I first came to Europe in fall 2001, as a law school exchange student in London. While there, I made weekend trips to Scotland, Paris, Nice/Marseille, Amsterdam, and Berlin. I’ve been back to Europe every year save two, and I’ve accomplished most of the Grand Tour. Portugal is the only country in Western Europe that I’ve missed entirely. As observant readers will know, I’ve now been around the world. And yet, somehow, I had never been to Venice until last week. Silly me.
I flew direct on Air Berlin, which is sort of the Southwest Airlines of Germany, with Tegel Airport as its Love Field. Very convenient. I landed at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport around noon on Wednesday and hoppped a bus for the twenty-minute ride to Venice’s “bus station,” Piazzale Roma, which is really just a big parking lot at the end of the bridge to the mainland. I stepped off the bus, walked a few feet to the Vaporetto dock and gawped at the perfect view down the Grand Canal to the Scalzi Bridge. I could bury this post with pictures of Venice (see all of them on Flickr) but I’ve got to show my very first look at Venice:
It was love at first sight.
I boarded Vaporetto No. 1 for a forty-five minute waterbus ride down the canal to St. Mark’s Square. It was a perfect way to get oriented, as we passed (and docked at) most of the major sights, including the famous Rialto Bridge, the Accademia, a host of beautiful churches and elegantly decayed Venetian mansions, before arriving at Piazza San Marco. I’d only brought a little daybag for my two-night trip, so I went straight into the square without stopping to check-in at my hotel. It was a warm, sunny day, and the cafés lining the square were packed. I’d been warned that these places are overpriced. I disagree. They’re expensive, to be sure. A glass of house wine and a little lunch-sized pizza set me back 25 Euros, including the cover charge. I don’t think that’s too much to pay for a front-row seat in the sun on one of the grandest squares in Europe, with a three-piece house orchestra over my shoulder and world-class people watching in front of me and St. Mark’s Basilica to my left, enjoying a bit of lunch served by solicitous white-jacketed waiters. I think it’s a bargain.
I seized the opportunity to tour the basilica. It’s a shame that so much of the magnificent exterior was covered in scaffolding, but what was visible was beautiful, and the interior is mostly unaffected by the ongoing restoration. The vaulted ceilings are covered in mosaics – collectively the size of a football field – that have retained most of their splendor over hundreds of years, and it’s just a magnificent space overall. Not as ornate as Notre Dame, certainly, or even St. Stephen’s in Vienna, but impressive for both its grand scale and its little details. Eventually, though, I made my way around the corner and along the Riva to my room for the next two nights at Casa per Ferie Santa Maria la Pietà. It’s not quite a convent, as I think I described it on Twitter, but it is a church-run, dorm-style place with bathrooms down the hall. Breakfast was a hard roll, a bit of peach marmalade, coffee, and water, which seems rather Franciscan in its austerity. It’s five minutes from St. Mark’s, profits go to help the poor, and it’s cheap, so it worked for me.
I had plans for a big, full sightseeing day on Thursday, so I spent the rest of Wednesday afternoon having a walk around the part of Venice on the St. Mark’s side of the Grand Canal. I suppose it’s the “south” side of the waterway, though it twists and turns so much that that’s only accurate about two-thirds of the time. I had a map and a guidebook and an audio tour to follow, but I still got lost a few times in the back lanes and one-person-wide alleyways. It’s easy to do, and it’s fun. You can’t get too far on a small island, and every corner and square hides some little surprise. I say this with the expertise of someone who’s spent parts of three days there, but I don’t think it’s possible to entirely escape the (other) tourists in Venice during the daytime. The main attractions are well-known and well-attended, and there are a couple of ritzy Prada-and-Swarovski shopping drags around town to draw those hordes. The back lanes are nearly empty even in the early afternoon. Getting lost was fun, and I feel like I got to see a bit of what’s left of un-touristy Venice.
I dined memorably and well at Osteria al Mascaron, a few winding blocks north(ish) of St. Mark’s. The seafood-heavy antipasto misto course could have been a meal by itself, and was mistaken as such by at least one Facebook commenter. I persevered and was rewarded with a swordfish filet so fresh and flavorful that I’m certain it had been separated from the rest of the fish only that afternoon. I did a bit more walking around after the meal, and discovered to my delight that a huge percentage of the daytime tourists retreat to their cruise ships in time for dinner, leaving the city refreshingly crowd-free. I don’t begrudge anyone their cruise ships, and I know plenty of people who return to them again and again, but I’ll never understand it. If you’re in Venice, why would you want to have the seafood buffet on the Disney Magic instead of the real thing a mile away?
After an austere breakfast Thursday morning, I set off at a brisk pace for the two fresh food markets on the other side of the Rialto Bridge, the bustling (and adjoining) fruit-and-vegetable and fish markets. It’s a farmers’ market on steroids. Seemingly every stall had every possible fresh fruit and vegetable (or, next door, every creature formerly living in the Adriatic), at perfectly reasonable prices, and everything was presented with such care and style. Presentation matters in the Erberia and the Pescaria. Just one more picture:
Avoiding the urge to pick up a picnic lunch at 9:00 a.m., I walked a bit deeper into the San Polo neighborhood to the Frari Church. I’ll be honest: after eight-plus months on the road, they’re starting to run together. St. Stephen’s stands out. The temples in Thailand stand out. Even the nearby St. Mark’s Basilica stands out. But if my life depended on it, could I tell the Frari from similar cathedrals and churches in Prague, or Munich, or Manchester? Not easily. Still, I’m happy I saw it, and it is very tall. Lunch was more interesting: a selection of chicchetti at Enoteca Cantine del Vino Già Schiavi (I can’t find a good link). These little bar snacks are similar to those at the Buffet Trzesniewski in Vienna. I asked the bartender to pick a mix of six for me. I’m not sure what all of them were, but at €1 a pop and an additional Euro for a glass of the house white, I really didn’t care. They were tasty and the atmosphere was fun.
In the afternoon I visited the Accademia, full of Titian and Tintoretto and the rest of high Venetian art from the Middle Ages through the Romantics, and the island-church of San Giorgio Maggiore, across the Grand Canal from St. Mark’s (and, therefore, the best place to get the postcard pic of the “skyline”). I couldn’t pass up the chance to have just one more glass of wine in the fading daylight in St. Mark’s Square, after which I wandered slowly around the city before ending up at Osteria Bancogiro. The food was good — I had a selection of Italian cheeses as an appetizer, and baked sea bream with polenta as my main — but the Grand Canal-side seating a few feet from the foot of the Rialto Bridge was spectacular. I reflected on how monumentally stupid I’d been not to come to Venice years ago.
Friday morning — Good Friday morning, in fact — I checked out of the hotel and walked around the corner to the Doge’s Palace. It’s rather grand, as palaces tend to be, and I learned quite a lot. I hadn’t realized just how powerful Venice had been in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, nor how powerful the doge (the elected duke) had been in controlling Venice. The complex system of councils, colegios, senates, and a fearsome Council of Ten is the forerunner of the American system of checks and balances, and it worked well enough that little Venice remained stable and prosperous enough to control the Mediterranean and much of the world beyond it for hundreds of years. The fact that the doges hired Titian and Tintoretto to do the walls only helped. Afterward, I had a last, wistful look at St. Mark’s Square, stopped for a delicious gelato (I opted for a cone with one scoop of kaffé and one scoop of mint), and caught Vaporetto No. 2 — the fast boat — pack to Piazzale Roma.
My flight back was with Lufthansa, with a connection in Frankfurt. We took off on time and had good weather all the way in to Lufthansa’s big hub until we were about ten feet off of the ground. I felt the plane move noticeably to the right, on two axes — the nose was no longer pointed straight down the runway, and the right wing was lower. This was easily perceptible from the cheap seats, which suggests just how massive a push we got from a rogue gust of wind just as the plane was about to touch down. The pilot gunned it and we roared back into the air at full speed. It was a genuinely frightening couple of minutes. Eventually the pilot came on and informed us that we’d just done a “go-around” because he hadn’t been certain he could land the plane safely, and that this was a common occurrence and nothing to get excited about. We did a big, lazy turn and were coming in to the airport again about fifteen minutes later, when the pilot came on the P.A. again and in a complete deadpan asked for the “cabin crew to please prepare for landing…again.” German humor. We landed without incident, I had a medicinal beverage in the terminal, and I continued on to Berlin without further peril. I was home in time for a late dinner, very pleased that I’d taken a little over forty-eight hours to experience Venice. I’m certain I’ll be back.