VENICE IN WINTER- A PRACTICAL ALTERNATIVE

There’s no question that Venice is one of the most stunning, wonderful and unique cities anywhere on the planet. The fantastic brew of imposing Palladian palaces lining canals sprinkled with gondolas that flirt with the crowds of tourists that throng the streets, winding alleys and vast, imposing squares of La Serenissima, is only part of the charm of this amazing sea city.

Venice is irresistible gelato, café concerto orchestras swinging lushly through Strauss waltzes in the sweltering heat of summertime Piazza San Marco, and swarms of fattened pigeons looming against a flaring purple twilight, as dusk steals across the waters of ancient Guidecca. A million sights, sounds and sensations, all wrapped up in impossibly beautiful- and often painfully overcrowded- surroundings.

And, of course, most people are inevitably drawn to this magnificent melting pot in the long, warm summer months. Add into the mix the regular arrival of several cruise ships, disgorging literally thousands of day visitors into the scheme of things, and you begin to understand why exploring Venice in the summer can sometimes be as much of a trial as a treat.

There is one, potential way to circumvent all this; have you ever thought of visiting Venice in the winter?

For sure, the city will be a lot colder, and at times perhaps even freezing. But consider the vast, serene stance of this amazing sea city, dusted with a fresh blanket of powder white snow, and you begin to comprehend the possibility of something truly magical.

Imagine the vast, magnificent expanse of Piazza San Marco, bathed in the glow of lights shimmering on early evening snow, as bells toll over the great square. Perhaps see a stately, mysterious fog swirling like so many agitated wraiths around the Campanile, the famous bell tower, or the ice encrusted prows of rows of petrified gondolas as they sit stiffly at attention, crying out for the warm sun to thaw them out.

February is also the month of Carnevale (literal translation; goodbye to meat) when the entire city takes on a kind of quasi ethereal feel, and the shades of Casanova and Machiavelli lurk among the winding alleys and cafes thronged by hordes of masked revellers. For those who associate the carnival season with warmer, sunnier climes, the chic, chilly Venetian equivalent would prove to be a truly intriguing contrast, indeed.

So yes, Venice will be cold during winter, and often foggy, too. But the great city out of season is not one bit less magnificent. And, in many ways, she can be even more alluring.

Crowds will be much thinner, so getting ‘up close and personal’ to your must see list of Venetian masterpieces will be a whole lot easier, and infinitely more rewarding. Shorn of her heaving, summer time hugger mugger, Venice is an amazing, medieval theme park, shrouded in bridal white, that still fills your sights and senses with wonders on an epic, ageless scale.

Needless to say, you can always do some of the famous, touristy things right through the winter. You can still enjoy a Bellini in Harry’s Bar, where the legendary cocktail was invented, or take a motor boat across the lagoon to the famous glass making island of Murano. Again, odds are that you can do it in considerably more peace and quiet- a side of Venice that many people simply never get to see, feel, or breathe. And yet, for at least four months each year, this is the reality of life in the city.

Winter reveals the city’s treasures in a different, colder, and yet kinder frame of light. When watery sunshine spills out across the misty surface of the lagoon, the play of light on water can be nothing short of bewitching.

Gradually, yet inevitably, the sun begins to climb higher in the sky. Cafes begin to open out cautiously on the waterfront; the sagging, sodden covers come off gondolas long shrouded against the long winter months. Slowly but surely, La Serenissima blinks herself awake from her mellow winter slumber, and steels herself for the returning throngs that the lighter days and nights will soon bring.

Venice is, and always has been, a city for all seasons. And, like any city, there are pros and cons for visiting at any time of year. The purpose of this blog is to hopefully make you aware that winter, too, offers some wonderful possibilities in this most beguiling of cities. Enjoy!

Venice is most definitely worth considering as a year round destination

Venice is most definitely worth considering as a year round destination

COSTA FAVOLOSA- A JUNE JAUNT OUT OF VENICE

ImageCosta is a company in a quandary. After the disastrous loss of the Costa Concordia and a nose dive in profits, the line still  seems to be in a state of flux. Not all of the ripples in the whirlpool have settled yet, and that is putting it mildly.

In the wake of this awful event, I was curious to see the company in action, and to record my impressions. Costa seemed less keen. They were not prepared to entertain the idea of a press trip. I booked anyway, and flew out to Venice to board the 114,000 ton Costa Favolosa, introduced as recently as July 2011.

The Favolosa is the almost identical twin sister of the late Concordia, so no better place to gain a feel for how things are now. As big ships go, she is quite beautiful, with the single, black and yellow stack really making her quite distinctive. But appearances are one thing, and delivery is another.

This brings me neatly to the lifeboat drill, which took place prior to leaving Venice. Costa have come up with the good idea of leaving a red, plastic card in your cabin- not unlike your cruise swipe card- that has to be handed in at the start of the drill. These are checked off, and properly. Those not attending were made to come to a make up drill next day. So far, so good.

All passengers are assembled, with life jackets, at their outside muster stations. All 3,500 of them. And this is where Costa, like many other cruise lines, run up against a brick wall. Or, more accurately, a wall of sound.

ImageOn these multi- lingual ships, every instruction had to be repeated in each of seven languages. Sadly, the passengers around me babbled and clowned about to such an extent that I was unable to hear any of them, in any lingo. They were completely and utterly blase and uninterested in any aspect of the drill.

I was stunned. This was not just any ship, but the TWIN SISTER of the Concordia. It had all only happened only five months ago. Yet here they were, flippant and unfazed. Amazing.

Of course, all of this will be familiar to most passengers embarking on mega ships anywhere in the world. Quite what can be done about such attitudes is difficult to tell. Far as I could see, Costa made the best job of it that they possibly could.

ImageThen, a little bit of karma. As the Favolosa got under way and loomed out of Guidecca, the ship tilted briefly as thousands of passengers thronged to rubber neck at Piazza San Marco. There seemed to be one sharp, nervous intake of breath for a moment. It served to concentrate minds quite wonderfully, if only for a few seconds. Then we were passing the Doge’s Palace, and moving towards the open sea.

What followed can aptly be described as ‘twenty thousand sales pitches above the sea’. Costa filled the Favolosa by offering rock bottom prices, and then hanging price tags on everything on board. The low point had to be a ‘display’ of massages, complete with models draped across massage tables ,held in the atrium lobby during cocktail hour. The usual, excellent cocktail musicians were shooed aside for this grub-a-thon, while the cruise director shrieked for ‘applausa!’ from the stunned throng standing around.

I don’t know what this did for spa sales, but I do know that it emptied the very full bar quicker than a Justin Bieber tribute act would have done. I have never seen anything so puerile in more than thirty years at sea.

ImageCruise wise, we had wonderful weather, and the ship was always big enough that you could find somewhere quiet. Food was average to good at best, with poor quality cuts of meat and- incredibly for an Italian ship- lack lustre fruit.

Service was all over the place, from some exemplary South American bar and waiting staff, to plain sloppy. Drinks would arrive not properly dressed, and sometimes without place mats. When these did arrive, they were small, thin and useless- an obvious, and totally self defeating, cost cut.

On the other hand, there was more than enough entertainment to keep everybody diverted and amused; a key consideration on a week long trip.

ImagePhysically, the Costa Favolosa is fantastic; a floating theme park full of enough whimsical charm to leave you wide eyed with wonder. And that’s all well and fine. But when you are falling down on product delivery in other crucial key areas, it is only a matter of time before some tipping point is reached- pun wholly unintentional- and you decide that the glitter can no longer outshine the grime.

ImageSo yes, on the whole I enjoyed my week. But if Costa is to regain it’s pre-eminence as a product, it needs to look long and hard at just what is a practical economy, and what will cost them far more than it ultimately saves. Time alone will tell.

This article is reposted in view of the charges outlined against Francesco Schettino and his officers in relation to the tragic loss of the Costa Concordia.