Our second stop while we were traveling with Kate the first week of December was Venice, called, among other things, La Serenissima. Ahhhh, Venice—one of my favorite cities in the world! No cars—so quiet! We arrived around 2 p.m. and promptly bought 72-hour transit passes to allow us unlimited travel on the vaporettos (water buses). At 33 euro each, the 72-hour transit pass is a bargain if you plan to see a lot of Venice and will frequently use vaporettos to do so. Because we had transit passes, we used the vaporetto for short trips across the Grand Canal, which we might not have done if we’d had to pay 7 euro apiece for each ride! You can get transit passes at the ticket office outside the train station and at some of the major stops along the Grand Canal, which aren’t too busy during the winter. During summer, order your transit passes online and save yourself a long wait in a long line.
We stayed just next to the Rialto Bridge at Hotel Rialto, which we liked a lot. Our room was really nice with two windows overlooking the canal and one overlooking the bridge. The hotel first put us into a room right above a vaporetto stop, but because it was winter and they weren’t extremely full, they moved us when we asked for a quieter spot.
Venice has a long, illustrious history. Inhabited since the 10th century BC, it was a great maritime power during the Middle Ages and an important trading center from the 13th through the 17th centuries. It has been described as the most beautiful and the most romantic city in the world, and I agree!
Venice is such a maze that finding your way around is challenging. Most maps don’t help, but my favorite thing to do in Venice is to get lost, which is never a problem. That’s the best way to see the city and spot things you’d never find on your own.
Venice is divided into six sestiere, or neighborhoods, and we made stops in all of them. The Grand Canal, which makes a reverse S through the city, roughly divides the city in half. On this trip I saw so many wonderful sights that I’ve never seen before. Here are some of them:
San Polo – west of the Grand Canal
Late Wednesday afternoon we crossed the Rialto Bridge into San Polo for a visit to some of the major sights there. At our first stop, San Giovanni Elemosinario, which was tough to find among the storefronts (!), we bought a Chorus Pass for 10 euro each, which allowed us to visit 16 churches without paying extra fees. If you’re going to visit churches in Venice, take advantage of this deal. You can buy the pass at the first church you visit, or you can buy it online. Unfortunately we couldn’t take photographs in most of the churches, but they are beautiful!
In San Polo we wandered through Campo San Polo (campo is the Venetian word for piazza), the second largest piazza in Venice after Piazza San Marco. Chiesa di San Polo is located on the campo, and in the oratory are 16 paintings by Giandomenico Tiepolo, son of the famous Giambattista Tiepolo. Giandomenico’s Stations of the Cross are breathtaking!
We then went on to Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (known locally as I Frari), in which Save Venice recently restored much of the art. The church includes works by Bellini, Donatello, and Titian and has gorgeous choir stalls (see photos in the link above). It was my favorite church that day. By the time we finished visiting the churches, the sun had set and it was getting quite cold outside, so we had to stop for hot chocolate just across a small canal from I Frari.
Cannaregio – north of the Grand Canal
Cannaregio means “reed place” and its many straight canals and streets (so rare in Venice) were cut through a bed of reeds. Cannaregio has always been and still is a typical working-class neighborhood. We hung out in Cannaregio much of Thursday, stopping first at the Jewish Ghetto. The Venetian Jewish Ghetto was the first ghetto in the world and was instituted in 1516. We joined a Museo Ebraico tour of three synagogues—very Venetian and very interesting. According to Fodor’s, many Jews left Italy as a result of Mussolini’s 1938 racial laws, and on the eve of World War II about 1,500 Jews remained in the ghetto. Of 247 deported by the Nazis, 8 returned. Campo del Ghetto Nuovo has a collection of heartbreaking and horrifying sculptures of atrocities from the holocaust.
We found one of my favorite churches in Venice in Cannaregio: Santa Maria dei Miracoli. Tucked into a small slice of land, this church was built to house I Miracoli, an image of the Virgin Mary and child originally enshrined in a niche overlooking a street (these images—madonnelle—are often found throughout Italy). The Virgin was said to perform miracles, hence her name, and the people of Venice raised money to build a church to honor her.
Castello – northeast of the Grand Canal, this is the largest sestiere in Venice
We really visited just a corner of Castello, the corner that houses Santa Maria Formosa, a church built in 1492. I would have liked to see a bit more of Castello because I have been reading a delightful mystery series by Donna Leon. Her books feature Commissario Guido Brunetti, whose offices are in the Questura (police station) in Castello, not too far from Santa Maria Formosa, and I want to see the Questura (and other sights in Castello). Actually, I’d like to meet Guido Brunetti—such a cool guy, unfortunately only fictional.
San Marco, Santa Croce, Dorsoduro, Guidecca, Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore – To be continued!