Venice has a tempestuous love affair with the world. Millions of adoring fans visit La Serenissima each year, lured by the sirens of the Adriatic – gondolas, waterways and the dream of birds fluttering up from St Mark’s flagstones. But if three’s a crowd, then 30 000 is a crush and the combination of cramped bridges, high prices and humidity leave many swearing off the city for life.
Perhaps I’ve spent too much time squashed on the London Underground, but in Venice there’s still real beauty to be found. Yes, the sight of sweaty tourists and adverts swamping the Bridge of Sighs is off-putting, but buongiorno? The rest of Venice is as captivating as ever and it’s only a footbridge away.
My latest trip to Venice left me with just over twelve hours in this watery playground. Enough time to make the pilgrimage to St Mark’s Square, say hello to the pigeons, scramble through the masses on the Rialto Bridge and enjoy a plateful of polenta and cuttlefish served in the trademark black ink sauce.
With a couple of hours to spare, I wandered off piste, turning right onto the Strada Nova and just drifting along. At the very first corner I found myself alone, accompanied only by the lapping of the water and my footsteps on the stone. Glossy black gondolas stood idle, wrapped up in canvas for Sunday’s day of rest. Venice may only have a few thousand true residents and an empire long since gone but behind the “I Love Venice” T-shirts people still live everyday lives.
Lines of laundry stretch along the peeling plaster and painted shutters like flags on a village fete. Tanned men in loafers drive their speedboats too fast, sloshing foam onto the brickwork that looks as though it has seen it all. There’s the sound of a baby crying and the smell of freshly baked bread.
Another canal takes me past a vegetable market, where chubby cherry tomatoes and stout pumpkin-sized ones change hands beneath the shade of a church tower. A male voice choir entertains in one piazza, while a saxophonist lets rip in another. Gondoliers in stripy T-shirts smoke and read the newspaper, their straw hats tilted to protect them from the sun.
Then I cross the Ponte de Gheto Novo, the wrought-iron bridge that carries me into the square of the same name. As it turns out, I have been wandering through the district of Il Ghetto, the small enclave of Venice that gave its name to every sad and squalid ghetto ever since.
In the 14th century, this was the Jewish area. Closed gates enforced a curfew at night, property rights were restricted and Jewish citizens had to identify themselves by wearing a badge. This sounded to me like the beginning of the holocaust but apparently, in the Middle Ages, such treatment was mild in comparison to persecution elsewhere. Jewish refugees arrived here from Spain, Portugal and the outposts of the Ottoman Empire, building upwards and upwards in this cramped corner of relative peace.
Today those boundaries have long since gone, leaving butter-coloured walls and dark-chocolate shutters overlooking the children who play in the square. A bustling restaurant serves kosher food, stars of David glitter in traditional Venetian glass and synagogues operate freely.
In one corner in the shade, a set of metallic plaques commemorate the 200 or so Jews sent to the death camps during the Second World War. Surrounded by the romance of the sleek gondolas and the wealth of historic art, this atrocity seems somehow even harder to comprehend than usual.
Walking past students sitting cross-legged in doorways and sketching in charcoal, I realise that the ghetto that spawned them all doesn’t dwell in the past. Handmade posters name countries, detail times and catalogue dates – but it’s not a tourist-driven schedule, nor an historic monument. It’s the programme for the 2010 Football World Cup.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com