This is a story about Venice at New Year's that begins in Paris, in the Charles de Gaulle Airport, actually, waiting for a connecting flight.
There was this couple, you see. They were making out like teenagers. Well, teenagers in expensive knits. She had her legs wrapped around his. They weren't doing the horizontal mamba. They were doing the vertical one, only seated. They were kissing, really kissing, and when they came up for air they gazed at each other with such adoration it was as if they were seeing the Doge's Palace in San Marco Square for the first time, the way it can look pink, as if it were a shimmering mirage, in the slant of winter afternoon light. It was that intense.
But this couple, who were middle-aged and coiffed, had obviously been to Venice before. We knew this because we saw them again, several times during the next couple of days. They didn't behave like tourists, consulting maps and guide books, with fanny packs and an expression of awe as though in a historic Disneyland. That's why, for me, they came to represent the reasons that Venice at New Year's is so wonderful. You might not think this would be the best time of year for this magical city, built on marshy islands in a lagoon. But it is. We felt as though we had been let in on a secret only Europeans know.
"Venice in Winter" could be the title of a movie filmed with a kind of otherworldly Impressionist light: soft, diffused, dreamy. A story might unfurl as characters take a long walk at dusk, arm in arm, through narrow alleys criss-crossed with strands of cheery Christmas lights. There would be several scenes of late lunches seated outside in early-spring-like temperatures with men and women – a contessa or two – dressed in stylish woollen layers, fabulous jewellery and good hair.
The camera could pan across the dramatic interiors of Punta della Dogana (a former customs warehouse converted to an exhibition space in 2005) or Palazzo Grassi, both contemporary museums run by François Pinault, the French, art-loving businessman behind Gucci and other luxury brands. There are minimal-to-no lineups. In Palazzo Grassi, a classic, perfectly proportioned building, the last palazzo to be built on the Grand Canal before the collapse of the Republic of Venice in 1797, a handful of people walk around a giant Jeff Koons balloon dog as if it were a Christmas tree in their living room. The scene is relaxed, pleasant.
And there would be lovers, many of them, in this Venice in Winter film. The city is always a study of light, grandeur, decay and memory, but in winter the story plays out without much fanfare, noise or smell. With the exception of New Year's Day and the few days running up to it, prices are lower, off-peak. You sense that Venetians leave the city in the summer and come back to live here – and enjoy it – in the winter.
There were moments in our stay when this magnificent, storied city felt like a fantasy ballroom – just for us to dance in. Oh, and for those Paris airport lovers, too. We saw them on the water bus from the airport, the best way to get into the city because it's reasonably priced and a scenic tour with various stops. We also saw them several times on the water bus that traverses the Grand Canal.
One of the best moves is to buy a pass on the public transportation so you can slip up and down the Grand Canal, not only to visit glorious 17th-century palazzos such as Ca' d'Oro or Ca' Rezzonico, but also to experience the dance of light at different times of day.
The highlight of our week was the New Year's concert at the Teatro La Fenice. You can buy tickets online in advance, or show up in person to see what seats remain. If you do nothing else, do this. Forget the expensive gondolier rides, which are tourist traps. Sit in this beautifully restored opera house, which has burned to the ground three times (1774, 1836 and 1996) and imagine yourself back in time. The display of ornate, gilded interiors is enough to hypnotize you into some trance of beauty. Add the music – Sir John Eliot Gardiner was conducting the night we were there, accompanied by soprano Desiree Rancatore and tenor Saimir Pirgu – and I dare you not to weep, you will be so utterly transported.
And – sorry to break the spell of that last paragraph – but who did we see in the box on the opposite side of the theatre? The Paris airport lovers, of course! They looked at the stage from time to time, when not finding all sorts of drama in each other's eyes.
There are other things that lovers in Venice in Winter should do. Go to Harry's Bar. But go at lunchtime, and don't let them send you upstairs (that's where the tourists go). Insist on the ground floor, which has the best scene – the bustle, the white-aproned waiters, the people deep in conversation. Order that famous Bellini; have a light pasta. And don't forget to drop into the fabled Hotel Danieli for a very expensive scotch.
Also, it's not a bad idea to find a lovely family-run hotel, such as the one we stayed in, the Hotel Flora. It was central, close to San Marco Square, down a small passageway behind the Bulgari store. It won't break the bank. The rooms are simple and clean. At night, we opened the windows to look into the interior courtyard and across the rooftops. We saw a couple on a small deck outside their apartment, drinking wine, just the two of them, by candlelight.
The Paris airport lovers? No, thank goodness. That would have been just too weird.
WHAT TO DO
Check out ticket availability for operas and concerts online at Teatro La Fenice. You cannot understand the beauty of Venice without going to see something here. www.teatrolafenice.it; 011-39-041-786-511
Get a week-long pass on the vaporetto, the city's water bus system. Ticket stations are all along the Grand Canal and at the airport. It's the perfect way to get around and see the city from the water.
WHERE TO STAY
It doesn't get more opulent than Hotel Danieli, a palazzo built at the end of the 14th century near San Marco Square. The grand staircase alone is worth a visit. A scotch in the lobby is an experience of supreme people and decor watching. Room rates start at $550. danielihotelvenice.com; 1-800-325-3589
Hotel Flora is one of the best-kept secrets in Venice. The rooms are simple but clean. And it's run by a local family, which makes the experience charming and authentic, so much better than staying in American-run hotels, of which there are many. Ask for a room with a view of the inner courtyard. Rooms from $380. hotelflora.it; 011-39-041-520-5844
WHERE TO EAT
For a memorable dinner, go to Ristorante Da Ivo. Reservations a must. George Clooney goes here when he visits from Lake Como. A small, family-run restaurant with typical Venetian food. You could even crawl out the window into a waiting gondola, if the mood and circumstance allows. (I know someone who did.)
WHAT TO BRING
A copy of Salley Vickers's Miss Garnet's Angel, a story about Venice and the possibility we all have for life-altering change. Or a murder mystery by Donna Leon, an award-winning American crime writer, whose series with Commissario Guido Brunetti are set in Venice. Bring a mask for New Years. Or buy one there. Many people cavort through the alleys with them on. If that's not your thing, a velvet cape will do.