Today as yesterday, Venice’s fortunes float on the unending tide of tourists who flood the world’s most famous floating city. These travelers, many from the imposing cruise ships, snap countless photos of the unwavering Grand Canal as it slinks like a lazy serpent with its meandering S-shape oblivious to the waves of 21st century sensibilities. No cars, few elevators, and the endless queues by the finest landmarks of La Serenissima can be daunting. Mention earlier Venetian residents to a fellow visitor either fictional or real from villains to dukes like Shylock from The Merchant of Venice or the reclusive Doge of Venice, Leonardo Donato, or the world’s greatest lover Casanova, and you’re most likely to receive a blank stare.
But murmur about millionaire marriages, movie stars and worldwide festivals then chances are good many will wax poetic on the George and Amal Clooney nuptials, or starlet Angelina Jolie’s action-thriller The Tourist; or the arts festival darling, the Venice Biennale. On a trip to Venice this past spring, while a flotilla of ships from the luxurious Uniworld to the heavenly Crystal Cruises moored at the smaller San Basilio pier and the Marittima Cruise Basin I managed to spend a couple of days touring the beloved landmarks and legendary neighbourhoods in a luxury escorted land tour that included a personal traveling concierge, signature accommodations in the city centre, local epicurean delights, and authentic experiences to see the real Italy.
Thankfully I managed to dodge the lineups, used motoscafi (water taxis) and not the proverbial vaporettos that are public boats, and stayed at a luxury hotel with an elevator while skirting the celebrity sightings. Although I admit there were times when I couldn’t believe I was standing or touring areas frequented by former greats. That is what is so breathtaking about Venice. The magical allure of this archipelago of islets that cups the Adriatic Sea captures the imagination. It’s a city built for endless walking so navigating through this maze of narrow streets with its bevy of bridges crossing the legendary canals often times can turn into an unsolvable puzzle that is so strangely satisfying. You amble past bridges spanning over islands and more islands until you are completely and delightfully lost.
Somehow I knew I would return to my historic abode, the legendary Bauer L’Hotel, a fabled Grand Dame hotel known by nearly every Venetian I spoke to on my latest Italian quest. Located in the heart of the San Marco district overlooking The Grand Canal, this classic Venetian landmark was among the luxury hotels included in the Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations new Ultimate Italy program. The premium tour operator that has been curating itineraries for over 35 years has emphasized quality, authentic engaging experiences, and learning, in its offerings. “If you travel with us you won’t be herded around. You will feel like an individual. You can enjoy things your own way. Your own personal aspirations can be realized and the traveling concierge is there to help you fulfill your dreams.
That’s the big thing. You have this independence yet the advantage of the group at the same time. It’s a cracking dynamic,” says John Boulding, CEO of Insight Vacations joining us on this ultimate quest of Italy. Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations includes exclusive experiences like the sought-after serenade gondola tour that other tourists would pay a hefty fee. I sit inside an elegant black wooden gondola and explore an artery of smaller quieter canals that veer from the Grand Canal. The scenes are magical. Diners on private balconies converse by candlelight over glasses of Prosecco as I snap photographs of this fanciful world once lived in by the Great Masters. There’s a plaque bearing Mozart’s name and another of Casanova with a vast collection of more palazzos and restaurants christened by other great icons.
By evening, Venice turns into your own private city. The walled laneways settle into solitude. The only sounds are of the briny sea as it gently laps onto worn steps edged in creeping moss that strangles the aged palazzos in a luxuriant green. But come dawn, there’s nothing like being awoken by the bells of Saint Mark’s Basilica to begin your day in La Serenissima. Even the cruise passengers would be taxied to Saint Mark’s Square but I among other Luxury Gold guests had only to walk to Venice’s fabled site.
One morning we leave the dock of the Bauer L’Hotel helmed by the marbled figure Italia Turrita overlooking the Santa Maria della Salute, a 17th century masterpiece, and hop inside our covered motoscafi. We cruise past the busy gondola traffic to the Murano Glass Factory situated on the famous outlying island of Murano devoted to glass blowing. Master glass blower Enrico dei Rossi who is from a Murano glass making dynasty (he’s eighth generation) demonstrates the ancient technique and creates a beautiful horse where no two pieces are ever alike. “It is a work of art,” says our tour guide, Roberto Visinoni, a Venetian. Lunch is its own Venetian affair.
Along a calle (narrow street) of commerce and trattorias, the patrons of Al Vecio Penasa pack inside to order the house specialty, Venetian-style sandwiches of radicchio and tuna, bruschetta or ham and eggs that’s nicely washed down with Venice’s signature drink, a light Aperol Spritz. In the afternoon we explore the haunts of Venice in a vivid walking tour. I see the birthplace of Vivaldi and tuck into the quieter ‘real’ places of Venice to see the intimate private courtyards festooned with laundry drying on the line strung high between houses framed by pretty window boxes brimming in scarlet red geraniums.
At the 14th century Doge’s Palace, we slip past the queue (the tour company has advanced reservations to see this most private world) and marvel at the extraordinary collection of artwork, sculptures, ancient armoury and ghoulish torture devices displayed in the lavish staterooms. Your head spins in all directions. There is the masterpiece Paradise by the Venetian Tintoretto which is regarded as the world’s largest oil painting and the stories of Casanova’s imprisonment in the castle both which tickle the imagination.
Insight Vacations regularly schedules free time, a feature many travelers anticipate for personal shopping, dining, and sightseeing. And so it is that afternoon. After my guided walking tour, I veer from the crowds over the Ponte dell’Accademia and stroll past a quiet passageway ensconced in crowns of wisteria and stop again. This time I view the world of the great arts patron, Peggy Guggenheim. I confess I am awestruck as I toured the magnificent museum housed inside the great modern art collector’s private residence.