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SPECIAL TRAVEL ISSUE | ITALY

Hidden Venice

Mere Steps Beyond the Piazza San Marco Lies a Magical City Most Tourists Never See

April 19, 1998|SUSAN ALLEN TOTH | Susan Allen Toth's latest travel memoir is "England for All Seasons" (Ballantine). She lives in Minnesota

One of my favorite snapshots of Venice shows hordes of tourists--in jeans, saris, djellabahs, chadors, lederhosen--in front of the Doge's Palace on the Piazza San Marco. I vividly remember how it feels to be jammed among them, pointing my lens in vain over someone's protruding umbrella. But I love this picture because I took it from a smug distance, aboard a Venetian vaporetto, a water bus that was whisking me to a nearby island monastery for a tranquil afternoon.

Crowds are not new to Venice. For centuries, the island republic was the proud center of a rich Mediterranean empire, fiercely controlled by its fabled ships. Its gondolas, waterside lanes and imposing squares were full of prosperous citizens, traders, couriers, diplomats, soldiers, entertainers and artists--and, of course, curious travelers. After the Venetian empire crumbled in the late 18th century, travelers kept coming, lured by the unique setting, artistic heritage and dazzling architecture. Although the full-time Venetian population has sunk to about 100,000, the city now struggles to cope with 9 million to 15 million visitors each year--in the busy season, more than 80,000 a day.

Most of these visitors do not stay long. Pushed and pummeled by their fellow tourists, they surge over the Rialto Bridge, throng to feed pigeons in the Piazza, shuffle through the Basilica of San Marco and perhaps hazard an expensive gondola ride down the Grand Canal. They may take a water bus to Murano to buy a glass vase, dip into the Accademia to see famous paintings or tour the Doge's Palace for an insider's glimpse of the Bridge of Sighs.

After a day or two, most visitors leave. They do not know that another Venice--mysterious, romantic and intriguing--hovers nearby. When, after two shorter visits, my husband, James, and I recently returned to spend a leisurely month in Venice, we looked in out-of-the-way places for the city we had dreamed about. There, along a hidden canal, in a dusky niche of a seldom-visited church, through the windows of an unusual museum or perhaps just around the next unexpected corner, Venice was serenely waiting. To explore it, all we needed was a good map of the city's six very different districts (sestieri), comfortable walking shoes and a sense of adventure.

Our days quickly settled into a flexible pattern. After a leisurely breakfast in our rented apartment, we shopped at the Rialto Market. Just beyond the Rialto Bridge, in stalls that huddle close to the Grand Canal and spill into adjacent streets, we browsed among tiny artichokes so tender that we could cook and eat them whole, baby salad greens still fresh with dew, crunchy red radicchio, juicy blood oranges, fat white asparagus.

Near the fruit-and-vegetable market is the bustling Pescheria, or fish market, which reminded me that Venice is a city whose lifeblood has always been salt water. Few tourists lingered here, but if they did, they saw (and sniffed) an authentic Venice, far removed in spirit from the gaudy souvenir stalls strung along the Rialto Bridge.

After we had stopped for bread, cheese, olives, wine and perhaps fresh stuffed pasta, we would carry our packages home, then set out again on sightseeing expeditions. Although we chose one or two major destinations each day, much of our pleasure was in the journey itself.

Mostly we walked. Because cars are not allowed in Venice (those that cross the one bridge from the mainland can go no farther than the parking garages in the Piazzale Roma), the city is blissfully free of motorized traffic--except, of course, boats on the busy main canals. So we explored as if we were wandering through an enchanted maze. Narrow lanes zigzag across several bridges and change their names, wind through tunnel-like passageways, dead-end suddenly at unsuspected back canals or abruptly empty into large squares with multiple exits.

Sometimes the shadowy passages are jammed with people, everyone sliding by cautiously. But at other times, especially at night, a path along a deserted back canal--where the sound of lapping water mingles with the faintly pungent aroma of salt, mildew and centuries of stone--can seem ominous. Yet Venice usually felt remarkably safe. No thieves whip by on motor scooters, few beggars haunt the doorsteps, and police are not hard to spot.

We often got lost--not every day, but often enough that I kept my map handy. Even on our last day, as I was confidently leading the way back to our apartment, I found myself stalled in an unfamiliar corner of the city. The more I studied my map, the more confused I got. If a friendly Venetian had not noticed my puzzlement and stopped to adjust my mental compass, we might still be wandering along dark little canals that had all begun to look maddeningly alike.

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