Venice may be crowded but the water is lovely and learning to negotiate the waterways is the key to discovering the city's secret side
Venice has the reputation of being overcrowded and overpriced. In summer when one has to elbow one’s way through St Mark’s Square this is true. But Venice can live up to its La Serenissima nickname if you use its waterways to explore and discover its quiet corners. Off season mists enhance the floating city; domes and leaning belltowers poke through it, seemingly adrift upon the sky, then Vivaldi seeps out from church concerts, La Fenice opera house has its season and it's warm enough to sit canalside along peaceful Zattere and look towards Giudecca.
In this lagoon-lapped city of 122 islands, where the ‘streets’ are 150 canals, waterbus is the obvious transport. Buy a 48-hour pass for €21 (buy it 15 days in advance and save money on on-the-spot prices; passes to musuems are also available) and travel on the vaporetti (waterbuses) at will (otherwise you pay a hefty €6.50 per single trip). Gondolas, originally designed for a couple and their servant, are expensive. For a cheap try, take a traghetto (gondola ferry) across the Grand Canal for 50 cents.
One enchanting, if pricey, way of seeing Venice in summer is by La Dolce Vita, a hotel barge taking six passengers. It travels down the Brenta from Padua past Palladian villas, out into the lagoon, taking in the major islands and mooring in the little marina on San Giorgio island for quick vaporetto trips to St Mark's. A highlight of this cruise is dinner on deck as the sun goes down behind the city’s steeples and domes.
San Giorgio is always good for a quiet
escape from central Venice though only a few minutes' boat ride away. The huge Palladio church with its Tintorettos is free to enter and the elevator up the belltower is cheaper (half price) and less crowded than St Mark’s and has a stunning view out over the city and lagoon. Not far away is San Clemente
island, once a monastery, now an elegant hotel that makes a soothing day out, with spacious gardens, pool, bars and restaurant, plus a spa.
There are plenty more islands in the lagoon reached through the 200,000 bricole, posts marking the tidal channels through the shallow sandbanks - the lagoon is less than a metre deep. Murano, famous for its glass, is crowded with day visitors; but Burano, noted for lace, fishing and bright pastel-coloured houses (from tomato red to lime green and purple) that reflect in the canals, is a charmer. Lunch there off risotto with lagoon fish such as shrimps and just idle in the sun .
Both Murano and Burano can be reached quickly before or after the day crowds by staying on Torcello. Torcello, once mighty with 20,000 inhabitants, is now almost abandoned but has three bistros, souvenir stalls and a fine museum. The basilica
, built in 639, offers Byzantine mosaics dramatically depicting the descent into hell. For real peace stay at the Locanda Cipriani
, owned by the same family as Harry’s Bar. The six-roomed inn and restaurant has been the bolthole for Hollywood greats from Garbo to Chaplin; the entire British royal family, Stravinsky, Chagall, Churchill (who painted the scenery) and Hemingway, who enjoyed duck shooting while writing Across the River And Into the Trees
. Local recipes and fresh pastries are served in a rustic beamed restaurant and in the garden in summer
Another place of peace is San Francesco del Deserto, where hospitable monks welcome visitors for overnight stays. For an uncrowded afternoon-only visit, the tiny 7000 square metre former leper colony of San Lazzaro degli Armeni has gardens, cypress trees, peacocks and Armenian monks guarding a 150,000-volume library. In 1816 Byron worked on the first Armenian/English grammar book here and his portrait gazes down over one of the monks’ eclectic museum collection: a 15th-century BC Egyptian mummy with its brains carefully arranged alongside the head.
Eat with the locals
Copy the Venetians in the evenings and go to small neighbourhood stand-up wine bars serving cichetti,
little snacks - try Al Bancogiro
in Campo San Giacometto for Grand Canal views or Osteria Ruga Rialto
. With the snacks go glasses of ombra
(house wine) from as little as €1.50. A charming small restaurant near the Rialto where gondoliers eat is La Colombina,
Corte del Pegoloto, where home-made ravioli comes filled with fresh mozzarella on a shellfish and basil sauce. The chef/patron’s wife, American artist Stacy Corson, runs the nearby Guest House Al Portico
, with airy rooms hung with her paintings and a relaxing courtyard for breakfast and peaceful all-day lounging behind high walls. It costs around €100 per couple with breakfast and Stacy’s insider tips on discovering the true Venice lifestyle.