As dusk falls and the sky darkens through ever deepening shades of blue, we wind our way through the labyrinth of canals. Turning a corner, the beautiful Rialto Bridge comes into view – it’s my first sight of the Grand Canal. What could be more romantic than a gondola ride at sunset along the waterways of Venice?
How to feel thoroughly spoiled in Venice
I love Italy, and over the years I’ve visited many different cities, town and villages, some, like Florence or Rome, a number of times, but Venice has somehow always eluded me. I’d heard that it is not only one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but also that it is utterly unique. So you can imagine how delighted I was to be invited to Venice for a weekend with the leading Italian specialists, Citalia.
Earlier that morning, I had arrived at Venice’s Marco Polo airport to be greeted by a Citalia representative who walked with me along the new and very smart covered walkway to where I’d be meeting my private transfer. I was soon being whisked along in my water taxi, a very stylish way to arrive, I think you’ll agree. We moored at a jetty right outside my hotel, the elegant waterfront Hotel Londra Palace. It dates back to 1860, and is in a superb location overlooking Venice Lagoon.
Hotel Londra Palace and a sunset gondola ride
My weekend with Citalia was already off to a great start, but there was so much more yet to come.
My room was actually a suite on the top floor with stunning views over the city and lagoon in three directions. Not only could I see the lovely island of San Giorgio Maggiore, but also the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute at the mouth of the Grand Canal, pictured below. Even the loo had a view!
Another unexpected treat was a large, circular whirlpool bath. I was told to call reception when I wanted to use it, and someone would pop up and run it for me. They’d even left out a sachet of bath salts, which I love – they are so good for you. And a bottle of bubbly to boot! Room 502 at the Hotel Londra Palace was rapidly becoming one of my favourite hotel rooms in the world.
Despite the temptation to linger in my suite, I was eager to see Venice. But first I had a meeting with the Citalia concierge, Luisa. Their team of Italy Experts can be contacted by telephone or email for any advice or assistance whilst you’re on holiday, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was so useful to be able to ask her for suggestions about what to see and do and, of course, where to eat.
I was already booked in a for a sunset gondola ride at 4:30pm which gave me plenty of time to explore the city. First stop The Bridge of Sighs, which is literally just a couple of minutes’ walk from the hotel. Next to that is the elegant Doge’s Palace, and just around the corner is St Mark’s Square and the stunning Basilica.
For lunch, on Luisa’s advice, I joined the queue for a slice of pizza from Rossopomodoro. You can find it by walking through the archway in the northeast corner of St Mark’s Square, then turning right into Calle Larga S. Marco. It is a little way down on the left hand side. Look out for a red awning with the name in bold white letters. There are a few tables outside as well as some inside, but I joined the line of locals and tourists for takeaway. At 4 Euros for a huge slice of tasty pizza with pepperoni, it certainly is great value. Back in the square I had just taken a couple of bites when two clawed feet grabbed my pizza from my hands and in a flurry of feathers, whisked it away. My lunch was greedily devoured on the paving slabs by the seagulls and pigeons in front of the basilica. Pizza slice number two was soon purchased, however, and greedily devoured by me and me alone, while keeping one eye on the sky.
Having explored some more, I made my way to the meeting point for my gondola ride as the light began to fade. I was delighted to have the boat (and gondolier) all to myself. We made our way along the waterways, with the occasional burst of song (from him, not me), interspersed with a smattering of interesting facts about the buildings we were passing. But mostly, as fitted my mood, we drifted along quietly, listening to the sounds of the city.
Heading back to the hotel, feeling thoroughly spoiled, I knew there was a bottle of bubbles with my name on it. As soon as I was back, I called reception for someone to run my bath and popped the cork of my Prosecco. After a blissful soak, I dressed for dinner and went down to the hotel’s beautiful restaurant, which looks out across the promenade and Venice Lagoon. Service was excellent (polite yet friendly and not at all fussy) and the food beautifully presented and cooked.
I fell asleep completely in love with Venice and the Hotel Londra Palace. If it’s good enough for Tchaikovsky, who was inspired to begin his Symphony No. 4 while staying here, it’s good enough for me.
Island hopping in Venice Lagoon
My first morning in Venice started with a fabulous breakfast from an impressive spread in the hotel’s restaurant. With wonderful homemade cakes, pastries and breads, cheeses and charcuterie, a good range of fresh fruit, as well as bacon, sausages and eggs, there was plenty to choose from. Citalia had pre-booked me on a tour of some of the islands, and it was just a short walk to the easy to find meeting point.
Our first stop was Murano, where the famous Venetian glass is made. We watched a fascinating glassblowing demonstration in which a highly skilled craftsman fashioned a colourful vase and a horse rearing up on its hind legs. So clever.
The second island, Burano, was my favourite and a must in my book when visiting Venice. Brightly painted houses line the canals here with many a pretty bridge to cross and enchanting streets to explore. I would have liked to have stopped here a little longer and perhaps had lunch, but after 45 minutes we were off to island number three.
There’s little on Torcello, but what is there is well worth seeing for it is home to Venice’s oldest cathedral, the Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta and its stunning mosaics. And a climb up the bell tower’s seemingly endless stairs, which rather made me feel like I was trapped in an Escher lithograph, is rewarded by fabulous panoramic views across the lagoon.
This was a great way to see more of the area, and I’m especially glad I saw Burano, however, it was all rather rushed and the commentary on the boat, although in English, was, I’m afraid, incomprehensible.
Poste Vecie San Polo, the oldest restaurant in Venice
I had a couple of hours free to explore more of Venice and watch the sunset over the Grand Canal before getting ready for dinner. Luisa, the Citalia concierge, had recommended a fish restaurant and made the booking for me. I set out with what I thought was plenty of time and walked to the Rialto Bridge, but couldn’t find the restaurant. I had been told it was inside the fish market but, despite staring intently at the map on my phone, I couldn’t find that either. I was lost in a deserted street in a strange city. I retraced my steps, asked a passerby, wandered in circles some more and then I spotted a sign. There it was. Down the tiniest alleyway I’ve ever seen. A second sign led me down another alley and then another. But at last, a small sign above a door told me I had reached Poste Vecie San Polo. On walking through said door, I found myself in the kitchen. Oops! No-one seemed to mind.
While I was trying to find it I had begun to doubt this choice of restaurant for a woman on her own in an unfamiliar city, however, as soon as I was inside I knew it was the perfect suggestion. Welcoming and cosy, with murals painted on the walls, wood panelling and beams, and a real fire blazing away – I loved everything about Poste Vecie San Polo, the oldest restaurant in Venice. And, having taken my seat, I was offered a complimentary glass of Prosecco. Being in the fish market (which I still hadn’t seen or smelt a whiff of) the seafood here couldn’t have been fresher, and I selected Spaghetti all’astice con pomodorini (Spaghetti with lobster and tomato) for 20 Euros, along with a local beer. Beautifully presented in half a lobster shell, it was excellent.
I left the restaurant by the front door and all became clear. A small wooden bridge that wasn’t marked on the map took me over a tiny canal to what must have been the fish market. I imagine that in the morning, with stalls full of fish, it is rather more obvious than it is in the dark with not a stall, fish or even a sign, in sight.
It only took about 20 minutes or so to walk back to the hotel and, despite getting a little lost earlier, I did actually feel perfectly safe wandering around Venice alone in the evenings.
Caffè Florian, the oldest cafe in the world
On my last day, I rose early to do some photography before breakfast. I was hoping it might be sunny and that not many people would be about, but a thick blanket of fog lay over the city. Even so, Venice was achingly beautiful and the mists added to the drama of my photos, which I’ll be sharing in a future post.
There was one more thing I wanted to treat myself to before I left – a cup of hot chocolate at Caffè Florian. Dating back to 1720, this beautiful cafe on St Mark’s Square is said to be the oldest cafe in the world. It maybe a little pricey but it is really quite lovely and serves the most exquisite cakes and pastries. But I was here for the chocolate, a delicious, almost too thick to pour chocolate heaven in a cup. If you are seeking utter indulgence then this is the place to come, and the perfect way to end a truly outstanding weekend.
My flight wasn’t until the late afternoon so I wandered some more, this time intentionally getting lost in the alleyways. November really is an excellent time to visit. Venice is a beautiful city whatever the time of year and the whatever the weather and, with fewer crowds, it is at its best out of season.
All too soon the time came for my water taxi to whisk me away, and I said farewell to Venice. It felt like I was leaving an enchanted mystical island, hidden in the mists, that I may never find again. I already longed to return.