Just as with our week in Rome, my idea for our time in Venice was to get the real tourist-y stuff out of the way first. So on our second day in Venice, a Monday, I decided we would go “downtown” (literally, to the southern side of the island) and visit the Piazza San Marco, and one of its most popular sights, the Palazzo Ducale which is popularly known as the Doge’s Palace.
To get to Piazza San Marco, we would have to take our first Vaporetto trip. The Vaporettos are the large water buses that most people use to get around in Venice. Since there are no cars allowed in almost the entire city, walking and riding Vaporettos are the way to travel. However, for tourists, they can be prohibitively expensive to ride – 6 Euros a trip, about 6 times what the locals pay.
The way to get around the high cost of individual tickets is to do a travel pass. Since we were going to be in Venice for two full weeks, we bought 7-day cards for each of those weeks. Those are still 60 Euros, which is no joke. But if you ride the Vaporetto two times a day for the entire week, that knocks it down to 4 euros and change per ride – still a stiff price, but much cheaper than 6 per ride. And many Vaporetto stops have machines where you can buy a travel card in increments of 1, 2, 3 or 7 days (although not all – check your stop to make sure before you get there, since they will not sell the travel cards on the boat).
Once we had our travel passes, we were off! You can take either the #1 Vaporetto or the number 2 from the main stop in Cannaregio, San Marcuola, to San Marco. The #1 is kind of a local boat, in that it stops at nearly all the stops on the Grand Canal, so that by the time you arrive at the San Marco stop, you have probably spent a half hour or so on the boat. The #2 is less stops, but it only covers the route from the train station to San Marco and vice versa from around 9:30a to 5p.
Anyway, we took the number 1. When we got off, rather than follow the tourists and get caught in a huge crowd of people all heading to the square, we went down the side alley and entered Piazza San Marco from the west. That way, when you get your first glimpse of Saint Marks Church and the rest of the glory that is Piazza San Marco, you will be at some distance from the insane crowds.
Which is not to say that there were big crowds on that Monday. There were because, well, there were no cruise ships docked in Venice that day. Therese had done her research and given me the schedule of when there would be boats at the cruise terminal, and how many. And we used that to strategize when to visit touristy areas, and when to avoid them.
Now, if you are going to be in Venice for any length of time, the one other pass you might consider purchasing when you first get there is the City Museum Pass. For 24 Euros, you can visit the four museums in the Piazza San Marco area – the Doge’s Palace, the Museo Correr, the Museum of Archeology and the National Library (the last three of which are actually just one continuous museum, entered through the Museo Correr). Then you also get to visit the museums on the two main islands off of Venice, the Burano Lace Museum and the Murano Glass Museum. And there are five small municipal museums, like Ca’ Rezzonico, that are also included in the pass. So if you are going to see the Doge’s Palace AND want to visit the islands, it is a deal, since the Doge’s Palace by itself is 20 Euros.
The other benefit of buying the pass is that you get to skip the ticket line at the Doge’s Palace, which even on a quiet day like this one was quite long. The way to do it is to buy your pass at the Museo Correr, which despite the fact that it is also in Piazza San Marco has no line (it is just not that popular, it seems). Then you skip the line with your pass, and two minutes later, you are in the glorious Doge’s Palace!
And I say glorious because it is lavishly decorated with the greatest art of the Renaissance, including the most famous Venetian artists like Tintoretto and Veronese. Believe me, I have been very stingy in posting photos of the Doge’s Palace – there is so much incredible art to see, it would be easy to post several dozen photos. But hopefully my sample of a dozen will pique your interest to go to Venice.
The wild thing about the Doge’s Palace is that, being a municipal palace with council chambers and courtrooms and that sort of thing, it also has a jail attached to it. The jail is connected to the palace by the infamous Bridge of Sighs. And yeah, there ain’t no Veronese in the jail. But people like to visit them anyway. For me, one jail cell is plenty, and the many you have to pass to get to the end of the tour is way way too many.
But the good thing was that, while the last time I visited the Doge’s Palace in 2011, we had a time limit and had to rush through it a bit, this time, we could spend all day there if we wanted to. When we left after a couple of hours, I was more than ready for lunch.
For our meal, I had chosen a restaurant a bit off the beaten track, on a side street behind the Doge’s Palace, Ristorante Trovatore.
The food here was high quality, but being that it was still in the neighborhood right around the square, it was expensive. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my lunch of a charcuterie plate and another dish of cuttlefish pasta (this one wasn’t quite as saucy as the one at Ristorante Diana the day before, but it was still silky in its texture and absolutely delicious).
After lunch, we had just one more sight to visit that afternoon. Not too far from the square is the beautiful Church of San Zaccaria. It is actually two churches: a portion of the original structure from the twelfth century lives on as a chapel and crypt in the back of the church, while the more recent Renaissance structure forms the main part of the church as it is known today.
I found the crypt, which on that day was half under water, to be wonderfully atmospheric. But the main part of the sanctuary draws the lion’s share of attention, with its gorgeous altar of the Madonna Enthroned with Saints by Giovanni Bellini, who may be Venice’s greatest Renaissance artist (some will argue it was Titian). Whoever you say is the greatest, if (like me) you had never known much of Bellini (are whom the popular brunch drink is named), after visiting Venice, you will never forget him. His many portraits of the Virgin Mary display her with beauty, grace and humanity, with a delicacy that does not belie the inner strength that made her capable of shouldering the burden of being the Mother of the Savior.