|GET LOST IN VENICE YOU DESERVE IT!
The plane lands at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport. My childlike anticipation is quickly soured by the usual question: “How do I reach my hotel without buying the cab?”
“Just follow the arrows to the boats sir,” says the pretty girl at the tourist desk. “It’s a 10 minute walk. Where are you staying? Aha The Orange Line will drop you at The Rialto Bridge.”
“Wow,” I grin, handing over 15 Euros in exchange for a ticket. “What a cool way to hit town!”
The sun is setting as we race across the lagoon, slowing only to reduce wake for high speed high priced sleek wooden water taxis. There must be a pecking order?
Excitement reaches fever pitch when we enter the Grand Canal which neatly divides the city in half. We pass between San Giorgio Island with its massive thousand-year-old monastery, and St Marks Square, still heaving with tourists. The Doge’s Palace and St Marks Basilica have already turned creamy yellow. Fellow passengers fight for window space and snap everything in sight.
We share the busy waterway with vaporettos (waterbuses), rowing teams, barges stuffed to the gills with packages of toilet paper, cartons of coca-cola, flats of tomatoes, bags of cement Everything to keep a city of 60,000, plus a zillion tourists, functioning for another day.
Gondoliers, in blue and white striped shirts and ribboned straw boaters, nonchalantly weave their way through the melee, giving entranced charges a running commentary on palaces and warehouses along the bank.
The Rialto Bridge is the heart of the city. Built on wooden piles 400 years ago it is high enough to give safe passage to ancient galleys and wide enough to hold two rows of shops. It also provides important access to the city market - and a platform for posing tourists!
The email contains precise directions to my hotel. I hurry confidently past pizza and ice-cream vendors. Past packed waterfront restaurants. Past growing stacks of cardboard boxes unloaded from docked barges. Past the line of porters waiting to distribute goods by handcart to customers along narrow alleys and over endless tiny bridges.
Directions in Venice are meaningless. Pathways, barely wide enough to conceal a skulking cat, are boldly named, whereas lanes jammed with bustling tour groups, trendy jewellers, high-end underwear stores and bakeries, are not.
I sympathise with a confused, Gucci clad, grey haired, couple trundling wheeled steamer trunks from corner to corner desperately looking for their hotel in this Campo or that Piazza.
After an hour of fruitless searching up slivers of alleys my path is blocked by an ample girthed pizzeria tout hustling up business.
“Hotel San Salvador?” I plead.
“Come in,” he replies.
“No no, you don’t understand I must find my hotel before I can eat.”
“Come in,” he commands. “Follow me.” I wheel my pack obediently between full tables and out through the back door. He points to an unpolished brass sign, the size of a modest manila envelope.
“The Hotel San Salvador!”
In AD 421 when Attila The Hun was on the rampage through Southern Europe, many fled the region. Others hoped to avoid the marauders by building stilted houses on marshy islands and sandbars in “The Venice Lagoon.”
Smart move! Who could have known that from this strategic location and natural port, merchants would grow rich trading silk, grain and spices. So rich in fact that by the late 13th century Venice had become the most prosperous city in Europe. Leading families competed to build the grandest palaces and support the world’s top artists.
Eventually I discover the cunningly concealed fridge, hair dryer, phone, safe, and even manage to spot the flat-screened TV on top of a shoulder-wide wardrobe. No, ninety five Euros does not buy a room in a palace. Merely a well-equipped closet in the heart of the city.
Every Italian is an actor. Breakfast at Rosa’s café is proof. Each customer is perfectly coiffed. Each scarf perfectly knotted. Each outfit perfectly matched, before the day’s performance can begin.
There are no chairs just two small tables enough to rest a cup and saucer. Animated voices of confident people, who know they look their best, compete with the whirrings of cappuccino machines and electric juicers. The stack of oven-fresh pastries is thinning. Breakfast at Rosas is like a cocktail party without the booze!
Venice consists of 117 islands joined by 400 bridges crossing 150 canals. With no room for cars or bicycles, boats and pushcarts are the only means of transport. Funny, but isn’t this the dream of today’s city planners?
Discovering the hidden corners of the world’s most romantic city is all about getting lost. Alleys dead-end at the Grand Canal. Narrow waterways become plugged with gondolas, delivery boats and water taxis. Flowers fill every window box. There is an ancient well in every Campo and Piazza and a café to rest your weary feet while you consult your map Again!
I head to St Marks Square. Live classical music accompanies the most expensive cappuccinos in town served by condescending bow-tied waiters.
I buy a walking-tour at the helpful Tourist Office. Always a good way to learn about a place. After viewing the stunning artwork and crossing The Bridge of Sighs into the old city jail at the Doge’s palace, we jump the queue into St Marks Basilica. It’s worth an extra 6 Euros to get the rooftop view! Best of all the guide will lead you to hidden churches, and squares and places like Marco Polo’s home.
Tonight I will go to a recital in a small church in Campo San Vidal. Instead of walking I will take the vaporetto from Rialto to the Accademia Bridge Can’t risk getting lost.
Nowhere beats Venice for romance. Add a tenor or an accordionist to your gondola tour. Dine beside a canal or under a footbridge. Take in an opera, a ballet or a symphony. If art or architecture is your thing you could spend weeks absorbing everything that Venice has to offer and still return for more.
But be warned. The stilts upon which Venice is built are sinking. The last major flood was in 2008. Water rose through the ground around St Marks Basilica when I was there. Many have abandoned the ground level of their homes. The time to visit is now.
IF YOU GO:
Copyright © 2011 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.