Venice is a dream that may one day dissolve into the Adriatic Sea – the city is sinking and sea levels are rising. It’s a compelling reason to see La Serenissima (a name for the Republic of Venice) sooner rather than later.
She’s hovered—like a splendid mirage—above the shimmering Venetian lagoon for fourteen centuries and it’d be a shame if you were never introduced to her crumbling magnificence.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit Venice not once, but three times in my life (yes, I am ridiculously blessed). But choose the time of your visit wisely. I’d strongly advise scheduling your holiday outside peak tourist times – unless you enjoy being crushed by camera-wielding hordes on tiny bridges and narrow streets, or dodging the assertive hawkers of cheap and nasty souvenirs who congregate on the same thoroughfares.
Winter and autumn are my pick for a trip to Venice. And there are plenty of experiences that take you beyond the tried-and-true gondola rides and happy snaps in St Mark’s Square. Here’s my tips:
A page out of a Lewis Carroll story
If, like me, you are fond of both books and cats – then finding Libreria Acqua Alta in the quieter Castello area of Venice is like winning the jackpot.
Owned by Luigi Frizzo, a warm-hearted fellow who seems to be a magnet for stray moggies, this bookstore at the edge of a canal is a page out of a Lewis Carroll story. Step off the street and through the Looking Glass into a Mad Hatter’s (make that a Mad Catter’s) party.
None of your boring, standard bookshelves in this whimsical library: books by the thousands are piled up in old boats, bath-tubs and even mashed into steps that take you up to a balcony overlooking jade waters.
And throughout the shop, curled atop teetering book stacks or snuggled in baskets, are contented, almost catatonic, cats. They don’t quite sport the Cheshire grin – but they do look exceedingly happy. Visitors are invited to make a donation towards feeding the strays. And if you have the time to browse the cat-strewn canyons of old books and magazines, there’s every chance of picking up a brilliant memento of your stay in Venice.
Tick off a stroll across the famous Rialto Bridge, by all means, but don’t miss wandering a few steps further and discovering the sensory overload that is the Rialto Fish Market beside the Grand Canal. I stumbled upon it by accident and had the good luck to do so early in the day – when the market was buzzing with eager sellers and discerning buyers (including a pair of seafood-savvy nuns in full black habit).
Venice has made its trade via the sea for generations and here, beneath elegant gothic columns, the ocean’s riches are laid out like treasure: silver slivers of sardines, piled high; plump pearls of scallops on delicately fanned shells; jumbles of slick calamari and ruby crabs. The aromas are salty, sharp and sea-fresh.
Remarkably, a fish market has existed on the same spot since the 11th century. But if seafood isn’t your bag, then next door is the fruit and vegetable mercato – where the produce looks no less exotic: golden zucchini flowers; every kind of wild mushroom; jewel berries; and spiky green orbs that turn out to be fresh chestnuts. It’s as much a feast for photographers as it is for foodies.
Colourful houses with a fairytale feel
Because the Venetians were famous for their sea-faring prowess, it’d be crazy not to jump in a vaporetto and hightail it across the lagoon to Burano – the tiny island that’s home to the most colourful fishing village on the planet.
Pastel confections of houses line the narrow streets and overlook peaceful canals – giving the village a timeless, fairytale feel. Legend has it that ancient fisherman painted their homes in vivid colours so they could spot them from far out at sea. I’m so glad they did. Visit Burano on a clear day and the orange, green, yellow and red rectangles pop against a dazzling blue sky. Point the camera in pretty much any direction and you’ll score a memorable snap.
While Burano’s colour-crazy anglers were out casting their nets, the ladies stayed at home in their rainbow houses and made lace by hand. Lace craft shops and seafood restaurants make up the lion’s share of Burano’s modern tourist trade. But if you want to avoid the hard sell, it’s more than enough to simply wander the streets and – like those fishermen – admire the spectacle from a distance.
A grassy patch in Venice
On the cruise back to Venice, keep an eye out for the unexpected sight of tall, shady trees at the far eastern end of the island. These mark the Giardini Publicci – or public gardens. They’re a welcome green space in a city where rarely a blade of grass breaks through the man-made maze of cobbled streets and canals.
Built on reclaimed marshland by order of Napoleon, the gardens have hosted an international art show since 1895. Jump off the vaporetto and get a hit of nature before heading back to the heart of Venezia.
Been to Venice too? Got any off-the-beaten track spots to share?