Venice is routinely represented in many great works of art, literature and music. It is a charming, fairy-tale of a city that has been described by author Thomas Mann as ‘half fairy tale, half tourist trap’ and certainly the inconceivable influx of busy tourists who almost make themselves indigenous as they wander around mesmerised by the scenery and atmosphere, and desensitized natives who seem to operate on a different plane to the rest of us as they go about their day to day existences, are reminiscent of flies tangled in a spider wed of narrow alleys, slender bridges and winding water ways. A maze like way of life that could appear maddening, is oddly enlivening and exciting. Why is it then that many bypass the vibrancy and vitality of Venice for the grandeur and history of Rome or the fabled beauty of Florence? When you think of Italy, you probably don’t instantly gravitate to Venice as your city of choice, but spend a weekend or longer here and you’ll be hypnotized by the easy, breezy impressiveness of this miraculous city that defied the odds and graciously sprawls out upon the water, almost daring the seas to swallow it whole.
Venice is a city steeped firmly in the past and it genuinely feels like one of the few remaining remnants of the old world, preserved for modern man to traverse. Stepping off a boat or train, onto the warm concrete floors is like spiralling back in time with great immediacy. It is a day dreamy, ancient place quite unlike anywhere else I’ve ever visited.
Cities have a dreary, predictable tendency to become samey, even when the culture and populaces that thrive within them differ drastically, the architecture, the ‘mood’ and ambience; even the colour schemes become frightfully similar and homogenous. You could call New York an enlarged, candy floss version of London lacking the prim and properness in favour of pomp and pizzazz, but Venice is incomparable to anywhere else in my opinion. Even within Italy itself, Venetians and their way of life exist as something altogether outside of the grasp of the everyday Italian.
One of the unique qualities of Venice that enable it to appear so detached from the modern world is the lack of cars, this most certainly makes it relatively rare in the 21st century. For all the hustle and bustle that abounds atop the delicate infrastructure, the trappings of modern life are obsolete and no real blemishes soil this fair land aside from the odd smattering of graffiti and the stubborn as heck bag salesmen that gravitate to the ebb and flow of the big crowd.
Venice has a unique and unusual charm all of its own; its citizens appeared to me like characters from Shakespearian plays, elaborately and eccentrically dressed in a way that was quintessentially Italian, poetically eyed and endearingly proud and patriotic when it came to their storybook land – the ladies seemed like ladies and the men like gentlemen. The aura that Venice emits is both gentle and magnificent, understated and sublime. The fact that the city can stand at all is a testament to the inhabitants that toiled over its creation and remains in opposition with the destructive forces of the natural world that surround it and threaten to devour it at every moment. Perhaps it is this cloud, this looming threat of perpetual and eventual destruction that weighs heavy in the distance, particularly with regards to climate change and global warming that make the city also an incredibly melancholy and bittersweet environment that makes you hanker for the old world.
Whether you are crossing a bridge and find yourself drowning in the songs of the gondoliers or scoffing pizza beside the canal, it is impossible to not be lured back in to this beautifully bizarre world. It is the subtleties, eating bruschetta standing amongst Venetians, sampling authentic Italian gelato, haggling for a gondola or browsing the many boutiques and shops, that make Venice a peculiar place to visit indeed. It’s like slipping off into some obscure corner of Narnia, through the wardrobe into a fantastical carnival of a place unlike anywhere you’ve ever seen before.
So once you arrive, how do you approach and tackle this maddening maze? The best way to explore Venice is to know where you are coming from, and then get lost. Allow the city to consume you. Signs are imprinted at every corner and will direct you back to where you need to be, and you are never too far from a vaporetto (these operate essentially as water taxis), and shall return you to a recognisable destination. Should you get lost in the throng, everyone is surprisingly sympathetic, as they have probably lost themselves too, and we were chaperoned around on more than one occasion by a patient, shiny eyed local, enthusiastic to show and share the city that they know like the back of their hand.
The experience of being lost in Venice can be disconcerting and overwhelming but it is also an enchanting one, enabling you to stumble across backstreets, quaint homes, old statues, squares and quiet canal-side locations. We found ourselves by a beautiful section of canal far removed from any tourists or onlookers, and only left when we were literally chased away by one of the most monstrous looking bugs I’ve ever seen. Sadly, we never managed to acquaint ourselves with this area again, as if it were never there. It packed up and vanished, mirage like. That’s how disillusioning Venice can be. Its many hidey holes open up to you, if you let yourself disappear.
Venice is the city of masked, painted strangers, random and never repeated encounters, queer acquaintances, grand churches and winding narrow corridors, a place for sneaks and extroverts alike. It’s a city in decline, in decay, that has already reached the pinnacle of its success and now lies at the mercy of the tide, and the thundering footsteps of its inhabitants and yet still, it is more beautiful and more evocative than many of our modern cities are today. It’s a claustrophobic city that throws you into relief by plunging you into a grand square at any given moment, like coming up for air in a volatile sea.
So if my rambling and romanticized rendition of my trip has piqued your interest, read on to see what I liked most about my time in Venice, and what you might also enjoy should you choose to visit:
There’s nowhere else in the world where you get to ride a gondola. It’s a quintessential Venetian experience. If thoughts of Venice don’t immediately conjure visuals of tanned, lithe gondoliers in striped nautical shirts serenading you as you breeze across the waters, there would be something wrong with you. The problem with gondolas? They are incredibly expensive. The gondoliers know that everyone wants to grab a ride down the grand canal before the eclipse of their trip, and that they’d probably pay a heck of a lot to do it. The good thing though is that you don’t need to pay these kinds of prices.
You can purchase a pre-destined gondola from the confines of your home over the internet, if you don’t trust your battering skills and don’t want to spend 70 + Euros. We managed to get a gondola for 30 Euros with all the perks included – we cruised on the grand canal, dipped into the alleys, were sang to and even witnessed a gondolier beat up a man sitting in his chair (it was like the Godfather come to life). This is the authentic Venetian experience and not to be missed because it’s every bit as romantic, serene and exhilarating as you could imagine. There are gondolas everywhere and lots of bored gondoliers waiting around in the sizzling sunshine itching to set sail.
You can take a trip across the canals during the day or in the glimmer and glow of the dwindling evening light. You can have a romantic trip for two or a communal experience with fellow travellers.
If you can’t afford a gondola, you can still take to the waters, on the vaporetto or water taxis. These are far cheaper and though not quite the same still give you a taste of the experience.
If you fancy pre-booking a gondola experience, follow the below link for one such deal. From here, you can also navigate to find many others:
If you’ve ever read ‘Death in Venice’, you will want to see the Lido. Serene and sultry, this is the beach where Visconti gave his life over to his harrowing search for living art in its embodiment of Tadzio, the young Polish boy with whom he becomes obsessed.
I confess that after studying this novella in university, I became obsessed with finding this beach, as if some of the maddening, passionate, all-consuming love and addiction might become part of me just by happening across it. This sole ambition fuelled my entire trip to Venice!
Lined with beach huts and fringed umbrellas that look like walking ostriches, this section of the beach is surreal and quirky and backed up beautifully by the Grande Hotel de Bains which was unfortunately under reconstruction at the time of our visit. This is definitely a place that can transport you into the narrative of the story and well worth a visit. There is also another long stretch of beach not far away frequented by locals and there are plenty of shops and restaurants to entertain you. It’s interesting to watch the assortment of tourists and natives soaking up the sun and spirits you a world away from the multifarious alleyways that form the pulse and veins of Venice.
A trip to Italy isn’t complete without taking the chance to sample authentic Italian ice cream. There is an ice cream counter practically everywhere and it will help cool you down if you visit in the spring/summer seasons. The flavours are delicious and soft as summer.
Seeing the lagoon islands is easier than you think. You’ll need to book a day out of your busy schedule, buy a day pass and hop on a vaporetto. The vaporetto will take you to your far flung destinations. Certain islands did not appeal as much as others, but are still worth seeing as each captures a distinctive, self contained way of life separate from the mainland. The journey by boat is mesmerising, particularly as you draw in or bob away from your various destinations. You can stay for as long or as short as you like before you hop aboard to reach your next destination. It provides a short snap of a slightly different side of life. Here is a quick synopsis of what to expect upon your arrival at each island:
Murano is renowned for its reputation in glass making. You can buy endless glass products here, so if you don’t intend to buy, be sure to tread carefully when nosing around the shops. This is an island filled with great shopping opportunities and quaint eating areas.
Burano looks a little like the world of children’s cartoon ‘Balamory’. By water, approaching the rainbow coloured assortment of houses is quite an odd and memorable experience. Burano is still occupied by its native inhabitants but is clustered with visitors. It’s impossible to not be cheery here!
Torcello was once a rival for Venice’s affections as the hub of activity. Torcello is titchy and consists mainly of abandoned marshland but we found a few intriguing houses occupied by roosters and cats. This abandoned and worn down island in decline is a preserved fossil of a once teaming hubbub of importance and authority.
Of all the lagoon islands, San Michele affected me most. It is a truly atmospheric island that houses Venice’s dead, but the relatives must consistently pay to maintain a spot for their departed loved ones. It is easy to get disorientated within the largest of the islands as you circulate row after row and column after column of graves. This is a solemn place and you can’t help but feel you have stumbled upon the private and very sincere grief and mourning of flocking families. Nonetheless, there was something touching about the assortment of flowers and photographs that abounded here. Some unusual birds that I cannot name for the life of me wander the grounds as well.
San Marco square is the place must people flock to in a hurry if they don’t have much time to explore elsewhere. It contains the best and the most brilliant of what Venice has to offer; the sweeping shores of the canal water, the faraway glimpse of islands and interconnected by the various allies is the huge San Marco Square which fills the air with music. We were greeted with children feeding pigeons, nuns making their sacred pilgrimage to the church, scores of Chinese/Japanese photographers and everything in between. There are some amazing photo opportunities here and it certainly feels like the cities beating heart and thriving centre. It is wonderful to sit here of an evening, listening to the Orchestra strike up and just allow your eyes to gorge on the life’s unfurling all about you.
Day Trip – Verona
There are plenty of available day trip options. Venice is pretty well connected and close to many other beautiful locations. From Ferovia (the train station stop) you can set off to any location you please. We picked Verona, home of Romeo & Juliet. A romantic little picturesque place of cobbled streets, when you arrive at the station, you can’t think of anything further removed from the romance of Shakespeare’s time, but once you get to the centre of Verona, its charm becomes apparant. Visiting Juliet’s and Romeo’s houses is quite amazing, and you can even get your photograph taken at Juliet’s statue. If, like me, you wondered why on earth everyone was touching Juliet’s breasts, trust me – they weren’t being inappropriate. It’s apparently meant to bring you good luck! Still I felt a bit silly and pervy doing it and so opted for just below.
For me the most bewitching aspect of Venetian culture is the masks. I’ve always had an interest in masks and what they represent (or conceal) and Venice is home to some of the most expertly creatively crafted masks you’ll ever see. The masked balls used to be an opportunity for the rich, poor, married and single to mingle undetected and for one standalone night behave as they pleased. You’ll find endless shops selling beautiful, handmade masks. We bought three, and were told by the mask salesman to stop buying so many! They vary in price. You can grab one for cheap as a souvenir or splash out on something more memorable, but this is another token of your time in Venice, something you probably can’t really get anywhere else, to remind you that your stay wasn’t all an illusion! If you ever decide to return for carnival, you will also have your very own Venetian mask!
Going to see a show in Venice is not something that we managed to do, but definitely recommended. Watching some of the best shows on earth in one of the most beautiful cities on earth should definitely be on your to do list if you are culturally and artistically inclined. If you are bored stiff by ballet and yawn at Opera, perhaps pass.
Glug a bottle of wine with a companion by the canal
It is truly relaxing to sit beside the canal taking in the sights, the sounds, and the beauty with a little alcoholic friend or your iPod. Blasting Frank Sinatra in my ears whilst in Venice felt very surreal!
Play Hide and Seek
You’ll never find who you’re looking for, but this is a unique way of discovering the city and indulging in some harmless childhood fun. If you’re feeling too adult in Venice, you’d better keep your inner child happy too!
Venice is the perfect place to people watch. Everyone is milling about by the canal or in and out of the shops and all of them seems to be faintly in a trance. The mixture of old and new is also interesting to soak in. An explosion of cultures comes to visit Venice, but you’ll meet lots of Americans, Japanese and Germans! If you are a writer/painter/musician, I think a lot of artistic inspiration can come from simply sitting around in Venice.
Tips & trade secrets
* If you are coming in from Ferovia (the train station stop) don’t let a friendly passer-by help you carry your case down the steps. They do expect money and quite a lot of it. I learnt the hard way…
* Dining in central Venice is pricey. If you want a cheap but authentic Italian meal head out into the deeper parts of Venice to the restaurants and cafes were the natives wine and dine. Pizza and pasta are obvious choices, but there is a lot more to try if you’re feeling adventurous that will give you a true taste of Venetian culinary culture. You can do what we did and buy a takeaway pizza and eat it beside the canal:
* Book activities from home, particularly a gondola. The cost will be far cheaper than the price you will find once you arrive. Even if you haggle, the price might not drop considerably. Gondola rides are simply too in demand! You don’t really need to book the tours unless you are really in a rush and don’t have time to familiarise yourself with Venice at all. Tours always feel rushed, impersonal and flimsy and you won’t really be able to immerse yourself in anything or wander off of the beaten track.
* If you want to attend Carnival (which falls in February) and you want to stay anywhere near the centre of Venice, you might want to start looking for accommodation at least a year in advance (or so a carnival fanatic informed me!)
* Book a day trip if you are about for a little while. Venice is clustered quite closely with many other interesting and exciting towns that are worth visiting and add a little something extra to your trip.
* Common sense, but take an Italian phrasebook with you. I found that the majority of Venetians spoke very fluent English, as their city is infiltrated with tourism pretty much all year round. The further out you venture, the greater the possibility of bumping into Italian speakers only so the phrase book is essential should you require assistance in an emergency.
* Pack some conservative clothing options. Access to the churches is restricted depending on what you wear. You want to keep your shoulders, chest and above the knee concealed if you want to experience the cities spiritual side.
* Get yourself some decent walking shoes – you’ll be doing a lot of it!
* Update your iPod with tunes from the Godfather, ‘That’s Amore’, a little opera – anything with a vaguely Italian feel. See how the city comes alive whilst your ears are humming with music!
* Stay in a hostel if you want to keep prices down. There are many charming and well placed hostels and if you are planning on being out and about all day, a posh hotel room isn’t a must have.
* DON’T go to Venice with your brother/sister. Everyone will make wildly embarrassing assumptions and remarks…
* DON’T be fooled – contrary to popular opinion, Venice is NOT a stinky city…
Finally…whether it’s for the magical old world vibe, the feeling of being in a fairytale, a romantic couples trip or a group sightseeing tour, Venice is a city that will call you back, because it holds onto its old world quality and you really will feel like you’ve entered a different century when you arrive. The world is globally becoming a more modernised and mechanical place, and so places with this specific style of charisma are a huge relief and incredibly life affirming!
As an aside, all photos included are my own taken from my trip. If you wish to reproduce them please let me know!