My oldest daughter is studying in Italy this semester. We decided to take this opportunity for a grand vacation! After a few months of planning, we were finally on our way! We flew into Venice, planned two night there in an apartment, then two nights in Florence at a guest house, one night in Umbria, and four nights in the Naples area.
Venice is unique and wonderful. I can understand the 'mixed' reviews I have heard from friends and family. First, it is always a tourist destination. Second, it is expensive. Third, it is maddeningly difficult to find anything you are looking for. Fourth, it is full of tourists.
All of that being said, we found it charming and a place we would like to return. We stayed in the Dorsoduro section in a rental apartment. This neighborhood, sestieri, is more residential than San Marco and the only hotels were along the Grand Canal. The squares, piazzas and campos, had casual cafes (bars), neighborhood restaurants, children playing, and market stands with fresh fish and vegetables. The stores were small groceries, hardware stores, clothing and shoe shops and did not cater to tourists. To walk these streets was to experience the city without artifice, or the veneer of an international tourist attraction.
When we disembarked from our water taxi, we were a "short walk" from the apartment, according to the taxi driver. But, with dead cell phones and a simple paper map, we got lost for the first time in Venice. I don't think there is a single straight street in the city, at least as far as we walked. And because it wasn't designed for motor vehicles, streets are often walkways between buildings. We did eventually find our way to the Campo Santa Margherita and then the apartment.
That night, jet lagged, we made our way to Piazza San Marco, and got lost for the second time. It was raining, but that actually enhanced our Venetian experience. There weren't a lot of tourists out because of the weather, and we could wander in relative peace. Every few 'blocks' there would be a turn because of the maze of streets and canals. When we arrived in San Marco I understood immediately why many people don't love Venice - it seemed to be the Epcot experience: picturesque but soulless, everything in place for the pleasure of people passing through.
Our full day in Venice will filled with churches. We started at Basilica dei Frari. But were immediately stalled - there was a wedding in the church and we couldn't visit until it was done. We learned that visiting Italy involves patience, good nature, and alternate plans. We waited in a café across the canal for the wedding to finish. Knowing that Venice's churches are still being used for worship, and not just tourists, made the experience richer. Seeing Titian's masterpiece in place, instead of a museum, was perfect. Next, we visited Chiesa di San Giacomo dall'Orio, a hodge podge of a church with elements from Romanesque to Baroque. Lunch was delightful at Al Prosecco, where we had plates of cheeses and cured meats, along with prosecco (of course!), fruit and bread. We took the vaporetto to visit Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, situated on an island in the lagoon. This is a Palladian church with graceful arches and a quiet peace. There is an elevator to the top of the dome, where all of Venice is laid out before you. Dinner that night was in Dorsoduro, in one of the many places we ate without English menus.
We did get the hang of navigating the streets of Venice without getting lost. We relied on a combination of cellphone GPS location and paper maps. We didn't take a gondola ride because of the continuing rain. We didn't visit the island of Murano or many other places. But we did spend almost two days experiencing the delight of Venice, and avoiding the worst of the tourist crowds.