People told me that Venice is a tatty, dirty, smelly place and that it was over-rated. But the Venice that I first visited in August 2005 is a magical place that I can’t ever imagine getting tired of walking around.
It’s a bit tatty, Yes, but therein lies some of its appeal. Dirty? Well, no more than anywhere else. And smelly? No, not when I’ve been there although I understand that the canals had been dredged and therefore if you were unfortunate enough to visit just prior to this exercise then perhaps the overall impression could have been different. But to generalise and describe Venice as tatty, dirty and smelly is not appropriate.
It was only when sat on the aircraft at Gatwick waiting to take off that I realised that we were only just over an hour and a half away from Venice. It’s just 700 miles away!! No wonder the Americans regard us as lucky; they would hardly clear there own state lines by travelling 700 miles!
On arrival at Marco Polo Airport, you can choose to enter Venice by road, rail or water. It’s a simple decision to make; you have to enter Venice on the water to experience it properly in my opinion. Somehow I can’t imagine arriving at the railway station or the car park on the western side of the islands and immediately being gripped by the atmosphere of the place in the same way as you do when you travel from the airport by boat and it skirts around the southern edges of Murano and Burano, before turning on to the Grand Canal and dropping you off just outside your hotel in one of the smaller side waterways. Magic!
The 2005 visit was for 5 nights, a Friday to a Wednesday, but it turned out to not be long enough to see everything even just once and so a second visit was probably subconsciously being planned even before we finished the first.
Our hotel, the Giorgiano (lovely hotel by the way!), was between the Rialto and the Ca D’Oro and possibly ten minutes walk over numerous bridges to reach St. Mark’s Square.
We had already decided to buy a 72-hour pass for the Vaporetto boat service which would enable us to get around easily to what we wanted to see. So, once settled into the Giorgiano, we set off to get the boat pass and continue the walk past Rialto and on to St. Mark’s Square. The entire landscape in Venice is like a film set and wherever you turn and look there is another photograph to be taken.
Our first stop turned out to be the Doge’s Palace, next to St. Mark’s Basilica. A fantastic building from the outside and full of Venetian art and style inside. It also provided our first real viewpoint of the entrance to the Grand Canal with San Salute on the left and St.Mark’s Square on the right. It’s a view that, like so many in Venice, has become so famous and familiar over the years that it feels quite surreal to see it properly for the first time.
Across the square from the Doge’s Palace and around the corner, canal side, can be found Harry’s Bar, one of many Ernest Hemingway haunts that appear to be dotted around the world (Pamplona, Havana, Venice etc). Said to serve the best Bellini Cocktail’s you can get, we couldn’t confirm as we managed no more than a passing glance from the outside because inside it was impossible to move. Maybe next time.
Having given up on Harry’s Bar, the walk back through St.Marks Square took us past the three exclusive café’s that have also become very much a part of Venice and its culture. The Quadri, the Floriana and the Llevana all compete for trade on both a gastronomic and musical level from their prime locations on the square. Each has its own orchestra that sits outside and, in turn and equal measure, plays for those that sit in the café and others that simply stand to watch and listen. The Llevana is possibly (and very marginally) the more reasonably priced of the three but don’t fool yourself because it’s still very expensive and a charge for the musicians is listed on the bill at all three. But you have to do it!
Eating out on the first evening was the next challenge. Like many hotels in Venice, the Giorgiano served only Breakfast so we had to venture out and find somewhere to have dinner. Venice is one of those places where you can choose to spend little or lots and that includes eating. We already had one expensive day and evening planned so this one had to be reasonable if not cheap. The good thing was, whatever you wanted and whatever you were prepared to pay, it wasn’t too difficult to find.
We had so much to see that we had to plan our days as much as possible. We decided that we wanted to see Murano, Burano and Torcello and we would set aside a day for it, hopping from one to the other and then returning to Venice when we had had enough. We knew that Torcello wouldn’t take long and so it proved whereas both Murano and Burano were larger and had a lot more to keep you interested. Murano = Venetian glass and canals; Burano = colourful houses and canals; both are worth seeing.
The queues to enter St.Mark’s Basilica, one of the prime focal point buildings in Venice, can be long and when we arrived in St.Mark’s Square on Saturday afternoon it was precisely that. So we decided to return on Sunday morning and be there as it opened. This worked out well and we joined a very short queue of people waiting for the Basilica to open. But to be perfectly honest, queuing in St.Mark’s Square for a while isn’t really a hardship!!
Inside the Basilica, the interior takes your breath away. I’m really not into seeing the inside of churches and cathedrals because apart from very rare occasions they all look very similar to me. And if anything, seeing St.Mark’s Basilica has made me feel even less inclined to bother with looking at others because I can’t imagine seeing any church or cathedral more impressive.
Having said all of that, you can’t really visit Venice without going over from St.Mark’s Square to see San Salute, the white-domed church that is seen in half of the photographs ever taken of Venice – it’s location being at the mouth of the Grand Canal.
Back across the water at St. Mark’s we walked east past the Doge’s Palace and over the bridge from where you can see the Bridge of Sighs. Continuing our walk we eventually came to Arsenale where boats and weapons used to be made. How much you can see is limited as today it is a Miltary Base and isn’t open to the public but it took us to another part of Venice which was worth seeing. Beyond Arsenale is Venice’s park area and football stadium but it was another area that we would have to save for another visit as there were other things that we wanted to see first.
We were soon treated to the consistently variable weather that Italy tends to offer. The heavens opened, lightning flashed, thunder cracked and the umbrella sellers appeared efficiently from nowhere. For just a couple of hours people dashed inside to shelter in hotels, cafes, and shops while ‘the American’ continued to hog the hotel computer to lose himself in the Internet. “Venice was great” he probably told friends back in the USA. For our part, we waited ten minutes and then decided that regardless of the weather we weren’t staying in the hotel so we hit the streets again, declining the advances of numerous umbrella sellers along the way. And I’m glad we didn’t stay in because the colours of the buildings, dampened by the mid morning rain, were suddenly even more vivid and spectacular than they were before. It was a brilliant time for taking photographs.
Venice soon recovered from the downpour - the sun returned, everything dried quickly and the streets were once again filled with busy tourists. August in Venice is a busy month but I’m told that September is the month to avoid.
Market day in Venice and the Rialto Market sits on the western side of the Rialto Bridge. We spent some time wandering around before looking in the various shops on the bridge itself.
The Grand Canal itself and its various smaller branches are often as busy as a main road in rush hour with its own version of buses, taxis, postmen, police, ambulances etc, and of course the Gondolers. There are still over 400 Gondoliers licensed to work in Venice – you have to be Venetian to qualify – and despite it being disproportionately expensive, much like the café’s in St.Mark’s Square, you have to do it! And we did – after wandering around for a while getting an idea of how many Euros it would cost for either a 30-minute or 60-minute ride we eventually found one. August 30th 2005 was always going to be an expensive day. Our Gondolier turned out to be a nice guy and from our start point we travelled out onto the Grand Canal as far as the Rialto Bridge where we turned and came back. The restaurant (recommended by our hotel) was already booked and it wasn’t going to be cheap but it was all worth it, and it was next door to the hotel which was convenient. After dinner, we walked back to St.Mark’s Square at midnight and watched/listened as the café orchestra’s continued to play under the lights that surrounded the square. Nice.
The next day we were back in St. Marks Square again. One of the dominant features of square is the Campanile, the eye-catching tower that stands opposite the Basilica on one corner. To get to the top there is again likely to be queuing involved but it’s worth the wait for the fantastic, photogenic views of the area.
Venice has more than its fair share of Art Galleries and Museums and it’s impossible to get around all of them (even if you wanted to! ……………. and I didn’t! ……. and still don’t!). But we did a few including the Accademia Gallery.
You get another classic view of the Grand Canal from the wooden bridge that spans it at Accademia where you can see all the way down to San Salute.
La Fenice is Venice’s main theatre/opera house. Burned down a few years ago La Fenice has now been restored and we spent an hour there listening to the story of its history and looking around before moving on. The cost of seeing an Opera or even an Operetta at La Fenice was very prohibitive but we found a reasonable compromise at another theatre in Venice where they were putting on performances lasting no more than 75 minutes covering a sort of ‘Best of Opera’. It was affordable so we bought tickets and the performance was something else that added to the whole Venetian experience. And 75 minutes was plenty as far as I was concerned.
We took a boat over to Lido, the venue every August for the Venice Film Festival, about 20 minutes directly across the lagoon from St.Mark’s Square. It suddenly felt not like Venice at all but more like a Mediterranean resort with palm trees and directions to the casino and the beach ……………………… and cars! You suddenly realise that you haven’t seen a single car since you set foot in Venice. To be honest I couldn’t wait to get the boat back to the car-free zones of the real Venice.
Just around the corner from the hotel at Sant Apostoli sees the start of a long walkway with shops and restaurants and the occasional church. This runs all the way up to and past the Jewish Ghetto and is one of two former canals that Napoleon ordered to be filled in and concreted during his brief time in control of Venice. His plan was to get rid of all of the canals and thus create just a single island but fortunately he was driven out before he got too far.
The Jewish area in Venice is said to be the site of the world’s very first ghetto. Venice is made up of seven separate islands joined together by around 600 bridges. One of the islands is the ghetto; maintained separately years ago to segregate the Jewish community from the rest of the venetian population. The locked gates that fitted the entrance arch to the ghetto have long since gone and it’s now an open area with synagogues and apartments that have been squeezed together by deliberately lowering the ceilings in the apartment block in order to maximise the number of people that could live there.
There were times during our stay where we just walked in a general direction and randomly turned corners to see where it took us. Getting lost in Venice is nothing to be frightened of. In fact, it’s one of the best ways to see it. Sometimes we would reach a dead end and other times we would be walking down a narrow lane, possibly not more than two feet wide and suddenly the canal would prevent you going any further. And other times you would turn a corner and find an area that you could never have planned to find. Great fun. And it will soon be time to do it all over again.
Our second visit was at the end of October 2010 and we were booked into the Hotel Columbina, on the same canal as the Bridge of Sighs – a fortunate upgrade since our original accommodation could not, due to unforeseen circumstances, honour our reservation. We arrived at Marco Polo Airport in mid-morning in the rain which was expected from our studying the forecasts during the previous few days. If the forecast for the rest of the week were as accurate we would be ok.
I had booked a Water Taxi from the airport and after an hour long leisurely tour of the islands we arrived at San Zaccaria next to St.Mark’s Square. I already knew the approximate vicinity of the Hotel Colombina - on the same canal as the Bridge of Sighs - but how to get there? I’ll just say that it took a while; mainly because parts of Venice were flooded by the Autumn High Tide and we were consistently diverted in our attempts to reach the hotel. And the fact that we were dragging suitcases and hand luggage didn’t really speed up the process but eventually we made it.
The hotel was very nice and not one that we would have afforded without the free upgrade! Our room had a balcony (padded!) overlooking the canal and down to the Bridge of Sighs which was probably about 100 metres away. A great location once we had found our bearings.
After unpacking we made our way to St. Mark’s Square. The hotel should be easy to find from there and therefore if we ever get lost we can just get to the square and walk from St. Marks (good theory). I was hoping that, compared to August, Venice would be much, much quieter. I was wrong. The square was packed and with people queuing to get into the Basilica on temporary ‘high boards’ to avoid the flood waters that were seeping up through the various outlets in the square. Getting about needed some thought as you couldn’t simply walk in a straight line without getting wet. Some paths were flooded, others weren’t. We had to make a decision about how we were going to spend our first afternoon back in Venice.
Lunch was a priority so we quickly found somewhere and started to get used to paying a lot for not much. That’s the way it is in Venice, especially with the Euro exchange rate being so mean. But we had what we wanted and decided to head for the Correr Museum (in the corner of St. Mark’s Square) and then the Doge’s Palace. The Correr Museum turned out to be the first of a few museums that we would see but we didn’t get around to it previously and its location does make it stand out as being one of the main museums. In contrast, we had walked around the Doge’s Palace before (in 2005) but it was one of the places that was worth doing again even though one side of the Bridge of Sighs was covered to obscure the restoration and cleaning work that was being undertaken. [It doesn’t matter where you go, there is nearly always something of interest covered up by scaffolding or tarpaulin]. There were no real surprises although I can’t honestly admit to remembering it all from the first visit but what we did find out was that there is a separate ‘Secret’ tour that you can take, for a price, and you get to see other things such as Casanova’s Cell. Noted for a future visit maybe.
Anyway, with the Doge’s Palace ticked off again we headed back in the direction of our hotel. At least, we thought we did. We walked in circles and zig-zags for ages and ages before finding it - and in truth St.Mark’s Square is about a five minute walk from the Colombina! The two are separated by just two corners and one long shopping ‘street’; it really is that simple but having been caught out once and with it being the end of a very long day we chose a nearby restaurant for our evening meal - one so close to the hotel that we couldn’t possibly get lost ……………… could we? Actually, we didn’t I’m pleased to say.
First night in a hotel room can often be a bit of a challenge (Thinks - Istanbul!!) and despite the relative tranquillity that Venice offers, it is surprising how noisy the canals can be at night. The ‘traffic’ does its best to be as quiet as possible but if you’re a light sleeper then the chances are that you will either take a while to nod off or, as in my case, be woken by the first motor launch or barge of the day before the sun rises. Probably the milkman!!
My curiosity over what we would get for breakfast was now setting in and apart from that there was the urge to get out and get doing what it was we wanted to do while we were here. Breakfast was good and I instantly made friends with the Custard Croissants – and we remained very close throughout the week!
Back we went to St. Mark’s taking careful note of the route. The Basilica opened at a quarter to ten and tends to be easier to get into if you get there either first thing or last thing before it closes. We queued for a while but it really does move quite fast. And unlike the Doge’s Palace, the interior of St. Mark’s Basilica was a familiar sight. The place made quite an impression first time around - it really is a fantastic work of art.
The view of the Square from the balcony wasn’t so good this time as the area around the Campanile was cordoned off with high boards to obscure work going on behind. Maybe next time (if there is a next time) the remedial and cleaning work in and around the main attractions of Venice will have been completed.
We hade made the decision to again buy a 3-day Pass for the Vaporetto’s to get us around the islands including another trip to both Murano and Burano. So, on Tuesday lunchtime we walked to Rialto and bought the Passes which would then last us until Friday lunchtime. I seem to remember paying 22 Euros each in 2005; this time they were 33 Euros each. Having said that, they easily pay for themselves, especially if you take in some of the other islands (Lido, Murano, Burano, San Michele, Torcello etc).
We took advantage of the Passes straight away by heading off up the Grand Canal to the Jewish District and the Ghetto area. We had an independent look around last time but decided this time to take the tour. One Museum and three Synagogues later we sat down and had lunch at the Museum Café before heading off on foot from the ghetto down through one of the two canals that Napoleon decided to fill in and what now resembles a pedestrianised shopping precinct like many others you will see around the world. Thank goodness he was forced out of Venice before he did any more damage! At the end of the ‘precinct’ you pass the Ca D’Oro area and reach water once again at Sant Apostoli which is where the Hotel Giorgione is located; our hotel in 2005. From here we made our way to Rialto and then back to St.Mark’s before tracking down the hotel again.
Evening meals were a challenge; but not to find something to eat, that was easy. The challenge was to find somewhere different each day but one which didn’t (at least openly!) rip the customer off by charging both a Cover Charge and a Service Charge on top of the menu prices. Cover Charges were around 2.50 Euros per head and Service was either 10% or more often 12.5%. So for our second evening we decided to leave the hotel and rather than turn left and head directly towards St Marks we turned right and walked ‘somewhere inland a bit’. We were again on new territory and discovered upon the Natural History Museum and one or two other parts of Venice that we hadn’t seen before, including the small restaurant that we chose to have our Tuesday evening meal in. It was in a very quiet square, probably north east of St Marks, very few people about anywhere and just two others in the restaurant. As a result we weren’t hanging around long before being served and it turned out to be probably the best evening meal that we had during our stay in Venice – and not the most expensive either. Not only that but we also managed to remember the route back to the hotel!!
Wednesday morning – and following two more custard croissants we made plans to get the Vaporetto to Murano and then Burano. So we walked to the north of the island to Fondamente Nuovo from where the boat runs to Murano. Famous for its glass production, Murano attracts tourists in large numbers. None of it was new to us so it was nice to just wander around the island and have a drink in the sunshine away from the madness of St Marks Square. And as we strolled towards the small dock to get the boat to Burano we noticed a sign to a small glass factory so we ventured down the alleyway and stood for a while watching three of Murano’s craftsmen toiling over the furnace.
Burano is even smaller than Murano but slightly more attractive due to the bright colours of the houses. Again, this was a return visit for us so we could stroll without feeling like we were missing out on anything. Seeing the two islands again was a nice way to spend half a day of our 4/5 day trip.
On the return boat trip to the main islands we decided to stop off at the eastern point of Venice to have a look at the public gardens. Close to Venezia’s football stadium (Yes, there is a football stadium in Venice!) the gardens are one of just a few green areas that the Venetians can enjoy unless they are lucky enough to have their own garden at home. It is close to Arsenale and to get back to St.Marks we picked our way in the general direction of the square while at the same time trying to use roads and paths that we had never been down before. Eventually, we were back in familiar territory.
Venice is overloaded with old palaces in various states of repair. Ca Rezonnico is open to the public and represents a typical old Venetian house. It sits on the Grand Canal and, even better, the Vaporetto’s stop right outside so we jumped on one that took us from St.Mark’s. It made a change from the usual museums although steps and stairs in one form or another are unavoidable in Venice. From here we walked the short distance to the Plaza San Barnaba. At one time, San Barnaba was regarded as the poorest part of the city but it really does have a nice feel about it and has recently been used in movies such as Indian Jones (& The Last Crusade) and also Quantum of Solace. We stopped for a drink in the plaza, to rest ankles and knees mainly and after the very wet day on Monday when we arrived the weather had been kind to us and now we were enjoying the sunshine. We sat down at a café on one of the outside tables and immediately realised that we were in the shade so quickly moved our drinks and things so we could sit in the sun. Plaza San Barnaba was a busy square with a canal running down one of its sides and, like so many Italian squares, it was dominated by a church. Temporarily, this had been given over to an exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s work, mainly in the form of reproductions of his engineering models. Anyway, it looked different so we paid the admission fee and spent 45 minutes looking at and playing with the models.
Our route from here took us back towards San Marco (St Marks) and the hotel. We wanted to have a drink in Harry’s Bar (near St Marks Square) and that turned out to be the plan for Wednesday evening, prior to finding a restaurant. We knew that Harry’s would be expensive but just wanted to do it – if only the once! And expensive it definitely was. Said to make the best Bellini Cocktails that you can buy, we ignored every other drink on the list and bought two at the princely sum of 15 Euros each. Described on the drinks list under the heading of ‘Long Drinks’, they turned out to be not really that long and not really that wide either. In fact, the glasses were more like swollen test tubes with flat bottoms but what the hell we made them last and enjoyed our hour in Harry’s Bar.
Giudecca tends to be forgotten by most visiting Venice. Geographically, it underscores the rest of the Venetian islands but sits slightly isolated from the main historical centre. Two of Venice’s most prestigious hotels can be found on Giudecca; namely the Cipriani and the Hilton Molina Stucky, one at either end of the long, slim island. So, on Thursday we decided to take a Vaporetto to the far end of Giudecca and walk from the Hilton back towards the Cipriani where we would get a boat across to San Giorgio Maggiore; a small islet that almost but not quite joins with Giudecca. The Hilton Molina Stucky boasts a rooftop bar that has great views across to St.Marks but alas it was closed when we asked at Reception so we settled for a comfort break and a general poke around the ground floor of what felt like a very nice hotel.
We walked inland when we left the Hilton, away from the waterfront. Giudecca has a Gondola Museum (apparently) and if we happened upon it then we would have a look around. However, not once on our casual stroll around the island did we see a sign or any other indication that such a museum exists. We may never find out. Giudecca is largely residential and also has a University Campus that you simply can’t avoid walking through if you go from one end to the other on foot. Its side canals are picturesque as you would expect whilst the southern edge of the island looks out onto open sea with just one or two small islands for company. The weather was good; warm and sunny but having failed to track down the Gondola Museum and after being ejected from a café for only wanting a drink we made our way to catch the Vaporetto to San Giorgio Maggiore.
Just a stones throw from Giudecca, San Giorgio has a church, a tower and a marina – not much more than that really. However, it’s still worth a visit for the view back to St Marks and the entrance to the Grand Canal, especially from the top of the tower from where you can see the length of Giudecca plus the few, small surrounding islands.
A place that we never found in 2005 when we were in Venice was the Palazzo Bovolo. Famous to tourists for its unique spiral staircase, the Palazzo Bovolo isn’t the easiest place to find. However, having missed it the first time around, we made a point of finding it this time, eventually discovering it tucked away down a small alleyway behind La Fenice Theatre. It was little more than a photo opportunity and the fact that we could say that we had seen it – and we now have.
In the evening, we ate near Rialto and just before settling at a restaurant dashed back to the bridge to catch a wonderful sunset that was unfolding.
Friday, our final day in Venice but with our flight not being until 20:10 we had almost all day to do something. Check out at the Colombina and the expiry of our Vaporetto Pass was midday so we organised ourselves around that.
It was another lovely day so, having organised our luggage as best we could, we had breakfast and headed for St Marks again. I wanted to take a photograph near Arsenale and we then thought that we could get the Vaporetto to San Salute and then get a Traghetto back across.
San Salute is the church with the prominent dome at the entrance to the Grand Canal and unlike in 2005 it was now possible to walk right around the point of the island and look back across to St.Marks in one direction and both San Giorgio Maggiore and Giudecca in the other. In 2005, access was prohibited with works of some sort being undertaken. These ‘works’ may have included the completion of a slightly bizarre and random statue of a boy holding a frog at arms length. Whatever, the sun was shining and it was warm and made for a nice way to spend some of what time we had left of this trip to Venice.
We queued with others for the Traghetto at the sign marked ‘Gondola Service’. Affording a Gondola as we did in 2005 was out of the question but by using the Traghetto service, basically a communal Gondola from one side of the Grand Canal to the other, we could at least say that we had been in one again!
With knees and ankles in desperate need of recovery time we had almost reached the end of our stay in Venice. We would catch the Alilaguna service from St Marks back to the Airport which was a half-hourly service that took just over the hour to complete the trip. We earmarked the 16:20 which meant that we were back at the Hotel Colombina to collect our luggage by about 15:45 before dragging it all through the hordes of people down to the Alilaguna dock.
The boat delivered us to the airport via both Lido and Murano as we left behind one of our most favourite places, thinking of perhaps coming back for Carnavale in another five years. Maybe.