Sunday, February 28, 2010

Venice - top spots when time is tight

Not everyone has plenty of time up their sleeves (or plenty of money for that matter ) when travelling the tourist trail. Venice is one city which leaves you blissfully numb because of its heavenly draws you in like a magnet and you never want to leave. It's labyrinth of narrow streets, quaint bridges and cul-de-sacs transports you to another time. Nothing follows suit...everything is a surprise - even the numbers don't follow each other - they refer to the sections of the city - so it's important that you have some idea of where you want to go and what you want to do before you get there.

Here are my tips for fellow hapless travellers who embrace the nicer things in life while keeping an eye on the budget:
Gondola versus Vaporetto
If budget is the key then do you really need to take the mandatory gondola ride? They can be exorbitant stripping your wallet of cash which could be spent on other enjoyable pursuits. In winter, the cost to swan along the canals in a gondola was around 80 euro. In summer it could be more? Why not take the vaporetti. These efficient forms of public transport zip you here and there with the greatest of ease. But please, don't be like some of our friends who jumped on and off without paying for a ticket. You may save money in the short term but if you are caught you will be fined. More importantly, this is a major source of income for the city of Venice. Remember - you're their guests, treat them with decency and pay up. Depending how long you are staying in Venice, buy the ticket that suits your purpose. There are tickets for one hour, 24 hours, and three-day usage. Or you can buy a Venice card which is valid for one, two or seven days - this card also gives you unlimited access to some museums as well as other perks. The Travel Pass is great for the lucky ones who are staying for a minimum of one week. Search the net and find out what's going to best for you.
If you are desperate to experience a gondola ride then check out the traghetto - shared gondolas which link the Grand Canal.
The Doge's Palace - The Secret Itineraries tour
It 's a good idea to book online in advance if you are travelling in summer; in winter, it was relatively easy with a very short queue. Follow in the footsteps of some of Venice's most famous and infamous leaders throughout history; discover concealed doors, hidden corners and passageways; visit the jail where Casanova (who was more than 7 feet tall) was incarcerated until his escape in 1775; traverse the Bridge of Sighs and relive the final walk across the water to the 'new prison'. It's worth every minute and a great investment of your time and money.
Harry's Bar
This is quaint bar, once Hemingway's favourite drinking haunt, is hidden at the back of St Mark's Square; you could easily walk past if it you didn't know it was there. You'll find the iconic bellini (prosecco and freshly squeezed white peach juice) beckoning you at a mere 15 euro a glass! If you have kids in tow, just pop your head in the door and have a stickybeak; if you're with your partner or a good friend then just do it - damn the cost. (They serve a small dish of olives too compliments of the bar.)
Caffe Florian
Tucked away under one of St Mark's Square arcades, the Florian Cafe is a typical tourist spot you simply must visit. Circa 1720, the Florian Cafe is exquisitely sumptuous in decor, but also hideously expensive. Look but don't indulge.
Venice is like most European cities - churches are ubiquitous. I suppose if you're keen you could pop into the Basilica di San Marco next to Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) but my preference was to wander off the beaten track with HL and head to Chiesa di Santa Maria Della Salute - an imposing Venetian Baroque church which stands at the mouth of the Grand Canal. No queues of tourists plus wonderful paintings by the masters Titan and Tintoretto for your viewing pleasure.
You'll find Venetians masks everywhere. (Even in Brisbane I come across copies in the 'dollar stores'. In Venice a plethora of sellers with their carts flock not only to the Piazza San Marco but also along the Fondamenta in front of the square. You'll find mask in shops, in market places...If this is your 'thing' then fine, buy one, but may I suggest you purchase one from an atelier that specialises in making masks. Before we left for our trip, I had read about one particular artist Guerrino Lovato (proprietor of atelier Mondonovo) who makes masks for the Fenice Theatre. (You must read "The City of Falling Angels" by John Berendt - it's all about Venice, the Fenice Theatre burning down in 1996 and the American and English expats living there at the time). We walked Venice looking for his shop Mondonovo, Dorsoduro 3063, Rio Tera Canal (off Campo Santa Margherita). After walking for hours we finally found his atelier - it was closed and he was on holiday until February 8.
Undaunted we powered on until we came across another mascareri (traditional mask maker) on route to the Rialto via Calle Dei Saoneri. I bought an understated Harlequin-inspired creation in black, burgundy and gold for a meagre 13 euro. The artist signed it for me too which made it a one-of-a-kind.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection - Museo D'Arte Moderna
This museum of modern art is spellbindingly 'out there'. The museum is located in Peggy Guggenheim's former home, Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal. Pop in on your way to or from the church of Santa Maria della Salute. The entrance to the museum is pictured above. If you're a real history buff or art aficionado then this may interest you: According to the lads at Ristorante All Angelo you can sit in the same alcove, at the same table Ms Guggenheim regularly dined at with her 12 dogs. Email me at and I'm happy to furnish you with a photo that I took of that very table!
The sightseer's tour 'bus'
HL and I always tell our friends to take the sightseer's tour bus when you first reach your travel destination. It is an excellent and cost-effective way to see the city, learn the history, gain an appreciation and general knowledge of where you are, and also it helps you get your bearings. Obviously Venice doesn't have buses but the best way to see Venice is on a vaporetto. There are 15 lines running at regular intervals, four of them seasonal, two at night time. Make sure you take one of the Grand Canal lines which circulate both ways - if memory serves me correctly it is Line 1. This line takes you down the canal where you can see the pretty fronts of the decaying palaces in all their glory. Then there are the lines that circumnavigate Venice, as well as lines that take you to the islands Murano (for the glass blowing houses), Burano (to check out lacemaking), Lido (the summer haunt for local Italians) and Giudecca (which seems to be the haven for wealthy tourists).
Ponte Della Costituzione
This modern bridge sits incongruously in its historic streetscape. Connecting Piazzle Roma to Venice's train station (Stazione di Santa Lucia), the bridge was originally nicknamed the Ponte di Calatrava after the architect. Walk the bridge to the Santa Croce and Cannaregio districts where you'll find 'avenues' of shops and 'street' stalls selling fare that is markedly cheaper than San Marco district - naturally! The division between the districts is a fine line - you don't know if you're in Santa Croce or Cannaregio but it's the latter where you'll find some great wine bars and take-away pizza outlets. The pizza at L'Angolo Della Pizza for 2.50 euro a slice was sensational. Nearby is the Giunti al Punto bookstore which was heaven-sent as we were both keen to buy a book to read - in English - after our departure from Venice.
Campanile di San Marco
Opposite the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) and Basilica di San Marco, the Campanile di San Marco (Bell Tower of St Mark's) provides visitors with unsurpassed views of Venice. Worth the effort if you're prepared to stand in the queues during summer. Entry is via the Piazzetta side of St Mark's Square. And yes, there is an entry fee.

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