As we flew into Venice in September 2013, crowds of protestors gathered.   Thankfully they were not there for us.  The angry rally was directed towards the record-breaking 12 cruise ships expected to pass through the lagoon that day.  Italian passions extended to some individuals donning wetsuits and jumping into the Giudecca canal in an attempt to block the passage of the enormous liners.  It was a shocking spectacle, but during our time in the city I could see the logic behind their concerns.  Not only are the giant ships causing environmental and cultural damage, but more generally Venice is chock-a-block with tourists which has pushed prices up for those who live there.  To put a number on it – according to the press – 35,000 tourists arrived by ship that day.  That’s the equivalent to half the city’s regular population.

Boat number 5 dwarfing the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore

I had longed to visit Venice.  I’d seen it in films and on TV, oozing glamour and romance.  I wanted to see how an entire city can just float.  But not overly comfortable in crowds I found myself a little disheartened.  Was this one big – and INCREDIBLY expensive – mistake?  For a place that relies on tourism, the numbers seemed excessive and I could barely move without inadvertently photobombing randoms.  I can’t imagine how crazy numbers swell during the summer months.  So with this in mind here are some of the things we got up to whilst trying our best to avoid the crowds.

Looking onto the crowds near St Marks square from a water taxi

Private speed boat lagoon tour

Through Trip Advisor I found Il Bragozzo, a small local company who offer an alternative way to visit the lagoon – aboard a classic wooden speedboat.  Our 3-hour tour covered a handful of the more than 100 small islands that make up Venice’s lagoon, including our first stop, the old convent of San Francesco del Deserto still inhabited by the Friars Minori, and not accessible by public transport.

 

Our guide Tommaso with his 1950s motorboat

The further north we pass, the more the landscape changes into narrow channels, salt marsh and swamp, providing an area of what Venice would have looked like hundreds of years ago.  Our next stop is a delight for the eyes – the picturesque fisherman’s island of Burano.  Lined with colourful fishermen’s houses, the place is recommended for casual seafood eateries (shame we can’t stick around for lunch), and is celebrated for lace making.

Entering a quiet channel into Burano

Next up is the island of Murano, world-renowned for it’s historic glass factories.  Every other shop displays ornate (some may say OTT) glasswork and locally-crafted souvenirs.  Some workshops provide live glass-blowing demonstrations so you can watch artisans at work.  It is mesmerising.  This is the place to come if you want to buy a chandelier to rival Tiffany… and to break the bank!

Vaporetto to San Michele

The cemetery island of San Michele is a short ride north-east of Venice by public water taxi (Vaporetto).  It is a tranquil place, both somber and celebratory, honouring those passed through colourful, well-manicured displays and moving effigies.  We take a quiet stroll and find the graves of 7 British casualties from WW1 in the Protestant section of the east corner.

Photo Tour

On my birthday we take a private tour with photo journalist Marco Secchi.  At this point neither one of us had ever used anything but a point-and-shoot camera (probably obvious from our photos here), so I looked forward to learning some technical stuff whilst seeing some quieter areas.  Marco was very patient, and the resulting pictures made an improvement on our usual snaps.  He took us along the west-side of the Grand Canal, ending at the world-famous Rialto Bridge just before sunset.  He also took us to possibly the best gelato shop: Gelateria il Doge on Calle Traghetto Vecchio.

Using the walls to navigate narrow waterways!
Looking down the Grand Canal towards Rialto Bridge
Ponte di Rialto

Saint Marks Square

OK, so i’ll concede that no trip to Venice is complete without seeing the central piazza San Marco.  Home to the iconic basilica, Doge’s Palace, mechanical clocktower, and a host of over-priced eateries, it is a central-hub that draws HUGE crowds.  The below picture was taken at around 8am, before many of the restaurants had opened in an attempt to see it before the place became mobbed.  I recommend visiting early or late – basically whenever the cruisers are back on their ships..

 

The columns of the city’s patron saints: San Marco – symbolised by the winged lion – and San Todaro – the Byzantine Saint Theodore of Amasea, the city’s first protector

Alternatively, you can get a great view into the square from the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore across the bay.

San Giorgio Maggiore

I would have loved to have seen inside the clocktower.  There are some limited tours that need to be booked well in advance that allow a glimpse of the intricate workings of this historic technology.

St Mark’s clocktower dates back to 1499. The gold and blue watch face indicate the time, day, moon phases and the zodiac. Each hour the two bronze figures move to ring the very loud bell.

Doge’s Palace secret itineraries tour

Part of the reason we made it to Saint Mark’s square so early – I’m really not a morning person – was a reservation we held for the first tour of the day of the Doge’s Palace.  Hailed as a gothic masterpiece, the structure is regarded as a symbol of the city.  It was formerly home not only to the Doge (the ruler of Venice) but also to the entire state administration.  The ‘secret’ tour promised a glimpse of areas usually inaccessable to the public, which included the prison cell where Casanova was held, as well as a few extra passageways and the Inquisitor’s room.  In total it lasted around 75 minutes.  I found it interesting, but honestly, I think it would have been much better if our guide had been more engaging and if the group was smaller.

Palazzo Ducale from Saint Mark’s Square
Palazzo Ducale overlooking the lagoon

 

As the tour didn’t cover any of the main rooms of the palace – which is enormous – we sprung for an audio guide and spent perhaps another 2 hours wandering through rich interiors.  Ornate architecture and elaborate decoration adorn every corner, with works by artists such as Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto.  We also got to walk across the Bridge of Sighs, which I [shamefully] first heard about from Dan Brown’s novel Inferno!

Via Garibaldi neighbourhood

To the east of Saint Marco is the relatively quiet neighbourhood of Via Garibaldi.  Less than a mile from Saint Mark’s square, it is a great place to stroll away a few hours and feel as though you have seen a more residential/ ‘real’ side of the city.  We enjoyed simple but tasty cichetti (Italian tapas) and drunk Campari outside one of the many small street bars filled with locals.

The nearby Maritime Museum – Padiglione delle Navi – leading to the city Arsenal

Beyond Venice

Despite Venice being car-free, it was relatively straight-forward to pick up a rental car from Marco Polo airport (across the lagoon), and embark on a road-trip.  We drove north via the pretty city of Verona, into the mountainous lake region.  In less than 3 hours we arrived at Lake Garda, where for 5 days we enjoyed some off-season R&R.  Oh and more than a few gelatos!

Limone Sul Garda on a very hazy day

Riva del Garda

 

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