This post was written by Di as a series of irregular e-mails to Laura and Julian. They were too good to miss, so I’ve put them together, added a comment here and there and placed some photographs where appropriate.
I’ve always been intrigued at the idea of a city built on/in water. How does that work? Well, now I sort of know, though I can’t deliver a monologue on the nuts and bolts of the engineering challenge. I mean, I still don’t know what came first: the water or the city? And if you’re faced with a great big puddle of water, well, you wouldn’t ordinarily say “I know what to do with it! I’ll build a city”. Or would you? Anyway, for those who haven’t been here, imagine, say, Madrid or Florence even, then wish away all the roads and replace them with canals. And there you have it, Venice!
We got to Venice lunchtime-ish and caught the Vaporetto to our digs. This is a truly gorgeous introduction to the city – highly recommend it. We disembarked at our “bus stop”, Rialto, at which point I discovered to my horror that in order to get to our hotel we had to navigate one set of staircases after another, both up and down. The ups I could manage, but the downs, with luggage, defeated me completely. We eventually wrestled both our suitcases all the way – and it wasn’t actually a short walk. We arrived at our digs exhausted, sweaty, desperate for a shower and perhaps a snooze, only to find no one there! The front door was open, but otherwise, it was the Marie Celeste. Long story short, we finally got into our room much later than we had hoped and a nap was out of the question. We swiftly showered then hit the streets only to realise that thanks to our paltry diet of sleep on the flight, our joints were not interested in walking and our minds were quite deranged. So, supper and so to bed.
This morning found me thoroughly rested and up for it. We did the tourist bit today and headed for St Marks Square. Our hotel is right beside the fish market so we wandered through there eying the fabulous spread of fresh fish and shellfish, followed by an open market of yumptious fresh fruit and veg. If we had access to a kitchen I would have bought a greedy-sized bag of fresh artichoke bottoms to cook and scoff (without sharing). Now that’s a job I wouldn’t like – stripping tons of artichokes to get to their prime meat.
St Marks Square is everything the travel guides say it is – and more. The huge, ornate cathedral, the acres of columns around the square, the elegant cafes with white jacketed waiters and small orchestras discreetly tinkling out old fashioned music. My gob was truly smacked.
Wandering back in the general direction of our hotel, we perched on two stools outside a tiny cafe and while Paul was getting me a cappuccino, I fell into conversation with an American gent (whose partner, inside, also ordering cappuccino had fallen into conversation with Paul). No reason to stop chatting once we all had our beverages, so we passed a delightful time getting to know each other and then said happy goodbyes and parted company.
Yesterday saw the day dawn with sheeting rain and lowering clouds. Determined not to miss a day of our wonderful trip, we headed out, expecting to have the city to ourselves. But not a bit of it. The hardy Venetians were out in force, as were our fellow tourists, as determined as us to get full bang for their buck. By day’s end I was adept at manoeuvring my brolly through narrow lanes and avoiding losing an eye to someone else’s less well wielded brolly.
But I am ahead of myself. The previous evening we pottered out for a glass of vino and a bit of supper. After a gentle hour or so sitting in a sunbathed square, watching a tireless Boston Terrier chase a frisbee, we went in search of supper. We found ourselves off the tourist track in a residential area, outside an understated Trattoria. As the door swung open we were greeted by a Dad and daughter duo enquiring if we had a reservation, which boded well for quality of food, but less well for availability of table. Anyway, on the clear understanding that we had two hours and no more, we were shown to our table. Simple, simple food, freshest of the fresh – my scallops were still tired from their swim; and little stars on the plate, like my shaved courgettes, tossed in seasoned flour and deep fried to melting mouthfuls. Paul had fillet(s) of John Dory. What a treat.
Pavement pounding has been the order of our days. The city is exquisite – a maze of skinny lanes which criss-cross the canals up, over and down narrow bridges, then burst out on to huge squares, lined with tiny crowded hostelries, as old as Jesus, and reeking with atmosphere.
You can have a coffee, a beer, a glass of wine, a snack, a full-on meal. Today started sunny and we saw the city in its Byzantine glory, the buildings in sumptuous colours, ornate, decked with complicated statuary. The modern dress of sightseers looked out of place – capes and leggings and feathered headwear would have been more appropriate.
Its beauty is surreal, the more so since everywhere is exquisitely preserved and lovingly looked after – except for occasional outbreaks of graffiti. I was warned the place was overrun with rubbish, the pavements hazardous with dog turds and the canals stinking. Well, no rubbish, I’ve come across two turds and the canals are clear, clean and unsmelly.
Another couple of wonderful days have passed in this gorgeous city. We’ve elected not to do the cathedrals, museums and galleries and instead have pounded the pavements, letting our feet take us where they will. Yesterday we came across what I suppose in Venice passes for a Main Street; broad, lined with shops and cafes and lovely to stroll through. There were any number of restaurants to choose for lunch and, in truth, it’s hard to pick, because they all have identical menus.
Unfortunately we chose probably the worst restaurant in the whole of Venice – I’m not entirely convinced the person who cooked our meal actually knew how to cook. To add insult to injury, as I poked my fork into the unappetising mess it gobbed oil all down the front of my top. The weather here has been very chilly (and wet) and, having packed summer and winter kit in equal proportions I am now short on the warm stuff. Anyway, we made up for it in the evening by going to our local wine bar and nailing several delicious small snacks.
Today we wandered the length of the waterfront beyond St Marks Square. Eventually we found ourselves out of the tourist area and in a long residential street, canals across and along it, washing strung between the houses and over the canals. One building seemed to be a school and we could hear the music group practising – all idyllic. There was a barge parked in one canal, groaning with beautiful fruit and veg. But here’s the thing: none of that gorgeous stuff is on offer in any of the restaurants. Asparagus and artichokes are obviously in season here and I ache to order a plateful, drenched in melted butter. But no. Mains come with mundane veg, usually cooked to death and if you’re lucky, appetisers will include caprese. Insalata mista is fresh and tasty, but utterly predictable. Everything I read about Venice warned it wasn’t gastronome central and they weren’t wrong. Which is not to say we haven’t had some excellent food – we have – but all very predictable.
Getting around is either on foot or on the many water taxis. There are no cars, bikes, skateboards or roller skates. In consequence Paul and I have been putting in the hard yards. There are bridges everywhere, all with stairs : some few, some plentiful. It is only in the area around St Marks that ramps have been installed.
When we arrived here I could no longer “do” stairs (at least, not down), but I am happy to report that provided there is a bannister or Paul’s shoulder I can now skip down stairs like a spring lamb! (provided, that is, I am full of anti inflammatories). But the truth of the matter is that I am physically very tired – you either leg it, or you stay in your hotel room all day. Not an option.
Today is our last day and we’re ending it on a high note. The weather gods banished the clouds, turned off the rain and switched the sun on. Paul and I headed for the ferry terminal and caught a ferry to Murano.
Murano is famous for its glass and in some small, superior part of my mind I expected it to be all very kitsch and unsurprising. Well, first off Murano is just plain gorgeous – tiny island, dissected by a broad canal which forms the “high street”, tiny, manicured buildings at every turn. And the glass! Oh my! There were at least a dozen or more vases I ached to be able to get home, unscathed (but the prices!). And the glass jewellery! And the chandeliers! Paul doesn’t understand the essence of a good chandelier and kept pointing out tasteful ones. I know it’s really about how over the top they are. And there were some wonderful over the top ones – even a few tacky ones.
From Murano, back on the ferry to Burano. It’s the Bo Kaap on steroids. Street upon street of tiny terraced houses, each painted in a different Smartie colour. The shops too were brightly painted. The island is quite big so it was super sensory overload. We had lunch in Burano – if we had hoped to find a change of menu from Venice, we were sore disappointed.
And tomorrow sees us heading for the airport and home. Its been a wonderful trip and quite unlike any other. We’ll be back…