My one to one with San Marco

Travelling alone is an opportunity to indulge in the Renaissance treasures that decorate La Serenissima.
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The Independent Culture
Your plane has been delayed due to industrial action in Italy," the BA check-in clerk told me matter of factly. "It is now scheduled to depart at 1.30pm." This was both annoying and faintly worrying. Annoying, because I had rushed to the airport to be on time for my 10.45am flight and now, I calculated, I was already due to lose three hours of my four days' holiday in Venice. Worrying, because I didn't want the hotel to give up my room when I failed to appear at the expected time. The check- in clerk seemed baffled by my worries. "Aren't you with a group?" he asked. "No." "Can't you call your travel agent?" "No, I booked the flight and hotel all by myself." Sorry, no help for the independent traveller.

In the end, it didn't much matter. I used my extra time at the airport to study Italian verbs and useful phrases, and the hotel receptionist, who remembered me from my stay there last year, was very relaxed when I finally turned up in the early evening. None the less, there are unavoidable difficulties in being your own Thomas Cook; and when travelling alone, there isn't even the opportunity for shared miseries.

But Venice is the best urban place I know for the solitary tourist. Loneliness is put at bay, both by the intrinsic interest of the sights and sounds, which so quicken the perceptions that they crowd the mind, and by the intimate nature of the public spaces. The little campi, the narrow calli, the pretty rii with their open gondolas, provide an illusion of companionship, and quickly become familiar.

I struck out from my hotel room for a quick stroll before dinner. Crossing the second bridge, over the Rio di S Maurizio, I looked down and saw five "Japanese boats" (as the locals call gondolas) pass below me. They were filled with Japanese, in fact: the men dressed in black and the women wearing a white make-up which made them appear like masked characters in a kabuki play.

I made my way to a wine bar recommended in a city guide, got lost and went, instead, into a bar full of Venetians, off Salizzada San Luca, where I ordered an "ombre, per favore". (That's what, the books say, Venetians call a glass of wine.) A customer standing at the bar laughed, and repeated the word: "ombre". The bartender laughed too. So I switched to a "glass of white wine". The Venetian customer translated, and the bartender then poured a thimble-full of white wine into a glass for me. The helpful Venetian told the bartender to put some more in, which he did. It was delicious, and cost L3,000, a little more than pounds 1.

The point of my trip, if there was one, was art; and the next morning began with a visit to Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari and the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. Crossing the Grand Canal on a traghetto (a gondola ferry), we weaved through a demonstration of taxi motorboats. Several dozen of them, escorted by police, filled the width of the canal, horns blaring as they progressed towards San Marco's basin, making their protest (I later learnt) against a proposal by the mayor to issue another 300-plus licenses.

Paolo Veneziano, Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto: these are painters whose work I have got to know, and am still getting to know, through seeing their paintings rather than reading about them. I just go to the churches, the galleries, the scuole (Venetian guild halls) and look around, letting my attention fix on what it will. The occasional work sends me into a deep reverie, characterised by conjectures about the meaning of the work, its formal qualities, and much else that comes to mind. Later I read about what I have discovered - and missed.

I had been to the Frari before, but I had not seen the Tintorettos at the Scuola di San Rocco. If you have been to the Sistine Chapel in Rome, you will have some idea of the scale of the ambition and achievement to be found in these three rooms. I don't know how long I spent there; what I remember is settling down hours later at Paolin's gelateria in the Campo Santo Stefano, next to my hotel, to read what Ruskin has to say about it. Here's what I found about Tintoretto's Crucifixion: "I must leave this picture to work its will on the spectator, for it is beyond all analysis, and above all praise."

Other works I saw on the trip were four little angels carved by Tullio Lombardo, in the church of San Martino; a baptism of Christ by Cima da Conegliano, in San Giovanni in Bragora, that is as fine as a similar work by Piero della Francesca in London's National Gallery; a presentation in the temple of the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, by Giovanni Bellini, in the Palazzo Querini-Stampalia; a homely scene of St Augustine in his study, by Carpaccio, in the Scuola San Giorgio degli Schiavoni; and, for me literally breathtaking, the giant mosaic Virgins which hover in fields of gold above the apses in the Basilica of Santa Maria e Donato in Murano and the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello.

But there comes a time when you have to put high culture aside and go shopping. For this inclination I have poetic sanction: the Nobel prizewinner Joseph Brodsky says in his book of reflections on Venice, Watermark, "one - a woman especially, but a man also - hits the stores as soon as one arrives here, and with a vengeance. The surrounding beauty is such that one instantly conceives of an incoherent animal desire to match it, to be on a par." On a visit last year I bought myself a fawn-coloured scarf of airy thinness, and this year I matched the extravagance with a dove-grey tie of silk and wool.

In addition, I collected a leather-bound photo album, assorted stationery (including Christmas cards), a monogrammed letter seal and wax, three glass-bead necklaces, one glass-bead bracelet, a Carnival doll adorned with Burano lace, and, from Murano, one glass fish and five glass candies. Venice is a vast emporium and, as you walk through the shop-lined streets, you think of what would please particular friends.

Returning to London, I read a work on the history of Venice, its growth from humble origins into a commercial and military power that dominated the eastern Mediterranean. The plane skimmed over London and landed at Heathrow, today's Venetian lagoon and an entrepot for cargoes from around the globe. But for all our size and technological prowess, how is it, I wondered, that we fail to produce works of art that stun the soul into silence and beguile the nervous temperament into a happy quiescence?

Matthew Hoffman flew free on British Airways, through Air Miles collected mainly by credit card purchases. If you are paying, take advantage of the fares war from Stansted between Go (0845 60 54321), which starts flying to Marco Polo airport on Tuesday for pounds 80, and Ryanair (0541 569 569), which flies to Treviso for pounds 49.98.

A single room at the Hotel Santo Stefano (041/5200166) costs L210,000 per night and a new recommended restaurant, with a British-born chef, is Acqua Pazza, in Calle de la Mandola, San Marco