In his Companion Guide to Venice, the British art historian Hugh Honour wrote that to approach Venice in any way but by sea “is like entering a palace through the back door”.
To understand what he means take a water taxi from the airport. From your boat your first view of the city is the majestic white dome of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute. Punctuating the low skyline of Venice, as indistinct in its envelope of mist as a painting by Turner or Monet, it is the iconic symbol of Venice.
In Venetian terms, the church is not old; it dates from the mid-17th century when it was built in thanksgiving to “Our Lady of Good Health”, whose intercession was credited with halting a plague that had raged for two years and killed more than one-third of the population of Venice. The competition for the design of the church was won by an unknown, 26-year-old architect, Baldassare Longhena. He promised a building that would be “strange, worthy, and beautiful”. And that does describe Longhena’s octagonal Venetian Baroque building which, though supported by over one million wooden piles, seems to float near the tip of the Dorsoduro, the west bank of the Grand Canal.
One of the six sestieri or areas of Venice, the Dorsoduro (Italian for “hard ridge”) has always been considered less fashionable than the facing bank which is home to St Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. But from the tourist’s point of view that works in Dorsoduro’s favour. Far less congested and in many ways more atmospheric than the sestieri across the Grand Canal, the area is mysterious and misty in the winter and in summer cooler and more tranquil. With its narrow streets and hidden alleys, Dorsoduro yields up its treasures one by one as if it were turning over playing cards. Although it’s linked with the opposite shore by the Accademia Bridge and the number one waterbus, you can make crossing the Grand Canal an authentic Venetian experience in itself; take the traghetto that runs during daylight hours from a “campo del traghetti” near the Guglie waterbus stop. (Yellow signs on house walls point you to it.) Traghetti are old gondolas, their seats stripped out to make room for passengers who stand on the short crossing, contriving to keep their balance even when the traghetto crosses the wake of a motorboat. You pay your 50 cent fare to the oarsman on arrival at a little wooden pier convenient to La Salute, the new Punta del Dogana art gallery and the Peggy Guggenheim collection of modern art.
If this very Venetian ride across the Grand Canal isn’t excuse enough to make the excursion, here are six more good reasons to visit
1. Experience La Salute
The No 1 waterbus brings you right to the steps of the church; if you come by traghetto, turn left from the landing and a short walk will bring you there. Enter this Baroque masterpiece to admire the ceiling panels by Titian and Tinteretto’s famous painting, the Marriage at Cana. On the feast day of Santa Maria della Salute, November 21, a temporary pontoon bridge links La Salute with the San Marco district. Venetians carrying candles walk across to pay their respects and gondoliers bring their oars for a blessing.
2. Visit the Punta della Dogana
The only building further out to sea than La Salute, is the low-lying Dogana, a 17th century maritime Customs House remodelled by the Japanese architect, Tadao Ando into a chic contemporary art gallery; it opened in June 2009 to house one-half of the ongoing ‘Mapping the Studio’ exhibition made up of art works belonging to the French billionaire Francois Pinault. The other half of the exhibition can be seen in the Palazzo Grassi which also belongs to Mr
The two museums share a website:www.palazzograssi.it.
Opening hours are 10:00 to 19:00, with the last entrance at 18:00.
Closed Tuesdays and from December 24 to January 2.
3. Stroll down the Zattere quay
If you follow around the tip of the Dorsoduro you find yourself on the Zattere, a picturesque promenade lined with 15th and 16th century palazzi and churches which front on the Giudecca Canal. Zattere means ‘raft of logs’, and it was here that the wood that floated down river from the Dolomites was landed to be made into ships’ masts and pilings for the city of Venice. Today the Zattere is popular with Venetians for its restaurants (including one whose dining tables are set out on a platform in the water) and Gelateria Nico, which serves what many claim to be the city’s best ice cream.
4. See a gondola repair shop
Turn left off the Zattere at the fondamento that runs along the Rio San Treviso. From here you have the best view of the boatyard, the squero. New gondolas are rarely made here (there are three other boatyards in the city) but when they are, they are built traditionally from seven kinds of wood in a process that takes up to two months to complete. The principal work in this boatyard is the repairing and maintaining of the 350 gondolas still in service in Venice. The picturesque Tyrolian-looking wooden buildings that surround the squero have been home to the same owners for generations and are the original workshops, dating from the 17th century.
5. Visit the Accademia Gallery
This museum covering five centuries of Venetian painting up to the 19th century is so huge – 24 rooms – you should plan your visit in advance, it’s also a good idea to buy your ticket online and save queueing. The Accademia was founded in 1750 as an art school, but had several homes before its move in 1807, under Napoleonic edict, to the present location at the foot of the bridge of the same name. It benefitted from Napoleon’s suppression of religious schools and convents, acquiring many extraordinary works of art.
The gallery is open every day from 8:15, closes at 19h every day but Monday when it closes at 14h. You can find descriptions of the exhibitions – to help you decide which rooms to visit – as well as online ticket purchase at www.tickitaly.com.
6. Relax at the Peggy Guggenheim museum.
This small palazzo, with its breathtaking view of the Grand Canal, was where the American millionaire collector lived. The rooms in which her sensational assemblage of modern art is shown still feel ‘domestic’. You can easily imagine the parties, the drinks on the terrace, the lifestyle she led here surrounded by her treasured collection. At the back of the garden is a café where you can enjoy a coffee or a light lunch. Open every day from 10:00 to 18:00. Closed on Tuesdays and on Christmas Day.
For further details, visit: www.guggenheim-venice.it
Take the taxi!
Book your water taxi on arrival in the airport – there’s a desk in the arrivals’ hall – or, pre-book at www.venicewelcome.com or www.venicewatertaxi.com. Expensive — but way to go!