The plane glided past snow-capped peaks and sleepy mountain villages as the thick clouds lingered below. The early morning sun lit up the Dolomite valleys and canyons and I made a mental note to try and spend some time in this beautiful mountainous region of Italy one day. For now though, the pilot banked left and began his descent to my last destination of 2015 – Venice.
Of course it wasn’t actually Venice. I flew with Ryanair which meant I was likely to touch down somewhere closer to Sweden than Venice. So, in the grand scheme of things, the 70 minute bus ride from Treviso airport to Venice itself wasn’t terrible.
We walked into the small terminal and breezed through security (ours was the only plane in the entire airport). The bus (costing around €8 one way/€12 return) was already waiting outside and we were soon on our way to Piazzale Roma, Venice’s bus station, which sits only a stone’s throw from the Grand Canal. I crossed the bridge and made my way to the Santa Lucia train station where I was due to meet my companions for the weekend.
After a quick sandwich and coffee at the station, I met my friends and we made our way outside the station and to the vaporetto stop. These ubiquitous water taxis serve much of Venice and many neighbouring islands. We got a 3-day pass (€40, or €7.50 for a single trip) and headed to our hostel. We were staying in Generator hostel (http://generatorhostels.com/en/destinations/venice/) on Giudecca island, a former grain house on the waterfront, just metres away from the Zitelle stop.
We checked in, relaxed in the spacious lounge and grabbed some lunch – I had a Chicken Caesar salad while the girls had pizza – and dropped our bags in our rooms. We headed back to the stop and caught the vaporetto over to the San Marco district, the main tourist area of the city. We walked along the promenade, passing numerous stalls selling souvenirs and other tourist tat. An impressive monument to Victor Emmanuel II, the first King of unified Italy, towered above us while gondolas bobbed gently on the water, the picture postcard view complete with the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore’s façade across the water.
We ducked into one of the many alleyways and made our way through maze-like streets past trendy restaurants, souvenir shops and small stalls selling gelato, baguettes and pastries. We soon emerged at the Piazza San Marco, a huge public square which has its beginnings all the way back in the 9th or 10th centuries. At one end of the square, the imposing façade of the St. Mark’s Basilica rose above the crowds while the other three sides are reserved for the Procuratie – former offices and homes of high ranking officials which now serve as restaurants and shops.
We walked around the square and took pictures of the 15th-century Clock Tower and St Mark’s Campanile, the bell tower for the basilica. We walked inside the basilica itself and made our way upstairs to the museum (Adult ticket: €5) where we walked among the bronze Horses of St Mark, which used to adorn the façade of the church, as well as mosaics and tapestries from the archives. The ticket also gives access to the terrace with great views over the Piazza. We then headed into the church itself and wandered around gazing at the mosaics adorning the ceiling and domes as well as beautifully decorated altars and icons.
After leaving the church we walked under the Clock Tower and through the archway into the Mercerie, another hive of shopping streets extending all the way to the famous Rialto bridge. We had a quick snack of cannoli (pastry dessert stuffed with crème or Nutella) and continued through the narrow streets and over iconic bridges as gondolas glided gracefully underneath us.
A little while later we arrived at the stone steps of the Rialto Bridge, the oldest bridge crossing the Grand Canal. Completed in 1591, it’s one of the iconic images of Venice and we climbed the steps, checking out the shops lining the sides and stopped at the top of the arch to watch the hustle and bustle of the canal at dusk.
We caught the vaporetto back to our hostel and had a wander on the promenade as fog started descending over the water. It was Latin music night and we spent the rest of the night listening to catchy tunes while enjoying hot tea and delicious muffins.
After breakfast, we headed back to San Marco and wandered in the opposite direction to the crowds towards Arsenale, formerly one of the world’s biggest shipyards, and had coffee by the waterfront, watching locals walking their dogs or jogging past. We headed back to Piazza San Marco and headed up the elevator to the top of the Campanile to check out spectacular 360 degree views of the city. The sun has decided to come out for the first time since we’ve arrived and it picked a perfect time to do it!
Back on the ground, we once again walked the streets (they did seem familiar), ducking into alleyways and crossing bridges until we reached the Chiesa di San Salvatore (Church of San Salvador). I checked out the marble floor mosaic, two works of art by Titian and tombs and monuments lining the walls. Interestingly, there is a cannonball embedded in the façade of the church from a bombardment dating back to the 19th century.
We were on the lookout for a highly-recommended gelato parlour and after a few more alleyways and bridges, we arrived at the La Boutique del Gelato on Salizada San Lio. It was worth getting lost for – the gelato was amazing and I helped myself to three scoops despite the cold weather outside.
We couldn’t come all the way to Venice and not take a gondola ride (rates range from €80 to €120 per boat depending on the length of the ride). After finding one we fancied, we jumped in, still clutching our ice creams. The gondolier gracefully manoeuvred the boat around narrow canals, as we peered into open doorways, other gondolas and at selfie-taking tourists on the bridges. He told us Venice boasts 176 canals, including 2 man-made ones and how the water is a lot cleaner than it was a few decades ago. He pointed out noteworthy houses as we glided out onto the Grand Canal and passed under the Rialto Bridge. We ducked back into the adjoining canal and floated past the former house of 13th century explorer Marco Polo. I tipped my proverbial hat off to him!
Once back on solid ground, we walked over the Rialto and made our away along the Grand Canal, checking out the beautiful palazzos (grand public residences), beautiful gondolas and scores of restaurants by the water. The sun shone brightly and people were enjoying their espressos and gelato while locals strolled by with their tiny dogs. It was a beautiful day and a truly beautiful city!
We caught the boat and enjoyed the views from the water. The vaporetto glided past a palazzo used in a James Bond film and once off the boat, we were soon enjoying another famous film location, as the Church of San Barnaba was featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We stopped at a small café to try croquettes, small fried rolls with fish, vegetables and meat.
We walked around the Dorsoduro district of the city and crossed the Campo San Pantalon square before walking along canals and through local neighbourhoods with no tourists in sight. After catching the boat back to San Marco, we checked out the Gothic façade of the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) just off the main Piazza San Marco – we didn’t get to go inside but it’s definitely on my list for next time I am here. Formerly a residence of the supreme authority of Venice, it is now a museum.
We looked back towards the water and enjoyed the beautiful colours of the sun setting over Venice. We realised we haven’t eaten in ages and it was definitely time for dinner. After going around The Maze some more, we settled on Ristorante La Nuova Grotta, not too far from the vaporetto stop. I decided to go for the local delicacy, spaghetti al nero di seppia – spaghetti with cuttlefish cooked in its own ink. While it doesn’t look (or sound) particularly appetising, it was absolutely delicious and I would fully recommend you try this in your next visit to Venice! I followed the main course by the most amazing tiramisu I have ever had.
We caught the boat back to the hostel and after grabbing a couple of bottles of wine in the local supermarket spent the night drinking and dancing with new friends from all over the world.
Day 3 started relatively late thanks to the previous night’s festivities. I grabbed a continental-style buffet breakfast and relaxed with a tea and croissant while reading for a while. We were joined today by a couple of new friends from Israel and USA and our little makeshift group caught the boat to St Marco. It was their turn to have breakfast and we settled down in a small café and watched pigeons, which were trapped inside, trying to find their way out of the building with mixed results.
After arriving back at the vaporetto stop, we joined a lengthy queue. Clearly we weren’t the only ones making a late start to the day! We wanted to check out the islands of Murano and Burano, which were both recommended to us by our hostel. Once on the boat we settled into our seats and watched the boat glide past neighbourhoods, churches and an even a Greek Orthodox cemetery with a whole island to itself.
Murano lies about a mile north of Venice and has a population of around 5000 people. The series of small islands, linked by bridges, have a worldwide reputation for glass making. Murano glass has been made here for centuries and the islands are home to numerous factories and independent artists. This was obvious the second we got off the boat – numerous shops beckoned tourists in with the promise of genuine Murano glass (apparently there are a number of shops offering cheaper Chinese replicas.
We walked along the canals peering through shop windows and marvelling at the multi-coloured glass creations inside. We checked out galleries and factory outlets offering everything from small glass pendants to massive sculptures and ornaments. While there were many things that caught the eye, I doubted that my hand luggage allowance would stretch to a large blue glass horse.
We continued strolling around, crossing bridges between the islands and watching the boats slowly navigate the narrow canals. A group of children linked arms and sang Jingle Bells in Italian enthusiastically for around 10 minutes without pause. By the time their voices disappeared in the distance, we were pretty confident that we had the lyrics ingrained in our heads.
We passed the beautiful colonnaded façade of the Church of Santa Maria e San Donato with its separate bell tower standing tall just a few metres away. The church, built as far back as the 8th century is one of the oldest around the Venice area, and is said to contain bones of a dragon by St Donatus, whose relics are also in the church.
We ventured into a more residential area and found a pier at the end of a long street that looked out onto the Venice lagoon. The early afternoon fog hung in the air and gave the surroundings a somewhat mystical look. After taking some great photos we made our way back and stopped off at a small café where we had a delicious lunch of freshly caught fish
We made our way back to the pier and waited for a boat heading to our next destination – the colourful island of Burano. Located another few miles north of Murano, the island is another 50 mins vaporetto ride away and the gentle rocking of the boat was too relaxing for some as they snoozed in the bright orange plastic seats.
Burano is most famously known for its brightly painted houses lining the canals and streets dissecting the island. Despite the grey skies and the sun already having set, the vibrant colours of the buildings reminded of a rainbow as the reds, blues and pinks routinely gave way to oranges and violets. We ducked into small alleyways, crossed bridges and gazed at postcard-like windows of perfectly painted houses. We could only imagine how bright this place would look in the summer with the sun complementing this kaleidoscope of colours and wowed to come back one day.
We strolled past shops selling beautiful lace, made here on the island, venetian masks and glass from neighbouring Murano. Bakeries beckoned with freshly made pastries and restaurants offered fresh fish caught in local waters. We explored the Church of San Martino with its leaning bell tower and strolled through Galuppi Square in the centre of the island. We walked along the main street and craned our necks at the bright Christmas lights and nativity scenes adorning the balconies above.
It was getting dark and cold and we still had a long journey back to Venice to look forward to, so we refuelled with some pastries and headed for the boat. After an hour and a half, we were back at our hostel and happy to be back in the warmth. After a hot shower, we spent the rest of the evening with pizzas and beer, reliving the weekend and making plans for reunions in other parts of the world.
As usual with my weekend trips, I had a 4 am start to look forward to and a boat to the bus station where I would take a relatively short 20 minute ride to Marco Polo airport (and no Ryanair in sight). As I was sipping my pistachio hot chocolate in the terminal, I looked back at yet another awesome weekend trip and raised my glass (mug) to another fantastic year of travel. Bring on 2016!
Getting there: EasyJet offers daily flights to Venice Marco Polo from £23.49 one way. Ryanair flights to Venice (Treviso) from £19.99 one way. A return bus fare from Treviso airport to Venice costs €12
Accommodation: We stayed at Generator Hostel on Guidecca island. Shared dorms from €16
Getting around: A 3 day vaporetto ticket costs €40 – it sounds like a lot but it’s great value for money as an individual trip costs €7.50. You can purchase this at information centres and ticket kiosks around the bus and train stations. Boats run 24 hours.