I've been in Venice for about four days now, enough to feel like an entitled local. Already, I have begun to define "my Venice" from "tourist Venice." That is, the beautiful, tranquil, Italian-speaking Venice where one can hear the small wavelets lapping at the sides of gondolas and the crowded, jostled, shoulder-to-shoulder, tour group packed Venice where "Joanie, Hank, Honey, Walter, come look at this!" drowns out the other city noises.
Though, one might scoff at my extreme comparisons, reality here in Venice can be even more excessive. Don't get me wrong. Venice is a tourist city through and through. There really isn't any place that one can completely escape the tourists. Truthfully, tourists are what make Venice hum. But, enough is enough.
There are quiet corners of the city between canals and bridges that lend themselves to long conversations and reflection. There are small corners where tourists rarely tread, but those sections are not filled with the ambience that we have all come to recognize as Venice. Buildings are block like, trash is piled canal side, windowsills are plain stone, construction crews rumble away. There just isn't any romance.
The quiet Venice that I seek is the still the romantic place of dreams. It is still a place where gondolas and boats line the canals. It is still a place where tiny restaurants open into magnificent gardens. It is still a place where flowers spill from windows and balconies. It is still a place where lovers can walk hand-in-hand lost in days of yore.
I divide Venice into two halves, so does the Grand Canal. The train station, the Ghetto, St. Mark's, the Doge's Palace, ornate gondolas, Harry's Bar, Gucci, Pucci and Versace rest on one side of Venice's main artery. The Accademia, the Guggenheim, Santa Maria della Salute, Campo Santa Margherita, the gondola repair shops, Frari, San Rocco and Zattere on the other.
The list of sights on the "other side" of the Grand Canal doesn't roll off the tongues of tourists, while those sights and shops on the "tourist side" fill most guidebooks. And thus, tourists fill those sights and museums.
I saw a handful of tourists in "my Venice" walking along with their "Top 10" guidebooks looking lost. I helpfully explained to them how to find one of the three bridges across the canal. In one case I took one couple down to a traghetto near Ca' Rezzonico where they were amazed that only 50 euro cents bought them a gondola shuttle across Venice's main route. They all thanked me profusely for helping them get back to their familiar guidebook Venice and their hometown friends.
For years, I followed in their footsteps. I was the proverbial one-day Venice visitor. I couldn't even conceive of paying the exorbitant hotel rates and my meals consisted of the cheapest tourist menu of the day. Frankly, I loved those days in Venice. I felt that I could suck the marrow from the bone and see the top sights without even spending the night.
My normal route would be to arrive in the morning by train or car, then wind down the Grand Canal on the slow No. 1 vaporetto to St. Mark's Square. There, I would visit St. Mark's and the Doge's Palace. I learned the zigzag route from St. Mark's back to the Rialto Bridge. Well, I admit that I think I took a different way each time, but eventually ended up at Rialto. Then I would stroll down Strada Nuova, walk through the old Ghetto and head back to the train station. Poof! I had seen Venice.
My old route isn't that much different than the "Top 10" visitor of today. You can pack in all the "musts" and be on your way.
Over the past few years, I finally had an opportunity, and the means, to stay overnight in Venice. I took time to explore new islands and canals, walk into undiscovered churches, clamber over unfamiliar bridges, sip a spritz at a table on a campo, dine beside a canal and sit in tiny gardens.
My Venice evolved from that of St. Mark's and its surroundings to Campo Santa Margherita. My search shifted from looking for the prefect postcard to a hunt for the perfect spritz (the typical Venetian cocktail that can be 10 euros on St. Mark's Square, but less than two at an out-of-the-way cafe). The Grand Central shuffle through the Doge's Palace was replaced by a quiet visit to Ca' Rezzonico, a museum of the 18th century Venice. And I stumbled upon the quiet, picturesque, boat-lined canals of Dorsoduro between the Accademia and Zattere.
This is where I spend most of my time unless friends who have not had the opportunity to enjoy the "Top 10" are visiting. Then I happily swing them through St. Mark's and the Doge's Palace and walk to Rialto. It has to be done. But when that tour is over, I retreat to "my Venice" and take them to have an affordable spritz on Campo Santa Margherita and an inexpensive meal on the Zattere alongside the Giudecca Canal or find a tiny trattoria tucked beside Campo San Barnaba to show them how the other half lives.