Rumours of the death of Venice may have been exaggerated, but this former maritime city-state is certainly in danger of being loved to death, particularly under the rising tide of 30 million visitors each year.
Sinking under this surge of attention, as well as from its famous canal which rises between 1 and 2mm each year, who can blame the world’s wanderers for wanting to experience Serenissima as the Italians call it.
In summer’s high season, when up to 100,000 descend daily, it has all become too much for the city’s long-suffering, and numerically shrinking, 55,000 residents.
Here’s how to avoid the ire of locals, the crush of tourists and still get a fabulous Venetian fix.
From Venice’s Santa Lucia train station, take a 40-minute Vaporetto ride along the Grand Canal to La Salute and alight at the quiet residential and university precinct of Dorsoduro, one of Venice’s six sestieri or neighbourhoods.
En route, the sounds of Venice’s liquid heart compete with throbbing diesels, creaking timbers, shrieking seagulls and water sloshing greedily into narrow canals.
Dorsoduro has some of Venice’s great art and cultural attractions and the best is on show during the Venice Biennale when public spaces and former palazzos are transformed into galleries and installations.
Below the imposing La Salute Church which, like the rest of Venice rests tenuously on wooden pilings lodged into the lagoon’s solid clay, a clutch of gondoliers in matelot-striped t-shirts gathers at a nearby pier. Once numbering 10,000, just 400 now guide visitors in their uniformly sleek black craft.
St Mark’s Square is just across the Grand Canal but tucked into this little pocket, the tourist hubbub is temporarily placed on hold. Wandering Dorsoduro’s quiet backwaters spanned by small bridges, restaurant tables hug narrow walkways and boutique hotels quietly co-habit with family residences that long ago surrendered their ground floor entrances to the rising water.
Many buildings are buttressed, pinned and cross-beamed for stability, crumbling brickwork revealed beneath cracked stucco. Salt-infused shades of ochre, verdigris and terracotta paint a picture of elegant decay. It’s a city of sunlight and shadows, a head-swivelling marvel at every turn and like Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice,’ getting lost in its aquatic maze is all part of Venice’s mystery and magic.
One of the city’s 65 public squares, Campo Santa Margherita is a generous open space filled with the ubiquitous cafes and gelataria. Popular with students from the nearby university, sit there for a time and you’ll experience life as it leisurely unfolds from the morning market to yelling kids being let out of school and later, university students claiming it as their hangout.
Set within a lush tropical garden on a Dorsoduro backstreet, The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in the American heiress’s retirement palazzo, is a wonderful insight into her home and fascinating life. An exuberant collector of 20th-century avant-garde art (and lovers!), the house provides an intimate view of her oeuvre from Abstract to Cubism and Surrealism while just beyond the Sculpture Garden, the cafe is the perfect oasis to relax with an espresso.
Further along the Grand Canal occupying the vast complex of the Church of Santa Maria della Carita, the Galleries of Accademia showcases an illustrated history of Venice from the 14th-century executed by some of Italy’s greatest artists.
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Avoid the daytime crush of 12th-century St Mark’s Square and save that experience, together with a tour of the Medieval Doge’s Palace and the wildly Oriental Basilica, for later in the afternoon when the cruise liners have scooped up their day-trippers.
Rather than wandering around Rialto for garish souvenirs and overpriced espressos, follow the waterway to Rialto Mercato and Campo de la Pescaria, an expansive, collonaded fish market where in-shell scallops, plump skinned eels, bags of clams, Scillian tiger prawns, shoals of scampi and sleek whole fish shimmer on shards of ice. At night, youthful hipsters hang here over drinks and music.
Dancing on black mirrored waterways, lights magically transform Venice into a nocturnal fairyland. Along the Grand Canal, music oozes from speakers as diners enjoy a glass of Prosecco. Framing the low-lying St Mark’s Square, trios play a sophisticated soundtrack to accompany Bellinis and beers and as night rolls in, so does the water as it seeps into the square, metamorphosing into a reflective magical lake.
Carnevale, claimed by Venetians to be the “victory of the light of spring over the darkness of winter” is held every February, so why not stay into March when prices are keener. Most popular mask for men? Casanova of course!
Buy a 3-day boat ticket for around or so 40 Euros and stay awhile or take a Traghetto, a gondola taxi that traverses the Grand Canal. Costing less than $2 for a short ride, it’s the best bargain in town unlike the exorbitant charges for a daytime espresso in St Mark’s Square. Reports of Euros12 (USD$14) in some cafes are not an exaggeration so check before you order.
After all, this is Venice’s numero uno tourist spot and while sipping a coffee as you people-watch in St Mark’s Square may be something you’ve always wanted to do, be prepared to pay for the pleasure!
And if Venice isn’t “off-shore” enough, take a boat trip to picturesque Burano with its brightly painted fishermen’s cottages and wonderful lace-making tradition. Also nearby, the island of Murano’s glass-making has achieved legendary status. Wander the trendy Lido, admire the art deco architecture and visit the beach which was the setting for Luchino Visconti’s brilliantly moody film Death in Venice.