[dropcap]V[/dropcap]enice could be described by anyone experiencing it as a fantasy land. It is a fantasy land not just of merriment for it possesses a foreboding side too… but this is what makes the city all the more captivating. From its grim industrial hinterland it is near impossible to think what beauty lies across a skeletal causeway, yet the turmoil of excitement and impetuosity at the road’s end hints of impending awe. This momentary whirlpool of chaos is worthwhile enduring, for as it finally relinquishes you from its flurry, you are cast into a surreal, cerebral realm.
The seemingly endless bridges gymnastically arch to allow millions of feet to gain access to Venice’s floating maze built on 118 islands of impossibly narrow alleyways, jaw-droppingly beautiful buildings and many humming piazze. The boundary of this place is marked by building façades that teeter on the edge of capricious waters, and as you venture into this labyrinthine environment the continuity of alleyways, bridges and perilously perched buildings becomes a common theme.
“On this journey you’ll feel at times like a sardine in a can, squeezing through multi-cultural segments of humanity, yet a well-selected turn will provide dramatic solitude.”
The window-fronts increase in spectacle with each progressive step to the city’s heart: leathers of all hues are displayed crafted into bags, purses and gloves, and garments of snowballing quality, style and price are proudly exhibited. With each acute turn and canal hop, the Venetian regalia becomes more overt: glittering, ostentatious masks adorn every inch of the compact stores and occasionally conceal a personality, while intricate craftsmanship is seen in the kaleidoscopic glassware of Murano. On this journey you’ll feel at times like a sardine in a can, squeezing through multi-cultural segments of humanity, yet a well-selected turn will provide dramatic solitude. This environment attracts gypsy culture, so you will hear the clattering of coin-filled cups and well-versed melancholic pleading in among the camera clicks and symphony of linguistics.
Bars, cafes and restaurants can be sorely obvious, flouting ‘tourist menus’ for worryingly cheap prices but the best are understated. Hotels vary accordingly from the most exquisite 5-stars to more unassuming dorms. Having visited the magical Venice a number of times now, I would like to share some of our favourite places to eat, drink and stay.
Mangiare – to eat
Osteria Enoteca San Marco
Located in the centre of Venice on Calle Frezzeria, Osteria San Marco is a wine-lovers haven. Although it is located right on Venice’s pedestrian highway, it is never overburdened with less likeable tourist types. It’s a genuinely popular local hangout and is not without its gastronomically driven visitors, providing for an interesting mix of clientele.
A modest façade belies its charming interior, while the menu prices displayed on the frontage are presumably enough to dissuade the hoards. By all means it’s not terribly expensive, with antipasti ranging around the €15.00 mark, primi piatti at €15 – €21.00, and main courses / secondi at €24.00 – €35.00, but it is relative exuberance compared to the self-service restaurant in ten footsteps proximity.
The menu provides an interesting array of classic Venetian dishes – as one would expect, lots of seafood features – from polpi (octopus), calamari (squid), capesante (scallops), and branzino (sea bass), dishes are paired with delicious well-thought out flavours. For meat eaters there is also plenty on offer – the coniglio (rabbit) with bulgur and chickpeas is a particularly good dish.
Pasta is a must, with dishes such as tagliatelle with pomodori and ragu, tagliolini with squid ink and zucchini, and ravioli with ricotta, basil and pomodori all meriting consideration. Overall the food is not particularly fussy, in fact there is a certain homeliness to it along with a distinctive fineness to the ingredients. The flavours are never superfluous.
An extensive wine list features a range of wines from all over Italy, as well as some international offerings. There is vintage Champagne, Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and France, and as you would expect the majority is made up of good Italian producers. We enjoyed a 2011 Isole e Olena Collezione De Marchi Chardonnay which could have passed as a well-made New World Chardonnay. Subtle French oak and malo characters give this wine interest, within an overall fresh, fruit-driven style.
Calle Frezzeria, 30124 Venezia, Italy
+39 041 528 5242
Osteria da Fiore
Touted as one of the classical best in Venice, this fine-dining restaurant exudes authenticity. A broad and exciting Old World wine list is one of the markers that this is a dining establishment serious about creating memorable gastronomic experiences for its patrons.
Da Fiore is reminiscent of the delectably fine interior of a Venetian boat with its exhibition of polished brass, curvaceous timber ceiling and panelled walls. In its past it was an old tavern, though a very upmarket one at that – the shiny marble floors are a telling testament to this.
As with any great Italian restaurant that cares about food and wine, you expect family to be at the heart. And so it is with the Martin family, who hail from Mirano, just a few kilometres away from Venice itself. Mara learned her cooking prowess from her grandmother who was a renowned chef in her home town, while Maurizio creates the incredibly professional but friendly ambience in front of house. Their son Damiano completes the picture literally, with his gift of artistry which adorns the restaurant’s walls.
The innovation of cuisine is such that the Michelin Guide deemed the restaurant worthy of a covetable star – dishes have strong traditional ties that boast clever modern twists, ultimately requiring a talented chef’s hands and mind behind them. There is of course the option of tasting menus (6 courses €120 / 7 courses €140) which are great value and highly recommended if you like to be guided through a journey of flavour by Mara herself, while the a la carte menu has an alluring array of options to delight the taste buds.
Appetisers such as spider crab with coral sauce and whipped Venetian codfish lead on to first courses of tagliolini gratin with red chicory and shrimps, or Venetian black squid risotto. Second courses consist of dishes like wild seabass steamed with balsamic vinaigrette and apples (a star-performing dish), or for the carnivores pan-fried lamb chops with aromatic herbs. Because it’s Venice, expect a heavily seafood dominant menu and few meat dishes. Italy is a very provincial country after all so the regional influences are seen in every facet of life.
Although it’s not a cheap night out, you’ll leave Da Fiore feeling replete and amazed. It’s the little things, like the departing edible treat and calendar memento that cap off a seriously enjoyable experience in arguably the best restaurant in Venice. For me, one of the highlights (vinous of course) was the Felsina Vin Santo Chianti Classico 1999 – it was impeccably balanced, still full of life but with rancio characters that would make grown men cry. It was one of those unforgettable wines that will go down in the permanent mental archives.
Calle del Scaleter, 2202/a, 30125 Venezia, Italy
+39 041 721308
Dormire – to sleep
Bauer’s Il Palazzo
The Bauer’s il Palazzo hotel is something else. This luxury hotel, although in a salient location near San Marco square, goes largely unnoticed by the hoard of visitors drifting in and out of the alleyways of central Venice, mimicking the tidal waterways of the city. There are in fact two hotels in one here – Bauer L’Hotel, the official five-star hotel which is art deco in style with a contemporary look and feel, facing the San Moise square, and the Bauer il Palazzo, on the waterfront, which has kept its 18th century identity.
The beauty about the two hotels in one is you can use either entrance and as they share a reception area – the most convenient is the L’Hotel classic revolving doors off the piazza. The lobby is decked with marble, modern and daring sculptures and as you progress towards the il Palazzo quarters this transforms into antique furniture and Chinese tapestries. It’s a wondrous eyeful. The hotel staff are all pleasant, multi-lingual and consummate professionals when it comes to the check-in process, even managing to crack a tasteful joke or two. If you’ve chosen the more boutique il Palazzo, you will be escorted to one of the 38 rooms or 34 suites located at the Grand Canal end of the building, up an elevator with no doubt a few stories to tell.
The rooms are beautiful. No expense is spared on furnishings and they are practical (often a rarity in Italy!). However as one would expect due to establishments with such age, power points are in short-supply considering most of today’s traveller’s needs.
The hotel is well equipped for gastronomy with a ground floor bar that’s brimming with ingredients to cater for your every pre and post-dinner fantasy, a polished restaurant (De Pisis) serving the classics with hint of Asian influence and a view of the famous Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute in the distance, and a rooftop terrace where breakfast is served in the morning. The 7th floor terrace, Settimo Cielo, created in the 1930s is still the highest terrace in Venice today. Gazing out over rooftops and silhouettes of buildings that will make you marvel, breakfast really is a meal with a view making it difficult to believe you’re in the waking hours. The lagoon boldly cuts through the urban landscape below, skirting around some important landmarks as you sip on espressi, nibble freshly baked brioche and devour a plate of scrambled eggs and thirst-creating pancetta.
You won’t really want to leave your luxurious oasis within an oasis, but the high-street stores and some iconic must-sees are literally at the doorstep.S. MARCO 1459, VENEZIA, ITALY,
+39 041 5207022
If you’ve watched Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie gambol through Venice’s streets and palatial interiors you’ll feel on set at Hotel Danieli. This Luxury Collection late 14th century hotel set the scene for much of the film ‘The Tourist’, perfect for its grandiose staircases, high vaulted ceilings and opulent furnishings. Opulence in fact is the perfect word to describe this hotel, it reeks of history, oozing class, glass and tapestries.
Like the Bauer, the Danieli has a breathtaking panoramic rooftop restaurant, Terrazza Danieli, which offers typical Venetian cuisine as well as more modern Mediterranean fare. This is also where breakfast is served – guests can gaze out over the Venetian lagoon and watch the seemingly impossible navigation of cruise ships down this busy waterway.
There is a (very) small gym consisting of two Technogym treadmills, two seated exercycles, and a cross-trainer along with light free weights – in other words, you’re limited to cardio here. But, you’re in Venice (hotel’s don’t prioritise gyms), and there is plenty of walking to be had to view the many inspiring sights. The location is excellent, being just a short stroll to San Marco square.
The only cringe factor for me was the ‘live’ pianist in the lobby bar, whose electronic grand piano was bashing out pre-recorded tunes for the pianist (admittedly now more a vocalist) to keep in harmony with, in English. A little too kitsch for my liking.
Ultimately the Danieli is a 221-room manifestation of Venetian luxury that makes you want to wrap yourself up in its lavishness.Riva degli Schiavoni 4196 · 30122 Venice, Italy
+39 041 5226480
- Peak vs. Shoulder Seasons: Just one word of caution to you all thinking of venturing to this phenomenal city. Every time I have visited Venice, it’s been in the off-season – either January/February (cold and wet!), or September/October. I highly recommend visiting in the shoulder seasons as it enables you to experience this magical place without suffering the maddening crowds in the attendant heat, with the all-too-obvious downsides that overcrowding causes. Conversely, some restaurants and shops shut up completely in the off-season, so it would pay to check with any places you’re dead keen on seeing before booking the less-crowded route.
- Water Taxi vs Water Bus: And it goes without saying – if there is a group of four or more of you, or you are feeling flush, arrive and depart in style by the exquisite Venetian water taxi. It costs around €100.00 (excluding tip) for a one way trip from the airport into your selected hotel and you’ll always be taken the scenic route. Being delivered to the door is a huge bonus – there are lots of bridges and steps to navigate and with luggage (and if it decides to rain) whilst trying to find your hotel will guarantee your holiday gets off to a ruinous start. What can be more of a mood buster is the cursed Vaporetto, or water bus. I’m sure the drivers are there to make your life as difficult as possible, and the time it takes to get to your actual destination (allow 1.5 hours), eats into your valuable exploration and relaxation time.
- Pack lightly: I’d say this to any traveler traveling anywhere, but it applies more so in Venice for the above reasons – you don’t want to be lugging around kilos upon kilos of luggage through these gorgeous, but wearying streets.