I write this as I speed away from Venice, city 11 of our 40, by FrecciaRosso (Red Arrow) train. Much has been written about Venice, more capably than me I am sure, so I’ll focus on my personal memories and observations of the visit.
The first thing that struck me upon arrival was that it’s certainly a very unique city – you travel from the airport to Venice proper via water. It’s also a slightly disorganised (probably true of much of Italy, coming off a trip to Germany) and a very busy city. It’s obviously ironic saying this, but I suspect Venice would benefit from a few less tourists. That said we did manage to find many delightful places off the beaten track, and it’s very easy to wander down a side street or two and find a beautiful secluded courtyard or view with no-one else in sight. Overall it’s a magical place that’s somewhat other-worldy. It’s like walking into a European fairy tale, where real-life is temporarily suspended.
We bought a public transport ticket and took the Alilaguna from the airport to San Marco (the stop outside St Marks Square). This was a crowed and rather long journey, but it also gave us our first glimpse of the amazing city. Venice seems completely adapted to it’s island habitat, and with no cars in sight the only way to travel is either by walking down narrow and winding streets and crossing the many bridges going over the canals, or by water. I now understand that the feel that places like Disney are trying to copy originates here.
From San Marco we headed a few hundred meters to a private mooring, where we caught another boat. This time the private boat to our hotel – which was located just south of Venice main island, on it’s own island! After about 15 mins we caught sight of San Clemente Palace – an amazing building which used to be a monastery, and even has it’s own (decaying) Renaissance church. A set of porters met the incoming boat, and took care of our luggage. Check-in was very efficient, and the receptionist showed us to our room; through several huge corridors which disturbingly reminded me of the Overlook hotel (from the Shining).
We changed, and headed back into Venice to wander and explore. We got a little lost down some of the streets and side streets (as did our GPS!) and enjoyed doing some window shopping, and a little actual shopping, in the very many boutique shops that line most of the streets. I also took a lot of photos, as around many turns there were delightful vistas and classic shots of green canals travelling under ornate bridges and surrounded by somewhat crumbling buildings. I know of no other city with this kind of feel to it, and it’s really nice to find something so truely unique.
We grabbed dinner in a local Osteria (Al Granghelo), and enjoyed the menu of the day from which we chose seafood spaghetti (plentiful and excellent) and hot salami gnocchi to start with, and John Dory and veal escalope, followed by Crema Catalana – which was sugared and caramelised at our table before being flambéed with Grand Marnier. After this we had a treat as Greg had booked two seats at a very well regarded music recital. So we enjoyed an hour and a half of Interpreti Veniziani, a small chamber orchestra who were playing Four Seasons by Vivaldi (a Venitian composer) in Chieza San Vidal, a beautiful old church, packed with temporary chairs holding attentive listeners. The violinists were extremely capable, and the entire night had a great atmosphere.
Coming down to breakfast I turned off the main stairs was was greeted by the sight of the Basilica in the distance – I realised that the hotel was cleverly designed, and that the main corridor running through most of the ground floor was specifically aligned to highlight this view. Breakfast was a grand buffet, and included Prosecco which meant that we treated ourselves to Buck’s Fizz. We also enjoyed pastries, cold cheese and meats, fruit juices, sausages, bacon and scrambled egg and of course Italian coffee.
In planning our itinerary Greg had quickly realised that we’d never fit in as much in Venice as we’d like to, so he deliberately picked some slightly unusual options that weren’t always such typical tourist draws. We visited the first of these the next morning, and took a trip to Isola di San Michele, an island just to the north of Venice main island which has served as the city cemetery since 1807 and still does today. It’s rather beautiful and very interesting, and has a wide mixture of memorials ranging from the simple to the incredibly ornate (our favourite was the mausoleum which had it’s own solar panels). It was a peaceful spot with few other visitors, and we enjoyed wandering around for an hour or two enjoying the tranquility. From here it was another short boat hop to Murano, the island from which the famous glass comes. We stopped early for lunch and enjoyed a nice relaxed meal, with a very friendly waiter who humoured our attempts at Italian. The food was relatively simple and very tasty, and Greg particularly enjoyed his Tiramasu. We did a lot of window shopping on Murano, which had the most amazing selection of glass-based art; with each shop window even more beautiful than the last. We also purchased several presents, and only just avoided buying an exquisite necklace as we couldn’t work out anyone it would suit. From Murano we headed home via St Marks Square, where I took the trip up the Campanile, the bell tower of Basilica San Marco, to take some photos of the Venetian skyline and enjoyed the panoramic view of the city. I was also able to capture a mass taking place in the square, which was apparently bringing together the Patriarchs of the church from several branches, though not the Pope as he has renounced the title, and Venice doesn’t recognise the see of Rome as its superior anyway. During this Greg had found a local supermarket, and we headed back to the hotel and enjoyed a short trip to the spa followed by a room picnic, a bottle of prosecco and a movie (which I’d brought on my iPad).
The next day we enjoyed several unusual tours, which Greg had tracked down on the Internet. They started with a tour of Torre del’Orologio, the famous clock tower which has overlooked St Marks square since 1499. It has an interesting history, and for many years (500 years in fact) was the residence of the family of clockmakers who had originally built it, and subsequently maintained it, passing guardianship from father to son over many generations. It was also the reason for one (of the many!) excommunications earned by the Duke of Venice, due to the Lion of Venice being placed higher than the figure of Jesus on the facade. There were only four of us on this select tour, and we even got to go out onto the roof by the figures who strike the hours, which commanded an amazing view of the Basilica and square (Greg stayed safely near the middle). From here we could also witness the full spectacle of the Acqua Alta, where Venice regularly floods at high tide at certain times of year (spring and autumn). The wise tourists (and locals) wear wellies, whilst others crowd onto the platforms places strategically through St Marks Square and other key locales. Others still simply took off their shoes and waded barefoot through the sometimes knee-deep water; it certainly made for an interesting sight!
After the clock tower we headed to the Doges Palace to take part in a “secret tour”. This tour goes behind the scenes of the main public areas in the Palace, and focuses on the history of the “Council of 10” and effectively Venice’s early secret service. We visited the private office of the Grand Chancellor, and the secret archive, where important documents such as government treaties were kept safe. We also saw the cell given to Casanova on his imprisonment here, and heard the story of his escape (of which at least some key facts are consistent with historical record). From the Palace we headed to Ca’Foscari, Venice university, and enjoyed a tour of some key parts of this historic building which sits at a key junction on the Grand Canal. Afterwards we walked to Basilica Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, which has an amazing amount of sculpture in it and some outstanding art including a wonderful triptych by Bellini with a beautiful Virgin Mary which looks almost 3D. We could fit one further short visit in after this, and opted to skip the Basilica as we might not make it in time and instead headed to Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which is a small church in a picturesque setting by a canal, and which is made almost entirely of marble. We were the only visitors here enjoyed a short tranquil visit amidst calm uninterrupted by other tourists. We left here as it closed, as as he headed towards the vaporetto we happened by a chocolate shop (VizioVirtu) that Greg recognised as having one of the best reputations in Venice. A few chocolates and many euros later we returned to our route and caught the vaporetto a few stops in order to track down a local bar – Taverna del Campiello Remer – which served cocktails with cicchetti snacks. It is tricky to find (even for Google maps), but was great break and we very much approved of the musical taste shown too. From here we headed to dinner, again at Al Garanghelo, where we shared a great mushroom risotto. After this we faced the last journey home to the hotel, and both stayed on deck to enjoy the sight of moonlit and street-lit Venice slowly shrinking as we reached our hotel.
Our goodbye to Venice came in the morning after we left our hotel. After checking out we explored the old church next to the hotel, which seemed effectively deserted and was somewhat crumbling giving an amazing atmosphere of peace mixed with decay. For our final journey we sped away from the hotel towards Venice for the last time, and from San Marco caught a vaporetto up the Grand Canal and sat at the front in order to get the best view of the wonder of Venice as we headed towards the train station and our next city. This was our first visit to Venice, but I hope it won’t be our last and that we’ll return to explore at our leisure.
Next stop… Turin!