Ted and I watched The Italian Job on a date night back when it was in theaters. I bought the DVD and would turn it on it during college procrastination sessions. There’s that scene at the beginning: magical morning mist, a burst of pigeons rising in unison from St. Mark’s Square, and soon after, a speedboat chase shattering the calm of idyllic Venetian canals.
We were in Italy for a month, surely we could visit Venice, fall in love with the ambience, flirt with cliche, and make it out unhindered by the logjam of 15 million visitors who arrive each year.
Not forty five minutes in, though, and we were ready to call it a mistake. Such a shame, we thought, considering the city’s magical reputation.
We’d taken the train in from Verona, hoping to see the highlights before bidding Italy “Arrivederci!” later in the week. True to warning, sluggish crowds gawking at fake murano glass and glittered Venetian masks clogged the zigzagged streets. Shop windows, mobile stalls, sweaty bodies, pushy people, narrow walkways, dead ends, crowded footbridges and kitschy gondoliers wordlessly taunted us, “Suckers! You’re in for it now!”
We felt swallowed up in a crowded theme park for grownups, making frenzied footfalls on an unhappy Amazing Race mission to reach St. Mark’s Square in time to meet our guide.
(Incidentally, that 15 million visitor number? The same annual count as make the Disneyland pilgrimage.)
Three minutes to spare, we situated ourselves at the base of the Lion’s Column, glancing unfazed at the Doge’s Palace, the Basilica, and the waterway of the Venice Lagoon, trying to catch our breaths.
Then the story flipped on its head.
Perfectly on queue, a dark haired woman walked toward us, holding a Walks of Italy sign, and with her blew an invisible wind of calm, snapping the spell of disenchantment.
How grateful we were to hear a peaceful voice break through the racket, as if a fairy godmother had swooped into the theme park line and offered to lift us above the queues, bypass the kitsch, and drop us into the real deal.
“Ted and Bethany? Great! I’m Jennifer. You haven’t been waiting long, have you? I was just on the other side of the column, catching a few rays of sun.”
She beamed a little bit herself, dressed smartly in a walking jacket with a cream and flower scarf around her neck. “How long have you been in Venice?” she asked in a dainty Australian accent. We sheepishly admitted to less than an hour and then returned the question.
“Let’s see…I’ve been here thirty-one years and…four days,” she said with a laugh. Come to find out later that she met her husband within thirty minutes of arriving in Venice to begin a job back in 1981, and she’d called the city home ever since.
“Well, we’ll be spending a couple of hours together,” she said, pointing out to the water. “We’ll take our private boat through the waterways, into some of the quieter areas, then down the grand canal and across the way to San Giorgio Maggiore, and there you can visit the top of the bell tower for a beautiful view of Venice. Come, shall we?”
We walked a few paces to the water’s edge, and up came Sebastiano in his impeccably stylish boat. He offered a hand, and we stepped down in, stowing our bag under the covered area and emerging again to sit in the afternoon sun on the forward ledge, just behind his polished wooden control panel complete with true Murano glass knobbed throttle. Perfectly elegant: exploring back-water canals in a gondola upgrade.
Pulling away from the square and out along the shoreline, the calm waters and fresh air lowered our blood pressure and the breeze hid all but the noise of Jennifer’s easy going descriptions of the sights along the way.
Ahhh. Sigh of relief.
Someone pleasant and confident to lead the way…
The Bridge of Sighs…yes, I’d heard the story of the prisoners who used to be walked from courthouse to prison and given one last glimpse of the world through the little windows. But we weren’t here to dawdle at the typical sights, we were off to explore the hidden nooks and crannies.
I sighed again knowing that we could finally calm down and relax. The four of us, Jennifer, Sebastiano, Ted and me, skirted the crowds, sliding easily past boats and gondolas and into side canals.
What unfolded was the antithesis to our hurried approach to St. Mark’s Square: time for photos, pleasant tales, insights into the city’s layers of architecture and history. Beautiful buildings visible only from the water, sounds of school children playing behind ancient brick walls, peeks into private boat moors, and sights of flowers and laundry dangling from rustic windows, sans postcard sales stands.
We passed a residential remodeling project in one of the back corners of the city, and my landscape architect’s mind bent into all sorts of funny contortions thinking about site access logistics and extra costs associated with boating in and out every piece of equipment and stack of construction materials.
We admired the lovely Church of the Madonna dell’Orto (“Church of Saint Mary of the Vegetable Garden”) and its remnants of Venice’s original herringbone brick paving.
We laid eyes on Venice’s basketball arena: casually disguised behind a brick facade and arched windows.
The foodie nerd in me loved learning which old buildings were once used as abattoirs, grain storage, and salt emporiums. The architecture nerd enjoyed Jennifer’s explanations of Venetian Gothic design and building materials. The historical drama nerd got a kick out of imagining Downton Abbey, Venice Style: servants’ quarters and kitchens perched high above the canals, stacked atop the water entrances, warehouses, noble floors, entertainment areas, and family living spaces.
After snaking through the side canals and seeing hidden spots, we reemerged on the Grand Canal and carefully made our way down the length, learning stories of buildings and ancient Venetian inhabitants and modern day movie stars.
We passed filming locales from the Italian Job, saw Angelina’s rental home and the balcony spot from Johnny Depp’s latest cinematic scene. Later, we motored by Clooney’s hotel of choice, Ted mimicking George’s stance behind the wheel when taking the private hotel shuttle downtown from Hotel Cipriani.
George Clooney’s favorite: Hotel Cipriani
Ted in movie star mode on the Venetian Lagoon
Sebastiano dropped us on shore at the Island and Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, across the Venetian Lagoon from St. Mark’s Square.
Jennifer led us through the church, past Tintoretto paintings, and on to the bell tower lift to rise above the water level and see lovely Venice from the air.
From the vantage point above the skyline, I could appreciate the city of islands and its bustling atmosphere of merchants and traders and visitors. An outpost with its symbols of life and industry, politics and power, leisure and beauty. Hidden spots, too. Timeless and fleeting all at once.
Us. And the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore. And the swirling seaweeds. (I think they’re lovely; I’m not even joking.)Venice from the Venetian Lagoon, behind the islands of Giudecca and San Giorgio Maggiore
Beautiful how a few hours in a peaceful boat influenced an entire change of impression, sending us far away from that first feared nightmare of Disneyland Venice and its queues and crowds and Venetian masks sprouting mouse ears, giving us instead serene memories of time spent together in the floating city.
Okay. Serene memories and landmarks to recognize when we next flip on that cheesy Mark Wahlberg, Charloze Theron, Edward Norton DVD.
Next up, driving Mini Coopers…
What film location would you most want to visit for a weekend? Have you spent time in Venice and found a hidden spot to catch your breath and enjoy the city’s beauty?
We are grateful to Walks of Italy for inviting us to review current and soon-to-be-launched private tour itineraries during our time in Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, and the Veneto. Walks of Italy provided the experiences; our words and images are our own. For more on how Walks of Italy fits into our Italian Adventure, check out our Definitionarium.
For details on Venice itineraries with Walks of Italy:
VIP Boat Excursion – Venice from the Water
Private Transfer and Personal Attendant Upon Arrival in Venice
Other Select Venice Experiences
One last parting gift – I love sharing beautiful things, and I’ve had this saved for months to pass along to you. Kind of like the gorgeous video at the end of our Rio de Janeiro post.
I hope you enjoy the three minute trip to Venice!