VENICE: La Serenissima is sublime

Michele Browne adores Venice and advises that it’s on the ether of your timeline, at least once. Thronged in summer, but quieter in winter the visitor will have to contend with floods off season — but the city, which heaves with art, architecture and history, is worth it.

VENICE: La Serenissima is sublime

IF ethereal is on your to do list, you should try the Venice experience. With the promise of summer sun tantalisingly close, the fog is now lifting from the City of Bridges and you can see its forms unfold before your eyes.

And what forms they are — facades of baroque,;Venetian flamboyant gothic; bell towers; door knobs with lions heads… unique combinations in every frame, from far and wide; old and modern.

It is a city where the contrast of light and shade is striking. Shadowy little passageways or time under bridges are followed by blasts of sunlight shimmering on water. It lends the sense that you are a little figure wandering about one of the very many marvellous Renaissance canvasses which will not be very far away from whatever point you are; in the churches and galleries stuffed with Tinterettos and Bellinis and Titians crowded into beautifully crafted crevices.

The secret to Venice is that you glide through it. And I suggest you begin your trip doing an ‘S’ journey down the Canal Grande into San Marco’s Basin. ‘S’ is for “La Serenissima”, of course, or “The Most Serene”, as Venice is more lovingly known.

Whether you begin near the bus or train stations from the Piazzale Roma, or come straight from the airport, get on the water and your ‘S’ trip will take you promptly under Rialto bridge, passing by the fabulous fish and fruit markets.

Stunning palaces dating as far back as the 13th century line the canal with one fabulous façade after another. And yes, you can hear singing gondoliers glide about you on this city’s thoroughfare. Already you know you are somewhere like nowhere else.

Whatever your mode of transport, position yourself for your first glimpse of sights that will leave you with memories for a lifetime.

You will enter the Piazetta San Marco from the wharf between two large granite columns carrying statues of Saint Theodore, and a winged lion — the emblem of Saint Mark, the former and current patron saints of the city.

On the East side, you will see the stunning Doge’s Palace — residence of the rulers of the ancient Venetian Republic and the seat of its government established in 1340. The white and rose-coloured marble exterior adds to the sense of fantasy created by this marvellously ornate building.

The interior is full of wonder —the Hall of the Great Council and the Golden staircase. During a visit, you get to travel through the Bridge of Sighs — so called because the windows on the bridge from the palace let in the last glimpse of sky that prisoners would see before they were sent down to squalid dungeons below the palace.

But don’t dwell in the dank when there is so much that is utterly sublime. Adjoining the palace is Saint Mark’s Basilica and there is no mystery as to why it has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. It has facades with mosaics of gold and the triumphal advance of the four bronze horses — representing the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by Venetian crusaders — over the terrace of the main entrance.

The Basilica brings together styles in art and architecture with blends of East and West since work began on its building in the 9th century. It is magnificent, and if you are lucky enough to see it against blue skies, it may well take your breath away. Also, as Catholics can attend mass in the main Basilica, you can skip the queues by entering the North Entrance. Just check out the mass times online in advance. You are expected to dress appropriately (no bare shoulders) when entering any of the churches in the city.

Among the arcades of the connected buildings that complete St Mark’s Square there are shops with luxury goods and very ancient, very expensive café’s, such as Florian’s — frequented by Lord Byron. It is full of sound — sitting outside overlooking San Marco’s with Vivaldi performed live is fantastic — and of fury — when you find out there is a €6 music charge to accompany your cappuccino. You can avoid this outrage by drinking at the bar.

Nearby there is Hemingway’s famous watering hole of Harry’s Bar. It is where the famous bellini (prosecco and peach puree) and carpaccio (thinly sliced raw meat or fish) were invented. The waiters here will serve you with a flourish, the ambience and views are exceptional — but so are the prices. So unless money is no object, there are other ways to get more bang for your buck.

If you are going to pay out a lot of money for something very tasty, a trip to the Fiaschetteria Toscana — which is not far from Rialto bridge in Cannareggio — is excellent. The name of the restaurant notwithstanding, you will get genuine traditional Venetian food — the house specialty includes frittura alla Serenissima, a mix of fried seafood and vegetables, and moeche (soft-shell crab), when in season.

Wood ovens are not allowed in Venice so it is not a city known for its pizzas. But, when in Venice, you can walk like the Venetians. They have a tradition of going for drinks and snacks of an evening rather than a sit down meal. In fact, Venetians very often stand, and for long periods of time, which will explain why some outlets may not have seats. Many of the bars have little snacks called Cicchetti. They include tiny sandwiches — my favourite is baccala or saltcod — or fried olives with breadcrumbs or fried seafood.

The aperitif is a tradition in the whole of Italy. The Venetian traditional aperitif is the Spritz… which you can have as Aperol (sweet), Campari or bitter. ‘Bancogiro’ in Rialto has some lovely terraces right on the canal where you can sit back and watch the Venetian world go by. Another hot spot for practicing “il dolce far niente” (the sweetness of doing nothing), is at the Campo Santa Margherita.

High season is long in Venice — so from May to September you can expect to shuffle along the thronged narrow streets. So there are benefits of going in winter time. But you might need to borrow a pair of wellies during your visit if there is flooding. It is quite surreal of an evening to hear air-raid sirens that clear out bars and restaurants within minutes as Venetians are warned that “acqua alta” or high water is on its way — which means you might have to wade knee deep in a few spots on the way home.

If you want to brush furred shoulders with the well heeled inhabitants, a trip to the opulent opera house La Fenice is also an indulgence. And if your time is limited, I will list out some highlights:

* There are the Tintoretto masterpieces in the the “Scuola di San Rocco” — you will even be supplied with a large mirror so that you don’t strain your neck to see the work on the ceilings.

This Scuola held the city’s largest and richest religious confraternities which also acted as a base for charities and social clubs.

* The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, located next door, is a Franciscan friary built in Italian Gothic style, the resting place of Titian and home to his glorious Assumption.

* The Accademia delle Arti is a museum of pre-19th-century art, which features Carpaccio’s cycle of paintings on The Legend of Saint Ursula.

* The Peggy Guggenheim Collection in her home overlooking the Canal Grande is a treat for modern art lovers.

* The nearby islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello can be accessed using the vaporetto. Murano is nearest to Venice and is famous for its Venetian glass where you can also see master glass craftspeople at work.

Venice is a kaleidoscopic experience of art and history and the very finest of “La Dolce Vita” you could hope to savour while in Italy — good food, good wine and an appreciation of the everyday joys of life.

It is a city that has been chiselled and handcrafted by the masters of their trades over generations. The harshness of plague and class systems and penal rule echoes through its corridors, as does the splendour and achievements of the merchants of Venice with their splendid drawling rooms filled to the brim with the finest art and architecture that can be wrung from skin and bones.

It is most certainly a place where one feels privileged to have visited, somewhere you can scratch, on the ether of your timeline, ‘I was here’.

How to get there:

Aer Lingus Dublin-Marco Polo Venice; Ryanair, Dublin-Treviso.

Where to stay: 1 star — central and clean: www.hotelalvagon.com  Self catering: www.trulyveniceapartments.com

Where to eat:

Trattoria— Pizzeria S.Toma, San Polo: www.tratorriasantoma.com; Casino Dei Nobili, Dorsoduro. Tel 00 390 41 2411841.

What to see:

San Marco’s Square and everything in it; Scuola San Rocco; Rialto bridge and market

What to do:

At Bancogiro: Coffee at Florian’s; take a trip to the islands — Murano, Burano, Torcello Favourite Barber shop (for women too) Trip to Alberto’s Antica Barberia Amato in Campo San Polo 00 39 041 523 4620

Special events:

Carnevale, the Venice Biennale, the Venice Film Festival

Tips:

The main way of getting around Venice is by foot. It is not a big city. You should be able to walk the length of it in one hour — if you can manage not to get lost. Travel light as you will have to carry your bag from Piazzale Roma until you arrive at your accommodation.

You can cross the Grand Canal by traghetto in a few places. These are short trips in a gondola (€2 and they cross every few minutes). There is one at Rialto market for instance that will take you across to Ca’ d’oro.

The Vaparetto is a key mode of transport in Venice — it is a Waterbus.

Think of it as a metro — you can buy a ticket per trip or for unlimited use. The #1 vaporetto is the main tourist line. It runs the length of the Grand Canal, and stops at every point between Piazzale Roma and Lido.

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up