Real Venice, insofar as it exists, lies in the backwaters. Your gift to ordinary Venetians is not just to day-dream your way through the backwaters but to drift awhile with the Venetians, and to support sustainable tourism. Whether it’s attending a Baroque recital, browsing for ceramics or trying a traditional rowing course, you are helping Venice survive. Even craft shopping can be a revelation, a secret glimpse of Venetians at their best.
Click on any image to enlarge it. Just hover over any image to reveal a detailed caption. All images copyright © Lisa Gerard-Sharp.
Shadow boating on the backwaters of Burano. The island is a splash of colour in a bleak lagoon. Few can resist lunch on this beguiling island, with its bobbing boats, fishing nets, and cosy inns filled to bursting. Venice’s friendliest island exudes an infectious warmth, with local writer Tiziano Scarpa praising `psychedelic Burano’, as colourful as a ‘Sixties album cover.’ On the waterfront, the fishermen’s wives painted the family homes in psychedelic colours, often adding geometrical motifs over the doorways. Although colourful, Burano can also be moody: the eye lingers on a sluggish canal, a walled vineyard and a solitary brick belltower. Come the early evening, the locals resume their real lives. Come nightfall, the island belongs to the Buranelli once more (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).
The `Art Mile’ began with the Guggenheim but recently this stretch of Dorsoduro has acquired a clutch of contemporary galleries, hence `the art mile’. Striking contemporary sculptures also adorn the quaysides, notably the Boy with Frog who is perched on the point, and a bold talking point on the Zattere side, part installation, part hoist. The pivotal newcomer is Punta della Dogana, restored by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, with an airy mezzanine space creating a lovely interplay between interior and exterior. Designed like a ship’s prow, this 17th-century Customs House is crowned by two bronze Atlases bearing a golden globe, with the weathervane figure of Fortuna on top (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).
The workaday district of Cannaregio. The district (sestiere) forms the northern arc of the city, stretching from the railway station to the Rio dei Mendicanti in the east. The neighbourhood offers a slice of everyday Venice, from domestic vignettes of washing draped over decrepit balconies to lovely churches on back canals. The district culminates in the haunting Jewish Ghetto, the world’s first, named after an iron foundry (getto) which once stood here (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).
La Gondoliera Alex Hai's hat and antique oarlock of her gondola, Pegasus. Venice’s first female `gondoliera’ does great mystery tours, including a ghost trail or a romantic route. Learn about local legends or spooky inns as the water laps around you. Exploring the city properly also means pounding the canalsides and clambering over bridges. Travel light and leap on a vaporetto (waterbus) when flagging. The ferries ply the Grand Canal, but will also whisk you out to the islands of the Venetian lagoon – from the Lido beaches to the brightly painted houses on Burano (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).
Browse in a quaint Cannaregio junk shop before embarking on an art trail. Venice is awash with artists’ trails, but Bellini and Tintoretto are the most representative, revealing different facets of Venetian art - the soft and the harsh, the rapt and the dramatic. The trails take in much of the city, from Cannaregio to Castello and beyond (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).
A secret rose garden not far from the Guggenheim in the Dorsoduro district. Despite its watery character, Venice is made for walking: you can mostly weave your way around on foot. Leave the crowds of San Marco behind and find yourself immersed in a warren of narrow alleys (calli), moody back canals and secret campi (squares). Wherever you go there will be waterfront cafés made for lingering, or tiny bacari (bars) made for toasting Venice over a Prosecco and a plate of seafood tapas (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).
Mosaic-making at Orsini mosaicists, in the Cannaregio district, where quirky arts and crafts still survive. For sustainable shopping, seek out traditional Venetian crafts, including Murano glass and masks only where the provenance is guaranteed. Tourism has become both the lifeblood and the bane of Venice, with 20 million tourists a year. This is nothing new: in his 1912 novella, “Death in Venice”, Thomas Mann describes the city as ‘half fairy tale, half tourist trap.’ But before buying that cheap Taiwanese mask, call into a real craft shop. As local designer and writer Michela Scibilia says, “You’re not just buying an object but the story behind it.” (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).
Carpaccio’s painterly musicians serenade Venice. The greatest Venetian artists celebrate colour and light. Vibrant colour, luminosity and a supreme decorative sense distinguish the work of Venetian masters, such as Carpaccio. Of the Venetian school, art critic Bernard Berenson once said, “Their colouring not only gives direct pleasure to the eye but acts like music upon the moods” (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).
Crea, a regatta winning Venetian gondolier and gondola-maker, ponders the future in his workshop on the Giudecca. Whether boat-builders or craftsmen, many talented Venetians are struggling to survive in a city dedicated to other people’s dreams. Crea has no son ready to follow in his footsteps. Even celebrity broadcaster and architect Count Francesco da Mosto worries whether his children will be the last generation to go to school in Venice (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).
Crumbling grandeur in Venice – it's all in the details. Wealth and leisure mean we spend our time searching out capsules of past cultures, “if only because the past is another country and we like to travel”, says commentator Simon Jenkins of Venice, the perfect time capsule. Writer and Venice fan Ian Littlewood agrees: “No city but Venice lends itself so powerfully to nostalgia because no other city resists time so faithfully or marks its passage so clearly” (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).
The best way to see the canal is from a boat. If feeling flush, hire a gondola from the San Marco waterfront. Thomas Mann, who commented that the gondolas of Venice were “black as nothing else on earth except a coffin”, nonetheless found their seats “the softest, most luxurious, most relaxing in the world”. Before the 19th century, the only way to cross the Grand Canal (other than the Rialto Bridge) was on a traghetto, a gondola used for ferrying passengers from bank to bank. The service still criss-crosses the Canal at seven strategic points - and costs only 50 cents. Venetians normally stand, but feel free to sit. The Canal has a strict speed limit of 7km/h - but motor boats and taxis rarely respect it (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).
The boatyard on Giudecca, an island undergoing a rebirth. The Giudecca is home to Il Redentore, a Palladian masterpiece of a church, as well as to glamorous hotels. Yet the island is also home to a workaday boatyard and genuine foodie inns. This is Venice’s least clichéd, least definable district. It’s here you get an inkling of the precariousness of the Venetian setting. The sea has always been linked with the city’s fortunes and, like the swampy, shallow lagoon, it is both loved and feared (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).
Count Marcello's doorway, not far from St Mark’s Square. Venice is a city of quiet discoveries, especially at nightfall, when the shadows fall and the crowds thin. Most visitors are too blinded by the St Mark’s stage-set to stray further. But beyond the decadent dowager hotels and time-warp piano bars, everyday Venice survives along with timeless sculpture. Wander the side canals in search of rough-and-ready inns and the cosy, cramped wine bars known as bacari (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp).
“Keep the backwaters a secret” whispers a Carnival character on the waterfront. Melancholy and nostalgia await around most canal corners, if a ghost town is what one is seeking. Venice is a state of mind, a canvas for projecting one’s poetic fantasies. The city reflects and intensifies one’s moods, aided by changeable light and a capricious climate. Jonathan Keates tellingly sees Venice as “the great masseuse of our hankerings and illusions: she discovers us not for what we are but for what each of us would like to be” (photo © Lisa Gerard-Sharp)