This past weekend, my friend Allyson and I decided to head up to Venice, to escape the chaos of Rome, to celebrate her birthday, and also to finally make use of the scarves and gloves that have not yet been necessary in the capitol city. In Rome right now, the weather and the calendar are not presenting a united front. The calendar is telling me that it’s almost mid-January, but the weather is saying “Early September! Back to school! Buy new notebooks!” Not cool. Literally.
Venice, on the other hand, was beautiful. It was around 40 degrees, but sunny, and really, there is nothing more magical than Venice in winter. Just ask Joseph Brodsky. The cool weather, coupled with the fact that we went after the holiday tourism season was over, allowed us to experience a (relatively) uncongested Venice.
Half the fun of visiting Venice is just walking around, seeing all the little canals and bridges, and just letting yourself get lost in the city (you are going to get lost, no matter how hard you try, so don’t fight it!). Because we had such limited time there, this is exactly what we did on Saturday. We were staying in a small bed-and-breakfast in the Cannaregio district, and after checking in and dropping our stuff off, we ventured out with nothing but the vague goal of making our way towards San Marco (the big church and square).
Navigation is a little bit interesting in Venice. In most cities, including Rome, you can look out for street names and, with a good sense of direction and a decent map, you’ll end up where you need to be. In Venice, the most helpful navigational tools are actually the big landmarks themselves, such as the Rialto bridge, or Piazza San Marco. All over the city, there are little signs that say “Per San Marco” or “Per Rialto” or “Per ____ (insert landmark here)”, with, if you’re lucky, one single arrow pointing in the correct direction. It’s not unheard of to see a sign saying “Per San Marco” with a double-headed arrow that forces you to wonder why they bothered to put a sign up in the first place. You use the landmark signs to get to the correct general area, and then you just wander till you find what you are looking for.
We eventually made our way to the stunning Ponte di Rialto, the oldest of the four bridges that span Venice’s Grand Canal (the big thoroughfare, or “main street”). Rialto is always packed with tourists, and on either side of the bridge, as well as along the entire length of the bridge itself, are numerous souvenir and jewelry shops. Near the bridge is the Rialto market, where vendors sell fresh seafood, herbs, fruits and vegetables in the morning.
From here we decided to take a gondola ride. The price for these rides can get up to 100€, even for just two people. Luckily, because this was off-season, we managed to haggle down to 60€ – still ridiculous in my opinion, but we couldn’t just go to Venice and not ride in a gondola.
The ride lasted about half an hour, and to me the most impressive part was how those gondoliers manage to stay so well-balanced while rowing the boat. We saw Marco Polo’s house, as well as Casanova’s palace, and ended the ride right back at Rialto.
We resumed our stroll to San Marco, this time also keeping an eye out for somewhere to eat some dinner. By this time, the sun had set and both the Basilica San Marco and the piazza were beautifully lit.
After wandering around the piazza, stopping to do a little shopping, and gazing into Florian’s cafe and wishing we were fancy enough to eat there, we made our way to Ristorante Marciana, a restaurant just outside the piazza that had looked promising.
My biggest regret of this little whirlwind trip is that we failed to really experience true Venetian dining – we didn’t go to a cicchetti bar, or even have seafood, because by the time dinner rolled around we were both so hungry that all we wanted was pasta. We did have a delicious dinner of ravioloni in cheese sauce (for me) and carbonara for the birthday girl, but next time I go to Venice I will definitely try to eat like a Venetian.
We ate until we could not possibly accomodate any more food in our stomachs, and then we asked to see the dessert menu. One delicious tiramisu later, we waddled out of the restaurant and wandered around some more, eventually making our way back to our B&B.
The next morning, we woke up, grabbed some croissants from the breakfast area, and made our way back to the Piazza San Marco, this time trying not to get lost because we needed to make our 9:50am SECRET PASSAGEWAY TOUR of the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace).
The Palazzo Ducale was the seat of the Venetian government back in the days when this town was a prosperous and important part of trade routes between Asia and Europe. The city was ruled by the Doge, an elected noble, and his council of advisors. In addition to the Doge and his cronies, there was also the eternally feared “Council of Ten”, a body that acted in secret to exact justice upon lawbreakers. As part of our secret tour, we got to see the rooms where the Council of Ten would convene, as well as the places they would interrogate and torture suspected criminals. We also got to see the Piombi, or prison cells located immediately below the attic of the palace. The Piombi take their name from the lead that lined the ceiling of the cells. It was from one of these cells that Giacomo Casanova famously escaped in 1755.
After we finished our tour of the main palace, we crossed the famous Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) to see the rest of the prison cells. The bridge was given the name “Bridge of Sighs” by Lord Byron, because prisoners being lead across the bridge would look out and see their last view of Venice, and sigh. The bridge itself was actually designed by the nephew of the man who designed the Rialto bridge. And, of course, the local legend says that lovers who kiss while riding a gondola under the bridge will be granted eternal love.
We finished our tour of the Palazzo, grabbed a quick lunch, and headed back to our hotel to check out. It was sad to say goodbye to Venice, but so nice to have gotten to spend time there at all. Venice feels like a complete escape from the real world, and it is such a big contrast to Rome. For one thing, there are no cars, so it feels like you are walking in a bygone era. As a result, the city is also very peaceful and quiet, and the whole place feels like it can’t possibly be real – sort of like a Disneyland for adults. I would really encourage anyone who gets the chance to go and visit, and I myself can’t wait to go back!