What I had not anticipated was the Nice traffic condition on a Monday morning. As we joined the lines of cars trudging at a painstaking speed on the Promenade des Anglais, we became increasingly aware that we had only 45 minutes to navigate through this horrendous traffic to locate the car rental booth, top up petrol and make a dash for the train station across town. It didn’t help that there were traffic junctions impeding our progress at every hundred metres or so.
We ended up making one detour as we missed the turn for the car rental booth and then had to ply through several streets for a petrol station as we did not want to pay the penalty for returning the car with a half full fuel tank. When we finally got the papers settled, it was 20 minutes to 10am and that was just about the amount of time I had to get an impression of Nice as we beelined for the train station in the city centre.
Thankfully Theo is an expert navigator and we made it to the train station just in time although by then we were bathed in perspiration due to our morning exertion. Unlike the TGV, we now seated in 6-seater booths so only 3 other people had to put up with Joel’s incessant chatter.
Before long, we left Monaco and arrived in Ventimiglia, the border town separating the rich French Riviera and the industrial port towns of Italy. Perhaps it was because I harboured a preconceived image of Italy, I was actually disappointed by my first impression of the country. I had specifically chosen a Riviera train hoping to enjoy the sea views but was instead greeted by rough hewn, disorganized and dirty towns at each stop. I was taken aback to witness stations and trains vandalized by graffiti which ranged from doodles to masterpieces that could have made Da Vinci proud.
After Genoa, the last of the port towns, the train tracked back through a tunnel, leaving the coast for Turin. The landscape changed dramatically as we emerged to managed pastures, farmhouses set against a mountainous backdrop. The train terminated in Milan, the financial capital of Italy. There is a long drawn debate whether Milan or Rome should be heralded as the capital of Italy since Milan generates some 70% of the country’s GDP.
Milano Centrale is the largest train station in Italy. The terminal was packed with passengers moving up and down the station platforms with many waiting in transit just like us. Although I couldn’t see the reason to rush, there was a constant frenzy of activity which left me pretty unsettled. How I already miss the little Provencial towns where people were friendly and stopped to greet one another with a simple ‘Bonjour!’
By the time we left for Venezia St Lucia, I was already glad to be on my way. Sad to say that for the city which AC Milan hails from. There wasn’t much to see after we left Milan, most of which were grey and unattractive industrial or residential suburbs. As we departed Mestre, the last station on the mainland, we crossed over a narrow bridge, the only land gateway to the famed city of legends – Venice.
I really had no idea what to expect or whether I should be wowed as I laid my eyes on the city built on wide waterways. Following the instructions of our host, we grabbed a vaporetto headed for San Zaccaria which took the outer perimeter route. We found Al Tramonto Dorato sandwiched between two larger buildings. For 90 Euros a night, this was the most expensive accommodation for our entire trip.
Nicola our rather charming host who reminded me a little of George Clooney is a true blood Venetian. He welcomed us warmly into his house and showed his unbridled adoration for Joel and I found out later that whether French or Italian, they loved little children and an Asian pre-schooler was quite the rare sight.
Nicola bought over this once palatial residence and converted it into a B&B for travelers and tourists. As I have no idea what a typical Italian home looked like, I can only say that the house was decorated with finesse and a touch of Venetian nobility. The rooms were comfortable and our balcony afforded a wonderful view of the Adriatic Sea and San Giorgio Maggiore sitting at the mouth of the delta. I was pleased to discover that we had access to the entire living room and as there were no other occupants on our level, it felt like we had rented the whole apartment.
We decided unanimously on Chinese when we spotted a black haired waitress beckoning to us outside a bistro near the B&B. Turns out she came from China and she greeted us cheerfully in Mandarin when she realised that we spoke her mother tongue. We actually did splurge quite a bit on this meal more for the familiarity of taste with a final tab of 40 Euros.
After dinner, Theo was quite ready to retire for the night but I was insistent on visiting St Mark’s Square. I read in every travel guidebook not to miss visiting the square at night. Theo had his doubts as the towns we had passed thus far were dead by 10pm and he was pretty sure that the square too would be deserted.
After labouring through 5 bridges in a span of 15 minutes, we arrived at St Mark’s Square. What a sight to behold! I was not particularly impressed with the palace ducale, St Mark’s basilica and the campanile as we walked passed it. But as I turned my head to gaze upon the square itself, I was engulfed by the beauty of the lights that adorn the main piazza. In addition to the sublime lighting which captivated my visual senses, symphonic music wafted through the square which lifted me to a different realm of emotional connection.
I was enthralled by the vision before me and threw myself at Theo for having brought me here, finally. I think I must have teared at this reunion with my 7 year dream. I stood entranced as three different orchestras were taking turns to play classical pieces by master composers to entertain the throngs of people who were gathered in the square. It seemed that God decided to reward me when one of the ensembles played my favorite piece the Swan Lake allegro by Tchaikovsky. Time stood still.