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 constantly on their mobile phones, and on a Tuesday back in May, I’m pretty sure this is what one of them was saying.
“Romeo? It’s Lothario. You know the big ugly cabin cruiser you told me about? Si, 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.] “ Fantastico, eh? Momento… Si! No! Missed by a metre. No, don’t call the carabinieri yet. I want to see what happens when he tries to moor up…”
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 of some sort. 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, that’s what I’d done, and now I was master of my own ship for a few days on the most seductive stretch of water in Europe. I couldn’t quite believe it. And judging by the look on that vaporetto driver’s face, neither could he.
You don’t launch directly into the lagoon – which, given the amount that can and does go wrong there, is a blessing. Jaqui and I picked up our boat a few miles inland at Casier. We were a bit shocked at the size of it – 39ft, sleeps six at a squeeze, a sort of waterborne people-carrier – but at least we had a cruise down the Sile River, past noble villas and country towns, to get used to handling the thing, and to ease the gentle, disorientating transition from land to sea.
There’s no one moment when you 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, bucket in hand, hunting clams. A vast horizon opens out, with just one or two features sprouting up from the inhabited islands to guide you – the 1,000-year-old tower of Torcello cathedral and, behind it, the drunkenly tottering campanile of Mazzorbo. If you’d come this way five centuries ago, you’d have seen much the same thing. Like the early merchants, like the very mud Venice is built on, you are swept downstream from the plains of the Veneto to a treacherous waterworld.
Why treacherous? A bit of history explains it best. In AD810, 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, while 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 only a foot or two 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 didn’t fancy emulating the Frankish experience, we stuck to within a few feet of them as we cruised through open water. Only later did we learn that you’re supposed to leave room for a bigger vessel – a vaporetto, say – to pass on your inside. Which explained why, for much of our journey, we were playing chicken with purple-faced boatmen. We had near misses with vaporettos (naturally), a dredger, a rubbish boat (I mean it was carrying refuse, though it wasn’t in great shape), a freighter packed with cabbages and something that looked like a hearse. It was a lively afternoon.
We stopped for the night at Burano, the first built-up island you come to. It’s possibly the tweeest place on earth. As we chugged to the mooring, we could feel our teeth rot just looking at it: a jumble of cute, brightly painted fishermen’s cottages – candyfloss pink, lemon-sherbet yellow, Fanta orange. It’s like a Renaissance Balamory.
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 swamped by the babel of sunburnt Brits, gormless Swedes, bossy Korean tour guides and whingeing American backpackers, their fluorescent fanny packs clashing painfully with the pastel houses.
By night, though, it’s 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 down, leaving a rough bar where locals argue vociferously about Formula One and football. Cats slink along the alleyways, women gossip on corners and you’re free to wander the fondamente in peace.
It’s unbelievably romantic – perfect cottages lit up by moonlight reflected off the black canals, heart-freezing views across the lagoon to floodlit cupolas – and any prose describing it runs the risk of being not so much purple as ultraviolet. So let’s keep it simple. It was very pretty. We slept well on the boat. And the next day, we set off for Venice.
For sheer architectural drama, few things on earth match the entrance to the Grand Canal. What you’re apt to forget, sitting awestruck at the wheel of your motor cruiser, is that the Bacino di San Marco, as this stretch of water is known, is also the maritime equivalent of Spaghetti Junction.
Here, the M6 of the Grand Canal meets the A38 of the Canale della Giudecca and the M1 of the Canale di San Marco. It’s 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 those covered under c).
We didn’t know all this when we rounded the point off Sant’ Elena and motored up towards the world’s most famous high street. We did know – it had been drummed into us rather at the boat yard – that we weren’t 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 were a good 100 yards offshore when the majesty of the view overwhelmed me and I cut the engine.
We wanted a Moment of Contemplation. Anyone would. As we bobbed in the midst of the mayhem, there in front of us was the indecently curvy bosom of Santa Maria della Salute (1681), the Basilica (1094 and on), the Doge’s Palace (1300sish), and a parade of palazzos lining the world’s most illustrious waterway. It would look spectacular on any day, but with the sunshine spattering jewelled reflections off the water onto every dome and archway, it was 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’d drifted into the path of a couple of ferries and obstructed a police boat, or if the current was 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’d got a bit distracted by the wonders of their city, but not a bit of it. They were really quite rude. Still, the engine caught on the third try, and we chugged off, waving cheerfully at the shaking fists and speculating as to what succhiatore might mean. It sounds like a dessert of some sort.
We moored up later and did some sightseeing on foot. It was fabulous, of course, but I’m not going to waste your time explaining how: the intricacies of Venice have been documented by scores of writers with whom I don’t have the cheek to compete. Anyway, truth be told, we spent much of the time hankering to be away from the crowds and back on the water.
Because it’s only when viewed from the water that you realise what an astonishing achievement Venice is. On land, it can seem almost normal – wonderful, but wonderful in the same way as Florence or Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat. 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 got 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 most beautiful city on earth. They can be a hard bunch to like, but credit where it’s due.
Against the odds, we didn’t hit anything on the way home, and only ran aground once. More through luck than judgment, though. At some point, the Italians are bound to close whatever loophole it is that allows incompetent foreigners to cruise their waterways endangering essential shipping. If you’re wise, you’ll book a boat before they do. Just watch out for the vaporettos.