Honeymoon Week in Venice

Venice is a little bit like Rye in East Sussex, in that it’s very beautiful and feels very old, but a Rye surrounded by a lagoon and packed full of Americans.

Technically Venice consists of a group of 118 small islands, separated by canals and linked by bridges. You don’t really get a sense of this though. The canals are always in use, water taxis and gondoliers gliding along them at all hours of the day and night, so they resemble aquatic roads rather than barriers to movement. The extensive network of bridges also means that you’re rarely stuck on one side of a canal when you’d rather be on the other, and the meandering path you’re often forced to take only adds to the charm of Venice.

The water taxis are outrageously expensive, but worth it if you have suitcases with you. Just be prepared to part with fifty euros for a ten minute journey if that’s how far you’re going. They are of course a lot of fun as well. We shouldn’t forget that!

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Beautiful, beautiful VeniceDSC_0652 (800x533)

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Tom had rented a concierged apartment for us, so we jumped into a water taxi outside the train station that took us right to the front door. It was not as atmospheric as Palazzo Guadagni, but it was quiet and private, and close to but not right in the crowded heart of Venice. Despite the crowds in the centre, as soon as you manage to escape them you’ll find yourself almost completely alone. Tom and I spent our first day wandering around San Polo, and hardly saw another soul.

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Most of Venice gives the distinctive impression that it is crumbling, in a completely beautiful way. Plaster has been eroded away by the elements, painted wooden shutters are peeling and flaking, and even some of the buildings are subsiding, as if desperate to sink beneath the waves to escape the modern world.

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From a distance it is merely picturesque. Elegant and in proportion. When you look closely though you realise how stunning  it really is. Architecturally sublime.

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Venice is particularly famous for its masks, as it perpetuates its own Renaissance tradition of an annual Carnival. There are shops selling them all over the place, and though a lot have similar stock I would suggest checking each one if you’re particularly keen on masks like me, as there are always slight variations in the designs of the proprietors; you’re bound to find something unique if you keep looking.

The most famous square, the Piazza San Marco, functions primarily as a tourist trap these days. Though it’s worth a look I wouldn’t stay too long. We sat and had a drink only to find other tourists photographing us, so we soon left. We avoided Basilica de San Marco and instead made our way to Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo. It is actually the principal Dominican church of Venice, and after the fifteenth century the funeral services of all Venice’s Doges (elected leaders) were held here. Twenty five doges are buried within the basilica, and there are a number of medieval and renaissance wall tombs set within the vast space. It also contains many beautiful funerary monuments and paintings, and a foot of St Catherine of Siena, the church’s chief relic. Despite this, it’s often overlooked. Luckily for us. Quiet and peaceful, we whiled away an afternoon searching for Catherine’s foot.

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No flash photography was allowed, so the photos I took came out as being a little more atmospheric than I intended, but they certainly give you an idea of the scale and grandeur of the basilicaDSC_0734 (800x533)

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There are restaurants and cafes all over Venice, hoping to lure in the weary and indiscriminate, but I would definitely suggest asking for recommendations rather than leaving where you eat to chance. I should also add that you absolutely must make dinner reservations in Italy. Not just because the best places are often booked up days in advance, but because it is part of the culture. Without a booking restaurants will inevitably try to seat you by the door, toilets or kitchen even if they have plenty of free tables.

Hotel reception staff are happy to advise and make bookings for you, so make the most of this. The concierge at our apartment was incredibly helpful, even going so far as to mark out his favourite restaurants, cafes and gelateria on a map for us. Two particular favourites of ours were Osteria di Santa Marina and A Beccafico. The first of these served up an incredible seven course tasting menu, each dish a carefully crafted morsel that combined and balanced its ingredients perfectly. They also tailored the menu specifically to our tastes, replacing dishes we didn’t favour with ingredients that we did. It was just wonderful.

The food at A Beccafico was simpler fare but still excellent, and the service really stood out. We avoided revealing that we were on honeymoon to anyone, as we were wary of any sort of fuss spoiling things for us, but the staff here treated us so well we may as well have told them. They were friendly and attentive, offered to take photos of us together, and brought us a whole bottle of limoncello after our meal at no extra charge.

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Yes, it was a full bottle when it appeared before us. Yes we enjoyed it!

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Venice at Night

We visited a number of galleries and museums, all bursting with ancient marble, Byzantine gold and other treasures, but I had to share one in particular with you. We actually stumbled upon it one evening when wandering aimlessly through the backstreets, and vowed to return when it was open. Palazzo Mocenigo houses a museum dedicated to the history of Venetian fragrance. There are twenty room to wind your way through, all furnished with antiques, oil paintings and curiosities aimed at illustrating the different aspects of a Venetian nobleman’s life between the 17th and 18th centuries. Valuable ancient garments are displayed on mannequins, the fabrics, embroidery and lace embellishments testament to the the refined elegance Venice was famed for. Each room tells a different story, paintings and ornaments helping to construct the narrative, but what I had really been drawn to was the perfume.

Renaissance Venice turned scent into an artform, and there are five rooms in Palazzo Mocenigo entirely dedicated to it. Both informative and sensory, the history and reality of perfume are thoughtfully illustrated. One room evokes the alchemical laboratory of a 16th century perfumier, in another is a collection of perfume bottles dating form the Middle Ages to the present day, but in my favourite room there is a table covered with herbs and spices. The magical raw materials of perfume.

No photos are allowed, so these are taken from the website

No photos are allowed, so these are taken from the website

No photos are allowed, so these are taken from the website

I would like a room like this. Huge bowls full of frankincense and myrrh, sticks of cinnamon, lavender and star anise, gleaming black vanilla pods, and the more unusual musk from animal glands or ambergris (a solid, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish colour that is produced in the digestive system of sperm whales). There are also 16th century books on display (and in electronic translation) revealing the secrets of the art of perfume. Part cosmetic, part medicine, part magic.

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Finally though, it was time to leave.

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Our final water taxi, taking us to the airport (jumper Henry Lloyd, lace skirt Ralph Lauren)

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When we left Venice, our taxi driver got into several shouting matches with the other boats as we made our way through the congested canals. When we reached the open water he chucked an empty pizza box over his shoulder into the water, swore at the city, and proceeded to drive twice as fast as all the other water taxis trundling towards the airport. The horrified faces of drivers and their passengers swept by us in a flurry of spray, as we bounced, delighted, across the wakes of all the boats that had preceded us.

We came back to reality with a bump when we returned, forced to dive straight back into work that is only just starting to ease off enough for us to catch our breath, four months later. It wasn’t all work though. I’ve got a few stories to share with you about dolphins, lochs and mountains!

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Honeymoon Week in Florence

After a week in Cornwall with our friends, we popped back to London, then flew straight on to Florence!

I visited Florence once before, with my drama group when I was sixteen. I loved it then, and vowed to return; but I didn’t realise I would do it in quite such wonderful circumstances. Tom and I stayed at Palazzo Guadagni, a Renaissance palazzi that has been converted into a hotel. Formerly a grand private residence belonging to a wealthy 16th century family, it is not only completely charming but located in the Santo Spirito neighbourhood, which is much quieter than other tourist-filled areas and also renowned for it’s antique and artisan boutiques.

We listened to La Traviata a lot. I really could not have been happier.

Palazzo Guadagni

The loggia, now converted into a ‘rooftop garden’ (bar) that overlooks the city centre and Florentine hills beyond. I would like a loggia please.

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Reading on the loggia after breakfast

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Posing on the loggia at sunset

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The rooms were spacious, far more so than any of the 5* hotels we’ve stayed in, and we spent a fair amount of time admiring the view across crooked terracotta rooftops. My only complaint about Italy is that it’s very difficult to get champagne anywhere. You’re forced to drink prosecco, and I can’t stand the stuff. Sorry Italy. We managed to buy a bottle of champagne nearby though, and the hotel were good enough to bring us an ice bucket and champagne flutes (prosecco flutes?), so we could enjoy it on the ‘rooftop garden’ one evening.

Our room was at the top of the palazzo, and whilst there was a creaking lift Tom preferred taking the stairs. When the stairs are as pretty as these I could hardly complain though.

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It’s a long way down

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The elegant private-entrance to Palazzo Guadagni

We spent a lot of time simply exploring the streets of Florence, admiring the architecture and wandering into boutiques and galleries we came across. I do think this is the most relaxing way you can explore a city, and you get a far better sense of its soul than if you simply follow the other tourists. Occasionally we would stumble across the main thoroughfares, and recoil in horror at the madding crowd.

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The whole city seems to glow a warm, golden colour.  I couldn’t help but suspect that the warmth of Tuscany would pervade even when it rained.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore

My absolute favourite boutique was Maurizio Salici. We came across it one evening on our way home, and it beckoned to me like a magical toyshop. “We can come back tomorrow!” Tom promised, dragging me away. The window display alone was enough to lure me in; its carefully crafted clutter of antiques, ornaments and books had me transfixed.

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We did indeed return the next day, and I wandered around blissfully. My eye was caught by a trinket from the 1700s, when pieces of coral were attached to wooden lion’s feet (the lion being Florence’s heraldic symbol thanks to the Medici family), and gifted to newlyweds as good-luck charms. Maurizio Salici doesn’t usually allow photography, but as I, er, bought it, they suggested I might like to take just one photo of it in the shop before it was wrapped up. So I did, of course!

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The shopping in Florence in general is delightful though, and I was guided by Louise Fili’s little book ‘The Civilised Shopper’s Guide to Florence’. She took me to artisan chocolate shops like Dolceforte, seventeenth century perfume shops like Officina Profumo Farmaceutica Di Santa Maria Novella, and Scriptorium, which sells everything for the lover of handmade books and calligraphy.

The Civilised Shopper's Guide to Florence

There are too many wonderful things to see and do in Florence for me to tell you about everything, but I must show you the Boboli Gardens. The wealthy and powerful figures of the Italian Renaissance competed to illustrate their status through increasingly spectacular gardens, and a few of these still exist today. Monty Don’s BBC series on Italian gardens is an excellent introduction, and he is invited into many gardens as exclusive today as they were in the Renaissance, but the Boboli Gardens are actually open to the public.

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Your tour-guide Tom will show you around

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Neptune and heron

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Tom and I spent a very enjoyable half hour hunting the lizards that have made their home in the walled garden, to the horror of all the other tourists there

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For seven euros you can spend as long as you want exploring these beautiful gardens. They’re well maintained, and different areas lead you cleverly onwards to discover a multitude of grottos, statues and temples. They cover 111 acres in total, and overlook the Pitti Palace, the main seat of the Medici grand dukes of Tuscany in Florence.

Oh, and there’s a nice cafe as well. Which is very important, I’m sure you’d agree. Here’s a picture of Tom looking at the menu in front of some lemons.

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I really do love Florence, and it was a perfect continuation of our honeymoon. Tom’s organisation skills were not limited to one Italian city, however. The wonders of Venice beckon…

I’ll show you around in my next blog post!

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