Venice is art, music and history, with a big helping of mystery and surprise.
As Sydney comes out of yet another, and the longest so far, Covid lockdown, we’re starting to look around at travel opportunities again. I saw an ad land in my in box, a hotel deal for Venice, right next to Piazza San Marco. It looked expensive, so I looked up the place we’d stayed in. Much cheaper, actually comparable to a hotel in an inexpensive Australian country town. Oh, the memories!
A good friend had been booked to go to Venice for her first-ever trip before Covid hit. I sent her some photos and the name of our hotel in case she’s interested. It’s time to plan our travel again.
I thought back to when we planned our own trip. Venice had been on our own bucket list after so many books we’d read which were set in that unique city. But we could only squeeze it in during July.
‘Don’t do it!’ we were told, far too late. ‘Venice is nice, although a bit overrated. But in the height of summer, in the heat, the stench is terrible!’
We were making our way across Europe in 2018 and visiting places along the way. We’d been homebodies for most of our lives, armchair travellers only. The world has so many special places we wanted to see, and our trip was bookended by people we needed to visit. But many other more seasoned travellers were trying to mould our itinerary to their own preferences. But we’d booked. Couldn’t back out. When you’ve been stuck at home most of your life, the chance to visit places like Venice, ever, were just too enticing. Even in the heat of July.
From Greece we flew to Rome and joined a tour which also included three days in Venice. In early July the summer heat was intense. Rome with its free-flowing water at various fountains and faucets was more refreshing than we’d expected.
We were travelling by train. Some people might turn their noses up, but not us. And the Italian train service, the Frecciarossa (‘red arrow’) at 300 km/hr is almost as fast as a plane, with the added bonus of scenery out the windows closer to hand. There were other benefits to Frecciarossa — wifi on board, USB and plug-in power, a call button system similar to airline seats and comfort. Good food, too. And for me, plenty of time to write. The plug-in power meant no chance of flat battery on my laptop interfering with my creativity.
Despite the comfort we were out of our seats to watch as the train slid across the bridge of the Venice lagoon. We could only see a tantalising glimpse of Venice, as if it was a treasure held loosely in a closed hand. Then we were indoors at the railway terminal (ferrovia, or ‘iron way’) for Venezia Santa Lucia. Just the name was exciting and romantic.
For the tour, hotel transfer was included. But for Venice, don’t expect a minibus or even a minicab. We got met, and then we walked. Not far, however. But as we left the ferrovia, we just had to stop and gasp. Venice! Grand Canal! Opposite was Chiesa San Simeon. We had to shake ourselves and hurry to catch up with our bags which were in danger of disappearing around a bend in the path. But our guide had paused, smiling. ‘You will enjoy our beautiful city, I think,’ he said, ‘after we have checked you in to your hotel.’
The heat of the day outside was instantly cooled in the high vaulted ceilings of out hotel, Abbazia. It is a former monastery converted to a hotel and was only a few minutes’ walk from the railway station. We were early for check-in and also had to register with our tour guide, but even indoors there was so much to explore.
When we finally saw our room, it was a lot larger and less spartan than a monk’s cell. It wasn’t huge, but it was large enough for a huge TV directly above a large, black bathtub. I kid you not — there was a bathtub in the bedroom. We discovered the separate bathroom with some relief. Taking to the other tour members, it appeared each room was distinctively different, and we were the only ones with such a tub.
As with so many other cities, we headed out the door as fast as we could. While we had tours organised for the next day, our afternoon and evening was free. So we crossed bridges, we walked, we window-shopped and just goggled at it all. Towards the end of the day we saw smartly-dressed Venetians gathering for a drink in a bar before heading home. Many of them chose to lean against a counter outside, sipping their Aperol Spritz. Having walked so much, we decided to sit inside. Despite the coolness after the scorching heat outside, there were very few people indoors. Our choosing seats marked us as tourists (assuming our clothing and accents didn’t do that already). I think the price went up too, for table service, but our feet needed a break.
We walked further and found a small supermarket. I needed my supplies of lactose-free milk (‘latte sensa lattiosa’). On the way back to the hotel we were distracted constantly, by Venetian masks, flags, shop windows full of exotic blown glass and a confectionery store specialising in nougat. Bliss!
The next day began with a vaporetto taking our small tour group to Piazza San Marco, where we toured the church then explored the Doge’s Palace. This included a demonstration of glass blowing, as gondolieri plied their trade past the windows. We succumbed to temptation and bought a set of tumblers, to be shipped home.
Impoverished by the purchase, we were glad lunch had been included in our tour as we were taken to Burano Island to see an even more colourful side of Venice.
One thing I was very aware of, was people everywhere. In such a picturesque place, it is difficult to get a photo that doesn’t have other people in it. Unless we were out of the way, exploring quiet, dark, dank alleys, we were around other people.
The next day was ours alone. We bought 24 hour passes on the waterbus and just took ourselves where we wanted to go. We saw more of the normal daily life of Venetians, rather than the tourist trail. The tiny alleys, little curved bridges, steps everywhere. So easy to get lost, but when every blind alley is showing something new, nobody cares.
We looked at the prices of gondola rides, then looked at the challenges of getting into one of the things. We decided to pass. Maybe if I was forty years younger and forty kilos lighter (and forty thousand Euros richer) I’d have had a go. We watched them glide by without a regret.
On our way back from Piazza San Marco, we saw a notice for a music performance. A small string orchestra, performing classical music. We booked tickets and returned later that evening, just on sunset, to the palazzo near Ponte Rialto. The tide was high, lapping the base of the bridge and I was determined to paddle.
The music performance was divine. A splendid way to spend our last evening in Venezia. The performers were all in Renaissance costume which also fascinated me, with my own involvement in various events requiring medieval or Renaissance clothing.
As the waterbus took us back to our stop at Ferrovia, so close to our hotel, we could see by the moonlight and the city lights that the tide was even higher. A combination of sinking sands and rising sea levels will be the death knell of this city, but for now it lives on, a delightful, fascinating place to visit.
And the ‘nasty smells in July’ of Venice? All we could smell was the clean salt smell of the ocean, overlaid with various aromas of cinnamon, chocolate and fried onions.
I long to go back.