3am and its raining in Plymouth. The sort of relentless downpour that makes you think the gods have been angered, their fury cascading in bucketloads from the dark and brooding sky. We are soaked through by the time we arrive at the airport -bleary-eyes and overtired but excited to be jetting off to Venice this morning – Italy’s floating city.
A few short hours and we are descending over The Dolomites, their snow-dusted jagged tops casting great angular shadows into deep ravines and crevasses, playing tricks on my eyes. We touch down on time in Marco Polo Airport, where the local climate reveals winter sunshine and clear blue skies; it’s not necessarily warmer than home but thankfully a whole lot drier and brighter. We make our way down to Alilaguna – the public water transport service – heading for the orange line which will take us into central Venice.
Lying to the North East of Italy and the capital of the Veneto region, Venice is in fact a composite of more than a hundred islands built in a lagoon. What was once swamplands became a refuge in the 5th Century for those fleeing the barbarian invasions of Italy following the collapse of the Roman Empire.
Remaining in the lagoon, making it difficult for their enemies to follow, the first settlements of what would become Venice were built by the new dwellers upon wooden plinths set deep into the ground; wedged firmly past layers of soft silt into the robust clay beneath.
It’s mind-boggling, but it is in fact these original platforms that still support the city today. Timber transported via water from forests as far as Croatia and Montenegro in around 400 AD stand steadfast, having become fossilised and turned to stone over the centuries. This process, known as ‘petrification’ has come about as the wood is so deeply embedded into the mud and water that it cannot be oxidised, therefore avoiding the usual rotting process that happens when untreated wood becomes too wet.
It’s hard to imagine a city built entirely on century old stilts and i’m eager to see it for real as we keenly board our water taxi, all shiny wood and camel-coloured leather seats. With only a few of us onboard the boat guns its engine and we cut through the swampy water, our view in the distance industrial factories and outcrops of marshy grasses.
Light hits the water as we glide onwards, glinting incandescent and pretty soon chimney pots set atop terracotta roof tiles loom into view, washing drying in the breeze on makeshift lines draped from apartment windows.
Set along the sweeping reverse-s curve of The Canale Grande, Venice is comprised of 6 main sestieri (neighbourhoods) all linked by smaller canals and spanned by a plethora of bridges for residents to cross from one section to another. We turn, and begin coursing in along the one of these smaller canals, the Canale di Cannaregio and hotel fronts and little trattoria signs written on faded awnings greet us, chairs in the streets as people pass along the paving stones right up to the water’s edge, the deep blue-green surface mere inches from their feet.
There’s no uniformity in height or width to the hodgepodge of homes, hotels, and eateries we pass, painted in varied shades of flaking pastel paint, posters advertising various events plastering lower walls and flags lazily fluttering in the breeze above doorways. Venice is pedestrian-only and the sole traffic is on the waterways as other boats pass us by – a mix of commuter, personal and trade travel.
I catch my first sight of the striped swizzle sticks along the waters edge the pali da casada advertising where you can pick up a gondola boat ride. Their bright stripes were once indicative of the family colours of whoever owned the gondola, and placed there so people could recognise mooring points at night.
We reach our stop and the boat pulls up and we hop ashore with our luggage. I’m half expecting the ground to wobble when we step off, but the centuries-old strong timber are doing their work.
We make our way to our hotel which is located in Santa Croce, a couple of neighbourhoods across from the central St Marks. There’s really no way to get your bearings, each narrow passageway merely a warren of little alleys between high-sided buildings where turning side-on to pass oncoming strollers is a frequent requirement, and walking two abreast is only just viable. Venice is also not really a place for walking with your eyes glued to your smartphone – unless you want a splashy surprise – as often a turn around a blind corner will lead to a dead-end of water, and with no barriers one could easily fall in if not paying attention.
We reach our destination and our hotel is a quaint little place with impossibly steep stone staircases, Murano glass chandeliers and a mismatched assortment of paintings on the walls. Old regency era furniture and writing desks scatter the landings, and embroidered silks adorn both bedspreads and curtains.
We dump our bags and head back out into the afternoon making the Ponte di Rialto and Piazza San Marco our first destinations. The Rialto Bridge, the oldest of the four bridges which span The Grand Canal, was originally built from wood but then rebuilt with stone in the 1500’s. It’s covered walkways on either side are lined with shops selling a variety of souvenirs from Murano glass to Venetian masks and leather goods. There’s tons of tourists stopping for a picture on the top, but the most impressive views come from looping underneath to look back at the striking facade of the bridge itself.
We reach St Marks Square, entering with the Basilica to the left and slightly behind of us, which connects to the Doge’s Palace before opening out on to The Grand Canal. The Campanile (bell tower), one of Venice’s most recognisable landmarks, stands in the shadow of the Basilica, and the other three sides of the square are flanked by a Renaissance arcade, once the homes of high officers of state but now accommodating expensive shops and cafés.
There’s lots of up-turned wooden platforms on metal legs stacked here and there ready to lay out and allow people to walk across the square during the Acqua Alta – the periodic flooding that besieges Venice every year which is caused by high tides forcing water from the Adriatic Sea into the lagoon (though thankfully this doesn’t happen during our stay).
We leave further exploration of the Piazza until tomorrow and head back through the nest of passages, clocking more and more gondolas punting down the canals by men dressed in striped shirts and straw boater hats.
A quick change at the hotel and we are off out for the evening. One thing that’s often noted about Venice is how difficult it can be to find good places to eat, especially in the tourist spots where eateries are crammed into every corner, but, being big fans of Italian food, we want some authentic cuisine for our stay, so have done our research and head a little further out of the centre.
We ramble blindly down dark alleyways, empty and quiet except for the echoes of our own footsteps on the pavement below. We amble up and down over little bridges, meandering past busy coffee shops and Osterias filled with groups of people stood about drinking and chatting.
We reach our destination but sadly our first port of call, a little cocktail bar in the trendy San Polo district, is closed (the winter months being a quieter season) and so we double back to a glass-fronted place Il Vizietto, we saw earlier. The bar staff are friendly and welcoming and the hip vibe wouldn’t be amiss in Manchester’s Northern Quarter with Brewdog IPA on tap to boot. We plump to try the Spritz, a Venetian delicacy, which at only 3 euros a glass seems like the perfect aperitif. It come with a side of complementary cold cuts on tiny toasts, another Venetian practice called cicchetti – small snacks accompanying a drink.
The bar has a quiet ambiance and so we stay for another, this time Prosecco, before heading to our to our chosen restaurant, where the waiters all wear headsets and seamlessly guide us to our table. We start with a Caprese Salad made from Burrata cheese, cream spilling out as we cut into its plump skin, hungrily devouring forkfuls of the soft salty flesh. My main is cuttlefish cooked in ink, a muddy dark rich flavour, served with soft polenta, a cornmeal creamy porridge originally associated with the lower classes but now a staple ingredient of Italian cuisine.
I eat every last morsel as we share a bottle of wine and good conversation, before finally rolling home full and happy, eager for shut-eye and a restorative sleep. I’m a big fan of this little lagoon-island so far, excited to see what tomorrow’s explorations bring, and as I drift off I hope it includes at least another Spritz or two.