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Trip Report Venice: Vene, Vidi, but not even close to Vici

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I researched. I planned. I researched and planned some more. Then we arrived in Venice, and the blue skies and warm sun tossed most of our itinerary to the soul-satisfying lagoon breezes. For a week we felt as if we were on our beloved Cape Cod holiday, just with everything in Italian. In short, our holiday was (mostly) perfect.

DD, DDog, and I left Vienna early on a Saturday morning; the drive is about 6 hours in good weather and good traffic, and we had both, something we agreed was a good omen for the week ahead. Following a brief stop in Udine to collect DH, who had been in Trieste the week before on business and trained over to meet us, we carried on across the unattractive causeway to the Garage San Marco. Reserving a parking space was a genius move on my part; although it was October and perhaps more shoulder season than high season, there was a long queue for drivers waiting to enter the garage (possibly day trippers?); our reservation allowed us to enter the garage ahead of everyone else. The parking rate was €28/24h.

Right outside the garage it is possible to purchase ACTV tickets, so I purchased passes for the week (DDog rode for free). The vaporetto 4.2 was crowded! We stuffed ourselves, three small rolling bags, and one unhappy DDog on the boat. The ride from Piazzale de Roma to Orto was miserable; DDog and I were jammed in the cabin and could see next to nothing of Venice. Plus, we were hot, having left 10° Vienna to arrive in 25°C Venice in jeans and sweaters. We scrapped a vaporetto return at the end of our stay and simply walked back to the garage (about 45 minutes).

The apartment owner’s sister graciously met us at the vaporetto stop, and we overheard an English-speaking couple disembarking whisper loudly, “Must be nice,” as they trundled off to find their hotel. Why yes, I thought, having the owner meet us was very nice.

The apartment appeared exactly as the photos depicted, and with one exception served our family well. When making the reservation, the owner informed me that my requested apartment was booked, but that a second place was available. Though I could not find this second apartment on any major listing service (hence, no reviews) the photos provided convinced us to lease the apartment. The exception to our perfect holiday was the bath. The photos showed a bath with handheld shower; okay, fine, we’re good with that. The problem was that half of the bath basin was a raised seat; there was next to no space to stand safely, and sitting made for comically challenging bathing. Even DD, a teenager who believes bathroom time is sacred, hated it. But, if that was the worst aspect of the week…

Rather than give a daily play-by-play of our holiday, I’ll just offer a summary and our impressions.

The siestre where our apartment was, Cannaregio, was quietly residential and particularly photogenic. What a treat it was to be out with DDog on his morning constitutionals, seeing Venetian children in their Catholic school smocks zipping along on scooters to school; watching the delivery boats bringing produce and dairy items to the local grocers and restaurants; and marveling at the busy, busy city crews who were daily keeping the neighborhood clean. Ours would have been a different experience, and perhaps not for the better, had we lodged within close striking distance of a tourist epicenter.

WeatherUnderground led us astray the entire week, beginning with our arrival, with temperatures considerably warmer than forecast. This, of course, was an easier “problem” to remedy than the reverse. The jackets never left the suitcases, and sweaters were tied around our waists by late morning. DD and I even returned home with cheeks kissed pink by the Venetian sun—delightful!

Maps/Passes/Travel Tools. We used the Marco Polo Venice Street Map and never once got lost. The Chorus Pass was fitting for us, as well; we are not art people so museums were not high on our touring list. Along with the Chorus Pass one is provided a map of every church, palazzo, museum and other sights of interest in Venice, so our “aimless” wanderings were more fulfilling. We used an old DK guide to Venice (in German) that I found in a charity store in Vienna to provide us with explanations on major attractions, as well.

Museums. We entered one museum—actually, it was a deconsecrated church turned concert venue (Chiesa di San Vidal)—containing a gallery of old instruments. DD plays violin, and we all enjoyed the small exhibit. We are not art people, and the weather was so beautiful that we were compelled to spend as much time as possible in the sun. Plus, we are but a days’ drive or overnight train away should we need to escape the gray of a Viennese winter for the art of Venice.

Burano, not Murano. Our serendipitous timing for Burano could not have been more ideal. DDog demanded his morning constitutional earlier than we wanted (because he had discovered the sport of seagull chasing), so by 09:30 one morning we were on our way to Burano. The forecast called for blue skies and a temperature of 27°C; when paired with the colors of the island, a fresh seafood lunch at a sparkling canal-side osteria, and being several steps ahead of the tour groups, our day in Burano was perfect.

Basilica di San Marco/Doges Palace/Campanile San Marco. Serendipitous timing found us at the basilica with but a 15 minute wait to enter. We had not pre-booked any tour, but spent more than the suggested “10 minutes” to marvel at the art and faith and history combined in such a beautiful setting.

We had booked a Secret Itineraries tour though, and all agreed that was a good idea. Prior to the holiday we had watched the entire BBC series, Francesco’s Venice, so having all of the history made the tour exceptionally interesting, and added dimension afterwards as we walked through the palace rooms.

DH and DD opted to go to the top of the campanile, while I sat on the raised walkways (Aqua Alta had receded) people watching. We all pronounced our activities satisfying.

Rialto Bridge/Rialto Market. We and DDog loved, loved, loved our early morning outing to the market. Watching the city come to life through the bustling of the fishermen’s activities seemed quintessentially Venetian. For DDog, snatches of dropped fish parts was just utter canine bliss. And, once again, as good fortune and timing had it, we did not even have to jostle for photos on the bridge!

Vaporetto #1/Grand Canal Tour. Hated it. We elbowed and shimmied our way around the boat on a couple of occasions, hoping for at least one decent viewing spot, but it never happened. Though we did make excellent use of the vaporetto passes, once was enough on that boat.

Exploring. Cannaregio, Castello, San Polo, San Croce, and some of Dorsoduro each were deserving of our time. Guidecca, some other time. As I like to believe I am a decent wannabe amateur photographer, Venice’s siestre each offer—dare I say—too many photo opportunities? Lugging around two camera lens each day grew old, and by the end of the week I envied DD and the ease with which she whipped out her iPhone and took photos. This, too, was a happy “problem.”

Shopping, Food, and Eating. I am not really a shopper, though on this holiday I discovered that shopping in Italy is good for the soul. The advantage (?) of driving is that there was little concern the set of handblown glass tumblers I purchased from a small antique store in my neighborhood would break on the way home. And, there’s always room in the overhead Thule for embroidered table linens. But for food, six hours is a long stretch for perishable items, so no Salsicca or cheeses came home with us.

Eating. The advantages of renting an apartment when traveling are numerous. We could enjoy our breakfasts of bread, fruit, and cheese in our pajamas, and having a grocery nearby meant that if we were too tired to dine out for dinner (which was often the case), fresh pasta, a bottle of wine (and even rotisserie chicken) was a short walk away. Lunch was almost always eaten out, and below I share some of the restaurants and the impressions I wrote for TripAdvisor.

L’Osteria di San Barnaba. As is all too common in Venice, a little wandering leads to a little more wandering, and the next thing you know, the restaurant you were seeking for lunch has gone "on riposo" (afternoon break). Most fortunately for us, this charming restaurant was open, and so we choose a comfortable table in the main room for lunch.

We began with the Zuppa de Pesce, the day's special of cod and asparagus tortellini and the house lasagne; we all sampled one another's selections. The soup base was ever so slightly thick, not tomato based (much to my liking), and dense with white fish, squid, clams, and shrimp or possibly scampi, and was delicious. The tortellini were fresh and large, with a perfectly balanced filling of fish and vegetables, served in a very light tomato sauce. The lasagne was light, flavorful, and satisfying; not cloyingly cheesy like bad lasagne can be.

Deciding to splurge a little, we ordered a mixed seafood plate as a second course. As our cheery wait staff explained, "When you are in Italy, you must eat good." She was right. The platter of scampi, swordfish, branzino and squid was remarkable for its freshness and flavor, and we were sad when the last bites had been eaten. Both courses were paired with a carafe of the house white wine, another excellent choice.

Trattoria Rialto Novo. Having read all the warnings and cautions about tourist trap restaurants, we found ourselves here nonetheless after leaving a very small trattoria nearby and not being waited upon for more than 10 minutes (though we were the only diners). Our visit was toward the end of our stay in Venice, and by this point we had all overdosed on fresh seafood and wanted something light. While looking at the menu board outside, the proprietor, an older gentleman, approached us with a slight tourist schtick. I interrupted him politely to ask if he could prepare Spaghetti Aglio e Alio, a simple dish of spaghetti with garlic and pepperocini that I did not see on the menu. But of course!

We were seated indoors, as all of the outdoor seating had been taken by a very glum tour group, everyone eating their plates of spaghetti pomodoro with no smile. But no matter, for there were several gondoliers inside enjoying their lunch. We took it as a good sign that gondoliers were eating here. So far, so good.

Lunch continued to improve. Our selections of spaghetti Aglio e Alio, Pasta Carbonara, and the house lasagne were perfect in every way: the presentation, the portions, and the flavors--not too much of anything and just enough of everything. The half-carafe of pinot blanc house wine was a crisp and refreshing accompaniment. Our only regret was not ordering the "catch of the day" for two people, a beautifully grilled Sea Bream with roasted potatoes that we watched being served to another set of lucky diners.

Acqua & Mais. We had come from an early morning at the Rialto Fish Market, watching the activity and imagining how the many forms of seafood could be prepared, and were making our way around to this and that when we paused to check our map. We had read no reviews, or had otherwise heard of this gem, but were drawn to the "street food" options in the window.

In short order I struck up a conversation with an elderly Italian gentleman who was selecting his dinner from the deli-style offerings of baccala, grilled squid, seafood salads and so forth (which I highly recommend for a light dinner back at the hotel or rental apartment when paired with a crusty loaf or breadsticks, by the way). He recommended the seafood and polenta "street food" cone, with squid, octopus, sardines, and other sea life perfectly batter-dipped and fried, and served atop piping hot polenta. The three of us stood on the street (do not expect to sit) and ate every last, delicious, bite--it was the perfect starter course to our lunch a little later. And at €5,50 for the most expensive cone, it beats anything and everything else from Venice's "touristic menus."

Al Fureghin. (Burano) At a pretty table with a colorful view and great people-watching we started with Sarde in Soar, which, when described as "whole sardines in a vinegar, onion and raisin sauce" sounds absolutely horrific. But do not be turned away; this Venetian sardine preparation was a perfect sweet, salty, and slightly sour beginning to an equally perfect meal, especially when paired with bread and a Venetian chardonnay.

Our main courses included the day's special of baccala with polenta, a flaked, salted cod and tomato "stew" over polenta cakes; and grilled branzino with a cold eggplant and red pepper "salsa." The baccala was mild and paired well with the fresh tomato sauce and polenta--again, an excellent balance of flavors. The branzino was lightly seasoned and so very fresh tasting, like fish should be.

So that's that. We came, we saw, but we were nowhere close to conquering Venice.

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