Anywhere but Here.

Lent in Venice: Basilica San Marco

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Visit the Basilica San Marco at 9:30 in the morning, about a half hour before the tour groups arrive. We climbed the steep stairs to the balcony, and had the outdoor roof terrace, overlooking the piazza, almost completely to ourselves. They charge three euros to access the balcony now, and inside they have created a little museum with mosaics and marble fragments, and models, and of course the originals of the four bronze horses which have been replaced on the façade with copies. But the best part of the balcony is still the view of the piazza from the outside, and the view of the interior of the church and its mosaics from the inside. And having it not mobbed with people is great. Afterwards walk through the church again—the vastness of the space and the richness of decoration and the detail of the mosaics are almost overwhelming.

Lent in Venice: Hotel Villa Igea

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The Hotel Villa Igea, right on the Campo San Zaccaria, was a real find: comfortable, quiet, conveniently located. It had two lovely terraces overlooking the largely unvisited campo (despite being a steps from the main vaporetto stop as well as a short walk to Piazza San Marco.) We were fortunate too in having the very kind and helpful Tomasso, a native Venetian, at the front desk. He steered us to what was our best meal in Venice, as well as providing constant advice and assistance. The hotel has two nice terraces that overlook the campo—perfect for enjoying a bottle of wine from a neighborhood shop; and the daily breakfast buffet is excellent. While the room Eric and I shared was small and comfortable, nonna and Mr Logan were upgraded to a grand two bedroom suite, very spacious, and 50 euros per night less than the two single rooms we had booked.

view from the Villa Igea terrace

Lent in Venice: Torcello

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Perhaps nowhere has as many beautiful sites to see as Venice, so it can be quite a challenge to tear yourself away from the city’s main sestieri. Still, Venice comprises many far flung islands, each with its own character. If you have more than a few days to explore the area, trips to the outlying islands can be most rewarding.

Torcello is a largely uninhabited island, boasting only a few canals from its long-ago era as an urban center, a small luxury hotel, a couple of impressive churches and two first-rate restaurants to lure visitors. Surprisingly, as sparsely populated as it is today, Torcello was once a thriving city, way back in the 12th century and it’s now-larger neighbor Venice was the undeveloped outpost. Those days are long gone, but an afternoon on Torcello can provide a swell few hours of quiet bliss.
Torcello is served by vaporetto from Venice, via either Murano Island or the Lido. The trip will take from 1 to 2 1/2 hours, depending on the route, but provides a wonderfully scenic tour of the Lagoon. Disembark at the island’s small wooden dock. Follow your fellow passengers up the lone sidewalk bordering a pretty little canal into the heart of the island. Pass the first restaurant on your left, but as you make it to the next establishment, the Ostaria Ponte del Diavolo, you definitely want to stop and have a big, delightful (if pricey) lunch. On one of the restaurant’s patios, you’ll enjoy course after course of brilliant, delicious Venetian cuisine amidst a vista of flowers, trees and pastures. Make sure you enjoy a Bellini or Americano cocktail as an aperitif, and try to save room for the stunning, rich deserts.
After lunch, enjoy a much-needed stroll to the island’s beautifully preserved Romanesque Cathedral. And don’t fail to stop in the dark and lovely adjacent chapel, built on a Greek cross plan. There is also a small museum, although you may find a further walk in the open air more compelling.
Ostaria Ponte del Diavolo
Torcello (Venice)
tel. 39 041 730 401
fax 39 041 730 240
Closed Thursday, and all evenings except Saturday.
Reservations recommended.

Lent in Venice: Eating Well

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The only restaurant guide worth having is Venice Osterie, a slim volume available in English, and on sale in Venice (and perhaps nowhere else). Even this requires some reading between the lines, and won’t include the obscure, bargainy places seemingly known only to locals. For some dining suggestions, see my previous post:

Venice Restaurant picks

Lent in Venice: One Day’s Walk

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A very busy day of non-stop walking through Venice. It’s been a gray day, but no real rain, just a few drops as we headed back on the vaporetto from Rialto. Otherwise it’s been all walking since 9:30 this morning. We began by going to the nearby San Zaccaria Church, where they have the body of St. John the Baptist’s father. Well, it’s on display! We also paid the Euro to see the crypt, suitably creepy as it was flooded with water.

We walked from there along narrow alleys and bridges to Santa Maria Formosa. That church is part of the group of (mostly smaller) Venetian churches for which you can buy the Chorus pass (Much cheaper than individual admission tickets.) So we made it a sort of game, to go from church to church, using the route to explore different parts of Venice. From Santa Maria Formosa, it’s a short walk to Santa Maria Miracoli, the little church made entirely of marble, inside and out, except for the elaborately painted coffered ceiling. From there we made our way to the Rialto Bridge and across…it was actually passable, as the city is not over-run with tourists yet. Once across the bridge, we detoured from our church route to wander though the busy vegetable and fish markets. Our next church was just beyond the bridge—San Giovanni Elemosinario—a bit hard to find as it is completely enclosed by shops. Next was San Polo, visited only after fortifying ourselves with coffee at a terrace café on the Campo San Polo.

Then off to the nearby Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, one of Venice’s largest and most elaborate. Rather funny, as it was constructed by the Franciscans—an order founded on a belief in the virtue of poverty. It’s immense, with a surviving cloister and convent as well, and filled with a number of large, elaborate and astonishingly hideous baroque tombs. Otherwise it’s a lovely example of Venetian gothic, with beautiful choir stalls and a very impressive cabinet of relics.

Afterwards, we stopped for a drink and cichetti at the Café dei Frari, just across the rio from the front of the church. Once inside, I recalled being there before—it’s a small, very cute bar on two levels. We had some white wine, some baccala, and some homemade meatballs. Following our snack at the Frari, we visited the Scuolo San Rocco (also not on our Chorus pass itinerary, but a must see.) It was decorated entirely by Tintoretto…every wall and ceiling. The ceiling panels with dramatically foreshortened scenes from the old testament are particularly nice. San Rocco, or St Roch, is the 13th century saint from Montpelier with the sore on his leg. He was invoked as defense against plague, so was quite popular in Venice. In fact his corpse was brought to Venice in hopes it would put an end to a nasty period of plague (not sure if it helped) and still resides in the adjacent church of San Rocco (not open of course, it closed for the day at 12:30.) The scuolo takes a long time to visit—and could take all day if you listened to every bit of the extensive audio guide, which is a bit like sitting through an art history lecture—a bit more detail than one would hope for…I kept fast forwarding. From there we made our way to San Giacomo dell Orio, a ninth century Romanesque church, with a beautiful carved wooden ceiling.

Our next church, San Stea, on the Grand Canal, was closed for reasons unknown. Our plan was to not have lunch, but to intersperse our sightseeing with breaks for drink and snacks, in a typically Venetian way. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way…I’d ask at each stop if anyone wanted to stop for a snack, and was met with indifference. By the time we had gone a few more hours and I finally maneuvered us into a section of San Polo known to be full of delicious bars…and it turned out that every one was closed. Closed for winter hours, closed between 2 and 4, closed on Wednesday, closed for maintenance!?!

So we crossed the Grand Canal on the traghetto…always fun, and your great tourist bargain: a gondola ride for fifty cents. We took the vaporetto back to our hotel (Logan without a ticket, because there are very few places to buy them) and we finally had snacks and prosecco at a stylish new bar on the campo SS Filippo e Giacomo.

photograph by Eric See

Lent in Venice: Cheap Drinks

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We found a coffee bar near the fish market where they had a special grinder that ground a happy face of cinnamon on top of the cappuccino. We found a bar where the Spritz Aperol cocktail cost a mere Euro fifty (and was inhabited by an eccentric cast of locals: Sailors from the Arsenale, a goth counter girl, and extravagantly made up matron sitting alone at a table;) I never did discern the name of the bar.

Drinking (aside from walking around) in fact seemed the biggest bargain in Venice—spritz Aperol, our newly discovered favorite drink, or a glass of wine, or a cappuccino could usually be had for a few Euros—a bargain we could not replicate in Rome or Paris.

Lent in Venice: Lunch for Venetians

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We ate twice, this visit, at what I call the secret lunch place. I’ll never (publicly) reveal it’s location. This almost hidden restaurant is open only for lunch and frequented by local workers; there are no English menus and only minimal spoken English. Lunch is 18 Euros (up from 15 two years ago) and includes pasta, segundi, dessert, wine, water and coffee. The food is excellent—the waiter will tell you what to eat, from a short list of daily specials—and the price unbeatable. You can contact me for the details, or better yet, wander off the tourist routes into Venice’s various neighborhoods around lunch time and find your own neighborhood spot—they are out there.

Lent in Venice: Getting Lost

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Guidebooks, and even recent articles on Venice seemed of little use, and in fact we rarely used our maps. It’s important to settle into the slow rhythm of the city—a slowness dictated by the complete absence of cars and scooters, and the necessity of walking everywhere in a city of tangled alleyways in which it is very easy, even desirable, to get lost.

The Chorus pass, a card allowing admission to (16) interesting and sometimes far-flung churches provided a vague structure to some of our walks. Along the way we would find completely tourist-free neighborhoods, cheap bars and coffee bars, unexpected churches and cloisters. And art…both famous works (a constant variety of last suppers by Tintoretto) and obscure (a bit of medieval frieze depicting an ass and ox licking the baby Jesus!)

We found pleasure in local flea markets, junk shops, tiny bookbinders and obscure coffee bars. We also found signs of life, youth, and vibrancy that suggest that Venice has not yet resigned itself to becoming a museum. There are new, youthful bars, modern restaurants, and a vibrant modern art scene—the recently opened Palazzo Grassi, is a splendidly redone grand canal palazzo, it’s entire space devoted to temporary exhibitions of contemporary art.

Lent in Venice: Reliquaries

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Lent in Venice: Early Morning Walks

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Eric and I took advantage of our jet lag—waking the first days at 6 am—to take early morning walks through the deserted streets. We watched Venice slowly come alive: coffee bars just beginning to open, the vegetable sellers setting up shop, and finally hordes of local children rushing off to school. The first morning was sort of magical in a light rain. The second provided sun, and the perfect time for a walk across the almost empty Rialto Bridge to visit the fish market, active only with locals shopping the stalls stocked with gleaming local fish, crabs, shrimps, and island produce. We’d have a quick coffee, then stroll back to the hotel for breakfast with Nonna and Logan.

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