I’m not saying I wasn’t looking forward to going to Venice. I had, after all, heard comment after comment about its beauty, its landscape, its architecture. I’m just saying I was sceptical. Preferring to be a blend-into-the-crowd tourist myself, and tending to take more pleasure in visiting the slightly less obvious sights, I was wondering how I could possibly enjoy a city that’s sole industry is tourism, a city whose native population has been driven away by the unaffordable cost of living, a city sinking under all the weight of its visitors. When I thought about Venice before, I focused on my mum’s stories of visiting the city in the 70s, that scene in Casino Royale, and the fact that I’d seen more Venice from people’s hipstergrammed cover photos than I perhaps had anywhere else. I’ll admit, I had no real desire to visit the place myself, but when my former host family invited me for four days over the Mayday bank holiday weekend, I gladly accepted. A great opportunity to quit all my pretentious tourist-hating and open my eyes to something mainstream. I love a challenge.
Here’s something that shocked me; yeah yeah Italy’s only one country away from Austria, but the idea that we can get in the car and drive to Venice, to the Mediterranean, in just four hours. Well that really made me realise how great this Central European location is. I’ve been to Italy a couple of times before, but I was yet to make the journey from Austria. And what a drive it was! I lost the guess-how-many-tunnels-we-go-through game by a mile. 31 tunnels, one mountain range, two countries, and a view incorporating the snowy mountain tops (a sad reminder that the ski season is now behind us), the bright and vibrant green of the mountainside, and lunch in an Italian town in t-shirts and sunglasses. Mad old Europe. And, so, was Venice the stale-watered, rubbish-strewn, grossly-unaffordable letdown I’d built myself up to think? Well, no. It was beautiful. Were there hoards of tourists? Yes. Were there long queues and overcrowded boats? Yes. Were there several near-misses involving poor umbrella etiquette in busy narrow streets on rainy days? Funnily enough, yes. But if you take the city at a slow pace, spend time exploring out of the centre, and do a little bit of preparation and planning, you’ll come to understand exactly why the city gets the attention and praise it does. Our accommodation for the long weekend was a holiday let, steps from Piazza San Marco, with a view of the Basilica di San Marco and the Torre dell’Orologio clock tower from the balcony and a bird’s eye view of the chaotic streets down below. The journey there wasn’t straightforward though; we left the car in a multi-storey car park on the mainland, alongside cars numberplated from all over Europe, and bought 72 hr boat passes from the busy public transport desks. I spent €20 on a Rolling Venice pass, essentially a young persons’ travelcard that allows you a few extra bonuses, discounted from the rather high price of €35 paid by everyone outside the 14-29 age bracket (note: even the 6 year old needed this higher-priced pass, rather illogically). The boat system takes a little getting used to if you’re used to more straightforward bus or underground map-reading, but once you’ve got the hang of it, it proves to be a welcome escape from the chaos on land, the cheapest way to get out onto the water, and on the whole a reliable and frequent service. It even runs all night, albeit not too regularly. That said, Venice is definitely fun to explore on foot, one big maze and game of guesswork, left-turns right-turns often proving to be dead ends or secret alleyways or just dropping off into the water. A fun game was letting the 6-year-old lead the way and just seeing where we’d end up.
I must admit, I failed tremendously as far as a ’10 essential things to do in Venice’ list is concerned; I entered none of the main tourist attractions, I didn’t take a trip on a gondola, and I didn’t drink a proper Bellini. I eschewed entering galleries, churches and towers in favour of wandering, eating and breathing in the salty sea air. Myself and the family’s new au pair Meg spent a day exploring the area around Fondamente Nuove on the northern edge, and the islands of San Michele and Burano a little further out which, I must say, is when I really came to love Venice. For one, it had been months since I’d seen the sea and it felt great to be out on the waves again, but getting a view of Venice from a distance, and being able to explore the slightly less crowded and less expensive areas was something I’d strongly recommend.
Isola di San Michele is essentially the cemetery island. Our guide books didn’t say a whole load about it, but I love a wander around a cemetery on a sunny day, with boats 4.1 and 4.2 making regular journeys to the island. The island is the resting place of thousands, most notably Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky and Salzburg favourite, Christian Doppler, and the cemetery is split into different denominations. You’ll also find a plot reserved for gondoliers and an area for foreigners, which includes the graves of WWI soldiers, artists from all over the world, and victims of a 1914 steamer disaster. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll admit, but the history of San Michele (read more here) and its significance intrigued me; plus, you won’t see many tourists here at all. The second island we visited was Burano, 40-minutes or so from the main island by boat, famed for its brightly-coloured double-storey houses and lacework. Well worth a wander around to glimpse a very different side of Venice, the island is other wise small, without much in the way of particular sights. I’d recommend travelling there earlier in the day, as the boats back to the main island don’t run all that regularly, and get very busy later on.
In terms of Venice’s eateries and drinkeries in general, it can be difficult to sort through the endless options, so TripAdvisor gave me a real helping hand. For a cheap lunch and friendly service on the island, I’d recommend Pasticceria Bar Puppa near Ponte dei Sartori towards the Northern edge of the main island, where I enjoyed a lovely tomato-mozzarella panini. As far as a night out is concerned, I didn’t expect to find anything special, but Chet Bar in Dorsoduro offered a variety of cheap, strong cocktails and there was a good atmosphere too. Of course I was drinking Old Fashioneds. And, last but not at all least, I can confidently say that I had the best ice cream of my life in Grom, of which there are several branches around the city. I can strongly recommend the vanilla/extra dark chocolate combination, though I imagine all of the flavours would impressed me all the same. One for your to-eat list. On that note, having worked up a real appetite for whiskey and gelato, I’m going to wrap up this rather extensive blog post about my long weekend in Venice. A weekend which, I must say, really took me by surprise. Look beyond the tourists and the queues and the shops selling masks and the awful toilets and you’ll see a truly unique city; unique in its history, its culture, its architecture, its love-hate relationship with the water that surrounds it and, I reluctantly admit, it’s charm and beauty.