Venice is an expensive city to visit, both in terms of accommodation and food (compared to the rest of Italy), but if you wander away from the main tourist tracks and you’ll find delightful little cafes with various panini at a pretty reasonable price. The tourist paths are marked with signs and are really incredibly crowded – I couldn’t imagine peak season. If I was a local I would certainly take the long and convoluted route to avoid it.
Sadly, the hoards of selfie stick spruikers on either side of every bridge got on my nerves within about 5 minutes of arrival on day 1. I can see how once upon a time it would have been an incredibly beautiful city, the grandeur of the nobles’ palaces lining the canal, world-renowned for it’s wealth and democracy – but sadly its now one of the most annoying places I’ve ever visited. Nonetheless, here’s the low down on what we did.
You could spend hours just in the Museum Correr and Archeological Museum if you wanted to read all the descriptive plaques. Unfortunately we were on a mission – the next day being Christmas, with most of the attractions closed, we had to get through as much as possible on Christmas Eve. We did rush it and managed to get through the two attractions (you actually enter the Archaeological Museum through the Museum Correr, so allow enough time for both as you won’t be able to get back in once your ticket is scanned) in about an hour but certainly skimmed a lot. If you have more time, you could honestly allow a full day just for St Marks Square. There is a St Marks Square specific museum ticket, or it’s also included in the broader museum and tourist passes.
We paid for the upgrade to include the ‘Secret Itineraries’ tour in the Doge’s Palace, which allows you to crawl around behind the scenes in secret passageways, the dungeons, and the council meeting rooms. One feature is the story of the famous Casanova, whose escape route you can retrace. I was impressed by the fact that all official rooms were paneled in wood which hid innumerous hide filing cabinets, which I thought very clever and efficient. It really is a fully functional palace, in contrast to the the Napoleonic grandeur across the square. Overall, we spent 2.5 hours in the Doge’s Palace, including the tour. It’s a bit of a rabbit warren but it is also one way, so once you’re in you have to keep going. I would recommend doing the tour before exploring the public areas, but if you want to explore by yourself first allow 1.5-2 hours before your allocated tour time or you might find yourself in a panicked rush to get back as there are no easy exits once you’re on the self-guided path.
A ferry ride out to Murano allows you to visit the glass making museum (quite interesting and not too large) as well as shop for the famous Murano glass in dozens upon dozens of stores. The island itself is bit of a dead zone in the off season. Although the museum is quite small, allow some time for wandering the canals and shops. I particularly like the filigree glass and the stone imitation glass with adventurine, the method for which apparently was lost numerous times. Prices seem to be pretty consistent between stores so don’t worry about buying right away if you see something you like.
On Christmas day, despite a brief emergency (we ran out of toilet paper having only been provided with 3/4 of a roll, and all the stores were shut – the perils of staying in private apartments vs hotels, despite having more space at a much better price) we finally answered the question of where all the locals are. They’re down the south eastern end of the islands at Sant’Elena, strolling along the promenade and walking their dogs through the parklands surrounding the Biennale gardens, away from the golden tourist path and the cruise ship crowds. Its a lovely suburban feeling area, totally different to the paved inner city alleys, with grass and trees – a bit of a hike but not at all what you expect from Venice, and an interesting discovery.
On the way there, I also saw my first cat of Europe. Every where we’d been so far people had their dogs with them – in the cities, on trains, in restaurants – but I hadn’t seen cats. To my delight, it was going for a walk along the canals with its owner. No leash, just a cute little red collar and a golden bell, and it came running when he whistled. I wanted to pat it but it dashed off when called as it had lagged behind a little and had to catch up!
Two particular things stood out to me in the Doge’s palace – firstly, the doors were on unusual hinges that mean they tilted and pivoted upwards when you opened them – a way to cope with fluctuating floor surfaces due to subsidence. Secondly, the fact that they were able to achieve one of the largest halls in Europe to be built without supporting pillars, due to using shipwrights for the construction, who built the roof like an upside down ships hull! (You can see the supports inside the roof on the Secret Itineraries tour – sadly they didn’t make for a great picture).
San Giorgio Maggiore Benedictine Chapel was probably my favourite Church. I’m not an art buff, and certainly not enthusiastic about religious art, but the mastery of the pieces really sunk home for me when I viewed some of these paintings in person, then immediately saw their postcard replicas (which were on sale at the entrance). The original oil on canvas figures practically glow. I can easily imagine how, in a pre-photographic age, they would have awed their viewers.
The basilica itself is beautiful in its sleek minimalism, with the familiar vaulted roofs soaring to the heavens but in an almost austere grey and white that, in its cleanliness, firstly seems more appropriate for a place dedicated to worship than the usual catholic ostentation and secondly really allows the art work to shine.
On Christmas Eve we had another lovely dinner at Trattoria Ali d’Oro (Gold Wings). The tourist menu included an incredible lasagne with the lightest, fluffiest bechamel I have tasted in my life! The arrabiata was also very good, simple and flavorful with a decent kick of chilli, and for the second night in a row the house wine was very drinkable with a peppery aroma but quite light on the palate.
Unfortunately on Christmas day we managed to find an Italian restaurant run by Asians, which was the only place we went to in Italy where the pasta tasted like it came out of a packet. No worthy pictures there….
I also liked this medieval machine gun.