Mystery, magic and masks in Venice

Venice: secrets, reflections and darkness

It’s midnight in Venice, or close enough, and the sky stretches above me into an infinity of black. Starlight and a tiny full moon, high in the heavens. I am walking underneath a full moon by a canal filled with gondolas and vaporettos and the light off the water from the palazzos. I am entranced by Venice, enchanted by the silkiness of her canals and smooth cobblestones and twisted, mysterious streets. Our room is in an old palazzo, subdivided into a very modern apartment in the heart of Cannaregio. There are Byzantine-Gothic windows; peaked arches and crumbling, decaying facades. The city is romantic, full of secrets and reflections and darkness.

Gondolas in Venice

Her secrets are never meant to be shared, except by shared discovery – she is intimate, delightful, surprising. We walk her cobblestones, stop and look in the windows of shops. There is always something new just around the corner – a breath of fresh air, a scent of the Adriatic, a blue-green canal, a blackhulled gondola drifting past, the slip and slide of oars, the whisper of secrets, the swish of a cloak vanishing around the corner, the flitter of masked figures. A sunset and sunrise and light flowing into corners and crannies.

The symbol of St Mark’s, the winged lion

The city is tiny, entirely walkable – we spend days at Piazza San Marco, days in her streets. We join the flocks of tourists – up the Campanile, down in the endless, gold gilt, heavily ceremonious rooms of the Doge’s Palace, inside the Basillica’s mosaiced domes. Every day except the one we awake early enough to chase the sunrise, I indulge in the luxury of late breakfast in bed – flaky, buttery apricot cornettos and steaming cups of espresso. Wandering feet across stone bridges, beneath signs, gorgeous palazzi, liquid light, last light, first light… Venice is a sigh in the night, mist in the morning, the arch of a back, a slow wink, a summers seabreeze, a black mask. She is beautiful beyond belief.

Cafes in Saint Mark’s Square

Exploring Venice

One day we find the squero, the gondola yards, in Dorsudoro, explore artisan shops, selling antiques and dusty, leathery books. There is a wonderful, eclectic, huge bookstore housing an old upturned boat, and books piled into a black gondola inside the building. A basketful of cats sit by the entrance soaking up attention; there are books in every major language here, and rows and rows of dusty classical volumes. There are papieres, cafes, gelatos to eat in sunny squares. In a campo just around the corner from where we live, in our cosy little bed & breakfast in Canneregio, a local flea market is on full swing during Easter Monday.

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Venice Rialto Bridge
The Rialto Bridge

Another day we go hunting for, and find finally, on the second attempt, a mask shop we like – there are dozens dotted over the city, but only a few sell authentic papier mache made-in-Venice products, unlike the tawdry plastic on offer in the tourist areas. We each choose a mask, carefully, a matching pair half covering the face. We talk about coming back for Carnevale together next year; what costumes we want, about making reservations at the same bed and breakfast rooms.

Trying on masks in Venice

One day we walk the length of the Molo, all the way into East Castello. As usual, with Venice, it is the unplanned, the untamed and unassuming routes that bring the best pleasures and surprises. We find a cafe, with a tray of artfully arranged, homemade tortes beckoning to us. We order a slice of delicious pear studded cake, a huge cup of hot chocolate and a caffe con latte, sit and eat and sip and watch as dark clouds roll across the lagoon and the wind whips the sails of ships moored along the way. I drop crumbs onto the pavemets as sparrows dart in out and around our feet.

Venice Bridge of Sighs
The Bridge of Sighs

Every day that we are in Venice we lose ourselves in her streets, in her sotoportegos and streets that lead to dead ends and canals impassable without a boat, underneath tall, leaning buildings clustered close together, their windows close enough to reach over between and touch. Sunlight filters, snakes its way through – every vista we come across, again and again, no matter how familiar, has a different light at different times of day.

Venice Piazza San Marco
St Mark’s Square, the finest drawing room in the world, according to Napolean

Sunrise in Venice

One day we awake before dawn. In the early hours Venice belongs only to our footfalls, the sunlight that illuminates wet stones and San Maggiore across the lagoon, the reflection of bobbing gondolas moored by the Molo, the gaudiness of the Basilica. The dawn belongs to us alone; in the streets empty of people, I imagine that the Princess opens up her ancient, beautiful heart to us. The Queen of the Adriatic indeed – Venice is all of our dreams and fantasies.

Water, light, colour, perfume, escape, disguise, license are gold spun and stitched into the skirts she trails across her stones by day and spreads over her lagoon in the never-quite-blackness of her nights.

Venice gondola
A gondola along a Venetian canal

It is just past dawn, and too early for anything to be opened. We wander; the Grand Canal is just waking up, as we drift along her banks. We find ourselves in Rialto markets, find a butcher selling sfilaccio cavallo – horse steaks. There are rabbits hanging in shop windows, skinned and ready for the selling; rows of artichoke hearts, lemons from Spain, oranges from Tuscany; leafy vegetables stacked in rows; round apples and dusky pears; piles of strawberries and braids of onions and dried peppers tied to stall awnings. There are men unloading crates of vegetables from the canal onto the market proper – everything in Venice comes by water. A fountain overflows into basins set at its base – used for soaking vegetables and washing fruit for sale.

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Venice Doge Palace
The Doge’s Palace

The Pescheria, Fish Market is filled with the smell of the sea and the sharp, metallic taste of red blood. There is a whole tuna, laying large across ice; vongole – clams – netted in bundles; still-jumping fish drowning in the air; tiny anchovies in a smear of silver; blinking crabs; lobsters with their claws tied shut; crayfish and bugs and flatfish and red salmon and mackarel and steaks of swordfish, razorclams and diver-harvested scallops and oysters waiting to be freshly shucked. Only the locals are here, buying flowers, fish, horse, poultry, fruit, vegetables. Dogs on leashes greet each other, excited by the smell and scent of a million exciting things. A bakery nearby does a brisk trade in new bread; we pass by a delicatessen and the rich, ripe smell of soft cheese fills our noses.

The waterways of Venice

We visit the Accademia, a dusty gallery filled with the titans of Renaissance art; Titian, Canaletto, Bellini, Veronese. We cross the only steel bridge in Venice; built by the Austrians during the occupation – the huge dome of Santa Maria della Salute looms in sentinel over the mouth of the Grande Canal leading into the lagoon, hazy and indistinct, blocked by the layers of scaffolding around her for restoration works. The church was built when a Doge, in an appeal to God, promised the largest church in Europe, dedicated to Mary and health, if only the Black Plague would leave Venice. It did, and he did.

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Venice Florian
Coffee and cake at Caffe Florian

One day we sit in Florian and drink very expensive espresso – the cafe buzzes, smells like history. It is not often I get to sit drinking espresso in a 17th century coffee house and so I enjoy every sip. The discovery of tiny, family run restaurants also thrill me – we order in Italian; penne nero, misto fritte di mare, pizze. I ask for green virgin oil and fragrant balsamic vinegar, tear bread into tiny pieces and soak up the spoils. We gorge ourselves on seafood.

Nearer to San Marco it is almost impossible to find anything reasonably priced; finally we find ourselves in Acciughe, a lovely, smart little bar. We order cichetti, a Venetian speciality, to share. There is mussels, oyster, fishcake, ricotta on polenta cake, crayfish, crab salad, fish pieces soaked in sauce.

Colourful gondola posts

Later that night we stumble into Casa Mia – a trattoria filled with locals. It’s a wet, rainy night and my mouth is darkly stained from the pasta cooked in squid ink I have been craving since I got into Venice. We ask for panna cotta, espresso after. We walk with raindrops in my hair, across Ponte Rialto, into a bar where an Italian man in a suit sings in a language he doesn’t quite understand while he plays a white baby grand piano.

The graceful prows of gondolas

As we leave to go home the waters rise to greet us. It’s acqua alte – high water and the Princess is soaked up to her dirty, threadbare knees. Unembarassed and unrepentant, I sense her lift her skirts to laugh, as we dance our way across the boards laid up that lead from high ground to high ground. This is a city of the sea, and the sea rises to reclaim her every now and again. I want to go to San Marco again, to see the Piazza, the finest drawing room in the world, drowning in the Adriatic.

Love, secrets, darkness and mystery. Venice is everything and nothing all at once; she slips away, turns aloof and cold, warms you with her beauty, delights you as she dances with the moon and light and water. We leave with the knowledge that we will come back again and again, to lose ourselves in her streets, to fall in love over and over again with La Serenissima.

Venice, in the early morning

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