Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fragile Venice

A Stop on The Grand Tour

With 2011 Updates

During the Victorian era the aristocratic classes of Europe and the new world made time at least once in their lives to make the "Grand Tour".  The stops on those tours typically hit all the major sites and cities of the world. They travelled up the Nile to see the pyramids, explored India and the Taj Mahal, celebrated Paris, London, Venice, and Rome.

All places that still beckon us today.

For this posting however, I want to focus on one of the most fragile of the worlds treasures, Venice. Venice is actually a city built on more than 100 islands in the Venetian Lagoon off the coast of Northern Italy. 

Once the watery capital of one of the largest economic empires in the world, it thumbed its nose at Rome. While Rome adopted Saint Paul, Venice purposefully adopted Saint Mark. While Rome ruled with an iron hand and gladitorial zeal, Venice derived its power by developing a global web of economic trade. Rome had Roman law and the Emperors, Venice had a completely different way of addressing laws and administering justice via the Doge.

Today, while scientists have successfully stabilized the leaning tower of Pisa, they puzzle over a solution for a sinking and crumbling Venice. Speeds of power boats have been reduced, but until some perfect solution becomes a reality, the future of Venice now seems to hang on the success of its new sea wall designed to temporarily raise levees to isolate the Venetian lagoon during extreme high tides.

As of this writing I have visited Venice twice, once as a poor student and once as a not-so-poor adult. Venice still welcomes millions of both each year.

My first bit of advice. Without planning Venice will prove to be clutch-your-heart expensive. With planning it can be very manageable. Secondly, carefully time your visit to avoid the heat and crowds of summer.

An "off season" visit (early fall or late spring) may require a coat and umbrella, but it will preserve your sanity and allow you absorb this most beautiful of cities comfortably using Venice's comprehensive system of public pedestrian ferryboats called vaporettos. 

You can arrive in Venice by train across the Ponte della Liberte (Bridge of Liberty) to Venice's Santa Lucia station from pretty much anywhere in Europe.  Alternatively, you can fly direct to Venice's Marco Polo airport (which is about 4 miles from the center of Venice). 

Transfers from the airport to Venice itself may be made by public water shuttle (the Alilaguna Waterbus). A bit pricey, but it gets you very close to your hotel. You can also opt for a fabulously expensive private water taxi which will take you direct to the private pier of your hotel. Or you can take a big, comfy, and cheap, ATVO shuttle bus from the airport across the causeway to Piazzale Roma where you catch a vaporetto to your hotel. One bit of advice, once you arrive at Piazzale Roma there are no remotely helpful signs to guide you to the vaporetto slips. So, just look for the stunning new "glass bridge" (that finally links Piazzale Roma with the Santa Lucia train station). Don't cross the bridge, as the vaporetto stops are just beneath it. With a little homework the vaporetto's will soon become your best friend in Venice.

In college I stayed in a convent in Venice that was convenient, cheerful, and clean. Returning for my most recent trip I opted for the uber luxury of the new Hilton Molino Stucky. This new hotel was fashioned from the crumbling ruins of the 100 year old Molino Stucky pasta factory. 

The Hilton was everything we hoped for. It is located on the Guidecca island across from the main part of Venice. This makes it wonderfully quiet and actually allows you to stay in a part of Venice that is pretty much otherwise only inhabited by Venetians. The hotel operates its own fleet of beautiful wooden motor launches that take you from the hotel directly to Piazza San Marco at no cost. Update 2011: the free shuttle still exists, but the beautiful wooden motor launch has been replaced by a kinda dirty boat operated by Alilaguna. The hotel is only one of two (the other being the Cipriani - also on the Guidecca) in Venice with a swimming pool. The pool is small and located on the rooftop. We stayed in a lovely canal facing room and the views were amazing. The chandelier in the room was Murano, the coverlet on the bed was pleated Fortuny, the drawers in the furniture all gently closed by themselves (I dig that stuff!), the plaster walls in the hallways were as smooth as a newborn baby's butt. So, if you can afford the nearly $700 / night price, go for it. Also, if you are an HHonors diamond member you gain access to the private concierge lounge where the breakfast and snacks were sublime and free. Update 2011: the quiet and lovely upstairs Executive Lounge is now a fenced off part of the main lobby restaurant. Selections are plenitful on food and drink, but the quality is much, much lower. While the food was great at the hotel, it is so far beyond wildly overpriced ($40 for a modest breakfast). Update 2011: Breakfast at $40 each was ridiculous in 2008. So seeing is closing in on $55 today was a little laughable. Instead, take a walk to one of the local cafe's on the Guidecca or, better yet, take the hotel motor launch and eat any non-concierge lounge meals in Venice itself.

Venice has a number of "Must See" attractions. I won't spend a lot of ink on the most famous of them, they are world renowned.  Sufficeth to say go see Piazza San Marco. This is the center of Venice and the only square large enough to carry the title "piazza". There are shops, galleries, gelato, and lots and lots of pidgeons to feed.

If your heart is strong climb the Campanile di San Marco at sunset. Wait in line for access to the Basilica di San Marco as its use of venetian tile is unmatched on the planet.

Whatever you do, while at Piazza San Marco, do not miss a tour of the Doges Palace. The huge globes of the world and the heavens, the golden staircase, and the ability to cross the Bridge of Sighs make this worth the time and the lines. It is remarkable that during the rein of the Doges the building never had to be surrounded by spiked fences or secured by heavy locks.

Then go explore. Cross the Rialto Bridge. Shop! Buy handmade eyeglass frames from Danilo Carraro boutique (a bargain). A wood sculpture from Loris Marazzi, glass beads, or a carnivale mask.

Explore the churches. Seemingly every plague to hit Venice resulted in Venetians pledging to build a new and more stupendous church. The Church of Santa Maria della Salute is one of those (it was being restored and was covered in an amazing lattice of scaffolding). Update 2011: See my 2011 Venice updates.


The restoration is complete and turned out wonderful!

We enjoyed watching the famous gondola's ply the canals. It was truly stunning to realize that today's fat multi-tasking gondoliers can simultaneously smoke a cigarette, talk on a cell phone, and oar their slender boats so deftly around the canals. One fact I had never noticed before was that these lovely boats have a slight curvature to one side or the other to counterbalance whether the gondolier is right or left handed. 

If you hire a gondola be wary, after 7 pm they run about $200 for the first 40 minutes. They do seat six, however, so a ride with five friends might actually be a bargain!

If you can, take in a tour of the recently restored Fenice Opera House or Peggy Gugenheim's estate with her modern art collection.

Another "must do" item for us was taking a vaporetto to the Lido (try to time it to arrive for lunch!).  Then return via the vaporetto that circles the entire circumference of Venice.  It passes the docks, hospitals, and the private island used exclusively for the funeral and burials of Venetians. 

Venice is expensive, fragile, and still remarkably beautiful. It is still a must stop on anyone's World Tour.

Roadboys Travels © 2008/2011

No comments: