The Adriatic is hardly the fiercest of seas. Its tidal currents flow lazily and, in winter, lugubriously along Venice's Grand Canal and its profuse tributaries, those labyrinthine streets famously full of water. Even during rush hour when the cityâ€™s residents are on the move in waltzing fleets of vaporetti, Venetian canals seem remarkably still.
Not so the cityâ€™s paved streets. From 9.30 each morning and for at least nine months of the year, they teem, swirl and even flood with a relentless tide of tourists, many of them day-trippers, and each on a mission to â€œdoâ€ Venice, and its 1,500-year history in a few hours through a more or less prescribed set of obligatory â€œsightsâ€.
Under starters orders after a hasty breakfast, theyâ€™re off, coursing like a river in full flood along the Strada Nova from Piazzale Roma and the Santa Lucia railway station to St Markâ€™s Square, crossing numerous, half-observed campi, or city squares, as they go.
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From Venetian balconies and rooftop terraces, this serpentine flow is fascinating to watch. Adventurous tourists can be seen ducking down alleys off the main tourist flow as if coming up for air in search of some alternative, secret Venice. This exists, but I think visitors might find it more easily by trying an altogether different tack. Instead of exploring the passages and alleyways, they might drop anchor in those much overlooked campi they have used as little more than empty spaces to overtake rival tourists impatient for San Marco and the Dogeâ€™s Palace.
Bathed in sunlight and shadow, the city squares of Venice are a marvel in their own right. Irregularly planned for the most part, the campi vary from imposing, paved public bays, busy shopping ports and fashionable harbours awash with nightlife, to all but secret coves huddled between gnarled medieval buildings, leaning campanili and hump-backed bridges. Some are favoured by special restaurants or the kind of age-old cafÃ©s, delis, pasticceria and quotidian shops selling genuinely useful or wonderful things that have been disappearing from the city as quickly as giant cruise liners and no-frills jets have arrived.