Venice in Winter

The days are short, the weather's sharp, the city often shrouded in fog. Could there be a more romantic time to be here?

It's early afternoon in late January when we arrive at the airport. The Venetian sky is nacre—the sheeny inside of a seashell—and the light is sharp but thin, as if passed through a gauze. A wind from Hungary is shouldering its way across the lagoon—bullying the surface and forcing the heads of herring gulls standing alone on each bricola down into their plumage, like weathered soldiers sleeping on their feet.

As the hotel launch noses away from the dock, past the bleak littoral, the rest of the passengers relax and chat idly in the warmth of the cabin. But my wife, Yelena, soon climbs outside, to stand in the open behind the boatman. She has never seen Venice before; she has only had St. Petersburg—Russia's Venice of the North—through which to imagine it. So now, as the launch begins to negotiate the long orchestration of its passage across the gray-green music-sheet of the open water, she becomes her eyes—as if she were a periscope and all her other senses had become submarine. She turns her head slowly this way and that in the wind, drinking in the retinal waterborne sounds of the lagoon—the meandering rallentando of Murano, the boats scattered like notes within the narrow channel-staves—and does not shift, except to duck her head beneath the chordal bridges of the city proper, until we emerge into St. Mark's Basin from the Rio di San Lorenzo.

The sun comes out as the launch begins its long curve away toward the Customs House and we're immediately surrounded by the other passengers, clutching their coats about them, brandishing cameras. I quietly begin to point out the sights to Yelena: the Giudecca, the Piazza San Marco, the Doge's Palace, the Basilica di San Marco. Nearby there's a wooden boat shaped like a car, with a paddler in the driver's seat; I tell her it's the only car she'll see. She looks back toward the opening of the Grand Canal, snuggles up beside me, and puts a finger to my lips. "It's a miracle," she says simply.

Yelena is Russian—and like many Russians, almost entirely instinctive. I, on the other hand, like most citified Westerners, am a child of logic and clocks; a magpie for facts, a truffle-hunting, past-haunted tourist. I have been to Venice before, in summertime; have fallen in love with it; and have read obsessively about it. And it's Venice, constructed in my mind out of literature, art, and other people's memoirs, that I now want to introduce to Yelena, like some midnight-oiled, brain-born jewel.

As the launch queues up for access to the side entrance of the Hotel Danieli I can't wait to explain the history of the place, how it was first built at the end of the 14th century as the palatial home of the noble Dandolo family, four of whom were doges. Palazzo Dandolo—overlooking the Riva degli Schiavoni—was the most magnificent palace of the Venetian Republic. But with the fall of the republic in 1797 the fortunes of the palazzo declined—until one Giuseppe Dal Niel rented part of the building in 1822 and turned it into a hotel. Purchasing the palace in stages, he achieved total ownership in 1840, whereupon he renamed the property the Royal Danieli.

Throughout the 19th century the hotel welcomed such distinguished guests as Balzac, Dickens, and Proust. Victorian art critic John Ruskin called arriving at the Danieli "the beginning of everything." (He penned the first volume of his Stones of Venice at the hotel. He and his wife, Effie, in crisp January weather such as this 150 years ago, played badminton in the hall to keep warm.) I know, too, that a few rooms away (in what is now room 10, and a few years earlier (from 1833 to 1834), the poet Alfred de Musset and the novelist George Sand lived together in what is still believed to have been a word-cloud of poetic rapture, but which was as obscuring—in the end—as Venice's famed winter mist, the nebbia. On their first night in the Danieli the sick de Musset told Sand he did not love her and went on debauches in the slums of the city. Sand, meanwhile, seduced his doctor, putting paid to her love affair with the poet. Nevertheless, the myth of the romance has helped to turn the Danieli, the surrounding calli and campi, and the whole black-gondola-smudged waterscape of the basin behind us into a contemporary Romantic theater of love and death.

I say something of this as we step out of the launch and enter the hotel's huge pillared mock-Renaissance hall. And as we climb the grand stairway behind the porter I say to Yelena: "All of the great Romantics were here. Shelley visited, and Robert Browning. Even Wagner got into the act. After spending a night he rented out a palace on the Grand Canal, sent for his grand piano, and proceeded to finish Tristan."

"That's great, Jo," says Yelena, nestling inside her fur coat and gazing from the window of our room out across the basin toward San Giorgio Maggiore and Santa Maria della Salute. "Now can we go and see it and eat?"

I feel a little deflated, even a tad irritable, as we walk out of the hotel and turn into the Calle delle Rasse. And I become even more tetchy when I discover (it being late afternoon by now) that no restaurants are open. "Sempre dritto," say Venetians when we ask where we might find one willing to serve us. But of course in Venice there's no "always straight on" at all. The points of the compass are soon swallowed up in an eely maze of lefts and rights, until sideways and crabwise seem the only ways you can go. Soon enough, we are lost. And our passage from closed restaurant to closed restaurant (pizzerie and cafés are quite inadequate) little by little becomes an obsessed, eventually hilarious quest in which we are both (equally) strangers—forced to make a randomly discovered, adventitious city, created out of the conflicting serial directions of passersby.

We spill out into the Campo San Zaccaria, with its wonderful hodgepodge church, which I start to describe; but I'm soon tut-tutted into submission. Then retrace our steps through a warren of side streets,like trawlerboats tacking and then coming about, under holiday sail. Finally we give up and moor, laughing, in a café—bar the other side of Santa Maria Formosa, where we drink wine and eat cheese and olives and mozzarella in carrozza, with Ruskin and all the other mythmakers put off till another day.

"It's just like a museum, isn't it?" Yelena says, her eyes shining. "A museum in which people actually live!" Then taking in the scene inside the café—the toddlers playing, the three mink-clad old ladies sitting in state in a corner over espresso and gossip like Venetian Catherine the Greats—she adds: "No, that's not right. What I mean is, you don't have to go anywhere in Venice. You're already there."

Yelena is right, of course. In late January Venice is quite different from the way it is in summer. The lemming-rush for the city's culture is not in season. Even the afternoon-ebbing light is private rather than public; the small tribal pleasures of gossip and shopping are in the air, rather than the trumpeting universal demands of art and history. The city's own underwater species has emerged from under the migrant shoals of tourists; and Venice is itself again: secret, garrulous, dramatic, pious, rich.

That night we dine on spider crab and pasta in the Terrazza Danieli, looking out over a dark symphony of sky and water: a symphony conducted by the moon and played from the lit music-stands of Giudecca and San Giorgio. And then we walk out—past the vaporetto station and a herd of rocking gondolas (tethered like browsing horses), to the two great columns of the Piazzetta, where a group of kids are laughing in the cold night air. Our breath comes out like mist; our footsteps clink like coins; there is almost no one about. The actors have all gone home from the silvery theater of the Doge's Palace, and the three colonnaded sides of the Piazza San Marco brood like a chorus dressed up for an oratorio and waiting for the baton of daylight to cue it. It's like being enisled on a cold and deserted stage, in the afterhum of some lost music. As we turn to face the Basilica di San Marco—which looks disarmingly foreshortened, like a stage flat for an opera—I say softly to Yelena: "Henry James called this 'the drawing room of Europe.' But Napoleon, who tore down 166 churches in Venice, called it 'a drawing room' first. Whatever you want to say here, someone's always said it before. And five hundred years ago a Milanese pilgrim even said that. He announced that everything that could be said about Venice had already been said."

"Oh, Jo," says Yelena reprovingly. Then she quotes quietly from one of the Venetian Stanzas of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky: "At night here we hold soliloquies to an audience of echoes . . ."

Late January, I think the next morning as I open the shutters, has got to be the perfect time to visit Venice. There seem to be virtually no tourists down there on the fondamenta. The light is flat and cool, leaving no shadows as hostages, and there is the memory of a mist upon the water. The hotel, when I go upstairs for breakfast, appears almost empty, except for the sleepy senatorial charm of its porters and waiters. I tell Yelena this when I return, to urge her out into the private morning sunshine. But she'll have none of it. Surrounded by the formal furniture, dim mirrors, and walls of woven silk fabric, she is curled up on the bed, huddled inside her fur like a lazy palazzo cat. Finally, Yelena is reluctantly dislodged for a vaporetto ride down the Grand Canal. But she comes alive—claws flexing, eyes rounding—only when confronted, not with the dowager palazzi of the canal, nor with the old institutions of the Rialto, but with fish.

We have found our way to the Campo della Pescheria—northeast of the Rialto—where there has been a fish market for six centuries, and no doubt exactly the same sights: ink-splattered cuttlefish, red mullet, sea bass and bream; small hyphenate anchovies (if you talk this old language) amid the punctuation of mussels and squirming parentheses of eels. Yelena suddenly wants to know what they all are, their names—she wants to purchase them. And though we can't do that (there are to be no discarded bones on the Danieli's pile carpets), we buy the accouterments of a fish feast—wooden spatulas and spoons—and wander off, brandishing them as if they were trophies, through piles of baby artichokes, asparagus, and strawberries to a glass of white wine and fish cicchetti in a nearby marketmen's bar. There are marketmen, coming off shift, all around us; mothers with children; businessmen with unlikely shopping bags. And Yelena is convinced, as she licks her fingers, that she's found the quintessential heart of the city. "Let's go on!" she says excitedly as we leave. "Where to?" I ask. "Anywhere!" So we do, arm in arm.

For the rest of that day—and for most of the next—we wander the length and breadth of the city, through Dorsoduro and Cannaregio, from Sant'Alvise to San Pietro. We drink espresso in cafés where old men in moleskin and camelhair overcoats argue energetically over soccer and the latest political scandal. We have lunch whenever hunger comes upon us—at noon or three in the afternoon. We do visit the Doge's Palace and the Correr Museum in the Piazza San Marco—but not for long; both seem to Yelena like whales available for study by the curious only when stranded upon a public beach. And though we do go to the Accademia as well—for me to see old friends like Giorgione's mysterious, winter-lit Tempest (ca. 1505) and Paolo Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi—Yelena soon leaves, to perch contentedly (in Giorgione's own light) outside.

Churches I vaguely want to see are often closed on our passeggiata. But it doesn't matter. Yelena simply pushes on the door of every church we pass and, if it is open, beckons me inside. Meanwhile, we follow our eyes in whatever direction they lead—sometimes in pursuit of chance Venetians (a Louis Vuitton briefcase guardedly held here, a trolley racked with paintings there), and sometimes led on by the distant sight of a side-canal palace. When our eyes run out of things of interest, we just take a vaporetto elsewhere and start again.

It's cold in Venice in late January. Outside we almost never take our coats off—merely button them tighter as the day goes on. But this only makes us feel less excluded from the city than I've felt in summer, caught up in the crowds of T-shirts and jeans. We're dressed, after all, much like those smart Venetians we meet singly on the calli and en masse on the vaporetti, in a theater of linens and silks, furs and angoras. We soon seem close, as we wander in the absence of tourists, to some age-old current of life in the city. And it's all too easy to recognize in the faces we pass each day a senator, a Doge, or a Raphael Madonna.

And then there's the light. The days in late January are short; the sunlight, before it ebbs away into evening, seems both soft and unfocused, as if it has arrived after a long journey and can no longer choose between sharpness and shadow. It lights up everything, insinuating itself around obstacles, giving the brick of the city a pale warmness and its stone a flat sheen. It also alters subtly through the attenuated hours of daylight, so that the city seems much more anchored in its place—a child of sky and water—than in summer. Then the sun is a spotlight, concentrating the mind on the extraordinary grandeur of the island show. But in winter the city becomes a preperformance playhouse with only its working lights on, left to its jobbing actors to get on with their weather-bound lives; to gossip and comment on each other's clothes; and to worry about when the next acqua alta will fill up the basements and cover the Piazza.

For Yelena this is the real Venice—a matter-of-fact miracle, a triumph of the everyday. And so, little by little, it becomes for me. We both learn to love the empty palazzo grandeur of the Danieli, and the fact that its night bar in winter attracts as many local businessmen as tourists. We dress up carefully before we leave the hotel; and as we walk during the day we stop more and more at shops to try on clothes, as if we both understand that this cold Venice is a place to see and be seen, a place in which we are all actors—or "all equally tourists," as Yelena announces.

I do lapse, I have to confess—for I still think I can create for Yelena some specifically Russian Venice of her own. So one day I guide our steps to the Ca' d'Oro, the palace the Russian Prince Troubetskoy bought for the ballerina Marie Taglioni; and to the Zattere, where Princess Yekaterina Mikhailovna, the wife of Czar Alexander II, once lived. But these little detours—as well as one to the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, which houses the Peggy Guggenheim collection of contemporary art—are not a success. Afterward, in an almost empty Harry's Bar, Yelena tells me obliquely why: "You know, Jo," she says, looking around, holding a Bellini, "it doesn't matter at all who's been here before. Harry's Bar is just wonderful. And you know why it's wonderful? Because it's not fancy at all—just wonderfully ordinary." Then she looks away from the table and raises her glass to two middle-aged Englishmen sitting opposite us, and to the inevitable mink-clad Venetian women in the corner. She opens her arms and smiles her wide-eyed cat's smile. Later that evening, when she orders in a restaurant completely unfamiliar Venetian dishes—grilled eel and risotto alla seppia (risotto cooked in cuttlefish ink)—I follow suit, as if we've both been born to them.

After dinner we walk back, hunched in our coats, through the Campo San Polo; and then weave our way, past the deserted fish market, over the Rialto Bridge. At the top of the Mercerie (Venice's most fashionable shopping thoroughfare) there's a guitarist softly playing. And Yelena, to his distant music, browses her way down the street's shop windows, her feet a staccato stutter of delight. When we come out through the clock-tower entrance into the great Piazza she stops and takes my hand. She looks out toward the basin, along the lit facades of the Basilica di San Marco and the Doge's Palace, and murmurs: "Do you know what Joseph Brodsky said about this place when he couldn't think of anything else to say? He said: 'It's like Greta Garbo swimming.' " And then she adds, looking upward: "Swimming in moonlight."

On our last full day in the city Yelena gets up early. "Where are we going?" I ask, surprised. "To the lagoon," she says. "To Murano. As a child I dreamed of seeing glass blown. Now we can really see it!"

Outside we're waylaid by a tout offering a watertaxi to one of the island's glassworks, with the result that we spend much longer than we should over the subsequent blowing and sales-pitch aftermath. But it doesn't matter. Yelena has loved the glassblowing—the sheer, ordinary craft of it—and we're now away from Venice proper, out on the islands of the lagoon, where neither of us has ever been. We wander along Murano's canals, have a white wine and sandwiches in a stand-up workingmen's bar, and then decide to keep going—outward, to Burano and Torcello.

On Burano we leave the warm ferry with a dozen other passengers, who quickly scatter away to their own destinations. And we soon find ourselves in a place that seems as serene, as utterly itself, as a village in Provence. The low houses on either side of a narrow canal are painted in deep reds and bright yellows, in green, violet, and blue. In the canal small fishing boats rock gently, as if in some distant dream of the sea. There's no one at all in sight. Yelena lets out a small whoosh of delight as a gaggle of schoolchildren emerge from a calle and cross a bridge before disappearing again. For the next half-hour we wander through the tiny island—populated since Roman times and once world-famous for its lace—as much to find out where they might have gone, where the people might be, as to wonder at where we are.

Eventually we find some of them in a small waterside taverna, where we spend most of the rest of the afternoon amongst paintings and infants, jugs of white wine, and plates of fish that never seem to stop. Before we leave, in a haze of happiness, we call for the padrone and ask him whether we can hire a house here for the summer. "Of course," he says. "But to tell the truth, well, you have to know, there are many, many tourists."

"Ah," we say, denying our own identity as the wind comes up outside and begins to ruffle the water. "Yes, the tourists."

By the time we get the ferry to Torcello the sky is beginning to darken. And Torcello, when we arrive, is a flat gray-green moor the color of seaweed, shrouded—except for the sound of the wind—in silence. As we walk down the narrow road to the seventh-century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, it's as if we're going backward in time, almost back into the sea. It is hard to believe that even 60 people (the figure in a guidebook) can still live here.

We cross a little bridge and enter the cathedral compound, but the museum in its two small palazzi is already closing up. So we stand by the excavated ruins of the baptistry and look up at the cathedral—as stark as a castle and as defiant of the elements as a bathysphere—and then we go in, into the oldest building that remains in the whole of what we now call Venice, the original long echo of its Byzantine past. In the nave there is a beautiful old stone iconostasis; and in the apses, glowing mosaics that are a visual compendium of the old Eastern Church's doctrines. For a while we wander together, looking up at them quietly. Then Yelena suddenly stops, sweeps her hand up to her forehead and down to her belly—right, left, head down, hand over her heart—in the cross-signing of the Russian Orthodox Church; and then she leaves. It is as if she has already seen too much in her life of destruction and exile, just as the cathedral has.

On the way back to the city, as the boat slips through the gathering grayness of sea and sky, we pass the walled cemetery-island of San Michele, where Diaghilev and Stravinsky—other Russian expatriates—lie buried. Yelena sleeps with her head on my shoulder while I gaze out at the fishermen laying nets away from the main channel. Ahead of us, in the Piazza San Marco, workmen are preparing the stalls and booths for February's Carnevale. Ahead of us, too, is the restaurant where we are to dine tonight, toasting each other amongst the fine suits and silks of rich Venetians.

"All of them here, I suppose, are Torcello's children," I say later, looking around me at the other tables. Raising her glass again, Yelena smiles, "So are we."

The next morning, our last in the city, the nebbia comes down; and when I open the shutters I can barely see the fondamenta below. We slowly pack our bags, then leave them to sneak a quick look at the Suite del Doge: two vast rooms filled with old wood and the dim sparkle of glass and gilt. (We've heard that when Elliott Gould saw them, he said, "Couldn't we have just a little more gold?") Then we go downstairs, book our seats on the airport launch, and go outside to hire a gondola.

Almost as soon as we cast off from the quay we are removed from the city, adrift in the wet whorls and swirls of a Turner watercolor. The world is reduced to a few square feet of gray water around us, and ships' foghorns call to each other through the mist with the plaintive cry of whales. We're leaving Venice before we've left it. Where we are now it can be reconstructed only in memory, in the mind's eye, as in a dream: the pirates' treasure-cave of the Basilica, the great empire, the Venetian galleys, Ruskin, de Musset, and all the rest.

"Where are we going?" Yelena asks. "To Santa Maria della Salute, I hope," I answer. "Tell me about it," she says.

"No," I say softly, as we rock gently between fact and fancy. "There's no need now." She takes my hand. "Tell me we'll come back here," she sighs. "Yes," I say. "But only in winter," she goes on, "and only to the Danieli." I pause for a moment as the outlines of the Basilica begin to appear, like the faintest of smudges on some magic, just-primed canvas. "No question." I answer. "No question at all."

Hotel Danieli is a member of Platinum Card Fine Hotels & Resorts and The Luxury Collection of ITT Sheraton. Doubles: $395—$500; junior suites: $830; suites: $1,535; Doge's Suite: $2,185. To reserve, contact the Platinum Card Travel Service: 800-443-7672; The Luxury Collection: 800-325-3589; or Hotel Danieli: 4196 Riva degli Schiavoni; 39-41-5226480.

Disclaimer: The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication in January/February 1998, but we suggest you confirm all details with the service establishments before making travel plans.

Jo Durden-Smith wrote about the Malaysian-Chinese artist Hock-Aun Teh in the July/August 1997 issue.