Barging Around Venice, Italy

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Editorial travel article about Barging Around Venice, Italy -- a barge cruise visiting Venice, Torcello, Murano, Burano, San Francesco del Deserto, Padua and more.
gondolas in Venice, ItalyVENICE, ITALY – Most people have a distinct picture in their mind whenever the city of Venice, Italy is mentioned: ancient buildings lining narrow canals spanned by arching stone bridges and naivigated by striped shirt and straw hat-clad singing gondeliers. Movies, artwork and Las Vegas’ Venetian hotel perpetuate this romantic image, and somehow, like other such iconic spots (the Grand Canyon comes immediately to mind), it  seems fake when you first glimpse it in person.

The first look at the real Venice is somewhat akin to the adult version of a kid’s first view of Disney World -- namely slack-jawed wonder that this place actually exists. It’s real. And it looks just like the movies.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the sheer magnificence of the size, scope, age, and beauty of the spectacle of Saint Mark’s Square is enough to leave you breathless. Venture a block or two from the plaza and you find yourself in the midst of those romantic waterfilled streets, complete with the ubiquitous soundtrack of the serenading gondoliers.

Doges Palace, Venice, ItalyTo be sure, the romantic image exists. Venice is everything you’ve heard about and then some. Sure if you look around the edges, it’s not as cleanly pristine as the Disneyesque/Vegas version. But the antiquity only adds to the charm and the awe inspiring wonder of the art, architectural, and historical marvels that the city offers.

The typical tourist on a tour of Italy or on a European cruise ship sees only a small fraction of Venice. They will stop at the famous Plaza San Marco, visit the Doges Palace, and perhaps take a gondola ride. But what surprised us, and everyone we talked to since the return of our visit, was that there is so much more to this area of Italy than just the city of Venice itself.

All around are islands that also live this unique Water World like existence, including the ancient fishing town of Burano, with it’s brightly colored houses; Murano, the world’s epicenter of glass art; and Torcello the region’s first inhabited town, from which Venice itself evolved.

To get this true picture of the region of Venice, you have to allow time. You can get to all these places by public boat transportation. Or you can do what we did and spend a week on the only hotel barge cruising these waters, La Dolce Vita.

La Dolce Vita, live aboard barge, Venice, ItalyBarging Around Venice
We had previously done two barge cruises in France with European Waterways, the Canal du Nivernais in Burgundy, and the South of France, where we had such a great experience we couldn’t wait to check out Italy. Like all the barges in European Waterways’ fleet, La Dolce Vita offers an all-inclusive live aboard holiday, giving passengers the opportunity to explore the region at a leisurely pace, accompanied by a professional staff of captain, chef and translator/guide.  This is a stress-free trip where all the passengers’ needs are taken care of, including touring, meals, and a full open bar.

The barge only accommodates six passengers, so we knew this would be a unique way to tour this most unique area of the world. Our route for the next week will take us on a mixture of canals, lagoons and the river Brenta, along the ancient trade routes used by the Romans and the early Mediterranean settlers before them.

Villa Goetzen Hotel and Restaurant, Dolo, ItalyWe arrived on a Saturday afternoon, knowing that the crew of La Dolce Vita would meet us the following day at the Villa Goetzen Hotel and Restaurant in Dolo, about a 45 minute cab ride from Marco Polo International airport. For convenience sake, we opted to spend the night at the villa.  The place, at $90 euros a night, was a bargain.

Completely family run, you’d be hard pressed to find a more authentic “Italian:” experience than this exquisitely appointed historic hotel. Beautifully restored and furnished with antique pieces and interesting art, it's hard to believe it was abandoned when the Minchio family bought the property back in 1969.

We were too tired and jet lagged to stay awake for the traditional late night European dinner served in the hotel’s dining room, which is too bad -- the menu and the food we saw looked first rate. Ditto the wine list. We did experience breakfast at the Hotel Goetzen the next morning, which was wonderful – lots of beautiful fresh fruits and freshly baked Italian pastries. Most memorable of all was the cappuccino – arguably the best cup of coffee I have ever had, made from a gorgeous old enameled machine that serves as the small hotel lobby’s focal point.

Water Wheel at the Enoteca Dolo, ItalyInstead of dining at the hotel the first night, we took a short walk into downtown Dolo where we happened upon a fabulous small wine and coffee bar that served wonderful bruschetti and other savory and sweet snacks. Enoteca Dolo is housed in an old winery, its ancient wooden waterwheel still churns the waters of the canal that bisects the property before connecting with the River Brenta.

The selection of wines, coffees and hot chocolates was astounding. In our jet lagged states, we opted for cappuccinos and a selection of creatively topped bruschetti. Little did we know that this fabulous little foodie oasis was a scheduled stop in the upcoming week, when we would return for Prosecco aperitifs and snacks before reboarding the La Dolce Vita on our journey toward Padua.

We managed to hold out until nearly 6 PM for dinner, when we found a small restaurant a few doors down from the Enoteca Dolo. At that early hour we were the only patrons, but the owner who was still setting up for the upcoming Saturday night rush, graciously served us wine and made us fabulous wood fired pizzas. Our favorite was topped with a smear of tomato sauce garnished with white asparagus, cheese and an egg. Eggs on pizza while uncommon in the US, are regular items in Italy. Try one of you get the chance. The egg yolks melding with the other pizza ingredients makes for a rich and complex flavor sensation you’ll find yourself craving again in the future.

By time we’d finished our pizzas and carafe of house red wine, the restaurant was starting to fill up. We left, tired and happy, for the comforts of our beds at Villa Goetzen. We got back, threw open the shutters and windows in order to enjoy the view of the scenic canal below, and soon fell asleep, dreaming of the week’s adventure awaiting us.

Next: Our Cruise Begins -- A Unique Venetian Vista



Venice, Italy waterfrontOur Cruise Begins -- A Unique Venetian Vista
Our first night’s exploration of Dolo was accompanied by torrential rain. The weather remained wet and cloudy the following morning. By the time our crew had transported us to the barge in the late morning, the weather had cleared up, but the day’s scheduled event, the Fioretto Regatta had already been cancelled. We still got to see some of the brightly decorated antique boats that had planned on participating in the now rescheduled regatta, as Captain Giampaolo navigated La Dolce Vita down the Brenta River toward the city of Venice.

Since the weather interfered with our ability to watch the regatta, Giampaolo instead took us on tour of Venice from afar. We cruised by slowly, getting a fabulous view of the Plaza San Marco and its awe inspiring cathedral and Venice’s main waterfront, littered with countless gondolas, and oceanfront hotels, and restaurants.

When asked the price of a typical gondola ride, the crew warned us “It depends on what language you ask in. If you let one of us do the negotiating, it will be cheaper.”

Along our cruise the landscape changed dramatically, from the bucolic country beauty of the small towns and farms along the Brenta River, through an industrial area (in the process of being transformed for tourism), to the splendor of Venice glittering in the distance.

Chef Eros Libero AmeduriGiampaolo parked the barge for the night at a small island, actually part of an Italian military base, across the bay from Venice. With the city view in the distance, we relaxed and experienced our first dinner at the capable hands of our personal chef for the trip, Eros Libero Ameduri.  Throughout the week the animated Eros would present us with a different gourmet meal each lunch and dinner. Each of Eros’s meals was complemented with at least 2 Italian cheese and wines.

Start to talk about food and this young chef’s face instantly lights up. The conversation starts flowing, despite the fact that Eros speaks limited English. Throughout the week my fellow foodie passengers and I have many such conversations, learning some of the history of the cheeses, wines and spirits we’re eating and drinking, and exploring the regional origins of the recipes our talented chef prepares.

Since we had already indulged in hors d’oeuvres and Prosecco (sparkling Italian wine), Eros had prepared a “light” first lunch for soon after we boarded, which we ate in the barge’s main lounge. The meal let us know, without a doubt, that we were in sound culinary hands for the next week. Eros prepared a delicate green salad topped with thinly sliced grilled zucchini and prosciutto, all served in a delicate “bowl” crafted from flavorful Parmesan cheese. Perfectly cooked pasta in a creamy red sauce studded by briny olives and capers came next, followed by freshly baked grape and apple strudel.   Lunch also introduced us to a popular Italian tradition at meals end – aged Parmesan cheese served with honey.

We dined that first night, with the lights of Venice glittering in the distance, on spaghetti cooked with mussels and clams and seasoned with lemon and lots of black pepper. The entrée was a delicate seabass cooked a la Veronique (with grapes), accompanied by a savory stuffed broiled tomato. Italian gelato and cheese followed.

Next: The Roots oF Venice -- Visiting Torcello


Torcello Island, Venice, ItalyVisiting Torcello -- The Roots of Venice
After a typical on board breakfast consisting of freshly baked Italian pastries and breads, fresh fruits and juices, yogurts and cereal, we cruised towards Torcello Island, the first inhabited city of this region – older than Venice itself. Along the way we passed seaside villas and abandoned estates – one formerly belonging to the legendary Casanova.

We landed at the docks of Torcello just as one of the island’s many tourist laden bus/boats departed, which afforded us a quiet, almost private, look at this ancient town. Once the most important settlement in the Venice Lagoon and home to over 20,000 people, the island is now largely uninhabited save for a few diehard restaurateurs and shopkeepers. But each day brings throngs of tourists who come to see the incredible Byzantine mosaics at the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, and to enjoy the panoramic view from the Church of Santa Fosca’s belltower next door.

The Basilica’s mosaics are so complex, it really is worthwhile to rent headsets that give detailed history and description (if your on the barge cruise you don't need to worry about this, it is already arranged for you). The self guided audio tour lets you explore at your own pace, but fills in a lot of details that might otherwise elude you and will add to the impact to your overall experience.

After a leisurely walk through town along the gorgeous waterfront, we reboarded La Dolce Vita, where lunch was set out on the upper deck. Those afternoons spent cruising through the Lagoons of Venice while lunching on the top deck really did make us feel like we were filming an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Even in this aquatic locale, the site of a private, live aboard cruising barge is unusual enough to draw stares from tourists and locals alike.

A large part of the charm of a barge trip is spent doing, well, nothing beyond relaxing and cruising along and enjoying the world as you float by, accompanied by fine cuisine at lunch and dinner or an afternoon aperitif.

After dinner and grappa, card games with our two other fellow passengers (La Dolce Vita acocomodates 6 passengers total when sold out, which it was not this particular week) became our evening activity of choice, and for the first time in longer than I can remember I got to participate in one of my favorite activities – the lost art of fine conversation.

It wasn’t until about halfway through the week that we realized we had been completely “unplugged” – no TV, no radio, no computer – and we hadn’t missed it a bit!

Next: Burano -- Lace and Laundry



the brightly colored buildings of Burano, ItalyBurano -- Lace and Laundry
Our visit to the island of Torcello provided our first clue that other cities besides Venice itself come accessorized with meandering canals and graceful arched walking bridges. As the week went on and we added destinations like Burano and Murano to our roster, we came to realize that what we thought of as typical Venetian characteristics extend to this entire region.

Everything here is done by water – buses, taxis, trash collection, not to mention, police, fire, and ambulance services. It truly is an amphibious lifestyle.

We spotted the town of Burano from far away due to the many brightly colored buildings lining its waterfront. The colorful tradition began hundreds of years ago, allegedly so fishermen returning home from a day at sea would know which house was theirs.

laundry in Burano, ItalyGiampaolo docked the barge and let us loose to spend free time in town – we would spend the night moored in Burano, so we had plenty of time to explore.

After the brightly painted buildings, the most prominent sight here were countless clotheslines festooned with freshly washed laundries (unmentionables and everything) hanging from most second floor apartments. Hanging your laundry out to dry is apparently the thing to do in Burano. This economical green practice is such an attraction that souvenir shops sell postcards of the bright buildings lining Burano’s canals – laundry flying proudly!

Burano is known worldwide for its fine lace. Unfortunately (especially for a fiber arts enthusiast like myself), the Lace Museum was closed for renovations (although it should be re-opened by the time you read this, but check ahead to be sure). No matter, lace makers abound in Burano, and demonstrations of this ancient and delicate art were taking place in several shops we happened upon.  No matter where you look, you'll find stores in Burano offering exquisite lace pieces, both apprarel and home items, in a huge array of styles, qualities, and price ranges. fishermen repairing nets in Burano, Italy

A town that regularly welcomes lots of tourists, Burano provided a chance to do some shopping for souvenirs and gifts for loved ones back home.

Next: Friars, Guinea Pigs and the Exquisite Gardens on San Francesco del Deserto Island



San Francesco del Deserto IslandFriars, Guinea Pigs and the Exquisite Gardens on San Francesco del Deserto Island
We spend the next morning on the tiny San Francesco del Deserto Island, a way off the beaten path attraction.

St. Francis of Assisi visited here in 1220 after a quick stop in Torcello after returning from the holy lands.  The good saint, known for his comaraderie with animals, is said to have created a “minor miracle” on the premises – something about asking some noisy birds to quiet down, and the birds complied.

bell at San Francesco del Deserto IslandThe idyllic island, carpeted in lush green grass and bountiful gardens, including groves of cypress trees, is home to only a handful of friars and monks who share the space with an enormous colony of guinea pigs who run loose throughout the meticulously landscaped grounds.

One of the friars graciously shows us around, explaining the history of St. Francis, the island, and its church  -- still in use -- built in 1228. Life for him and the other friars is a peaceful yet isolated existence. Our guide, who is probably in his mid thirties, seems perfectly happy and content with this unusual lifestyle choice. We leave the island feeling peaceful, reflecting on what makes people happy and why we make the choices we do.

Next: Murano - The World's Glass Epicenter


Murano, Italy, venetoMurano - The World's Glass Epicenter
We get a by sea tour of Venice’s “cemetery island” – everything here revolves around the sea -- while cruising to Murano, where we arrive just in time for a private tour of the Vetreria Ducale glass factory – one of the best in a city that’s known the world over for its art glass.

We watch artisans at work on blown glass masterpieces before touring a designer’s showroom of some of the most amazing glass we’ve ever seen. We tiptoe gingerly around the massive showroom, contemplating not only the beauty of the art that surrounds us, but also the staggering financial consequences should any of us accidentally become a “bull” in a glass shop.

glass blowers in Murano, italyAfter the tour we breathe a sigh of relief and take the opportunity to wander the streets of Murano for a few hours before heading back to the barge, moored for the night right outside the door of the glass factory, for dinner.

Next: Visiting Venice Proper
glass chandelier, Murano, Italy



San Giorgio IslandVisiting Venice Proper
The following morning we cross a busy channel and moor for the rest of that day and night at the tiny island of San Giorgio, directly across the water from the Plaza San Marco in Venice.

Before catching a 3-minute water bus ride to the city, we tour the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore with its breathtaking frescoes including works by Tintoretto, Carpaccio, and others. Before leaving the church, we take time to visit the bell tower for a breathtaking aerial view of Venice and the surrounding area.

Marina, our English speaking tour guide (paid and arranged for in advance by the barge company) meets us in Venice’s famous Plaza San Marco bearing VIP tickets to tour the breathtaking Byzantine style  Saint Mark’s Cathedral (built circa 1094) and the adjacent Doges Palace (Palazzo Ducale). As we soared past lines of tourists waiting for hours in lines that stretched further than our eyes could see (the final resting place of Saint Mark draws over 21 million visitors annually), the true value of Marina’s special tickets became self evident.

mosaics at St. Mark's CathedralAn encyclopedic wealth of information, there was no question that historian Marina couldn’t answer, and having her along brought a wealth of meaning to the visually stunning art and architecture we were taking in.

The Cathedral’s beauty astounds absolutely everywhere you look, from the incredible colored marble and glass mosaics that adorn the floors, walls and ceilings, to the ornate wooden and marble carvings crammed into every nook and cranny inside and out.

Adjacent to the cathedral, the Doges Palace served for centuries as not only as the home of the Doge or elected ruler of Venice, but also as the seat of Venice government. The beauracracy of the entire Venice region was housed here from civil administration to courts and even the jail – at least until it relocated across the infamous “Bridge of Sighs.” Tourists can now trace the walk across this infamous enclosed bridge that crosses the canal connecting the jail to the Doges’ Palace. Unfortunately when we visited, the photo op was marred by restoration scaffolding garishly festooned in brazenly modern marketing billboards. The scaffolding is understandable, but the ads really break the illusion of this solemn place, but I guess budget cuts are affecting everything.

Clock in Venice, Italy, St. Mark's SquareLikewise Venice’s most famous landmark, the Plaza San Marco itself was covered in building sized ads for Swatch and the latest Hollywood film releases. Modern capitalism is evident everywhere large crowds gather – even in this ancient city.

After doing some shopping in Venice we catch another water bus back to San Giorgio Island. Tonight is the Captain’s dinner. Giampaolo joins us for a special meal. Eros outdoes himself with my favorite dish of the entire cruise – a squid ink risotto that is perfectly balanced in its complex yet delicate flavors.

Next: Back up the Brenta and Practicalities


Back up the Brenta
and Practicalities
The following day we start our journey up the Brenta River toward our final destination of Padua, the only city on our journey with actual roads besides the ever present canals.

Brenta River, Italy, Barge CruiseWe retrace our way back towards Dolo and later Padua (or Padova as it's also known) past picturesque farms and quaint tiny towns along the villa lined way.

Some of the ancient riverfront villas lining our route remain occupied to this day. Many others lie abandoned and neglected, faded ghosts of summer homes to the aristocracy they once were. The lucky ones, like the Villa Pisani (also known as Villa Nazionale) in Stra, about halfway between Venice and Padua and now a national museum, have been meticulously restored. The palace was built to celebrate the election of a Pisani family member as the 114th doge of Venice, and allows modern visitors a glimpse of what life for the upper classes in the eighteenth century was like. Napoleon bought the property in 1807, although he only spent one night there before gifting it to his adoptive son.

Giampaolo pulled the barge up to the gates of the villa where we disembarked for our quick tour of the impossibly ornate and formal buildings and gardens. As imposing as the main building is from the front, it doesn’t even compare to the view out the back. The meticulously groomed gardens, beautifully offset by a huge reflecting pool makes us feel as though we’ve wandered onto the set of a Merchant-Ivory film.

Villa Pisani, Stra, ItalyAfter our visit to the villa, we make our way to our final mooring spot beside the ancient walls of the city of Padua. On the other side of medieval walls waits a city as modern as it is old, and the two blend together at every turn – ancient art and architecture commingle with modern structures on the bustling heavily trafficked streets. We borrow the barge’s bicycles for a ride around town before we decide the streets are just too busy for us, but someone used to navigating city streets by bike would enjoy this outing.

The following day we board a smaller boat owned by Giampaolo (Padua is his hometown and his house is in walking distance of our mooring) to go into Padua to visit the Scrovegni Chapel (also known as the Arena Chapel). Dedicated in 1305, the chapel holds the most complete cycle of frescoes painted by Giotto, Italy’s preeminent painter at the time. Brightly colored paintings depicting the stations of the cross and, the life of Christ, and the life of the Virgin cover the walls and ceilings of building. (To see some of the incredible vivid hued images from the chapel, click here.)

For our last dinner of the trip, Giampaolo escorted us into town to a wonderful restaurant owned by a friend of his. The atmosphere was charming and the food good, but we all agreed that our personal chef Eros was even better.

All too soon our journey had come to an end. The barge company arranged a van and driver to transport us back to Venice where we caught a water taxi to our hotel where we’d spend an extra night before heading back to our more land based reality in the US.
Practicalities

For more information on barge cruising holidays, see our stories about Barge Cruising on the Canal du Nivernais in Burgundy, and in  the South of France.

All-inclusive, live aboard cruises on La Dolce Vita are offered by European Waterways. For more information or reservations visit their website at www.GoBarging.com or phone toll free at 800-394-8630, fax: (+44) 1784 483072.

The Villa Goetzen Hotel and Ristorante in Dolo is the meeting place and pick up point for barge cruise passengers. It’s also a wonderful place to stay the night before your cruise begins, offering everything you could want in a small family run hotel – charm, friendly good service, beautiful comfortable rooms, and good food. Find Villa Goetzen at Via Matteotti, 2/c-30031 Dolo (VE) Italy; visit their website at www.villagoetzen.it.  When we visited in the fall of 2008 our room ran $90 euros per night, including breakfast.

If you plan on spending any extra time in Venice itself, know that the closer your hotel to the waterfront, the more expensive your lodgings will be – the equivalent of $300.00 - $400.00 a night is common. However, walk a block or two from the waterfront and you can find lots of reasonably priced nice hotels in the $100.00 a night range. One we found that we liked was the Hotel Serenissima at Calle Goldoni – San Marco, 4486 – 30124 Venice. Visit their website at www.HotelSerenissima.it, email them at info@hotelserenissima.it. The rooms were large and clean with big shuttered windows that opened to overlook the bustling streets below. Only a five minute walk from the Plaza San Marco, it’s hard to beat.

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