Having both already visited Venice in previous lives, inside the palaces, cathedrals and museums is off the agenda this time as we seek to simply soak up the atmosphere and maybe if we are lucky stumble upon some lesser known corners of this wonderful and romantic city.
The Alilaguna boat brings us to Fondamente Nove, a five minute walk from our hotel, around 17.30 so we are soon out to reacquaint ourselves with the stunning sights around the Grand Canal and St Marks Square. There is nowhere on Earth as stunningly unique and romantic (we’ll probably keep using that word) as Venice, even when thronged with tourists like tonight.
We leave the main tourist spots in search of food and wander through a maze of tiny streets, crossing the typical Venetian bridges over the canals. The canals are never the same, some a hive of activity, water taxi’s chugging by, tiny motorboats over loaded with locals, tourists in Gondolas gently swishing by, a water ambulance with its blue lights, a barge delivering fridges and beer, vaporetti, big water buses, even the binmen barge, never a dull moment. In contrast, other canals silent, appearing to be forgotten in this incredible city to all but those who live there and the occasional inquisitive traveller.
We grab a beer and an aperol spritz, then gravitate to Misericordia, with its cool bars and eateries, where we find a table right by the canal. Octopus and squid pasta; grilled veg and liver; the house red, and all is well.
Venice is as beautiful and (yes) romantic as we both remember, being here already feels fabulous. This is going to be so good.
We awake to the sound of water gently lapping against the boats just below our window, the city still silent apart from the tolling of the church bells echoing through the narrow canal streets, the water reflecting in the early sunlight and dancing on the crumbling building opposite.
Gazing at the manic activity on the Grand Canal is one of life’s absolute ultimate pleasures, it’s right up there with the best things you can ever do, anywhere in the World, but it does have a bit of a theatrical quality, for all its splendour. The quiet back street canals provide an altogether different atmosphere; it’s a back street, yet it’s water; it’s away from the theatre, but it is here that ordinary life goes on, around these narrow waterways. Deliveries, house moves, builders’ barges, even refuse collectors, are all here, working, as the city goes about its daily business. These sights are just as charming and unique as the big sights, and in their own way encapsulate the unique nature of this spellbinding city.
We wander around Canareggio, then over to Ghetto. Venice is of course where the word “ghetto” originated, Ghetto being the name of the small island in the heart of the city to where Venetians herded the Jews, forcing thousands to live in cramped, squalid conditions, long before Hitler, and Mussolini, repeated the persecution. And so the word “ghetto” entered the English language as a byword for poor and cramped living standards.
Our vaparetto trip today takes us to Murano and its many glassworks, then on to the lace making island of Burano. No trip to Murano is complete without a visit to a furnace to watch glassblowing in action, and it’s as fascinating as ever; for lunch we enjoy cicchetti, a peculiar Venice indulgence rather like the pintxos of the Basque region, smaller than tapas and usually one euro each. Mostly seafood dishes, they are bite size and utterly delicious. Burano is new territory for both of us, and is ridiculously picturesque, its brightly painted houses squatting over the canals to create multi coloured reflections in the gently lapping waters. Legend has it that the explosion of colour was designed to help guide the fishing fleet home, though it feels pretty obvious now that it has long since become exaggerated for the tourist market. Venice is as rammed as ever, crowds everywhere, but not even the hordes detract from the spectacle that is this wonderful city, and as our theme this time excludes revisiting the interiors of buildings, we can turn a blind eye to the queues. We are equally eeasily able to escape the most densely crowded areas as we are staying in Canareggio, a part of the city just out of the worst of it yet with enough of a buzz to have a vibe of its own, and so tonight we make our way again to the wonderful canal street of Misericordia. En route we pass a bar, Il Santo Bevitore, which makes the bold claim of serving the best beers in Venice, where we sample some of the 21 (no really!) different draught beers, plus a few delicious one-euro cicchetti.
Misericordia offers no free canalside tables tonight, so we return to the main square in Ghetto, and a restaurant called Upupa (the Hoopoe). A terrific meal starts with another Venetian speciality, Sarde Soar, sardines in onion, balsamic, raisins and pine nuts, unusual! As darkness falls, the Jewish men gathered around a huge table outside the synagogue, socialising after Saturday worship, keep breaking into haunting songs which drift mournfully across the square through the gloomy light. Our studies of Jewish history (see the Poland blog) give the experience added significance and we happily lose ourselves in the moment.
We make the most of our 24-hour Vaparetto tickets and take a ride which circumnavigates virtually the entire island of Venice. We take in the familiar sights of St Marks Square, Doges Palace, Campanile, San Giorgio Maggiore, part of the Grand Canal, moving around to some less recognisable areas as the passengers come and go. The sea choppy, the sun beating down, the contrasting views of these two sides of Venice once again reminding us that the city is not all tourist theatre; there is real life here too.
Venice is not the city for a bargain break; Italy generally is expensive but here doubly so; even away from the crazy prices close to the main sights, everything is pricey, from the 7 euro beers to the £100 dinners, cicchetti representing the only opportunity for a bargain. Lunch here costs more than a fortnight’s food in Bakkhali!
The San Marco district, west of the square, is packed with the same shops as every English city, if that’s what you want, but the back streets and canals of Canareggio and the pleasing vibe of Misericordia provide a better feel; at least here Italian is the language you hear most.
Menus here are dominated by seafood in various forms; octopus, clams, pasta stained black by squid ink; raw salted cod, sardines, cuttlefish, mussels and crab all claimed to be caught locally, provide many options, and, typical of the diet of a coastal location, even non-seafood dishes are often heavily salted.
Early evening we return to the 21-beer bar. Yesterday we’d seen a beer accompaniment that resembled a tough, chewy pepperami stick, either that or a long piece of dried pork fat; we try it tonight, and it turns out to be more like a stick of dried kipper, fishy and salty and remarkably good with a draught beer!
Several times today we’ve been told the rain is coming this evening; sure enough it arrives during dinner, but it isn’t too heavy and is accompanied by thunder and lightning and a spectacular mix of sunset and storm cloud. The weather clears, the near full moon appears, we find a bar at the waters edge. It looks welcoming and full of locals which naturally draws us in. This is clearly the place to be, bustling, loud chatter, eating, drinking, staff buzzing. An unusual place too, eat in at the rustic tables, or at the canal edge, or if there are no seats just simply sit on the floor, legs dangling into the cooling canal waters whilst sipping Spritz and eating tasty bites. The other draw to this place is the incredibly cheap price just 4.50 Euros for a glass of red and an Aperol Spritz, worlds apart from the extortionate prices elsewhere and incredibly cheaper than places just a few strides away. This is Paradiso Perduto (Paradise Lost), and is a terrific, rustic, cheap venue, perfect for a nightcap.
Well you have to. It’s the ultimate tourist trap and it’s ridiculously overpriced but a gondola trip is simply a must, so we cough up 80 euros for half an hour and go swashing around the quiet back street canals, and the Grand Canal with its centre piece, the Rialto Bridge, listening to our gondolier quietly whistling, and feeling… yep, you guessed … romantic.
We spend our last afternoon meandering aimlessly through this glorious city and its myriad of canals and bridges taking in the sites for one last time. Amongst the regular tall Venetian buildings, Grand Palazzo’s still architecturally beautiful, majestic even, crumbling exteriors, partially exposed brick work, some with a few brightly coloured flowers precariously balanced on window sills to break up the pastel shades, a tired shabby look to buildings which nevertheless retain a majestic aura. You wonder if the phrase “shabby chic” originated here. All of it retains its wonderful and unique charm despite the crowds and despite its shameless exploitation of visitors; everything from the quaint bridges and tight canals to the majestic but decaying buildings, from the manic water traffic to the peaceful gondolas, from St Marks and the Rialto to the imposing towers, it is a genuinely unique and hugely attractive city. And one that all travellers should see.
As we plan our route home, once again we are struck by the prices. Our plan of a water taxi to the airport bites the dust when we are told it is 120 euros, so the public “water bus” is our best option at what is still a steep 32 euros for two. Apart from the cheap booze at Paradiso Perduto, everything has been so expensive; we both recall from our previous visits that back streets avoided the big tourist prices, it seems this is no longer the case. Bring your credit card and expect to be hit hard!
And so a bowl of pasta and chill time on a roof garden looking across the red tile roofs bring our sortie to Venice to a close.