Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Tips on a perfect Venetian holiday for the first-timer

“So, Scott, what would be your advice to first-time travellers to ensure a perfect holiday in Venice?” I imagine you asking. Well, since you insist, I’ll tell you.

First – and most important – convince some of your oldest and dearest friends to move from London to Venice and live in a series of delightful apartments there for a couple of decades (easy enough to arrange, I should have thought). Make sure theses particular friends are generous and hospitable enough to allow you to stay in their flat while they’re in the Dolomites, escaping the summer heat, having written about the city’s biannual modern art festival for a number of international newspapers, and before they have to cover the Venice Film Festival.

Travel with hand-luggage only – as our friends predicted, this made our

journey there and back far less stressful (and their advice to pay for Speedy Boarding on Easyjet, so you can grab the seats with leg-room, proved another invaluable bit of advice: it makes you feel as if you’re travelling First Class while paying a third of what you would on British Airways). Travelling EasyJet also resulted in our taking off and landing on time – something I haven’t managed with BA in twenty years.

Going for less than a week is an insult to the city - don’t do it.

The waterbuses now cost a small fortune (for tourists, a single trip will set you back 6.5 Euros!), so go for a 7-day all-inclusive ticket for 50 Euros or thereabouts, which you can buy on arrival at the airport. There is nothing quite like being able to hop on and off vaporettos at will.

Spend a day island-hopping (this can all be done by waterbus, included in the cost of your 7-day ticket). Setting off from the Fondamenta Nuove stop, go to San Michele, the cemetery island, just a few minutes away, and do some grave-hunting (Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky, Diaghelev etc.). Catch another boat to Murano, about five minutes away: it’s pretty and smallish and worth a gander. These days, some of the glass pieces made there are actually tasteful enough to buy. 

Take a 30-minute boat ride to Burano, which is truly lovely, with all the
houses painted a different colour. Another brief hop by boat takes you to the flat, steamy island of Torcello, which used to be home to 30,000 inhabitants, but which now consists mainly of a strip of tasteful restaurants

leading to a magnificent Byzantine Cathedral complete with glowingly beautiful golden mosaic paintings at either end (these have been endlessly restored, but don’t let it bother you). 

You will be totally shagged out by this stage, but, as you drag your weary carcass back to the vaporetto stop, you will feel it has all been worth it.

Spend at least one day on the Lido, a narrow island a 15-minute vaporettoride away from Venice. On arrival, take the “V” bus and get off two stops after the Casino. Walk to the beach-side entranceway with the Miramaresign over it and pay 72 Euros for a cabin in the first row on the beach (prima piatti, I think it was called), which looks directly onto the sea. No one speaks English there, but this won’t be a problem. 

After a nice man has swept out your hut, provided you with all the chairs and tables you’ll need and handed you the key to the sturdy little hut that is yours for the rest of the day, change, run down the beach and into the (now very clean) water, and give yourself a sybaritic treat by flolloping away in the sun to your heart’s content. Return to your cabin and sit in the shade, untroubled by the fact that the Italian families in the cabins on either side of you have managed to cram over ten people into a similar space, because you can’t understand a word they’re saying – and it’s astonishing how lovely everyone seems when you can’t understand a word they’re saying. 

At 12.30 sharp walk a few yards to the bar/restaurant behind the cabins and order pizzas made in plain sight by a truly accomplished pizza-maker (I prefer a spicy diavolo, if you must know) - and iced tea. Take all this back to your cabin and wolf it down in the shade of the awning protecting the porch of your hut, trying not to make animal noises (this is difficult, because it’s the most unbelievably delicious pizza you will ever eat in your life). 

Sated, and belching softly, waddle down to the water and do some more wallowing – the sea will be empty, as Italians evidently still believe all that nonsense about swimming after eating giving you cramp. After this you might want to light a stubby, slow-burning Italian cigar made from Kentucky tobacco and stroll out to the concrete deck at the end of a narrow pier and stare out to sea (or at the topless women sunbathing there – the choice is yours). Stroll back and start to think about ice cream and a cappuccino. 
                                                                      Giorgione, The Tempest
(Warning : watch out for the pretty little blue jellyfish which sometimes invade the beach – their sting is barely noticeable but leaves you with a mildly irritating rash the next day.) This is the best 72 Euros you will ever spend. Take my word for it. Do it once and you’ll be back for more within a day or two.

If the Biennale is on, visit it, even if, like me, you loathe conceptual (i.e. non) art. It’s worth it just to spot the visitor wearing the silliest, supposedly most hyper-cool outfit at the show. (Although the winner is usually French, this time it was a supercilious-looking oriental hipster sporting ridiculous glasses and a solar topee - sort of Japanese WWII Prison Camp Commandant chic.)

Panels from Bellini’s Polyptych of St Vincenzo Ferreri
95% of the “art” on show appears to have been produced by particularly dim and cosmically talentless first-year students, but there’s usually one thing worth seeing. This year it was “The Clock”, a 24-hour film made up of some two thousand clips from commercial movies, all of which contain references to a specific time: when it’s actually 3.34pm here in the real world, there’ll be a series of clips featuring shots of clocks or watches or actors actually referring to 3.34pm. I watched for just over an hour, and was extremely sorry to leave – I’m not sure it was art, but it was mesmerising and strangely thought-provoking.

 Carpaccio, St Augustine in His Study (with silly Venetian dog)
If visiting during high season, try to keep away from St Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace, the Riva degli Schiavonni and the area around the Rialto. There’s no point in letting the sheer quantity of tourists get on your nerves – after all, they’re what’s been keeping the place afloat for a century and a half, and they’re generally a civilised bunch – but restricting yourself to one visit to each of these sites in any seven-day period will stop you going postal. 

When it all gets too much take a boat over to Giudecca – it’s far less crowded than other parts. 

On airless, stifling evenings, walk along the Zatterre right to the end (where, for some odd reason, there’s currently a truly creepy, positively paedophiliac statue of a prepubescent boy on display): experience has shown that this is one place where you can always guarantee a breath of wind.
Miracoli Church
As for food – good luck! The restaurants are expensive (transport costs add up to 30% to the cost of food). The Billa supermarket near the San Basilio stop on the Zattere is a good bet for basics. Don’t ever fall for the set-price Menu Turistico at any restaurant. Never eat in a restaurant which has pictures of the food displayed outside. Buy sandwiches from the counters of eateries facing directly onto the street – the prices are reasonable and the food generally taste good. Eat as much ice-cream as you can manage – it’s cheap and delicious (Nico’s near the Zattere stop is deservedly world famous).

The Venetians are pretty forgiving of tourists (as well they might be) but try not to take photographs which involve holding up traffic across bridges – this drives them nuts. And, unless you’re elderly, whatever you do, don’t sit down on one of the vaporetto seats reserved for old people, pregnant women and the disabled unless you want to be publicly humiliated by one of the city’s legion of doughty old ladies (not one of whom appears to be over 4’10” tall). 

Venice is extraordinarily safe (presumably because making a fast get-away isn’t really an option), so you can walk to your heart’s content anywhere at any time – evenings are particularly lovely, what with sfumatosunsets and huge butter-yellow moons. 

Watch out for dogshit: Venetians have a penchant for silly little dogs and haven’t quite got the message about cleaning up after the yappy little blighters. 

Here’s a list of the places which – given a week – you have to see:

1. The Accademia – best collection of Venetian art in the world, notable for Giorgione’s The Tempest

2. The Frari Church – stuffed with treasures, including Titian’s Assumption (see previous post)

3. SS Giovanni & Paolo Church – ditto, but particularly notable for the Bellini’s glorious Polyptych of St Vincenzo Ferreri

4. The Miracoli Church - possibly the most beautiful Renaissance building in the city

5. St Marks’ Cathedral – a bugger to get into, thanks to the endless queues, but worth it 

6. The Doge’s Palace – simply fabulous in every way

7. San Michele, Murano, Burano and Torcello

8. Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni – stuffed with wonderful paintings by Carpaccio

9. Ca’ Rezzonico - worth it for four its four classic Tiepolos

10. Ca’ D’Oro – a ballerina did her best to destroy it in the 19th Century – an Italian industrialist brought it back to life in the 20th.

There are at least a hundred other things worth seeing (Campo San Polo, San Nicolo dei Mendicolo, the Bovolo Staircase, the Fortuny Museum, the Correr Museum, the Ghetto) – a thousand - but these are my personal favourites.

Apologies for the “holiday snaps” travelogue - after returning from this civilised jewel of a place, it always takes me a while to get it out of my system.

And particular thanks to our friends, whose extraordinary generosity  has helped assuage my Venetian cravings so often during the past twenty years.

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