A Long Weekend in Venice, Italy
In December we celebrated our wedding anniversary with a three night trip to Venice. Athol had never been and I had been there once in January 1991 as a backpacker. Back then, travelling on my own, I had two overriding impressions of the city: one, it was unlike any place I’d ever seen – wholly fascinating – I mean, how does an entire city manage to exist on water? And two: a sense of loneliness that I was travelling alone and wasn’t sharing this remarkable place with anyone I loved.
Only in my craziest imaginings would I have pictured myself walking back over those same bridges 28 years, one husband and four half-reared children later!
After finding friends to take care of our kids as well as the dogs while we were away we jetted out of Dublin extremely early on a Friday and landed in Traviso airport late morning. I didn’t remember how close Venice is to the Alps. The last time I was there, I travelled to Italy by train from Switzerland via a tunnel underneath the mountains and once I had arrived at the Venice station I was unable to look back to see them, and was even unaware they were still on the horizon. Once you’re in Venice, you’re drawn in by the sheer amazement.
This time, however I had a full and mesmerising view of the Alps from the air.
It was a clear blue morning so we were treated to a perfect panorama of the mountains – I was captivated at the scale of them, it took us near on half an hour to fly across. Being early winter the Northern peaks were covered in snow but the closer we got to Venice the greener they became. We flew low enough to catch glimpses of ski resorts and Alpine villages – now added to my ever expanding travel bucket list.
From Treviso we caught a bus to Venice (handy tip: tickets cost €22 each return, we had booked this online before we went via the RyanAir website). Treviso is a tiny airport, the bus stop is right outside the front door.
The drive took just over an hour so by lunch time we were traversing the 4km concourse into the city to the Piazzale Roma. All busses, tains and cars enter and leave via this concourse on the north western side of the city, it is remarkable that there is no traffic noise inside the city at all.
Our first glimpse of the Grand Canal was as we crossed the pedestrian Ponte Della Constituzione, the modern minimalist bridge which connects the car parks and bus depot with the Fondamenta Santa Lucia – the route past the train station and into the city. I was so excited for Athol to catch his first view of the city, I had to record this moment in a photo. (Handy tip: Venice is full of steps and bridges so it’s not wheelchair, pram or heavy suitcase friendly at all. If you have far to go I’d suggest to take a water taxi –
see brown boat in the image below, or ferry (vaparetto)).
Our hotel, the Hotel Belle Epoque was ideally located, just a 7 minute walk from the Piazzale Roma (bus depot) and only about 170 metres on past the Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia (train station). We found this on booking.com and chose it based on its affordability as well as the great reviews about the breakfast, which was included!
I was shaking my head in disbelief with the grandeur of the downstairs interior, comparing it to the backpackers hostel I stayed in the last time I was here. Check-in wasn’t until 2pm but we were allowed to drop our bags and off we went on our first wander of the city! (Handy tip: enquire about a bag drop facility at your accommodation for early arrivals or late departures so that you don’t have to drag your bags around. The train station has left luggage lockers and there are various other facilities dotted throughout Venice).
We spent the afternoon meandering along the main drag through the Cannaregio area just past our hotel, pausing only to buy a handful of roasted chestnuts from a street vendor to keep us going. I still can’t get over how life here is so different to the way we live it back home. There are no roads, only paved walkways and endless bridges crossing a mutitude of canals. You never feel as though you are walking in a straight line towards any specifuc destination and the width of the route varies on every bend.
There is a surreal sense of having stepped back into the middle ages as you stoop into an ancient beamed alleyway or peer into a stone paved and marble arched courtyard. But that’s contrasted against the flurry of people in modern clothing, on their mobile phones, drinking coffee from disposable coffee cups in minimalist cafe’s.
We stopped for a late lunch at Trattoria Da Gianni which was offering a three course Menu Turistico (set lunch menu) for €13 a head. (Handy tip: if you’d like to eat out at a restaurant, eat your main meal at lunch time and ask for the set menu as the meals are more cost effective). Venice is known for its seafood and we were looking forward to eating Italian food. We were not disappointed, the lunch was all totally delicious. I had spaghetti with vongole (clams) followed by veal ( I didn’t realise I’d ordered veal, we took a wild guess with the ‘scallopini’ thinking it meant scallops and not realising that it’s the same word for a thin slice of meat!) Athol had tagliatelli arrabiata followed by calamari and we shared the plates of roasted veggies and chips.
(Handy dining tips: primi piatti refers to the first courses and is usually a pasta dish, secondo piatti are the second courses and is usually a meat dish accompanied by veggies. The side order of veggies or chips etc is considered a third course on a three course menu. The tip is sometimes included in the set menu price but isn’t always and may be added onto the bill as an extra by the establishment).
Afterwards we were so stuffed we had to go back to the hotel for a lie down (I also blame our five hours sleep the previous night, travel excitement and approaching middle age!)
Our bedroom was cosy and overlooked an inner courtyard, it was dated in its decor, which is appropriate I guess for a place named after an era over 100 years ago! Being a three star hotel I couldn’t expect tea and coffee making facilities in the room. However, there was a hairdryer and the bathroom was a good size, clean and stocked with toiletries. It was also very quiet, I wondered whether we were the only people in the entire hotel.
After our nap we took another walk, this time across the Ponte Degli Scalzi which is the big bridge opposite the train station and down through the heart of the city towards the Rialto Bridge and San Marco. By now it was dark and, as it was close to Christmas, many of the alleys and walkways were lit with fairy lights.
We passed on an open air iceskating rink in a large piazza and finally found ourselves approaching the Rialto Bridge. All the shops lining it were shut at that time of the night so we could appreciate the beauty of the bridge.
After another 5oom we finally made it to the absolutely gorgeous Piazza San Marco with its three colonnades and the very impressive edifice of the Basilica Di San Marco.
Once we reached the water’s edge we paused to admire the rows of parked gondolas as well as the lights and silhouttes on nearby Guidecca Island across the sea where I had spent the night in the Youth Hostel a hundred years ago.
On the way home we decided to take a slightly different route, it’s not hard to do that by mistake actually. In fact although we thought getting lost was vaguely romantic, we eventually opted to turn on Google maps on the phone because all of the alleys looked familiar but we still didn’t recognise where we were and I didn’t fancy trekking all hours of the night – my romanic notions have a time limit.
Needless to say we were heading west when we thought we were going north. The good thing about Venice though, online maps or not, it’s so small you can’t stay lost for long. We opted to find restorative sustenance in a small bar and, still feeling not very hungry from lunch, we ordered a quattro staggioni pizza to share. The only other people there were a Chinese waitress, two men drinking bright orange Aperol spritz’s at the counter and a young Spanish couple at a nearby table.
Half way through the pizza and all the way through my glass of wine the chef, who was also Chinese, came out to change the channel on the TV and we all ended up watching mimed comedy skits. The more we watched the funnier they became, until I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I could blame the wine for making me feel so happy, but give credit where it’s due, the Chinese also make fabulous pizza in Venice.
The next morning we discovered where all the people in our hotel were, they were all in the dining room having breakfast. If I had been concerned that the hotel was empty because everyone knew something ominous about the place that we didn’t, I needn’t have worried.
Evidently everyone had been gadding about enjoying the sites yesterday and were here this morning refueling with piles of cereals, yogurts, fruits, pastries, biscuits, cheeses, cold meats, eggs, sausages, toast, rolls, carrots (!) donuts (!!!) hot chocolate, juice and coffee just as much as we were.