THE stereotypical Italian male is a bit of a charmer with the gift of the gab, a winning smile and a glint in his eye.
So, when in Venice, it seemed worth a punt to ask our charming gondolier, Leonardo (31), for the inside track on getting the best out of a city simply heaving under the weight of visitors from around the world.
After all, we’d just handed over the best part of £60 for the privilege of being personally guided around some of this magical city’s waterways for half an hour or so in his gleaming gondola.
A bit steep, I’d thought, but this was at the insistence of our daughter who (probably rightly) reasoned that a trip to Venice wouldn’t be complete without savouring an experience best associated with the city.
I’d already gleaned that Leo was born and bred in Venice, a city whose allure attracts an estimated 20 million visitors every year. That averages out at around 54,000 every single day.
Gondoliers — there are only around 400 of them — are amongst the best-paid workers in Venice, reportedly earning anything up to £95,000 a year. Maybe that explained Leo’s sunny disposition. When that many people are visiting every single day, supply and demand dictates that you’ll never be short of customers. That said, he revealed that he couldn’t afford the real estate prices close to his tourist honey pot workplace and commuted in every day."
So, what do you recommend we do in Venice?" I asked, trying not to distract Leonardo from an oncoming freight barge rounding a blind corner at a frightening clip.
"Go and get lost," he replied.
There was a pause as he collected his thoughts and I questioned my ears.
A smile that would make a Cheshire cat look surly transformed his face as he ducked effortlessly under one of the city’s 400 bridges, yelling "ooooeeee!" by way of indicating to other water users that he was coming.
Dipping the oar that doubles as a rudder back into the Grand Canal, he elaborated: "Switch off your phone, put away your map, throw away your guide book — and go and get lost."
Another smile and a shrug. "Take it or leave it, that’s my advice", his body language told me.
It was to be the best advice I received all week.
Leonardo’s tip made perfect sense. Venice is, understandably, a magnet for visitors. We were visiting at the height of the tourist season through a combination of spontaneity, bad planning and being tied down to the (peak season) school summer holidays.
Let’s just say there was a definite spur of the moment "let the chips fall where they may!" element to our last-minute, late night online booking of a break through jet2holidays.com, an airline that was a completely new proposition to us.
Flying from Edinburgh Airport was an appeal. (Tip: if driving, book your long stay car parking online and in advance — you’ll save a fortune). Sadly, Inverness just wasn’t working price-wise. All manner of permutations were tested, some taking us halfway around the world in order to get to a destination reached direct from Edinburgh in around two hours.
With the "game changer" resumption of the London Heathrow link on the horizon, that may change by next summer, transforming the outward-bound travel prospects for Highlanders as well as those seeking out our beautiful home.
So, for this visit at least, Edinburgh it was. With a super-early start, an overnight stay ahead of departure looked sensible. Sure, it bumps up the cost, but the prospect of charging down the A9 in the middle of the night, speed cameras and all, to make a dawn departure wasn’t hugely appealing.
There are hotels closer to the terminal but my loyalty to Premier Inn saw us checking in at its Newbridge hotel, a (hefty) stone’s throw from the airport (see below for more on that) but a brand we already trust.
Arriving in Venice from the air for the first time is a breathtaking proposition. A magical world appears, as if from nowhere, behind the clouds. It seems to be floating in the air. The truth is almost as amazing when you discover the network of underwater poles keeping Venice afloat amidst its maze of canals. The Boeing 737-200, riding some serious tailwind action, got us there ahead of schedule.
Outside looked hot. Very hot. Construction workers were toiling topless. Toiling is the wrong word. They were ambling with all the enthusiasm of sleepy sloths longing for a siesta. And stepping out of the plane into the oven-like heat, it was easy to see why. It was hot: very hot. So hot that we’d soon read reports of cars melting under the sun. We’d only gone and stepped into a heatwave. (Tip: In retrospect, we’d probably have avoided July or August on the grounds both of cost and temperature. Hindsight and all that...)
I’d been once before 30-odd years ago as an InterRailing student. Remember InterRail? Back then, you slapped down £125 (in my case earned picking tomatoes) and enjoy the freedom of Europe via its train network for three weeks. The scheme still exists and looks decent value for money at first glance, though the cost has somewhat soared. Check it out.
Back then, Venice was an overnight stop on a grimy, backpack, whistle-stop train tour of Europe. The shoestring budget allowed for little more than baguettes and water — and the luxury of the occasional dodgy hostel. Plan your timetable right and you could sleep on the train overnight and slash your overheads. Simple.
That paltry outlay took me through France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Holland and Belgium and into Morocco.
Suffice to say, a lot has changed since then, not least the arrival of a wife and two children unlikely to buy into the "romance" of sleeping on trains, beaches and railway stations.
You can’t drive into Venice as such. You won’t see a single car on the winding alleyways at the heart of the city. And that’s a massive part of the appeal. An appeal that continues to bring upwards of 20 million people a year, most seemingly choosing the same day as us to arrive.
Here’s the thing: if you don’t enjoy running with the pack (or shuffling with the herd), a Plan B is essential. In these circumstances, escaping with sanity intact was going to require us to tap into some inner sense of adventure.
One look at the queues for the major attractions told me one thing: The guidebook was going out the window.
The hottest item hawked on the canalsides of Venice this summer was (surprise, surprise) the selfie-stick. Let your attention wander for a moment while walking across St Mark’s Square and there’s a very strong chance you’ll collide with a fellow visitor starring in their own home movie, inadvertently bulldozing anyone who gets in their way.
Looking ridiculous seems to be no deterrent: everyone was it.
In short, Leo was right: it was time to go get lost.
And that’s surprisingly easy if you start to explore the back alleys radiating out from the honey pot central square, beautiful though it is (when empty of other people. Tip: if you really want to have a moment in St Mark’s Square, arrive really, really early in the morning).
Getting lost is a cinch when you have no sense of direction (with or without a map). Bonus!
As your footsteps echo against the crumbling apartment walls rising straight out of the water, merging with the gentle slooping sound of gondolas and smaller vessels appearing suddenly out of the gloaming, you’ll feel your heart skip a beat. Less than a half a mile away from the throng, it might as well be another planet. The selfie-stick infested square was the seventh circle of hell. This was heaven.
We caught tantalising glimpses into some of these old apartments. Their walls oozed history. We longed to be invited inside to take a look around and see how someone who lives here lives. Do they feel lucky or do they curse the ‘magic’ which entrances the millions here every year? We watched some very well-heeled (translation: loaded) visitors step off a gondola heaving with their designer suitcases and into a swish five-star hotel. For a romantic money-no-object getaway, it looked hard to beat.
I wasn’t, it has to be admitted, exactly sure how we were going to find our way back to the vaporetto, or ferry, stop that would take us back to our hotel. But that was half the adventure. It was achieved through a combination of different members of the family remembering particular sights that had caught their eye on our way to getting lost. These included a terrifying souvenir mask in a tiny shop window, a waiter trying to guide people towards an Indian restaurant and
The £60 handed over to Leonardo earlier in the day — about half my travel budget from three decades ago on a half-hour jaunt — was now starting to look like money well spent.
Guidebooks such as Lonely Planet’s excellent Venice & the Veneto tell you all you need to know about things to see and do — as well as when to make your move and local tips on hidden secrets. Venice is choc a bloc with stunning museums, churches and galleries filled with amazing art. With younger children in tow and keen to avoid the queues and the crowds under a melting sun that was to spark heatwave warnings, we decided on a more freestyle approach, testing out what would appeal and avoiding the box-ticking itinerary of a tourist’s to-do list.
More by accident than design (that, plus it was the cheapest option available at short notice), we opted to stay on the Lido, an 11-mile long sandbar perhaps best known for hosting the Venice Film Festival. It’s claim to be 10 minutes from the centre of Venice is probably true, at a stretch. Getting there involves a ferry ride, which is where the excellent vaporetto system comes in. On the Lido, it’s worth forking out for a three-day or seven-day ferry pass. That way, you really can be whisked along by the spirit of adventure, jumping on ferries to whatever destination rolls off the tongue. And in Italy, it seems, all destinations trip off the tongue. What is it with place names ending in vowels? Why do they all sound so impossibly appealing? Castello. Torcello. San Giorgio. Santa Marta. Cannaregio.
The blurb for the Hotel Villa Laguna states: "Enjoy Venice far from the masses, avoiding the chaos and the crowd. The Lido Island, which faces the Lagoon on one side and the Adriatic Sea on the other, is the ideal location for your stay." And, truth be told, that’s not a bad shout. We got lucky with a two-bedroom corner suite with balcony looking out across to the heart of Venice. The view — a constant dance of speedboats and ferries against the backdrop of that magical floating city — was pretty easy on the eye.
It had helped that in advance of our arrival, a member of staff at the hotel had responded to emailed requests for tips that would help us to hit the ground running. Or the water floating. On a relatively brief stay, some inside info helps a lot.
One such tip, combined with our freestyle ferry-hopping tactics, took us to the stunning settlement of Burano, an archipelago of four islands linked by bridges famous for lace and its coloured houses. While lace doesn’t do that much for me, I found the multicoloured, higgledy-piggledy buildings to be a real jaw-dropper. It’s easy to see why the place acts like a magnet to photographers.
It was while enjoying a wander with no set to-do list that we were approached by an old grandma who made a beeline for our son, gently chucking his chubby cheeks with a huge grin on her face. It was one of those lovely, unexpected moments which, though fleeting, become treasured memories. Our blushing son simply observed: "Her hands felt nice."
Murano, famous for its glass, is rather more commercially based. Suffice to say that if you’re every in need of a little glass trinket — or an intricate and enormously expensive piece of crystal — look no further. The prospect of being shown around a glassblowing premises in that heat was one we were able to resist. I’ll look it up if ever I return in winter, perhaps.
If we return out of season, the discarded guidebook will doubtless be retrieved so we can catch up on some of the other treasures we missed.
Over the course of five precious days, we discovered the simple pleasure of stopping at a canalside cafe and simply watching the world go by: well worth whatever they’re charging for the coffee. We also discovered that finding your way to the small open deck at the front of a vaporetto (you need to be quick) making its way around the Grand Canal is a thrilling and virtually cost-free way of seeing the hustle and bustle of the city and its people at their best.
When we go again, it won't be peak season (sweltering and expensive). And we'll be a bit smarter about looking in advance for cheap deals. Have you noticed how some people seem to have that down to a fine art? They also tend to super-smug but perhaps that's just jealousy talking!
And then on our last trip into the heart of Venice before leaving, for home, I spotted a familiar figure bobbing along one of the canals. I was standing scoffing a baguette and glugging down some ice cold water. Once a penny-pinching student traveller... It was none other than Leonardo, ferrying another family through his city.
He was unmistakable in his elegant boater hat, sunglasses and striped gondolier's T-shirt. He caught my eye, for some reason recognised me (remember that 54,000 visitors a day stat from earlier on?) and smiled broadly, his white teeth glinting in the sun. He tipped his hat with forefinger before disappearing around a turn in the canal.
And that's when I realised the best advice for a trip to Venice: "Go and get lost".
WHERE TO STAY THE NIGHT BEFORE LEAVING
Taking an early flight makes sense if you want to squeeze the maximum out of a six-day break.
Arriving at your destination in the morning and getting orientated before checking in at your lodgings allows time to get out and about in the late afternoon and evening.
If you’re starting out in the Highlands and Inverness Airport isn’t really helping your cause, that means an overnight stay near your departure point of choice (or taking your chances on travelling through the night — too many random factors for my liking when young children are in tow).
Edinburgh Airport came out tops for us thanks to a direct flight to Venice with no-nonsense budget carrier, Jet2.com.
While there are hotels right at the airport, we opted for the nearby Premier Inn at Newbridge, encouraged by a positive experience during previous stays with that brand. The fact that it’s only a couple of miles away from the airport with no parking hassles was a major draw. The unexpected bonus was that it was possible to have breakfast at the unearthly hour of 4am. I could have kissed the receptionist when told this but didn’t think he’d have appreciated the gesture.
Located near an industrial estate amongst car showrooms, the Newbridge won’t win any prizes for its views. However it fulfils its purpose in servicing the airport really well, providing a friendly welcome, proximity to departure point and comfortable family rooms from around £35 (depending on how far ahead you book and for when).
The self-serve continental breakfast hit the spot ahead of what would be a long day’s travel.
Exclusive saver rates are only available to customers who book at premierinn.com
Jet2.com offers one-way flights from Edinburgh to Venice from £46 including taxes. It has a 22kg baggage allowance, which is paid for extra. Jet2holidays are available from £379. For more information visit www.jet2.com or for holidays visit www.jet2holidays.com or call 0800 408 5599
Villa Laguna Hotel