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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET ?                                                          Venice, Italy


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Bongiorno! Last week we left off from Zermatt, Switzerland. This week we are in my new most favorite Italian city: Venice.

From Zermatt my sister, father and Nancy took an early morning Glacier Express train to Brig, Switzerland. Our friend Sam was on the same train for part of the ride and I am sure he was sorry that he ran into us. It took 1 hour 21 minutes, but time flew by because the scenery was so picturesque. After a 40-minute layover we transferred to a Cisalpino (Italy’s high-speed train). Within minutes we were in Italy. The train made a few stops before arriving in Milano (Milan) 2 hours and 15 minutes later. On the way we cruised past Lake Como. I so wanted to jump out because the landscape looked inviting! Absolutely gorgeous!

In Milano we did not have to change trains (heavy sigh of relief, because I seriously don’t think my back or nerves could take moving all those bags again). Schlepping bags is not only bad for the back, it’s embarrassing – every time we got on or off a train people looked at us like we were "dumb Americans." When I felt the eyeballs I just cracked a couple jokes, like "I can’t believe all these bags are for only one weekend." Nobody laughed, though, including me. The worst part about oversized bags is that there is nowhere on the trains to store them. They don’t fit in the overhead compartment, and the one designated closet was usually taken. So we left them in the aisle near the doors, making them susceptible to thieves.

Luckily, we splurged for first class ($119 each way). That made a difference, because few people in our carriage got off or on. Before we left the States we reserved four seats together through RailEurope.com (at an extra $15 each). The configuration was two and two, with a table in between so we faced each other. It was perfect for both chatting and getting work done on a laptop. As an added bonus each row had access to an electrical outlet (be sure to bring a European plug converter). Traveling on the Cisalpino train is a pleasure -- not only because it’s fast and smooth, but because they have a really good dining car (it requires reservations, but you can make them on the train). We were worried about our bags being stolen, so we took turns eating. First my sister and I ate; then my dad and Nancy. Of course we could have stayed in our regular seats and ordered snacks from the food/beverage cart, but that would not have been as fun -- nor as tasty.

Two hours and 51 minutes later we were in Venezia, bambino (Venice, baby)! I had arranged for the owners of www.VeniceGuideAndBoat.it to meet us at the train station. Cinzia and her husband Luigi run this fine website, which plans Venice tours and transportation using professional tour guides and licensed water taxis. Cinzia and Luigi took all the hassle out of traveling. We didn’t have to worry about directions, transportation, lugging bags or waiting around. It was perfect, and the first time on the trip I relaxed and enjoyed my surroundings. They showed us all around their hometown of Venice, and took us to some really cool places. Read on to find out where!

This was my first visit to Venice. I heard so many negative things about it in the summer -- it’s too crowded, it smells, it’s oppressively hot, expensive, it’s dirty -- that I didn’t know what to expect. It’s a good thing I kept an open mind, because from the moment I stepped out of the train station and saw the Grand Canal, to the day I left, I rarely experienced anything negative. Maybe I got lucky, but I don’t think so. I’m sure my experience was so positive because of two factors: Cinzia/Luigi, and our hotel. With that combination, we couldn’t go wrong.

The population of central Venice is 63,000. The city is made up of 117 islands, separated by 150 canals and connected with 409 bridges. The historic center is divided into six sestieri (neighborhoods): San Marco, Dorsoduro, San Polo, Santa Croce, Cannaregio and Castello. The historic center is small, and walking across it should take only 30 minutes. That’s if you don’t get lost, of course. There are plenty of places where that can happen, and first-time visitors (who don’t know to look for signs) will most likely lose their way. We did, and you know what? We found areas that were completely devoid of tourists, and pretended we had whole the city all to ourselves. Besides the six sestieri, Venice includes a bunch of nearby islands in the shallow waters. We visited a few, including Murano, Burano, San Clemente and the Lido.

Like everyone else I was with, I was taken aback by Venice’s beauty, charm and unique geography. I knew Venice had canals, but I didn’t realize I wouldn’t see or hear any cars or Vespas cruising around. Other than walking, every form of transportation in Venice floats -- I’m talking water taxis, water buses (vaporetti) … heck, even the ambulances are speed boats. How cool is that? (Not that I want to go in one.) Transportation in Venice isn’t cheap, though -- especially the private form. We saved a little bit of money by booking Luigi. He charges what the locals pay. We booked directly, and avoided commissions added by travel agencies of 10 percent or more. Getting from the train station to central Venice (St. Mark's) on a vaporetto cost 5 euros each, plus 3.50 euros for each large bag and takes 30 minutes (with line 82) or 40 minutes (with line 1). A taxi on the same route costs 60 euros (for up to six passengers and their luggage), and takes 10-15 minutes. A taxi between the airport to and/from central Venice is 80 euros, and takes 30 minutes. There is also a private company - Alilaguna - that provides connection from St. Mark's to the Airport, departing every hour on the twenty. It takes 1 hour and 15 minutes and costs 10 euros per person including 1 luggage and 1 hand luggage. Extra luggage are 3,50 per piece.

Obviously, hiring Luigi or Cinzia isn’t for the budget traveler. It’s for the travelers who want to make sure their trip to Venice is special. Venice has always been one of my father’s dream destinations (mine too), so I wanted to make sure his first trip was perfect and hassle free. I’m pretty sure we achieved that goal by staying at our fine hotel, and having Luigi drive us around and Cinzia take us on tours. Cinzia’s fees vary depending on what clients want. For example, a 2-hour walking tour is 120 euros (entrance fees are extra). See their website for tour descriptions. They do offer a discount program of multiple services, which saves travelers money. What’s great about being with a guide is that visitors don’t have to wait in long lines. Cinzia speaks four languages, but English-only travelers don’t have to worry about communicating in Venice no matter who they’re with; everyone speaks English. After all, Americans are Venice’s Number One visitor, and tourism is the Number One industry. VeniceGuideAndBoat.it; tel.: 39-041-5262379.

The one form of transportation I wanted to take but didn’t was a gondola. They’ve become the city’s symbol even more than the official winged lions. Gondolas are beautiful, elegantly designed flat-bottom boats. They have evolved since the first ones were built in the 11th century. At their peak in the 17th century, more than 5,000 gondolas floated around Venice. Today there are only 500 or so. They can be the most romantic way to see the city, but unfortunately during peak times they are a tourist trap. This was a big disappointment.

One afternoon I stood on a bridge and watched one gondola after another go by. I thought for a second I was at Disneyland and the boats were on an underground rail system, because only a couple of feet separated each one. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m sure under the right circumstances (late at night or at sunset in the off-season) a gondola ride would be amazing. I didn’t take one not because they’re expensive: 45 minutes cost 80 euros before 8 p.m. for up to six people, 92 euros thereafter. But I didn’t have someone special with me, and I want my first gondola experience to be exactly that: special. TIP: Gondoliers are supposed to respect official gondola rates, but not all of them do. To avoid paying more, hire a gondola from one of the large stations, where there is always a chief gondolier (bancale). There are four such stations around St. Mark's: in the square right in front of the two columns; by the Hotel Monaco; by the Hotel Bauer, and in the Bacino Orseolo, right behind the Square.

The best time to visit Venice is late March to early May. That’s when there are fewer crowds, and clear spring days. September and October are also a good times in terms of weather, but crowds will be bigger. The busiest times are between Easter and June, and September through October. The worst time (if there is such a thing) is November and December; that’s the rainy season, and flooding occurs. Venice does get cold in the winter; sometimes it even snows.

To reach our hotel from the train station we took the city’s main street: the Grand Canal. It’s 2.4 miles long, and at its widest point its 229 feet. The weather was beautiful, the views were jaw-dropping. We were so excited! Three bridges cross the Grand Canal: Scalzi, Academia and the Rialto. The Rialto Bridge is a huge gathering point, and one night we had dinner at a restaurant next to it. The food was just okay, but the location was ideal. It was tucked in so close between the bridge and the canal that the diners next to us accidentally knocked a chair into the water (luckily, no one was sitting in it). The guests were relieved when a waiter fished it out with a pole, and said it happens all the time. Al Buso, San Marco – Ponte di Rialto, 5338, Venezia; tel.: 041-5289078.

We stayed at Venice’s newest luxury hotel: San Clemente Palace. This 5-star hotel sits on its own private 17-acre island 10 minutes from central Venice. The hotel was built just a couple years ago, and is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World (so you know it’s nice!). Life on San Clemente Island dates back to 1131. That’s the same year in which the church on the island was built, as an ancient monastery of the Camaldolesi order. When we pulled up to a dock with candy-striped pilings a friendly, well-dressed porter welcomed us and took our bags. We walked down a long stone path to the hotel’s entrance of the hotel, where we were greeted greeted by opulence. The hotel was shiny, new -- and a monster! It’s the largest hotel in Venice, with 200 rooms and suites. Ceilings are high throughout the hotel. The hallways are long and wide, and the ones on the ground floor are decorated with sumptuous furnishings. The center of the hotel is a wide 3-story grand stair case, including crystal chandeliers and iron mirrors.

We got upgraded to suites with killer views of the lagoon. The room was huge, with precious fabrics and elegant accessories. It was so comfortable (including the king size bed!) that it made lounging around in bathrobes a daily routine. The fresh fruit bowl and luxurious marble bathroom -- loaded with full-size Etro bath products -- added to the elegance. I could even work at a Louis XVI (1774-1792) desk. Unfortunately the hotel had no high-speed internet in the rooms, but I checked email on my laptop by taking the internet cord out of one of the three computers available for guests’ free use in the lobby).

San Clemente Palace is a perfect hotel for summer travelers. Guests can escape the hustle and bustle of central Venice, yet the hotel has everything anyone needs. There are three restaurants, two bars, plenty of courtyards and a spa, beauty and wellness club. Exercise enthusiasts will appreciate the walking/jogging path around the island, tennis courts, outdoor swimming pool and small pitch-and-putt golf course. Included in our room rate was an American/European-style breakfast that was sprawled from eggs to chocolate pear tarts. We enjoyed it outside, in the peaceful courtyard patio. The only other meal we had at the hotel was lunch by the pool. The food was good, but not inexpensive. The hotel was so nice that I almost didn’t want to leave and explore Venice -- but the free 24-hour boat shuttle that departs every 20 minutes makes it too easy not to. Off-season rates begin at 260 euros. San Clemente Palace: Isola di San Clemente, 1, San Marco – 30124 Venezia; tel: 39-041-244-50-01.

I was in Venice for three days (my sister had to leave on Day 2), and we went into the city twice a day. The first night we got a quick tour with Cinzia and Luigi of St. Mark’s Square. Afterwards they took us to a restaurant frequented primarily by locals. We invited them to join us – what a treat to dine with people who live there year-round. It was a great, inexpensive restaurant serving typical Venetian food: seafood and pasta. For round two of dessert we visited one of the many irresistible gelato shops. Hosteria Al Vecio Bragosso, Strada Nuova 4386, S.S. Apostoli – Venezia; tel.: 41-5237277.

Before dinner we went to Harry’s Bar, a Venice landmark renowned for a drink called Bellini’s. It’s a mixture of white peach juice and Prosecco (Champagne). Named after the 15th-century Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, it costs 14 euros (6 euros for a non-alcoholic version), and is refreshing. Harry’s Bar opened in 1946, and has become so popular there are now Harry’s bars and restaurants around the world. Harry was in the house and is most famous for owning one of the world’s finest hotels: The Cipriani. It’s the most expensive hotel in Venice, and like San Clemente is reachable only by private launch. (Rooms start at 370 euros in the off-season). If you’re interested in checking out Venice’s other 5-star hotels, they are the Hotel Bauer, Hotel Danieli, Hotel Gritti Palace, Grand Hotel dei Dogi, Hotel Luna Baglioni and Hotel Excelsior Venice. Harry’s Bar: San Marco 1323, 30124 Venezia; tel.: 41-5285777.

The next day we met Cinzia in Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). This is where all the tourist and pigeons flock. Of course I had to spend a euro for a bag of corn just to get the dirty birds to land on me for a picture. I know -- I’m a stupid tourist, but it was fun. At night this place is at its best. The hurly-burly and pigeons are gone. Music can be heard from every corner. The cafes have orchestras that play such amazing music that the courtyard is filled with romance.

During the day the square is packed with tourists from around the world (especially the U.S.), many of them in tour groups. One day Cinzia took us on a 2-hour tour of two places we really wanted to see: Doge's Palace and the Basilica of St. Mark's. It’s a good thing we were with her, because we bypassed the long line for St. Mark’s Cathedral. Entry is free, and visitors are not allowed to enter with sleeveless shirts or bare. Don’t worry about going back to your hotel and changing, though; they sell a fashionable orange paper wrap for 1 euro.

Doge's Palace, once the house of the government of Venice Palazzo Ducale, is located next door to the church. This Gothic-Renaissance building made of pink and white marble is simply breathtaking. Words can’t describe the interior. Let’s just say there is enough gold up there to make Mr. T and Donald Trump break dance. And the paintings would make any art teacher cry for joy. No picture-taking is allowed, so you’ll have to see it for yourself. A narrow canal separates the palace's east side from the tiny cellblocks of the Prigioni Nuove (New Prisons). It’s connected by the enclosed marble Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs). The bridge got its name because it was the last site of the outside world its prisoners saw. Cost: 11 euros.

We would have needed a month to take in all the sights, and none of us wanted to run around like chickens with our heads cut off trying pack them in. Besides, we had such a nice hotel to hang out at. Other popular sites to see include the Rialto Market (go early morning Tuesday to Saturday to see both fish and fruit/vegetable markets); the Scuola di San Rocco and Frari's Church; Ca' Rezzonico (the only palace that is now a museum); San Giorgio Palladian Church and the view from the bell tower (there is an elevator); the small Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni (with a very appealing cycle of paintings on the life of Saint George); a walk through the Castello district and the Guggenheim modern art museum, followed by a Gianduiotto (chocolate-hazelnut) ice cream at Nico's along the Zattere. There are plenty of other intriguing places too. And all along you can learn about about Venice’s fascinating history -- including its rule by Austria for 70 years. Writing about it all would take months, so instead check out this resource.

However, we did check out some of the surrounding islands after jumping in Luigi’s boat. Our first stop was the Island of Murano, famous for its glass factories. There are many places to see glass demonstrations. We went to the Vetreria Artistica Vivarini factory. As at any of the other places, the glass blower was amazing. He made a vase and a horse in less than five minutes. We then took a tour of their showroom, and that was even more impressive than the live demonstration. However, I was afraid to touch anything, because the prices were not cheap. Some items cost 70,000 euros! I kept repeating, "Dad don’t touch!" Prices were much more reasonable in the gift shop so we bought plenty of souvenirs, from earrings to vases.

If you don’t have Luigi’s boat, take the vaporetto. But be careful of pickpockets. That’s basically the only crime in Venice – after all, it’s an island, and thieves don’t have a lot of places to hide. Vetreria Artistica Vivarini, f.ta Serenella, 5-6, 30141 Murano/Venezia; tel.: 41-736-077.

Our next stop was a 15-minute ride to the lovely fishing island of Burano. This charming, colorful and small island is famous for its lace-making. The only problem is that there are so few women left on Burano willing to spend the time to make these delicate artworks that most are produced by machine in Hong Kong. I heard the same goes for fake glass -- and it’s hard for the novice shopper to tell the difference between real and fake.

Our final stop on our amazing trip was the Lido di Venezia, a 6-mile (10 km)-long, slender island just a 15-minute boat ride away from St Mark’s Square. The Lido is most famous for the Venice Film Festival (held every September), and the cabanas along the Adriatic Sea. Most of the stars stay at the 5-star Hotel Excelsior (it’s a Westin). This grand hotel is located right on the beach. I felt like spending the day relaxing or jumping on a 3-hour ferry to Croatia. But I had other places to go in Italy – and we’ll get to them next week.

Here’s a 2-minute video I made of our short trip. With high-speed the video takes about a minute to load; with dial-up, about three weeks.

Next week we jet off to Southern Italy. I’ll give you a hint: It’s one of the most exclusive islands in the world. Ciao!

Happy Travels,

Johnny Jet

*Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!

Pictures From Venice


Train From Zermatt


Train To Italy



Dining Car



Grand Canal

Place is Expensive!


Luigi's Boat

Original Gondola

Dad on Boat

Winged Lions

Gondola Station



San Clemente Island


My Comfy Bed


Fruit Salad




St. Mark's Square


Harry's Bar


Basilica of St. Mark's


Ponte dei Sospiri
(Bridge of Sighs)


Dad and Nancy


Murano Showroom


Island of Burano




The Lido

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  • With all that great food you are always eating, how is it your not 325lbs? You have made quite a life for yourself. Congratulations!!! Brian Sirois -
  • I just read the story and I gotta tell ya. That place looks flat out beautiful. K. Edwards - California
  • Your weekly newsletter is better than any travel guide book I have read. I always search your archives to get tips on places I am traveling to. Thanks for all the great stories & information! Laura K. - Chicago
  • That is a great story you wrote. The whole trip was amazing. Tor N - Connecticut
  • To me, it was one of the very best you have put together. What a great place to get married. Tell Frank that I think he and Cricket chose a wonderful place. I think I'll get married there the second time around. LOL! P.S. Were you able to make a sound with the horn? REPLY: Thanks! I was able to make a sound but it didn’t sound like those Ricola guys.
  • I joined your newsletter a few weeks ago and enjoy it very much. As I live in Switzerland (Zumikon, near Zürich) I was quite interested in your trip to Zermatt! I am American and have lived in Switzerland for over 20 years. Yes, the primary language (of the 4 official languages) is German (written), but the spoken language is Swiss German with an intonation and uniqueness of its own. Swiss German is not an official written language and the dialect only has 2 tenses: the present and the present perfect (as opposed to German). The other languages are Italian, French and Raeto-Romanisch. Good luck with all of your travels and all the best to Frank & Cricket! Natalie – Zumikon, Switzerland
  • Guten Tag Johnny! My brother is getting married next week in a small town in Germany where my mother grew up so I'll be following in your footsteps to Europe. This week's newsletter made me even more excited than I already am to get over there and experience that good old German charm. Danke and Tschuss (goodbye in German)! Christine – Washington D.C.
  • Loved your letter, Johnny - I was in Zermatt a couple of years ago, and found it so beautiful, real "chocolate box" stuff. Did the Klein Matterhorn trip (awe inspiring, but a bit scary). Marilyn R - Australia
  • This week’s edition was lovely! My desire to get my butt to Switzerland has just been ignited! The tribute page to your Mother was so touching, I was very moved (to tears) by it. You have such beautiful family and friends. Thank you for all your work and dedication, and for bringing a little mini-holiday to me as I sit here on a Tuesday evening. Bringing happiness to strangers is wonderful, positive karma ... yea you! Love & Namaste, Shawna - Henderson, Nevada.
  • Keep the videos coming!!! It's great to read and look at the pictures, but then your short videos and choice of music complete the story. Johnny, you continue to improve in your story telling and picture taking. I truly look forward to the newsletter each week and I pass your website on to anyone who is interested. Jerry Stevens - Seattle
  • Your short video/photo montages are so great! What software do you use to make them? Helen from Ventura REPLY: Windows Movie Maker (it came with my Toshiba Laptop).
  • Your stories are very interesting, as an Air Force Brat, I've been to a few of your European Countries that you have visited. The question I have is who is the artist and song that you chose for your Paris video. I love the music. Thanks, Sharon (Georgia peach)
  • I loved the music on your Paris video....so I did a little research and found the artist/song. Thanks for introducing me to something new, Ronan Keating is GREAT. I have been jealously following your blog this summer--didn'tcha just LOVE Capri? ~Carolyn F – San Francisco, CA
  • I enjoyed the Switzerland pics and train pictures. I love traveling by train, even the beleaguered AMTRAK. Well, all the new bells and whistles on the website look great. Now that it has become so huge and fancy maybe you could add a mini-index for easier navigation. Nina D - Cambridge, MA
  • The gondola and two trams to the Klein Matterhorn were really pretty boring and expensive. I think they were 60 dollars each. Georgette - Connecticut
  • Thanks for continuing to make us all feel a part of your family. The account of your trip to Switzerland, the surrounding beautiful views of the countryside were spectacular! Congratulations to Frank and Cricket! Geof O’Connor - San Diego and San Francisco
  • Johnny you rock! We just read the newsletter together, looked at all the pics, and watched the video! Unbelievable - you have given us such a special memory. Thank you for being there and celebrating our special day! Love, Cricket

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