by, 03-08-2008 at 11:56 AM (77595 Views)
After many months of valiant resistance, I finally broke down under the constant advertisements for cheap flights flogged by the European budget airlines, and bought my girlfriend and myself a pair of 6 tickets to Venice (no, that's not a typo) on Ryanair. If you're curious, 6 is about $12 US. Of course, the flight did leave Stansted at 6 in the morning (which meant getting up to catch a 4AM bus); flew into Treviso (rather than Marco Polo, thus necessitating an hour-long bus ride to Venice); and required us to pare our luggage down to one small bag each (they penalise you 4 for every extra kg over 15kg for your checked bag and 7kg for your carry-on) but you can't have everything.
One of the things they never tell you about Italy in the winter is that it's cold bloody cold. Somehow I never imagined Italy could be colder than England, at any time of the year. I was wrong. When we boarded our first vaporetto (Venetian waterbus) to head to our hotel at around 9AM local time, I wondered why all the Venetians crowded into the humid little cabin at the back, leaving the front seats with their wonderful view free for the taking. Once the vaporetto's engine sputtered to life and we chugged away from the shelter of the dock, I stopped wondering. The knifelike Arctic breeze whipping down the Canale Grande wormed its way past my long cashmere scarf and my thick wool English covert coat, and proceeded to numb all exposed body parts into oblivion. We would have retreated ignominiously but for the fact that we were effectively walled in by all the other stupid tourists. For the remainder of the trip we were firm adherents of vaporetto cabins. But even the cold couldn't eliminate the thrill of seeing the crumbling Gothic facades of the palazzi alongside the Canale Grande.
The Canale Grande was, I have to say, Grande-r than I had thought it would be. For some reason I had always conceived of it as deep and rather narrow, where two boats could pass if they were both driven by people with a modicum of skill. In reality, it's quite wide, probably about thirty meters (100 feet) or so at its widest point. Supposedly it's not very deep (not more than five meters (15 feet) at its deepest point) but it looked a hell of a lot deeper because the green water was completely opaque. You couldn't even see an inch past the surface, much less down to the bottom. No wonder they say Venice is one of the most polluted cities in Italy.
We stayed at the Pensione Accademia Villa Maravege in Dorsoduro, a former embassy turned boutique hotel located just around the corner from the Accademia. Supposedly it's impossible to get a reservation here unless you reserve three months in advance. That may be true in the summer, but in the middle of the winter one week's notice was more than enough. The rate was quite reasonable, at least for a centrally located hotel in Venice. Unfortunately, the weather rather negated the advantage of the famous garden out back, though it looks like it would be nice to sit there in the summer. Our room was typically Venetian, with a high ceiling, an inlaid wooden floor, and those peculiarly Venetian shutters on the windows which take the place of curtains. My girlfiriend particularly appreciated the heated marble floor of the bathroom -- too many hotels spend a lot of money on marble bathrooms while forgetting that marble is dreadfully cold in the morning. They also had a neat, environmentally correct lighting system -- you had to hang your key on a hook near the door to make it possible to turn the lights on. This meant that the lights were never left on when you left, and you never had to wonder where you put your key. Clever and elegant. The hotel had a more than ample breakfast, served from 7 to 1030 (far more civilised than many English places, which often serve breakfast from 630-8 or some such, as if they are trying to get out of serving you breakfast by making it so early no one will get up). Croissants, fresh-squeezed juice, scrambled eggs and sausages or bacon, and yogurt and cereal made for a nice start to the day.
One of the great things about visiting European cities while living in London is knowing that we can easily come back later, so were free of the pressure to see and do everything which sometimes afflicts us in more far-flung locales. So this time we only saw the Basilica San Marco and its famous Campanile from the outside, and we passed on a gondola ride the idea of paying 62 euros to freeze our bums off for an hour in an open gondola did not appeal to us. Instead of trying to cram all the major sights into our three-day visit, we took the time to wander up and down the little alleys and across the little bridges, poke around in dusty antiques shops and artisans' workshops, and to see the parts of Venice tourists rarely get to encounter. We got lost in time-honoured fashion, which was rather less alarming than I thought it would be, though my city-bred brain kept seeing all the little tiny Venetian alleyways as a muggers' paradise. The serendipitous discoveries we made on our wanderings are among our favourite memories of Venice -- an impromptu Vivaldi concert in a church (somewhat optimistically featuring The Rites of Spring') and a tiny museum tucked into the corner of a palazzo featuring an exhibit on Leonardo da Vincis mechanical inventions (though they tend to get much less press than his art they're equally if not more impressive). Ryanair's luggage policy turned out to be a blessing in disguise; given the number of stairs, lighter was definitely better. In general, I would recommend avoiding bringing any luggage you can't easily lift to Venice, especially if you have to cross any canals to get to your hotel; all of the canal bridges have stairs.
We visited the Palazzo Ducale and took the Secret Itineraries tour, which introduced us to the warren of hidden passageways that permeated the palace, as well as the secret meeting chambers of the Council of Ten and various other state organs. We saw Casanova's cell, where he was sentenced to spend five years, though not for the reasons one might think given his reputation (it was dabbling in black magic, not fooling around with the wrong woman, that got him incarcerated). He dug a hole in the floor of his cell, only to be moved to another cell the day before he was to make his escape; the considerate jailers of Venice had decided that the six-foot Casanova would be more comfortable in a cell where he could stand up, as opposed to the low-ceilinged one where he had been staying. As it turns out, he got lucky; the hole he dug was located right above the meeting-chamber of the three chief magistrates, and had he dropped in on the judges he would have ended up back in jail anyhow (in addition to taking out a very nice ceiling fresco by Tintoretto). He ended up making a daring escape from his new cell with the aid of a priest incarcerated nearby, and after taking a coffee break in one of the cafes on the Piazza San Marco made off for France.
We also visited Ca'Rezzonico and Ca'Moncenigo, two well-preserved palazzi which had very nice exhibits on seventeenth-century Venice, with very well-preserved furniture and clothing on display. In a classic case of overlooking what's in your own backyard, we only managed to see half of the Accademia despite staying practically in its shadow -- too much museum fatigue. But we did get out to the seldom-visited island of San Lazzarro, where we were given a fascinating multi-lingual tour by a monk from the Armenian Catholic monastery there. Our group was predominantly French-speaking, with one resolutely English-only British couple, a few multi-lingual sorts like us and a German guy who spoke both French and English reasonably well, and two unfortunate Japanese girls for whom all of the languages were equally incomprehensible. The monk started off giving his commentary in French and then in English, but rapidly lost track of what he had said in each language, switching back and forth whenever one group started looking markedly more puzzled than the other.
Venice is known for its seafood, and we were looking forward to sampling its unique preparations of aquatic life-forms pulled from the Adriatic. It took several meals for us to figure out that cuttlefish is not a fish at all, but the non-tentacled part of a squid; when prepared in the traditional Venetian style, it is served in its own ink with little squares of polenta, and is al dente in texture with a light flavour of the sea. There was a great restaurant (Le Bistrot de Venise) which specialised in classic and historical Venetian cuisine, where I was treated to a great dessert -- clementines served in vanilla sauce with cookies parfait. And of course, we had to try real Italian tiramisu. No gelato (it was way too cold for that) though we did have some delicious prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine. If you're in Italy and need something refreshing, order a sgroppino, lemon sorbet whipped with vodka and prosecco. Yummmm.
Only one restaurant was a disappointment -- a place which was known as 'the most difficult to find restaurant in Venice'. As far as I'm concerned, it can stay lost -- when we finally got there, the head waitress was beyond rude; she told us (without explanation or apology) that the (entirely empty) restaurant did not have room for lunch, and then proceeded to totally ignore us, even when I asked her a direct question (i.e. what nearby restaurants she might recommend). I understand enough Italian to grasp that there was a table for four available, but they couldn't (or didn't want to) give it to two people. Maybe it was because we were by ourselves, maybe it was because we were obviously tourists, or maybe it was something else -- anyhow, she was a rude wench, and as I left I told the small crowd of people standing around outside looking at the menu not to bother. They left, headed for Le Bistrot, and as I turned to go I saw the head waitress staring at me from the window with an apoplectic expression. I smiled at her and took my girlfriend's hand as we strolled away to enjoy an attitude-free meal.
One culinary lack in Venice is tea, or at least decent tea. After several days of tea deprivation, we finally broke down and ordered two 7-euro cups of tea from Caffe Florian, one of the big-name caffes on the Piazza San Marco (founded in 1720, frequented by various literary lights, Hemingway worked on his hangover here, etc.). As it turns out, the tea was delicious (lavender!). I bought some to take home, along with some of their rose bergamot tea (also excellent). They even serve an English afternoon tea for a mere 20 euros, which is less than afternoon tea in London, so not everything was outrageous. And sitting there soaking up the atmosphere in the warm fin-de-siecle interior, with its gilded mirrors and red velvet chairs, was priceless. We left at closing time and discovered the wonder of being the only two people in a dreaming, moonlit St Marks Square.
On our last day, we finally got around to taking a boat out to Murano, home of the famous Murano glassware. Modern Italian designers are known for their 'less is more' philosophy; after seeing the aesthetic crimes perpetuated upon innocent grains of silica by the glassblowers of Murano, I have to wonder if they're trying to make up for years of hideous excess. This stuff is definitely not subtle. Want a huge chandelier that looks like a jellyfish from outer space? Have a taste for lamps shaped like grapevines on steroids and festooned with pastel pink grapes? Crave a glass menagerie which would make Tennessee Williams turn over in his grave? This is your kind of place. One little shop had a selection of extremely well-endowed bashful-looking nude male figures advertising the virtues of Viagra.
That being said, there were some very beautiful things to be had on Murano. There were plates and bowls made of hundreds of little pieces of glass pieced together (millefiore) and graceful vases that took your breath away (as did their prices). There were little glass seashells that looked so much like the real thing I had to tap them to hear the ring of glass before I would believe they weren't real. And there were exquisite glass vegetables -- the peppers looked edible. My girlfriend bought herself a lovely collection of glass vegetables, and I ended up with a little purple and blue millefiore dish from Moretti. Supposedly Moretti glass is a decent investment and will increase in value, but if it doesn't I don't care.
Like most cities with a large number of tourists (tourism is apparently the main industry in Venice) there were scads of souvenir shops hawking various things of questionable taste and authenticity -- Carnevale masks, Murano glass, and gondola-shaped everything. But if you wandered the back alleys (as opposed to the front alleys) you could find some wonderful handicrafts, as well as some surprises in the dusty little shops. There were some truly gorgeous masks, including some inspired by artists like Klimt and Picasso as well as your standard commedia dell'arte characters and fantasy creations.
There were also tons of cat masks -- Venetians really love cats. Even the tourist postcards are full of images of Venetian cats, perched imperiously on ancient stones or lounging decadently in the sun. Not that Venetians don't love dogs -- it seemed like everyone had a little dog following him or her, scooped up and carried when aboard a vaporetto. Rarely I saw a larger dog -- a Labrador, a golden retriever, and a brace of Great Danes. Given that there are virtually no yards in Venice, I'm not surprised people tended to go in for smaller dogs. Plus, big dogs have to pay a child's fare on the vaporettos, and small dogs ride for free.
We managed to avoid ending up with any masks or a gondola-shaped anything, but I did add to my collection of antique engravings, one of the palazzo where Lord Byron lived and one of the Rialto bridge showing an interesting selection of 'vote for so-and-so' notices from a Renaissance election. I was a little worried that Ryanair was going to charge me for extra luggage after I realised that they were too big to fit in my suitcase, but the Italian Ryanair check-in person apparently was not familiar with that aspect of the rules. I didn't enlighten her. As we took off, we were already planning our return to Venice.
Message Edited by jashermd on 03-08-2008 11:45 PM