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Getting Lost in Venice: A Guide for People Who Don’t Like Guides


This was my 2nd time visiting Venice. The broken alleyways and cloudy emerald canals had ensnared each of my senses on my first visit. I’d seen everything of course. From Piazza San Marco and Scala Contarini del Bovolo to San Michele  - the Cemetery Island. This time I decided to do something else. I would refine the art of getting lost. I would not succumb to maps and I would leave any fears and senses of foreboding at home and I would simply walk the streets and bridges of Venice.

The first night started as nights in Venice often do: full of romance, awe and inspiration. The streets were to become, as they always are in Venice, the stage for my own personal theatre. A production inane and yet beautiful - real and yet fictional. As though each step and each stumble into an alleyway was a turn of a page in the book of my very own adventure. After dinner, I walked towards my hotel but took a different route. Away from the noise of the crowd was my only direction.

Of course, walking in silence is only possible if one waits until nightfall, after the cruise ships have refilled and departed - onwards to their next pre-constructed holiday destination where guidebooks are replaced by guides and adventure exchanged for recycled itineraries. The bars in Venice throw out by midnight and clubs are almost non-existent. Eventually the streets become cavernous empty vessels. Acting as nothing more than conduits for tourists and locals on their way to bed. As I walked I became aware of the silence. It was different from other cities. Not as brash. The echoes of my boots hitting against uneven bricks bounced from the walls around me creating a rhythmic backing track to what I saw, while the distant sounds of boats pushing through the canals mixed with loud laughs in neighboring alleyways created a lucid ambience, which was in time with the rhythm of my feet. I walked slowly around a corner and looked up to admire the artistry of a local who had hung their colorful clothes from a wire between two windows. So very Italian. I carried on walking past a man pushing an old brass key into a door.

Buona serata.” He muttered with a drunken slur.

The soundtrack to my first night spent lost in Venice was complete.

The sun shined strong and hot for the next few days without even a hint of letting up, so I decided to take a stroll to The Piazza, and ordered a glass of chilled barley coffee from Florian (whose Florentine sister is much better by the way) before standing in front of the stunning byzantine façade of the Basilica to admire the replicas of the Horses of Saint Mark galloping from the loggia at full speed. Afterwards, I decided to walk in the direction of their gallop. Castello, east of Saint Marco and far from the usual tourist trail.

There are bridges everywhere in Venice, there are small streets and gondolas, gondoliers and orange tinted Spritz, but each neighborhood offers something different. I like the backstreets in Castello but there are fewer canals. There are fewer tourists too. I walked to Campo de la Celestia and admired the small collection of trees that lined the square and then crossed a small bridge which led me to the bank of one of Venice’s small, quiet canals. Two doors sat across from each other just a few feet away from the water but they didn’t open. I sat and waited quietly, hoping for a boat to pass. I waited for 10 minutes until it finally happened. It was a lone gondolier. His dark shiny gondola passed me somberly, bobbing only slightly as he checked his mobile phone in mid row. I turned back, not phased by a misadventure into a dead end, but revitalized by the randomness of the scene. I headed north through the backstreets until I reached Cannaregio.

Cannaregio, despite being the largest of Venice’s sestieri, is often overlooked. I love Cannaregio for its village like ambience, al fresco cafes and for the Jewish Ghetto (one of few places where you’ll meet an influx of tourists). I wondered around its maze like streets, exploring cafes and the windows of bookstores, passing by curious cats and loud locals, drinking liberal amounts of Aperol Spritz and crossing bridge after bridge after bridge. I stopped in one alley as I came face to face with a small posse of Carabinieri who were attempting to erect a safety net around a crumbling wall. The wall literally crumbled as we all watched. The police were nonchalant - arms crossed, tanned faces more intrigued by my astonishment than by the fact a wall was crumbling before our very eyes. I moved onwards, passing an empty mask and costume shop, considering the humbling and sad fact that even Venice is temporary. One day those crumbling walls will become crumbled walls on the floor of a forgotten canal. Maybe the canals will swallow up the entire city. Perhaps Italy will rename it Veniceland and build automated Gondoliers and rollercoasters where Italians used to live.

There’s lots of room for contemplation when one gets lost in a city such as Venice. Forget panic. There’s nothing to panic about. The city is safe and every stretch of glittering canal eventually leads to the Grandest of them all - the Grand Canal. I walked all the way to the northern tip of the sestieri, still thinking about the palazzo crumbling to the ground, and found the quaint little Sant’Alvise church. There’s a boat stop here too, but not much else. It’s perfect for sitting and watching the boats float away in the direction of Murano and San Michele. At this point I pondered revisiting the cemetery island but decided against it. However, if you enjoy the silence as much as I do, then I suggest you take a boat there in the late afternoon. The island is often deserted but is now the final, silent home of Sergei Diaghilev, Princess Catherine Bagration (sometimes known as the wandering princess) and the jewellery designer Jean Michel Schlumberger, to name but a few. I decided to jump on the boat anyway, and took it all the way around to Salute to visit the gorgeous Santa Maria della Salute church. Afterwards I took a seat on the steps that lead down from the church to the waterfront, to do a little people watching before exploring the backstreets of Dorsoduro, which is full of quiet streets, cafes and boutique hotels.

It was my last evening in Venice and I decided to spend it watching the sunset over the Lagoon, listening to the water brush the concrete below my feet and admiring dimly lit islands in the distance. I ate in a small Sicilian restaurant on the Campo Santo Stefano. I drank Sicilian, not Veneto wine and walked for hours through broken alleyways, across arched bridges and past some of Italy’s most beautiful palazzo, before reaching my hotel, which was 15 minutes away from where I’d eaten. I found a beautiful door that night. Blue. Made of wood. Old and cracked. Faded and graffitied. It was the end of an alleyway for me but the way home for someone else. It was just a door, but I’ve stumbled across it several times since then and it never gets boring. It is the visual accompaniment to the secret sounds of Venice at night, the sign that says to go back but come again, and a representation of the beauty that can be found in the everyday, once we leave the map and the guidebooks at home.

All photographs © and used with kind permission of Nick Nomi at http://www.europeisourplayground.com/

About the author:
Nick Nomi
Nick is a writer and photographer, who, after working for years in the fashion and creative industries, gave up London and the office life to travel long term and write about it.
He writes about travel and culture with a literary twist at www.europeisourplayground.com
Twitter: @Nick_Nomi
Instagram: @EuropeIsOurPlayground

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