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Ciao Venezia

Published: 02/02/2015 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2015 » February 2015 » Destinations »

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There’s a certain magic to the ancient city of Venice that only emerges after dark, once the hordes of tourists have retreated to the amber glow of inviting trattorias. Mysterious waterways slide into darkness; the quaint footbridges that arch over them lie empty.

Walk across the famed Piazza San Marco and you’ll see the elegant arcades that surround it on three sides illuminated by a triple row of starry lights, delicate as diamonds. On one side is the Gran Caffe Quadri; opposite is Florian’s; both in residence for several hundred years. Between them they have hosted the likes of Proust, Byron and Casanova.

Stroll straight down the middle of the square and you’ll enter a shared space where music from each of the establishments’ competing orchestras meet. Nightowls and bon vivantsare seated at the many al fresco tables and chairs, sipping expensive digestifs, while romantics sway in informal couplings to the sound of uplifting baroque.

Ruling the Waves

Venice is made up of a marshy archipelago (the Venetian Lagoon) of more than 100 islands—Murano, Burano and Torcello being the most well-known—divided into six main districts, or sestieri (Cannaregio, Castello, San Marco, San Polo, Santa Croce and Dorsoduro). Both Treviso, about a 40-minute drive, and Marco Polo airports are located on the mainland—fly into the latter, just five miles away, for a quicker connection to the city, by boat direct from the terminal.

Coming in by plane, you can see why the marshy islands and saltwater lagoons provided a unique hiding place for the early Venetians who settled here in the fifth century to escape barbarian invaders – warriors who were able horsemen but unaccustomed to the sea.

By the time Venice became a republic in the seventh century, it was one of the richest nations in the world. Its adventurous merchants sailed the globe exchanging salt harvested from the lagoon for gold, silver, spices, silk, ebony, hemp, cocoa, coffee, velvet and perfume.

However, in a tragic twist, the ships that frequented the exotic shores of Central Asia and the Middle East were also carrying a cargo of rats; rats that were infested with fleas infected with Yersenia pestis — the deadly Bubonic plague. It was 1630 when the epidemic really took hold, wiping out 46,000 people in a single year – about a third of the city’s population.

It’s no wonder that this spelled the end of Venice as a major world power. A number of Venetian islands, such as Lazzaretto Vecchio, were used to quarantine the dying – in more recent times, the “haunted” island of Poveglia, which is home to an abandoned mental hospital and plague burial site, was sold for513,000 ($605,000). There are rumors that a luxury hotel will go up in its place.

The Grand Tour

Tourism is, of course, Venice’s primary source of income these days, with more than 30 million visitors a year. But with that comes problems.

In the peak summer months of July and August, I am told, it can take half an hour to push your way over the Ponte della Paglia, which faces the iconic Bridge of Sighs.

In February, during carnival season, every day Harry’s Bar serves more than a thousand of its renowned Bellini cocktails (16.50, about $20). If you do stop by, following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, don’t expect anything more than simple interiors, off-hand service and very high prices.

And then there are the cruise ships. Standing at sunset on the waterside Fondamenta della Zattere, eating a double-scoop cone from Gelataria Nico (one of the best), I watch as one slowly bulldozes its way into the lagoon, dwarfing even the tallest bell towers, and no doubt eroding the fragile foundations of the World Heritage site, where even small boats are subjected to strict speed limits on its canals.

Living History

The reason, of course, that Venice attracts so many tourists is that it is an unchanging city of unparalleled beauty – described by UNESCO as “an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest building contains works by some of the world’s greatest artists,” from Giorgione and Titian to Tintoretto and Veronese.

You can even stay in restored palazzi on the Grand Canal – the most spectacular being the Aman, unveiled last summer after an ambitious, 18-month restoration project. Palazzo Papadopoli, as it was known, was the family home of Count Giberto Gonzaga, who still occupies the top floor of the 16th-century wing with his wife and five children.

When the count was growing up, he lived there with just seven family members and a staff of 80. After the luxury Asian chain began renting it, 24 magnificent hotel rooms were created, served by almost the same number of staff.

The original historical details remain, from frescoed ceilings by Venetian master Tiepolo and Murano glass chandeliers, to mosaic terrazzo floors and hand-painted chinoiserie wallpaper. In contrast, the furnishings from B&B Italia are stylishly understated. The Aman Grand Canal has unofficially been described as a “seven-star” hotel and, after staying there, I can see why.

More big news has been the reopening of the famous Gritti Palace, part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, which was closed for 15 months for a $55-million revamp – it first became a hotel in 1948, but the palazzo itself dates all the way back to 1525. It has 82 sumptuous rooms, while the Club del Doge restaurant, right on the Grand Canal, is a stunning location for fine dining, with delicious pasta, risotto and Venetian specialties (liver with polenta, fried fish from the market and thick bean soup) served with a story from the charming waiters.

Speaking of enviable settings for meals, the Westin Europa and Regina, a short walk from the Gritti, also has a gorgeous waterside eatery looking straight on to the Santa Maria della Salute basilica. Painted by many great artists, from Canaletto to Monet, it was constructed in the mid-1600s as a votive offering to God in return for ridding the city of plague.

Meanwhile, Bauer Il Palazzo serves a lavish buffet breakfast on its rooftop terrace (one of the highest in town), and treats guests to glasses of chilled prosecco on arrival. Another nice detail is the cosmetics and perfumes it offers in the rooms, handmade from medicinal herbs by the inmates of Venice’s women-only prison on Giudecca Island.

With no other way to get around the city than by boat or on foot, it’s easy to get lost in the maze of twisting streets and alleys, but that is part of the joy of it. Get up early and cross the enormous Rialto Bridge, which connects the district of San Marco to that of San Polo, to shop like a local for punnets of fresh strawberries, fistfuls of cherries and bags of sun-dried tomatoes from the outdoor market stalls.

Whether it is your first time in Venice, or your fifth, you will want to tick off some of the obvious sights and experiences – and although a gondola ride may sound too touristy, it is actually rather wonderful. Especially when seated on a golden throne, going down the Grand Canal while being serenaded by your own rugged Italian in a black suit and designer stubble. (Book through Viator; $48 per person for a 35-minute private tour.)

Cultural Grazing 

Alternatively, if you want to get off the beaten track, try Viator’s bacari (wine bar) tour through the half-millenium-old Jewish ghetto (from $60 per person), sampling cicchetti (Italy’s version of tapas) between exploring the history of the peaceful neighborhood, which still has signs in Hebrew, synagogues and delightful kosher bakeries.

Going solo and want to explore? Head for Al Timon in Cannaregio (on Fondamenta degli Ormesini), or Osteria ai Rusteghi in San Marco (tucked away on Campiello del Trentor).

If you yearn for solemn religious art, you can find it in almost any of Venice’s hundreds of churches, while the Gallerie dell’Academia is filled with Renaissance treasures. If modern art holds more appeal, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection features the likes of Miro, Picasso, Kandinsky, Dali and Warhol. (Note that most galleries are closed on Tuesdays).

Palazzo Fortuny, which was once the studio and home of Spanish fashion designer Mariano Fortuny, displays a selection of his textiles and fine-pleated dresses, but it’s the crumbling building itself that is most interesting (visit for opening times).

As well as dozens of ateliers selling traditional stationery, masks and leather bags, keep an eye out for the new Sicilian soap and fragrance store Ortigia, on Campo San Maurizio; Leaf on Calle Frezzeria, which sells wood-framed sunglasses; and the newly relocated Frette linen boutique around the corner.

Venice may be discovering “cool,” but it will always be a precious, age-old fairyland, unlike anywhere else on Earth. 

By Jenny Southan

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