The problem with being a tourist in Venice these days is that there are a lot of other tourists in Venice these days. Crossing the lagoon-side bridge that parallels the Bridge of Sighs by day is a lesson in fluid dynamics. If even one person stops at the top of the arch to catch their breath, it causes a chain reaction that stops everyone in their tracks.
The throng around Piazza San Marco waiting to get into the Basilica San Marco and the Doge’s Palace is so huge and persistent that it threatens to evict the resident flocks of pigeons. It doesn’t help that there are huge hoardings around restorations in the square, creating the need to do a flying wedge between tour groups coming the other way.
There is a time-tested route through the maze of between the two main attractions in La Serenessema: per Rialto or Per San Marco that by day becomes more of a queue than a stroll. Fortunately there are alternatives that can still provide a look at the way life was in Venice before the shops along the main routes were all turned into emporiums for Armani and Gucci.
With almost two full days in Venice before Crystal Serenity sailed, Crystal Cruises provided a free shuttle service from the port to the heart of the action near San Marco. From there Lisa and I chose to go on routes less travelled. Rather than head left into San Marco from the lagoon landing, we headed right, toward the cathedral of San Zaccaria that was originally built in the ninth century to enshrine the reputed remains of the father of John the Baptist. The Gothic church decorated with paintings that include several by Giovanni Bellini is on a square that has one of the oldest bell towers in Venice. Best of all, you can have the square practically to yourself except for a few stray pigeons or some kids practicing soccer.
From the square in both directions, narrow passageways lead to other squares where real Venetians actually still live and shop. Tourists rarely head into the streets here because they only have a couple of hours and want to see the big sights. But the quiet courtyards and squares with their neighbourhood churches and homes with elaborately ornate windows — their shutters the original Venetian blinds — are what makes Venice still a viable city rather than an amusement park.
It’s difficult to get too lost because every time you get to water you can see which direction is back to the lagoon. When you get to an intersection, the one with stores and hotels is the main street. A detailed map will help and you can always ask locals who are happy to help provide directions but which often consist of “go right and then left and then straight 10 meters and you can’t miss it.”
Invariably I did miss a turn and had to ask again but that’s part of the fun because Venice is so compact that you never can go too far away from the center. And there were always wonderful sights along the way like gondolas navigating tight canals, elderly couples dressed in their best to go to mass and kids playing soccer. The local stores sell bright bouquets of flowers and colourful glassware or finely made masks that go for half the price that they do in the shops along the main tourist maze.
One way or the other you will eventually find yourself either walking back into the tourist traffic around San Marco or the Rialto and can still experience the Venice that most visitors see. But to wander off the beaten path will give you peace and quiet and an experience few others will have.