The sound of the water edging against the boat, lapping against the side of the canal, should be barely audible, yet it seems to bounce along the walls of this narrow street. I’m grateful, though, for this auditory intrusion: it reminds me the pavement does in fact end. Considering that in Venice, one solitary glass of wine goes straight to my head, this reminder was certainly welcome.
Venice is known for many things. Its canals, its gondolas, its water. Its romance. Its Carnival and its masked mystery. Strangely enough, as this is Italy after all, what Venice is not celebrated for is its food. Neither is this dark and intriguing city known for its nightlife. But anyone thinking they’ve made a smooth cost-cutting move by returning to the mainland when evening falls is missing out on experiencing the true, discomfiting allure of the city: Its shadows.
“You are going to die,” she said to me as I slid out of the booth to join my companion, who was attempting to settle our bill as quickly as possible. She followed me to the counter and, as we tried our best to bolt for the door, somehow managed to block our path. “Do you accept everything I’ve told you tonight?” was her next question, spoken in the same tone as an evangelical demanding the acceptance of Jesus Christ as our savior.
I thought back. The most vivid recollection I had was her casual mention that her partner had tried to kill her, but she’d glossed over what must’ve been a fascinating story in favor of describing how the entire world hates Swedes. I’d met a handful of Swedes in my time and felt they were a lovely bunch — not to mention that this was the country that brought us Zlatan Ibrahimovic — but it seemed prudent to agree with her.
We both nodded and, as she blearily considered our response, managed our escape. As the door closed we heard her final words, “Then you will not die!” Fortunate for us, really, as the laughter we released as soon as the door latched nearly propelled us into the nearby canal.
There is something about Venice that nurtures the dark and forbidden personality traits — or flaws, whatever we might call them — that most of us try to keep pushed down inside. Perhaps it’s the endless navigation through the city’s winding lanes, seeking a landmark that rarely emerges from the veiled buildings. After sundown, the dusky pinks and mossy greens of the Venetian homes blend together, paving a slippery path for the visitor’s thoughts. As the shadows seem to creep in from all sides, the mind travels into its own dark spaces. The echo of a far-off footstep dredges up a buried memory, the heart beats faster as one imagines what can hide, and what can be hidden, in the courtyards that appear completely uninhabited.
Or maybe that’s just the single glass of Veneto wine, rushing to my head in ways you’d expect from a town built thousands of feet above sea level, not one claiming land from an ever-encroaching lagoon.
In the daylight, it’s nearly impossible to forget how Venice and the sea intertwine. The canals nearly kiss the doors of homes, doors into which entry is only possible via boat. This is a town of endless steps, and every stone bridge provides yet another opportunity to forever capture the reflections in the water. And of course, gondoliers are a constant presence, enticing tourists with promises of romance, forever aware that if the visitors disappear, the city may finally sink into itself.
But romance here feels like a myth constructed to keep the tourists flowing in, so we leave the gondoliers disappointed in favor of an evening vaporetto tour. Sure, the water buses are meant to function as mere public transport, but as the sun sets and the tourists drop away, there’s plenty of room to stand in awe at Venice’s sights. The tickets for the vaporetti, or water buses, may seem overpriced, but for a 45-minute tour of the Grand Canal, watching lights play on the water and gawking at the beautiful buildings lining the way from the Rialto to St. Mark’s, they’re an absolute bargain.
Truthfully there are few bargains in Venice, beyond free entry into St. Mark’s and the ugly souvenir magnets priced at €1 each. Tourism is the livelihood of almost every resident, making it difficult to fault the high cost of rooms on the island, and with the way the sea air corrodes nearly everything it touches, it’s also hard to complain about entry fees for churches and museums. So when visitors see a multi-course set menu costing less than a meal for two at McDonald’s, complete with free WiFi and a surprising lack of cover charge, no wonder they jump right in.
Poor, poor souls. This is how Venice got its reputation for sub-par cuisine, from these trattorias ringing the popular piazzas dishing out reheated lasagna and spaghetti bolognese. Notice, though, the lack of Italian voices in these restaurants, then take a glance inside the tiny storefronts lining the canals. Here is where the locals are, crowding the bar and toasting visitors brave enough to step inside.
There’s really no place to go in Venice to completely escape the tourist hordes, but those angling to hear a Venetian accent need to resist the temptation to succumb to familiar menu items — resist even the temptation to sit down — and partake in what might be the happiest of the city’s hours. Unlike Florence or Rome, or even nearby Verona, Venice does not dish out an apertivo buffet to accompany its evening cocktails. There’s no overcooked pasta or underripe caprese on offer. The cicheti, or Venetian tapas, can be as simple as sorpresa, prosciutto or a ridiculously tasty mashed cod spread atop Italian bread. Apparently fancier small plates can be found, but these open-face sandwiches can be dinner in themselves.
Well, combined with a glass of wine, of course. The wines of the Veneto aren’t as well known as their Tuscan counterparts (except, perhaps, prosecco, which hails from the region) but that makes an evening drink even more enticing. Half-glasses, known as ombre, are available to those looking to taste unfamiliar varieties. The dry Soave is perfect for those who love white wine, while Valpolicella, Bardolino and Amarone are the local reds. Asking the bartender for a recommendation won’t, oddly enough, result in the most expensive bottle being poured, and often the regulars are waiting to clink their own glasses against the newcomers’.
The snug bars, the surprising camaraderie, and the warmth of the wine had me believing Venice at night was a most hospitable place. Even my mortality, brought into question by the probing remarks of that less-than-sober Swede, barely warranted concern. After all, those canals couldn’t be all that deep.
But a swift turn to the left and suddenly we were navigating an alley so narrow my hips seemed to touch both walls at once. The path was deserted, yet voices murmured over my shoulder. Up ahead mist hung heavy over the once-welcoming courtyard. It was impossible to know what lay before me, blocking the path to a nice, warm bed. No wonder so many murder mysteries are set here.
The tendency toward insanity, the desire to dwell on what demons may lurk among the ancient buildings and beneath the flowing water, comes on quickly in this town. I had the feeling that if I remained, I might quickly descend into the shadows playing at the corners of my mind. Yet, although it would have been so easy to escape the night in Venice, I invited myself inside. Perpahs it was all in my imagination, but only after evening set did the city become real.