Not finding quiet Venice? Don’t blame Venice.


7hrsvenice_mainOn my last Friday on my most recent stay in Italy, I decided to take a day-trip to Venice from Milan. It’s not a short day-trip, but it’s do-able. With the fast train, it’s a 2.5-hour trip one-way – and if I’d been willing to get up even earlier than I did, I could have been en route to Venice as the sun was still very low in the sky. As it was, I arrived at 11am, just in time to wander a bit before my lunch meeting. I ended up packing my short visit with meetings almost from start to finish – so what I already knew was going to feel like too little time in Venice felt like even less time than that. I caught a train back to Milan around 7pm (there are later trains, but only one later train that’s in the 2.5-hour trip range).

So. Seven hours in Venice. Was it worth it?

The short answer is – kind of. And yes, there’s a long answer coming.

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If your itinerary leaves you no choice but to make your stay in Venice only a few hours, then I might say go for it. (I might also say skip it entirely and return someday with more time for the city – it depends on what the rest of your trip looks like.) If you’ve been to Venice before and spent time on the “must-see” things and you’re just looking for a beautiful place to spend a few hours, then absolutely – enjoy Venice for the time you can. In my book, a few hours in Venice is better than a few hours in just about any other place on earth.

But here’s where the “kind of” comes in. A few hours in Venice should really, I think, come with a warning label:

“Caution: May cause heartache.”

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I’ve spent enough time in Venice over the years to know how much I love it, and to know that I’d rather spend a few hours there than not see it at all – even if it means a five-hour round-trip on the train in one day. But the truth is that after a few hours in Venice, I was perhaps more sad when the train pulled out of the station than I was the last time I spent a few days there.

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If it’s possible, I think I leave another small piece of my heart in Venice every time I go. Someday I’ll have to return for a good long stay and see if I can retrieve all of the little scattered pieces. If not, I might just have to buy a palazzo and call it home. Really, either way sounds like a decent plan to me.

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To be honest, I’d been wary of visiting for just a few hours, especially in the middle of June when the weather was spectacular. I had assumed the city would be truly overrun. My first trips to Venice had been in July and August, and I remembered getting in line at St. Mark’s super early to make sure we could see the famous basilica first thing in the morning. I figured early June and sunny weather would mean the same kinds of crowds. And it’s possible those crowds were there when I visited this last time – it’s possible they were lining up in St. Mark’s Square to get a peek at my favorite church on the planet or elbowing their way to a spot on the Rialto Bridge to get a photo or two – but I didn’t see much of them.

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When I visited last year in February, I wasn’t surprised to find that stepping off the main tourist drag by just one or two streets got me far enough away from the crowds that I could hear water lapping at the edges of the canals. During that trip, my nighttime walks led me to downright desolate alleys and squares – if I was any kind of fiction writer I’d have sat down right then and there to craft a murder mystery set in Venice in the winter. But Venice in June? I figured the crowds would have filtered into those previously quiet corners and I’d have to work harder to find the peaceful city I so love.

But they hadn’t. And I didn’t.

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I walked out of the train station and over the bridge, and not two streets off the main tourist route I was blissfully – and perhaps a bit surprisingly – alone. The photos you see throughout this post were taken during my seven hours in Venice – and I didn’t have to wait ages for a piazza to clear or ask people to stop walking down a street so I could get a shot. I just wandered off the main drag and started snapping photos. This, my friends, is what Venice can look like in the high season, if you break away from the herd.

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Most visitors to Venice still act as if there is only one street that will lead them from the train station to St. Mark’s Square and back. They funnel themselves slowly through the gauntlet of overpriced (and often bad) restaurants and tourist shops selling mass-produced Carnival masks and “Murano” glass. And if that’s the way they want to see Venice, that’s fine – but I will no longer tolerate people who say Venice is always too crowded, too touristy, and too overpriced.

If that’s the Venice they saw, it’s their own damned fault.

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>> Want to avoid seeing the same Venice everyone else sees? Want to give yourself a shot at falling in love with Venice? Here are my suggestions for 5 Venice survival tips to give the city a fighting chance.

all photographs by Jessica Spiegel & may not be used without permission