Until I first saw a Canaletto, I’d always naively dismissed ‘old’ paintings as just that; something of a dusty relic; a posed moment in history painstakingly put to canvas; staged and a bit staid. But those panoramic scenes of his birthplace, Venice, were so alive, so full of detail, so palpably real that you could almost smell and hear the city. I’d happily stare at one of those paintings for hours.
That it was a good two decades later I finally saw those scenes in real life owes much to things not captured by Canaletto’s brush, namely hulking great cruise ships and rampant overtourism. I never doubted the majesty of Venice, I just never wanted to crane my neck through a crowd to witness it.
I first made that (frankly unrivalled) descent from airport terminal to water’s edge on 2 January and the suspicious lack of crowds meant that even the public ferries felt like private water taxis. As the famous skyline (or maybe ‘eyeline’ – not much can rise beyond a few storeys when your foundations are water) rose into view and I set foot on dry land, it too was unsettlingly uncluttered by people. I’d hoped arriving at a time when most were still shaking off their new year’s hangovers would make for a relatively quiet Venice but this was like unlocking some prized secret.
I checked into Palazzo Cristo – itself like unlocking some prized secret – where a bottle of chilled prosecco awaited. It was popped and glasses were raised in the direction of the 13th-century basilica framed by my windows, a scene Canaletto himself painted in 1726 (above).
As I set out to explore, I’d vowed to try and swerve the more obvious sights but, with weak phone signal, surrendering to the weft and warp of Venice’s overlapping streets means stumbling on something iconic and historic sooner rather than later. I sought out T Fondaco dei Tedeschi, Venice’s most elegant department store and home to Amo, the restaurant sprawling out across its ground floor (the store itself closes at 8:30pm so dining afterwards is like having a lock-in at Liberty, only grander). After filling up on risotto with mushrooms, black soy and white truffle I exited almost straight onto the Rialto Bridge. Pop in for a coffee on the terrace at Il Palazzo Experimental and you’ll end up watching the traffic on the Giudecca Canal.
But the joy of doing this in January became less about the sparser crowds (although it certainly helped) and about a more painterly quality: the light. Winter’s low-hanging sun gives the tops of buildings a lick of full technicolour, its welcome beams bounce off windows and waterways, each corner springing another visual treat on your weary retinas. It dazzles in a very particular way; a crisp 4k clarity to the haze of summer’s camera film. It’s cold, of course, but layering up and donning sunglasses adds a bit of adventure to your amblings (plus we’ve all had to adapt a little better to life alfresco this past year). Come nightfall, strings of festive lights cast a seductive glow over the narrow streets.
For what essentially equates as an eye spa-day, take the 45-minute vaporetto ride to Burano: historic home to lacemakers, fishermen and artists, although you’ll probably know it from Instagram as that island with impossibly pretty houses painted in rainbow-bright colours. It’s even more charming IRL: a Rubik’s cube town (its colours strictly government approved) dissected by narrow canals which, in January sunlight, is enough to banish SAD for a fortnight. You’ll still find octogenarian nonnas crafting lacewear, trinkets hewn from (neighbouring island) Murano’s glass and a moreish menu of trattorias – I followed the locals to Al Raspo de Ua where the table cloths are as bright as the buildings and the seafood is fantastico.
As Venice continues to grapple with the knotty issue of suffering from years of mass visitation yet relying on a tourism-driven economy (in normal years, at least) picking a less populous time is far from the only answer. But if you’re seeking more than selfies, in the quiet beginnings of a new year the city does seem to bare its soul a little better. With a good winter coat, days can still be lost to la passeggiata, those bowls of perfect pasta become even more welcome, and spritzes can still be sipped outside (much calmer) bacaro. I suspect Canaletto knew about the light, too.
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