We’re celebrating our first visit to the ‘city of water’ with a ‘Venice from the Water’ package with Voyages Jules Verne. For first timers like us, it’s a hassle free introduction to Venice – four nights aboard the MS Michelangelo, a river cruise ship belonging to French cruise company Croisi Europe with all meals, drinks and sightseeing trips provided.
Our floating hotel has 78 comfortable cabins – all with air-conditioning, large picture windows and private facilities – plus three decks, a large lounge and bar with panoramic windows, a shop and a spacious sun deck. Meals are taken in a bright and airy single seating restaurant. On three of our four nights on board, Michelangelo will be moored at Riva Sette Martiri, a convenient short walk from St Mark’s Square.
Arriving at Marco Polo airport in the late afternoon, we find ourselves part of a small group of Brits transferring to the Michelangelo at the cruise terminal. It’s all very friendly and informal and we soon have the keys to our cabin and are settling in. While the crew are bi-lingual and ship announcements are in French, English and Spanish, most of the other passengers are French – and friendly. We meet some of them on the first evening, everyone is invited for a ‘welcome’ cocktail in the lounge and the ship’s crew introduce themselves one by one.
At dinner, tour manager Sue shows the UK group to our allocated tables and outlines the itinerary for the next few days. Sue has lots of practical tips on making the most of our time, such as using the vaporetti (public water buses) to explore Venice and where to buy tickets. While we socialise with our fellow passengers over four courses of French cuisine served with wine, Michelangelo slips away from the cruise terminal to her overnight mooring in central Venice.
Next morning, as we help ourselves to the generous breakfast buffet, Michelangelo cruises north on the Venetian lagoon. We sail by one of Venice’s most photographed landmarks, the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, then head out into the murky Venetian lagoon. This large enclosed sea bay is connected to the Adriatic Sea by three inlets and covers an area of 550 sq kilometres (210 sq miles). It consists mainly of mud flats, tidal shallows and salt marshes with Venice and the lagoon islands making up less than a tenth of its total area. The lagoon’s water levels fluctuate considerably, especially in the spring when the high tides (acqua alta) regularly flood much of Venice.
When Michelangelo returns to her mooring, we disembark for a walk before lunch. In the afternoon, we join an excursion by a smaller boat to the lagoon islands of Murano and Burano.
Murano – the ‘glass island’ has been producing fine glasswork since the 13th century and although demand has waned in recent years, glass making is still the island’s main industry. We join a queue filing into one of the factories to watch the glassmakers at work, blowing and shaping the molten glass in the dusty heat. After several forays into a red-hot furnace with an iron rod, one glassmaker produces a prancing glass horse and everyone claps. Afterwards, we browse the factory’s extensive showroom but are not tempted to buy.
The tiny island of Burano is a further 20 minutes north by boat and is famous for lace making and its quayside houses painted in bright contrasting colours. Behind the houses, narrow, maze-like passageways open out into small squares. Some have washing hanging out to dry, which adds to the island’s homely feel. We buy ices and wander as far to the Church of San Martino and its leaning campanile (bell tower) – a feature of many churches in this part of Italy. Then it’s back to Venice for dinner on the ship and a nightcap in the bar before turning in.
Day two, and local guide Maria leads an optional walking excursion to the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale). We’ve all been issued with ‘whisper sets’ to follow Maria’s commentary. As we walk, she tells us how Venice and its lagoon became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. This status recognised the importance of the city’s artworks, architecture and unique location on 118 small islands linked by 150 canals and 477 bridges (we cross seven on our short walk). Venice also has 139 churches (88 still in use). Over 20 million people visit Venice every year but less than half stay in the city overnight because it is so expensive. Most are day trippers or passengers from visiting cruise ships, or starting or ending their cruise in Venice – one of Europe’s busiest cruise ports, despite the controversy over large ships damaging its fragile infrastructure. Venice’s declining population is another concern – from over 120,000 three decades ago to just 55,000 today – caused by dwindling job opportunities outside tourism, soaring property prices and the high cost of living.
These gloomy insights are put aside when we reach the magnificent Doges Palace – one of Venice’s Byzantine landmark buildings. Adjoining St Mark’s Square, it was the residence of the Dukes of Venice and seat of the Venetian government for nearly seven centuries. The present palace dates from the 14th century and is a splendid example of Venetian Gothic architecture, boasting elegant colonnades, white Istrian stone and pink marble cladding.
We tour the palatial rooms adorned with priceless sculptures, ornate ceilings, artworks and vast paintings by Tintoretto, Veronese and other artists. We take in the city views from the balcony of the Grand Council Chamber and then follow the path taken by condemned prisoners, across the Bridge of Sighs and into the dank cells of Venice’s 16th century prison.
It’s quite a relief to emerge into the sunshine of St Mark’s Square after our fascinating tour. We thank Maria, and then join the crowds in the piazza, where lively classical music is being played by a string quartet outside one of the restaurants.
The queues for St Mark’s Basilica and its Campanile stretch across the square, so we put these on hold for our next visit and buy vaporetti tickets to explore the Grand Canal instead. The three kilometre canal is the city’s main waterway and traces a reverse S-course, from St Mark’s Basilica to the Santa Lucia railway station at the western end. It is lined with over 170 historic buildings and populated by small watercraft, mainly vaporetti, private water taxis and gondolas. Our short vaporetta ride affords close up views of architectural treasures like the basilica of Santa Maria della Salute and Venice’s many palazzos (grand residencies), some emerging directly from the water.
We alight at the famous Rialto Bridge, the first of the Grand Canal’s four bridges, then take our time meandering back to St Mark’s Square through the busy Rialto market and a maze of quaint narrow streets, bridges and alleyways.
On the last day of our trip, Michelangelo cruises south on the lagoon to Chioggia, a small town with an extraordinary fish market. Like Venice, Chioggia has canals and medieval churches, but unlike Venice, it also has traffic! We have a couple of hours to explore before returning to the ship for lunch. It’s market day and the place is teeming with local shoppers and colourful stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, bargain clothing, toys, household and leather goods. We also venture into the ‘pescheria ‘ the covered fish market, where the sheer abundance and variety of fish is an amazing spectacle.
A little way beyond the market and canals is the church of San Domenico, which sits on its own little island. It’s one of Chioggia’s most historic attractions with artworks by Carpaccio and Tintoretto as well as one of the world’s oldest and largest wooden crucifixes above the high altar. But there’s no viewing of its treasures today, as the church is locked.
After lunch, we join a group coach trip from Chioggia to the historic university town of Padua and a guided tour of St Anthony’s Basilica (Il Santo). The vast basilica, took over 70 years to construct (from 1238 to 1310) and is the burial place of St Anthony of Padua, the town’s patron saint. It is a key pilgrimage site as the saint’s relics are displayed in one of the basilica’s nine chapels. The huge church has many notable monuments and works of art and is attached to a Franciscan monastery with five cloisters. These contain many ancient artefacts including a magnificent 200-year old magnolia tree, which we are told, flowers profusely every year.
At the end of the tour, we walk into the town for coffee and pastries at Cafè Pedrocchi. The neoclassical coffee house has been a favourite of students, academics and locals since it opened in 1831. It is next to the Palazzo del Bo, the main building of the old university, where Galileo Gaililei taught during his 18 years in Padua. Here, he discovered the moons of Jupiter, Saturn’s rings and developed his theory that the earth evolved around the sun. Guided tours are offered around Galileo’s lecture hall and also to the world’s first anatomy theatre, a steep six-tiered lecture hall built in 1594 for scientific autopsy.
The coach returns us to the ship, which has sailed from Chioggia and is now berthed at the Venice cruise terminal for our last night on board. As we enjoy a special gala dinner marking the end of the trip, we reflect that staying ‘on the water’ was an ideal introduction to this most enchanting of cities. We will definitely be back.
Venice from the Water costs from £745 per person (two sharing) including BA flights (Gatwick), transfers, four nights’ full board accommodation including drinks on the MS Michelangelo, excursions as per the itinerary and the services of the cruise director. No single supplement applies on 22 December departure
(subject to availability).
Further optional excursions are available (additional cost).
Call Voyages Jules Verne on 0845 166 7035, www.vjv.com.
Grand Canal by Wolfgang Moroder
San Giorgio Maggiore Island by Antoly Terentiev
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Catherine Beattie writing for Your Holiday TV