For a different view of Venice, simply hire a boat and cast off, suggests Stephen Bleach
THE water-taxi drivers of Venice are a flashy lot, with their gleaming engines, shiny teak decks and bright white teeth. While driving, they talk on their mobile phones, and on a Tuesday in May, I am pretty sure this is what one of them is saying: ‘‘ Romeo? It’s Lothario. You know the big ugly cabin cruiser you told me about? I’ve spotted him again: he’s up by Murano in the lagoon, about to crash into a vaporetto. Si, si, look!’’ (Holds up phone and snaps picture.)
In cities where cars are the chief mode of transport — that is, all other cities — they don’t let anyone loose on the roads without a licence. But in Venice any hapless fool can rent a boat and steam around the lagoon on production of nothing more than a credit card and a gormless smile. Being in possession of both, I am now master of my own ship for a few days on the most seductive stretch of water in Europe. I can’t quite believe it. And judging by the look on that vaporetto driver’s face, neither can he.
You don’t launch directly into the lagoon which, given the amount that can, and does, go wrong there, is a blessing. My partner Jaqui and I pick up our boat a few miles inland at Casier. We are a bit shocked by its size — 39 feet, sleeps six at a squeeze, a sort of waterborne people-carrier — but we cruise down the Sile River, past noble villas and country towns, to get used to handling and to ease the gentle, disorientating transition from land to sea.
There’s no one moment that we enter the lagoon: instead, the land just eddies away. The river banks descend from firm high ground to reedy expanses to a succession of low, muddy islets. Fishing nets stand drying on intricate rigs. Old men wade through the muck, buckets in hand, hunting clams. A vast horizon opens out, with just one or two features — the 1000-year-old tower of Torcello cathedral and, behind it, the drunkenly tottering campanile of Mazzorbo — sprouting up from the inhabited islands to guide us.
Five centuries ago, we’d have seen much the same thing. Like the early merchants, and like the very mud Venice is built on, we are swept downstream from the plains of the Veneto to a treacherous waterworld.
Why treacherous? A bit of history explains it best. In AD 810, the Venetian fleet sailed out to the open Adriatic to attack the Frankish navy. Then they feigned terror and fled back to the lagoon. The Franks, a straightforward bunch, gave chase and soon found themselves running aground all over the place.
Stuck fast as the tide retreated, their ships were picked off one by one: the heavily armoured knights aboard were either hacked to pieces or left stranded on the shoals to rust slowly to death.
What the canny locals had done was to remove the bricole , the stout wooden posts that mark the navigable channels. Because, although it might look like open sea to the casual noodle in a motor launch or a Frankish warship, the Venice lagoon is a sham. Much of it is considerably less than 1m deep at low tide.
Follow the thin, twisting channels created by the tidal flow and you’re fine, but stray too far and you’re stuck fast in silty goo.
The bricole are firmly in place today and as we don’t fancy emulating the Frankish experience, we stick fairly close to them as we cruise through open water.
Only later do we learn we must leave room for a bigger vessel — a vaporetto, say — to pass on our inside. Which explains why, for much of our journey, we are playing chicken with purple-faced boatmen.
We stop for the night at Burano, the first built-up island we come to. It’s possibly the most twee place on earth. As we chug to the mooring, we all but feel our teeth rot just looking at it: a jumble of cute, brightly painted fishermen’s cottages. By day, Burano is an established excursion for tourists hoping to escape the chaos of Venice, but instead they bring it with them. Boats disgorge swarms of trippers, a human tide that surges over the green by the vaporetto stop, eddies around the washing strung between the trees, then gurgles down the little alleyways towards the main square.
The island’s immense charm is thus swamped but by night it is transformed. The tourists depart (there are virtually no hotels, so a boat’s pretty much the only way to stay), the souvenir shops close and nearly all the two dozen restaurants on the main drag shut, leaving a rough bar where locals argue vociferously about Formula One and football. Cats slink along the alleyways, women gossip on corners and we are free to wander in peace.
It’s unbelievably romantic — cottages lit up by moonlight reflect off the black canals, heart-freezing views across the lagoon to floodlit cupolas — and any prose describing it runs the risk of turning not so much purple as ultraviolet.
We sleep well on the boat. And the next day, we set off for Venice.
For sheer architectural drama, few things match the entrance to the Grand Canal. But what we forget, sitting awestruck at the wheel of our motor cruiser, is that this stretch of water, Bacino di San Marco, is the maritime equivalent of a freeway’s spaghetti junction. It is chaos; there are no rules about who should go where, but there is a procedure to settle the frequent disputes, and it reads as follows: (a) vaporettos are in the right; (b) everyone else is in the right, too, as long as they stay out of the way of the vaporettos, with the exception of (c) foreigners on deeply uncool motor cruisers, who are in the wrong; and (d) gondoliers must shout at everyone, but especially at those covered under point c.
We don’t know this when we round the point off Sant Elena and motor up towards the world’s most famous high street. We do know (it was drummed into us at the boat yard) that we are not allowed to go up the Grand Canal itself, on pain of gunship attack from the local plods, who get quite aerated about such things. But I reckon we are a good 100m offshore when the majesty of the view overwhelms me and I cut the engine. As we bob in the midst of the mayhem, there in front of us is the indecently curvy bosom of Santa Maria della Salute (1681), the Basilica (1094 and on), the Doges Palace (1300s), and a parade of palazzi lining the world’s most illustrious waterway.
The sunshine spatters jewelled reflections off the water on to every dome and archway. It is magical.
However, for people who live in such a spiritually uplifting place, Venetians can be depressingly focused on everyday, purely material concerns. So what if we drift into the path of a couple of ferries and obstruct a police boat, or if the current is sweeping our hulking cruiser into a small marina full of delicate, gleaming gondolas? You’d think they’d take it as a compliment that we are distracted by the wonders of their city, but not a bit of it. They are really quite rude. Still, the engine catches on the third try, and we chug off, waving cheerfully at the shaking fists.
It is only when viewed from the water that you realise what an astonishing achievement Venice is. On land, it can seem almost normal; the pavements and buildings lull you into a false sense of solidity. But from a boat, you see the truth. This is a marsh. When king Alfred was chased into a marsh by invaders, all he did was burn some cakes. When the same thing happened to the Venetians, they imported a million or two tree trunks, drove them down through the muck, laid foundations on them and built the world’s most beautiful city.
Against the odds, we don’t hit anything on the way home and only run aground once. More through luck than judgment, though.
One day, the Italians are bound to close whatever loophole it is that allows incompetent foreigners to cruise their waterways, endangering essential shipping. Book a boat before they do: just watch out for the vaporettos. The Sunday Times
Connoisseur Boating has a range of boats for weekly hire in the Venice lagoon; the company has some free mooring sites, but it can be more convenient to use commercial marinas. More: www.connoisseurboating.co.uk. Crown Blue Line also offers self-skippered motor cruisers in Europe, including Venice lagoon. More: Outdoor Travel, (03) 5750 1441; www.outdoortravel.com.au.
Stormy waters: Cabin cruisers aren’t popular with locals but the views are great, left; the Doges Palace and St Marks bell tower, above; Burano is charming but popular, right