Today is our first full day here in Venice and we wake to the sound of church bells mixed with the low rumble of boats passing beneath our window.
Breakfast and coffee consumed in the little pink and green panelled dining room worthy of a Wes Anderson film, we venture back to the Piazza San Marco to further investigate what Venice’s famous square has to offer.
We head straight to the Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco, originally build around 830 AD, and dedicated to Saint Mark the Evangelist after merchants stole what was thought to be his body from Alexandria and brought it back to Venice. The cathedral is the most famous of Venice’s churches and a stunning example of Byzantine architecture – with an Italian twist.
From the outside the facade has five arched portals, each flagged by marble columns, and with mosaics depicting the life of Christ and the history of the relics of St Mark in each lunette – the half-moon space above each arch. Atop of these, a second set of arched portals set slightly further back and surrounded by a balcony house further mosaics, and the famous horses of Saint Mark sit central, galloping towards the square itself. The roofline of the church is peppered with statues, the centrepiece a haloed Saint Mark flanked by six angels above a large golden winged lion – the symbol of the Evangelist, and later additionally adopted as the symbol of Venice.
We wander inside and it’s instantly clear why this cathedral has earned the nickname of Chiesa d’Oro – The Church of Gold. Set out in the Greek Cross shape, a dome in each arm of the cross, as well as a central one, the interior is covered in tiny golden glass cubes which shimmer as you walk in. Mosaics of various biblical tales deck the ceilings and the marble floor has a mixture of patterns and animal scenes.
We creep with a quiet sense of awe and reverie through the golden palace, noting the intricate and detailed artwork and the impressive Pala d’Oro altarpiece.
My eye catches a sign saying ‘Treasures this way’ and a sucker for all that glimmers, we pay our 6 euros to get a glimpse inside the treasury. It’s full of relics set inside thick glass cabinets. Most are examples of Byzantine antiques that came to call this place home following the sacking of Constantinople (more on this later). Chalices, religious icons, and dishes made of gold, enamel and precious stones line the shelves and I can’t quite imagine the level of commitment and concentration that would have been required to painstakingly craft these riches by hand.
We exit the treasury and head up a set of stone steps that are practically vertical, arriving out of breath at the second register of the church, giving us a whole new glorious perspective of the golden temple. Here we see up close the tiny golden squares of mosaic embedded in the ceilings and walls no bigger than a fingernail, and it’s little wonder it took centuries to finish this impressive place of worship.
Up here there’s a museum display of sorts with more examples of columns and carvings brought back from the venetian-led Fourth Crusade in the 13th century. The crusaders set out from Venice to take back control of the city of Jerusalem and this resulted in three days of pillaging in Constantinople (now Istanbul), during which time many ancient treasures and works of art were looted or destroyed.
We follow the display round, emerging from behind pillars to find what it is i’m looking for. The four gigantic bronze horses of St Mark standing glorious and gleaming as we approach. Taken as part of the looted booty and initially on display on the external balcony, the horses were exchanged for the less impressive replicas now outside in the 1970’s to preserve the original statues. Deep scratches are gouged in their golden chests, a legacy of what I assume to be the capture of the artefacts, but was in fact done on purpose to stop the rebounding glare of the sun blinding onlookers.
We head out onto the balcony to visit the slightly duller imitations and take in the full beauty of the square from our new vantage point, the gothic style of the adjoining Dodge’s Palace – once the seat of Venetia government and now a museum – and the rippling surface of The Grand Canal beyond.
We make our way back down, avoiding the queues of people buying religious artefacts from the gift store, and decide rather than going into the Dodge’s Palace to instead take a ferry over to the Dorsoduro neighbourhood to visit the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute.
It’s still warm as we chug along and I hang over the side of the low boat to catch my reflection in the water. We hop off only to find that both the Basilica and Peggy Guggenheim Collection of art we wanted to visit are closed today. A dampener put on our culture-quest, we stop for espresso before deciding to explore the little streets over this side of Venice anyhow, as it’s actually a whole lot quieter and way less commercial away from the tourist hot-spots.
We amble along, noting the students from the Università Ca’ Foscari on their lunch breaks, and stroll by the Galleria dell’Accademia, where paintings by the Venetian Masters hang. We see the Squero di San Trovaso, one of only three remaining boatyards that still make gondolas, and pass a variety of osterias full of people indulging in a light bite and a glass of wine. Feeling peckish ourselves we pop into one bustling with life where glass cabinets displaying a plethora of delicacies front a long wooden bar. Bottles line the walls from floor to ceiling, and once you have acquired your wares you have to pitch up against a wine rack to find a place to balance your plate.
We plump for slices of baguette with cheeses, pesto, baccalà, and egg topped with wildflowers, all washed down with a glass of vino bianco. We sip our drinks and enjoy sharing our little cicchetti whilst more locals pile in around us doing the same.
Nibbles consumed, we decide to walk the long way back over the bridges, cutting through St Mark’s into San Polo. We check out a local vintage shop where the wares are Burberry coats, Levi jeans and Versace boots, before being drawn like a moth to a flame back to our little bar from yesterday. Relieved to find it is indeed ‘spritz o’clock’ I indulge in another of my new favourites before we pop back to the hotel for a quick rest ahead of this evening’s dinner.
Spearheading our own crusade – our objective the perfect pizza – and after much strategising, we head back to the San Croce neighbourhood which seems to play host to the better eateries.
After walking up and down past where our preferred pick is supposed to be, we realise it is in fact closed. Dismayed, we pop into a tiny bar at the foot of a nearby bridge, so inconspicuous we hardly noticed it on first passing, to regroup.
Pleasantly surprised, we have in fact stumbled into a friendly little place with only a few sharing tables, and people stood in what space they can find talking animatedly in Italian. A chalkboard proudly proclaims there’s no tapas and no spritz to be found here, just wine and chicchetti (‘Stay natural, stay venetian!’), and our attentive host sure knows his wines. Asking what we usually enjoy he carefully details the reds, whites and rosés he has selected for today’s offering. I explain I want red but he pours me a false-red that’s technically a rosé. I’m not convinced – until I sample it – impressed that its light and fruity flavour is exactly what I was after.
We plot our next move and finish our delicate wines before continuing on our quest for the ultimate pizza.
The restaurant looks plenty welcoming and the aromas wafting from the kitchen as we walk in are mouth-watering. Overcome with a real hankering for all of the Italian carbs, I plump for pasta to start, and it arrives all thin and light as air, smothered in fresh tomatoes, basil and a sprinkling of cheese. It’s delicious and I easily finish it before my pizza is served. I’ve gone for a classic quattro staggione, but also added olives and it’s divine. The crispy bread base smothered in tomato and hot stringy cheese is enhanced by the additions of salty ham, mushrooms, onions and artichoke. I devour it all, with not a bite left, even finding room in my full belly for dessert and limoncello. We are having a ball and soon realise we are the last ones in the restaurant and the staff have all quietly cleaned up around us.
We amble home, crusade completed; our coveted booty a couple of scrumptious pizzas, and I can’t help but wonder if old St Mark wouldn’t quite fancy a slice or two of Venice’s finest served up on one of his many gilded plates.
Now that’s what I’d call real treasure, don’t you think?