Italy – Venice
I have two self-contradictory comments to make about Venice. On your first visit there, it looks precisely as you had always expected it to look. The basic vistas have not changed since Canaletto set up his easel, and you are staggered how accurately he captured the place, all those years ago. So in a sense you already feel slightly acquainted with it. But – and here’s the contradiction – nothing can prepare you for the majestic awe you experience when you emerge from Santa Lucia Station. You look around you and all you can see is Venice. Venice everywhere; it takes your breath away. Gondolas, water taxis, vaporettos, bridges, people, pigeons, canals, wooden poles stuck in the water, blue and white stripey shirts, pastel coloured buildings, all of it constituting huge dollops of Venice.
Not only laden down with suitcases but also with a packed lunch we bought at Padua station – as we assumed all the eateries in Venice would be ridiculously expensive – we slowly wended our way down one of the world’s longest train platforms – or so it felt. We had arranged with our hotel that we would be met at the station by a water taxi and “hostess” to take us to our hotel. The hostess was a loud in-your-face tourist guide who took the mickey out of my surname and faffed around for ages trying to find us a water taxi. But when we did eventually get going it was a marvellous 25 minutes journey, delving deep into the canal system; and by the time we got to our hotel we felt like we’d had a really privileged excursion. As many do, our hotel – the Duodo Palace – has a land and a water entrance, and walking straight into reception direct from the boat is a very swanky feeling.
Top marks to the Duodo Palace for a terrific welcome. If felt as if the concierge and I had known each other for years – extremely friendly and helpful but also extremely polite; a perfect blend. The Duodo Palace is a converted palace, you won’t be surprised to hear. As a result it is very elegant and attractive, quaint and irregular. Our third floor room was comfortable but a little squashed. The bathroom was quite big though and everything worked. Lady Duncansby’s room was on the floor below, and in all the time we were there we never worked out how you went from the third floor to the second floor by foot. If you walked down the stairway from the third floor you emerged at the first. It’s almost as though you can only get to the second floor from Platform 9¾. Fortunately there was a lift so we didn’t spend too much time worrying about it.
Before we left for a mosey into town, our new friends at the Conciergerie suggested another water taxi tour later on in the afternoon. They described it as an hour of pure relaxing pleasure. Would 5.30pm be suitable? It sure would. At 130 euros for an hour, to include a bottle of Prosecco, it wasn’t cheap entertainment but we were well in the mood. Time to go out now; being just a relative stone’s throw from St Marks’ Square, we headed in that direction. Of course, every street in this neck of the woods is lined with gift shops, so progress is slow, as Mrs C and Lady D inspected every item of jewellery, handbag and dress en route. Fortunately they’re not into carnival outfits.
St. Mark’s Square is thronging and fabulous. Very posh and expensive cafes line its sides, with string quartets and similar musical entertainment pushing up both the style and the costs. We took our little picnics down to the water’s edge, sat on some steps opposite San Giorgio Maggiore, consumed now rather warm and soggy sandwiches and it was bliss. You are completely surrounded by thousands of people yet there is an enormous feeling of peace and relaxation. It is simply an extraordinary place.
There was no queue to visit the Doges’ Palace so we thought we’d give it a try. It’s a grand old place and very attractive, particularly the marvellous Sala del Maggior Consiglio with Tintoretto’s magnificent Paradise covering an entire wall. When you see it, the scale of it is breathtaking. But the whole palace is architecturally very stirring. You also get to see all the prisons and walk across the Bridge of Sighs, which I always – erroneously – thought was so-named because it was so beautiful. Wrong! The sighs are because you’re just about to be chucked in the clink.
We popped briefly into St Marks Basilica but it was a bit too busy to appreciate. You quite quickly get satiated with artistry and opulence, so we admired the outsides of the buildings and promised to return later. Other stunning sights in the square include the Campanile and the beautiful astronomical clock. I quite fancied visiting the Clock Tower but simply couldn’t locate the entrance. Another reason to return another time.
So we hot-footed it back to the Duodo Palace for our 5.30pm appointment with the man with the water-taxi, and a gift of a bottle of Prosecco from Signor Concierge and we sat back and let Venice engulf us. Actually, we didn’t sit at all – it was all far too exciting. We all stood at the back of the boat, bottle or glass in hand, cameras and phones ready to capture anything that passed us by and we had a whale of a time. Our route took us up the Grand Canal right to the sea’s edge, round the outside a bit and then back into the city plunging through small waterways that you would otherwise only see on the map. We must have taken hundreds of photos; just a magical, privileged afternoon, and the only way to see Venice in style. 130 euros don’t go that far in Venice, but it really was one of those “you only live once” moments.
After the statutory afternoon nap, we headed out for dinner. I had done some research and it seemed to me the only way to get a decent meal in Venice was to pay through the nose for it; and even then, it’s no guarantee. The place is so full of tourists staying for just a short time, that restaurateurs never expect to see you again, and accordingly don’t bother to make an effort. First we headed back to St Mark’s Square to see it lit up in its finery – a spectacular sight. Then we eventually settled on the Osteria San Marco. It’s a very welcoming little place and quite authentic, you feel. Our plan was to go there just for a drink first but decided the vibe was nice enough to stay. Not a great meal, but certainly good enough, and the three of us had quite sufficient to eat and a perfectly reasonable bottle of plonk for less than £100.
Day two in Venice – and the morning revealed the only weak link in the Duodo Palace’s chain – breakfast. To be fair the food itself was perfectly adequate, once we got it – but we had to wait a long while for a table to become available. The breakfast area is crammed into two small rooms and it wasn’t really comfortable. No doubt the hotel was full but the area given over to breakfast simply isn’t big enough. Not that it would stop me from returning – I thought it was a terrific little hotel.
We thought we’d head out west and explore the Dorsoduro district. Venice is at its best when you simply go and walk somewhere. Deliberately get lost if you like, and just see what each corner you turn has to offer. We discovered the Campo Santo Stefano, which was a charming square, with its elegant church to the side, which inside displays a painting of Pope John Paul II which looks more like Les Dawson. From there it’s a nice, relatively quiet, walk through to the bridge over the canal opposite the Accademia. You have an amazing view from this bridge, every Venetian cliché you can think of is here. The bridge itself is teeming with people but eyeball a picturesque spot, stick to your guns and linger while you can. It’s lovely.
Still heading west we discovered the charming little church of San Trovaso, kept walking along side little canals towards San Sebastiano church (for which we decided not to pay the entrance fee), Angelo San Raffaele, which was worth a short visit, and finally on to San Nicolo Dei Mendicoli which is a little stunner. You’re not meant to photograph inside but I’m afraid it was irresistible. It’s one of those little churches where not a scrap of plaster is undecorated. Absolutely beautiful.
A much needed coffee break at a little café gave us the fortitude to head north east towards the Campo Santa Margherita. There we espied a little place that looked like it would be good for lunch later on. Interestingly the square had a few fish stalls and they must have been fresh because there was no smell at all. Further along, past San Pantalon, we carried on to what turned out to be a major highlight of our visit – the Scuola di San Rocco. Adjacent to the church of the same name, which is quite nice but nothing outstanding, the Scuola was originally a charitable confraternity. In 1564 they commissioned Tintoretto to decorate the walls and ceilings, which you could say was a wise move, with the benefit of hindsight. The ground floor is stunning enough but upstairs is breathtaking; a vast salon of incredible artwork where you could spend hours – it’s definitely a must-see in Venice. There was a small film crew there too, filming a young couple meeting outside and then walking in to the building. If they did it once they did it twenty times. They might have been Italian starlets. Who knows?
It was without doubt now time for lunch and we did go back to that place on Campo Santa Margherita for lunch – Pier Dickens. Just a pizzeria, but probably the best meal we had in Venice, as it wasn’t trying too hard and the food was pretty darn good. All in a lovely, not too touristy location. Really recommended.
Time for a bit more culture so we called at Ca’ Rezzonico, an old palace that houses a museum of 18th century Venice. It belonged to Robert Browning, and his son Pen, and is worth a visit to get a feel of the time and to enjoy being inside a typical Venetian palazzo. It’s notable for the extravagant (if perhaps surprisingly smallish) ballroom. Upstairs are some new art galleries and I must say I found the art on display there rather fresh and stimulating.
Needing to get outside after all that art, we wandered back towards the Accademia but then carried on to the end of the promontory where you find Santa Maria della Salute church. It’s a rather unusual shape – an octagon; quite grand on the outside, slightly workaday on the inside. But from there you have spectacular views back over towards St Marks Square. We walked right to the end of the promontory and were surprised at how windy it was! And that really was quite enough tourism for one day. On the way back to the hotel we found a little pub. Unpretentious and simple, it wouldn’t have been out of place in Stratford on Avon. Can’t remember it’s name, but it was perfect.
After a much needed nap, we went out on our usual forage for food and drink. We decided to start off at Caffe Brasilia, very informal, quite expensive, but comfortable, friendly and much used by locals. Good for pre-dinner drinkies. For dinner we chose the Ristorante San Stefano, which was a complete tourist trap and offered a lazy, uninspired, barely adequate, expensive meal. Never mind, some you win, some you lose.
Too early for bed, we decided to do a nighttime walk to the Rialto Bridge. Nowhere is that far away from the San Marco district and we were surprised how quickly we got there. It’s definitely a tourist attraction at night – heaving with people it was, but with a good friendly vibe. Rather like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Rialto still has its shops on the bridge, and it’s another must-see. Having retraced Shylock’s steps, we returned to the St Marks area, looking for one last place for a late night drinkie. We found a nice little place, just to the side of St Mark’s Basilica; full inside but it was mild enough (just) to sit at the pavement tables and drink in the atmosphere and Chianti. We were happily sat supping away when a bunch of clean cut American youths appeared and basically asked the waiter if he would give them something to eat if they sang. Intrigued, the waiter asked to hear them at work – and then these lads suddenly came out with the most wonderful a cappella music, totally unexpectedly. The waiter was impressed, and they got some pasta. The odd things you see on your travels!
The next day was to be the start of our cruise adventure, but we still had a free morning in Venice, and had no wish to miss out on any of it. So we headed east from the hotel, past St Marks and the Doges’ Palace, into the Castello district; a charming network of narrow canals and even narrower alleys; nothing especially outstanding or beautiful, but overwhelmingly picturesque taken as a whole. Mrs C and Lady D plundered a couple of jewellery shops – considering the location, they got some really nice stuff at very low prices. We wandered past the Campo San Martin and ended up near the San Giovanni in Bragora church, having a light early lunch in a simple authentic little café, on the corner of Calle de la Pieta and Calle del Dose. Refreshed in the sunshine, it was time to head back to the hotel to catch our water taxi to the Passenger Terminal. Yes, yet another water taxi ride; each one a different kind of bliss. It was a really splendid way of arriving for a cruise, speedboating alongside the liner as you headed for the shore. I’d really recommend it!
Later on, when the cruise ship finally gets going and leaves Venice, you are treated to the most amazing view. The height and distance of the ship is just perfect for the grandeur of St Marks Square from the water. Admittedly we were a bit late in staking our perfect spot for the view so had to watch through a window but it was still glorious. A wonderful way to say goodbye to Venice and to look forward to the week ahead.
We would have one more morning in Venice at the end of the cruise before getting the train back to Verona for our flight home. Getting from the ship back into Venice “town centre” was an adventure in itself. Doing what I would never normally do, I responded positively to some bloke meeting the ship offering people taxis to the railway station. With “safety in numbers” in mind, I was grateful that another couple also eventually consented in the same way. After a very long wait we were finally escorted to a very decent looking taxi that did indeed take us to the railway station for 10€ each. But what a strange route! Through industrial zones, over railway lines, opening barbed wire gates, backs of farms… hardly any of it properly tarmac’d. The thought did drift through our minds that we would be all found as skeletons in some lime pit in fifty years time, but of course we were safe. The Left Luggage provision at Santa Maria station works fine, so unencumbered we were able to saunter back into the Saturday throng.
We started off inspecting the elegant interior of the Scalzi church next door to the station. It’s amazing how many of these small churches are as opulent as any cathedral. Then we crossed the nearby bridge and lost ourselves in the Santa Croce district. In desperate need of a coffee we found a nice little place on the Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio with swish toilets and an ace view of the piazza. Then we continued to the Campo San Polo with its super campanile and fun lion statues. Our goal was to check out the Rialto by day, having only seen it at night before. And we made it with ease, to find out it was equally busy as it is at night. With all the shops and markets open it’s a really lively area to waste an hour or two – which we didn’t have, unfortunately. We popped into the rather bizarre little church of San Giacomo di Rialto, which basically seemed given over to the sale of concert tickets; and then joined everyone else posing for photos on the bridge itself.
Time was against us, and we needed lunch, so after a couple of false starts we found a little restaurant on the Strada Nova. I can’t remember its name now which is probably just as well. The wine list was a board outside that advertised Pinot and Soave. Let’s have some Soave, I thought. When I ordered it, the waiter seemed perplexed, as though no one had ever done that before. He went away and brought the Maitre d’ (quite a posh name for the kind of guy he was in all fairness). “I recommend the Pinot”, he said. “I don’t think we have any Soave left, but I will *check* if you like” – in a tone designed to convey that it would cause him enormous inconvenience. I held my ground and let him be inconvenienced. He returned saying we were “in luck, and there was one bottle left”. He left it to his little mate to open the bottle and serve. I noted the age of the wine – 2007. That’s a bit old for a Soave, I thought. He poured a small taster into the glass. It had a colour best described as “first urine of the day”. It was repulsive. Mine host knew full well it would be. “May I suggest the Pinot then sir” was his rather barbed defence. Pinot it was. The meal was fine actually, and the wine experience humorously bizarre! Why didn’t he just say, in best Basil Fawlty tradition, “sorry, Soave’s off”?
We made it in good time to get back to Santa Lucia station, reunite ourselves with our luggage and get our train back to Verona; our final lovely 1st class Trenitalia experience. On arrival we decided to get the shuttle bus from Verona station to the airport, which worked fine – we just bought the tickets from the tobacconists inside the station complex. But it dawned on me afterwards that with three people a taxi to the airport – of which there was a plentiful supply – would have been cheaper and quicker. No worries. The plane was late; and Verona airport is a bit of a boring place to be fair. But we’d had a fantastic time away.
However, gentle reader – this is not the end of this story; oh no, you don’t get away with it that easily! What happened on the cruise itself is a tale yet to be told….