I have just returned from my third visit to Italy, with the intent on visiting the south, as I had never been there before. My flight took me to Venice and I decided to stay a few days, just to see if anything had changed. All was exactly as I remembered. The 800 year old buildings still looked old and the water in the canals was the same shade of green. What was gone was the smell associated with the city. It appears the government has gone to great lengths to keep the metropolis from sinking (it has been dropping at a rate of 2 millimetres per year) by restricting and controlling the flow of the tide, aiding in the preservation of the buildings and somehow eliminating the stagnant odour.
The only place worth staying in Venice is in St. Mark’s Square, the hubbub of activity. There are a few things you should be aware of: from the airport a 40 minute water taxi will take you to the square, but you will have to drag your suitcases along cobbled streets for 10-15 minutes. In itself that is not such an ordeal, but after a lengthy flight, a choppy boat ride, thirty plus degree heat and a bevy of tourists rushing nowhere fast in all directions, it can be quite an ordeal.
Most of the hotels are small and quaint, which is one if the reasons we visit Europe, however, elevators (if installed) are slow and unreliable. Not to be negative, but preparedness goes a long way in making your adventure enjoyable. Once settled in, it is time to explore and there is no better town in Europe to do just that. St Mark’s Square comes to life as soon as you stand in its centre. The Doge’s Palace, next to the Cathedral of St. Mark, stands directly across from the famous bell tower. Former government offices line the remaining three sides; all built in a Byzantine style and kept clean and restored.
Tourists are almost as abundant as pigeons, however before 9 am or after 5 pm the square empties out, except for a handful of tourists who are staying in the area. It seems the majority of visitors to this landmark come for day trips, from places as far away as Slovenia or as nearby as the suburbs of Venice.
I would suggest you start your first day by walking. Take your camera for that 'Kodak Moment' of the gondolas moored at the edge of the shore with the Cathedral and bell tower of St, Michael's in the background. (Do this before 9 am to catch a spectacular sunrise and before the gondolas go out for their tourist duty). Walk along the water, crossing dozens of bridges and make your way to the famous Rialto Bridge, complete with shops, restaurants and spectacular views of the Grand Canal.
When dining, albeit a snack or a meal, beware of the surcharge for sitting on a patio. In most cases 2 or 3 Euros ($5 Cdn.) will get you a seat, but the nearer the water the higher the surcharge. I know it is not a great deal of money, but no one likes surprises. If you get thirsty during your trek buy bottled water at a convenience store instead of a restaurant, as you will easily save 2 or 3 Euros on a 500 ml. bottle. Food costs are reasonable and there is nowhere in the world to sample finer Italian food. Pizzas have uniqueness unrivaled anywhere and Lasagna and Risotto are mouthwatering no matter where you go.
As the day progresses and your feet are starting to feel the effect of your weight, consider a gondola ride in the late afternoon. Anyone of the dozens of Gondoliers, dressed in blue and white (or in some cases, red and white) jerseys, standing near their boats will be glad to take you for a one hour ride. Expect to pay between 60 and 80 Euros per couple and a healthy tip may get you a chorus or two of 'Santa Lucia'.
The gondola circuit is the same for everyone and takes you along several canals, including a quick jaunt on the Grande. Your camera will be in overdrive as you pass amazing architecture, picturesque balconies and flower boxes, which come alive with vibrant colour. Note that you do not end up in the same place you started, but a ten minute walk will get you back.
By now it should, be nearing dusk and a show, depicting the history of Venice is well worthwhile, if for no other reason than to educate you on how Venice originated and why the Venetians consider themselves different from the rest of Italy. There is, in fact, a movement to secede Venice from. Italy, but no one seems to give the concept much validity.
After the show it’s time for dinner, a treat for which there is no shortage of establishments. It seems every corner has an eatery and a drink at the world famous Harry's Bar may be a good way to start it off. Expect to pay around $25 Euros for a good meal and a glass of wine, but always leave room for gelato, the home made Italian ice cream. I discovered a very dark, rich chocolate flavour and after a few days spent my time curbing my addiction by limiting it to three ice cream cones a day (not to worry about calories, because the amount of walking you do will wear them off).
If you are fortunate to visit Venice in the beginning of March you can take advantage of the famous Venetian Ball. Originally started, as did all the Carnivals around the world, it was an opportunity to party before the beginning of Lent and its forty days of fasting. It has grown into one of the most lavish festivals in the world. In days of old, elaborate masks gave commoners an opportunity to mix with the gentry, without being recognized, but now it is just one big extravagant good time. If you purchase only one souvenir from this enchanted city it should be a mask (prices range from 10 to 500 Euros). No Matter which end of the price spectrum you choose just make sure it has a made in Italy stamp on it.
Air Canada has a direct flight to Venice, but it is the new Rouge service, which is basic. Food comes in small plastic containers, alcohol is charged and there is no entertainment system. You can download an app on your Ipad, which for $5 dollars will connect you to a number of movies (mostly old), as well as a few TV shows. Nine hours in an airplane without entertainment is a long time. Also, keep in mind that 2014 is the last year the City of Venice will allow cruise ships to enter its port. Book now if cruising is your fancy.
Venice has enchantment and magic and it mesmerizes and captivates you with its old world charm and history. Three or four days should do it, for if you stay any longer you will not want to leave.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com