Over the quiet rhythmic splashing of waves against the buildings you can hear accordion music and someone singing. You have walked away from the crowds and found a narrow dead end alley where you can watch the boats go by in the canal.
The old doors of the homes nearby have opened onto this alley for centuries. They are massive, sturdy doors but worn. Behind these utilitarian entrances lie refuges against the constant crowds. Refuges with history and commanding views over the waterways and piazzas.
You entered this surreal artistic creation called Venice from a water taxi. As you stepped off the boat the crowd surged toward the iconic buildings and views. But there were some who escaped down small side alleys along the narrow channels.
You have no plan. You just want to walk and see where you end up. The small pocket map shows some of the main features but is short on details. You know the direction to the main sites but you stay a block or two away and skirt around them.
You walk past small shops and outdoor cafés. The alleys become more narrow and sometimes you end up in a small courtyard surrounded by ancient three story buildings. The paint has faded to odd shades of pink, orange, magenta, brown, and yellow. In places where stucco has fallen away the bricks and mortar show through.
There are no cars. At times the alleys are crowded with other tourists. You cross many channels each with its own distinctive bridge.
Turning down another little alley you reach a major channel. To your left is a small landing at the back of a hotel. The hotel staff are loading suitcases and packs onto a boat. Guests are checking out and will be taken back to the parking structures north of town. Another boat is tied up there and workers are unloading boxes of produce and other restaurant supplies. The front of the hotel faces a large piazza where only pedestrians enter. Access is by boat.
You walk on, still avoiding the crowds as much as possible. Over another bridge and down a deserted alley you find a boatyard. A large black gondola has been pulled onto land for repairs. The family lives above the shop. Bright orange flowers hang down from the balcony.
In the distance you hear bells. They may be at Saint Mark’s Basilica or the Campanile or one of the other cathedrals. The sound echoes off of the stone walls. But you don’t heed the call.
You are looking for art.
A long walk and a gathering crowd lead you over the Ponte de l’Accademia bridge over the Grand Canal to the Accademia Gallery. Massive and incredible paintings from the 14th to the 18th century are a rich feast but tend toward heavy and dark religious themes. The paintings are impressive and unforgettable. But you want variety. You find your way further to the east looking for the Guggenheim Collection of 20th century art. But when you arrive the wrought iron gate is closed. Closed Tuesday!
You cross back over the bridge and look for a late lunch. You are getting tired. There are cafés down almost every alley. But it needs to be the right one. One with good outside tables and an interesting location with a good view. Not too fancy. Finally you spot the right table that was just vacated. A long leisurely meal of tuna panini with red wine is just right. The day is advancing and the sun is lowering over the Grand Canal. The tide is out and it is finally time to face the main tourist sites around Piazza San Marco.
It is the right time. The light is golden and the buildings and statues reflect the colors. The white marble glows. The piazza is still wet from the high tide. The low sun is like a spotlight on the gold ornamentation and statuary that decorate Saint Mark’s Basilica. The Campanile and the clock tower hold the last light above the piazza. The air is cooling and the crowds are thinning. This is a time to savor.
The gondoliers stand ready for the twilight tours. As the light fades you have an espresso and a small dessert-the only way to find a bathroom. But when you walk outside into the dusk, the scene is still impressive. You wait at the dock for the water taxi. It becomes dark as you motor up the Grand Canal. You have glimpses into restaurants, homes, hotels, and cathedrals as you pass by. Their lights reveal the occupants and reflect across the water.
It has been a long day. A day filled with images, sounds, and smells. Your photographs show the scenes, but the voices, the songs, the accordions, the gulls, the laboring engines of the water taxis, the garlic, the vino rosso, and the feelings of walking through Venice without a plan-those are only memories. But they are only one day and one set of memories. Venice is worth another trip. Each trip will be a different slice of Venice.