The footbridge from Piazzale Roma into the magical world of Venice.

After waking to an alarm at 3am in Los Angeles, my wife and I headed off to Venice, Italy. About 26 hours later, we were standing in the afternoon sun of the Piazzale Roma, the end of the line for the airport bus and all other wheel-based transport headed to the ancient city of canals. The weather was warm and slightly humid, and the crowds were made up of mostly happy people on holiday. We, too, were happy to be there, but not too sure where to go next.

Before we'd even set foot on the first island, we found a place to stay.

We had no hotel reservations, and it was peak season. We crossed the first footbridge from the car park into the past, and found ourselves standing next to the Papadopoli Hotel, an M-Gallery property. On entering the lobby, we immediately sensed the serenity so essential for easing ourselves into our vacation cocoon. As luck would have it, there was a room available: small, charming, quiet, and apparently waiting just for us!

We dropped our bags and headed out again – tired, but too wired to collapse just yet. At a sidewalk café, we fortified ourselves with a little pasta and wine. Then, we headed back to the Piazzale Roma to board public transportation – a city bus-boat – for a tour around town.

The "vaporetti" are a great way to cruise the Grand Canal.

For about an hour, we floated along the canals, soaking in the architecture, the sounds, and the feel of it all. Then, we collapsed, thinking that, although it was still early in Venice, we might just be able to sleep through the night, which seemed like the perfect idea… until 11pm, when we were both awake and ready to walk some more.

Venice at night

The sidewalks of Venice at night were empty, but inviting.

Our concierge suggested that only one part of town would still be open at that hour: Campo Santa Marguerita. That’s where the locals go, he said, giving us a map and directions.

By now, it was raining, and the city seemed deserted. Beautiful, quiet, glistening… but empty. As we followed the route to the square, we began noticing other people walking towards us.

First, a couple under an umbrella. Then, a woman walking a dog. A few more young people, traveling together in animated conversation. And then, we heard it. The sound of a party – voices amplified by the courtyard and sent through the alleys to beckon us. We followed until we turned a corner and saw it: a Venetian Brigadoon. Hundreds of people sitting in outdoor cafes, milling about in the square, gathering in front of a cigarette vending machine or a gelato vendor.

Signs of nightlife in an otherwise quiet city.

Young, energetic, and peacefully enjoying themselves – these appeared to be the locals who make Venice run all day long for the tourists, then kick back on a Saturday night for a few hours to blow off some steam.

This was definitely the place to be: whether we grabbed a slice of pizza to go or sat down for a late meal of lasagna (because the kitchen is closed and that’s what the workers have made for themselves)! At this point, the food was incidental, and the atmosphere was king.

Day Two: Breakfast in a Treehouse

Did I say the food was incidental? That was before I saw the breakfast buffet at the Papadopoli!

The Winter Garden felt like a dining room inside a treehouse.

The hotel restaurant, called the Winter Garden, was designed by Pietro Porcinai, a famous Italian architect. The walls appear to be tree trunks, covered with bark. Green vines cover the ceiling, and nearly 40 different tropical plants give the room the air of a treehouse.

Breakfast at the Hotel Papadopoli, presented as a series of food sculptures.

The sumptuous feast presented for our delight was both plentiful and delicious. Each offering – from fruit, to cheese, to ham, to pastries – was displayed artistically, appearing as if it had just come from a food museum.

A few moments after we helped ourselves to breakfast, a member of the wait-staff moved swiftly to repair the damage we had done to the display. Seconds later, the towers of food looked, once again, as if they had never been touched.

After breakfast, we strolled through the streets and alleys of Venice, officially looking for the source of the church bells we heard – more accurately, soaking in the history and photographing present-day life.

Venice — Land of the Lost

Navigating on land through Venice is not easy, and maps are not always complete (or accurate). That makes “getting lost” part of the experience. In fact, when done correctly, getting lost in Venice can be one of the best parts of the experience.

 

gondoliers

While all the tourists were converging on San Marcos Square, we found our way to the Basilica Frari, where the local residents were attending mass. During the service, a guard is posted outside to maintain the sanctity of the ceremony. Between the services, however, we were allowed to enter the church and look around. In contrast to the stark nature of the exterior of the building, the interior housed beautifully intricate statues and paintings… and an organist playing.

Our stay at the Papadopoli set the tone for a wonderful Venice vacation.

We sat for a half-hour, listening to the beautiful sounds of that organ, then headed off for more strolling. By the end of the day, we were ready to begin the fantastic adventure that had brought us here in the first place: A luxury barge cruise around Venice, up the Po Valley, and into the city of Mantua. Our home would be European Waterways’ La Bella Vita, a 20-passenger ship with a gourmet chef and an expert tour guide. Feast and festivities awaited, but it was the Papadopoli Hotel that let us catch our breath and acclimate to the wonderful city of Venice.

Papadopoli Hotel
Santa Croce 245
Giardini Papadopoli
30135 – VENEZIA
ITALY

For more information about the barge tour, go to: European Waterways, La Bella Vita

all photos by Lisa TE Sonne