Posted by: Jerry Garrett | June 7, 2010

My 36 Hours in Venice, Italy

Claude Monet's Sunset in Venice

Regardless of when you decide to visit Venice, make certain that on your first day there, you arrive before sunset. The Venetian weather gods might not reward you with one of their golden twilight masterpieces, but the more nights you stay, the better your odds become. A Venetian sunset is not to be missed.

Dusk at the gondola docks at Riva degli Schiavoni (Jerry Garrett Photo)

Ah, but from where to witness it?

Tourists most often flock to iconic Piazza San Marco, to watch the sun drop into the Adriatic Sea behind rows of bobbing gondolas.

I prefer the Rialto Bridge, where the buildings along the Grand Canal take on an other-worldly glow, the waters sparkle and the gondoliers provide picture-postcard photo ops.

But for the true romantic, there can be no substitute for the Bridge of Sighs. Do you remember the movie, “A Little Romance” (1979)? Two young lovers (yes, that was Diane Lane, at age 13!) cross Europe on a quest to kiss under that bridge at sunset; local legend has it that a couple will be granted everlasting love and bliss if they kiss in a gondola at sunset under the bridge.

A Little Romance @ the Bridge of Sighs

Understandably, it’s gondola rush hour beneath that tiny bridge at the exact moment of most sunsets. And prices for gondola rides – already one of Venice’s bigger ripoffs – skyrocket.

This reminds me of a basic truth about visiting Venice: It’s expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Yet it’s almost a given that even if you save money on one thing in Venice – hotel, restaurant, trinket shopping – you’ll probably be even more tempted to splurge in another.

Everybody has advice on how Venice should be seen. I can’t list all the ways that are possible, or even advisable. I will only tell you how I did it, and how unforgettable it was.

Rush hour in Venice: Note gondolier on cellphone! (JG)

Getting There

How to get to Venice could (and probably does) occupy entire guidebooks. Fliers can actually take a water taxi from the Marco Polo airport to the floating city, which is located in the Venetian Lagoon some 2.5 miles offshore. Motorized traffic accesses Venice via a long causeway. Buses arrive at a small coach station in Piazzale Roma, directly across the from the cluster of Venetian isles; pedestrians cross a new foot bridge, Ponte di Calatrava, from there. Trains glide into a station at Santa Lucia, near the Ponte Dei Scalzi bridge. Cars must park at Piazzale Roma (or even farther away) in expensive lots. Check ahead to see your hotel has a discount deal with any of the car parks; many do. Many cruise ships call here, and deposit day-trippers at the port, adjacent to Piazzale Roma; Royal Caribbean offers excellent multi-day Venice ground tours that can also add stops in Florence and Rome.

Okay, everybody gets to be a tourist once. (JG)

Venice, proper, has no streets; hence, no cars. Humans get around by walking, along stone paths, or taking water taxis (expensive) or a water bus – a “vaporetto” (inexpensive). Gondolas are not a viable form of transport; they are ridiculously expensive, uncomfortable, slow and go nowhere. Strictly for tourists; but everybody is a tourist at least once, right?

If you want a cheap version of a gondola ride (we’re talking less than a buck, as opposed to a hundred or more), take one of the “traghetti” gondolas, which ferry passengers the Grand Canal at eight key points.

Despite knowing better, I drove into town. I left my car in the ASM lot at Piazzale Roma for $30 a day (using my hotel’s discount). Then I got on a vaporetto headed down the Grand Canal to the Rialto Bridge.

Dusk from the Rialto Bridge (JG)

From there, I walked a few blocks to my hotel, Albergo al Gambero. Dumb luck and a less-than-half price deal ($125 a night) on Kayak helped me pick it; in a further moment of serendipity, downstairs from the hotel I found the delightfully cozy Le Bistrot de Venise restaurant, which served late. This location, in the San Marco area is about as quaint a location as you’re likely to find in Venice.

Dinner was served at a sidewalk table. Behind, gondoliers plied a narrow section of neighborhood canal; out front, foot traffic crossed two old stone bridges. The ancient passageways and crumbling buildings were dimly but happily illuminated by strings of crappy incandescent bulbs. It was magic. It was about as far into Venice and its exquisitely tattered decadence as you can get without pulling the sidewalks in on top of you.

Venice at night is a different place than it is during the day, when the bustle of the place is almost claustrophobic. By sunset, when most shops have closed, and the shoppers, day-trippers and tourists retreat to wherever they go,

At night, a calmer Venice emerges (JG)

a calmer Venice emerges; it is reclaimed by the ghosts and shadows of its past. The dark, little alleyways provide mazes to explore, to see where they might lead – often to a dead end at a canal – and what visual treasure may await the intrepid. It is truly wonderful how lost you can get, in such a confined area. For best results, do not take a map.

Though I’ve spent many idyllic days in  Venice, I didn’t feel as if I had really been there until I had stayed the night. At night is when the magic happens.

(Tip: Don’t sleep with your windows open; Venice has a bit of a mosquito problem.)

Venice isn't sinking, so much as it's flooding (JG)

Dia Due

I’ve never gone to bed early enough in Venice to be up in time for the sunrise. But each new day in Venice brings new drama: A festival! A fair! A flood.

My first morning there, I was jolted from my groggy search for coffee by work crews assembling risers down the middle of walkways. These contraptions, I was told, were for people to stand upon when the flood waters arrived. Flood waters? From storms? From extreme tides?

12th Century Venice; note now-missing barrier islands in foreground (JG)

“Usually from the winds,” my guide Francesca told me.

“Venice is not sinking?” I asked.

“No, Venice is not sinking,” she said with exasperation. “It floods when the winds blow the seas to our shores. We used to have barrier islands to protect us, but the idiots in our government let someone dredge away the islands for fill dirt to build an industrial park near the port.”

So, floods are now a fairly regular part of the Venetian tourism experience. Evacuations? Hardly. It’s business as usual, with tourists waiting in ankle-deep, knee-deep and even waist-deep water to get into attractions such as the Palazzo Ducale (Duke’s Palace), Campanile (Bell Tower) and Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s). The water is usually deepest at the basilica’s entrance, because it is actually a few inches below sea level (“It’s not sinking!”)

A drier look at San Marco (JG)

In Praise of Guides

These are all great places to tour; I highly recommend securing the services of a guide, and making reservations for a specific tour time, at least a day in advance. Not only does that get you fast-tracked to the front of the line, groups often get to see and do extra things, like cross the actual Bridge of Sighs (where prisoners were sent on a usually one-way journey to their cells after sentencing by the duke.)

A guide can also help you pick and choose what you might be interested in seeing, and what you can do without. For instance, Renaissance art is everywhere – including unforgettable works by il Tintoretto, Veronese and Titian. No way to see it all in a short trip, sadly. Decisions, decisions.

You must allocate your time in Venice wisely; because you never have enough of it. I prefer running around to standing around (in lines). The best tour? The irresistibly named Doges Palace Secret Itinerary Tour (about 15 euro).

Vaporetto & station (JG)

My favorite tour is self-guided: Buy a vaporetto 24-hour pass for 15 euro, and use it to hop all over the island, and even to explore neighboring islands such as the glorious glass capital of Murano. (Don’t confuse with boring Burano.)

Vaporetti stations are everywhere, but figuring out which stations are served by which lines can sometimes be daunting.

Gelato - three times daily, for best results!

Because my hotel provides a sinfully excessive breakfast, I usually skip lunch and nosh all around town. Not to be missed are the ubiquitous gelato stands. Try at least two flavors at each stand; three stands a day is a good aspirational target. For an afternoon pickup-me-up, you can’t beat the coffee at Caffe’ del Doge (three locations in Venice). Buy bags to take home. For alcoholic refreshment, make the obligatory pilgrimage to Harry’s Bar near San Marco.

OMG, Venetian glass! (JG)

What galleries should you visit? Churches? Museums (Peggy Guggenheim’s masterpiece is here)? For specific destinations, consult a guidebook. But keep this in mind: All of Venice is a museum. A floating museum, to be sure, but a miraculously preserved relic centuries old. Every bit of canal, every alleyway, every square, every building, every bridge, every lamppost is an artifact of a one-of-a-kind civilization. Drink it in.

For all you will find in Venice, there are a few things you won’t find: Parks, lawns, large gardens and greenspaces. Green is not a color of Venice. There is little room for it.

If I had to pick one souvenir to bring home from here it would be Venetian or Murano glass of some kind – from jewelry to chandeliers to glassware to…

Hundreds of shops offer glass arts and crafts. And, unlike designer clothing, accessories and other purchases from high-end shops, the glass is made here. And it is unique in all the world because of its impossible colors and shapes, and the ingenious artistry.

The irresistible setting at Ristorante sul Canale della Guidecca (JG)

Another sunset

Sunset again approaches. Where can you position yourself to enjoy it, from a new perspective, and perhaps scarf down a great meal at the same time?

The Ristorante sul Canale della Giudecca, near the eastern tip of the Dorsoduro peninsula, provides Cinerama-panoramas of Santa Maria, San Giorgio Maggiore and San Marco. This is a waterfront find, not just for the sunset, the views and the ambience but also for the fresh food. It is possible to over-spend here, especially on some of the enormous catch-of-the-day choices, but budget-conscious eaters can also find delicious fare. Linger here and bask in the sky’s transformation from daylight to dark.

Alternate choices: Cantinas, osterias and trattorias also provide good, cheap fare (a favorite is Trattoria Alla Palazzina).

Trattoria Alla Palazzini (Courtesy, the owner)

But beware: Venice has at least as many restaurants that disappoint, as it has ones that impress.

Wherever you eat, try to get a little creative. Ask a local for a suggestion. Zagat-rated choices abound. Tourists pack these places every night. But there is also a secret Venice, frequented by locals, where authentic cuisine – and wine – is served, generally at non-tourist (i.e., reasonable) prices.

Big evening out? Try a concert. The music of Antonio Vivaldi, born here in 1678, is sacred. There is almost always a performance of his music somewhere. I recommend the Palazzo Papafava. “La Quatre Saisons” (The Four Seasons) must be played as often here as “Margaritaville” is in Key West.

To cap off the evening, if you haven’t been seduced already by the non-stop battle of the bands in the Piazza San Marco, now is the time. When the piazza isn’t flooded, sidewalk restaurants abound. To attract customers, many offer live music.  It could be a recipe for total cacophony, but for the most part one group seems to play just out of earshot of the next. Choose according to taste, but sit back, relax and savor the moment (and the people-watching).

A Little Night Music, Venetian Style, at Piazza San Marco (JG)

The historic buildings around the piazza are lit by ethereal golden lights. They seem to look down upon the mortals assembled here, and bathe them in a special aura. Two flutes of champagne are the perfect complement.

Piazza Nightcap (JG)

The last saxophone, last clarinet, last violin and grand piano sign off a little after midnight.

Arrive derci, Venezia

Venice really doesn’t do mornings. Especially Sunday mornings, if this happens to be the day you leave. Lively Mercado Rialto is an a.m. alternative Monday through Saturday. But, by the time travelers need to depart, most of the town is still waking up. Many mornings, it rains – which makes Venice a bit easier to leave.

Breakfast, one last vaporetto ride, maybe a grab-and-go raid on a souvenir kiosk for an Italian silk tie or scarf. A package of colored pasta? A small watercolor or pencil drawing from one of the many sidewalk artists, perhaps?

Last look, from Piazzale Roma (JG)

This is an opportune moment, over strong coffee or espresso, to savor the moments that made this trip special, to breathe deep the essence of the place – the rank salt air, the damp laundry hung from windows, the water taxi exhaust. You may wish to retrace your steps to your secret finds, your visual treasures, your lasting memories. Let them burn into your brain once last time. No matter when you plan to return, it won’t seem soon enough.

Jerry Garrett

June 7, 2010

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Responses

  1. I was once in Venice in St Mark’s Square when a late afternoon storm roled in. The skies became black and it poured for 10 minutes. Then the sun reapeared and everything was bathed in a golden light – magical. You have to love Venice!
    Debra Kolkka

    • Magical – there’s that word again. It perfectly describes Venice, doesn’t it? I know of no other place on Earth like it. Thanks for your wonderful vignette!


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