Five cities that surprised me

venice2

Travel is a funny thing. You can stare at guidebooks until your contacts dry out and you can consult Google maps for days on end, but try as you might, there’s no way to fully prepare for what’s ahead. No matter what, you’ll get lost, you’ll overestimate your energy level, and you’ll get caught in a surprise downpour without raingear. And at least once in your life, you’ll misread the timetable, find out the next train doesn’t arrive until 1 a.m., and spend the next few hours on an uncomfortable bench nibbling vending machine food and using your backpack as a pillow.

Unexpected moments like these can make or break a vacation, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Here, I share a few stories of cities that exceeded–or didn’t meet–my expectations.

 

Paris

paris

Before I visited Paris, I heard a few less-than-flattering anecdotes from friends that convinced me I’d find the French capital dirty, crowded and underwhelming. In a way, I’m glad I flew into Charles de Gaulle Airport one October morning with such low expectations. I’ve never been so pleasantly surprised!

Back in Italy, my study-abroad friends and I felt a little like the fates were already conspiring to make our trip to Paris terrible. The forecast called for constant rain, and there were so few hostel options left in the weeks before our departure that we took a huge security risk and booked a place in the Latin Quarter that didn’t offer storage lockers–something I’d never recommend to anyone. And yet, the moment we emerged from the underground Metro, I felt like I was living out an Edith Piaf song.

Everywhere we went, magical things happened. We made fast friends with our hostel bunkmates and spent a memorable night with them at a perfectly Parisian hole-in-the-wall student hangout down the street. One relentlessly cloudy morning on Ile de la Cité, we rounded a corner just in time to see clouds parting poetically above the majestic Notre Dame. In the suspiciously empty Louvre, I had the Code of Hammurabi and Venus de Milo to myself for minutes on end. We got to Versailles three hours before the inside of the palace opened, and it was the happiest accident we could have made: the royal grounds were so vast and beautiful that we lost track of time exploring them.

I could write rapturously about so much more–every plaza, every sidewalk cafe, all the incredible and affordable prix fixe restaurants–and maybe I will when I return someday.

What I learned: Go to Paris in October. Most of the tourists are gone, and the city is somehow even more beautiful when it rains.

Venice

venice

For years and years growing up, I dreamed of visiting Venice. The bright colors, majestic palaces, tiny canals and romantic narrow streets looked so unreal in pictures. I’m a little ashamed to admit how major a factor Venice was in my desire to study Italian in college. I spent so long idealizing the place that a letdown was almost inevitable.

I really, really hated my first trip to Venice. I went with two friends on a rainy Sunday in September, and the entire city center was so clogged with tourists and day-tripping Italian families that it was hard to see anything around me. There were long lines everywhere–at major attractions, restaurants, even stores selling Murano glass jewelry. After having spent a month studying in an authentic Italian town, Venice felt less authentically Italian than a Spaghetti Factory…and a heck of a lot more expensive.

The whole experience was so disheartening that I used the next day’s class assignment as an excuse to rant about it.

Unfortunately, the next time I found myself in Venice was the night before my departure from Italy. To prepare for our upcoming flight out of Marco Polo Airport, everyone in my cohort got a hotel room for the night in nearby Mestre and decided to venture into the lagoon for dinner. Without the rain and summertime crowds, wandering through the cobblestoned alleys in a less central part of town was pure magic. I kicked myself for spending so long nursing a grudge against Venice, the city that had been only an hour’s train ride away for a whole semester.

What I learned: If I ever go back to Venice, I’ll do it right. I’ll make sure I spend the night there so I can see its magic without the crowds. I’ll build a ton of wandering time into my trip and get lost on purpose. And I will never, ever visit on a Sunday.

 

New York City

newyork

Last year, I decided to take my very first trip to the East Coast. I’d always wanted to visit New York City, and I figured I’d come away from my five days there with the same opinion a lot of my friends hold: that while New York is a wonderful place to visit, I’d never be able to live somewhere so large and loud.

Boy, was I wrong.

How did I manage to fall in love with a city so expensive that I spent most of my nights bunking with 18-year-old boys in a hostel? So humid that I risked ejection from the U.S. Open stadium hopping between shady seats that weren’t mine? So crowded that I couldn’t find a single free seat to watch the Oregon game at the only Ducks bar in town?

I’m still not sure. The world-class art certainly had something to do with it: At the Metropolitan Museum, I had as many legendary pieces to myself as I did at the Louvre. (Do I just have good museum luck?) The surprising plethora of free activities, from Central Park to window shopping to the High Line to free Fridays at MoMA, played a role too. So did the huge selection of food from all over the world, from Jamaica to Yemen to Cambodia.

But what captivated me most about New York had nothing to do with its most legendary sights. It was the way I felt walking down the street. Even in my stretched-out shorts and sweaty cardigan, wandering around New York made me feel like I could take on the world. Knowing I might be strolling down the same cobbled lanes as legends like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Henry James once did was thrilling. Even though its poetic old alleys and grimy brick facades may now be home to more millionaire movie stars than immigrant tenements, it’s still America’s Melting Pot, and it still pulses with infectious energy.

What I learned: I could totally live in New York…if I won the lottery.

 

Vancouver

vancouver

When I moved to Seattle, I discovered that most Pacific Northwesterners know and love Vancouver. But I can attest that people in my home state of California have little interest in British Columbia’s largest city. Its metro area is home to more than 2 million people, yet before I lived in Seattle, I knew it to be nothing more than an affordable filming location.

Those two decades of ignorance were my loss. Vancouver boasts fantastic ethnic food, stunning views, beautiful parks and so much more.

In a handful of weekend trips over the last six years, I’ve discovered that pretty much anyone can enjoy Vancouver–including people who hate cities! Backpacking college students will find fantastic, cheap and authentic ethnic food in almost every neighborhood, and they can party the night away on Granville Street, which turns into an energetic pedestrian mall on the weekends. Couples looking for a quiet weekend escape can the explore wild, forested Stanley Park, take in world-class museums and performances on the UBC campus and discover quaint ethnic bodegas and cafes in Kitsilano. Solo travelers will find anonymous company on Granville Island, a huge farmers’ market with endless gastronomic curiosities and tourists from all over the world. Hikers can take on the Grouse Grunt, one of the steepest schleps out there, and they’ll be rewarded with a jaw-dropping view and a complimentary gondola ride back down. And I’ve only just scratched the surface!

What I learned: It’s never a good idea to write a city off just because you haven’t heard much about it.

 

Budapest

budapest

I traveled to the capital of Hungary in 2008, before the age of Pinterest and career travel bloggers. At that time, the internet yielded curiously little information about the city. My travel buddy and I found a few key sights to check out, but we weren’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t so clueless about lesser-known Eastern Europe to believe the scene from “Eurotrip” was right on the money, but I admit I had vague images of unattractive concrete buildings, crumbling train stations and miserable weather.

Ironically, my travel buddy and I experienced all of the above during our three-day trip. But for every time-worn train station, there was a mind-blowing museum or a magnificent tiled roof. Next door to every midcentury monstrosity, we encountered an awe-inspiring synagogue or an intricate sandcastle come to life. And frankly, we weren’t too upset when temperatures dropped or the rain began to pour, because it meant we could duck our heads into one of the city’s many beautifully ugly ruin bars for some warming stew and beer.

I like to think that Budapest is the new Prague, which used to be Europe’s premier unpolished jewel. Prague is still unbelievably beautiful, but the crowds have descended and much of the city has been sanitized for the visitors’ benefit. But in Hungary’s largest city, charming seediness and urban grit are still as prevalent as old-world grandeur and cute shops selling handmade lace. If you’re the kind of traveler who doesn’t mind visiting a museum that houses world-class art but doesn’t translate its guides to English, or if you’d sooner grab a drink in a not-quite-converted warehouse than in a sleek new lounge, Budapest is the destination for you.

What I learned: Hungarian is one of the coolest and most confusing languages I’ve ever tried to speak.

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Italy’s newest theme park? Venice

Photo by Jill Kimball

The restaurant had taken advantage of every inch of its tiny corner-of-the-block space. Tables were crammed into the corners and smashed against the front windows, leaving barely enough space between them to allow waiters to pass. Across from our tiny sitting area, pushed uncomfortably underneath the stairs to the second floor bathrooms, was a huge case of chilled five-dollar water bottles. Customers’ expressions revealed feelings of worry, harriedness, stress and slight unease, with the exception of two couples in fluorescent Hawaiian shirts laughing and boisterously singing the chorus of “Hotel California” with the waiter.

No, this wasn’t Disneyland. This was Venice, Italy.

Photo by Jill Kimball

Or was it? I doubted many other Italian cities considered English their primary language and attracted about 20 times more annual visitors than permanent residents. Maybe this was Disneyland after all.

Though the claustrophobia of the restaurant did nothing to calm my nerves, it was at least an escape from the hordes of tourists and pigeons only a block away in St. Mark’s Square, one of the most visited spots in the city.

When you’ve only got a day to spend in Venice, as my friends and I did on this rainy Sunday, seeing the square is a visitor must—especially when the visitor in question, like me, has gazed at photos of the cathedral, the clock tower and the Doge’s Palace in wonder for years. I had dreamed about visiting Venice, particularly this venerated square where so many scholars and poets before me had passed through, since eighth grade, when I sang in a play called “Viva Vivaldi!” which celebrated the life of the famous Venetian composer and his lovely home turf.

Photo by Jill Kimball

With all my senses, I routinely imagined the red-roofed city’s atmosphere: the tiny, romantic canals lined with orange and yellow houses, clothes strung between the crumbling balconies; wafts of warm pasta and pesto sauces lingering in the air; a cool, salty breeze from the Grand Canal.When I finally arrived at the square in person, though, only two of my senses awakened: sight and smell. The former spotted dark, ominous clouds threatening to pour rain down on us, and the latter couldn’t ignore the repugnant rotten-egg smell emanating from the canal 200 feet away. To make matters worse, a large construction banner covered a ring of scaffolding around the red-brick bell tower, obscuring the full view of the square and making it even more difficult for the huge crowds to maneuver around each other.

Was Venice always like this, I wondered? What happened to “bella Venezia”, the city of Vivaldi, the capital of romance?

Here’s what happened: the Disneyland effect.

Photo by Jill Kimball

In June, city officials estimated that somewhere between 18 and 19 million people visit Venice every year. This statistic looks astronomical even by itself, but juxtaposed with the number of residents within city limits—62,000, according to a 2006 census—it seems downright insane. Actually, it closely resembles tourist figures at Disneyland. In 2007, nearly 17 million people visited Disneyland, which means in the high season visitors staying in hotels could easily have outnumbered the fewer than 350,000 Anaheim, Calif. Residents.

Venice wasn’t always so overrun with non-Italians, though. Fifty years ago, its population was twice that of today, and according to an article in the New York Times, the city saw half the amount of current annual tourists 20 years ago. No wonder my high school Spanish teacher, who visited Venice in the 1960s, reported a very different experience from mine: she called the canals and the square “charming” and said most people there were Italian, not foreign.

Venice has changed, and mostly for the worse. In 1960, I could have gotten off the train at Santa Lucia station and said, “What do I want to see first?” When my friends and I got off the train, we spent 10 minutes elbowing our way through the crowds to reach the station and my friend Mark aptly said, “So basically what it comes down to is, where do we want to wait in line first?”

Photo by Jill Kimball

We chose the hundred-person-long line to the baggage storage room. Then, we waited in line to buy tickets for the “vaporetti,” or water taxis. Then, we waited in line to get on the taxi. By the time we had waited in line twice more, once to ride the elevator to the top of the bell tower and again to see the unfurnished, musty and dark interior of the Doge’s palace, we were entirely too hungry and tired of crowds to bother with the line that snaked from the cathedral’s wrought iron entrance doors all the way to the edge of the canal.

There were no lines in front of the restaurant. But there was a Venetian waiter there who, when I tried to ask him about life in the lagoon city, drowned out my questions with talk of L.A. and another rousing chorus of “Hotel California”—all because I told him I was from San Francisco.

Clearly, Venice is no longer the cultural destination it once was—the city seems more American than it does Italian—but it is nevertheless home to 62,000 more people than Disneyland. It must, therefore, retain some sort of distinct local spirit, though it may be buried deep in the narrow, windy streets and tiny straits of water a little further from the Grand Canal. I hope to return to Venice in the off season and with a little more time on my hands to veer from the oft-tread path and discover the city as it once was. You’ll probably see me: I’ll be the underdressed American attempting fluid Italian sentences and murmuring under my breath about Disneyland tourist traps.

Photo by Jill Kimball

The weekend’s whirlwind tour!

Being a student in the CIMBA program means you’re constantly throwing yourself into one thing after another. This weekend, Lynn, Mark and I threw ourselves into Trieste, Padua and Venice. When we returned Sunday night, we threw ourselves back into homework and haven’t had time to breathe until now.

The first leg of the trip was a CIMBA-run Friday trip to sights near Trieste. First, our super-touristy buses stopped at Redipuglia, a World War I memorial and former battleground. It’s a huge, concrete-and-marble expanse that holds all the graves of the 40,000 known soldiers who died in the war, plus the remains of 60,000 unknown men, in a terraced motif. What struck me about the memorial was the stark contrast between its very white and cold expanse and all the trees and little houses dotting the countryside around it. After staring at a sea of green interspersed with little yellow and orange houses, the brightness and unnatural quality of the memorial was a little shocking–appropriately so.





Next, the bus stopped at Castello Miramare, built right on the cliffs overlooking the Adriatic Sea in the late 19th century. We didn’t get to go inside (we were only there for an hour, so the 4 euro admission price didn’t seem worth it), but we saw the pretty grounds via many staircases and even a little tunnel, and we made our way around the perimeter of the castle to the expansive balcony overlooking the ocean. The view of Trieste from the castle was outstanding, if a little hazy.

Photo by Jill Kimball



Photo by Jill Kimball

Then, after the bus dropped off the 3/4 of the student body who had decided to visit Ljubljana, Slovenia, three of us strapped on our backpacks and wandered around Trieste proper for a while. The city was full of beautiful, crooked alleyways that were perfect for the casual wanderer. The city clearly bore the mark of many different Western cultures, as it should given its location and involvement in so many land disagreements. In the same square was a canal that recalled Venice’s reign over Trieste, a church with Roman columns that hearkened back to its Roman roots, and a Serbian orthodox church, which reflects its interesting east-meets-west geographical position.


Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Lynn Hurley

In the late afternoon we caught a train to Padua and got to our B&B by nightfall. The couple who owned the little hotel, a large converted house, barely spoke any English–good news for me, because I got to practice my Italian; bad news for my friends, who knew not a word. Also staying at the hotel was a handful of students from Cal Tech, backpacking around Europe before the school year began. (I still can’t believe that most of the CSUs, UCs and U of O haven’t even started yet!) One girl was originally from Bucharest, Romania, but in the first five minutes of conversation with her we could barely pick up any accent at all.

When we woke up in the morning, we set off for the Cappella degli Scrovegni, where we had to reserve tickets online ahead of time to see Giotto’s famous frescoes. Much of his art had been damaged by a combination of centuries of neglect and exposure to polluted air, which caused the paint to peel. Since the 1960s, preservers have been trying to restore the frescoes. They’ve set up a complex system of air-churning machines and special waiting chambers to make sure the doors of the chapel aren’t opened and exposed to the elements for extended periods of time. They only open the doors for visitors every 20 minutes, and photos aren’t allowed…although we took a ton in the chapel’s lovely green grounds while we waited.

Photo by Jill Kimball
After the chapel, we found our way to the historic city center and took to street wandering for a few hours. We stumbled upon a few blocks of the biggest Italian names in fashion–Prada, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, etc.–then found more affordable goods at an outdoor market in Piazza delle Erbe, one of the city’s main squares. I was glad to see there were very few tourists; everyone in the city center seemed to be locals or area visitors taking a day trip to go shopping.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball

We saw and went inside several churches, but the most impressive by far was the Basilica of St. Anthony, where the actual remains of Padua’s patron saint sit in a tomb inside the sanctuary. The church, as you can see from the picture, is impossibly huge inside and out. It had about 20 chapels inside, and at every one there was at least one person kneeling or stopping to whisper a “Hail Mary”. The basilica is obviously considered a sort of Catholic pilgrimage destination to Italians.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball

Hilariously enough, we were so sick of Italian food that night that we decided to forsake pizza and pasta for bar food at Le Chevalier, an Irish-style pub with a French name, Italian menus and good ol’ American food. We watched a pathetic Rome soccer game while we munched on french fries and burgers.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball
Sunday’s adventure: Venice.

Photo by Jill Kimball

Let me just preface my impressions of Venice with this: we knew from the beginning that we were crunched for time and that we’d only be able to spend four or five hours in the city. On top of that, the weather was crummy and prevented us from doing some things we had planned, like wandering around for hours and grabbing a coffee in St. Mark’s Square.

That said…Venice is overrun. It’s Disneyland. While it looks exactly as I pictured it, and while no other city looks anything like it, there are so many people there that it’s hard to remember to look around you when you’re pushing through the crowds. There are lines everywhere: we waited 20 minutes to check our backpacks for the day at the train station, 10 to get tickets for the vaporetti (water taxies), another 10 to actually get on a vaporetto, 20 to go up the bell tower in St. Mark’s Square, 10 to get into the Doge’s Palace…and the line was so long to get into St. Mark’s Cathedral that we skipped it altogether, something I wish I hadn’t had to do.

Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball
Photo by Jill Kimball

I sincerely hope anyone else who goes to Venice has a better experience than I had on Sunday. It’s a beautiful city, and I think if I’d had more time to enjoy it, I would have found different parts of the city that were less crowded by foot traffic. I also would have found places where English was not the primary language, since the whole point of visiting a foreign country, to me at least, is experiencing a culture different than your own. I didn’t get that foreign experience in San Marco, or on the Rialto Bridge, or on the vaporetti, so I hope to return closer to winter and find that Venice really is the beautiful, romantic city I always pictured it to be.

Photo by Jill Kimball

UP NEXT: A NIGHT OUT IN BASSANO DEL GRAPPA