Despite the early hour, the morning fish market stalls were almost fully set-up by the time I’d walked down to the ‘Mercato del pesce’, one of the Rialto city markets beside Venice’s Grand Canal. Outside, in the modest Campo Beccarie square, a fountain tap ran continually, yet the sound of water was almost inaudible against the echoing voices of the fishmongers calling to each other from inside the 19th century open market. Among the high stone columns and against the neo-gothic arches were rows of stalls, lit by small overhead electric lights. Below, on beds of crushed ice, was the night’s catch: fish and shellfish from the surrounding lagoon, and the Adriatic beyond.
Textures and colours from the lagoon covered the tables: glistening silvers, subtle coral pinks, deep reds, and dark, earthy tones. Here one finds octopus, langoustine, sardines, pilchards, squid, eels, and seabass. The air was filled with the aroma of the sea.
Continuing towards the iconic Rialto Bridge, I passed fruit and vegetable sellers, displaying produce from the neighbouring lagoon islands: trays of red chicory, bundles of plump asparagus and crates of artichokes. Yet I wasn’t here to shop, but instead to enjoy the city as she wakes; precious moments before these narrow canal-side walkways became almost impassable with people.
It was a little after seven in the morning and the waterways were relatively peaceful. Small boats bobbed gently, tied to mooring posts that lined the canal, while flat barges expertly navigated the waterways around me, making early morning deliveries.
The knick-knack shops of the Rialto Bridge were not yet open; and the broad shallow steps of the bridge were empty of tourists, affording me magical views down the grand canal.
By the time I reached Piazza San Marco, it was still populated with more pigeons than people. I strolled down to the Riva degli Schiavoni and found the tranquil waterfront a mass of glistening ebony gondolas sandwiched together between tall mooring posts, their ornate seats hidden beneath protective blue tarpaulins. The light was extraordinarily beautiful. Looking out across the lagoon, I saw the spires and dome of the San Giorgio Maggiore church silhouetted against the cloudless sky. This is the time of day to enjoy Venice. This is when you can discover Serenissima.
A few metres further on, one can see the Bridge of Sighs, probably one of the most popular sights in the city. The promenade across the canal was almost empty, just a few locals walked past me on their way to work. If you were to come back here a few hours later in the day, then in my experience the view of the Bridge of Sighs would be almost completely obliterated behind a forest of selfie sticks, held aloft by visitors jostling for the perfect Instagram.
In these few special early morning hours, I saw more of timeless Venice than I could have imagined. I returned to the hotel with a real appetite for breakfast and a desire to see more.
When I travel, I seek out ‘insiders’, a few locals who can help shape my discovery of a destination. With an overcrowded city like Venice this is even more important. Sometimes it’s the server in a coffee shop, the person behind a bar, the owner of a B&B or often the concierge at a hotel who can be the local insider. Today I was fortunate to have access to the wisdom of one of the best concierges in Venice, Pier Flavio of the Aman Canal Grande.
After breakfast, he unfolded one of the hotel’s guest maps and began to mark in highlighter pen a new labyrinthine route across a few of Venice’s different sestieri, the island neighbourhoods that make up this enchanting lagoon city. It was a route for the late afternoon, through the less well-known districts, away from the crowds; a walk that would take in some of the neighbourhood squares, each with its own decorative water well, and numerous churches, each a renaissance gallery of exceptional art.
If you explore early in the morning, or towards the end of the day, then the allure of this city will embrace you - but be warned, if you venture out during the middle of the day, then you could be in for a shock.
Avoid the crowds
As the subject of so many paintings, books and films, Venice has become recognisable to us all even before we step foot here. So, understandably, a visit often comes with many romantic expectations. Yet if you visit St Mark’s Square and the Doge’s Palace for example, after a late breakfast then the city will disappoint -it is so crowded, it feels suffocating. This is the era of true mass-tourism, facilitated by inexpensive flights and all-inclusive cruise ships, bringing millions of visitors to Venice each day.
Now, I have nothing against cruises, I think they are a wonderful way to travel, but I do struggle with how Venice appears to have allowed cruise ships seemingly unfettered access to the city. Statistics vary depending upon sources, but it is believed that up to 30 million visitors come to Venice each year, many on cruises. Speak to any local and one soon discovers that the issue of day-tripper tourism is a debate that has been running for some time here. The challenge of finding the balance between the supposed economic benefits of these thousands of day-visitors and their negative impact in terms of overcrowding is one that the city has yet to solve.
For decades, we heard that Venice faced the threat of rising tides and sinking islands. Now UNESCO and other cultural organisations are warning that Venice may in fact be swamped by people, not water.
My advice is to choose a place to stay in Venice where you will enjoy relaxing. So often when travelling we think that a hotel is just a place to sleep, since you’ll be out all day exploring. Well, Venice is a city that now needs to be left for much of the day. From late morning to the afternoon the main sights are so overwhelmed with visitors that its best to be in the peace of a gallery, or ensconced in a comfortable hotel like the Gritti Palace or the Aman Canal Grande, a charming B&B with a patio garden; or while away the middle of the day in an excellent eatery like the Ristorante Local.
However, as the sun begins to fall behind the city’s spires and domes, and the cruise liners leave for their next port of call, then La Serenissima once again regains her serenity.