Ahh Venice! Hard to imagine a superlative that hasn’t been applied to La Serenissima. The epitome of European culture and style, it basks in it’s own glory with an air of genteel refinement mixed with cocky self-assurance. ‘Look at me! Aren’t I gorgeous?” it preens. Well, yes – the grand palaces, marble churches and famed canals all scream ‘photo opportunity’ and generate gushing hyperbole from travel writers, but beneath the sumptuous exterior this is also a quirky, off-beat city that rewards the curious visitor with ample opportunity to experience la vita quotidiana. Exploring the quiet campos and crooked callis you may come across a gondola being repaired, a fashion shoot being set up or a fishmonger singing an aria from La Boheme.
The best way to arrive in Venice is undoubtedly by train (ideally, of course, on the Orient Express!) Trust me, from the steps of Santa Lucia station the impact of the Grand Canal is instantaneous and guaranteed to give a first-time visitor a genuine thrill. Let’s assume, though, that you have only the weekend to spare and will arrive at either Marco Polo or (God forbid!) Treviso airport on a Friday night. In the case of the latter, let’s just skip over the 70 minute ignominy of an ATVO Eurobus transfer with Ryanair and move on. From Marco Polo take a water taxi into the city (around €100 – save 10% by booking in advance at Consorzio Motoscafi Venezia) or if you’ve more dash than cash head straight for the Alilaguna public ferry which will only set you back around €12 whilst still allowing you to arrive in some degree of style. Just turn left out of the terminal building and follow the signs. It’s around a 7 minute walk, but you’re not wearing your luggage, right?
1. If you’re going to choose the Alilaguna service then get a Venice Connected card online before you travel (from Venice Connected) and you can also select your discounted 12, 24 or 36 hour public transport tickets and museum passes at the same time (don’t bother with the daily ‘toilet card’ unless you have extreme bladder issues, just pop into a cafe for a cappuccino when you get the urge. N.B. Locals never drink cappuccino after midday, so better make it a prosecco darling!)
2. Unless your hotel has a private dock you will have to carry your own cases (I know – an outrage). Union regulations forbid hotel porters to collect luggage from public ferries and you may have to cross cobbled streets and narrow bridges, so suss out your hotel’s location well in advance and bring wheels or a strapping lad.
3. If you’re visiting in winter be prepared for the occasional ‘acqua alta’ (high tide, or flood) and, if you feel you really must wade through it like a tourist then pack sensible footwear alongside your jimmy choos. I defy anyone to look stylish in wellies, but going barefoot is not an option (does the phrase ‘drowned rat’ mean anything to you? No I am not talking about the other tourists.) Your best bet is simply to sit it out somewhere (appropriately) above it all and impossibly glamorous, like B-Bar at the Bauer Il Palazzo, and wait for the waters to subside.
4. In my book, a girl should never do her own ironing (admittedly, that’s my fairytale book) but in Venice you won’t be able to. Strict local laws restrict the use of irons in guest rooms so you have three choices: i. use the hotel’s own laundry service ii. sneak in your own travel iron – be prepared for slapped wrists if you are caught attempting to burn down a thousand years of history or iii. wear nylon (only joking, obviously. You have two choices.)
Where to stay
If you’re pushing the vaporetto out the best address in Venice is 4196 Riva Degli Schiavoni where you’ll find the the city’s grand dame, the Danieli. Facing south across the lagoon towards Santa Maria Maggiore it is steps away from the Doge’s Palace and a hop, skip and a jump to St Mark’s Square. Best of all it has a private mooring so you really can make a Bond-esque entrance. Doubles with lagoon views (else what’s the point?) are around €485, but do insist on the ‘Danielino’ annex. Jacques Garcia tarted this up in 2008 and did a splendid job – Belle Epoque meets Casablanca. Some of the older rooms are looking decidedly shabby.
If you’ve ideas above your station without the budget to match there is good news, my friend! Whilst Venice is certainly one of the most expensive cities in Europe, finding somewhere distinctive, chic and downright gorgeous to lay your neatly coiffured head need not involve a second mortgage. Recent changes in planning regulations in the municipality have resulted in a plethora of 16th century palazzos being converted into locandas, former monasteries being transformed into boutique hotels and Venetian nobleman’s residences being opened up to paying guests. And if sumptuous brocades, elegant loggias and renaissance art is not for you (what are you doing in Venice?) worry ye not, there are alternatives.
Here’s the pick of the beautiful bunch:
1. The new kid on the block is Aqua Palace, a four-storey boutique hotel which opened in summer 2010 to rave reviews. Located in the Castello district it can be hard to find so check the directions on the website carefully or arrive by water taxi at the hotel’s own private dock. Go for a junior suite canal view room and you’ll be serenaded by gondoliers passing under your window. It’s a stylish brew of sleek marble bathrooms, 16th century armoires, antique leather sofas and with flat-screen TVs. No bar as such but staff will place velvet stools and candles on the jetty for you to sip prosecco and get down and dirty with the locals. That’s roughing it in style. Doubles from €160
2. Ca’Sagredo has been on the radar for much longer. This converted 15th century pink palazzo overlooks the Grand Canal next to the Ca’d'Oro and is a sumptuous blend of history and hospitality. The library suite is stunning – not only for the canal view but also the 18th century bookshelves, crystal chandelier and hidden ladder linking the two floors. Other attractions include Frette linens, a renaissance ballroom, frescoes by Pietro Longhi, Vivaldi at breakfast and the excellent L’Alcova restaurant. There’s a private dock for classy arrivals but also a traghetto stop right outside for cheap but chic crossings. Doubles from €300.
3. If you don’t like the sound of living in a museum, give Ca’Pisani a try; Venice’s first design hotel is in Dorsoduro, slap bang next to the Accademia Bridge. At first glance, just another 14th century palace but move inside and you’ve been deceived. The 29 guestrooms are decidedly more modernist with their elegant mix of 1930s furniture, futurist artwork and gadgety bathrooms. (Don’t be embarrassed to ask what the switches are for – they’re used to it). No private dock or views to speak of, but you do get attention to detail, bellboys, a steamroom with rooftop terrace and La Rivista winebar. Ask for room 30; go on – you know you want to. Doubles with canal view around €340
4. Oltre Il Giardano is a genuine hideaway in San Polo with a country-house feel yet only ten minutes from the Rialto. Seductively hidden behind its own walled garden, it is a true haven in a city of hordes. With simple but stylishly designed rooms (no damask or brocade in sight), original artwork, fresh flowers and Bulgari toiletries, not to mention a water taxi entrance right outside, this place is a gem. In fact, with only six rooms that start at €150… sssh! let’s not crow about this one or they’ll all want to stay here.
5. Another (relatively) thrifty option that comes up trumps in the style stakes and gives you a room with a view Canaletto would be proud of is Locanda Leon Blanco. More glorified guesthouse than boutique hotel the original terrazzo floors and heavy wooden doorways nevertheless generate just the right atmosphere of faded grandeur. If you ask for a canal view room you’ll have pole position overlooking the comings and goings of Venice’s main waterway and the Rialto bridge, as did Whistler when he stayed here. Simple breakfast and no public rooms but location, location, location. Doubles around €200.
6. Palazzo Barbarigo is another restored 16th century palazzo wherein the collar doesn’t match the cuffs – inside is a brooding, sexy, art deco dream of black marble floors, red velvet tassels and mirrored ceilings – that may sound like a seventies porn film set but trust me, it’s much classier. Just make sure you arrive by
speedboat at the private landing stage, wearing shades and looking as moody as possible (a la Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie who filmed here recently – see The Tourist) otherwise spend most of your weekend trying to find the back entrance, in a slightly nerdy kind of a way. They may not answer the door. Most of the rooms overlook the Grand Canal but if you luck out you can still commandeer the balcony for two in the uber-cool bar. Just remember to look enigmatic. Doubles from €320
If you arrive early enough, dive straight into the warren of streets around the Rialto for a Venetian bar crawl. Although not renowned for its thriving nightlife, the traditional bars or bacari in this area date back to the 15th century and offer a pleasant overture to your weekend. Locals gather here to have cichetti e l’ombra (a snack and glass of wine, tapas-style). You can graze at these all evening (though most will close by 9pm so we’re not talking about a rave-up). The most authentic include Do Mori (Calle de Do Mori, off Ruga Vecchia) and Ruga Rialto, (in Calle del Sturion, off Ruga Rialto – open till midnight). You’ll find Bancogiro in the Campo San Giacometto (though the authenticity here is actually fake) and from here you can cross the Rialto and Campo San Bortolomio, go through the sotoportego and turn right immediately into a tiny calle to find Alla Botte, which will be packed with students. Finally, Alla Vedova on Strada Nuova (the official name is Osteria Ca’ D’ Oro, but ‘the widow’s place’ is the name the locals prefer. And why not?) Excellent cichetti such as baccalà (codfish) with polenta, tiny octopus (folpetti) in tomato sauce or polpette (spicy fried meatballs).
Take a deep breath – you’re about to get caught up in the crowds today and with a whirlwind timetable. There is nothing to be done, this is Venice – so grin and bear it…remember, you can sleep when you’re dead. Ready? OK, head out early to catch the Rialto markets in full swing. Stallholders start setting up west of the Rialto as early as dawn but 8am is fine for you to join the locals, who have been coming here for fresh fruit, vegetables and fish for almost a thousand years. Look out for local specialities like ‘moleche’ (soft-shelled crabs), ‘castraure’ (baby artichokes) in spring and radiccio from Treviso. As you’re in the area, do your best to visit the oldest grocery shop in Venice, Mascari, at Calle degli Spezieri 381. If you’re looking for foodie gifts then their Sicilian capers, ‘torrone con mandorle e miele’ (nougat with almonds and honey) or truffle butter should go down a storm. Flagging already? Nip into Caffe del Doge at 609 Calle dei Cinque for a fortifying cappuccino. Don’t let the fact it’s a chain put you off, their pedigree is sound. Now hop on the No 1 vaporetto at the Rialto Mercado stop (remember to validate your ticket) or cross over the bridge to the Rialto stop for the 25-minute journey down the Grand Canal to St Marks Square (get off at S. Zaccaria, in front of the Danieli).
One way to avoid the crowds at the Doge’s Palace and to get an inside look at the dirty dealings of the Venetian administration in its heyday is to bookthe Secret Itinerary. Not so secret nowadays! Just step off the boat and walk across to the ticket office at Palazzo Ducale to exchange your pre-booked vouchers for entry tickets (take some I.D and your pre-printed voucher. You will have booked in advance at Viva Ticketfor €24 or by now be crying into your cappuccino at the sight of the queues.) The 10.45am tour allows you time to peruse the Rialto market first and stop for lunch at a civilized time but you can rearrange things as necessary if that slot is not available. This 90-minute guided tour (in English) takes you throughback-rooms, secret passages, torture chambers and dungeons in the attic. Casanova fans will be delighted to see the reconstructed cells in which he was kept in solitary confinement and to hear the (slightly impausible) story of his escape. Once the tour ends you can go on to visit the rest of the palace without queuing or paying extra (it’s worth shelling out a few euros for the audio tour as information is hard to come bywithin the museum itself). Don’t miss Tintoretti’s Paradiso in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, thought to be the largest oil painting in the world or the Bocca dei Leoni (lion’s mouth), a slit in the wall into which secret accusations were placed for the attention of the council of ten, or secret police.
By now you’ll be hungrier than a movie star ten days before the Oscars so skidaddle across St Mark’s to an oasis of civilization, Caffe Quadri, for a slap-up lunch. You’ll have made a prenotazioni first, of course (for around 1.30-1.45) and you’ll skip straight upstairs, past the throngs and into a window table in either the Sala Correr or Sala Ducale. An institution amongst Venetians (it’s a popular choice for intimate wedding celebrations) this venerable restaurant has played host to the great and the good (including Balzac, Byron and Sting) since 1830 and now you too can enjoy the red silk-lined walls, gilt mirrors, glassware by Spiegelau, chandeliers from Murano and the bill preferably paid by someone else. A blow-out lunch will cost around €100 per head without wine but then you will have an enviable view of one of the most famous squares in the world and the opportunity to feel not a trifle Doge-like yourself. The Quadri suits this itinerary well, but if you cannot get a reservation or want something a little (dare I say it?) cheaper then try Osteria Enoteca San Marco at Frezzeria 1610 closeby for a much more rustic experience. Carlo and his three partners oversee this bustling bistro and have a great wine list and imaginative dishes including a cheese and jam platter, tagliatelli with sardines, pinenuts and raisins and fava bean pudding with cheese fondue. Get your concierge to reserve a table, on 41 528 5242.
[WARNING: Do not, under any circumstances, trust to luck in Venice regarding food. You will find any number of overpriced tourist hellholes calling themselves ’ristoranti’, particularly around St Mark’s Square, serving up squalid ‘menu turisticas’ as if they have no shame. Like a night with a transvestite they are bound to disappoint.]
If you are having lunch here, spare a moment to drool over the amazing pieces in Codognato, at Calle dell’Ascensione, off Frezzeria (first right after the Bauer). This great European jewellery house was a favourite of Jacqui Kennedy, Coco Chanel and Diana Vreeland, so you’ll be in good company. Baroque blackamoor brooches, antique cameos, rings set with precious skulls (yes, honestly). Seriously exclusive, with prices to match.
Now, as befits those who are about to see the most important timepiece in Venice, we mustn’t be late. It’s nearly 3 o’clock and you must waddle along to the northeast corner of St Mark’s Square where you’ll find the glorious clocktower, or Moors’ Tower or Torre dell’Orologio (you’ll have booked online in advance for €12 atViva Ticket and swapped your online vouchers for tickets at the Correr museum before lunch). Meet your guide promptly (it’s the only way to see inside the tower) at the side door, underneath the archway in Marzaria de l’Orologio. In 1499 Giampaolo and Giancarlo Rainieri engineered an extraordinarily elaborate clock which displayed not only the time of day but also the dominant sign of the Zodiac and the phases of the moon. Recently restored by Piaget, the clock still keeps perfect time and the tour, lasting just under an hour, allows you a superb view across St Mark’s, the lagoon and rooftops of Venice. Not to be missed.
Well now it’s 4pm and, as you haven’t eaten anything for more than an hour it must be time for afternoon tea at the Hotel Danieli’s Bar Dandolo. If you don’t need to put your manolo’s up but need a sweet fix then shimmy along toPasticceria Marchini at 2769 Calle Spadaria, (north off the main square and the next street up from Marzaria de l’Orologio), near the Campo Santo Stefano. This gem of a cake shop has been catering to the Venetian sweet tooth for more than sixty years; watch the artisans creating the goodies through the observation windows before making your choice. Standing room only. You can have coffee too, but make sure you don’t reinforce the fact that you’re a tourist by ordering a cappuccino in the afternoon…
Now, I feel a spot of shopping coming on…most shops will be closed tomorrow and you’ll probably be passing these anyway on your way back to the hotel. So, avoid the tourist tat if you can and try these (most of them will close at 7 or 7.30pm):
If you’re coming out of the Danieli, either take the waterbus just the one stop along to San Marco Valloresso or just turn right out of the hotel and walk along the sea side of St Mark’s Square towards the Hotel Monaco, turning right at the vaparetto stop into Calle Vallaresso. Your first stop should be Battiston at No. 1320. Here you’ll find genuine Murano glassware in a wide variety of guises. Look out for the San Marco decanters.
(Note: Harry’s Bar is at 1323; take a photo if you must but don’t be tempted inside for a Bellini just because the drink was invented here. There will already enough shocked and disappointed tourists inside, struggling to understand why they’re paying €18 to drink pre-mixed sherbert in what looks like a working men’s club. If you’re really curious, buy a Bacardi Breezer at your local Asda and sit in your doctor’s waiting room drinking it. It’ll be just like the real thing, although there’ll probably be more atmosphere and the doctor’s receptionist will be friendlier. I trust I have made my point.)
Next on your shopping itinerary should be Bottega Veneta, Calle Vallaresso 1337. Yes, you’ve died and gone to handbag heaven. At the end of Calle Vallaresso turn left and past the Campo San Moise, across the bridge and onto XXII Marzo where you will find Venetia Studium at No. 2425, a veritable aladdin’s cave of Fortuny lamps, furnishings, silk bags and scarves. Still desperate for more? Ooh, you’re insatiable! A little further on, into Calle de le Ostreghe you can plunge into Il Prato and wallow in their exquisite hand-made paper, miniature libraries, leather goods and Commedia Dell’Arte theatres. Hermes share the same manufacturer. Now, you may well get lost here (but that’s half the fun) but head for Campo San Maurizio (take a right just before the next bridge and cross the canal) and at 2666 you’ll see the divine workshop that is Vittorio Trois, selling original Fortuny fabrics. Almost next door is Costantini, a showcase for the miraculous work of Vittorio Costantini who crafts exquisite insects and sea creatures from Murano glass. Now finally, head north for the Palazzo Corner Spinelli which is right on the Grand Canal near the San’Angelo Vaporetto stop and dive into Rubelli Fabrics for a rummage. From here you can take the No 1 water bus route back to your hotel where your well-deserved ombra is waiting. (If you’re staying at the Barbarigo it is immediately opposite so just take the traghetto across the Grand Canal – remember to stand up or stand out).