Make Venice Your Own
You’ll love the ancient watery city more if you arrive as a curious, respectful semi-innocent.
At night the street are alight with outdoor dining.
Photo by Niall62-CC
Is Venice the roiling horde of cranky cruise-ship passengers amid whom you queue under a scorching summer sun for overpriced and undersized gelato after making yours the billionth pair of eyes to view the Bridge of Sighs? Or can Venice be something less generic, less mass-market-landmark, more your own private discovery and less been-there-done-that?
Might Venice be—for you—a misty, moody maze whose spooky-silent, serpentine-green waterways—watch out; no guardrails!—catch your dappled silhouette and those of wooden-shuttered, stone-arched, sherbet-colored houses? Those houses are surely studded with the secrets of the centuries. Is it a place where, alone in a bamboo-festooned bistro, you pair chow fun with local prosecco between bouts of swirling-off-the-Adriatic autumn rain?
Maybe you’ll see the minty-white, sextuple-spiralled Bridge of Sighs spanning the Rio di Palazzo. And/or the herringbone-bricked Ducal Palace that John Ruskin loved. Maybe, along with countless others you, will ponder Jackson Pollack paintings in the grand halls of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. But maybe, instead, you’ll spend that same time sampling golden-fried sardines in the world’s original Jewish ghetto. Maybe you’ll observe the gleaming Lido through the windows of ruined ex-sickrooms on the plague-quarantine island of Poveglia. Maybe, dreaming of figs and artichokes, you’ll follow fireflies and long-legged waterfowl around serene, green, aromatic, ancient-ruins-studded Sant’Erasmo, the historic garden island where most of Venice’s produce grows.
As a stereotypically great city that’s been great for more than a millennium—was there ever a time before cartoons around the world depicted gondoliers?—Venice teeters on the verge of self-parody. Like all great cities, current-day Venice competes with its own iconicism, forever striving to step out of its own Vivaldi-shaped shadow.
How, then, to sidestep those roiling hordes? How to enter the ongoing pageant that is Venice and make it memorably your own?
Start by imagining that neither Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, nor Marco Polo ever wrote one word about it. Approach it as an almost-absolute-know-nothing who realizes, say, that Venice is not a solid swatch of land, but 177 tiny, bridge-linked islands festooning a wide lagoon; that it bloomed from a remote array of first-century fishing outposts into a palatial pilgrimage site after the alleged corpse of St. Mark was installed in its grand basilica circa 829. Let’s say you know that Venice then became a military, political, artistic, commercial superpower, one-third of whose population perished in a 1630 outbreak of the bubonic plague.
And let’s say that’s pretty much all you know. This lets you arrive in Venice as a curious, respectful semi-innocent.
This approach—try it in any great city—takes the pressure off you to see everything you’re expected to see and takes the pressure off great cities to be everything you expect them to be.
Air France connects Oakland International Airport with Venice’s pocket-sized Marco Polo Airport. From there, it’s a quick walk to the Bella Onda Bed & Breakfast, whose spacious rooms cost half the price of their cramped Old City counterparts. Riding a No. 5 bus from the Bella Onda into the Old City (debark at Piazza le Roma/Santa Chiara/Dock F to catch water buses) alongside students, workers, and other locals provides a nice transition between soccer-field-and-supermercato-studded suburban Venice and its fairy-tale-fabulous, famously famous Grand Canal.
Cars are forbidden on the Old City’s addictively walkable lanes, along which it’s pretty much impossible to make a wrong turn: Veer left; here’s a mom-and-pop pasticcheria selling deep-fried custard cubes called crema fritta. Veer right; here’s an outdoor antiques fair bustling with Carnevale masks, cameos, and flamboyant, starbursty, made-mere-blocks-away Murano glass. Just wander. And wander. Want a break? Board a boat.
Circulating 24 hours a day via 19 distinctive routes are the convenient, efficient, unpretentiously panoramic public-transit water buses known as vaporetti: Day and week passes maximize your freedom, letting you glide affordably in and out of lesser-visited sestiere (neighborhoods) such as tranquil Dorsoduro with its luxurious Giudecca islet or diverse, workaday Castello while gazing through the boats’ wide windows or over their open-air prows into countless cryptic doorways and spectral green depths—and waving at gondola-riding tourists.
While Venice is a year-round hub, its hordes thin out substantially from late fall through early spring—a long season of driving showers, bone-chilling mists, sporadic flooding, slightly lower prices, and shorter lines.
Stroll just a few blocks in any direction away from Venice’s major attractions into that cobblestoned maze, and while the houses around you look almost exactly as they did in Verdi’s day, their current residents wear Ray-Bans and sip Red Bull. It’s their city now, and they’re willing to share.
Marco Polo Airport: www.VeniceAirport.it/en
Peggy Guggenheim Collection: www.Guggenheim-Venice.it
Bella Onda B&B: Via Orlanda 30173 Tessera VE; www.BellaOnda.it
Vaporetti and other public transit: ACTV, www.actv.it/en
Venice offers more than tourist traps
Venice: City of Dreams
Venice teeters on the verge of self-parody. Like all great cities, current-day Venice competes with its own iconicism, forever striving to step out of its own Vivaldi-shaped shadow.