Give me one day to live my entire life in Italy, I’d rise in Rome, get dressed in Milan, educated in Florence, fall in love in Venice. Who can resist kissing on Rialto Bridge, embracing in a gondola, exchanging loving glances over Chianti in a café, entwined after dark in the glow of San Marco? Amore abounds. Whether entranced by romance or not, it’s a snap to fall in love with Venice.
Our dream visit had at last materialized. Bouncing over windy chop from airport to hotel in our water taxi, a driving rain gave way to foggy mist, revealing the timeless spectacle that embodies Venice. Medieval structures atop liquid foundations melting into the basin. Water constantly churning from the crisscrossing beehive of boats. A mixmaster of people, cargo, docks, piers, markets, steeples, marble facades, thick pilings like sodden toothpicks dotting the waterscape. Tourists and natives swirling and flowing, rippling along walkways. The waves crest and spill into Piazza San Marco, the iconic epicenter of Venetian life. Every postcard, movie frame and photograph spring to life.
Over time, many of Venice’s ground floors have reluctantly admitted unprofitable tenants as the lagoon enters and buildings sink. Most locals now enter their abodes through 2nd and 3rd floor portals. One can expect 2000 year old subterranean timbers to last only so long.
After a brief power nap, vigorous exploration awaited. First stop: Rialto Bridge, where we dangerously lingered (read on) and chatted with fellow travelers a bit before crossing the bridge to a waterside café. Fortified with pizza and Chianti, we wandered aimlessly into nearby neighborhoods, discovering hidden bistros, piazzas, shops and open air markets, eating and drinking our way back to Ca d’Oro. As night fell, we hopped a vaporetto and cruised down the Grand Canal to San Marco. Vaporetto tickets can be purchased at automated kiosks or centrally located booths. Mistakenly thinking we could buy on board, we ran down an alley to a waiting boat which pulled away instantly. No tickets. Oops! Dodging a potential fine, process was corrected upon return.
From our watery vantage point, landmarks loomed. The Accademia, the Guggenheim, grand palatial residences repurposed into equally grand hotels – the Gritti Palace, Centurion Palace. We were lucky enough to stay in one – Ca Sagredo, an historic 15th century noble residence which provided a comfortable respite from the clamor outdoors. Ascending its marble staircase, a spacious yet cozy atmosphere prevailed, showcasing luminous paintings, ancient sculptures, period furnishings and jaw dropping ceiling frescoes. As host to these well preserved treasures, the hotel itself is ordained a national monument.
Despite their seemingly endless numbers, the merchants of Venice thrive along a maze of principal and side streets, plaza kiosks, displaying their touristic mementos, leather goods, Murano glass and of course, straw gondolier hats, magnets and key chains.
A pedestrian haven, there are no cars, scooters or noisy conveyances. Locals use their own private water vessels for transport – pint sized motorboats, vintage gondolas, dainty dories. Tourists do the same, either sightseeing the myriad of canals by hired boat or navigating the labyrinth of alleyways by foot. Either way, an adventure.
As is the cuisine. From family run bacari operations to white linen sidewalk service, food and drink are the heart of social interaction and cultural immersion. Bacaris are the place to go for cichetti, tapas-style offerings such as panino (sandwiches) and polenta. Mixing with the lunch locals, we enjoyed 2 ham and cheese toasts with 2 ombra (small glass of wine) for 10EUR – quick and yummy! Tops in taste was a sumptuous lunch of shrimp tempura and homemade tagliolini pasta at Do Leoni, the Hotel Londra Palace bistro. Our most memorable meal of fresh sea bass, expertly fileted tableside, was served at Cip’s, the Hotel Cipriani’s dockside restaurant. Complemented by oyster appetizers and ambrosial wine, five star lunch! A mere 5 minute ride from San Marco to Giudecca island in an idyllic setting, not to be missed. From welcome spritzer to dessert, delizioso!
Our first local treat was a visit to Rialto Market with chef Frederico (a paid service) who boarded us on a traghetto (a gondola shuttle) across the canal. He animatedly described how to choose proper fish, vegetables and fruit for his menus while giving us prep and cooking pointers for fish and pasta. Enlightening!
We always have one splurge each trip and saved the best for last – Luca, Luca, Luca! Hired for a private sunset ride on his ancestral gondola, Luca skillfully guided us down watery paths through the Jewish Ghetto, Canareggio and back canals of Venice with insightful historical revelations and lively storytelling. His grandfather had expertly handcrafted his stylish vessel, elegantly fashioned with comfy velvet seats. He even sang for us – the ultimate Venetian experience!
While tour groups gain access to crowded sites – making them moreso – at appointed times, a strong case can be made for flying solo, exploring at one’s own pace. Visiting heralded museums and popular sites such as San Marco at off peak hours, later in the day once crowds disperse can result in less company and shorter waits. Most, such as the Accademia, Doge’s Palace and Peggy Guggenheim, are open til 6-715pm. One notable exception is St Mark’s Basilica. While church admission is free, tickets are required (2-8EUR) for the Bell Tower, Pala d’oro, Treasury and Museum. Lines are somewhat shorter as the day gets long but this site remains flush with patient patrons, day and night. Worth the wait! Be prepared: appropriate attire required, no backpacks allowed, must be dropped at bag check. Alternatively, private guides can be hired for after hours tours if time is limited and budget allows.
Yes, it’s crowded. Yes, there are fines for such innocuous things as sitting in an “undesignated” area (500EUR) in San Marco or Rialto. Yes, Venetians are exasperated with throngs of tourists whose dollars are their life blood. Yes, the food, from neighborhood bacaris for pizza and cichetti to upscale hotel bistros serving locally sourced dishes, is superb. Whether enduring a grueling long haul flight or hopping in by rail or boat from closer confines, the answer is Yes, it’s peerless, without rival, the ultimate destination of desire.
And who knows? Maybe you’ll fall in love. For sure, you’ll be romanced by Venice.