Time travel made easy: sightseeing and shopping in Italy's magical city of canals
So you've managed to save up your money and make it over to Venice. While the plane tickets weren't too expensive, you've maybe paid a little more for the hotel than you would have liked, but you're on your way to the most romantic city in the world and that should count for something.
There are countless things to see in this city and even more places to shop. Besides all of your big-name designers like Versace, Burberry, and Fendi, there are plenty of shops not on the fashionista circuit that are worth checking out. Before our trip we picked up the Lonely Planet Venice guide, which was incredibly helpful in some areas and lacked in others. For 300 crowns it's still worth buying, though.
First Stop: San Marco Square and G. Pagan Pelletteria
From left to right: St. Mark's Basilica; G. Pagan Pelletteria coin purse
St. Mark's Basilica is awe-inspiring. To say that this is just another basilica is a disservice to the people who constructed this beauty between its consecration in 1071 and its completion in 1671. The exterior of the building is impressive: marble everywhere, bas-reliefs above bronze doors, colorful Byzantine mosaics, and ceilings that seem to drip with gold. When you walk inside however, you will start to understand the true beauty of St. Mark's Basilica. Don't forget to look up!
Once finished, walk straight out of the basilica into the square; on your left is G. Pagan Pelletteria. The store carries a wide variety of leather goods made with superior craftsmanship.
G. Pagan is a place that will satisfy both men and women, and that rarely happens on any shopping trip. Men will be happy to find high-end items such as crocodile wallets and briefcases for a decent price. Yes, you will always pay slightly more, but it is surely cheaper than, say, buying it from Louis Vuitton. Braided leather purses made from Nappa Calf (a tanning process usually used with calf and kid leathers) are for the lady that's looking for something a bit more practical. Prices for the braided bags start around 144 euros and top off at around 200 euros. The piece de resistance by far is the selection of 18-karat gold leaf leather coin purses, key chains, and clutches. The designs are entirely Venetian. The family, which paints all of them by hand, spends countless hours in museums and piazzas carrying out research and taking inspiration from the local culture. It's not uncommon to see a pattern in a piazza and then see it repeated on your new coin purse. Prices for these treasures start at 11 euros for small wallets and coin purses to 90 euros for the larger purses. Most importantly, don't be fooled by the other imitation 18-karat gold purses sold near St. Mark's square. Many other stores sell them (for the same price, I might add), but not all of them are made from leather.
Second Stop: Santo Stefano and Ebru Paper
From left to right: Chiesa di Santo Stefano; Ebru Paper
Chiesa di Santo Stefano is located at the northern end of Campo Santo Stefano. The church, which was built and rebuilt between the 13th and 15th centuries, looks a bit boring and, sigh, lacking in any interesting architecture from the outside, but once you step inside it's as if you have truly stepped into Venice. The ceilings are carved from what looks like the splendid inner workings of a ship's keel. The woodwork, even viewed from the floor below, is impressive. You're of course here for the ceiling, but Tintoretto's Last Supper and Washing of the Feet are worth the three-euro entry fee by themselves, just for the opportunity to stand so close to such impressive works of art. (Four of the six paintings that Tintoretto had been commissioned to paint have since left Italy, but the paintings commissioned for this church have stayed put.) The side room -- where both paintings are located, along with a slew of others -- is eerily quiet and cold, both in temperature and feeling. As an art lover, I was there on a day when I was actually able to sit and stare for at least 15 minutes before someone walked in… A treasure you can't find much anymore -- peace while looking at paintings.
Once you've had your fill of the highly intricate ceiling and art from New Testament Bible stories, walk about 20 meters from Santo Stefano and, voilà, you'll find yourself at Ebru Paper.
I found out about Ebru Paper from my Lonely Planet guide. The word "ebru" is actually Turkish, describing a papermaking procedure that was introduced to Europe in the mid-1500s. It's characterized by the artist rapidly moving the paint around the paper to create "veins" resembling stone or marble. It's difficult, I promise! The store is short on space but not on products or designs. As one might expect, the main goods sold in the store are paper products. But there are also new takes on old standards, like traditional Venetian papier-mâché masks done in the ebru style, along with silk scarves and ties in vibrant colors that will make you think of the colors found all over the lagoon. If it is indeed paper that you are after, I recommend any of the stationery cards, which start at around two euros. If you're after something unique, grab an ebru-swirled picture frame -- you will have something Venetian to put that wonderful photo of you and your friends or partner in a gondola in.
Side Visit: Gallerie dell'Accademia
Feast in the House of Levi (Detail) by Paolo Veronese
Head over to the Gallerie dell'Accademia, home to Paolo Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi. The Catholic Church was less than thrilled with the original title, The Last Supper, as the painting wasn't exactly in keeping with the Church's "themes", shall we say. And what themes did the Catholic Church not approve of upon the painting's completion, in 1573? Well, the eye should really only focus on Jesus, so no dwarfs are allowed, no animals and definitely no German soldiers! Gasp! The Church asked Veronese to repaint it but he refused, and just gave it another title. There are other well-known artists, such as Titan and Tintoretto, that have produced works equally as fantastic as Feast in the House of Levi, but it's certainly hard to find anything bigger than this painting, which stands five meters tall by 12 meters wide. Honestly, you'll be left wondering just how the heck the painting was even brought from the original church to the Galleria in the first place!
Third Stop: Water bus it up to the Rialto Bridge, but don't get off
From left to right: Dolce Amaro; Chiesa di Santa Maria Dei Miracoli
Water buses are nice. Anyone who's taken public transportation in Prague knows that the open air is sometimes preferable, even if it's -15 degrees outside. The shops you are looking for actually require you to take the water bus to Ca D'oro, a trip that takes you under the Rialto Bridge, but fear not -- you'll have plenty of time to visit this little tourist trap later on in the day! You are actually heading to two shops near the Campo SS Apostoli, which offer chocolates and wine specialties of Venice along with papier-mâché masks.
Dolce Amaro (cicoccolateria, artigianale, & enoteca), located off the Campo S Canciano, is a chocolate- and wine-lovers delight that DG and I stumbled upon while trying to get lost. This artisanal chocolate and wine store is fantastic value-for-money in a city notorious for insane prices on food and wine. The store, which is small, is divided into three sections: chocolates (homemade) in the front, spices and oils in the middle, and wines in the back. Dolce Amaro focuses almost exclusively on wines from the Venetian area and Tuscany. For 17 euros we picked up a great bottle of wine which we had on the roof of our hotel later on in the evening. Since I am a chocoholic, I bought both DG and I a bag of spicy chocolate medallions for two euros. If you've checked a bag for the plane, stop here and stock up on as much wine as you can!
Once you've bought your scrumptious goodies at Dolce Amaro, pop around the corner to see Chiesa di Santa Maria Dei Miracoli. You're here for the facade of the church, which was designed by Pietro Lombardo in the 1480s. Lombardo abandoned the popular Gothic theme and decided to construct something that was more symmetrical in design, which would later be known as Renaissance-style architecture. He was a man ahead of his time in Venice.
Il Pirata, which is down a couple of winding streets, is where you will find a dazzling display of papier-mâché masks. Forgo the ones sold on and around St. Mark's Square; most of them are plastic and made in China. The papier-mâché masks here are made right in front of your eyes by the owner, according to his own designs. It's a family tradition and one that he has been mastering since he was a young buck. Il Pirata encourages you to try masks on, as we were told that not every mask fits every personality. With prices starting at 10 euros, however, the masks are guaranteed to fit any budget.
Once you have finished with this area, start walking toward the throngs of tourists to get to the Rialto Bridge. This is where you will generally find the biggest rip-offs on food and souvenirs. The bridge is quite nice and, when we went, there weren't nearly as many tourists as I was expecting, though I would never want to tackle that bridge in the summer months when Venice becomes a playground for cruise ships.
Food & Drink
From left to right: Dai Zemei; Osteria Al Portego; Enoiteca Mascareta
You've conquered the Alice in Wonderland alleyways of Venice to find the shopping on this list, as well as enough sightseeing to keep you cultured and refined. Now it's time to track down the all-important food and beverages. You deserve it after all that running around!
Lunch: Dai Zemei
Located in the San Polo district, this osteria has a cramped interior, and that's being kind. Order your cicheti (bread appetizers that look similar to chlebíčky but cost two times the price) and take them outside. Like most places in Italy, if you use the outside seating, your bill will be higher -- keep that in mind. The cicheti here are phenomenal, though. Radicchio and Gorgonzola was one of my favorites, while DG preferred the Parma ham and salami. We each had a spritz and two cichetis each and our bill came out to around 15 euros. Probably the cheapest lunch we had the entire trip.
Ruga Vecchia San Giovanni 1045
Dinner: Osteria Al Portego
Situated in the Castello district, this little restaurant is tucked away on the back corridors of Venice. Look for the people milling around drinking spritz, an orange-colored wine cocktail, and you know you are in the right location. Reservations are impossible and it's best, if you see open seats, to sidle up to the table and make some new friends. We had two lovely German ladies join our table and we all made jokes about the small beers. (They are terribly small here -- best to go for the wine). The menu is written on a black chalkboard and only in Italian. I had Seppia in nero (squid cooked in its own ink) while DG had a meat pasta, which was quite heavenly. The wines are good and you certainly get a lot for what you pay for; I can't say the same about other restaurants that we visited in the city! In total, two main courses and two glasses of wine cost 40 euros.
Calle della Malvasia 6015
Wine Bar: Enoiteca Mascareta
Also in the Castello district, and actually not far from Osteria Al Portego, this wine bar was our favorite. The sommelier is a lively Moldovan man and the owner, a character in his own right, is known to play the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly before he slices the top off a champagne bottle with a saber, dazzling the audience around him. It's gimmicky, yes, but quite unreal when you see it in person. The first night we were there we had the privilege of witnessing the show and then watching as the cork took out three bottles of wine! We went to this wine bar every single night that we were in the city. Excellent wine, a sommelier who knows his stuff and excellent food! I highly recommend the cheese plate or the beef Carpaccio!
Calle Lunga S. Maria Formosa, 5183
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