Viva Venezia: Rebecca Underwood visits the iconic capital of Veneto
Venice, the capital of Veneto, in Italy’s north eastern district, was founded in the 5th century and is made up of 118 small islands on a lagoon. Isolated by canals and connected by bridges it remains one of the world’s most popular tourism destinations attracting more than twenty million visitors per year. Parts of the city and the lagoon were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1987.
Most visitors begin their explorations at San Marco, the magnificent central square, which Napoleon Bonaparte called ‘the drawing room of Europe’. The atmosphere is lively amid the hustle and bustle of the hoi polloi, the street hawkers jostle for position and the busy cafés serve frothy cappuccinos throughout the day. I headed for the Florian Café, located on the square under the canopy of the arcade. Established in 1720, it is said that many members of Venetian society, including the playwright Carlo Goldoni and the author Giacomo Casanova, who achieved international fame as a scandalous philanderer, were regular patrons. Today, English afternoon tea is served with aplomb on silver trays by sharp dressed waiters and includes a tasty selection of delicate sandwiches, delicious scones oozing with fruity jam and cream, and piping hot pots of tea. And as the diners take in the grandeur of the Neo Baroque surroundings the harmonious strains of classical music, played by the resident orchestra, drift across the café adding to the ambience.
After tea, a leisurely stroll around the square is just the ticket and St Mark’s Basilica, one of Venice’s main attractions, towers above the eastern end. Five Byzantine domes and 24 carat gold leaf and glass mosaics glitter in the sunlight demanding the admiration of those passing by. It is recorded that in 828 the remains of St Mark were smuggled out of Alexandria, Egypt, by two merchants and were presented to Giustiniano Particiaco, the Doge of Venice. St Mark’s Basilica was duly completed in 832, along with St Mark’s Campanile. Soaring 323 feet into the Venetian sky, the bell tower is one of the most recognised symbols of the city. In 976, the church was destroyed during a rebellion when the Doge Pietro IV Candiano was locked inside and the building was set on fire. Rebuilt over the next two years, it was consecrated in 1094, following the rediscovery of the relics of St Mark, which were found secreted in a pillar by the Doge Vitale Faliero. The basilica remained the chapel of the Doges until 1807 when it became the seat of the archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese and Patriarch of Venice. St Mark’s sarcophagus is now housed in the atrium within a golden altar decorated with thousands of sparkling gems including rubies, emeralds and sapphires.
Beside the Basilica and joined by a ceremonial entrance, the ‘Porta della Carta’ leads into the Doge’s Palace, a Gothic architectural masterpiece and a major landmark of the city. The building, erected in 1340, served as the centre of government and the official residence of the Doge of Venice. Today, visitors are at liberty to wander around the courtyards, the Doge’s living quarters, and the grand halls of the institutional chambers, which feature frescoed walls, gold plated ceilings, elaborate murals and magnificent works of art including Tintoretto’s Il Paradiso, which was completed in 1577 and is located in the Sala del Collegio.
For a first rate Venitian luncheon, the Ristorante Al Giardinetto da Severino, located on Sestiere Castello, is only a five minute stroll from St Mark’s Square. The property dates back to the 15th century and has been managed by the same family since 1949. The main dining room, which features a vaulted ceiling, was once a chapel, and there is also a spacious courtyard where diners are seated under a vine covered canopy. I opted for the scrumptious fegato alla veneziana (Venetian style calves liver), and the glass of Solaia 1988 complimented the flavours perfectly.
Another famous landmark is the Bridge of Sighs, connecting the Doge’s Palace with the prison. The graceful Baroque arch features two intricately carved stone grills and it is believed that prisoners on their way to the cells would sigh as they snatched a brief glimpse of the lagoon. Records show that in 1755 Giacomo Casanova was sentenced to five years solitary confinement, without trial, for ‘public outrages against the holy religion’. Following a successful appeal, launched by an influential associate, he was moved to a shared cell and provided with better food, bedding and books. Finding a piece of marble, on his daily exercise walk, he carved it into an implement for digging, and aided by a fellow prisoner, Casanova escaped and fled in a gondola. In 1787 Casanova’s book The Story of My Flight, was published and he described his solitary confinement in ‘the worst of all the cells’.
For those seeking an infinitely more comfortable and luxurious residence, and one which offers exceptional service and a first rate concierge, the elegant Londra Palace, which dates back to 1860, is located on the Riva Degli Schiavoni promenade, a short walk from San Marco. An associate of Relais & Chateaux, this hotel offers spacious accommodation with a selection of suites featuring large windows affording sweeping views across the lagoon and San Marco’s Basin.
I stayed in a stylish junior suite with Biedermeier-style furniture and walls adorned with rich tapestries and brocades, soft carpeting underfoot and an ultra comfortable bed. The marble bathrooms feature a large bath tub and separate shower, dual washbasins, and there is a generous selection of fragrant Ortigia toiletries. The hotel’s fascinating list of past residents includes Tchaikovsky, who was inspired to write the first three movements of his fourth symphony as he gazed across the lagoon to the island of San Giorgio. He named his symphony Do Leoni, in honour of the Lion of San Marco and the hotel’s restaurant bears this name. I sampled the fillet of sea bass in a bread crumb crust with a Sorrento lemon sauce, accompanied by a glass of the delicious Orto Venezia 2011; the only wine produced on the Venetian island of St. Erasmus.
For visitors on a limited budget, the Hotel Gabrielli, which has been in business since 1856 and is also located on the Riva Degli Schiavoni, offers a traditional Venetian experience. Accommodations are spacious and feature Venetian antique furniture with wooden floors and colourful Murano glass chandeliers. The hotel comprises of four inter-connecting houses and there is a roof top terrace, which is the ideal spot for an afternoon tipple. The Restaurant Gabrielli offers a wide choice of dishes and I opted for the succulent mixed grilled fish, served with a chilled glass of Sauvignon (Venito) 2014.
To go further afield, head for the Bistrot de Venise, featured in the 2016 Michelin Guide. Located on Calle dei Fabbri, this restaurant offers historical Venetian cuisine with a contemporary twist, in addition to classic and modern dishes. The historical tasting menu, paired with a fine selection of Italian wines, presents a choice of six courses and includes a tasty almond crusted umbrine in a black grape sauce, served with a yellow garlic and almond pudding, which is divine and based on a 15th century recipe.
After dining, take a gondola or boat ride along the Grand Canal; sail underneath the charming Rialto Bridge and along the meandering narrow waterways. It is a truly enchanting experience and provides the opportunity to fully appreciate the city’s exceptional examples of Gothic and Renaissance architecture.
For those contemplating a romantic weekend getaway, consider the words of Truman Capote, ‘Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go’.
Venice Travel Tip: For a selection of tours or tailor-made boat excursions, Dogaressa Tours operates a fleet of original Venetian boats, including the Bragòzzo, which can accommodate a large group. For more information visit dogaressa.tours.
UK Travel Tip: Monarch operates flights to Venice from Birmingham, London Gatwick and Manchester airports with fares, including taxes, from £49 one way (£95 return). For more information visit monarch.co.uk.
Venice + UK Travel Tip: For a punctual and reliable airport transfer service visit suntransfers.com.
UK Travel Tip: Avoid the stress and the traffic and take the non-stop Gatwick Express from London Victoria and arrive in only 30 minutes. Visit gatwickexpress.com for reservations, ticket prices and more information.
Main image at the top of the article: The Grand Canal: CREDIT Archivio fotografico Regione Veneto Promozione turistica