Last Updated : 28/02/05
Dearth in Venice
(With apologies to Thomas Mann)
enice. The romantic city. What the hell were we doing going there? Well, to be honest, I don’t know as I’d never really wanted to go – I always assumed it would be horribly overcrowded, full of fat Americans with bemused expressions wearing tartan shorts and nothing like the photos everyone has seen in the travel guides - but I’m really glad we did! It was partly due to us always flying from Stansted which made the Thomsonfly offer from Coventry more appealing, and partly due to Coventry being a required airport, but whatever the real reason I booked the flights for the staggering cost of £29.75 return each. I could tell Sue wasn’t convinced as to Venice’s attractions and, to be honest, neither was I, but I figured it’s somewhere everyone should see so why not in January when it was at it’s quietest?
The personal airport experience.
Sunday 23rd January 2005.
Our flight was on Sunday evening which gave us the rare treat of having most of the day to prepare, pack and, more importantly, have a lie-in! Coventry airport proved to be only an hour away and I must admit it was a strange experience. As we drove up to the carpark barrier, the attendant came out clutching a sheet of laminated paper. “Mr Prescott?” he enquired. I was totally withered by this – imagine driving into Stansted and this happening! “Yes, that’s me” I ventured. He handed me the paper to put on the dashboard and, seeing my bemused expression, elaborated on his all-seeing perception. “Your registration number is on the list” he said, before directing us to the parcelforce carpark a short distance away.
We encountered a similar personal service there where the attendant showed us to a space and then ushered us onto the bus; this was nothing like any airport I’d ever been to before! We were soon in the “terminal building” which really brought a smile to my face. From the outside it had looked like a large portakabin, but now we were inside it I could see that it actually was a large portakabin and the check-in lanes would have held maybe fifty people at a crush before the queues would be snaking out of the door. We were half an hour early for our allotted check-in time but the lane opened anyway to ease the crowd (there were 20 people waiting) and we were soon sat in the “lounge” wishing we didn’t have over two hours to kill.
The facilities in the waiting lounge were, to say the least, basic. A small shop stocked what must be the most rancid coffee anywhere in the world and other sundry tat, there were two toilets for males and two for females and – erm – that was it! Not even a view of the runway! Gradually the room filled up until it was uncomfortably full with normals waiting for the flights – maybe Thomsonfly should stagger the departures more, it’s certainly not a relaxing experience festering in a crammed portakabin with no coffee worth drinking!
Just like it is in the books.
Eventually we boarded the customary 737 for the flight and after a superb takeoff (the engines were thrashed up whilst the brakes were held on, then released suddenly – CVT must be a really short runway!) the rest of the two-hour flight passed uneventfully. At 20:30 we arrived at the excellent modern Venice Marco Polo airport where the plan was to buy a 72-hour ACTV (Venice public transport) rover ticket. We found the ticket kiosks, but I saw with concern that the ACTV one was closed and the ACTO (their rival) was the only one open – would this mean we couldn’t get one? Thankfully, we were sold two rovers without question for €22 each (which is a great deal if you consider a 90-minute ticket for the grand canal is €5) and, after a superb tiny espresso for €0.70, boarded the No.5 bus to Venice Piazzale Roma bus station.
The trip only took twenty minutes and the length of the causeway connecting Venice to the mainland amazed me – it was difficult to see the mainland from the other end even with the benefit of streetlights. Whatever made the original settlers think of living on mudbanks almost out of sight of the mainland? Well, I actually do know as I read the history section in the rough guide, but it still seems a surreal place to want to live before the current buildings were put up.
We were soon off the bus and grappling with the complexities of the waterbus stop that comprised of several pontoons jutting out into the canal with different boats stopping at different pontoons in different directions. Sounds complicated? It is until you get the hang of it, believe me, and especially at night! After the initial confusion we managed to board a No.82 vaporetto (waterbus, but specifically the larger type) in the direction of Piazza St Marco where we would have to change for a No.1 to the island of Lido where we were staying – I’d found Lido to be a lot cheaper and better value than staying in Venice proper and, with a 24/7 vaporetto service at least every 10 minutes back to Venice, what more could you ask for? We sat in the open seats on the bow of the vessel and waited to see what would unfold with a healthy dose of the “expecting to be underwhelmed” about us.
I honestly didn’t know if I’d take to Venice at all. Obviously I’d seen the photos of the palaces along the Grand Canal and such like, but after having been to Copenhagen and seeing that it actually isn’t all like Nyhavn harbour I was prepared to see a few nice bits and the rest to be instantly forgettable. However, as the vaporetto lumbered along the Grand Canal, I felt my jaw dropping every metre we travelled. I’d never imagined anywhere could possibly be like this – the crooked, lopsided buildings seemed to grow from the water and the myriad of gondolas and other boats jostled for position as we ploughed serenely through them. I looked around and seriously wondered if what I was seeing was real, but it obviously was – this was one of the most amazing places I’d ever been to. Some first impression!
We arrived at the famous Rialto bridge stop where the boat unexpectedly terminated (we didn’t have much luck with route 82!) so we had to wait for the following No.1 to continue our trip to Lido. Standing at the vaporetto stop I tried to take in what I was seeing but it was like being in a computer-generated film of somewhere totally improbable. The water lapped against the gondolas moored alongside the pontoon, all manner of boats passed by, the lights in the waterside houses twinkled and it was then I suddenly twigged what Venice’s magic ingredient was. Notwithstanding to the beauty of everything around me, there was no sound of motor vehicles, only the gurgling and lapping of the canal and the chugging of the Vaporetti; I suppose cars are so omnipresent that it’s not immediately obvious when they aren’t around what is missing, but you soon realise how good it is to be free from their noise and pollution.
I was brought back to earth by the arrival of the No.1 Vaporetto to Lido. We boarded quickly and, once again, took up position in the open-air seats at the front. As we left the grand canal and passed Piazza St Marco, I sat in awe of the buildings around me – Salute church looking like a shotblasted-clean version of St Paul’s cathedral, the Doge’s palace resembling some Benedictine cloisters and the now majestically wide channel could have been the open sea with a few islands scattered here and there. We resolutely stayed out in the open all the way to the Lido, despite the biting wind, where we eventually disembarked at 23:00 and walked up the road to our hotel that was found to be conveniently located a few minutes stroll from the vaporetto stop and, more importantly, clean, warm and comfortable. Result!
More of the same.
Monday 24th January 2005.
The following day was taken up with getting to know this astounding place in daylight. I wasn’t sure if it would look the same, but if anything it looked even better with more of the elaborate decoration on the sides of the palaces visible, including mosaics of gold and blazing colours looking like they had been made recently not hundreds of years ago. We didn’t know it at the time but we missed Piazza San Marco in flood – we only found out that evening when we went to see the Piazza and saw the works in progress for flood prevention and the tide predictions for the coming week. Luckily for us, a high tide was forecast for the following morning so we hadn’t missed out on this amazing spectacle and we resolved to see it.
We were by now well and truly under Venice’s spell and had started doing as the locals do, visiting bars for a swift fortifying “ombra” of local wine in between our explorations of the various districts of the city. I always looked at the draught beers but they seemed to be Heineken, Perroni or a beer called White something that, on closer investigation, also turned out to be a Heineken product. No beer was consumed, but we had plans to visit the brewpub over on the mainland the following day and, if possible, to see the sight of the Piazza under floodwater the following morning – as long as the tide predictions went to plan!
Non-National beer - at last!
Tuesday 25th January 2005.
This being our last “full” day, it had to be the day we did the beery things as we had to drive back from Coventry the following evening after a late arrival so I didn’t really want to drink anything. We did the vaporetto from Lido over to San Marco and were amazed by the view – the air was crystal clear and the distant Dolomite mountains were plainly visible with their jagged snow-capped peaks forming an almost perfect picture behind the Doge’s palace and waterfront. We arrived in the Piazza and spent almost an hour there watching the water level climb and, eventually, the whole square submerge beneath a 98cm above mean water level flood; it was certainly an experience to see it all unfold from an almost dry square to a totally flooded one.
The square’s pigeons seemed very put out by having their feeding area denied them (and therefore their food) and sat grumpily on the ledges above the flooded Piazza, heads tucked into their bodies and looked almost morose. Their place on the square was taken by a flock of seagulls who paddled around and made a pretty good impression of enjoying themselves in the deep water, but at least the seagulls didn’t try and land on our heads like the pigeons did! (The Venice government famously looks after the San Marco pigeons and, if you buy a €1 bag of food from the street vendors for them, you’ll immediately become invisible behind a melee of flapping wings and scratching claws!). We still managed to acquire pigeons sat on our heads despite our lack of food, but they seemed quite well behaved (apart from the one which pecked Sue’s tooth, but that’s another story) so we left them there until they got bored and flew off to find some tourists with edible foodstuffs to give to them.
We then took a varopetto to Accademia in the Dorsodouro area where, after a brief walk, we found a lovely little bar (without a name!) selling some decent beer and excellent cakes. Situated at 1186 Calle de Toletta, at the Accademia end, this bar served beer from the Forst brewery of Merano and offered Sixtus Doppelbock, a Hellbock and a wheat beer. I chose the Sixtus Doppelbock at 6.5% and, to be honest, I was quite impressed. The beer was chestnut brown with a vinuous malty nose and a caramelly, malty and fairly spicy dry flavour. The finish had a hint of the alcohol although thick toffee malt dominated leaving a smooth finish. I should have tried the other beer, but we pressed on in search of something else micro-ish.
Nothing else beery was discovered during the day, although we scooped a fair few good ombras of local and Tuscan wine in some truly gorgeous little cafés which I’m sure we’d never find again so well were they concealed down the tortuous lanes. By the time darkness was descending we decided that it was time to take the train across the causeway to the Brek brewpub at Mestre, so we took a Vaporetto along the Grand Canal which still captivated me with it’s beauty. We were soon at the station and on our way across the enormous causeway to the mainland and within five minutes we had disembarked at Mestre station and started the long walk down Via Piave towards the brewpub, a good kilometre away.
It was a long, cold walk and we were glad to reach the pub. The brewplant was obvious in the front window, but it didn’t look like a normal brewpub to me – where was the bar? Inside it resembled more of a cafeteria, but we were totally clueless as to what to do; the large open-plan room was almost full of tables save for an area that was stacked with food and some kitchens preparing pizza and pasta. I asked one of the till-Adas what the procedure was and she kindly explained that you simply helped yourself and paid at the till, just like a cafeteria!
Armed with this information, I made a circuit of the food area and came back with a pizza and some delicious pasta before one of the more surreal moments of my scooping career was enacted – I poured my own scoop from the tap dispensing the single house beer into a Duvel-like glass! The last time I’d served my own scoops in a bar (if you can call Brek a bar) had been at Ledbury brewery back in 1997 - although I’d brewed that one myself! The hazy pale amber beer was delicious; A fresh resiny hop and malt aroma led to a tasty, full-bodied malt driven brew with plenty of bitter, tangy hops and a long bitter, hoppy finish. It was so good I even poured myself another!
Reluctantly we decided it was time to leave so, rather than walk all the way back down the long straight road we’d walked up, we caught a No.2 bus from the top to the train station and almost immediately a train arrived! That’s the kind of connections I like! After a quick vaporetto trip around the southern canal to the Lido we were soon back in our hotel and sadly packing to return home. We had no more beer the following day, and after another full day exploring Venice we took the flight back to Coventry where we were walking out of the airport door within five minutes of landing! We tried to catch the bus to the carpark, but the driver assured us that we’d be better to walk the short distance as she wasn’t due to leave for some time! Sure enough, as we drove out of Parcelforce, the bus was still sat there…
Conclusions and Beer gen.
Venice certainly isn’t a great destination for the beer scooper, although if you base yourself there for a week there must be twenty brewpubs within an hour of the city, mainly in the countryside to the north near the Austrian border. Although we only found one bar selling non-national beer in the city itself there must be more as we didn’t investigate every area and it seemed a more beery area than other south European regions we’d been to.
My best suggestion to find beer is to explore. There are literally hundreds of cafés throughout the city, not to mention the hundreds of restaurants, most of which offer a draught beer or two (make sure it’s not draught wine you’re looking at!). The problem is that most seem to be in the pay of Heineken or Perroni so finding craft-brewed beer is a problem. We found one great little place in Dorsodouro at 1186 Calle de Toletta (Accademia end) which served beer from the Forst brewery of Merano and very tasty it was too. There is a common draught beer with the word “white” in the name which is also from Heineken, beware.
The only brewpub in the city is Brek, over on the mainland in Mestre at via Carducci 54 and was totally surreal; a cafeteria with a brewery just about sums it up! Take the train to Mestre then buses 2, 9 or 11 (Bus 2 actually starts from Piazzale Roma so this may be easier) to the end of Via Piave and Brek is about 20 metres on the right. There are Brek outlets (for it is a chain) near the Ferrovia (station) in Venice itself and landside at the Airport although these didn’t seem to sell the beer brewed at the three outlets which produce their own beer – Mestre, Padua and Florence. The beer we tried was very impressive and was good enough for a few to be supped, although I think they only have one brew at a time available. Padua is 20km from Venice via train, although with only one beer available at once it’s debatable whether it’s worth the journey for Brek alone. The most amusing beer sighting of the trip, the ridiculously named “Hell Bier” (€0.65 for a 66cl bottle) wasn’t tried, unfortunately.
Travel to and around Venice.
Venice is easy to get to – the city is a honeypot for the low-cost airlines almost all of who offer flights there. easyJet, jet2 and Thomsonfly touch down at Marco Polo airport just 7km from the city, whereas Ryanair fly to Treviso airport, 30km from the city, with connecting coaches available or a train from Treviso town itself.
From Marco Polo airport to Venice you have several options. A waterbus runs from near the airport (find the free shuttle bus to the Aligaluna pier outside) to Murano, Lido and Zaccaria every hour until late, although the fare is high at €10 to Lido and more to Venice proper; tickets from the booths at the airport or onboard. If you feel like showing how rich (or stupid?) you are, catch a Motoscafi (watertaxi) from the pier, although bear in mind these are probably the most expensive taxis in Europe and the journey will cost at least €80. The other options are the two bus companies, ACTV or ACTO. The orange No.5 ACTV bus takes about 20 minutes to reach Piazzale Roma bus station and a single is around €1, whereas the ACTO (blue) bus takes less time but costs over €3 according to the Rough Guide. They both run about every 30 minutes to some sort of timetable - the ACTV ones should be 10 past and 20 to the hour from the airport, although there seem to be extras too; there is a computer departure screen outside the door by the bus stops so you can see when and where your bus options depart.
If you’re planning to do some exploration of the city and islands, and you should, invest in an ACTV rover ticket from the kiosks at the airport – a 24-hour pass is €10.50, 72-hours is €22 and there is a 7-day version too. These represent massive savings over normal waterbus fares which are €3.50 single or €5 for a 90-minute trip on the Grand Canal! Simply stamp them in the machines on the buses the first time you use them and enjoy the delights of “waterbus bashing” over to the lovely glassmaking island of Murano or simply ride up and down the Grand Canal until you’ve seen enough of it – if this is possible. With Venice being so small you could probably manage without the Vaporetti but for €22 it makes sense to use them, especially as the best views are usually from the boats; the Doge’s palace coming from the Lido, especially with the snowy Dolomites behind, is unforgettable. The cruise down Murano’s central canal is also recommended, as is the coffee in the sociable café by the pier at Colonna on Murano. If you see Fritellas, these are a fried dough ball with flavourings such as zabaglione and, if fresh, are gorgeous.
We stayed at the Hotel Boulevard on Lido which was cheap and very convenient. Well recommended, and it's connected by a 24/7 Vaporetto service to the main Island.
For an online tide predictions table, see the official site of the Venice tourist board - well worth it to plan a trip to see Piazza San Marco in flood! (the tide needs to be around 60cm above normal for the Piazza to flood, which happens about 200 times a year!)
Pulling a beer at Brek... Brek Brek's plant
In the meantime, check out www.maxbeer.org and www.beercoasters.it for more information on Italian beer. (Thanks to Paul Harrop and Stephen Jackson for the gen).
My short Sardinia report is here - but to be honest I wouldn't bother, it's gibber.