At dinner on our first evening back in Venice after many years’ absence, my wife Sylvie and I were looking dreamily and, yes, slightly drunkenly at the traffic on the flat-water lagoon. The moon was out, the water studded with diamonds, the boats all polished wood and chrome, the moment seductive. So when a local couple went by in their own small motorboat, Sylvie said: “That looks like fun. I’d love to get out on the water.” I replied: “OK. No problem. We can do that.”
The implications hit me in the middle of the night with all the force of a vaporetto ramming a small motorboat in the middle of the Grand Canal. Venice has some of the busiest waterways in the world. But then I was calmed by the probability that you can’t just turn up and do these things. Convinced that self-drive was a thing of the past, I slept the sleep of the innocent … and of the deluded.
Not long ago you didn’t have to go far to find a boat for rent, but if you look under the “getting around” section of most guidebooks to Venice now, there will be vaporetto routes and gondola stations but no boat hire. Yet with a bit of perseverance, I tracked down what I was told was the last yard on the islands willing to rent a boat without the need of a licence.
The boats on offer from the Brussa yard are not the stuff of dreams but they are typically Venetian. Not the high-gloss wooden boats that serve as hotel launches, or the luxurious, leather-trimmed Riva, but a fibreglass topetto, consisting of an open shell with a couple of benches in the middle and a 15 horsepower engine at the back. Apart from the gondolas, they are the slowest boats on the water – though with the right frame of mind, that fact has a special charm and comfort of its own.
I was staying on the island of Giudecca and started from there, which was a good idea because the backside of the island has some of the quietest waters on the lagoon. This gave me time to get used to the boat. Not that there was much to it: a rip-cord to start her up, a lever that put the motor forward, into reverse or neutral, a tiller to turn left or right and a handle on it to control the speed.
I began by steering between markers along the broad waterways at the back of Giudecca and then turned into Rio di Santa Eufemia, a calm, broad waterway that cuts straight through the island, under a bridge and then on to the Giudecca Canal, one of the city’s main waterways. This was the sort of thing I had had nightmares about but the way was clear and the going good, so I sped across to the opposite bank and down the first turning, the Rio di San Trovaso.
In Venice, one is always passing something of interest, in this case a church, a good bar and now also a gondola boatyard. I took a turn hard to port but the canal was narrow, the turn tight, bows were scraped and voices raised. After a few moments calming nerves, we moved along the canal, tied up and went for coffee in beautiful San Trovaso square.
The morning passed in a series of close encounters. Close in the sense that we were within touching distance of some spectacular buildings – from the headquarters of the Brotherhood of St John to the late Gothic Ca’ Foscari palazzo. Close also in distance from other boats. I had expected gondolas, and there were plenty of those creeping round corners – and none of them announced their arrival with a burst of song. I hadn’t reckoned on the number and variety of boats on the lagoon – sciopon, puparin, sandolo, burcio, bragozzo, and many others were reminders that the glory of the Serenissima, the Venetian republic, was built on its mastery of the water and also that the canals of Venice can be as choked as the streets of London.
I had wanted to head out to Burano for lunch but the 15hp motor wouldn’t have got us there and back. Instead, we braved the Grand Canal and stopped for the freshest of seafood at the Rialto market. Later, we criss-crossed through a network of small canals, passed magnificent churches, simple houses and beautiful palazzos and remembered, as best we could, the stories of powerful doges, great artists, rich traders, of Casanova and of Byron, who swam through this soupy water of the Grand Canal and across to Lazaretto.
The more we puttered along, the more I became aware that Venice is different things to different people. There is the Venice of mass tourism, of art and architectural historians, the Venice of Venetians, of local shops and out-of-the-way restaurants that they go to and we long to find. There’s the Venice of the mind, the place that had swept us up and into the topetto in the first place. And as we headed back to Giudecca, I realised that there was also, still, the city dependent on water. Everything looked different from the water, more magnificent, more intriguing, more understandable, more beautiful in many ways. As she stepped out of the boat at the end of the day, wish fulfilled, Sylvie looked happy.
Anthony Sattin travelled as a guest of Citalia (www.citalia.com) and stayed at Hotel Cipriani (www.orientexpress.com). Citalia offers four nights at the Cipriani from £1,255 including flights from London. Brussa (www.brussaisboat.it) rents boats from €20 per hour; no licence is needed, though you should be familiar with handling a small boat