+ CLOSE

It was a dark and stormy night and the Bora was shrieking in off the Adriatic, whipping up the canals of Venice and sandblasting everything in its way with subzero temperatures. Rugged up against this elemental force we bent forward into the wind as we made our way home from the warmth of a tiny trattoria in the ancient Castello district. Few other brave souls were as hellbent on a finding a good tiramisu as we were, and the streets were empty. As we passed a deserted alleyway, I saw a figure in a doorway, dressed in an elaborate 18th century red silk dress. She turned disinterestedly to us, her face painted an eerie white, her eyes masked with black filigree. Strangely, this lone bordello vision was the only authentic part of Carnivale we saw during our time there, the rest a tacky circus of tourists in cheap masks, wigged and powdered locals posing for photographs and vying for the title of King and Queen of Carnivale (that’s a toilet trophy if ever I heard of one), and Billy Joel covers blaring out to the small crowds on St Mark’s Square.

Despite the disappointment of Carnivale, we took our time simply enjoying living in this ancient city. Having family in tow, we took the ground floor of a palazzo directly opposite Salute so there would be room to run amok. The water taxi dropped us directly at our private pier on the Grand Canal, which was wedged between the Palazzo Il Bauer and the Gritti Palace. This was serious real estate, but we didn’t need a concierge or daily room servicing, and as an apartment we paid about a quarter of the price you would pay for a suite in either of those hotels. In fact, the apartment was so huge, on the first day I became quite lost looking for one of the (four) bathrooms.

Mornings we would stand in a local bar with a latte macchiato and a cornetto marmellata before catching the vaporetto up to the Rialto markets for provisions – juicy Clementines, candy striped wafers of speck, mozzarella panini and bright green pesto. Frosty afternoons and evenings were spent watching the Grand Canal traffic go by from our toasty living room, or on sunnier days, our private pontoon, replete with cushions (and steel barrier – to keep out the tide and the water rats). The rest of the time we would wander the ancient districts of Castello, or my new favourite, San Polo, just marvelling at centuries old architecture built on every available inch of 117 separate islands, each with its own church and bridges.  We would find tiny trattorias and bars, or sit out in the winter sun whilst our little one chased pigeons or took a ride on a carousel, then wind our way slowly home, sometimes on foot, sometimes by ferry, sometimes perched precariously on a traghetto as it bobbed amongst the garbage boat, the police boat, the construction boat, or even the gelati boat.

Having seen most of the sights previously, we felt no need to rush, and had time to ignore the Basilica and tourist crush of San Marco in favour of lesser known landmarks such as Palazzo Grimani (spectacular – with an exhibition of Hieronymous Bosch during our visit which worked wonders on our small child’s demeanour after I explained to him what happened to the naughty people).  We made our pilgramage to the Guggenheim as usual, and as usual it didn’t disappoint, with an excellent exhibition on the Vorticists. We followed that with a visit to Palazzo Grassi, which I disliked immensely, finding very little in the bland collection which was genuinely thought provoking. I did love the surrounding area of San Samuele though, with its tiny enotecas, galleries and antiquarian shops, perhaps one of the more authentic corners of San Marco.

Friends have been amazed that we could spend more than two days in Venice, but despite its expense and the undoubted crush it presents from hosting twenty million tourists a year, it is a genuinely wondrous city with much to offer when savoured at leisure.