36 hours in Venice, Italy

O VENICE! Venice! when thy marble walls
Are level with the waters, there shall be
A cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls,
A loud lament along the sweeping sea!

- Lord Byron

It’s no exaggeration to say that there are no superlatives too effusive for Venice. There’s no place like it, and visiting last month for the first time since late 2006, it was even better than I remembered it. I took way too many photos, of which those below are a small selection. I hope you enjoy them and that they convey something of how serene and surreal Venice is.

Wandering the canals

The best way to pass time in Venice, in my view, is simply to wander. The entire place is absolutely amazing; it’s not like some bigger cities which have landmarks interspersed with nondescript or unpleasant bits. You could walk all day around Venice and only see beautiful things. It’s an Instagram paradise! No sooner had we got off the airport bus and started walking to our apartment than we were stopping to get our cameras out to photograph classically Venetian scenes like this.

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This was the view from the little balcony at the apartment we shared with friends.

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A walk around Venice gives you the strange sensation of time stood still, because there are basically no modern buildings. They’re all historic buildings in varying degrees of decay, which makes the past seem tantalisingly tangible.

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Some of the canals have streets or piazzas alongside them…

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…but often people’s doors open directly onto a canal. There are innumerable bridges and the view from every one of them is delightful.

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In this photo, the winged lion you can see on the official city of Venice flag is the symbol of St Mark – a saint famously associated with Venice, but basically appropriated by the Venetians when they nicked some relics from Alexandria in 828. You see this flag all over the city.

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Sometimes there would be something unusual to add even more interest to the canal photos, like this postcard stall.

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And other times, a street would end abruptly in a canal, like this.

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The waterways can get quite busy, as all the things we get done by vans and lorries (deliveries, bin collections etc) are done by boat in Venice. There’s a line of boats coming towards us in this photo, and I don’t know whether you can see them, but there’s actually some traffic lights on the corner of the building on the left! I don’t know how much they get used.

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The gondoliers

No mention of the canals of Venice would be complete without talking a bit about the famous gondolas and their distinctively attired boatmen, the gondoliers.

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There’s no single place where you go for a gondola ride; there are little gondola stations all over the city, and you’ll hear the cry of “Gondola! Gondola!” lulling romantically inclined tourists into paying €80 for a gondola ride.

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We didn’t think it was worth paying that much, so we were content to photograph them instead.

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Gondolas are exceptionally elegant vessels, their long and narrow form perfectly suited to navigating the narrow canals.

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Gondolas were the chief mode of Venetian transport for centuries, but they now seem to be mainly for the tourists. Still, it was a glorious sight to chance upon one when crossing a bridge.

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An interesting fact: the gondola design is full of symbolism. The six ‘teeth’ on the iron prow – itself necessary for balance but also cut in an S-shape to represent the Grand Canal -  represent the six districts of Venice, just as the flag of Venice (as you saw in the pic above) is cut so that there are six flaps.

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The Grand Canal

Which brings me neatly onto the subject of the Grand Canal. For me, the charm of Venice lies in its maze of smaller canals, but the city’s dominant waterway is truly a sight to behold. Lined by historic palazzos, everywhere you go along the Grand Canal you get the feeling that you’re stepping into a painting by Canaletto.

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For those of you who’ve seen Casino Royale, you might also remember the Grand Canal from the bit towards the end when a whole palazzo sinks into the water. I’m not sure which one it was!

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The best view of the Grand Canal is to be found from the Rialto Bridge, the grandest bridge in Venice (it’s even mentioned in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice).

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This is what the Rialto looks like when you’re not standing on it.

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This is the Grand Canal a bit further along…

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…and this is what the other side of that bit of island looks like.

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Piazza San Marco

The symbolic heart of Venice is Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), seen here from the opposite bank of the Grand Canal. The tower you can see is the Campanile (bell tower), and you can just make out the onion domes of the Basilica.

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This is how it looks from the piazza itself.

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We did go inside the Basilica and it’s as impressive as you might expect (lots of gold), but you’re not allowed to take photos inside so I’m afraid I only have pictures of the outside!

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This is the Doge’s Palace, where the rulers of Venice once lived. On the first floor on the left, you can just about make out that two of the columns are pink. This is apparently where the Doge used to appear during ceremonies, as well as where the death sentences were read out!

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This is what the Doge’s Palace looks like from the top of the Campanile, which I thoroughly recommend doing. It’s only €8 and well worth it if the queue isn’t too long. Don’t worry, there is a lift to get you up to the top and back down again!

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The classic onion domes of the Basilica viewed from above.

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The interesting thing is that from this perspective, you can’t see a single canal. You’d never know that it wasn’t just a normal city with roads!

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When you’re walking around Venice at ground level, it’s very easy to forget about the outside world. It’s such an immersive experience that you quickly become caught up in this unique little Venetian bubble. From the vantage point of the Campanile, the industrial features on the horizon are a reminder that Venice is part of a wider outside world!

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Back at ground level, if you walk towards the Grand Canal and turn left, you’ll get a great view of another famous Venetian bridge: the Bridge of Sighs, completed in 1603. This is the only one of Venice’s many renowned landmarks that’s a little underwhelming, as it’s so small and not as beautiful as the Rialto.

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Its romantic nickname – a 19th century translation by Byron from the Italian ‘Ponte dei Sospiri’ – presents a misleading view of its real function: to convey prisoners from the Doge’s Palace on the left to the prison wing on the right. The ‘sighs’ were those of the prisoners as they caught their last glimpse of Venice through the tiny windows on the bridge on the way to their cells.

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Like the Bridge of Sighs, other features that add to the beauty of the city now are there for practical reasons. A lack of fresh water meant that wells are to be found in each of the numerous piazzas, and though decorative, they were crucial for collecting rainwater in days gone by.

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This would be a nice place to do your fruit and veg shopping, wouldn’t it?

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When you see the size of some of the streets, it’s little wonder that Google Maps doesn’t work well in Venice – it always seemed to struggle to locate us! This was the narrowest one, and I’m pretty narrow myself, so that tells you just how close those buildings were to each other!

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Churches

Like every Italian city, Venice is full of grand churches, and St Mark’s Basilica is merely the most famous. Just like in Rome, there seems to be an ornate church around every corner in Venice.

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This one was just round the corner from our apartment.

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Everything you’ve heard about Venice being full of crumbling buildings and peeling paint is right, by the way.

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It’s a big part of what makes Venice so charming and romantic.

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Mask shops

Another tradition Venice is famous for is the Carnival, and the masks worn during this festival are a familiar sight around the city. Scores of little shops packed to the rafters with exquisitely designed masks provide endless interest, and I confess I bought two to take home!

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The beaked masks – like the one you can see in this photo – are particularly striking for being rather more sinister than the rest. Their origins lie centuries ago in the plague, when it was believed that one could catch the disease simply by smelling the foul odours associated with the decaying bodies of plague victims. Thus the plague doctors wore these beaks filled with nice-smelling things like herbs and petals, which, by blocking out the stench of death, they believed would protect them from catching the plague themselves.

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Here I am modelling a couple of marginally less creepy masks. I bought the one on the right, along with another, and they now adorn our chest of drawers as a reminder of the trip.

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As well as masks, the other thing you’ll see in all the shops is Murano glass. Yet another famous Venetian achievement is the creation of beautiful glass, its manufacture centred on the island of Murano. I’ve been to Murano before and watched the glassmakers at work, but we didn’t have time this trip. Instead, we admired the innumerable glass creations in shop windows, from delicate glass balloons to little glass penguins.

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Acqua Alta Bookshop

I’d heard good things about this bookshop and it was firmly on my radar for this trip. It’s the most disorganised bookshop I’d ever seen: books stacked everywhere, including in a gondola that takes up much of the floor space in the main part of the shop.

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I ventured tentatively up those rather unstable book stairs to see what the view was…

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…and this was it.

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As you can see, it’s an Instagram dream come true!

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Restaurants

As if the cultural treasures and enchanting atmosphere were not enough of a reason to visit Venice, the food – oh, the food! – is, as you would expect from an Italian city, sensational. We ate very well during our time in Venice, whether a slice of pizza on the street or a full-blown three-course restaurant meal. Literally a moment’s walk from our apartment we had dinner at a lovely restaurant where we began with a shared platter of delicious cured meats – the perfect accompaniment to the house red wine, which, as everywhere in Italy, was remarkably low in price.

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Pizzas were, of course, a must. The ones in this particular restaurant all had Venetian dialect names.

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On the second night I felt I should try a non-pizza dish, and opted for this delicious gnocci served with ricotta, tomatoes and pesto.

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Venice is the home of tiramisu, so we couldn’t leave Venice without trying some. It didn’t disappoint!

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By day, another thing you absolutely must try is cioccolato caldo, or hot chocolate. The hot chocolate in Venice isn’t like other hot chocolate. It’s extremely thick and velvety, and even better served ‘con panna’ – with cream.

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Venice at night

Some cities are more magical at night (Rome being one); if you ask me, Venice is equally enchanting by day or by night.

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It was really quiet when we set out for an evening wander, and I’m not sure whether that’s because of the time of year, or the part of the city we were in (the Rialto area). Either way, it was a nice contrast to the bustle of the daytime and the solitude gives you a chance to absorb the sounds and stillness.

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This is the view from the Rialto Bridge.

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As you can see, an atmospheric fog had settled over the city.

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How to make Venice even more magical: add fairy lights.

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It’s a cliche, but Venice really has to be seen to be believed, so I can’t recommend a visit highly enough. It’s dead easy from the main airport (Marco Polo) – half an hour on the bus and you’re immediately in the middle of all this. It’s the perfect escape from the outside world.

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