This Monday and Tuesday, there was no school, thanks to the last two days of Carnevale. Carnevale, Italian for "carnival," is the period of celebration before Lent.
It is like a very extended Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday.
On Monday, I went to Venice, a city that really goes all-out for Carnevale celebrations. Before I left, my host mother told me I'd chosen one of the best days of the year to see Venice for the first time. I decided to consider Monday's trip my first ever to Venice. I'd been there before, on the trip I took to Italy when I was little, but I only remember my impressions of the pretty little glass animals and of chasing the pigeons.
This time, I went with my friends Asena from Turkey and Ursi from Australia. We met at the Brescia train station at 10 a.m., and our train left at about 10:30. The ride between Brescia and Venice took some where between an hour and a half and two hours, so we arrived in Venice at around lunchtime.
Venice is an island, but the train goes a ways on a bridge over water, so the train station is right in the city. When we exited the train station we found ourselves in front of a wide canal full of gondolas. To our left was a beautiful church surrounded by white marble statues, and a bridge, which we crossed.
We followed the signs for Piazza San Marco. I could see why Venice is called the City of Mazes, because with all the narrow alleyways, and our twisting, turning path, I completely lost my sense of direction.
Just walking around in Venice was a great pleasure because around every corner there were shops with incredible window displays. We passed markets with huge stands of iced fish with big open mouths, garnished with greens and citrus fruits. We passed clothing shops, souvenir shops, bookshops, cafés, bakeries, hotels with glimpses of grand entryways through the glass doors, and countless shops crammed with the most beautiful, elaborate masks I'd ever seen in my entire life. Many of the people we walked by wore such masks, and there was a major sense of celebration in the air.
Ursi and I bought masks because we figured they were the perfect souvenirs from Venice during Carnevale. The one I bought looks like delicate white lace and was covered in sparkles. Ursi got a black and gold mask with three large black feathers at the top. Asena decided to get her face painted instead because she'd bought a mask before, on an earlier trip to Venice.
Before we'd reached Piazza San Marco, we decided we were all hungry and needed to get some lunch. We'd walked by many places to eat, but weren't sure which would be best to go into, so we decided to ask a local for advice. This is always a good idea in Italy because people take pride in knowing the best restaurants in their areas. We popped into a jewelry store with a well-fed-looking gentleman behind the desk. We told him we wanted a good lunch and he gave us directions to Trattoria alla Madonna, a crowded eatery on a side street right off the Canal Grande, near the Rialto Bridge.
It was an excellent choice. The restaurant had nine rooms, displaying paintings by contemporary Italian artists. I didn't realize until I did a bit of research, but Andrew Zimmern went to this very same restaurant on an episode of Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods. This hugely excites me because, as a budding traveler and eater-of-food, that show is one of my favorites.
There was a Turkish waiter at the restaurant and he was thrilled to have a chance to speak his native language with Asena. We didn't even have to glance at the menu. The waiter insisted on bringing us all the best dishes the restaurant has to offer.
Our first course was a small silver fish with a few slices of onion on top. I think it was pickled. It didn't taste too powerfully fishy. It was more a tangy, salty flavor, like vinegar.
Next there was the orange shell of some sort of crustacean with a salad of its white meat inside. This was yummy as well, especially with a drizzle of lemon juice squeezed over it.
The third platter that came out was something a bit more familiar to me: caprese. It's slices of tomatoes and mozzarella cheese over a bed of fresh greens, garnished with some basil. Simple, yet delicious.
Lastly we had spaghetti with clams. The ceremony of using the fork to nudge them out of their little shells and into the noodles, then tossing the shells onto another plate is nice for me. I always find that such processes of eating somehow heighten my enjoyment of a meal.
We didn't stay for coffee or sweets at the Trattoria alla Madonna. Asena had in mind another place for that- a famous café in Piazza San Marco that she'd been to with her family on her last trip to Venice. So, after our lunch we continued follow the Piazza San Marco signs through Venice's spiraling maze.
Chandler West is a Rock Hill High School student who is spending her senior year in Italy. She writes about her adventures abroad each week in The Herald. This is the first of two columns about her visit to Venice.