The beauty of Venice is so great that even the high-season overcrowding is still just about bearable. Now we’ve found a way of seeing the city in spring, summer and autumn without feeling oppressed by the sheer numbers around us. A week afloat on a barge is the answer, because you see Venice in the context of its whole lagoon, and can slip easily away from the crowds.
Arriving, for example, at the island of Torcello in the evening, after the day-trip boats have left, is a blissfully peaceful experience. We found a mooring up a tree-lined creek on the far side of the island from the excursion landing stage, right behind the basilica. It was just an hour and a half slow cruising from Venice. In the city itself, we spent two nights in the peaceful surroundings of a yacht club marina at St Elena, in easy reach of the sights but away from the crowds.
The barge was hired, via Blue Water Holidays of Skipton, from Locaboat, whose base is in Chioggia, a fishing town on the southern edge of the lagoon, an hour from Venice by bus and about two hours from the airport at Treviso (changing at Piazzale Roma in Venice).
Chioggia turned out to be a delightful waterside town with an attractive central canal, and a big fishing fleet, sadly underoccupied at the moment, though there is still a thriving fish market and many small shops and restaurants.
We left Chioggia for Venice on Sunday morning, chugging along at 4 knots past Pellestrina and the Lido, two islands protecting the lagoon from the sea.
Gradually, the towers on the island of San Georgio and St Marks Square grew larger, until we entered the channel leading between Giudecca and the main island of Venice, a spectacular waterway leading up to and past the entrance to the Grand Canal (from which unlicensed boats are banned).
The marina on San Georgio must have one of the best views in the world. We stayed there in 2004 on a visit by yacht from Croatia at a cost of about 50 euros a night. This time it was €183 a night for the same length boat, so we passed on the idea.
Keeping an eye on the heavy traffic, especially the vaporetti (water buses), we turned and headed back down the main channel. The vaporetti move fast and can be unnerving as they charge across from stop to stop.
We weaved back through the criss-crossing traffic to Diporto Velico Venezia, at the south-eastern tip of Venice (strictly speaking on the connected island of St Elena, which is ground reclaimed a century ago). This local yacht club was recommended by friends who have a pioneering lagoon-friendly sailing boat they keep there, with a non-polluting electric auxiliary. We paid €101 a night – €73 for the boat plus €4 a head. The club has a marina and boatyard, with small shops and restaurants nearby, less than half an hour’s walk from St Mark’s Square, and within easy reach of a vaporetto stop for those who want to use public transport. There is also a big, and brand new, marina close by, but it looks bleak and unwelcoming at the moment.
We saw other Venice friends who are keen rowers in the Venetian style (standing and looking forward) and who are members of club set up to maintain the last example of a local working boat, a trabaccolo, called Nuovo Trionfo. In the photo above, she is approaching her mooring at the entrance to the Grand Canal. The club looking after the trabaccolo is interested in finding a twinning arrangement with an organisation in Britain devoted to keeping alive a similar working boat, such as a Thames barge.
After a day in Venice, we left the marina in late afternoon for Torcello, the earliest city on the lagoon, now a near-deserted island, but still with a great basilica containing spectacular mosaics. The route follows the shore of the long, thin island of San Erasmo, the market garden of Venice.
Torcello has several restaurants, including the Locanda Cipriani, which we are told is wonderful for lunch; however, this was the fourth time we’ve been and yet again could not eat there, for the simple reason that it was closed for repairs.
After exploring Torcello, we headed for the multi-coloured tourist island of Burano, which is as crowded in the day time as Venice, but which empties at night like Torcello. Locaboat has its own moorings on the neighbouring island of Mazzorbo, which is connected to Burano by a bridge. (The companys’s briefing document instructs us to tell any other boat found there to leave, singling out its competitor Le Boat by name, and helpfully adds a phone number for the police). There are many restaurants on Burano, though none seemed to stay open after 8 in the evening. Mazzorbo has one restaurant, in a walled kitchen garden open to strollers. It is so popular it has to be booked two weeks ahead.
From Mazzorbo, we crossed the short distance to the island of San Francisco, where St Francis once stayed and which is home still to his friars. There is little to do there, apart from short visits to the monastery itself, but it is calm and quiet, and somehow the bird song seems particularly loud. The sign warns that it is an area of holiness and prayer. We did however feel that having a good, long lunch moored on its little canal would not be too intrusive….
From San Francisco we made our way back along Pellestrina for a second night at the yacht club, bypassing Locaboat’s free moorings on the island of Le Vignole for the convenience and sights of Venice itself. To get to Venice from Le Vignole requires a roundabout trip by vaporetto to the glass-making island of Murano, which we’ve visited before but not found attractive, and then on to the main island.
The next day we left for the River Brenta, using the main channel between Venice and Giudecca, which was rough from the wash of speeding commercial boats.
We passed the docks at the north-west tip of the island, where there were four enormous cruise ships, which dwarf the city when they sail between San Georgio and St Mark’s; because of the risks of having such big ships so close to one of the world’s greatest architectural treasures, there is a hotly-debated plan to force them to use the Malimocco entrance to the lagoon, along with the rest of the big ships, and head directly for the docks (in a channel yet to be dredged deep enough). At the moment they come in at the Lido entrance.
Once past Venice, there is a drab section of channel that heads towards the entrance to the Brenta Navigation, close to the industrial area of Marghera.
We had time only for the lower reaches of the Brenta, which are not particularly attractive, because the industry and power pylons of Marghera are so close.
We did make it as far as one of the great houses that line the river, the Palladian Villa Malcontenta; others with more time go all the way up to the great city of Padua, 45 km away, which involves a series of bridges and locks.
The river is busy with tripper boats, which have precedence at the locks and bridges; they also make a great fuss, as we discovered, if you accidentally take one of their moorings, though it seems this is a matter of force majeure: they don’t have any particular right to the marked moorings, but contest that at your peril.
We stayed the night on a mooring at Malcontenta, and the next day headed back to Chioggia down the busy main shipping canal which leads to the Malomocco entrance to the lagoon, the central waterway.
We turned and cruised along the island of Pellestrina, then to the boat’s home berth in Chioggia, for a splendid dinner at Antica Osteria Al Cavallo in the old town, near the harbour.
We were a crew of seven, occupying four double cabins on Caorle, a 15 metre barge with a Dutch look about it, owned by Locaboat, which has a network of inland waterways bases in Europe. The boat is well fitted out, with a shower and lavatory in each cabin. We booked through Blue Water Holidays of Skipton.
Some of us flew Ryanair to Treviso, others British Airways to Marco Polo, and while waiting for the boat we stayed a night at the Piccolo Venezia Apartments in the old part of Chioggia (booked through Booking.com), close to the docks and the restaurants (and in fact immediately over the Antica Osteria Al Cavallo. The seafood was excellent (though don’t go there if you are in a hurry).
There is a bus every half hour to Piazzale Roma in Venice for about €7, where you can change for the airport buses, which are €10. A taxi would be more than €100.