Ernest Hemingway described Venice as a ‘strange, tricky town’ and walking in it as ‘better than walking crossword puzzles’.
‘You stay one month’, Nicola spluttered, ‘what are you going to do’? We want to walk, and walk, and then walk some more, I told him. There’s nowhere in Venice that you cannot reach on foot. A tiny city, only twice the size of central park in New York, all you need is good shoes, stout legs and lots of patience. Especially patience.
Venice is cramped, crowded and cluttered, and her streets often dark and tortuous.
She’s a maze of narrow alleys – some so thin you cannot open an umbrella – dank passageways – column lined colonnades, bridges and squares. There is the fondamenta, a wide quayside. The calle or lane. The salizzada is a paved alley – once so rare that it earned a name all of its own. The ruga is a street lined with shops. The riva is a waterside promenade. The rio terra is a filled-in canal. There are also campi,campielli, and campazzi. These thoroughfares – there are said to be more than three thousand of them – criss-cross the city; some leading into tiny squares hemmed in by houses, some ending abruptly at the water’s edge, some leading to private bridges, and others opening onto wide open spaces graced by churches and benches and even now and again a tree or two. You never know what you’ll find. All roads lead to Rome, runs the old saying, and in Venice it seems all roads lead everywhere – or nowhere. Ask anyone the way and chance is they’ll tell you, ‘sempre dritto’ (‘straight on’) but the convoluted streets lead you on circuitous routes, so that often you’ll walk for ten minutes and find yourself right back where you started.
It’s mysterious, romantic, gorgeous. Even the names of the streets are lovely – the Alley of the Curly-Headed Woman; the Filled-In Canal of Thoughts; the First Burnt Alley and the Second Burnt Alley, both commemorating seventeenth century fires. More than one hundred saints are represented in some of the street names, such as the unfortunate San Giovanni in Olio – St. John the Evangelist – who supposedly emerged unharmed from a vat of boiling oil into which the Emperor Domitian had plunged him. And yet other street names denote the professions that used to be carried out along their length. Walk down the Calle dei Botteri and you know that you’re in the street of the barrel-makers, or the Calle dei Tintor and you’re where the dyers used to splash colour. (Incidentally, that’s how Tintoretto got his nickname – he was the ‘little dyer’, the son of a silk-dyer).
Distractions abound – as if the labyrinthine streets weren’t enough to contend with. Rickety, red-tiled rooftops, crumbling plaster, wacky medieval chimneys, tottering balconies, Gothic windows, pinnacles, domes, turrets and leaning towers. Years of history and traditions layered into buildings, columns and capitals embedded into latter day plasterwork; remnants of archways peeping through brick, walled-up doors that no longer lead anywhere. Shrines to saints and the Madonna, laced with kilometres of electrical wiring. It’s a city of angels, plasterwork animals, stucco scrolls and lions. The Venetians are crazy about lions. They sit a-top balustrades, glare down from columns, and guard gateways, masters of all they survey, stranded in a sea of colour – walls of burnt orange, rust, salmon pink, tangerine, mustard and cream. A shot of green – a peep of an almost hidden walled garden, pot plants in shady courtyard or algae dancing along decaying stone steps. The water – even in the coldest, dampest streets is never far away.
The city is so small, we foolishly thought we might get to know it in a month, but like a Russian doll, she keeps revealing her secrets, keeps us coming back for more. ‘Tricky’, like Hemingway said. But we revel in it. Nicola told us, ‘I almost envy you. I know every inch of this place; I don’t have the pleasure of getting lost’.
We used ‘Venice Walks’ by Jo-Ann Titmarsh. Great walks, that take you to some out of the way places – but directions are often sketchy and the maps are next to useless.
We also loved ‘Venice For Pleasure’ by J.G. Links. Originally published in 1966, revised in 1979. Out of date of course, but still useful, and this little book has such a lovely tone to it. Or it did – until I accidentally killed it by loading it into the washing machine with our laundry!
And we did a walk with Venice Free Tours. A good mix of tourist highlights around St. Marks, and off the beaten track in San Polo. Catherine took us to some calli and local hang-outs that we were never able to find again!