Oh, the joy of Venice without the crowds! From quiet bars and empty canals to no mammoth cruise ships, why now is the perfect moment to see Italy’s floating city
- St Mark’s — and Venice as a whole — has never been this empty in 100 years
- The tourists are beginning to come back, but in tiny numbers
- Now is the perfect time to grab a spritz at a quiet bar and watch the city drift by
Standing in Venice’s holiest building, St Mark’s Basilica, at the 10am Mass, I count the congregation. There are 15 of us. The silence, bar the priest’s lilting voice, is complete.
Above us, the golden, mosaic domes gleam in the light pouring through the ancient windows, which gently illuminates the 11th-century marbled walls. Ahead of me sits the ancient tomb of St Mark, as in the author of the Gospel.
I’m not religious but, as I take Communion (bread only, no wine, due to coronavirus rules), I feel overwhelmed by this exceptional moment in Venice’s history.
St Mark’s — and Venice as a whole — has never been this empty in 100 years
St Mark’s — and Venice as a whole — has never been this empty in 100 years. Now is an exceptional opportunity to see it as it was meant to be seen.
The historical city’s resident population is estimated to be no more than 40,000. The tourists are beginning to come back, but in tiny numbers. There are no American or Chinese visitors, and no mammoth cruise ships looming into view. There are few British tourists and just a scattering of German and French ones. Most voices you hear are Venetian.
At times I have the canals entirely to myself. The water is so clear and inviting that an octopus supposedly jumped in from a stall in the fish market. Late at night, St Mark’s Square is empty except for me and some friends. The Scuola Grande di San Rocco — that great treasure chest of Tintoretto’s paintings — has six people on the ground floor; and a dozen on the first. I am alone in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, with its divine relief of St George killing the dragon.
On the downside, one of the most important festivals in Venice, the Festa del Redentore, which takes place on the third Sunday of July, is subdued. It celebrates the end of the plague that killed 50,000 in 1576. This year, its lavish firework display was banned.
Venice was largely spared from Covid-19 because, as a series of islands, it could isolate itself. Other parts of northern Italy were badly hit, particularly Bergamo, the early European epicentre of the virus.
As a result, Venetians are cautious. They wear face masks on vaporetti — the city’s water buses — and in shops and churches. In fact, you won’t be allowed into a church without one. The Italians like to wrap them around their left elbows when they’re not wearing them. I quickly buy a blue mask emblazoned with the gold lion of St Mark and do the same.
‘You must try to visit the world’s most beautiful city before this haunting interlude comes to an end,’ writes Harry Mount
For decades, Venetians have been overwhelmed by vast crowds swamping their city. But all that has changed. ‘Venice is always a joy but to see it now is a privilege,’ says Lisa Hilton, the British expat author of best-selling novel Maestra, who lives in Venice.
‘The Venetians have rediscovered their home and this is a unique time to share it with them. La Serenissima has not been so serene for a century; it’s the perfect moment to grab a spritz at a quiet bar and watch the life of the city drift by.’
For those few British tourists who have made the trip, it has been worth it. ‘Now is the time to come,’ says Francis Goodman, 46, a management consultant from South London. ‘We’ve been made to feel so welcome. The waiters are more relaxed and friendly. And we have a tremendous choice of places to stay, offering great deals.’
His girlfriend, Sara Hamilton, 49, says: ‘Some restaurants and shops are closed. But there’s such a gratitude for life returning to normal.’ I couldn’t agree more. You must try to visit the world’s most beautiful city before this haunting interlude comes to an end.
Fly from London to Venice with Ryanair (ryanair.comryanair.com) from £26, down from £139 in August last year — a saving of 81 per cent. Harry Mount stayed at the two-bedroom apartment Ca’Ermina from £72 per night. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Doubles at the Palazzetto Pisani on the Grand Canal from £100. For more information, head to visit-venice-italy.com.