There's No Place In The World Like Venice!

Deep Travel Discounts, An Unexpected Meeting With Peggy Guggenheim Plus The 6th Highest Acqua Alta!

There's no place in the world like Venice.
Arthur - Midnight in Piazza San Marco

One can try to describe Venice but it must be experienced to be understood, to be felt, and to be appreciated. The museums, the music, the food, the architecture...the city itself is a living, breathing historical phenomenon. You have to blink several times to make sure you're not on a Hollywood movie set.

I traveled to Venice in November with my friend Bud Santora to do research for my upcoming novel, Aqua Alta. The title in Italian means high water and refers to the annual flooding of the city that occurs commonly between September and February. I was hoping there would be an aqua alta while I visited and boy, did I get what I asked for. More about that later. But two of the perks traveling off season are...less people and it's less expensive.

Riding In Private Water Taxi
I priced the trip on my own, airfare and hotel and then I went to a site called Gate 1 Travel. I used this deep discount travel company once before on a trip to Barcelona (that blog will be coming up soon) and I was so thrilled with the trip, I decided to use them again for Venice.

The exact same trip - four nights out of JFK - if booked on my own came to approximately $1,593.33 per person.  Booked through Gate 1 it came to $794.60. Everything was in order and went smoothly and exactly as planned. But if at anytime there is a mix-up, you have direct contact with Gate 1 who will help you. (No, I don't work for them but I'd love to buy some stock in their company.)

(Note to self: When flying for long periods of time, never ever wear comfortable nylon shell workout pants on a plane. All night long during the flight over I kept slipping out of my seat.)

Yes, That Tower Is Leaning!
I had been to Venice once before and felt I had only scratched the surface of what there was to explore. And on that trip I arrived by train and could walk to my hotel. This trip, flying in, I chose to hire a water taxi to take us to our hotel. You can ride the vaporetto, which is akin to a water bus. It's inexpensive but they can be very crowded and with luggage it can actually be quite anxiety producing. So I spent a little more money and hired a "shared" water taxi online through Venice Link. It was so easy.
Katharine Hepburn - Summertime

When we touched down at the airport in Venice there was a man waiting for us, checked that everything was in order and with one other couple we walked a short pathway to our boat. Total cost to take us to our hotel and back again to the airport when we were leaving was about $62 for both of us! $31 a piece/$15.50 each way. It was so worth it. And the boat was a beautiful wood paneled type you see in the movies. Think The Tourist with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. Actually, don't. It's a terrible film. The movie you should watch is Summertime with Katharine Hepburn. Directed by David Lean in 1955, the story is a bit silly but everything is shot on location and Venice still looks gloriously the same today.

Hotel Bucintoro
The fantastic Hotel Bucintoro was our destination. It's named after the ornate boat of State that for centuries has carried Doges out into the Adriatic Sea to bless and commemorate the marriage of the sea with the city of Venice on Ascension Day. An added plus is that the Bucintoro has its own dock so our water taxi dropped us off and picked us up right in front of the hotel. (History Of Bucintoro)

A  Room With A View
We had room #303 - a room with a view. A magnificent view. Facing the Adriatic Sea and located on the broad walkway of the San Biagio in the Arsenal district, the hotel was a short walking distance to Piazza San Marco in one direction and the Biennale Gardens in the other. Still along the Grand Canal, we felt as though we were close to everything yet still away from the crowds of tourists.

Room # 303
All the rooms in the hotel were designed to make you feel like you were on a ship. And the staff were friendly and helpful. The daily breakfasts were truly delicious. Hot and cold dishes, tiers of fruits and pastries and endless pots of some of the best coffee I've ever tasted.

We spent the first day getting our bearings and soaking up
Bud At An Outdoor Cafe
the fantastic sunny weather. It may have been the second week of November but it felt like spring. And we knew that a tremendous aqua alta was threatening to arrive sooner than later. 
We had a glass of wine, a walk through the Piazza San Marco and then weaved our way over to the Rialto Bridge.
Osteria Al Sacro e Profano
As the sun was setting we walked along the Strada Nova till we found the Round Church in Campo della Maddalena. Here we met up with Julia from Urban Adventures. I had heard great things about the cicchetti tour she was going to take us and two other couples on. I had booked all of this online and it was the best thing we could have done on our first night in Venice. She was smart, funny and took us to five different Bacari wine bars serving excellent red and white wines and melt-in-your-mouth cicchettis - Italy's version of tapas.
Gondola Fresco

These establishments are where the locals hang out and Julia shared tons of history and interesting anecdotes about Venice and its people. I really enjoyed Osteria Al Sacro e Profano. Run by a brother and sister team, it embodied the true spirit of a Venetian osteria. And across the alley way above our heads was this amazing little fresco of a gondola. This food and wine crawl changed our whole perspective of Venice.

Day two we strolled over to the Venice Biennale. This year marks its 55th season. A triumph
Russian Pavilion
of international art and architecture, 88 countries are participating, including the Vatican. When we visited, I really loved the Russian pavilion. Upon entering you were handed an iPad and the domed room was covered in thousands of "quick response bar codes" which described different aspects about Russia. You just aim and learn!
A late lunch at a cafe clinging to the side of a canal and we were off exploring again. In Venice, just walking around is like being in a museum. But I had never been to the famed  Peggy Guggenheim and really wanted to experience it. But as we approached the Accademia Bridge to cross the Grand Canal, it was Bud who noticed
We Had Palazzo Cavalli To Ourselves!
the breathtakingly beautiful Palazzo Cavalli and a banner announcing an exhibit of Bertil Vallien's Murano glass. But this wasn't your momma's Murano glass nor was this your run of the mill palazzo. As we entered, a young man passed us saying, "You won't be disappointed." And we weren't! And we were the only people walking from room to room in this sumptuous palace full of the most crazy, good, insane glass work I've ever seen.
Bertil Vallien Murano Glass
Peggy Guggenheim Museum
We enjoyed the exhibit so much we had to make a mad dash to Peggy's house before the museum closed. The sun had set and the golden Venetian lights were beginning to twinkle everywhere as we walked through the rooms of her Palazzo Venier dei Leioni, an 18th-century palace, which was her home until her death in 1979. 

She not only collected stunning artwork by Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollack, Max Ernst and many others, but she was also lovers with several of them, not to mention Samuel Beckett. If interested to know more about this extremely eccentric woman, read Edmund White's City Boy who was friends with her in the 60s and 70s. 

In fact, after soaking up as much art and culture as I could, I went out into the garden courtyard and sat on a stone chair to gather my strength to walk all the way back towards our hotel. I pulled out my iPad and started to read chapter 11 in Edmund's book. He says that Peggy wasn't lazy, but bored. The only passion she had in her life was to make sure that she and her beloved Lhasa Apsos could be buried in her garden. Well, it's against Venetian law not to be buried in a cemetery but Peggy said she'd donate her palace and priceless artwork to the city if they could be buried underneath her stone Byzantine chair. And they were.

Oh. My. God. I'm sitting on Peggy Guggenheim!

Peggy And Her Beloved Dogs

The Sixth Highest Acqua Alta, Opera In A Private Palazzo And A Movie-like Ending! 


 There's no place in the world like Venice. 


We had gone to sleep the night before knowing that an acqua alta would most likely occur the next morning. Common in Venice between November and December, the flooding happens when a full moon coincides with a storm. And the next day it was predicted that we would have gale winds coupled with extreme barometric changes. (Not a great thing for any of us who live with balance disorders. Breathe, remember to breathe.)

Early that morning, it was a vaparetto that was banging against the Arsenale stop desperately trying to dock, that woke me up. Right after that, an emergency siren screamed out to all of Venice that the acqua alta had arrived and this was what I saw out of my window at the Hotel Bucintoro.

By the time my travel partner, Bud Santora, and I had made it down to the first floor for breakfast, the Baltic Sea was literally climbing up the side of our hotel.

At about 11:00am the storm surge rose an amazing height of 58.66 inches. That's 4.89 feet! In actuality, that meant it was only about thigh high on Venetian walkways but still problematic for those of us who didn't pack hip boots.
Piazza San Marco Post Acqua Alta
 Out of nowhere, vendors emerged selling tourists make-shift waders and shop owners put Wellies for sale, front and center in their windows. By mid-afternoon the sea had retreated and other than some pooling here and there, every thing was back to normal. Venetians continued with their everyday routines leaving us tourists walking around thinking, what the hell just happened?  
This is probably the only time you're not going to see pigeons in San Marco Square!

Not knowing what was going to be open or closed (everything was open), we bought tickets for a matinee performance of a show proclaiming they perform 365 days of the year, the Teatro San Gallo. It was a musical telling of the history of Venice.  (No small feat in less than two hours.) 
Teatro San Gallo
Although it was informative, entertaining, and funny, it was a little awkward to have the entire cast playing to the eight of us in the audience who were sitting in about an inch of water. But I understand the small turn-out...we had just experienced the sixth highest acqua alta in recorded history! If you've never been to Venice before and/or need to catch up on some history, this is actually a great show to see at the beginning of your visit. 

After the performance, we decided just to wander. Everyone says that Venice is a city to get lost in. Well, no matter what city I visit, I get seriously lost at least once. And Venice was no exception. Walking past the Piazza San Marco we headed out east, I think, behind the Basilica. We walked over one canal and then another until we entered what was clearly a residential area of Venice. My sense was that we were approaching the Arsinale district but we didn't have a map. The sun had gone down and no longer were there shops or restaurants or canals with gondoliers and tourists. There was no one and nothing except narrow walkways flanked by towering ancient brick apartment buildings. After an hour of coming up against one dead end after another, the amusing adventure had turned into one of panic. How the hell do we get out of this maze?

Luckily, we stumbled upon a French couple who were also lost and they had GPS tracking on their cell phone. If we hadn't met up, I'm certain we'd still be in Venice. Hmm, that doesn't sound too bad. Walking GPS apps for iPhones and other apps are a godsend, but check with your phone carrier to see what their fees are. We chose not to activate our phones in Europe because of the crazy high cost. (Note to self: Don't leave hotel without map. Ever!)

Hardrock Cafe
Exhausted and frazzled, we ended up at the Rialto Bridge and from there I knew where we were. Walking back towards our hotel and not having eaten dinner, we turned a corner and there was the Hardrock Cafe. We were tired of walking and didn't feel like trying to discover another quaint place or wrestle with a foreign menu and the thought of a cheeseburger and fries with a smart cocktail sounded perfect. And it was. Really friendly staff and the food hit the spot.

On our stroll back through Piazza San Marco we decided to have a nightcap at the Gran Caffe Chioggia. Like Caffe Florian, it's way overpriced and touristy but we're in Venice! And we lived to tell the world that we survived the acqua alta! A parade of people marched by to avoid some of the aftermath of the flooding in the square but as soon the drinks arrived they started playing none other than...

The last day of our trip and I wanted to explore the city with my camera. It's amazing how your whole perspective of an environment will change the moment you see it through a lens. 

In Venice, everything is beautiful.
The masks and the costumes...

the catch of the day...

the architecture...


the knockers...


even the apartment buzzers.


 Later in the day we sat down at a cafe and ordered a pizza and a bottle of wine.

Refreshed and revived, we revisited the Basilica San Marco (on different trips we had both seen it before) but also went up to the top of the Campanile di San Marco - which was a first for me. 

The Campanile di San Marco - Bell Tower

Originally it was a lighthouse but in 1902 it collapsed. Rebuilding began the next year and now the bell tower offers stunning views of the city once again.

View looking down at the "Molo" of Piazza San Marco - The "Front Door"
For our last evening in Venice I bought tickets to experience Musica a Palazzo. Performed in the 15th century Barbarigo Minotto Palace you can choose between seeing one of three operas or a collection of love duets. (We chose the duets.) And allow time to find the palace, it's a bit tricky. Once you go down a dark alley, you ring a buzzer and enter a majestic
Candelabra in Palace
courtyard. We climbed the staircase up to the second floor we were greeted with flutes of champagne and escorted into the grand salon. The singers and musicians were all professional and extremely talented. Really fantastic. After several songs in the salon, there was an intermission, we were offered more champagne, and then headed into the master bedroom where the duets continued. Next time I'm in Venice I'm going back to see one of the operas, it was that fabulous.
Ceiling of the Grand Salon - Barbarigo Minotto Palace
After the performance I had made late dinner reservations at Caffe Centrale. 

Caffe Centrale is located just to the left
The design is chic, eclectic and is located near the opera house, Teatro La Fenice. We shared an appetizer of hot round bread topped with mozzarella, mushrooms and prosciutto. A scrumptious gooey mess! I had broiled mixed seafood and Bud, the filet mignon with potato mousse. D-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s-!

While heading back to the hotel I reflected back upon this trip to Venice. Revisiting a city can often be a letdown. But not this time. If anything, Venice was more exciting than I remembered and at every turn I found something that creatively inspired me. I felt I had so much more insight into what my new novel, Acqua Alta, was going to encompass. I just needed that final moment - that perfect ending. And then it happened. I walked out onto the Piazza San Marco one more time and found myself completely alone at the stroke of midnight.

My ending found me.

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