I can still remember the emotions I felt when I walked down the steps of the train station in Venice towards the Grand Canal for the first time 20 years ago. I cried then, and on these, the 5th and 6th times descending the same stairs, I did again.
It’s overwhelming. Venice is one of those cities you have to visit at least once in your lifetime, and preferably twice. Tick off the Rialto Bridge, St.Mark’s and the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) on trip one, and be prepared to be bombarded by bustling tourists crowding the main thoroughfares, clamoring to buy armloads of Made-in-China lace fans, “I Love Venezia” tee-shirts and gondola magnets. Be overcharged for alleged Italian food, ripped off on a 100euro gondola ride (complete with chain-smoking, sms-checking gondolier…actually, don’t bother with this!) and join the crush of rude fools streaming through the Basilica.
Then, return, and get lost in the back streets. See how the few Venetians that actually live here live. Watch the kids playing soccer in the squares, and their parents sip a “spritz” (flouro orange prosecco cocktails) after 6. Stay till late, after the baby boomer hoards return to their monstrous cruise ships (which locals are trying to get banned from the Grand Canal…see the flyer), and soak up the stillness. We even saw Sting and his wife Trudie Styler in the early evening casually walking arm in arm in the back streets days before the Venice Film Festival.
This trip, we visited the city on water twice; firstly with my beautiful second cousin Laura and her beau Michele, and then with just the four of us. Laura and Michele live just 20 minutes away in Treviso, and visit as often as possible, preferably out of tourist season. They took us through the old Jewish ghetto, to lunch in great little self-serve restaurant, on a sneaky locals-only gondola trip across the canal (2 euro as opposed to the100euro) and dropped us at St.Mark’s, ready for a day of exploration.
There are photo ops at every turn. Buildings rising out of the water, and showing the wear of history. Every kind of boat (the Venetian car) squeezed into narrow canals, and even narrower lane-ways decorated with looped laundry lines. We discovered the wonders of “Vino alla spina”, taking a plastic bottle into a merchant’s place, and getting it filled up with the wine of your choice for around 2 euros. In one deserted area of town, I bought the ultimate Venetian souvenir – a 50’s gold filigree peridot ring at a bargain cash-only price. And then, the Aqua Alta book shop – two ramshackle old houses filled to the brim with old books from all over the world. The owner was balanced precariously on a plank of wood between his back door and a gondola, rummaging through boxes of old books from a prospective seller.
A great visit is the Palazzo Ducale. Venice’s wealthy old political/justice buildings laced with artwork, golden ceilings and at one point Europe’s largest ballroom. Our favourite part though were the prisons, and crossing the Bridge of Sighs where prisoners saw their last moments of freedom between the courtroom and jail cells. Where Casanova was once housed and escaped from (ie, paid the right person the right amount), and where the criminal, the corrupt, or those who could no longer afford the pay the right people off, spent their last days.
St.Mark’s cathedral next door was built in the early 1100’s, and inside is a wonder of golden mosaics. There is no time however to soak it in. It’s line up, shuffle through, pour out. And inside I tried to hide my accent from a repulsive obese Australian tourist (every obese person we’ve seen in Europe has either been American or Australian), who was yelling and swearing at his cap-wearing son, in a very bloody Australian accent!
Yes, we bought some souvenirs – Italian made masks for the girls, my ring and a small watercolour painting. Yes, we ate some terrible food – cooked and served by Indian guys at a waterside restaurant (if you want pasta that mysteriously tastes like butter chicken, I can recommend a good place). But yes, yes, YES, I fell in love with Venice all over again.