By Bonnie Friedman
Separated from the Italian Mainland by a few miles of shallow water, Venice is a world apart. For more than 14 centuries, the separation both isolated and protected it from foreign attack, the Pope, and Italian politics, allowing Venice to establish itself as a major trading hub and maritime power. The exotic Moorish, Byzantine, and Oriental influence – mostly in architecture, but in other areas of the culture, as well – remain and part of why Venice is such a beautifully intriguing place.
It was a republic unto itself – known for more than eleven hundred years as Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia – the Most Serene Republic of Venice. While it’s actually made up of more than 100 small islands, the Venice that most people visit is comprised of six main “neighborhoods,” known as sestiere. When you get to know them, you’ll see that each is as completely distinct. Venice has about 60,000 permanent residents (about half the population of Maui) and more than 17 million visitors a year – yes, you read that correctly. Incredibly, the vast majority don’t even spend the night. To get a real sense of the place, stay at least three or four nights, more if you can. While you’re there, try to imagine Maui with more than eight TIMES the visitors we already get – be humble, polite, have as small an impact as possible. Learn at least a few words of Italian. And if the Venetians you encounter are a little cranky, cut them some slack, per favore.
There are world-renowned attractions – Piazza San Marco with its gilt and mosaic cathedral, bell tower, Doge’s Palace and (ugh) pigeons. Go if you must. Better to get lost. Literally. Leave the map in your room and wander. You may discover something wonderful most others never have. If you keep your eyes – and ears – open, you’ll find a place where residents have their morning cappuccino or mid-morning cichetti e ombra (the Venetian version of “small plates,” most often enjoyed with a small glass of wine – yes, in the morning!). Have what they’re having. And at some point in your visit, be sure to have a spritz – Venice’s “official” beverage. Prosecco, Campari and soda water is the most popular iteration. You can get them everywhere. They’re often cheap, always delicious and beautiful.
Many of the city’s great old bacari surround the fantastic Rialto Market. A word about the market – it’s not a tourist attraction. It’s the place where many Venetians shop for fresh fish, meat, produce. So, either shop or stay out of others’ way and ask the vendors BEFORE you start snapping photos. Speaking of fish, eat as much as you can (except on Sunday and Monday when the market is closed) and try things you’ve never had before – sardines (sarde en saor is Venice’s “official” dish), smelt, monkfish, tiny lagoon clams called vongole.
A gondola ride will set you back hundreds of Euro. Instead, buy a vaporetto pass for the length of your stay – this amazing system of commuter boats is, basically, a subway on the water. Cruise endlessly…with the local folks. And visit the outer Islands. Buy an authentic piece of Murano glass – on Murano at a reliable studio. Visit the picturesque Island of Burano with its rows of colorful houses. Explore Isola di San Michele, the “cemetery island.”
I first visited Venice in 2005 and have been back every two years since, sometimes for as long as five weeks. For me, it is still La Serenissima, because that’s exactly how I feel when I’m there.