In my professional life and at home it seems I cater for everyone else's needs before mine, so, for selfish reasons, I like to take a solo getaway whenever I can. No kids. No husband. No friends. That's the way I like it. I also like to get the most out of my travel money, and finding a round-trip fare London to Venice for less than £50 allowed me to indulge my need for a break.
My EasyJet flight departed from London's Gatwick Airport at 7am, and some two hours later I was purchasing a Venice Card (€77 C$120; US$95) at Venice's Marco Polo Airport.
The Venice Card gave me seven days' free access to museums, casinos, public toilets, local public transport, including waterbus services, and also a boat trip from the airport to the city.
I made a currency exchange at the airport's ATM then took a free shuttle ride to the waterbus pier where an airport boat waited to take tourists to the city. Although my B&B was but a few minutes away from the airport, I was anxious to see the city and left checking-in till later. Within an hour I was approaching the historic city of Venice.
As I stepped off the waterbus adjacent to St Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco), I immediately saw why Venice is among the most popular of all travel destinations. It was a glorious day, and the scene was just as the travel brochures showed, with the clustered domes and spires of San Marco Basilica rising from the waters of the lagoon, the ornate palaces lining the Grand Canal, the gondolas gliding by.
Venice encompasses some 117 islands in a lagoon at the edge of the Adriatic Sea, but most visitors begin sightseeing in the vicinity around Piazza San Marco. I could not wait to start exploring. I hitched my knapsack on my back and spent the day walking around getting the lay of the land. Wandering away from the well-trodden tourist routes, I soon realized that beyond the famed piazza lay a diverse city of superb palaces, humble working-class homes, and fascinating narrow lanes.
Later on, a stone's throw from Piazza San Marco, I found a typical Venetian bar (Bar Mio) filled with locals, where I enjoyed a light dinner for under ten euros.
At sunset, I headed back to the mainland to check into the B&B I had found through an Internet search. Tired, but still eager, I took the slower more picturesque route on Alilaguna's waterbus back to the airport. Sixty-five minutes later and a quick bus hop from the airport brought me to Casa del Miele (The Honey House). This B&B had appealed to me partly because of its description and easy access both to Venice city and the airport, but mostly because, at €45 (C$73; US$54), it was significantly cheaper than B&Bs in the historic center.
Enrico and his family welcomed me to their spacious home and treated me to the best room in the house. Situated along the lagoon, Casa del Miele is light, bright, and airy, with all the modern conveniences of home, including a large garden filled with fruit trees and flowers.
The following morning I rose early to a sumptuous buffet breakfast. I started off with the diet option of fruit and yogurt – but couldn't resist the fresh rolls and cheeses. Fortified with calories and ready to begin some serious sightseeing, I returned to St Mark's early enough to avoid the tourist rush and waited for the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) to open.
The immense Palazzo Ducale is a majestic gothic masterpiece, the symbol of the city and the former governing center of Venetian civilization. Some might have spent the entire day absorbed in the extravagant artworks housed here, but a quick walk-around was enough for me.
Leaving the palace, I went across to the Campanile (Bell Tower) of San Marco Basilica and took an elevator ride (€3) to the top to savor the best-in-town view of Venice and the adjoining islands.
I then crossed the Grand Canal to the Dorsoduro district on a traghetti (€3) to visit Peggy Guggenheim's spectacular collection of modern and avant garde art along with her sculptured garden and pet cemetery. I recommend this museum as a must-see. In Venice it's called Collezione Peggy Guggenheim and is located at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni.
Filled up on artwork, I took a lunch break at a wine bar (baccari) and filled up on tramezzini – sandwiches available all over Venice. These bars often offer a selection of simple, tasty foods, usually served in small portions much like Spanish tapas. I ate standing up at the bar as I had read, during my pre-trip planning, that some Italian restaurants use three-level pricing: one price for standing at the bar, another for sitting inside, yet another for sitting at a patio table.
Not only had I discovered an inexpensive (under five euro) lunch but also a great way to meet people – had that been my purpose. Actually, being a bit of a loner, I'm quite happy with my own company and don't mind dining alone. But I soon realized that Venice never allows alone time. There's no better way to make holiday friends than through the relaxed informality of a Venetian street café or bar. I found that other tourists, especially camera-wielding Americans, Chinese, and other toffee-nosed Brits like me, never shy away from strangers.
I had something of a hide-and-seek game getting back to St Mark's, but I eventually found the Ponte dell'Academia, one of three bridges that cross the Grand Canal. That's when I decided to put my map away and just wander about. It was wonderful to discover that wrong turns and flawed directions may be a blessing in disguise.
Once, I came to the end of a lane that dropped off into a canal. The last door on the road stood ajar. Of course, I was compelled to take a peak. Lo, I had stumbled across a "secret" entrance to an immense cobbled courtyard surrounded on three sides by high walls and stained glass windows depicting biblical scenes. The quiet within allowed only the delicate sound of water trickling in a centrally set four-tiered, bronze fountain. Several faded red doors stood open, revealing the rooms beyond. One that caught my eye opened onto a great hall, exposing an enormous crystal chandelier and an ornately carved, grand staircase. On the landing, beneath a stained glass image of the Madonna and Child, the staircase spiraled in opposite directions to the floor above.
As I stood staring up in goggle-eyed wonder at a massive glass and wrought-iron dome hovering above the staircase, the opening suddenly closed, leaving me to imagine what stories lay behind those ancient red doors.
Getting lost regularly was easy, but finding my way again was never much trouble. Directional signs painted on walls were helpful as were the locals, and I soon learned to check the signs at waterbus (vaporetto) stops to see if the line I wanted really did stop there as well as at my destination. Route 1 is always a safe option as it includes every stop along the Grand Canal.
Thus I spent the following days mingling in and meandering about the living history that is modern Venice, discovering favorite hang-outs such as Harry's Bar (Calle Vallaresso, San Marco), chumming with other tourists, and locals too – everything I'd heard about Italian men was true. Let's just say there is nothing like a wolf whistle to put a spring in your step.
I visited Palazzo Mocenigo (1992, Santa Croce), the center for historic Venetian fabrics and costumes. I went to the Gallerie dell'Accademia (Campo Carità Dorsoduro), which is among Italy's most prestigious art galleries that display paintings dating back to the Renaissance masters.
One day, I needed a break from sightseeing and took a waterbus to the once fashionable Lido to enjoy the beach.
I did a whistle stop tour of the Isle of Burano to see its vividly colored homes, and a lace museum housed in the former School of Lace (Scuola del Merletto).
Another day I caught a boat to the Isle of Murano, home of Venetian glass, took a wander through the various glasswork factories, and watched a demonstration of centuries-old glassblowing techniques.
I admit, I eventually did succumb to that most touristy of all Venetian events: coffee at the Florian café in St Mark's. Was it worth the 11.50 euros for a cup of coffee and a single crummy biscuit? Well, I guess you just can't say you've been to Venice until you've had coffee at Florian's.
And now for something entirely different. I left the Honey House B&B and caught a waterbus aimed for Punta Sabbioni where numerous holiday parks of varying standards are located. A five-minute bus hop delivered me to the Marina di Venezia, an immense facility enclosed within a pine forest and a large private beach. The accommodations ranged from basic tents to two-bedroom, air-conditioned bungalows. As I wanted space and quiet to work on my book project I splurged on a bungalow priced at €73.50 per night. This place had everything – an Olympic size pool, an assortment of bars (two of which offer wireless broadband Internet access), several very good restaurants, grocery stores, clothing stores, a hairdresser, and an assortment of gift shops.
From here I could easily return to Venice if I wished to do more sightseeing – or, I could work on my book. Or, I could sit and relax under a large umbrella at one of three beach bars on the property. On my last day, I wondered if I should return to Venice one more time before heading home. I dismissed the idea when I recalled the hordes of tourists. Instead, I lowered my book and waived at the waiter who quickly brought me another large gin and tonic.
>> From Ann Cockburn-Roe: Have just booked a trip to Venice in April. It will be my first solitary holiday overseas since being widowed. When I wake up in the morning thinking 'Oh good grief! What have I done?' I read this article and feel enthused. Thank you.