Sep 1, 2022
Eager traveler Geoffrey Weill takes us through his trip to Venice.
It was in December 1972 – 49 years and 10 months ago – that I determined Venice was the most beautiful city on earth. (And no, I’m not referring to the beach town just south of Los Angeles airport.) A half century later, I still think the same. Venice that December was rainy, foggy, damp, empty, and glorious. I’ve been back countless times, and even in July and August, when the sun beats down and the route from San Marco to the Rialto is clogged with hordes of tourists following guides wielding Far Eastern flags, it’s still glorious.
Last month gave me the opportunity to see Venice through new eyes – those of my 16-year-old daughter Zoë, and my 13-year-old son, Liam. These two admirably indulged brats have traveled to thirty countries and six continents. But August 2022 heralded their first encounter with Venice.
We flew from Israel on a Saturday morning (the easiest moment to fly from Tel Aviv) on Turkish Airlines, a connection that included four hours at Istanbul Airport. And what an airport it is. The new airport that opened in 2018, just in time almost to shut down for a pandemic, is the world’s largest. And it certainly feels that way. We strolled about 100-miles beneath soaring cathedral ceilings and along endless moving floors from the arrival gate to the security check for transit passengers. We inched forward in a snaking line to have our hand-luggage x-rayed – which, particularly as we had just arrived from the world’s most secure airport, seemed a tad superfluous.
Once through: more moving floors and escalators that led into a shopping mall so massive you don’t feel you’re in Turkey, but in Minneapolis. Quite apart from the inevitable and gigantic Vuittons, Guccis, Balenciagas, Hugo Bosses (Hugos Boss?), Pradas and Hermèses, and every other style outlet hailing from Paris, Milan and London, there is a gigantic duty-free shop every 250 yards. There have to enough boxes of sugar sweet Turkish Delight candy in this airport to destroy the teeth of every inhabitant on the planet. And the animals too. And then, if $4,500 wallets, and $1,000 pairs of shoes are not for you, there’s a whopping great department store with the unfathomably improbable name of L.C. Waikiki.
The Turkish Airlines Business Class lounge sits on a mezzanine and is bigger than Macy’s. There are copious dining areas, seating areas, buffets, open-plan kitchens, a grand piano, palm trees. But as we were flying economy we couldn’t go there; however, my Priority Card gave us access to the IGA Lounge. Or more correctly it gave us access first to the line waiting to get into the IGA Lounge, which is equally ginormous. Once inside, it was hard to find an empty corner. A fleet of ladies were mopping floors, but it seemed their job descriptions read “mopping only” and eschew the clearing of tables piled high with half-eaten kebabs, scrunched napkins and empty Coke Zero cans. Finally, I took the plunge, stacking up dishes atop trays, spilling a cup of cold tea down my jeans, and staggering across the marble to clear a table, so we had places to collapse. The buffet on offer was a bit eclectic, but the potato salad was magnificent.
Four hours is a long connection – but anything less than two hours wouldn’t make sense in an airport this vast even if both flights hadn’t been late which both of ours were. Eventually it became time to wend another 100 miles to our departure gate – one which sported A and B doors. The delayed flight to Venice was door B. Flight A’s departure was on time to Douala. It seemed a mite odd in an airport terminal the size of Wyoming that two groups of passengers were competing for chairs and space – but once the flight to West Africa had boarded, the confusion dissolved. Finally, we were arranged into lines to board for Venice.
Originally scheduled to arrive in Venice at 7:10PM, we landed at 7:50. By the time we were through immigration, retrieved our seven pieces of luggage (count’em seven), in a minivan to the airport dock and loaded onto a water taxi it was 8:30 and dusk. But this was the moment I had been waiting for. The moment Zoë, Liam, and my wife, Noa, and I could stand at the back of the launch, and I could watch the joy on their faces, as we sped towards the city.
There cannot possibly be, anywhere on earth, an airport transfer as thrilling as that from Marco Polo Airport into Venice. The polished wood launch (the wood is always polished or varnished to mirrored shine) pulls out from the dock, and surges into the lagoon at what must be forty miles an hour. Zoë’s long hair whooshed back in the wind. Liam laughed and beamed. Noa, for whom this was not the first visit to Venice (although the first with me), was busy filming their jubilation. The kids whooped and giggled, particularly whenever we bounced over the wake of a water-taxi bound in the other direction. As we rode, the moon came out, and the lights of Venice grew stronger. The driver slowed as we neared the neighborhood of Castello. We cruised past the Hospital of Saints Giovanni and Paolo, with its rooftop heliport. Noa pointed out the entrance to the emergency room – a special covered dock for floating ambulances. And even though the kids knew that Venice was a city without cars, realizing that ambulances and police cruisers were boats wowed them.
We swung into the canal that would bring us through Castello to the lagoon. Ancient palazzos looked asleep or abandoned, their white-and-blue gondola poles, ready to receive visitors that might never come, especially in August when palazzo owners are off summering at the beach. There was little traffic. A few people were walking along the canals, as we cruised silently under bridges. Suddenly we burst out into the lagoon, and there, before us, was the massive floodlit Church of Santa Maggiore, and, to the right, floodlit Salute, the Campanile tower and the entrance to the Grand Canal.
We swung left and shortly turned back into Castello and drew up at the water entrance to the Hotel Ca’ di Dio. Our driver lifted our luggage up to the amiable porter. We climbed onto the hotel’s tiny jetty, through its medieval archway door, up old marble stairs into the post-modern glamor of Venice’s most recently unveiled 5-star hotel. The hotel building dates from the 13th century, originally a monastic hostel for pilgrims en route to and from massacring any non-believers they could find in the very same Holy Land from which we’d just flown. The lobby was the monastery’s three-story-high chapel, now transformed by Milan designer Patricia Urquiola into a sumptuous contemporary space, where endless curvy couches, towering flower arrangements, and massive tables piled with art books sat beneath the walls’ renaissance flourishes and saintly statues. A vast modern chandelier works perfectly in this coming together of the 13th and 22nd centuries, as do the grand wooden revolving doors that lead out onto the Riva degli Schiavoni.
Check-in by some of the most handsome and charming staff was effected in a few minutes as we relaxed on sofas and used our fingers to sign iPads. We were escorted to our third floor two-bedroom suite, the hotel’s top floor, where Noa’s and my bedroom faced the lagoon, and the kids’ room, the side canal where we’d entered. Patricia Urquiola has worked contemporary magic on these once-clerical cells. Gorgeous terracotta marble bathrooms have been wrought. Massive beds are backed by upholstered headboards trimmed with leather. Our seven, count’em seven, cases arrived, along with our hand-luggage, including designer duffels we had no intention of opening until we got home a week later.
I had booked dinner for the four of us at an outdoor table of the hotel’s Vero restaurant. But the kids were wiped and elected to order pasta Bolognese and Cokes from room service and watch interminable YouTube. Noa and I quickly showered and descended to the main floor and out onto the promenade where the Vero’s tables, in summer, spill out of the indoor restaurant. And here is one of the joys of this location that is just a ten-minute waterside walk to St. Marks’ Square: because it is uncharacteristically deserted and quiet. There are no kiosks with hawkers of tee shirts, straw hats, and aprons and underwear that when worn, replicate the penises and testicles of renaissance sculptures in the correct locations of the wearer. Because, you see, this part of the waterfront is quietly under the control of the Italian Navy which does not allow commercial activity. In fact, the only activity are the few pedestrians, the occasional waterbus passengers climbing ashore at the Arsenale waterbus stop, the lagoon water slapping against the canal and riva walls, and the eight or ten tables of the Ca’ di Dio’s Vero restaurant, lit by minimalist, elegant, white LED lamps. The service is simple, informal, yet vastly gracious, the tables spaced out atop the riva’s giant flagstones.
The dashing, thin, tall maître d’ who lives on the Venice Lido oozed charm and humor, without a trace of unctuousness. The menu accessed by QR code is purposely Venetian, Venetian, Venetian. Not a scrap of red sauce here. A parade of homemade breads arrived. We ordered a Veneto rosé and gazed at the splendors. Dinner was leisurely, served on gorgeous plates, with wine and acqua gazzata poured into the thinnest glasses made nearby in Murano. Noa started with raw and cooked amberjack in a pool of coconut and lemon, peas, cream and caviar. I went for a lightly poached egg in a pool of creamed beans with truffles. We both continued with seared turbot, lemon and olives in a lemongrass sauce. The dishes were delicate, unusual, refined. Noa pronounced the tiramisu unusual and spectacular. I spooned a few scoops of peach sorbet – and then hit a wall of tiredness. Somehow, we made it back up the elevator, the kids were still deep in YouTube-land. A goodnight kiss, a door closed, and we snuggled into one of the most comfortable beds in a very long time. The noise from outside was nonexistent.
How best to introduce the kids to Venice? Natch, right outside the Ca’ di Dio is the Arsenale vaporetto (water-bus) stop. So, after a super buffet breakfast in the hotel’s courtyard garden, off to the vaporetto we strode, and I blew 120 Euros on 48-hour go-anywhere tickets. The boat arrived, the steward reminded us to wear masks, and we sat outside at the bow in the sunshine as we steamed up the Grand Canal. How could they not be enthralled? And they were, jaws dropped at the beauty of it all. “There’s the Accademia, there’s Peggy Guggenheim’s palazzo, there’s the Gritti Palace, there’s the Aman!”
But it was the Rialto Bridge they were the most eager to see because it had featured prominently in the latest Spiderman movie. We clunked in and out of stops on both sides of the canal as we wove our way to the Rialto. We disembarked, posed for selfies, shopped for jewelry, and wandered through the lanes to the city’s most famous bookstore, Libreria Acqua Alta, where cats and books sit in boats to protect them in case of flooding.
Fortified by heaps of prosciutto, melon, then tortellini a la panna, in the shaded garden of Ilm Giardinetto, we wandered on to St. Marks’ Square, Napoleon’s “Drawing room of Europe.” There, atop the façade of the cathedral of San Marco were the bronze horses, brought to Venice in 1204 after the army of Venice sacked the very Constantinople-Istanbul in whose airport we’d just spent four hours the day before. I’d bought tickets to the Doge’s Palace on the GetYourGuide app, which afforded us immediate entry, thus breezing the throngs waiting in line in the blazing heat. Our goal was to see the massive installation by German artist, Anselm Kiefer, mounted inside the palace as part of the Venice Biennale. Except that to get to it, we had to climb forty-seven flights of stairs and wander for the umpteenth time through the entire palace. And when we finally reached it? Well, it’s impressive and massive, and extremely massive, and therefore impressive. And totally massive. Actually, I considered it haut kitsch, admirable for its size and not much else. And we’ve all made that mistake, haven’t we.
We dined, overlooking the Grand Canal and the Salute, on the terrace of the Monaco and Grand Hotel. The Monaco and Grand used to be grand and flea-bitten. But since its purchase and renovation by the Benneton family, it's now drop-dead glam and grand. Yet it’s an understated and tasteful glamour. It’s one of the chicest spots in Venice. Noa was impressed. The kids were impressed. The food was exquisite. As the sun set, we watched gondoliers tie up their boats, vaporetti chugging by, and Venice empty out of the day-trippers. I told the kids not to order dessert, and we ambled to St. Mark’s Square, quite empty now, and we sat at an outdoor table at Florian, my favorite coffee house on earth, arguably the oldest in Europe. A quartet was playing, as you would expect: Puccini and Lloyd-Webber. Happily serenaded, we ate ice cream and cakes, and left 150 Euros poorer. But it’s Venice and it’s fabulous.
Noa determined we should visit the island of Burano the next day. We rode a waterbus for an hour, with various stops, until we reached the island famous for its boldly colored houses and its production of lace. We ambled along lanes and canals in this picture-perfect place, so picture-perfect that I momentarily thought I was indoors in Las Vegas. Everything is cute. Cute boutiques, cute houses cutely painted in cutely bold hues. Cute lace. Cute jewelry. Cute gelato. Thankfully, the concierge at the Ca’ di Dio had recommended lunch at Da Romano, which, instead of being cute, felt important and dynamic. Opened in 1920, it’s wonderful. A stroll to the bathroom afforded me framed photos of earlier diners: Giorgio Armani, Sylvester Stallone, Henry Fonda, Robert de Niro. It’s big, and loud, and beautiful and thank God we only ordered the grilled fish for two, because there was enough for twelve. After lunch, we got hoiked into a lace workshop, and 150 Euros later, with lace (cute, of course) that we neither needed, wanted, nor particularly liked, we strolled to the vaporetto.
Back in Venice, we visited the La Fenice Opera House – restored and rebuilt after its destruction by fire in 1996. Yes, it’s exquisite. All velvet and gold. Indeed, there is so much gilt, it is like a Jewish mother went on a rampage with a paint brush.
Our next stop – it was now 6PM – was to meet Lorenzo. Noa found Lorenzo on the website @eatwith. For 300 Euros, the evening was to involve our visiting Lorenzo’s apartment in between the ghetto and the station. We and Lorenzo were to make tortellini together from scratch, and tiramisu, and then eat it and enjoy the togetherness and conviviality of a home-cooked meal in Venice. Except, we were late. I texted Lorenzo and explained we were on our way. He snapped back that fifteen minutes late was a “no-show.” Instead of texting back in my customary knee-jerk fashion that he was a fucking cretin, I appealed to his goodness, and explained at which vaporetto stop we currently were. He texted back with an attempt at forgiveness. Eventually, we arrived at the vaporetto stop where Lorenzo, fifty, long-haired and unsmiling, awaited us.
“Would you be late for a flight at the airport?” he snarled. “Well, Noa, stammered, this is not exactly a flight...” And off Lorenzo marched, never to be seen again. We stood there, open-mouthed, then began the stroll back to the vaporetto. Incredibly, Noa’s iPhone pinged. It was @eatwith announcing that our reservation was cancelled, and 300 Euros zonked back onto her Amex card.
So instead of dinner chez the volcanic Lorenzo, we returned to the hotel. We showered, changed, and strolled to the Arsenale’s wide Via Garibaldi, where the swarm of outdoor restaurants don’t have menus with little flags denoting an array of languages. Our stay in Venice was coming to an end. A quiet supper was perfect. And then home to our gorgeous aerie and the alarm set for a horribly early wake-up call.
Did I mention Burano was cute?