VENICE IS THE most magical city on earth. The whole place is a museum. The only way to move around is on its famous canals and by foot through countless alleyways and across tiny stepped stone bridges.
Unfortunately, its many charms mean that everybody wants to go there. It is the most tourist-infested place on earth. It is impossible to move in the summertime and difficult most other times of the year. It is especially bad when the cruise ships come in, floating hotels that disgorge thousands of people who like to think they are traveling.
They have ruined the place. You simply don’t want to be there when the place is so incredibly crowded. So we went there in the middle of winter.
There were still quite a few tourists around, but nothing like summer. We had a whole week, which was especially wonderful because we had visited before and didn’t need to see all the main touristy sights.
In the third week of January the shops on the famous Rialto Bridge were closed, as were many restaurants. The relative lack of people made the place an absolute pleasure to visit.
Some people asked us why we were going in the middle of winter. “Won’t it be cold?” they asked. Well, yes. It is winter after all. But winter can be a wonderful time to travel. The food and drink tastes better, there are fewer people, and the crisp days make for wonderful walking weather. You simply dress appropriately. Every day was about 2 to 10°C. It can be foggy this time of year but we had a lovely clear winter days.
We stayed in our favourite place in Venice, the Hotel Al Ponte Mocinego. After a few trips this has become our home in the Serene Republic. It is just off the Grand Canal almost in the middle of the island. The Rialto is just ten minutes walk away, with the railway station about the same distance in the opposite direction. It’s right on the San Stae Vaporetto stop, so it’s easy to get anywhere.
The hotel is owned by Walter and Sandro and is a real gem. Not overly expensive by Venetian standards, with wonderful rooms like salons in a palace and a good breakfast. We tell all our friends about it and we will never stay anywhere else.
On this longer visit I resolved to explore Venice by foot. I made three separate expeditions on three different days. My first day was south of the Grand Canal. I had a map but I decided to walk randomly, which is a wonderful thing to do in Venice.
I hit more than a few dead ends, but I backtracked over the small bridges and down likely the looking alleyways before arriving at the Ponte dell’Academia, one of the three bridges across the Grand Canal. The others are the Rialto in the middle of the island and the Ponte degli Scalzi near the railway station.
The area I traversed on this first day is the least fashionable in Venice. It’s where the real people live. On a winter weekday I saw them in their natural habitat, doing their chores and eating at little local cafés. Then I crossed over to Piazza San Marco, the heart of the city, had a quick and expensive beer in Harry’s Bar just so I could say I had done it, then jumped a Vaporetto back home.
For my second day’s outing I walked down to the Rialto and explored the city to the east of there and north of San Marco. This is the most touristy part of town and there were plenty of them around, even at this time of year (I am not myself a tourist of course). I walked as far as the Arsenale in the east of the island and back along the waterfront past all the souvenir vendors. This is where the cruise ships come in.
On my third day I concentrated on the area north of the Canal across from my hotel. I had never had a good look at this part of town before. It is dominated by a wide east-west street (pedestrian of course) called the Rio Tera San Leonardo. It crosses the Canale di Canneregio, the second largest canal in Venice, at the Ponte della Guglie, where it becomes the Rio Tera Lista di Spagna.
The area is vibrant, with lots of restaurants and shops and some great little bars. It’s where most of the cheaper hotels are, especially near the railway station. It’s a lot earthier and less expensive than the area around San Marco. I liked it.
A visit to Burano
If you’ve got a bit of time in Venice you should also visit some of the other islands. We went across to Guideca one day. It is a largish island just south of the city, but there’s not much there. They have a carnival in summer when they build a pontoon bridge across to the main island, but most of the year it’s a quiet backwater. It’s the old industrial area and is starting to attract some art galleries and the like, but there are better places to go.
Lido is the large long island to the east that protects Venice and its lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. This is the original Lido that has given its name to many amusement parks around the world. It’s a much more regular type of place than Venice proper, with normal streets and cars. It was where von Aschenbach stayed in Thomas Mann’s famous novella Death in Venice, turned into a wonderful film by Luchino Visconti starring Dirk Bogarde. The Lido scenes were shot in the luxurious Hotel des Bains, now sadly derelict after a failed attempt to turn it into luxury apartments.
On this trip we travelled across the lagoon to the wonderful little island of Burano. This is not to be confused with the more famous Murano, known worldwide for its glassware but now sadly over touristed. Stay on the Vaporetto a few more stops to get to Burano, with its colorfully painted fisherman’s houses and a belltower that leans more than the one in Pisa.
But we were there to eat at the Trattoria Al Gatto Nero. Shaz and I mostly travel to eat and drink, and after lots of research we settled upon this excellent restaurant for our upmarket meal of the week. (Our special meal the previous week had been at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna). We were not disappointed.
The Black Cat is simply one of the best places we have ever eaten. We got there when the doors opened at 12:30pm and we were on our dessert when the first evening diners were arriving as the sun was setting four hours later. Lots of seafood, as you might expect. We had a sort of degustation with the beautiful local wines and of course the odd sgroppino between courses. This is a lemon sorbet cocktail, a Venetian specialty with enough vodka and prosecco in it to ensure the pallet is well and truly cleansed.
It was a good thing we didn’t have to drive. The Vaporetto on the return trip bypassed Murano and took us straight back to the main island. I’d like to spend more time on Burano one day. But everywhere in Venice is fabulous. There is nowhere else like it. There’s plenty of museums and churches and palaces and stuff, but what I like is the ambience. Just being there.
But don’t go in summer. We’ve now been there twice in winter, and I can assure you it is by far the best time to visit.