Benchley’s Wit: The most famous quote about Venice was coined by humorist Robert Benchley, who after arriving sent this telegram: “Streets Full of Water. Please Advise.”
Just who he sent the wire to is in dispute. Most say it was to actor David Niven. Others claim it was to Harold Ross, his editor at The New Yorker.
In any case, I arrived in Venice to find that the canals are still there, still filled with water and tourists in gondolas, which are poled under bridges and past outdoor restaurants full of people wishing they were in the gondolas. (And sometimes finding the food inedible and unspeakably expensive.)
Sue and I were there to catch a ride on the cruise ship Azamara Journey, but we decided to first spend three nights in Venice. We were anxious to get there because the flight from London on British Air was in one of the most deplorable planes I’ve ever seen outside a third-world country. It’s sad to see a great airline hit the skids, and worse to have to pay for it.
Surprising to some, La Serenissima is one of Europe’s busiest cruise-ship ports, with 500 departures a year and 700,000 passengers aboard. It’s really something to see one of these beauties slowly maneuvering through this ancient theme park of a city.
Cruising out three days later on the yacht-like Azamara Journey (a mere 30,000 tons and fewer than 700 passengers), we were dwarfed by one of those mega-ships, which happily for us headed for Rome, leaving us to our peaceful Adriatic-Greek Islands ports.
Venice can get crowded and there’s a lot of walking involved while taking in the pleasures. Unless, of course, you leave the crowds behind and board a private launch out to Venice’s best, and most expensive resort, the Cipriani.
A free five-minute launch ride from Piazza St. Mark’s takes you to the Cipriani’s luxurious enclave on one edge of La Giudecca island. Here, all is serene. The Cipriani boasts Venice’s largest swimming pool and arguably its finest restaurant, Fortuny.
Non-guests too are free to leave Venice’s narrow lanes behind and dine al fresco in the garden, watching the boats pass by. The service is superb. The Cipriani is another world, a very expensive world mind you, but how often does one get to Venice?
A couple of minutes beyond, by private boat, is the San Clemente Palace, which opened a few years ago, a de luxe former monastery dating to the 12th Century, located on its own island. Not as pricey as the Cipriani but not as luxurious, either. Sue and I liked to catch the launch out there, sit on the patio, sip coffee, nibble on a snack, and take photos of ships passing in the mist.
Venice proper is full of famous and opulent hotels, mostly clustered around Piazza San Marco, but there are plenty of (relatively) affordable ones too. One is Pensione La Calcina, a very pleasant place in the Dorsoduro area, highly recommended by some friends. There’s a good restaurant on the main floor and one on a barge outside. The view is to Giudecca and you’re away from the crowds. Cruise ships pass by in the wide canal.
Venice is one of the original walkable cities and with about 60,000 inhabitants it’s smaller in population than Santa Barbara. Once when I asked a local how to find one’s way around through the narrow passageways, she replied: “Get lost!” By which she meant wander, explore, and see what surprises you come up with.
A good map, a sharp eye, and patience also help when you’re trying to find a certain obscure hotel or tiny restaurant, or one of the Vivaldi concerts. (Sorry to say, this great composer died a pauper. Sic transit gloria.)
Sue and I enjoyed wandering around, getting lost, asking gondoliers for directions, and spotting little vino places where shopkeepers gathered to gossip, wet their tonsils, and dip into the snacks. Despite the avalanche of tourists, we found Venetians friendly, down-to-earth folk, and easily chatted with.
We stayed away from the Doge’s Palace and other tourist attractions of Piazza San Marco, but enjoyed listening to the classical musicians that play their hearts out under the restaurant porticos. Give them a smile.
Seen from one of the rumbling, churning, bus-like vapoetti boats that ply the Grand Canal, Venice looks like the most beautiful city in the world. Except, perhaps, Paris at midnight.
Tips: Avoid Venice in the hot months when tourists really jam in. Also, pack lightly. This is not a formal city and you may have to drag that suitcase farther than you think.