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February 2003

Here Today, Gondala Tomorrow

It’s not as far as you think-Venice, the perfect winter weekend break

Mention weekend travel in the winter and most people immediately think of skiing. And why not? Gliding down the slopes, soaking in thermal waters and living it up in the après-ski scene are all very pleasant pastimes. But what if there’s no snow, you can’t ski or are just plain sick of winter sports? For something different this season, how about a trip to one of the world’s most enchanting cities, only a few hours’ drive away from Munich? Six million people visit Venice every year, most of them in summer. In winter the crowds thin out, the locals take possession of their city once again and the lagoon settlement, shrouded in a veil of mist, is transformed into a magical wonderland. What better time is there to experience the Serenissima, the city of “supreme serenity”?

Venice is an archipelago of some 100 islands that are interconnected by about 400 bridges; each island is in turn criss-crossed by narrow streets and alleys. For this reason a map is a good idea, at least to get an overview of the city’s six districts. Although there are almost no street names, tourists seldom get completely lost as many street corners have signs pointing to the nearest major landmark.

Probably the best and most enjoyable way for first-time visitors to become acquainted with the city is to board the No. 1 vaporetto (waterbus), which travels along the entire Canal Grande (Grand Canal) from the main car park at Tronchetto, past the railway station and the Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge), to the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). Alternatively, you can get off the vaporetto at the Rialto district—just beyond the bridge—and stroll through its narrow alleyways to San Marco. The Mercerie, which is the main street connecting these two districts, has a great selection of shops and boutiques—though you may want to linger longer on the Piazza San Marco, for it has no less than three spectacular sights vying for the visitor’s attention: the Palazzo Ducale (the Doges’ Palace), St. Mark’s Basilica and the Campanile, a freestanding bell tower.

The main reason, however, for traveling to Venice in February is of course the carnival (this year from 21 Feb. to 4 March). For two weeks during Lent, Venetians dance the streets, take part in processions, visit theatrical performances, concerts and masked balls and attend lectures and workshops on mask making. One of the most popular balls during carnival time is the “Ballo Tiepolo.” Historically costumed guests gather at the Palazzo Pisani-Moretta for a candlelit meal while enjoying a view of the Canal Grande and being entertained by mimes, magicians and acrobats and the music of three orchestras. Another highlight is a party held on the Arianne, a single-decker passenger ship anchored in the Riva Sette Martiri near San Marco. Celebrations culminate in a huge dance against a backdrop of fireworks on the Piazza San Marco. For the appropriate attire, call in at Il Prato or one of the three Antonia Sautter shops (all in San Marco), which sell and rent every imaginable type of mask and costume. The shops also take reservations for the Ballo dei Dogi, held on the last Saturday of carnival. Tickets (€ 125–300 per head) for many events can be obtained from the Tourist Information Office.

If you can’t get tickets to a ball, the combination of live music, stunning, floodlit architecture and the costumed revelers on the Piazza San Marco will still get you in the party mood. Have a drink (not cheap, unfortunately) at one of the many cafés, each of which has its own orchestra, and soak up the atmosphere. Remember though: if you’re dining out in Venice, don’t leave too late. Most restaurants and bars tend to wind down fairly early—meals usually stop being served by around 10:30 pm. As for food in general, the key to cheap eating in Venice is bar snacks. Panini (toasted sandwiches) are sold on almost every corner. Look out for the “bacaro” bars, just past the Rialto Bridge in Ruga Vecchia, which serve a filling plate of local-style tapas, sarde in saor (marinated sardines), scallops and canoce washed down with local white wine. One of the most traditional eateries is the Cantina da Moi, established in 1462. The district also has a good selection of bakeries and cheese shops. The very finest in cookies, cakes and pies are without doubt to be found at the Marchini pastry shop, at Ponte San Maurizio (San Marco). Ice cream is a must in Venice, even in winter. For some of the best, visit Causin’s, in Campo Santa Margherita (Dorsoduro) or Paolin’s in Campo Santo Stefano.

A less well-known but elegant and good-value restaurant is located at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, though it would be a shame to go there only for the food. The former home of the eccentric art aficionada now houses a collection of 20th-century art that includes work by Magritte, Picasso, Calder and Kandinsky. If this puts you in the mood for art, the Galleria Dell’Accademia, one of the city’s finest art museums—paintings by Bellini, Veronese, Tiepolo, Giorgione and Canaletto are all on show here—is just a short walk away. You won’t find any paintings at the outdoor fish and vegetable market, though it may have inspired some of the famous Venetian still-life artists and is certainly worth a visit. It is next to the Ca d’Oro (House of Gold), considered to be the most elegant Venetian Gothic palace on the Grand Canal. By contrast the truly luxurious hotel, the Palazzo Gritti, on the Campo Santa Maria del Giglio, serves afternoon tea on a canopied terrace by the Canal Grande. Winston Churchill, Grace Kelly, Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin and Marcello Mastroianni have all been guests at this famous hotel. Tea and coffee are also served at the recently renovated Hotel Europa & Regina (San Marco 2159) or the Danieli (Riva Schiavoni 4196), with its view onto the lagoon, where Dickens, Wagner and Proust are counted among its most illustrious guests.

Another typically Venetian aroma is that of coffee. The institution of the coffeehouse as a public meeting place was originally a Venetian phenomenon, which spread throughout the world. True to its sensuous reputation, Venice seized upon the joys of coffee and chocolate as soon as they arrived from the New World. The most famous cafés in the city are perhaps the Florian and the Quadri in the Piazza San Marco, although in summer there are many others that offer outdoor seating, such as those on the Campo Santo Stefano, the Campo Santa Margherita and along the banks of the Schiavoni. Of course no investigation of the city would be complete without sampling a true Bellini, the famous Prosecco and peach aperitif, at Harry’s Bar (near the waterbus stop at San Marco).

Visitors with a little time on their hands can catch a boat to one of the outlying islands in the lagoon. The Lido, the closest island, was the setting of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Visconti’s haunting film adaptation. A little further afield lie the isles of Murano, famed for its 700-year tradition of glass-making, Burano, a sleepy fishing settlement noted for its lace, and Torcello with its seventh-century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Venice’s oldest building. Avoid the commercial boat tours, however, which shepherd tourists into a glass-blowing “demonstration.” Instead, take a waterbus (Nos. 71 or 72 to Murano, then one of the frequent connections to Burano and Torcello) and explore on your own. The finest glassworks on Murano is Barovier e Toso, which has opened a museum in Palazzo Contarini (closed on weekends). For the best glass in Venice, head for Seguso, on the Piazza San Marco, which sells classic glassware with old-world styling, produced by Pauly. For more modern glassware, try Venini on the Piazzetta dei Leoncini (San Marco). When buying a substantial amount, barter. It’s not only accepted, it’s expected.

For stunning views of the canals, the bridges, the lagoon, the islands and, in clear weather, even the Alps, climb or take the elevator up the bell tower of San Marco. If the lines are too long, try the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore on the island of the same name, across from the Piazza San Marco. Another fine view of the Palazzo Ducale and San Marco, can be enjoyed from Punta Dogana at the end of the Canal Grande. Another facet of Venetian life, albeit one with a marred history, can be seen in the Jewish Ghetto in the Cannaregio district, where Marco Polo once lived. Originally a piece of land set aside for a few local Jews in 1516, the area soon became extremely crowded, developing into one of the most closely knit business and cultural quarters of all Jewish communities in Italy. The district contains five synagogues, of which three are open to the public. Other notable sights here are the Church of the Madonna dell’Orto and the Church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli with its colorful marble facade.

Whether you visit Venice in summer or winter, a word of warning: prone to high waters, the city can flood up to 80 times a year. Flooding tends to be most dramatic in high summer, however, when storms over the Adriatic sweep wind and rain into the lagoon. Streets, squares and basements can be submerged for up to five hours before the waters recede. As the lowest-lying point in the city, the Piazza San Marco invariably bears the brunt of the floods, tending to resemble an enormous paddling pool. But then, what would Venice be without water—and gondolas? A ride in what Mark Twain called “an inky, rusty canoe” is a must for romantics, who vie for outrageously priced rides just before sunset. Couples can cut down on the costs (and romance) by sharing a boat for six people.

For overnight stays in central Venice, the Hotel Ai Do Mori is one of the best-value-for-money options. Around 600 years old, the family-run hotel has 11 white-washed, wooden-floored rooms. Ask for the “Painter’s Room,” a tiny en-suite double at the top of the hotel with a private roof terrace overlooking the basilica. Slightly more upmarket is the three-star San Cassiano, where € 200 a night buys bed and breakfast with a view over the Grand Canal.

There are a number of ways to travel to Venice. The journey by car takes a little more than six hours from Munich and cars must be left at Tronchetto, the city car park. If you are traveling on a budget, Bennek Reisen in the Frauenstrasse offers a 24-hour round trip to Venice for € 40. A coach leaves the Isartor every Saturday at 6 am and drops visitors off at Mestre, the industrial hinterland of Venice at noon and collects them there again at midnight. There is also a comfortable overnight train service from Munich.

Italian National Tourist Office, Munich

Tel. (089) 53 13 17, Fax 53 45 27
Venice Tourist Information
Castello 4421 Venezia
(branch at train station)
Tel. + 39 41-529 8711
Fax -523 0399 or -719078
Bennek Reisen
Frauenstr. 38, Munich
Tel. (089) 22 24 51
Price € 35 plus approx. € 4.50 toll
per head to enter city
Hotel Ai Do Mori, San Marco
Tel. + 39 41 520 4817
Double room from € 88
Hotel San Cassiano
Tel: + 39 41 5241768
Double room € 52–217
Useful websites: (a day-
by-day guide to carnival)

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