The Hush: Devastatingly romantic and achingly pretty, a quick whisk round Venice could melt even the stoniest of hearts. But in the summer, her affectionate nickname ‘La Serenissima’- the serene one, can seem more than a little ironic. People pour from piazzas and spill into squares, a jostling jumble of sightseers and selfie-sticks. But visit in the colder months, and you’ll see the crowds lifted like a veil – revealing the city in all her beauty. The empty streets take on an otherworldly feel – misty mornings cling to the canals, giving way to brilliantly bright afternoons which illuminate the waterways. We woke to peals of church bells, throwing open the top floor windows, greeted by the marble pillars of the Chiesa di San Nicola – its domed spire and cross-topped steeple rising from the fog. Below, Venetian woman bustled about their Saturday morning business, lavishly dressed in their furs and gloves. We naughtily order breakfast in bed- a ridiculously huge affair – keeping the windows open despite the chill to enjoy our early morning orchestra. The wonderfully named Hotel Papadopoli is at the Northern end of the island, close to the bus stations and main Vaporetto terminals on a picture perfect section of the canal. Wrapping up warm, we headed out to explore. Woefully ill prepared and of course, without a map, we followed the yellow painted arrows in the vague direction of ‘Ponte di Rialto’. Winding through the backstreets we soon lost our way, stumbling across secret squares and deserted courtyards, each lovelier than the last. Luckily for us, all of these smaller streets seem to wind back on each other, taking us on a scenic detour, but eventually returning us to the right path.
A stunning 24-foot stone arch, the Rialto is the oldest and most famous bridge in Venice, its symmetrical stonework perfectly reflected in the canal below. If, unlike us lengthy breakfasters, you manage to find your way there before noon on a Saturday there’s a produce market with fish fresh from the lagoon to enjoy. From Rialto to St Mark’s square it’s about a ten-minute walk along the Mercerie – a shopping district lined with boutiques and souvenir stalls. Give in to distraction and explore the shops, there’s everything from pungent leather goods to ornate Venetian masks. After infuriating a shopkeeper by trying on countless masks, we finally made it to St Mark’s. The Basilica dominates the square in all its byzantine glory- gold gilded arches and twisting spires sparkling in the sun. Each dome is filled with an impossible number of intricate mosaics, depicting lofty angels and fearsome gargoyles. Inside, a reverent silence fills the air, thick with incense. We climb the worn stone staircase to the upper balcony for the most a stunning view of the square through the fetlocks of the four horses of St Mark, standing proudly atop the building. These are replicas of the real bronze horses, which are kept inside for safe keeping. A good job too as they’ve had quite a history – looted from Constantinople during the crusades, stolen by Napoleon and placed above the Arc de Triomphe and finally returned to Venice. It’s no surprise they’ve changed hands so many times – they truly are a treasure, static metal somehow capturing every rippling muscle. Freezing and red-nosed by this point, we stopped in at Café Florian in the square for one of their legendary hot chocolates. It’s pretty pricey, but worth it to slurp molten mint chocolate in their beautifully baroque wood panelled room, once the haunt of artists and revolutionaries.
We stroll down to the front through the Palace Gardens for an Aperol Spritz on the deck of the Hotel Monaco and Grand Canal – it might not be as famous as its neighbor Harrys Bar, but you can’t beat the views out over the gondolas and across the water to the domes of the Santa Maria Della Salute. Venetians tend to avoid the restaurants around the Piazza San Marco, with two very good reasons – tourists and tourist prices. In winter, many of these are also closed. The trick to finding a gem is to wander as far away from this area as possible – when you find a little bar packed to the brim with Venetians you’ll know it’s a good ‘un. These are Cicchetti bars, hole in the wall cafes which serve local appetisers on sticks, all washed down with a large glass of wine of course. We stumbled across some great ones north of the Rialto Bridge, but finding one is really half the fun.
The low winter light casts a magic over the city, cutting across rooftops and bouncing from glittering canals. Around every corner the sun steals down alleyways, illuminating intricate details- from the prettiest Juliet balconies to Istrian stone footbridges on which to steal a kiss. Bewitchingly beautiful, no-one can resist her spell. I for one, consider my frosty heart well and truly melted.
The How: We flew with BA from Gatwick, ditching work early on Friday to catch the 18.30 flight. We stayed at the Hotel Papadopoli, an M Gallery Collection Hotel which are always of a really decent standard.
The Hurt: Was on a need to know basis, as it was a valentines present! But the Hotel Papadopoli is part of Le Club Accor group, so we were upgraded to a gorgeous top floor suite with Platinum Amex– a job well done for the boy.