The jewel in the Adriatic crown

With its sleek water taxis, gorgeous gondolas and paved streets ending with steps to the water, the beautiful Venice, as Conor Power discovered, is a city truly like no other.

FROM virtually any possible angle, Venice is simply magnificent. For starters, it really is an island in a lagoon just offshore from the mainland. I knew this before I arrived because I’d read about it and I’d seen images of this island for myself on Google Maps.

But you still have to pinch yourself when you arrive at an international airport and stroll outside to a taxi that’s actually a boat, alongside buses that are also boats.

There are a few options involved in getting from the airport to the city, but by far the quickest and the most spectacular way of arriving is by sleek water taxi. It sets you back

€95, but it’s worth foregoing a gondola ride (which can cost a similar price) for this indulgence.

We arrived at night and gaped about us like the muted tourists that we were as our water-taxi crept through the canals, every ancient building a fortress against centuries of the power of the sea, paved streets ending with steps into the water, washing hanging across balconies of ordinary homes, glimpses of impossibly romantic lesser canals crisscrossed with bridges: An entire city in the 21st century with no cars.

We were fortunate enough to have a hotel just off St Mark’s Square so we wandered out in the evening to see this much-talked-about tourist attraction. I can attest that at 10pm on a cool spring night in Venice, St Mark’s is beautifully deserted, with water from the high spring tides bubbling up through the square in spots — a regular phenomenon that occurs between November and March, which the locals overcome by placing raised platforms over the affected areas.

The next morning, after fuelling ourselves with a hearty breakfast, we strolled through sunny-morning Venice to partake in the Secret Itinerary Tour of the Doges’ Palace.

The Palace is one of the landmark buildings in Venice, situated beside St Mark’s Square, and was the centre of power of the Doges that ruled the Serene Republic of Venice for over 1,000 years. Places are limited on the tour so pre-booking is essential.

It takes you to all the “secret” parts of the Doges’ Palace, where the Venetian Republic’s clandestine security service conducted their work and to the cells in the twilight world between the top floor and the attic, where political prisoners were held — including the resourceful and infamous Cassanova.

It’s utterly fascinating and well worth the admission price (€20.50 per adult). But it’s to the waterways of Venice that you must take in order to get a flavour of what it’s all about.

The bus (vaporetto) system appears straightforward enough but routes are notoriously prone to change. It’s set up so that the basic ticket is one which lasts you a full hour, allowing you to hop on and hop off or change bus as you wish.

Don’t buy a one-journey ticket because this is almost the same price. In order to explore Venice, it’s a good idea to mix it up with a combination of a long bus trip down the Grand Canal followed by hopping off, walking around randomly for a while so that you feel nice and lost and then consulting your map again and getting one of the “traghetti”.

These are gondolas that ferry you from one side of the Grand Canal to the other at various points where you would otherwise have to walk quite a bit to find a bridge.

Each crossing costs just 50c, making it just about the best value purchase you can find in a city that is not cheap. It also gives you a gondola ride for next to nothing (albeit without a resident musician or a cushioned seat).

We hopped off at Rialto Bridge to explore the market and sat for lunch at a canal-side restaurant. The damage was nowhere near as high as I had expected for such a tourist-spot (€55 for lunch for two, one dessert, two beers and two glasses of wine) and the waterside table was a superb experience, watching the absorbing spectacle of people going up and down the waterway on a variety of vessels.

In the time we were having lunch, we saw a fire engine pass by with lights flashing, as well as a wedding party with the bride and groom beaming from the back end of their boat.

It’s advisable to bring your walking shoes because most of the getting around is on foot. This is what we did, ambling aimlessly down alleyways, over bridges, through charming squares, past churches and sunny streets with Gondolas floating by.

The wonder that Venice actually still stands is something that struck me. The tour guide from the Secret Tour had explained that Venetian buildings were “flexible”.

If you sit for refreshment at virtually any of the squares in Venice, you can see this flexibility in the unevenness of the paved surfaces and in the way that a number of its many bell-towers lean over.

Even the most famous — the Campanile in St Mark’s Square — fell over back in 1904, before being rebuilt as new ten years later.

But all of that just adds to the mystery and charm of the Queen of the Adriatic. It’s a city like no other and it’s very hard to sum up the many romantic waves of emotion that it brings out in every visitor.

I think that Dr Henry Jones Jr said it best in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when on multiple occasions, he sighs: “Aaah… Venice!”

HOW TO GET THERE

Travel

Aer Lingus (0818 365000; aerlingus.com) flies direct from Dublin to Marco Polo Airport, Venice four times a week with fares starting at €47.99 one way including taxes and charges.

Where to stay

For a fine splash-out a short stroll from St Mark’s Square in the heart of it all in a Venetian palace with its own private jetty, try the 5-star Luna Baglioni Hotel, San Marco 1243, Venice. +39 041 5289840. www.baglionihotels.com, where breakfast is enjoyed beneath a priceless frescoed ceiling. At the other end of the budgetary scale and the other end of the island is the Vaniglia e Sorriso guesthouse — a family-owned premises next to the Santa Elena Park and still only 20 minutes’ walk to San Marco.

Other info

- Hellovenezia: Tel +39 041 24 24. www.hellovenezia.com. Excellent multi-lingual site with all local transport timetables, maps and fares with online booking available. - Fondazione Musei Civici Veneziani: www.museiciviciveneziani.it. Website with all relevant details of the municipal museums in Venice, including the Doges’ Palace. - Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia: Tel +39 041 5200

345. www.gallerieaccademia.org. Pre-booking is advised in high season for this must-see gallery in Venice. - Venice International Film Festival official website: www.labiennale.org. Full programme of events and booking details.

WHAT TO SEE

The sights

Where does one begin? Using a day pass on the vaporetto system, take a trip to one of the other islands in the lagoon. San Michele is an almost square island that is the city’s (rather full) cemetery containing a few famous deceased former Venetian residents, while Murano is where the famous glass of the same name is made.

The food

Once you avoid St Mark’s Square, eating out is generally not cheap but neither is it excessively expensive. For takeaway pizza, try the friendly and inexpensive Arte della Pizza on Calle dell’Aseo or for food of a more traditional sit-down variety, the huge buffet at Taverna del Campiello Remer gives you great value in a courtyard setting overlooking the Grand Canal.

The shopping

Venice has arguably one of the most eclectic collection of shops of any city, where discount supermarkets, book shops and antique stores share the same street. If it’s lace you’re after, take the vaporetto to the island of Burano — a mini-Venice that is the centre of traditional lace-making.


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