John Berendt doesn’t write many books. In fact, as far as I can tell, he’s written two books since 1994. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a massive bestseller, and the way in which Berendt writes immerses the reader to such an extent that you can almost feel the humidity of Savannah, Georgia, and hear the Southern drawl of his (real-life) characters. Savannah has been on my wish list of places to visit ever since reading the book.
Berendt’s second book was published in 2005 and I bought it as soon as I found out about it. The City of Falling Angels follows the weird and wonderful life of some of Venice’s citizens in the aftermath of a fire that badly damaged an opera house. The book is fascinating but, as with his first book, Berendt makes you long to see the city he’s writing about.
Venice is one of these places that is filmed and photographed to within an inch of its life, which means you arrive with lots of preconceived ideas and expectations which must, surely, be impossible to match.
We came off the tram and made our way across the ‘glass bridge’ – virtually the only acknowledgment of the 21st century in the city and, apparently, a source of great controversy amongst Venetian. Controversial or not, the view from the apex of the bridge is fantastic. The Grand Canal is alive with traffic, just as any main road would be in any other city; the smaller canals are dotted with small bridges, no two the same; classy-looking restaurants line the banks of the Grand Canal; sleek, elegant, black gondolas glide across the water; luxurious wood-panelled water taxis race from place to place; crowded vaporettos (water buses) chug along the canals. The view is captivating – and that’s having walked maybe 300 yards and not even being in the city proper!
The streets aren’t as narrow as we’d expected. Nor are they as crowded as we’d been led to believe they would be. Some streets are surprisingly run-down; but most are a visual feast. More or less everywhere you look in Venice, there’s a photo opportunity, especially when crossing one of the 400-plus bridges in the city. In the midst of the bustle of business and tourists, there’s something oddly peaceful about standing on a bridge and watching a gondola appear gracefully from underneath your feet.
Even more peaceful than watching a gondola is being in a gondola! Of course it’s the most touristy of things to do in Venice, but that doesn’t detract from it being a must-do. Our gondolier sailed us around some of the smaller canals and along a section of the Grand Canal, occasionally breaking gently into song, the incredible acoustics of the waters and tall buildings creating a stunning effect. Seeing the city from the water is a wonderful experience, and it’s surreal to see grand hotels, old palaces and posh theatres with their main doors opening right onto a canal.
There are other ways to see Venice from the water: the vaporettos ply various routes, but the timetables are confusing and they are invariably crowded. Water taxis are exclusive but, apparently, very expensive.
Venice’s most iconic landmarks (other than the canals and gondolas) are Basilica San Marco, the Campanile, the Palazzo Ducale (all in or right next to Piazza San Marco) and the Rialto Bridge. We didn’t go into the Campanile, which was originally a lighthouse before being repurposed as a bell tower for the Basilica.
Basilica San Marco is an awe-inspiring building, especially when viewed face-on from the Piazza. The gold frescoes in the alcoves are incredible, and they arch the lights of the Piazza at night in a way that draws the eye to the church – doubtless the original intention. The interior, by comparison, is a bit of a let-down. It is magnificent in its size and in its serious architecture, but it is the darkness and starkness (compared to other grand churches) that makes it less appealing. The ceilings, however, are something else. Towering way above you are works of art in gold leaf, filling every arch and alcove in the vast ceiling. They are amazing, but it’s not the most practical to wander around a huge church looking up at a 90 degree angle all the time (although it’s a marvellous metaphor for how to live life). There’s a complete lack of interpretation in the Basilica, other than an audio guide for the treasury (which they only told us was broken after we’d paid for entry…). The floor of the church is unlike any we’ve ever seen, dipping and rising all over the place, like a particularly fiendish putting green. The subsidence and centuries of being surrounded by water have had a very visible impact, even on this great building.
The Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) is on a different level of grandeur altogether. The doge’s apartments were closed, but we got to wander around the rooms where the business of Venice was conducted – and what rooms! Each room seemed grander than the one before, with walls and ceilings covered with incredible works of art, and excellent (if basic) interpretation for the art. The visit included crossing the Bridge of Sighs into the bleak prison. Even from that bridge, a pathway to despair, you could look out in either side and glimpse some of the beauty of Venice.
The Rialto Bridge is beautiful in its size and scope, filled with boutique shops and affording fabulous views of the Grand Canal. But perhaps the greatest feature to enjoy in Venice is its most central feature, the Piazza San Marco, a glorious square (well, rectangle, really!) with buildings of breathtaking beauty (and restaurants and shops of breathtaking prices!) all around. The Piazza is at its best after nightfall, bathed in soft light and filled with the sounds of bands playing at a number of high-end restaurants. It’s a wonderful, classy experience.
Venice has a reputation as being the most expensive city in Europe and they are quite happy to let tourists share in that privilege! Everything is pricey, and the best approach to paying for a meal is to close your eyes, hand over your wallet and tell the waiter to take whatever he needs!
Accommodation in the city itself is very expensive and, I would imagine, quite a hassle. We saw lots of people arriving by train or bus and carting luggage long distances by foot along the streets, across bridges and up and down steps. Not for me! There are some poor souls who work as porters and would do the carting for you, but it seems like cruel and unusual torture for them to be hauling a trolley full of cases in the heat. The most upscale of hotels have their own berths where water taxis or their own boats can deposit guests and their luggage, but I hate to think how much all that costs.
We stayed at the outstanding Hotel Villa Barbarich in Mestre, on the mainland. Everything about the hotel was fantastic and it was an easy 30 minute journey into Venice itself. It is cooler, rural and cheaper to stay on the mainland.
Venice surpassed all expectations and I would highly recommend it as a must-visit city. Two days is enough to soak up the atmosphere and see plenty, but nowhere near enough to see all the districts of the city. You will walk miles, and the steeets (and floors of the buildings, even) often resemble small hills rather than flat ground! It is a place of incredible beauty and unique history. Arrividerci, Venezia!