An implausible city, built on a series of sandy banks in the Laguna Veneta, free of land-based vehicles, bursting with life during the day but relatively silent and even a little eerie at night. Its ancient buildings bear the history of the city: The remains of floods stain their terracotta brickwork while inside a treasury of unsurpassable works by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese are waiting to be gazed at in wonder.
Venice is heaving with daytrippers, arriving off cruise ships and ferries from the mainland where hotel accommodation is less costly. A whiz through St Mark’s Square, a ride in a gondola, a gelato and a selfie on the Rialto is a typical day’s programme.
The other Venice
In places, the city is close to drowning from a human flood of visitors. But there is another Venice, quietly getting on with its life beyond the tourist-targeted restaurants with cloned menus of pizza and pasta and seemingly endless arrays of souvenir shops. Dig a little deeper and an elegant and sophisticated destination is waiting to be discovered and enjoyed.
But first, getting there without the hassle at airports and what eco-minded Swedes call flygskam (‘flight-shame’). The grand and traditional way to arrive is by train. The journey begins with a fast and comfortable Eurostar e320 high-speed train to Gare du Nord station in Paris – with 90% fewer carbon emissions than the equivalent journey by air. Métro tickets can be purchased on board, streamlining the straightforward transfer in Paris to Gare de Lyon from where you board the Thello night train to Venice . The premium two-berth cabins are superb and the standard cabins beat any seat on a ‘budget’ airline. The trip has all the appeal of an Agatha Christie novel without being bothered by inquisitive detectives. The traveller can fall into their bunk to be rocked to sleep for 9 hours of uninterrupted slumber. Breakfast (included), shower, and Venice awaits the 09.30 arrival.
Settling into accommodation comes first – in this case the elegantly secluded, six-room Cima Rosa B&B, perched as close to the Grand Canal as you can get without toppling in. Away from well-trodden tourist trails, minutes from a vaporetto stop and walkable from the railway station, Cima Rosa exudes tranquillity.
Grander but less intimate is the San Clemente Palace Kempinski, a former monastery set on its own tiny island with formal gardens and all the fivestar accoutrements. A ferry service shuttles guests to St Marks Square so when the crowds become oppressive guests can slope back to the peace and quiet that gave solace to the monks who once lived here.
For those with cash to burn, Gritti Palace has surpassed views of the Grand Canal and offers some serious and exclusive luxury.
Venice has its fair share of lovely-looking restaurants let down by mediocre food from overpriced menus but, hidden away in little alleys that will give Google maps a run for its money, are places well worth seeking out. Corte Sconta in a quiet area well off the tourist routes is reassuringly filled with locals having lunch and serves mainly seafood in season from the lagoon. In a similar vein is Ostaria Boccadoro, set in a quiet square with tables outside and some fascinating artwork on the walls. Its signature dish is a tasty raw seafood platter which contains creatures I’d never seen before, let alone eaten.
Alle Corone is another peaceful place hiding from the madding crowds at lunchtime, in a square a few footsteps off the main drag but empty of all but a few lost souls staring at their mobiles and wondering how to get back to where they were going. Skip the pasta course and enjoy some very innovative modern Italian food.
Evenings are a different matter. The crowds have gone, silence reigns in the narrow streets and canals; it’s time to go where hordes of selfie-taking visitors thronged during daylight. In the atrium of the lovely sixteenth-century fondaco dei Tedeschi, now a supermall, is the Philip Starke-designed Amo. No longer busy with visitors carrying their designer-brand purchases, the building’s architecture comes alive with mood lighting. Amo’s food is a delight, witty and inventive, and the tasting menu is a tempting proposition.
St Mark’s Square can get a little overpowering during the day so a visit to Quadri benefits from the serenity of an evening arrival. Another Philip Starke creation, the walls are filled with strange taxidermy and baroque mirrors, while the wallpaper figures the restaurant’s owners. To maximise a lunchtime visit, reserve in advance a window table.
Not far from the Rialto, along one of the main streets through the city, Bistro de Venise beckons for a dining experience: royally decorated with plush reds and gold, carnival masks, puppets, statuary and a series of artworks by local painters. Both menus – traditional Venice and a modern one with vegan options – are appealing.
Dining in Venice
Local is a superb restaurant that fully deserves its name and not just in the choice of food ingredients and the bottles for its canal-adjoining wine cellar (though which you enter if arriving by water taxi). Locally sourced too is the hand-made furniture and the eye-pleasing terrazzo floor that carries the restaurant’s logo. What I remember best is the chocolate barena, a chocolate island with trees crafted from celery, samphire, sea foam and edible flowers.
One final recommendation: Hostaria da Franz where menus are in the chef’s head as daily deliveries of seafood determine what will be prepared. In a pretty, old-school room, your waiter will let you know what’s available and by the end of the evening you’ll be on first name terms. Traditional dishes are given a modern twist here.
What to do with your few days in the city? Getting lost is a certainty but you arrive at your destination eventually. A good way to start is with a walking tour which will give you a basic sense of geography and history. A Guide in Venice offers an introductory tour while for art lovers Walks Inside Italy offers, among many others, a fascinating trip around the works of Tintoretto and Titian. Well worth the trip across the canal is The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, with works by Magritte, Dali, Picasso, Pollock and Mirό. When the art gets too much there’s a lovely patio looking over the canal where you can watch the marine world going by.
The Thello sleeper train brings you back to Paris where breakfast awaits at L’etoile du Nord, a bustling railway station place redeemed by affordable food of a very high standard. Or, if you have spoiled yourself with a business premier ticket on the Eurostar, relax with food and drinks in its station lounge before enjoying more of the same on the short glide back to London.
Stepping out from St Pancras International, you’re shocked at first to find no dinky bridges over gondola-filled canals but then you adjust to what you know are the urban realities of all cities except Venice.