On telling friends we were weekending in Venice, they all related two recent Italian travel stories: British holidaymakers being charged â‚¬64 (Â£54) for four ice-creams in Rome and Italian tourists being billed Â£85 for four liqueur-laced espresso coffees in Veniceâ€™s St. Markâ€™s Square. We were already well aware of the ice-cream story as my partner, Roy, had won our Easy Jet flights with a corny limerick in the Saturday Telegraph: Google â€œtelegraph travel those costly cornettosâ€ and youâ€™ll see what I mean. We were determined not to be caught out in the same way.
We flew from London Southend, named by Which? as the best airport in Britain, despite it still being under construction. Check-in and security were a doddle and Lakers bar quiet until the arrival of five hen parties and two stag groups. Fortunately, the boys headed for Amsterdamâ€™s red light district and the girls for tapas in Barcelona.
Whilst the airport experience was good, the same cannot be said about the late flight time and we didnâ€™t arrive at Marco Polo airport until 8pm. Wanting to avoid the sleek and speedy water-taxi transfer (said by Rough Guide to be â€œthe most expensive form of taxi in Europeâ€), we headed for the water-bus at â‚¬13 each. Unfortunately we just missed the fast Arancino orange vaporetto to Rialto Bridge and as the next one wasnâ€™t for an hour, we took the slower Blu route. We didnâ€™t have long to wait but after everyone had disembarked, the boatmen disappeared off for what I suspect was a quick fag break before we were allowed on. As the luggage had to be stacked in order of disembarkation: this was not an Easy Jet speedy boarding experience. We eventually arrived, tired and hungry at the alternative San Zaccaria pier at 10.30pm.
Weâ€™d decided to get a taxi to the hotel, not realising central Venice is traffic free. Whilst I navigated the alleys using my trusty flexi map, aided by light from passing shops and bars, Roy trailed in my wake humping the bag over the many stepped canal bridges. By the time we found Hotel Bruno, all the neighbouring bars and restaurants were closed except for Crazy Pizza, a small take-away next to the hotel. This provided wonderful, thin but firm, slices of Margarita Pizza for â‚¬2.20 each which we ate wandering down San Lio. We later discovered Trip Advisor rated it 85 out of Veniceâ€™s 1,066 restaurants. The next day we discovered La Boutique del Gelato on the other side of the hotel which provided my evening fix of ice-cream for â‚¬2.50. The hotel location, sandwiched between pizza and ice-cream, was my idea of bliss.
We visited the must see sights of Piazza and Basilica di San Marco, Rialto Bridge, Dogeâ€™s Palace etc, but found them horrendously crowded and so we simply wandered and explored the maze of narrow alleys and streets. We stumbled across beautiful bridges, with their queues of gondolas, and small, sunny palazzos where we stopped for due bicchiere di vino bianco per favore. When learning a new language itâ€™s always best to start with the basics: â€˜two glasses of white wine pleaseâ€™ and â€˜thank youâ€™.
Instead of being steered into guide book recommended restaurants, we ate at interesting looking places we stumbled upon. Barco da Fiore was tiny with high wooden stools, a few wooden tables and benches and lots of locals. The huge range of vino was served either from oak barrels or the bottle and on the bar was an equally huge range of chicheti. We shared a mixed plate of arancini (rice balls), caponata, anchovies and roast potatoes and although it had to be eaten with plastic knives and forks, was delicious and reasonable.
We discovered Vinaria Nave dâ€™oro a small shop selling wine from huge barrels decanted into 40 cent plastic bottles by hose. We bought 1.5 litres of a reasonable Pinot Grigo for â‚¬2.50. With a couple of rolls from a nearby bakery we had a superb and reasonable picnic feast. Itâ€™s just a shame thereâ€™s not more benches in the town where you can enjoy an al fresco lunch.
I was very undecided about whether to splash out â‚¬80 on a 40 minute gondola ride. One minute I thought, â€œI canâ€™t possibly be in Venice and not go on a gondolaâ€ and then having seen them lining up to go under some of the bridges, it seemed a waste of money. The deciding factor was our trip on the Grand Canal No 2 Vaporetto where for â‚¬6.50 each, we rode for an hour. We were lucky to get outside seats at the front which provided us with lots of photographic opportunities. However, as I still felt something was missing, we took a traghetto (gondola ferry) from one side of the Grand Canal to the other for â‚¬2. It was full of locals and instead of two romantic seats, was standing room only. But at least I can say Iâ€™ve been on a gondola.
How would I rate my trip to Venice? The September sun shone through out, we came back with decently priced Murano glass souvenirs for Christmas presents and Euros in our pocket. Finally, to mangle a few film and song titles, if you can stay far from the madding crowds, in a city that does sleep, you wonâ€™t look back in anger.