It's summer and in honor of summer, we're switching up our posts just a bit. For the next few weeks, I and ST's guest bloggers will be focusing solely on cities in one country, the wonderful and inimitable Italy. With its heat, beauty, leisure and conviviality, it can feel like the source of summer itself so it seems like a natural choice for this seasonal focus. It is also a country of tremendously varied and tremendously appealing cities--and quite obviously I love nothing more than the glories of great cities, large and small. So what more can I add except to say that this seems like a match made in heaven. And speaking of heaven, I start today with Venice.
I must begin by saying that I have not always regarded Venice as having all that much in common with heaven. Whatever that may mean to each of us, the association is at least and invariably pleasant. On my first visits to Venice in the 1970's and 1980's, however, I was bothered by the crowds, the unpleasant 'frozen in time' quality of a true tourist town and, frankly, by a certain creep factor. The mazy back streets, the watery quiet and no small amount of grunge struck me not as romantic but as disorienting, even at times sinister. Over the years, my appreciation has certainly grown but it was not until last summer that I finally, truly and deeply came under the city's spell.
What tipped me from cool appreciation to passionate attachment? In a word, the Biennale, the great contemporary art fair that takes place in Venice every two years. There's alchemy here. That sense of centuries old mystery pairs well with the contemporary vibrancy and vigor that the Biennale brings to the city. It seems that infinite possibilities are introduced into Venice's ever-present 'what's around that corner' question, especially now as the exhibitions of the Biennale spread throughout the city into seemingly every available space.
The Biennale is still staged primarily in the Giardini and the more recent added venue of the Arsenle but increasingly exhibitions take place everywhere. In 2013, Portugal's exhibition--literally--was a barge, not only the artwork displayed in its interior, but the barge itself. Twice a day the barge launched into the Grand Canal making stately progress up to San Marco's before turning around for the return journey to the seawall in front of the Giardini, all the while playing Fado, the mournful, traditional love tunes of the Portugese. I cried the day I took my ride on the barge. I'm not sure why except to say that it did feel like an impossibly large experience; one that I can claim in all good conscience to have put me in mind of heaven or at least in mind of limitless things. And so now I too and at long last am in love with this most magical city.
If you go here are a few suggestions. They say the only place in Italy where it is possible to get a bad meal is in Venice. I don't know if I would go that far but like so much of Venice there are many places that feel a bit worn out by hosting 20 million tourists a year. The food can seem as average as the waiters seem indifferent. I will mention two restaurants that I think are truly delightful, though, there are many more. La Zucca focuses on vegetables which is not to say it is a vegetarian restaurant but rather it brings complex finesse to a variety of dishes, many centered on vegetables. The service is both exceedingly warm and thoroughly professional. Another stand out is Osteria Alle Testiere, a superb seafood restaurant on the Calle del Mondo Novo. The perfect blend of excellent dishes with a quiet, ever so slightly formal service and a terrific wine list.
Where to stay. There are so many choices and many more famous and/or luxurious ones than the one I will suggest here but Sant'Elena has one advantage. It is a 4 star hotel located at the very tip of the main island, 50 meters from a vaporetto stop, wedged between a quiet residential section and a neighborhood park. The proximity to the vaporetto stop means that the Sant'Elena is, in fact, one of the easiest hotels to access in all of Venice and yet it is isolated from the crowds. At the end of the day this makes for a very welcome break.
The next Biennale is in 2015 so you have year to plan. Better get started!