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Avoid the tourists and enjoy Venice

SEEK OUT THE HIDDEN CORNERS

Venice has been called the most beautiful city in the world, and few would argue with that. It is the only city I know of where “just looking” makes your visit a delight. No need to search out works of art or fine restaurants or to shop for antiques or jewellery – although there are plenty of opportunities to do all of that.

The joy lies in walking for hours, freed by the absence of cars, charmed by the life of the canals, mesmerised by the elegant, crumbling facades of a fairy-tale city built on water.

But to fears that Venice may be sinking under the Adriatic you could add the fear that it will sink under the weight of tourists. Threading your way through the throngs in St Mark’s Square, struggling against the crowds on the Rialto Bridge or trying to squeeze onto a waterbus, it’s easy to understand why Venetians are discussing ways to return Venice to the Venetians. One suggestion is that tourists should have to pre-book their visits to the city with only a certain number admitted each day.

Alessandra Smith, a spokeswoman for the Italian State Tourist Board, proposes an alternative solution: encourage tourists to visit the less well-known areas of the city, like the working class district of Cannaregio. The largest of the six “sestieri” that make up Venice, Cannaregio includes the Rialto Bridge, the train station and the former Jewish ghetto. On my recent visit, I planned to follow Ms Smith’s suggestion. But like almost every other tourist to Venice I felt compelled to visit St Mark’s Square first. It seemed only polite – like greeting your host at a party before helping yourself to the buffet. On a summer evening when the last rays of the sun glint on the Basilica’s domes and the lights are coming on in the square, St Mark’s looks its best. Then you may see why Napoleon called it ‘the most beautiful drawing room in Europe’. At other times, it’s harder. The advertising hoardings recently permitted in the square, the hordes of trudging tourists and the flocks of soot coloured pigeons don’t help. Nevertheless, the piazza still seems the centre of Venice, as it has been since it was transformed from an orchard in the 9th century.

As for that magnificent basilica, its website suggests it need take no longer than 10 minutes to see what’s inside, a suggestion no doubt influenced by the desire to keep the queue moving. The ceiling composed of golden mosaics is glorious as is the “pala d’oro”, the Byzantine altar screen studded with almost 2,000 precious stones and patterned with tiny cloisonné figures.

Entrance to the basilica is free but there’s a small charge to view the pala d’oro. Avoid the queue by booking admission up to 48 hours
in advance at www.basilicasanmarco.it.

From the piazza, it’s a 15-minute walk to Cannaregio. It took me much longer because I’d set off from the piazza in the wrong direction. So I detoured to visit the rebuilt La Fenice. The arson attack that gutted the theatre in 1996 is described in John Berendt’s book, The City of Fallen Angels. The day after fire destroyed the city’s beloved opera house, the stricken city resolved to rebuild La Fenice “as and where it stood”. The meticulously reconstructed building reopened seven years later with a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata, which had premiered at La Fenice in 1853. I was lucky enough to get a ticket for a modern production of La Traviata on the evening of my visit. Failing that, I would have taken the 45 minute audio-guided tour to admire the spectacular interior, a recreation of the 18th century original based on photographs and on the opening shots of Luchino Visconti’s Senso, which were filmed in La Fenice.

From La Fenice, whose neighbours include some very elegant jewellery and fashion boutiques, it was a straightforward stroll to the Rialto. This famous 16th century stone bridge supports a narrow street which runs up one side of it and down the other; not very long ago the merchants on the bridge sold expensive jewellery. Most of them now sell souvenirs. Just beyond the bridge lies
Venice’s famous food market, a magnet for photographers. Still further along on the Grand Canal is the St Lucia train station, by my reckoning one of only three downright ugly buildings in Venice. The other two are a hotel and a bank. And just beyond that, stands Santiago Calatrava’s controversial bridge, only the fourth to be built over the Grand Canal in the city’s long history. The 94-metre, single arching span links Venice’s railway station with Piazzale Roma, where cars, buses and ferries come to a halt at the doorstep of Venice. Built of steel and tempered glass, detractors point out that ‘Constitution Bridge’ is stylistically out of place, has no access for the disabled and that at a cost of €20m, it was four times over budget. Admirers call it a ‘bridge of light’. It reminded me of a rainbow. But if you are tempted to go over this rainbow be warned. The steps are in varying heights and depths and in the first month after the bridge was opened, 10 people stumbled badly enough to need hospital treatment.

Turning away from the Grand Canal and moving ‘inland’ you are soon deep into Cannaregio, a modest mini-Venice. Its main street – Strada Nova – has an outdoor market and the shops, restaurants and cafes seem to be geared and priced for locals, not tourists. The broad Cannaregio Canal links the Grand Canal with the lagoon and, like the Grand Canal, is served by water buses. This is where the world’s first “ghetto” was established in 1516, when the disused copper foundry dump was sealed off and the Jews of Venice were required to live inside the walls, forbidden to leave the enclosure between dusk and dawn. Napoleon ended that restriction in 1797. The area is no longer enclosed but its two synagogues continue to serve Venice’s 1,000 remaining Jews. A holocaust memorial, a series of seven bronze bas-reliefs, is installed on a wall in the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo. The museum of Jewish history offers half-hour guided tours every day but Saturdays and holidays.

Tours begin at 10:30. For details, see: www.ghetto.it.

The artist Tintoretto and his family lived in Cannaregio on the Fondmento dei Mori. His ashes are buried in the 14th/15th century Church of Madonna dell Orto. It’s not the only church in this sestiere with works by Tintoretto (for example, San Marziale has his first commissioned altarpiece) but this church is the only one where you can see 11 Tintorettos in one place. The church is open Monday to
Saturday 10:00 to 17:00. There are no Tintoretto’s in San Geremia, but this 18th century church holds the body of Saint Lucy, patron saint of the blind and of those with eye trouble. This young martyr from Sicily, whose eyes were said to have been plucked out by the Romans when she refused to marry a Pagan, lies in a glass coffin under the altar. Stolen from Constantinople by the crusaders, the relic
was enshrined in the Palladian Church of St Lucia in Venice. When that church was demolished to make way for the railway station, the body was moved to the Church of San Geremia, from which armed raiders stole it once again in 1981. It was found a month later in a hunting lodge. The relic now wears a silver mask but her naked feet are visible. One hopes her travels are over.

The church is open Monday to Saturday from 08:30 to 12:00 and from 16:00 to 18:00, and Sunday from 09:30 to 12:15.

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