The Ballards - Venice







 

OK, let's get this out of the way first...

"Just one Cornetto, Give it to me, Delicious Ice Cream of Italy"
You know the tune.
(Except that of course it's not made in Italy, but in Walsall. That's advertising for you)

So now that's all said and done, we can go to Venice: land of canals, serenading gondoliers and 56,000 inhabitants servicing 56 million tourists a year. A recipe for madness? We'll find out...


October 2013. The recession is "Maybe over" (well, we're certainly busy); the summer has been lovely (for once) and the entire American infrastructure is at a standstill over their debt ceiling. Healthcare is a Great Idea, Obama, but Not Today; the American economy is too indebted to China and your public debt is a thousand times what it should be.

A lot of people are very rude about EasyAir and RyanJet, but I will say this: they do exactly what they say on the tin. No frills, just an aerial bus to get you from City A to City B.
You just have to conform to a few simple rules:
- Don't put any baggage in the hold. You don't need 90% of that luggage, anyway. Just get a wheelie cabin bag and pack light. An iPad with Kindle helps here, as 20 books weigh no more than 1.
- Navigate the booking website with extreme care. You Do Not, repeat Do Not, need any extras here
- Don't rush to board: everyone will get a seat.
- Get to the gate on time: they don't take prisoners. And don't be drunk.
- Ensure your wheelie suitcase really does fit in the checking cage
- Don't buy *anything* on board. If necessary, buy sandwiches and drink in the departure lounge
...and you will be just fine.

Venice has a reputation for being expensive, unfriendly and crowded. So a few recommendations:
- Go in October. The weather is still great, the crowds have gone and the Italians are nicer to tourists
- Stay in a hotel away from Venice. Sestriere is not sexy at all: very 1950s Northern Italian industrial, all peeling reinforced concrete and unkempt bits of public architecture. So as a result it's cheap - we stayed in the Novotel for £80 a night with en suite bathroom and (really excellent) breakfast included which is a third of what you'd pay in Venice for a tiniy room with shared bathroom and no breakfast. We went in to Venice by public bus every day and it was cheap, efficient and 20 minutes.
- Get a 48 hr "all you can eat" bus/Vaporetto (water-bus) ticket (we bought ours from the hotel). it saves a fortune.
- Once your bus gets you to Venice simply use the water-buses as much as you need. You can walk everywhere in Venice but it's quite a large city and once you've walked from one end to the other you'll appreciate the water-bus bringing you back.

 

So of course we had to start with the church of St Mark with a Viator fast-pass to avoid the queues, and it is very impressive, if a little Russian Orthodox smells-and-bells. The problem is that once you've seen inside one catheral they are all very similar. Being British I tend to prefer to the clean lines and simpler decoration of British cathedrals. Here it looks like they didn't want to leave any square millimetre unadorned.


We started with a guided walk to introduce us to the basic layout, which explored some of the less-touristy areas as well as hitting the high points. We then wandered off on our own to explore the other bits.
The architecture is pretty standard old Italian but the amazing thing (Lara Croft, James Bond films and Hollywood Mafia films aside) is that this is a working city where everything normally done by car and truck is done by boat. So there's a DHL boat, funeral and ambulance boats (with siren), removals boats with cranes, water-taxis, Carabiniere boats, presumably mobile speed camera boats... And manned exclusively by Italian men (I didn't see one woman) who know exactly how cool it made them look, standing up scowling at the wheel of a powerful boat in the sunshine wearing dark glasses.
Being Italian, they all drive these boats like complete lunatics, there seems to be no "pass on a particular side" rule, speed limit or backwash limitation: they all give their grossly-overpowered boats maximum beans when pulling away and every manoeuvre is performed with lots of power.
Of course, they're all actors: every tourist is taking pictures, people are always looking, and if a pretty tourist happens to glance their way there is even more macho revving and scowling. It's worth just sitting and watching, as we did.



Even the heavily-laden water-buses are violently-driven and are the thugs of the main drag (the Grand Canal). Weaving from North bank to South bank floating bus stops on their way up and down the Grand Canal and elsewhere, they elbow the water-taxis, supply boats and gondoliers out of the way. The buses are fitted with huge diesel engines with bow and stern thrusters and the drivers dance them down the canals with skill and precision (and of course dark glasses).

The docking procedure is worth watching: the bus is driven alongside the bus stop forwards while the (often female) conductor loops a heavy hemp rope around the solid iron stanchion on the side of the jetty. This tightens, stops the boat and holds the bow against the dock. The driver keeps a little forward power on to keep the loop tight while powering the side thruster at the stern inwards, which forces the stern of the boat tight against the dock. The conductor drops the barrier and everyone is free to leave or enter the boat.
To depart, the conductor raises the barrier, the driver reverses the boat a little which slackens the rope loop, the conductor whips the rope off and the driver cancels the side thrust and powers away cleanly forwards.
Neat, quick, and only requires one conductor.
Health and Safety in Britain would have it closed down faster than you could say "water taxi".



 

And of course the Gondoliers.
In their distinctive blue and white striped polo shirts and their boaters, they are sort-of the reason everything else is here.
The epicentre of Venice's tourist desire.
The "must do" experience (we didn't, at £150 a pop are you joking?)

Actually, it looks like bloody hard work poling up to 6 people around in all that backwash without falling in.

 

 

Vanice is lovely just to wander around and was not crowded. Sure, there were plenty of people there, but we were often on our own and never felt hemmed-in.
There are a lot of Chinese and Americans, but fewer Russians and even fewer Brits.




 

What surprised me was how normal people just got on with the absence of cars and trucks: many have their own boats and use them like cars, commuting to the mainland or just around the streets of Venice (which is, of course, massively romantic)

 
 

We met this nice Asian couple who were getting married and for some unfathomable reason on the water-taxi to the small island of Burano (worth visiting, although Murano isn't).
We saw them walking around Burano having pictures taken but couldn't quite work out whether they had married in Venice or in Burano.


  

Burano is pretty and gaily painted, looking in the evenig light a little Scandinavian perhaps.

Meanwhile, life in Venice goes on with births being publicly celebrated by displaying a stork.


 

We visited the train station, expecting a fabulous Michael Portillo-like Continental Train Journey end but it's small, open to the air and shabby. Why does everything public in Italy look so down at heel?

 
 

Anyway, Venice is worth seeing: give it 3 days, see everything and it doesn't need to be expensive (well, apart from the dark glasses).