August Bank Holiday weekend saw the boy whisk me off to Venice for a belated birthday surprise! Arriving close to midnight, we stayed in the San Sebastiano Garden Hotel; a little out of the centre, but easy walking distance to the action.
Like most trips, I like to research the destination as much as I can, and create a little map with timings and things to do at each location. Very geeky, I know, but it means that if time and/or funds are not on your side, you can still let the place get under your skin, just about.
The first day saw us sticking to Venice Island (though it’s worth noting that it’s not just Venice island that makes up ‘Venice’ as an area, but the whole ‘Venetian Lagoon’; which includes Lido, Murano, Burano and Torcello islands among others, as well as some of the mainland too).
The islands are spread out throughout the Lagoon and are packed with history, but it’s Venice itself that carries most of the famous tourist attractions; Basillica di San Marco, Palais di Doge, Basillica di Santa Maria della Salute, Dorsoduro district, with buildings dating back 1,000 years, Campo de l’Arsenal to name a few, finely blended with some ludicrously expensive restaurants, reasonably priced bars, amazing chocolate shops, and the world’s oldest casino!
We took the Saturday at a leisurely pace – I’d factored in ample ‘getting lost’ time, and get lost is exactly what we did, (as we had done the night before) down little side streets leading to the water’s edge, taking bridges, past lone market stalls over idyllic little canal ways, only to come back over the same bridge, in the opposite direction two minutes later!
Situated on many corner in Venice are the most beautiful Byzantine churches – of varying sizes and varying ages, each with their own bell tower, and all at varying different stages of ‘lean’. It was alarming to start with, noticing that many of these towers are extremely wonky, enough to contend with the Leaning Tower of Pisa! But when you consider that Italy is on a fault-line – the recent devastating earthquakes in Perugia being painful testament to that – and the fact that Venice is built on small sinking islands in the sea*, it’s pretty remarkable that its buildings – some of which are over 1,000 years old – are still standing today!
*Sinking due to a combination of land subsidence and rising sea levels, according to Luigi Tosi of Italy’s National Research Centre
Our first stop was the Chiesa Dei San Sebastiano, a beautiful 16th century white Roman Catholic church, situated in the Dorsoduro district, right outside our hotel! But on attempting to enter we were met by a nun in full habit who was cleaning and preparing for the day’s service. We respected her request to leave and instead admired the church from the outside. Known as a ‘votive church’, it is one of only five in Venice, each of which was built after a plague passed through the city.
After getting lost, and then lost again, we found ourselves outside the Chiesa Dei San Barbara, originally built as a church in the 9th century, it later burned down in the 1100’s and was rebuilt in the 1300’s. The building sitting here today was built in the 1700’s and it is currently hosting a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition, thus no longer used for church services, we then moved on to the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari which we could venture into, despite the fact there was a wedding in progress. We were somewhat alarmed at this as we didn’t even know the service was going on due to the fact the church was still open with a paid entrance. On asking the staff if this was common practice, we were told that there are different price tiers to hire out the whole church for your service, or only part of it.
After this stop we then made our way north, and after a few false starts (and going round in a circle) we finally made it to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Chiesa Dei San Rocco – two impressive buildings, sitting side by side, reflecting eachother in style and grandeur, each with a very interesting story to tell. Chiesa Dei San Rocco is another one of those churches dedicated a plague, built between 1489 and 1508, it was dedicated to Saint Roch, whose relics rest in the church and was declared the patron saint of the city in 1576. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco, sitting proudly alongside has an equally plaguey history; founded in the 15th century by an association of rich Venetians, as a voluntary association to assist and protect the city during a plague that had struck in that century. Well cleared of any plagued elements now, it is home to a vast collection of Tintoretto paintings and is well worth a visit.
It’s pretty easy to spend a day or two just hunting out all these beautiful old churches just on Venice island, therefor this post has by no means an extensive list. As our hunger pangs and the need to stay cool began to take over, we sniffed out a couple of chocolate shops and settled in for the siesta period as we people-watched the crazy heat mad tourists throng through the hot Venetian streets.
Cooling Down With Chocolate:
Our first stop for the cool-down was Viziovirtu Cioccolateria on Calle Forneri. We couldn’t have asked for a better siesta stop, and introduction to Venetian chocolate! The shop was run by the delightful Laura who excitedly talked us through pretty much everything in the store. The best two were hands down the chilled dark chocolate drink (their summer version of their classic and famous hot chocolate drink), and their dark chocolate gellatto icecream. We saved the icecream till last, preferring to make our way through the multitude of flavours on offer in their chocolate truffle and praline range – with raspberry and rose truffles being by far the most exiting. They even had their own delicious version of peanut butter, and Nutella too, including a pistachio Nutella which was delicious! You can find a full review of the drinking chocolate here. For the full review on the coutures and truffles, please visit the Filled Chocolates page of the Reviews section. *Reviews of the coutures is coming soon, watch this space.
After our fill at Viziovirtu, and now the air was cooler, we ventured back out and onto another chocolate shop before we got back to the historical stuff.
Next up on the mapo del choco was Cioccogelateria Venchi, a short toddle from Vizo Virtu and very close to St Mark’s Square. One of Italy’s oldest chocolate establishments, the place is vast with a varied selection to choose from. We went for the cherry kirsch bonbon and the coffee couture chocolate – both strong on their flavours, with a pleasing aftertaste, but we were still reeling from the flavour adventure of Vizo Virtu. Regardless, I would highly recommend visiting both of these chocolate shops if you are planning a trip to Venice and you are, like me, a chocolate fan! Either way, you won’t be disapointed.
Now suitably full of chocolate, we were now refuelled and ready to tackle the Doges’ Palace and St Mark’s Campanile of the main square. We were saving St Mark’s Basilica for another day as the queue, in the sun, was just TOO long – you really need to do that very VERY first thing in the morning, and download the queue jump ticket for €2 – it’s really worth it!
Sights from a Height:
The line for St Mark’s Campanile is much much more manageable, only taking about 7 minutes. A lift takes you up to the top, so there’s minimum walking for the less able. You’re faced with amazing views at the top – a nice 360 view of Venice, from the San Giorgio Maggiore over to a great birds eye of St Mark’s Square (or Piazza San Marco if you prefer). Trundling back down again we make our way over to the Doge’s Palace / Palais de Doge to keep out of the sun, and immerse ourselves in more history.
A Political Interlude:
Formerly the official residence of the Doge of Venice, this masterpiece of Gothic architecture was also the seat for Venetian Government and is the very symbol of Venice.
Established in 1340, it was turned into a museum in 1923. The building as we see it now was extended in 1424 due to a change in government resulting in a drastic increase in the number of the Great Council’s Members. In 1483 a great fire broke out on the canal facing side of the palace, where the Doge’s apartments were. Antonio Rizzo was commissioned to carry out the repairs, introducing new Renaissance architecture to the building. Sadly the building fell victim to another fire in 1547, destroying much of the second floor rooms, but luckily not causing too much damage to the structure of the building itself. Refurbishment works took on a more Gothic approach, in keeping with much of the original style of the building, despite attempts by Andrea Palladio to influence a more Renaissance theme again. The palace then housed various political institutions of the Republic of Venice until the city fell under Napoleonic rule in 1797. The city was then fought over between French and Austrian rule until finally in 1866 it became part of Italy again. The ceilings are adorned with true masterpieces that would have taken months to complete, and the main hall shows all the 36 Doges of centuries past – too many to fit in a panoramic spin of the camera!
You’ll notice there is one Doge portrait that just features a black cloak – something akin to Harry Potter, you imagine the subject has just dashed off for a moment, leaving his cloak, and will soon be back – but no, although this individual still has his portrait space in history, he offended the entire Venetian government by attempting to set up a conspiracy with other noblemen from the city, and create a dictatorship under his power. His name was Marino Falier, and his plot was foiled, resulting in the conspirators and himself being arrested, questioned, and sentenced to death for high treason outside the Doge’s Palace, 15th April 1355
As a result, it was decided that Falier’s portrait in the Great Council Chamber be removed, and instead a depiction of a black cloak with gold letters inscribed: ‘Hic fuit locus ser Marini Faletri, decapitati pro crimine proditionis’, meaning ‘This was the place of Marin Falier, beheaded for treason’.
Some claim to have seen a ghost of the treacherous doge, wandering restlessly in Campo Santi Giovanni and Paolo – where the burial church of many doges is located – as he was not granted this honour.
On a full exploration of the palace you will notice that there is even a small yet effective prison – with benches made of iron so they can’t be moved and doors made of wood so thick it looks even a battering ram wouldn’t stand a chance! After full exploration of the Palace, we took a quick pit stop at the nearby Venetian Arsenal (you can’t go in as it’s still a working military base), it was now time to scout out dinner and a bar.
Sadly in this case the dinner wasn’t worth writing home about, the bar on the other hand, Taverna el Remer, was amazing – even with live blues and a waterside seating area. The drinks were strong, expertly crafted, and reasonably priced for Venice!