Holidays in Europe: Exploring Venice by vaporetto, the cheapest alternative to gondolas

The Grand Canal at sunset, after the end of the day’s river traffic. Photo/Getty Images

It’s all happening on Venice’s Grand Canal, so hop on a vaporetto and enjoy the view, writes Marian McGuinness.

A nun crossed a small arched bridge, followed by her herd of small loads. When she reached the path, she stopped and turned to the children. She sang a few lines and the children responded by singing as she hit the lid of a saucepan with a wooden spoon to keep them on time. They all left singing.

Italy has its share of alluring cities, but few can capture and hold your heart as the water goddess herself. The Serenissima. Venice.

The singing nun with her students going about their daily business along the Grand Canal.  Photo/Marianne McGuinness
The singing nun with her students going about their daily business along the Grand Canal. Photo/Marianne McGuinness

The extraordinary history of Venice began when Attila the Hun led settlers into the marshes of the Adriatic Sea. They began to connect the 117 small islands with bridges which today number more than 400 spanning its 150 channels.

For the past four centuries, this limestone city has been supported by a petrified forest of 10 million wooden piles of oak and pine. Drowned in airless mud, the wood was naturally preserved.

Some may see Venice today as nothing more than a tourist theme park, but if you surrender to it from your first moment of arrival, it will transport you along its jade waters into its 1200 years of history. history, whether you travel by romantic, elegant gondola, teak water taxi or, like me, by blowing vaporetto.

A slice of daily life

It’s dusk as I board Vaporetto No. 1, the Grand Canal vaporetto that stops at all stops, at Santa Lucia station to travel 8 km and 40 minutes through the heart of Venice. I make my way to an edge, crashing alongside costumed passengers. Three are dressed as Statues of Liberty with masks haloed with seven golden spikes. It’s February. Winter recedes and the city celebrates its annual Carnevale di Venezia, as it has every year since 1094. Carnevale comes from the words carne vale, or farewell to meat, as it foreshadowed the tradition of Lent before Easter.

Some of the many colorful costumes of the Venetian carnival.  Photo/Marianne McGuinness
Some of the many colorful costumes of the Venetian carnival. Photo/Marianne McGuinness

The engine creaks and we set off in the breeze along the most beautiful avenue in the world. We glide along candy-striped mooring masts and share our space with FedEx couriers, garbage collectors and barges laden with TV boxes and microwaves. There is a smell of oil as we cross the choppy waters of the canal. We pass a construction barge balancing a crane and an excavator. An ambulance passes us silently and suddenly there is a commotion on the starboard side as we have a near miss with a handful of blue-striped gondoliers. It’s Venetian style of road rage as insults and posturing fly between the vaporetto captain and the gondoliers.

The famous Rialto Bridge with a handful of gondolas parked outside.  Photo/Marianne McGuinness
The famous Rialto Bridge with a handful of gondolas parked outside. Photo/Marianne McGuinness

The sailor weaves his way through the crowd to the door as the vaporetto skirts a creaking, bucking pontoon. He ties the thick rope around the berth, slides open the door, and passengers disembark through mysterious, narrow alleyways.

A small motorboat passes. Two older Venetians sit like king and queen on stately rattan chairs. They sip prosecco and eat nuts from a bowl enjoying the ambiance of their evening walk. It’s that magical moment of twilight when we take the time to relax and celebrate the wonders of the day.

And so the collision with daily Venetian life continues as we zigzag through the canal’s 20 landing stages. There is harmony and rhythm on the water. It is the choreography of an aquatic ballet.

Shopping for vegetables, canal style.  Photo/Marianne McGuinness
Shopping for vegetables, canal style. Photo/Marianne McGuinness

A barge with a plastic-coated laundry frame, past engines. Geraniums spill from the terracotta pots that line the steps of a mooring quay encrusted at its pockmarked base with the moss of the ages. Some houses have bars on the windows, and whether fact or fiction, this was not to keep the women inside, but to keep the unscrupulous local boy Casanova away.

A city rich in history

The channel bends. Like masks of alabaster, red and ocher, palaces and churches parade, adorned with Moorish windows, Baroque facades and Byzantine domes. These are the palaces of the popes and doges of yesteryear. They have housed superstar writers, artists and musicians.

A notable Grand Canal swimmer was the romantic poet Lord Byron. At night, he often swam naked on the 7km resort island of Lido, propelling himself with his right arm while holding a torch with his left to warn sleeping gondoliers of his presence.

As I dream of the bravery of Lord Byron, the Rialto Bridge with its 16th century marble arches appears. I’m looking for Shylock from Shakespeare, from The Merchant of Venice in the crowd of tourists fleeing with their cameras. So many are in capes, wigs and masks, Shylock just might be there.

It is the site of the famous fish markets, where the fishmongers sing as if they were Pavarotti. This is also the stop to see the house where the explorer Marco Polo lived. Nearby is a statue of a hunchback called, Il Gobbo. It was the point of arrival of the criminals who, as punishment, had to run naked from St. Mark’s Square.

Another homage to nudity in this area is the pink-painted Ponte delle Tette, the Breast Bridge, where 15th-century prostitutes displayed their wares.

Music, machismo and mosaics

Venice is also the home of 17th century Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi. Carnevale was often a period of extramarital love which resulted in many illegitimate children. Vivaldi was a music teacher at the Ospedale della Pieta, now the exclusive Hotel Metropole. In Vivaldi’s time it was a convent, an orphanage and a music school for abandoned girls. It was here that Vivaldi wrote the universally known Four Seasons, and where an ensemble of 40 girls, dressed in white dresses and crowned with pomegranate flowers, performed his music for the faithful from a brass gallery.

Music is never far from the Grand Canal. In 2021, Noah’s 12m fiddle, named after the biblical ark, stopped tourists in their tracks as it floated down the canal with a string quartet on board playing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It was conceived as a musical message of hope as the world navigates the Covid-19 pandemic.

As our vaporetto moves forward, we pass under the Accademia Bridge, one of four bridges to cross the Grand Canal. Next door is the colonnaded Gallerie dell’Accademia, housing Venetian Renaissance masterpieces.

Nearby, a waiter carries a giant burgundy parasol along the pedestrian promenade to an outdoor cafe and plants it above a table. There is a group of gondoliers who have a smoko. “Beware signorinas,” a group of schoolgirls traveling in one of the polished black beauties are called out to, “he thinks he’s Casanova.” The girls laugh and the handsome gondolier laughs. He adjusts his sexy sunglasses and pushes his oar with even more Italian machismo.

A Venetian gondola conductor demonstrating the classic foot technique.  Photo/Marianne McGuinness
A Venetian gondola conductor demonstrating the classic foot technique. Photo/Marianne McGuinness

The bells ring to greet the end of the day as Venice sinks into the evening. The channel has become a trail of beaten tin. Chandeliers flicker in the windows of the 12th century palace and I become a voyeur of the painted ceilings, ornate furniture and velvet curtains that frame their marble balconies. I imagine aristocratic ladies leaving their palaces dressed in lavish dresses and high platform shoes to keep their dresses above the dirty streets as they enter their gondolas to be transported to a ball.

We go around the last bend in the Grand Canal and I see the mosaics of Saint Mark’s Basilica, my last stop before the vaporetto sinks into the darkness of the lagoon towards the island of Lido. The mood of the goddess has changed. The sun has set and the moon hovers like a blood orange in the sky, illuminating the duomo and St George’s Campanile on the island across the water, just as it did 100 years ago when Claudius Monet sat here and painted San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk.

The Doge's Palace on Venice's famous Piazza San Marco.  Photo/Getty Images
The Doge’s Palace on Venice’s famous Piazza San Marco. Photo/Getty Images

I descend into the chaos of Piazza San Marco and the tide of masked revelers sweeps me into the maelstrom of Carnevale. It’s like stepping into a Cirque du Soleil opera with stilt walkers, fire eaters and acrobats. No wonder Napoleon claimed that this square was “the most beautiful salon in Europe”.

I am framed by the arcades of the Procuratie and the Doge’s Palace with its baroque Bridge of Sighs. Byron wrote of this bridge where prisoners caught their last glimpse of Venice as they were transferred from the prison cells to the execution chambers, as “I stood on the Bridge of Sighs; a palace and a prison on each side”.

Before me rises the piercing bell tower of the Campanile, its pyramidal spire surmounted by a golden weather vane in the shape of the Archangel Gabriel. To my right is the ornate five-domed Basilica of Saint Mark where, in 828, merchants from Venice brought the stolen body of Saint Mark from Alexandria to Egypt. According to legend, they hid his body in a barrel under layers of pork in order to smuggle him to Venice.

My journey ends and begins. Now is the time to indulge in some fine dining at Caffe Florian, sharing the same spot with Casanova and Dickens, or maybe I’ll head around the corner to Harry’s Bar, Ernest Hemmingway’s haunt, for a sip. a Bellini. And while I’m there, I might even consider getting lost in Venice.

For more travel ideas, see

Checklist: Venice

Travelers to Italy must present an international travel vaccination certificate, or a negative test result, taken within 48 hours (antigen) or 72 hours (PCR) of departure. Fully vaccinated arrivals no longer need to take an additional test before traveling to Italy. Check with your airline or travel agent for details.

About Laurence Johnson

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