Visit off-season to see the magnificent city of Venice untouched by the summer masses, and at its misty, mysterious best
Viewed through a veil of mist, the city of Venice becomes even more magical. So, for those who only plan to see it in the summer, I urge you to rethink, for Venice is, to my mind, at its mysterious best out of season. Why? Because the hordes who throng the Rialto and the Ponte Dell’Accademia have melted away, leaving the city’s inhabitants to go about their daily lives – shopping at the famous Pescheria for the catch of the day, making and receiving deliveries (anything from groceries to furniture) from the many working boats that exist to keep the business of Venice flowing smoothly, ambling up and down the tiny, hidden bridges that the tourists never see.
In the morning, before the sun has risen enough to burn off the haze, the buildings and structures take on an entirely different aspect. Gondoliers materialise out of the ether, the gilt decorations on their sleek black crafts gleaming and contrasting with the turquoise canals. The colours of the palazzi appear muted and painterly: terracotta, umber, burnt sienna, ochre. Chiaroscuro shadows pass back and forth at the entrance to narrow viale, highlighting evocative street names, like the morbid-sounding Calle dei Morti, or the more life-affirming Fondamenta de le Tette.
Late autumn (from October to early December) or winter (January to early March) are ideal times to lose yourself in Venice, and beyond. The traghetti and vaporetti from Venice itself to the island of Murano are far from full, and the opportunity should be taken to view the master glass-blowers at work. Visit the Formia showrooms and workshop (Fondamenta Vetrai 138, Murano), and marvel at the ancient art that turns burnt sand into luminous, colourful creations.
Return to Venice in the late afternoon, when the pale, watery sun is starting to sink, and wander through the Piazza San Marco, thronged with the inquisitive pigeons for which the city is famous. A walk from here along to the Arsenale – formerly the city’s shipyard, founded in 1104 - is a must. There is a haunting grace to the city’s waterfronts; if you’re lucky, a thin haar will still be hanging in the air, shrouding the Ponte dei Sospiri and making the outlying islands appear transitory and formless.
When you reach the Arsenale (Campo dell'Arsenale, Castello), the sad, Aslan-esque faces of the noble stone lions guarding the beautiful Renaissance gateway – the Porta Magna - are a symbol of the strength and power that this floating former empire once had.
I would recommend staying on the Grand Canal itself. The Residenza d'Epoca Ca' Favretto
is a stunning 14th-century restored palazzo, which was once home to 19th-century painter Giacomo Favretto; here, you can sip a pre-dinner prosecco on the balcony overlooking the water before heading out into the maze of streets in search of a stunning fritto misto
at one of the many local restaurants. The one I had at Osterio Vecio Fritolin
, an unassuming-looking bistro tucked off the main street leading to the Riato (Calle della Regina 2262, Santa Croce) still lives on in my memory: a huge platter laden with fried seafood and vegetables such as zucchini flowers and aubergine, managing to be both delicate and substantial at the same time.
Strolling back through the maze of streets, when the lighting is low and shimmers softly, is reminiscent of the scenes in Don’t Look Now, where you half expect to glimpse any number of haunting looking figures appearing out of the shadows. But don’t be alarmed if you do; they, like you, are just glad to be experiencing the beauty of the city far from those madding crowds.