I wanted to visit Venice again two years ago when I first started travelling in my motorhome through Europe. However, the high cost of Italian fuel and the crazy Italian driving put me off and I never got any further than Tuscany. Finally, I returned to Italy with my sights set firmly on reaching Venice. I spent three long, exhausting but fulfilling days visiting all the main sights and some of the less well known ones. What follows is a summary of my Venice trip.
Day 1: The Hotspots
For my first day in Venice I catch the 8am bus to Piazzale Roma, the main transport hub for the city. It’s a busy place where road, rail and boat travellers merge in their journeys to or from the city. The locals are sporting designer handbags or leather briefcases while the tourists are dragging suitcases on wheels behind them. Although I have a small map, I just head off in the general direction of St Mark’s Square, following the crowds and the large yellow signs marked on the walls of the streets. I walk through the Dorsoduro district stopping briefly on arched bridges for views along the small canals and look out for the Academia signs, as this is where I want to cross the Grand Canal to reach St Mark’s Square. I know I’m getting close when I’m suddenly surrounded by designer clothes shops: Gucci, Prada, DC. When I finally enter the huge square from a narrow lane, the openness and the light are almost dazzling and my eye is drawn immediately upwards to the top of the 98.5m high Campanille which is piercing the blue sky.
I’ve already bought a Museum Pass from the tourist office at Piazzale Roma and decide to make the Doge’s Palace my first stop of the day. It’s still early and the tour groups have not yet reached the Palace so the entry courtyard is still peaceful. The white marble columns, arches and walls are remarkably soothing and I feel as if I have temporarily escaped the rest of the world. The beautifully decorated Golden Stairway leads me up to the first floor apartments which have high, painted ceilings and wall-to-wall art. Most impressive is the Sala del Maggior Consiglio featuring huge works by Veronese and Tintoretto.
The tour takes a more depressing turn when I cross the Bridge of Sighs into the prison complex; it was the prisoners’ last view of freedom before they were incarcerated in the dark, dank dungeons. I feel like I’m trapped there myself before I re-emerge to cross the bridge of sighs once more into the Ducal Palace. It’s quite surreal looking out from the bridge watching other tourists looking up and taking photos of the outside.
It’s almost midday by the time I leave the Doge’s Palace and I opt to join the fast moving queue of people waiting to enter the adjacent Basilica. Built to house the remains of St Mark, which were stolen from Alexandria by two Venetian merchants in 828, there is now some suggestion that they may actually be the remains of Alexander the Great, though it’s more than likely that any remains were actually destroyed in a fire in 976. Standing in line gives me the chance to observe the detailed, colourful mosaics in the exterior apses. There are even more inside but photos are not permitted and the guardians are ever watchful and quick to pounce on those who disobey the rules. I decide not to visit the Treasury where they have on show religious relics such as milk from the Virgin Mary, blood of Christ, a thorn from Christ’s crown, rocks used to stone St Stephen and the skull of John the Baptist.
At the opposite end of San Marco is the Museo Correr, a museum complex featuring an assortment of archaeological treasures, marble statues, renaissance art, ancient books and some 16th century platform shoes. Probably very handy in the event of acqua alta (flooding due to high tide).
After a picnic lunch in the Reali Gardens, a haven of peace just a stone’s throw from San Marco, I make my way through the maze-like back streets to the Rialto Bridge. This much painted and photographed icon of Venice is sadly part-shrouded in scaffolding and adorned with a giant advertising hording for Diesel. It’s hard work trying to make my way from one side to the other through the throng of slow moving window shoppers. Just beyond, I find a few market stalls selling vegetables and the covered fish market which is being hosed down after a busy morning.
I follow the curve of the Grand Canal, through the fringes of the San Polo and Santa Croce districts to visit two former palaces which are included in my Museum Pass. The first, Ca Pesaro, has been converted into a Museum of Oriental and Modern Art. Unfortunately, I’m not a modern art lover but the views from the upper storey windows along the Grand Canal make the visit worthwhile. The second, Ca Mocenigo, is a fine example if 18th century design, both inside and out. It also features many costumes of that time and an interesting exhibit on perfume making.
After a long, busy day I’m ready to head home and am quite famished, but not that badly that I have to visit the local Burger King. It is quite sad that even somewhere as romantic as Venice, with hundreds of local restaurants serving traditional meals, has succumbed to the fast food frenzy.
Day 2 – The Islands of the Lagoon
With a 24 hour travel pass clutched in my hand, I’m ready to venture beyond the city centre and explore more of the lagoon. I start by taking my first vaporetto from Piazzale Roma along the Giudecca Canal. It’s not the most glamourous of routes as we first pass the garbage and laundry barges and then the cruise ship terminal where 6 massive floating hotels are disembarking their passengers. However, it is a stark reminder of the problems which Venice faces, in terms of everyday survival and the impact of mass tourism. Thankfully, the cruise ships are no longer allowed to sail past San Marco along the Giudecca Canal to reach their dock, but have to now follow the cargo route via the southern lagoon.
My destination is the small island of San Giorgio Maggiore, which lies almost opposite San Marco and where, from the church tower, I can get a fabulous view across Venice and the lagoon. Luckily, there are no steps to climb as a modern lift has been installed. Up top, it is breezy but the views are amazing and I have them all to myself. I can watch the vaporetti, taxi boats and tiny gondolas criss-crossing the waterways and see the crowds amassing on the square like worker ants heading home after a hard day’s work.
I have to brave the crowds at the San Zaccaria vaporetto stop in order to catch the no 12 boat to the island of Murano. The route takes us around the most easterly tip of Venice, past Biennale Gardens and the Arsenale, the former shipyards of the Republic which produced the fleets that served the trade routes and provided Venice with its naval superiority.
The island of Murano is well known for the manufacture of glass items and I visit the museum there to learn more about the art of glass blowing before visiting a factory to see it being practiced. Chandeliers and wine glasses seem to be the most popular items both in the past and now. However, these are not always practical items to take home so most people leave with only small pieces of jewellery or miniature glass animals. It takes a while to find a glass blowing demonstration and, after I’m ushered inside, I’m then told I will need to buy a ticket. I feel disappointed and decide to leave but struggle to find the exit from the vast showroom. Not far away, I find another demonstration which is free and watch the glass blower skilfully create a large bowl.
It takes 40 minutes by vaporetto to reach the next Island of Torcello which lies in the far north of the lagoon and boasts a basilica with fine Byzantine mosaics and the throne of Attila the Hun. A lengthy path takes me from the dock to the religious site but a cheery accordion player makes the walk more enjoyable. A handful of restaurants also line the route, including Locanda Cipriani which was popular with Ernest Hemingway. The 12th century Basilica mosaics are beautiful, but a little disappointing after those of the Basilica San Marco.
It’s only a 5 min crossing to Burano, an island which is famous for lace making. At the museum I get the opportunity to see two lovely old ladies creating some delicate lace items. The process is very different from the lace of Belgium and France, where they use bobbins and pins to create the patterns. Here, they sew them by hand using needle and thread. It must be very hard work on the fingers and the eyes. I suspect that most of the lace being sold in the souvenir shops is factory produced because hand-made lace would be much more expensive given the labour intensity of it. The houses on Burano are very colourful and it is a pleasure to walk along the streets and beside the canals. The island even has its own leaning tower. The bell tower of St Martin Bishop leans by 1.83m.
The return ferry to Venice takes me past the cemetery island of San Michele to the Fundemente Nova dock where I seek out Ca Dona, a rather plain looking pink palace which became the home of American journalist and author Paula Weideger when she decided to live in Venice for a year in 1998. I read her book about her experience living in this old palace and her encounters with the Dona della Rose family which owned it. One of her accounts of finding herself thwarted by the flooding of acqua alta led me to carry around two bin bags and some string in case I needed some emergency leg protection!
I wind my way through the Castello district, following the crowds, to reach the dock of San Zaccaria once more, this time waiting for the No 1 vaporetto to take me down the Grand Canal. There are a lot of people waiting for the boat and my hopes of having a final leisurely cruise seem hopeless. When the vaporetto eventually arrives, there’s a crush to board but before I get to the boat, it departs, full to the rails. I’m starting to get despondent at having to wait for another vaporetto which will probably also be full, when an empty one pulls up at the dock. Miraculously, I am able to get a seat right at the front of the boat, the perfect place for viewing all the canal front palaces as we sail back along the Grand Canal to Piazzale Roma. As we pass under the Rialto Bridge, the sun is beginning to set and the lights are illuminating the beautiful palace facades. It’s the perfect end to the day.
Day 3 – What Remains
My last and final day in Venice and the only plan is to visit the remaining museums included in my Museum Pass. I stroll through Santa Croce to the palace of Fondego dei Turchi which now houses the Natural History Museum. I’m prepared to be bored with stuffed animals and rocks but actually find a very modern and interactive presentation of dinosaur finds in the Algerian desert, artefacts brought back from African expeditions by Giancarlo Ligabue (who attempted to locate the source of the Nile in 1857) and some rather bizarre curiosities.
At the heart of the Santa Croce district is the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. It’s a huge construction which dominates the square and took 100 years to complete. I’m actually drawn to the cloisters where there is a free art exhibition. One of the most compelling exhibits is a series of photographs featuring bunches of flowers left beside the roadside to remember those who died in car or motorbike accidents. It’s a stark reminder of the dangerous Italian roads and the equally dangerous Italian drivers.
I also manage to gain free entrance to the church as people are gathering for a service, though my time inside is cut short as the guardian begins to usher all the tourists outside before the service starts.
Tucked away down a tiny side street is the house of Carlo Goldoni, a famous playwright who had a theatre named after him. His house is now a small museum, complete with puppet theatre where Goldoni supposedly created his masterpieces.
I find a quiet garden for my picnic lunch at the last Museum, Ca Rezzonico. It is a glorious palace filled with colourful Murano glass chandeliers, and huge ceiling frescoes by Tiepolo. I also find a lot of elegant, ebony, negro statues and, the best of all, a couple of early Canalettos, possible the only ones actually to be found in Venice. I’m very fond of the Venetian landscape paintings by this 18th century artist. In the Tiepolo Room I discover some wonderful, recently restored, artwork featuring the carnival with energetic, animated characters.
While I am in the Dorsoduro district, I seek out the church of San Barbara which featured in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Only the exterior was used in the film, with the library contained within and the “X marks the spot” floor being created in Elstree studios in the UK. I am unable to see the real interior of the church as it is being used to house a rather expensive exhibition about Leonardo Di Vinci.
Finally, my path brings me to the Punta della Dogana, the most easterly end of the Dorsoduro district and a point which overlooks both San Marco and the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. It’s a perfect spot to sit and soak up the atmosphere. It’s a bit surreal when a grand piano floats by on a barge!
On my way back to Piazzale Roma, I come across several art installations which are part of the Biennale Art Exhibition. It takes place every two years and features some of the world’s leading artists. One exhibit, which I find in a former cloister, is particularly moving and. There are clothes, laid out on the floor, surrounded by flowers and candles and it is meant to provoke emotions regarding the lack of sympathy and assistance for the terrorist acts occurring in Africa.
The sun is still shining as I leave Venice after three intense days of sightseeing. Was three days enough? Well, I managed to see all the things I wanted and even more. The Museum Pass prompted me to visit some Museums that I may not have otherwise gone to and on my wanderings through the streets and along the canals of Venice I felt that I did see the real city hiding beneath the tourist brochure promotion. However, I am sure that there is still a lot to be discovered, but that gives me an excuse to go back again in the future.