good. No foreign fee cards are better. Still, some cash will probably be necessary along the way tipping or making purchases in places that do not take cards. With that in mind, Papadimitriou recommends a debit card with low international ATM withdrawal fees but warns travelers to avoid dynamic currency conversion, when a merchant offers to convert your purchase total from the native currency to U.S. dollars.

It might seem as though that merchant in Venice is trying to be help make sense of how much a purchase really costs, in our own currency, but “they could be looking for an excuse to apply a high exchange rate and squeeze a bit more money out of you. It’s best not to find out, especially when you can use your phone or a small pocket calculator to make quick conversions and better understand how much things cost,” says Papadimitriou.

As long as we’re talking about financial security when traveling, what about pickpockets? Well, the days of those villains are ending. In this video we see that all it takes now is a smartphone to steal your credit card information.

Electronic Pickpocketers 'Steal' Credit Cards Using NFC