Don’t Look Now! It’s Venice…

A few weeks ago, someone asked me why I was flying into Venice when I was off to Croatia, specifically Istria.   I guess if you don’t know your geography or history of that region, you won’t know that Istria was part of Italy up until the end of WWII, and is merely a few hours’ drive from Marco Polo Airport. What better way to get to Croatia?

And if you’ve never been to Venice, it’s a great excuse to visit even just for a day trip before moving along the Adriatic coast towards northern Croatia, and the splendours of Istria.

I’d say there are 2 other reasons for opting to fly to Venice.  Firstly, with lots of flights daily to choose from in and out of lots of different British airports you can usually find a time for travel that suits you and a flight to suit your pocket.

Secondly – if you’re lucky enough to be seated on the correct side of the plane, usually right on the way out and left on the way back (but don’t quote me if the flight plan changes…) – you should get an amazing aerial view of Venice from your seat! Around it is an abstract geometry of long sandy beach strips and lidos, tiny pockets of marshy, salty farmland and eerily still waters.

Distinctly fish-shaped and twinkling as the sun bounces off the arterial canals, it really does look mystical and magical from the sky. Venice is basically a scaled up version – on a far larger scale that is! – of the little plate-sized fresh Adriatic sole that we buy in the local fish market in Istria.

If you decide to spend a day or two in Ven ice before setting off for Croatia, it’s worth doing a bit of research first as it’s a place where time won’t stand still for long. Its heart may be tiny, but wear proper shoes as you’ll likely walk more miles in a day than a marathon runner.

Decide then if you’re going to be a tourist or if you want to see Venice as a local. If you want to cover all the tourist places, depending on the season be prepared for long queues and huge crowds. With lots of transatlantic visitors to Europe having found Easyjet’s cheap flights whatever the season our flights are usually full but if you book well in advance you can get some cheap deals especially if you don’t fly at weekends.

Still, if you’re there to take photos of the Rialto Bridge or St Mark’s Square, you’ll be taking them along with hundreds of other people, unless you get up with the sunrise (and even then, you’ll be surprised at the numbers all doing the same!).

We’ve never wanted to be tourists in Venice. I’ve not much desire to sit and listen to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons being played in the Church of La Chiesa della Pieta (although I’m sure it’s wonderful) or to visit Murano on a glass-blowing tour with several hundred others.  We don’t spend 80 euros on less than an hour in a gondola. We don’t take a water taxi to get from the airport to Venice.

Instead, we take the regular coach that drops us in the Piazzale Roma and from there we either walk or, preferably, we use the local public buses to get anywhere and everywhere as they’re easily the best way of seeing every piazza, every canal, every bridge possible, simply because they’re water buses. Buy an all-day ticket and, literally, float your boat!

We must have visited every inch of Venice on our travels, and we’ve been in and out of so many churches, walked across so many bridges, photographed as many sites as we could see. We love the Cannaregio area in the north, for instance, sitting at the Fondamenta dei Ormesini and Misericordia where locals meet and talk and walk. Have a coffee at Torrefazione, enjoy a glass of pinot gris or tokai friulano at the trendy Vino Vero (matched with a mini open sandwich of prosciutto topped with fresh fig – perfection). We love the European Cultural Centre at Palazzo Mora, and it’s near the Rialto Bridge so yes, you can do some sightseeing too!

Now though, we tend to stay around one area of Venice to the south, the Dorsoduro, where we love to enjoy life through a Venetian’s eyes.  Rarely do we cross over to the Grand Canal unless we’re entertaining visitors who have never been before.  Instead, we take shelter from the sun in the cool shade inside the Church of San Trovaso, where you can enjoy several splendid works by artist Tintoretto.  Or try the San Sebastiano church, home of amazing paintings by Paolo Veronese. We’ve substituted the market at the Rialto Bridge for the fruit vendor’s barge at Rio de S. Barnaba just by the Ponte dei Pugni on Fontamenta Gherardini in Dordosuro

If you love art, time your visit for the next Venetian Biennale, art and architecture every 2 years. We visit the Peggy Guggenheim Collection rather than the Doge’s Palace. Everywhere you look, Venice is a gallery in itself; there’s something wild and striking about the juxtaposition of the old and the new, the modern and the classical; the drama of a 21st century bling fashion poster draped over a Venetian palace. In most places I’d call it hideous, here somehow Venice gets away with it!

We watch the gondolas being repaired lovingly in the old boatyard, and we frequent the hidden-away bars in turn frequented by the locals, the same bars we’ve been enjoying for around 20 years (long before restaurant chain Polpo!) which serve up in our view the most interesting, diverse and wonderful selection of (depending on whether you’re Italian, Venetian or just want to be different) chicchetti, chichetti or cicheti (Venetian-style tapas) including the best tramezzini (which are basically mini crustless sandwiches with amazing toppings of meat, seafood, fish, cheeses) and the even smaller micro-sandwiches known as francobolli (“postage stamps”)!

Add into this mix a delicious fresh hydrating glass of still or sparkling local wine (which is not Prosecco) and you have an afternoon made in heaven.  Sit outside and watch the locals going about their business.  If you enjoy a detective novel, dip into one of Donna Leon’s intriguing series about Commissario Guido Brunetti and his family whilst you soak up the atmosphere in front of you and compare it to her pages of Venetian life, viewed through Leon’s eyes as a local resident for 30 years.

If you have to leave the area, then why not walk to the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, aka the “Frari”, the basilica where 16th century artist Titian is buried and where his stunning Pesaro Madonna can be seen.  Try something different to eat round there across the bridge at Frary‘s for some fabulous Middle Eastern specialities and a floorshow from the staff.

As we head back towards the Maritime Station on Fondamenta Zattere to look for lunch, we’re in Cicchetti heaven.  Make for the Fondamenta al Nani.  Enjoy anything in the Osterio al Squero from breakfast croissants and coffee to some lovely local salty cheeses, sausages, pancetta and salami.

Also known as Al Bottegon, grab a selection of little sandwiches at Cantinone del Vino Già Schiavi accompanied by a glass of local spritzy white wine. Remember you have to stand here, but 10€ gets you around 4 delicious cicchetti and a couple of glasses of vino and it is worth the stand.

In every part of Venice you will trip over these great little bars. Go for glitz and of course you’ll find glitz. But go for the old-fashioned 1950s counter and you’ll find a tried and tested formula that really doesn’t date, great food and a decent drink at fabulously reasonable prices.

Whether  you’re a ‘Don’t Look Now’ fanatic, a ‘Death in Venice’ lover or simply a Bond aficionado, you can easily find those film locations in a town as small as Venice. Definitely doing the tourist thing? Don’t forget to dine at the Daniele to see and be seen, and enjoy an aperitif at Florian or Harry’s Bar.

Or do something different and grab an ombra (a small glass of wine, ombra meaning ‘shade’), grab a plate, grab a place by the bar and grab Venice through the eyes of a local. Wherever you are you’ll find them. Look for the fairly non-descript front of Bar All’Arco on the corner of C. do Mori and C. Arco and feast on terrific local seafood cicheti, their baccala in particular.

Then at around 4.30 pm meander towards the ferry terminal to take your Venezia Line ferry over to Umag.  They call it a high-speed ferry but truth be told it’s rather sedate. Taking 3 or 4 hours, if you sit outside you can watch the sun start to set as you head towards first Piran in Slovenia and then Umag in Croatia just past Savudrija and its famous landmark lighthouse.

If you’ve opted to spend a night or more in Venice why not take a walk on the wild side, have a punt on the adventurous and venture out a little bit further. Put Venice in context. Visit the Brenta River and see the stunning merchants’ villas that straddle it; some are now hotels, some museums, some still private homes, all more spectacular than the next. Try the Trattoria Nalin for a classy seafood lunch. And at the end of the Brenta see perfect Padua (Padova), a town blessed with beautiful architecture, lots of canals, pretty bridges, probably the most famous historical medical centre in the world and a superb coffee culture.

Or move further east and head towards Trieste. Opt for the old SS14 road rather than the motorway (and the motorway is being widened so be prepared for long queues at certain times of the day). Stay in the agroturism guest houses along the way, visit Porto Gruaro, Latisana, San Dona di Piave. Explore the local farms, dairies (the ‘milk’ ice cream here is truly something else!) and (of course) vineyards of this flat and fertile land and the archaeological sites at places like Concordia Sagittaria.

Whether you fly in, then sail or drive to the dazzling perfect little fish of Venice, choose who you are, tourist or local, or just be a little of both.