A stylish Italian man waves and shouts ‘Signora Gianna’ he is wearing sun glasses. He has a diamond earring. He guides us over to a beautiful wooden motor launch whose varnished timbers sparkle in the sun. An Italian flag flutters in the breeze.
Roberto is our boat man and is immaculately dressed in perfectly pressed jeans and a navy quilted jacket. He looks as if he has just stepped from the catwalk at the latest Armani fashion show in Milan. I and my fellow travellers board the boat and admire the leather seats, polished wood interior and the pristine condition of our very own private water taxi. Once we are seated comfortably Roberto casts off and steers the boat towards the Grand Canal. We stand in the stern of the boat, feeling like film stars. Just a year or so ago George Clooney was in a similar water taxi in Venice, when he chose this beautiful city for his wedding. A water taxi down the Grand Canal from Piazzale Roma to San Marco has got to be one of life’s golden moments. We soak in the atmosphere, commotion, humanity all around us.
There is so much to see. Palaces line both sides of the canal, each one unique and distinct from its neighbour. The waterway is crammed with boats of every kind; water taxis, private launches, vaporetti (public water bus), garbage boats, builders boats, delivery boats, police and ambulance boats, coast-guard boats, tiny fishing boats returning home from a morning of fishing on the lagoon. Life is lived on the water here in Venice.
We progress down the Grand Canal in style, passengers on the crowded vaporetto wave and smile. There is so much noise, vibrancy and life to observe. As we head towards the Rialto Bridge the palaces become larger and more elegant. We pass Ca d’Oro, the House of Gold, once the home of Casanova. It has an elaborate Gothic facade, covered in gleaming white marble. These palaces were built by wealthy Venetian merchants when Venice controlled trade routes across the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. Each palace was decorated with columns, elaborate arched windows and intricate carvings. Marble in white, black, grey, green and pink is everywhere. The palaces were important status symbols for their wealthy owners. The grandeur of a palace reflected the importance and position of its residents. Obelisks rise from the roof of the palaces owned by the highest ranking individuals.
We see the fish market and the fruit and vegetable market to our right. Just beyond is the Church of San Giacomo in Rialto, one of the oldest in Venice with a clock dating back to the 14th century. Rialto is where Shylock lived in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The markets still operate every day of the week. Venetians come here to inspect the fish and select their dinner for the evening. It is a great place to come at sunset, there are numerous bars and cafes serving a great Aperol Spritz, the traditional Venetian aperitivo and delicious cicchetti (snacks). Just beyond is the beautiful Rialto Bridge, which spans the canal, the bridge is lined with small shops selling jewellery, leather goods and tourist trinkets. In the old days the jewellery shops were run by Jews who lived in the Ghetto of Venice – this was just a short walk from Rialto through the Castello district of town.
Beyond the bridge is the Teatro Goldoni, Venice’s main theatre, arcades and restaurants line the canal, all packed with people eating lunch and enjoying the sun. Our water taxi cruises calmly, serenely through the blue-green waters of the Grand Canal. We feel like VIPs, as we laugh and chat and take photos and enjoy every single minute. We pass the Aman Hotel where George Clooney actually got married in 2014. I’m still smarting at the fact that I wasn’t invited to assist with the wedding organisation. Next we see Ca’Foscari, the University of Venice on our right and the Fire Station of Venice, with its numerous red fire boats lined up and prepared for every emergency. Then we see the Accademia Bridge, made of wood, leading visitors to the area of Dorsoduro and the Accademia Art Gallery. A little further along is the Guggenheim. An amazing collection of modern art collected by Peggy Guggenheim from the 1920s until her death in the late 1950s. Now it is probably the best 20th century art museum in the whole of Italy. It also has a great cafe and a delightful courtyard.
Across the canal is the Gritti Palace Hotel, Ernest Hemingway loved staying here in Venice. Always in a beautiful room over-looking the Grand Canal. Just a block or so away is Hemingway’s favourite watering hole, Harry’s Bar. Now we are coming to the end of the Grand Canal. The Church of Santa Maria della Salute is on our right, a confection of white marble in a neo-classical style, built to celebrate Venice’s survival of a great plague. We come along side a wooden jetty and reluctantly leave our wonderful water taxi and head into the Piazetta. First stop Caffe Florian for a perfect Italian espresso or perhaps a hot chocolate. The musicians in the cafe start to play and immediately we are surrounded by the ambiance and atmosphere of St Mark’s Square.
The Austrians arrived in Venice in 1796, they took control of the city and at that time the Republic of Venice came to an end, it had existed for about one thousand years. Many Venetians still feel sad when they think about the end of the Republic and the arrival of the Austrians and soon after Napoleon. Napoleon declared St Mark’s Square, the finest drawing room in Europe, he was certainly right about that. An hour relaxing in the square with a drink is an essential part of a perfect day in Venice. Next it is time to discover a traditional trattoria for lunch. Our choice is Trattoria della Rivetta, just east of St Mark’s Square. We have a delicious lunch of spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti and clams). The clams have come from the Adriatic Sea earlier this morning. The local shop keepers eat lunch next to us, shouting, laughing and joking in Venetian dialect.
Next it is time for a spot of shopping and we stroll along the Merceria, the main shopping street, admiring clothes, glassware, hats, gloves, shoes. You name it, it is here in Venice. My favourite shop is a little paper and stationary store called ‘Liber’ they make hand-made note books, calendars, beautiful paper, envelopes and cards. Many of the items are decorated with Venetian palaces and churches. These make a great souvenir, you can take Venice home with you for ever. I’ve been coming to Venice for 36 years, I don’t actually like to admit that, it seems like too long, and yet every time, every single time I discover something new. Last time I discovered Giovanna Zanella’s amazing shoe shop, where you can order a pair of shoes ‘customised’ just for you. I ordered a beautiful pair of suede brogues, I love them, almost two years later they are still like new, smart, super comfortable and looking good.
This time we discover a fabulous optician selling incredible and stylish glasses frames, my favourite design has the detail of a gondola prow on either side of the lenses. A little over the top for me perhaps but certainly original. We walk past the Fur Shop that has existed close to the Rialto Bridge for as long as I have been coming to Venice. Then it’s out into the crowds and a jostle over the bridge, a quick glance at the jewellery shops and then down into the relative peace and quiet of the market area. By later afternoon the markets have finished for the day and the bacari (small bars) are opening up for the evening. Definitely time for an Aperol Spritz. We sit in directors chairs nibbling on cicchetti, little snacks, and looking out over the Grand Canal. There’s something so magical and special about Venice.
From here it is a twenty second walk to the vaporetto stop and a short ride up the Grand Canal to Piazzale Roma. Our driver will be waiting to whisk us back to the Brenta Canal and our country house hotel. Now that for me and my fellow travellers is the perfect day in Venice.
- I’ve been working and tour guiding in Venice since 1980. I love the city.
- For details of tours to Venice check out: Venice and the Veneto
- You can read more about aspects of Venice and Italy at: Educated Traveller
- Giovanna Zanella the talented shoe-maker was the subject of one of my blogs at: The Shoe Maker of Venice
- I strongly recommend staying in Mira on the Brenta Canal and travelling into Venice for the day. Check out The Brenta Canal, Venice to Padova
- For professional itinerary planning visit Grand Tourist the Educated Traveller’s tailor-made travel planning partner.