'You don't have to spend money to enjoy Venice'
Lisa Templeton discovers that exploring Venice on foot is anything but pedestrian and shares budget-friendly tips that'll help you make the most of this glorious city We were lost, happily and utterly lost in a web of narrow Venetian calli, or alleyways, when I caught the strains of a deep tenor bellowing with heartfelt sincerity: "O sole mio".I wrested my child's attention from a window display of delicate golden glass grapes and took off in the direction of the songster.We popped out on a bridge where a small crowd was craning over the edge. Bobbing in the water below was one of Venice's shiny black gondolas bearing a rather large gondolier with a barrel chest and big beard, who was managing, without tipping his passengers into the drink, to sing with gusto while gesturing vigorously with the hand not holding his oar .Sitting, cushioned, below him, hands on hearts, were a rapt American couple.story_article_left1As for us, we stood there grinning as he belted out his song in the manner of il maestro, Pavarotti himself, into the respectful silence of the crowd. As he finished, with a triumphant arm aloft, the crowd burst into applause and the American took off his shades and dabbed his eyes with his guava-coloured shirt.It was fantastic. And it's a demonstration of why Venice is best explored by foot and boat, even if it means getting frequently lost, which it does.In fact, that day our mission had been to visit the Gallerie dell'Accademia, a colossal collection of Venetian art that spans five centuries and includes works by Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, but we could not find the Ponte Dell Accademia, one of three bridges that cross the 3.5km-long Grand Canal.Instead we managed to find our way through a gloomy courtyard to a sun-soaked wooden jetty on the Grand Canal, where we whiled away a couple of hours watching the hefty vaporetti, or boat buses, churning up and down, and the sexy, low, wooden motoscafi, or water taxis, slinking back and forth along the wide canyon of water-based palazzos.My child contented herself with making piles of seaweed, and when she got hungry we ate fresh ciabatta, fat olives, courgettes in olive oil and stuffed squid from the Coop supermarket down the alley from the convent in which we were staying.Because this is another thing you should know about Venice: you don't have to spend money to enjoy it. It is one of those heavenly places that can be relished simply by being there.A bizarre experiment in urban living with a glorious past, Venice is created on 118 islets in a lagoon. Supported by millions of wooden stakes and linked by some 150 canals and 400 bridges, Venice is the world's only city built on water, because, well, why would you?mini_story_image_vright1Today it is under siege by flooding and the 20 million tourists who visit it each year. And yet, it remains enchanting. The floods are intermittent, and the crowds can be avoided by stepping an alley or two away from the main tourist hot spots.It is a glorious city of mighty buildings with gothic spires, or pointed Moorish arches and floor-to-ceiling windows, everything elaborate and detailed, including the little bridges, gold-trimmed gondolas and stripy mooring poles, the flowers bursting from wrought-iron balconies and the bustling barges. You can lose yourself for hours in its alleys, crossing canal after canal.The great novelist Truman Capote described Venice as being like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go. It has charmed the likes of Proust, Byron, Waugh, James and Hemingway.So imagine my surprise when I stumbled across this description of Venice by Elizabeth Gilbert as a "stinky, slow, sinking, mysterious, silent, weird city".''Venice seems like a wonderful city in which to die a slow and alcoholic death, or to lose a loved one, or to lose the murder weapon with which the loved one was lost in the first place," writes the author of Eat Pray Love.I can only imagine that Liz made the same mistake we did, and chose the graveyard as a lovely spot for a picnic!We had taken a vaporetto to Murano, a set of islets to which Venice's glass artisans were banished in 1292 because their blazing kilns were a fire hazard. Here the industry thrived. In the 15th and 16th centuries Murano was Europe's principle supplier of blown glass. Today it is a delightful mini-Venice, with canals lined in dinky buildings in reds, apricot and charcoal and little shop windows sparkling with glass displays. But the real reason to visit it is to see the glass-blowers working with fluid strength to heat the glass in their terrifying furnaces, twisting and heating and blowing, until they have created a gorgeous artwork, bowl, vase, or, as we witnessed, a fabulous stallion, forever rearing in glossy black.Hungry after all that excitement, we hopped off the vaporetto onto the Isola di San Michele. I am not sure what I was thinking, visiting the cemetery island. I suppose I was hoping for quiet gardens of cypresses. Instead it was chockers with graves. Sitting on a wall covered in dodgy dust was suddenly very unappetising. Despite our heavenly stuffed aubergines, we packed up, touched nothing and took the next vaporetto out of there.While on death, I agree with Thomas Mann of Death in Venice fame, who described Venetian gondolas as "black as nothing else on earth except a coffin". Legend has it that these elegant boats were once brilliantly coloured but turned to black to stop ostentatious merchants showing off their wealth. Whatever the reason, it is worth splashing out on a ride in one.We'd read it was best to strike a deal with a gondolier at the close of the day for his last ride out. And so we did - cruising silently in the soft light of evening.story_article_left2There are things you cannot miss in this city of art and architecture. These include the immense, glittering Basilica di San Marco, or St Marks, with its domes, bronze horses and golden mosaics, and its neighbour the Palazzo Ducale or Doge's Palace, described by Byron as a "vast and sumptuous pile" .You should also venture up the 96m former watchtower and lighthouse, the Campanile, from which, I am sorry to tell you fair reader, the Venetians once dangled state prisoners in cages to amuse the Medieval crowds below.And do not miss the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, the best collection of modern art in Venice.There are other worthy sights you will not want to miss. But let me urge you not to run from one to the other, but to sit in a campi, feel the sun on your face, sip a prosecco, snack on olives, black risotto with squid, or shrimps risotto, walk the Jewish ghetto, the oldest in Europe, take a vaporetto to Lido, the now faded resort of Death in Venice, lie under a tasselled umbrella and swim in the warm Adriatic.My favourite time in Venice was hands-down sitting lost on the side of the Grand Canal while my child chatted to herself and gathered seaweed.If you run around, you will entirely miss the essence of this delicate, crumbling, water-logged wonder.sub_head_start BUDGET-FRIENDLY TIPS FOR TRAVELERS sub_head_endThe most cost-effective way to get around is via the vaporetti or water buses. Consider a tourist travel card for the period you need. You can buy vaporetti and museum passes on veneziaunica.it .Walk as much as you can.Over-subscribed sights such as the campanile have shorter queues in the early evening when the crowds have abated.Gondolas are not cheap, some €80 for a 40-minute ride. We hooked up with another tourist to save costs. If it's too costly, take a ride on a traghetto, a large gondola that ferries people across the Grand Canal for a couple of euros.Beware of drinking in Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square). You may have to pay a hefty coperto or cover charge for use of a chair and hearing the orchestra. There are many other charming spots to choose from.sub_head_start IF YOU GO... sub_head_endGETTING THERE: Swissair fly to Venice via Zurich. Alternatively, the train ride from Zurich to Venice is chocolate-box scenic.WHERE TO STAY: Many choose to stay on the mainland, but that is to miss the opportunity to roam Venice at odd hours. We stayed at a convent, the Istituto San Giuseppe Venice (or phone (39-041-522-5352), which was good value, welcoming, simple, spotless and perfectly positioned near St Marks.