Lent in Venice: Cheap Drinks

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We found a coffee bar near the fish market where they had a special grinder that ground a happy face of cinnamon on top of the cappuccino. We found a bar where the Spritz Aperol cocktail cost a mere Euro fifty (and was inhabited by an eccentric cast of locals: Sailors from the Arsenale, a goth counter girl, and extravagantly made up matron sitting alone at a table;) I never did discern the name of the bar.

Drinking (aside from walking around) in fact seemed the biggest bargain in Venice—spritz Aperol, our newly discovered favorite drink, or a glass of wine, or a cappuccino could usually be had for a few Euros—a bargain we could not replicate in Rome or Paris.

Lent in Venice: Lunch for Venetians

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We ate twice, this visit, at what I call the secret lunch place. I’ll never (publicly) reveal it’s location. This almost hidden restaurant is open only for lunch and frequented by local workers; there are no English menus and only minimal spoken English. Lunch is 18 Euros (up from 15 two years ago) and includes pasta, segundi, dessert, wine, water and coffee. The food is excellent—the waiter will tell you what to eat, from a short list of daily specials—and the price unbeatable. You can contact me for the details, or better yet, wander off the tourist routes into Venice’s various neighborhoods around lunch time and find your own neighborhood spot—they are out there.

Lent in Venice: Getting Lost

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Guidebooks, and even recent articles on Venice seemed of little use, and in fact we rarely used our maps. It’s important to settle into the slow rhythm of the city—a slowness dictated by the complete absence of cars and scooters, and the necessity of walking everywhere in a city of tangled alleyways in which it is very easy, even desirable, to get lost.

The Chorus pass, a card allowing admission to (16) interesting and sometimes far-flung churches provided a vague structure to some of our walks. Along the way we would find completely tourist-free neighborhoods, cheap bars and coffee bars, unexpected churches and cloisters. And art…both famous works (a constant variety of last suppers by Tintoretto) and obscure (a bit of medieval frieze depicting an ass and ox licking the baby Jesus!)

We found pleasure in local flea markets, junk shops, tiny bookbinders and obscure coffee bars. We also found signs of life, youth, and vibrancy that suggest that Venice has not yet resigned itself to becoming a museum. There are new, youthful bars, modern restaurants, and a vibrant modern art scene—the recently opened Palazzo Grassi, is a splendidly redone grand canal palazzo, it’s entire space devoted to temporary exhibitions of contemporary art.

Lent in Venice: Early Morning Walks

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Eric and I took advantage of our jet lag—waking the first days at 6 am—to take early morning walks through the deserted streets. We watched Venice slowly come alive: coffee bars just beginning to open, the vegetable sellers setting up shop, and finally hordes of local children rushing off to school. The first morning was sort of magical in a light rain. The second provided sun, and the perfect time for a walk across the almost empty Rialto Bridge to visit the fish market, active only with locals shopping the stalls stocked with gleaming local fish, crabs, shrimps, and island produce. We’d have a quick coffee, then stroll back to the hotel for breakfast with Nonna and Logan.

Lent in Venice: an Introduction

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Lent begins today, and though it is supposed to be a time of penance and sacrifice, if you’d rather indulge yourself, there is no better time to visit Venice than during the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. It’s an especially tranquil time in this usually tourist-mobbed city. For me, Venice is all about tranquility: the absence of cars and scooters of course, but wandering mysterious narrow alleys, getting lost, discovering hidden neighborhoods, churches, restaurants and bars, and most of all experiencing its unique beauty at a leisurely pace.

I’ve been to Venice six times, three times during lent and three times in October. My last October trip, in 2007, revealed that the summer tourist season now extends all through the fall—Lent is perhaps the last occasion where one can find Venice in uncrowded beauty. You’ll miss Mardi Gras of course, and the Film Festival, and the Biennale, but Lent provides a beautiful peace, surprisingly good weather (in my experience) and greatly discounted hotel rooms.

Last year, in early March, we had two days of rain followed by five dry days of mostly glorious sun and pleasantly cool weather. The city was uncrowded, with Venetians remarkably seeming to outnumber the tourists. It was easy to walk around, in even the most touristy parts; even the Academia Gallery was deserted, except for a few school groups, and San Marco delightfully uncrowded. Once you got off the beaten track, the city was quiet and mysterious

Many people dash into Venice for a day; I’ve read travel articles saying three days is plenty of time in Venice. On each of my six visits I’ve stayed for a week, and each time I left with the feeling that much was unseen and undone. Yes, you can see the major monuments in the crowded walk from the Rialto Bridge to San Marco, but the real pleasure of Venice comes in exploring the city at leisure, getting lost in the neighborhoods tourists rarely venture, and adjusting to the wonderful pace of a place where nothing need be done in hurry.

I won’t be in Venice this year, but for Lent I’ll be sharing some of my favorite experiences, from March last year (accompanied by Eric, Logan, Nonna and two good friends,) and from earlier visits.