Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves


with 5 comments

This blog is being assembled differently to my usual practice. I am going to start with one image, called to mind by a tweet by Taras Grescoe

Funny how people will cross oceans or drive for days for pleasure of being in a place without cars. (Venice, …

We were in Florence but decided to go to Venice on a whim. We could get there in two hours on a high speed train, but that’s too long for a day trip, I think. I booked on line and got a cheaper fare by extending the stay. So we stayed two nights, not one. And Venice is not cheap. (OK since you ask, round trip train fare $226, two 72 hour transit passes $110, hotel two nights $500 – but it was steps from San Marco, and included breakfast.)

Ponte della Constituzione

Ponte della Constituzione is new bridge that links the Ferrovia to the port and the bus station. On one side Venice is as it has always been. A city where you walk or take a boat. On the other side is the “real world” – buses, cars, a people mover to the cruise ship terminal.

When we got to this point, on our last day, I did not want to go any further. There was plenty of time before our train would leave, but it was not going to be spent on the other side of this bridge. Below is what you see when you look the other way

The view from the crest of the bridge 1

View from crest of the bridge 2

In front of the ferrovia and one’s first view of the city when you get off the train. Immediately in front are the fermata for the vaporetti. The guide books warn of the need to be careful about checking route numbers and boat directions, but we quickly found that to be a mainlander’s obsession. The secret to enjoying Venice is to get a pass covering the whole time of your stay, and just get on the boat you see first. It really doesn’t matter all that much (as long as you avoid the extra fee for the airport runs) as wherever you get to will be just as interesting and attractive as wherever else you might have been thinking about. In fact the very first ride we took, the No 2 was not going up the Grand Canal to Rialto and thus reach San Marco, but through the port and then the much wider (and, as it happens, more direct) Canale della Giudecca. So we didn’t see the Grand Canal that trip – but would later – and landed a little further east. Where there was a very nice and not too expensive place for lunch, on the terrace, with a view of San Giorgio Maggiore. Yes it was a longer boat ride, but that was actually a benefit. I relaxed and enjoyed the ride and forgot about schedules and check in times.

Fmta and Ponte degli Scalzi

In Venice we stopped trying to fit in the required “top sites” and art galleries. We just wandered until we felt like sitting down – or saw a boat going somewhere. We did not use water taxis or gondolas: they are far too expensive, and fit the needs of others, not us.

There is quite a new housing development at the outer end of Cannaregio. I got the impression the arch is simply decorative, whereas others clearly were needed to stop the buildings leaning towards each other. Note too the ramp down to the Fondamenta (wharf) there are very few concessions to wheeled traffic in Venice.

Newer archway

Venice may be mostly about walking, but the city is still dependent on fossil fuelled internal combustion engines. I think this arrangement is a lot neater than the Chevron barge moored in Coal Harbour, but no doubt the residents and seawall enthusiasts would disagree.

Gas Station

There is not, of course, a “typical” Venetian scene. This one of the minor canals through Cannaregio.

Fondamenta de la Capuzine

I took the title from one of the street signs on the side of the building. These use local dialect rather than more formal Italian which would render the same place Fundamenta delle Cappucine. If new signs go up that ignore local usage they are simply obliterated by locals who want to hang on to their identity rather than meet the needs of tourists, who rely on maps and worry about getting lost.

Campo Ghetto Nuovo

If Shylock had been real, this is where he would have lived. This now the location of the Museo Ebraico. That is a police box at the centre of the picture at the back of the square: our visit came just after the attack near the Paris synagogue and security was heightened. It was probably a good thing that I wasn’t, by now, paying much attention to the news.

Calle Goldoni

A fairly representative example of the size of the passageways between buildings. I found GPS useless as the phone quickly lost any orientation because of the buidlings’ proximity.

Rialto Bridge

One of the few bridges crossing the Grand Canal. The shops are pretty much devoted to tourist tchochkes. There are plenty of street signs at intersections that point towards Rialto or San Marco.

Rialto Bridge

This is the more familiar view from the deck of the vaporetto.

Campo San Polo

Not far from the Rialto is this large open square. We had dinner one evening at Birra La Corte and watched boys playing football over to the right. Those are EU Election posters. I got the impression that there were extra points for hitting a politician with the ball. The local police intervened, as all ball games are forbidden in Venice except in designated playgrounds.

We came across this place on one of our first long walks. Originally my partner thought we should walk from the station to the hotel: it didn’t look that far to her. But I had visited the city once before and had a very clear memory of how confusing the passageways can be. It wasn’t like we were pulling rolling suitcases either, thank goodness, but I said we would be better off on the boat, when we could then drop off the carry-on bags. Well, I explained above how that went. So after lunch and then checking in, we took the direct boat back to the station and then started walking the route Google laid out for us. And after a while, just put the phone away and wandered in the approximate direction, finding the odd dead end and plenty of photo opportunities.

She likes to walk for exercise. And I must admit that the arthritis in my knee did not bother me all month – until I was stuck for nine hours in a seat on the plane back. But I have also persuaded her of the joys of loitering. Becoming a flaneur in Paris. Using the camera as an excuse to stop and look around. Venice is even better than Paris in that respect.

Flickr is being more than usually balky this morning, so I am going to end this here for now.

More pictures have been put on flickr and added to the group there that I created and curate. It’s called Places Without Cars.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 3, 2014 at 10:24 am

5 Responses

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  1. Thanks Stephen! Venice is one of my favorite cities, by far.

    The first evening of our first trip my buddy and I got hopelessly lost, but we knew we were inside a small area within big canals. Eventually we came back to a point barely 100 meters from where we started!

    Every so often one see a faded sign above the entrance of what looks like a private courtyard for several apartment buildings..but anyone can cross the courtyard, go up a few steps, walk along a hallway and end up to another courtyard then a street or a lane to another street….

    We didn’t use gondolas either but a close relative, a traghetto. be sure to read the 2 pages and to click on the link to the short video showing traghetti in action.

    We saw all sorts of special boats: boats for moving furniture, garbage boats, Post office boats, police boats, fire boats for house fires..

    The most interesting were the boat-ambulances!
    They don’t tie by the dock, and even if they did the boat would still bob up and down..
    The patient was on a stretcher and the guy in front of the stretcher waited until the boat was high enough then jumped on the quay and walked a couple of steps…by that time the stretcher was not horizontal but at an angle, with the patient head lower than his feet… then the guy in the back jumped to safe grounds..
    All that took 40 seconds or less of course…
    Then they had to walk at a fast pace as the beautiful old hospital is on the other side of a wide plaza.
    I wondered if they ever dump a patient in the water!

    The hospital is called Ospedale SS. Giovanni e Paolo

    Our hotel was not far from a church close to the rail station, the Chiesa degli Scalzi. There are 3 small buildings past the church then a very narrow lane–Calle Priuli–that is easy to miss as it is very narrow at first. It eventually widens.
    The 3 buildings hide a former convent, built on 3 sides of a garden, the church being the 4th wall. It has been a hotel for years. We went there shortly after it opened and it was reasonable..The next time we went they were full and expensive and they sent us across the lane.
    A plain-looking building on the outside, nice inside, looking like someone house that is also now a small hotel…a bit like London’s B and B in less touristy areas of London. .

    What pleasantly amazed me the first time we were in Venice and Milan–where we were first–was the staff in hotels, restaurants etc. that spoke several languages fluently.
    In that small Venice hotel the owner, at breakfast time, spoke German to one table, Spanish to another, French to me and English to my buddy..

    Red frog

    June 3, 2014 at 9:12 pm

  2. A most interesting post.

    I’ve never been to Venice but it’s near the top of my list. Bet you found the lack of roaring traffic striking and peaceful, except for the whine of small watercraft punctuating the ambience.

    I am reminded of Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series available on DVD from the library or online. Ironically, it’s a German TV series subtitled in English; Leon refused to sell her work to American or British TV for fear of cultural dilution and disrespect for the city. Venice is the centrifugal force in every episode, and the cinema-tography is impeccable.

    I am curious as to what kind of camera you are using, Stephen.


    June 10, 2014 at 4:36 pm

  3. MB – not the “whine of small watercraft” so much as the roar of the vaporetti – which approach their stops at speed and then throw the lever into reverse to come to a stop and tighten the rope which has been thrown over the bollard to hold it tight to the wharf. We found a very nice place for lunch one day which was close to several vaporetto stops. Services are frequent, and it was downright noisy much of the time.

    The camera I am using now is a Canon S95. I bought it three years ago and while in Rome it started behaving badly. Fortunately that stopped of its own accord – though it does carry a number of scars from the times it has been dropped or banged. It is a small portable that I shove in a pocket, and it has never known the inside of a case. I like to have it to ready to use at a moment’s notice. It does have a full range of manual and assisted options, but I keep it on automatic most of the time. It does also do video, but I have not worked out how to post those.

    The pictures that get uploaded to flickr are at half size. I also produce one off photo books using Snapfish for each trip.

    VPL has lots of Leon’s books on its shelves and she was in discussion with the BBC not long ago about a new tv series for Brunetti.

    Stephen Rees

    June 11, 2014 at 7:52 am

  4. Another modern literary connection to Venice was through Michael Dibdin’s novels featuring Aurelio Zen (also out on DVD too, an British production). Dibdin had a playful sense of humour where he often celebrated the high culture of Venice history, then pivoted to make sharp observations never mentioned in the tourist brochures. More than once drew to the reader’ attention to Venice’s wealthiest houses sitting on an antiquated sewage system where blackwater barges invariably dock in the canals to pump out the holding tanks located at the lowest level, only to ground there for hours at an angle, spilling some of their contents, waiting for the tide to come in. The smell of the canals at low tide interspersed with the wonderful scents from the Trattorias found a regular place with adventurous walks through intimate streets filled with the texture of cobbles and brick. Unfortunately, Dibdin died a few years ago. He was a masterful storyteller.


    June 17, 2014 at 7:40 pm

  5. Thank you for directing me to Donna Leon. I had not heard of her before but now I have read several of the Brunetti novels, seen two of the DVDs and my partner listens to them in her car on CD. I wish that I had read them before we went to Italy, but then we had not actually planned on visiting Venice. I thought that we would spend more time in Tuscany.

    Stephen Rees

    July 14, 2014 at 9:08 am

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