One of the many things that strikes you as you head over your first footbridge en route from the people mover which transports you from the coach that transports you from Treviso Airport (not the rather handier but much more pricey Marco Polo) is that there is no sound or smell of traffic. From here it's by foot or boat. The narrow streets and alleyways, which in cities like Marrakech with its equally skinny byways are thronged with scooters and donkeys and inappropriate cars as well as pedestrians, are quiet apart from the sound of your own heels clicking on the stone cobbles. Where these thoroughfares are busy is nearer to the Rialto Bridge or Piazza San Marco for though this is February, it is also Venice Carnival and so, though sometimes damp and cold, the tourists will come - and quite rightly so. But in the darkened and narrow alleyways, especially as dusk falls, only the occasional sound of chatter breaks the sometimes eerie silence and the sounds of the water lapping against the stone.
Our hotel for two nights was the Al Duca di Venezia, a boutique hotel with very helpful staff and ornate, if snug, bedrooms. But the name of the game on such a short visit is to dump our stuff as dusk falls and head into the night for wine and tapas (yes, ok, it's Italy not Spain but tapas gets you a stunning selection of brochetta) before a big bowl of spaghetti alle vongole. No late nights for us because we have just two whole days to make this city our own and experience as much as we can of what it has to offer.
Al Duca serves a good breakfast with a delicious cup of thick hot chocolate which is a meal in itself. Then armed with a map, guide book and our phones we set out to discover the city's secrets. Number 1 has been here once before - and relatively recently. I, on the other hand, have been twice - once on an utterly miserable school trip aged fifteen and then again the year before we were married with dear friends who provided us with an especially memorable moment when we stopped in the Piazza San Marco at Caffe Florian. That day we were sitting outside cafe enjoying the sights and sounds of Venice. There was a string quartet/quintet playing and suddenly our friends vanished and the orchestra moved en masse to our table and played 'our song' - Moon River - as our friends hid behind a pillar giggling and enjoying our embarrassment.
So first it's the Basilica San Marco but not before we've wandered through the fragrant and colourful fish and veg markets. The Basilica is mercifully not too full of tourists to enjoy a quiet moment in its ornate grandeur. Then next door to the Doge's Palace which boasts impressive frescoes and murals but the most memorably atmospheric moment is crossing the Bridge of Sighs - a last glimpse of freedom - before entering the dank, inhospitable prison. Our plan then is to go to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection - closed, as it turns out, and Ca' Rezzonico, the place where Robert Browning lived and died in Venice - ditto closed. Hmmm... so when in Venice ... it's a very big bowl of pasta and a gondola ride.
This I have never done before but I've checked the gondola stations on our travels and the price is 80 euros everywhere - no haggling. The brightly-dressed gondoliers are in sharp contrast to the black gondolas which number about 400 in the summer. Our gondolier is chatty and informative, keen to take us down the Grand Canal to the 7* hotel where George Clooney got married. He doesn't however understand our amusement when we sail under a washing line of many ladies' knickers and is merely keen for us to know that he doesn't live there!
So our second evening kicks off with a rapid pizza before we head back into the Piazza San Marco to see what Carnival activity is occurring, which, as it turns out, is a disco. But it's the sights, not the sounds that draw us, for everywhere, day and night, the main piazzas and bridges are thronged with masked characters of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. These snappy dressers pose over and over again for snaps from tourists, acknowledging our thanks with an elegant nod of the head.
Our second day begins with a walk to the Jewish Ghetto. In 1516, the Jews of Venice were locked into their ghetto every night as ruled by the Venetian Republic, but though compelled to live an area enclosed by two guarded bridges, the remainder of the time they had the freedom of the city with the other Venetian citizens. The area is dominated by Ghetto Nuovo Square where there is a monument to those who were rounded up to be taken to concentration camps during the Second World War. Of the 243 taken to Auschwitz only 8 returned at the end of the war. A poignant reminder that man's inhumanity to man continues from generation to generation.
Then another brisk walk to catch the boat to Murano, famous for its glass. This is a chilly boat trip to another island dominated by canals and bridges. Every shop sells the famous multi-coloured glass though we are advised by one young shopkeeper, keen to practise her English on a quiet day, that if you can't see the minuscule bubbles in the glass, even here, it is probably imported from China or India. We see an artisan moulding tiny glass elephants, deftly pulling ears and trunks into shape under the pale blue flame. We are advised that glass-blowing demonstrations should be free but the only furnace not breaking for lunch (which apparently starts at 1.00 and ends at 3.00!) expects us to pay so we decide to catch a vaporetto back to San Marco in time for the fancy dress competition of the day.
This is the one for amateurs with prizes of entry to the famous Carnival Ball (a mere 500 euros for a regular punter!). The participants from all over the world claim they have spent literally months creating their costumes and the effect is stunning.
So now there is only time to try to visit Ca' Rezzonico once again but this time we are half an hour too late and are doomed once again to see only the ground floor rooms. "Come back tomorrow!" we are told, but of course, we are now in our last few hours before making our way to the airport. We stop at a pasticceria and enjoy a tea and frittelle (doughnuts) surrounded by young Venetian students from the local university.
We detour en route back to the hotel to pick up our bags, heading through San Marco and over the Rialto Bridge one last time, before the very brisk walk to the people mover. Because we have to wait for it to arrive, we make the coach transfer with less than a couple of minutes to spare. Had we known that our Ryanair (you get what you pay for) flight is delayed by nearly an hour we probably would have panicked less! The net result of the flight delay is a serious dash from Immigration through Stansted to catch the very last train to London. Phew!
A wonderful, sensually-overloaded trip to one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Venice Carnival simply must be done.
*Don't Look Now is a 1970s classy thriller set in Venice starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. The film features a dwarf in a red duffle coat which made number 1's choice of coat a source of constant entertainment to me. Great movie (though probably very dated now) featuring the city at its eerie best. Catch it if you can!