Barely ten minutes after landing at Marco Polo airport in Venice, I was swinging my bag onto a wooden hulled speedboat piloted by a David Beckham look-alike. Attired in tight white jeans and very dark glasses that he couldn’t possibly see out of, our man piloted a course for Venice island at maximum knots. The 30 minutes boat ride cost more than the flight from London, but EasyJet was never this glamorous.
I was in Venice to attend the Biennale – the olympics of the art world attracting some 90 qualifying nations, whose exhibitions, frequently in individual buildings, sprawl across the island. Mostly it was an excuse to experience the almost otherworldly decadence of the most beautiful city in the world.
Formally established in 421AD and once a powerful city state, Venice has been sinking into the sea and subject to floods for a millennium. In fact the only steady jobs on the island appear to be of the municipal workers who clean the city from the flotsam and jetsam of nightly floods that see water level rising by as much as 1.6 metres (over 5 feet). They prowl the city in special garbage boats setting up and taking down trestles that serve as elevated pavements during high tide. The locals mostly stay in bed until around 10am when the waters subside.
This is a city of contrasts. Crumbling facades sinking into the sea hide lavish apartments. Grand entrances are made on water via the Grand Canal, departures through dank alleyways subject to flooding.
My hotel had an impossibly glamorous entrance accessible only by private boat. After David Beckham dropped me off I discovered that a common or garden private boat journey equivalent to a 10 minute walk costs around €65 (US$ 72). Leaving the hotel otherwise involves walking though a disturbingly dark and narrow alleyway and dodging the odd water rat (watch the accompanying video with sound on). Bring money.
When the sun shines, as it did for my visit the city is magical. The whole place looks like a film set, a fabulously beautiful mix of grit and glamour. The crumbling and faded facades of the buildings contain fabulous apartments invoking the faded glamour of a way of life far from the 21st century. The restaurants are by necessity tiny – and eye wateringly expensive. Expect to pay €20 (US$22) + for your appetiser and a similar amount for your basic cocktail.
Yet there is something beguilingly alluring about beauty in the face of doom. Venice has been facing a watery grave for a thousand years. However, it endures and its fragility is in itself inviting. Drinking a Bellini where it was invented at Harry’s Bar, or sipping a martini at the Riva Bar at the Hotel Gritti while the sun fades over the Grand Canal, one feels that life is a celebration.
“When I went to Venice, I discovered that my dream had become- incredibly, but quite simply- my address.”
– Marcel Proust –
My Venice Addresses
- Seafood is a Venetian speciality. Osteria Teatiere changes its menu everyday based on the day’s catch. There’s also a decent selection of minerally local wines in addition to more familiar Italian labels. There is no decor to speak of, but it remains a foodie favourite.
- For more atmosphere head to Ai Artisti, a tiny canal side restaurant where the washroom doubles as wine storage. The seafood carpaccio here is amazing – if your stomach can handle it try the raw shrimp and langoustines.
- On a sunny day there is nothing quite like lunching outdoors in a Venetian piazza. Ristorante AcquaPazza has been frequented by family friends for years and remains a firm favourite.
- Cocktail bars are a disappointment. They are usually wine bars with a side trade in Negronis. Most specialise in unwashed Italian waiters with attitude. The Riva Bar at the Hotel Gritti and Harry’s Bar are notable exceptions.