When Tom and I first stepped out of the train station in Venice and began to make our way to the famous Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), we were overwhelmed by the dizzying array of fanny packs and running shoes. Like one large spineless blob, the monstrous crowd of tourists absorbed us into itself.
At times, I couldn’t tell if I was in Vegas or Italy. The only difference seemed to be that the street vendors in the real Venice peddled cheap toys and Prada knock offs, while those outside the look-alike Venetian in Vegas flick little cards adorned with naked women.
I thought to myself, so this is Venice. And although the town itself and its winding canals looked beyond charming, I was disappointed overall. This was our first stop in all of Italy and the authentic mamma mia experience I sought was nowhere to be found. In fact, there were more tourists than Italians in this little corner of their country.
But then something changed.
In the late afternoon, Tom and I meandered away from the famed St. Mark’s Square and its Bascilica. We walked down a small side street and found a quiet, empty dock. We sat down to take a break from the crowds and here we enjoyed our own private parade of gondolas.
Never mind paying $120 for a gondola ride, we got the satisfaction and the experience for free. Our faces must have relaxed a little, and we must have melted into the scenery like an authentic Venetian fixture, because after a while the tourists sailing by began taking pictures of us.
At this point, I began to think to myself. Okay Venice, you’re not so bad. I love you in your nooks and crannies. But still exhausted by the crowds and unconvinced that we could find an authentic (and affordable) Italian experience in Venice, Tom and I discussed the possibility of leaving this town a day early.
Fortunately, the sun set before we could finalize any changes to our plans and we fell head-over-heals in love with Venice at night. The day-trippers and cruise-shippers exited the city around sun down with the street vendors in tow. The whole town suddenly felt as charming as it looked.
Even St. Mark’s Square was peaceful after dark. The crowds thinned enough to accidentally run into Tom’s parents, his aunt and his uncle (whose trip to Italy overlapped ours).
But my favorite spots were not the main attractions. I preferred meandering through the random, little dark alleyways and streets filled by the sweet music of the occasional street performer playing an accordion or a stringed instrument. I am sure those same musicians had been there all day, but we couldn’t hear them over the crowds.
Also at night, we stumbled upon several little bars popular with the locals. We would walk through a dark street thinking we were alone with Venice all to ourselves and then we would turn a corner and find a random little bar lit up. A cluster of locals (students or those just getting off work from jobs in the tourism industry) stood around outside enjoying a drink or a smoke.
Having learned enough to know that it’s usually cheapest to drink where the locals drink, we would order an Aperol Spritz or a glass of wine (each for just $2 or less) and nuzzle ourselves into the crowd. Finally surrounded by Italian speakers with no English within earshot we drank in our precious little taste of Italy after dark.
But what about a bite of Italy? I saw a woman walking around with a bag that said: Italy, Eatily. But our first meal in Venice resulted in a disappointing and overpriced pizza that couldn’t even compete with Domino’s. We wanted that fresh, amazing taste of Eatily that we had heard so much about. But unfortunately, many of the restaurants were out of our price range. That is until we discovered the secret little gem that is Alfredo’s Fresh Pasta To Go.
It doesn’t offer the fine dining experience on a beautiful square, and you need a map to find it, but at this little spot you are greeted handsomely with the authentic Italian warmth you imagined you would find here in Venice. And for just $7 USD, you can buy yourself a large serving of freshly made, authentic Italian pasta (made right in front of you!) and a choice of 5 sauces all made from fresh ingredients. We took ours to go and found a view of our own on a bridge overlooking one of the canals.
We finally found a way to have our Venice and eat it too! Get lost in the cracks during the day and emerge at night.
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!