An obligatory gondola ride on the canals of Venice
You’ve probably heard Venice is a beautiful place. The good news is this is true. The bad news is that everyone else has heard all the same news as you.
Of the 110,000 people in Venice, about 55,000 are tourists. You’ll find many of these on the waterfront walk at the southernmost edge of Castello, one of the six sestieri that compose the city of Venice. They scramble for views of the famous gondolas, which here are amusingly gridlocked. When fulfilled by the view, they squeeze from the throng and are met by a phalanx of vendors. Should they evade the selfie-stick vendors, the sunglasses vendors and the vendors of impractical scarves, they are beset by vendors of souvenir umbrellas that read, mysteriously, “Paris”.
But all this bad news is yesterday’s news – actually, way beyond yesterday’s. Mary McCarthy concluded in 1956 that no stones are so trite as Venice’s. By this she meant no stones were so well worn, either by foot or by opinion. Venice joins Paris in being one of the most written about cities in Europe. Unlike Paris, it has the dubious honour of being one of the most complained about, too.
Enough issues confront the tourist of Venice to exhaust the most seasoned complainer. The Airbnbs are expensive, the hotels are worse, and the coffee should be indicted. Every moment in Venice delivers new proof that it feels little need to impress you. People like you are always visiting Venice, regardless of how poorly it treats them. Most galling is that the whole thing is so lovely you know you’ll come back again, too.
For much of the capital’s 1600-year history, impressing the world was a leading concern, and the city built by all those deceased Venetians is so often spectral and startling. It is tiny and tidy – you’ll cross it in an hour – but both these qualities are deceptive. Its shadowy streets narrow to dead-looking lanes, then burst into wide, viney courtyards. Step into these courts and pigeons explode from behind you like bad special effects. McCarthy called the city “a folding picture-postcard of itself” – it was tourists all the way down. You know this, but cunningly so much of it seems designed to persuade you otherwise.
Through Cannaregio, the northernmost sestiere, runs a strip that is lousy with vendors. They gain the attention through acts of surprise, swatting their selfie-sticks at passers-by. One afternoon, while dodging these vendors, I veered suddenly off the path. The lane led me out to a tranquil canal that stretched east, nearly to the ocean. The canal was flanked by barefooted students sipping wine from red plastic cups. The sun cut the path into blazing gold bars, giving the trite stones a new glare.
I cannot tell you the name of this walk, because I am bad at directions, and Venice is a warrenous town that makes mincemeat of far better travellers. Your GPS signal is bewitched instantly. Google Maps turns and goes running. This may be a gesture towards public safety on the part of the local authorities. While particular turns lead to charming canals, there are certainly paths that lead nowhere, and once you give up on the idea of watching the blue dot on your phone wander coyly all over the screen, you can get back to looking where you’re going and avoid tumbling into the water.
This is a plausible fate, according to internet sources. But beyond this, and the coffee, there is little else to avoid here. There is thick, cold gelati on every main street. There’s black cuttlefish and milky polenta. Once, the restaurants were famous among artists for their cheap food and lively atmospheres. Contemporary travellers will be delighted to learn that they now offer excellent wi-fi.
None of these things is quite the point of Venice; you can eat polenta at the airport. But I’m worried about disclosing my best tip. It’s like saying: “In Paris? Then check out the Louvre!”
Nonetheless, should you find yourself wandering morosely through Venice, feeling low about being a tourist, I want to prescribe you a gondola ride. It is an efficient corrective.
At €100 for a 30-minute ride, it is also far from the cheapest. To get the most out of it, I recommend cultivating a selective memory. When you’re old – and you must promise this – you’ll remember the ride, not its nasty effect on your savings. This is just one of many chances the city provides to practise creative accounting.
For the maximum chance of a memorable ride, you must time your experience carefully, because whoever comes up with the weather in Venice is unfit to make these decisions. The sky goes from zero to sunny to stormy and back in the space of an hour. Whole weather systems are birthed and married and divorced and buried by noon.
But after eight at night, a sorcerous process occurs overhead in the clouds. They begin to bleed whitely all over the sky, ’til the coverage is edgeless and total. They drape the whole city in a weird, weeping white, lovely and low to the water. This is the right time to venture to the waterfront and tussle your way through your fellow tourists.
You must push past the vendors and resist their strange scarves. (I bought one and never wear it.) When you get to the water, there the gondoliers are. There will be many to choose from.
If you choose wisely, your gondolier will be like mine: kind, and a little bit racist. “Russians. Yecch!” he said, apropos of nothing, and manoeuvred the boat out of the gridlock.
He oared me into a silent canal, where nobody had any curtains. Winnowing by in the dull drowsy light, it was easy to look through the windows. I hereby report that the Venetians have bathrooms and bookshelves and kitchens. I have seen the real Venice, its true secret heart, and it looks just like you’d imagine.
But beyond this canal is the primary reason that I recommend the gondola. There are other canals that are vastly less private. Strolling along them are those dreaded tourists.
An aspect of travel that is both attractive and sombre is the way it can make you anonymous. Especially in Venice, where there are so many of you: it’s easy to be a statistic. But a gondola ride smuggles you into the worn, waterlogged shoes of the city; it converts the tourist into the toured. There is nothing tourists like better than to take pictures of people in gondolas.
Parents discard their children, in the middle of hugs, to capture you at just the right moment. When you pass restaurants, forks pause on their way to the mouths of the most mesmerised honeymooners.
These are awkward encounters, ugly and unwelcome. Who goes around taking pictures of strangers? Especially strangers on a gondola ride, the most romantic of all possible occasions.
Tourists, you confirm, are the worst kind of people. They’re so rude. No wonder we hate them.
But it’s ruder to lodge this complaint while in Venice, which, after all, is composed of them.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2015 as "Rout canal". Subscribe here.