I will never forget arriving in Venice. We got off the train, walked through the front doors of the train station onto a large piazza, and saw this. I was, to put it mildly, completely stunned. Sure, I had seen many photographs of Venice. But I was, I expect, a little cynical, assuming that there would be parts of Venice which would be amazing, but that the rest of the city would be ordinary, with its ugly bits, its seedy sections, especially around the train station. To emerge from the train, and suddenly be surrounded by these exquisite buildings, to see that there was an entire island filled with this beauty, was unexpected.
Our first day there was magical. From the canal in front of the station we took a boat taxi to our hotel, around the island on the main shore, the Riva degli Schiavoni not far from St Mark’s Square. It was a beautiful day, cool but still, in late November, and we sat outside for a long lunch – pizza and wine of course – watching seagulls swoop in on the plates of our fellow diners, cackling loudly and as they flew off, gulping down their prize – French fries.
I started to worry that four days here would not be sufficient.
We walked through the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) every day.
After that first fine day, the weather started getting chilly, and so we could only imagine what it must be like in summer, with tables and chairs lining the square, sitting in the sun, dodging the pigeons, and watching people. Cooler weather can be a real plus though, especially in a place like Venice. Only hardy tourists were about, and so there was a degree of peace compared to the chaos of high season. Along the shorefront, and into the Basilica di San Marco, we noticed lines and lines of boards, piled up on boxes. They looked like temporary seating, and were often used as such. Then one morning we discovered why they were there. A storm was crossing Europe – everywhere temperatures dipped markedly. The storm front, accompanied by a high tide, meant that we were grateful for what we realised were in fact makeshift boardwalks not seating. They kept our feet dry, especially as we entered the Cathedral, but were also a very poignant reminder, as we explored the rest of Venice, of how precarious its future is.
Of course, we visited museums and marvelled at the beauty of the Cathedrals and churches, shared kisses under the stars on the romantic Rialto Bridge, explored the markets, the Doges Palace and daily we passed by the Bridge of Sighs. During our fascinating tour of the Doge’s Palace (I do love my history), we crossed over this infamous bridge into the prison cells. On a freezing November morning, wrapped up tightly in overcoats and scarves and still shivering, we imagined what it must have been like for prisoners locked in these inhospitable dungeons for days, weeks and months on end. It brought Venice’s magnificence into sharp perspective.
Getting lost in Venice is well known as one of the must-do tourist experiences. It is easy to do. Whilst there are signs on the tourist route between St Mark’s and the Rialto Bridge, beyond that you just follow your nose. The city is eminently walkable, lots of convenient bridges across the canals, and narrow winding alleyways. My husband would set off enthusiastically, and as the alleys got narrower and narrower, my confidence would begin to wane. I swear that at one stage we practically had to shuffle sideways to squeeze through the alley before we found ourselves back on a more main thoroughfare.
We spent hours on our feet. As the cold got more and more intense, there was always a small bar to pop into and a piping hot chocolate to help thaw us out, though unfortunately, this being Europe, we were too soon driven out by the overpowering smokey atmospheres.
The cold weather too was a great excuse to have a hearty lunch. We admired the constitution of the Italians, eating what seemed to us to be main course pasta meals as entrees, and did this once or twice. After staggering away from the tables, full to bursting, it became clear how the gorgeous young women we saw tucking into the large helpings of pasta became the large, rotund, often black-clad mamas we saw more frequently. I have to say though, I envied them the pure enjoyment they took in their meals.
One day we decided to explore the outer islands, Murano, Burano, and the Lido. We arrived in Burano on a Sunday morning. The streets were deserted. Everyone was at church. It was bitterly cold, with a severe wind chill, and after a brief exploration of the tiny island we needed to take shelter in the local bar. Nursing our cappuccino and hot chocolate, we enjoyed seeing the locals emerge from church, greeting friends and neighbours, the children running and playing despite the freezing wind, the men coming into the bar for a quick shot of something alcoholic and warming. Despite the tourists who had taken over Venice only a few minutes across the sea, here was a more traditional, tight-knit community, taking pleasure in the simple things of life. Their houses reflected their bright, cheery approach to life.
Murano of course is famous for its glass. My main memory is of enjoying watching the glassmakers in their workshops, open to visitors even on a Sunday morning. Their skill was extraordinary. Of course, the fact that the heat from their furnaces restored some feeling to my nose, fingers and toes had something to do with my new interest in glass blowing.
The highlight of Venice though is floating down the Grand Canal, marvelling at these houses, standing for centuries, beautiful and regal, but now under such threat. Venice was simply enchanting. I want, no, I think I need to go back.