PHOTOS: Mary Ann+Tony DeSantis
The Florida namesake has a lot in common with the Old World version.
Walking in downtown Venice in Southwest Florida, I was struck by the distinctly European flavor: sidewalk cafes, green spaces, boutiques and northern Italian architecture.
“‘Where am I?’ I posted to Facebook friends from an Italian restaurant in the heart of the New World replica. For a brief moment, I felt as if I had been transported to the Old World version by some quirky mix-up in a CT scanner at my doctor’s office earlier that day.
I was expecting a typical Florida beach town with lots of seafood joints and tacky souvenir shops stocked with fossilized sharks teeth. Instead I discovered a town with continental flair and a rich past that locals keep alive with historical markers on almost every corner. Early settlers originally called the area “Horse and Chaise,” but in 1888 the residents — many of them Italian immigrants — renamed it Venice, in recognition of the many natural waterways.
Venice became a city in 1925 when the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers began building one of the nation’s first planned retirement communities for its members. Sorry, that honor does not go to The Villages, but to Venice, where today’s retirees still enjoy wide-paved boulevards, small parks and a town square designed by 1920s city planner John Nolen.
To get a better understanding of this former railroad town, my first stop was the restored Historic Venice Train Depot on East Venice Avenue across the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway from the downtown area. Built in 1927, the Mediterranean Revival-style terminal now houses a small museum where Historical Society docents give free tours.
While the 14 miles of pristine beaches from Casey Key to Manasota Key are the biggest tourist draw, downtown’s West Venice Avenue is the place to go for elegant restaurants, casual wine bars, evening strolls and even an after-dinner Italian gelato at an outdoor café. Venice has many wonderful eateries, and one of my favorites is Made in Italy, where the back porch feels like a beautiful Italian grotto and the aromas wafting through the family-owned eatery will make you think you’re dining near the Adriatic rather than Florida’s Gulf Coast.
The city also provides excellent amenities for bicyclists and pedestrians. The Venetian Waterway Park is a linear trail that runs along both sides of the Gulf Intercoastal Waterway while the Legacy Trail is a 10.6-mile paved trail from the south of Sarasota to Venice, where a trailhead is conveniently located at the historic depot.
While in town, visit photographer Clyde Butcher’s gallery at 237 Warfield Ave. His compelling photographs are exhibited in museums worldwide, but his gallery offers a chance to see his work on his turf. It reminds you this Venice was built near the marshes of the Everglades, much like how the Old World counterpart began in the marshes of the Venetian Laguna on the Adriatic.
Venezia on the Adriatic Sea
In 1980, I lived in the Veneto Region of Italy — about a 30-minute train ride from Venice — so I became quite comfortable exploring the quiet streets of La Serenissima, or bride of the sea. When I returned more than 30 years later, Venezia — as the Italians call it — was filled with cruise ship tourists. Walking into St. Mark’s Square, however, still gave me goose bumps just as it had the first time I saw it. The architecture around the square, called “the most beautiful drawing room in Europe,” is magical, especially at sunset.
Scores of guidebooks and tour itineraries provide more to see and do than any three- or four-day visit will allow. My advice is to grab a map and explore the smaller side streets where tourists become sparse. A few streets away from St. Mark’s, my husband and I wandered into La Gondola Ristorante, which looked empty. When the waiter guided us to an enclosed garden in the back filled with locals, we knew we had chosen correctly.
Spend time poking around in shops to see colorful Venetian Carnevale masks. Examine exquisite handmade lace items made on the nearby island of Burano. Stop for an Italian gelato. Cross over Venice’s famous Rialto Bridge to the Grand Canal’s right bank to experience the Erberia (vegetable market), where both locals and restaurant chefs shop. Stroll past the vegetables to the Pescheria (fish market), perfect for finding photo opportunities of locals haggling with the fishmongers.
Be a tourist and take a gondola ride. Although the gondoliers will not sing “O Sole Mio” no matter how much you tip them, it’s still a memorable experience. Kiss your significant other as you glide under the Rialto Bridge. Legend has it that you’ll be in love forever and will return to Venice. In my case, it was Florida’s Venice, but that was quite all right, too.
[notification type=”alert-success” close=”false” ]TRIP TIP:
Florida’s 23rd annual Shark’s Tooth Festival
is scheduled April 10–12 at the Venice Airport Festival Grounds. More than 100 artists, as well as sharks teeth vendors, will be on hand for the festival, which benefits the Special Olympics Florida-Sarasota County. Visit sharkstoothfest.com