Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Lido, a Venetian quest and a new hotel

Venice, May 2006: Day 3
> Previous day: Torcello, Burano and an evening on the Grand Canal
I was changing hotels today, moving my base from the Lido over the Lagoon into the centre of Venice. I thought I ought to explore the Lido first, so after breakfast I headed out for a walk. The Lido is a narrow strip of land separating the lagoon from the Adriatic, and I was rather disappointed that, apart from some faded grand hotels, I hadn't found much evidence of the elegant sea-bathing world of the film Death in Venice. My one expedition to the sea-shore ended in a wide street where various ugly structures blocked my view over the shore. By way of consolation I decided to visit the one historic sight my guidebook mentioned in its brief account of the Lido.

In this quiet season, outside passeggiata hours, I found the Lido's streets disconcertingly empty. Alone, female and walking away from the tourist areas I felt somewhat conspicuous. Still, I'm used to this in Italy. A few passing car drivers stared. A smirking man offered me a lift - on the luggage trolley he was pushing.

The walk along the lagoon shore was fairly interesting. Venice lay sparkling just over the waters. I watched the various types of water-traffic, passed a little boat filling up with fuel and crossed the access-road to a jetty where a larger ferry lay awaiting its cargo.

I was disappointed when I reached my goal, however. The church of San Nicolò is a significant building, the destination for the Doge's annual procession (now performed by the Mayor of Venice) of the Festa della Sensa (a symbolic marriage between Venice and the sea). But while the ancient exterior was simple and attractive, I didn't find the interior particularly exciting. I lacked a detailed guide, and I couldn't find the tomb I had hoped to discover (that of Nicholas / Nicola Giustiniani, a twelfth-century Benedictine monk who was compelled to leave holy orders in order to marry and beget heirs for his noble family before returning to his abbey on the Lido).

Returning, I passed the walls and locked gate of Venice's old Jewish Cemetery, an atmospheric and overgrown graveyard which, according to a sign, dates to the 14th-17th centuries.

Taking the vaporetto 1 from the Lido over to Venice we passed in front of a massive cruise liner, the Carnival Liberty. This dwarfed everything in the lagoon and suddenly cast Venice in a very different light. High, high above us the ship's decks and vantage points were packed with the tiny figures of passengers crowding for their first glimpse of Venice.

Back over the waters in Venice I checked into my impressive new hotel. Around the corner in Campo San Zaccaria I ate a light lunch in a little bar with a few indoors tables. Then I set off on a quest.

On my previous trip to Venice with two friends, we wandered home from dinner, hoping we were heading in the right direction for our hotel. We passed many lovely sights in the moonlight, but the most impressive of all was a jewel-like Renaissance church in coloured marbles. I remember gazing open-mouthed at this unexpected and perfect building. The image of this chapel haunted me and I needed to find it again. I studied my guidebook and maps to identify the most likely candidate. Then I set off to visit Santa Maria dei Miracoli.

The church was exactly as I remembered, and just as beautiful by day as by night. Stepping inside was breathtaking, like walking into a jewel-box. An English-language tour group were being lectured on architectural history by a young guide who confessed that the church didn't make her feel spiritual. To me it seemed magical, but maybe that's different.

The rest of the afternoon I spent wandering around Venice's lanes and canals, before taking ferries on the routes I hadn't yet experienced. I travelled along the less-touristy northern shore, past the vast walls of the Arsenal, before alighting at San Pietro. This residential island, attached by bridges to Venice, gave me a refreshing taste of the everyday. The terraced buildings here were on a humble scale, and laundry hung over the lanes and waterways. It was too late in the day to enter the church of San Pietro, which has a dramatic campanile and a pleasant grassy forecourt, but I admired the exterior before heading back along the busy Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, past the statue of Garibaldi (above a pool filled with turtles), to the Riva degli Schiavoni shore.

St. Mark's Square isn't really a buzzing or cool place to go at night, but I popped along in the evening to see what was happening. The two grandest cafes, Florian's and Quadri, had competing sets of musicians playing on opposite sides of the square – mostly lively waltzes. I decided the Quadri orchestra had a slight edge, thanks to the panache displayed by their synchronised-movement musicians. The audience was split between well-off older couples sitting at the outside tables and a motley rabble of cheaper tourists and school parties standing around behind them. I could understand why couples on their dream holiday might want to sit there, but the night wasn't warm, the piazza had a rather dead, cluttered feel to it despite the music, and it really seemed like a congregation place for tourists who had no idea where to go after dinner. (I'd recommend Campo Santa Margherita or hidden back-street bars for a livelier atmosphere and less touristy vibe).

I was staying at Hotel Campiello, which was my favourite hotel of this trip. It was smart, comfortable, good-value and offered a free internet point as well as a handsome receptionist. However, my one night in the hotel was ruined in the most unromantic of fashions. Read the next instalment of this travel journal to learn more.
> Day 4: A Venetian honeymoon gone wrong; exploring Dorsoduro

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