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Venice in Midwinter

Off-Season Travel Offers Another View of the City

Venice Canal in the Off-Season

Bundled in a raincoat, a pork pie hat pulled low over my brow, I slosh along in my rubber boots on my way to a secret ceremony. Blurred lamplight shines on the slick black paving stones. The dark oaken shutters of the neighborhood greengrocer are still closed, as are those of the bookshop opposite, where trunks of old, yellowed prints and musty books are chained and bolted, tucked beneath a tarpaulin. The church doors are still fastened tightly: it’s even too early for the beggar to be up and at his job on the front steps.

Not a soul on the Rialto, or in the secluded campo around the corner where my favorite cafe is not yet open for business. In an hour, burly boatmen in thick blue sweaters smelling of mildew, wet wool, and brine will be standing at the zinc counter, knocking back their first coffee of the day: boiling, black, and laced with grappa, to blunt the raw chill sweeping off the lagoon. I stride along a minor canal where murky water, redolent of motor oil, sewage, and seaweed slaps up and over the edge of the pavement, drenching my feet, only partially protected by their rubber encasing. Hoping to ward off a cold with a eucalyptus lozenge, I make my way into the labyrinth. A clock tower somewhere chimes the hours: half past five. This is Venice in my favorite season: the dead of winter and at my favorite hour, before sunrise.

No crowds press close as I thread those winding alleys and calli. In any other season or at any other time of day, they are so packed you can simply let yourself be borne up and away by the flux of human bodies, pushed along by the peristalsis of encroaching walls. Now I am the only presence, flitting beneath black arches, skirting secret gardens where citrus trees, with fruit like lanterns aglow, somehow flourish behind forbidding gates. One more twist and turn and I am propelled out into the great piazza, still dark, except for a light burning in one of the cafe concerts way across the square, where a first sign of life astir shows me that the ceremony has begun, the city waking to itself.

A man in red livery comes out from the cafe with a long-handled broom and begins to sweep in among the sea of tables and chairs. Patient and thorough, his broom knocks and prods beneath the tables, removing crusts and crumbs, sodden cigarette ends, pigeon excrement, trampled candy wrappers and vaporetto tickets. Moments later, from the doors of the cafe opposite where a light has just come on, out steps a man in green livery, with broom in hand, who begins sweeping his portion of the square. Twinned like the Moors in the clock tower of St. Mark’s Square, they greet the breaking day.

Out on the Riva Schiavoni, beneath a cobalt sky curled with pink, huddled figures await an early vaporetto. I duck back into the labyrinth again, crossing a succession of small bridges repeated ad infinitum as in a mirrored image of a mirror. Ascending, descending a hundred steps, I meet a small army of delivery men who have appeared from nowhere, shouldering crates of tangerines and cabbages or brown sacks of hot bread, swinging buckets of live eels, wheeling along kegs of beer, cases of mineral water, gas cylinders. For in this city, 2-legged transportation is still the norm.

The shutters of a newspaper kiosk fold back to greet the first customer of the day: a lady out with her small dachshund properly coated and booted against the cold. I pause to admire a pockmarked facade of dingy grey and yellow marble striped black and green with rot and algae, floating opposite above the canal. Its main door, tightly bolted, stands a foot below the water line; its algae-scummed front steps lead down into the murk. In an upper window the thick red drapes look as though they have not opened to admit the sun in fifty years or more. Behind them, I imagine a mummified personage from Henry James sitting stiffly at a tea table, claw-like hand clutching a shred of lace, a volume of Ruskin, a faded visiting card, pulling a dusty velvet cord to summon a discreet servant. The creaking of a shutter swinging open on the top floor startles me; out leans a young woman with a mobile phone and I am amazed to discover that such a house is habitable.

I hurry on, past a slew of solemn gondolas moored by an arcade, bobbing like funereal seahorses on the swell of the canal as a boat chugs by. More bridges, more embankments, more secluded gardens and desert squares. Finally I reach the spot, Calle degli Incurabili: “ The Street of the Incurable. Here thirty years ago, disgusted with myself for being so incurably romantic, incurably depressed, incurably in love with Venice and so reluctant to depart, I threw a shoe into the canal as a symbolic gesture to say, “may I never have to leave this place.” Now I look down into the black water where my offering was swallowed up, thinking of all that must lay hidden there, filth and treasures, of all that has disintegrated, rotted away, of all that I have done and been since then.

The sun is up, filtered through soft, low-lying clouds as through milk and molted pewter. I go back to my pension with its creaking bed, damp satin covers, and black, lugubrious furniture. Yesterday returning to my room after the maid had been in, I found that she had removed my nightgown from my suitcase and arranged in on the bed like a white shadow, ready to plunge into that activity this city is proverbially famous for: A Venezia si sogna. In Venice, you dream.

As I come in through the great doors, the proprietress is surprised to see I have already been up and about. She ushers me into the freezing little breakfast room, plugs in a most inefficient space heater and sets it near my feet. Beyond tinted windows, I glimpse the fronds of potted palms in an inner courtyard. A canary is signing in a cage somewhere. Piping hot tea is brought to be on a tarnished silver platter. Incurably romantic? Yes, alas, still.

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