A First Visit to the ‘City on the Water’

Catherine Beattie is enchanted by Venice and the surrounding area – with good food, wine, company and amazing sights all included.

I’m in Venice – sipping a glass of prosecco on the sundeck of the MS Michelangelo. I can see the landmark Campanile (bell tower) of St Mark’s Cathedral and directly across the lagoon, the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and its beautiful church. The scene is like a Canaletto painting come to life with the glorious Venetian architecture a stunning backdrop to the busy waterway.

For our first visit to the ‘city on the water,’ we are taking an all-inclusive Venice from the Water package with Voyages Jules Verne. Home for the next four nights will be the MS Michelangelo, a river cruise ship belonging to French cruise company Croisi Europe. Our floating hotel accommodates over 150 passengers in comfortable cabins on two levels, all with large picture windows and modern amenities. On board facilities are spread over three decks and include a large lounge and bar with panoramic windows, a small shop and a spacious sun deck. Meals are taken in the bright and airy single seating restaurant. For three of our four nights on board, Michelangelo will be moored at Riva Sette Martiri, a short walk from St Mark’s Square.

Arriving at Marco Polo airport in the late afternoon, we join about 20 other Brits transferring to the Michelangelo at the cruise terminal. It’s all very friendly and informal and we’re soon settled into our cabin. Most of the other passengers are French, although the crew is bi-lingual and the ship announcements are in French, English and Spanish. On the first evening, there’s a ‘welcome’ cocktail in the lounge as the ship’s crew introduce themselves one by one.

At dinner, tour manager Sue shows the UK group to our allocated tables and outlines the itinerary for the next few days. She suggests using the vaporetti (public water buses) to explore Venice and where to buy tickets. As we chat with our fellow passengers over four courses of French cuisine served with wine, Michelangelo sails from the cruise terminal to her overnight mooring in central Venice.

While we enjoy a buffet breakfast next morning, Michelangelo cruises north on the Venetian lagoon. The enclosed sea bay is connected to the Adriatic Sea by three inlets and covers an area of 550 sq kilometres (210 sq miles), stretching from the River Brenta in the south to the River Sile in the north. It consists mainly of mud flats, tidal shallows and salt marshes. Open water and canals make up about a tenth of its area and actual land (Venice and the islands) even less. The lagoon’s water levels vary considerably, especially in the spring when the high tides (acqua alta) regularly flood much of Venice.

When Michelangelo returns to her mooring, we disembark for a walk then take an excursion by a smaller boat to the lagoon islands of Murano and Burano.

Murano – the ‘glass island’ has been producing fine glasswork since the 13th century and although demand has waned in recent years, glass making is still the island’s main industry. We join a queue filing into one of the factories to watch the glassmakers at work, blowing and shaping the molten glass in the dusty heat. After several forays into a red-hot furnace with an iron rod, one glassmaker produces a prancing glass horse and everyone cheers. Afterwards, we browse the extensive showroom, but are not tempted to buy.

The charming tiny island of Burano is a further 20 minutes north by boat and is famous for lace making and its quayside houses painted in bright contrasting colours. Behind the houses are narrow, maze-like passageways and small squares, some with washing hanging out to dry, adding to the island’s homely feel. We buy ices and stroll alongside the colourful canals as far to the Church of San Martino and its leaning campanile – a feature of many churches in this part of Italy. Then it’s back to Venice for dinner on the ship and a nightcap in the bar before turning in.

Day two, and local guide Maria leads an optional walking excursion to the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale). We’ve all been issued with ‘whisper sets’ so we can follow Maria’s commentary. She tells us that Venice and its lagoon became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. This recognised the importance of the city’s artworks, architecture and unique location on 118 small islands linked by 150 canals and 477 bridges (we cross seven on our short walk). Venice also has 139 churches (88 still in use) and attracts over 20 million visitors a year, although less than half stay in the city overnight. Many tourists are from visiting cruise ships or passengers starting or ending their cruise in Venice. But despite mass-market tourism, the city’s population is in decline due to dwindling job opportunities, soaring property prices and the high cost of living.

The Doges Palace – one of Venice’s Byzantine landmark buildings – adjoins St Mark’s Square and was the residence of the Dukes of Venice and seat of the Venetian government for nearly seven centuries. The present palace dates from the 14th century and is a splendid example of Venetian Gothic architecture, boasting elegant colonnades, white Istrian stone and pink marble cladding.

We tour the palatial rooms adorned with priceless sculptures, ornate ceilings, artworks and vast paintings by Tintoretto, Veronese and other artists. In the Grand Council Chamber, we take in the city views from a balcony then follow the path of condemned prisoners across the Bridge of Sighs and into the damp dark cells of Venice’s 16th century prison.

It’s quite a relief to emerge into the sunshine of St Mark’s Square after our fascinating tour. We thank Maria then join the crowds in the piazza, where lively classical music is being played by a string quartet outside one of the restaurants..

Long queues for St Mark’s Basilica and the Campanile stretch across the square, so we put these on hold for our next visit and buy vaporetti tickets to explore the Grand Canal instead. The canal is the city’s main waterway and traces a reverse S-course, from St Mark’s Basilica to the Santa Lucia railway station at the western end. Over three kilometres long and lined with over 170 historic buildings, it is populated by small water craft, mainly vaporetti, private water taxis and gondolas. A short vaporetta ride affords close up views of architectural treasures like the basilica of Santa Maria della Salute and Venice’s many palazzos (grand residencies), some emerging directly from the water.

Alighting at the famous Rialto Bridge, the first of the Grand Canal’s four bridges, we take our time meandering back to St Mark’s Square through the busy Rialto market and the city’s quaint backstreets.

On the last day of the trip, Michelangelo cruises south to Chioggia, the lagoon’s other island city. Like Venice, it has canals and medieval churches, but unlike Venice, it also has traffic! We have a couple of hours to explore before heading back for lunch. We mingle with the crowds in the bustling market then walk alongside the canals as far as the church of San Domenico, which sits on its own little island. We are hoping to view the church’s precious artworks by Carpaccio and Tintoretto as well as one of the world’s oldest and largest wooden crucifixes above the high altar. But disappointingly the church is resolutely locked.

In the afternoon, we join a group coach trip from Chioggia to the historic university town of Padua and a guided tour of St Anthony’s Basilica (Il Santo). The vast basilica, took over 70 years to construct (from 1238 to 1310) and is the burial place of St Anthony of Padua, the town’s patron saint. It is a key pilgrimage site as the saint’s relics are displayed in one of the basilica’s nine chapels. The huge church has many notable monuments and works of art and is attached to a Franciscan monastery. The monastery’s five cloisters contain many ancient artefacts and one contains a large 200-year old magnolia tree at its centre, which we are told, flowers profusely every year.

At the end of the tour, we walk into the town for coffee and pastries at Cafè Pedrocchi. The neoclassical coffee house has been a favourite of students, academics and locals since it opened in 1831. It is situated next to the Palazzo del Bo, the main building of the old university, where Galileo Gaililei taught during his 18 years in Padua. Here, he discovered the moons of Jupiter, Saturn’s rings and developed his theory that the earth evolved around the sun. Guided tours are offered around Galileo’s lecture hall and also to the world’s first anatomy theatre, a steep six-tiered lecture hall built in 1594 for scientific autopsy.

The coach returns us to the ship, now berthed at the Venice cruise terminal for our last night on board and a celebratory gala dinner. As we dine in style, we reflect on how much we’ve enjoyed our first taste of enchanting Venice – with good food, wine, company and amazing sights all included. We will definitely be back.

Further information
Venice from the Water costs from £745 pp (two sharing) including BA flights (Gatwick), transfers, four nights’ full board accommodation with drinks on the MS Michelangelo, excursions as per the itinerary and the services of the cruise director. No single supplement applies on 22 December departure (subject to availability).
Further optional excursions available (additional cost).Call Voyages Jules Verne on 0845 166 7035 or visit www.vjv.com

Catherine Beattie is the Publishing Editor of Spa Wellbeing