Discovering the REAL Venice

A week spent in Venice in 2009 and I was instantly captivated by its charm and beauty. My visit was during a dark and damp winter with many of the canals shrouded in a mist which impaired visibility; this to me only heightened its mystic and made me impatient to visit again. Imagine my joy then, when my husband transferred from a professional rugby club in Wales to one 20 minutes from Venice; my dream was about to come true.

Venice in the fog
Venice in the fog

Fast forward a few weeks and my bubbling excitement at moving within touching distance of my favourite city had been doused by the many negative opinions proffered on my new home town. Venice was, as one friend dismissively shrugged, somewhere I could “do in a day”. I would, she stated bluntly, get very bored and the novelty would wear off before the end of my first month in Italy. This decisive and contemptuous comment came from a girl who had never stepped foot inside the city, yet was said with the conviction of a world weary traveller. In dismay I hit the internet to research other traveller’s reviews where page upon page of indifferent and trivialising comments rocked me. I must have got it wrong; I had somehow not spotted the tired, old fashioned, outdated, unfriendly city that these other reviewers and writers had seen. I must have lost my touch.

After settling into our new home town of Mogliano Veneto, I somewhat nervously suggested that we caught the train into Venice for the day. I vowed to open my eyes and to see what everyone else allegedly sees. I resolved myself to be more objective and to visit the city as a travel writer not a tourist.

The second I left the train station and saw the beauty of the canal, the striking architecture of the buildings and the throng of the people, this resolve left me. Fast forward 5 months of almost weekly visits to my favourite city and I wonder how I could have ever doubted myself. Each week I find a new route to take me to whatever destination I have chosen that day and each week I discover a new lane or square hitherto unseen.

It would appear that uninformed tourists make the assumption that Venice is small and outdated when in fact Venice is vast and historically vibrant. I fully expect to leave Italy in a years’ time having not explored even two thirds of it let alone the whole of it.

Like many other cities, Venice is divided into quarters; there are six in total with three on each side of the Grand Canal. Many tourists only visit the San Marco quarter famous for its square and Basilica however the additional five quarters of Castello, Cannaregio, San Polo, Santa Croce and Dorsoduro need to be fully explored to fully appreciate the history and diversity of the city.

Any initial trip to Venice is likely to include the Grand Canal, St Mark’s Square (with the famous Clock Tower, the Bell Tower – built in 888-912- and Piazzetta), Basilica of St Mark (you could lose an entire day in this most spectacular of buildings), the Bridge of Sighs (accessed via Doge’s Palace but best seen from the Paglia Bridge instead where the significance and function of this passageway can be fully appreciated) and the Rialto Bridge; they are all emphatically worth the trouble of battling the crowds to visit and with a little background reading the history and importance of all these sights will add to your visit. By visiting these landmark attractions, you will encounter many hundreds if not thousands of other tourists, but once you have fulfilled your tourist obligation to have ticked off “the sights”, get away from the stereotype of Venice and explore the real gem, the one that will leave you with a smile on your face an a desire to return again and again.

Move away from the hoards to explore the real beauty of Venice
Move away from the hoards to explore the real beauty of Venice

Venice is a network of beautiful streets, lanes and canals each with its own character and story. The churches and museums alone are wonderful places to observe the Venetians, who despite their reputation for being rude, are actually eager to share their unique city if only you smile and acknowledge them.

Rather than getting a water taxi, really immerse yourself in the backstreets with the lines of washing strung between houses across the canal, the local’s fruit and veg shops, hidden campo’s (squares) and ornate churches.

Lose yourself in the colourful backstreets
Lose yourself in the colourful backstreets

Upon leaving the train station, cross the Scalzi Bridge, put the map away and just walk. This route will take you past, or very near depending on your meandering,  the Palazzo Pesaro home to two important art collections (Modern & Eastern), the 9th Century Church of San Polo, the 13th Century Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari which at one point in its history was one of the most important monastic centres in Venice and on to the beautiful Scuola (School) Grande di San Rocco whose architecture is simply stunning whilst the cool interior provides a welcome break from the Venetian sun.

As with many cities, Italian especially, the most beautiful architecture is above eye level so look up as well as along the canals and lanes. Venice is a riot of colour especially in the summer months with many locals decorating their windowsills with colourful window boxes and bright shutters. The water reflects the brightly painted houses and the many Italian flags flying proudly outside houses and shops alike.

The fact that Venice is a car-free  city is a given, but by wandering down the side streets you get a glimpse of how living in a water city actually works. The rubbish carts, the police, ambulances, delivery pallets for the supermarkets and taxis are all boats; you can while away a fascinating hour just watching ‘real life’ happen within the confines of one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world.

A refuse collection in Venice
A refuse collection in Venice

A trip to Venice wouldn’t be complete without visiting the island of Murano (famous for its glassware) and Burano. Murano glass can be bought throughout Venice but there is something satisfying about knowing that your piece actually came from source (or, from the seconds’ factory which sells less than perfect items for a fraction of the price).  It takes just 10 minutes to get from Fte. Nové to Murano Colonna, and even if glass isn’t your thing, the boat trip across affords wonderful views back to Venice and a chance to explore more of the beautiful waterways and islands.

Further Information:

  • The shops by the train station are considerably cheaper to buy souvenirs, iced water, pizza slices or ornaments than they are the closer to the Rialto you get, so buy wisely.
  • The Museum of Venetian 18th Century life & culture is housed in the palace of Ca’Rezzonico. The structure of the building, finished in the mid-18th Century, is typical of the Venetian patrician palace and for that reason the exhibition has been designed to utilise the setting, the frescoes and furniture offered by the palace to represent life in Venice in the 18th
The Palace of Ca’Rezzonico
The Palace of Ca’Rezzonico
  • If the lure of a gondola ride is too strong to resist, walk away from the Grand Canal to find cheaper rates and more scenic canal routes. Typically a 40 minute gondola will cost €80, be warned the Gondoliers will not haggle so do not embarrass yourself – or insult them – by trying.
  • For the unadventurous traveller, the restaurants situated near the Rialto Bridge offer a set two or three course “tourist menu” with “Americanised” Italian food. For authentic Italian at a sensible price (and double the portion size) head into the back streets to seek out a traditional restaurant for Italian food at its best.
  • If your idea of a sightseeing weekend away involves using your hotel as somewhere to sleep only (rather than spend time in), then the Hotel Caneva (number 5515) situated 2 minutes from the Rialto Bridge is more hostel than hotel (shared bathroom, a room with a bed but no extras and very basic décor) but is clean, offers a good breakfast and is an affordable way to stay in the heart of Venice.

Venice canals