The curious instruction that bookings could only be made by fax should have been our first clue. Our stay at the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice would be one to remember, akin to sleeping in the quiet eye of a tourism hurricane. And when I asked Dom Paulo, who met us at the thick oaken door in his brown monk's habit, how much they might expect us to pay for a night's stay, he bowed ever so slightly and replied: "As you wish."
San Giorgio is one of the world's longest continually operating Benedictine abbey, offering hospitality in this location since 982. It sits on a tiny island of its own directly across the Giudecca Canal from the famous square Napoleon is said to have dubbed Europe's drawing room, the iconic Piazza San Marco. It has unparalleled views of this mother-of-all tourist draws, one it shares with the exclusive Belmond Hotel Cipriani on an island next door, scene of George and Amal Clooney's wedding party. But rooms with a view at the Cip start at an eye-watering €1,650 (more than $2,500) a night. Our room? About €1,600 less, plus we had a hands-down better view from our first-floor balcony. And no zoom-lens paparazzi.
That master of Renaissance architecture, Andrea Palladio, designed what would become arguably his finest church in 1565. It is a cool, neo-classical dream in this very un-Italian city where ancient Oriental and Gothic architectures collide in a tumbling cascade of competing styles. Like a marble escarpment of pediments and pilasters, the church is the prow of a much larger ship that is the Monastery of San Giorgio, occupying most of the island with its cloistered mystery. Our private room, one of only five in the monastery's hostel, was suitably spartan, with two single beds, a crucifix, a desk and a book for our reading pleasure: The Rule of St. Benedict. The floors were terrazzo, the ensuite bathroom was well equipped with shower and bidet and a large antique armoire served as a closet. This was not Cipriani luxe by any means, but spacious enough, cool and quiet; a room for contemplation and rest. It is also an undiscovered gem: During our five-night stay, we met only two other guests, and the hallways echoed with an eerie silence late at night, broken only by the sound of lapping waves and the occasional passing boat. It felt like a world apart – dreamlike. One morning, we flung back our wooden shutters and strolled out onto the balcony to find our building the subject for a group of painters from Florence – that is an experience not to be missed.
But this oasis of calm sits uneasily in a city that is a victim of its own success, a place literally sinking under the weight of an estimated 22 million yearly visitors. Massive cruise ships deposit as many 30,000 tourists daily at the height of the season, causing Silvio Testa, spokesman for Venice's anti-cruise ship campaign to say a few years ago, "The beauty of Venice is undoubted, but the city pays for it like a prostitute that is too beautiful."
Tourists outnumber Venetians by a ratio of 20-1 in high season, and the locals (an ever-dwindling population), grumble. But this is Venice, the Serene Republic, a city thick with art treasures; a city without cars, floating like a vision upon the Venetian Lagoon, supported by wooden piles made from millions of dead trees, pounded deep into the silt. So to discover this quiet place, one designed for contemplation and yet so close to the centre of action, is extraordinary. I spent an afternoon just sketching, drinking in the atmosphere and the surreal watery light of Venice. In the hushed nave of the church itself, a contemporary sculpture exhibition (part of the Venice Art Biennale) brought the ultramodern into the womb of the sacred and serene. Outside, attached to the church, is a bell tower that seems yet to have been discovered by tour guides, strikingly devoid of lineups for the quick elevator ride to its top. It offers breathtaking views out over Venice, the Lido and the Dolomite mountains that loom in the mainland distance. Unreal.
Food in the monastery is strictly DIY. (The monks keep to themselves and eat elsewhere.) A tiny refectory kitchen, stocked with basics such as dried pasta and olive oil, is available 24/7 if you are attempting Europe on €10 a day. The guest book tells of visitors from all corners of the globe who have cooked up their own Italian feasts, which can be eaten in an adjoining barrel-vaulted dining room, hung with portraits of eminent Benedictines. But the Venice of restaurants and cafés is temptingly close, so when it beckoned, we waited at the Giorgio vaporetto (waterbus) stop at the monastery steps for a quick ride to the action. We could take the No. 2 water taxi in one direction to the James Bond-movie set world of San Marco with its inflated prices, Prada shops and trinket hawkers, or in the other direction to the Zattere promenade and the much more interesting and less crowded Dorsoduro precinct with its crooked calli (alleyways) and hidden campis (squares).
In the maze of Dorsoduro, cozy restaurants, often with canal-side tables, abound. Fresh seafood is never hard to find. Al Casin dei Nobili, a lovely trattoria just off Campo San Barnaba, serves a mouth-watering tagliatelle with Adriatic shrimp in a nonna-friendly setting. Or just across the campi, beside the Ponte dei Pugni (Bridge of Fists) and next to one of the last fresh produce barges in Venice, which serves as a floating open-air fresh food market, is Pasta & Sugo. This restaurant is a welcome departure from touristy and overpriced "Olde Worlde" eateries with its bright, contemporary interior and menu of Italian street food. Mix and match the pasta of your choice with one of the mouth-watering ragus prepared at the open kitchen counter. A plate of pasta and glass of wine for a mere €8 ($12)? The city that invented inflated prices still has its bargains.
In the 1972 novel Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, Marco Polo, the Venetian explorer, describes the many cities he has seen to a mesmerized Kublai Khan. But in fact, every city he described was actually Venice. It is still like that, a city that is the compact culmination of a thousand years of explosive creativity, a city with a thousand faces. And, in one quiet corner, still available to contemplative visitors, a city of dreamlike peace.
Our no-strings-attached monastery stay was refreshing and inexpensive. One does not have to be devout, or even male, to stay in one of the high-ceilinged rooms, or sit quietly in the shadowed church and drink in the ancient music of echoing chants. But a hunger for peace and quiet in the eye of the Venetian storm is a must. That, and a fax machine.
If you go
Venice is always busy, but the summer months of July and August are the worst and best avoided if possible. We went in October and had nice weather, fewer crowds and plenty of restaurant choice. If you avoid the crowds at the Rialto Bridge and Piazza san Marco, you can even find some deserted squares and quiet alleyways.
Fly into Frankfurt and then to the compact Marco Polo Airport. From there it's a quick bus ride out to the main island of Venice via the causeway, but take the Alilaguna water bus if you've never been. Arriving by water is the only way to approach the city for the first time. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Since Venice is made up of more than 100 islands, ACTV, the public-transportation authority, operates vaporetti and other water buses around the clock, with routes that extend out to many of the islands of the Venetian Lagoon. A single trip is expensive at €7.50 ($11.50), but a three-day travel card for €40 is a great deal, and you'll use it a lot.
Inquire about a room by sending a fax to 39-041-520-6579. Or try calling calling 39-041-241-4717. The monastery has no e-mail or website. The monks offer rooms as part of their mission, so make a cash offerta of what you can afford upon leaving.
When you arrive on the main island of Venice, take vaporetto No. 2 along the Grand Canal to the San Giorgio stop (one past St. Mark's Square). When you arrive, ring a buzzer marked Monaci Benedittine (Benedictine monks) on the heavy door to the right of Palladio's church. There's no checking in; you will simply be led by a monk up some worn stone steps to your quiet room. Rooms have no telephones, TVs or WiFi.