Venice suffers from a multitude of sins, according to travellers’ wisdom. It is smelly and dirty, heaves with tourists, the restaurants are hideously overpriced and, worse, it is sinking. But by braving the savage gusts of Adriatic wind blowing off the canals in the winter, which banish all but the completely determined visitor and expel all but the most pungent smells, a visitor to La Serenissima can at least avoid two of those perilous downfalls.
Gliding into Marco Polo airport on a Friday evening in mid February proffers outstanding views of a city whose image, so widely documented, is already firmly stamped on the imagination of those who’ve yet to visit.But even that brief glimpse of the campanile of St Mark’s square through the golden light of a winter sunset, and the meandering bends of the Grand Canal, does little to detract from the excitement of arriving at the city gates and catching the first sight of a small wooden bridge arching over a narrow canal lit by streetlamps.
There is little point trying to pretend that a four-day trip to Venice, regardless of the time of year chosen to travel, will not require an armoury of patience with the omnipresent crowds, especially in St Mark’s square (and much disguising of disdain at the sight of children with their arms full of pigeons feeding off bags of recently purchased nuts). However, with seemingly little effort, it is perfectly possible to drift off into the perimeters of the city centre to enjoy what it has to offer in relative tranquillity.
A well-honed sense of direction is of little use in Venice, where instinct and curiosity will yield a far more rewarding experience. And there are streets within the Cannaregio parish that almost guarantee solitude. Once such place is the Ghetto: an island where, in the sixteenth century, all Jews were ordered to live, the compactness of which only be appreciated from within. Its serenely quiet central square is surrounded by apartment blocks that are seven storeys high. Overcrowding – and a ruling that buildings were not allowed to be more than one third taller than the rest of Venice – meant that storeys were made as low as possible to fit in the maximum number of floors. Space was at such a premium that synagogues were built on top of the apartment blocks.
Further towards the centre, if the Piazza San Marco has not been flooded by the acqua alta, Venice’s seasonal flooding which generally occurs between October and March, the best time to visit the square is just as dawn begins to break. In the depths of winter, the idea of clambering out of a warm bed with outside temperatures hovering just above zero, may not be altogether appealing but it’s worth it. During these early moments of the day, the square will be deserted except for the odd street sweeper or cafe owner opening up for the day’s trade.
Of course, none of the sites open to the public until later on in the morning, but lots of Venice’s charm derives just as much from wandering around the outsides of the buildings as the insides. Properties in the Dorsoduro parish have recently become very popular with wealthy Italian financiers and industrialists investing in Venetian weekend retreats. Some of the finest smaller houses in Venice were built here as it covers the largest area of firm silt in the city centre.
Aside from the Ponte dell’Accademia, and the gallery of the same name, other must-sees in the area include the huge church of Santa Maria della Salute, whose dome dominates the southern Venetian skyline, and Peggy Guggenheim’s eclectic collection of 20th-century modern art.
For many visiting Venice in February, the main attraction will of course be Carnevale. A ten-day festival celebrating the start of Lent which finishes on Shrove Tuesday with a masked ball. Banned by Mussolini, carnival was reinstated in the late seventies and has made the city synonymous with a party which rivals Rio in extravagance and glamour.
No need to be disappointed, however, if arriving before the start of the festivities, for such is the hype of the party that even in the week leading up to the start of carnival the atmosphere in Venice is notably heightened. Children run through the streets dressed as mini-pierrots and groups of expectant young men throw handfuls of pastel-coloured confetti at pretty girls in the anticipation that it will provoke a positive response.