Venice floats my boat

The shallow lagoon that surrounds and protects Venice is the lifeblood of the city. And if you set sail to explore it, says Gerard Gilbert, you can experience life as the locals do

It is the looks on the faces of other tourists as they speed past crammed into "vaporetti", tour boats and water taxis that tells you you're doing the right thing. Their eyes are not exactly filled with envy - they look too worn out for that - more wistful recognition that if you're going to "do" the Venice lagoon, then chugging around in your own cruiser is the way to go.

It is the looks on the faces of other tourists as they speed past crammed into "vaporetti", tour boats and water taxis that tells you you're doing the right thing. Their eyes are not exactly filled with envy - they look too worn out for that - more wistful recognition that if you're going to "do" the Venice lagoon, then chugging around in your own cruiser is the way to go.

Mind you, our smugness was in danger of being repaid by running aground, for as Francesco Da Mosto has been explaining in the BBC2 series Venice, the great city has always been protected by its lagoon and its unexpected shallows and sudden mud-flats. To illustrate the point, Da Mosto jumped out of his boat and waded ankle-deep in the water - an imitation of Christ that people without a thousand years of Venetian blood in them would be advised not to replicate.

The correct channels around the lagoon are marked by shaved tree-trunks driven into the ground - the same sort of giant posts on which the entire city of Venice is built. These channels are awash with all sorts of craft, from rushing water taxis, the canal buses called "vaporetti", fishermen out looking for shrimps and gleeful-looking types seemingly speeding about just for the hell of it. With no cars, or other wheeled forms of transport, the Venetians get about by boat. Forget the gondoliers vying for sightseers under the Bridge of Sighs, the real business of Venice is out here on the lagoon. This is where you get a true flavour of what it means to live on water.

Our "cruiser" - an eight-berther glorying in the name Magnifique - is the sort of boat you might hire for a fortnight on the Norfolk Broads. In fact they're all custom-built in Wroxham in Norfolk and taken to Italy by lorry. The British company that makes and rents them out, Connoisseur, has expanded out of East Anglia since the 1950s. It was swallowed up by the tour operator First Choice in 2002, joining the 1,200-strong fleet spread across the inland waterways of Ireland, Belgium, France, Germany and, now - most excitingly - Italy.

Sailing the islands of the Venice lagoon is a large step up from floating down the river Bure in Norfolk, but otherwise the Venice lagoon has more in common with East Anglia - the Fens, at least - than you might at first imagine. Where Hereward the Wake led his resistance to the Norman conquerors from the marshy islands of the Fens, so 6th-century Italians found refuge in the Venetian lagoon from the invading Huns. From then on, the fates of the Fens and the Venice lagoon diverge somewhat. While the Fens were drained, making some of the richest farming land in Britain, the Venetians kept their impregnable lagoon and founded a trading empire.

We joined our boat at Casier, a small town near Treviso- home of Benetton, Italian rugby and a handsome, watery but non-touristy city well worth a detour. Venice-Treviso airport, Ryanair's port of call for flights from the UK is being enlarged, so Treviso could soon find itself on the city-break map.. After a morning's motoring through the waters of the river Sile, the landscape starts to open out as you enter the lagoon. Sky and water merge, coots are replaced by heron and the word "Fens" first comes to our lips. The comparison lasts for about as long as it takes to moor up at Torcello, the smallest and longest inhabited island on the lagoon. Torcello is where Venice began, and it boasts two interesting Byzantine churches and an excellent restaurant run by one branch of the Cipriani clan (owners of one of Venice's swankiest hotels). The walls are covered with photographs of the ubiquitous Ernest Hemingway, who seemed to have boozed his way around the lagoon, and Charles and Di early in their marriage. They may have mixed with literary legends and royalty, but the Ciprianis still serve all customers courteously even when all you want is an afternoon coffee.

On the way back to the boat I stopped at a house selling the usual Venice tat - lace shawls (often imported from Taiwan, apparently), papier-mâché masks and Murano glass, but not the hat I was looking for (the late September weather had turned surprisingly hot). The vendor had being playing chess against himself, and invited me to take him on. We crouched over his board in complete silence, for the 20 minutes it took him to find check-mate. I left rather liking Torcello.

The same can't be said of Murano. Murano is where they sell the kitsch glassware - everything from egg-cups to the type of chandeliers that East European dictators used to have a weakness for. You can join camera-laden Japanese watching the workers blowing vases before being taken for the hard sell. With its canals and bridges, the island is picturesque, but a slave to tourism.

The island of Burano is even more picturesque, with its gaily painted houses, and entirely different. At least it is after dark. We moored up at about four in the afternoon and went to explore. Lace is the thing here, and many of the shops and stalls sell it. Occasionally women can be seen weaving through an open door. There are voices from India and Indiana, Norway and New Zealand. Returning to the boat to shower and shave and take an aperitif on deck, we ventured back to the island at about 7pm. Everybody was local, Italian the only language spoken as the fishermen and their families strolled about reclaiming their island. There are no hotels on Burano, and the tourists head back to Venice.

The transformation is remarkable, and rather heartening. It also means that you can win the undivided attention of the waiters at La Romana, one of those restaurants where canny former owners accepted paintings as payment for meals. A tourist fly-trap by day, you have the (very good) restaurant and its charming art collection virtually to yourselves in the evening. Indeed, one of the many advantages of sailing about on a boat is that you can lunch on board, when the tourist feeding-frenzy is at its height. This negates that constant pressure (and expense - prices in this corner of Italy are steep) of always having to find somewhere to eat. The Magnifique comes with two fridges, an electric oven, gas hobs and a microwave, and we happily lunched on pasta and cold sausage and cheeses.

And so to Venice itself. The company owns mooring space in the marina on the north-east of the island, which costs up to €55 (£40) extra per night for each boat, but that's peanuts when you consider the cost of rooms in the "pearl of the Adriatic". What's refreshing about approaching Venice from its unremarkable side-entrance is that you glimpse how Venetians live away from the theatre of St Mark's Square and the Rialto.

The Piazza San Marco is pure theatre, just as it was intended to be by its 12th-century founders. The question is whether you're too frazzled to enjoy it or not. The gentle but strangely energising experience of travelling by boat for the previous two days had affected a deep relaxation in us. If the tourists really are too much for you, then return to St Mark's Square at midnight and you'll have it to yourself. Venice turns in early, but not as early as most tourists. Opera singers give impromptu performances in small piazzas, locals quaff "spritzes" in half-hidden cellar bars, but most of this magnificent city is so quiet you can hear the water lapping in the canals.

The next morning, I came up on deck gripping a mug of coffee. The Doge's Palace was passing to starboard, a regatta of small boats bobbed about to our port side. It was the sort of scene that makes you feel all is right with the world.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

You can reach Venice's Marco Polo airport on easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com) from Bristol, Nottingham, Newcastle and Stansted; on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Birmingham, Manchester and Gatwick; on BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com) from Heathrow; on Volare (0800 032 0992; www.volareweb.com) from Gatwick; and on Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com) from Manchester and Leeds/Bradford.

You can also fly from Stansted to nearby Treviso (27km north of Venice and handy for Casier, where the voyage begins) on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com); there is a connecting bus service to Piazzale Roma in Venice, costing €4.50 (£3).

EATING THERE

Locanda Cipriani (00 39 041 730 150; www.locandacipriani.com), Piazza S Fosca, Torcello, is open for dinner all year except in January.

Da Romana (00 39 041 730 030), Via Baldassare Galuppi, Burano, is open for lunch from noon to 2.30pm and for dinner from 6.30pm until 9pm.

STAYING THERE

The writer travelled with Connoisseur Boats (0870 774 9933; www.connoisseurafloat.com). Prices range from £580 to £2,465 per week. The Hotel Cipriani (00 39 041 520 7744; www.hotelcipriani.com) has double rooms from €815 (£580), including breakfast.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Venice Tourist Board (00 39 041 529 8711; www.turismovenezia.it).

Italian State Tourist Board (020-7339 3562; www.enit.it).

Rob Shaw

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