I had never been to Venice before. In fact, before 2020 I had never properly visited Italy – outside a couple of work related trips. Those don’t really count however as you can only get glimpses of the country in the brief hours you’re not at the factory, or at the compulsory dinners with work colleagues in the evening. In February, in the weeks before the first lockdown I had finally visited Rome, and promptly fallen in love with the place. Venice was next on my list of places in Italy that I wanted to see. When the trip I had booked to Beirut via Vienna earlier in the year was cancelled (even before the tragic explosion in Lebanon), I immediately went onto the Ryanair website and booked a jaunt to Venice. I was almost certain this trip would be cancelled before take-off. As the departure date approached, it started to look more likely. As with all these trips – I book them in hope and if they go ahead, I will be on that airplane, all the while expecting to be thwarted.
‘Any plans for your long weekend off’ asked my colleague that Thursday morning on the day of departure.
‘Nothing much, a bit of gardening maybe’ came my dishonest reply. I am not a talented liar. The trick with dishonesty is to keep it simple. I do not have a garden – and even if I did, I expect it would be neglected.
Dublin airport was a ghost building. The Ryanair flight was at approximately 10% capacity. The bus from the Marco Polo Airport on the Italian mainland to Venice was empty aside from the driver and myself. It was very pleasant but slightly eerie. I was deposited at Piazza Le Roma where I switched on Google maps and promptly got lost. According to the app, I was a seventeen-minute walk to my hotel. The challenge is that Venice is an ancient city with narrow laneways that are so higgledy-piggledy that it is easy to miss your turn. It was 8pm so it was already dark. After a valiant hour long effort I located my accommodation and let myself in with the codes provided in my booking. I was staying in an old Venetian building where the owners were living in the ground floor apartment and upstairs was used as a pension. My room was spacious, comfortable and spotless. My kind of place.
That first evening I just wandered about stopping for a pizza and glass of red on a terrace in a square. The weather was still very mild, which was ideal as it meant that all my meals would be consumed outdoors that weekend. I located a Co-op supermarket where I purchased Cornflakes, milk, orange juice, eggs and instant coffee for breakfast for my stay.
The next morning I walked to the famed Piazza San Marco – one of the world’s most famous and visited squares. I had heard that this place was usually quite overwhelming in terms of both its beauty and the omnipresent throngs of people. The stunning architecture remained. The crowds were gone. The square was not empty by any means but was sparsely populated – mainly with Italian speaking tourists. I visited St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace on the square. As expected, both were resplendently gaudy. That evening I ate cuttlefish for my supper at a restaurant near my house. I always try to sample new dishes when I see them. Cuttlefish is vile.
The following day I had a ticket booked for a tour of the legendary Fenice Opera, where Maria Callas found fame. It is a stunning building. I tried my luck at the counter asking if there was any last minute tickets for the jazz concert that evening. The attendant laughed. Being allowed to sell only 25% of the capacity of the auditorium meant that cheap tickets were off the menu. Instead I walked over to Harry’s Bar – why this place is famous I do not know. I walked through the saloon doors and looked at the menu. I gasped at the prices and immediately slunk back out again.
On Sunday, I went to the Jewish Ghetto and visited the museum there. The Shakespeare play ‘The merchant of Venice’ was the first time I had learned about Venice. I always had sympathy for the Shylock character and wanted to visit where he was forced to live because of his religion. Venice was the first city to create a Jewish Ghetto. These days it is shabby and crumbling – much like all of Venice really. A friend in Scotland had recommended a live music bar named Il Paradiso Perduto (Paradise Lost) close to the Ghetto. I made my way there for an Aperol Spritz, which was very refreshing. My evening meal was a ricotta pizza on a piazza. When I tried to pay with my card the waiter said that their machine was broken and pointed me in the direction of the nearest ATM. When I arrived back with my cash money note there was a complimentary limoncello waiting for me for the inconvenience.
On Monday, I purchased a 48-hour ferry ticket that allowed unlimited use of the ferries (vaporettos) on and between all the many islands of Venice. Masks were compulsory on the ferries. As the banks of some of the canals had flooded, ferries were operating on a reduced schedule. I boarded the first boat that was admitting passengers. It took me to a multi-storey car park beside the bridge to the mainland. There was no history here, unless you count warehouses. A boring hour was spent looking at shipping containers while I waited for a boat to collect me.
Finally, I was picked up. I made my way to the Lido di Venezia – a southern island that is the home of the Venice Film Festival and where the locals go to the beach. I walked to the seaside and laid out on the sand for an hour. Even though it was October, the sun was beating down. I took a paddle in the Mediterranean, which is always pleasant.
On Tuesday, I visited the Peggy Guggenheim art collection, which underwhelmed me – especially seeing, as it was such a rigmarole to get in because of the restricted numbers allowed in each room. In the afternoon, I boarded the vaporetto and went, the islands of Burano (noted for its lace making) and Murano (famed for its glassmaking). Both of these islands were very beautiful.
That evening I went to the cinema to see the Peter Jackson documentary ‘They shall not grow old’ about the needless waste of life of young British men in World War 1. A very sad and moving film.
Wednesday was my last day so in the morning I visited the Museo Correr on Piazza San Marco and the Querini Stampalia art collection and museum. Both were impressive but I was starting to feel slightly numb to the onslaught of culture and history to which I had been exposed over my four days in Venice. I took a vaporetto back to Piazza le Roma and boarded the bus to the airport. Once again, I was the sole passenger.
Venice was an absolute thrill. So steeped in history is it that I could visit again and have an entirely new itinerary. That is going to happen – one day when the plague is over.