Trains are one of the great joys of travelling in Europe. All of the big European countries have developed excellent networks of fast trains, and Italy is no exception. The Italians call their fast train networks Frecciarossa, Frecciabianca, or Frecciargento, depending on which network you are using. Freccia means “Arrow”, so the trains translate to “Red Arrow”, “White Arrow”, and Silver Arrow”. All much more romantic than the soulless acronyms assigned by other countries – TGV, AVE, ICE. So it was on a Frecciarossa train that we left Rome to travel all the way up and across the Italian peninsula to our next destination – Venice.
The trip from Rome to Venice is about three and a half hours, plus about half an hour at the station beforehand. So all up about four hours, time that we passed by watching the scenery go by, chatting, and having lunch (which in accordance with local custom we brought aboard, our own home made sandwiches and a delicious piece of a Roman style tart purchased in the Campo di Fiori). The train journey itself is spectacular, crossing the northern half of the Italian peninsula, through the Apennines and through Umbria, and finally out onto the flat expanse of the Po River valley. Orvieto, on its great crag, passed in a flash, as did many other small hill towns in a region that we look forward to exploring at some time in the future. The train ascended into the mountains mostly through tunnels, so we just had glimpses of snow-covered country as we went from one tunnel to another, and then we were back down in the flat lands again.
Arrival in Venice is always a spectacular thing – walking out of the modern, bustling terminal of Venice station and being confronted with the Grand Canal in all its splendour seems as ever to be completely surreal. A couple of tickets to the Vaporetto, and we were off, down to the Rialto bridge, near which we met our genial AirBNB host, Paola, who took us to the apartment. The photos on the AirBNB website didn’t do the place justice – well furnished, well equipped, and with a great location overlooking a small canal, along which gondoliers ply their trade, mingling with all sorts of working boats that go back and forth on their various tasks.
Why on earth go to Venice in winter? That was the question we frequently got from our friends when we were talking about our plans for this trip back in Australia. So here’s the answer to that question. Many years ago, our old friend Michael Shmith, then a very senior writer at The Age newspaper, wrote an article that sang a paean of praise for the joys of Venice in the winter time. That article caught Robert’s imagination, and has stuck in his mind ever since, and so when we were planning this adventure, of course we had to fulfil his long-held desire to see Venice in winter for himself.
Although I was something of a sceptic – cold and wet have never much appealed to me – in the event Robert was entirely vindicated. It is true that we were lucky with the weather; of the three weeks we were there, we had bright sunshine for all of the first, a fair bit of rain in the second, followed by pleasantly mixed sun and clouds in the third. So that helped. And we did have a few days of fog and mist, which were undeniably romantic.
Mind you, even in winter the area around San Marco is still pretty much Disneyland for adults, as someone once characterised it. Virtually every shop window is crammed with “Murano” glass trinkets (most of which are made in China, believe it or not), Carnival masks, and every kind of tourist tat you can imagine. But go just a little away from the main tourist areas and you are into a Venice that is completely different, very quiet at this time of year and populated entirely by locals going about their everyday business. And absolutely no queues for entry into the museums, churches and other sights.
Venice is, we discovered, an eminently walkable city. In fact, we spent most of our first week just walking around each of the major neighbourhoods, getting the feel for the place, and just enjoying being there (one of the more underrated pleasures of travel, really), and seeking out nice little local places for lunch, like the small bar near the Arsenale, where a group of very raucous older Italian men were sitting at tables out front in the sunshine, laughing uproariously at their own jokes and generally having a great time. The bar owner, a plump lady with penciled-in eyebrows, seemed to regard them with amused tolerance – clearly they were regulars.
But it wasn’t all relaxation … there was lots of hard work visiting museums too! Venice is packed with art treasures, and with three weeks available, we were able to get to see most of them, using one of the most value-packed city cards we’ve ever encountered. For a mere 20 euros, we got access to half a dozen of the city’s museums – the Ca’ Rezzonico, the Museo Correr, the Palace of the Doges, the Ca’ Pesaro, plus a few lesser but still interesting places like Carlo Goldoni’s house. The card didn’t cover everything, so we still had to pay for entry to the Accademia and the Franchetti gallery at the Ca’ d’Oro, but it went a long way.
And then, as in Rome, we had to do some opera. Our first event was quite charming – something called Opera in the Palazzo. Though clearly designed to attract tourists, this is a rather lovely concept – the opera is staged in a number of rooms at the Palazzo Barbarigo-Minotto, and the audience moves from room to room following the action. The production (Rigoletto, in our case) is pretty cut-down, the music provided, very energetically, by a piano quartet led by a junior Pavarotti look-alike who was having a great time releasing his inner Italian Maestro, the singers costumed in 18th century garb consistent with the décor of the palace, and the rather faded palace and its furnishings providing the set. One curious note – the opera commences in what is called the Tiepolo Room, so-named for a ceiling fresco by that artist, which, we were told, is worth more than the whole palazzo! All in all, a unique experience.
We had always intended to go to an opera at La Fenice, but we despaired of getting tickets at any kind of reasonable price. We decided to visit the opera house anyway, just to have a look, and find out what we could. To our great joy, it turned out that there were great seats available for Tannhauser, rush tickets for just 50 euros apiece. The production, in the event, was somewhat challenging – originally from Antwerp, a modernist interpretation that in my view missed the mark. Fortunately Wagner’s glorious music overcame those problems with ease, performed by a fine cast of musicians and singers.
Before we left Venice, there was one other event that we had been keen to see – the fabled Venice Carnivale. Unfortunately the Carnivale proper didn’t get under way until the week after we left (something we only discovered once we had arrived), but there was a week of “prequel” stuff that started on our last weekend there, including a grand night launch on the Cannareggio Canal, and a boat parade the following day in the same place. The crowds for both events were huge, people crammed onto the bridges and lining the banks, all waving their selfie sticks around in an effort to get pictures of the goings-on. Which, it has to be said, were pretty underwhelming. Think Moomba on the water … But still, it was fun to feel as though we were at least a part of this most Venetian of events.
And so, after three weeks, it’s off to … Florence!