School is finally out for summer and it should tell you something of the manic nature of summer term at school that I’m only just now getting around to writing about my holiday during May half term! Over the past few years I’ve been making a concerted effort to make my way to the main cultural centres of Italy, to redress my shocking lack of knowledge of this beautiful country. I adored the sun soaked streets of Naples, with their breathtaking view of the Bay of Naples and Mount Vesuvius, and washing-strewn ochre-coloured apartment buildings that snake their way out from the main shopping streets, children playing out in front of them and black-clad women gossiping on the doorsteps, the whole scene still looking just as it would have done one hundred and more years ago. Rome was utterly magical, with beauty and history spilling out of every corner to the point where my eyes thought they could take no more of such majesty in. Florence was a little gem nestled amidst the Tuscan hills, and its black and white Duomo appearing in flashes as you wend your way through the streets was like taking part in a wonderful treasure hunt. Venice has always been a city I have wanted to see, but unlike the other tourist centres of Italy, which people have never stopped gushing to me about, Venice seemed to the place that everyone had a bad experience of. It smells, they said. It’s too touristy. It’s so over crowded. And did we mention it stinks? As such, I wasn’t sure what I would make of it. Prepared for the stench of a sewer and to be crushed by crowds of cruise ship passengers in its narrow streets, I went off with low expectations and slight anxiety as to what I would find. And when I got there, I learned a valuable lesson: sometimes you shouldn’t ask other people for their opinions. Because for me, Venice was an absolute delight.
I love the water and waterfront cities in particular, and taking the boat from the airport and seeing Venice emerge in the distance, its pink and orange and gold reflection shimmering in the water of the lagoon, initially seems to be a mirage. How can such a city still exist in our modern world, where time seems to have stopped in 1650 and everyone still makes their way around by boat? It was like entering another universe, where life is simpler and quieter and calmer, and the only sounds you hear are of people talking and laughing and the gentle lapping of water against the shore. The canals are lined with beautiful historic buildings that contain the architectural melange of centuries of changing influences, befitting the nature of Venice as a vital trading port. Moorish designs sit alongside Renaissance structures, plain medieval buildings neighbour luxurious palazzos, and the winding cobbled streets that go up and over the canals and offer tantalising glimpses of hidden courtyards and gardens offer endless opportunities to wander and marvel at all that Venice has to offer.
Outside of the buildings that make up St Mark’s Square, there was nothing in particular that we wanted to see; we just wanted to enjoy wandering through the streets, floating up the canals and soaking up the atmosphere. The weather was glorious, the lagoon was sparkling, and we were utterly enchanted. The light in Venice is magical, particularly at sunset, when everything takes on an ethereal, rose-gold hue. We loved climbing up the campanile at the Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore, just a tiny hop on the boat from Giudecca, the island where we were staying, where there were no queues and you get to see St Mark’s Square from a beautiful distance. We also loved taking the public vaporetto boat down the Grand Canal and getting to see how real Venetians travel and go about their daily business. Palazzo Fortuny was a wonderful discovery on one of the back streets, and next time I want to try and wangle my way into one of the fancy Palazzo hotels so that I can see a little more of the luxury of old Venice – as so many of the Palazzos are hotels, it does mean that there aren’t many left to visit, which was a shame.
However, I have to say that one of the main reasons Venice was so special is because we blew the budget and stayed in one of its best hotels, which was worth every penny. If you’re saving up and want a really special holiday, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I am usually a total cheapskate when it comes to holidays, but the moment I saw this hotel online, I knew I had to go there – and I didn’t regret it for a minute. The Belmond Hotel Cipriani is on Giudecca, an island facing Venice, and it is surrounded by beautiful gardens, has its own Olympic sized swimming pool, and serves the most amazing food in its lagoon-facing restaurants that mean you’ll never need to go elsewhere. It was an absolute haven of tranquility and just what we needed during the boiling hot afternoons when it was too hot to walk around. Hopping on the hotel’s courtesy boat, which is the original 1950s vessel that used to transport the likes of Sophia Loren who always stayed there, you feel like a movie star as you’re whisked away across the lagoon to the palm-fringed dock of the hotel. Walking under the jasmine entwined arbour that leads to the hotel reception, you enter a world of utter peace and luxury where the staff bend over backwards to serve your every whim. We loved laying by the pool, swimming, drinking bellinis (invented at the hotel), and eating amazing Venetian inspired food, all while looking out at the shimmering, ever changing waters of the lagoon. I already can’t wait to go back!