Three days in Venice, “The Floating City”

My wife and I land at Aeroporto Marco Polo for a short stay in Venice, affectionately known “The Floating City”, the week after its worst flooding in 22 years.

An exceptionally high tide in the northern Adriatic Sea, known locally as the “acqua alta”, created havoc in the city. Hospitals and schools closed, and residents were advised not to leave their homes.

Following a short walk from our hotel in Mestre, a ten-minute train journey from the mainland takes us to the Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia.

Exiting the station, we are granted our first sight of the Canal Grande and the city’s famous 14th-century Gothic architecture. Taxi ferries come and go. Tourists contemplate what to visit and where to eat and drink, while locals go about their daily lives.

We walk the narrow cobbled stones of the Ponte delle Guglie. Having not eaten for some time we feel pangs of hunger and increasingly so the “flavour” for a glass of fine Italian red. Following some deliberation, we decide to visit a restaurant named Trattoria al Poggio Pizzeria, which offers a two-course lunchtime deal.

A small number of couples and families occupy the candle-lit restaurant. The waiter is pleasant if a little distracted. I ask about the floods, and he casually informs me water levels reached table height. There are no signs of damage. Well accustomed are the Venetians to dealing with the annual high tides. One would never know it had happened. Antipasti to start, squid ink spaghetti for me and pasta and tomato sauce for my wife. Red wine for both.

We head out again. In November the streets are conveniently quiet for a walking tour of the city. One imagines how challenging it must be to navigate one’s way around Venice through the bustling crowds at the height of summer.

Moving east with the help of an iPhone GPS, we enter the Cannaregio, a region best known for its 16th-century Jewish ghetto. We arrive at Chiesa di San Geremia, a church with Romanesque detailing dating back to the 1700s. A site of pilgrimage as it houses the body of St Lucy. We turn north-east and soon find The Church of Madonna dell’Orto, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Accustomed as I am with the work of Richard Wagner, we walk towards Ca’ Vendramin Calergi. A large palace on the Canale Grande, whereupon the completion of his final opera and in search of tranquillity and inspiration, the German composer lived and eventually died.

Ca’ Vendramin Calergi is most famously renowned as the site of Venice’s most glamorous casino. Few visitors are aware the palace also houses a museum dedicated to Wagner. Sadly, one may only visit the museum when having booked to do so ahead of one’s visit.

Wagner’s good friend and one-time protégé, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, also spent time living in Venice. Being a long-time admirer of Nietzsche, I wish to walk in his footsteps. This takes us to the 17th-century area named Palazzo Berlendis. Nietzsche’s apartment is situated at the end of the Rio dei Mendicanti canal overlooking the water.

Having paid my respects to the great philosopher and after walking several hours, we stop for a beer, more antipasti and grappa chasers. Neither my wife nor I particularly enjoy the potent Italian brandy. We sit and watch the comings and goings of the water taxis with the Cimitero di San Michele, a little island serving as Venice’s cemetery since the early 1800s, situated in the Laguna di Venezia, an enclosed bay of the Adriatic Sea. We continue our journey and head north back toward the train station.

By now it is early evening, and we are feeling a little “thirsty”. We stop for a few cocktails during the buy-one-get-one-free happy hour at Bacaro Jazz Bar in the Ponte di Rialto. A quirky and lively place. Previous visitors’ lingerie adorns the walls and ceiling as they play jazz music.

It is dark outside, and the cocktails pleasantly warm us. We navigate our way through the maze-like callettes and branch streets, getting lost at nearly every turn. In our ever so slightly inebriated states, strangely the GPS no longer seems to work quite so well.

We notice for the first time quite how serene it is in Venice. There is all the usual hustle and bustle one would expect in any city with its restaurants, bars and shops. But something is missing, too. Neither of us can identify the source of the serenity and then it dawns on us both. It comes from a complete lack of traffic noise. No cars. No motorbikes. No motor vehicles at all. Never before have we visited a city without the continual drone of traffic in the atmosphere.

Tired, we stop for another drink in a little bar as we reestablish our bearings. A tranquil place in a back street with only us and a middle-aged American couple sat outside as the owners tidy and clean inside. My wife starts a conversation with the pair. Donald Trump is mentioned by one of the four of us. Both the husband and wife apologise profusely for their president on behalf of all Americans. Both are Democrats. The wife, a poet, who takes my wife’s email address on the promise she will send us a selection of her poems. Lucky us.

Eventually, we make it to the train station and head back to the mainland. My wife sleeps as I keep an eye out for Mestre station.

Breakfast the next morning is hearty Mediterranean fair. After which we head again to the train station.

On arrival in Venice, we hop onto a ferry for a 40-minute journey to a small island province to the east of Venice called Burano. A beautiful little island in the Venetian Lagoon with a population of only 3000. Full of multi-coloured fishermen’s houses, restaurants selling fresh seafood caught in the lagoon and shops full of lace products like linens and clothes, and local butter cookies called “bussolai buraneill.” Burano island is more serene than Venice itself.

We spend a couple of hours exploring the island stopping to take photographs. Sadly the skies are overcast, so with the lack of quality lighting, the photos do not adequately capture the vibrancy of the colours. We stop for a shandy in a little restaurant next to the Chiesa di San Martino with its leaning 17th-century bell tower and head back to Venice.

Travelling on the ferry around the southeastern side of Venice as the sun sets behind us is nothing short of spectacular. Sights along the Fondamente Nove, known as the gateway to the islands of the Northern Lagoon, include the Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, one of the largest churches in the city, and the Chiesa di San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, a church for which the composer, Simon Mayr, wrote three oratorios.

We depart from the ferry at one of the many terminals along the shore and walk toward the Piazza San Marco, the city’s principal public square depicted here by Canaletto in his painting of 1723.

Situated almost at sea level, during an “acqua alta” the Piazza is quick to flood. Water pours into the drains, and as a result, the water from the lagoon surges up into the square and often reaching heights of three to four feet. At such times, local entrepreneurs sell wellies to ill-prepared tourists.

At St Mark’s Basilica, the city’s most famous church, dating back to 1060, we slug from a bottle of red wine and gaze at the upper level of mosaics in the lunettes of the lateral ogee arches and its scenes depicting the life of Christ. We hold a long and slightly drunken conversation about God and the purpose of religion in the 21st Century.

We eat dinner at the Rialto Bridge in a small restaurant called Terrazza Sommariva, which can be seen below lit up in the image on the right. We spend a romantic evening watching the gondolas pass, ferrying couples and families up and down the canal. The meal is very nice, but the restaurant has a touristy feel to it. We are hustled away at the earliest opportunity after finishing our drinks.

We leave the restaurant feeling full, slightly drunk and by now very tired. We lean on one another for support and make our way to the train station and back to our hotel.

Our final day again begins with the traditional Mediterranean breakfast at the hotel. Back in Venice, this time, we take a western route around the city. We enter the Campo Manin, aiming for the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, a cylindrical tower with open arcs which dates back to 1400s.

We climb a staircase, known colloquially as the Scala Contarini del Bovolo, which translates as “of the snail”. The staircase leads to an arcade, which, when the sky is not too overcast as it is today, provides an impressive view of the city. We stop for the obligatory photos with St. Mark’s Campanile and Venetian rooftops behind us. Before moving on, we spend a couple of euros each to visit a small renaissance art exhibition situated in a room below the arcade.

The long walk from the train station and the climb up the staircase has given us an appetite, so we stop for today’s helping of antipasti. We make our way to the Libreria Acqua Alta, often referred to as “the most interesting book shop in the world”, which is a mix of a flea market and a library. We take a look around as many others are doing, too, while taking photos of each other sitting atop a massive pile of water damaged books at the back of the store.

Weary as a result of the many miles walked and food and alcohol consumed during our trip, we return to Rialto Bridge. We sit for a couple of hours at the base of the bridge drinking Aperol Spritz and eating the nuts and crackers which our chosen bar serves with every round.

My wife and I discuss our trip; the city, sights, food and wine. Again I quietly contemplate Nietzsche and Wagner. The Rialto Bridge was Wagner’s favourite spot in Venice, where unwell and ageing he spent many hours convalescing. Years later, Nietzsche would do the same, thinking on his old friend and mentor.

A young couple appears next to us decked head-to-toe in Gucci clothing and carrying Gucci shopping bags. They conduct an ad-hoc photo-shoot at the end of a gondola pier. It’s a rather odd situation that lasts an hour or so. Many of us in the vicinity exchange bemused looks and chuckle to ourselves.

My wife and I talk with a middle-aged couple at a table adjacent to our own, who have travelled from Canada and arrived in Venice for a few days on their tour of Europe. As their visit to Venice begins, ours in “the floating city” sadly ends. We wish them both well and an enjoyable stay as we leave to catch our flight home.

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