Best for culture: Venice
From high-level trekking in Morocco's Atlas Mountains to rubbing shoulders with A-listers on Hollywood Boulevard, and from rural retreats off Tuscany's beaten track to jet-set hang outs for Moscow's super-rich, our writers have been to the ends of the earth to find a world of inspiration
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Saturday 07 February 2009
Venice in winter is utterly magical – my first visit was in February 40 years ago, when I arrived on Valentine's Day in thick fog with my husband, a photographer. We stayed in a small, basic pensione on one of the narrow canals, and the surrounding streets seemed deserted. Exploring the city was a bit like starring in a black-and-white thriller, the mist swirling around the vaporetti (waterbuses) as we chugged up and down the Grand Canal and out to the empty beaches on the Lido wrapped up in thick coats and scarves. We feasted on pasta, sat in deserted churches and marvelled at the exquisite proportions of St Mark's Square. Unforgettable.
Since then, I've partied big-time during the Biennale, swam fully clothed at 5am out at the Lido, swanned around the Grand Canal in water taxis from one happening in a palazzo to another. Sadly, the Biennale starts in June, the height of the tidal wave of tourists that inflicts as much damage on the city as the seasonal flooding. I loathe being jostled by tourists marching in crocodiles over the Bridge of Sighs. I hate mime artists and loud-mouthed Yanks filming everything that moves around the Doge's Palace. I can't stand penniless backpack-wearing students clogging up the Rialto Bridge. Human flotsam, the lot of them.
The winter is when the city really charms. Just before Christmas we took an early Friday morning flight and borrowed a friend's apartment on Giudecca, a wonderfully atmospheric place in winter, deserted except for residents living in the working-class neighbourhood around the boatyards. We walked through the yard and climbed the stairs of one of the warehouses to Mistra, an unpretentious restaurant with some great views south over the water.
There are few places to stay on Giudecca, apart from the swanky Hotel Cipriani. But at the other end of the island is the fantastic Molino Stucky, the largest industrial building in the city. This massive gothic warehouse – built in 1896 – has been converted into a luxury Hilton, and its location is sensational. In between there's a youth hostel on the northern quayside, a few bed and breakfast places and that's about it. Although Harry's Bar has opened a restaurant here and trendy eating places are appearing, this remains one of the least-visited and most atmospheric parts of Venice. Another terrific place to eat outside is Altanella, on the Rio del Ponte Longo.
Giudecca was a place where criminals and troublesome members of the aristocracy were exiled, then for hundreds of years it was a rural retreat, gradually becoming covered with warehouses and prisons (there are still two), as well as homes for the workers. Although many of the convents and warehouses are being converted into luxury flats, you can still walk through squares where the washing is hanging outside and everyone eats under the trees on long tables in the summer.
I love taking a morning walk from one end to the other along the quayside, stopping for lunch or a coffee. There I took a boat northwards to the Dorsoduro and the Zattere quayside, where, armed with a copy of JG Links' Venice for Pleasure, it's possible to wander through back alleys discovering churches, delicious delicatessans, traditional restaurants and wine bars all set among delightful little backwaters. There's the grim throng to endure on the Rialto Bridge, and a brief busy patch on the north bank of the Grand Canal, but then I managed to walk through backstreets right to the Fondamente Nuove on the northern edge of the city facing Murano where a 40-minute vaporetto trip goes around the Arsenale, back to St Mark's Square and on to the peaceful charms of Giudecca.
* Follow in the footsteps of great explorers and discover the world with escorted tours from the US-based National Geographic Society, which offers travellers such perks as private access to museums and travels with experts in culturally awe-inspiring locations. 0800 988 5174; national geographicjourneys.co.uk
* Watch Puccini in the new open-air theatre near his Tuscan home with the cultural tours specialist Martin Randall. This group holiday visits art and architecture sites associated with Puccini. From £1,740 pp, departing 9-23 August 2009. 020-8742 3355; martinrandall.com
* With Obama newly inaugurated there's no better time to visit America's capital. Beyond the White House, there are tens of art galleries and museums, mostly free, including the National Archives which houses the Constitution. Washington.org
* Lithuania's elegant capital takes up the mantle of European City of Culture for 2009 (along with Linz, Austria). From its Unesco-listed old town littered with grand churches to the more arsty Uzupis neighbourhood, Vilnius packs a punch. Culturelive.lt
The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations
- 1 Isis burns thousands of books and rare manuscripts from Mosul's libraries
- 2 Scarlett Johansson new band 'already hit with legal complaint' from another The Singles
- 3 Husband and wife die holding hands within hours of each other after 67 years of marriage
- 5 'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
The 50 Best spas
Map identifies the best and worst places for emergency healthcare in the world
The Atlas of Beauty: Photographer travels around the world to capture cultural diversity through stunning portraits of women
Friends 20th anniversary: Where to visit as a superfan in New York
The 10 Best lightweight luggage
Oscars 2015: Birdman beats Boyhood as Eddie Redmayne and Patricia Arquette win big - as it happened
New theory could prove how life began and disprove God
Half of Ukip voters say they are prejudiced against people of other races
'Cash for access' scandal: Sir Malcolm Rifkind says 'unrealistic' for MPs to live on £67,000 salary
Aqsa Mahmood branded a 'disgrace' by her parents after claims she recruited three UK girls flying to Middle East
This is what it's like to be dead, according to a guy who died for a bit
£12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Knaresborough ...
£26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The post holder is a key member of the V...
£18000 - £28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Breakdown Recovery Driv...
£15000 - £19200 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Processing Partner is require...