There is not a better place to celebrate a birthday than Venice. Spending a week in the amazingly quiet post-covid “Most Serene” (I prefer the French “Sérénissime”) was the best way to blow the cobwebs off a dull and dour Islay winter. Just living the dream…
For the first time in three years, Venice was to revive its carnival. I visited twice at Carnival time and I enjoyed it immensely but this time I decided to come before the Carnival, in the hope there would not be too many tourists – the hordes of them can really spoil the magic. And it was a good decision. I have never seen Piazza San Marco so empty. Each time I had come to Venice, I sacrificed the visit of the Doge Palace or San Marco basilica as it took hours to queue for tickets. This time, even though one could not enter without having their green pass checked, one could enter museums and churches within a few minutes. The other requirement of covid restrictions was that we had to wear a mask, even outside, which could become oppressive at times although we totally appreciate the Italian prudence after having been hit so tragically by the pandemic.
Starting the visit with the San Marco basilica is a way to immerse yourself in history. This masterpiece of byzantine architecture is the testimony of Venice’s dedication to both Oriental and Occidental civilisation. The mosaics are stunning, but one should not forget to visit the Marciano Museum at the top of the basilica. This is where the originals of San Marco triumphal quadriga of horses is kept. They came from Constantinople and may date from the 3rd century B.C. Their look is so expressive that you expect them to start racing!
The Doge Palace numbers as one of the not to be missed visit on every guide, but I must say that I was bored by the pompous academic paintings, even though they are impressive and the rooms spectacular.
The Piazza is a model of grace and perfection especially when it is almost empty, whether you admire it by day or by night. The space, the proportions, the harmonious mix of different architectural styles and the incredible history attached to this place make it so special. If only the stones could speak! Don’t mention the name of Napoléon to the Venetians, they hate him – quite rightly as he stole so many pieces of art and treasures when he invaded Venice.
One of my favourite activities in Venice is to walk at random through the small streets (the calle) from bridge to bridge. Even if you have a vaporetto pass (very useful), you walk a lot in Venice. Beauty is at every corner. Time and floods have taken their toll and you wonder how these cracked walled houses are still standing, and they are standing fast. The view from the bridge of the Accademia on the Franchetti Palazzo and the Santa Maria della Salute church evokes the name of Canaletto. Of course, this is a photo that every tourist takes but how can one resist? And what about the sunrise on the lagoon, casting pastel colours on the buildings? Absolutely thrilling.
Venice would not be Venice without the gondolas. Wherever you roam, you will come across gondoliers who will invite you for a ride but personnally, I prefer to see the gondolas just from a bridge. Two years of covid have certainly made the gondoliers’ income precarious, hence their insistence.
As one can imagine, food played a great part in the magic. Venice is a paradise of seafood. Have you noticed that the plan of the city itself is in the shape of a fish? A visit to the Rialto market is indispensable. The variety and the freshness of the fish and shellfish put you on the right track to book your dinner in the best fish restaurants. My favourite is Osteria Alle Testiere in Castello sestiere (district). The fish comes straight from the Rialto market and is wonderfully cooked. I tasted for the first time the mantis shrimps, a prehistoric looking shrimp which is most often steamed but not very tasty though. The octopus or the normal shrimps are much better.
And to accompany your seafood, the Osteria Alle Testiere has a wonderful choice of Venetian white wines. I was also thrilled to find a large range of Mr Capovilla’s wonderful grappas and fruit spirit. The apricot eau-de-vie especially was to die for. The good thing is that, although the restaurant was fully booked for weeks, we managed to get a table for a second night before we left Venice. Hence we could try another of Mr Capovilla’s delights.
Never a dull moment at the table!
At lunchtime, the cichetti are another delight for the tastebuds. These are the Venetian tapas : fish (bacalau – cod -, octopus on polenta) or parma ham are irresistible. They can be accompanied by a perfect espresso or, better, a glass of ombre (white wine). Every bacaro (bar) offers a large selection of cichetti.
You can’t come to Venice without visiting two iconic places.
First, the opera house, La Fenice (phoenix) with a predestined name: it was destroyed by the fire twice and has risen twice from its ashes. It burnt first in 1836 – it was an accident – and was brought back to its splendour one year later. It burnt again in 1996 – this time it was criminal – and was totally reconstructed, reopening in 2003. Unfortunately in February this year, there was no opera or concert programmed, but you could visit the opera house and that brought back memories of two operas I saw previously : la Bohême and La Traviata (my favourite opera). La Fenice is the perfect example of the “opéra à l’italienne”. So beautiful.
The second iconic place is the Peggy Guggenheim museum in the Dorsoduro sestiere. The art collection is one of the most important of the twentieth century art. Peggy Guggenheim dedicated her life and her wealth to collecting art and helping artists especially Vasily Kindinsky, Jackson Pollock, Max Ernst (to whom she was married briefly). She was an eccentric bohemian and an extraodinary art lover with a unique flair for collecting the best artists. She bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in 1947 and lived there until her death in 1979. She is buried in the garden with her fourteen dogs. The collection is stunning. The famous equestrian sculpture of Marino Marini , “The angel of the city” with its erect phallus proudly stands on the terrace of the museum.
It is not difficult to immerse oneself for a full afternoon in this fabulous museum. It amused me to take a photo of a Peggy Guggenheim graffiti picture on a wall a few metres from the museum.
There could be so much more to say and to praise. For example, the islands of the laguna – Burano and Torcello especially are not to be missed and the incredible churches, Harry’s bar, a ride on the Grand Canal…
Just to finish, let the spectacular sunset on the laguna be your last image… A magical extravaganza of red, orange, yellow, blue and black… The essence of Venice.
Forever in my eyes and in my heart. “Leaving the dream” was not easy…