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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yes, it was a full bottle when it appeared before us. Yes we enjoyed it!
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.
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.
Finally though, it was time to leave.
Our final water taxi, taking us to the airport (jumper Henry Lloyd, lace skirt Ralph Lauren)
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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