This time last year I was scouring the January flight sales to escape the wintry blues. This year, I’m escaping into my memory bank instead:
I learnt some unexpected things about Venice on our brief, but wonderful, trip: I discovered that from the top of the iconic Campanella tower you can barely see any canals below, and Venice becomes just another terracotta town; I became accustomed to complimentary limoncello after every meal; and I realised that greyhounds are perfectly ergonomically designed to walk down the narrow alleyways! But beyond all that, I fell in love with the place; and here’s why:
- Everywhere is a perfect painting, so get lost, stop and look around.
There’s a clear reason that every street corner is clogged with painters, sketchers and selfie sticks. It’s easy enough to wile away the hours without ever planning a route or stepping foot inside a classical, erudite building. Between basilicas, grand ‘scuolas’ and palaces sits the “everything in between” that truly defines Venice. You’re never quite sure what you’ll find around the next corner, but you reach the stage where discovering an ornate edifice feels so much more natural than spotting row of shops or an ATM; and it’s easy to totally forget what a car even looks like!
- Even the residential areas are a treat to behold:
We signed up for a free walking tour and were pleasantly surprised not to be taken to any of the main sights. Instead we took in some of “real” Venice. We learnt about how the city actually functions, such as the water cisterns that could so easily have passed as ornate decorations; we heard local myths, pointing to what may or may not have been Marco Polo’s house, alongside some places where Casanova possibly lived, maybe; and we briefly visited a hospital so grand that I would happily get sick!
Bibliophiles will go to any lengths to keep their books dry!
Similarly set back from the main tourist-trodden routes is “the most beautiful bookshop in the world” (their words, not mine!): Libreria Acqua Alta. Piled almost to the ceiling, this treasure trove presents its books in gondolas and bathtubs. So dig in, root around and don’t be alarmed if you find a cat sleeping amongst the pages!
- All buildings are recycled:
As the entire city of Venice is a world heritage site (not to mention the near-impossible task of building on a site with no road access) all buildings stand as they have always stood, and humans simply have to re-purpose what’s already there. As such, Venice’s oldest restaurant sits in what was once the post office. Antica Trattoria Poste Vecie can be found tucked away behind the fish market, over its own private bridge. Apparently Casanova used to frequent the place, so, naturally, it’s the right side of decadent!
- Spritz is the cheapest and most cultural thing you can drink; so sit (or stand) and enjoy!
When labyrinthine streets open out into a charming, Mediterranean square, one naturally begins to crave a chance to stop for a refreshing drink and some people-watching. A word of warning: a beer can set you back upwards of 10€ a bottle. But, should you wish to avoid the importation trap, do as the locals do: order a spritz. Made with Aperol or Campari, this refreshing drink is fruity, Italian and consistently around 6€. Plus, although your feet may feel tired from pounding the glamorous streets, it’s cheaper to stand as you sip!
- Gondolas were worth every penny:
Whilst the Realto Bridge, the Doge’s Palace, and the interior of St Mark’s Basilica were all teeming with tourists and thus skimmed from my schedule, a trip in a gondola was the clichéd treat that just kept on giving! At a flat rate of 80€ per trip, we ummed and ahhed about whether we really needed a half-hour boat ride; but, I insisted, when in Rome… In fact, the unanimously extortionate price made it far easier to escape all uncomfortable haggling and to focus simply on deciding where to float and which gondolier took our fancy. Our trip took us around the winding “backstreets” and out onto the Grand Canal. It was magical, we were regal, and, for the very first time in Venice, we didn’t see any tourists around! (And, able to manoeuvre an 11m boat around impossibly narrow turns, without ever scraping the sides, I deemed the gondolier’s skill worthy of every cent!)
- Venice gets even better as you leave:
John Ruskin said that the only way one ought to approach Venice is by water; well that’s also the most glamorous way to leave it – just for the day. If the 118 tiny islands that comprise the city’s labyrinth aren’t enough to keep you occupied, then a day trip to neighbouring Murano and Burano come highly recommended! The water ‘roads’ are easily navigated by hopping on a local commuter boat-bus, where the driver somehow seems to understand which side of the wooden stakes denote which lanes!
Murano, famous for its elaborate glass creations, draws tourists in with glass-blowing demonstrations and shops akin to galleries of wondrous (albeit outrageous and gaudy) ornaments. Our hotel arranged a free trip to Murano (presumably in the hope we would buy an over-the-top chandelier once there!) so it’s worth inquiring.
Burano on the other hand, famous for its lace creations, is a quaint little town, populated by colour-popping houses. A trip to Burano allows you to escape the Venetian bubble, with (slightly) fewer people around, a surreal, cause-for-concern leaning clocktower and an unprecedented number of grassy areas!
- Finally, you simply must bask in the wonder of St Mark’s Square, but try it by night:
As day-trippers from cruise ships depart for their next sojourn, the buildings that frame Venice’s most famous square become illuminated in all their glory. The pigeons seem to have gone to bed and the touts selling crap are fewer at least. Whilst we were there, each night saw St Mark’s Square play host to a superb classical quintet. I started the day listening to ‘O Sole Mio’ (or, ‘The Cornetto Song’ as I knew it) from my bedroom window, and closed it crowded round a live band at the foot of St Mark’s bell tower. Doesn’t get much more Venetian than that.