If you’re considering Venice as your next destination, you’ll have done your research and know exactly what you want to see and what to expect, so I’ll not be giving you a Venice ‘to-do list’ as such. Instead, I’ll encourage you to people watch instead. Step away from the well-trodden tourist path and see where the locals live.
While walking along the cobbled back streets of Venice, which are encased with tall ancient dwellings on either side – the first thing you’ll notice, next to the sounds of lapping water, is the silence, and the eerie echo of your lone footsteps. The seductive aromas of freshly ground coffee and crusty bread will lead you to cafés overflowing with local old-timers. Some are in animated discussions about football or spinning yarns of yester-year, while others sit motionless, reading a newspaper, occasionally taking a sip of the strong black coffee they seem to favor in these parts.
All the buildings date back centuries – many before America were discovered!
I passed a row of uniform triple-story stone cottages; the archway in the center was inscribed with a ‘built’ date of 1462. Directly beneath a neighboring archway I observed an elderly gentleman stooped over a freshly dug mound of earth – he was poking at it with his walking stick. Numerous clucking hens were at his feet, scratching at the soil, ferreting for worms and grubs. One let out a whooping squawk and attacked something only she could see in the dirt. This caused the other hens to rush across in excited anticipation.
Beyond them was an entrance to an immense cobbled courtyard with a bronze four-tier fountain in the center. The quiet within allowed the light trickle of water to resound off the high walls. Stained glass windows, depicting biblical scenes, overlooked the quadrangle on three sides.
The entrance door to his house stood open. I stopped mid-stride to take it all in. An immense Murano crystal chandelier, Venetian antique furniture you’d only find at an exclusive auction house, tapestries on the walls, and a huge staircase leading to the floor above. ‘This is how the other half lives’, I thought to myself.
The old man turned and shuffled back through the entrance, shoo sho’ing his stick at the hens, who immediately darted into the courtyard. He pushed the wobbly courtyard gate shut, encasing himself in the secret world of immense wealth that lay beyond.
Permitting myself just one touristy indulgence, I head to Harry’s Bar
I took a water bus (vaporetto) down the Grand Canal to Vallaresso, near St Mark’s Square. My ears were bombarded with different languages emanating from the boards of tourists. I stepped off the pier into the nearest doorway, Harry’s Bar (www.cipriani.com/it/harrys-bar), and was somewhat taken aback when I saw Ernest Hemingway’s double-ganger folded into a chair which was far too small to accommodate his ample frame.
He grabbed a small cup of something and thrust it deep into his beard. Evidently, it found his mouth. Soon he was calling for further service and gesticulated wildly at an aged, drooping concierge, who hurriedly shuffled across.
Both waited on the Italian beauty sitting beside ‘Hemingway’ (who was skilfully sculpted to look several decades his junior) to finish the animated conversation she was having with her phone. After dramatically snapping her phone shut, the concierge addressed her by her title – ‘Contessa’, enquiring if she’d consider another drink. It felt as if I’d stepped into another decade and believed Hercule Poirot would, at any moment, step into this small art deco bar.
Harry’s Bar is known the world over as having been frequented by wealth and fame, such as Ari Onasis, Orson Welles, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and may go some way to explaining the exorbitant price for little more than a shot glass of their famed Bellini (sparkling wine and peach juice).
After you’ve visited the obligatory touristy places (get there early to avoid queues), return to Venice at night as hardly anyone is around, other than a few locals. The ancient city takes on a different persona in the dark and will blow your mind!
Time your trip
- Spend some quality time with your travel advisor;
- Also, Venice is flooded with holidaymakers during the summer, and the magnitude of tourists could become disconcerting.
- Begin your sightseeing very early to avoid the tourist rush, or book your vacation October/November, when the seasons change.
Fantastic, not too far off budget: I treated myself to a night at the Hilton Molino Stucky (www.molinostuckyhilton.com), a repurposed flour mill turned 5* hotel, hunched on the banks of Giudecca Island. The birds-eye view across the main canal to Venice’s historic center is like nothing else!