I’m sure it hasn’t escaped anyone’s attention that Christmas has just been and gone. As a clergy family we’ve been incredibly busy over the last few weeks with Christmas related stuff- an increased social calendar in church; the kids having various Christmas activities going on; preparing for family coming to stay; buying and wrapping our own Christmas presents, and a load for people in our community- the result of which is that my good intention of writing this post a lot closer to our break, disappeared down the drain. However, the family have now gone home, the house is left to myself, and I have a little while to sit in front of my computer. Technically I’m even still in 2017!
At the end of October, Steve and I were lucky enough to have the opportunity to go away for half term. It turned out to be very useful timing as I had been planning a conference, and really needed the break when it came! We were keen to try and keep a low budget when we booked our holiday, so we booked flights early and found ourselves a B&B. I love travelling, and particularly going to new places, but sometimes it’s nice to go back to places you’ve been before with new people. One of our family holidays when I was a child was to Venice, and I was keen to return and experience this beautiful city as an adult. And I was so glad I did!
Although my memory from that long ago isn’t entirely accurate, I found that the main thing that had changed was the absence of pigeons. I think feeding the pigeons in St Marks Square is probably one of my key recollections, but now they’ve placed a ban on feeding the birds, the hordes of pigeons aren’t there. Probably just as well, as I think I’m probably too old for a pigeon on my head now!
We came away with a couple of things that we wanted to do, but we quite often have such busy holidays that we wanted this one to be a bit more laid back. Nothing was booked in before we arrived, and we spent a lot of time just wandering around the city, and listening to the recommendations from our B&B owner.
It makes sense to start with the accommodation I suppose. I don’t always talk about our hotels but this one was lovely. We stayed in Ca’ Buata, which is in the Ospedale region of Venice, and is an old palazzo, converted into about 6 rooms of different sizes, off a large central hall which is used as the breakfast room. The place is nice and private, the rooms are ensuite and have wifi; but the best thing about the place is the owner. Davide was unfailing helpful and found us some real gems to eat, as well as recommending routes to take around the city.
The Ospedale section itself is quite interesting. Ospedale just translates as hospital, but because this is Venice, a lot of things are housed in ancient buildings, and the old hospital building is gorgeous. It took us a while to work out that’s what it was because it looks more like a palace or church. At the same you have the juxtaposition of the arriving ambulance boats- which Steve found quite weird, but then, with a city of canals, what would be the point of a car?
We saw so much in the 5 days that we were there, that I’m struggling to write in a logical sequence, so I’m going to try and split it up into sections: the food, the churches, the sights, and the islands. Of course, the order of priority dictates that I start with the food. Italians are well known for their good food- pizza, pasta and gelato beings the obvious choices- so we were looking forward to trying as much as we could while we were away. We arrived in the evening, and after catching the water bus into Venice from the airport and finding our hotel, we made our first mistake of finding somewhere near the Rialto Bridge, where we were lured in by fairy lights, to have something to eat. The food was over priced, the wine even more so, and nothing to write home about. We wasted a perfectly good eating opportunity and made sure we didn’t make that mistake again! Whatever you do, don’t eat in the immediate vicinity surrounding the main tourist attractions, go and get yourself lost on a side street and go there. I can guarantee it will be better.
The best meal we had was at Osteria alla Staffa which, fortunately, was quite close to our hotel. There was a wait when we arrived, but we stood in the doorway with a glass of wine, and it was well worth it. There was a lot of seafood and black pasta on the menu, which all looked amazing when I was looking over other people’s shoulders. They also had a few meat dishes including a duck ragu; as well as an extensive wine list and some pretty amazing desserts as well- including the creme brulee below! It was so good that we came back a couple of days later with a tip as we had run out of change!
We found a little pizzeria called Ai Bari, which was great for a cheap and cheerful pizza at lunchtime while we were exploring, and we knew it was good because of the number of Venetian locals coming in on their lunch breaks, with their regular table set up ready and waiting for them.
Another restaurant we were recommended by Davide was the Trattoria Storica in the Cannaregio part of Venice. We decided to give it a go one evening when we weren’t near our hotel. The food was good and not too expensive, but the atmosphere wasn’t quite as welcoming as other places. It may have been because most of the other guests seemed to be Italian, so maybe they weren’t expecting tourists. However there were complimentary drinks at the start and the end of the meal, the staff were polite but not chatty, and the food was worth the slight detour from our journey home.
We also visited another really good restaurant near our hotel called Spaghetteria 6342 a le Tole. We were recommended this restaurant again, and it took a couple of days trying to get reservations before we actually made it, as it was busy every day we were there. This one had more of a mix of tourists and Italian families so it was a little bit more friendly. The menu was primarily pasta with some pizza as well, and a fabulous dessert menu. I couldn’t decide what to have so went for the chef’s special which was a combination of minis- definitely a good idea! It was a little bit more expensive than Osteria alla Staffa, but still very reasonable. If it wasn’t so difficult to get a table then we could have happily gone back!
It would take too long to mention all the little gelaterias and pizza bars that we stopped off at while we were away, and we sort of lost track wandering round so many of them anyway. One place that is worth mentioning though is a little place we accidentally wandered into while we were looking for somewhere to have a drink, and we’re still not entirely sure whether we were supposed to be there.
Having looked on Trip Advisor, we think we might have been in the courtyard of the We Crociferi hotel, however there was a bar at the end where the barman made us cocktails that he’d made up as he went along, and we’d been served a platter of Italian meats. The courtyard was decorated with fairy lights and deckchairs, with cushions turning the arches into benches, and seemed to be full of students. I like to think that we would still pass as students, but in all honesty I have no idea where we were or what was going on. All I know is that it was a really good cocktail and a lovely place to sit for a bit.
Discounting Burger King beers, the Magnum shop, and the multiple places we stopped for an Aperol Spritz or a Bellini, the only other food related thing that needs mentioning is the food tour we took around the Jewish Quarter with Food Tours of Venice.
We first took a food tour in Amsterdam, and really enjoyed going to places and trying food that we wouldn’t have found otherwise. They are expensive, but well worth doing, particularly if there’s only two of you and you’re not staying somewhere long. You join up with a group of other people, ours were couples but sometimes family groups go too, and then walk to different places with a guide who will have pre-arranged for your group to come straight in and eat. They decide what is on the menu, as they know what is best locally, and give you the history of the places you visit.
We started off at a restaurant in the Jewish Ghetto, where we tried Jewish wine, falafel, houmous, fried artichokes, chickpeas, fried apple sauce, sardines- a lot of things that I hadn’t tried before. Not everyone liked everything, but you were ok as long as you were willing to try.
While we were still in the Jewish Ghetto we went to a Jewish bakery, round the corner from 3 of the 4 synagogues- although not all of them are still active. Our guide explained that the Venetians were proud of their history with the Jews, as they saw themselves as being one of the few places in Europe to provide somewhere for Jews to live, however what they saw as walls of sanctuary, could very quickly become walls of prison as the ghettos became increasingly populated, and had to build upwards as well as eventually expand. At the bakery we tried impades, which are a dough filled with an almond filling.
Before we left the Jewish Ghetto, our guide told us a bit about what happened to the Jews in the second World War. The Jewish Ghetto before the war had a population of about 2,000- which was already much lower than it had been when the Ghetto was at its height about before 1797 when Napoleon ended the segregation and Jews could live outside the Ghetto. The city of Venice was sympathetic towards Jews, and many of them fled or were hidden away before the occupation of Italy. However in late 1943 and 1944, around 200 Jews were rounded up from Venice and eventually taken to Auschwitz. At the end of the war only 8 Jewish residents from Venice returned to the city. The population of the Ghetto went down to 1500 or less.
All around the Ghetto you can see reminder and memorials to the presence, and absence of Jews. The original Banco Rosso is still there, as well as little brass plaques on the doors outside houses, that commemorate people who used to live there who died in Auschwitz- these plaques can be found throughout the rest of the city and the world as well. There is also a large memorial on the wall that depicts Jews being put onto the trains to be taken away. As with many sites of memorial around Europe, there is a noticeable security presence to protect these places of remembrance.
Our next stop was still in the Jewish Quarter, but outside the Ghetto, at a bar selling wine and cicchetti. Cicchetti are the Italian version of tapas, and vary according to where you go. They are small bites that you have with a drink to slow down the absorption of alcohol! We stopped in a couple of places for cicchetti and tried different things in each. In the first was fried cheese, smoked salmon, trout paste, ham and cheese melts, and something nice and sweet all washed down with prosecco, while we were in a comfy back room. The second place was a lot smaller so we ate on the bank on the river where we had red wine with bread, different cold meats, and polenta.
Our final restaurant was one of the oldest ones in Venice, on a road that used to be a canal but was filled in- although you can still see the difference between the pavement and the canal. There we had two massive plates of pasta- one of seafood and one duck, as well as a huge plate of gnocchi with pumpkin and amaretti biscuits. I don’t normally like gnocchi but that was pretty good. Our very last stop was what everyone needs to round off an evening, stopping at one of the oldest gelato shops in the city.
It is definitely worth doing a food tour early on in your visit, as it gives you loads of ideas of places that are worth going back to, as well as some insider knowledge of how to pick a good restaurant. Loads of city have food tours now, so if you are going on a city break and love food, then have a look into doing one when you arrive.
One of the other things that Venice is known for though, is its churches. As you wander around the city you realise that they are everywhere, and it’s very difficult to know which one is which, and which ones are the best ones to go into. We stuck our heads round the doors of quite a few, including Santi Giovanni e Paolo near where we were staying, before deciding that we would only actually visit two of the better known churches.
The first church that we ‘did properly’ was Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, which is a seriously impressive church. While the outside could be mistaken for any other Venetian church, the inside was incredibly interesting. It contains a monument to the artist Canova (erected by his students), which is like a pyramid and doesn’t fit in with the rest of the church, opposite a monument to Titian, a painter who died of the plague in 1576, and whose monument wasn’t erected until the 1800s, by the same Canova who is opposite him.
The other two parts of the church that I found particularly impressive was the picture of the Assumption by Tiziano Vecellio in the sanctuary- not normally my cup of tea but it fits very well into the grandeur around it; and the relics altar in a side chapel. I always find the idea of relics fascinating- keeping parts of saints, or pieces of the cross, as if it will somehow help you get to heaven; but I haven’t seen them stored in quite this way before. All mixed in together but in a highly decorated cabinet. You could stare at it for hours and not see everything.
There were lots of other pieces of art by artists that even I have heard of, but don’t really know enough about to appreciate- Donatello, Cozzi, Bellini, Negri- and the building itself is extremely impressive. They do an audio guide which is actually very good if you ever find yourself there and want a wander around.
The other church that we visited- although I would question whether it’s not too big to come under the category of church- was St Marks Basilica. Everyone has heard of it, and it the square outside makes its way onto most of the postcards of Venice, but it is well worth going inside as well.
The basic tour is just a shuffle around with everyone else. You keep to the paths through the basilica and you’re probably in and out in about 10 minutes. However, when you leave there is a set of steps up to the left which takes you to the balcony. From here you have a much better view of the church, and can really admire the gold plated mosaics from a lot closer- and without straining your neck. You also don’t have the ushers shouting at you for taking pictures, and if you go at sunset you can really appreciate the difference that the light makes to the interior of the building. There’s also an interesting exhibition which includes the horses that actually aren’t outside, and allows you to see more of the side chapels as well.
The other benefit of going up to the balcony is that it also gives you access to the roof. From the roof you can get a nice view of *some* horses, as well as being able to watch all the people in the square, look across to the Doge’s palace, and watch a pretty beautiful sunset….
While we’re in St Mark’s Square, we might as well stick with the other two attractions that can be found there. Firstly is the Campanile di San Marco- the tower that overlooks the basilica. Fortunately, there is a handy lift that takes you to the top of the tower, where you can wander around at admire the views before coming back down. You probably spend more time queuing than actually on top of the tower, but there’s only so many pictures you can take of an unchanging landscape!
The final attraction around St Marks’ Square- unless you count the Museo Correr which we did go to but didn’t spend much time there- is the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace. The Doge used to be the ruling power in Venice , and his councils met in the Palace- the Full College which organised the Senate, and the Council of Ten, a secretive body tasked with protecting the government. The Doge’s apartments are within this building, and it is linked by the Bridge of Sighs to the prisons on the other side. A ticket gives you access to all of this- apart from the Doge’s apartments which are currently being renovated, and it takes a good couple of hours to take everything in. There is lots of information to take in around the complex, and it is actually interesting, so take the time to read it!
Our favourite room of the whole palace though, was one of the larger halls. Around the outside they had a picture of each of the Doge’s who had ruled over Venice, and in the middle pictures of key historical points in the history of the city. However, they had one Doge who no-one liked. He made a major mess up and they wanted to get rid of him. But leaving him off the ceiling wasn’t enough, they had to make a point that they didn’t like him. So instead, they found the spot where he would be and covered him up with a black cloth, so that future Venetians would be left in no doubt that he was bad news.
On our first day walking around Venice, we discovered a perfect viewing spot giving you a view over the city from near the Rialto Bridge, that you don’t have to pay for. On the San Marco side of the Rialto is a department store called Fontego dei Tedeschi. The department store itself is very interesting- and very expensive. It has a central hall with the display rooms coming off around the outside, and it spread over about 6 floors. One reason I found it so interesting is that it’s the only place I’ve ever seen a dog being manoeuvred around in a shopping bag.
The real reason we went in though was because you can book a time slot in advance (or queue for ages), to go up onto the roof. From the roof you have a fantastic view of Venice over the river without having to pay for the luxury. Plus there’s an escalator or a lift all the way to the top, so it’s no effort at all!
The final sight to mention before I get onto the islands is a little bookshop that we discovered on our last day. It’s in the Ospedale-Castello part of Venice, although from the scribbles on my map I couldn’t tell you where! It’s in the part of the city that floods when the tide is high at certain times of year. Lots of shops have flood barriers and don’t have displays at floor level- but this shopkeeper took his shop to his a new level and put his books into things that won’t get wet. The result is a quirky little shop that gets lots of people going round with cameras rather than actually buying any books.
We also spent a day in Venice going round the lagoon and visiting some of the other islands- Murano, Burano and Torcello. Each of them is different in their own special way. Murano is probably the most well known, as it is famous for making Murano glass, which is prized across the world. They have historically been at the forefront of glass production techniques, but nowadays they mainly sell it to tourists. It was an interesting island to visit, and see the glass being made, but didn’t have the character of Burano.
On the other hand, Burano is a beautiful island. It is famous for making lace, however not much lace is made the traditional way anymore as newer methods are cheaper and still a good quality. The beauty of Burano is in the different coloured houses. Apparently there is a system that is supposed to help fisherman find their way home, but all I know is that the brightly painted houses are extremely picturesque and make the island particularly memorable.
The final island that we visited was Torcello. Not famous for anything in particular, but very different from the rest of Venice. The island is a lot less built up, and has a tiny population. It really gets by from tourists alone. As you walk down from the water bus you go past a devil’s bridge- which is a lot higher than it looks! I remember going with my family and sitting on Attila’s chair- not Attila the Hun though, so I’m not sure which Attila it is!
There’s a beautiful little church on the island which has some fascinating paintings on the wall, with a very interesting theological standpoint on heaven and hell!
Attached to the church is a very high tower which you can (unfortunately) walk up, given you a brilliant view of the lagoon and a better idea of the scale of Torcello island.
So that is the end of the travelling for this year. We have some holidays booked in for 2018, so I’ll be sharing them with you in the New Year. Maybe I should make it a resolution to write them up more quickly!
I hope this blog has given you a good impression of Venice. It really is an absolutely beautiful city, and really refreshing to be able to spend hours wandering around, knowing that you’ll eventually find your way back, and not needing a car. If you’re a foodie it has all you will ever need, and if you’re not then you’ll probably become one!
There’s only a few hours left now in 2017, so can I take this moment to wish everyone a very Happy New Year!