“She looks a sea Cybele, fresh from ocean,
Rising with her tiara of proud towers
At airy distance, with majestic motion,
A ruler of the waters and their powers.”
It is impossible to write about Venice without resorting to cliché. You all know it is a sparkling jewel of a city, with impossibly blue water lapping gently at decaying palaces. You can all picture the candy-stick mooring poles, the straw-hatted gondoliers and the Rialto Bridge. And I don’t need to spend time enthusing about Piazza San Marco, complete with winged lions, stunning Byzantine Basilica and views of the lagoon.
In fact, from a distance, Venice can be easy to dismiss. We all know it is sinking, it is full of tourists, a bit smelly and madly overpriced. We tend to file it away in the back of our minds, like a corny postcard, tucked between memories of naff souvenirs and disappointing food.
But then you get there, and it blows you away.
It is magical. But the spell is easily broken by hoards of tourists. So the trick is go when no one else is there.
Go in January.
In January you share Venice with the Venetians – a true novelty. You pass locals laden with shopping as you wind your way through the narrow streets, the bacari are in full swing, and the restaurants full of hip young things waving goblets of wine around.
The weather is cold, the sun frosty, and mist casts an atmospheric blanket of mystery over everything. Best of all, you will find little parts, even in the centre, that are completely empty. And this is when the magic of Venice really comes into play. Cross a bridge, turn a corner, and you’ll stumble into another world.
Stand still and watch the ripple of the water, and the reflections, which throw Venice into soft-focus, like some ghostly mirage itself 100s of years ago. A gondola might drift past, its awestruck cargo stunned into silence, echoes of footsteps will come and go. But these are all noises off, sounds and sights of another time. While you, for just for a moment, have caught a whisper of something ancient, something long past but somehow perfectly preserved.
That’s Venice! And that is why you must go.
One such corner was by the Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli, a lovely marble church built in the 1480s to house an icon that created quite a stir by weeping openly in public. Slightly off the beaten track and away from the Rilato hoards, it is worth a little detour.
Venice is one of the few places in Italy where it is possible to eat badly. But this can be avoided with a bit of research. Ignore the charming enticements of restaurateurs around San Marco, and walk swiftly past anywhere with a menu which in any way resembles a multinational phrasebook.
You can spend a very happy lunchtime exploring a bacari or two and tucking into some serious cicchetti (Venice’s answer to tapas). The undisputed king of cicchetti has to be the baccala mantecato, a rich, creamy salt cod puree, which comes slathered on bread. A glass of prosecco cuts through the fat nicely. The polpette are also delicious. Get stuck in and have fun. Enobar Ostinati and Cantina Do Mori are great spots, and a very happy few hours can be spent in Enoteca Al Volto.
A visit to Venice would not be complete without popping into Caffè Florian in Piazza San Marco. Dating from 1720, it claims to be the oldest cafe in the world. It is a scrumptious rococo orgy of gilt, mirrors and paintings on every available inch of wall. It has played host to a lofty cast of literary characters, including Byron, Proust and Dickens. Apparently it was a favorite haunt of Casanova, doubtless because it was the only coffee house at the time that allowed women. Enjoy a hot chocolate or an aperitivo, and try not to mind about the price.
For dinner try Osteria LÓrto dei Mori, a cosy restaurant filled to bursting with trendy Venetians, who know a good thing when they’ve found it. The chef is Sicilian and the food is delicious – so book in advance. It is a safe distance from San Marco, in the area of Cannaregio, so it gives you a wonderful opportunity to lose yourself in the dark, misty streets and stumble upon local treasures as you go – so allow plenty of time for detours.
Which brings me neatly to the favour I have to ask of you.
On our way to dinner, we past a tiny bar, packed to the rafters and a-buzz with locals having a wonderful time. We were running late and couldn’t stop, but managed to make a note of it. It is Osteria Al Portego. Please go there and tell me how it was.
That’s the trouble with the mini break. You just can’t do everything. But then you just need to go back…
Any other corners of Venice worth a mention? Let me know in the comments below!