Venice – Nov. 1999

I haven’t been to Venice before. I had read about it, seen photos, and played with Encarta’s 360-degree panoramic photo. I read general histories and Jewish histories of Venice. I had seen countless paintings that romanticized it. Notwithstanding, I was awed when the Grand Canal first came into view while on the Number 1 Vaporetto.

We arrived midday. The Grand Canal was bustling with chaos. Vaporettos vying for space with Gondolas, water taxis, small freighter boats, motorboats, and various assorted watercraft. There seemed to be no traffic rules, except avoiding impact (just like Boston, but more so!). Boats were piled with people, vegetables, dry goods, construction materials, and garbage. The Vaporettos (waterbuses) were packed with locals and tourists.

Most of Venice was built before 19th century, with a huge number of 17-18th century palazzos, 14-15th century churches, and a street pattern that makes Boston seem orderly. The Grand Canal, being the “in” place to live (and it still is), is lined with grand palaces with typical Venetian architecture, plus Romanesque and rococo facades. I can see why painters were so captivated with it, and why photos and movies cannot do it justice.

Our hotel, Locanda Fiorito (reviewed in a separate post to news:rec.travel.europe), was near San Marco, one of the tourist hubs of the city. Luckily, it was just far enough so that it was neither crowded nor noisy, and relatively inexpensive (by Venetian standards). The meal prices were a different story. There are 3 main classes of restaurants: expensive, very expensive, and prohibitively expensive. Armed with a 14-page restaurant guide compiled from the web and the rec.travel library, we sought out those that were reasonable and recommended (reviewed in a post to news:rec.travel.europe). Venetian cuisine is simple, but perfectly prepared, with an emphasis on fish. Although we didn’t have a bad meal (many visitors do complain of tourist rip-off restaurants with terrible food), the food was not the haute cuisine of Rome or Florence. Of course, we avoided the prohibitively expensive places, as $25 for a bowl of soup is a wee bit hard to justify.

Our main activity was getting lost, which we did very efficiently. It’s entirely possible to get lost by walking just 20 yards. Armed with a compass, a map, and a fairly good sense of direction, we would commonly get lost a dozen times in any hour. While it did get to be annoying, we did get to see very interesting parts of the city which we otherwise would have missed. We walked throughout every sestiere (section), through alleys less than 3 feet wide, over canals, through hotel lobbies, into churches, and just about everywhere we could.

We visited the Jewish Ghetto, where the word ghetto (meaning “foundry”) originated. If you haven’t visited Venice, I recommend reading a history book before you go. After reading a couple of books, one specifically on the Jewish history of Venice, I was absolutely dumfounded by how small it was. I was ready for a section of perhaps a few hundred acres or more. Perhaps I’m being a bit ethnocentric, but it’s hard to understand how a tiny community had such a large impact on the Venetian economy and thus it’s status as a world power.

We also visited the islands of Murano and Burano. Murano is where Venetian glassmaking became a fine art. The quiet island is now more of a quiet spot with sidewalk eateries and an overwhelming number of glass shops of varying quality. Burano is a fishing community – an island in the Venetian lagoon about 45 minutes away. The look and feel of the island is quite different from Venice, the houses are brightly painted, meticulously maintained, and occupied. (Many of the houses in Venice are owned by wealthy foreigners who use them for just a few weeks a year.)

Venice is very different from other European cities we’ve visited. While it was once a trading center, it’s now a tourist center. The city seems to exist only as a living museum with extraordinary ambiance. This is not to imply that this is a bad thing; quite the contrary. Visiting Venice is like taking a step back in time, seeing the capitol of a world power in pretty much the same state it was in hundreds of years ago. It is not an artificial, manufactured tourist environment like Disneyworld, but a genuine one that attracts people because of what it is.

Just a few notes about the accessibility of the city: As Venice was built when there was zero consciousness of disabilities, and compounding that with the city’s apparent lack of concern for those with mobility problems, those in wheelchairs would unfortunately find this a hostile environment. There are countless small bridges over the canals, each one being up 10-20 steps and then down again. Only two bridges out of the dozens we saw had an electric chair lift, and they seemed to be in dubious working order. Those with some difficulties would face quite a challenge unless they were staying at one of the hotels on the Grand Canal near a Vaporetto stop.

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Venice Restaurants:

We found that there are three types of eateries in Venice: Bars with snacks (and many with whole meals); snack bars that are cafeteria style; and restaurants.

Restaurants can be divided up into three main classes: expensive, very expensive, and prohibitively expensive. Armed with a 14-page restaurant guide compiled from the web and the rec.travel library, we sought out those that were reasonable and recommended in either rec.travel.europe or somewhere on the web).

Venetian cuisine is simple, but perfectly prepared, with an emphasis on fish. Although we didn’t have a bad meal (many visitors do complain of tourist rip-off restaurants with terrible food), the food was not the haute cuisine of Rome or Florence. Of course, we avoided the prohibitively expensive places, as $25 for a bowl of soup is a wee bit hard to justify.

We decided to stick with “economical restaurants”, ones with 1st courses 8000-12,000 lire (approx 1800 lire/ US$1); second courses 10,000-18,000 lire. With wine, cover, and tip, expect to spend about 50-60,000 lire. We generally ordered two first courses, one second course, and a half liter of the house red wine. Our tab was 45000 to 55000. This was a lot of food for us.

For lunch, we generally ate “street food”. Sandwich shops are everywhere, and a good-sized sandwich on a fresh roll is about 4000-5000 lire. We also ate take out pizza, sometimes from pizza fast food shops (6000-8000 for a ¼ pie), sometimes as a thick square-slice from a bakery (cold but delicious!) about 3000/slice. The best pizza we had was from bakeries.

Trattoria Da Bruno Calle Del Paradiso 5731, San Marco tel 522 1480. Easy to find. Menus in many languages. Quiet and small. Overall rating A+ Very nice waitstaff. One of the few occasions that we were made to feel at home by an exuberant waiter. We had Tagliatele of the Doge, a delicious eggnoodle with a creamy seafood sauce (A), Fishermans mussels appetizer (A++) which was perhaps the best mussels we’ve ever had. Living in Boston, we are pretty hard to impress. We were not only impressed, we were blown away. We also has the “Fish soup” which was not a soup, but a stew. (A).

Taverna San Trovaso Fondamenta Priuli, Dorsoduro 1016, Tel. 520 3703, Closed Monday Overall rating A Easy to find. Menus in many languages. Quiet and fairly large, but not huge. Wait staff efficient but not friendly. We ate here twice – not that we were that impressed, but the second time was on a Sunday night and we were getting tired of trying restaurant after restaurant, only to find them closed or overpriced. On our first visit we had Spaghetti con Seppie (squid/cuttlefish and ink), a Venetian specialty. The squid was not chewy like the calamari we’re used to, but tender and flavorful. (A) The squid ink did stain my lips – I’m glad it was nighttime. We also had spaghetti al salmone (spaghetti with salmon in a rich, creamy sauce which was perfect, flavorful, and the portion was very large (A+). The house red (B) was full bodied, most likely a Veneto table wine, but I get the feeling that the quality of the house wine varies from season to season. For the main course, we threw caution to the wind and had the liver and onions, a Venetian specialty. Just in case you thought that liver and onions was this awful inedible torture instrument used by parents, you should try it here. Wow. (A+)

On the second night we had taglietelli with a tomato-based mussels sauce – very good (A). For the second course we had veal in a lemon sauce (I rarely eat veal – so this was a special treat). Although the portion was fairly small, the tenderness and flavor perfection made this dish rate an A++.

All’ Antica Mola Fondamenta degli Ormesini Cannaregio, 2800 Tel 717492 We started with the seafood risotto, which has to be ordered by two people. It was a small portion, but very good (B+) We had the bacalau which was very good. We live in a Portuguese neighborhood, and have visited Portugal, land of bacalau. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste, but I love bacalau — and my partner thinks I’m strange. The house red wine was bland – the poorest we had anywhere – I suggest upgrading to a bardolino or valpolicella.

Locanda Fiorita Camplello Nuovo, 3457; off Campo S. Stefano tel: (041) 523-4754 fax: (041) 522-8043 Email: locafior@tin.it

This charming small hotel is very conveniently located between San Marco and the Rialto bridge, but in a very quiet neighborhood. It’s a 3 minute walk from the Sant’Angelo #1 Vaporetto stop, 15 minutes to San Marco or the Rialto Bridge. We stayed 6 nights in their main facility in room #4. (they have 10 rooms in their old building). The room was tiny but acceptable, and the bathroom was amazingly compact, however the bed was large and comfy. The staff was fluent in English, very friendly, and helpful.

The Locanda Fiorito is not a 4-star deluxe hotel. However, it’s modest, clean, and convenient. As it’s one of the cheapest in Venice, it’s a very good.

We visited in November and were able to close our window. Most of the rooms are “in the back” of the building, directly over a restaurant and could disturb light sleepers (I presume the restaurant closes at midnite, as there doesn’t seem to be a night-life in Venice). There are a few rooms that are “in the front” and may be quieter. I have no idea if any of the rooms have aircon – but our room had a fan.

The continental breakfast consists of a carafe of strong delicious coffee or tea, a few fresh rolls, and small packs of spreads like cheese, nutella, butter, and jam.

Reservations: Although they do have email and did seem to be answering some queries, they require faxes for booking rooms.

We paid 170,000 lire a night (about US$94).

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