Monday, February 20, 2006

Dreaming of Venice

I can only imagine that anyone who wants to write about Venice faces the same dilemna. How on earth are you going to say something that has not been said before by better writers? Take, for example, Thomas Mann:

This was Venice, the flattering and suspect beauty – this city, half fairy tale and half tourist trap, in whose insalubrious air the arts once rankly and voluptuously blossomed, where composers have been inspired to lulling tones of somniferous eroticism.”

Or Boris Johnson, Member of Parliament from Henley on Thames:

"If Amsterdam or Leningrad vie for the title of Venice of the North, then Venice - what compliment is high enough? Venice, with all her civilisation and ancient beauty, Venice with her addiction to curious aquatic means of transport, yes, my friends, Venice is the Henley of the South.

Or even a young writer such as Eloise Hedges, age 8, who stated with simple eloquence:

But if I go to Venice, it will ruin my dream of Venice."

To try and compete with this crowd is unwise. What follows, then, is a short list of some ideas which I hope will help you make your dream of Venice, whatever it is, come closer to being true.

1) Go off season. This is obvious but cannot be over-stressed. You could be as surprised by the weather as we were on our arrival in early February in glorious Canaletto sunshine. We explored the city and its monuments to our hearts content and only in San Marco and the Basilica did we even catch a whiff of treadmill tourism. Even going in winter can not mitigate the fact that Venice exists for, and is populated by, tourists but in the winter you can successfully pretend this is not true.

2) Read and bring Venice for Pleasure by J.G. Links. In print for over 30 years, Bernard Levin of The Times described it as “Not only the best guide book to that city ever written, but the best guide book to any city ever written.” I agree.

3) Arrive by water – Easy to do if you fly into Marco Polo airport. You can either take a chic water taxi which costs approximately €90 and should be able to handle up to 8 people and luggage or take the Alilaguna service which has three lines, one running an express directly to San Marco. The cost for Alilaguna is €10 per head.

If you must enter the city via car or train, you will travel over a bridge that was built by the Austrians, and, according to J. G. Links, disgusted the Venetians who never wanted a permanent link to the mainland. Even Mussolini wanted to see it pulled down. As we used the Alilaguna to arrive and the road to leave, I can say, with authority, that water is better.

4) Stay at Pensione La Calcina - on the Zattere overlooking the Giudecca Canal. This is a lovely, protected and quieter part of the city which is blessed by having the best climate in Venice. We managed to eat a delightful lunch outside on the canal in February. Although out of the tourist treadmill, the hotel is only a few minutes walk from the Accademia and the other major monuments. La Calcina, which prides itself on its connection to Ruskin, represents great value with rooms ranging from as low as €65 for singles in low season to €186 for a double on the canal in high season.

To be accurate, Ruskin wrote the first and second volumes of the Stones of Venice at the infinitely grander Danieli and the Gritti Palace Hotels. By the time he reached La Calcina he was already suffering from intermittent madness, probably due to the bills he ran up at the Danieli and Gritti. Anyway, the staff at La Calcina is charming and efficient. The restaurant is good. The rooms are comfortable and clean. This is a wonderful hotel.

5) Eat at Alle Testiere –This small, informal fish restaurant will neither bankrupt nor disappoint. The freshest fish is sourced daily from the Rialto market and everything we ordered was superb. We ate and drank like kings for €50 a head. There are two seatings at 7 and 9 and given the small size ( 24 covers) and popularity of the place both reservations and punctuality are important. It’s not the easiest restaurant to find so leave some time to get lost.

6) Get a Chorus Pass for the Churches of Venice – One of the best amateur art historians I know once taught me a valuable lesson. If you want to see art without crowds, visit churches and Venice is the perfect place to follow this advice. The city has made it easy by offering a single pass good for visiting 15 churches for €8 which is valid for one year. Yes, of course you can go to museums and palaces, but in the churches you see Bellini, Tintorreto, Tiepolo and Titian in the settings for which the art was made and virtually alone. Not to mention the fabulous architecture. If you only have one day in Venice, go for the churches.

At the end of our visit, I asked Eloise how the reality of Venice compared to her dream of Venice. Again, she responded with an answer wise beyond her years, “Well Mom, to really answer that question, we should have stayed much longer.”

I agree.

Photo of the Grand Canal from the Accademia Bridge courtesy of Eloise Hedges

Pensione La Calcina
Dorsoduro, 780
30123 Venezia
Tel: 041/5206466
Fax: 041/5227045

Alle Testiere
Castello, 5801
Calle del Mondo Novo
50122 Venezia
Tel & Fax 041 52 27 220
Closed Sunday and Monday

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