Phil's Travels - Venice, Italy (02.19)


Phil's Travels - Venice, Italy (02.19)


BA, T5 and European air traffic controllers came together in perfect harmony for our morning flight to Venice. We flew over still white-capped Alps and landed at Marco Polo Airport ahead on schedule. We took a land bus to Piazzale Roma and dragged our cases the five minutes to our BA Holidays recommended hotel - no big deal, especially with Venice in hazy sunshine as our backdrop. The hotel was located right on the Grand Canal, opposite the Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia, and the lobby had a promising local feel about it (good sense of place). Leo, the receptionist, was awesome and really helpful. The first stages of our short break had gone swimmingly and too good to last, surely.


After a short wait, our room was declared ready for our occupation and we headed upstairs to one of the most rubbish rooms my well-travelled wife had ever laid eyes on. More to the point, she did not lay a thing in it and was ready to lay into BA big time. Yes, it had three beds. Yes, it had a window. And, yes, it had a bathroom. But the beds gave my lovely wife the heebie-jeebies and visions of creepy-crawlies. The view was of the building next door (I could practically touch it). And, the bathroom was nearly as unsanitary as Venetian canal water. Suffice to say, my wonderful wife could not wait to leave and explore Venice.


We had a quick pizza en route to Ponte di Rialto and lapped up the sunshine in crisp clean air. My darling daughter loved Rialto and was in awe of the ancient skills required to build such a large bridge in such a location all those years ago. We had the foresight to buy a three-day travel pass and took the first of many trips on the vaporetto (the Venetian water-bus network, which is great fun, the best way to sightsee and a public service per eccelenza). As we vaporetted down the Grand Canal, we passed by the Aman and my wonderful wife asked why we weren't staying there instead of the BA recommended dump we had just checked into. She was only marginally placated when I told her the price of an Aman room (€1,500 per night). We tried to visit the Aman, but the land entrance is behind high walls, security gates and an aura of 'don't bother knocking unless you are resident'. We did not knock.


Some how we found ourselves at one of my top five all-time favourite hotels, the dignified and dogesque Danieli. We had some refreshment in the lobby and whilst I walked off to take a call, my wonderful wife and darling daughter hatched a cunning plan. When I got back 20 minutes later, we were checked into the Danieli for two nights and the Hilton for our final night. A lengthy telephone debate with BA ensued in search of a refund (did you know that BA uses Expedia to make its hotel bookings), a debate that will surely run and run after our return to London. Net result, we vaporated back to the first hotel, collected our cases, and vaporated back to the Danieli and comfort. In this way we wasted over four hours of Venice time and it could have been more if my lovely wife had listened to her friend, who had suggested an Airbnb alternative. OMG, make up your mind! Had we gone with Plan C as well, we would no doubt have wasted even more time going to see an indeterminate apartment, rejecting it and trying to squeeze back into the Danieli (it was carnival week and Venice was full). We have never used Airbnb and after our first hotel failure the last thing we needed was to waste more time exploring more dodgy overnight accommodation and missing out even more of Venice. And so the Danieli it was for two nights (20 years after our last stay in this venerable Venetian venue).


Phil's Travels - Venice, Italy (02.19)


We woke the following day to Venice under a thick veil of fog - its very own carnival mask, if you will. Totally atmospheric. We had an early lunch in the form of a sandwich on the go. Well, with perhaps less go than was probably warranted in hindsight. We stood on the quayside watching the gondolas dodge water-taxis and vaporetti through the thickening fog, when my daughter was dive-bombed from behind by a huge seagull, which knocked her sandwich to the ground, whereupon every bird in the neighboured dived in for a squealing peck. We retreated from the feathery melee and decided to shelter with a tour of the Doge's Palace and neighbouring prison block (our room in the Danieli overlooked the side of the prison - not glamorous but better than the first hotel's wall view). Definitely worth a visit, if not least for the walk to and fro across the Ponte dei Sospiri.


Venice in fog was just amazing. We could not see the islands opposite St Marks Square. We could not even see the other side of St Marks Square. And through it all apparitions in full period carnival costume or simply wearing an array of Venetian masks. We bought a mask each (initially, I was keen on a full-face affair, but decided on the smaller eyes-only job for practical reasons and so as not to scare the living daylights out of my wonderful wife) and headed to Harry's Bar for a Bellini treat. What a boring lot in Harry's. Not a soul was wearing a mask, never mind the full regalia. We wandered the streets in day light and at night and in either light, the place was simply magical - especially in the fog. At one point we visited a gondola maker. When we walked in the fog had pretty much gone and we had a good view of the yard and Giudecca in the distance. But within seconds, as I was trying to photograph a gondola in construction, the light disappeared (ruining my photo) and the fog rolled back in. We could barely see the other side of the canal, never mind Giudecca. It was eerie, but totally Venice.


Our final day was a Saturday and it was fogless. We had glorious blue skies as far as the eye could see, brilliant sunshine and Venice in its fullest glory. Being carnival weekend and a gorgeous day, the streets were heaving on our last day, and provided all the evidence one might need that the best time to visit this water-wonderland is out of season when most humans can't be bothered. Having window shopped and wandered around the previous couple of days, our last day was a flurry of purchases: glasses, souvenir fridge magnets, ornaments, bookmarks, paper, trinkets, cards, wine and for me something I have sought for over 20 years - my very own forcola (the sculpted wooden block through which a gondolier puts oar-power to water).


I was so proud of my forcola I could not resist telling our gondolier of my prize find. He looked a little bemused that anyone would want such a thing for non-gondolling purposes, but had the good grace to humour me anyway. Only my darling daughter and I gondolated, and our 30-minute tour took us under the Bridge of Sighs, around the back of the Danieli, past Casanova's house, past Marco Polo's warehouse and past UNESCO's offices, and back into the lagoon. Our gondolier was very chatty after our brotherly forcola foreplay and full of info (most gondoliers live on the mainland as house prices in Venice are too high, over €5,000/sqm, and yet only Venetians can be gondoliers, go figure).


Having shopped, gondolled and photographed the whole of Venice, we gathered our cases from the Danieli and vaporated to the Hilton. The Hilton is a monster of an old pasta factory on the edge of Venice, on Giudecca, and a long vaporetto ride from Rialto and the centre. Where the Danieli is totally of Venice (formerly a palace and guest house dating from the 14th century), the Hilton feels as if it could be in Birmingham, Alabama. Nice, but no authenticity. We quickly dumped and departed, and headed back to the cultured heart of the city for our final supper.


Our final supper was in a gorgeous room, lined with wooden beams, an armoury of weaponry and an old master chef's collection of old pots and pans. But the food was rubbish. A really disappointing end to an amazing time in Venice. Our flight home was so early on Sunday morning that we had to take a water-taxi to the bus station (completing the set of available Venetian water-transports). Despite a mix up as to which bus to take, we made it safely to Marco Polo and our flight home landed 20 minutes early, despite fog at Heathrow. Somehow fog does not look quite the same on Heathrow as it did on Venice.


Venice is a destination that is so unique that I could go multiple more times and never be bored. My daughter did not want to leave. I am sure Venice has that effect on many tourists. This trip, in keeping with the carnival atmosphere, I had spent much of my time hiding behind my mask, when blow me down on Sunday morning at Heathrow I get an email from Alan saying he saw me in my mask on the Rialto Bridge on Saturday afternoon. I thought the whole point of a mask was to hide your identity - a la Batman. Well clearly my Batman does not work in quite the same way as Bruce Wayne's Batman. Alan recognised me on a densely packed bridge wearing a mask, beany and scarf. How is that possible? Next time I am going for the full facial mask. With bells on!