Night train to Venice

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May 31, 1984: Love at first sight. I’m on the steps outside Santa Lucia station. The streets are full of water.

EXACTLY 30 years ago — in the late evening of May 30 — I was on a train rumbling south from the Gare de Lyon in Paris, bound for Venice.

I was 23 and had barely travelled — I’d been to Scotland and that was about it. I was no Alan Whicker. I’d left the UK for the first time four days earlier, seeing London for the first time as I passed through at the end of the first leg of this journey. Carlisle to London Euston. Then onwards to Charing Cross, bound for the Sealink ferry from Folkestone Docks.

We were Inter-Railing. You bought a ticket, a booklet really, which gave access to rail travel across Europe. You wrote in it where you wanted to go – then you got on a train (or a Sealink ferry, because British Railways ran those too) and went. I’m looking at it now, a record of 23 journeys. Only British Rail ever stamped it. I don’t imagine it’s as easy these days.

Four trains and a ferry got us to a youth hostel in Suresnes in the west of Paris — all of those in central Paris being full at such an hour — and a late supper involving a first encounter with real live Americans, who were friendly, but terrifyingly self-confident, and cous cous, which I didn’t try again for years, possibly decades.

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Ticket to ride: write in where you want to go, and it happens

There was no plan, other than Paris, then Italy. We had a chunky red paperback — the Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable. That, a passport, an Inter-Rail ticket and an ability to sleep sitting up, were all you needed.

Venice became the first Italian destination by default. We needed to sleep, and spend no money on accommodation. Anywhere else was too close. But the train to Venice (and beyond) arrived there at about 7am. So it had to be the one.

And so to Gare de Lyon, the biggest, most confusing, busiest station we’d ever seen. But we found the platform early and walked the length of the outside of the train before boarding, sometime after 8pm.

The further you were travelling, the closer to the front of the train your carriage was. I’d swear now that the one directly behind the loco was Greek and there may have been one from Albania. I could be romanticising. Someone may be able to put me right.

Behind that came carriages from Yugoslavia (remember that?). Our seats were in those belonging to the Italian railway — Ferrovie dello Statto. Behind were French SNCF coaches to be dropped off along the way.

I was more accustomed to the rattler along the Tyne Valley line — for me, exotic didn’t begin to describe this train.

We were heading towards Lyon, then on to Milan. Somewhere in the night there was a desultory passport check, long before the Schengen treaty opened the borders. Then maybe it was Verona and Padua, by which time the sun was up. Anyone who wasn’t awake by then was jolted into the day by some shunting at Venice Mestre.

And then, with the sun burning off the morning lagoon mist, we rolled across the Ponte della Libertà. And got our first sight of Venice with its campanile and domed churches.

Not long later, we were off the train in the morning cool of the unmistakeably Italian Santa Lucia station.

Soon after that, we stepped outside into the heat, and the glare, and I saw the Grand Canal for the first time.

And — I don’t care that it’s a cliche — I fell in love with a city.

The Giudecca: Venice beyond the crowds

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SIXTY-THOUSAND people visit Venice every day in high season and most of them, I’d guess, never see more than a fraction of the city.

They mostly pack into St Mark’s Square or crowd onto the Rialto bridge and then they’re gone, back to their buses at Piazzale Roma and the mainland or back to their cruise ships and on to the next stopover.

They may even tell friends and family afterwards that Venice is just too crowded. And that is true of the part they saw. Indeed I once heard an American backpacker in the streets behind the basilica complain that the streets should have been built wider in anticipation of the crowds. I was never sure that he was joking.

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The Molino Stucky building, now a hotel on the Giudecca

Yet there are so many other places to go. One of my favourite trips is to the Giudecca, a short journey that few visitors seem to make (unless they’re rich enough to be staying at the Molino Stucky hotel or the Cipriani), yet the Giudecca’s vaporetto stops of Zittelle and Redentore are only a short hop from the San Marco crowds.

And it doesn’t matter that tourist honeypots are in short supply on this largely residential island – although there is Palladio’s magnificent Redentore church – because the views back towards San Marco are worth the journey on their own. They’re even better when enjoyed with a beer and a snack at a table right on the edge of the Giudecca canal.

Except when those cruise liners slip their moorings and head off to their next stop of course. Then this happens…

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P&O’s 116,000-tonne cruise ship Ventura about to block out the view from the Giudecca. (2008)

You’re not coming in

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Venice club sign

You’re thinking about a night out and don’t know what to wear. You check the wardrobe and find some old gym clothes. You want to go out but you don’t want to leave your pets home alone. So you gather them up and take them with you. For some reason the doorman at the club isn’t glad to see you.

Sign on a club door, somewhere in San Marco, 2005.

Just one Veneto… 2010

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First published in The Journal, Newcastle, October 2010

LA SERENISSIMA – the city of Venice – is my favourite destination. I’ve Inter-railed there, honeymooned there and introduced my daughter to her beauty. What I hadn’t done, until recently, was venture beyond the city.

And there is a whole region surrounding that remarkable city in the lagoon – operatic Verona excepted – that remains relatively untouched by tourism.

The Veneto region – the Venetian Republic of history – only became part of Italy in 1866. To this day many of its people consider themselves Venetian first and Italian second and the Lion of Venice appears everywhere.

Marco Tiozzo's bragozzo, featuring the Lion of Venice motif seen everywhere in the Veneto

Marco Tiozzo’s bragozzo, featuring the Lion of Venice motif seen everywhere in the Veneto

Venice is the region’s capital but several of its towns reward the visitor.

Chioggia stands on the shores of the lagoon, south of Venice. The town is very much in the mould of its bigger neighbour. There are grand palazzos, narrow streets, massive churches, a waterfront and canals. It has definite charm but it’s a working town, fishing mainly, and feels all together more real than Venice itself.

By Piazzetta Vigo stands a small bridge over a canal. Our local guide, Michela Marangon, explains that it is older than any bridge in Venice. Therefore, she says, proud locals prefer to think not of Chioggia as Little Venice, but of Venice as Big Chioggia. Here also stands a pillar topped by the ever-present Lion, and woe betide anyone who says it looks more like a cat. Some out-of-towners heard to do so returned from their meal to find their car floating in the lagoon. See, told you they were proud locals.

Piazzetta Vigo was the boarding point for a boat tour of the lagoon in the company of Michela and an amiable ex-fisherman, Marco Tiozzo, in his lovingly restored lagoon barge, known as a bragozzo.

Marco took us through the town’s canals, past its fishing fleet, explaining how clams are scraped from the lagoon floor, before navigating out into the lagoon itself, following channels determined centuries ago and marked with the characteristic pencil-shaped poles.

A clam fishing platform in the lagoon of Venice, off Chioggia

A clam fishing platform in the lagoon of Venice, off Chioggia

More than cod and tuna... the fish market in Chioggia

More than cod and tuna… the fish market in Chioggia

We visited friends of his on a platform in the lagoon where the clams are cleaned. In the fishing season the workers live out here and now there are plans to turn one or two of the structures into restaurants where people will dine above the very waters where the fish were caught. It can’t get much fresher than that.

And even if you can’t dine like that you won’t want for a choice of fish or seafood as the town hosts a daily fish market. The abundance and variety  was fascinating when compared to  supermarket cabinets offering not much more than cod, salmon or tuna.

After a day in Chioggia a water taxi whisked us the length of the lagoon to Venice while we sipped Bellinis, the cocktail of prosecco and peach invented at the famous Harry’s Bar, near St Mark’s Square. More of the city later, because this trip also took in Treviso and Vicenza.

Treviso is a quiet, prosperous city. It is the home of Benetton and the company’s name and colours are everywhere. It’s a pleasant place to stroll around, you’re spared any tourist tat and, as always in Italy, you’re never far away from an impressive church. The Piazza dei Signori, rebuilt and restored after terrible damage sustained in the Second World War, is the heart of the city and a great place to sit and watch Treviso go about its daily business.

Now here’s a bit of Treviso trivia: when the fish market was recently rebuilt they designed it to be odour-free so that it could be converted into a concert venue in the evenings, playing host to bands such as the marvellously named Peter Roastbeef and the Trippers.

And so to Vicenza, my new second favourite Italian city. It’s been a World Heritage Site since 1994 and is simply stunning.

The centre of the city is mostly free of vehicles so is ideal for strolling, stopping and  gawping at its remarkable architecture. Rarely will you see a city which looks so at ease with itself, where buildings harmonise perfectly. And that is because much of the city centre is the work of one of the most influential architects of all time – Andrea Palladio.

Palladio was a miller’s son who became a stonecutter and came under the wing of a famous scholar who led him to study architecture and gave him his new name.

Everywhere are palaces, villas, churches, public buildings bearing Palladio’s trademarks: porticos, classical columns, perfectly proportioned windows.

Facing each other in the Piazza dei Signori are two of the most important of his public buildings. They provide a frame for a dramatic public space in which people meet, embrace, talk, eat and drink.

The city of Vicenza, Palladio's masterpiece

The city of Vicenza, Palladio’s masterpiece

Best of all of his buildings is the Teatro Olimpico – the first permanent covered theatre of the Renaissance. It was commissioned by a kind of cultural co-op of rich patrons in 1580 and survives, amazingly, intact. Sadly, Palladio did not live to see the theatre completed.

I knew nothing of the building and was entirely unprepared for how dramatic the theatre space would be. Entry is via a grand, marbled, high-ceilinged reception room, leading to a corridor and stairs familiar from any theatre.

And then you’re in the auditorium where a glance to your right reveals the stage. It is filled with a remarkable set of seven streets, unchanged from opening night. In order to preserve the illusion of the streets going off into the distance children were used to represent crowds at the back of the stage. It is truly remarkable.

And so, back to Venice. We lunched not far from St Mark’s, in the Metropole (though not in its Met restaurant) where the chef has Venice’s only two Michelin starred establishment. Then, passing the Bridge of Sighs, we set off for a walking tour through the sestiere of Cannaregio with guide Luisa Sala.

We start in St Mark’s Square in front of the basilica, cross the piazza and head up to the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo before winding through the tightly  packed shopping streets to the Rialto bridge and the markets area.

The waters of the Grand Canal are lapping at the very edge of the banks, occasionally spilling over the top. The boards and trestles are piled up, ready for acqua alta, the floods which threaten for longer each year.

Venice is constantly under repair and restoration with the Bridge of Sighs surrounded by hoardings generating funds to help pay for the work. They’re calling it the Bridge of Signs.

Venice under renovation - the Bridge of Signs

Venice under renovation – the Bridge of Signs

The city is ever more prone to flooding as the work to protect it from the lagoon that gave it life – and constantly threatens to reclaim it – drags on without an end in sight.

But Venice is still beautiful and magical, more so if you can see it without the crowds.

Venice – still my favourite place in the world. But not, it turns out, the be-all and end-all of this corner of Italy. Parts of her once-Republic are pretty impressive too.

  • This article was researched and written in October 2010 and first appeared in The Journal, Newcastle, http://www.journallive.co.uk The trip was organised by Jet2.com