Emily is engrossed in Sky Arts, Swan Lake at the Bolshoi is showing and I’m starting to get distracted from planning this post. The graceful arcs and flowing movements of the lead ballerina, Odette, are beautiful, cultured. I am drawn in by the ease with which the dancers pirouette continuously, seamlessly, acting out the mesmerising story of the princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer. The lead male dancer, Siegfried, cuts naturally through the air, lands sure, light-footed and….”buuuuurrrrrrppp!” “for fuck’s sake Colm, that’s disgusting” – I hear my dad erupting with an almighty belch in the kitchen, my mum obviously not enjoying it, despite his loud laughter. hmmm…culture ruined for tonight, kinda like Emily’s and my first week in Italy in the summer. Not that we went round belching at Italian ballets but that our week started refined, indulging in fine art and classical music and ended literally rolling in the gutter!
On the Tuesday of the last week of May, we got an early morning and uneventful flight from Stansted to Venice. A 5 Euro bus ride on a roasting hot and clear day took us into Venice bus station right on the edge of the historic and delightfully waterlogged old town. A quick recon of the station and I was able to find a ticket office where I bought two 48 hour travel cards for 30 Euros each. Although a bit steep, the ticket provides unlimited access to the preferred mode of transport around the old town…water boat!! We lugged our stuff onto the water boat and set off on down the Grand Canal passing the rustic semi-submerged houses, enjoying the splash of the waves, watching the throngs of tourists snapping away with gigantic cameras on over-priced gondolas, onwards towards Lido, where we had booked to camp. Venice on first impressions seemed gorgeous and breathtaking, but did seem be a little plastic, like Disney world for the middle aged middle class.
Thirty minutes took us through the heart of Venice and out to Lido, a little island just east of the old town. We had a bit of trouble when we arrived trying to find out which bus to take to the camp site. I made an enemy of the old women at the water station ticket booth it seemed for the sole reason that I couldn’t speak Italian! We asked a few locals instead and finally got on the right bus, only for it to take about 3 minutes to reach the stop for our camp site, Camping San Nicolo, which was right near the waterfront. So it was easy and scenic to just walk back and forth along the coastline to Lido water boat station when we wanted to get about.
At the camp site, we paid up advance for our two nights’ stay. It cost us 56 Euros for the two of us and a small tent. I thought this was quite steep but given the price of camping in the second week, I think that price is fairly normal for Italian camp sites. We got the tent up and thought that it looked a bit flimsy, but in the excitement of being on holiday we dismissed our misgivings and used the clean and warm WC and shower facilities to freshen up. I struggled with my feet adjustment in the squat toilets and my shoes had a near miss but I brushed aside my dance with danger and we headed back in the water boat to Venice to carry on the fun.
The boat really is a great way to get around and genuinely gives you the feeling of being somewhere completely different, definitely a novelty factor, much like Venice itself. We got off near the famous San Marco Square and watched the tourists vie for a place on a gondola. A quick chat with one of the gondola boys told me it would be 80 Euros for a twenty minute jaunt, so we laughed and resigned ourselves to the fact we’d not be on one the rest of the trip but were happy to snap away at others who stomped up the cash.
Strolling round San Marco square was a good land based introduction to Venice as we had a wee wander around looking at the impressive, mostly Christian themed, architecture. Neither of us is an architecture or religious buff so that kind of sightseeing, a bit like window shopping, gets a bit boring after a while, and not wanting to spend money going into museums so late in the day, we let our bellies guide us and found a little restaurant not far from San Marco Square.
We sat outside the restaurant, had a smoke and watched the tourists file past. Most seemed to be middle aged or older and had a look money about them so it was funny to see the guys selling bric-a-brac trying to entice these more discerning tourists with children’s splat toys. Futile.
There is something that feels right about lounging outside a European restaurant having a cigarette, like visiting the peep shows in Prague or the beer halls in Munich. Emily had some tasty pizza and I chowed down some creamy carbonara, washed back with some fruity white wine. The food was fine but nothing to get too excited about and the price was ok considering Venice is generally expensive. Tip: stick to pizza in Italy if you’re on a budget – they do it well and they do it cheap. We finished up our food and another rolled cigarette, had a meander around the winding labyrinth that is Venice, the canals like rippling velvet were all that I had imagined and were not smelly in the slightest like I had been warned about.
The town must be 90% tourists, 9% tourist service providers and a smattering of rich locals, and as I wandered I thought about what kind of lives people lived in this fantasy land, did they lead normalish lives here, did they do a big shop in the local supermarket, if so where was it, who took away the rubbish – water boat dumpsters?…these things perplexed me as we aimlessly and joyfully sauntered through the streets and alleyways.
We then headed back to Lido about 10pm, picking up a few beers and some food in the supermarket near the water boat station. We strolled back to the camp site and had a peaceful night time picnic on a little pier near the camp site, taking in the tinkling lights of the various islands in the Venice archipelago and were glad we were there.
Day two in Venice started early with a helping hand from a shit night’s sleep in our crappy tent. We got washed and had a breakfast of leftover picnic and made our way back into the old town. We did much of the same aimless wandering but this time we took in a few chapels and an affordable art gallery. Christian iconography is pervasive throughout Venice streets and in its galleries and buildings, so again one gets bored after a few hours of it. So we looked around for something different and we came across a Vivaldi concert advertised for that evening at a Cathedral called Chiesa di San Vidal near a main square where we had some food and wine.
Emily wanted to see Vivaldi’s Four Season’s but we missed it as it was on the night before and we had to settle for a lesser known recital. I wouldn’t know the difference, so I was excited all the same as I never seen/heard an orchestra before, save the horrible things they make you sit through at school.
After a disco nap and a bread and cheese based budget dinner back at the ranch, we got back to the square a few hours before the gig was due to start and had a few glasses of wine in the square near the venue and watched the people stream by. We then made our way into Chiesa di San Vidal and took our seats. I read the programme and discovered it the musicians were a group called Interpreti Veneziani. We were nestled in near the middle of the audience, the place was about 3/4 full although it had been packed out the previous night for the same group performing Four Seasons.
I wasn’t too sure of the etiquette so I followed Emily’s and everyone else’s cues of when to stand and sit, clap or cheer but the experience was all my own. My classical musical virginity was lost in a sensual and enticing way leaving me lusting for more. The musicians each took their turn leading at the front performing their solo at the end of each movement. The best was left for last – a violinist probably a bit younger than me played intricate pieces of music with obvious ease and in the more raucous, fast sections he excelled, me spellbound by the speed of his fingers and his control at such a furious tempo. I wished I had applied myself more to music when I was younger and learnt more than just the guitar.
We left the concert on a high and despite having a few more drinks and a considerable delay caused by my weak bladder and missing water boats, we were back at camp before 12 pm. Nowhere in Venice seem to be open after 11pm and so I was glad to heading to my mate Rory’s wedding weekend at Malcesine, Lake Garda the next day for a good oul Irish knee’s up.
The next morning we packed up and made our way easily back to the bus station bidding farewell to Venice – gorgeous and stately, yet lacking a certain edge. We easily found a bus to the train station, got some tickets and were soon on our way on a double decker train to Verona where we picked up our rental car (which we covered in Part I). Braving crazy Italian driving we made tracks for our hotel in Malcesine, the scene of some ridiculous goings on over the next few days.
We found the Hotel Casa Serena easy enough and parked up in its free car park early Thursday evening. We had booked a double room with a lake view for 352 Euros for 4 nights and that’s what we got. The room was very clean, it had a TV, plenty of room and storage space and best of all, it had a big balcony overlooking the serene Lake Garda in the distance. There was a road between us and the view but the road wasn’t big or busy enough to be a problem. The staff at the hotel were friendly (and they didn’t even get that annoyed by some drunken antics from my side!) and although some of them struggled with English as we did with Italian, there was always someone around who could help with communication.
The start of the Malcesine leg of the trip maintained the refinement of the Venetian experience. We headed out in the evening and exchanged some pleasantries with the reception staff, narrowly avoiding a bite on the ankles by the hotel’s (or one of the patrons) little terror of a dog, laughing and shaking our heads in mock condemnation at the dog. Making our way along the shoreline, we got a view of the town jutting out into the lake, its lights soft and glistening in the dusk twilight, the castle dominating the skyline, it was all very…well…nice…a little bit too nice…dun dun dunnnnnnn!
I called my mates on the mobile and found out they were all at a classy restaurant at Ambient Hotel (the name to become strikingly ironic as the night wore on) on the far side of town. The party seemed to be in full swing from the background noise on the phone and I wanted to get involved. Things had been a bit too calm in Venice and I was eager to let my greased back hair down. So we strolled at medium pace, trying to take in the scenic town while not wanting to delay the night’s festivities any longer than we needed to. On first glance, a sideways glance at pace that is, some of the town’s buildings did appear to be authentically old, rustic and “lived in”, especially around the castle, although many seemed to merely have a rustic veneer merely as a facilitator for good wedding photos or to fool the tourists that they were immersed in an original and tradition Italian town. But it was very beautiful all the same and I only seen the town centre, so I’m just throwing out unfair assumptions here! Anyway, I digress….
After getting lost in the town’s winding, narrow and cobbled streets and having to spend a small country’s GDP to turn on data roaming to consult Google maps, we eventually found the restaurant. Saying our hello’s to everyone and joining a few mates on the restaurant balcony, it became clear we were far behind in the drinking stakes. They were on to their dessert course and had been pinting and guzzling wine for a good and were shouting drunken witticisms at everyone walking along the path beneath us. Most were German, as most people were in Malcesine, and so they walked on, some did stop and smile confusedly, wave and take a picture before moving on. We soon joined in getting some food, wine and beer. We weren’t that hungry and god job too as the portions were small, but tasty. My mate Mcloone was fumbling around with a tiramisu and getting it all over his face like a 4 year old to everyone’s amusement. So more and more tiramisu desserts were thrown his way and carnage ensued as his face and the table round him looked like the inside of a baby’s nappy.
The night went on in that vein, messy. Getting louder and more raucous, most the 30 strong crowd were battered – singing, shouting, play fighting, shot competitions, arm wrestles and annoying the patrons of the hotel so much so that we were turfed out of the place about 11pm.
After a few rollie pollies down the hill outside the hotel, much to the staff’s dismay, we repeated the same in a few more bars – order beer, drink beer, make too much noise, get asked to leave. This went on until around 2am when Emily and me broke off from the few still standing and somehow made our way back to our hotel. I have no memory of the walk home, but Emily said it was like trying to look after a child who has been injected with a kilo of cocaine – I was bounding down the middle of the main road, jumping over walls with uncertain drops into bushes, crawling though the undergrowth and the piste de résistance, starting an argument with the little old lady who locked the doors to the hotel before 12am and who we then woke to let us in. In my drunken state she was the bad guy of the situation for locking us out and I apparently told her that in no uncertain terms…being the twat I am when drunk. I woke the next morning to Emily’s retelling of the previous night’s tomfoolery and I wanted to emigrate to the moon leaving the guilt and shame held far below by Earth’s gravitational pull. “I’m never drinking again”, I exclaimed a few times that day, although a little half heartedly.
Most of the day was then wasted as I hid in the room afraid to walk past reception especially after hearing Emily, on a mission to get us lemonade for our hangovers, got the brunt of the repercussions from the younger receptionist (I think the old lady was her mother!). She said I was out of order and that behaviour would not be tolerated again and that if we were out past 11pm we would need to ask for keys at reception before we went out for the night. Sure as the Earth goes round the sun, shit does flow downstream and Emily passed on to me the receptionist’s regards with a few of her own little additions, “drunken mess” “fucking idiot” are some terms I remember.
Anyway, we made it out around 5pm and had a quick stroll into town for something to eat. A massive calzone and a pint of beer cured the shitstorm that was raging in my stomach and clouding my brain. Feeling a little sleepy again, we got some ice cream, a nice bottle of wine as a present for the old lady and made our way back to hotel where I said my apologies and gave the younger receptionist my gift. She seemed appreciative and I was glad it was all was sorted…for now. We met up with some mates that night for a few quiet drinks and headed to bed early as the wedding was the next day. I was troubled though that I had wasted a whole day because of a hangover and felt I wasn’t approaching travelling the right way and would need to rectify that for going on our round the world trip at the end of the year.
Looking sharp in our wedding day garb the next morning and feeling a whole lot better, we meet up with everyone at Rory and Emma’s (his bride to be) apartment. All were looking refreshed and ready for action. A slightly windswept stroll along the lake took us to the castle where we climbed to the top for the big event. Rory’s stepbrother Ronan Kearney lead the music (you can check out his considerable talents at https://soundcloud.com/ronan-kearney). Set against the backdrop of the castle top vista over the lake and surrounding mountains, the non-religious ceremony felt very modern and progressive and if I ever believe in marriage I would want my wedding to be like that.
After the short ceremony and photo taking time, we all made our way to a cruise on the lake followed by a beer garden and wherever the wedding party went in town all the bystanders stopped to cheer. It was a really good atmosphere and I was ready to forget my previous misdemeanours and get on with the partying again. At the beer garden, the free booze was flowing and sing-alongs and guitar playing started with gusto. Hitting the booze early combined with the hot sun, some of us were a bit wobbly as we left the beer garden to make our way slowly towards the restaurant where the wedding reception was to be held (naturally given my state at the time I can’t remember the name but if anyone wants to find out let me know and I could make enquiries!). A couple of pit stops in other bars later with some more songs and a few beer fights (like water fights but with beer), I was starting to look and act like a mess by the time we reached the restaurant.
I was lined up to be singing and playing First Day of My Life by Bright Eyes on the guitar as the first dance but I was in bad shape by the time we supposed to be eating our dinner. Well, I opted for liquid cuisine of wine and beer instead not foreseeing the potential disaster that was awaiting me…but Emily was there to save the day. She gave me a pep talk about the danger of humiliation if I tried to play the song steaming and ruining my mate’s first dance if I continued to be a dick. So I laid off the booze, beat the water into me and had a bit of food. It worked a treat and I was able to converse normally and enjoyed the after dinner speeches, including Sean Mullan’s great Best Man effort. When showtime came, the performance went well and I played and sung my heart out. So on a high from my big gig and ready to make up for lost time having been a good boy for the past few hours, I attacked the booze again and danced away with Emily and anyone else that came into my close vicinity.
Things started spiralling as I shed more and more clothes and spying a lonely wedding cake I was compelled to run and faceplant it. It seems like slow motion now when I think back, as the cake made its way towards my face with garbled sounds of shock all around me and I ended up looking like something out of an extreme bukkake porn movie. I felt a punch in the side of the head as Mcloone’s girlfriend Marie hit me a deck in the side of the face for “ruining the fucking wedding cake” and there were a few other concerned faces. But Rory and Emma seemed oblivious and my other mates, McKnight and Macills thought it was great craic and had a wee dance with me. Emily was somewhere in between in her thoughts on my latest venture, but she came round to the idea that this how the night was going and there was no point fighting it.
The night continued on a downward trajectory, or upward depending on your perspective, with me and Mcloone having a cake fight, rolling in the main road splatting marzipan into each others brains, Mcloone stealing Rory’s baby’s bottle and using it as a drinking flask, wrestling with other mates, angry words with some Italians trying to calm us down, angrier words with friends trying to calm me down, scaling a 30 foot wall and jumping from the top on to a lamppost and sliding down fireman Sam style, getting trapped in our shower at the hotel, blaming Emily for my predicament and breaking up with her while still trapped in the shower, waking up with a very sore head the next morning and feeling very unsure of myself. Cue various apologies to Emily and my mates, who said all was fine. But I wasn’t so sure, and having acting like a knob so many times before, the seed of wanting to actually wanting to give up booze was germinating, although it would be a while until that finally happened.
Me and Emily walked about Malcesine that following day and had some food after finding everyone had decamped in a small square tending their sore heads with a few pints of chilled Italian beer. Mcloone was leading the charge and getting the craic well underway with the bar staff in stitches at his antics. We left for a sleep and came back that night for a few nightcaps and found Macills, McKnight and Mcloone still going strong. It was all good fun though and helped me forget temporarily my previous night’s death defying idiocy. It was great to see all my buddies from back home given that I am the only one of them that lived in London, most of them based in Liverpool or back home in Derry. When we all meet up it’s the same as it always was, so good times indeed, although I was starting to learn my lesson about booze.
Back at the hotel that night while I was falling asleep, there were some phones calls from my mates about Mcloone going missing with his final words that he wanted to find Emily and me. It was 2am so I sleepily answered them and drifted off again straight away, vaguely dreaming about someone shouting my name from the road outside. I woke up feeling refreshed, glad I had not made a tit of myself the previous night and we made our way downstairs to check out….
Me: “Thanks very much for your hospitality and sorry again about my behaviour the other night…here’s our keys, thanks”
The young receptionist: “Thank you Mr Bradley, ahem, although last night…your friend he broke into the hotel and slept here on the reception sofa…”
Me: “Ahh, waaa, well, ah, sorry, I feel asleep quite early last night, so I’m not sure if it was my friend. I don’t know anything about that I’m afraid. I don’t think it would have been one of my friends”
The young receptionist: “Well, when we woke him a few hours ago, he said your name although we didn’t understand what else he was saying and he seemed very drunk, so we said we’d have to call the police if he didn’t leave”
Me: “Oh, ok, I’m very sorry, there were a few of my friends who were very drunk last night but I didn’t ask anyone to call round or anything like that…I’m very sorry about this, really…”
The young receptionist: “ok Mr Bradley, we don’t want to do anything about it, just thought we should say something”
Me: ” Yes, I understand, I really appreciate that and again I’m very sorry..”
…and with that we hurried out of the hotel, dumped our stuff in the car and walked NEXT DOOR to Mcloone’s apartment, where we found him and had a chuckle about the previous four days’ events.
We said our goodbyes to everyone and made our way to the coast to piece ourselves together while my mates stayed on for a few days extra and sampled more of what the Lake had to offer – fishing, scenic driving and a cable car ride to the top of the mountains. I felt a bit jealous and was determined not to waste any more days due to booze and I think we did alright…
[THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY POSTED ON OUR PREVIOUS SITE ON 21 DECEMBER 2013]