Venice is perhaps not the first place you think of as the destination for a rugby match. However, such is the beauty of the European destinations that we seem to end up in on our Challenge Cup away weekends! A small price to pay for not being in the Heineken Cup!
Hotel prices in the city do not cater for the price range of many and as a result we found ourselves staying in an area called Mestre in a very respectable hotel with an outdoor pool, gym and multiple waiting areas. Perfect also, it seemed, for the team who were also staying in our hotel. With a 10 min coach journey to the ‘stadium’ it was an ideal location all round & Venice was easily accessible by public transport.
Our first evening meant a walk into ‘downtown’ Mestre. A fairly hairy walk along a fairly major road was the only option to make our way in and, in time, along the cycle path. My word they cycle like loons. Trying to walk anymore than two across was nay on impossible and you seriously needed to be hugging the white line at the side of the road. Luckily you could hear bikes as they approached thanks to the frantic ringing of their bells, always followed by the first person who heard the faint tinkle screaming ‘BIKE’ only for us all to follow suit & move in.
The Compeed Queen, for the first time in AGES, forgot her miracle patches and of course it was the inevitable blister hell after walking in the walking boots on Friday. Saturday prematch was spent hot footing into Mestre Centre to the pharmacy we had passed the previous night. Thankfully I didn’t even have to try with severe pigeon Italian as there was a ruddy great stand of them, all shapes & sizes. It was quite alarming as to how much the site of the little green packs excited me!!
We seemed to leave for the match incredibly early and the ground felt more like a sort of Sunday league club that had a bit of money and so built a stand?! Here is what it looked like on arrival!
However, as expected, we were not the first of the travelling fans to arrive at the ground. There were in fact at least 50 bodies wrapped up against the elements all with varying amounts of blue, black & white poking out from somewhere. Some familiar faces, some unknowns but none the less all greeted like long-lost friends, the beauty of the camaraderie of European Bath Rugby Travel! Take the whole situation & put it in the UK, never would the chatter be quite the same. It’s strange! Getting food and drink took a while to comprehend until we realised you don’t actually pay at the bar but a little wooden hut where you buy vouchers to then swap at the bar for the food & drink. Savvy to this, queuing for one ticket at a time became a little daft!
The arrival of the players was wonderful. Having only just wished them well when we saw them in the hotel & rumours were flying all over the place of a change of ko and even that there were issues at Gatwick & the initial ref booked couldn’t actually make the match. (Think this actually turned out to be true!) From the coach to changing room they had no option but to walk past the now swarming bar, the tables at which were now all full. Rapturous applause erupted and those seated rose. Watching from nearer the pitch than the bar it was interesting to observe the players faces as they walked through this fairly unfamiliar scene. Some looked downright awkward walking through, embarrassed I guess, smirking in appreciation but eyes glued to the floor in front of them. Others a quick nod of acknowledgement and appreciation before upping their walking pace. Finally you had those that had clearly seen this reaction before, namely our captain, who not so long ago would have fitted any of the previous descriptions. But here we saw a different person acknowledging more openly the Bath presence, taking stock of faces and thanking supporters with a beaming, welcoming smile. Used to the travelling numbers, it would have been unsurprising to him the numbers overtaking the outside bar area.
Conscious that the seating area, like many rugby grounds of the smaller towns in Europe, was a stone cold slab of concrete, an investment in a small round plastic cushion was going to be the most worthwhile €5 of the weekend. Once carefully positioning your rear end to ensure maximum coverage the cushion was so deflated we might as well have sat on two pieces of plastic! But watching others standing at half time to rub their bottoms warm – we thanked our lucky stars we’d invested.
Tries came in all over the shop and the win came in smoothly. The sun had started to make its journey away & the cold Italian evening air was starting to come in. The hot wine was perfect! The players adorned some spectacular excuse of a coat to keep them warm while on the bench. Rustling past us as they walked down to the dead ball area in their long gilets! Most appealing!!
Post match it was getting pretty chilly waiting around for the bus to take us back to the hotel with time for a very quick pit stop before heading out again on the same bus to be dropped off at a vaporetto stop to make out way into Venice for our pre booked evening meal. Enough time thankfully to nip up to the room to dump the two seat cushions & pick up my cable for the mobile to give it some charge in the hope of snapping away at some of the sights at night as we hotfooted around the city either to or from the restaurant.
We alighted the vaporetto at Rialto Bridge & my previous trip came flooding back to me as I saw my current travel companions eyes light up at the sight of the beautiful marbled bridge, her eyes darting everywhere trying to take everything in. I remembered back to the first part of my previous trip, which could possibly be around 15 years ago now, visiting everywhere in thick fog. So thick that you could stand in the middle of San Marco square and not see the colonnades surrounding the square. We went over the bridge a few times window shopping and photo snapping as the buzz of the city centre & mass of tourists appeared – somewhat different to the area surrounding the hotel!
The food, whilst delicious, was somewhat of a let down. Having been unable to eat the set menu (well apart from the Tiramisu!) owing to allergies I was served gnocchi with tomato sauce as a starter & my main was spag Bol. The disappointing bit was that we had around possibly a minute between courses to digest. Absurd. We made reference to this & immediately service stopped. Completely. It was as though they were looking to get the group in and out as fast as possible. People were flagging left right & centre & the very idea of wandering around the beautiful city at night was by far the furthest thing from our minds. Thankfully the feeling was unanimous & having scooped up the eldest member of our group who was feeling a little unsteady on her feet we were a crocodile winding our way through the back streets of Venice to get to Piazzale Roma to find the bus home. It was not as quick a walk as expected. Multiple bridges were passed & beautifully lit buildings & I felt somewhat narked that I wasn’t able to take photos along the way, however, we were needed elsewhere & that most defo took precedence. Thankfully other David Baileys popped up along the way who have already been approached for copies.
The evening plan once back at the hotel was to catch up with the world thanks to the free wi-Fi, partake in a night-cap and disappear to our room – shattered from a long day & conscious that tomorrow would be worse! That never happened. Owing to the team not flying home directly there were several of the back room team floating around & catching up with us supporters & enjoying the forthcoming banter, some more than others! Whilst thankfully I didn’t wake with a hangover (not quite sure how) I drank enough to have the barman wink at me the following evening & ask if I was having a Disarono. Enough said. Many giggles, much piss taking observed & bed at 2am but banked as a hilarious evening not to be shared – well, after all, what goes on tour, stays on tour right?!
Sunday was our free day to see the city sites. Lucky in the fact that I’ve been before, for me it was all about ensuring my room-mate, who hadn’t, saw everything she needed & had the most fantastic day.
Our morning was spent on the island of Murano, the world-famous island of the beautiful glass. After ambling & window shopping for quite some time we found a factory which was showing free demonstrations and we were captivated as we watched a vase being blown & shaped in a matter of moments, but slide – and this impressed us far more – a horse being created in the same short amount if time. The heated glass was made to look like putty thanks to the suppleness of the liquid glass. It was astonishing.
Once back on the mainland we had around 4 1/2 hours until a possible route home en masse. You could tell we were all exhausted as the majority of us seemed to be looking at that option rather than staying on longer in the city. Dropped near San Marco Square, head buried in the guidebook to remind myself & explain to Kat the roles of the buildings as we passed them. Admiring the beautiful Italian architecture in glorious winter sunshine, thanking our lucky stars that we had been so lucky with the weather for the duration of our weekend.
The Doges Palace looked incredible in the sunshine, disappointingly the Basilica had a fair amount of scaffolding on top of it for restoration I assume as it could not really be appreciated in its full glory. I had totally forgotten how amazing the ceiling was with all of the marbled scenes in every alcove & adorning every wall backed in gold to really emphasise the majesty of the stories depicted. We paid to head up to the museum near the loggia where the bronze horses were and I’m glad that we did as we were closer to the mosaics & could see just how small each tiny little patch of colour was. Despite the huge signs saying no photography, there were several people doing so. Not I however. I felt far too guilty even trying to do so, no image of them would ever be able to do the views justice anyway!
Walking through San Marco Square was quite a feat in itself. What with the mass of pigeons in great swarms waiting to be fed by tourists, some of whom were actually choosing to have their photo taken surrounded by masses of them, some even encouraging them to climb on them. Mental. Certainly not my idea of a must take shot of Venice I have to say! Then there were the flower men. Blokes that would randomly walk up to you without saying anything and shove a single red rose in your face. Dude, I’m walking around with Kat (no offence Budge!) & have my head buried in a guidebook & you think I actually want a red rose?! After about the 4th time of politely declining the oh so tempting purchase I did start to mutter ‘jog on mate’ when presented with one.
I’d forgotten the somewhat pungent aroma in the city thanks to the sewers and whilst meandering down little back streets was often hit by a massive waft of unpleasant stench infiltrating my delicate nostrils. I hate to think what the smell would be like in the summer months here. The water all round the city was a rather bizarre sort if chalky green colour – certainly not a tempting colour to take a dip in. I guess it’s that colour by the nature of it being a lagoon? I’ll have to review that.
From soaking in the splendour of San Marco we dived down a side street off the square and started winding our way towards the Guggenheim Museum. I’d forgotten quite how insane the signage is in Venice. In theory you could get around without a map here as all of the major bridges are ‘signposted’ but it’s like going on a treasure hunt at times if you rely on them! You walk in the direction of the sign and are constantly searching for the next one to move you on in the right direction, often these never actually materialise and many a wrong route is taken as you end up at a dead-end with just the canal in front of you – ah!! Some of the routes came flooding back, but as I was taken round by Paul last time who was familiar with the city I was more following him than the signs!
The Peggy Guggenheim Museum is all modern art which feels almost out-of-place in what to me feels more like a renaissance infused city. Set on the banks of the Grand Canal sort of between Academia bridge & San Marco, it was the residence of Peggy before she passed away. It had been done up quite considerably from what I remembered and now holds a rather larger collection than I remembered. There was also a temporary exhibition of Impressionist works too and Monet’s Waterlillie was quite something to stumble across in there! From here we chose a different route from the one that we had taken previously to see a different area of Venice on foot and I’m glad that we did. We walked past some very majestic looking churches and some beautiful little bridges crossing the canals. Constantly counting our lucky stars that we had totally amazing weather for all of this exploring. Soaking in the majesty of this beautiful city befre the darkness appeared once more before we flew home.