There is something unquestionably unique about arriving in Venice, the Floating City of Italy. The city’s swish mainland airport, surrounded by its main roads and cars, is the last reference to the real world you will have. Leaving the airport behind, and walking left along a progressively foggy winding road, you head towards a mode of transportation far more suited to transporting visitors to the City whose very foundations are forged in partnership with water: a boat. Taking the step from firm ground onto the bobbing wooden floor of a water bus, attempting to balance luggage with one hand, and steadying yourself with the other, suddenly the ordinary becomes a little more extraordinary, as the next stage of the journey to Venice makes its progress across water. And this is when it hits you – that Venice is indeed no ordinary place; cut off from reality not just because of the very unique look and feel to the city, but because stranded out in water, it is literally an island separated from the rest of the world. This sense of separation and mystery increases as the journey by boat steadily increases in length, as the boat heads further and further into the thick mists of the lagoon until suddenly, without so much as a warning, the elegant facades of palazzos, and the stripy gold-fringed finish of poles for tying boats begins.
This was how we arrived into Venice; our senses gradually reprogrammed so that by the time we arrived into the city, we knew that we were coming upon something special; a conclusion which cannot have been doubted when the boat took us into Venice’s heart via the Grand Canal, and before us the glittering lights of the bustling Rialto Bridge met our line of vision. Oh the beautiful Serenissima – Queen of the Adriatic. Is it any surprise that so many visitors have fallen under your spell, ensnared by your unquestionable beauty from palazzo to palazzo, bridge to bridge?
First views of Venice – the Rialto and the Grand Canal
Stepping off the water bus just after the Rialto bridge, we could still feel the bobbing and rocking motion of the boat as we took our first steps on land, before gradually realising that we were on firm ground again, albeit ground with the most stunning views of the Grand Canal and of all the little shopping streets and side canals which run off it. Like being in a film, we wound our way through those small streets and across tiny bridges in search of our hotel, all the while pausing only to close our mouths which would otherwise hang open in astonishment. Was a city ever as beautiful as this?
Inside the Aqua Palace Hotel
Upon arriving at our hotel, the splendid Aqua Palace Hotel, we were afforded yet further opportunity to gaze in wonder at this truly incredible city – being given, as we were, a superb room with not one, not two, but three windows looking directly onto the Guerra canal which surrounds the hotel. Barely able to comprehend the beauty of what lay beyond our windows, we managed to stagger away from those windows and out into the city, heading first and foremost to the place where any visit to Venice must begin – the Piazza San Marco. The proximity of our hotel meant that this joy was not long awaited, and within minutes, the staggering view of the onion shaped roofs of Saint Mark’s Basilica rose into sight, along with its campanile whose roof was already shrouded in the mysterious mist which had enveloped its way around the city.
The Piazza San Marco
Where to next? Why the Caffe Florian of course which, having opened its doors in 1720, is a contender for being one of the world’s oldest cafes and which has continued to woo visitors and locals alike in all of the years which have since passed. With its elaborate gilded and frescoed interior, together with its cute little corner seats nestled next to the window with a colonnaded view over Saint Mark’s Square, Florian’s is truly the best place to begin a trip to Venice – something we clinked our glasses to there an then; a glass of prosecco on one side, and a glass of Venetian Valpolicella on the other.
From there, time before dinner afforded us ample opportunity to stroll around and acquaint ourselves with the city. For me, this was a re-acquaintance, having very briefly studied art history here in 2001, and visited for a short weekend a few years thereafter. For Dominik: this was a first visit to Venice, and for him, all of the inevitable excitement at discovering this gem afresh was evident to be seen – a glistening to his eyes caused, if not by the beautiful Christmas lights lining the colonnades of St Mark’s and the plush shopping streets surrounding it, then by reason of the emotion which greets one when the sheer beauty of Venice is taken in for the first time. Past baroque churches and small piazzas, over bridge after bridge crossing quiet little canals, their greeny waters still like ice, and along finally to the Accademia Bridge, from which that famous view, stretching down the Grand Canal towards the Santa Maria della Salute, could be enjoyed in all its elegant majesty.
The Accademia view and walking the streets of Venice
With our eyes nearly popping, and our legs already exhausted from the continuous ascent and descent over bridge after bridge, it was time for a rest, and for a heart-warming culinary welcome to the city: dinner. Our gastronomic benvenuto was provided by the perfect little eatery: Alle Testiere (Calle del Mondo Novo). Able to give their full attention to the few little tables squeezed into the restaurant, the staff were wonderfully attentive, spoke perfect English, and made this culinary welcome a warm one. The wine – some more of that Venetian Valpolicella – was as sensationally smooth as was our gentle arrival onto the Grand Canal but hours earlier.
But the food was something beyond mere description – taste sensations which need to be sampled rather than photographed or described. But in an attempt to at least provide some insight into that perfect little meal, let me tell you that my pumpkin and shrimp ravioli with which I started (but alas did not photograph) was amongst one of the best dishes of food I ate in 2013 – perfectly cooked al dente pasta, with a fusion of sweet creamy pumpkin and delicate salty shrimp which had my palate dancing for joy. The creamy saffron gnocchi with fennel and prawns which I gorged upon afterwards did likewise. For Dominik meanwhile, the freshness of a squid salad presented all of the benefits of eating in a city surrounded by water, while his main of spaghetti vongole made us realise just how mediocre the same dish can be when eaten locally in London.
Our evening was rounded off, as all evenings should be. by an equally sensational dessert of smooth ricotta cheesecake, a glass of dessert wine with cantuccini for dipping, and a further stroll around the tiniest of alleyways and grandest of Piazzas which the area of our hotel provided in their multitude. After only a few hours in Venice, we returned to our hotel well aware that in visiting the city, we were living out some kind of dream; a surreal experience like none other. Where there are no roads or cars to wake you, taxis and buses that move on water, and houses that plunge straight into water. And if we needed further clarification of the surreal character of this very unique city, a glance out of the window that night to see Santa, dressed in red, crossing a bridge a little further down the canal (no joke) was confirmation that there truly is no place quite like Venice.
Join me on The Daily Norm for a whole load more in homage to Venice and beyond – coming soon.