What the heck has Venice got to do with cycling? I hear you ask. Not so fast; Lido, one of the islands in the Venetian Lagoon – and just a couple of kilometres across the water from Piazza San Marco – was where Columbia rained on Garmin’s parade in the stage one TTT of the Giro this year and Cav took pink. And back in 1997 Super Mario Cipollini won a 48 kph Lido circuit race over 128 kilometres to kick that year’s Giro off.
And whilst Venice may be a group of islands, there’s a long causeway which carries the road and rail links into the north end of the city, from Venice’s twin, mainland city of Mestre. This industrial centre gives it’s name to the flat out one kilometre dash held each year across the causeway. Riders go off in pairs – one in each carriageway but it’s the time that counts. Friend of Pez and winner of 25 six day races, Franco Marvulli has won the Km del Corso Mestre three times; beating the likes of Ale Jet Petacchi in the process.
And while were at it, Venice was home to one of Italy’s best ever riders – 1986 world champion and multi classic winner, Moreno Argentin. If I ever meet him, I’ll have to ask him about his training though!
No matter how many times you’ve done it, there’s something magical about boarding the motoscafo (small water bus) at Marco Polo airport for the trip to the ‘Serenisimma’ (the peaceful place) as Venice is known.
The city sits in the middle of the lagoon; oak and pine piles driven into the lagoon bed around 100 or so swampy islands form the foundations for this unique and beautiful place.
Venice is divided into six Sestiere, or districts. At its heart lies San Marco with Piazza San Marco, the Basilica, the Doge’s Palace and the Campanile.
The Doge’s Palace and the Campanile.
Beautiful, but tourist hell, crowds, queues, street vendors and rip off prices at most shops and cafes.
Some times it’s worth it, though – to sit in the sun and listen to the orchestra playing outside Cafe Lavena on the Piazza, is special; even though two spritz will cost you 30 euros when the ‘musical surcharge’ is added.
But it can be a race against time – as water is forced back up through the square’s ancient drainage ducts by the advancing tide and the waters advance below your table legs – it’s always a bad sign when the waiter is wearing rubber boots!
And the same two spritz in a neighbourhood bar would cost less than four euros.
The other Grand Cafes on San Marco are Florian, with its fabulous interior – and prices to match.
And Quadri; never really forgiven for being a favourite hang out of the Austrian officers, during that country’s occupation of Venice.
If you want really serious prices, but in the coolest of surroundings – go to Harry’s Bar, not far from the Piazza, on the Canale Grande. Two small, but exquisite Bellini cocktails (crushed and sieved peaches and sparkling Prosecco wine) will set you back 30 euros – just a pity we could only afford one round!
Ed was a bit woozy from the tab.
The other sestiere have their gems too; San Polo on the north side of the lovely bridge which gives its name to the world famous fruit, vegetable and sea food market – the Rialto – has some of the best bars in the city.
The Rialto Bridge.
Do Spade, Do Mori and Al Diavolo e L’Aquasanta are old school wine bars packed with locals and traders from the market at lunch time and early evening – at Diavolo, two glasses of nice house vino rosso will only cost you euro 1.60.
Santa Croce nestles beside San Polo in the ‘bump’ in the Canal Grande. A warren of little streets which suddenly open up into ‘campos’ – small squares with shops, bars and outside tables to grab some sun as you sip your spritz. Spritz – in case you were wondering – is Campari, white wine and soda; ubiquitous in Venetian bars – red in colour, light and sparkling to drink and very refreshing.
Ed enjoys a spritz every now and again.
Cannaregio is the northern part of the city. In Europe, you’re never far from reminders of the horrors of war. Venice is no exception, the Jewish Ghetto in Cannaregio has a memorial to the days in 1943 and ’44 when occupying German forces dragged 200 Jews off to the north, never to return. One of the bronze sculptures, named, ‘last train’ is very powerful.
Cannaregio is ‘neighbourhood’ – quiet, with real shops, bars and people. There’s a gem of a restaurant up there, ‘La Vita Bella;’ the larger than life chef will appear and dump extra goodies on your plate, glass of wine in hand – that’s until he has to slump into a chair outside and drink seriously with ‘the boys’ – a cool place.
Cannaregio contains two of Venice’s works of modern architecture – the 30’s railway station and Spanish architect, Santiago Calatrava’s Grand Canal bridge.
The train station in Venice.
The ‘Ponte Calatrava’ has been slated by critics, but looks comfortable in its surroundings, to my eye.
The Ponte Calatrava.
Castello is the largest of the city’s Sestiere; it borders San Marco at it’s western extreme – the Bridge of Sighs is in this district, but as you wander along the quayside, eastward, the t-shirt seller and tourist crush eases and there are beautiful views across the lagoon to Lido. On the corner of Via Garibaldi is the house where John Cabot, the man who discovered Canada, lived – albeit he thought it was China – without him, there would be no Pez!
John Cabot, or rather, Jean Cabot.
Our favourite area is Dorsoduro; it has everything. There’s the big, open Campo Santa Margherita, as fine a spot for a spritz as you could want. University graduations were on the go when were there – big jugs of spritz and singing were the order of the day.
Zattere is the wharf which stretches along the south of Dorsoduro, with views across to the island of Giudecca. On a nice day, it’s beautiful; but if there’s rain, a big tide and the wind is forcing the sludgy waters up the Adriatic and into the lagoon, then it’s positively scary as the boundary between water and quayside disappears.
Here comes the lagoon!
We were glad to climb the stairs to the hotel, that night, as council workers laid out giant ‘stools’ to cope with the flood waters.
Preparing for the nth flood in Venice’s history.
Art is everywhere in the city – the fabulous Accademia gallery sits beside the Grand Canal in Dorsoduro. Unforgivably, we didn’t get round to a visit, but we did pay a call on Peggy Guggenheim’s old pile, which is just along the canal side.
Heiress Peggy lived here for many years and on her death, it became a gallery for her fabulous collection of modern art – Bacon, Picasso, Pollock, Magritte, they’re all here.
The Guggenheim Museum.
Just off Zattere on Trovaso, are two jewels; the gondola yard and the Schiavi wine bar.
It wouldn’t be Venice without Gondolas.
I managed to blag my way in among the black beauties; that press card is handy, sometimes. “Due minuto!” growled the boss, in a voice which suggests he drinks grappa straight from the still. It takes nearly 300 pieces of timber to construct a gondola; around three months and costs 10,000 euros – that’s only two Colnagos! They are bigger beasts that they look in the water, when they are lying on the slipway. Flat bottomed to negotiate the shallows, they are built on a curve to compensate for the gondolier only rowing on one side.
The cheapest way enjoy a gondola ride, is at a traghetto – gondola ferry across the Grand Canal – the ride is brief, but for 50 cents, you can’t grumble.
The Schiavi wine bar is lovely, every conceivable wine, spirit and liqueur, the nicest of nibbles in the bar counter and sensible prices. I watched the old owner slice bread with loving care – each slice the same thickness – before his wife applied the toppings; artists with open sandwiches.
Jump on a ‘vaporetto’ – water bus, or ‘motonave’ – a bigger version of the same – and head north on the sluggish waters of the lagoon and it won’t be long before you arrive at the small island of Murano, world famous for its ornate glass. Way back when, the furnaces were shipped up there because of the fire risks.
World famous Murano Glass is made here.
The risk now is from high pressure sales people; but if you get the chance to watch a ‘maestro’ glass blower in action – take it.
Further north still, is the quiet but brightly painted fishing and lace making island of Burano; well worth the 40 minute trip for the tranquillity, light and relaxed atmosphere – not to mention the sane prices.
The colorful buildings of Burano.
On the subject of transport across the water, as well as the public transport system’s motoscafo, vaporetto and motonave, there are all manner of working boats on the water. Delivering parcels, stocking up the bars, hauling the trash away – it all has to be done on the water. In Dorsoduro there’s even a green grocers on a barge.
But the poseurs of this pitching, bobbing world are the water taxis; their water born Travis Bickle ‘captains’ sport expensive Blauer padded jackets, glitzy watches and shades and have mobile phones bonded to their ears.
They’re passionate about their craft, though – each taxi’s varnished mahogany upper works are lovingly chamois leathered dry before the shift starts.
There are speed limits on all the City’s canals, but on the lagoon the taxis really get into their stride. They’ll blast up to a plodding builder’s boat which is crossing their bows, flick round her stern then open the throttles, skipping and bouncing on the wash – as her passengers hang on for dear life and ask themselves if they wouldn’t have been better on public transport at a tenth of the cost.
Say cheese, Ed!
But we’ve just scratched the surface – you’d need a month and a loan from Alberto Contador, to do it all justice – but even if you just manage a weekend, go and see it – you’ll thank us.