I’ve only been on the island for a matter of hours and already I’m entranced by the picture postcard sights of Venice – the storybook alleys, narrow streets and crumbling buildings. It’s pure Instagram gold. But finding the real Venice, the one away from the gelato-licking tourists clogging picturesque bridges with their selfie sticks, is proving more difficult.
And so my new American friend and I find ourselves in the unfamiliar territory of joining a tour group with the guys from Trafalgar. It proves to be a godsend – so easy, so comprehensive. On our first meeting, our Venetian-born travel director, Sophie leans in to the group and with her trademark broad smile and rippling laugh, whispers conspiratorially “Venice is a drug.” I think I’m already hooked. Here’s what not to miss:
Soak up the city’s scandalous history
Venice has one hell of a sexy history – think scandal, seduction and skullduggery. To truly get to know the real city, you will need a guide who will entrance you with the saucy story of the hidden Venice.
As we meander through the byways and past the myriad churches, it really helps to have Sophie fill in the cracks, vividly bringing the city’s past to life for our group. For instance did you know that in the 13th century Venice was the world’s most important trading port, making it one of the world’s great original party towns. Think incredible hedonism, scandalous love affairs and secret gambling dens.
Welcome to the concept of Venetian time
As a lifelong resident of Venice, Sophie explains that life in the city today means operating on ‘Venetian time’. That is, when you leave the house in the morning, you don’t know when you’ll return. Because you will bump into friends who will want to gossip and eat and drink, and then when you are on your way you will turn a corner and meet other friends who will want to chat and eat and drink. I could get used to this.
Learn how to make a Bellini at Harry’s Bar
Ernest Hemingway was a regular. So was Truman Capote. And Orson Welles. Harry’s Bar, a tiny establishment tucked away near San Marco Square is undoubtedly one of the world’s most iconic watering holes. And after a hard day of well, eating and wandering around, I figure it’s about time for a drink. And there is no drink more famous in this part of the world than the Bellini, invented here in the 40s by the bar’s owner Giuseppe Cipriani.
Julie and I squeeze ourselves into this tiny establishment and snag a couple of coveted spots at the bar where we can watch the white-jacketed staff whip up this famous white peach and prosecco concoction. And boy are they delicious. One goes down very easily. A second is absolutely necessary. And then we learn that Hemingway created his own version of a martini here, well, Julie and I have to try one of those too. After only 24 hours, I feel we have already gotten the hang of this “Venetian time” thing.
Wake up next to the Grand Canal
While I’m brushing my teeth on the balcony of my room in the Hotel Principe I watch the light hit the water of the Grand Canal, as the sun rises over Venice. I guarantee you this is not my normal teeth-brushing view. It’s smug Instagram nirvana and I can’t resist sharing (ok, showing off).
Relax over lunch in Burano
Most visitors to Venice don’t venture beyond the main islands but there are dozens of other smaller islands that make up the city, scattered around the lagoon. If you have to pick one, Burano – only about half an hour by boat from San Marco Square - is my winner. Our amiable travel director Tony says it’s “the best kept secret in Venice’’ and I wholeheartedly agree. Within minutes of stepping on the island, I am in love with the hot pink, lime green and vivid blue houses. Tony tells us that the island’s traditional fishermen had to paint their homes such crazy colours so that after too much vino they could find where they lived!
No prize for guessing delectable seafood is on the menu for lunch at trattoria Al Raspo de Ua. I devour a local dish of a spread made out of snapper and olive oil only to realise our group has five courses to go. Even the boys travelling with us, whose appetites are prodigious, start to struggle after the seafood lasagna, and the risotto, and the fried calamari, and, and… But the locals don’t bat an eyelid about their seafood-palooza. At the table next to us, a 90-year-old woman is heartily tucking into fish and a glass of wine. I want her life.
Shop for shoes only the locals know about
As a devoted lover of shoes, my new friend Julie tells me about a wonderful, hole-in-the-wall shoe shop, which apparently only those in the know patronise. The shop, Piedàterre makes and sells a slipper based on the traditional Venetian gondolier style, called furlane. After trying on dozens of these soft velvet, linen or cotton shoes in a rainbow of jewel tones, I make my decision – and go for a decadent velvet burgundy pair.
Try on hand-made carnival masks
Think Venice, and you think Carnival, the time in January when the city comes alive with music and festivities. And an absolute must for carnival is an elaborate mask. The choice of mask is deliberated in much the same way devoted racegoers consider their Melbourne Cup headwear du jour. At Arti Veneziane alla Giudecca our group spends a fun hour not only watching artisanal craftswomen delicately construct fairytale carnival masks, but then hilariously trying them on. I fell in love with a cat-inspired version in blue, but managed to resist handing over hundreds of euros for the pleasure. We leave the shop laughing; it’s been a while (read: decades) since I played dress-ups.
Enjoy the garden at the Peggy Guggenheim museum
I have wanted to come here for years. As the former home of the late heiress and famous art-lover Peggy Guggenheim, today her canal-side palazzo is a world-famous museum boasting a breath-taking collection of modern works from Picasso to Duchamp to Mondrian. And though taking in the paintings and drawings is a must, it is her sculpture-filled garden that I have always dreamed about exploring. Julie and I meander through (but not before I am scolded by museum staff for accidentally leaning on a priceless bronze sculpture. Oops), and relish the surprisingly peaceful respite it offers to art-lovers.