by The Telegraph, February 23, 2018
Giacomo Casanova was born there, his name synonymous with affairs of the heart, while the gondolieri have conveyed enraptured couples along the city’s labyrinthine canals for centuries. In short, Venice is widely regarded as the most romantic city on Earth. Perhaps that’s why people tend to be surprised when they hear that over the past two decades, I have visited almost a dozen times – but never with John, my husband of 43 years.
As someone who always longed to see Venice, marrying a man who feels seasick just looking at a boat – the main form of transport in Venice – was perhaps foolhardy. John is not a keen traveller full stop, and bar a couple of Eurostar trips to Paris our holiday sights have been set firmly in Britain.
Undeterred, I first visited Venice as part of a tour group for single travellers back in 2003 – and my first view of St Mark’s Square, from a vaparetto, remains the best moment of my life. It was the music of Vivaldi, together with John Ruskin’s book The Stones of Venice, that made me want to visit, and it was the art and architecture, the immense peace of a city with no cars, the wonderful food (if you take time to find it) and the quality of the light on the waters of the Grand Canal that made me want to stay.
I subsequently visited with other family members, and a couple of times with students from the Open University which awarded my History of Art degree. My visits of up to a week were restorative, temporarily scratching my Venetian itch (which sounds like something Casanova might have suffered) but leaving me unfulfilled. I wanted more time to soak up the city and get a glimpse of what life is like for the people who live there. The fact that the local population is declining, driven out by rising property prices, added a certain urgency. I needed to get to know Venice while there were still some Venetians left.
So last year I decided to mark my retirement at 63 with a month-long trip to Venice – again, on my own. I wouldn’t be alone the entire time, though. My daughter would accompany me to make sure my Airbnb was suitable and to set up Netflix, while a friend whose planned weekend in Venice coincided with my trip was keen to make use of my expertise.
None of this made the prospect any less daunting. A week was the longest I’d stayed away from home, and I was worried about missing John and getting lonely, especially in the evenings. Most of my friends didn’t understand why I’d want to go alone and were surprised I’d even contemplate it.
My medical experience (I’d been a nurse for 45 years) also made me wary of the prospect of negotiating Venice’s bridges, a potential source of injury or worse. As a speaker of only basic Italian, I saved local emergency numbers in my phone and made sure I learned the words for “chest pain”, “doctor” and “hospital” before I left.
Thankfully, my excitement outweighed my nerves. Each of my previous trips had felt like a whistlestop tour of Venice’s greatest hits – without which a visit to Venice would feel incomplete. I didn’t feel it necessary to go on a gondola again, or to drink overpriced hot chocolate in St Mark’s Square while a black-tie orchestra played hits from Phantom of the Opera (not so serenissima).
But I always felt the urge to wander the green and peaceful Ghetto district, to visit the Dogana and Peggy Guggenheim galleries and to sit in the Campo Santa Margherita sipping an Aperol spritz (for such a large square, it’s surprisingly elusive).
A month with no one to please but myself would give me the time to enjoy my itinerary at leisure, and to add some of the sights I didn’t usually have time for: to take the hour-long trip to the island of Torcello to see the beautiful cathedral, to discover nooks of the city I hadn’t yet uncovered, and to sit by the water with a book for as long as I liked, without needing to rush off because I had tickets booked for a concerto.
My first stroke of luck came with the apartment I’d chosen in a quiet spot on the Zaterre, the wide promenade that stretches along the Giudecca Canal, down the southern side of the Dorsoduro district. As well as being spacious and airy, it overlooked a vaporetto stop, was next door to a friendly, family-run restaurant favoured by locals, and close to a supermarket. It was an ideal location for someone fending for themselves for a few weeks.
Once settled in, my worries about being lonely proved unfounded. At the end of a tiring day’s exploring, I was happy to cook a simple pasta dish for dinner then watch television, listen to the radio or read. I could easily stay in touch with my family via the apps on my phone, as well as having access to UK radio and TV channels. Listening to the traffic news and reading Dickens gave me a comforting taste of what I’d left behind.
A week in, my flat was a home from home. I found that the time afforded to me by my extended stay meant I saw a side of Venice I’d never experienced before – a real delight when you think you’ve seen all there is to see of a city.
Damian Hirst’s controversial exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, opened soon after I arrived and (not being a huge Hirst fan) it wasn’t something I might have bothered with on a flying visit. But with time to spend, I arrived 15 minutes after the exhibition first opened and enjoyed hours exploring it properly. In fact, I went back more than once.
I’d never found time to visit the city’s Natural History Museum and to see its wonderful fossils, but it turned out to be one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. In churches across Venice, I saw draperies and carpets made of marble, a fragment of the True Cross, and one of the largest paintings in the world, on the ceiling of the Scuola della Misericordia.
I saw the tombs of the first Doges submerged underwater in the Church of San Zaccharia and visited Vivaldi’s parish church, where his baptismal font is still in use. I also ventured 25 miles west of Venice to Padua, to see the Scrovegni Chapel where Giotto’s wonderful frescoes are housed. Of course, it would have been nice to have had someone to share these things with, but there was also no one tugging at my sleeve wanting to move on.
In between these stand-out moments, I enjoyed plenty of time just to stop and take in the city. I bought a sketchbook and did some drawings of the pallazzi in the town squares – a way of noticing details I might otherwise have missed.
My previous trips had also given me the confidence to venture to bacari (wine bars) in the less tourist-friendly areas around Canareggio, standing side by side with boatmen enjoying a well-earned coffee. Tourists aren’t always well received in the most crowded areas of the city, but deploying enough Italian to get by in the less busy districts usually gets you friendly service and a warm welcome.
One favourite bacaro, Ca D’Oro alla Vedova, is right behind McDonalds (yes, even Venice has one) but is sufficiently tucked away to feel far from the madding crowd – and the cicchetti on offer are a bit more refined and a lot tastier than a Big Mac.
There were things about home that I missed – the lack of greenery made me desperate to see my garden (or even a field), and I missed my husband hugely. But instead of curing me of my itch, as I’d hoped, my month in Venice only made me want to go back for another long trip.
In fact, I’m going back this year for a fortnight. And no, John isn’t coming with me.