Travel and a bit of shopping
First published in Diversions, Winter 2017
To experience Venice (or Venezia in Italian) properly don’t even think about going in the European summer.
An added bonus is that in winter you see elegantly heeled Venetian ladies clad in ankle length fur coats making their way down the quiet labyrinthine alleyways, a far cry from a one-way pedestrianised Rialto Bridge in peak season.
There are three ways to enter Venice – by bus, train or vaporetto (water taxi or bus). Nothing but nothing beats arriving in Venice by vaporetto. Start your trip with a bus transfer from the airport at Treviso to Piazzale Roma. Board a vaporetto here – by far the most romantic way to arrive in Venice itself.
Although a gondola ride is quintessentially Venetian and sounds impossibly romantic it is invariably over-priced, and, dare I say, an overrated experience. Rather use the traghetti (commuter gondolas) to be ferried across the Grand Canal. Avoid private waterbus No 3 as it is solo abbonamento which means for Venetian residents only as you’ll quickly discover when you see their stern looks and vigorous finger-wagging.
Incontrollably intrigued by gondolas nevertheless? Enlist for a voga alla veneta course (www.rowvenice.org) where you will learn how to row standing up as the gondoliers do.
Legend has it that the first gondola was a crescent moon. It descended from above to shelter a young Venetian couple.
For an even more intimate experience of the canals you could rent your own boat from a boat agent (the tourist office has a list of boat agents).
If you’ve already seen the churches, palazzos and museums of Venice and the islands of Murano (the ‘glass island’) and Burano (the ‘lace island’) or merely feel like chilling in Venice this city has more than enough on offer to reveal its real soul.
I once read that “Those who claim to dislike Venice usually blame the (multitude of) tourists, but what they really mean is that they cannot stomach a dream come true”.
To experience what seems to be a dream world first-hand you should rise at the crack of dawn on at least one morning. Make your way to the colonnaded Rialto Market (closed on Mondays). By the way, the name stems from rivo alto which means high ground or bank; this has been the site of a trading place for centuries.
Boats laden with produce dock before the day breaks. Fruit, vegetable and fish purveyors unpack artichokes with edible stems, capsicum, purple radicchio, whitebait, crab, squid and cuttlefish whilst restauranteurs vie for the best deals.
A large lonely tuna stared at me while seagulls swooped down occasionally. They look and feel out of place but, like the pigeons on San Marco, they act as if the entire place belongs to them.
At the butcher shops nearby expect to find wild boar, quail and venison.
According to the Rialto Market website (in Italian) people typically spend 15 minutes here. Mamma mia! Rather choose to have figs, oysters and prosecco for breakfast to prolong the market experience or make a conscious decision to rise early yet again in order to visit San Marco before the hordes descend on the square.
Inevitably, even in off-season San Marco heaves with people. It’s hard to describe the absolute magic of standing on the piazza before anyone else has arrived. At Caffè Florian (www.caffeflorian.com/en/) they might be polishing mirrors and sweeping floors and if you are (un)lucky an ocean liner might miraculously appear through the mist. A sight to behold, nevertheless.
Make your way to Caffè Florian at a more civilised hour. Head for the bar with a few stools and a tiny table or two at the back where you will pay far less than at other seatings.
Join the Venetians for a stand-up breakfast wherever you walk past a pasticceria. Ask for milk unless you want lemon with your coffee and indulge in soft and moist little triangular sandwiches with tuna, sliced egg and a smattering of anchovy, prosciutto, or chicken.
Whilst you are in the vicinity pop in to Harry’s Bar (www.harrysbarvenezia.com). It’s jam-packed in season but in off-season you get the true feeling of this iconic establishment.
When walking from Piazza San Marco all along Fondamenta Cannaregio look at the roof tops towards your left each time you enter a small piazza. On one of these squares you will see a fairytale rooftop scene with more than a handful of higgledy piggledy chimneys.
Although you might have chosen to chill in Venice, to endlessly wander the streets and alleyways, there is one museum you should not miss. The Collezione Peggy Guggenheim (www.guggenheim-venice.it) is located in a flat-roofed palazzo that was Peggy’s former home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal. It’s a small but grand palazzo with 20th-century art. In the garden you will find a pet cemetery next to a Giacometti statue, a man – with an erection – on horseback. Prudish Venetians turn their heads the other way when they walk past.
While you’re at it head for the oldest gondola workshop at Squero di San Trovaso (www.squerosantrovaso.com)as well. Here you will not be allowed to enter but from across the canal you will be able to see how they build and maintain Venice’s gondolas.
In a narrow historic artisan lane, Calle del Fumo (Alley of Smoke), by pure chance I came across the soft-spoken Gianni Basso, known as the Gutenberg of Venice. At Gianni Basso Stampatore cards, book plates and books are printed using 18th century printers within this tiny 30m²-space. I treasure my Pinocchio print bought here. Gianni still has the series of 35 plates with illustrations from the first printing of Pinocchio. He counts Angelina Jolie and Hugh Grant among his clients.
Libreria Acqua Alta (www.venezia.net/16/01/2014/libreria-acqua-alta-gli-scaffali-per-i-libri-sono-gondole-barche.html) call themselves the most beautiful bookshop in the world.
Quaint, yes, unusual – gondolas, boats, canoes and wheelbarrows act as shelves – yes. Worth a visit – oh yes! Provided you stroke the cats a-snooze on the books, ignore the owner’s lascivious remarks and take care not to trip over an oar.
Did you know that the word ‘ghetto’- from ghettare which means to cast metal – was first used in bella Venezia? In the fourteenth century a certain district in Venice housed a foundry; in the 1500’s it was a neighbourhood where primarily Jews lived and the nomenclature was carried over.
In the neighbourhood of Campo Santo Stefano life-sized king mannequins with crowns stand outside Fiorella Gallery (www.fiorellagallery.com). This boutique and gallery loves controversy; window displays are provocative with sexual innuendos. All the clothes are hand-made and rumour has it that Elton John has bought a flamboyant jacket here.
After a fourth visit to Venice I’ve covered a lot of these; others I’ve already researched for the fifth.
I’ve not heard the loud siren announcing Acqua Alta. This is when Venice becomes flooded for a few hours. This is also when Wellington boots sell out quickly.
But – I have been drenched in an unexpected downpour where I had to slosh through Piazza San Marco. This is when I remembered having read that a writer once sent a tongue-in-cheek telegram to his editor in New York that said: ‘Streets full of water. Please advise.’
I want to echo Truman Capote each time I return to Venezia: ‘Venice is like eating a box of chocolates in one go’.
Venice never loses its mystery – even on repeat visits.