Freaking out in the crowds? I don’t blame you. It’s not that I’ve got some agoraphobia going on. Quite the opposite, actually, I enjoy being in buzzy places. But this time, I discovered that getting lost might be a totally good thing – and it’s better to ditch the crowds and roam narrow streets to discover something that’s not what everyone tells you it is. Here’s to Venice – where history is spread on islands between the Italian shore and the Adriatic Sea.
I started early – and I’m glad I did. I arrived in Venice before 6am, and although freezing cold (as it is everywhere at the end of January), the city is naturally much less crowded at the time. That gives you a chance to take a long stroll through the bridges and streets. When everyone appears on the streets, it might be a little bit more difficult to have a peaceful wander. Get a pair of gloves, layer your clothes and set off as early as you can! I got to see the city at dawn – a little bit of night and a fair bit of unfolding day – and that’s how I’ve crammed even more magic in between the lines.
The city is really small – and you can either rent a gondola, take a water bus or walk to get around. I loved walking – there’s an abundance of tiny streets that can take you to a peaceful place where residents dry their clothes, kids play, and the water from a hydrant overflows in the small bucket. It takes you away from the sightseeing crowds for a minute, and right from the streets filled with colourful Murano glass and Carnival masks into the everyday but breathtaking place. And rare, as I’ve been told; there is only so many local residents in the historical centre of Venice nowadays.
If you’re under 25, you’re lucky – as long as you’ve got your ID on you, you can get discounted tickets to many sights across Venice. For me, this city is pure history – you’ll get it every step of the way. Its historical part, San Marco, is the home of St Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace. The Campanile tower of the basilica was once a lighthouse guiding the sailors on the Adriatic, and its bells marked the time for the people every day.
Just round the corner is the Bridge of Sighs – the one that the prisoners walked to be executed, sighing at their last sight of Venice (hence the name), and allegedly one of the most photographed sights in the city. Oh, and make sure that you don’t walk between two columns in St Mark’s square, where the executions took place – the superstition says that you’re inviting death on yourself if you do!
There’s a place that will help you to see Venice from above, too – and it’s hidden between narrow streets. However, I was surprised for it to be so quiet! It’s a palace from the 14-15th century, a wondrous residence of powerful families over the time that mixes late gothic and early Renaissance styles. When you go to the top of Scala Contarini del Bovolo, after you climb the spiral staircase, you’ll see the city stretching ahead of you.
The small archipelago hosts also a plentiful of museums: the International Gallery of Modern Art and Peggy Guggenheim Collection if you wish to fast-forward to some modern times. The first boasts the works of Klimt and Chagall, dedicating a floor also to European’s biggest collection of oriental art. In the latter, Picasso, Dali, Mondrian and Pollock are all sheltered. Cross Ponte Dell’Accademia and head onto Gallerie Dell’Academia that keeps the works of Canaletto, the man who depicted Venice in the 18th century, or Vitruvian Man by Leonardo Da Vinci, and a collection of art that was created before 19th century.
And it’s a few steps away from Basilica of St Mary of Health, a fine baroque church built as a votive for population’s health during the 1630s plague. If you’re a film fan, just like me, you’d be interested in taking a water bus to Lido, where one of the big three film festivals are held. Or just gaze at it from the distance if you so wish – but that’s some Venice By The Sea for you, man. Dorsoduro – that’s how the district is called – is also a little less busy, and the artsy atmosphere hovers in the air.
I’ve stopped for breakfast in Cannaregio which is located just by Santa Lucia train station, opposite Piazzzale Roma where the buses depart from. And it turned out to be a good decision – the deeper towards the touristy area you go, the more expensive it is. It’s good to have a hearty risotto in Venice (pizza stays sacred for Naples one day as everyone told me), but their finger food is truly magnificent. I’ve made a mozzarella sandwich my simple and tasty breakfast, and cichetti – little meatballs, olives, a dried fish paste, et cetera – were a nice snack on the go.
Venice is just a few miles away from the place where Prosecco is produced, so it’d be a shame not to have at least a glass. And the famous peach cocktail, Bellini, was invented here – although going to Harry’s, the bar whose owner came up with the idea, is pricey. As I was there in the period after Christmas and before the Carnival, mulled wine was everywhere, too. Apparently, it derives from the Roman times and is quite a popular warm-up choice of the season.
I promised myself I’ll be back – as a film critic one day, perhaps? For now, it was just a day in the magnificent atmosphere, eating a lot and drinking even more, just to start discovering the city that is of utmost beauty.