11 JAN 2019: Gorgeous Venice has been ‘in decline’ for hundreds of years as trade wars and the rising ocean have taken its toll. Now the hordes of tourists have driven away most Venetians, except those employed in the tourist industry in some way. Plans have recently been announced to charge and limit the number of tourists, but while this unique city stands (or floats), most people want to visit - and last year that included my husband and I.

So, in this column I will be more positive and describe what we enjoyed on our late winter visit. The highlights remain, of course, and there is much to enjoy, including the islands in the lagoon, which the local authorities plan to encourage visitors to visit.

In Venice itself most visitors will have St. Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica di San Marco on their wish list. A piece of practical information: due to strict security measures no bags can be taken into the splendid Basilica. They must be placed in a left-luggage facility on a nearby street (signs point the way). As the line-up for this was long we decided to enter the Basilica separately … each awaiting the other seated outside with our bags, which turned out to be a time-saving plan.

Instead of the famous gondola ride we opted for the public ferry which is far cheaper and covers nearly all the city’s waterways. Try to secure a place by the rail for the best photos, although the famous view of the Canal Grande can be seen on foot from the wooden Ponte dell’Accademia. Art lovers will, in any case, find themselves close to this bridge, which is named after the nearby Gallerie dell’Accademia. No surprise that this museum contains the world’s finest collection of Venetian paintings, including works by Bellini, Titan, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Canaletto and many others. It is gorgeous … and provides a quiet respite from the hustle bustle of pedestrian streets and canals outside.

Near the gallery is the Ca’ Rezzonico, a museum dedicated to the most glorious days of Venice in the 18th century, where the sumptuous, richly decorated rooms give some idea of what it was like to live in Venice at that time.

A completely different collection can be found right on the Grand Canal: the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of modern art.

These works are housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an 18th-century palace which was the home of the American heiress for nearly 30 years. Oh lucky Ms Guggenheim to live in such a home! She was an avid collector of the art of her time, and in 1951 she began to open her home and share her treasures with the public.

The collection includes works by Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky and Miro. These offerings seem rather stark after the Venetian riches in the Academy, but modern art lovers will not want to miss this gallery and all will enjoy the house, gardens and splendid views of that famous canal.

There are many other galleries in Venice, all of which visitors will find detailed in their guidebooks, but we did not make time for these; we decided three galleries were enough and we wished to set out into the lagoon and visit a couple of nearby islands.

Frequent ferry services provide links to the islands near Venice. There’s the Lido, of course, but we rejected that popular beach destination in favour of Murano and Burgano - islands famous for glass-blowing and for lace making respectively. It was lovely to be out at sea again in the mild sunshine. The ferry passes the island of San Michelle, whose Renaissance church and large cemetery can be seen from the lagoon. We did not alight here, but those who take an interest in such things will like to know that Ezra Pound and Igor Stravinsky are buried here in the cemetery established by Napoleon who forbade burials in the historic centre of Venice.

Murano is a charming island with yet more canals and bridges over several tiny islands, creating a place much like Venice, though far quieter. Restaurants, bars and patios line the major canals but in between these there is more of interest: evidence everywhere of Venice’s ancient glass-blowing industry. This activity dates back to the 13th century, when factories were moved from the city centre for fear of fire.

Today the town boasts fascinating art installations made of glass and, for the visitor who loves to shop, dozens of shops selling glassware of every type, size and hue. These items range from large chandeliers and statues to tiny figurines, some of the latter set out in groups: a full orchestra or a bullfight complete with minuscule onlookers. Even if one does not wish to buy, one can window shop with the feeling of being in a glass museum.

Our second island destination was Burano, the one famous for lace-making and also alluring due to the fact that many of its canal-side houses - far more modest than those in Venice itself - are painted in vivid colours and designs. Actually lace-making did not seem to be much in evidence here; it was soon obvious that most people come here to shop for clothes and household linens. Stores with racks outside line every little street. If one knows where to go I’m sure the ‘real thing’ can be found, but it seemed to me that many of the clothes were cheap and the ubiquitous ‘made in Italy’ label hinted at factories mass-producing elsewhere. Nonetheless, it was all interesting to see and a gelato on the harbour wall while awaiting the busy ferry brought a pleasant afternoon to a close.

If we return to Venice there’s an island we missed that we’d like to visit: Torcello is the most remote of the islands (an hour from Venice), more rural we were told and home to a magnificent Byzantine cathedral. This, together with dozens of churches and some of the museums we missed, might well lure us back to this incomparable and beautiful city by the sea.

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Ann Wallace

Ann Wallace is living a writer's dream currently writing of her adventures as she and her husband sail their boat around Europe.

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