Within about five minutes of leaving the train station I knew that we were lost. It should have been simple – head directly south and we’ll find the restaurant we’re looking for. Racing through the looming darkness past crowds of dawdling tourists onto yet another dank canal, another crumbling church or a suspiciously familiar dead-end piazza, we realized that this task was beyond the capacity of even Google maps. It would have been simple if this wasn’t Venice.
I shouldn’t complain. This was a bonus trip, a gondolier’s gift, an Adriatic addition. We originally hadn’t planned to visit at all. Travelling north from Tuscany, we had to change trains to catch the sleeper to Vienna. This could easily have been on an anonymous concrete platform in an industrial estate on the edge of an obscure Italian town, with a vandal-proof vending machine selling panini and acrid espressos. But fortunately for us, a four hour changeover at the Venice Saint Lucia station created deliciously irresistible opportunity – dash through the city, enjoy a plateful of Venetian seafood, some local wine, and be tucked up in bed in our cabin by ten o’clock, to wake up in the Austrian capital to coffee mélange and pastries. What’s not to like? Apart from navigation.
After half an hour of self-denial and gentle bickering we admitted defeat and judiciously abandoned hopes of finding the restaurant that we vaguely remember eating at years ago near the Campo Santa Margherita in Dorsoduro, the studenty sestieri in the southwest of the city. Instead, we joined the rest of the throng and followed the yellow signs painted on every street corner indicating the way to the Rialto Bridge and the Piazza San Marco. When we reached the former, the hectic lines of stalls selling tacky Venetian masks, blown glass trinkets and plastic toys (and the fleeceable tourists buying them) along this once dignified 16th century architectural masterpiece was enough to repel us from the main tourist thoroughfare once again. This time we sat down at the first decent-looking restaurant we came across. Like many places in Venice, I couldn’t tell you the exact location, but it was in a quiet backstreet a few minutes walk from the Rio San Giovanni Crisostomo. A starter of pears, endives, anchovies and parmesan followed by monkfish with sautéed potatoes for the main course – delicious – so much for the old cliché about dreadful Venetian dining.
So of all the textbook things to do in Venice, I think the only one we managed to tick off was getting lost. Still, I’ve had worse waits for connecting trains.