A weekend walking off the beaten track in Venice

The name Venice evokes dreamy images of wide canals bathed in sunlight. It conjures a picture-perfect scene of shimmering water, rippling in the wake of the gondolas which meander downstream, punting relaxed tourists under arched bridges and beyond. You think of the luxury of cathedrals, Doge’s palaces and the iconic image of St. Marks’ Square proudly bearing the towering Campanile. But beyond the Grand Canal and the pedestrianised square of the centre, the rest of Venice is rarely mentioned; an unknown somewhere that tourists often forgo.

If you walk mere metres from the bustling centre where tourists jostle and fight to get seats at the famous cafes you find yourself in a maze of backstreets, winding alleys and local stores brimming with surprises. This is the Venice that people rarely show in their holiday photos and the Venice that often escapes the tour guides. Yet wandering down these quiet backstreets shows the true face of the city, and it is a face that is even more stunning than mass media allows us to believe.

With the proliferation of social media, tourism has started to change. Eager to tick off Pinterest’s ‘Top Ten’ of things to do in Venice, upload the stereotypical photos to Instagram and complete the tasks on our online bucket lists, we are becoming more desensitised than ever to the world around us. As I sat on a water taxi on the Grand Canal I became absorbed watching a middle-aged couple in front of me. They had their system perfected: the man would stare at an interactive map on his iPad and when he spotted a famous monument on the map he would tap his wife who, camera at the ready, would snap a photo of it and sit, staring over his shoulder at the map, until another photo opportunity took their fancy. The same was true of the cruise ships that routinely pulled into the city. The tourists would disembark, follow the same beaten track to the centre where they would spend a couple of hours before walking back to the ship, already discussing their next stop on the route.

This is the problem with tourism today: we are failing to engage with the world around us on a meaningful level. Holidays are becoming more about the fact that you have been somewhere than the actual experience. In a generation characterised by the bucket list we seem to get less pleasure out of doing something than from sharing it online and so our daily activities on holiday become engineered around the telling of stories and sharing of pictures when we return back home.

This is the problem with tourism today: we are failing to engage with the world around us on a meaningful level.

I found a love for Venice not in the mainstream sites but by touring the small side-streets without a rigid plan. Down one street was a small shop, operating out of the front of a house, where you could bring an empty glass bottle and fill it with red, white or sparkling wine for a tiny amount of money. The owner snoozed outside in the sun for most of the day as the locals passed in and out. Further down was a small local shop, this time not selling the mainstream Venetian masks or Murano glass but local wares and tidbits. Lost in the dark back of the shop I realised that it was small memories like this which really bring a holiday alive.

It’s a wonderful city, characterised by the unique canals, but Venice is so much more than that. Lost in the world of mainstream travel, we often forget the wonders and joys of local cultures. With every day of a holiday planned to precision based on which sites are the best to see, we sometimes lose the intimacy of a place. Although seeing the main sights is fun, walking off the beaten track can often be more rewarding and memorable than people often realise. It’s that night in Venice when I ate a delicious meal in a family run restaurant rather than a mainstream pizza shop that I remember with fondness. It’s not the staged photos in front of gondolas that I often remember, but the more intimate photos of me on a winding alley, exploring the side of the city that the tourists often overlook. And it’s that side of the city which made me love Venice even more.

Lost in the world of mainstream travel, we often forget the wonders and joys of local cultures.