Last fall with a group of travelers, my friend Ellen and I explored and experienced Venice, Italy like no ordinary tourist. Thanks to our wonderful B&B owners (Andrea and Susanna of Campiello Zen) and their overwhelming hospitality, we traipsed around this island that natives call “the fish of Venice.”
Using their recommendations and some research, we found some of the best tours I have ever taken. Our first tour guide, Luisella Romeo from See Venice Tours, gave us a behind-the-scenes tour throughout the Santa Croce and San Polo neighborhoods including St. Marks Cathedral.
Luisella began with how this amazing island city became a jewel of Italy, surrounded by lagoons and inlets protecting it from any possible military attack. An island with very little real land, Luisella shared the underwater secrets of how Venice was built and still floats today.
St. Mark’s Cathedral
St. Mark’s Cathedral is a typical main stop of any Venetian trip, especially for first timers. I can guarantee we heard stories probably not ordinarily shared on a typical tour. The streets to St. Mark were actually covered with water from high tide and although it might have been very hard to go inside, we breezed right in since we were with a guide.
The views of the ceiling in this cathedral are like no other in the world. This once amazing church stood in Constantinople and was later seized by the Italians. Being built brick, stone or marble piece by piece, it took 450 years to decorate.
We learned so much about the Venetian masks that I could probably write an entire blog about them. The creation of the masks began around the time of the plague.
Masks with the very long noses had a practical purpose and were worn by doctors who shoved herbs and spices into the nose part to ward off germs and guard against infection.
The “joker” mask was worn by young boys or girls who were usually from a wealthy family but were destined to be a monk or nun. During the festival, they would dress up incognito to avoid recognition so they could have fun without judgment. Mardi Gras lasted five whole months after all, so that would have been a long time without an invitation to the party.
Black masks without mouths were worn by women. They were used for seduction and intrigue and not to be heard. Hmmm, interesting.
Today the art of making the masks is taken very seriously by Venetian culture. Of course, I found the knock-off’s in the tourist sections. But having an artisan daughter, I decided to purchase the authentic papier-mâché mask made delicately and intentionally by the artists of Venice.
The Secret Garden
Shh! It’s a secret garden… Again, we would have never thought about discovering the secret gardens of Venice had it not been for Andrea and Susanna.
On a spectacular 70 degree sunny day walking through the mystic streets of Venice, we visited three secret gardens on the north side of Venice. Our tour guide Mariagrazia met us in a “campo” which means a little green piece of land. I learned there are several “campos” in Venice, many more than piazzas (plazas.) Mariagrazia started her tours in the gardens because she discovered she was very much at peace here and wanted to share this experience. She has written three separate books about the subject.
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Our first garden was in a convent where we met Sister Daisy, who is 87 years old and makes rosary beads for donations. As you can see, she was a charmer. This little garden set inside the convent is a functional garden as well as a place for respite and prayer. Every garden was built up year after year after year because the roots could not touch the salt water. If they did, they would die. Consequently, we saw several varieties of plants that do well in desert conditions.
The next garden on our stop was in a palace that is now a wonderful hotel called the Palazzo Abadessa. Situated on the canal, royalty would arrive by boat right up to the water gate. Almost every family had at least one or two gondolas. We learned several interesting things about living conditions in Venice too. People must live on the second and third floors because of possible flooding, which can happen often.
Our third and final garden was in a convent along the water’s edge. It was an unbelievable creation with sea water rushing up the sides, and it seemed unfathomable a garden could grow in such conditions. Mariagrazia told us you can always tell the Venetian design of a garden, with a central path leading to something like a statue or a lagoon. It seemed to me as if to invite me to a place of rest, prayer and meditation.
Vaporetto – Bragozzo – Gondola
Anyway you slice it, you’ll be traveling by boat if you are traveling any distance around Venice. We found having a 3-day vaporetto pass (water bus pass) worth it’s weight in gold. When boats travel sometimes every 12 minutes to every 30 minutes, you’ll want to validate your card real fast and hop on the water bus.
A Bragozzo is a traditional flat bottom boat used for transporting and these are usually the taxis in the canal and also throughout the lagoon. The taxi service is very expensive, but they do travel quickly.
The Bragozzo sunset cruise that we took through the canal and the surrounding islands of Venice, it was absolutely breathtaking. Our very personable Venetian tour guide, Tomasso, was joyful and fun-loving. He had very interesting inside stories of Venice’s history as well as some colorful anecdotes.
We all were awe-struck as we sipped on some local Prosecco and watched the sunset over St. Mark’s Cathedral and the main island. He showed us key points of interest like the island that is home to the University of Venice and other important key points like the hotel where George Clooney got married last year and where all the plague hospitals were.
Gondolas are everywhere! The scene remind me of James Bond and so many, many movies in Venice. Although I didn’t have time to ride one this trip, I am sure when I bring my husband back I will make this a part of our visit. Everyone we saw riding these all had smiles. These narrow boats only seat about four passengers and remind this 80’s girl of all things Madonna and Italy.
Helpful tips for traveling to Venice
When to travel: The BEST time to travel to Venice is April to June or September to November. Venice receives 35 MILLION travelers a YEAR!
Parking the car: Well, there isn’t much choice. No cars are allowed in Venice. We used the parking Garage San Marco. There is a 3-day parking pass that covered the whole time we were there. The parking garage is very close to the main vaporetto pick up. The key is to buy ahead of time online.
Walking in Venice: Walk on the right side of the sidewalks to be respectful. If you are blocking the way (even to take pictures), you might be asked to scoot or be moved by locals.
High tide in Venice: Depending on the time of month you travel, high tide can bring challenges. We didn’t investigate this tip ahead of time. However with the fall months, the tide rises earlier and higher.
City Map: We were handed an invaluable street map as soon as we arrived by our B&B. Following are a few tibets to know when getting around Venice. Venetian streets (calles) are very narrow and hard to see past. There are at least 443 bridges or pontes. Also a “fondamenta” is a street facing the water.
Traveling to Italy: This was a short weekend trip for us which took 7.5 hours from Stuttgart to drive. We we were lucky to have perfect traffic, with very little construction or Staus (traffic jams). Tolls were about €36 per car. Unable to use Esso stations in Italy, checking the gas rate is also wise for a budget. We only had to fill up once while in Italy.
By car this enchanting city on the canal is just over a 7 hours drive southeast of Stuttgart, over 9 hours southeast of Wiesbaden and 9 hours southeast of Kaiserslautern. Click on DB Bahn for train details or contact a travel agency for flight information.
Venice is an absolute must visit destination regardless if you travel with your spouse, family or friends. I truly cannot wait to go back. Bella Italia!
Author’s Profile: Wendy Payne is a military spouse and lives with her family in Stuttgart, Germany. She is a freelance writer, blogger and photographer. She also enjoys gardening, hiking, yoga and sharing Europe with people.
Featured Image Photo Credit: © Wendy Payne