With its domes and towers reflected in the calm lagoon, Venice is a place where land, sea and sky seem to slip their fixed boundaries and drift in and
out of one another’s reveries.
Lose that checklist of top-10 sights and wander through a real Venetian neighbourhood. Try Castello, east of San Marco. In its maze of lanes – and that’s not a metaphor – see gondoliers’ stripey shirts hanging out to dry between ochre-hued houses with windows that are close enough to share whispered gossip (and generate it).
Stop at neighbourhood bar and cake shop Bar Pasticceria di Chiusso Pierino (Salizada dei Greci 3306; +39 041 523 1611) for a macchiatone (a Venetian specialty, halfway between a caffè macchiato and a cappuccino) and a freshly baked brioche.
Not far from the Arsenale shipyards – which could turn out a galleon a day in the early 16th century – is an area that became a magnet for Venice’s large Greek and Dalmatian populations. In 1502, the latter asked painter Vittore Carpaccio to decorate the walls of their Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni with scenes from the lives of their patron saints. The visual stories are rich in I-spy detail, such as the little dog in the Saint Augustine panel, its ears cocked as if expecting a treat.
Wend north to San Francesco della Vigna church and monastery, where sandalled monks grow vegetables in the shadow of the municipal gasworks. Then tack westwards to have lunch at Osteria alla Frasca (Cannaregio 5176; +39 041 241 2585), everyone’s vision of the perfect, hidden Venetian trattoria. Friendly owner Bruno is a talented blues guitarist, while Sicilian chef Giorgio riffs on the food, running a thread of good balsamic vinegar over seared calamari, cherry tomatoes, lamb’s lettuce and artichokes for the ideal spring salad.
Continue west into Cannaregio, where the canals host a distinctly Venetian eating and drinking scene – at its most atmospheric at Al Timon (Fondamenta dei Ormesini 2754; +39 041 524 6066), a wine bar that uses a moored barge as an alfresco lounge.
Gondola rides are for tourists but in this dream you get to row one. Set up by an Australian, Jane Caporal, the (almost) all- female association Row Venice offers hands-on lessons in Cannaregio’s quiet canals. The boat is a traditional “shrimp-tailed” batellina, not a gondola, but the oar technique is no different.
Have a quick ombra (glass of wine) before heading to the Fondamente Nove water-bus stop – destination Burano. Enjoy the ferry trip as the sun picks out the Julian Alps on the horizon and enjoy still more the sight of packed boats heading in the other direction. On this island of paintbox-coloured fishermen’s houses, timing your arrival for aperitivo time (7pm in summer) hands you a golden hour of light and the chance to hang out with the locals as Burano kicks back and relaxes over a spritz.
On Burano, the rooftop of great little seafood restaurant Riva Rosa has an altana (wooden terrace) where the intimate table for two can be booked in advance. What was it that Omar Khayyam once wrote? Spaghetti with cuttlefish ink, a glass of wine – and thou? Something along those lines. In a dream, nobody minds if you misquote a little.