Venice is unique, dazzlingly so. It’s a fabled destination that belongs on everyone’s European bucket list. A distinction that during the tourist season, from Easter thorough October, turns the city of the Doges into a chaotic citywide museum, overrun by millions de visitors. At the height of the summer rush, cruise ships alone can unleash a daily stampede of up to 30,000 day-trippers onto the tiny island city. In the narrow lanes and lovely little squares along the de-rigueur circuit from the Piazza San Marco to the Rialto Bridge, foot traffic slows to a shuffle, and lines for anything from entering the Basilica to buying a gelato can reach epic proportions. But come winter, the crowds fade away and the magic of centuries past returns. The Serenissima becomes once again serene.
The Romance of Winter
Venice is a winter place, romantic and mysterious, especially when fog drifts in across the lagoon, swathing the whole city in a gauzy mist. Come evening it becomes an eerie place where footsteps echo along empty alleyway. It can be damp too, downright wet actually when acqua alta (high tide) blurs the line between lagoon and pavement. Boardwalks are quickly set up as water rises, and pedestrians walk on unconcerned. And it can get bitingly cold when the wind whips down from the Dolomites, adding a bitter edge to the damp air as it clears the sky to a crystalline blue. Time to wrap up warmly and enjoy the exquisite golden light that brushes the lacey façade of the ancient Byzantine palazzos.
Winter is the time when Venetians bring out their fur coats and their perfectly groomed little dogs bundled in stylish quilted jackets. Of course there are still tourists, there always are, but they are few and mainly focused on their own artistic pursuits. Local people go about their business and stop to chat in the small neighborhood squares. And this is hot chocolate season, time to dive into a cozy café for an afternoon cup of decadently rich cioccolata calda and perhaps a frittella, the plump little doughnut oozing with sweetened ricotta or zabaglione that is a pre-Lenten staple. Everywhere the mood is one of conviviality unknown once the tourists take over.
It is this wintery Venice that cast its spell on me decades ago, on the November weekend of my first visit, and draws me back every few years. Over time, I have set for myself a few necessities for an ideal Venice sojourn.
Arrive by Train
Not just any train mind you, but the overnight train from Paris, one of a handful of sleeper trains still operating in Western Europe. This is not your Agatha Christie sort of train, but a comfortable, moderately priced no-frill one (complimentary welcome glass of Prosecco served with dinner in the cafeteria-style dining car notwithstanding). The private cabin I am sharing with my girlfriend is made up into two bunk beds while we dine. Traveling at pre-high-speed pace over the Alps and down the Po Valley, we ease into Venice rested, just in time to watch the sun rise over the lagoon.
It doesn’t get any better than a morning arrival at the Santa Lucia train station, where you step out straight onto a Canaletto painting of the Grand Canal, with the regrettable but necessary contemporary addition of a major vaporetto (water bus) hub. The sudden transition into the timeless universe of Venice feels a bit surreal.
Take the Vaporetto
Venice may be a puzzle of 118 islands stitched together by 400 foot bridges, but constrained within its watery boundaries, the overall city is actually quite small (about 4.5 kilometers, or 2.75 miles east to west, and 2.5 kilometers, or 1.75 miles north to south), making it possible to walk just about everywhere. Although we could walk from Santa Lucia to our Dorsoduro District hotel in about the time it takes reach it by vaporetto, only a boat approach will do. As soon as it has extricated itself from the traffic in front of the station and circled the western tip of the island, the vaporetto enters the broad outer Canal of the Giudecca. The familiar stretch of the Dorsoduro’s Zattere Promenade comes into focus, punctuated by the soaring classical façade of the Church of Santa Maria del Rosatio glowing in the morning sun. From here, Venice unfurls itself in all its splendor.
Stay in the Dorsoduro
Located on the south side of the Grand Canal, right across from the San Marco district, the Dorsoduro is my favorite place to stay, for its authentic lived-in neighborhood atmosphere and relaxed pace. Here, housewives roll their small shopping carts to the market in the morning, and children play in the squares after school. On the San Troveso Canal that links the Giuadeca to the Grand Canal, the city’s oldest working gondola yard, the 17th century Squero di San Trovaso, one of the last two surviving in Venice, is still bustling with activity.
Home to several of Venice’s leading museums, including the Gallerie dell’Accademia (Venetian paintings) and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (modern art), the Dorsoduro is also the main university area of the city. Both the Ca’ Foscari University and the Accademia di Belle Arti (Academy of Fine Arts) are located here. Between classes, students fill the small, convivial cafés that serve inexpensive ciccheti (small snacks) at all hours. These are fun places where to pop in for a quick lunch.
But for now, lunch is still some ways off and our room won’t be ready “until afternoon.” We entrust our luggage to the desk clerk and head out to enjoy a favorite Venice pastime: wander along back alleys, cross narrow stepped bridges and peer through open doorways into hidden garden. Just get lost for a while and let the city reveal itself.
Good to Know
- Getting there – Thello is a subsidiary of Trenitalia (Italian Railways) formed to operate trains between the Paris Gare de Lyon and Venezia Santa Lucia railway stations with stops in Dijon, Milano Brescia, Verona, Vicenza and Padova. The refurbished Wagons-Lits Company sleeping-cars were originally built from 1964 to 1974. Each has 12 compartments with their own washbasins, usable as single, double or triple berths. Basic couchette cars with four and six berths are also available.
- Getting around – Vaporetto The Venice public transports company, ACTV, runs efficient and punctual vaporetto lines all around the city and the outlaying islands of the lagoon. Single fare tickets are €7.5 (approximately $10 at current exchange rate). If you plan to use vaporetti frequently, travel cards are available for unlimited travel during a set period of time (24, 48 and 72 hours, or one week) at greatly reduced rates. Tickets and cards may be purchased at vaporetto stops. Time begins when you first validate your card at the yellow machine located at each vaporetto stop. Traghetto – If this ultimate Venitian tourist cliché otherwise known as a gondola ride is on your bucket list but you are put off by the extortionate rates, consider a taking a traghetto, the gondola service used by locals to cross the Grand Canal between its four widely spaced bridges. Traghetti usually run from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm at six crossing points. Rates are € 2 per crossing for non-residents.
- Staying – There is an over-abundance of short-term lodging options throughout Venice, ranging from efficiency apartments to internationally famous luxury hotels. Prices soar during the tourist season, but return down to earth in winter. For years, my personal favorite place to stay has been La Calcina, Dorsoduro 780, Fondamenta della Zattere, 30123 Venice. While this property, family-run for generations, had long since been fully modernized, it had retained the unpretentious feel of a genteel pensione reminiscent of the days when the famous 19th century British author and art critic John Ruskin was a long time resident there. However, on this last stay, the property had recently changed ownership. While sweeping view of the Giuadecca Canal, attentive service and realistic prices remained, the public areas had experienced a complete “update” to the stage-set style that is the norm in many Venice hotels. Our room was still unchanged but there was considerable work in progress on the upper floors of the hotel. and it’s anybody’s guess what may become of La Calcina in the near future. Contact: tel + 39 (0) 41 52 06 466, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.