Zooming along the waterways of Venice in a wooden speedboat, one can hardly fail to think of Indiana Jones. As I travelled at a dizzying number of knots from the airport to my hotel, piloted by an Italian seemingly determined to humiliate his rival taxi drivers by overtaking at any opportunity, the cinematic chase scenes filmed in these waters were the images which sprung first to mind.
Then, appearing on the horizon, a spread of belltowers, churches, and palazzos. To the right, the island cemetery founded by Napoleon. To the left, a string of smaller, less densely inhabited islands stretching out across the lagoon.
I had been to Venice once before with my family but I arrived more sedately then, chugging in with the rest of the schmucks on a public ferry. To really understand the appeal of this most unique of cities, I now know the wooden speedboat is a must.
Visiting the northern Italian city for a three-day minibreak, my agenda read: palaces, gondolas, wine, art and gelato. Or to put it another way, Canaletto through an Aperol spritz-coloured haze.
The first problem with Venice, or at least, writing about Venice, is the weight of history. To Italo Calvino (in Invisible Cities, my aeroplane reading) it was a thousand different mirages at once, a dreamlike space that existed more as fantasy than physical city.
To Jan Morris, it represented the frontier of east and west, “half-way between the setting and the rising sun”. The world’s longest-lived republic (as the locals will still tell you with pride) has received its fair share of adulation over the years..
The second problem, which follows from the first, is the tourists. Of course, to be a tourist while complaining about other tourists is the height of hypocrisy. And none of us are now, really, any better than anyone else with access to the easyJet sale and a Lonely Planet guide.
But to walk through the gilded majesty of Piazza San Marco surrounded by herds of Russians pulling suitcases, Americans wearing cruise ship merchandise, and red-faced Brits is to feel a certain sense of loss. Could I really not have managed to visit alongside Jan in the 1950s?
The good news, however, is that despite it all, the city retains its charm. Walk a few streets away from the very centre, take a wrong turn and lose your sense of direction, and the romance is clear.
Fortuitously, one of the best spots to escape the tourist churn is the historic Jewish ghetto.
This district, immortalised by Shakespeare, was not the first urban zone in which Jews were forced to live, a dubious honour belonging to Frankfurt. Venice did become, however, the model for every ghetto that followed, bequeathing a distinct mode of living that defined European Jewry for hundreds of years.
I arrived on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, my back slick with sweat thanks to a power walk along the canals. My guide, Lucia, was not a Venice native, but had moved to the city to study and, like so many others before her, fallen in love with its unique charms.
The ghetto, she told me and the young Americans and Israeli boomers also signed up for our walking tour, was founded in 1516 by decree of Doge Leonardo Loredan and the Venetian Senate. (Turns out republics are just as capable of antisemitism as monarchies.)
The area expanded gradually over time, with new sections added to reflect the city’s swelling Jewish population. Located in the Cannaregio district, it was once the site of a copper foundry, or ghèto. Once German Ashkenazim arrived with their hard gs, the word’s pronunciation shifted to its modern use.
Despite its charm in the afternoon sun, it was clear this was a prison as well as a home. At night drawbridges providing access to the rest of Venice were raised, turning its canals into a moat.
The city’s inhabitants relied on Jews to provide medical care, to trade with them, or to lend money, but did not wish to provide them with too much freedom.
Walk around and if you can spot all the synagogues (some remain well hidden) the district’s history is outlined in stone. Separate shuls exist for the Italian, German, Sephardi and Levantine communities – a testament to the diversity of Jewish migration to this trading hub.
Today there are, predictably, not too many left, although non-profit charity Save Venice has been restoring the interiors of the 16th-century Italian synagogue as part of an ongoing campaign to protect the city’s unique heritage, including buildings, artworks and other cultural treasures.
But in the ghetto’s central square, as we stopped to discuss medieval persecution, I spotted a very contemporary succah. Underneath I found a group of Chabadniks, immediately keen for me to shake a lulav with them.
Standing just opposite a memorial to Venetian Jews murdered in Auschwitz, communal life is still very much alive.
My own base was the elegant Ca’ di Dio. Once a humble guesthouse for pilgrims, it is now a luxuriously renovated hotel sitting in the heart of the city. Since its founding in 1272, this site has greeted visitors as varied as crusaders en route to commit atrocities in the Holy Land and tourists en route to Gucci.
Following a redesign by Patricia Urquiola (Europe’s “most lauded and in-demand industrial designer”, per the New York Times), its simple white-washed walls and wooden beams provide an element of understated charm amid this sometimes overwhelming city. This is (to deploy an overused contemporary phrase) quiet luxury at its peak.
Try the pan-fried sea bream at its in-house Essentia restaurant, if you’re passing, or pop in for a glass of wine at the Alchemia Bar found within the courtyard at its heart.
Ca’ di Dio can also help you discover some other less well-known sides to the city, and I set out on a tour of the local flora and fauna, as part of the hotel’s “Botanical Experience”.
I was greeted by a local guide and botanist Gabriele Bisetto, who’s passionate about the area’s plant life. A grinning, bearded foodie, he led us on a tour of the Venetian archipelago’s ghebi — a network of gullies, channels and waterways in the lagoon, passing between the many islands found here.
At almost every turn, Gabriele was able to grab some green tuft from the bank and detail the recipes it might be used in. Smiling broadly, he rhapsodised about the pasta dishes of his hometown while dispensing herbs and other plant life to my awaiting mouth, some of which have also inspired dishes back at Ca’ di Dio — salt from the lagoon is even used to make a special gin.
When you plan your meals in Venice, give the pizza a miss by the way. Dry and doughy, this Napolitan speciality is out of place in the lagoon. Here you must eat fish, fish and fish, caught fresh from the lagoon. When you’re sick of that, try the cicchetti — finger food appetisers best sunk alongside a glass of wine as you stand next to a canal.
The other must is Aperol spritz. Now ubiquitous in Britain, the orange cocktail is not only the perfect mechanism to cool down after a canal-side walk, it is also cheap and the municipal drink of choice.
The key is to make sure not to order it with Aperol. Here, the locals prefer Select — a slightly more bitter spirit, which, in my opinion, rounds out the cocktail’s flavour. Whatever version you pick, however, the startlingly low prices are likely to stun any visitor from London. By day three I was browsing the city’s rental market online.
Alongside history and food, no trip to Venice is complete without art so I finished my trip with a visit to Ca’Rezzonico. An 18th- century palace located on the Grand Canal, it now houses much of the city’s greatest artworks.
An immense baroque building, its bombastic rococo charm sums up much of what makes the Venetian aristocracy so compelling. Plus you get to tick the obligatory Canalettos off your to-do-list.
And then, back to Ca’di Dio to catch a water taxi from the hotel’s private jetty direct to the airport. Whip in hand, priceless antique in my pocket — in my imagination at least — I was back in Indiana Jones mode as the sun set over the lagoon.
Various airlines fly to Venice from the UK, including direct flights from London and Manchester from around £35 return.
Double rooms at Ca’ di Dio cost from around £400 per night B&B, while the Botanical Experience costs around £180 per person for a group of up to eight.
A private tour of the Venice ghetto is available from Lucia Bondetti for around £150, while group tours run on select dates. Book at Venice Walks and Tours