When my wife Emeli realized her fortieth birthday would coincide with Midsummer’s Eve (or Saint John’s Eve for non Swedes), the huge summer holiday in Sweden, she came up with the brilliant idea to celebrate her birthday in Venice. None of us had been to Venice before, but both of us had wanted to visit the legendary city for a long time. Said and done, we went to Venice.
The First Day
After an early morning flight (we had to get up 4 in the morning!) on Tuesday, we landed on the Marco Polo Airport right before noon. Together with some other travelers of different nationalities, we were hurled into a taxi boat and set off for the city of dreams. Seeing the Venice skyline (with the mighty Campanile di San Marco) emerging at the horizon was a truly powerful experience. We checked in at our hotel, the Commercio & Pellegrino, located just a tiny stone’s throw from Palazzo Ducale (The Doge’s Palace) and the Piazza San Marco, got ourselves a few hours of sleep, and then hit the streets.
After a quick aperitivo (an ombra of white wine and some cicchetti) at the very nice Bacaro Risorto (a place we would come to gravitate towards at the end of our Venice evenings) we started walking aimlessly (as you should do in Venice) through the alleys of Castello, becoming increasingly more enchanted by the city’s personality and charm. We must have gone east, because suddenly we reached the wall of the Arsenale. We turned north and eventually reached the northern boardwalk, the Fondamente Novo. We soon reached the end of the boardwalk at the inlet of the Rio de Noale. We were no longer in Castello, but rather in the sestiere of Cannareggio. We turned south and turned left into the Strada Nova and followed the hoards of tourists back to Piazza San Marco.
Overwhelmed and a bit tired we retired to our hotel room for a while and then popped through a sotoportego and into a restaurant located in a backyard. The restaurant was clearly a tourist trap and the pizza I ordered was rather bland and expensive. Emeli’s pizza tasted ok, according to her, but was of course equally as pricey. We rounded of with a nice walk in the Castello after dark, and then hit the bed.
Lido and the Grand Canal
One of the things on Emeli’s bucket list was to bathe in the Adriatic Sea off the beach of Lido. Ever since she read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (and saw Visconti’s film adaptation of the novella) she had been wanting to see and experience the island, beach and the Art Nouveau hotels for herself. As we planned to visit the islands of Burano and Murano the next day, we bought a 48-hour pass to the vaporetti boats.
After a nice boat trip we landed on Lido and immediately crossed the island to the opposite side, where the beach was. We stopped by the Grand Hotel des Bains (the hotel where both the novella and the film adaptation of Death in Venice takes place, now sadly closed due to imminent renovation) and turned right down the promenade, eventually reaching the fantastic Hotel Excelsior and the Venice Film Festival (now a part of the Biennale) area. Right outside the Excelsior, Emeli had her first bath. Feeling a bit hungry, we went north again and popped in at a vegetarian restaurant, Bio Sound System, with excellent food at fair prices and a very friendly and talkative owner. With the feeling of hunger stilled, we were now looking for something sweet and stopped by the Gelateria Le Magiche Voglie for some gelato. This was not the first gelato we’d had in Venice, but certainly the best! With sugar and endorphins running through her body, Emeli wanted to take another bath, so we hit the beach once again (I stayed on the beach, perhaps a bit overdressed) before taking the vaporetto back to the main island.
Back on the main island we decided to take the cheap tour of the Grand Canal by taking the No. 1 vaporetto from San Zaccaria (literally 100 m from our hotel) to Piazzale Roma. The No. 1 vaporetto stops at all the stops in the Grand Canal, so there’s ample time to get a good view of the canal with all its stunning palazzos and intense boat traffic, and as it were, we were very lucky to find seats outside at the front of the vaporetto. After landing at Piazzale Roma (located in the sestiere of Santa Croce) we took a stroll south into the sestiere of Dorsoduro and then north again up into the sestiere of San Polo and the Rialto with its famous bridge. We stopped at the Hotel L’Orologio for a couple of Bellinis and then sought out the Cantina Do Spade, a restaurant that I had read served good traditional Venetian food. The food, service and atmosphere didn’t impress us very much, however, and we left full but a bit unsatisfied. We took a walk over the Rialto bridge and hopped on a vaporetto headed for San Marco and ended the night with a stroll around the piazza.
Burano, Murano, and Heavenly Crêpes
On Thursday we started the day by taking the No. 5.2 vaporetto (going on the south side of Dorsoduro and up the Canale Scomenzera past Piazzale Roma, a short ledge on the Grand Canal and into the Canal di Cannareggio before turning east) to Fondamenta Novo on the northern side of the city. From there we took the No. 12 vaporetto to Burano. Following a nice but somewhat crowded ride, we sat foot on the island famous for its colorful houses and for its handmade lace. We had a good but expensive lunch at the Trattoria da Romano (I ate grilled sea bass and Emeli had fritto misto with seafood) and then took a stroll in the very picturesque settlement.
We caught the vaporetto heading back for Venice, but hopped off at Murano, the island mostly famous for its glass. Neither of us is particularly into the kind of glass items that are sold all over this island (or on the main island), so we were mostly there to experience the atmosphere and surroundings. Equipped with some gelato we wandered off and quickly found ourselves a bit lost. However, we found our way back and after some more walking (there was a lot of walking …) we took a vaporetto back to Venice and the Fondamenta Novo stop.
Well on the main island we headed northwest, into the sestiere of Cannareggio and eventually ended up at a tiny establishment serving crêpes. Cocaeta is run solely by Giulio, a man most dedicated to the craft of making utterly delicious crêpes. And they were very, very good! Heavenly, even! The place has no tables and is for take out only, so we ate our crêpes on the steps of a bridge, overlooking a golden sunset to the northwest, and then went deeper into the Cannareggio in search of a drink. After a nice walk in a neighborhood that was perhaps more of a residential area, and then a brief excursion into the the old (it’s actually called the new) Jewish ghetto (the word ghetto is derived from this small part of Venice), we sat down on the edge of the Fondamenta dei Ormesini just outside the lively bar Al Timon. An hour (or so) and a few drinks and cicchetti later, we slowly headed back to our hotel. On the way back we heard some music coming from a church, it was a small evangelical gospel choir, singing their heart out for all the passing tourists.
Dorsoduro and Di Belle Arti
The weather forecast indicated rain and a drop in temperature on Friday so we decided to manage a museum visit or two (we only managed one). We started out by heading down the tourist trail to Rialto to experience the market. I like to photograph in markets, so I went into full photograph mode and left Emeli with a request to buy us some dried fruits from one of the vendors. She came back with almost a kilo! After a quick coffee refill, we went south towards the Gallerie dell’Academia in Dorsoduro to watch some pre-19th-century art. The museum had a nice exhibition featuring works of Antonio Canova and Francesco Hayez, as well as the interesting permanent exhibition with older works (by Hieronymus Bosch, Tintoretto, Titian, Tiepolo, and Giovanni Bellini among others).
After the Gallerie dell’Academia we thought about going to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, but we were too tired and too full of visual impressions to take on another museum, so we headed east, towards the tip of Dorsoduro. We took a quick look inside the baroque church Santa Maria della Salute and then rounded the tip at Punta della Dogana, and then headed westbound on the Fondamenta Zattere al Saloni (where I was almost bit by a dog!). With some stops for eating dried fruits (we had a lot of it) and gelato, we walked long past the tourist areas and ended up in the mainly residential area of Santa Marta, home to a lot of students and bohemians. Having reached the western end of Dorsoduro, we turned around and headed in the direction of San Polo.
At the Campo Santa Margherita, we stopped at the popular student café Il Caffè Rosso for a drink and then headed south. Near Campo San Barnaba and just by the Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) we spotted a nice bacaro, Osteria Ai Pugni, but all the nice seats were taken. We turned north and ended up deep in Santa Croce, unfortunately an area not overly dense with restaurants. Crestfallen, we retired to our home turf in Castello and ended up eating our dinner at a restaurant closer to our hotel. We rounded the evening off on a high note, however, at our local hangout, Bacaro Risorto.
Freespace and Baroque
One of Venice’s main attractions is, of course, the Biennale. And this year (2018) the feature is architecture. The Biennale is mainly held in two different compounds – the Giardini della Biennale and in the old Arsenale complex. So we started the Saturday by taking the Riva degli Schiavoni southeast (the name changes a few times along the way to finally settle on Riva dei Sette Martiri) to the Giardini della Biennale. Before we entered the Biennale, we took a quick turn up the Viale Giuseppe Garibaldi and had some coffee at a café – Serra dei Giardini – located in a lovely greenhouse built in 1894. After buying our tickets and entering the compound, we soon realized that the Biennale had to be a two day activity.
The theme of this Biennale was FREESPACE, and the exhibitions on display in the different pavilions either made an effort to concretize the concept in a tangible and political way, while others chose to hold a very free, almost detached aesthetic approach to the concept. Two contrasting exhibitions was Israel’s exhibition that examines the ever-changing status quo in the fragile co-existing of two different belief systems in The Holy Land (Israel/Palestine), and United Kingdom’s exhibition Island, with its empty pavilion and a platform on the roof, seeking abstract and contextual interpretation from the visitor. (See more pictures from the Biennale in the gallery below.)
After yet another day of what seemed to be endless visual impressions, we retired to our hotel room for an hour or so before heading out in the sestiere of San Marco to grab a slice of pizza (at the Pizzeria Cip Ciap) and then listen to some baroque music at the former church of Chiesa di San Vidal. We were told to be at the venue at least 30 minutes before the concert started in order to get good seats. However, shortly after we arrived, we realized that with we had lost one of our bags somewhere along the way between the pizza place and the San Vidal. In an act of unearthly heroism, I ran (!) through the alleys and across the bridges, back to the pizza place (luckily, they had kept the bag safe) and then ran (no, I walked) back to the San Vidal. I arrived with a good 5–10 minutes to spare (thank you Google Maps!). The concert was great; the chamber orchestra Interpreti Veneziani played inspired and animated versions of The Four Seasons by Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi, and after a brief intermezzo, the Concert Grosso in G Major, Op. 6, n. 1 by G.F. Händel and the Violin Concerto in E minor, D. 56 by Giuseppe Tartini (another Venetian composer).
Arsenale, Gondola, and a Hidden Gem
Day two of the Biennale was spent at the Arsenale compound, starting at the 317 meter long corderie – a truly impressive building. After a quick lunch, we took on the last stretch of the Biennale. Once again, chock-full of visual impressions, we left the Biennale a took a little detour out on the island of San Pietro di Castello, and then south down, east of the Giardini di Biennale, to the public park Parco della Rimembranze on the island Sant’Elena. Reaching the end of the park, we turned northwest and started walking back towards the city center. On our way back we saw one of those huge cruise ships being towed through the Canale della Giudecca. These enormous ships might be good for the tourist business but pose a great threat to the ecological balance in the lagoon.
In the evening we set eyes on a somewhat smaller boat than the humongous cruisers – the gondola. When you are in Venice, a gondola ride is practically obligatory, even though it is insanely expensive (80€ for 30 minutes). We took a gondola from the stalls in front of Hotel Danieli. Checking them up on TripAdvisor as I write this, I realize a lot of people had had bad experiences with these gondoliers. However, we were lucky – our gondolier was nice and a true extrovert, talking to all the other gondoliers he met, and sitting in a small boat, close to the water, on the canals of Venice, is a wonderful experience.
During our gondola ride we spotted a nicely located restaurant at a small square, Campo San Severo. I quickly saved the place in Google Maps, and after the gondola ride we sought the place out. The restaurant, Luna Sentada, was a true hidden gem, slightly off the tourist alleys but still only a few minutes’ walk from our hotel. The food was excellent as well as the service and the atmosphere, with prices to match. Their pièce de résistance was their cheese-filled tortellonis with a mild leek purée and zucchini flowers and pecorino. Not to mention the desserts! Sweet lord!
We liked this place so much that we reserved a table for the next night, which would be our last night in Venice before heading home to Stockholm. We finished the night off at Bacaro Risorto and then hit the bed.
Monday was our last day in Venice, and we hadn’t yet been to Palazzo Ducale nor the Basilica di San Marco – two buildings that are a must to see when you’re in Venice – so we off we went. Having read online that visiting these buildings could mean a lot of queuing (and experienced the huge amounts of people flocking the Piazza San Marco all the waking hours of the day), I had developed a slightly less enthusiastic feeling about the whole idea, but in the end I realized that I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself if I didn’t go. Luckily, all my googling had at least given me some practical tips for the planned (and slightly dreaded) itinerary of the day: Visit the Basilica di San Marco in the afternoon (less people), and buy the ticket for Palazzo Ducale at the Museo Correr (less queuing). Said and done!
Museo Correr is located in the Procuratie (the building that encloses the piazza) at Piazza San Marco, in the Napoleonic wing (the wing at the end of the piazza) and the Procuratie Nuove (the left wing). The museum’s focus is the history and art of Venice, and it was quite interesting with the imperial rooms (used by the Empress Elisabeth of Austria among others), various artifacts telling the history of the city, the art collection, and a nice collection of sculptures by Antonio Canova. The itinerary also included a walk through the Museo Archeologico Nazionale and some of the rooms in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.
After a quick lunch at the café in Museo Correr, we walked across the piazza and entered the Palazzo Ducale (prepaid line, no queue!). This building was something else! The building itself dates back the 14th century, but was extended and rebuilt during the following centuries. It is a prime example of the architectural style known as Venetian gothic. Walking through the highly decorated rooms and halls of the palace put us in a state of awe at the work, effort, and ambition it must have taken to draw, plan, and build them. The Chamber of the Great Council, with its 53 by 23 meter dimensions was particularly impressive! Part of the itinerary also led us over the Ponte dei Sospiri and into the New Prisons and then back again.
We left the Palazzo Ducale and joined a moderately sized queue to enter the Basilia di San Marco, and after 10 minutes we were inside! As a normal visitor you are expected to dress appropriately (no head garments, no “skimpy” clothes), be quiet, and walk solemnly around the basilica for about 10 minutes and then leave. There is no admission to enter the basilica, but if you want to visit the treasury or see the Pala d’Oro, there are separate admissions for those. We didn’t bother with that since we were quite tired at this point and were happy just wandering around in the basilica, looking at the fantastic golden mosaics in the ceiling.
Leaving the basilica, we retired to our hotel room for a few hours, and then took a walk in Castello before we sat down for dinner at the Luna Sentada (for the second day in a row). After an equally great dinner as the night before, we loafed through Castello, drinking all the last of the sweet drops of Venice before going to bed.
Tuesday morning we took took an Alilaguna boat to the airport and then spent an hour and a half queuing at the check in. However, we didn’t mind that much, as we were still soaked up in the experience of having spent a week in one of the most magical cities on earth!