a day in venice
What would you do with a single day in the sinking city? Chelsea Davies explored in the off-season.
We wake to a morning of monochrome grey, though the promise of a brighter afternoon hides behind clouds like a scolded child. The canal water sloshes over pavements stained with the rise and fall of an encroaching sea and my boots crunch over debris. I feel restless, but in the best way; the kind of ache that inspires last minute travel to gather a fresh perspective on a familiar destination. I take a breath of briny air. Venice awaits, and she’s impatient to be explored.
My sister, Mollie, and I are here for just one day. We visited the sinking city two years ago. Then, I was disappointed by the heavy humidity, heaving crowds and sticky maze of streets. That was summer, in the midst of a heatwave. Now, in the off-season – the bookend between winter and spring – and with the lure of a city break for under a hundred pound, Venice is the ideal location to get lost on my own terms.
In Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, the air is thick with the call of gulls. So many, there is perhaps more birds than people. The locals seem unfazed as they stand drinking their caffè around the outdoor bars, but I keep a wary eye on the sky – and a hand over my latte macchiato. The gulls swoop for the fresh produce offered by a nearby stall, fish of all colours and sizes stacked on melting ice. The smell is fitting of the setting, the stand sat at the intersection where the canal meets the open sea.
The whole street, wide and wonkily cobbled, is a fresh produce market. The food looks juicy, the fruit as bright as jewels, the vegetables far bigger than that packaged in plastic on supermarket shelves. Thick strands of salsiccia fresca wrap around the wooden support beams of the market stands like vines. A bird is lucky in his pursuit for scraps of food and snatches a cut of the fish. He flies to the steeple of a nearby church, just one of many on this island city.
The streets are winding, each marked by buildings with peeling, sun-bleached paint and the reflection of canals wavering on charmingly crumbled brickwork. We cross bridges and pass shop fronts crowded with detailed carnival masks and colourful glass beads. I stop to admire the vibrant shades of the beads more than once, holding them up to the emerging sun so that they throw bold patterns onto my skin.
Venice is famous for glassmaking and the neighbouring island, Murano, has been the centre of glass production since the thirteenth century. We don’t have time to visit during our short stay, but here is a little of the famous glass the island is renowned for. I choose a few beads to remember my time here, settling on a dusty pink, a turquoise blue and a buttery yellow that looks like hardened caramel.
Often, we walk paths no wider than my outstretched arms. My fingers catch the maze-like walls and they’re damp to the touch. I look up to see the afternoon sky is a thin line in the distance.
A scent distinctive to the passage of water lingers in these streets. The salty tang of the sea, seaweed dried in the sun, the smell of concrete after a rainstorm. Strangely, I find I enjoy the signature scent of the city. It’s unique to a location at constant battle with a rising ocean.
After many twists and turns, backtracks and dead ends leading to the water, we eventually find ourselves on the plain of Piazza San Marco. It’s the principal public square in the city and the main stage of Venice Carnival which takes place for two weeks between February and March. Mollie and I have missed it by a day. I’m disappointed, but at least we can enjoy the piazza without fighting through the crowds.
The groups of tourists are evident by shouts in multiple languages, although they’re greatly reduced compared to the heaving masses seen throughout the summer months. In a weekday of the off-season, the square is almost void of people. I try to imagine what it looked like during the finale of carnevale. I imagine bright streamers, alluring masks and throbbing music. The only evidence of a city-wide party are traces of confetti clumped in the cracks between paving stones.
We enter St Mark's Basilica, the main attraction of the piazza, without a pause of breath. Whatever light that enters the cathedral is absorbed by hundreds of mosaic tiles shielding the ceiling in golden armour. By trailing a guided tour, I learn there are more than eight-thousand square meters of mosaics spread throughout the cathedral completed at various stages across eight centuries. The interior is beautiful and incredibly grand. Yet, there’s a heavy quiet to this place. It makes me nervous, and the shutter of my camera is almost obscene in the silence. It’s a relief to fall under the open sky once again.
The breeze blows saltwater off the open sea but we’re sheltered by the columned walls of the Doge’s Palace. Mollie and I enter the former seat of the city’s government, admiring the colourful courtly scenes that hang on richly decorated walls. Then, from one place of history to another, we pay our respects to the Bridge of Sighs. Once, prisoners were taken across here in chains to be executed. It’s so-called as they would sigh as they took a final look at Venice. The view is glorious; gleaming gondolas, a stretch of turquoise water and architecture that looks permanently stained by the colours of a glorious sunset.
We walk further beyond the crowded balustrade towards the Arsenale di Venezia. This area is quieter and civilian boats bob on rising waves. It makes my heart sink. I know the island city will eventually be lost to the sea, though it's still a shock to witness water rising onto pavements where it should not reach. I splash in the shallows, wondering if optimism in the face of uncertainty is a requirement of permanent residency.
We turn inland, losing ourselves to the floods until, accidentally, we find Libreria Acqua Alta. The bookstore, tucked between two peach-coloured brick apartment buildings, is a mess of literature in all languages; a chaotic mess of publications, antique prints and newspapers stacked, piled and balanced on any available surface. I sneeze. I think this place is wonderful.
A gondola, stuffed with books, rests precariously on wooden floorboards. The dark lacquer is marked with water stains. I take a handful of paperbacks from the boat and flick through them as I explore the bookstore. They’re romance, judging by the covers. A draft enters through an open window, stirring pages and wafting the smell of paper. It’s more delicious than baking bread.
In a small courtyard of the bookshop, I exclaim at a stairway constructed of hardback books that juts out from the wall. I spot a reading room slowly being reclaimed by the canal edge it exists on. The water is dangerously close to the stone ledge of the open doorway. I abandon my collection of romance – bar one, which features period costume and a balcony on the cover – and take a seat on the faded floral armchair, waves lapping the toe of my boots.
The sun finally makes its way through the clouds, and I watch dust motes dance in the shards of light cast by the shadows of the window shutters. I’m content, lost in the best possible way.
I notice details on our departure. The way the canals react to the motion of boats, the caress of dawn on the water. The morning sun is warm on my face, making it so much harder to abandon my time here to memory.
Venice shrinks in a haze that awakens the city with a golden kiss and reveals the crest of mountains on the distant horizon. Their snow-capped peaks are a dusting of cream that perfectly capture the colours of the rising sun.