The Doge's Palace provides the inspiration behind an enthralling evening in Venice.
Venice is a supremely romantic city. It's only fitting that an evening here is spent on a date night, and during our visit we certainly needed one! As we rolled into town on the afternoon train, ending a long voyage from Ljubljana that included a mountain trolley and walking over the border to Italy, we were ready for a change of pace.
In Venice, both romance and logistics are all over the map and, unsurprisingly, we had a few ups and downs. We did some things right (like splurging on Wi-Fi so we'd never get lost) and we did some things wrong (I'm looking at you, bed bug infested guest house), and then there were some mixed moments (like choosing a vaporetto over a gondola) but our best decision of all was to spend our date night not with each other, but instead with the Doge.
Exactly who is the Doge? Why, only the most important person in all of Venice -or, at least he was several hundred years ago. Dozens of Doges have left an indelible mark on the city since 728 A.D. and it seemed only fitting that their collective, compelling spirit accompany us for an intimate evening in the city.
Every date begins with a long, romantic stroll.
No date with the Doge is complete without a stroll through the Doge's own backyard.... otherwise known to the rest of us as St Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco). Napoleon, roaring into town in the late 1700s, was supposedly the first to describe St Mark's Square as "The Drawing Room of Europe". Regardless of who first coined the phrase, it remains apt today and the piazza is constantly, continuously packed with locals and visitors alike.
Except, of course, when it rains. I suppose rain can be atmospheric on date night, right? Pigeons and people scattered for cover among the alcoves and cafes, while enterprising umbrella sellers sprang up seemingly from nowhere, eagerly supplementing their usual wares with cheap ponchos and colorful rain protection.
And while the cobblestones were extra slippery and the colors far less bright, we discovered that this was THE time to visit the Square. It was like thousands of people parted ways to let us through. Bring on the rain!
Coffee for two?
If you do find yourself seeking cover (or simply in the mood for a little relaxation), you might be tempted to join your fellow visitors in the cafes. And those which line St Mark's Square are legendary for their longevity, their architecture - and their prices. Travel guides (and blogs too!) are filled with horror stories on how two cups of coffee can cost around 50 Euros.
Um, that's a price too steep for the Doge himself! Is Venice really that grandiose?
First, a primer on the European cafe scene. Prices go up the closer you are to popular tourist attractions. And rates for cappuccino and croissants will feel extra steep for North American visitors, as taxes and tips (service) are rolled into their price.
In Europe, "service" refers to the civilized practice of sitting at a sidewalk table, luxuriating in the world's best people watching, and having your espresso and biscotti (Served on real dishes! With actual fresh cream!) brought out to you, to be enjoyed at a leisurely, lovely pace. And on St. Mark's Square, the *service* can be astonishingly high as many cafes feature live orchestras for your enjoyment.
For some people, it's worth it, no matter the cost. This is VENICE. Heck, this is COFFEE! You might have just enjoyed the most elegant, memorable coffee of your life, at one of the world's oldest and more glamorous cafes.
Or maybe you just got scammed at a tourist trap. Either way, you CAN have cheap (ish) coffee at St Mark's - one even a Doge would approve of.
Cheap coffee at St Mark's Square is still a rich travel memory.
I'm not sure if any of the Doges in Venetian history appreciated a cheap date - they were pretty opulent fellows - but I sure do. A tip of the hat to Lonely Planet for this hot piece of local know-how (and excellent proof that a guidebook always pays for itself!) Caffe Lavena, an elegant and historic cafe on the Square near St Mark's Clocktower, offers espresso for 1 to 2 Euro for those who order it and drink it at the counter.
It's ALWAYS cheaper to order and drink your coffee at the counter but Caffe Lavena is truly a great deal. After all, it may be date night with the Doge, but sadly you're the one who's going to pay!
Doge, Duke, Wheeler and Dealer
People often refer to the Doge as the Duke of Venice, but that's not entirely accurate. The Doge was the city's most senior magistrate, the highest elected official in the land. The first Doge was elected in 728 and the last abdicated in 1797 when Napoleon conquered the city. But the elected Doges weren't always the embodiment of democracy. Some (ahem, most) lived like princes, with the money, might, and mistresses that usually accompany such a title.
It comes as no surprise that theDoge's Palace, on the corner of the Square, is a center of absolute splendor, from gold embossed ceilings to massive canvases by Titian. I'll say this for the Doge - he sure does know how to make an impression!
While I like to think of my time in Venice as a date night with the Doge, the truth is that I was really on a group date with Walks of Italy, along with a dozen or so other people doing an afternoon, after-hours tour of the Palace and its neighbour, St Mark's Basilica, with a smattering of info about the Square and Clocktower.
Our "Alone in St Mark's and Doge's Palace Tour" was absolutely the right call for me. Learning about Venice's history, politics, and social structures was an invaluable introduction to the city. Our cheerful, well informed guide kept us from getting lost and kept us grounded, explaining the origins of an exquisite piece of art one moment and letting us in on a little historic municipal gossip the next. And as our total visit to Venice was less than 24 hours, the timing of the tour worked perfectly with our tight schedule.
If date night with the Doge included strolling in the Square and indulging in coffee, than a romantic view was surely next on the list. The upper floors of the Doge's Palace didn't disappoint. From colorful red roofs and pink clad buildings to spectacular views of the deep blue waters of the lagoon, it was wonderful to linger for a few moments and breath in the city's lovely shabby-chic beauty. Who needs gold leaf and alabaster when you have all this?
A view to make you sigh.
Venice is a city of bridges, some 400 plus of them. And it's only fitting that the Doge could lay claim to one of the most famous of all, the Bridge of Sighs. No, that's NOT the Bridge of Sighs you see in the photo above. The gorgeous view you see is the cause of the sighs! When you're a Venetian prisoner during times of old and you cross the enclosed bridge that links your prison to the courtrooms within the Doge's Palace, this would be your final, fleeting glimpse of the city you love. The sighs were utterances of nostalgia and resignation while leaving the Palace after sentencing to be remanded in the Doge's prison.
Hey, I never said the Doge was a nice guy! Yes, there were prisons in the Palace, both in the flooded basements and the boiling hot rafters. Turns out not all of Venice is romantic. The Doge's Palace was a working political and civic center and it's easy to forget all the unpleasant, mundane, and routine tasks that took place there - including sentencing criminals - all in the name of keeping Venice a well run, orderly city. (On second thought, I can find some romance there. We all know how I feel about lists!)
Stepping back into the sunshine.
Our group was sighing with pleasure when we emerged from the Palace to fresh sunshine and a reduced crowd in the Square, diminished by the late hour and the earlier rains. We enjoyed beautiful weather and listened to the guide's presentation about the Clocktower and the life of St Mark while we were waiting for the Basilica to officially shut down. That's right - one of the most popular and important houses of worship in the world was closing for the day (the lights were even turned off and some chairs stacked!) but a side door was being opened just for our group.
A saintly end to the day.
While St Mark's Basilica may look like one of the world's most impressive buildings to you or me, to the Doge it was simply his household chapel, conveniently connected to the Palace. The Doges could afford to be a bit blase about things, but the rest of us can gawk with wonder at the phenomenal gold mosaics, crusade-raided statues, priceless Byzantine icons, and the supposed relics of Mark the Evangelist (that would be THE St Mark/San Marco), which were raided from Alexandria in 828.
While in St Mark's Basilica, you'll be tempted to look up at the magnificent golden domes and jewel encrusted alters but don't to so at the expense of watching your feet - both to admire the arresting tiles but also to watch where you're going. The floors of the basilica are dramatically uneven and, in the crypt, you can expect an inch or so of water on the floors during hard rains.
After over an hour of quiet, unhurried guidance through the Basilica, it was time to leave the spirit of the Doge and our guide behind as we entered St Mark's Square one final time. The piazza still hummed with activity and traces of angry storm clouds still danced in the sky but it was calmer, quieter, a different Venice that greeted us. Just as romantic but this time a little more our style and speed - no Doges needed!
If you enjoyed this article, you'll also like:
Getting Around Venice by Boat: Vaporetto versus Gondola
Roman Recipes: Culinary Advice from Nonna
The Lute, The Lovers, and The Lasagna: Discovering Rome For The First Time.
PS: Looking for food recommendations in Venice? My friends Justin and Lauren have a guide to vegan food in Venice (that all food lovers will enjoy). My friend Suedid a great piece about 'happy hour' in Venice and an epic quest to find an incredible hidden bar. Let me know if you try any of the restaurants on their lists!
We received our complimentary media passes for our tour. All research, writing, and reviews are our own.