We spent 3 days in Lucca, sightseeing, riding bikes, climbing historical towers and eating ourselves into pasta-induced comas. Absolutely heaven on earth. (Although in heaven, I am hoping that pasta won't give me 4 extra pounds to work off) On the morning of the 27th, Grace's birthday, we got on a train for Florence and then transferred to another train which took us straight to Venice - the romantic capital of the world. (If you are a guy, take note. If you are an engineer, just keep reading.) Since Venice is a very expensive city to stay, eat, sight see, and just generally breathe in, I tried to keep our hotel expenses to a reasonable amount; no bigger than the national debt. I finally settled on a hotel with a mid-range star rating that didn't have too many Travel Adviser posts that included the word "bedbugs". Our room was listed as a "Quad Room" which means it will sleep a family of four. They neglected to tell me that this meant while standing up. With a double bed covering one wall and 2 twin beds across from each other, we had just enough floor space between the twin beds to walk to the closet across from the double bed. Finding a place for our luggage was quite the challenge. We moved them as needed to walk across the room. We tried to think of it as playing a large, live action chess game. Now we know where the saying, "Familiarity breeds contempt" comes from - Italy.
Our bathroom was especially challenging to manuver in as it was 3 feet by 4 feet, not counting the shower stall. Just big enough to fit a toilet, a sink and 2 feet standing in front of the sink. And one needed to move almost all the way into the shower stall just to shut the bathroom door and use the sink. Speaking of the infamous shower stall, it had a tiny sliding door that opened just enough to let a pygmy squeeze in as long as he was naked and greased with Crisco. I am not a big person but I kept finding bruises on my hips from hitting the wall or shower door frame each time I attempted to enter or exit. Drat those 4 extra pasta pounds.
Since our first night in Venice was Grace's 16th birthday, I decided we needed to do something unforgettable, but hopefully, in a good way. The first order of business was to take a gondola ride, an event which everyone should have on their bucket list. Now, I will attempt to give you some pointers on taking a gondola ride when you go to Venice to check the item off of your list. First, if you take a private ride, it is very, very expensive. Try to fit at least 18 other passengers on the boat with you and divide the bill. Next, it is not necessary to have the gondolier sing as that doubles the price of the ride - literally. Try to talk him into whistling instead. Promise to not report him to the gondolier union. Lastly, tell the gondolier that it is your daughter's 16th birthday so he feels sorry for you. Work up a couple of tears if you feel that will help. Try to have your daughter present just to give your story more credibility. We ended up taking a private boat ride (yeah, yeah, I know, it was expensive but you turn 16 once in your life so it was OK) and I did tell him it was Grace's birthday, hoping he would maybe sing Happy Birthday in Italian. He didn't. But in his defense, I did forget to work up the tears. He ended up taking us on a fabulous ride all around the canal and then took us out into the open bay with the speed boats and sail boats. It was dusk, the sky and water were colored pink and orange from the setting sun, and we could see the dark silhouette outline of St. Mark's Cathedral in San Marcos Plaza. Absolutely magical and memorable - just what I was wanting. I think Grace's favorite part of the boat trip was being on the open sea and taking beautiful, sunset pictures. Perfect.
After our boat ride, we walked the streets of Venice looking for an appropriate birthday dinner restaurant. In Italy, it is a common sight to see a waiter standing outside of the restaurant, encouraging people to come inside to eat. When they are nice and smile that cute Italian smile and offer you the moon, it is difficult and feels rude to say no. Sometimes we would reply that we would be back or we would keep looking, Graci. But this waiter's speech was so convincing that we needed to eat at his establishment that we just walked in like we were under a hypnotic spell. And he just happened to have a table for four suckers, er, I mean, tourists. The restaurant was crowded with happy diners and the ceiling was covered with little white lights, lanterns and grape vines. This had to be a great place, right? We were given English menus that were covered on the front with a list of the specials of the day, conveniently written in Italian. The waiter said, "Since these are in Italian, I will read them to you." (Future Italy travelers, take note) He went down the list, pointing to each one and reading it out loud. "This one is a lovely pasta in cream sauce, this one is a chicken dish, and this one is the very special entry for tonight which is fresh fish, layered with calamari and lobster." All of the prices were between 13 and 15 Euros, pretty standard prices for Italian main courses. In Italy, it is common to order a pasta dish for each person, then a bigger main course for everyone at the table to share. After we each ordered our pasta dish, Jim suggested we order the fresh fish to share. I protested, saying I wasn't that hungry after loading up on gelato all afternoon, but Jim persisted. Something about a birthday dinner. Remembering the reasonable price list, I agreed to the catch of the day. (us?) After our pasta plates were removed, the maitre de came to our table carrying a huge platter that would have put our US Thanksgiving turkey platters to shame. It was obvious that this was a big deal as the restaurant suddenly went silent and all of the other patrons stopped eating to watch the tourists receive their scam feast. With a great flourish, he laid the platter on our table to reveal a fish the size of the shark in Jaws. All around this whale-size fish were lobster claws, calamari, and grilled vegetables. I knew immediately we'd been had. I went pale and told Jim this entree probably cost 50 Euros. He put my fears to rest by replying, "At least!" We went ahead and ate, although we couldn't nearly finish all of the food. I'm not sure if that was due to the size of the fish or the bill yet to come. After the platter was removed, our waiter returned with frozen lemon drinks for each of us and proclaimed, "On the house!" My stomach churned. The bill would be even bigger than I thought. I leaned toward Jim and said, "They are buttering us up for the big shock." Unfortunately, he agreed. Our waiter brought the bill and quickly returned to the kitchen - smart man. Jim and I had the following conversation:
Me: I want to see the bill.
Jim: Oh, no you don't.
Me: Oh, yes I do.
Jim: Oh, nooooooo you don't.
Not being able to stand the suspense, I grabbed the bill and looked at the total. 180 Euros - almost $250! Jim kept reassuring me that it was OK, this was a birthday, we were in Italy, the stock market would come back. We paid with a credit card and I could have sworn I heard it cry out in pain when it was swiped. We walked back to the hotel much poorer but wiser tourists.
Two nights later, we were searching the streets of Venice for our "last night in Venice" dinner. We passed our infamous, scam-serving restaurant and I considered challenging the waiter to a duel. Possibly slapping him in the face with a giant trout. We saw him in his usual spot, outside the restaurant, talking to a tourist couple and trying to convince them to come inside to eat. Sweeping his hand up into the heavens he announced, "And tonight, we are serving a special fresh fish!" Yep, there's one born every minute.