Wow, waking up at the Domus Orsoni felt like coming to in the midst of an amazing dream. The little bit of sunlight filtering through the curtains shined brilliantly on the tiled mirrors and night stands. Just steps away from our room, we enjoyed a breakfast feast prepared by the B&B's hostess, Valentina. We enjoyed cereals (warm and cold), croissants, cheeses, jellies, coffee and milk in the sunlit, public dining.
Since our tour didn't start until 2pm, we had time to meander on-foot around the city. We shopped more vendor stands, casually popped in and out of little shops and stopped to pose for photos*. Before finding a lunch spot, we spent a few hours exploring the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. The museum (the heiress and avid art collector's former home) sits on the Grand Canal and houses many important works of art from the first half of the 20th century. Despite having a preference for earlier art, we both very much enjoyed touring the expansive collection. In the mix of installations, sculptures, paintings and drawings we saw familiar artists' names such as Pollack, Dali, Picasso, Duchamp and Mondiran. We rented one audio headset to share, which definitely helped our art-appreciation experience. (12 euros/each for the tour - general information on hours and tickets here.)
We even had time to walk around and carefully ponder which walk-up pizza joint we wanted to buy lunch from. We settled on a spot with medium-thick crust, good prices and stringy-looking cheese — purchasing one slice each of sausage, classic
Let me start the tour recap by saying while our Through Eternity tours in Rome were really great, I was flabbergasted by how awesome our guide in Venice was. Our guide was Martino Rizzi, a born Venetian and holder of a master's degree in Venetian history. He was frank, he was knowledgeable, he was interesting. Martino mixed the kind of Venetian history you'd find in a textbook with stories only a local could know. I can't recommend our tour guide enough.
We met Martino at the Royal Gardens near St. Mark's Square (or the Piazza San Marco), a large, open area full of people and with a great view of the lagoon. In fact, we saw platforms stacked around the perimeter of the square; these rafters are kept on hand so when the city floods, walkways can be set up. We really lucked out on the tour, as only there was only one other couple who booked the tour (Martino told us the tours are usually booked solid with 10ish people). We quickly got comfortable with the other two people, a retired couple from the States with a daughter living in Atlanta, and pretty soon felt like we were on an über private tour.
Basilica San Marco (photo from Wikipedia Commons on this page)
We started at the garden's gate with a brief history of the city (that it was built upon a marsh by refugees in very early AD... how it was invaded by the Huns, the Lombards and the Byzantines...). St. Mark Square's most famous landmark is St. Mark's Basilica, which was not surprisingly, our first stop on the tour. As Martino told us about how the masculine horses and mismatched marble columns and were taken from a variety of other, existing basilicas, we skipped past the lines into the stunning structure's interior.
Inside of St. Mark's (photo from Wikipedia Commons on this page)
Wow. The inside of the basilica was unlike anything I'd seen before. It glimmered and gleamed with so much gold you would have thought Midas himself touched every square inch. The detail and beauty were so intense that you barely noticed the cracked mosaic floors, weathered from hundreds of years of sinking and flood damage. To think that none of this (beyond the mandatory restorations) was newer than the 1400's was beyond both Dan and me. We walked quietly to the front of the church while continuing to admire the carefully-placed mosaics in the ceilings and domes. (Here's a great link that diagrams the parts of the cathedral and their importance.)
Martino took us to parts of the basilica we would have never guessed to explore. He asked us to find 2 euros in our pockets and lead us through a gate where we each paid a guard. And there it was... the great Pala d’Oro altar. Made from ancient enamels and full of precious and semi-precious stones (Wikipedia says "as many as 1,972), the two-sided Pala d'Oro was breathtaking. Here's what Wikipedia says about the piece and it's origin: "The altarpiece consists of two parts. The lower part, with enamels illustrating the story of Saint Mark, the doge's portrait, and the Pantocrator group, originated as an antependium commissioned by the doge Ordelaffo Falieri from the court craftsmen of Constantinople in 1102. The image of Archangel Michael and the whole upper third are supposed to have been looted by the Crusaders in Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade of 1204." Go to google images and search "Pala d'Oro" to see others' (unauthorized/restricted) photos. STUNNING.
We then made our way to the other corner of the building and paid 2 more euros and climbed a tall set of stairs to the basilica's museum. There we saw up-close-and-personal examples of the tile restoration (amazing how they come in from the back to do repairs) and the actual, restored horses taken from Constantinople (the ones we saw out front were actually replicas). Exploring St. Mark was my favorite part of Venice (and likely my favorite church during our trip).
Next stop: the docks to hitch a ride on a water taxi (less gondola, more wooden-clad and motorized vessel). Our relaxing and informative ride lasted about an hour and a half. We did the Grand Canal and back again, oggling over 100-plus amazing homes — some private residences of the wealthy, some event spaces and some vacant. Martino had plenty of interesting things to say, but I'll admit I was distracted by viewing properties and the feeling of the breeze coming off the water. What a ride.
Our next stop proved Martino knew our group well. After the exhausting boat ride, we spent about half an hour sipping on red wines and tasting delicious antipastis (think roasted eggplant wrapped around fresh ricotta and tasty cured meats) at a little wine bar. Yum. Martino was doing such a great job with the tour that our group decided we wanted to buy his portion of the afternoon snack.
On to the walking tour. We navigated down streets and alleyways narrow and wide, hearing about the different neighborhoods of the city and how they came about. The best moment of the walking tour came when our guide pointed out a bomb shell lodged in a large home's walls. He was explaining the WWI plaque above the shell when a curious, old Italian man popped his head out of a second-story window, curious about the happenings going on below him. Martino then asked him, in Italian, if he knew anything about the bomb shell. After a series of exchanges, Martino told us that "the story goes" that a young Venetian woman dumped a young Austrian soldier before the war began — so in an attempt to retaliate, he flew over Venice with the intention of bombing her home. The conversation was so authentic, perfect and interesting that it almost seemed scripted.
As we parted ways at the Rialto Bridge and tipped our awesome guide, our fellow tour counterparts Joanne and Leon gave me their daughter Amy's phone number. They asked me to give her a call and let her know that her parents travels through Turkey, Spain, Italy, etc. were going well — and that they would call upon their return in a week.
We booked the "Private Venice in a Day" tour for 61 euros/person through AVVENTURE BELLISSIME but got his card so we or others could contact him directly in the future:
+39 041 5265307 (home)
+39 328 9485671
Our last Italian dinner in my next post...
*If this is your first time reading this, please note that I sacrificed our camera to Air India and its 700-plus photos on the flight home... for it never to be seen or heard from again...