Venice without visitors is a joy. Lee Marshall revels in the tranquil moments of a changing city.
At the end of February 2021, I found myself standing on the Rialto Bridge in Venice with my wife, looking along the Grand Canal. We were alone in a spot that is generally a melee of jostling selfie snappers. Below, on one of the world’s most photographed stretches of water, instead of the usual navigational spaghetti of water taxis, delivery boats, waterbuses and gondoliers singing O Sole Mio, the canal was empty save for two female rowers skimming across its glassy surface in a sandolo – a kind of unadorned gondola. And that was it. For the first and probably last time in my life, I was experiencing Venice as a little-visited town of just over 50,000 souls on a quiet winter day.
I was back again in early September for the film festival, which happens on the Lido, the long breakwater island famous for its eclectic late-19th-century and early-20th-century seaside architecture and that protects the Venetian lagoon from the Adriatic Sea. Stars from Penélope Cruz to Timothée Chalamet were in town but in my 25th year of soaking up movies at the event, I’d learnt to let the glamour look after itself and enjoy simpler pleasures like dinner with friends at Osteria Al Mercà, a place in the former fish market that does fresh seafood with a minimum of fuss.
Over a Campari spritz, I asked Massimiliano, one of the owners, how the summer season had been. “Quite good,” he replied, “though most visitors were Italian. One evening, pretty much everyone who booked was from Verona.” This confirmed what I’d seen on my summer travels through the country I call home: it was a year when Italians rediscovered Italy, joined by a few other intrepid visitors from mainland Europe. American, Asian and Australasian travellers were, as the locals say, più unici che rari – so rare as to be unique. “One day,” an English friend who lives in Venice told me, “I suddenly realised that it was ages since I’d heard a wheeled suitcase being dragged along the street outside.”
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While predictions that Venice will be forever changed are probably wide of the mark, there are signs that it won’t go back to those stressful days (last experienced in the summer of 2019) when visitors outnumbered residents by more than two to one.
A local campaign against large cruise ships in the lagoon – responsible for damage to the fragile ecosystem and tourist overcrowding, activists say – bore fruit in July this year when the Italian government banned oversized ships from sailing close to the city’s historic centre. In August, the city council voted to introduce entry turnstiles and a tax on daytrippers from the second half of 2022, in order to encourage overnight stays.
While the port authority workers and others who are employed in the sector are unhappy at the cruise ship ban, many Venetians saw little benefit from the daily invasion (daytrippers make up 80 per cent of total visitors but typically spend just €5 to €20 each in the city). They won’t miss the floating cities, some so tall they were only topped by the bell towers of St Mark’s and San Giorgio.
On my two trips this year, I began to reflect on what advice I’d give someone new to Venice who’s been dreaming of visiting the city through the dark days of the pandemic. After the return to some kind of normal, how might they experience the place I’d been so lucky to see – the quiet, relaxed Venice of the Venetians?
The first and most important rule is to stay over. It doesn’t matter where, as long as it’s in historic island Venice. Nothing beats getting up in the morning and wandering into a local café like Rosa Salva in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo or tiny Da Bonifacio behind the Doge’s Palace (Calle Dei Albanesi, Castello; +39 041 522 7507) for a macchiatone – a halfway house between cappuccino and caffè macchiato – and a kipferl, a meltingly good almond and flaky pastry croissant that is a legacy of the city’s Austro-Hungarian occupation.
In the evening, after the day visitors have taken the train back to the mainland, Venice breathes easy again. Plot a route for an after-dinner stroll that takes you past hidden marvels, such as the aptly named Santa Maria dei Miracoli, a marble jewel casket of a church, or make this the hour when you finally allow yourself to walk into St Mark’s Square, its elegant arcades illuminated by hundreds of lamps.
This part of the piazza is one of the lowest points on island Venice so it’s especially prone to the periodic flooding known as acqua alta. Extreme floods like those of November 2019 are devastating for the city and its inhabitants but the lower overflows that Venetians have always lived with can be undeniably romantic. I once watched a couple dancing a waltz in the square, knee-high in water.
My other piece of advice is to make the effort to see the lessvisited parts of the city and the lagoon, like the quays of northern Cannaregio lined with bars and restaurants, such as Al Timon and Anice Stellato, which cater more to locals than tourists. Pass beneath festoons of washing in backstreets near the Church of San Lorenzo, where great Venetian explorer Marco Polo is interred, or take a waterbus out to one of the small islands of the northern lagoon, like pretty Torcello.
In the early Middle Ages, Torcello was far more important than Venice itself; today, it’s a charming semi-rural place with a restaurant – the Locanda Cipriani, which was a favourite of Ernest Hemingway – and an ancient church, Santa Maria Assunta, which glows inside with precious 11th-century mosaics. When we headed over to Torcello one misty morning during our February visit, the only other people to get off the boat were the postman and a woman carrying a brand-new shovel, which we later saw her using to dig her artichoke beds. Come in “high season” and there might be 10 other people.
If all other inspiration fails, you can always play a game I invented to keep my tired daughter from collapsing in a sobbing heap in Venice several years ago. It involves taking the first on the left followed by the first on the right followed by the first on the left… and so on, until you get to an ice-cream shop. Grown-ups might like to replace the gelateria with a bacaro, a traditional Venetian osteria and wine bar. It’s a simple enough exercise – silly, even – but for me it has a point. Venice is at its best when you throw away the guidebook, turn off the location services and let yourself get gloriously lost.