Feeling in need of some Mediterranean heat and a very last minute booking later, after just three weeks at home, I was off again; this time just for two nights in the beautiful floating Italian city of Venice.
Venice receives over 30 million tourists every year and is a hot destination on the Med cruise route, as well as for students spending their summer inter-railing. The city’s narrow alleyways, confined quaint bridges and convoluted streets mean it is sometimes impossible to avoid large crowds queuing to walk to the main sights. However, there are some places in and around Venice where you can get some peace and quiet and really relax, away from the throngs of day-trippers.
Although a gondola ride often goes through some of the busier areas, I asked to be taken through the back-street waterways. Away from the Grand Canal, it was serene, with just the gentle rocking of the boat being paddled along to nudge me to keep awake. Apart from one or two other gondolas, and a few passers-by looking down from the bridges, it was people-free and sublimely beautiful.
The perspective from the water is totally different to that from the streets; you feel submerged in old Venetian grandeur, as centuries-old five-story palaces tower out of the water above you. Struck by the impossibility of it all, you look amazed at the lapping waves of salty lagoon water washing against the red rusty bricks and bleaching the already rotting wooden boathouse doors. You disappear through impossibly dark and low bridges only to pop out into the bright dazzling sunlight, which glints off the canals as well as the windows of the tall pale pink and terracotta coloured houses that surround you. The view feels real and rustic. These canals are like a secret living thing. More than anything, it is quiet. The Gondolier’s gently sung calls to signal himself when coming around a blind bend is really the only noise you hear and it’s bliss.
Venice was home to the first ghetto in Europe (Venetian ‘geti’), which was inhabited by the island’s Jewish population from 1516 to 1797. The area is still a hub for Jewish people in Venice with five synagogues still in use. The area would have been home to William Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’ character Shylock – the most famous Jew in Venice, and I was keen to walk around the cobbled streets to take its history for myself.
Due to it being a good thirty-minute walk from the main tourist attractions, the Jewish quarter has much fewer tourists than places like St. Mark’s Square and other hot spot areas. This means the prices for food are more reasonable and restaurant staff are extra attentive. The scenery is still everything you will love about Venice – private bridges to front doors, squares for older people to sit in and children to play, narrow alleyways and washing lines full of clothes hung between houses. But it does feel more ‘gritty’ than anything you’ll find on the Grand Canal…if this city could ever be described as gritty. The are no facades, or if they are, they aren’t grand or covered with gold. I didn’t see little statues carved into the sides of houses. The buildings are a darker shade of sandy, the bridges are altogether more practical (the canal is wider here) and less flouncy – think ironwork rather than stone.
It is a real living part of the city for actual Venetians. I had a cracking meal at a local restaurant, sampling Venice’s most famous dish – Sarde in Saor (sweet and sour sardines) and a lovely afternoon wandering through its rustic squares, decidedly at my own pace.
To really escape the crowds, I stayed on the island of Murano – about a 10 minute water taxi ride from Venice and home to world class glass makers. Glass has been a huge export for Venice for centuries and in 1291 it was decreed that the glass makers and their hot furnaces should relocate to avoid any fires burning the city to the ground. By the fourteenth century, 3,000 people worked in glass making on Murano and the skilled craftsmen enjoyed many privileges only afforded to Venetian high-born, such as wearing swords and marrying their daughters to wealthy Venetian men.
Again, this is a working part of Venice with residents and people make a living here outside of tourism. The majority of buildings are brick warehouses with shops on the ground floor selling their beautifully crafted multi-fiori (multicoloured) glass wares to the visiting public. You can see demonstrations of glass blowing, a huge variety of techniques and products, or look around the glass museum for the full history of the craft from this region.
The wider streets and canals here give Murano a more spacious feel compared to central Venice. The pace is slower and visitors can spread out across the pavements, cafes and squares and gently hop from shop to gallery to shop again, looking for any souvenirs that might make the journey home in one piece. As well as more variety, buying glassware from the shops and outlets here means the products are usually slightly cheaper than in the tourist stalls of Venice city, so a win all round and well worth the water taxi fare.
Piazza San Marco
No visit to Venice can really be complete without a stop in St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) or the Grand Canal. These areas will always be thronging with visitors however, the best tip to avoid at least some of the crowds, is setting your alarm and going before 10am, when the cruise ship passengers disembark!
L’Upupa, Venezia – The best meal I had in Venice was in the ghetto at L’Upupa. I asked for something a man next to me was having and was told it was off-menu as he was a regular local customer- so I knew I was on to a good thing! Set in a lovely sunny square with alfresco dining, you can check out other reviews here.