My sister’s devotion to Venice is so advanced that she is often to be found late in the evening sitting in a halo of light emitting from the computer, looking for deals that will allow her to walk its cobbled streets once more. Last year, she stumbled upon a heavily discounted deal over at Expedia (£400 for five nights at the Hotel a la Commodia including flights – those of you who have been to costly Venice will appreciate that this was indeed a good price). The excitement this elicited in my Italophile sister was contagious and soon I too was part of the plan to escape to Italy.
I’d oft heard that Venice invokes a sort of feverish devotion in those who’ve come to love it. On the Alilaguna from Marco Polo Airport being tantalised by glimpses of the city, I knew I would join their ranks. By the time we approached the Rialto bridge, where we were due to disembark, I’d caught sight of the gently winding canals, the slowly decaying buildings that cluster the banks and the balconies draped in drying clothes and fiery carnations: the city had me in its thrall.
We got a little lost in the attempt to find our hotel and spent quite some time walking along the tiny, labyrinthine streets before our hotel suddenly appeared before us, as if it were a mirage. I was to find this happens a great deal when in Venice; the tiny medieval streets make finding anything a case of walking in vaguely concentric circles until you happen upon your destination.
The Hotel a la Commodia sits next to one of the tiny bridges that connects the 118 islands which make up Venice and is ideal for a city break – well-appointed, a decent size and perfectly located. While I’d have happily bedded down at the rather more famous and luxurious Gritti Palace or Cipriani Hotel, I was expecting to spend so much time in exploring the city that paying so much for a place to lay my head wasn’t warranted. We checked in, paid the requisite daily tax for visitors (minimal, but do consider this when budgeting), and unpacked as quickly as possible.
Out I went into Venice. It was a sensory overload. The sight of the city cannot be adequately described in words nor represented in pictures. Despite having seen thousands of images of the city and read countless books that describe the canals and atmosphere (most notably Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, which most believe to be set in Venice), none of them did it justice. Equally, the sultry heat of the city during the summer, and relentless sound of people exploring to the backdrop of gondoliers playing the accordion, is so very unique to the city as to be unfathomable without visiting.
Some of it, however, was as expected – the shops catering for tourists that crowd the Rialto Bridge sell Venetian masks, murano glass and cameos. This ‘Venice for newbies’ was swarming with American students and camera-wielding Asians, which only served to confirm that this area is designed to trap the uninitiated. My hunger at this point almost irrevocably damaged my opinion of the city – I dragged my reluctant sister to a perfectly pretty restaurant on the banks near the Rialto and ordered a pizza and a salad. It was a rude awakening: the pizza was clearly out of a packet, the salad limp and the bill staggering. I sent messages to friends who frequent Venice. They found the fact that I had dined in a tourist hotspot laughable. One message I received read: ‘you ate a pizza at Rialto? You’d pay to eat air there, and that would taste better!’.
Armed with their hit list of good eats in Venice, I dined well (and more cheaply) at the following places:
– Birraria la Corte in Campo San Polo. Walk here if you have time – it takes about as long from the city centre as getting a boat and you’ll catch some beautiful views on the way. The food here is good, the wine decent and the courtyard a spectacular place to sit on a hot evening.
– Bistrot de Venise just off Piazza San Marco. Slightly more dear but well worth the extra few pounds, this restaurant made the best orange creme brûlée I’ve ever tried (the rosemary ice cream it came with was also pretty special). I also liked that the dishes on the menu are annotated with the dates at which they were popular.
– Rosa Salva on Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo. I didn’t realise that the trend for a quick coffee and pastry while standing was quite so prevalent in Venice prior to visiting this cake and pastry shop. A little touristy, but more than deserving of its fame, it made for an excellent afternoon pick-me-up.
– Pizzaria Accademia Foscarini by the Accademia Bridge. The pizza here is good, but the main reason for my visiting twice was that it is a beautiful place to sit, isn’t extortionate and is very close to L’Accademia where I’d worked up quite an appetite while perusing the paintings.
There are two other Italian treats that should be consumed while in Venice – ice cream and wine. The former, I’d advise you to do indiscriminately; most Venetian ice cream parlours are pretty damn good and picking a cone up as you explore is the best way to do it. As I’m not a big drinker, I could afford to sip an overpriced Aperol spritz or glass of wine at one of the more popular spots – our favourites were the rooftop bar at the Danieli, the terrace at the Hotel Monaco & Grand Hotel and the Skyline Bar at the Hilton on Giudecca.
Imbibing and ingesting aside, finding things to do in Venice is hardly a struggle. Walking around the city is one of the best ways to while away the afternoon – while ogling the architecture you’ll probably end up in a gallery housing innumerable famous works and make a purchase or two at a shop. The most memorable places I found were by sheer chance and, despite my plans to visit the archipelagos Murano to see the glassmakers and Burano to see lacemakers, I really couldn’t squeeze it in. Nor did I manage to on the second or third visit I made to Venice last year. Oh yes, I’ve well and truly become one of Venice’s most ardent admirers and will henceforth be found huddled over my computer during quiet moments at work attempting to find one of those golden deals.