We arrived in Venice at lunch time. Our excitement rose as we left the final mainland station and the train made its way along the causeway that leads to Venice.
I remembered how when I was 21 I made my first and only other trip to Venice, traveling overnight with my friend Neil in an unreserved compartment. We shared it with five others, sitting up straight trying to sleep, and on arrival we sat and had coffee looking out at the Grand Canal, and somehow that beautiful sight woke us up.
This time there was no café to sit in with a view of the Grand Canal, but we bought cappuccinos and sat out on the steps right in front and started to take it all in. There it is, the Grand Canal, and in front of it the very busy square which is the departure and arrival point for so many visitors. We immediately spotted the local porters with their handcarts trying to drum up customers to transport luggage to nearby hotels. They didn’t seem to be too busy, perhaps because most people arrive with wheels on their suitcases. We got a weeklong pass on the Vaporetto (water bus) for 60 Euros (one trip is 7.50) so this was a real bargain! Sam had mapped out how to get from the station to the hotel, and so we got off at the Ca’D’Oro stop in Cannaregio and trundled our luggage over cobbled streets to the hotel. Sam chose a hotel in the sestiere of Cannaregio, which is the location of the first Jewish ghetto, because it is not apparently as touristy as the area around St. Marks, and because we found an “old world” style hotel which looked appealing. It was called the Hotel Antico Doge, and our room backed onto a quiet courtyard.
We decided to explore outdoors while the good weather lasted, before taking in some of the galleries/churches. We had been told to by a wise friend not worry about a map in Venice, and instead to use the yellow signs which direct one to major landmarks to help orient us. This worked quite well, and later on that day we took it in turns to lead the “meandering” through the streets.
It really was quite liberating to not have Google Maps, since we stalled buying SIM cards, and to rely wholly on our sense of direction (not good) and the map, and using our contextual clues! We were quite determined to get offline as much as possible, and it worked. We wandered so far that we had a really hard time finding our way to the restaurant where we had reservations. We waited at one of the Vaporetto stops, incidentally called San Samuele, to find that the water bus didn’t stop there after five. We crossed the Rialto bridge twice, (one time too many), and in the end we were traipsing through the streets in the dark, stopping in front of lighted windows to scrutinize the map, or finally, to ask the way from shop owners along the way. We made it to the restaurant, Osteria da Alberto, about 20 minutes late, which we were pretty happy with (they didn’t seem to notice). It seems that many of our first nights in new places are particularly memorable, especially for where we have our first meal. We were so relieved to have made it that we ordered a liter of white house wine (the best and also cheapest house wine ever!) to celebrate. It’s a little cosy Osteria with mostly fish and pasta dishes, and yummy grilled veggies for antipasti, and we went back again later more for dinner and then lunch on our last day.
Our first morning we got up at 7 am by choice (unheard of for me!) and took the vaporetto up the Grand Canal and all the way across the lagoon to the Lido, stopping for coffee before returning. I had Death in Venice (both the book and film) in mind, but we didn’t really see anything that reminded us of it, not having done much research. It was lovely just to sit in the front of the boat and experience the boat navigate the waterways and take it all in. However, we saw more of it later. Instead of returning to the hotel for a nap after being up at such an unsociable hour (with many of Venice’s commuters) we made our way to the Jewish ghetto, for a tour of the five remaining synagogues in that quarter.
The tour guide was somewhat brusque, disappointingly, but the synagogues were amazing. Two of the five are still used for High Holidays, depending on the season, and the other three which are the original Ashkenazi synagogues are sometimes still used for weddings. The square (Campo) in the ghetto has several moving memorials to the Jews of Venice who perished in the Holocaust. Compared to the prewar population of thousands there are 450 Jews that live in Venice today. Their community is orthodox, apparently similar in traditions to modern orthodox, and the women still sit separately from the men.
Leaving the ghetto, we crossed a bridge and heard guitar music playing. Two musicians were sitting along the canal in front of a café playing gypsy jazz, so we got coffee and sat in front of the café listening. Sweet!
Then after strolling around the very quiet part of Cannaregio we went for a leisurely lunch in a little café on the same canal. It was a delightfully simple inside, with a lot of dark wood, and some communal tables. It’s called “Anice Stellato” (Star Anise), and we returned there once more for dinner later in the week. One of the highlights was a pumpkin soup with anchovies! Sounds weird, but it was quite delicious. We also had a delicious dessert with custard, crumbled biscuits, and fruit, layered together.
What a great first day in Venice! Our following days were quite similar in flavour, and the sun shone every day. I decided based on our new found biking skills and the fact that the Lido is known for its quiet bike friendly roads, to sign up for a half day bike tour of the Lido. Sam thought I was perhaps a bit overambitious, but he did enjoy it. Our guide met us with bikes at a larger ferry terminal, and we took the car ferry along a larger waterway along the sestiare of the Dorsoduro and we got great views from its high decks.
Our guide, Marco, is an urban planner, and he got a grant from the city of Venice to create his bicycle company with an emphasis on sustainable living. This is his third year running it. We rode up the lagoon side of the Lido and then around to the Adriatic side and along there two. I managed to spot a lot of bathing huts (like the ones in Death in Venice the film !) along this side which is where the beaches are that the Venetians congregate at in summer.
Marco stopped every so often to share with us interesting pieces of history, including a few videos about topics such as how the city of Venice came about, and one about a sanatorium (now abandoned though there are hopes to renovate) for TB sufferers that we saw on the way back to the ferry.
One very fun outing was to the sestiere of Dorsoduro which is much quieter to a bar that is well-liked by locals that serves cicchetti and wine very cheaply. It was Sunday afternoon so very busy, but we weren’t immediately deterred, and were able to find somewhere to sit and eat. I ordered rather clumsily the drink that you see all over Venice, a Spritz, which is part prosecco, part Aperol and part soda water. It’s a transparent orange. If you use Campari instead of Aperol it’s red. It’s actually a very gentle drink and easier than we imagined to have more than one…While there we met a friendly couple from London, and we stayed longer than we planned because we were having a great time talking with them, and sharing our views about politics and travel.
After several days outdoors we visited some of the vast quantity of art in the city of Venice, most of which seems to be in churches.
On our last day we visited the island of San Giorgio, with its beautiful church and campanile that gives amazing views of Venice without the wait to get up that is apparently the case in the campanile in San Marco. That same day we stopped off first at Giudecca, another much longer and less touristy island next to San Giorgio. I had remembered that the youth hostel that we stayed at all those years ago was on Giudecca….so looked it up, and out of a possible two hostels found the one we stayed in. It’s now a two star hotel, as of about three years ago. The receptionist told me that it had been a hostel for about sixty years, so it was quite clearly the one we stayed in. The atmosphere inside is sort of funky, and has a student feel, so in a sense there is some of the formers flavor. I remember having bowls of cioccolato and croissant for breakfast that first morning in Venice in the café at the hostel. It was my first experience of bowls of such a breakfast….no Weetabix!
We did get a little weary of all the crowds (as I’m sure the crowds were weary of us), but were able to get away from them at times. On our travels we have had a growing irritation with “selfie sticks”. I guess our experience with taking photos on trips is looking out not in, and as with a lot of people who grew up without this phenomenon, we take a few pictures of each other, and then ask people once in a while to take one of both of us. It seemed incongruous seeing people walking around gazing into them, and there are some sights that seem wholly inappropriate for selfies: Anne Frank’s house, the Bridge of Sighs, La Sagrada Familia…thankfully there were no selfies taken during our visit to the Jewish ghetto. What is this need to see yourself all the time, with whatever backdrop you find yourself in?
So, what’s so magical about Venice? I was struck after Amsterdam that Venice as a city crisscrossed by canals is on a much grander scale. Also, the fact that much of the city’s art collection is in its churches. There are no cars, bikes or vespas. It is a purely pedestrian experience on land, and commerce and leisure all merge on its waterways. It’s the stucco lit up by sunlight at different times of day, the view of water wherever you are, the space in the squares, the covered over stone wells and the generous arrangement of tables and chairs for sipping cappuccino etc. (unlike the cramped sidewalk cafes of Paris)….the lack of vegetation that you don’t notice because of all the water…the flagstones, the arches, narrow alleys, the gondoliers in their striped sweaters (they’re not even that pushy and work for a set fee), the elaborate carnival masks displayed in shop windows….and more!