One of the truly classic European travel images has to be that of a guy wearing a stripey T-shirt and straw hat, coolly steering a canoodling couple along the Venetian canals in an old-fashioned gondola. But times are a-changing.
Today I’m swapping the stripey tee for a waterproof paddling jacket, the hat for a tiny headlamp and the gondola for a kayak, as I’m off to explore this iconic network of waterways using my own paddle power.
My guide Rene and I start off in daylight at 5.30pm from the lilliputian landmass of La Certosa, which is one of the 118 islands that make up Venice. This was a military base up until the Fifties, and army precision is definitely required right now as Rene fits me out with a buoyancy aid, and a spray cover which goes over the cockpit hole, so that I don’t get too wet.
The final part of my get-up is the tiny headlamp, along with a navigational light on the rear of my boat so we can be seen by other vessels when the light fades.
Once I’m in this ensemble I look as if I should be going down a coal mine rather than taking a gentle paddle through the sparkling turquoise waters that the city sits on, but Rene assures me I’ll be grateful of it later on.
He gives me a quick refresher on kayaking technique: “Sit upright, keep a relaxed grip on the paddle,” he tells me, adding, more enigmatically: “It’s not about how much energy you spend, but how you spend your energy.” Got it.
I’m soon back in the swing of things and before I know it my paddles are cutting cleanly through the water. Rene guides me towards the island cemetery of San Michele, where Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky among other luminaries are buried.
It’s an eerie place, but beautiful – brush-like sprouts of green foliage stand aloft of high brick walls with prominent white arches, underneath a pale sky smattered with clouds as puffed-up as candyfloss.
Despite the stunning setting, being near so many graves puts me on edge, so I up my pace, as I follow Rene down one of the 177 canals, passing by pastel Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings, all of which are in various stages of the elegantly tragic decay Venice is famous for.
I stop paddling for a few minutes just to watch as shafts of early evening, fading sunlight bounce off the waves and fall on the old, creaking foundations of these once magnificent houses. Now darkness begins to descend as our journey takes us into one historic canal after another.
Venice is divided into six sestieri (neighbourhoods) and we take a route through them, crossing the waterways of the Rios de San Luca, dei Fuseri and dei Bareteri. Eventually my arms begin to tire and I realise I’ve rowed at least four kilometres already.
My strokes become a little sloppy, and the canal traffic is heavy: vaporetto, water taxis and gondolas are everywhere I look. Suddenly I see a speedboat is heading right for me – it’s sink or swim time.
I paddle backwards furiously in a complicated manoeuvre, and just manage to get out of the way as it whizzes by me, avoiding what would have been a nasty collision. It’s certainly got my heart racing but, as Rene reminds me, this is all part of getting to see a new side of the Venetian canals.
“Travelling in a gondola is just a passive experience, where you’re taken along at a snail’s pace. But in one of our boats you’re in for an engaging adventure,” he tells me.
We cruise on down Rio de San Giuliano and Rio Palazzo, passing under the distinctive Venetian arched bridges. The blissful and gloomy faces of sculptures and stone-barred windows swing into view as we approach the white facade of the Bridge of Sighs.
Folklore has it that if lovers kiss under this 1602-built structure while in a gondola during sunset, everlasting affection will be bestowed upon them. It might be the right time of the evening, but I’m sans lover as I drift underneath, and not sure if a kayak would cut it anyway.
For locking down eternal love, it might not be quite the thing, but I decide that for every other aspect of exploring Venice, this awesome mode of transport is all I need.
Venice Kayak runs a variety of tours starting from £75pp for a half-day excursion.
More quirky city tours at tntmagazine.com/weirdtours
Getting there: Fly from London Gatwick to Venice from £72 return with easyJet.
Eat, drink, sleep
Budget: If you want a little break from Venetian fare, check out Frary’s. This Middle Eastern (Greek and Arab) restaurant’s two-course lunchtime meal is only £10. (San Polo 2559, tel. + 041 720 050)
Midrange: You can’t find better value in town than the pizzeria Dai Tosi. Its rustic environs are the perfect place to grab several tasty versions of this Italian signature dish. Mains from £9.
Luxury: Michelin-starred Da Fiore is regarded by many as the finest restaurant in Venice. A particular standout is rolls of monkfish with pig’s cheeks and asparagus in a ginger and lemon marinade. Mains from £32.
Budget: Change the mood slightly with the eponymous genre at Bacaro Jazz (above). Practically next to the Rialto Bridge, you can sup on two beers for just £3.80 during happy hour.
Midrange: A main feature of bar-cum-cafe Orange is that the major design features are actually in that funky colour. Chockablock with Venice’s bright young things, don’t miss the chance to sit on this venue’s exquisite terrace. Drinks from £4.
Luxury: Offering one of the best vistas in Venice, the Skyline Rooftop Bar is the summit of the Hilton Hotel. Glasses of wine start at £6 while the cheapest cocktails are £13.50.
Budget: Clean, tidy and with uber-friendly staff, Ca’ Venezia is centrally located just steps away from the majestic San Marco Square. Dorm beds from £22pn.
Midrange: Alla Vite Dorata is a quaint first class inn that’s just been restored. A treat at mealtimes is that you get a breathtaking view of Rio di Ca’ Dolce. Single rooms from £59.50pn.
Luxury: Opulence and sophistication collide in the Palazzo Abadessa (above). It’s set in a splendid 16th-century built palace and has a private garden that is out of this world. Single rooms from £80pn.
Photos: Thinkstock; Getty; Rene Seindal