That wealth meant Venice became home to magnificent palaces, villas, cathedrals and piazzas, all built around its
intricate, extensive network of canals. Jump on a gondola or vaporetto (water bus) and you’ll soon realise the city’s canals are not just for tourists. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Away from the Grand Canal, there is a thriving, working city. The narrow back street waterways are a liquid highway for all manner of boats and barges, carrying everything from cement bags to furniture, fresh produce, dirty laundry and rolls of turf.
“The tourists walk the streets but the real people of Venice are on the water every day. To see how they live, you have to be on the water too,” says Kuba, my charismatic gondolier.
You could happily while away the days ferry-hopping or getting lost in the Cannaregio or Castello quarters of the city. But there are plenty of sites to see as well. The Ca’ d’Oro or Golden House is a gothic waterfront palace, while the 16th century Ponte di Rialto is Venice’s most famous bridge, perfect for sunset shots framed by gondolas plying the waterways.
St Mark’s Basilica is loaded with more gold and gilt than Fort Knox, while Palazzo Ducale, the former seat of the government, is also a sumptuous affair, summing up Venice’s penchant for excess and decadence.
Despite its beauty, Venice has its problems. The city faces regular flooding, its islands are slowly sinking and its infrastructure is buckling under demand. Hotels and restaurants are expensive, and most citizens live on the mainland because of soaring house prices.
But once you escape the crowds for hidden canals or backstreet wine bars, it’s difficult to take these problems seriously. Venice has a lot to offer the traveller, and it’s a city that keeps on surprising.
Once you’ve checked out the city, spend a day visiting its surrounding islands. It’s a short vaporetto ride to Murano, famous for blown glass and crystal. There’s everything from shot glasses to giant leaping swordfish. Make sure you duck into a furnace workshop and see the glass blowers in action.
An hour further is Burano, a fishing village also famous for its lace, but leave that to the grannies and go exploring instead. The brightly coloured houses lining the canals are a photographer’s dream.
DEATH IN VENICE
There’s so much water and so little land that space is at a premium everywhere in Venice, especially on its cemetery island, San Michele. Here, you can only be buried for 10 years until they dig you up, send you to the mainland or to a crematorium, and the next bloke goes in the grave for his 10-year stint six feet under.