I never inquired, but always assumed that the Venice Film Festival was reserved for people with engraved invitations or, at least, press passes, but it turns out anyone can go.  Provided, however, that you stalk the online box office like a hawk, ready to pounce as soon as tickets become available.  And, if you can get yourself to Venice.

My first cousin, once removed, Anne, is a lady I had only seen about twice in my life.  Her mother and my grandmother are sisters. Which means we share a lot of the same DNA but have not necessarily shared a lot of the same space over the last thirty years. I knew who she was and that she was my father’s cousin in New York. In January, I saw her at a very sad family event in New England. I liked her immediately. She had lived for many years in France and England in her twenties, and I had done the same in Italy. She studied languages, and I did, too.  She inherited the Davis body type, and I sure did, too.  In January, during our conversation about living in Europe, somehow the conversation turned to film, which I studied in college. It turned out it was a huge passion of hers.  More than it is for me, even, which is really saying something. She and her two sisters, also my first cousins once removed, host annual themed film festivals at Anne’s lake house in Pennsylvania. This was my kind of lady! We discussed my still very vague plans to maybe, possibly, return to Italy in the summer and she said that she and a good friend were planning on attending the Venice Film Festival. We decided that if I were indeed in Italy then, that she would meet me for a few days in Rome after the Festival and we would make a toast to adventurous and gutsy Davis women!

Several weeks after that, Anne emailed me and said she knew I’d be surprised by the idea, because we didn’t know each other well, after all, but her friend had bailed on the Festival, so why didn’t we go to Venice together?  I immediately said yes. A Nashville girl at the Venice Film Festival! It conjures images of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie! Glamour… Glitz… Gondolas!

Reservations… Transportation… Tickets.

Fortunately, Anne took charge of everything.  Last summer, what with quitting my job, selling my house, driving cross-country and, you know, moving to another country, I just did not have the mental bandwidth for much else. She found a hotel, got her plane tickets, and figured out how to get tickets to films.  It seemed hard to believe, but tickets would not go on sale to proletariat like us until about a week before the festival.  Anne was going to be in France and I was going to be, I correctly assumed, couch-surfing in Rome without internet access.  She pledged to be online the moment tickets went on sale and get whatever she could get.

Success!  Anne stalked the website, and the moment they went on sale, she got us tickets to see four films: two Swedish, one Turkish, and one Italian.  I knew nothing else about them.

Rarely had I done such little planning for a trip, even a weekend trip.  I bought my train ticket online (50 euros each way, approximately four hours). This was a vast improvement from when I lived here ten years ago. Back then you’d say “buy online” and the Italy would be like, “Whaaaaaa?”  I had directions to the hotel and that was about it.  I had been to Venice once before, exactly 14 years ago, so I was sure I could figure it out…?

It turns out, the only thing easy in Venice is getting lost.  The addresses for things like hotels and restaurants do not have a street name and number, they have a neighborhood name and number.  Kind of like saying “Brooklyn 452” or “Preston Hollow 81.”  And, more so than any place I have visited, the name of the street you think you’re on changes without any signage or fanfare.  The best advice I got, and actually took, was to buy a good map before arriving.  (I have the habit of arriving in cities with no map and, often, remaining mapless for the remainder of the trip.)

Arriving at the train station, the signs were quite clear how to find the ferry, called the Vaporetto. I kept thinking about my poor, sweet grandmother, who had her wallet stolen on a Vaporetto a few years ago on her last trip, presumably ever, to Europe. I wish I could find whoever did it and strangle him. Anyway, I clutched my bag tightly. I knew which Vaporetto to take, and where to get off, thanks to the instructions on the hotel website. I strongly suggest getting this specific information from your hotel before you arrive. If you think arriving armed with the hotel address is enough, think again.

I was completely insulted by the 7 euro cost to take a Vaporetto for two stops, totaling about five minutes. I only found out later, once I had been walking around for a day or two, that I could have walked. But when you arrive, if you have not been to Venice before, you will not know whether it is even possible to walk to your destination (because of dead ends and, surprise, water). So you pretty much have to take a Vaporetto even if you’re only about a hundred yards away as the crow flies. The cost is really distressing, though. NO ONE checks your ticket on the Vaporetto, so I am sure that *some people* recycle their tickets just like they do on buses in Rome.  Of course, the one time they check will almost certainly be the one time you try this very Italian tactic.

I got to the hotel, which wasn’t anything special.  There were multiple festivals going on in Venice at the time so we were just happy to have shelter.  I successfully rendezvoused with Anne, which was a miracle given that she had no cell phone, she was coming from France and I from Rome, and we had just vaguely pledged to “meet in Venice in the afternoon.”   And together we explored the neighborhood.

Even if the hotel wasn’t spectacular, the neighborhood was!  It is called Cannaregio, and it is a little off the beaten tourist track.  This resulted in really wonderful restaurants and bars, with truly good homemade food. I had been warned that anywhere near San Marco or Rialto Bridge would be tourist garbage, or cost a million dollars, and from what I saw that weekend, it was true.  The food we had in that neighborhood was authentic, reasonably priced, and served in exceptionally atmospheric places. Unlike Rome, where “outside of center” hotels can be really remote, Cannaregio is also a quick Vaporetto ride to everything (we were by the Ca’ D’Oro stop), or walk. Venice is small. Cannaregio should be considered for your stay.

The next day we had no films to see, so we saw Venice instead.  I don’t have anything to add to the plethora of material you can find online regarding what to do with one day in Venice.  San Marco, San Marco’s Square, the Doge’s Palace, the Rialto Bridge, carnival mask shops.  They’re all predictably beautiful, and you can hit up all of them in a day.

What we did not have time for, and what I have never seen, are the glass factories at Murano. Next time. We also did not take a gondola ride, which I have done before. If you’re only going to Venice once in your life, however, take the gondola ride. Bargain (as much as possible) with the gondolier over the price.

Venice is a spectacle to behold.  Even if it weren’t on water, the buildings themselves – Easter egg-colored dollhouses with flourished balconies and little porches for their “docks” – are stunning, and change color throughout the day like Hypercolor t-shirts depending on the angle of the sun. To realize they sit on water, and to see and hear that water splash up against their foundations in little waves, makes Venice impossible to believe.  You can see the algae growing on the buildings’ foundations and you know that can’t be a good thing, and you’ve heard that Venice is crumbling. Those things are true, unfortunately, so go there as soon as you can.

The other thing is the food!  We had really scrumptious dinners in lovely restaurants in Cannaregio, one of which is worth some discussion.

A Roman friend who had lived in Venice strongly recommended Osteria Ca’ D’Oro (La Vedova) for its meatballs. I’ve never turned down a good meatball, so I looked it up, and it turned out it was only about 100 yards from our hotel. We walked down one evening, and there was a huge crowd. We could not get in, but made reservations for the next night. The group of gorgeous Italian guys waiting outside said to us as we were leaving, “Make sure you get the meatballs!” I turned to Anne and asked, “What is it with these meatballs? Do they put pot in them?” We went the next night and learned that the meatballs are envisioned as an appetizer. They are ordered in single units. We asked how many we should get. He said two each. I was imagining soft brown meatballs swimming in sauce to be eaten with a knife and fork. Instead, they were juicy inside, dry on the outside (insofar as they appear to be fried), fluffs of heaven that could even be eaten with bare hands. And no sauce. I ordered a Coke, which complemented the savory meatballs perfectly, and thought, “If this is Italian comfort food, I’ll never have to be uncomfortable again.” The rest of my meal consisted of vegetarian lasagna, which was fine, but I was wishing the whole time I had about a dozen meatballs instead. This was a great meal! Make a reservation and go!

The other thing to eat is the SWEETS. Shop owners know what they’re doing; they’ve got windows stacked with piles and rows of perfectly placed sweets in complementing shapes and colors that make you stare. Each cookie or cake or nougat slice looks better than the last. They really know how to do sweets in northern Italy, but Venice’s are especially decadent. If Venice, of all places, didn’t know how to make a stunning dolceI don’t know who could.

The next day was the first of our two days of Film Festival-going. I was so excited I could hardly stand it. Would I see movie stars on the red carpet?  Would people think that I was a movie star? Should I wear this dress or that dress? I was suddenly 16 again, dreaming about and planning my big break in Hollywood.

It wasn’t much like that.  After having a thirty euro breakfast in a random bar (see tips, below), we got on the Vaporetto to go to the Lido where the Festival was being held. The Lido is an island off of mainland Venice that I had heard about many times and seen on the map. I was imagining something more or less connected to, or at least resembling, Venice.  The Vaporetto put-putted through Venice, stopping constantly, and then crossed the lagoon to Lido. The lagoon may as well have been an ocean. It took over an hour. We were so thankful we planned to get there early.  

We disembarked at Lido, and found that the only way to get across the island to the Festival location was to walk.  Which was far – about two miles.  Fortunately, it was not hot.

I must say, I was not impressed with the Lido and would never, ever want to stay there.  Beware hotels online that say they are in Venice but are on the Lido.  It’s not Venice at all; there are paved roads and cars everywhere, and zero-point-zero canals.  There are no ancient buildings or piazzas.  Just modern apartment buildings and beach kiosks.  It looked a bit like Florida, and a lot like the sleepy beach communities around Rome.  Anne and I were very surprised there were no signs about the Festival or anything indicating it was even going on.  That was also true in Venice proper. Surprising.

Emerge from your long walk through the Florida-like Lido to this site. Taken with Blackberry.

Two of the four films we saw at the Festival were good, one of them was great.  Another was just okay, one was awful.  The coolest part about seeing the films there is the Q&A with the cast and director afterwards.  I sat next to Italian cinema superstar Nanni Moretti, which was a treat. Mostly it was great to go because of the uniqueness of the experience.  I did not hear American English being spoken a single time from anyone other than Anne.  I must remind myself when I’m homesick how fortunate I am to have the chance to do this stuff.

Had to snap this quick before being ordered to put cameras away!

This is a PG-rated blog, so I shan’t translate, but let’s just say someone was not happy that Ben Affleck cancelled his appearance at the last minute. Not happy at all!

Venice and the Film Festival, in Sum:
Should you go:  Go to Venice before you die or it sinks, whichever is earlier.  Don’t bother with the Film Festival unless you really, really love cinema.  Otherwise, the time it takes to get to the Festival site and the lines, not to mention the stress of getting tickets, is not worth it. It was worth it for Anne and me, but we are bonafide film buffs.

Where to stay: Check out hotels in Cannaregio. You’ll save money with respect to “Grand Canal” or “San Marco” hotels but you’re still close to both. And the restaurants are great.

What to do:  Besides the Film Festival, you will certainly visit The Basilica of San Marco and Piazza San Marco.  Have a drink in the piazza, or a coffee and a sweet, and watch all the people and pigeons. Expensive but worth it.  You should also visit the Doge’s Palace, also in the piazza. The ticket is very expensive, but it is also worth it. The best part about the Palace is crossing over The Bridge of Sighs, so-called because prisoners would walk that bridge on their way to the dungeons.  The Palace includes a museum with ancient weaponry and torture devices, which for some reason is my favorite kind of museum.  Do a gondola ride if you’re with your sweetheart, preferably at night.  EAT SWEETS.

Where to eat:
Osteria Ca’ D’Oro (La Vedova)Calle del Pistor | Off of Strada Nuova in Cannaregio. Here you get the meatballs, and sit at old wooden tables polished by a million elbows. RESERVE!

Paradiso PerdutoFondamenta della Misericordia | Cannaregio 2640. As the Tripadvisor reviews indicate, the food here is only OK. But the atmosphere is wonderful. Inside it’s rowdy and sometimes has live music. Or, you can sit outside like we did, right on the edge of a canal with little waves providing the soundtrack to your meal. So romantic (I imagine; I was with my cousin Anne)! RESERVE!

Anywhere with pastries!
Only eat breakfast or lunch at places that have their prices posted somewhere! (Dinner places will have menus obviously). We sat down at an outside table of a bar for breakfast, each had coffee, a pastry, a piece of fruit and water, and the bill came for thirty euros (about forty dollars)! What were we gonna do, call the police? I had heard that as soon as they understand you’re foreign, they make up the prices as they go along, and once the bill comes there’s nothing you can do. I ignored this warning and literally paid the price. Folks, only sit down and order after seeing a price list.

Don’t think you must get a hotel near San Marco or the “center.”  In Venice, everything is close, and you’ll save a lot of money if you go just 100 yards farther away from these spots.

Try to arrive by train. The station is in the middle of town, and walking off the tracks and onto a canal is rather exciting. The airports, both of them, are far out of town and will add time to your journey. Consider this if you are in Italy, Germany, France, etc. and think flying will save you a lot of time.

If you go to the Film Festival, understand that it is held on the Lido, which is not very pretty or interesting, so stay in Venice proper. And if you stay in Venice proper, it’s going to take you two hours to comfortably get to the Festival location. Plan accordingly. Also, if you want to get tickets and you’re just a simple member of the public like we are, find out when the tickets are going to go on sale online and set your alarm on that day. They don’t go on sale until a week or two before the Festival, so you should have already reserved your flight and hotel. So you must POUNCE on the Festival tickets to ensure you have some. As long as you can get tickets, you can go.

I’d love to know: What do you think of Venice? Some people, like me, think it’s a wonderland. Others think it’s overrated or smells bad. Some people say one day is enough; other say non basta a lifetime. And, has anyone else been to the Film Festival? What did you think?