Upon first arrival at Venice Marco Polo airport, it’s quite easy to be disappointed. Considering the city after which the airport is named – frequently described as one of the most romantic cities on earth – the muddy waters and murky countryside over which the plane soars is an inauspicious beginning to say the least.
I was staying in Marghera, a quiet, industrial town near the historic city of Venice – an economical choice and one that enabled me to see more of ordinary Italy; allowed me to experience the packed buses full of Italians inexplicably wearing jackets and jeans in stifling heat, and the provincial bars where you’re lucky to get served after nine o’clock.
But Venice was the reason that I had decided to come to Italy: to glimpse the winding canals and elegant bridges and historic, charmingly decayed buildings that had been described so eloquently in so many books. There were lanes thronged with tourists, like cattle, and squares that were eerily quiet and streets full of business-like Italians, unappreciative of the beauty surrounding them. It is a city to get deliciously lost in, where every new turning yields a glittering canal, or a verdant garden hidden in the midst of jumbled townhouses, or a dilapidated palace, its distinctive ‘Oriental’ windows subject to decline.
And the food – I’ve been told since there is better Italian food to be found in other cities, but when pasta is your favourite meal what can be better than sampling its delicious variants night after night? The food was mostly exceptional, and you can’t really go wrong in a city where it’s perfectly acceptable to have pizza for breakfast, slowly consumed as you meander along streets. The cocktails too – Spritz, with its main ingredient of white wine, is the cheapest all over the city, and bars allow you to take your drinks outside, to be sampled on romantic bridges overlooking twisting canals.
There is, of course, the main tourist checklist to be ticked off: St Mark’s Square, teeming with pigeons and overpriced cafes that serenade visitors with four-piece bands (unashamed to admit that I was lured in by the offer of a strawberry sundae); the Doge’s Palace, showcasing the grandeur of Venice at its height and boasting a stunning courtyard, and St Mark’s Basilica, ornate and breath-taking, its treasury crammed with tenth century Byzantine treasures.
Campanile San Marco towered over the square vertiginously, impressively silhouetted against the endless blue skies. Then there was Ca’ Rezzonico, with an extensive collection of Venetian art and sumptuous eighteenth century interiors, and St Mary of the Friars, beautiful, reverential and mostly tranquil, except for the odd American whose loud snores manage to reverberate throughout the entire church…
For a fascinating, but perhaps less popular, look at the city’s history, there is the Jewish museum in the Campo del Ghetto – small but informative, it describes the lives of the Jews who made Venice their home, and how they were impacted by the widespread European persecution. The islands, dotted about the Venetian lagoon, were idyllically tranquil – Murano, larger and stylish and everywhere exhibiting its famous, multi-coloured vibrant glass; Burano, my personal favourite, picturesque and dreamy with each house painted a different colour; and Torcello, whose lazy canals and leafy abundance could easily be a product of an earlier century.
A gondola ride, fetching a hefty eighty euros per half an hour, was an expensive cliché, but one that had to be done. Seated in the sleek black boat, languorously floating about Venice’s canals in the blazing sunshine – canals that had once looked iridescent and glassy but now looked decidedly misty up close – our gondolier recounted to us anecdotes and episodes of Venetian history and told us of his own adventures in Scotland.
There were speedboats and rowboats and tiny, sturdy boats that somehow managed to navigate the bewildering labyrinth of Venetian canals; but none could possibly compare to the feeling of sailing along the Grand Canal, luxuriating in the dazzling array of beautiful buildings and their majestic facades. It’s almost possible to picture Venice as it was in the sixteenth century, at the height of its glory, and to imagine its richer citizens docking at a magnificent palace for a masked ball…
But then Venice is really romantic enough without the additional conjectures and throughout my five days’ stay I was continually wishing that I had booked up for another few. I mean, I could have afforded that, couldn’t I? Just enough to let me wander around the city for a bit longer, taking too many photos and gazing at too many views (if there can be such a thing). Because Venice’s appeal isn’t about its museums or its galleries, it is the indefinable essence of the city itself and that is something to which I shall continually want to return.