Venice is the ultimate romantic dreamland. Built out of nearly 100 natural islands by mainlanders escaping the marauding barbarians after the fall of Rome, for centuries this surreal floating city was nicknamed La Serenissima, “The Most Serenely Beautiful One”. A labyrinth of sparkling canals, more than any other European city Venice has an endlessly seductive charm. It is actually a small town of about 58,000 people, creating a sense of intimacy, yet it entertains nearly 22 million visitors a year. Having become enchanted during our engagement three years earlier, we decided it was the perfect place to celebrate our second anniversary, inviting along a couple of friends who happened to be in town for the weekend to share in the festivities.
Hotels in Venice are pricey, even for the most dreary and basic accommodation, so we decided to spend our late Friday night arrival near the airport in a simple but clean guesthouse before luxuriating in a memorable gold and red suite on a Venice canal for two glorious nights. On Saturday morning we took the number 5 bus from the airport to Piazzale Roma, where we hopped on the Venice public-transit system, a fleet of motorized bus-boats called vaporetti, to the bustling St. Mark’s Square, already alive with music, street performers, and masses of tourists. We had booked a room at the Alloggi Locanda Orseolo, a classicly romantic B&B located down a small alleyway off the main square sitting directly on the canal. After a few wrong turns we finally entered an ancient building that immediately evoked a sense of grandeur. The ceilings were supported by large carved wooden beams and an ornate Venetian rug decorated the floor. Beside the check-in desk was a large square window only inches above the canal that doubled as a door for private gondola passenger pick-up and drop-off and deliveries to the staff by motorboat.
Despite the early arrival, we were quickly shown to our room, which, unbeknownst to us, the staff had upgraded for our anniversary to a room with a window right over the canal. Each room was represented by a character from the Carnival festival (a yearly Venetion highlight). Ours, Gianduia Maschera, was proudly displayed in a mural on the wall, seducing a woman with his charm. The mural blended into the classic decor of the room, with tall wooden paneling and red walls, large mirrors at the head of the bed, an armoire in the corner, a desk shaped like a dressing table with curvey knees, a round cushioned chair, and a Murano glass chandolier above our heads. Opening our window, we realized that the last stop for the gondola rides, the spot where the gondoliers serenade their guests goodbye, happened to be directly below us. Over the next 15 minutes ballads poured in from outside, echoing off the stone buildings and water, showering us with welcoming notes. We dropped our luggage and followed the siren songs outside.
Our first stop was a gelato shop just outside the hotel, beckoning to us with mounds of chocolate gelato in shades of brown as rich as Mississippi delta mud. Continuing through the narrow alleys tracing the canals, we soon joined the locals congregating outside a series of Bacari, traditional Venetian bars specializing in hors-d’oeuvre-size snacks called cicchetti. The alleys behind the Rialto Market are packed with these local hot spots and we ducked inside a popular one to order an ombra, a tiny goblet of wine, and a variety of small plates of fish-based snacks, like pesce-crudo-topped toasts, settling down at a table in the sun to enjoy them.
Satiated and eager to escape the crowds on the main shopping streets between the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square, we decided to wander. In Venice you generally won’t find street names but the beauty of being on an island is that there is little worry of ever really getting lost. And wandering in Venice is an experience unto itself. The echos of the hard-soled shoes on stone walkways marking the adventure like a metronome, each time we rounded a corner we were greeted with stunning architecture draped in colorful laundry, picturesque boat-filled canals, and the song of gondoliers, lending to the ever-pervasive ambiance of charm and romance.
Our feet weary, we returned to the hotel later that afternoon to find a bottle of champagne, icing in a bucket on a platter decorated with candies, sitting atop our dresser. Touched by this generous gesture and ready to relax by the open window, we slipped into our robes and toasted to the past two years.
We had dinner reservations at Rick Steve’s favorite restaurant on the island, the tiny and somewhat hidden Osteria alle Testiere, renound as the most romantic restaurant in Venice and reputed to have fantastic seafood. We were seated at one of six tables in a cozy dining area. Our glasses were soon filled with wine, and copious amounts of fish were ordered, that came out on large platters to pass around the table. The food was fresh and tasty, but not amazing. However, the love the owners put into their cooking was obvious. One fine demonstration was the recommendation of the pistachio cake on the dessert menu because, they explained, it wouldn’t be back on the menu for another couple of years, when the local pistachio trees again have a good enough harvest for them to pick and grind into flour for the cake. So, as usual after meals in Italy, we left shaking our heads in amazement.
The next morning began with a delicious breakfast of crepes and strong Italian coffee, and a trip to the iconic Doge’s Palace, the center of government during the Venetian Republic and also the residence of the Doge. Rebuilt after several fires, today’s Gothic palace was constructed in the 14th the 15th century. Patterned pink Verona marble gives the surface a soft appearance of lacy fabric with a delicate trim of merlons and spires, its enormous weight supported on wooden piles driven into the floor of the lagoon – a metaphor for the city itself. At the end of the façade is one of the most famous Venetian landmarks, the Ponte dei Sospiri (the Bridge of Sighs). This bridge connects the Doge’s Palace to the prison and marks the site where prisoners caught their last glimpse of Venice on their way to the judges for sentencing.
It’s easy to lose yourself for a morning exploring the ins and outs of the palace. As we peered out the window on our way to the exit, the skies opened and we watched the bridges slowly clog with a rainbow of umbrellas. Just across the square, we took refuge in our hotel room, gleefully watching from above as gondola chaos ensued, a mass of gondoliers paddling desperately from bridge to bridge to shelter their dripping customers.
The clouds had vanished by afternoon, and under the clear sky we took a vaporetti to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute for a view of the island from the entrance of the grand canal. Having seen many of the popular Venice sites, like Murano and its glass, on a previous visit, we felt free to roam aimlessly, and spent the rest of the day slowly weaving our way through the constantly changing narrow corridors running between the colorful neighborhoods along the edge of the island to the Rialto Bridge, admiring the myriad boutiques and beautiful buildings and marveling at how many new sights seemed to be revealed each time we walked down the same alley, even when tracing a familiar route. One highlight that never gets old is the secret 2 euro gondola ride across the Grand Canal and back again; like Washington crossing the Delaware, we felt like victors for having managed a gondola ride without paying 100 euro for it.
On Saturday evening we set out for Anice Stellato, a rustic osteria set on a canal in the fascinating Jewish ghetto, the area of Venice where Jews were compelled to live under the Venetian Republic. The English word “ghetto” is actually derived from the Jewish ghetto in Venice (incidentally the first ghetto), and today, the Ghetto is still a center of Jewish life in the city. From our hotel it was a beautiful 45 minute stroll along the arc of the Grand Canal, arriving just as the sun was sinking over the water. We were invited to a small table in the back of the candlelit restaurant, giving the impression of a private dining experience. Ordering proved difficult with so many tempting flavors on the menu. To help us think, the waiter brought out a bottle of wine with a picture of a cartoon cat on the label, which, he explained, was because he had visited the winemaker and she was a crazy cat lady. Eventually we settled on a starter of the frittura mista, a salty, crunchy tangle of fried squid, whole shrimp, small fish and vegetables that could have been a meal in itself. This was followed by a couple rounds of appetizers and pastas which we shared, laughing and telling stories, until 4 hours had passed without us even noticing, and the restaurant was ready to close its doors.
Our final day began with a tour of the magnificent St. Mark’s Cathedral, dominating one end of St. Mark’s Square. In 828, Venetian merchants smuggled the bones of Saint Mark from their original resting place in Alexandria, Egypt. The story goes that the Venetians hid the relics in a barrel under layers of pork to get them past Muslim guards, an adventure depicted in the 13th-century mosaic above the door to the left of the front entrance. The relics were initially housed in a temporary chapel until a more substantial church was built to shelter them, but this was burned down and the modern basilica, which incorporates the earlier buildings, was completed around 1071.
Inside, it is almost impossible not to immediately look up: spectacular gold leaf mosaics cover most of the ceiling, interwoven with stories of the Virgin and Saints, and most importantly, St. Mark. The gold background is meant for effect, but is also meant to symbolize the light of God himself. The intricate floor is a beautiful mixture of mosaic and inlaid marble in geometric patterns and animal designs.
The altarpiece is the famous Pala d’Oro (Golden Pall), a dazzling panel of gold embedded with gems. Napoleon stole some of the precious stones in 1797, but there are still plenty left, impressively shining behind protective glass. The famous Horses of Saint Mark are another treasure on display. Four life-sized bronze horse sculptures, they were looted from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade and sent to Venice in 1204.
Re-emerging into the square, grey thunder clouds were again beginning to roll in. Hoping to beat the rain, we hopped on a vaporetto bound for San Giorgio Maggiore, an island just east of Giudecca, for our last few hours in Venice. Here, we climbed the bell tower of the 16th-century Benedictine church for a priceless panorama across the lagoon, the Lido, and the more than 100 islands interconnected by canals big and small that make up this captivating city, calling us back again to continue our explorations.