Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Carnevale without Crowds

Dear God, what were we thinking?
Venice in February during Carnevale has to be the ultimate no-no for devoted nocrowders? I don’t know how it happened. Sometimes I just leaf through the pages of “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” and I get the urge to try something because life is, indeed, short. I reckon it is a basic instinct, the basic human instinct that has turned international tourism into a US$ 680 billion dollar business (UNWTO – 2005) and the basic instinct that lures an estimated 500,000 people over a 10 day period into a city with an indigenous population in the ancient centre of 62,000. I guess everyone should see this “re-enactment of that final swan song of the Most Serene Republic, reminiscent of the days of Casanova” at least once in their life and this was our year.

Did we enjoy it? Sure we did. How could you not enjoy being an extra in an 18th century film set. The combination of Venice and costumes is a work of art but the crowds really do overwhelm the experience and one needs to navigate quite carefully. We made some classic mistakes, like going to Piazza San Marco. In a word, it was frightening, too many people, too few exits. I held Eloise’s hand for dear life. But with that said, life is richer for having seen this piece of magic even if I never have to see it again. In the event that you too get the urge and assuming you are not a Hedge Fund Manager and therefore are not staying at the Cipriani, not taking private water taxis and not attending the expensive costume balls, here are some ideas about how to how to have an affordable NoCrowds experience in the Venice during Carnevale.

Stay at the Tiziano Hotel

The Tiziano is a lovely small hotel (12 rooms and 2 junior suites) found in an out-of-the-way location in Dorsoduro. While you can reach the Tiziano on foot from Piazzale Roma in about 10 to 15 minutes, it takes a good half an hour to reach Piazza San Marco. That might be considered a liability at any other time of the year but is a blessing during Carnevale.

The former 15th century home lies on a quiet square, bordered by a canal near the church of “San Nicolo dei Mendicoli”. The rooms have generous proportions and have been tastefully decorated in Venetian style with bathrooms that are modern and perfectly appointed. Breakfast is much better than you often find in Italy with delicious breads and cakes, fresh fruit, yoghurt, sliced meats and cheeses and, of course, excellent coffee. The young woman who works the front desk in the afternoon and evening could not have been more helpful and charming. The owner is “all business” and seems rather gruff but I warmed up to her considerably when she made a big effort to help our daughter fix her broken Carnevale mask. During Carnevale, when prices are at their peak, we paid €200 a night for a triple and €180 for a double, breakfast and taxes included.

Eat and Drink at Pane Vino e San Daniele

This wine bar which also serves wonderful food can be found on a small piazza in a residential neighbourhood a two minute walk from Tiziano and a million miles from touristy Venetian eateries. We were suppose to have dinner at Antiche Carampane in the heart of the one-time red light district in San Polo near the Ponte delle Tette (or Tits Bridge) chosen for its down home non-touristy reputation but after our traumatic trip to San Marco, we decided we did not have another 30 minute walk in us. As it turned out, Pane Vino e San Daniele offered some of the best down home non-touristy cooking to be found in Venice. Our friends ordered the goat which they thought was delicious. The antipasti plate of cured meats was memorable. The atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming and on the Saturday night of Carnevale, we were the only non-Italian speaking table. For dinner and a healthy amount of wine, we spent €40 per person.

Some other restaurants in Dorsoduro which did not disappoint included Pensione Calcina’s La Piscina on the Zattere, Venice’s sunny, sheltered promenade which should be saved for good weather when you can eat outside directly on the Guidecca Canal. For the last two years in a row, we have eaten blissful lunches in brilliant sunshine in February.

[If you are super organised, you can also try to book at room at Pensione Calcina which is the best value and best located pensione in Venice but to give you a feel for the challenge you face, when I tried to make a reservation in October for February, all I got was the polite response that they had been fully booked for months. If you are interested for next year, book now.]

We also ate outside at the crazy but delicious Osteria Da Toni. This is an old style place where the Carabinieri pitch up at lunch time, where the food is gutsy and fairly priced and where the service is so slow and disorganised that if you are in the right mood, it is hilarious. Do not, under any circumstance, go there if you are in a hurry but if you have time to kill and grab one of the tables on the canal, it can be lots of fun. A meal should cost about €25. Not far from Osteria Da Toni, we also had a good dinner at Osteria S. Barnaba where dinner again set us back €40 per person.

Visit the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni

Oh to be an heiress in Venice. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of the coolest museums in Europe. Blessed by its location in a curiously unfinished Palazzo on the Grand Canal which was Guggenheim’s home for 30 years and packed with highlights of almost every major art movement of the 20th century, even during Carnevale, this is a five star experience without the crowds.

Built by the Venier family in the 18th century who only managed to complete one floor, the Palazzo feels like “Mies van der Rohe does Venice” and serves as the perfect backdrop for Guggenheims collection of modern masters such as Picasso, Mondrian, Miro, Chagall, Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Frances Bacon. The sculpture garden is a leafy haven where Peggy Guggenheim and many of her dogs are buried. You can linger on the terrace fronting the Grand Canal and watch the world go by which is particularly interesting during Carnevale. Don’t miss the black and white photos of Ms. Guggenheim in the agreeable Café overlooking the garden. There is an excellent gift shop which sells the most divine but quite expensive copies of Guggenheim’s signature sunglasses.

If you are travelling with children or young adults, this museum is a winner. Eloise immediately connected with the woman who wanted to be buried in her garden with all her dogs and thought her art collection was pretty exciting . She also found lots of neat stuff to hit us up for in the gift shop.

If you have not yet had your fill of culture, head over to the Scuola Grande Dei Carmini just off the Campo Santa Margherita with the fabulous Tiepolo painted ceilings. On the day we were there, it was absolutely empty.


Having reviewed this story, I think my advice can be reduce to one word, Dorsoduro, one of Venice’s six districts. Everything we did in that part of town was fun and relatively uncrowded. The Zattere is a good place to watch people parade in costumes, at night the Campo Santa Margherita is not a bad substitute for San Marco. We slept serenely, ate well, bought masks, saw the show and were culturally entertained without crowds. I read after we returned that the crowds had been so bad in the San Marco district that one-way walking traffic had been enforced by the police. No matter how enchanting the experience, nothing could be worth that!
Useful Addresses

Tiziano Hotel
Dorsoduro, Calle Riello 1873
30123 Venezia
Tel: 041 2750071
Fax: 041 2756312

Pane Vino e Daniele
Campo dell’Angelo Raffaele
Dorsoduro 1722 Venezia
Tel: 041 5237 456
Closed Wednesday

Bar Caffe La Piscina
La Calcina Ruskin’s House Dorsoduro, 782
30123 Venezia
Tel: 041 2413889
Fax: 041 5227045
Closed Monday

Osteria da Tone
Fondamenta San Basegio 1642
Tel: 041 523 8272
Closed Monday

Osteria Enoteca S. Barnabo
Calle Lunga S. Barnaba
Dorsoduro 2736
Tel: 041 52 12 754
Closed Wednesday and Thursday morning

Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Palazzo Venier dei Leoni
701 Dorsoduro
30123 Venezia
Tel: 041 2405411
Fax: 041 5203492
Open daily except Tuesday, 10am to 6pm

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