“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” Truman Capote
When my friend Donna said, “I’ve never been to Venice,” that’s when I said, “Then, we HAVE to go to Venice!”
One’s life must not be lived without at least one visit to Venice, Italy. Simple as that. EasyJet offers up ridiculous fares from Nice—ours was about 90€ round trip including one large carry on and one small carry on, plenty enough for three nights in the city that has been called everything from “La Dominante,” “La Serenissima,” “Queen of the Adriatic,” “City of Water,” “City of Masks,” “City of Bridges,” “The Floating City” and “City of Canals.” None of these describe it well enough. For me, it is the “Jewel in the Crown.”
As I often preach, the ability to hop a plane after a 20-minute tram ride from the center of Nice so easily and inexpensively to see Europe and the world is a big advantage of being in Nice…or Paris or any of the cities in France or Europe that have international airports. This particular excursion was Friday night to Monday night, so I am still here in the “Jewel” as I write this.
We used Booking.com to find a hotel. So many were so acceptable that we booked six that were cancellable until we could narrow down our choice. We opted for a two-bedroom/two-bathroom apartment, family run, steps from both the Accademia and Zattere Vaporetto stops and that was less expensive than the hotels only offering one room with twin beds: Ca’ del Pittor Apartments. Being near a Vaporetto stop can make your stay even more pleasant and easier.
The Vaporetto is a boat-bus that gets you around Venice like the Métro does in Paris. You can purchase three-day passes at the airport for 40€ each, which seemed expensive, but single ride tickets are 7.50€ each making the pass a real bargain. Tickets can also be purchased at the machines at every Vaporetto stop. With the pass, you hop on and off as you like. The Vaporetto system, however, is not as straightforward as the Métro, so take care to hop on the right one. If you download the app “Moovit,” you’ll have a very easy time getting around. Otherwise wandering the streets and canals of Venice is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
The apartment was the best decision we ever made! Silvia, the daughter, could not have been nicer to guide us into the city, meet us at the Vaporetto stop and show us the ins and outs of the apartment. It was newly renovated, spotless, spacious (at least 80m2) and comfortable. Located on a very quiet street in an upscale residential neighborhood, it was as much like being a resident of Venice than one could imagine.
Silvia had made a reservation for us at a nearby restaurant that she loved and clearly owned by friends of the family. As residents of Venice, they must all know each other very well, especially within the neighborhood, so we trusted her judgment. Filled to the brim with both tourists and locals, we had scored virtually the last table at Trattoria Ai Cugnai Dal 1911, pigged out on pasta (yes, I broke my diet!) and fresh fish, then topped it off with the best coffee in the world. To say we were happy is a gross understatement. We enjoyed the restaurant so much that we made it our last night’s dinner, too, in order to be close to home after walking way more than one might normally.
After dinner our first night we took a stroll across the Ponte dell’Accademia, one of only four bridges that span the Grand Canal named for the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia, which from 1807 to 2004 was housed in the Scuola della Carità together with the Gallerie dell’Accademia, which is still there. The bridge links the “sestieri” (districts) of Dorsoduro and San Marco. Our first night was limited to just getting a taste so that the next morning we could hit the ground running.
The first morning I made a REAL Italian coffee using an “moka”—a stove-top (or sometimes) electric coffee maker that brews coffee by passing boiling water pressurized by steam through the ground coffee. We drank coffee at every opportunity. Even a “decaffeinato lungo”—an espresso made with decaffeinated coffee, with a bit more water—is “nectar of the Gods” in Italy. A “lungo,” or “long” has a very different definition in Italy from its French counterpart. If I order a “café allongé” in France, it comes in a big cup and resembles an American coffee. In Italy, the espresso cup is only half full, compared to a normal espresso that is only one-quarter full. It’s one reason the taste is so profoundly different…and better. No doubt, we drank way too much coffee during our stay in the “Jewel”—my new name for Venice.
Saturday was a 13-hour non-stop day having walked almost seven miles and more than 16,500 steps, winding our way through the streets and across the canals, stopping to shop at every opportunity, visiting various key points, dining out and ending the day with an operatic concert in the Doge’s Prison’s Palace at the Piazza San Marco. Sunday was more relaxed, but just as fulfilling.
We set our goals for the weekend to accomplish a few important things:
• First stop, Piazza San Marco: One of the most important monumental squares in Italy, it is the heart of Venice and renowned worldwide for its beauty and architectural integrity. It’s also famous for its pigeon population, although on this beautiful sunny, but cold day in Venice, there were very few. Pigeons are highly respected creatures in Venice and can get away with just about anything. We saw them flying around our corner cafe while no one blinked an eye or bothered to shoo them out, but at the square that day, only a handful bothered to stop by. Weird, and inexplicable. I have photos from past visits where there were way more pigeons than tourists. Not this time around.
• Second stop, Rialto Bridge: This and Piazza San Marco are the two most important touristy things to see, so for first timers, both are a must. The Rialto is the oldest of the four bridges that span the Grand Canal. It’s also the busiest. Agoraphobia kicked in and we hightailed over it to get through the crowds of tourists who, like us, were clamoring to get a good photo from the top center of the bridge overlooking the Grand Canal.
• Shopping: I had a short list of essentials—one of which was a phone pouch on a long cord to wear across my body for fast and easy access. There are leather shops galore, most all of which appear to have come from the same suppliers. Avoid those cookie-cutter types and go for what looks like the real thing. I scored a “DuDuBag“—I swear this is the real name of an Italian-made range of leather bags and wallets beautifully designed for no higher a price than the cookie-cutter bags you find at the chain operations. (They weren’t thinking about the American market when they chose the name!) Their products are quite beautiful and well worth the extra effort to find the shop. My pouch clearly says “DuDu” stamped into it, so it will forever keep me chuckling.
Buying Venetian and Murano glass objects is pretty much the same deal. You can get lost in the myriad of souvenir shops filled with objects that you’ll see over and over again to the point that after a while nothing looks appealing. Go for the specialty shops for more unusual hand-made or hand-blown things that you will find not much more expensive than the others. I was in the market for a vase to replace a favorite of mine that I broke recently, but never found a Venetian one I liked. Best that I didn’t take the risk of carrying it home, anyway.
Italian style clothing is not only tops, but incredibly inexpensive. Venice has all the designer stores of any touristed town, but avoid those that you can find anywhere else and go for the little specialty manufacturers who do unusual things. One of them is Vladi Shoes located at Rio Terà de la Maddalena, 2340, in the Cannaregio district. They claim that wearing their shoes “means wearing a story that starts far away…from inspiration to realization, it is like telling a fairy tale with romantic nuances, which tells our vision of the world, full of values such as beauty and quality.” Try as I might, I couldn’t get a good fit, leaving hugely disappointed.
No matter…just down the street I fell in love with a full-length rain coat in pink and black check that will make a great wardrobe choice for an upcoming House Hunters International episode. It was not at all expensive and is totally fun and frivolous.
“Piedàterre” is another one of those brands that makes shopping in Venice unique. We passed the stunning display on our stroll the first night and was awed by its beauty and the incredible selection of “furlane” slippers. These were first created in the northern Italian region of Friuli and then adopted by Venetians. You won’t see them anywhere else in the world. Funny that their name is so French and has such a different meaning—”pied-à-terre” as you might already know means foot on the ground. It might make sense, but one might expect something more Italian, such as “piede-a-terra.” These hand-stitched shoes were “born” in Italy the same year as me! And while some of the special editions can set you back as much as 350€, an average pair is only 79€—a bargain for such quality and style.
• A visit to the Ghetto: The word “ghetto” refers to a neighborhood imposed on Jews by the political authorities of the state, where they were forced to live separately from the non-Jewish population. But, the term comes from the area in Venice on the site of an old foundry, or “ghetto.” This is where Jews resided separately from 1516 until Napoleon Bonaparte occupied the city in 1797. Located in the Cannaregio district, the main square of the Venice Ghetto is in front of the Casa Israelitica di Riposo.
A visit to the area somehow always gives me a bit of a chill up my spine, when I imagine what life must have been like living in such a small section of the city. Largely industrial, it has much less architectural appeal than the rest of the city. As you wander the streets that lead to the square, you will find a few kosher restaurants and bakeries and perhaps pass a few orthodox Jews in their skullcaps along the way.
• Dining well: Because of the touristy nature of the city, it can be tough to find the local dining spots in Venice. We did manage to have some very good meals thanks to a couple of good recommendations and one we just lucked into, but our best score of all was rediscovering a restaurant I have known since the first time I visited Venice in 1979. It is one of the very true local spots you really need to know about.
The Marco Polo not far from the Rialto Bridge (Salizada S. Lio, 5571) was one of those recommendations worth a special reservation—lovely atmosphere, pleasant service and very fresh flounder on special that day made it just perfect. Sure, it’s filled with tourists, but the quality is good and on a higher level than most.
Our lucky landing was at Osteria Sora Al Ponte in a sweet spot overlooking a small canal with typical Venetian fare and very pleasant service. Why it wasn’t filled with tourists, we couldn’t explain, but we happily had almost the whole restaurant to ourselves for lunch. The food was acceptable, but the service was so pleasant, it made up for its imperfections.
At the corner just near our apartment, Bar Ristorante Da Gino is a local hang-out where coffee drinkers come to the bar and where we could get our morning “shot” of “nectar of the Gods.” On Sunday morning at 9 a.m., it was almost standing room only—inexplicable that there would have been so much activity so early on a Sunday morning. The clanging of the clean dishes being re-stowed would have woken up the dead. In Paris or Nice, the world would not have been as awake and full of life. Where were they all going? Church? This is where the pigeons loved to fly in and out of, while no one seems to bother with them.
What made me happiest of all was following my nose on Sunday afternoon to rediscover Trattoria alla Rivetta. This was a restaurant in which I had dined in 1979 and came back to several more times over the years visiting Venice. If you don’t know it’s there, you would never find it as the doorway sits virtually under a bridge with a small window giving you no real chance to see what is inside. But once you enter, you know you’ve landed in the REAL THING. Mamma runs the front station and the cash register. Waiters in red vests, who have been there all of their lives, tell you what to order in a fun way. It’s filled with Gondolieri, locals and tourists in the know. The menu is huge and completely authentic…and not at all expensive. It’s noisy, bustling and exactly what you would want from the REAL THING. I broke my diet and had Spaghetti alle Vongole—spaghetti with clams. I couldn’t resist and it was “delish.” Try as we might to reserve it for the next day, there was no chance as it’s closed on Mondays.
• Concert: We booked a classical concert with the Venice Collegium Ducale Orchestra which took place in the Doge’s Prison of Piazza San Marco. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Our performers were two opera singers and a pianist, all very accomplished. I wouldn’t call it “an unforgettable evening” like GetYourGuide.com did, but it was a special something to do that one might not do anywhere else.
• Art museums: The Peggy Guggenheim Collection was high on my list regardless of the fact that I’ve been there many times. At 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, the line to enter was already long waiting for the door to open. The palazzo is in itself worth a visit, but the collection is considered one of the finest in the world. Don’t miss it. At the souvenir shop just next-door to the museum I found the vase I had been searching for—a reproduction of a Kandinsky painting on a cotton sheath that when covering a plastic water bottle transforms it into a work of art. For 10€ I had truly made our stay in Venice complete.
By the time you read this, we’ll have visited the Gallerie dell’Accademia de Venise, eaten another great meal and be headed back to Nice. I’ll be back on my diet to make up for having digested too much delicious Italian cooking and coffee, but with yet another fabulous visit to the “Jewel” to add to the collection of memories.
And, I have to agree with Truman Capote: “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.”
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
Adrian dining locally in Venice