Leaving Venice I fought my way against the current of endless tourists, swimming through the claustrophobic lanes like mindless fish, occasionally gawking at shop windows choking the flow helplessly into clogged flotsam like chunks of yellow fat in a dying man’s arteries. The tension, the bad energy of frantic day trippers, pushing down into my soul. This, I now understand, is what so many people who have described Venice to me have described. And I want to be as far away from that tragedy as I can. But arriving only a week before, it was another Venice entirely, the Venice of my dreams, nearly ghostly empty, the lanes and squares all to myself, the full moon overhead and a white blanket of fog settling into the shadows dusting every nook with magic and wander. We arrived a week before the start of Carnival and I couldn’t understand why we seemed to be alone in the ancient city. But then, on Saturday, the hordes arrived at last to usher us to the ferries and remind us what might await if we returned in the summer. Just the briefest of encounters to round out the week. And honestly we wanted a crowd to celebrate Carnival. And it showed up just in time, as we were leaving.
Stepping off the ferry from the airport, I was in love. Giddy with playful exploration. The tiny lanes and canals hauntingly beautiful. I spent the night drinking wine from a bottle I bought at the square and taking pictures until nearly 3am. It was only later that I discovered to my dismay that the city really doesn’t want to be captured. The beauty I fell in love with impossible to render in photos. Though I tried my best.
Venice might be a cliche to many people. A lost cause. A postcard better viewed from afar. But to me it was pure magic. And worth any effort to experience. Maybe I got lucky. But I don’t really care. I loved the city and it enchanted me.
Walking around the city
By far my favorite thing to do in Venice is wander around the city and get lost. If I wanted to get anywhere specific I had my phone in hand, following the blue dot, though the city made it difficult, the dot bouncing around and changing locations sporadically. GPS, though invaluable, is a general suggestion at best. But more fun is to just head out into the maze of city, lead by curiosity into the furthest edges of the island. To me, this was always the best way to spend a day.
Saint Mark’s Square
Ok, so, this is ground zero for tourists in Venice. It’s the post card and the Instagram photo. The one place the cruise ships target. It also happens to be pretty amazing. I came here at night many times, and to my delight I was mostly alone. But even during the day it was pretty bearable on our visit. No lines at the church or the palace. We must have gotten lucky. It was the week before Carnival so the area was busy with construction for the stage and lighting. But with the fog it could have been another world.
A gondola ride on my birthday
I told myself I would never do a gondola ride. It looked so cheesy in the photos. So artificial and contrived. But once we were in the city it seemed quite natural. They have been the city’s taxi service for hundreds of years. And there’s really no better way to experience the canals than actually being in them. My birthday was on the 12th so Katy gifted me a ride and we had an excellent time tooling around with our Gondolier. I say don’t be afraid to give it go. Though it can be a bit pricey. If you walk around a bit you can often find a bored Gondolier offering discounts at bridges in the inner canals.
So what do people in Venice eat, anyway?
Venice has a reputation for crap food at high prices. And surely there was plenty of that. But with a minimum of research you can find great food across the city at reasonable prices. (or at least prices the locals are willing to pay).
If you start looking at places that actual locals eat at, you’ll notice that most of them are bacaro, local wine bars, serving a style of food called cicchetti, which is similar to a Spanish tapas or pintxo and enjoyed the same way. These bars generally have a glass case with the day’s offerings, typically a topping on a slice of bread, small tarts, prepared meat, or larger trays of meatballs or octopus that you get a small portion of. Grab a seat at the bar, a glass of wine, order a couple bites getting what’s particularly good there, then move on to the next bar, or simply grab four bites and make it a light dinner. We had some of our best food this way and the dishes are surprisingly well prepared for small bars.
We got lucky with this place. We found it a bit in a hungry hurry looking for cheap eats and it wildly surpassed our expectations. Our first experience with cicchetti. I got two toasts, a tart, and a serving of meatballs and Katy got both a serving of the octopus in red sauce and the squid. The food, the wine, and the service were excellent and we had a wonderful time. It’s small but worth checking out.
Osteria Ruga di Jaffa
Later that night we tried a place that was recommended from a locals food website. It was getting a good buzz so we made reservations. This place had a great selection of cicchetti with a selection of main dishes as well so it seemed like a good place to try it all. The atmosphere was casual but funky and it was indeed packed with locals and our server was quite the character as well. We hadn’t planned on it but he talked us into trying these enormous local oysters that he had supposedly driven two hours to procure earlier. The vendor attaches them to ropes (you can see the white dots where they were attached) and raises and lowers them in intervals matched to the tides which encourages them to grow very large. He assured us they were 3-5 times the size of any wimpy french oysters.
Next we had the cicchetti sampler which came with 12 different types and even a couple like the veal spleen that I couldn’t get Katy to try. When he said the veal spleen and veal nerve were the most popular local snacks I was a bit incredulous but on the way out I checked and two of the four main snacks at the bar were indeed them.
For our main we got the seafood risotto for two and I topped the meal off with my first Italian tiramisu with a shot of espresso. An excellent meal.
Un Mondo Divino
For lunch the next day we chose another locals recommendation which turned out to be another cicchetti bar. The dishes here were less visually fancy than the other bars we had gone to but good all the same. The atmosphere was like a comfortable dive bar and the wine was quite good. I would go back.
For my birthday dinner I wanted something a bit nicer than bar food so I booked a table at a recommendation for some of the best food in Venice. Decidedly more upscale but not uncomfortable. White table clothes but not stuffy.
I chose the corned veal tongue for my appetizer and got the pork belly for my main while Katy went for the sardines with peanut butter first and the duck breast with kumquats for her main. We had both gorged on chocolate mousse birthday cake earlier in the day so we decided to pass on the dessert.
Ristorante Santa Maria Formosa
Our first night we were frazzled and hungry and picked the first place we found in a square near our apartment. A little pricey as it was in the tourist sphere but the food was quite good. I had a tagliatelle with truffle dish and some fresh burrata in a pumpkin cream.
I Rusteghi Osteria Enoteca
Katy found this well hidden bar not that far from the Rialto Bridge. A romantic spot to get a drink. The Trip Adviser reviews are all pretty horrible. Apparently the owner is quite abrasive and has a tendency to overcharge tourists for just ok food. So maybe only go in for a nightcap. We didn’t have any trouble. We were mostly ignored but that’s how we like it. Notice the anti-tripadvisor sign on the door.
We hadn’t specifically planned on being in Venice for Carnival, it just worked out that way. But once we realized the proximity we made sure to extend our room to catch the start. Which actually turned out perfect since most people were timing their arrival to start the weekend we would be departing, leaving the city quite empty for the week.
If you’re unfamiliar, Carnival is Venice’s pre-Lent celebration culminating in a fat Tuesday celebration like Mardi Gras. Except here the tradition is to dress up in period clothing and wear elaborate traditional carnival masks. It’s more formal looking than say Cologne’s Carnival which is wacky and clown oriented or New Orlean’s Mardi Gras which is just a drunken party with any costume you want.
The festival started in 1162 and gained fame for it’s pleasure seeking. Though it was banned in 1797 by the Holy Roman Emperor and later Emperor of Austria, Francis II. It wasn’t until 1979 that the Carnival was officially reinstated by the city and now draws 3 million visitors a year.
Carnival masks have a long history in Venice, historically being regulated by your class, profession, or guild or being mandated to be worn during events where public voting required anonymity. You’ll see carnival masks in just about every tourist shop. We couldn’t bring ours along so we left them in our AirBnB as gifted decorations.
Sunset over the Rialto Bridge
The Rialto Bridge is another one of the tourist tropes I envisioned myself avoiding at all costs. And indeed it was the most congested place we experienced outside of St. Mark’s Square. But we arrived just at sunset and the views of the Grand Canal from the bridge are really stunning and worth the extra congestion to take a peek.
It’s the oldest bridge in Venice and has been rebuilt many times. The current version was built in 1588 in stone. Previous versions were wooden and had collapsed at least twice before the stone version was built. The original bridge built in 1181 was a pontoon crossing. The shops on the bridge were a feature of the original wooden bridges whose rent was used for the upkeep of the bridge.