5 ways to see authentic Venice and avoid the tourists
It’s hard to truly enjoy Venice when you are surrounded by thousands of tourists eating ice cream and crowding into St Marks Square. Yes, you should see St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace once in your life but unless you go on a cold, rainy day in Winter you’ll be standing in line and any sense of atmosphere will be killed by sweaty bodies and sticky hands.
But the Republic of Venice ruled the seas for more than 1000 years and left behind an incredible rich palette of art and architecture which you can explore quietly, without other people, if you know where to look.
Start at the beginning: Torchello
Venitians were originally Roman refugees from the mainland escaping the Huns in the 5th century and one of the first islands they populated was the small Northern island of Torchello. You can reach it on the vaparetto, stopping in Murano and Burano on the way, and it’s worth the 1 hour + it takes to get there.
Torchello is a silent island. Once home more more than 10,000 people it is now a quiet backwater for people who want to see the gorgeous 10th C basilica and eat wonderful food. When you come off the vaparetto walk straight along a quiet tow path and you’ll slowly see the Cathedral of Maria Assunta rise up in front of you. It is a gorgeous example of Byzantine architecture and mosaics, with a tall tower from which you can see the whole lagoon and a view of the last judgement soaring up the whole back wall of the main basilica. When I visited I was the only person climbing the tower, and this was in June! The view was magnificent and I felt the spirit and history of this gentle, quiet place surrounding me and absorbing me.
Torchello is also know for it’s food though, and the majority of the handful (less than 100) visitors I shared the island with had come to visit one of the famous restaurants - particularly the Locanda Cipriani which grows it’s own vegetables.
Visit a heart and a break with tradition: Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
Second only to St Mark’s Basilica, Frari is a place you can feel 15th C Venice without the crowds, although if they knew what was there they’d go! Two masters of Venice are celebrated there. Only Canova’s heart is in the magnificent - and somewhat creepy - marble tomb (the rest of his parts are elsewhere). Surrounded by mourning figures, including a dramatically sad lion, the half open door of the tomb invites you to wonder what is inside.
It is also in Frari that Titian broke with tradition with his Pesaro Madonna and his use of saturated color and a diagonal plane for the key figures. You can also find a Donatello, magnificent choir stalls, a dramatic roof line - if you are interested in the history of art this is a must visit.
The basilica is huge, quiet, cool and stuffed with the beauty and wealth of Venice at it’s height.
Carpaccio’s butts and dogs
Unless you’ve been to Venice you might think carpaccio is an hors d’oeuvre - thin slices of beef. But actually this dish is named after the Venetian painter who loved the use of red, the blood red of beef. There are two places that are must-visits to see and appreciate his fabulous paintings.
First, the Accademia. Yes, you will find a few more tourists there, but the cruise crowd rarely make it that far so you won’t be crowded out. The Accademia has a rich collection of paintings ranging through the history of Venice, and one room in particular with very large paintings by Carpaccio including the Miracle of the Relic of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto. His paintings are in a room towards the end of the route through the museum so make sure you stick with it. They show Venice as it was in the late 15th, early 16th century filled with scenes of grandeur, but also with real people, dogs and the small details of every day life. The Accademia also has two contrasting views of the entrance to Heaven, one by Hieronymus Bosch and one by Carpaccio; both are enticing.
The second place to see Carpaccio’s work is in the club house - in Venice of those times a “confraternity” - the Scuola de San Giorgio deli Schiavoni. A meeting place for sailors and workmen, the scuola today is a quiet, dark two story building where you’ll pay a small fee to get in, but you will be the only person there except for the docent who will watch you carefully. Carpaccio was commissioned to paint seven large panels in the downstairs meeting room and each one is worth a long, deep look. Dragons, dogs, lions, pheasants, young men conquering and old men arguing on the magnificent wall coverings of the room.
Where wood comes alive: the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Tintoretto
The other scuola, or confraternity, not to be missed is the Grande di San Rocco. The walls of this building were painted by Tintoretto and they are a feast for the eyes. Downstairs and upstairs, walls and ceilings covered in huge, rich paintings of biblical scenes. My camera could not do them justice in the low light but I could have spent all day there; again I was sharing the space with less than 20 other people despite the magnificence of the many paintings.
Upstairs the scuola also has the unexpected treat of wood carvings of allegorical figures carved by Francesco Pianta. These are real people, wrinkles and all, who look as if they could step out of the wood and talk with you. Quite extraordinary.
A quiet garden for unmarried women
Venice is full of rich and amazing buildings - showcasing the wealth of the men who built the Republic and became rich from the Venetian trading routes. But what of the women? There were famous beauties and courtesans of course, but sometimes we can forget that women were also a burden to be married off or, if not, put away with.
In 1599 the Venetian home for unmarried women was founded on Giudecca over the water from St Marks. Set up as a “founding a home for Cittelle (Unmarried Women) to free them from the danger of eternal damnation, the certain fate of virgins who, being beautiful and graceful, unhappily lost themselves due to the malevolence of those who should be solicitous about their health and bring them up in the holy fear of God.”
Today this is the only Venice hotel with a large garden - a beautiful, quiet garden where you can escape the crowds, listen to the birds and read - the hotel is the Bauer Palladio. It has been refurbished from the home for unmarried women and retains much of the architectural peace of the original building.
Venice is a walking city. Everywhere (unless you are on a vaporetto). And at the end of a long day, saturated with beauty but with aching feet, it’s wonderful to escape everyone - even the other tourists, like me, who were off the beaten path - and simply sit with bare feet in the grass, a glass of crisp white wine and a book. The Venice few people see.
Reading… Venice, the New History by Prof Thomas Madden. Wonderful.
Photos: Copyright Penny Herscher
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