Visiting graceful Venice after a long Lockdown
After nine travel-free months this reluctant traveller stepped onto an airplane and visited a place outside home and work for the first time. I went to Venice after a long Lockdown! I think the last time I had such a long gap of travel was perhaps 1989. We had been in a lockdown here in Germany since November 2020. I got vaccinated in early 2021 as a front line health care worker and had plenty opportunity to put my vaccine to the acid test since.
Travelling in times of coronavirus is very very controversial, and a huge privilege. And I do not deny that there are plenty of valid reasons for not travelling during a pandemic, but after six crazy months of work, work and more work I had to get out for a brief time doing something I love. I chose Venice after a long Lockdown.
So I booked a day off work and the cheapest flight I could find, which was to Northern Italy, left the cats in the care of my not-yet-fully-vaccinated husband and set off to see Venice without masses of tourists, or so I thought…
Rules on Entering and Leaving Italy / Germany
I had to complete the EU Passenger Locator Form for Italy and according to the form, a COVID-19 test would be required upon entering Italy, regardless of vaccination status.
That was quite easy. The state I work in, Berlin, has literally free testing stations for antigen tests at every street corner. My work has free tests available – every day if you feel so inclined. So it was a matter of a quick swab under a colleagues supervision, then rustling up a bilingual testing certificate and getting it signed. Bear in mind requirements for tests are different, but make sure they always contain your name, date of birth, method of testing, test manufacturer, the exact date and time the swab was obtained and where it was obtained from. A proper nasopharyngeal swab is best and is most widely accepted.
I returned from Milan Malpensa. At the eerily empty airport, I had to report to the Easyjet Check-In to “validate my boarding pass”. In plain English, they wanted to see either a PCR test or immunisation record as this is currently mandatory when you arrive in Germany by airplane. They looked at my digital vaccination record in puzzlement. I showed them my vaccination dates and offered to dig up my yellow WHO International Vaccination book, but they waved me through, giving me a tiny handwritten paper slip.
Arriving in Berlin, there were no checks whatsoever. With Italy and Germany both within the EU and the Schengen Area, there are not normally checks on wither side, but I guess of you get a bit of slackeritis with the test checking upon boarding, there is plenty room for error here. Well – just my two medical cents.
International flights within the EU
At the airport, nobody asked for my test result whatsoever. Boarding my Ryanair flight was pretty much like in pre-pandemic times – ID, boarding pass, off into the crowded holding pen. The only difference were the FFP2/KN95 masks mandatory in Berlin.
Here’s a shot of the new Berlin BER Airport, by the way. For something that cost 7 billion Euro and was plugged in with a nice-year delay, it is extremely underwhelming. It looks like a pre-fab budget airline hub and is massively inconvenient – confusing signposting, very long walks to the gates, no services, already looking scuffed after just 9 months of light use. For a major industry nation capitol airport it looks quite inadequate. Maybe I will use it again this year before I can fully rant on about its inadequacies.
During the flight, the high filtering FFP2 masks had to be kept on except for eating and drinking, which somewhat defies the subject of wearing a mask in the first place if you then take it off for twenty minutes or so. Anyway – the flight is just 90 minutes, even when I hyperventilated briefly during some turbulence over the Alps, I kept the mask on.
Upon arrival in Bergamo Airport, the crowds rolled through some cursory temperature scanner. I think you would have had to be on fire to be actually picked out but well… this is how it was. No checking the detailed Passenger Locator form or Corona tests in this occasion. Masks were mandatory pretty much anywhere but thankfully a medical mask or even cloth mask was fine, so I decided to put my vaccine to the acid test and followed suit.
The medical masks are less protective than a correctly worn FFP2 mask, but I had plenty COVID-contact through work in the early days of the pandemic with some very questionable quality masks and didn’t get infected, so I personally believe a medical mask worn properly, is better than a higher grade mask worn with gaps or taken on an off.
I could not wait to see Venice after a long Lockdown, but my work schedule meant an evening flight, and to be on the safe side, I stayed in a hotel in Bergsamo before setting off to Venice early the next morning.
Transport in Italy
I travelled on a weekend, and well, it seemed like half of Italy was up to visit Venice, too! I set off very early from Bergamo, and while the first two locals trains were pleasantly empty, the regional fast (RV) train, leaving Verona around 8am, was super crowded. The return journey to Milan was equally crowded despite being mid-day on a weekday. I think many people just wanted to enjoy one of the first summer weekends and one of the first weekends when travel within Italy was possible without restrictions. I would say the visitors arriving by train were 80% Italian, 20% neighbouring countries/Germans. Since the FFP2 masks are so woidespread in Germany but not so much in other European countries, they became a tell-tale sign of a German, so I got rid of mine fairly quickly and only put it back on when I entered Berlin public transport where they are mandatory.
However, the northern Italian regions had been hit very hard by the first wave of the virus, and masks were worn almost religiously on public transport. Upon arriving in Venice, it got so crowded on the platform that any social distancing was a nice-to-have but no longer possible.
My Accommodation in Venice
I was on a bit of a budget this time, and also I was travelling alone.
I stayed at the Casa Caburlotto in Santa Croce – a nice residential neighbourhood in easy walking distance to the train and bus stations and the university.
The Casa Caburlotto is a former convent run by a Catholic non-cloistered order. Therefore, there is a certain code of conduct to observe, and while no one is expecting you at morning mass, the place does endorse responsible behaviour, quititude while in the building, and being back home by midnight when they close up. In return, you get a very functional comfortable room, very comortable beds, use of the garden, all in a good location and at a price too good to be true in touristy Venice.
The location is quite nice, too. It is less than 10minutes walk from the Piazza Roma which has a major vaporetto and land transport stop, the only big supermarket in Venice and a few nice bars and restaurants in the surrounding area. Unlike many train station areas elsewhere, it felt very safe at night.
A 5-minute walk in the other direction, you get to the very peaceful neighbourhood of Dorsoduro, with narrow streets, pleasant embankments and barely a tourist in sight despite quite a few attractions. Okay, most of them churches. The most impressive San Sebastiano for example AKA “The Veronese Church” . Some great restaurants, too! A few minutes on, you reach the Zattere Embankment.
Great Accommodation Options for visiting Venice after a long Lockdown
If you are on a bigger budget or prefer a slightly more romantic environment, then consider some other great accommodation options.
If you are a night owl or prefer to be close to the main sights, consider the Casa Favaretto facing the Giudecca Canal, less than five minutes walk from the Arsenale public transport stop, and 10min walk from St Marks Square about 55 Euro for a double. Another really god one in this price bracket is Al Vecchio Forno, a bit deeper in Castello but only 100m from the Riva degli Schiavoni in one of the prettier parts of Castello neighbourhood, with doubles from 59 Euro.
For classic damask and velvet-laden Venetian style on a modest budget, try the Residenza d’ Epoca San Cassiano, a four-star small hotel in a prime location on the Canale Grande, with doubles currently selling for 88 Euro a nicht.
At the current time, you can get great deals on really superb hotels, especially mid-week, such as the five-star Canale Grande-facing Bauer Palazzo for 235 Euro for a double, or the four star Canale Grande H10 Hotel Palazzo Canova for 179 Euro.
The historical flour mill on the Giudecca, now housing the Hilton Hotel, is yours for 208 Euro a night.
Public Transport in Venice
There are no streets in Venice, save for a few very short ones near the port and the train station, so public transport is by diesel and electric boats (Vaporetto) of varying sizes. Again, there is a mask rule on the boats, even outside, and it is very strictly enforced by the captains – as long as they can see you. A single vaporetto ride costs an insane 8.50 Euro, so it is better to get a pass for the entire time you are there. There are ACTV booths at major stops such as San Marco, Piazza Roma and Sants Lucia Train station. Be prepared to queue as some people can take forever and three days to purchase a ticket.
The backbone of tourist travel, the No.1 Vaporetto, is a large diesel craft (1970-80’s “Serie 80”) with mostly indoor space that chugs up and down the Canale Grande from the Bus Station to the Lido, stopping every few hundred metres. It is slow, the journey from the train station to Piazza San Marco taking nearly 45min, and they are invariably crowded and not very pleasant. Especially in the evenings from 21.00 when they go down in frequency to hourly or half-hourly and take day trippers back to the mainland, they can be and Tokyo subway-like crowded and downright unpleasant. However.. nothung beats a very early morning trip along the Canale Grande before 7am, when it is pleasantly empty.
I also wanted to do a little sunset trip on the Canale Grande. It proved more difficult – the boats are still crowded, and only by getting on at the first stop could I get a nice outside seat. Theoretically you could go up and down the Canale Grnade in a single trip, which involved a detour to the Lido, then briefly alighting before boarding the same vessel again to secure a good seat.
Once I got the lay of the land a bit, I travelled by No.2 Vaporetto, a smaller craft that makes the trip from the bus station to the Rialto Bridge in under 15minutes and is used by locals and commuters. It is much faster and has almost no outdoor space but gets you along the Canale Grande much faster.
Another one I liked and took a lot is the No.4 Vaporetto. The 4.1 goes anticlockwise and the 4.2 clockwise around the island and Murano, stopping at most Giudecca stops, too, sparing the crowded Canale Grande. They operate much smaller boats od the Serie 90, built until 2000, and there is usually plenty of space , including some nice outside space. This is why I think accommodation near the bus station, in Cannareggio and some parts of the Arsenale and on the Giudecca is a great choice.
Other vessels in Venice after a long Lockdown
Last not least, the cruise ships are making their way into Venice again, cruising into the San Marco Canal and docking close to the centre. If there is one single thing I hate, it is these humongous mass tourism polluters entering the city. And just three weeks after the first cruise ship entered Venice after a long lockdown, there were to really large cruise ships moored up trhe weekend I visited.
These large ships use heavy oil so environmentally, they are plenty worse than a flight – moreover, most people fly to board these ships, too. They cause vibrations which in a very fragile city like Venice, causes the foundations of the city, which reach down to a rocky layer under the lagoon, to loosen and erode and accelerate the city sinking. In their short time off, the tourists may stomp along the major route before returning to their all you can eat buffets, spending hardly anything except perhaps an overpriced drink and souvenir en route. I really wonder who benefits from that kind of tourism.
When in Venice, taking a nice boat tour would have been on top of my list. I mean… not a solo gondola ride. There are plenty of elegant little boats and water taxis, next time, I fully intend to hire one for a little canal tour.
Quite sadly, there are very few organised boat tours other than the classics to Murano and Burano as well as the pricey gondola rides. I looked for some small tours using classic or electric boats and there is very little – I saw some beautiful boats but there were no prices which means it is probably very expensive.
Restaurants and Cafes
Oh, the stories I could tell about food in Venice! It does get a bad reputation. But then, if you fall for the 15 Euro three-course meal near the Rialto Bridge, it is kinda your own fault thinking you get a good deal.
Much, much better to stick to some very good delis and bakeries if on a strict budget or spend a little more and then eat fresh seafood and distinctly local foods in restaurants with great everything.
In short, my recommendations for a good quality cheapie is Majer Venezia -a bakery with a branch is almost every part of town. They do a great coffee, pastries and savoury snacks. A capucchino is 1,50 Euro or less.
Want a super local coffee? Then Caffe del Doge, a Venice-based roastery with a few cafes in town, is a good bet.
Last not least, the wine and snack bar is a big thing in Venice. These bars are called bacaro, with its most common snack the cicheti, small open sandwiches. Many bars in the main tourist areas have twigged onto this and offer spritz and a finite number of cicheti for about 5 Euro. It is much better to find a less touristed area, like Arsenale or Cannaregio. I went to Vino Vero for lunch and loved it – 13.50 for a generous glas of sparking wine, bottle of water and enough quality cicheti to fill up for the rest of the day. It is unter 5mnin walk from Madonna dell’Orto but delightfully off the tourist trail.
Even the super central and somewhat well-known Do Mori and Bar All’Arco are, just 2min from the Rialto Market, refreshingly untouristed and a great place for a snack and a good glass of wine.
If the budget is bigger: Hop across onto the Giudecca for a fine meal in a prime waterside position. Or go to a restaurant off the beaten track. I had a very long lunch with plenty wine and coffee and fresh seafood that did not cost me more than a mid-range place in Germany. Yup, sea food. I am a close-to-vegan vegetarian who occasionally lapses for good seafood and that was such an occasion. I have written in some more detail about great places to eat in Venice in a separate post.
Another great place for seasonal food is the Mercato di Rialto, mostly visited by locals although there are some tourist-friendly stalls. It is a bit of authentic Venice that I hope will be preserved for a long time.
Sights and Museums
Admission: I got so hooked up on visiting churches that I did not enter a single museum. Now that I finally manged to see Basilica di San Marco and a lot of notable churches and their art, I am planning to visit the Accademia on my next trip.
Once I saw how crowded Venice was despite being just open again after the lockdown, I quickly changed my plans to go to the Accademia, Museo Fortuny and the Doge’s Palace and set out to see some remarkable art in situ – mostly in churches. Unlike in Rome, where I saw many beautifully displayed Caravaggios, Venice is less good at showcasing its art in churches, despite so many gems. Add to that the restrictive opening hours of some churches and you really ought to do some planning.
I spent quite a nice half hour over pricey coffee and juice here to see if the Santa Maria dei Miracoli might open – alas it didn’t and I moved on to the next church.
San Sebastiano was one of the first churches I visited. Dubbed “the Veronese Church” it is painted by Paolo Veronese, one pf the eminent late Renaissance painters of Venice. This is one of the churches with better lighting, and as a Gesamtkunstwerk immensely impressive even though Iam not a huge fan of the somewhat fussy late Renaissance style.
Another church I was delighted to visit, San Francesco della Vigna in the Castello neighbourhood. Surrounded by rather drab buildings and an old gasometer, it is a very impressive joint venture of an earlier Jacopo Sansovino design with a facade by Andrea Palladio. It has the most peaceful cloisters, a wonderful atmosphere and some very eclectic art on display, with a Venezia Renaissance Greatest pot-pourri of Giovanni Bellini , Paolo Veronese and a very bright but haunting Antonio da Negroponte Madonna.
Therefore, I am unable to advise on visiting museums, how busy they are etc. All I know is that despite these pandemic times, San Marco gets incredibly busy. I went to morning mass before opening time and we had the basilica to ourselves. So, if you are interested in attending mass, this might be the best way to see the basilica. As I came out at 8.30, there were queues forming and the sledgehammers that had been quiet during mass were on in full blast for some restoration works. If you prefer to look every nook and cranny, then by all means, getting a ticket, which is just 3.50 Euro, is a much better way to visit the basilica.
In summer, Venice gets very hot and humid. I got a good taste of this on the weekend in June I visited.
Sometimes, there is almost no shade on the embankment you walk on. In retrospect I wish I had brought a sun hat or umbrella. Also, take a water bottle. There will be plenty of public wells where you can refill. Even if you don’t come across one, even in the most touristy bits you can buy a cold bottle of water for about 1-1,50 Euro.
Street lighting is sparse, if present at all. Watch your step and consider taking a small torch.
Walking is the best way to get around. I am normally not one to use maps much, but in Venice I heavily relied on my navigation app to get me around. Just the one I use for driving – or an offline geocaching map, which you can download in advance.
Also, friendliness, a few words in Italian and being considerate go along way in Venice. Entering churches and museums appropriately dressed. Taking backbacks off on vaporetti. Asking for a free table instead of just sitting down.
The Small Print
I visited Venice in June 2021 having been vaccinated in February and having had plenty of virus exposure prior to that through work to put my vaccine to the “stress test”. This post reflects my personal experience of my shirt EU trip to Venice and is not to be taken for general advice.
It was very crowded so if you are concerned about COVID-19 infection, pay close attention to the case numbers which you can find on the Ministeria della Salute website. There are pros and cons of travelling right now and I chose Italy on the grounds of low case numbers, being close to home and also my trip was shorter than the average incubation period so had I picked the virus up, I would have been back home with access to testing and able to self isolate. This may well be my only trip this year, given the delta variant is taking over as we speak and infection rates shoot up in some European countries.
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