When Joseph Brodsky, the Russian Nobel laureate, was asked what Venice was like in winter, he replied that it was like Greta Garbo swimming. I imagine he was thinking of the enigmatic beauty of the city emptied of its summer herds, and the streets shrouded in nebbia, the legendary Venetian fog. Or perhaps he was thinking more literally of swimming, of acqua alta – when the sea fills the canals to the brim and overflows them, casting the city and its inhabitants into an even greater otherworldly realm. For Brodsky, winter was an abstract season where life was more real, more stark. And if ever there was a city that needed viewing through starker lenses, it's Venice.
Brodsky made an annual winter pilgrimage to Venice for 17 years, and he wrote about his experiences in a jewel of a book called Watermark. As a citizen of the warm-blooded tropics, I found the idea of investigating a city during a particular season intriguing, especially as that season happened to be something other than the monsoon. As luck would have it, a Venetian friend was looking to sublet her apartment for a month, and this served as the impetus I needed to follow in Brodsky's footsteps. Armed with a dog-eared copy of Watermark and a pair of wellies, I prepared to get lost in self-oblivion, to write elegies on stone floors while church bells clanged around me.
Venice is a city full of surprises. For all its clichéd postcard images, for all we know of it before ever having laid eyes on it, and for everything that has already been said about it, the city still has the capacity to amaze, to trick you into thinking you have new things to say. I arrived in the middle of November prepared to take on the Antarctic. My friend's flat, near S. Giacomo all'Orio (my favourite campo in Venice), is the kind of flat I wish a kindly relative would pass on to me in her will: large, airy, beautifully lit and filled with all manner of things I'd be happy to call my own. There were many windows in this flat, which looked out onto a criss-cross of canals and bridges. Every morning I'd pull up the blinds with gusto, hoping for fog, gray, or at least rain. And every day I was greeted with sunshine. Day upon consecutive day of it, mocking me and my wellies. How could I think of elegies when life was so clearly thriving outside? I abandoned my writing desk, strategically positioned by a window, and went out on the streets, letting the sun into my bones, watching the locals get on with life.
In an earlier time I had spent three months in Venice during the spring. I'd rented an apartment in a palazzo on the Canal Grande, and had tired quickly of the regularity of beauty and the incessant crowds. Every once in a while a Japanese tourist would point at the windows shouting Marco Polo (I discovered the gondolieri were inventing stories about where he lived), and take pictures of me. They must have thought – what a wonderful life that person has.
The truth was, I was tired of "The Grand Banal" – the glittering water and red roofs, the limited Neapolitan O sole mio/Volare repertoire of the gondolieri. Just the thought of leaving the house to get fruit at the nearby Rialto market or cross the Rialto bridge was enough to agitate me. I spent most of my time cooped up for fear of having to jostle with tourists. I don't know if my feelings toward Venice altered because of the change in my location – away from the maddening crowds, or if it had to do with a change of season. I suspect it was a bit of both.
Venice in winter set me free. Without the heavy influx of tourists, the city no longer reminded me of a medieval amusement park. Sure, there were still the honeymooners, the melancholy artists, the decadent residents skulking about, but it seemed there was finally space to really appreciate it. A temporary ice-skating rink was set up in Campo St Polo near my flat, and I'd walk there just to see children make circles in ice, and to sit with the old grannies and their dogs resting on the benches. As the days passed and the cold progressed, I had full use of my Antarctic gear, but the sun, amazingly, remained steadfast, casting its bright glow on everything.
I took long walks, taking care to protect myself with several layers. I got lost – a luxury, which is impossible unless there's a certain degree of desolateness in the city. Sometimes I'd arrange to have a spritz with a friend in the evening and a hot meal afterwards at one of the trattorias. I was stunned by how much better food tasted in the cold, or perhaps the local restaurateurs were finally able (without the hordes) to pay a little more attention to their fare. I made joyous discoveries: the Café Orientale – a tea room along the Rio Marin Canal – run by a painter and his English wife, offering a cosy refuge from the cold and a dizzying variety of teas and cakes; the VizioVirtu chocolateria – a grand chocolate laboratory off the Calle de la Passion, whose inventive offerings could lift even the most dejected of spirits; a print shop run by an eccentric called Gianni Basso, aka the Gutenberg of Venice, who lives with his 18th-century printing machines and makes the most divine ex libris and visiting cards. At nights I fell asleep to the comforting bmph-bmph noises of the vaporettos navigating their way down the canals like solitary whales. I was happy, the same kind of animal happy Brodsky described in his book. "I suddenly felt: I am a cat," he wrote, "A cat that has just had fish. Had anyone addressed me at that moment, I would have meowed."
Of course, I made the occasional foray out of the city as any visitor staying a while must do. Venice, after a prolonged period of time physically, forces you to turn inwards. An outsider arriving in Venice may notice that some Venetians have long faces and bodies that drag them downward. It's a form of containment, a result of being hemmed in by the buildings, the sky, the ever-present water and multitude of reflections. For relief, some residents take to the Fondamenta Zattere – one of the lesser-known long stretches along the Giudecca canal – to fill their lungs with air and take in the panoramic view of the sea, along with a gelati nico. But then they must return to the labyrinth of their lives and the walls of their homes. Ultimately, no amount of beauty will save you. To survive Venice you must leave it.
My great winter discovery was the many thermal baths dotted around the Veneto region. From the prehistoric baths in Abano and Montegrotto terme, to the upscale chromotherapy spas in the Verona countryside, whenever I felt a bout of claustrophobia coming on, I checked myself into a hotel where therapeutic hot sulphuric waters and a spa were at hand, ensuring that the element of water was always nearby. I ventured to the slopes of the Dolomites for a first attempt at skiing, and I enjoyed relaxing weekends in nearby Vicenza, an elegant city strewn with the marvels of Palladio. And then I'd return to Venice.
Once you've visited Venice, the return is always a homecoming. No matter how long you've spent there, that first shock of seeing a city on water never ceases to delight. If you travel by air, look for the elegant fish-shape of her floating in the lagoon. If you arrive by land, look forward to that first assault of seaweed and brine to your nostrils.
Whether you visit Venice in the winter or spring, for the biennale or the carnival, you'll realise that the city is a mirage – a constantly shifting mirage, and your story in it is constantly changing, too. So be surprised when you go to Venice. Take walks at night and discover what Brodsky meant when he said that Venetian streets were like passages between bookshelves of some immense forgotten library. Go visit Brodsky's grave in the San Michele cemetery. Stay away from the usual sights – San Marco and Harry's Bar and Murano and the Doges. Or if you go, make sure you leave them, and get lost. Let your eyes and feet guide you. There are so many stories in Venice, so many layers waiting to be uncovered. You can be sure that what you discover will be far more interesting than what you anticipated. This is not always true of other cities, but it is true of Venice.
If You Go: Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Venice cost from Dh2,480, including taxes.
Tishani Doshi's novel The Pleasure Seekers is published by Bloomsbury.