Venice in late June 2020

A week in Venice

Yes, I’ve been slack with the emails. Yes, I am claiming heat stress and body-drenching humidity.

Before we head to Venice, a quick update on my plans. My UK housesit is off, so the trip to London is off. Disappointed, but these are strange times and one must accommodate the unexpected. I’m staying in Lucca until about 22 October when I’ll head for Rome and a “scheduled” flight on 25 October. I say “scheduled” because flights can be cancelled, or you can be bumped, at a moment’s notice. Assuming I fly, it’s two week’s MI (managed isolation) from 27 October.

So, to Venice. A week in Venice in late June. What would it be like without the hordes of tour groups and the endless waves of cruise ship visitors?

Our personal travel agency – xPat Travel with Patricia Couttie Teague – took care of the bookings, securing half-price train tickets from Florence to Venice. I plan to use her for more travel. Train staff pointed the little temperature gun at us and we settled into a spotless and half-empty carriage.

Those who read last year’s emails will recall that the trip delivers about 30 seconds of scenery between tunnels until you’re at Mestre, so we can ignore the trip to Venice.

The railway station was almost deserted with most shops closed, including our favourite coffee shop. Oh, but some good news. Grom, the gloriously-named gelato shop, was open. You might also remember from last year’s email that you emerge onto a plaza alongside the Grand Canal where it appears the director has just yelled “Action!” and 300 extras plus water-borne craft do their thing. Not this time. Outside, a handful of people; no porters; no hawkers; no tired, lost, confused or fed-up backpackers. On the canal – a lone vaporetto lumbered past with its masked passengers.

Here's the skinny, as they say. One could have swung a 2XL-sized elephant on Strada Nuova, Rialto Bridge or Piazza San Marco without fear of hitting anyone. Many restaurants and shops closed, although the endless leather bag and tacky glass stores were open and oh so much more visible now they weren’t hidden by the hordes. There are way too many of both. And, since many of the furnaces have shut down, where was the stock coming from? Hmmm!

xPat Travel booked an apartment with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. One of the latter was described as en suite, but it was beside the other bathroom. It’s Italy. A full kitchen. A balcony overlooking the canal. Bloody seagulls perching on the lion statues on our balcony. Air con wouldn’t work, but we had windows to get a through draft. Little did I realise this was cool by comparison with the heat/humidity that was coming in Lucca.

No international travellers and EU locals hadn’t yet started travelling, so the packed bars and restaurants were a bit of a surprise. Aside from lunch on day one – a scallop that appeared to have cooked some weeks before, frozen, defrosted and then heated in a toaster – the seafood was DIVINE! We ate our way across Venice and the islands, relishing what was great food. And the more I walked, the more I realised that Venice’s riches are found well beyond the Grand Canal, Rialto and San Marco.

The smaller canals were clearer and we saw a jellyfish; wondered if it was “the” jellyfish that appeared in the media. Saw live fishies in canals in the heart of the sestieri, as opposed to the big canals.

The seafood was heavenly. Much of it comes from a rejuvenated lagoon, but also from the wider Mediterranean. The prawns were large, luscious, meaty, red rather than pink and melted on the tongue. I recall being told they came from France, but I could be wrong.

We had coffee in an empty Piazza San Marco and Paul, accompanied by Atticus the Tibetan Terrier, photo-bombed a publicity shoot brilliantly. Actually, it wasn’t coffee. It was 11am and that is Spritz time. There is another spritz here – the Hugo. Made with elderflower cordial and crushed mint leaves. Very refreshing. Very low alcohol so you can have a few,

Aside from Covid removing just about any tourist bar residents and EU people, Venice had been hit by the aqua alta – high water. It seeped into the palazzi and a museum or two. As Venice sinks and the tides rise…well, you can guess the results.

Chioggia – that “ch” is pronounced like a “k” – is a small fishing village at the bottom of the Venetian Lagoon. Venice does joined-up public transport. A vaporetto across an impossibly calm blue lagoon. Off the ferry and onto the bus – same ticket – to ride the length of the Lido. Said Lido is famous for its beaches, hotels, film festival and money….at the top end. The further down you ride, the more “local” it becomes. The bus drives onto a ferry for a short trip. At the other end, it’s a short walk to Chioggia, a place they describe as Venice before the tourists came. Here, we discovered caffe crema – coffee mixed into a rich, velvety ice-cream and served in small glasses. A new addiction.

At the other end of the scale was Torcello, a small island at the top of the lagoon. People have lived on Torcello since 452 BC. Wars, invasions, the bishop’s official seat for more than a thousand years, a political and trading centre. Swept by the Black Plague in 1348 and again in 1575. The swamps around the island grew, killing the lagoon (laguna morta) and its trade. Swamps also equal malaria.

Today, it is home to just a handful of people, including the parish priest. So, why go there? Last year, xPat spent a month living in Venice and explored widely. Torcello is home to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639. Outside is an ancient stone chair known as Attila’s Throne but more likely to have been connected with the church or judiciary. The island is also home to a devil’s bridge known as the Ponte del Diavolo or alternatively the Ponticello del Diavolo (devil's little bridge). All three look as solid as the day they were put in place. You can stand on the bridge, sit in the chair and walk on the tiles in the church. You are literally walking through history.

Oh, the other reason to go to Torcello was lunch. xPat, with Robby the schnoodle, lunched there last year. We had the same waitress. Deb locked herself in the loo and had to message us to free her. The food was divine.

Bill and xPat went to Padua for the day while Deb and I explored deep inside San Polo, one of Venice’s sestieri. I want to go back, for a month, because I saw parts of Venice where life continues without tourists – Covid or no Covid. Few tourists move beyond Rialto, the Grand Canal and Piazza San Marco. They lose out, but those of us who want to see the real Venice win.