Are The Gondolas Of Venice Worth It?

Venice was nothing like I expected. One of the most famous cities in the world, I had imagined a thriving metropolis with all of the usual characters – traffic, brand names, and bumbling crowds. Instead, I was met with what become one of my favorite cities in the world.

With a population of about 60,000 living in the city (260,000 in the surrounding metropolis), it’s fairly small which gives it the ability to retain its charm, which it does very will by winding you through alleyways and side streets, over bridges, letting you duck into cafés and pizzerias along your path to nowhere – a labyrinth with no end, just more. There are no cars in the city, so all of the traffic is made up of pedestrians, and thankfully, they stick to St. Mark’s Square and the surrounding area.

The Campanile is one of the icons of the city and the clocktower is in the back, over the archway.

While busy, the Piazza San Marco is a fantastic place to sight-see. Dominating the east side of the square is St. Mark’s Basilica, a Roman Catholic church that showcases Byzantine architecture. The church is flanked to the north by St. Mark’s Clocktower, which hangs above a busy throughfare. Freestanding in the square is St. Mark’s Campanile, a bell tower that began as a needed watchtower in the 10th century, before reaching its current height in the 1500’s. Due to a poor foundation, the tower fell in 1902 after some repairmen noticed the shifting of bricks while they worked. Closest to the docks is Doge’s Palace, a gothic palace that used to be the political center of the Venetian Republic. (Despite the efforts of Elon Musk, this Doge will not be going to the moon.)

The square was a nice place to relax with a group of friends and drink a couple bottles of wine and people watch. We had arrived in the late morning after waking up early to visit a glassblowing workshop in Murano, a set of islands that are about a 20 minute ferry ride north of Venice.

Traditional Glass Blowing In Murano
Murano is known for its glasswork.

As we lost ourselves in the back alleys of the city, we stopped for lunch and I ordered a Margherita pizza, perplexed to see that I had to cut it with a fork and knife instead of the rolling cutter I’m accustomed to in the U.S.

After refueling, we made our way across some more bridges until we found a gentleman waiting at the base of one of the bridges, offering gondola rides. The going rate starts at €80, getting you a 40+ minute ride around the side canals. While the price tag is hefty, this is the picture of Venice that you think of. This is what it is famous for. My friends and I took turns playing musical chairs around the boat, each getting an opportunity to see the city from the front and rear (snapping posed shots for Instagram, of course.) The water is surprisingly dirty. I couldn’t see more than a few inches below the top of the green-blue waterway. The tide was fairly low when I had gone; you could see indicators on the sides of buildings where water had risen before, some several feet higher than where the water was currently.

The canals of Venice. Notice the water marks on the buildings from high tides.

The city has a new Mose system, a series of 78 floodgates that block water from coming in from the Adriatic Sea. This is especially important after the November, 2019 floods that destroyed hundreds of millions of euros worth of houses, businesses, and monuments.

As we floated on, we passed many other gondolas which had an impressive way of acknowledging right-of-way with calling out, singing, and simple gestures. The gondoliers were all very positive, friendly, and seemed to enjoy their days of transporting countless tourists around the waterways of the city. I was keeping my eye out for Marco Polo’s house and the building that Daniel Craig chased Eva Green to in Casino Royale.

Venice is an incredible city. It has a perfect blend of sight-seeing, a laid-back atmosphere, and hidden gems to enjoy. Have you been to Venice? What did you think?

Famous for its maze of canals, the city has inspired nicknames for other cities that you may be interested in:

Iceland – Keflavík To Vík

Our Roadtrip Around The Southern Half Of The Island Nation

Rachel responded to a post she saw on Instagram from a couples photographer who was looking to go to Iceland and invited a couple along to split the cost in exchange for a photo shoot. This was how we met Anna.

I knew of Iceland and it had been recommended to me by several friends, but as someone who despises the cold, it never climbed high on my to-go list. Oh boy, how that has changed. I would go back anytime now.

We flew into Keflavík Airport in mid-March, nearing the end of winter. You basically have two seasons in Iceland – winter offers the best chance to see the aurora and summer gives you the midnight sun and the longest days to explore the country with.

I was feeling a bit under the weather. A cold had been spreading around my workplace and had finally gotten to me right before we left for the trip. It would end up sticking with me for nearly two months before we left for a trip to Cancun.

Anna had been to Iceland a number of times before so she was all prepared to load us into our rented Kia Sportage, hook up a transportable WiFi device (I definitely recommend renting one for ~$10/day) and start driving us away from the airport. It’s a lot of barren land between Kevlavik and Reykjavik, the nation’s capital and largest city. Barren land and roundabouts. I still hear “take the second exit towards Hafnarfjörður in my head from our drive back to the airport.

Seljalandsfoss.

Driving on route 1, the highway known as the ring road because it makes a circle around the island, we were essentially making a U around the bottom half of the country. Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, where we found a number of beautiful waterfalls and fell on our butts traversing the slippery ice. The drive around here was awe-inspiring; your jaw drops as you pass mountain after mountain, waterfall after waterfall, each location more beautiful and impressive than the last.

Right outside of our Airbnb.

For the first night, we stayed near the town of Vík, the southern most village in the county with a population of about 300. We stayed in a cute little room that was nestled on a farm off the main highway. We were met by a nice woman and her black labrador, let into our room, and from there we planned our excursion. We headed into town to grab a veggie burger platter from the gas station (this would become a recurring theme) and stopped by Reynisfjara for a quick visit to the famous black sand beaches and basalt columns to shoot a few photos. As we strolled along the beach, everyone was heading up the beach, towards the parking lot. Before I could realize why I was the only person close to the water, a sneaker wave engulfed my legs, soaking my bottom half. I was lucky enough to maintain balance, but my boots and pants were drenched and I had to leave them to dry for the next two days. There are a myriad of signs warning of the dangers of sneaker waves and I just happened to be the person not to heed them.

The wave got me just a moment after this.

The next morning, we woke up early and took a (very) quick hop down the road to visit Skógafoss. This wonderful waterfall (“wonderfall,” if you will) is visible from the road and a big tourist attraction, which makes waking up early a must. As we approached, we really felt the power that the fall had. It was loud and grew exponentially the closer you stepped. We ditched our jackets and Anna snapped some great pictures that captured our modest selves juxtaposed against the height of the falls. There was a steep staircase that took you to an observation platform for another vantage point. [Continued in the next post…]

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Understanding The Pyramid of Positive Thinking

How I Completely Missed The Purpose Of This Art Piece

Along our trek back from Aldea Zama, I wanted to stop by an art installation that I had read about, the Pyramid of Positive thinking. It was right along our path back to the resort.

The start of the path.

The structure starts with a path that winds through the trees, ducking beneath red arches that represent a snake that leads to a small opening and a large pyramid. 12 meters wide and 12 meters tall, the Pyramid of Positive thinking was constructed by Xavier de Maria y Campos to commemorate the year 2012, which coincided with the end of the Mayan calendar cycle – an event that signals the transition into a new Baktun.

The Pyramid of Positive Thoughts

Upon approaching the installation, I ignored the detailed signage that was posted to instruct visitors about the purpose of the art piece and how they can contribute to it. Instead, I walked straight for a set of very steep stairs on the side of the pyramid and climbed to the top. I peered inside of the pyramid and was immediately disgusted; it was full of plastic bottles. I had thought people turned what could have been a really nice work of art in the middle of a nice neighborhood into an oversized trash bin.

I was wrong.

Inside the pyramid.

When I got home, I did some more research on the pyramid and found that the bottles were fully intentional. Xavier had encouraged visitors to write down one positive thought on a piece of paper, insert it into a PET bottle (Polyethylene terephthalate – a 100% recyclable plastic material), and layered within soil containing regional plant seeds. Over time, the structure will decompose and leave a pyramid of green that has been imbued with the positive energy of the visitor’s thoughts.

Reflecting back, I wish I had taken the time to read the signage and learn about the art piece before passing swift judgement and leaving the area with a poor taste that it didn’t deserve. Nearly a decade later, I do think the artist may have leaned towards a more environmentally-safe method of building the structure (a biodegradable substance rather than plastic) if he had created it today, but I am encouraged by the mission behind the art piece and look forward to slowing down the next time I see a piece of art that has been designed to spread positivity.

Finding Aldea Zama

In previous posts, I mentioned how our resort was on a never-ending, dusty road and we were forced to walk for what seemed like an eternity to get anywhere. That’s what we thought until one day we noticed a few cars were turning right off of the road onto a bumpy, sandy side street. A quick GPS search back at the resort and we found out there are a few shops down that road so we set off one morning to do some exploring and eating.

The neighborhood we ended up finding down this side street was called Aldea Zama and it was dramatically closer to our resort than either of the other destinations we had been going to – the Tulum beachfront and La Veleta.

The first thing we noticed was how quiet it was. The neighborhood had a very posh look to it and it seemed to be recovering from the pandemic, as every other window had a promotional sign trying to get you to buy an available condo and there was plenty of construction projects going on.

A nice, chill atmosphere.

We reached our first stop, Matcha Mama, a cute little smoothie cafe that made incredible use of the tiniest space. Seriously, they crammed an entire shop into a booth the size of a standard closet. We had a broad choice of seating options to enjoy our Mango Tango smoothie bowl, but we hunkered under the balcony for a little shade. This thing was delicious and one bowl easily satiated both of our bellies.

Mango Tango.

Our next stop was the number one reason I wanted to stop by this neighborhood; we were headed for Mamazul, a 4-star hotel with an incredible mezcaleria on the ground floor. I checked the screenshot I had of Google Maps and we set off down one street, made a turn here, walked down another until I said “hmm…”

Now I am one of those people that will walk forever around a place, half-getting to our destination, half-just checking out the new environment. Rachel, whom I was with, is not like that. She took my brief pause of uncertainty to mean that we were lost in the jungle with no way out, a feeling only further exacerbated by the burning heat of the mid-day sun.

The place was just one block over…

The first thing you notice is the huge, open-concept layout of the bar with a super high ceiling, a front entrance that was open-air, and a stretching shelf of mezcals behind the bar that needed a rolling ladder (like what you associate with libraries) to reach the top shelves.

Isn’t it lovely?

We downed some fresh juices that sounded better than they ended up being, but where they disappointed, the mezcal tastings did not.

We sipped down the smoky, smooth elixir, letting the feeling linger at the back of our throats and debated over which of the endless bottles had the coolest label design. Between the drinks, the decor, and the overall atmosphere, I will 100% be returning to Mamazul when I get back to Tulum. I really wanted to purchase a bottle of mezcal right after to bring home, but I never check a bag on my flights so I had to wait for the duty-free shop which had a much larger selection that I remembered. Luckily, I had started packing “empty space” before trips to allow myself to grab a bottle of alcohol souvenir before heading home.

As we headed back, I wanted to stop by an art installation that I had read about, The Pyramid of Positive Thinking. First and foremost, I need to voice out an apology for this piece, because I did not understand the project at all when I had viewed it in person. My thoughts have since changed.

We made our trek back, still shocked by how close this cool, little neighborhood was to us this whole time.