To get to know Venice from the inside out, first you have to see the lagoon city as the locals do. That means taking the leap beyond sightseeing and joining Venetians in their traditional pastimes, whether it be rowing like a gondolier, shopping for mantis shrimps in the Rialto Market or setting aside your digital devices for a crash course in paper marbling or glass working.
Immersive language lessons
Like millions of travellers before you, visiting Venice will induce a raft of fantasies as you imagine what life would be like if you lived behind palazzo doors. If only you knew the name of that strange looking vegetable and could shout out your drink order over the burly gondolieri at the Al Bottegon bar, surely then you’d pry open the secrets of this elusive city.
If you’re itching for this deeper connection, sign up for language classes at Venice Italian School. Run by Diego and Lucia Cattaneo the school takes you from the classroom to the calli (alleys) with a series of immersive cultural experiences including wine tasting, cooking, rowing and even glass blowing. One- to two-week courses (€290/€530) can be tailored to individuals or groups; cultural lessons can be booked separately (€65 per person).
Row like a gondolier
For centuries the only way to navigate the 212-square-mile lagoon was under your own steam. Standing up and facing forward, as the gondolieri do, gives a good view over reeds and water, while placing the oar to one side facilitates manoeuvrability in the intricate canal system of the city.
Known as the voga alla Veneta, this style of rowing is unique to Venice and learning to master it under the expert tuition of Row Venice is the only way to put you in touch, body and soul, with the dynamic ecosystem on which Venice depends. It’s also a perspective-altering experience to find yourself suddenly part of a view – the canal – that you’re used to glancing across. Lessons start at €85 for 1-2 people and last 90 minutes.
Learn the secrets of Venetian glasswork
In a market awash with cheap imports, it is easy to lose sight of the magic of Venetian glass. But make no mistake, while other craft traditions have fossilised into relics of bygone eras, Murano’s glass masters have kept their craft current, nurturing international talents like Dale Chihuly and sending forth their extraordinary chandeliers to grace high-class homes and hotels around the world.
Aside from the alchemy of turning liquid silica into molten glass there are a host of techniques such as lampworking, engraving, etching, murrine (caneworking) and battuto (beaten). Masters Davide Penso and Patrizia Iacovazzi (of PerlaMadreDesign) offer a fascinating insight into the craft in their studio lessons (1-/2-day workshop €120/€250).
Cookery lessons from a countess
If there’s one foolproof way to distinguish a serious Venetian osteria (tavern) from an imposter: make sure there aren't any inauthentic dishes like lasagne, spaghetti bolognese and pizza on the menu. Just as the lagoon is a unique environment, so the Venetian larder is stocked with unusual ingredients like seasonal soft-shelled crabs, alien-looking mantis shrimps and bruscandoli (wild hops).
Taking a cookery course is one way to get to grips with this exotic flavour universe and there’s nowhere better to start than in the palazzo of Enrica Rocca (enricarocca.com), the cooking countess. She’ll whisk you round the Rialto Market before taking you home for a convivial class over endless glasses of Prosecco (half/full-day course €190/€290).
Venetian water sports
Venice’s vast mercantile empire was built on its seafaring prowess. So important was the production of ships, the historic Arsenale dockyards spread over 100 acres. Even today, despite the touristic focus on the city’s art and architecture, you’ll more likely find locals sailing, rowing, fishing or kayaking out on the lagoon.
Why not join them in their favourite pastime by signing up for kayaking the northern lagoon with Venice Kayak (half-/full-day tours €90/€120) or paddleboarding down quiet canals with SUP in Venice (€70/€50 per person for 2-/4-person group). More traditional maritime adventures to the wilder islands are offered by Terra e Acqua (day rental €400, plus €20 person for lunch on the boat) in their historic flat-bottomed bragozzo boats.
Paper crafts and mask painting
The traditions of bookbinding, embossing, printing and marbling paper began in the 14th century when Venice was at the vanguard of the burgeoning publishing industry. Just as the light on the water inspired Murano glass masters, so the mysterious murky depths of the lagoon have furnished ample inspiration for swirling ebru (marbled) patterns and prints.
Budding artists should sign up for a bookbinding course at Fabricharte (€250 for 2-days) or a printing course at Fallani Venezia (€40/€100/€200 1-hour/half-/full-day course). Even kids can get in on the crafting act with hour-long mask-painting workshops at Ca’Macana (€47 per person).
Blinking is natural upon your first glimpse of the awesome, glittering gold-leaf mosaics that cover the exterior and interior of St Mark’s Basilica. On the facade, light ripples and twinkles across five niched portals telling the apocryphal tale of how Venetian merchants smuggled St Mark’s body out of Egypt in a barrel of lard in AD 828. With them came master mosaic artisans from the Byzantine world who found themselves at home in this light-filled lagoon where resident glass masters could conjure an almost limitless palette of exquisite smalti (coloured glass tesserae), including the shimmering 24-carat gold that covers St Mark’s.
This ‘divine art’ continues unchanged at the Orsoni foundry where artists and designers from around the world attend 1-week courses (€850 per person). For beginners, there’s a shorter 3-day workshop (€550 per person).
Archaeological summer camps
Whereas other cities' archaeology is buried deep underground, Venice's is spread across the lagoon’s patchwork of islands, many of which are littered with fascinating relics. One such island is Lazzaretto Nuovo. Between 1468 and the early 1700s, all returning merchants were required to stop at this quarantine depot for 40 days while city officials checked and fumigated their cargoes, trying to stem the tide of the plague.
It’s a fascinating place, and one that is slowly revealing its secrets thanks to the dedicated work of amateur archaeological summer camps (€350 per week including food and lodging) that have so far uncovered 16th-century graffiti, sleeping quarters and hundreds of artefacts. Budding Indiana Jones wannabes can enjoy an active role in the Lazzaretto’s rehabilitation between April and October, while also enjoying private island life out in the lagoon.
Last updated in September 2017