It’s just after midnight on the eve of Christmas Eve, and as I chug-chug slowly down the Grand Canal in a water taxi, I feel magic in the air. Fairytale palazzos, some still lit by huge, glittering chandeliers, suddenly loom out of the swirling mist, only to vanish as quickly as they appear, wrapped once more in a cloak of foggy gossamer.
A quarter of a century and more than 50 visits later, Venice still holds me in its spell. Why? Because this floating, living-dying city is a location like no other; as Goethe so aptly put it, Venice can only ever be compared to itself.
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For this, after all, was once La Serenissima, the most serene – and powerful – dominion in the world. And now it is the world that comes to pay homage – to a city that still wields a hypnotic power. A power that, nowadays, brings its problems as well as its pleasures.
Last month saw Venice overwhelmed by the high tides that rise in the Adriatic before sweeping across the lagoon and into the city itself. At their peak, the waters reached heights of 1.87m. Not since the floods of 1966 has Venice found itself under such a deluge.
For the tourists pictured wading through the waist-high waters, grinning from ear to ear and in full-on selfie mode, it was all a bit of a lark. But for the dwindling Venetian population, for the business owners, and for the guardians of the city’s artistic, religious and architectural jewels, this is no laughing matter.
Nor, indeed, is the fact that some 25 million tourists tramp all over this fragile city every year. And, yes, I am one of those who visit, but not in an ‘if it’s Friday, it must be Venice’ way.
Let me explain. I fell in love with Venice on that first Christmas visit 24 years ago and have been visiting three or four times a year ever since – spending, on occasion, proper chunks of time there. I scattered the ashes of my late husband, Gerry, there. I have Venetian friends now, and shopkeepers know me on sight. I go to the cinema. I know the times of the services in the Angelo Raffaele parish church, and I always traipse across the city to Calle del Forno to order a new batch of business cards from printer Gianni Basso when my supplies are running low.
Only 55,000 people are lucky enough to call Venice their home. And every year they have to suffer the influx of those 25 million visitors. Of those millions, however, less than a third actually stay in the city, so most are daytrippers or cruise passengers.
In the past two years, for the first time ever, I have noticed anti-tourist graffiti in Venice with ‘No Grandi Navi’ (No Big Ships) not only a commonly seen scrawl but also, nowadays, an actual movement.
And rightly so.
It’s time for the city authorities to stop squabbling, to take control of the situation, and to put what is really important – this extraordinary city, its treasures, and its local citizens – to the forefront.
And yet, despite its many problems, Venice remains magical. Especially in winter when the crowds are less intense. When you can explore the outreaches of the city and mingle properly with the locals. When to stand on the Accademia Bridge on a cold, sunlit morning and marvel at how the city is bathed in such extraordinary light is, indeed, a gift for the soul.
Let me share a secret with you. When I need to escape from the world and shut things out for a while, I go – in my imagination – for a winter walk. It’s the walk that I actually take early every morning while in Venice. It starts in the Santa Croce district at the foot of the Gaffaro Bridge.
From there I stroll in the direction of the magnificent Frari church, turning right down a narrow calle alongside it, and on past the second-hand bric-à-brac shop that never opens until the afternoon, then out into Campo San Toma, where one of the gondoliers from his pitch just around the corner is often bouncing on his toes to keep warm.
Then it’s on into the narrow passageway that takes me past the 18th-century home of the playwright Carlo Goldoni, on and on until I enter Campo San Polo, the second-largest square in the city after St Mark’s.
Up over the next bridge and now, with the Rialto Market just up ahead, it’s getting busier and noisier and there’s a faint smell of fish in the air.
Then it’s past the courthouse and up the ancient stone steps of the Rialto Bridge, pausing at the top to take in that view of the Grand Canal – and realising, always somewhat awestruck, that this same vista was once enjoyed by Casanova, by Henry James, by Peggy Guggenheim, and by everyone down the years who has, like me, fallen in love with this amazing, complex, beautiful, flawed city. On the other side of the famous bridge, I turn left out of Campo San Bartolomeo, and then up over another of the 409 bridges that link the islets in Venice, and on and on, up, up, up along Strada Nova, the wide main street that cuts its way up through Cannaregio. This is real-shop territory, the place to buy shampoo or men’s pyjamas or a yard of fabric. It’s also where you’ll find the once thriving but now rather sad Jewish Ghetto.
Soon I reach the Cannaregio Canal and here I duck off to the right, enter Federico’s little café and grab a stand-up macchiato at the bar. Coffee downed and second wind gathered, it’s “ciao” all round, and off out again. And so I continue, in my mind’s eye, to the upper reaches of the city.
I’m nearly there now – the Calatrava bridge is in my sights, but instead of crossing over this modern beauty, I take the ancient route across the Grand Canal: by the Scalzi Bridge.
I’m slowing now, my walk fast coming a full circle as I take a right back towards the Gaffaro Canal, the Tolentini parish church on my left, a few early morning workers outside the tiny baccaro that sells an ombra (literally, shadow) of wine for less than a euro, and which will be jammed with students from the nearby architectural faculty later in the day.
I have often stayed here for a month at a time, in an apartment close to the Gaffaro Bridge, and my mind’s-eye comfort walk is a real morning ritual then.
I’ll be there again next March. Last time I stayed in this month, the city was empty of tourist hordes, and I discovered a different Venice.
And so I explored its outer reaches – like the canal-free zone of Sant’Elena out beyond the once great shipyards of the Arsenale. And, in the biting-cold weather, I walked the Zattere promenade, where John Ruskin once lived, and stood at the front door of the long-dead Ezra Pound.
And then it snowed. Absolutely blizzarded. In a city where snow is a rarity, it cascaded from the skies. But that’s Venice, a place that’s full of surprises. Still serene, still powerful – a genuine one-off.
And simply magical.
Take 5: Insider tips
1. Travel like a local
Want a gondola ride without breaking thebank? Take a traghetto, one of the public gondolas that cross the Grand Canal.Just €2. Stand up if you want to blend in with the locals.
2. Cichetti Heaven
Cichetti are Venetian tapas. Don’t miss Gìa Schiavoni in Dorsoduro where Grandma cooks; Do Mori, in San Polo, oldest wine bar in Venice (and frequented by Donna Leon’s fictional Inspector Brunetti) is also excellent.
3. Dead interesting
Ezra Pound, Diaghilev, Stravinsky and JosephBrodsky are all buried on San Michele cemetery island. Go on a weekday. On Sundays you’ll jostle for vaporetto space with all the flower-carrying widows ofVenice.
4. Coffee fix
Avoid the €10 coffee in Florian’s, the famous St Mark’s Square café, by walking through to the tiny bar at the rear. You’ll pay around €4, and €6 for prosecco.
5. Va-va vaporetti
Don’t pay as you go on vaporetti – it’s €7.50 per journey. Buy a 2- or 3-day (€30/€40) ticket with unlimited journeys.
Italian Insider: Six ways to do Venice like a Venetian
AerLingus (aerlingus.com) flies to Venice Marco Polo, 20 minutes by bus to the top of the Grand Canal; Ryanair (ryanair.ie) operate to Treviso, a 50-minute bus rideaway. City break packages available from Topflight, (topflight.ie) and AbbeyTravel (abbeytravel.ie).
Where to stay
The 3-star, family-run Hotel Pausania (hotelpausania.it) and 3-star Palazzo Odoni (palazzoodoni.com) are both near Campo Santa Margherita, a popular square for locals; or try the 4-star Hotel Santa Marina (hotelsantamarina.it), near Rialto.
In January, February and March prices in Venice are reasonable, but during Carnevale (8/25 February 2020) expect prices to rocket.
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