Tuesday, 7 April 2015

A Venetian Blinder

I like to think I've got a reasonable way with words, and if you read some of my rambling reviews on here you'll probably agree that I'm not often short for them, but occasionally something will come along or happen which will leave me somewhat dumbstruck. Our trip to Venice was one of those things. From our first Vaporetto ride to our last gelato, Venice was an absolute delight.

When Clare first suggested visiting the city for her birthday (well, just afterwards) my first thought was the default 'Arrrghhh, that means flying.' However it wasn't a long flight, shorter, in fact, than our usual annual holiday, and it would mean visiting a fascinating, historic and beautiful city, so the misgivings were put aside and the trip was booked.

The flight out was fine, offering spectacular views over the Alps and, despite a slightly wobbly final approach, a mostly smooth journey. Around an hour's transfer and a slight confusion over the Vaporetto later, we were making our way from the Rialto Bridge to our hotel for the weekend, the Lanterna di Marco Polo.

The Alps

As a base for exploring the main tourist areas of Venice, the Lanterna is pretty hard to beat, situated as it is only a couple of minutes walk from the Rialto area, and about five minutes from St. Mark's Square. The hotel's spice-named rooms (we were staying in Vanilla) are quaint but comfortable. Ours had exposed beams in the ceiling, a comfortable bed and enough room to relax when we weren't enjoying the city. They also had free wi-fi, an unexpected and welcome bonus.

The proprietors were fantastic. Friendly and helpful with a few useful tips on how to get the most out of our stay. They also, very kindly, allowed us to leave our luggage in the hotel after we'd checked out; which, as our return flight wasn't until late at night, was a massive help and made our final day far more enjoyable than it would've been if we'd had to lug our cases around. Breakfast was continental style and very pleasant and we really couldn't fault our stay there at all.

Anyway, on to the city itself. On the Friday night, after having checked in and got changed, we decided to visit St. Mark's and also locate the restaurant we'd booked into for the Saturday. An enjoyable stroll through the narrow streets - filled with Trattorias and tat shops - and over bridges brought us to the square. It also brought us to a wonderful bar selling the local drink of Spritz (Prosecco, soda water and Aperol). After gulping back one of these and finding the restaurant we promptly got lost.

A pleasant meal (though I'm not sure I'd have cuttlefish again) and a couple of drinks later and we were en route back to Rialto, after stopping at the rather excellent Bacaro Jazz jazz bar first, then devouring our first gelato of the weekend. After a stroll over the Rialto Bridge (watch out for the pushy rose 'sellers') and another cocktail each it was back to the hotel to rest up for the next day.

At breakfast, Guido advised us to visit the palace and told us where the entrance was (which was good as we'd have missed it otherwise). He also suggested the best Vaporetto stop from which to visit Murano - the island famed for its glass - which would cut at least half an hour off the journey. With this knowledge in mind we headed off back to St. Mark's.

A lift ride to the top of the Campanile (bell tower) provided some fantastic panoramas of the city, but we decided to skip the Basilica as the queues - even at this early hour - were enormous. The wait for the Palazzo Ducale was nowhere near as long however, and it was worth every minute. The palace was crammed full of artwork, architecture and elaborately-decorated ceilings. It also had a fascinating prison section which gave one a real sense of what it might have been like to have been incarcerated there many years ago.

A view from the Campanile

After a quick detour to Harry's Bar - the home of the Bellini - we returned to Rialto for lunch and to a wonderful little cafe bar named All' Arco. Slightly away from the main tourist track, it was absolutely full of locals, all sampling a wonderful range of sandwiches and wine at bargain prices. Following a bit of shopping and a nap it was time to head off for our evening meal at Il Ridotto.

As we'd not been to Venice before, we decided to push the boat out (groan) and book into the Michelin-starred Il Ridotto for a meal on the Saturday night. Located just a moment's walk from St. Mark's Square, blink and you'd miss the unassuming exterior. The interior was equally understated, with beige seats and walls, though a splash of colour was provided by the Murano glass tumblers on each table.

With our meal being on Easter Saturday, the restaurant was offering an Easter tasting menu, with the only choice being between meat and fish for the main course. We'd read great things about the Tiramisu so we asked our waiter if we could substitute the dessert course for one of those instead.

Ahead of the first course proper was an amuse bouche of a delicious roll of sardine served in a light, subtle cheese veloute. After this was polished off, along with some warm, crusty bread and wonderfully spicy chilli oil, it was time for the main meal to begin.

Our opening course was an odd but pleasant concoction of a warm, slow-poached egg, asparagus and what was essentially scrambled egg mixed with Parmesan cheese. Next up was probably the best dish of the meal; two huge, succulent, perfectly cooked scallops served with a beetroot crisp, carrot puree, spiced mayonnaise and covered in a light, black tea crust. The scallops retained a nice hint of squishiness and the accompaniments complemented them perfectly.


The herb tortellini that followed was nice but not as spectacular. It was served with a couple of meaty langoustine tails and a pleasingly salty shrimp bisque though, which helped things along nicely. The main course was next. We'd both chosen the meat option, which consisted of a small lamb burger, partnered with a huge globe of tender lamb shank meat. This was joined by a crispy potato terrine, spring onion and some tangled strands of green cabbage. I'm glad this was the penultimate course as the sheer size of the lamb shank was a little overwhelming. Fortunately the Tiramisu dessert was wonderfully light and creamy without being too sweet.

Overall this was an excellent and not prohibitively priced meal which really enhanced an already brilliant weekend. The drizzly rain and our over-full tummies meant we went straight back to the hotel to sleep before embarking on our final day.

Sunday dawned brighter and warmer than Saturday had been, so we decided to make the Vaporetto trip to Murano. Following Guido's advice we wandered through the labyrinthine streets, convinced we were heading the wrong way. Thankfully though the frequent street signs kept us on track and we arrived at the correct boarding point before hopping on board. A couple of stops later and we disembarked at Murano.

With no better plan, we followed some of our fellow passengers around the edge of the island until we reached a glass factory and could walk no further. They were offering free demonstrations of glass blowing so we decided to wait in line and see what this would be like.

I have to admit I was cynical about the 'touristiness' of the whole experience but it was actually really good. While it was clearly aimed at the many visitors, it was still fascinating to see a craftsman at work and to understand more of the process. The sales staff weren't too pushy either. We were invited to donate to the glass-blowers coffee and beer fund and the prices in the factory shop compared favourably to those on the main island. With a few souvenirs in tow, we stopped for a coffee before heading back to St. Mark's. We took the longer trip back which gave us the chance to see the square from the lagoon.

Approaching St. Mark's from the Vaporetto

The sunshine had the crowds out in force so we enjoyed another Spritz from the same bar we'd visited on Friday before stopping for lunch. After that we found time for one final gelato (a Tiramisu one - the best one yet) and one last drink before making our way back to the bus stop, the airport, and then home.

I can't speak highly enough of Venice. My unfounded view that everyone would be strutting around in sharp Armani suits and sunglasses couldn't have been more wrong. The puffa jacket was the garment of choice and the whole atmosphere was pleasantly relaxed. So much so that, as we'd made a bit more of an effort for our visit to Il Ridotto on the Saturday night, we actually felt massively overdressed.

The city itself is a wonderful warren of streets and bridges, with something new to see round every corner and up every alleyway. Yes, it's full of tourists but it's surprisingly easy to venture off and lose the crowds and there are real rewards to be had by doing so. I can definitely say that I'd go back to Venice without a second thought. The city of romance certainly stole our hearts.

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