I love Venice. For many years, I was in love with the idea of Venice. Love that was no doubt born out of stories my parents told of their visit to Venice in the 1950s and from the 8mm films they took on that trip, and kindled by the gild-trimmed gondola that resided in our living room for many years.
My parents lived in the UK for a few years in the late 1950s, and in 1958 did a scaled-down version of the Grand Tour. They drove through France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. In Rome, they were blessed by the Pope; driving through Italy, they were stranded on an autostrada till some friendly carabinieri stopped and helped fix their car; and in Venice, they took a gondola ride.
Exactly fifty years on, my wife and I also took a gondola ride; well sort of! We were on a rather limited budget, so €125 gondola rides didn’t figure on our itinerary. Instead, we took a traghetto, the retired gondolas that ferry Venetians across the Grand Canal at certain points.
True, we had no gondolier to serenade us; the two gondoliers on the traghetto we took were actually busy laughing at us for wanting to do a round trip across the Grand Canal. And yes, the whole trip was done in about five minutes. But we did get to see the Grand Canal from almost water level and, more important, we got the gondola experience — all for €2.
Unlike my folks, we’d taken a more direct route to Venice — easyJet from Charles de GaulleMarco Polo and then a ride on an Alilaguna ferry to the Arsenale stop followed by a short stroll to our hotel in Castello, one of Venice’s six to sestiere or districts.
Castello, it turned out, was a truly inspired choice; at least it was for us. While it is true that we were away from all the action around the Rialto Bridge, we were just a couple of minutes away from Piazza San Marco or St Mark’s Square, Basilica di San Marco, the Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs and the refreshing public gardens — the Giardini Pubblici.
Tourism is, of course, what keeps Venice ticking. So it’s home to virtually every possible scam that can separate a traveller from his euros. Eating at restaurants, for instance, can be more expensive than you expected. The prices mentioned on the menu boards outside the restaurant are, most often, very different from the ones printed on your bill. And sometimes, a tourist menu with ‘all inclusive’ prices is not as inclusive as it proclaims.
But worry not; for eat well and cheap you can. The rule of thumb seems to be that restaurant prices drop the farther away you are from a major square or street. It also seems that prices generally halve if you eat lunch standing at the counter in a trattoria. Another option, and the one we chose, is to eat on the go.
Most of our meals were either sandwiches or pizza slices bought for a euro or two and eaten as we walked. And on one occasion, we even stopped by at McDonald’s for lunch. Sacrilege! I know.
We also wanted to do a ‘proper’ sit down meal. And one evening, after examining half-a-dozen menus and pondering prices and options, finally chose a restaurant at random. The experience was memorable, though the meal itself was pedestrian and cost a bit more than we’d expected. There was an additional service charge, you see!
When I travel, I tend to obsess about water to drink. And though I’d been told that the tap water in Venice is safe, I made several trips to supermarkets such as Billa and Co-op to buy drinking water. But one mouthful of water from a fountain on Strada Nova and the visits to the supermarkets stopped — the water from the fountain was refreshing and delicious. Equally delicious were the gelatos we bought from a gelateria near Strada Nova.
Breakfasts too were filling and included in the price of our room at the pleasant and functional Ca Formenta on via Garibaldi in Castello. Though we travelled to Venice in end July, at the height of Summer, we’d made our bookings several months ahead and so got a pretty reasonable price on our room.
Staying in Ca Formenta meant that we were just a short walk away from St Mark’s Square — past the famous Bridge of Sighs — with its greedy pigeons. Like many others, we’d feed the pigeons crumbs and they would perch on our hands till the meal was over. But try feeding the pigeons today, and I gather that you’ll be slapped with a rather stiff fine of around €50 or so.
Living in Ca Formenta also meant that we could go to St Mark’s very early in the morning or late in the evening. For those are, perhaps, the best times of the day in Venice. Times when Venice reveals a different visage — more relaxed, intimate and sensuous.
As night fell across Venice, we’d find ourselves in St Mark’s Square for some entertainment courtesy the bands that perform at Café Florian and the other high-end eateries around the square. And entertain, those bands did; even as one ended a peppy, foot-stomping number another would pick up the train and carry on with yet another popular tune. And so it went, a veritable musical chain.
While the chairs in front of the cafes are reserved for the patrons who pay — and do they pay — freeloaders like us could stand around the square and enjoy the music, the sights and the ambience at no extra cost.
Despite the late nights, we’d be up rather early to catch glimpses of Venice before the crowds came in: tradesmen in punts making deliveries to the hotels; a solitary ambulance boat cruising down a canal; and Venetians going about their business, gossiping over an espresso, striding vigorously along the waterfront or through the Giardini Pubblici or simply sitting on a bollard or bench with a newspaper. And we would do the same and feel for a moment, at least, that we too were Venetians.
Yes, I know this sounds a little too starry-eyed. I know Venice is expensive. And true, I don’t have to live there right through the year, coping with a flooded home, street or square thanks to the acqua alta. Nor do I have to handle the challenges of owning a building that is leisurely sinking into the slush.
Yet for me, Venice is all enchantment and mystery. And I love it.