Last year, one of the main reasons for my tour was Venice. I spent 3 days there for only €140 and explored most of the main sites in the city as well as the islands in the lagoon. This year I’m just passing through, but I want to spend a day trying to find some of the less visited sites and explore parts of Venice that tourists just don’t have time to see. I also manage to find a convenient free parking place just 10 mins bus ride from Piazza Roma, the main point of arrival in the city.
My plan is to stay north of the Grand Canal, exploring Cannaregio, Castello and Arsenale. However, first I have to battle my way along the Lista di Spagna, a busy artery from the station to Campo San Geremia. It’s here that I discover ‘Brek’, a self-service restaurant with cheap food and drinks and clean toilets. Finding toilets that you don’t have to pay for in Venice is hard and it’s usually less expensive to have a quick expresso and use one in a café or bar.
In 1493 there were 137 churches in Venice and on the islands, and today there are a similar number. I find it quite hard to pass by one without popping inside. Of course, some of the larger churches and those with well-known works of art now have a fee, but there are smaller ones which are just as beautiful and which also have works by famous artists. The Scalzi is right next to the train station and, although it was badly damaged by a bomb in 1915, it was beautifully restored and some of the works in the side chapels survived. Not far away, in San Felice, there is a delightful painting by Tintoretto of St Demetrius.
The word ‘ghetto’ comes from the Italian for foundry and there was one on this tiny island until 1390. In 1516, due to the influx of Jewish refugees into Venice, the senate decreed that they should be isolated to the island. 400 years before the Germans segregated Jews, the Venetians had already created a divide, although they respected the Jewish community for their culture and knowledge. I’m rather underwhelmed by the Jewish Ghetto. I’m not sure what I expected but it wasn’t armed guards and metal detectors. Around the campo there are several bronze reliefs by Arbit Blatas, a memorial to the 202 holocaust victims.
Ca’ d’Oro (Golden House) has overlooked the Grand Canal since 1434. Its golden decoration has long since disappeared and its previous owners (a procurator of San Marco, a ballerina and a baron) have too. The Palace is now filled with art which you have to pay €8.50 to see.
However, next to it is the Palazzo Sagredo, a neglected building just 10 years ago but now a 4* hotel. I’m not dressed like a 4* client so I politely ask the receptionist if it is okay to see the interior and he kindly points to the grand staircase which is decorated with the ‘Fall of the Giants’ by Longhi. At the top there is a long wide hall with painted panels and a wonderful view of the Grand Canal. I have to tiptoe through the two breakfast rooms to reach the lavish ballroom, all the time wondering just how much it would cost to stay here.
A short walk away is the Rialto Bridge, still covered in scaffolding one year on. Next to it is the Fondacho dei Tedeschi, once a huge foreign traders market covered in frescos by Giorgione and Titian until it burned down in 1508. It became a post office in 1808 and served the community for almost a century before being abandoned for more modern facilities. It has recently been acquired by the Benetton family who have transformed it into a luxury shopping outlet on a par with Harrods in London, though a lot more chic. Having only opened in October 2016, few people have discovered the rooftop terrace offering amazing views over the city. The ‘red carpet’ escalators are pretty cool and the toilets are rather plush too!
I cross the Rio dei Mendicanti into Castello and visit the hospital. I’m not sick, I just want to see the interior of the building designed by Longhena. It’s amazing that a fully functioning hospital still exists inside the 17th century structure. Next to it is the huge gothic church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, or San Zanipolo as it is known locally, where 25 Doges lie in ornate tombs. In the centre of the square is a large equestrian statue of Colleoni, Commander in Chief of the Venetian forces in 1454.
By the time I reach Arsenale my stomach is loudly demanding to be fed. The waterfront restaurants with their overeager waiters are a bit pricey but there are plenty of others along the wide Via Guiseppe Garibaldi. After a leisurely lunch I continue on to the island of San Pietro which is deserted apart from a few cats. The church here served as the main cathedral of Venice between the 11th century and 1807 when Napoleon decided to change things. The adjacent white stone bell tower looks as if it’s close to falling onto the church and the plaster ceilings of the cloister are crumbling and collapsing. I wonder what they are spending the entrance fees on.
I follow the tall, thick, brick walls of the Arsenale until I reach the Great Gateway guarded by an assortment of lions stolen from various sites in Greece. At one time the Arsenale shipyards employed 16,000 men but now it’s rather quiet and hosts art and architecture exhibits for the Biennale.
I decide to end my day in Venice by revisiting St Mark’s Basilica. The last time I was there I only had a fleeting glimpse of the interior as I was swept along with the crowds. This time I climb the steep stone steps up to the Museum and the large balcony overlooking the main square. It’s a fantastic view and, as it is late in the day, there are only a few other people and the four large replica bronze horses. The originals are just inside, along with some mosaic fragments and a bird’s eye view of the glittering, golden ceiling mosaics and intricate floor designs down below.
I also pay a visit to the Treasury which consists of only two small rooms containing ancient gold, silver and glass religious objects and saintly relics. Sadly, I’ve left it too late to enter the sanctuary and see the burial place of St Mark and the Pala d’Oro, a 10ft by 4ft golden panel, decorated with precious stones and pearls. The original screen was created in 976 but over the next 400 years it was enlarged and embellished with plundered loot to become the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of Venice. Like an indication of last orders in a pub, the lights flicker and go out giving the basilica a rather spooky feel. Time gentlemen, please!
It may be time to leave Venice but somehow I know I’ll be back. There’s still so much left unexplored and still so much more to discover.