I join my fellow passengers in the hold of the Vaporetto. The sea is rough and the vessel shakes and shudders towards the city. Seagulls squawk from the top of timbers jutting out of the waves and fly off into swirling mists. We can’t see more than five foot ahead of us.
I embark at the first stop, Madonna dell Orto. My fellow passengers drive onto Rialto. I feel fortunate. My hotel is in a district relatively untouched by tourism. I make my way through mist-muffled alleys to the church and wait.
Soon a shock of blonde hair bounces towards me. It is Artem, my Siberian friend who has come to Venice to finish his novel.
We walk arm in arm towards Ai Mori D’Oriente – the Moor of the Orient.
“You have an upgrade, Madam.”
I have not only one room with a view but two. We enter my salon with embossed wallpaper and mahogany dining table and chairs. I push open the shutters. Reflections shimmer in the deep jade water below. There is a canal to my right, a canal to my left and a canal in front of me.
Artem takes me on a tour of the area. He introduces me to four handsome men with impressive headgear and flowing robes.
One has had a crude nose job.
This is understandable. He, like his fellow Moors, are from the 13th century.
A fat cat snarls at me as we cross a wooden bridge.
“This is Behemoth,” says my friend. “He always sits here.”
Of course, Behemoth. Buglakov’s cat from The Master and Margarita. This trip to Venice promises to have a distinctly Russian flavour.
Boats of every size and shape shunter along the canals – working boats to collect the rubbish or deliver the post.
“My partner scoffed at me for wanting a gondola ride,” says Artem. “But it is like skating over glass. The only way to see Venice.”
We weave our way along the canals until we reach a small bar for cicchetti – Italian canapés topped with asparagus, aubergine, anchovies and the like.
The Venetians are supposed to be the worst chefs in Italy but I love these tasty morsels. I return to my salon and open the shutters as dusk descends. I can just see the moon and stars through the haze. It is magical.
The next morning I wake early. I am anxious to get to Piazza San Marco for the Carnival celebrations. Artem and his partner, Florian, are not so keen. They warn that I will be hassled, even mugged.
As we head to the Piazza they recall their last Carnival
“We made our own masks and costumes” says Artem. ” I dressed as a woman and Florian as a man. That way we could hold hands and cuddle quite freely.”
Such freedom, during Carnival, was enjoyed by gay men in previous centuries but then the stakes were higher. You could be hanged for loving the same sex. This did not deter people. Homosexuality was so popular that, at one stage. the bishop had to step in to protect the waning trade of the 12,000 female prostitutes.
We stop for a tea break outside the medieval building that still functions as a hospital.
A nun passes by and a woman poses for her portrait opposite the statue of the man with three balls.
As we approach the Piazza crowds stream towards us.
“I told you we should have come sooner,” I say.
“Be patient,” says Artem. “You won’t be disappointed.”
I amuse, even embarrass, my friends by joining in the scrum to photograph the best masquerades.
But it is difficult. People want to pose in front of the joker wearing their Nike t-shirts.
I have to dart and dodge to take a good picture.
My friends point out the Brits in Tudor and Elizabethan costumes.
But I haven’t come to Venice to meet cavorting carnivalists from Glasgow or Godalming.
We stop off for lunch at Florian’s, the beautiful cafe in the Piazza. We ogle at the style of well coiffured, bejewelled women with dogs and suitors in tow. We giggle at masqueraders dashing upstairs to the loo, wondering how on earth they are going to pee in their elaborate costumes.
After lunch we go in search of a carnival mask.
“Don’t buy those cheap imitations from China,” says Artem.
I balk at the price of the papier-mâché masks made in Venice.
“If you insist on cheap Chinese trash,” says Artem,” my mother can send you a mask from her shop in Siberia.”
I give in. I choose an authentic Venetian mask in the style of Comedia dell Arte.
As dusk falls we walk back to the hotel.
We buy a take away from the best pizzeria in the neighbourhood and relax in my salon. We can’t get War and Peace on the tele so we watch Russian news translated by my Siberian friend.
The commentary is alarming if hilarious. The Americans are responsible for the Tunisian Spring – current news? The Americans are behind the BBC’s exposure of Putin’s wealth and the British court’s suggestion that Putin was behind the murder of Litvinenko. All migrants to Sweden, it seems, are rapists or that seems to be the suggestion. Russia has rejected the handful of asylum-seekers that have applied even though the country is responsible for thousands of refugees fleeing Putin’s air attacks on Aleppo.
In the morning the mists have risen. We stroll along the canal and across the bridge.
Two Orthodox Jews throw a frisbee across the square in front of the hospital where frail, old people were transported to the concentration camps during World War 11.
We have arrived in the Venetian ghetto – the first ‘ghetto’ in the world. In 1516 700 Germans and Italians were confined to this unhealthy area. The gates to the small island were closed at night and Jews had to wear a badge to go out into the rest of the city. They were restricted to working in banking, as merchants or as doctors.
Over time the numbers increased to 5000 so some of the buildings rose to nine storeys high – the first skyscrapers.
The Jews who settled in Venice were of different ethnicities reflected in the different synagogues – the German, French, Italian, Spanish and Levantine. We visit three and then head to Gam Gam, the Jewish restaurant. Out of the window I spy a gondolier in hip hugging black trousers – the iconic image of this beautiful city. But Venice has more to offer than this – especially with good company, especially at Carnival. And particularly in the mist.