One of the true highlights on Azura’s maiden season, Venice has so much to offer its visitors. Adrian Mourby takes us on a tour of some of the city’s best-known sights, and introduces us to some of its hidden treasures along the way
Heading west and following the signs marked Per Accademia will take you towards Dorsoduro, the artistic sestiere of Venice. On the way, take a look at the front of San Moisè, one of the most dramatic church façades you’ll ever see
Venice is one of the marvels of the world, a city of palaces, churches and cafés linked by a labyrinth of passageways and canals. It is also one of the great treasure houses of Europe. Even the smallest of churches can prove a repository of paintings and sculpture that would be locked away in a museum in any other city. As one of the most romantic cities the world has ever known, Venice has been drawing visitors for more than a thousand years and its beauty remains undimmed.
On the tourist trail
It may be a very touristy thing to do, but taking a vaporetto down the Grand Canal is an unmissable experience. Venice’s palaces were built to be approached from this broad two-and-a-half mile water-highway and you’ll see them at their best on the bow of one of these waterbuses. Get on at Piazzale Roma or Ferrovia and step off at San Marco to find Venice just as you imagined it.
Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square) is one of the finest public spaces in the world. Get there as early as you can for an unimpeded view of the ducal palace, the basilica, the 323-foot tall campanile and the Torre dell’Orologio, where the hour is chimed by two black statues wielding hammers. Underneath the twin arcades, known as Procuratie Vecchie and Nuove, there are expensive boutiques to browse and even more expensive cafés, most with musicians playing. The best of these is Caffè Florian, which opened in 1720 and is said to have served Mozart, Casanova, Dickens and Lord Byron among others in its time. Sit inside – it’s cheaper and uniquely decorated.
Off the beaten track
Heading west and following the signs marked Per Accademia will take you towards Dorsoduro, the artistic sestiere of Venice. On the way, take a look at the front of San Moisè, one of the most dramatic church façades you’ll ever see. The elaborate carvings were paid for by the wealthy Vincenzo Fini, whose bust appears above the left-hand door. Turn right down Calle delle Veste to reach La Fenice, one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world. In 1996, La Fenice burned down in suspicious circumstances. Restored to its former glory, it reopened in 2004 and some days it’s possible to join a tour of this historic building.
Shop and dine in style
Calle Larga XXII Marzo, which runs between San Moisè and Campo San Maurizio, is lined with some of the best shops in Venice. Try La Coupole for high fashion, Sermoneta for gloves, Venetia Studium for scarves and shawls and Libreria San Giorgio for art books. There are always lots of North African street traders selling bootleg handbags and jewellery here too. Lovers of Italian paper and envelopes should keep on towards Accademia to Calle del Piovan and one of Venice’s three Il Papiro shops. En route you’ll pass the best shop in Venice for glass souvenirs, the tiny FGB. Shopping comes to an end in Campo San Stefano at Fiorella, the most outrageous clothing store in Venice, which uses the city’s doges as unusual mannequins for its trademark velvet coats.
With so much to see in Venice you won’t want to spend too long eating lunch. Do what most Venetians do and duck into a bacaro. These are informal snack bars, a cross between a corner shop and a wine bar. You will recognise them immediately by the sandwiches in the window and the people standing around the counter drinking wine and eating crostini – small toast canapés topped with tuna, Parmesan cheese or Parma ham. Venetians use bacaros to fill up at lunchtime so they can get on with shopping before it’s time to get back to work. The route between San Marco and the Accademia Bridge (Ponte dell’Accademia) has several and you’ll pay far less for lunch than you would in ristorantes.
Over the bridge
Cross the big wooden Accademia Bridge to enter Dorsoduro. As you do so, take another look up and down the Grand Canal with Santa Maria della Salute standing where the canal enters St Mark’s Basin. This must be one of the best views from any bridge in the world. Dorsoduro is one of the oldest parts of Venice. Its western end was settled early on by fishermen. In the 19th century, wealthy bohemians from all over the world moved into the west end around Santa Maria della Salute and St George’s Anglican Church.
One of the most famous incomers was the heiress and art collector Peggy Guggenheim, whose home is now the Guggenheim Museum. She was famous for her splendid glasses, her exotic lifestyle and her collection of modern art (and artists) – she either bought from or married most of the Picasso generation. These pictures are now on display in her house. If you visit one museum during your visit, this is the one to go for.
So much in Venice is world famous that it’s good to visit some lesser-known sights too. Everyone, for instance, knows about the Bridge of Sighs, although that in itself is something of a hidden gem these days, being covered with hoardings for the foreseeable future. On Dorsoduro, skirt round the Accademia (the greatest gallery of Venetian art in the world) and aim for the canal known as Rio di San Trovaso. On the far side of this, you’ll find a church and a gondola workshop.
Chiesa San Trovaso is unusual for having two identical marble façades that face in different directions. The legend runs that, because two feuding Venetian families both attended this church, the Nicolotti would enter by the west façade and the Castellani from the south. Like most Venetian churches, San Trovaso is closed in the afternoon but is free to enter, which is remarkable when you consider that it contains paintings created by two masters of Italian art – Palma il Giovane and Tintoretto.
Outside, across the square, you’ll find a low, tiled workshop: one of the last gondola-building squeros in Venice. The workshop isn’t open to the public but you can peek in through the door and, if you cross back over Rio di San Trovaso, you can witness craftsmen repairing and building these long black boats on the slipway.
A last look
It’s not far from Squero il San Trovaso to Zattere, the quayside you will have sailed past on your arrival in Venice. Walking east along Zattere offers some great views of the island of Giudecca and the white marble domes of its baroque churches. There are plenty of cafés along Zattere where you can sit and watch the ships come and go. There are also some fine churches to visit, particularly Gesuati and the gracious Santa Maria della Salute. A perfect place to end a day in La Serenissima.
This feature was first published in The Portunus Club Magazine and all information was checked at the time of its original publication.
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