Venice is not my hometown but it’s a place where I’m at home, a place I’m comfortable, a place I know intimately, a place I love to escape to. I no longer get lost in its tangle of lanes yet Venice still enchants me, intrigues me, and excites me. That’s why it’s my ‘velvet escape’. Here are some tips to enjoy Venice like a local.
When I began to think about the notion of a velvet escape, Venice sprang to mind and wouldn’t budge. That’s what Venice does to you. It takes hold of you. It’s an enigma, as strange and exotic, as it is romantic and familiar. As old as it is modern, as formal as it is laidback, and as celebrated as it is misunderstood.
Ways to enjoy Venice
The first time we visited Venice, it was just for a few days. It was our first European backpacking jaunt, to Italy, Spain and Portugal – one of those hurried trips we all do when we’re young – two days here, one day there, another day somewhere else. By Day 30 you can’t remember where you were yesterday, where you’d been last week, where you are today. Which city is this again? But, hey, we had fun.
In Venice, we refilled our plastic water bottles at public fountains, bought cheap Veneto wine at the supermarket, and gorged on cicchetti, Venice’s famous snacks, standing up at local bars. Our pensione room was so small we’d step out of the phone booth-style shower cubicle in the corner dripping water onto the wonky wooden floorboards. Two tiny window balconies looking over a back canal made up for it. In the evening, we’d each sit in a window with glasses of wine, reading books, listening to music, waving at the singing gondoliers gliding by, and waving at each other. It was heaven.
And it was the height of Venice’s sultry summer, when you’re constantly perspiring. When one day you drag yourself home after overeating at lunch and all of a sudden it clicks – you finally get why Europeans take siesta. From that day on you do the same. It’s the worst time of year to visit Venice. The locals have escaped to the Lido for a month by the sea and every piazza is packed with umbrella-following tour groups who’ve jumped (cruise) ship for a few hours. But still, we loved it!
So much that we vowed to go back, but next time stay longer. When we returned a few years later, we did things a little differently. We rented a studio apartment in a crumbling old palazzo with gilt-edged mirrors, peeling wallpaper, and two tiny window balconies that watched over a teensy back canal.
Secreted away on a cul-de-sac it felt off-the-beaten-track, yet it was just ten-minutes to San Marco – that is, if you went at the crack of dawn when Terence went for his runs, or after dark when we’d head out for Aperols – when the streets felt deserted. In the middle of the day, it was a struggle to leave the palazzo. We’d find ourselves doing what Venetians do, elbowing our way past dawdling tourists. We quickly discovered the best way to get from point A to B is to cling to the shirttails of locals, who have a knack for negotiating crowds, leaving giddy foreigners in their wake.
During that stay, we learned to live like locals. Each morning we’d head to the Rialto markets to buy fresh seafood, fruit and vegetables. Terence learned how and what to buy from watching the little old ladies. We found a wine shop where we’d take our empty plastic water bottles for the friendly man to fill straight from the barrel – for a whopping two euros! We’d tuck into sublime pasta at family-ran trattorias buried deep within Venice, and drink until late with the local students on lively Piazza Margherita.
Heaven once again
Once we became travel writers, we’d return again and again, but work required us to try hotels, and as beautiful as some are, that’s not how I like to experience Venice.
On this trip, we discovered a farmers market, where we bought organic fruit, veg, cheese, and wine from the islands in Venice’s lagoon, and sipped Aperols with the stallholders – in the morning! We did a cooking course with lovely people in the home of a Countess. We shopped Rialto markets for seafood, this time knowing to also watch the smartly-dressed guys with pockets full of cash (restaurant owners or chefs) – a tip we picked up from a restaurant owner we befriended.
Once again, we went for drinks with the students and took moonlit walks on the back canals. But this time we met locals: chefs, artists, bookbinders, historians, shopkeepers, publishers, scientists, and sommeliers, and, of course, the Countess!
And once again, we stayed in an apartment in an old palazzo on a canal. It was crumbling in places, had peeling wallpaper in others, and there was a gilt-edged mirror or two. Only this time the apartment was sprawling and the windows went on forever. We didn’t have window balconies to sit in, but we had canal views. Grand canal views! From the gondolas and vaparettos, tourists waved up at us at the windows where we sipped Aperols. It was heaven.
How to enjoy Venice like a local
- Rent an apartment – don’t stay in a hotel – so you can bump into your neighbours, slow down, and participate in the rhythm of everyday life in Venice.
- Go for early morning walks or runs, when the streets and canals are deserted except for delivery guys and garbage collectors on barges. Once you start to see the Venetians scurrying to work, you know it’s time to head home before the streets teem with tourists.
- Do a cooking course that includes a market tour, preferably one with Enrica Rocca – and not just so you can say you met a Countess, it’s excellent.
- Shop for fresh produce and seafood at Rialto Markets; arrive before 9am. Buy what the guys in suit jackets with big wads of cash or little old ladies with shopping carts are buying; it will be the freshest seasonal produce at the best prices.
- Avoid eating around San Marco and touristy restaurants on the Grand Canal and venture off the beaten track to the back canals. Stay clear of restaurants where most customers are speaking English and have guidebooks on the tables. When you find restaurants you love, ask the waiter, manager or chef for similar restaurant tips.
- Make a habit of going to the same local bar or café – frequency breeds familiarity and it won’t be long before you’ll make friends.
- Go for moonlit strolls along the back canals late at night – that’s when you’ll understand the meaning of a ‘velvet escape’.
About this week’s guest writer
Australian travel writer Lara Dunston has lived out of her suitcase with her photographer husband Terence Carter for the last five years. In 2010 they embarked on a year-long contemporary grand tour, with the support of HomeAway Holiday-Rentals, which they blog about at Grantourismo. They have just one month left of their round-the-world trip, which partly explains why Lara is dreaming of Venice and a Velvet Escape.