I emerged blinking into the Venetian sunshine just after 9am, after a less than blissful nights sleep on board the sleeper from Paris. The sight of the Grand Canal as you walk down the steps from Santa Lucia station would awaken the spirit of any weary traveller, however. I put on my newly bought Panama hat, which depending on the angle made me look raffish or ridiculous, and walked over to the Vaporetto stop.
Vaporettos are water buses, and the backbone of public transport in this unique car-free city. They’re a damn sight more expensive than a regular bus at €7.50 for a single ticket, so I plumped for the 48 hour ticket for 30 euros. It’s a hell of an introduction to Venice though, as the boat zigzags down the Grand Canal, passing under the famous Rialto Bridge before dropping me off at my stop a couple of nautical miles later.
I was staying at Hotel Bel Sito (€60 per night for a single room) which had the advantage of being five minutes walk from St Marks Square but on a quiet piazza opposite the beautiful Chiesa di Santa Maria del Giglio. The view from my window was pretty decent….
I decided to get my money’s worth out of my Vaporetto ticket and headed into the Venetian lagoon to the island of Burano, famous for its colourful fisherman’s houses. Apparently if you want to repaint your house on the island, you must apply to the council who will provide you with a list of approved colours. Grey isn’t one of them. I spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering around the island before I was back on the boat to another island, Murano. Venetians seem to apply more imagination to the colour of their houses than the names of their islands.
Colour is a common theme here though, this time in the glass rather than the paint. All over the island are shops selling Murano glass vases and sculptures, with varying degrees of subtlety and tackiness. There’s also the glass blowing museum where you can see how these garish objets d’art are made.
Back in Venice I braved the crowds in St Marks Square and walked up to the Rialto. It’s not a quick walk, and the stories of the city sinking under the weight of the hordes of tourists are given credence whenever you happen upon the main attractions. But fear not, because despite the army of cruise ship invaders, there’s hope.
I’ve been told to “get lost” many times in my life, mostly with an accompanying sneer. Those two words are a much more helpful piece of advice here, as whenever you feel hemmed in by the human maelstrom, turn down a random alleyway. And then another. Less than two minutes later you’ll find yourself on a quiet canal, with only a serenely drifting gondola for company.
This, I think, was the highlight of my stay here – wandering aimlessly along canals, down narrow passages and pausing on bridges listening to the soft ripple of the water, with barely another soul around.
That’s not to say I avoided the tourist attractions, because they are stunning. I just tried to go early in the morning or late afternoon when they’re a tad quieter. Also I booked in advance on my phone, and especially enjoyed marching straight past the infinite snaking queue to get into St. Marks Basilica and in at the advance ticket entrance with a smug grin on my face.
As well as the Basilica, in my two full days here I visited the Doge’s Palace, took a trip up the Campanile bell tower at sunset, and hopped on a Vaporetto to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore with it’s white church, and from where you have a wonderful view of Venice from the top of the bell tower.
On my final morning I had a 10am train to Rome, so decided to rise with the lark and experience Venice at dawn. It was totally worth it. St Marks Square was almost deserted at 6.45am, other than a few other early risers with cameras in hand. I don’t claim to be an expert photographer, indeed all I have is an iPhone and a fairly steady hand – but I was chuffed with the results of my sunrise photography, especially the cover photo of the gondolas on the canal with San Giorgio Maggiore in the background.
Talking of gondolas, they start at €80 a pop for a romantic 40 minute glide along a canal – which is a bit steep for me, especially as I was on my own and therefore not in need of a romantic interlude. Fortunately there’s an alternative for cheapskates and singletons alike – you can cross from one side of the Grand Canal to the other in a gondola for just a couple of euros.
And this was my final act of a wonderful 48 hours here, where, with a twist and turn away from the crowds down an alleyway or two, you really do appreciate why this beautiful city is called La Serenissima.