They say the population of Venice has dropped from 120,000 to 60,000 in the last 30 years. As younger people continue to leave in search of employment prospects outside the tourism industry, it is expected the island will be a floating museum in the next 20 years, rather than the thriving port it used to be. That said and done, it will still be well worth a visit. It took me half a day to get into it, but once I did, I loved it. The best advice I can give with Venice is this: Get lost. Don’t try and tick off tourist attractions – if you get lost, you’ll see them anyway. And you’ll see everything else as well. At first it seems really annoying that you can’t just walk along the Grand Canal. In order to make you way down it, you have to walk down a maze of back streets. But there in lies the beauty.
I only really had a day and a half in Venice. I arrived in the afternoon, stayed two nights and left the next morning. One extra day would have been plenty.
After I left Vernazza I was starting to get nervous about money. I had always intended to treat Italy like a holiday and start the backpacking in Slovenia. But I felt completely unsure about what each country would cost, so I reined it in a little in Venice. I’d already been in plenty of churches, and with crowds in Venice quite ridiculous, I decided to start skipping them. I’ve always had this aversion to paying to get into a holy site. I’m happy to donate, but I don’t like being told exactly how much to pony up to fund religion. So for me, skipping St Marks Basilica (at 20 euro a go) was an easy way to start saving pennies. That said, I was pretty impressed with San Marco and the Square around it. Though I pigeon-holed him in my last post, Rick Steves (American travel writer who appeals to the over 50 set) has a free app called Rick Steves’ Audio Europe. I downloaded it and listened to his audio guide of the square and felt like I learned enough to have ‘done’ the site. Without paying for entry or a guide. Score.
He also had a guide for the Vaparetto. The Vaparetto is essentially the waterbus the takes you up and down the Grand Canal and lagoon. It’s not cheap (7 euro for 40 minutes) so I thought I might try and learn a few things. Needless to say I looked like a total loser pressing stop and start on my phone and leaning out the window like an idiot staring at the buildings he was talking about and ignoring the others. I stand by it though. It was a great cheap (free) way to feel like I had learned a little about the city, done some touristy things, and all without a single queue or tout. On to the important stuff though. I knew I had a thing for Venice when got out of bed on the first morning and headed for an espresso bar. I was the only one drinking coffee. Everyone else was having prosecco. Venetians are a bunch of alcoholics. They live slowly and deliberately and drink and snack with wild abandon. I was decent and waited until lunchtime before I got amongst it, but Venice does not seem to be about sit down meals. You meander from bar to bar. Prosecco is two euro a glass. Spritz is three-fifty. Every bar has a glass case full of local bar snacks (far, far better than your average frozen spring roll). The local delicacy was baccala mantecato, which is a salted cod spread with milk and potato. You can get some on a piece of baguette with your breakfast prosecco for 50 cents.
And why wouldn’t you? There are many other delicacies on offer, including octopus, tomato mozzarella, calamari (where I started), stuffed peppers, several kinds of arancini (where I went second) and smoked tuna. On my first night I pulled up a stool in a small bar near the Academia Bridge (my favourite part of the island) and was lucky enough to strike up conversation with two Opera singers. Nicolo and Vincenzo were in town to perform Madame Butterfly and while trying to explain each snack, started buying them for me. I tried to buy them a drink in return. Vincenzo (probably about 25) was mortified – telling his friend (his English wasn’t so good) to tell me, ‘the ladies NEVER buy the drinks. No. No no no.’ So then they started buying me drinks as well. Nice boys.