ODE TO VENICE
Venice has been flabbergasting visitors for centuries. Entering the city via the Grand Canal is an unforgettable experience whether it’s your first time or the tenth. Walt Disney could not have improved upon this architectural fantasy of Romanesque and Renaissance palaces, domed churches and arched bridges, all bathed in that rich radiant light that is Venice’s alone. Truman Capote once quipped that, “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs at one go.”
The moment I first laid eyes on her I was smitten by La Serenissima. Who would not be seduced by this fantastic mirage rising like a Venus from the lagoon? Nothing succeeds like excess could be her motto—from the golden mosaics of the Doge’s Palace to the marvelous Tintoretto-painted ceilings on the Sculoa di San Rocco.
Venice is like a treasure chest brimming with precious exotica from all over the world. This fantasy isn’t far from reality. The city was built by merchant princes whose navies ruled the eastern Mediterranean and dominated trade routes between Europe and faraway eastern lands.
So, if Venice seems to be a tapestry woven of silk, velvet and lace imbued with saffron, cinnamon, amber and silver filigree, it’s because those riches and more first entered the western world through her labyrinth of waterways. Probably nowhere else on earth does East meet West with so much panache.
Based on its watery logistics, Venice can be pricey, but I’ve also found several inexpensive ways to immerse yourself in her many charms. Read on.
(All prices approximated in Canadian dollars.)
THE “YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE” SPLURGE LIST
Posh Cocktails at the Gritti
I recommend a splurge at the Gritti Palace hotel on the Grand Canal, across from the Santa Maria del Salute church. Dating back to 1475, the building became the private residence to Andrea Gritti, the Doge of Venice in 1525. Sit out on the Riva Lounge terrace, outfitted like a yacht, and sip a Bellini made with Champagne and white peach purée. It may be the most expensive Bellini in Venice (about $30), but I doubt you’ll find a better one. Besides, the ambiance and people-watching are worth the bucks.
Burano, Island of Laundry & Lace
Buy exquisite hand-made lace at Emilia on Burano, the fisherman’s island, its houses painted in assorted crayon colours with ever-present laundry hanging from the windows. Lacemaking has been a tradition here as the wives of fishermen kept their hands busy. Why are the houses and shops painted so brightly? Probably so the fishermen could navigate to their homes when the lagoon is blanketed with fog. Dine on divine Piscean platters at Da Romano restaurant, owned by the same family for more than 100 years. My hero, Anthony Bourdain, sat in the same chair as I did, our handsome waiter Daniele informed me. Tony and I both enjoyed the specialty fish risotto and the decadent dessert made with mountains of meringue and Chantilly cream. From Venice, take the #12 vaporetto from Fondamenta Nova.
Where Venice Was Born
Make a pilgrimage to the island of Torcello, where Venice began back in the sixth and seventh centuries when the locals of the northwest Adriatic fled to the lagoons from the attacking barbarians. Visit Torcello’s remarkable cathedral and marvel over the Byzantine mosaics. Linger over lunch in the glorious garden of the Locanda Cipriani, where the British royals, Elton John and Ernest Hemingway also have dined. The three-course menu costs about $100. If you linger too long over your linguine, the Locanda has five charming rooms.
The Ultimate Operatic Experience
Enjoy live opera in the 12th century Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto on the Grand Canal. Guests and performers move from room to room for each act. At Musica a Palazzo chose from the Barber of Seville, La Traviata or Rigoletto performed weekly. Cost is $135.
The Ultimate Cliché
Shell out about $115 (more in the evening) for a 40-minute ride in a sleek black gondola gracefully maneuvered through the narrow canals by a dashing gondolier. It’s reputed that a naked Lord Byron swam home via the Grand Canal after a night on the town while his servant, carrying his clothes, followed behind in a gondola!
THE “CHEAP THRILLS” SAVE LIST
Take a Pass
Cost for a three-day vaporetto pass is about $78. Compare that with $20 for a one-time ride and you will probably opt for the pass.
The Best Rides in Town
Hop vaporetto number one at dusk, just as Venice’s iconic lamplights are casting their mauve glow against the misty sky. Pass the floating palaces, their grand salons illuminated by Murano-glass chandeliers and their lacy facades seeming to melt into the watery mirror below. Fantasize about masked balls at Carnevale.
Note also that the cheapest (and shortest) gondola rides are aboard the no-frills traghetti that cross the Grand Canal in several places. The fare is less than a dollar.
Wander & Wonder
Enjoy the local morning market at the Rialto Bridge where you can bargain for Carnevale masks, leather goods and admire the catch the day. Then allow yourself to get lost in the maze of narrow passageways, bridges and canals in this oldest part of town.
Keep in mind as you stroll around Venice’s 400 bridges and 117 islands, you’re actually walking over a petrified forest. The thousands of wooden poles pushed into the mud to create foundations over time have become petrified and are stronger than steel. In Venice, truth can be stranger than fiction.
Where else could Charles Dickens write, “The gorgeous and wonderful reality of Venice is beyond the fancy of the wildest dreamer. Opium couldn’t build such a place, and enchantment couldn’t shadow it forth in a vision…It has never been rated high enough. It is a thing you would shed tears to see.”
Grazing Venetian Style
Join gondoliers in rustic bacaros (wine bars) all over town for small glasses of wine and cichetti (savory tapas) such as marinated artichokes, a cod mixture spread on polenta squares and mini salami sandwiches. Try Cantina Do Mori, Venice’s oldest tavern dating back to 1462, San Polo 429, near the Rialto Market.
Or, mingle with locals at Al Merca, a cupboard-sized wine bar at the Rialto Market. Enjoy a spritz cocktail (originated in Venice) made of Aperol bitters, Prosecco, a dash of mineral water and garnished with a slice of orange or an olive.
Far from the Madding Crowd
Enjoy rustic fare under a canopy of grape vines with laundry flapping from nearby windows and kids kicking soccer balls in a quiet corner of Cannaregio. At Osteria alla Frasca, you’ll dine well on grilled octopus, homemade gnocchi with prawns and zucchini washed down with a good selection of reasonable wines.
First published at Travel Industry Today