It’s my favourite line from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and last week – 21 years since the film’s release (who feels old right now?) – I took Jane there for her birthday. I knew nothing about Venice until I arrived; unusually, I did no research or reading up, other than to pick a hotel away from the tourist spots, so the sinking city in the lagoon was something of an eye-opener.
First of all, Venice isn’t Amsterdam.
Of course it isn’t, so why would I ever think it was? Because I’ve visited Amsterdam before, and it’s another European city famous the world over for its canals, so it was my only point of reference before visiting Venice. I expected there to be similarities, but there were none whatsoever.
In Amsterdam, there are plenty of canals, but there’s also an established transport system on land – cars, buses, trams, bicycles and so on. In Venice, there’s a single land bridge stretching two miles across the Venetian lagoon that connects Venice to mainland Italy; there are four lanes for traffic and four railway lines. All of these terminate in the north east of the city.
Beyond this small pocket of roads and rails, you won’t see anything else with wheels in the city.
There are canals everywhere – there used to be more, though many were filled in and are now streets – and everything travels through Venice by boat; luggage bound for hotels, goods bound for shops. If you want to get about, there’s the vaporetti – water buses that serve the shoreline of the island and the Grand Canal through the heart of Venice – and private water taxis that dart about the smaller canals.
The alternative is that you walk – Venice is barely a mile across by two miles long. I spoke with several Venetians who still live on the island (many Venetians now live on the mainland because tourism has ramped up the cost of property), and they rarely use the vaporetti – they’ll walk everywhere.
Pedestrianised Venice is quite surreal; the lack of land traffic means it feels both futuristic and stuck in a distant century. It’s perfectly peaceful, too – get away from the disneyfied city centre of San Marco, and life is but a dream. We stayed in Cannaregio in the north of the city at the Hotel Ai Mori D’oriente – clean, quiet and affordable (£75 per room per night). Early morning sees a trickle of Venetians heading to work, but otherwise life is serene and still.
Immediately to the south of the hotel is Fondamenta de la Misericordia, a street with a handful of quality restaurants and bars – my favourite was Jimon, a cracking wine bar serving locals and visitors, snug and serving a very decent menu of wine from €2 a glass. Dining out is expensive in Venice but, as always, that doesn’t mean it’s an expensive place to visit. There are plenty of fresh bakeries and sandwich shops tucked away in the streets that’ll see you fed for under €5.
At the eastern end of this street, you’ll also find a bridge; not a huge surprise given that there are over 450 in Venice, but this particular bridge is the last in the city not to be walled or have any handrails. This is how most bridges were in the past, before Venetians no doubt realised they spent an awful lot of time falling off them:
Overall, Venice is brilliant for a three day city break. There are plenty to sights to see, plenty of places to visit and boats will take you to visit other islands in the lagoon. San Marco, the city centre, is rammed with tourists (most of North America seemed to be on vacation in Venice during the summer) and it’s very cramped, dirty and uncomfortable, but head north into the neighbourhood of Cannaregio or east into Castello, and there’s a wonderfully slow, melodic pace to life – as if Italians weren’t laid back enough.
All that said, Venice probably isn’t somewhere I’d go again – that’s not to say it isn’t worth visiting, not at all. For me, it falls into the same category as Prague – a great experience, but it didn’t feel like there was enough to pull me back a second time. By all means go and see it; soak up some Venetian sun, avoid all restaurants in San Marco (but do take a gondola if you’re going to visit once – at €80 per gondola it’s expensive, but you experience Venice from water level) and explore the canals and alleys of a city trapped somewhere between the between the past and the future.
There are a few more photos lurking over at Flickr if you’d like to see more.