Top 10 Things to Do in Venice, Italy

Top 10 Things to Do in Venice, Italy

More than a century ago, it was the great American novelist cum travel writer Henry James who decided that there was “nothing left to discover or describe” about Venice, and that “originality of attitude is completely impossible.”

But, he said, “it would be a sad day indeed when there should be something new to say. I write these lines with the full consciousness of having no information whatever to offer. I do not pretend to enlighten the reader; I pretend only to give fillip to his memory; and I hold any writer sufficiently justified who is himself in love with his theme.”

And so I am.

Released from the burden of originality and the guilt of self-indulgence, here is my own To Do List for first-time visitors to Venice.


An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:

#10

Ride a vaporetto down the Grand Canal

Whether you arrive in Venice at Santa Lucia railway station, at the bus depot in Piazzale Roma, or at the small airport across the lagoon, the glorious Grand Canal will be among the first sites you see, and invariably, it will look exactly as you imagined. It will feel at once foreign and familiar, as if you’ve stepped into an 18th century painting by Canaletto, only to find that the world around you has changed little in its substance.

To extend the illusion a little longer, board a public water bus—known as a vaporetto—and ride it the length of the canal, under the Rialto Bridge, by the colorful and crumbling façades of grand palazzos like the Ca’ d’Oro and the Ca’ Rezzonico, all the way down past the dome of Santa Maria della Salute, before disembarking at St. Mark’s Square.

If the Grand Canal seems heavy with traffic today, bustling with motor boats, water buses, and gondolas, remind yourself that it was even more crowded in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the golden age of the Venetian Republic, when it was a major thoroughfare for merchants who traded goods across Europe and the Far East.

BUYING TICKETS:  ACTV tickets can be bought: 1) Online; 2) On site from the Hellovenezia ticket office at the railway station; or 3) From the automatic ticket machines on some landing docks.

COST:  A single ticket on the vaporetto costs €7, so buying a tourist travel card is a wise decision. Cards allow unlimited access for a period of either 12, 24, 36, 48, or 72 hours, or for 7 days from the time it is initially activated. Prices vary accordingly, from €18 to €50. For further details, see one of the websites below.

NOTE:  For the purposes of sightseeing, board a vaporetto on Line 1 (map), or pay slightly more to board the special Vaporetto dell’Arte, which includes a multilingual audio and video system. Remember, you will need to swipe your travel card on the iMob validating machines located at the entrance to the ACTV loading docks before you board, or face a hefty fine.

WEBSITES:  ACTV, VeniceConnectedVaporetto dell’Arte

#9

Soak in the Byzantine splendor of St. Mark’s Basilica

At the eastern end of St. Mark’s Square lies the basilica that was built to house the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist, plundered from Alexandria, Egypt in 828 A.D. Legend has it that the Venetians hid the relics in a barrel under layers of pork to slip them past Muslim guards, a scheme they later depicted in a mosaic above the portal that is farthest left of the front entrance.

While Venice is replete with Baroque churches, St. Mark’s Basilica is an exotic outlier, with its massive marble columns, graceful arches, and onion domes clad in lead. Look carefully about and you’ll also see a hodgepodge of ornaments that were brought back piecemeal over the centuries by Venetian merchants who had sailed to the Orient and back.

To see the interior—a “glittering robber’s den” encrusted with gold mosaic tiles, set unevenly to better refract the light—you will have to survive the basilica’s infamous queue, as well as its strict rules for entry, but both are a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing one of Europe’s finest churches.

GETTING THERE:  For directions to Piazza San Marco from various locations, including the train station and Piazzale Roma, click here.

HOURS:  Summer hours for the basilica are from 9:45 AM – 5:00 PM weekdays and Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 2:00 PM – 5:00 PM. Please check the website below for hours at other times of year.

NOTE:  Modest dress is required (cover those knees and shoulders!) and photography is not allowed, nor are large bags and purses. To avoid the maddening queue to get in, consider making a reservation online.

COST: Admission to the basilica itself is free, but small and very worthwhile charges apply to enter the chancel, treasury and loggia, areas which include the Pala d’Oro, a gold altarpiece constructed of enamel icons and encrusted with gemstones; an odd and extensive collection of chalices and reliquaries containing the blood and bones of saints; and the original gilded horses of St. Mark, the prize of so many lootings over the centuries.

MORE:  If time permits, consider purchasing a Chorus Pass for €12, which grants admission to sixteen churches in Venice.

WEBSITE:  Basilica di San Marco

#8

Visit the Doge’s Palace to walk across the Bridge of Sighs and see the prison cell from which Casanova famously escaped

The Palazzo Ducale, which adjoins St. Mark’s Basilica, was once the residence of the Doge of Venice. To make the most your experience here, book a “Secret Itineraries” tour with a well-trained guide, who will explain the civic and political history of the city and its “Council of Ten.”

You will see where the most delicate administrative tasks were performed, in an attic space far removed from prying eyes, then you’ll continue through the Chancellery, where walls of cabinets once contained secret documents, before arriving in the torture chamber in which prisoners were hung by their arms from ropes. You’ll even get to cross the infamous Bridge of Sighs and enter the prison itself to see the cell once occupied by Casanova, and from which he made his daring escape.

Along the way, be sure to keep your eye out for centuries old graffiti scratched into the window panes by bored clerks.

GETTING THERE:  If arriving by vaporetto, chose either the Vallaresso or San Zaccaria stop. For more information, click here.

HOURS:  From April to October, the Doge’s Palace is open daily from 8:30 AM – 7:00 PM, and from April-March, daily from 8:30 AM – 5:30 PM. “Secret Itineraries” tours in English run at 9:55 AM and 11.35 AM and should be reserved in advance.

COST:  A full-price ticket valid for the Doge’s Palace as well as the Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, and the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana costs €16. The “Secret Itineraries” tour is €20. For those tourists who intend to visit many of the city’s churches and museums, purchasing the Venice Card (€39.90 for adults) may be a worthwhile option.

MORE:  In addition to the Doge’s Palace,Venice offers an array of enticing museums. If time permits, or foul weather forces you indoors, consider visiting the following: Gallerie dell’Accademia (pre-19th century Venetian art); Peggy Guggenheim Collection (contemporary art); Museo Correr (collections focus on the art and history of Venice); or Ca’ Rezzonico (a museum of 18th century art).

WEBSITE:  Palazzo Ducale

#7

Gaze out across the rooftops of Venice from the top of the campanile in St. Mark’s Square

While most ancient bell towers in Italy require a sturdy pair of legs, the campanile in St. Mark’s Square has a large and speedy elevator. Ride it to the top for the sheer pleasure of the view. From a height of 324 feet, you can easily see the entire city, with a rim of coastline in every direction. Look for the iconic church of Santa Maria della Salute at the mouth of the Grand Canal. If you scan the red tiled roofs carefully with a camera lens or a telescope, you might also spy the elegant spiral staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo.

Rest assured, while the original 15th century campanile collapsed into rubble quite suddenly in 1902, the reconstructed tower won’t fall again because Venice recently completed a multi-year engineering project to shore up its foundation.

LOCATION: Piazza San Marco

HOURS:  Summer hours for the campanile are from 9:00 AM – 9:00 PM. Please check the website below for hours at other times of year.

COST:  A ticket to ride the elevator to the top of the campanile costs €8.

MORE:  For another extraordinary view of the city of Venice, take a vaporetto out to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and take the elevator to the top of the bell tower there.

WEBSITE:  Basilica di San Marco

#6

Visit the Rialto Market to experience the vivid sights, sounds, and smells of Venetian life

In the morning, the open-air Rialto Market is a feast for the senses, as local farmers and fisherman unload trays of fresh squid, cuttlefish, crabs and clams, as well as baskets of whatever produce is in season, from cherries and grapes to peas and asparagus.

If the old adage about eating with your eyes first is true—mangiare con gli occhi, as the Italians would say—you will stroll about and leave feeling very full and very happy.

LOCATION:  San Polo, Campo de la Pescheria (fruits and vegetables) and Campo de le Becarie, Loggia Grande and Loggia Piccola (fish)

HOURS:  The markets open around 7:00 AM. Note, the produce market is closed on Sundays and the fish market is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

WEBSITE:  Mercato di Rialto

#5

Go shopping anywhere and everywhere for Murano glass

While the fame of Venetian glass extends back to the Roman Empire, all of the furnaces and foundries were moved to the island of Murano in 1291 out of fear that a fire would consume the city’s wooden buildings. Today, the art, craft, and tradition of Murano glass continues and local boutiques sell a dizzying array of whimsical sculptures and ornate chandeliers.

On one of my visits to Venice, the shop window at Pauly & Co. in St. Mark’s Square displayed a series of balloon animals that would surely pass for the real thing, in addition to a green fedora for €7,500, and a folded shirt, complete with buttons, for €8,100. A craftsman even made what would appear to be Cinderella’s glass slipper, although at nearly €11,000 most women would need to marry Prince Charming to be able to afford it.

For a far less expensive option and one that’s easy to slide into a suitcase already bulging with Italian souvenirs, shop for jewelry instead.

RECOMMENDATIONS:  Personally, I like the jewelry collections at Antica Murrina and Le Perle. Here are some other suggestions from Lonely Planet.

NOTE:  If you spend enough and you’re a non-EU citizen, consider applying for a VAT refund.

#4

Escape the crowds for a day and go island hopping

Eventually, even the most ardent admirer of Venice will want to escape for the day to the nearby islands of Murano, Burano, or Torcello. The first is best known for glassmaking, the second for lace, and the third—I suspect—for being seldom visited by tourists.

Start with a short boat ride to Murano, where you can any number of glass factorys for a free tour. In the heat of the furnace, the craftsmen work quickly and deftly with molten glass that is roughly the texture of salt water taffy, just be wary of the salesmen who will follow you afterwards into the showroom. They can turn the subtle art of browsing into an uncomfortable, high stakes game of cat-and-mouse.

Next, make your way to Burano, a tiny fishing village where the streets are a riot of color, lined with houses that are painted in improbable shades of blue, orange, green, purple, and red. Flower pots rest on window ledges, laundry hangs to dry, and in the summer nearly every front door stands ajar, covered only with a striped curtain that catches the breeze, as a sail might on a boat.

If time remains, consider one last jump to Torcello. There is a brick walkway that leads away from the dock, but much of the island consists of open fields and undisturbed wetlands. Follow the path to a cluster of old buildings that includes two magnificent churches side-by-side—Santa Fosca, which is low and round, and the more conventional Santa Maria Assunta, with its solitary bell tower. Both are primitive, peaceful and calm, far removed from the opulence of Venice and its madding crowd.

GETTING THERE:  The islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello are easy to reach using public transportation. Vaporetto line numbers 12, 13, 14, 4.1, and 4.2 make the journey to Murano from Fondamente Nove (on the north side of Castello), and line number 12 continues on to Burano and Torcello.

COST:  Travel to the islands is included with a standard ACTV ticket

WEBSITES: Murano, Burano, Torcello 

#3

Be indulgent and hire a gondolier

Yes, it is cliché, and it is expensive, but you have traveled long and far to come to Venice, and you really should ride in a gondola.

Henry James once wrote that “little mental pictures rise before the collector of memories at the simple mention, written or spoken, of the places he has loved.” When he conjured an image of Venice, it was not Piazza San Marco that he thought about, nor was it the basilica, or the dome of the Salute church, or even the Grand Canal. Instead, in his mind’s eye he saw:

“…a narrow canal in the heart of the city—a patch of green water and a surface of pink wall. The gondola moves slowly; it gives a great smooth swerve, passes under a bridge, and the gondolier’s cry, carried over the quiet water, makes a kind of splash of stillness. A girl crosses the little bridge, which has an arch like a camel’s back, [and] you see her against the sky as you float beneath… On the other side of this small waterway is a great shabby façade of Gothic windows and balconies… It is very hot and still, the canal has a queer smell, and the whole place is enchanting.”

I rest my case.

LOCATION:  Gondolas depart from nearly every dock in Venice, so wander about and pick a neighborhood that appeals to you. Most itineraries will include at least a short piece of the Grand Canal, but it’s often a ride along the quiet side canals that is most enchanting.

COST:  The rates for gondoliers are fixed by the city of Venice. During the day, expect to pay €80 for a 40-minute ride for a maximum of six people, and €40 for each additional increment of 20 minutes. In the evening, the rate increases to a base price of €100. If you would like to be serenaded by your gondolier, that fee is additional and must be negotiated.

Too expensive? Here are some affordable alternatives:  1) Share a gondola ride with others at Santa Maria del Giglio; or 2) Take a traghetto across the Grand Canal. For a list of crossing points, click here.

WHAT TO EXPECT:  Gondola Rides in Venice: How to Get the Most from your Venice Gondola Experience

WEBSITE:  Gondola Venezia

#2

Spend a lazy evening under the stars listening to the orchestras play in Piazza San Marco

It’s said that when Casanova escaped from prison in 1756, he stopped off for a cup of coffee at Caffè Florian before fleeing to Paris. It’s easy to understand why when you see how lively and pleasant Piazza San Marco becomes at night, once the crowds have slipped away.

There are three restaurants in the square, each with neat rows of tables and chairs, and awnings under which an orchestra plays. Take a seat at Caffé Florian, Ristorante Gran Caffé Quadri, or Caffé Lavena, order a cocktail, lean back and relax as you are serenaded with sentimental waltzes and lively folk dances.

No one will blame you if you get up and dance.

LOCATION:  Piazza San Marco

HOURS: 

  • Caffé Florian is open daily from 9:00 AM – 11:00 PM in the summer, and closed Wednesdays in winter (menu)
  • Ristorante Gran Caffé Quadri is open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch from 12:30 PM – 2:30 PM, and for dinner from 7:30 PM – 10:30 PM
  • Caffé Lavena is open daily from 9:30 AM – 11:00 PM

NOTE:  To avoid an unhappy surprise when the bill arrives, please know that there is a supplemental charge per person whenever the orchestra is playing.

WEBSITES:  

#1

Put away the map and get lost

In a city built of islands, where there are 150 canals and 400 bridges, maps are of little use, and modern gadgets like cell phones with GPS, even less so. For that reason, it can be genuinely difficult to find things in Venice, so resolve to discover them instead. The lack of intention makes all the difference in the world. It allows frustration to give way to serendipity.

In exploring the city’s labyrinthine streets and canals, you may find comfort in periodic signs that read “Per Rialto and “Per San Marco,” but notice how they often they point in two directions at once, creating endless combinations.

Right, left, right.

Left, left, right.

Follow your fancy and see what pleasures await. On one of my tramps around Venice I was treated to shop windows that had exotic spices stacked into powdered pyramids, papier-mâché masks formed into the fanciful faces of cats, hedgehogs and owls, and tiny gold fish suspended in blown glass aquariums of every size and shape.

Walk on, and soon you’ll find yourself wondering what more there is to see just around the corner, and you’ll be tempted to devote the entire day to finding out.

It will be a day well spent.

LOCATION:  It matters not.

HOURS:  Unlimited.

COST:  Nothing.

MEMORIES:  Priceless


Where to stay when in Venice

My personal choice is always the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo at Santa Croce 2063, but don’t just take my word for it. Check out their reviews on TripAdvisor.

Hotel Al Ponte MocenigoHotel al Ponte MocenigoDSC_3323c


A Photo Gallery of Venice

 

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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

It’s a glorious morning in Venice. I know it is because I can see sunlight out the window of the plane as we approach Marco Polo Airport. I catch my breath when I spot the campanile in Piazza San Marco rising high above the skyline and the dome of the Salute church at the far end of the Grand Canal. The island is beautiful from a distance, but also small, like a tilt-shift photograph that renders the cityscape in miniature.

My flight lands on time and before long I’m stretching my weary legs on the long walk out to Pier 14 where there’s a water taxi waiting for me. This is a great indulgence of mine—I’ve always taken the bus before—but after all that’s happened in the last few weeks, I figure I deserve a break.

As the boat pulls away from the dock, I sink back into the seat and exhale deeply. At the touch of a button, the driver retracts the tinted roof and I close my eyes as rays of morning sun warm my face.

We gather speed as we make our way across the lagoon, and as the boat begins to skip across the choppy waves I can feel a fine salt mist on my skin. I had left my luggage upright on the floor of the cabin and now it’s starting to slide slowly on its wheels, back and forth.

We enter Venice proper through a square of open water in the sestiere of Cannaregio, near Fondamenta Nuove and the 14th century church of Madonna dell’Orto, and from there head south towards the Grand Canal. It’s just a short distance to San Stae and there the driver makes one final turn and pulls up to the water entrance of the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo. I’ve stayed here before—twice, in fact—but I’ve never arrived in such grand style.

Walter greets me warmly at the door and hoists my luggage out of the boat. It’s still early in the day, just 10:30 AM, so my room isn’t ready, but he invites me to sit for a while in the hotel’s courtyard and kindly offers to bring me a cappuccino. I feel exhausted from the flight and more than a little seasick from the bobbing of the water taxi. At the same time, though, I’m exhilarated to be here and comforted by the sight of familiar surroundings.

I leave my luggage behind and walk out the gate, following the signs that point to Alla Ferrovia and Piazzale Roma. It’s a pleasant walk through tiny alleyways and along quiet canals. I’m heading to the train station to buy an ACTV pass for the vaporetto and a Venice Card to cover my admission fees to a wide range of museums and churches. I’m trying to be optimistic about what I’m able to do.

It’s noon by the time I return to the hotel and my room in the Annex is waiting. It’s a lush space, with an open beam ceiling, dark silk walls, a carved headboard, and damask bedspread. High overhead there’s a Murano glass chandelier and I stare at it as I lay back and rest for the next two hours. I’m still not feeling well and I need to pace myself.

It’s 2:00 PM by the time I venture out again in search of a late lunch. I stop at Ostaria al Garanghelo and order a plate of ravioli with a sage butter sauce that tastes good, but settles hard in my stomach. There are two young women sitting at the table next to mine and I amuse myself by listening in to their conversation. One hands her phone to the other and says: “Look, you got a picture of that famous house and whatever.” Sophisticated travelers they are not.

Soon, however, their inane commentary is drowned out by two street musicians who settle in across the street. With a guitar and violin they smile widely as they play “Cheek to Cheek,” an Irving Berlin tune from the 1930s that has me envisioning Fred Astaire in white tie and tails with the lovely Ginger Rogers in his arms.

Heaven, I’m in Heaven,
And my heart beats so that I can barely speak;
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek.
And the cares that hang around me thro’ the week
Seem to vanish like a gambler’s lucky streak
When we’re out together dancing, cheek to cheek.

With no particular destination in mind, save one minor errand, I wander down across the Rialto Bridge to a Vodaphone shop, where I wait in line to buy a SIM card with a data plan for my iPhone. I press on, all the way to Piazza San Marco, where at long last, restoration work on the base of the campanile has been completed, freeing the square of five years worth of fences and construction debris. It’s been a nice afternoon, but my legs are tired and I’m ready to head back on the vaporetto.

I’ve been to Venice twice before, and as the water bus passes the colorful and crumbling palazzos that line the Grand Canal all the way back to San Stae, I think about how this releases me from the burden of expectations. I’ve seen nearly all of the major sights and tourist attractions in town—St. Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, the Accademia museum, and the Bridge of Sighs. I’ve been out to the islands of Murano, Burano, and Torcello, and to San Giorgo Maggiore with its majestic views of the city proper. With so few boxes left to tick, my time is my own, to wander and explore, and I’m quite looking forward to it.

By the time I leave the hotel at seven in search of dinner, the deep blue of the afternoon sky has given way to a brooding canopy of gray. A light rain is starting to fall as I slide into a comfortable seat at Trattoria al Ponte, just around the corner. I sit and relax through a bowl of bean soup and a fine plate of tagliatelle with tomato, eggplant, and smoked ricotta cheese. I had hoped to go back to Piazza San Marco tonight to listen to the orchestras play, but the gentle patter of raindrops on the awning overhead tells me it would be best to tuck in early for the night.

Venice may be sinking, but it will still be here in the morning.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

This morning, when I sit down to breakfast in the shaded courtyard of my hotel, I am greeted by a woman with a friendly smile, and she brings me a frothy cup of cappuccino sprinkled with cocoa and a basket of fresh croissants. With apologies to Gérard Mulot in Paris, these are my very favorite croissants in the whole, wide world.

I smile with recollection and then bite through the flaky exterior of the pastry into a warm center, filled with apricot preserves. The memory of it sends a shiver of delight down my spine and I am reminded of Proust and his tea-soaked madeleine. It’s been five years since my first visit to the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo and I’ve returned twice since. It’s nice to know that some things never change.

With the taste still lingering on my tongue, I set off on a leisurely walk toward Piazza San Marco. Breakfast has reminded me that Venice is a feast for the senses. I stop at the Rialto Market to savor the smell of fresh produce and the pungent odor of local seafood. I wander in and out of shops to admire the rich colors of Murano glass sculptures and vases and jewelry. And I pause to listen to the sweet sounds of street musicians, and the whir of motor boats down the Grand Canal.

It’s only when I reach the square that I realize just how crowded Venice is in the high season. It was Henry James who once said: “Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” They’re everywhere, with their cameras and baseball caps and flip flops—day trippers from Hell. But this year they’re not alone. Within the last week, an international art exhibition known as La Biennale di Venezia has opened at the Giardini and the Arsenale, and so the city is congested with celebrities and art critics, too.

Eager to escape, I duck into the campanile and ride the elevator to the top for the sheer pleasure of the view. From here, I look toward the island of San Giorgio Maggiore where there is a gigantic and rather incongruous inflatable figure of a naked, pregnant woman, created by the British artist Marc Quinn. I recognize it immediately as one I saw years ago—in smaller form—on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in London. I don’t much like it here, either.

I take pictures of the church of Santa Maria della Salute at the mouth of the Grand Canal, which was covered in scaffolding the last time I was here, and then scan the city with my telephoto lens, until it rests upon the elegant spiral staircase of the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. It’s breathtaking, really, this sea of red tiled roofs.

Back in the square, I’m directly across from the Doge’s Palace on which hangs a banner advertising a major exhibition of paintings by Éduoard Manet, titled “Manet: Ritorno a Venezia.” I’ve been looking forward to it for months. I check my watch and see that it’s nearly noon. The line at the entrance is short and the sun overhead is bright and warm. The dim light of a cool museum sounds appealing.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is the contrast of two famous works of art—Manet’s own “Olympia,” unveiled to great controversy at the Paris Salon of 1865, and its inspiration, Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” painted by the Old Master in 1538. I’ve seen both before, the former at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the latter at the Uffizi in Florence. But here they stand side-by-side, and the influence is striking and the interpretation modern. I like Manet very much, and many of my favorite paintings are here, including “The Balcony” and “The Fifer” as well as a view of “The Grand Canal” painted by the artist on a visit to Venice in 1875.

Hungry for more, I decide to head straight for the Biennale, although just outside the Doge’s Palace I get my first glimpse with an unofficial exhibit titled “This is Not A Czech Pavilion.” Intrigued, I peek inside and see a ring of shoes on the floor, each covered with the kind of disposable, blue booties that cable TV repairmen wear when they visit your house, so as not to soil the carpets with their muddy boots. It’s odd, especially when I notice a handwritten message scrawled on the wall. It reads: “This is the best piece at Venice Biennale.”

God, I hope not.

I take the vaporetto down to the Giardini and stand in line to buy a ticket. It’s a beautiful area of the city that I’ve never explored before, leafy and lushly green. The man at the ticket counter asks where I’m from and he is genuinely pleased that it’s Vermont. It seems he combats the boredom of his job by counting places and I’ve just added a rare specimen to his collection.

My first order of business is to find a place for lunch, but along the way I can’t help but stare at the entrance to the Spanish Pavilion. Inside there is a pile of rubble. There’s really no other way of saying it. It’s just rubble. A sign on the wall explains that the artist is Lara Almarcegui and her work “is not just formal or ontological, but also social, in that it points to the historical nature of the construction materials she uses, and addresses the complex interactions between materials, economy, and space. It is also political, insofar as she understands and places architecture and urbanism, their developments and historical dimensions, within the framework of the complex ecology of our social and political fabric.”

There’s a man standing next to me and we exchange a significant look. He doesn’t speak English and he doesn’t have to. We’re both thinking the exact same thing—

Bullshit.

There. I’ve said it, and I mean it. Give me a Manet any day over an “installation” of rock. Still, I have to admit, I’m having a rollicking good time already. Bad art really is kind of fun.

I walk toward the Central Pavilion, past a row of people lounging on porch chairs, all the way around to the back to a outdoor café, where I break for lunch. It’s just a simple Caprese salad, but the tomatoes are sweet and the buffalo mozzarella tangy. It rejuvenates me, and before long I’m ready to explore again.

It’s time to brave the United States pavilion. I must say I was warned about this one in advance, but it still didn’t prepare me for the horror of it all. A review in The Guardian put it this way: “America has an irritatingly complex ‘ecosystem’ composed of millions of fribbling bits of paper, string and gum by Sarah Sze for which there is simply not world enough and time.”

And there it is. “Fribbling bits” of this and that—balls of string, plastic water bottles, rulers and clamps—crawling up the front of the building like a tinker toy skyscraper on steroids. There’s a brochure that attempts to explain it all and it says something about inscribing a “fragile personal order upon a disordered universe,” but really The Guardian had it about right when they said there wasn’t enough time in the world to care.

Feeling apologetic and unpatriotic about the U.S. entry, I enter the Russian Pavilion next. There’s a hole in the ceiling from which a bucket hangs, and in the room next door I can see a large pile of gold coins on the floor. Before entering to investigate, a woman hands me a clear umbrella and I grin. It’s always a good sign when you’re handed a prop. It means interesting things are about to happen!

It becomes immediately apparent that the umbrella serves as a shield to protect me from being struck by the coins that are falling continuously from the roof. I’ve been instructed to bend down and interact with the coins, and to place a handful of them in the bucket next door. They’re stamped TRUST, UNITY, FREEDOM, LOVE. And, “The artist guarantees the value with his honor, 2013.”

And that’s just the start… There is also a man upstairs who is dressed in a business suit, riding a saddle astride a beam that he has reached with the help of a tall, wooden ladder. Every now and then he reaches out with his left hand and sprinkles sawdust on the floor below. On the wall, there is a motto that reads: “Gentleman, time has come to confess our Rudeness, Lust, Narcissism, Demagoguery, Falsehood, Banality and…”

There’s a brochure explaining all of this—of course there is—and it says something about a “cave womb” and the “anatomical construction of a myth,” but really who cares? This may peg me as one of those day trippers from Hell that I maligned earlier this morning, but the whole thing strikes me as perfectly ridiculous, but also pretty neat.

I spend the rest of the afternoon lazily walking through Ai Weiwei’s forest of stools and inside of what looks like a huge Fabergé egg. There are tables of artfully composed law directories, walls covered with plastic Mickey Mouse toys, and wire coat hangers twisted into the shape of turtles. There is a painting of a hairy man’s ass crack aptly titled “The Butt (2007),” which amuses me, and the clothed mannequin of an armless child wearing a sun bonnet that seems like a creepy version of Little House on the Prairie, which does not.

I’m still chuckling over the Biennale later when I sit down for dinner at La Porta d’Acqua. I laugh harder still when the waiter greets me by singing “Buona Sera” by Dean Martin. He’s quite a character.

I order some fried zucchini blossoms and stuffed shells with Bolognese sauce, but no wine. When I got sick in Germany two years ago, I developed a neurological condition called dysautonomia. Alcohol makes the dizziness and the nausea worse. It’s a hard enough thing to explain in English let alone a foreign language, so I just decline politely. The waiter sniffs at me suspiciously and says: “What kind of woman are you who no drink wine?” I shrug.

As I wait for my dinner to arrive, I pull out my iPhone and check for e-mail. Last night, I reserved a seat on a bus tour leaving tomorrow for the Veneto hill towns of Bassano del Grappa, Asolo, and Marostica. The Avventure Bellissime website says it’s one of their “most popular day trips from Venice!” Alas, it’s not. They’ve just cancelled.

Undeterred, I decide to go on my own, and so I pull up the Trenitalia website to check on train departure times. When the waiter comes by with the food, he looks over my shoulder and asks where I’m going. Bassano del Grappa, I say. I ask if he’s been there and does he recommend it? “Yeah, yeah,” he says, “the grappa.”

It’s the alcohol he likes. Of course it is. He’s Italian.

Come to think of it, though, quite a lot of art is inspired by booze. Quite possibly a lot of what I saw today. How else to explain the hairy ass crack? And a potent green liquor known as absinthe was equally famous in Manet’s day as the seductive muse of poets and painters alike.

I look down at my solitary glass of water, and I feel suddenly left out of an entire history of creative thought. Perhaps I should try some grappa in the morning. I’m already an academic with a tendency toward verbosity. I can certainly write a convincing brochure. All I really need for a change in career is a decent sense of irony and some “fribbling bits.”

Friday, June 7, 2013

It’s probably a bad idea to base a day trip around a single photo op, but there you have it.

I once saw a picture of Bassano del Grappa that showed a covered bridge called the Ponte degli Alpini. I’m not sure why it appealed to me so. I think it was because the buildings on either side of the Brenta River were clearly Italian. To me, the warm colors, balconies, window boxes, and towers were reminiscent of Verona, another city I had liked in the Veneto. And yet the wooden bridge itself seemed so very un-Italian. With some minor alteration in the trusses, that bridge would have looked very much at home spanning a babbling brook in a forest of autumn leaves back in Vermont. I became determined to see a place at once so exotic and familiar for myself.

I had hoped to visit Bassano del Grappa and two other small hill towns on a minibus tour offered by Avventure Bellissime, but they cancelled my booking last night due to a “lack of participants,” offering instead a tour of the Dolomites at the same price. I am two years removed from my disastrous trip to Germany and I still recoil at the thought of an alpine landscape. I suppose it’s a Pavlovian response, but I’d rather see the bridge.

While on previous trips to Europe I’ve gotten up early and stayed out late, this morning I slept in and barely made the 10:27 AM train from Santa Lucia station, which means I won’t arrive in Bassano del Grappa until nearly noon. On the journey out, it didn’t occur to me that this was a problem, but it is. By the time I arrive and pick up a map from the local tourist information office, the city has fallen into a deep slumber. It’s the afternoon siesta, a tradition rarely observed in larger tourist destinations, but here, nearly everything—churches, museums, shops—will be closed for the next several hours. I’m just going to have to make do.

I walk past the towering Torre Civica in Piazza Garibaldi, struck by the silence in the streets, and then continue on past the Loggia dei Podestà, with its sun dials and astronomical clock, to Piazza Libertà, from where I veer off to the right, down toward the river.

Known alternately as the Ponte degli Alpini, or the Ponte Vecchio, there has been a bridge in this spot since least 1209, but over the centuries it’s been destroyed several times through acts of war, as well as the forces of nature. Each time, it has been faithfully rebuilt according to Palladio’s design of 1569.

The bridge is open and airy inside, and it reminds me of a picnic pavilion somewhere in the Adirondacks. Standing here is pleasant, a cool retreat from the midday sun, and the view north of the Valsugana valley is nothing short of spectacular. To see it properly, though, I need to cross to the other side and walk along the banks of the Brenta. When I do, I look back and see the frame of the photograph I fell in love with so many months ago.

Today, there are white clouds of cotton candy high overhead, floating in a pale blue sky. There is a wall of mountains in the distance and a cluster of pastel buildings in shades of lemon yellow and salmon pink spilling down over the hill toward the river. In the contrast between the elegant architecture of the town and the rustic red bridge with its large wooden feet, there is also balance. They marry well, or as the Italians might say, si sposano bene.

I’m glad I came.

For lunch, I buy a sandwich at Taverna al Ponte, which has a tiny balcony overlooking the bridge, and then wander back up through the town, past the ceramics museum in Palazzo Sturm, which is closed, and the church of Pieve di Santa Maria, which is closed as well. I should have known.

The walk and the ascent up the hill tires me more than I expect, and by the time I reach the civic museum in the former convent of San Francesco—which is blessedly open for business—I need to sit and rest. Even so, I feel spent. Residual illness and jet lag are catching up with me. I rove through the impressive picture gallery upstairs, and marvel at a painting by Roberto Roberti titled “Il Ponte di Bassano” (1807) that shows the city looking much the same in the early 19th century as it does today. But the truth is, I’m ready to head back to Venice. It’s nearly 3:30 in the afternoon and the shops will be reopening any moment now. Even so, I don’t have the energy or the enthusiasm left to stay. I did what I came to do.

After relaxing on the train and laying for a while in the my air conditioned room at the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo, I feel surprisingly hungry later. Not wanting to go far, I have dinner at Il Refolo, in a small piazza facing the Ponte Ruga Vechia. I order the “Pizza del Doge,” with fresh mozzarella cheese, ham, tomatoes, and radicchio, and remembering the previous night’s admonition, I decide that I do not want to be “the woman who no drink wine.” I order a glass of prosecco, figuring that one glass—just one—couldn’t possibly hurt. Except that it does. The pizza is outstanding, one of the best I’ve ever had in Italy, but the wine sends my head into a nasty tailspin for the remainder of the night.

Cursing Germany once again (because, really, when is there ever opportunity enough?), I know that to make it through I’ll have to go teetotal from here on out.

I’ll be in Florence in two days time. I’m already mourning the Chianti.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Normally, I like itineraries. It’s the sense of order, I suppose, that appeals to me. But this year, everything is different. Because of the Odd Year Curse and its corollary complications, I was forced to rearrange large chucks of travel at the last minute, and the days have never quite fit back together again. It’s time to throw everything aside and wing it.

My original plan was to go to Vicenza for the day by train to see the Teatro Olimpico and some Palladian villas, but now that I’m here in Italy, I don’t much feel like it. I’m in the mood for lazy exploration, and no city invites that more than Venice.

After breakfast, I walk down through the market again and across the Rialto Bridge, stopping at Antica Murrina to buy myself a Murano glass necklace, with a matching bracelet and earrings. I buy jewelry every time I’m in Venice—it’s too hard to resist—and this set, with its unusual combination of coral, tan and purple beads, is destined to be one of my favorites.

When I reach Piazza San Marco, I circle around the perimeter, peeking in the shops that line that the arcade, then I turn past the Doge’s Palace and join the wide promenade known as the Riva degli Schiavoni. It’s crowded with bodies this morning and with souvenir stands selling T-shirts with slogans like “Keep Calm and Love Venezia.” When I reach the Bridge of Sighs, it’s difficult to push past the bottleneck of tourists taking pictures, but I need to press on. I’m heading for the Arsenale, the city’s naval shipyard, which is the site of still more art exhibits for the Biennale.

It’s a long walk back under the heat of the summer sun, past a pair of cars sunken into a makeshift beach with striped umbrellas perched overhead, but I’m determined to see a performance piece I read about in The New York Times. It’s by an Icelandic artist named Ragnar Kjartansson and it features a small boat, described in the newspaper as “a cross between a Viking ship and a gondola,” slowing sailing back and forth with a cargo of professional musicians.

Much of the art I’ve seen at the Biennale has been forgettable, and some pieces have been memorably ridiculous. This is simply memorable.

There is a captain onboard commanding the rudder of the S.S. Hangover, and a five piece brass ensemble playing the same haunting piece of music in repetition. A sign nearby introducing the piece says that the procession “alludes, perhaps, to the sixteenth-century Venetian tradition of Theatres of the World, among many other of the city’s floating festivities.”

It’s the “perhaps” that I like. The interpretation is open and loose, and there may be none at all. One article I read likened it to a funeral dirge and to sailors “crossing the bar.” All I know is that it’s a moving spectacle, and I’m glad I made the effort to see it.

The walk back to Piazza San Marco through the quiet canals and alleyways of Castello is long and confusing, but intensely beautiful. There are rainbows of laundry hanging everywhere and flower boxes resting on sills. Aside from an occasional dog on the street, or a cat perched high in an open window, Venice seems entirely mine and mine alone. It’s nice to be far away from madding crowd, if only for a moment.

It’s my last night here and I have yet to linger and hear to orchestras play. In the mood to celebrate, I settle in at Caffè Florian and order a club sandwich, a plate of Parisian style macarons, and a vividly red, non-alcoholic drink called a “Skywasser” that passes for an exotic cocktail. The bells in the campanile are chiming the bottom of the hour, and the band is warming up.

A mother and daughter from Florida are sitting next to me and we strike up a conversation, which is pleasant enough at first, but the daughter doesn’t understand why I’m sitting facing the orchestra, rather than watching the people milling about the piazza. Frankly it’s what I always do and it never occurred to me to do otherwise. I was a musician myself for many years and I like to watch the orchestra play. I think it must be strange indeed to perform night after night to the backs of people’s heads, but the daughter doesn’t understand. “But why would anyone DO that?” she whispers loudly.

As the sun begins to set, I walk west through Piazza San Marco and follow the meandering streets all to the way to the Accademia Bridge, where I board a vaporetto for home. I haven’t ticked many boxes on this trip, and I’ve barely used my Venice Card at all. I’ve never felt less inclined to visit churches and museums, but it’s been a deeply satisfying visit nevertheless. The Italians call this wondrous city of canals and bridges La Serenissima, or most serene, and rightly so. I arrived here on a water taxi four days ago struggling under the weight of things, and I leave in the morning for the bustle and excitement of Florence, more at peace with the world than I have been in a long while, and ready to embrace whatever opportunity awaits.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

I’m bound for Florence this morning, but not quite yet. My train doesn’t leave until just past noon, so there’s still time left for one last walk around the sestiere of Santa Croce before I have to say goodbye to Walter and the wonderful Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo.

There are two “unofficial,” or collateral, exhibits from the Biennale nearby, plus a separate gallery devoted to honeybees and Murano glass. I decide to visit them all.

The first involves a crane and an odd red sculpture that’s been suspended from it these past four days. I saw it when I first arrived that day on the water taxi, just to the right of the church at San Stae, and I’ve wondered about its purpose ever since.

When I enter the United Cultural Nations exhibit, a beam of light leads me down the hall of a grand palazzo towards a room filled with the sound of tribal drums. Overhead, a hole has been cut in the ceiling and there, suspended high above, the red sculpture is hovering. It’s called the “Flying Ship.” The brochure says it’s meant to “promote rethinking the relations between individuals and others” and the “spirit to reach a new destination.” For me, though, it’s simply an Aha moment. It resolves a mystery. I may not understand what it means, but at last I know what it is.

The second exhibit is sponsored by Paraguay and while a number of artists are represented, two in particular stand out. On a small computer monitor, Daniel Milessi offers an imaginative history of his country in video game format. It reminds me of the old Pac-Man consoles I used to play in pizza parlors when I was a girl, though in place of the game’s original ghosts, the enemies are invaders and the outcome is told in pixels of blood.

My favorite of the day, though, is Pedro Barrail. There is a wall in the palazzo that’s been covered with its own image, printed with a large red dot in the center and the words: YOU ARE NOT HERE, alongside the longitude and latitude measurements of the room itself. It’s clever, really, and while I may not grab the “red lifesaver and head for redemption,” as the brochure advises, I find myself staring at it in defiance. It reminds me of the hurdles I have crossed over the past two years, to say nothing of the past two months.

I AM (most decidedly) HERE.

I grab my luggage at the hotel, promise Walter I’ll be back again next time, and then sprint off to the train station. It’s just a short journey to Florence, less than two hours, but the change in scenery is striking. Here, too, I am greeted by a series of familiar associations that bring a smile to my face as they pass outside the window of the cabthe green and white façade of Santa Maria Novella, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, and Brunelleschi‘s enormous red dome on the Duomo, which peeks out from behind nearly every street in town.

As in Venice, I’m returning to the same hotel that I booked on two previous trips to Italy. I’m a creature of habit and revisiting places gives me a sense of comfort and identity, a neighborhood to call my own. When I’m in London, I livetemporarily, at leastin South Kensington. In Paris, the 5th Arrondissement is my home. And when I’m in Florence, I stay at the Hotel Davanzati. It’s as simple as that.

It’s mid-afternoon when I climb the stairs and emerge out of the elevator into the quiet lobby. Tommaso greets me warmly from behind the reception desk and I inquire about his family, and his father Fabrizio in particular, as he encodes the key card. Before long, we’ve caught up and we’re talking about businesses and unions and Italian politics, and debating whether or not the U.S. is any less dysfunctional. It feels good to be back.

Outside, the day has turned gray and cool, and I spend the remainder of it reacquainting myself with the city. I stroll down to the Ponte Vecchio and across to the Oltrarno for some window shopping, before retracing my steps back to Via Porta Rossa for an early dinner at La Grotta Guelfa—some mixed crostini and a bowl of risotto with mushrooms.

Afterwards, I walk back to the Ponte Vecchio in the hope of finding a street musician named Claudio Spadi there. I’ve heard him play every time I’ve been to Florence, and there he is again, singing a cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” to an appreciative crowd and the setting sun.

As in Venice, some things never change, and for that I am grateful.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

I wish I hadn’t said anything.

When I turned in last night I noticed a hole in my bed sheet. OK, so it was worse than that. There was a small and deliberate hole cut out of the middle, about one inch square, but also a huge chunk hacked out of the side. It’s worn and frayed at the edges, so it must have been laundered that way at least several times and still reused.

This morning I decide to take it downstairs to bring it to the attention of the front desk, where I know they speak English well. The clerk is appalled and he immediately calls for the head of housekeeping who, when she sees it, slaps a hand to her mouth and cries “Mamma Mia!” Soon, I’m told that the maid who serviced my room has been summoned to account for her mistake and she’s in tears.

I feel just terrible. I’m not in the least angry about the situation. I just want to make sure that the offending sheet is taken out of circulation, but the hotel insists on taking 50% off the bill for my last night’s stay, apologizing profusely. It’s a kind gesture and I leave feeling warm toward the staff at the Hotel Berna. I just hope the maid is all right.

I walk the short distance to Centrale station in Milan and wait for the 9:35 AM Eurostar train to Venice. This is the last leg of my journey; from there I’ll fly home. In truth, I’m growing weary at this point in my travels, but I’m also loath to see it end.

When I arrive at Santa Lucia station at noon, it’s pouring down rain—which after so many days of fine weather was bound to happen sooner or later. To save a few Euros for arriving mid-week, I booked a 72-hour Venice Connected transport pass online and now I have to pick it up. With my printed confirmation in hand, the instructions say to look for “the ferry embarkation point to the left of the station.” Unfortunately, I take that to mean to the left of the station as I depart down the steps. By the time I correct the error and walk back and to the right, I’m soaking wet and so is my luggage.

As I wait for the vaporetto that will take me to San Stae, I think about the contrast between this arrival in Venice and my last. On my first visit in 2008, I likened the experience to a C.S. Lewis novel. It was as if I had walked through a wardrobe and found the world of Narnia on the other side, and it made my heart leap with excitement. Today, I can’t help feeling a bit disappointed. There’s no time to stand in awe at the Grand Canal. It’s all I can do to manage my luggage and camera case and umbrella in the rain.

Still, the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo is as welcoming as I remembered, and like in Florence I’m ushered to the very same room I inhabited two years before. It’s comforting to mingle the fond memories I have of that trip with those I’m currently making. I change shoes and do the best I can to prepare for the weather by sliding a plastic sleeve over my camera, and then head out into the torrent.

I decide to walk toward St. Mark’s Square, and along the way stop at Cicchetteria Da Jorghe for lunch. They serve what the waiter calls a “special toast” and it’s delicious—an open faced sandwich with tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, and basil, along with a variety of less identifiable but equally savory ingredients. I feel better having something warm in my stomach.

When I reach the square, it too is a different kind of experience this time around. On my first trip, the weather was glorious for four days straight, so to see Venice in the rain is to embrace a different Venice, and it has a casual charm of its own. After all, this is a city for which flooding is not an annoyance, or even an inconvenience, but a mere fact of life, and because of that it seems more real and less like a theme park for tourists.

I take shelter under the long arcade in St. Mark’s Square and circle around window shopping. At Pauly & Co. the art glass is a thing of absolute wonder. There is large fish, a centipede, and a series of balloon animals that would surely pass for the real thing. I’d be tempted to take one home if the price tags didn’t run into thousands of Euros, but they do. And that’s just that beginning. There’s a green fedora for €7,500, and a folded shirt, complete with buttons, for €8,100. They’ve even made what would appear to be Cinderella’s glass slipper, and at nearly €11,000 I would need to marry Prince Charming to be able to afford it.

When the rain slows, I venture west toward the Accademia bridge and the art museum on the far side. It’s a steaming mass of humanity on a day like this, and I should have known better. Crowds are seeking shelter from the storm, and the air inside is thick and humid. I follow behind a woman with a blue guidebook in her hand. She has three children in tow—one a surly teenager, the other two much younger. We are standing in a room filled with Renaissance art and she spins them around searching only for the pieces Rick Steves recommends. There are so many Madonnas and Bambinos to choose from, and she insists on finding the one by Giovanni Bellini. It’s like playing a game of Where’s Waldo, only more challenging and less fun. I glance over at the kids and feel sure they’d agree. I could use a Bellini myself right about now, but the one I have in mind is more liquid in form.

Wanting fresh air, I take a short walk toward the church of Santa Maria della Salute, whose dome is, at long last, free of scaffolding. It’s nearly 6:00 PM and the rain seems to have come to a reluctant end. There is a classical guitarist playing nearby and I catch snatches of music as I wander in and out of shops in search of Murano glass jewelry.

For dinner, I already have plans in mind. A colleague from work recently returned from Venice and he’s recommended a pizzeria called Al Nono. I looked up the restaurant before leaving home and have a computer printout from Google Maps to guide me, but this is Venice, after all. There is nothing as precise as a street address because there aren’t any real streets. Instead, there is a number associated with a particular neighborhood, or sestiere. The one I’m looking for is Santa Croce 2338. Google Maps places it just to the west of Ca’ Foscari, and if I can find Campo Santa Margherita, it’s not far from there.

Finding the campo is easy enough because it’s unusually large, but Al Nono is no where to be found. A young couple sees me squinting at a map and stops to ask for help. They’ve checked into a hostel for the night, but went out exploring and now they can’t find it again. The best that I can do is to show them where we’re standing, but that basic logistical fact is of little help because they don’t know where they’re going, and quite frankly neither do I. I wish them well, they shrug with a cheerful resignation, and I continue my hunt for number 2338.

Eventually, I can feel myself getting warmer. I’m into the 2000s and then the 2300s, but that exact number simply doesn’t exist. Frustrated, I decide to give up and zigzag back to the hotel.

At the front desk of the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo, I ask the clerk if he’s ever, by chance, heard of a pizzeria called Al Nono. “Of course,” he says, “it’s just around the corner.” Incredulous, I ask him if he’s kidding and he says no, it’s literally three turns away. He pulls out a map and a pen and shows me. One. Two. Three.

So much for Google Maps. Go figure.

Perhaps it’s because of the damp weather, or perhaps it because of the epic quest that brought me here, but Al Nono fails to live up to expectations. It’s a cozy place with a lively clientele made up mostly of locals, but the food is middling. I order a pizza with prosciutto, pepperoni, and mushrooms, but find that the tomato sauce is bland and the mushrooms rather soggy.

When I leave the restaurant I look overhead and see that the sky is continuing to improve. The night is still young, so I wind my way back to St. Mark’s Square to hear the orchestras play. Lavena’s is midway through “Skoda Lasky” when I arrive. It’s a Polish tune that we’re more likely to recognize as the “Beer Barrel Polka,” and before long all that I have ever known and loved about Venice has come rushing back, and I find myself tapping my toe in time to the music.