Arriving into Venice by boat at night is an eerie experience. As the boat bounces across the dark waters of the lagoon and the lights of the city begin to glow on the horizon, magic crackles in the air. Jumping off the bus at Fondamente Nove, we dive straight in to Cannaregio, the most northernly (and arguably the most down-to-earth) of the city’s six sestieres. It’s a bit of a rush to get to the apartment as it’s so late, but as ever, finding the Strada Nove makes things easier and we’re soon at Tre Archi. The streets are deserted, the bars are closed and silence sits as heavy as the gathering fog as we wait on the bridge for our host. A door slams someone, the sound rippling through the night and Filippo appears to show us our new home for the next couple of days. It’s bright and airy with an altane – a wooden structure perched on the roof. We head out immediately in the hope of finding somewhere open at midnight and install ourselves at the only option – a kiosk on Strada Nove, its fluorescent lights a beacon of modernity in the creaking old city streets.
One of the things I really wanted to experience this time was a visit to some of the further-flung islands, so after a coffee we’re back at the Fondamente Nove. This is one of my favourite views, with the cemetery island and the business of the waterways on this side of town – ambulances buzzing about and the bobbing of the docked waterbuses along the pontoons.
After almost an hour, we pass through the island of Mazzorbo on the further reaches of the lagoon. Apart from a few bicycles resting against walls, there is no sign of life. If it wasn’t for the crest of St Mark adorning a crumbling wall here and there, there is little indication that this is the same city as the bustling Rivo Alto.
Burano is a different matter. Crammed full of tourists jostling to have their photographs taken on the bridges with the famous background, I’m left wondering if we’ve stumbled upon a tour visit. This was what we’d hoped to avoid so we took the first available side street and chanced upon a residential area with residents repainting their front gates or repairing their fences. Everywhere we looked, even in the dim January light, the buildings were painted in vibrant colours. From the waterfront, the lagoon is much quieter, except for the odd local masterfully returning to park their boat at a pontoon (in one case, much more quickly than I can park a car!)
But the main attraction was always meant to be Torcello, the island that spawned the whole city back when the original settlers left the mainland for safe haven in the lagoon. The pontoon is empty when we arrive. Someone has put up a map of the island for tourists, but the resolution is charmingly low and it’s almost impossible to read. We set off along the grand canal, which is reminiscent of the canals of Somerset – quiet and agricultural. Nothing passes us. The bridges here are little more than wooden planks leading to the fields of artichokes on the other side of the waterway. There is complete silence except for the screech of seabirds or the thrum of a passing boat. Just like on Mazzorbo, the only indications that this island is linked to La Serenissima are the crumbling crests of St Mark on one or two of the buildings lining the waterway.
The main square is little more than a grassy clearing and the paving stones are gone, leaving only worn tracks where the pavements once wound between palazzos. The Chiesa di Santa Fosca is stunning from the outside, but it’s the Basilica we are here to see.
First stop, the bell tower. Held together by beams, its a long trek to the top, where the views are spectacular. Even though its a gloomy day, Burano’s towers are still clear across the lagoon. Below, the island itself is a network of fields. Agricultural machinery thumps and thrums, echoing against the walls of the church.
Inside, the Basilica is magnificent – a huge space with walls covered in golden mosaics stretching to the roof. There is a little kerfuffle as a feline visitor is coaxed out of the building by a woman rattling a box of cat treats – the face that they have a box at hand suggests this is a regular occurence. Perhaps this cat is the church’s one regular worshipper…
The museum is a little disappointing in that is doesn’t really explain the true glory of the island and its wondrous past – but it would seem that a lot of the artefacts have been taken to Venice itself for display. Fallen facades and broken pieces of marble litter the grassy clearing in front of the museum, the only remnants of the palazzos that once stood here.
Our sense of calm and serenity is broken as we cram ourselves onto the waterbus for the Rive Alto (having had to change at the busier Burano). Back on the ‘mainland’ we head for a ciccheti tour of Dorsoduro, getting predictably lost in the scrum of winding alleyways and bridges. First, to Bakaro near Piazza Santa Margherita for some lovely Veneto wine and great polpettes. Then on to Cafe Rosso to sit in the square and watch the locals enjoy after-work drinks before winding up at Cantine del Vino gia Schiavi, a antiquated little wine shop, its shelves creaking under the weight of wall-to-wall wine. The ciccheti was experimental, but not the best – my nettle and brie was a smidge too bitter. Unsurprisingly, the wine was delicious, coming from carafes kept on the counter. Afterwards, we made our way down the same street to Osteria Al Squero, a hole-in-the-wall establishment opposite a boat yard. A little full of wine, I was tempted by a toastie from the glass display on the bar. It’s incredible how delicious a simple toastie can be (although that may have been the drink…). We seemed to have stumbled across a little pocket of nightlife as there were Spaniards singing outside another bar and various couplings had spilled out onto the streets with their drinks. Everything closed up after nine and the streets fell silent again.
The hangover the next morning necessitates a coffee – we head to the very friendly Parlamento where they don’t mind we order a takeaway – a rarity in Venice! Sprint to the boat and take the bus to the cemetery. En route, we pass round the lip of the Canareggio sestiere and its hidden tower blocks and scrubby wastelands which feel very out-of-place in Venice. However, it’s good to know they exist and that Venice isn’t just a fairyland place full of palazzos – real people live and work here in ugly tower blocks. The cemetery is a little disappointing. I was expecting wind-blasted open spaces, but it’s made up of smaller gardens and the style of burial is more vertical, with a lot of modern towers of remains dominating the entrance. After some searching, we find Ezra Pound’s grave hidden under a rosebush.
More coffee – this time at the baroque-esque Rosa Salva where we have our first bresaola roll. Yum! Today is the day for Scuolas – first, the San Marco with its fascinating display of medical equipment. The amputation tools are especially ghoulish and it feels bizarre to see them in such a glorious setting, with the gilded roof of the gallery gleaming in the dim lights. There are even books by Vesalius which is an unexpected treasure!
The other Scuola we visited was the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. The cavernous church is lined with Tintoretto masterpieces and feels a little sparse – like the Mezquita, with its columns standing in empty space. Upstairs, there is another huge room, lined with intricate wooden carvings and the ceiling covered in Tintoretto paintings. There is even a room filled with cabinets of relic, which is fascinating in a ghoulish way.
Another day, another cicchetti tour. This time, we hit the area around the Rialto. A tourist had taken a tumble into the Grand Canal and seemed more concerned about getting her phone back than being rescued from the water. Our first attempts bore no fruit – either closed for the night or the season. Third place lucky – a tiny little bar called Barcollo dishing up cheap cicchetti to loud house music. Trotted round the corner to the hole-in-the-wall Al Merca. Incredibly cheap prosecco and good cicchetti. Absolutely heaving outside as young professional-types stood around in groups drinking and chatting in the dark square of the closed market. Really interesting standing around when it’s devoid of tourists. Headed along the square to Caffe Vergnano, standing outside with the crowds.
On our way back to Cannareggio, we take a wrong turn and stumble across the Casino. I’d never seen it at night, with the lightshow images fluttering across the facade and its gondola stop glowing in the night. Very impressive.
On the approach to Cannaregio, we take a small detour down an alleyway that looks like a dead end before opening up into a tiny little square. I Rusteghi is rustic in nature as well as name, but eye-wateringly expensive so we sit next to the well in the courtyard with a small glass of wine (delicious but more expensive than a supermarket bottle), feeling tucked away from the main streets that we can hear nearby. At the end of Strada Nove, we try Osteria dal Riccio Pecco, named after the bald owner. It’s a very different affair – it feels very local. Busy and bustling, the staff are very friendly although the food is basic. The streets are deserted as we pick our way home.
Our final day. Head to Tedeschi for the spectacular view from its rooftop, perched as it is slap bang in the middle of the Grand Canal. Head back to Caffe Vergnano for breakfast. Staff equally as friendly and excellent coffee, but the Rialto is much busier. There’s still a sense of tranquility as we stand outside under the dark portico and watch the world go about its business. Very excited by the prospect of San Giorgio Maggiore and the views from the roof so trot along to the waterbus stand and take the boat across. The views are spectacular – especially along Giudecca. It’s cloudy so they aren’t as far-reaching as I’d hoped. The church itself is a cavern of quiet, but there’s not much to keep us lingering. Plus, there’s a plane to catch.