It’s an intoxicating moment. A perfect symmetry of sight, sound and scent. As we paddle past the elegantly decaying brickwork of Venice’s music academy, the notes of a rehearsing tenor waft through the open window, blending Puccini into the sticky heat and salty, rancid aroma of the Rio del Santissimo di Santo Stefano.
Fifty yards later, daylight surrenders to darkness. The tiny anorexic canal passes directly underneath the apse of the parish’s 14th century gothic church. Its tunnel is so cramped that our hair brushes the ancient stones but my strokes remain languid, nonchalant, relaxed in the knowledge that I won’t meet another boat. A flat-bottomed sandolo might squeeze through at low tide but not a gondola or a vaporetto.
This is hidden Venice, a world away from the visiting hordes, footpaths and overpriced gelato: the true Serenissima – and all it takes to uncover it are a few strokes on the canal less travelled. Kayaking around the city isn’t revolutionary – small groups have taken part in kayaking trips here for the past three years – but a new excursion launched this summer by the Cipriani Hotel, haunt of A-listers, oligarchs and modern-day grand tourists, gives the adventure a five-star polish.
The day begins with the launch of our kayaks off the tip of Giudecca island, next to the Cipriani’s swimming pool, the biggest, bluest hotel pool in Venice. St Mark’s Basilica punctuates the celebrated skyline but our guide – René Seindal, a Dane who pioneered local paddling tours – leads us away from the blockbuster sights. We head north-east towards Castello, the district forming the tail of the Venetian fish.
Our target is the Arsenale, the maze of shipyards and armouries that fuelled Venice’s rise as a 13th century mercantile superpower. This vast complex produced a warship a day throughout 1203 but we turn sharp left before its two-mile long rampart and, like wasps annoying a picnic, buzz around its ancient walls.
After the monumental Arsenale entrance, encircled by sightseers and statues with unfeasibly ripped six-packs, we slip under tiny bridges, ducking to avoid decorative lions’ heads, and shimmy west into the rio (tiny canals) of Castello. Each stroke pulls us away from the tourists, deeper into daily Venetian life. At water level, it is tiny details that catch the eye: outboard engines stored on balconies, drainpipes chiselled into ground floor brickwork – safe from wide delivery barges – and small dinghies, used to ferry owners to boats moored on opposite banks, hanging from hooks. Fish jump, crabs cling to barnacle-encrusted stilts and housewives lean out of ornate windows for a smoke.
Each paddle splash delivers a fresh surprise: lush gardens tucked behind iron gates, private bridges linking palazzo top floors – more humble apartments are joined by washing lines – and a campanile leaning directly above our heads.
Passages lead to sinister courtyards, stone tablets carry regulations from medieval fish markets and a praying Madonna is sculpted into a small shrine in the office walls of the Italian communist party. They’re unspectacular, yet utterly mesmerising sights.
“You don’t see these things on foot,” stresses Seindal, easing his way around a parked barge. “Venice is now a pedestrian, not a boating, city. People walk everywhere and access palazzi through the old service doors at the rear – their lovely water entrances, once used by nobles, are boarded up. You need a small boat to see the old façades, balconies and gates.”
Around Campo Santa Giustina, we stop at a busy intersection with a major north-south thoroughfare for water taxis. As we gingerly nudge across, we spot our first gondola. It’s getting busier. The kayaking isn’t difficult – single file, keep left – but Seindal won’t take novices on to the often-manic city waterways. “You should know how to stop, reverse out of jams, turn and not be too scared.”
It sounds simple. But my first crossing of the Grand Canal is a heart-in-mouth moment. The guide lines us up – a drake with his ducklings – and waits for a break in the stream of vaporetti, taxis, delivery barges and police vehicles. A gap appears. We take off, a blur of paddles, nerves and exhilaration, eyes lasered on the safety of the fading Farrow and Ball-hued palazzo across the choppy canal.
Confidence soon blossoms. When Seindal shouts “Follow that gondola” we hot-tail it after Giorgia Boscolo, the first female gondolier in 900 years, before attempting a three-point turn in San Polo and casually passing in front of an enormous car ferry on the Giudecca canal.
Seindal, who has paddled most of the Italian coast, doesn’t just explore the city, however. His tours extend to the wilder reaches of the 50km-long lagoon. Next day, I take Shirley – the Cipriani’s mahogany launch – to Certosa Island, the start point for a less urban adventure. We’re heading north, towards an unexpected wilderness.
We wait for a yellow and orange ambulance to putter along Canal di San Nicolò – the city’s 5km/h speed limit is superseded by several faster regulations on open water – before rounding the elaborate gun emplacements of Sant’Andrea Fort.
Apart from motoscafi heading towards the Adriatic beaches, we now have wide stretches of water to ourselves.
Away from land the lagoon is often choppy – you won’t find a gondola out here – but the crowd-free kayaking is pretty straightforward. We paddle to the south-west of Venice’s high-tide defences and Sant’Erasmo, dubbed the green island by locals, who escape the onslaught of visitors to sunbathe on its honey sands. After another gloriously empty canal, we enter a green wall of marshes and reeds. I turn around and, incredibly, Venice’s familiar skyline is still only a couple of kilometres away. But instead of tourists, we’re now surrounded by herons, egrets and wading birds. Under a vast canopy of sky it could be the Fens in eastern England.
It’s a window on history. Fifteen hundred years ago, before fishermen and salt-makers arrived, 90 per cent of the lagoon was like this. Now only eight per cent remains. Motorised boats, their wakes devouring the reeds’ metre-thick mud foundations, are the main enemy.
We float on a gentle tide, shoot the breeze and listen to birdsong – not your stereotypical Venice experience. Emerging from the marshes, we stop on Madonna del Monte which, like many of the lagoon’s 70 islands, once hosted a medieval monastery. Its protective sea wall has collapsed and the religious buildings, abandoned centuries ago, now face a pincer attack of salt water and wild vegetation. In a hundred years, this dot of land may have vanished.
Our final strokes deliver us to Burano island’s multicoloured houses with a leaning campanile that would benefit from some architectural Viagra.
The Cipriani now puts its unique spin on the traditional picnic, using the island’s largest private garden for a six-course banquet of succulent Parma ham, creamy mozzarella and exquisite fresh prawns.
It climaxes with dessert wine on the mansion’s rooftop terrace. We could kayak for days uncovering further Venetian surprises but I’m truly stuffed. I can barely move, let alone paddle. Time for Shirley to gently return us to the hotel’s soft embrace.