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Exploring Venice:
Lost and Found. And Special Finds. Repeat.

Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photographs by Victor Block

alking home to our apartment in 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.

gelato at the Osteria da Baba

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? 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!

emptry water bottles being filled with wine at the Filler-Up Wine Shop

narrow alleyway in Venice

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 1700's 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 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.

a canal in Venice

Expect to get lost. 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.

marionette at Pinocchio Island

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 the discoveries: a delightful mask store, street musicians in jeans playing Vivaldi, an out-of-the-way Leonardo DaVinci Museum.

street musicians

feeding pigeons at the Piazza San Marco

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 are the pigeons. Now in my unfiltered 19-year-old memory, the square was 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."

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 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....

glass figurines at Murano

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!

vaporetto water bus at Lido

Wide sand beach with crowded umbrellas and chaise lounges 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 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 in Venice, but if so – how lucky for them. They're still there!

For more information, visit

Related Articles:
Gliding into the Venetian Sunset; Sipping Vino and Savoring Vistas in Tuscany; Venice: La Serenissima; Venice Splashed by Aqua Alta; Rome: Basics For Beginners

(Posted 1-3-2017)

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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!


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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in about the Garifuna.


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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.


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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy

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