Although Submerged by Crowds, At Least There Are No Gondola Traffic Jams in Venice
by André Gayot
The Riviera, the latest heir to the family of the Oceania Cruises fleet, lazily fondles the banks of the Lido. It is a chubby newborn, weighing in at 66,084 tons, that can host 1,250 guests in lavish luxury. From the upper deck, one can glance a mirage becoming real: the 117 islets, the 177 canals and the 400 bridges of Venice, the home of Marco Polo. The rising sun ignites the roofs of the palaces and brushes with a touch of silver the dark green lap of the canals. As we get closer, so appears the marvel, the crown of “La Serenissima” (The Serene, as the Republic of Venice was dubbed) — the Piazza San Marco and its two gems, the San Marco Cathedral and the Doge’s Palace. From this height upon the 15th deck, the panoramic view is sublime, unforgettable. The boat, almost still, lingers, leaving our eyes and minds the time to record the beauty of Venice. Then it turns cautiously to the left into the Canale della Giudecca to the terminal. Of the many pleasures on board the Riviera, this extraordinary moment alone could serve as the raison d’être of the voyage.
Once ashore, we realize what a privilege it was to be able to take in the whole of Venice from the comfort and perfect location of the top of the ship. Venice is a victim of its fame. The city overflows with visitors; the Piazza San Marco is not flooded with water but submerged by all manner of tourists waiting their turn to join the lines for the visit of the Byzantine San Marco Cathedral or the Doge’s Palace, while tour guides shout to round up their clients and wave their colored flags above the crowd. Even the pigeons, an important (but volatile) traditional component of the area, have a hard time finding a landing pad. The surrounding narrow alleys are filled to capacity. Thank God, the waterways remain fluid and the Vaporettos (public waterbuses) never hit any gondola traffic jams. Getting to the train station — the terminus of the line on the Grand Canal — on time is not an issue. Venice might be too busy, but it is still Venice, one of the world’s man-made wonders that shouldn’t be missed in one’s lifetime. These words might add a few more tourists to the already massive throngs, but after all, we, the privileged ones must learn to share the universe, its wealth and its beauty.
Avoiding rush hours to visit the highlights would be a good idea, as well as seeking out the less popular destinations like the Accademia dell’Arte and its extraordinary paintings. Dozens of similar accessible attractions exist. Rather than the traditional visit to Murano and its glass factories, a tad too commercial, we were happy to stroll the streets of the island of Burano, which has kept more of its authenticity.
As this Venice escape was a last-minute improvisation, I could not get accommodations in the illustrious and highly rated Hotel Danieli or Hotel Bauer — completely booked at this time of the year — but I was very happy with the less glamorous Hotel Gabrielli. This family-run operation — for generations, since 1856 — is niched in reunited old palaces loaded with the charm of yesteryear. Conveniently located on the Laguna front, not too far from the Piazza San Marco but enough away from its hustle and bustle, it faces the picturesque island San Giorgio Maggiore. Large rooms, high ceilings, marbled old-style bathrooms, and simple, almost bare décor retain the feel of the past with modernized comforts. A plentiful breakfast is included, and there’s a decent restaurant for dinner if your feet hurt. Otherwise, the Via Garibaldi is not far. There the real Venetians live among their stores and restaurants. We enjoyed the neighborhood ambiance and the charisma of the “mamas” of the Osteria al Garanghelo and their typical local food: salad, fish fillet and lemon sherbet for the reasonable price of € 2O. (Via Garibaldi 1621, Castello, Venezia, Telephone: 041 5204967.) Another pleasant option nearby is the more sophisticated Il Nuovo Galeon (Via Garibaldi 1308, Castello, Venezia, Telephone: 041 5204656), which proposes a menu one level up at € 30 (cod purée, spaghetti alla vongole, sea bream a la plancha).
On la Riva degli Schiavoni, the night is sweet. The lights glitter on the Laguna, the noise of La Serenissima subsides, the mysterious charm of Venice percolates our spirit.
P.S. Pardon me for the hint of nostalgia in these lines. I first visited Venice in 1937. In the face of merciless time, I am strengthened by the ingenuity of man that Venice displays, and its capacity to cast its signature into eternity.
You can click on each photo to enlarge.