20 Jul, 2009

Venice on £150

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

It is possible to enjoy the world’s hottest art ticket on a budget, you just have to be creative with where you stay, eat and drink

‘Can’t we even afford to take the bus?” I screamed at my boyfriend as we plodded along in the teeming rain, soaked to the skin. I already knew the answer.

We were spending three days in Venice on a budget of £150 each, all travel included, to see the art world’s hottest ticket, the Venice Biennale. Friends said it wasn’t possible; that sure, we could do the art fair, but that Venice would lynch us with its seductively pallid menu turisticos and watery bellinis. As we squelched to our campsite in the dolloping rain, I could have nailed one.

We had nabbed early-morning, midweek fares with Ryanair for £45 return including taxes, deftly avoiding the £20 check-in fee by packing so few clothes we could fit a tent, two sleeping bags and mats into our hand luggage.

The popularity of Venice’s otherworldly floating architecture and fairytale bridges means hostels can charge hotel prices, and hotels palazzo ones. We had to camp. We stayed at Marina di Venezia on a peninsula east of Venice, 40 minutes by boat from San Marco Piazza. It’s a lovely, green, family campsite – a bit of a trek from the boat station, but you can recover in a 20ft-long bubble pool in the enormous aqua park, or take a stroll down its gorgeous sandy beach.

On our first morning I woke up with my foot lodged in the previous day’s wet clothes, but we were excited about venturing into Venice, and the Biennale, a beautiful blue-green boat ride away from San Marco.

Dating back to 1895, Venice was well ahead of the current trend for biennale art fairs, and it’s still the one gallerists, collectors and critics jostle to get into when it opens at the beginning of June.

A few weeks later, however, and it’s blissfully peaceful and, as we’re under 30, our tickets cost just €8 each. With 77 countries exhibiting in pavilions of their own design, spread out through the sun-dappled 19th-century gardens, the Giardini, and the old shipyard, the Arsenale, it’s an experience entirely unlike visiting a gallery. If anything, it’s more like an arty theme park.

Denmark and the Nordic countries are this year’s star attraction. Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset have curated a surreal, hyper-slick house, with a dead man floating in a swimming pool outside.

We enjoyed the Russian artists the most, most memorably Gosha Ostretsov’s dark recreation of an artist’s rickety workshop, with mechanised limbs extending from hanging coats and a horrifying waxwork of the artist scribbling like Satan.

It wasn’t all dark. Britain, in a big classical pavilion, is represented by former Turner Prize-winner Steve McQueen, who has made a single 30-minute film of dogs running about in the Giardini. Critics have hailed its ethereal sadness, and it is beautiful – but my goodness it’s dull. People were streaming out throughout the screening, and we were nodding off by the end. Looking at other countries’ efforts, I felt a bit sad that this was our only offering – except that Germany had made the unusual decision of choosing a British artist to represent them, with Liam Gillick’s amusing monologue by a cat.

“Glass of wine?” offered my boyfriend afterwards as we collapsed on the grass. This was our best budget find. Venetian wine shops, and even some supermarkets, sell wine on draught, so bring your own bottle and you can fill up for €2 or €3. We opted for a merlot that would be fine warm – perfect for a piazza pit-stop. Hurrah for Europe’s sensible, non-binge-drinking culture.

It also helped us stick to our €20 dinner budget. On the first night we were ravenous and searched down mosquito-clouded alleys that all looked the same – and then realised they were the same – before finding All’Anfora Pizzeria (Santa Croce, 1223). It’s a gem, with a quiet patio and crispy, fresh pizzas the size of tables for about €7.

The second night we had a tip from a local friend: “Try cicchetti at one of the wine bars, it’s a kind of Venetian tapas.” We ventured into Osteria al Bacareto (Calle Crosera, 3447) and perched by the window, copying the young locals who ordered piles of little snacks at the bar – pork and olive balls, creamed salt cod on toast – for €1 a go. A cup of draught wine cost a staggering 80 cents, and the barmaid introduced us to a spritz, a local cocktail that tasted like Irn Bru, made with orange liquor with prosecco and soda water. Then we remembered the last boat was in 20 minutes, and dashed to San Marco in the rain.

We had one more day, and €20 left. Venice is pretty good when it comes to free beauty, of course – we already had a picnic lunch from the supermarket and a travel card, so we island-hopped and drifted down the Grand Canal. But best were the stunning churches and the rare joy of seeing Renaissance masterpieces in their original settings, many with free entry. Huge works by Titian and Tintoretto decorate I Gesuiti (Campo dei Gesuiti, Cannaregio), and in San Zaccaria (Campo San Zaccaria, Castello) is Bellini’s vivid Virgin Mary, who seems to sit in an enclave above the altar, eyeing these strange, non-worshipping visitors in her church.

We tallied up our spending at the airport – coming in under budget at around £140 each. It was a slog, but fabulous. Too fabulous, really. Venice is like a drug, so dreamlike that waking up somewhere else leaves you yearning and, even after just three days, we suffered a comedown. Better start saving for the next trip.

• Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Venice Treviso from Liverpool and Stansted. Bus transfers with ATVO (atvo.it), €10 rtn. Camping Marina di Venezia, Punta Sabbioni (0039 041 5302 511, marinadivenezia.it) €4.40-€9.20pp plus €11-€23.30 per pitch. The 53rd Biennale (labiennale.org) runs until 22 November; entrance €18 or €8 under 26s. Three-day travel card €18 for under-30s holding a Rolling Venice Card, €4 from Hellovenezia vendors (hellovenezia.it), otherwise €31.

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