Grand Canal, Venice, photographed from the Ponte dell'Accademia

Surprised by Venice

The lagoon city of Venice, on the north-eastern coast of Italy, has always been a quandary. It may well be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but I had never been sure whether I wanted to visit or not. The sights and sounds have appealed, but the hordes of tourists crammed into little alleyways have put me off.

The statistic of 40,000 day-trippers per day in 2018 – and the introduction of an entry ticket for visitors who aren’t staying overnight, which may well become a reality next year – shows that you really have to think twice before visiting. Add the fact that a single-ride on one of the vaporetti (water buses) costs €8 and a coffee at one of the notorious café terraces on Piazza San Marco can set you back over €20 (by the time you pay the “live music surcharge”), a visit to Venice seemed to be a challenging idea.

Once we were vaccinated, we began to feel a little less apprehensive about travelling abroad. After realising that many international visitors were still being kept away, we did the maths and checked the regulations and found that this year would be the ideal time to visit the city. No cruise ships, no massive influx from countries outside Europe, and a forecast for the kind of pleasingly warm weather which we hope for in Italy sealed the deal.

With a deal on Trivago at the air-conditioned Hotel Rosa Salva confirmed, we loaded the car for a few days away in July and set the sat-nav destination for a pre-booked parking space in the “Garage Comunale”. This was to be our first non-British trip away since the beginning of the pandemic and I was particularly looking forward to the drive down through Switzerland and the unfamiliar Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto. The journey was reminiscent of when we drove to Tuscany a few years ago, with hot sunshine, a traffic jam at the Swiss-Italian border crossing (despite a lack of passport or vaccination certificate control), long, concrete, tolled motorways and a brake-pad-challenging range of fellow motorists. After becoming a little jaded by the familiarity of Switzerland, even the novelty of a few Italian motorway services was a breath of less-than-fresh air.

Arrival into Italian cities is often a contrast to the city itself, and passing through Marghera and crossing the Ponte della Libertà was no exception. A range of grotty industrial areas and tatty roads, before turning a corner and heading across the causeway to the island city. It was somewhat exciting to experience something so new, after spending a year-and-a-half in familiar territory.

Ponte della Libertà, the road and rail bridge into Venice. Photo by Didier Descouens via Wikimedia.

Once we’d lugged our backpacks across the city to the hotel by vaporetto, we headed out to get dinner and found a little restaurant in a small courtyard at the end of an even smaller alleyway. Neither of us can say that the visit wasn’t packed with experiences. Not only were we one of only two couples eating there, but the heavens opened mid-meal and we were left as the only survivors thanks to a quick table-change under a large awning. After moving inside for post-dinner coffees – to save the waiters from going out into the downpour – we headed to the nearby Piazza San Marco for a stroll.

The rain had passed by this point, but we were only two of a handful of people who had ventured back to the large piazza. (I’d write “square” at this point, but the piazza is formed of two rectangular sections, intersecting at a right-angle. This was to be the first of many unexpected aspects of the city.) The passing rainfall had transpired to be a proper storm, and as we took snapshots with our phones, the sky to the west of the city was being regularly illuminated by lightning. From the piazza, it’s only a short walk around to the Grand Canal and, knowing that there would be a better view of a basilica and of the storm from there, we walked around to the San Marco vaporetto stop and enjoyed the spectacle from there.

As I was doing my best to capture the amazing scene with my phone, timing hand-held long-exposures to coincide with the lightning, we fell into conversation with a middle-aged German who insisted on speaking English with us. He seemed slightly sad at his football team’s recent loss against England, and singularly unable to work out how to use the ticket machine, despite our best efforts to explain it to him in both English and German.

Lightning above Piazza San Marco in Venice
Lightning above Piazza San Marco
Lightning over the Grand Canal in Venice
Lightning above the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute
A huddle of chairs outside a closed restaurant
Glamorous interior and shuttered exterior of a closed restaurant
Light, shade and wet stone at the base of the bell tower on Piazza San Marco

The city is well-known for flooding, but this is just a puddle
Characterful and moody bridges and steps
Heavy rain quickly fills uneven pavements throughout the city

Our walk around the semi-deserted district of San Marco after the rain quickly helped me to get my “photographic eye” in. Unique photos of Venice are hardly the norm any more, with millions of bright photos of gondoliers being shared on social media every year. I’d made a conscious effort to visit the city as a sight-seer and for the experience, rather than as a photographer, yet hoped that my first real trip to a city in some time would re-ignite my love of observational “street photography”.

An effect of the pandemic has been that I find it difficult not to be frustrated by groups of people, so this first evening was a blessing; a gentle easing-in to city environments and photographic opportunity with barely any people around. This settled me into the mindset of getting photos which show how I saw the city, rather than getting “classic views”.

Apart from a somewhat unexpected number of unique photos which I’m really happy with, one take-away from our visit is that, despite reports to the contrary, Venice is a real city. It has life, and locals, and normal shops, and isn’t just a caricature of historic Italy or a Disney-fied experience. Now that the world is opening up again, I’m sure that the city will quickly become more and more full of tourists, and the views and quiet evening streets will become more and more over-run. But if you pick your time and avoid the expensive café, then a visit of a few days will be both memorable and rewarding.

My photographic tip: spend time walking the streets from “blue hour” onward, take a tripod, and hope for rain to make the city gleam and keep the masses in their restaurants and hotels.

Grand Canal at Rialto
Jetties for boats and gondolas abound, next to floating “vaporetto” bus stops
Have you even been to Venice if you don’t photograph a gondolier?
Venice is a largely colourful and tatty city, with many off-kilter walls

Locals and their prey
Very well-worn marble parapet on the Rialto Bridge
Shops on the Rialto bridge, reminiscent of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence

Sheltering from the midday sun at Campo San Polo
Spots of light in the shadowy alleyways
Warm summer sun penetrating narrow, tall courtyards

Stylish locals amongst the tourists
Gondoliers waiting for trade around many street corners
Vignettes and moments all over the city

Silent alleyways and canals after the rain
Small signs all over the city point the way to either Rialto or San Marco
Rain leaves the flagstones to gleam in the reflected light of restaurants and shops
Blue hour on the Grand Canal
Blue hour on the Grand Canal

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