Undiscovered Venice

by Andrea.Kirkby

Venice is one of the world's most visited cities. But there are still some neighbourhoods where you only have to share it with the cats, the pigeons and the cries of the boatmen

Think of Venice and you think of the Grand Canal; the golden mosaics of St Mark's; drinking espresso outside Caffe Florian on Piazza San Marco. But there's another Venice that many tourists don't see. Let me take you on a trip there, away from the tourists, to lonely quays in the Cannaregio, to the wide lagoon with its big skies and tiny islands, or to the Lido with its atmosphere of 19th-century luxe.

Torcello is one of my favourite places in the world. It's not easy to get to. You have to take a boat to Murano, and then you have to take another boat to Burano, and eventually, right at the end of the run, you get to Torcello.

Torcello is a sad little island in some ways. It was a thriving city once, but as the lagoon silted up, and Venice thrived, Torcello died. Now, there are just a few stone-built houses round the square, facing the fine basilica and baptistery that are part of our reason for coming here.

I pay my respects to the beautiful mosaic Virgin in the apse first. But it's the dramatic mosaics of the west wall, showing the Last Judgment and the tortures of hell, that I love. Byzantine Virgins are two a penny – there's one in Murano, several in St Mark's – but this is a masterpiece. Worms wriggle their way out of the eye sockets of empty skulls; lurid orange and red flames overwhelm the condemned sinners; angels and demons run aerial battles across the golden fields of heaven.

Most people come just to see the church and perhaps eat at the Locanda Cipriani, a tiny hotel and restaurant where Hemingway stayed. Walk the narrow footpaths through the fields, though, and you'll find yourself on your own with the sky, the water, and the sound of distant seabirds.

Take a boat out to the Lido and you enter the very different world of the leisured 19th century. This is where Thomas Mann's Death in Venice is set, in the luxurious hotels with their Art Deco tiling and Belle Epoque façades, and their private beaches. And yet the island feels relaxed and mellow, unlike central Venice – no one's in a hurry (except during the morning rush hour, when there's a crowd for the vaporetti heading into the city).

On Sundays, the Lido's best kept secret is open; the Jewish cemetery. Many tourists visit the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, but few come here, to this tree-shaded garden of tombs. Another rather sad place, like Torcello – but with a gentle melancholy you won't find in the crowded streets of one of the city sestiere.

Our third stop is the Cannaregio, a working-class district of old Venice. Much of the Cannaregio is unknown to travellers – but you just have to take a step off the main thoroughfare of the Strada Nuova at the Ponte delle Guglie. Watch the tourists flow onward in their masses to St Mark's, and step down from the balustraded bridge on to the quay of the Cannaregio canal. There's a food market here, and a little sottoportego a little way along leads you into the core of the Jewish ghetto.

But I want to take you deeper into Cannaregio, with its grid pattern of long, straight canals, its wide quays, its ancient houses with sun-decks above, where Venetian ladies once bleached their hair in the sun. One day, walking here, I saw two men wrestling an upright piano down on to a boat; already neatly stacked and tied in the hold were the complete possessions of one Venetian family, moving out.

Sometimes you'll see a lone jogger pounding along one of the quays in the grey light of early morning. Sometimes you'll hear a boat coming through a bridge or round a blind corner before you can see it; the ripple of its wake, the hollow warning cry of the boatman. Later in the day, you'll see women hanging out the washing from their windows. Life goes on.

Cannaregio was where Tintoretto lived; you can visit his parish church, the Madonna dell'Orto, where he is buried. The brick façade is graceful, ornamented with delicate white stone pinnacles and arcades; the herringbone brick paving of the piazza in front reflects the church's materials. Inside, you can still see Tintoretto's paintings on the apse and organ.

Nearby is a real curiosity – the Palazzo Mastelli. Here are statues of men in turbans, camels, lions, birds. The men are said to be three Greek brothers who came and traded here; the camels show their links with the spice trade. I'm not sure how much of it is true. At 3399, next door (Venetian house numbers have their own strange system), Tintoretto spent the last 20 years of his life; you can see he had become wealthy through his talent.

Further east are the two Scuole of the Misericordia, old and new. The old Scuola – a charitable foundation – is an elegant Gothic building; the new one, a huge unfinished barn of a building by Sansovino. It was meant to be sheathed in marble; but all you can see today is brick, all raw integrity and looming bulk.

That's Cannaregio all over – a place with an integrity that the rest of Venice, over-manicured and laid out for the tourist, sometimes lacks. A sestiere that's not elegant, not picturesque, not full of great art – but that has its own very characteristic charms. A sestiere that I've come to love.


Andrea Kirkby is a writer and photographer with a passion for travel. So far, she's hiked the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela, climbed Oman's highest mountain, and walked around St Petersburg's canals at two in the morning during the White Nights. It's still not enough... Favourite places: the island of Torcello and the Venetian lagoon; the ice cream parlour by the pier on Buyuk Ada, Turkey; Laon, the first and most lovely of the Gothic cathedrals; Lubeck, with its Hanseatic warehouses and fantastic marzipan; Ruestempasha mosque and the Tahtakale market, Istanbul; the shipyards of Sur, Oman; the Fens with their huge skies and black earth; the Silver Tiger bar in Prague with Pilsner Urquell on draught; the front bar of the King's Head, Norwich.