Walking home to our apartment while exploring Venice, we share a wave through the window with the owner of Baba, our local osteria. Leaving for a day of sightseeing, a cup of my favorite pistachio gelato awaits me despite the early hour. At the Bar Dugole, we relax after a day of sightseeing and order the regular: vodka for my husband and Amaretto for me. And we sit and watch everyone else in Venice try to figure out where the hell they are! But more on that later.
Welcome to UNTOURS, a wonderful well-kept secret that may change your concept of travel forever. The program offers tourists a unique opportunity to not be tourists. Serving close to two dozen European countries, Untours inundates you with information, puts you up in unusual accommodations, provides whatever transportation is necessary to get around and voila! You are a local. (Yes, that works as well in Italian as it does in French…)
We were learning about our neighborhood but on our terms. Rise early or sleep in. Sightsee or stroll around town. Cook in or eat out. And whatever the choice, we returned to our apartment, a much roomier and warmer ambiance than any hotel would provide. The orientation told us where to get the best produce, meat, fish, pastries and, of course, wine and gelato, the afore-mentioned shop which just coincidentally was directly next door to our apartment.
Our favorite local discovery while exploring Venice? The Filler-Up Wine Shop. Bring in any empty bottle and fill it with the wine of your choice for $2.50-$4.00 a bottle – less than you would pay for a glass at a local trattoria. What a terrific way to recycle empty water bottles!
We stayed at a small but cozy 2-story apartment with a full kitchen, lovely balcony, and wood-beam ceilings. First it just felt homey – then it was home. The fact that it was built in the 1700s was just a bonus. The building across the alley was so close I could reach across the balcony guard rail and tap on their window.
But then everything in Venice is in tight quarters. Venice is an old city – it looks old – sometimes very old. The water-logged foundations date back to the 11th century; the newer building facades are as recent as the 15th. So many buildings stripped of paint and plaster on both sides of a small alleyway, I expected them to crumble before my eyes until I reminded myself they have looked pretty much the same for over 500 years.
Going from the crowded parking lot area with throngs of cars, buses, and vans — the last vestiges of the auto industry I was to see for a week — I was transformed into another world, exploring Venice filled instead with canals, gondolas, water buses, cobbled streets, alleyways, bridges and cafes. Picture everything that makes any city run – buses, taxis, fire trucks, police cars, ambulances, postal services, FedEx deliveries, garbage pick-ups – but they’re all boats! And the city still runs.
Expect to get lost while exploring Venice. And thank goodness, because that is the best way to explore the city and find those gems that are not part of the major tourist itineraries.
Among those gems is Pinocchio Island, home to a local Geppetto whose real name is Roberto Comin, maker of magical marionettes. These brilliant little string creatures represented all aspects of Venetian historical and theatrical culture, lovingly produced by Comin for 25 years in a workshop over 350 years old. Requests now come in for characters from Shakespeare to Cleopatra and yes, a Johnny Depp look-alike that was given to the actor for his birthday. The costumes rival the intricacy and elegance of any Medici gown or regal accessory. Want a marionette dopple-ganger of yourself? It’s doable, but it’ll cost you about $600.
Another unusual find, especially surprising in such a Catholic city, home to well over 100 churches, is a small square that is actually referred to as Ghetto Campo de Nova where there are five synagogues, several kosher restaurants and residents sporting traditional Jewish skull caps known as yarmulkes. The kosher menus include antipasto and spaghetti, as well as bagels and potato latkes. Talk about an ecumenical meal! With a little imagination and a lot of Manischewitz wine, you could be in Israel!
Getting lost is a given – did I mention that? People spend as much time looking up at the signs designating different sections, squares and churches of the city as they do looking down at maps, phones and GPS’s. My favorite response from a young street vendor: “Go right, over the next bridge, then ask someone else.” And then when you don’t think things can get any worse, you see the sign you’ve been searching for and it points in both directions. I thought about giving up and going home, but I had no clue how to get there
We wandered everywhere, sitting at cafes to eat or drink wine, always aware of how little English we heard – again reinforcing the idea of living like a local. And the more we wandered, the more enjoyable were the discoveries: a delightful mask store, street musicians in jeans playing Vivaldi, an out-of-the-way Leonardo DaVinci Museum.
Not every stop in Venice is off-the-beaten-path. There’s the de rigueur visit to Piazza San Marco, a World Heritage site and symbol of Venice. Like the Spanish Steps in Rome and the Uffizi in Florence, it’s the symbol of the city. So if you want to avoid tourists, don’t go there, especially not on a weekend. But part of the reason they’re there used to be the pigeons. My unfiltered 19-year-old memory recalled the square covered with them. Decades later, my first thought was, “Where are all the pigeons?” Then I saw them. “Oh yes, over there by that guy with all the bird food.” But, after years of discouraging the pigeon population, the birds are not what they once were.
As we took the vaporetto to the island of Murano, we left the canals behind and felt the freedom of open waters as we entered the lagoon surrounding the city. Murano, world famous for its glass figurines, jewelry and home décor since the 11th Century, is a must-see destination if you want to be absolutely sure you’re buying Murano glass and not a knock-off. A visit to the factory offers insight into how the glass is made, the colors created, the intricacies of the designs and the skills of the master glass blowers. Makes you better appreciate the high prices you then encounter in the gift shops…sort of….
I was amazed at the intricate convoluted shapes in colors so vibrant and translucent that the light passing through intensifies the whole experience. I wanted to decorate my whole house with cups, vases, dishes and elaborately designed decorative pieces, but I settled for a pair of earrings.
As we exited another vaporetto at Lido, the beachfront community, we were transported to another era, that of a modern beach town hawking flip flops, beach toys and sunglasses. And then I saw a bus! One with actual wheels. Dorothy, you’re not in Venice anymore!
A wide sand beach with crowded umbrellas and chaise lounges could be seen on one side, and isolated blankets on the other. Large elegant hotels front the tree-laden boulevards with greenery everywhere, a color sorely lacking in the squares and alleyways of Venice. It was a fun diversion, but I was so happy to get back home, pick up some Branzini from the fish market in Santa Margherita Square, plus a water bottle full of wine from the Filler-Up shop, and dine out on our balcony.
Perhaps that’s the essence of the Untour experience. There’s something more special about discovering such treasures on your own rather than being herded there as part of a group, according to a pre-determined time schedule that dictates how long you can spend looking before it hurries you through because the bus — in this case, one on water — is leaving to go to the next stop.
It was so much nicer just to pick up some fresh fish, wave to shopkeepers we had befriended, and return home to sit on our porch, sip yet another glass of wine and savor our most recent exploits. And feel reassured that no one has ever been irretrievably lost while exploring Venice, but if so – how lucky for them. They’re still there!
For more information, visit www.untours.com.
Photos by Victor Block except title photograph