WA­TER WORKS

For a dif­fer­ent view of Venice, sim­ply hire a boat and cast off, sug­gests Stephen Bleach

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

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

Check­list

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.

Main pic­ture: Out­door Travel

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

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