Venice Virtuoso

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Time for a trip to Europe. Words: Michael Harvey. Images: D.Hump.

THE tropical Christmas is never quite the same if you are a Brit, and after a few years of silly hats in hot weather I started to pine for something a bit closer to home. After all it’s about family and I don’t have any here, so time to get off the island.

Last year it was Margaret River (Australia) – myself, brother and 80-year-old dad – which certainly ticked all the boxes as far as eating and drinking went, but it’s a long way and a big commitment for all concerned. So this year it was to be Europe, easier for everyone and a chance for me to catch up with old friends over the break. But where to go?

Not the home in London, that’s for sure. No snow to trudge through or even just look at, not a lot to do apart from moan about the bone-numbing damp, and complain about the dreadful shite that’s on the tele. Not worth travelling half the way around the world for.

So what about the countryside? Makes a lot of sense if you live there but we don’t, so might as well go abroad and avoid the M25 altogether. A skiing resort would be perfect, maybe Lech in Arlberg, Austria or Vald’isere in France. Perfect except that my dad doesn’t ski and bad things can happen to older people on ice.

Okay then, a city break . . . how about Barcelona? Better in the summer. Munich? Been there done that, lived there for 10 years. Berlin? Not really.

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Christmassy. Rome? Too Catholic, too many mangers everywhere. What about Venice? One of my favourite cities but full of busloads of tourists (literally) stamping the place into the ground and Americans who can’t believe it really is older than 200 years – loudly comparing its authenticity to The Bellagio in Vegas.

Plus it’s a tourist rip off with some of the worst restaurants in the world (easy to tell which ones though, sporting six menus in different languages in the window with lurid pictures of pizza. Crap.)

But out of season it could be a different ballgame entirely. What about the weather? Will anything be open? Where to go for Christmas lunch? How to get around? Where to stay? Cheap to get to?

Out of season, off the beaten track, that’s always been the best way to travel I have found. Searching for suitable accommodation, we tried the North Bank – less popular with tourists but still close to the sights. Venice is, after all, quite tiny. With 16 million tourists a year the population is still only 60,000.

We found the Palazzo Barbarigo, an old converted palace on the corner of the Grand Canal and Rio San Polo. Accessible either by water taxi to the front door or via a labyrinth of unsigned tiny alleys only a metre wide to the back door. No fat American is accidently going to stumble upon this by foot, they wouldn’t even fit down the alley. Off the beaten track it is.

Getting to Venice off-season is no problem, no more expensive than a drive from London to Cornwall. A water taxi is the most impressive way to transfer from Marco Polo airport – only 20 minutes door to door – and although expensive at 150 euros it is way better value for money and a lot more comfortable than a ridiculously priced gondola ride. The hotel has 18 rooms decorated in art deco style, a lot of red and black and textured wallpaper. The rooms look out to one of the two canals and the accommodation is centered around a lounge/bar area running along most of the first floor with a balcony overlooking the Grand Canal.

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Spectacular.

The library at the back of the property still has the original 15th century crafted wooden ceiling. Although serving breakfast and snacks, the hotel doesn’t have a restaurant which means a major objective every day is to find somewhere for lunch. And dinner. We are up for the challenge.

Getting around is easy. Getting lost in the maze of alleys is part of the fun, it’s as if they were designed to confuse pirates. We are happy to discover that most of the people thronging the small squares close to the hotel seem to be locals. Turning right, the charming winding alleys lead eventually to the Rialto bridge.

There is some of the most exquisite shopping I have seen in a long time – mainly pieces of Venetian craft, and only the occasional carnival mask. With no high streets to attract international brands, most of the shops, restaurants and hotels are still in the hands of owner families. This means that they display an attractive individuality linked with a personal service that has long been absent in other European cities. There is a shop selling nothing but gloves in fine Italian leather. My father decides he needs some to match his purple scarf, they have every hue of purple available . . . ”suits you sir!”

Next stop the Rialto market with its spectacular array of freshly landed fish and seafood. Of note are the slightly alien looking spider crabs, extremely popular here but actually exported from Cornwall where there is little demand.

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The Rialto in Venice was the primary European centre for commercial exchange from the 12th century, right through the middle ages, benefitting from the Venetian dominance of maritime trade, including silks and other exotica from the Far East. The Rialto was mentioned several times by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice. The earliest of the banks was the Banco Giro, from which the current term Giro derives. Its present day guise is a restaurant enoteca standing on the same site as the original bank, preserving much of the early architecture. We ask if it is open on Christmas day and book a table for dinner. First problem solved.

Crossing Venice’s second most famous landmark, the Rialto bridge (incidentally covered in appallingly unimaginative graffiti, and also about to accept billboards to fund a renovation project) I am reminded of Kuta beach with the amount of hawkers and tourist tat available. Or maybe not. The views are still iconic.

There are a lot of shops selling eye wateringly expensive Murano glass pieces that look hideously kitsch to the untrained eye, or maybe this is where kitsch was invented. It’s a ten-minute walk or 20 minutes browsing to St Mark’s square, which only a month ago was seriously underwater. The Venetians, however, do not make a drama out of a crisis.

Their city, like Jakarta, has been sinking right from the start, but unlike Jakarta they have planned for it and so most residences and certainly all palaces and museums have their living and communal spaces on the first floors and above, with the ground floor often quite open to the elements. They could certainly afford the weather resistant marble.

If you want one of the most expensive coffees or ice creams in the world, St Mark’s square is certainly a good contender, but then again you are not paying just for the victuals themselves. It is still hugely impressive and just fantastic to be there without the madding crowds that infest it throughout most of the rest of the year.

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Up until now the day has been fairly misty, very atmospheric actually, with mist roiling along the canals as if blown from a massive dry ice machine. As we walk along to the gondola stands giving on to the lagoon, the sun breaks through the mist and it feels quite surreal, like being on a film set, which I suppose is exactly what it is.

Running down one side of the square is the Doges palace, another of Venice’s essential landmarks. The detailing on the outside of the building and arches is stunning, much of it not even accessible to the human eye. Various bits of the building date back past the 14th century, but it has been restructured and restored countless times due to fires, structural failures, infiltrations and organisational requirements.

Ancient Venice was the end of the Silk Road and was therefore all about trade and politics, The Doge was the top dog who not only lived at the palace, but also presided over the institutional chambers that received foreign ambassadors and delegations. Normally there would be a Disneylandesque queue taking hours before you reached the entrance, but at this time of year we breezed straight in.

The ostentatious wealth on display, art on walls and ceilings, statues, fireplaces, armouries, chambers, ante-chambers, must have certainly given pause for thought as the delegations of old waited for an audience. And then there is the Bridge Of Sighs, the name referring to the sighs of prisoners as they paused for a final glimpse of freedom across the lagoon and San Giorgio before they were escorted over the canal to the dungeons. The dungeons are pretty scary.

There aren’t many in the world that attract as much of a hoo-ha as Harry’s Bar, opened in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani on the waterfront in St Mark’s Bay. In 1948 he invented the Bellini, a mixture of white peach juice and sparkling prosecco, named after the 15th-century Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini. Not content with just the one iconic concoction he then created the Carpaccio – slivers of raw beef with fresh lemon and a spray of mayonnaise, naming it after another painter, Vittore Carpaccio.

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Harry’s bar boomed as it became a must-visit destination for Americans wishing to dine out on stories that they had once sat in the same place as the likes of Ernest Hemmingway and Orson Welles. Obviously not at the same time though. Unsurprisingly, they don’t give it away in Harry’s Bar – 25 euros for a cocktail and twice that for a burger – to the horror of those who contribute to the ongoing slating it receives on Tripadvisor. (Why would you order a burger?).

It’s a sign of the times, however, that everything is not so rosy at Harry’s bar as its success is directly proportional to the state of the Italian economy. After years of raking it in, the 80 or so bar staff were asked to take a pay cut in line with reduced revenues, but in true Italian style they refused, leaving 80-year-old Giuseppe Ciprani Junior to wait on the tables himself.

Instead we hopped on a Vaparetto, the local waterbus which, aside from walking, is the most economical way to navigate Venice’s labyrinthine waterways. There are two circular lines plying the grand canal with boats every 10 minutes and stops every few hundred metres. They are crowded with locals, and are surely one of the most enjoyable forms of public transport any city has to offer.

The mist adds a fourth dimension to the priceless views as yet another monumentally impressive piece of ancient architecture hoves into view . . . it’s like a time warp back to the days of the Silk Road, and one can only imagine how it must have seemed for ye olde mariners arriving by ship for the first time . . . some kind of Atlantis looming out of the murk.

We jumped off after 10 minutes and four stops back down the Grand Canal at Academie bridge, just past the Penny Guggenheim Collection. The pedestrian bridge is only one of two spanning the Grand Canal and dates back eons – its ornate railings are covered in padlocks, more than a couple of hundred of them and in bigger clusters near the apex. Couples make a pilgrimage here to seal their vows for each other, locking a padlock as a symbol of their love.

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Early the next morning I noticed the padlocks had mostly gone – realising it must be a daily cycle ending with some chap and a pair of bolt-cutters making space for next days influx of lovers.

Having successfully, thus far, eschewed the touristy establishments, we were back in the small alleys and squares populated mostly by Italian speakers and it was time for lunch. We fell upon the Ristorante Cantinone Storico, a seemingly understated establishment blending into locale, just by a bridge on a small canal, as in fact are most places in Venice! Main course was sea bass baked in salt accompanied by a 2006 Brunello di Montalcino from Bioni Santi which followed a couple of bottles of a crisp and slightly spritzy Gavi.

Our waiter, Constantin (a Romanian), it transpires, is the boyfriend of Viola (Russian), our bartender at the Palazzio Barbarigo. Suitably impressed by our alcohol intake, Constantin dispatches himself to retrieve a bottle of 1963 Italian brandy he has been saving for just such a Christmas occasion. We get a little noisy, much to the disapproval of the two middle aged women (Welsh) on the next table who appear to be trying to understand the age gap between myself and my fiancé. They are obviously dykes who should have stayed in the valleys drinking warm beer.

Invigorated and refreshed we decide on one last piece of sightseeing for the day, diving headlong into a maze of alleys trying to find La Fenice, which rivals La Scala for the top spot of Italian opera houses. Verdi’s Rigoletto and La Traviata were first performed here, and Maria Callas sang here frequently. For such a famous place it is inordinately difficult to find, but that is part of the charm of Venice – always something surprising round the corner.

Staggering back to the hotel we reflect on our first day in Venice and congratulate ourselves on beating the tourist traps. Out of season and off the beaten track, that’s us. Tomorrow it’s Christmas and we still have two more days left, plenty of time to buy handbags, shoes and anything made out of leather including some very aromatic wild boar sausages.

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