A narrative guide to the city of Venice

I’ve been to Venice six or seven times already. Here’s my guide to the city, written in a form of narrative in 2013 after the first trips to Venetian lagoon, and updated today.

Ivan Kuznetsov
Outdoor journalist from the Dolomites

I like to think that Venice is an intergalactic hub and a crossroads of worlds where aliens from all over the galaxy come.

Airplane to Venice
Liberty Bridge
Santa Lucia Train Station
Venice Map
Meeting With Massimo
Slow Vaporetto
Port of Venice
Lido Island
Tourist Venice
Non Tourist Venice
Other Vessels
Best City in the World

Airplane to Venice

— Both flights from St. Petersburg were spectacular. At first a beautiful dawn: one-third of the sky is almost black, one third is blue, between them there is an orange-red strip of light. The coastal cities along the Baltic Sea were slowly extinguishing, while the sun was rising more and more intensely.

There was an airplane change in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

Then a huge wall of mountains came out of nowhere. The Alps! Black, covered with snow. Right in the middle of the mountains — man-made landscapes: cities, road grids… The picture is unearthly — as if you’re not going by airplane but by a spaceship and you’re going to land not in Venice but on Venus.

How do you see the Alps from above? The airplane must fly over the Alps from the north to the south or vice-versa: to/from Germany, Scandinavian countries, Russia. Buy a day ticket to Venice, Treviso or Verona. It can be direct or with a connection. The Alps are covered with snow until about mid-June. It’s a little less snow in summer. And then it falls out again in late October. You can sit on both sides of the airplane.

Before landing in Italy, I’ve seen all of Venice from the top.

It is amazing that making photos on iPhone you can see names of the places you are flying above in the title of each photo. This is Santa Cristina Val Gardena (Gherdëina) — a Ladin comune in South Tyrol about 30 km east of the city of Bolzano © Ivan Kuznetsov
It is amazing that making photos on iPhone you can see names of the places you are flying above in the title of each photo. This is Santa Cristina Val Gardena (Gherdëina) — a Ladin comune in South Tyrol about 30 km east of the city of Bolzano © Ivan Kuznetsov

Liberty Bridge in Venice, Marco Polo Airport, Venetian Lagoon

Venice is connected to the continent by a Liberty Bridge (Ponte della Liberta, 3850 meters length), which is used by cars, trains, and even bicycles — “like a fishing line on which a fish has been caught” — the islands of Venice. The comparison is not mine but from a Russian speaking travel writer Pyotr Vail. I’ve looked at Venice and I’ll look at it from his eyes. In Russian, no one wrote better than him about Venice.

I reached the city from the Marco Polo Airport by shuttle bus. The fare cost me 6 euros. It hasn’t changed in 2020.

The first impression as soon as you get off the plane and breathe in the Italian air is warmth.

A striking contrast to my home with Saint Petersburg. Already at the end of February in Venice, it smells and feels like summer in the north. And it’s even warmer than in summer in the northern countries. That’s what the southern country means! Italy.

As the bridge flew by, I hardly noticed it is the sea on either side of it, the Venetian lagoon. The beautiful name “lagoon” has nothing left — the water is not blue, like you may expect, but dirty. But you feel that you’re in a seaside town already because the train is almost flush with the water.

Hotel Near the Santa Lucia Train Station

I spent the next two days in town.

I wanted to stay in the hotel “Alla Salute“, where stayed Ezra Pound, Alain Ginsberg, and other famous poets and writers, but eventually chose the “head of the fish” (not the tail) — a hotel called “Universo e Nord” (“Universe and North”). I don’t know if this hotel is famous for anything (anyone). I found it by chance. The name attracted me — the last piece of homeland already on foreign land. I have always loved the North, but before I left it I was especially enthusiastic about the North. “Space is not far from the north”, writes Mariusz Wilk, Polish author, who lived the last twenty-five years in the Russian north.

The hotel is located on the street just next to the Santa Lucia Train Station — quite lively street, which immediately became my favorite. That’s it: just fly into town for the first time, drive from the airport to the center, walk from the bus terminal to the train station, stay in the hotel, walk down the street where it is located — and fall in love with it immediately. And you don’t have to go anywhere.

The street starts with souvenirs and cheap pizza, goes into vegetable rows, which is more interesting, and ends with the world’s first ghetto (yes, the Venetian ghetto). However, it is no longer one street, but several blocks. That’s not the point.

Before going and settling in Venice, remember that during the season it’s very difficult to rent a place to live, even an apartment on Airbnb, which is not here, by the way. It’s expensive, too. But in winter you can find a single room for 30 euros, as it happened to me in 2013.

To get from Venice to the Dolomites for a day trip take any regional train to Padua or Castelfranco Veneto, then change it to Feltre or Belluno. On the photo is the Freccarossa train © Ivan Kuznetsov
To get from Venice to the Dolomites for a day trip take any regional train to Padua or Castelfranco Veneto, then change it to Feltre or Belluno. On the photo is the Freccarossa train © Ivan Kuznetsov

Venice Map

After a small incident in the room — while dealing with the doors of a cramped shower cabin, the room was completely flooded — I went into town. And after ten minutes, I’ve got lost. I wanted to get a map from the tourist office near the train station. It’s free elsewhere. But in Venice, the map cost 2.5 euros. It doesn’t matter either.

The map in Venice is the most useless thing. It’s easier to ask somebody or try to find your way at random. And it’s best to have a whole day without any business or important meetings and just wander around the city — to wander literally. The streets took me to San Marco Square, Venice’s main square.

The city can be conditionally divided into three parts, three islands. If you imagine “fish”, it will be back and tail, head and abdomen, and something like a lower fin. On all maps of Venice: tourist, vaporetto maps (almost said “subway maps”) Venice is depicted in the form of fish. Even a peephole is drawn to make it look livelier. The back and tail are probably my favorite part. There are almost no transverse channels, so it is difficult to get lost — go ahead and that’s it.

Another book about Venice that I read while I was killing the remains of an endless day in a bookstore before going to the airport in Saint Petersburg is called “Venice Is a Fish” by an Italian author Tiziano Scarpa. The chapters are called: “Eyes”, “Ears”, “Arms”, “Legs”, “Mouth”, “Nose” — that is, according to body parts and feelings. The author suggests not only to look at Venice but, more importantly, to listen to it, to feel it, to walk on it until calluses appear, to smell the city, no matter how stinky it maybe sometimes…

Other great classic books on Venice in English you can’t miss are “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann, “Watermark. An Essay on Venice” by Joseph Brodsky, “A History of Venice” by John Julius Norwich, “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare.

It took me five minutes in a crowd of tourists in San Marco Square and I hurried back.

Meeting With Massimo

In the evening I was supposed to meet Massimo, a pen pal friend from Postcrossing.com — yes, a postcards crossing website, to learn from him how to travel in Italy by train: there’s a lot of different types of trains in Italy — you can’t tell right away where and how to go. He works at the Santa Lucia Train Station, on construction works, and at the same time helps hapless tourists. He lives in Mestre. But on the way back, I got lost, too. I was half an hour late because of the vaporetto. That’s why I never met Massimo that day. He wasn’t expecting me.

(But I finally met him on one of my next trips to Venice. He kindly bought me a coffee at a bar right at the station during the lunch break he had. He was wearing jeans, sneakers and a bright yellow or orange construction vest. I gave him some new cards. We spoke Italian.)

Slow Vaporetto

I tried to get to my pen friend by vaporetto — by boat or a water bus — the only public transport in Venice, apart from gondolas and some ferries. I thought they walked fast, but it turned out to be slow, with lots of stops. The bus crawls on the water surface in no hurry, swaying from side to side, aiming before docking at the station. It takes at least forty to fifty minutes to get through the entire Grand Canal. Take it into account when you will be traveling in the city.

Everything the author writes about vaporettos in books is true. You can meet a lot of different people while standing on the deck.

“You can go inside and sit down under the roof, but real travelers stand in the crowd to lightly sink, listen to the local, Venetian language, as well as the languages of the rest of the world.” (It’s Weil’ quote again.)

For example, next to me stood four Englishmen in particular: two men and two women. The first was very “colorful”: in a dark blue expensive coat and hat in tone, with a red scarf, tied fashionably, on the nose are glasses in a gilded frame. The second looked sloppy compared to it as if emphasizing the tidiness of the first. Women were wearing fur coats — you can’t tell the difference between them. All four of them were discussing Mozambique! The first man’s brother was some kind of a Minister of Culture in Mozambique (I don’t know how it happened or what I misunderstood). They were also joking about Guatemala, Madagascar, and other African countries.

It was like I was on another continent in Venice.

They got off at a stop next to one of the most luxurious hotels in one of the many Venetian palaces (palazzo in Venezia).

Almost forgot to tell that the vaporetto costs 7 euros a trip! This is maybe the most expensive public transport in the world.

There is a huge discount for locals, but tourists have to pay. To seat for fee choose small stations with no turnstiles. But it’s better to buy one ticket for the day, at least to show it in the case of a controller. It’s pretty cool to take a ride around the whole island.

Here’s some practical information about tickets for voparetto in Venice:

  • There is an official website dedicated to voparetto and other ways of moving in Venice — Muoversi.venezia.it, by Actv S.p.A. — a company responsible for public transportation in Venice. You can find there useful information on price of the tickets for voparetto in Venice and other things.
  • Here is a voparetto map.
  • There is also an official app for buying tickets AVM Venezia for iOS and Android.

Port of Venice

On the morning of the next day, I went for a walk in the opposite part of the city — the districts of Dorsoduro and Santa Croce and on the way back I entered the port of Venice.

I like port cities, I don’t like cities on rivers, in general. River towns are also ports, but the rivers are losing out to large open water areas. Winds blow in port cities, the air is always fresh and breathes easier. And what is the wind from the river? Even if it’s as wide and full-flowing as the Volga in my home city Nizhny Novgorod near to Moscow.

In other words, I feel freer in port cities. The rivers are shackling. Because they’re bounded by banks. And if you think about it, ports have always embodied travel, emigration, new lands, and freedom. So did I: I left one port city, which, however, became too stuffy, noisy, big for me — Saint Petersburg… And now I walk on another.

After a stroll through the port of Venice, I decided that I would start or end each of my trips to Italy in Venice. I want to explore the city as much as I know my home cities. Let’s be my fourth hometown. With each trip, I’ll visit a new part. Next time, we’ll have Cannaregio and Castello.

Lido Island

On the island of Lido, ten minutes from Venice on the vaporetto, life is very different — almost American, I would even say. Several main “avenues” and endless streets crossing them at right angles.

The beach in Lido seems dirty to me, it were many construction sites back in 2013.

But what is worth going to the Lido for is the seashells. There are many beautiful seashells of hundreds of species on the beach, but check out if they can be taken out of Italy.

Now Lido beach is empty, but in summer it will be full of tourists. Like the rest of the city.

Tourist Venice

Tourism season hardly ends in Venice. People always stand in long lines to the tourist center close to Santa Lucia Train Station for the free maps for 2.5 euros and advice. My advice to you is the same: not to get these maps. There is something about wandering around the same places aimlessly. I spent a few days in Helsinki like this. When you walk in the same streets, it feels like you know this city, you are not a tourist.

No, Venice is an amazing city after all. If to try to imagine how many people come here from all over the world every day, it’s getting weird. In the beginning, I didn’t compare it to Venus for anything. It feels like a separate planet, an interchange point for millions of “aliens”.

I like to think that Venice is an intergalactic hub and a crossroads of worlds where aliens from all over the galaxy come.

The official tourist site of Venice is Veneziaunica.it/en.

Non Tourist Venice

Tourists is only the first impression of Venice. In reality there are not many tourists. They all crowd on a couple of main arterial streets. But you have to step back a bit to the right or left, that’s all, nobody. Whatever the summer season. In some places, it seems that the city is almost extinct. Other yards are idealistic corners with tables in gardens where you can drink tea outdoors, hiding from the heat in the shade of trees.

By the way, it’s not that hot in Venice. The wind always blows from the sea.

It becomes clear to me that Venice is not a city, but rather a village. A lot of it reminds me of the countryside way of life in the Alpine valleys and the passes.

Most of the Dolomites belong to the Veneto region, because they once belonged to the Republic of Venice. The two territories have been linked for centuries not only politically, but above all geographically: people go from the sea to the mountains, and from the mountains to the sea.

Other Vessels

When I was tired of walking, I sat down on a bench in front of the Grand Canal and watched a boat and a boat pass by. Every vehicle in Venice has a number. It consists of letters VE and numbers. While I was sitting there, I counted the following: VE 9379, 9244, 8962, 8736, 8407, 9243, 8259, 7229, 7818, 8713, 7540, 8560, 8030, 8616. I don’t know if there’s any sense in this enumeration. It’s just beautiful. It’s written on the bow of the boat on the left side and the stern on the right. Large stretched boats and barges have another type of number: 6V:30546.

Sitting on a bench, resting, and watching the boats swaying on the waves, I realized that it is good to walk in Venice, but even better to ride the boats to feel the swaying as well as the city itself, swaying with it on the waves. That’s it! Next time I’ll take a full day vaporetto pass (20 euros) and see new places: Murano Islands, Burano.

Best City in the World

In conclusion, here are a few more accurate and striking observations — not mine anymore — but the same from Peter Weill’s (now resting in the Venetian land) book “The Genius of the Place” (in Russian), who considered Venice the best city in the world:

“Venice is the only city in the world without land transportation. Everything that man has invented to move is put in brackets of human existence — in water, in a foreign environment. Gondolas — limousines, taxis — boats, buses — vaporetto steamboats slide by without literally or figuratively hitting you, moving in any other dimension.”

“Venice’s main current feature is its rhythm. Here you can move either on foot or on water: without fear and without looking around. You can’t move in here fast, you can’t move out of here fast. It turns out that this is important: even a single visit is made not on a rush, but thoughtfully.”

“It’s quiet in Venice. Suspiciously quiet for a city full of tourists. Late in the evening, you can hear a distant splash of fish, but is there any chance that the channel will pass hired by the Japanese cavalcade gondola with singing under the accordion and long shouts of “Uh-oh! “on the corners.”

And my favorite:

“Two centuries have done their job: Venice has imprinted in the world’s mind its dying image, as everyone here remembers. Above all, the smell. The subtle scent of rotting and decay strikes as soon as you leave the station for the Grand Canal. The newcomer looks into the water until he realizes that it’s not the water that smells, but the city. A few hours pass and the smell disappears, but it’s worth going to, say, Padua — half an hour’s journey — and returning as soon as it appears again.”

I agree.

Cover photo: people at San Marco Square in Venice, in April 2017 © Ivan Kuznetsov.

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