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  • Writer's pictureTomás S. Ó Ceallaigh

The Orient Unexpress: Venice

View of the Grand Canal from the Ponte dell'Accademia, Venice with Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute in the distance.
View of the Grand Canal from the Ponte dell'Accademia, Venice.

I awoke to blue skies visible through the undrawn curtains on the dorm room window. The dull rumble of trains arriving and departing from Mestre station was only just audible and everything in the room seemed quiet.

The previous evening the rain hadn’t stopped and, as a result, the Wombats Hostel was filled to the brim with people. The bar, the kitchen, the lounge, the reception area all filled with travellers unwilling to risk the storm.

In the bar was a pool table with an old set of cues. Along with Alex, a Costa Rican backpacker, I'd taken on a series of challengers from around the globe. We’d beaten two sets of Germans comfortably, followed by some Dutch travellers, before coming up against the Palestinians.

The Palestinian opponents were both built like rugby players and completely dwarfed Alex, who was much more diminutive in stature. After defeating us and ending our victorious run, they demanded a rematch which we then duly won (more by luck than skill).

It all came down to one final match to decide a victor, watched by a small panel of ‘experts’ offering advice to both teams as the match unfolded. The cues, both missing tips, made for an intriguing contest. There were sliced shots, slippery shots, cursing under the breath and a great deal of hilarity as the mission of potting the balls became more like herding cats. In the end, we narrowly won when one of our opponents inadvertently potted the black.

It was gone midnight by the time the marathon night of pool had finished and it was time to turn in.

The following morning, I lay in for a short while, but it wasn’t long before the general movement of the dorm room meant that being able to rest any more was out of the question. I didn’t hang around for breakfast and instead headed for Mestre station.

The station was awash with people making the short journey across the Ponte della Libertà into Venice: confused tourists not knowing how to purchase a ticket; commuters vying for their usual spot on the platform, and railway staff trying to ensure that everything ran smoothly during the mini stampede caused by any train’s arrival.

The train from the mainland arrived in Venice Santa Lucia station, and although having just crossed over the lagoon, you don’t truly get the sense that you’re in Venice until you walk out of the station's entrance and the lively spectacle of the Grand Canal is visible in front of you.

From here, I saw any number of tourists piling straight onto the assembled vaporetti (tr. waterbuses) headed in the direction of Piazza San Marco. Having spent the last few days reading up on how San Marco Square was a congested tourist hellhole, filled with hawkers and cheap tat, I took a sharp left out of the station and then another left, heading for the Cannaregio area - the furthest north of Venice’s six sestieri (or districts).

Almost instantly I was away from the crowds and the increasingly stifling heat, walking quieter shaded lanes and smaller canals heading towards the eponymous Cannaregio (tr. Royal Canal).

After a short while of wandering and photographing, my lack of breakfast caught up on me. I looped back around towards the Rio della Misericordia where I had spotted a few osterias earlier. Deliberately trying to choose a smaller looking establishment, I sat down in the shade outside the Osteria Bea Vita, not far from the Ghetto Nuovo, the historical Jewish quarter.

Osteria Bea Vita had a good range of cicchetti (tr. small plates) available, all written on a chalkboard outside the front door, and patient staff who were willing to tolerate my questions about what everything was.

A trainee gondolier zig-zags along the Rio de San Girolamo, Venice, Italy.
A trainee gondolier on the Rio de San Girolamo, Venice, Italy.

Sitting slightly away from the canalside allowed me to see any number of small vignettes of everyday Venetian life: a mother moaning about her child’s behaviour, an elderly gentleman reading a book and chatting to the staff in slightly flirty tones, fresh laundry of many different hues waving like flags in the gentle breeze, neighbours chatting from the highest windows of the flats on Calle Contarini and the occasional calling of gondoliers and other mariners passing by on the canal.

Sat in a spot like this, with normal life moving around me on all sides at an unencumbered pace, I could see why this place is referred to as La Serenissima, the most serene. Yes, the walls of the building opposite were losing their plasterwork as a result of one too many acqua alta (tr. high tides), exposing the pinkish red of the bricks below, but this didn't detract from the stunning aesthetic of the area in any manner.

After my lunch of various meats and fishes - I’ll be honest I wasn’t one hundred per cent sure of what I had, I just asked for whatever was best - I headed back towards the middle of the city, walking via the Ghetto Nuovo, where several ostensibly Jewish people were preparing drinks on a table and chatting jovially.

As is often the case when looking into any aspect of Jewish history, it’s hard to believe that the residents were obliged to live in a specific pocket of the city, weren’t able to buy houses there, had to abide by discriminatory curfew rules imposed by the government and then pay for themselves to be surveilled for any curfew breaches.

Walking out through the Sotoportego de Gheto Novo, it was also clear that the buildings faced inwards to the centre of the Ghetto Nuovo, meaning that the number of locations for getting in and out were also limited, whether by bridge or by boat. Essentially, the whole area was an open prison, but is now a picturesque square, away from the city centre's madness.

It was time for me to face the crowds. I had spent a peaceful few hours meandering around back streets, but I now needed to cross a busy stream of foot traffic on Rio Tere S. Leonardo, before heading to the vaporetti stop by the Chiesa di San Marcuola.

I’d bought a one-day ACTV travel card for €20 from a machine in anticipation of this moment and duly boarded the No. 1 vaporetto in the direction of Ponte dell’Accademia.

The boats are open at the front and rear meaning that, on a hot day like it was, I could stand under a shaded cover, with the cooler air from the canal acting as my air conditioning whilst taking in the life of the Grand Canal: gondolas crisscrossing the water and heading down quieter canals, wooden-topped motorised water taxis with well-heeled occupants luxuriating on the rear deck, vaporetti undertaking and overtaking as they stopped for passengers, all with the stunning brickwork and stucco of the quintessential Venetian architecture draped elegantly along both banks.

The view from Ponte dell’Accademia is perhaps one of the most iconic of all views in Venice. In the centre of your field of vision is the baroque domed roof of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, with the azure blue waters of the Grand Canal passing by and then out into the lagoon.

At this point, I really did feel as if I was lost in a postcard or travel guide. It is without a doubt that there is something otherworldly about Venice, making it all the more apparent why residents and organisations such as Venezia Autentica are so keen to protect it aesthetically and commercially. Following any number of dangerous instances, a big victory had come in the form of the banning of large cruise ships from the canals, which would eventually lead to their banning from the city’s lagoon altogether.

Hopping back aboard the No. 1 vaporetto, I headed out to the Sant’ Elena, with the view to walking back towards the centre. This meant, once more, that I had a little more serenity as I looped around past the football stadium, and through the Giardini, the gardens that form the central hub of the Venice Biennale art exhibition.

I stopped for some afternoon shade and food on the Via Guiseppi Garibaldi not far from the Arsenale. The Arsenale had once been a centre of military industriousness, had fallen into disrepair, and then returned as both another venue for the Biennale and also as a base for part of the flood prevention project.

As I closed in on the throng of people near Piazza San Marco, the volume of general noise increasing exponentially with every step, I realised that it may be time for me to get back on a vaporetto. Passing by the edge of Piazzo San Marco closest to the Doge’s Palace, the mass of bodies seemed impenetrable when viewed from the water. As overtly picturesque as it may be, with the Campanile di San Marco's dominating structure visible from all sides, I was glad to be missing the crowds in the increasingly stifling heat.

The cruise back to the station was pleasant enough, interrupted by a few British and German families arguing the toss with the ticket inspectors on the boat, resulting in one indignant family group being kicked off, but thankfully after it had moored at a vaporetti stop.

Even in the late afternoon sunlight, hordes of people still seemed to be arriving at Santa Lucia station, begging the question, how was there enough room for them all in Venice’s already congested streets? Perhaps they all lived there. Perhaps they too were avoiding tourist traps. Or perhaps they too were all just heading the San Marco square or to get laughed at for standing on the green steps near the canal’s edge.

An image showing the crumbling plaster on the outside of Chiesa di San Marcuola in Venice, Italy - an effect of the high tides in the lagoon.
The effects of Acqua Alta on the side of Chiesa di San Marcuola, Venice.

Crossing the lagoon, in the distance, I could see yet more dark clouds on the horizon. The weather forecasts had said the last of the heavy rains that had blighted Italy over recent days hadn't passed by yet, and the intense heat meant that more thunderstorms would be on their way.

By the time I’d chatted to a variety of fellow travellers in the kitchen and agreed to another night of pool with my new line-up of dorm mates, the rain had started to fall. Within an hour, the blackening sky was alive once more with forks of lightning as far as the eye could see, sending the people of Mestre running for cover from all angles.

Venice needs a few things: it needs more respect from tourists, that is clear; it probably needs more respect from tour companies too; it also needs much more time than one day to explore it properly. I enjoyed my almost aimless ambling, but there is so much more that I could have explored and I already felt like this stop was a preamble to a longer return visit in the future.

For me, I had one more stop in Italy, just a little further along the coastline.

Lessons Learned:

  • There is never a good time to visit Venice. It will always be perennially busy with tourists, but try to seek out ways to admire its beauty and support local businesses.

  • It will take a lot longer than a day to truly ever get an understanding of Venice's history and unique way of life.

Please consider checking out Venezia Autentica for ways to support local businesses:

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