On a recent trip to the north of Italy, after completing five days of quarantine in Quattro Castella in the Emilia-Romagna region, we had a couple of days to visit somewhere before heading on to the second part of our trip to Ravenna on the northeast coast.
Friends who had visited Venice had always spoken so well of the unique canal city and photographs always looked stunning, like a glimpse back in time to a golden era of opera, elegant dress, ornate balconies and orchestras. I’d always thought of it as a place I must visit in my lifetime but had never really made any plans to do so, with other trips and destinations occurring first.
Venice was a mere two-hour train journey from Reggio Emilia with a quick switch at Bologna, so this was the prime opportunity to go!
I liked the idea of travelling to Venice by train, and when we got off at Venice Santa-Lucia station, I was delighted to see that you step off and step out into the street and you are immediately there in the middle of the city, boats sailing along the grand canal, past even grander buildings, people milling round in a watercolour blend of blues, whites, lilacs and golds. It looked like a still-life on a giant canvas, despite all the movement.
We arrived around 11:30 but we couldn’t check into our hotel until 15:00 so we spent a few hours walking around laden with overnight bags and it was sweltering hot, being the 31st of July. It was fine though, I was distracted by all the visuals at every turn.
The streets were not as busy as I expected and the city did not smell of the sewers, as is often said about Venice in summer. These two factors were likely down to the massive decrease in tourism due to Covid-19 and lockdowns/travel restrictions. It has been reported that the canals are cleaner but gondoliers and bar and restaurant owners have unfortunately suffered a significant drop in income.
Here’s a little bit of Venetian history before I go any further- Venice is built over 118 islands separated by canals which are linked by 400 bridges. It was central to the Renaissance artistic period and birthplace of several Baroque composers. Approximately 55,000 people live in the city of Venice and I was fascinated to see people exiting their apartment right on the canals and bridges and wondering about how they navigate walking to work or doing their everyday shops with tourists stopping to take photographs every few seconds.
Every kilometre or so, there is a small stone bridge to cross then of course there is the famous Rialto bridge and the small but very pretty Bridge of Sighs (which takes its English name from Lord Byron and the myth that convicts on their way to the adjoining prison were able to take one last look at Venice from this bridge and sigh as they headed to the cell).
We walked along seeing these main sights until the heat got a bit too much and thirst took over.
(I’ll come back to the canals of Venice later- there is so much more to ‘the floating city’ than water!)
In Venice, their plural name for small snacks or sandwiches is cicchetti. This word can cause some confusion because in some other parts of Italy, it means alcoholic shots. We found a small bacaro on a side street just off one of the small bridges which was offering a spritz and three cicchetti for 8 euros per person and in the heat and humidity, the Aperol Spritz over ice went down amazingly. I wasn’t so sure about the olive they had placed in the drink.
After this, we walked around the streets that glitter with all the designer shops you would expect such as Gucci, Dior and Chanel, but there are also lots of quaint independent stores with clothes and homeware for reasonable prices. You’ll also find dozens of Murano glass shops selling the intricate glassware that’s handblown on the nearby island of Murano. Several narrow streets, corners, bridges and shops later, we turned left, and suddenly a vast expanse opened up before my eyes. There it was, the Piazza San Marco, Venice’s main square, crowned by the breathtaking cathedral, the Basilica di San Marco.
The architecture of the Basilica di San Marco is said to have been influenced by the Hagia Sophia, or the Blue Mosque, in Istanbul, Turkey. In fact, many artifacts were taken from it and brought to Venice way back in 1204. The domes and arches do give it a somewhat Islamic look and although the Duomo in Milan is world-famous and is stunning in itself, and that I used to live three minutes away from the Mezquita in Córdoba, I have to say that this cathedral might be the most amazing one that I have seen to date. The detailing of the carvings and paintwork
There was around a ten-minute queue which was likely much shorter than usual due to fewer tourists. In fact, throughout my two days in Venice, I didn’t hear a single British accent except my own. This was probably down to the fact that, this summer, Italy have imposed a five day quarantine for all arrivals from the UK and that wouldn’t be much fun in a hotel but I was fortunate enough to have my boyfriend’s family’s home with a garden to stay in. I did think that it must feel strange for him as an Italian national to not be free in his own country, even though he’s a UK resident and flew in from the UK.
Anyway, entry to the Basilica cost around 3 euros. Gold is one of my favourite colours (?) and the interior is a gold lover’s dream. It’s nickname to the Italians is the Chiesa d’Oro (Church of Gold), for obvious reasons.
After perusing the gold walls of the basilica, we stepped back out into the glare of the afternoon sun then crossed a few streets to another gold haven- La Fenice.
La Fenice is Venice’s opulent opera house, one of the most renowned venues for opera and classical music in all of Italy. Its name means ‘The Phoenix’, to honour the fact it rose from the ashes and was rebuilt three times after three devastating fires in 1774, 1836 and 1996. A golden phoenix hangs proudly above the stage under an incredible, vast ceiling painted with a blue-based fresco to resemble the sky. Blue is another favourite colour of mine and I especially love blue combined with gold, so I couldn’t stop staring at it the whole time we were in that room.
We paid for the tour inside but unfortunately, there weren’t any shows on during the summer months. I have never seen an opera and hadn’t ever really thought about it but the setting and imagining the sound has definitely made me think this is something I’d love to see at least once in the future.
The best fact I learnt on this tour was that the grand chandelier in the centre of the theatre was made in Liverpool. I’d love to know why it was made in and imported from Liverpool when there must be so many fine chandelier makers in Italy. Whatever the reason, I love it! As someone from Liverpool, (and mainly thanks to The Beatles and the football club), you tend to find little pieces of Liverpool wherever in the world you go.
Maria Callas was one of the most celebrated opera singers who performed many times at La Fenice and it was nice to see when we exited the theatre to see a street/bridge named after her:
That picture shows how many of the buildings on the canals have eroding brickwork, faded paint and chipped away wood. I’m sure this is really problematic but I have to admit that the faded colours somehow work so well together. As said earlier, they look effortlessly like artwork, painted this way deliberately. I saw a freshly painted bright red house by one canal but I preferred the look of houses like these. That said, my 1900 built house seems to need so much work when things crumble or break through so I totally understand why the owners would prefer their houses freshly restored!
Ok, now I’m finally moving on to the canals.
The Grand Canal offers a vast view and you’ll see many people taking photos and numerous boats floating along however it was the back street canals that intrigued me.
My boyfriend surprised me with a gondola ride and I was delighted as we hadn’t discussed it yet so wasn’t sure if we would go on or not but to be honest, it is a must-do whilst in Venice. The gondolier explained that they had much less work this season (again, due to Covid) so he ended up taking us around more obscure canals and it lasted almost an hour rather than the standard 30 minutes which was great! I hope business picks up again for them soon even though the city has been breathing a sigh of relief at fewer tourists and less water traffic.
I loved seeing the gondoliers all around the city decked out in their stripey shirts, black trousers and gondolier hats (there must be a proper name for these). I am quite a romantic person, having grown up on fairytales and being a lifelong reader, and so seeing them steering their way around the canals was like something out of a book or film.
As our gondolier lead us around the back streets, I noticed how peaceful it was at that time of day (around 17:30). It was a really hot day but the shadows of the buildings blocked the sun a bit which was of some relief. Venice is a visual delight as the Italian eye for detail is evident everywhere you look.
The arched windows, wooden shutters, Alice-in-Wonderlandesque doorways and romantic balconies spilling over with flowers are just gorgeous and I wished I could make the front of my townhouse in Liverpool look similar but it wouldn’t exactly be feasible… one can dream.
It was definitely an experience to remember!
Two other great things about Venice are: Prosecco and Aperol.
Prosecco is the Italian sparkling wine produced in the Veneto region and it is popularly mixed with Aperol (a bitter orange apéritif from Padua, also in Veneto) to create the Aperol Spritz.
The Italians have this brilliant invention of the aperitivo hour which is usually around 6pm, a while before dinner, where they will take a spritz and eat something small such as a cicchetto or just some olives or salumi. It is usually still quite hot around that time of day so having a cold drink is highly welcomed and although some people initially find the bitterness of Aperol a bit offputting at first, it is an acquired taste and I have grown to love it (on my writer Instagram @lauraferrieswriter , you’ll find a poem I wrote last year called Aperol Summer). It’s a brilliant custom and one I’ll happily bring back over to Britain.
The next day, it was thankfully much cooler with a slight breeze. We headed to the main waterfront and boarded a water taxi to Burano, an island situated in the Venetian lagoon. You may have heard of Murano from Murano glass but we didn’t have time to visit both Burano and Murano so we opted for the former as it is reputedly much cuter.
And cute is certainly is! After a forty-five minute sail across from Venice to Burano, we arrived at the cutest little village/island I have ever visited. It looks like something straight out of Hansel and Gretel but not at all sinister!
The little houses line the canals but in place of faded, vintage building fronts as in Venice, they are painted in a varied palette of pastel and primary colours, looking like a box of fondant fancies. It is highly aesthetic but I think it has looked like this long before Instagram and the like.
It has a very much nautical ambience and the presence of little boats and barges along the canals is so quaint; it is a very peaceful place where everybody was so friendly and there is no shortage of Murano glass shops where in fact, it is much cheaper to purchase the glassware than the eponymous island. Wikipedia states that as of August 202, the population is only 2,777!
Where Murano is famous for its glass, Burano’s chief product is its intricate lacework which you would see wafting around on the breeze outside shops.
As we walked along and observed how the residents live and work, I wondered what it would be like to live somewhere like that. I wondered which colour I would paint my house and whether I would get bored living somewhere so quiet or if it would be calming.
Conveniently, I was wearing pink and white that day which happened to match with a house I saw:
It was also in Burano that I had one of my best meals in twelve days in Italy: spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams). I had eaten a very poor version of this dish the night before in Venice so was determined to try a good one. This one was so good, made with clams caught that morning in the nearby waters, that it had the same effect but for a different reason: I was to order it again a few days later in Ravenna. The waiter paired it with a local very lightly sparkling Prosecco which I think was even nicer than the usual fizzy stuff, it was gentler and suited the light flavour of the clams perfectly.
Some meals are memorable and that was one! The setting, the sun, the food, the drink and the company were a perfect combination.
After lunch, we went for another walk around to see more of the lovely little houses and canals and I did some glass shopping to find gifts for my boyfriend’s mum and sister.
Soon, it was time to get the boat back over to Venice then head to the train station for our journey back to Reggio Emilia. I’d always expected Venice to be lovely, and I’d always heard such positive things, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. In fact, it’s one of the nicest cities I’ve ever been to and highly recommend it for a must-see place in your lifetime. Europe has so many beautiful cities with so much architectural and cultural diversity but Venice is set apart from the fact it is certainly unique!