There is only one Venice
It is the world’s most beautiful city and greatest destination but tread carefully!
As far as tourists are concerned, there is no greater destination than Venice. It is, quite simply, the most beautiful city in the world. The first time I went there, a decade and a half ago, I felt that I was in a dream. The beauty was so unreal that Venice seemed like a work of art rather than a functioning city.
But here’s the twist.
As far as tourists are concerned, there is also no worse destination that Venice. It is a city designed for 200,000 residents. Yet, each year, it gets between 25 million to 30 million tourists. The streets can be hideously overcrowded. Hotel rooms are often overpriced. Every second shop is run by a rip-off merchant. Most of the restaurants are horrible. And the food can be terrible.
But, God knows, I love Venice. This was my fifth trip there and if you asked me what my favourite destination in Europe is, I would say Venice; at least on those occasions when I can afford it.
I have told the story of Venice on these pages six years ago. (http://read.ht/Bqv3) But here’s a summary: the city was created in the Middle Ages by people fleeing Attila the Hun. They built it on a base of nothing. It was constructed on marshland and islands that were filled up to allow structures to be constructed.
Because hundreds of tiny islands made up Venice, the men who created the city did not link them all up. Instead, they left waterways or canals between the islands, giving the city its peculiar character. Even today, there are no motor vehicles in Venice.
Venice can be challenging. The crowds can be suffocating, the cheap hotels can be dodgy. But it’s the world’s most beautiful city
You either walk, or you take the boats on the canals.
Because this is not a city that grew up organically as much as one that was constructed out of nothing, Venice is like a giant stage set, designed to impress.
The history of Venice reflects this theatrical urge to show off. Till a few centuries ago, Venice was one of the world’s greatest trading centres and powerful city states. The Venetian fleet travelled far and wide, spreading the city’s power. Venice sacked Constantinople, plundered its wealth and Venetians controlled the land route to the East, making fortunes from trade.
Day trip tourists throng the waterfront near the Doge’s Palace understanding nothing about the real Venice ( Shutterstock )
After Vasco da Gama discovered a convenient sea route to the East, Venice began to lose out. But it reinvented itself in a variety of ways. It became a centre of art with such painters as Tintoretto and Titian becoming world famous. Its architecture set global trends. The city became the world’s pleasure capital with the best brothels and casinos, a sort of early (but more tasteful) prototype for Las Vegas.
And most significantly for us, it became the world’s first great tourist centre. Such was its reputation for beauty and of course, for fun, that rich people from all over Europe came to Venice. Wealthy young English noblemen made it the centre of what used to be called The Grand Tour and over the last two centuries, Venice has been where the world’s rich went when they wanted to see great beauty – and be pampered and indulged at the same time.
Sometime in the 1950s and 1960s, with the introduction of jet travel, this began to change. Americans discovered Venice and the traditional hold of the English and European aristocracy was broken.
Then, in the ’90s, as Asia (and the Middle East) grew in wealth, Asians discovered Venice. Since then, in the era of cheap flights and downmarket cruise ships, Venice has become the world’s greatest mass tourist destination.
Quadri, a famous and historical café in San Marco, now has a Michelin-starred restaurant upstairs ( Shutterstock )
There is nothing wrong with that – Venice should be for everyone. Except that the city was not designed to accommodate so many millions of visitors. So the 200,000 or so Venetians who grew up in the city are moving out. Today, only around 50,000 remain.
The millions of tourists need servicing, however, so each day, around 125,000 people commute to Venice from the surrounding areas. They work in the shops, hotels and restaurants and their presence often reminds the native Venetians that they have lost control of their city.
If you do go to Venice – and I reckon you should, it’s a much smarter thing to do than to fly to Switzerland to see where a Bollywood film was shot – then be warned, it is not cheap. On the other hand, it is probably cheaper than London, Paris, Switzerland or the South of France.
There are many ways of doing it. The two least desirable ways are of taking a day trip from some nearly Italian city or by coming on a cruise ship. Venetians hate day-trippers and with good reason. They crowd around Piazza San Marco and a couple of other tourist sites, take selfies, understand nothing of the art or ethos of the city and leave by the evening.
People who come on cruise ships are even more hated. The ships are huge, floating hotels that disfigure the Venetian lagoon and the passengers wander zombie-like through Venice, spending little money (they eat and sleep on the ships) and crowding out other visitors.
There are grand restaurants in Venice, like the Club del Doge at the Gritti Palace
The way to do Venice is to go for three to four days and to immerse yourself in the dream of Venice.
There are three categories of Venice hotels. There are the grand hotels. Of these, the Cipriani (which is not really in Venice but on an island in the lagoon) is the best known along with the Gritti Palace. I haven’t stayed at the Cipriani but I stayed at the Gritti this time.
I am not easily impressed by famous hotels and when I am paying high rates, I tend to be more critical. But the Gritti is one of the world’s great hotels; among the best I have ever stayed at. It is a palazzo which is many centuries old, the public areas look like they are out of a painting, the rooms are magnificent and the service is outstanding. This is the most tightly managed grand hotel I know.
Then there is the Danieli, which I stayed at last time and I liked. This time, however, I thought it had a certain down-at-heel, lazily-run air about it with tour groups sitting forlornly on their suitcases in the lobby. The Bauer is well-regarded though I have no personal experience of it.
There are also the five star hotels, the JW Marriott, the Kempinski and the Hilton, all of which are outside the main city and are run to modern standards with prices that are on par with similar hotels in other European cities.
And then, there are the four and three-star hotels. Some are good but many are not, so choose carefully.
It is the same with restaurants. They fall into categories. There are the grand restaurants like the Club del Doge at the Gritti (the best meal I had in Venice), the overpriced terrace at the Danieli where the chef’s ambition is not matched by the talent in the kitchen and a disappointing tasting menu for two cost us 370 euros with only local wines.
The Bellini cocktail was invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice ( Shutterstock )
There is Harry’s Bar, where the Bellini cocktail and the Carpaccio were invented. Harry’s is a tourist trap during the day but turns into a clubby restaurant at night for the rich and well-connected. The food is good but only if you stick to classic dishes.
There are the foodie places. Quadri in San Marco square is above a famous café of the same name but has excellent food, is Michelin-starred and designed by Philippe Starck. (Quadri is run by the owners of Le Calandre, one of the world’s great restaurants, which is near Padua). Al Covo was made famous by Anthony Bourdain but despite the influx of American visitors, standards have been maintained.
Then, there are the places locals go to. Most are good but they are off the beaten track and can be hard to find. (And no, I am not going to tell you the ones I go to.)
Al Covo has maintained its standards despite the influx of American tourists ( Shutterstock )
And finally, there are the tourist traps which constitute 80 per cent of the restaurants in Venice. The food is always disgusting, the owners can be cheats and many don’t even have chefs: they buy pre-packaged food from industrial catering companies and reheat it in microwaves. As a general rule, if a restaurant has a Menu Turistico or if it sells pizza, don’t go in.
So yes, Venice can be challenging. The crowds can be suffocating. The cheaper hotels can be dodgy. Most of the restaurants are terrible. You should never shop in Venice because 95 per cent of the shopkeepers will sell you overpriced tourist tat, much of which is produced in China.
But I still believe you should go. Try visiting off-season (spring or winter), my favourite times in Venice when the tourist hordes have stayed away. Choose your hotels carefully. Research your restaurant on the net. Do not take small children: they will miss the point of Venice and you will spend more time looking after them than you will in enjoying Venice.
But hey, it is the world’s most beautiful city.
How can you not go?
From HT Brunch, August 26, 2018
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First Published: Aug 25, 2018 21:00:27