I first visited Venice at the age of 22. It was February and the streets were seething with crowds attracted to the city by Carnivale. I remember wandering around the streets trying to find my hotel and being minorly spooked by strangers running past me in capes and masks. It felt like I was trapped in a labyrinthine theatre set.
Fast forward 21 years and I visited Venice with new eyes. This time I had decided to surprise my partner, Mark, with a trip to the city for Valentine’s Day. He too had visited Venice, but only on a school excursion when he was 13. Neither of us had a romantic attachment to this place. Venice had remained imprinted on our collective memories as a place of quiet beauty. Mark had no idea where we were heading to for Valentine’s Day. We both lead such busy and productive lives that we hadn’t given it much thought. All he knew was that he had to keep the Valentine’s Day weekend free and to be prepared to get on a plane. With Europe on our back doorstep, surely he wouldn’t guess?
In the background, I was researching good restaurants. I booked a fantastic small hotel called Le Isole which had outstanding service, beautiful rooms overlooking a tiny street and was central to everything. San Marco was less than 10 minutes away by foot, the Grand Canal and its constant water buses were only 2 minutes away.
I also bought masks. As we arrived at the airport with only our weekend bag in tow and a mysterious piece of hand baggage, I asked Mark if he knew where we were going, he guessed straight away. It was one of the many places we’ve spoken about visiting – Paris, Rome, Prague, Dresden. I had originally wanted to head off to St Petersburg with him as neither of have been and we are both fans of Russia. Sadly this was going to be very difficult to arrange on the sly as we would have had to arrange Russian visas and the current protocol dictates that we need invitation letters, fixed reservations, to pay fees and send our passports away – all of which would have made a surprise trip to Russia nigh on impossible.
We arrived in Venice the night before Valentine’s Day, late. After taking the airport bus to the Grand Canal, we jumped on a water taxi to the centre of the city and all of a sudden the memories came flooding back for both of us. I saw the closed market that I loved so much on my first visit, Mark reminisced that this is what he remembered, the busy car traffic ebbing away as we arrived in a world of floating peace, where all of life unfolds by boat each day.
While this wasn’t our first journey together, one of the wondrous things of many in our relationship has been visiting places of extreme beauty as photographers working alongside each other. Neither of us have experienced this. There is no artistic competition, no feeling of resentment and no issue with holding each other up as we both work out a way to portray something photographically. Instead we have embarked on a journey – one where we both inspire each other to see things differently, watch light, shadows, movement and just enjoy pure grace, the wonders that we discover together as we turn corners.
On our first morning in Venice, I asked Mark if he wanted to visit the seafood and vegetable market. The same market that beguiled me with a heady combination of smells and flavours all those years ago. To my delight it hadn’t changed much. It was still alive with the bustle of Venetians wheeling their trolleys around for food.
Food that is sold exactly how it should be – tomatoes on their vines, pears with tiny wax ends on their stalks, courgettes with the flowers still attached, seafood that is still live, fresh from the boat that morning.
We sampled some of this excellent produce at a nearby restaurant called Osteria ai 4 Feri which actually had the best seafood we ate during our time in Venice. It wasn’t sophisticated fare but just robust and simple, fresh food. We at Mantis Shrimps, Razor Shells and Prawns all straight from the ocean, washing it down with a very good Chianti and ending with the creamiest panna cotta we had ever eaten!
One of the best things to do in Venice is to simply get lost. You never know what you may discover as you find your way back to familiarity. We did exactly this and down a back street we found the oldest ‘shipyard’ for maintaining Gondolas in Venice. It was quite a surprise to find this place hidden down another tiny canal and smelling of wood, resin and lacquer. It was wonderful to see how Venice’s most iconic boats were maintained.
From there we managed to find our way back to San Marco, Venice’s central square and a hive of activity due to the start of Carnival. Beauty is everywhere in Venice. The building facades, beneath your feet, in tiny squares, elaborate churches. Seriously, you couldn’t image this type of mishmash of artistry existing anywhere on earth.
Even buildings crumble with style in Venice
And vines know exactly how to grow with an artistic twist.
It was wondrous.
Then came Valentine’s Day and a stranger had decided to spread the love by scattering shiny red hearts across the pavement in San Marco.
I was given roses…
We donned our masks
and we headed out to one of the finest restaurants in the city for dinner. Needless to say it was an amazing, romantic way to spend the most romantic day of the year.
Carnival was just starting in Venice, the crowds were building and although we both cut a striking couple due to our sheer height combination (Mark is 6’5″ and I’m 6’2″) no one batted an eyelid about us being masked publicly. In fact we fit in well! Masks were everywhere!
Finally when the noise and frustration of trying to get fewer people in our pictures overwhelmed us, we chose to disappear into one of Venice’s hundreds of beautiful churches.
including the Basilica de Santa Maria de la Salute (below) where I sat on the steps as a mesmerised 22 year old eating lunch all those years ago.
Sitting and watching the world pass by all those years ago, I learned that Italians enjoy a joie de vivre which is really infectious. When you are surrounded with so much beauty, why not just sit and enjoy it. Take it all in. Simply be present in what surrounds you. Your food doesn’t need to be sophisticated, it just needs to be fresh and good. You don’t need trashy chain stores selling the same old things to the masses in nearly every country. Retail therapy comes in the form of tiny shops selling hand made books, artesan jewellery, tapestries, lace, glass, paper and leather goods.
While we were there, we visited the touristy glass blowing island of Murano and sadly there was a lot of repetition in what was produced in Murano. We were, however, surprised to find wonderful glass installation art in the streets.
and we joined other couples in buying a few small pieces of Murano glass in tiny shops.
I was truly spoiled that weekend by gifts of handmade glass jewellery and a handcrafted leather book, a gift from Mark to get me back into writing accounts of my travels by hand instead of blog (more on that soon).
On our final day in Venice, I suggested to Mark that we should try and catch the exhibition “Genesis” by a photographer hero of mine that Mark had never heard of, Sebastiao Salgado. We went in there only intending to stay for an hour but got so caught up in everything we saw, we nearly missed our flight home!
Traditionally Salgado photographed workers but now he focuses on subjects that are more in line with the sort of work that Mark and I do – indigenous culture, landscapes and wildlife. It was a magnificent way to round our trip out to this momentous city. We have both vowed to return at some point, that is if we don’t get sidetracked by other great European cities in our planning!