I’d been to Venice before. That time, my travelling companion got most upset that I’d not sought comprehensive directions to our hotel and we got lost. Very lost. We traipsed up and down streets and up and over canals in the darkness. It was my birthday and he just about managed to forgive me in time to share a pizza on our balcony overlooking a little square. That was my most vivid memory of Venice.
Vague, hazy memories of the Rialto Bridge and St Mark’s Square only came back to me, in a déjà vu sort of way, when I returned, now almost 15 years later. This time, I was determined to get to know the city a little better.
On this visit, I’d made the decision to travel alone to join a travel writing retreat. Not leaving anything to chance, I made sure I knew exactly how to find our place of residence, a former monastery in Dorsoduro.
My companions on the retreat would be ten women from all different parts of the world, all with a shared sense of purpose: to write, to meet like-minded people and enjoy all that Venice has to offer.
We spent our days exploring the city. Then late afternoon, we’d head back to our sanctuary, perhaps stopping for a gelato or Bellini en route, and enjoy writing workshops in the cloisters of the courtyard. More often than not, with the sound of thunder overhead and church bells clanging in our ears.
During these sessions, we were encouraged to spontaneously write and then read aloud. We shared our stories and our fears. Yet, I was surprised to discover, these outwardly strong, purposeful women, who had all made some brave decisions in their lives, shared an overriding sense of self-doubt. We feared the one thing that had brought us all together. Not our urge to write, but the feeling we weren’t quite good enough to tell our stories to the world.
Sightseeing began with a visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. It was pouring with rain, but the streets were beautifully deserted. This museum was one of my highlights. In Guggenheim’s former residence, a black and white photograph in each room showed how it once looked as a home, with Peggy in situ. Her walls adorned by the artwork I was now looking at.
The works of Pollock and Picasso confused me, but I loved the drama of Magritte’s ‘L’Empire des Lumières’ and the bright colours of Vail’s interpretations of Venice. Chagall’s ‘La Pluie’ seemed strangely appropriate. In this museum, there was a surprise waiting to be discovered around each corner, including views of the rain-soaked canal glimpsed through large, picture windows.
As the rain clouds dispersed, we boarded a vaporetto to St Mark’s. Spilling off the boat, we were thrown immediately onto the quay into crowds of tourists. Heading into the square itself, the dramatic beauty of the buildings, the chaos of people and pigeons muddled my mind. I was somewhat relieved to head back to the calm of the monastery.
During our first couple of days exploring the city as a group, I always kept half an eye on the whereabouts of my companions. It didn’t occur to me until later that I was worried about getting lost.
Together we enjoyed a “secret tour” of the Doge’s Palace, under the watchful eye of our flame-haired tour guide, who I deduced from her stern nature, must have descended from one of the former Inquisitors. I was intrigued by the story of Casanova’s escape and blown away by the scale of Tintoretto’s ‘Paradise.’
Later, we were awed by the dazzling beauty of the craftsmanship of the Gran Teatro la Fenice, which had risen as a phoenix from the flames, for the third time, after being raised to the ground by fire.
On the last day of the retreat, we headed to the bustling Rialto Markets. We spread out in different directions to wander through the stalls. Bright red strawberries and zucchini flowers caught my eye. Musicians played and the fish stalls were packed with an array of seafood, including squid smothered in black ink.
I stopped to buy Sicilian sun-dried tomatoes. I put my purse away, looked up, and didn’t see anyone I recognised.
I knew we were heading to Campo Santa Margarita, so set off in that direction. I found myself wandering along narrow streets and stopping to take photographs. After a while, I sat down on the steps of a bridge to study my not-very-detailed map and realised I was heading in totally the wrong direction.
It was now a very long walk to get to the Campo. I couldn’t figure out where to go and figured the nearest vaporetto stop was back through the market. I felt really frustrated with myself that I’d spent an hour walking in a giant circle, just to end up back at square one.
I gave myself a talking to on the vaporetto. It wasn’t the end of the world to get lost. I’d explored by myself plenty of times before. Instead of being cross with myself, I should enjoy it.
I got off at Ca’ Rezzonico and wandered down a pretty street into Campo San Barnaba.
In the square, I found a restaurant and sat outside to enjoy a caprese salad – a feast of the freshest tomatoes and burrata. It was the first time I’d tried burrata. Cutting into the firm ball of mozzarella, I was surprised when it oozed cream from the centre, similar to the pleasure of bursting a poached egg. I took out my notebook and started to write. I was beginning to enjoy getting lost.
With my newfound freedom, I was now relishing the prospect of having a last day in Venice to myself. Our retreat group said our goodbyes after breakfast and embarked on the next steps of their journeys.
We’d discovered the joy of finding people in the same boat as ourselves, as well as the pleasure of sharing our stories in a supportive environment. Above all, I had taken inspiration from this now familiar group of strangers, who shared my love of exploring and writing, and had grown in confidence before my eyes.
On this last day, I went to the Museo del Settecento Veneziano, to pay homage to Canaletto. I wanted to marvel at the two, out of only three, of his paintings on view in the city. I took the boat to the unbelievably pretty town of Murano for lunch, before returning to St Mark’s for a straciatella and amarena cherry gelato.
In this most romantic of cities, I enjoyed a gondola ride through the canals before a cosy dinner for one. I waited for dusk and sat down on the steps of the colonnades surrounding Piazza San Marco. It had a quieter bustle about it now and there weren’t so many pigeons. As the sky darkened, the lights came on to the sound of a hushed ‘ooh’ from the onlookers.
The house musicians of the grand old Caffe Quadri and Caffe Lavena took it in turns to strike up crowd-pleasers like ‘That’s Amore’ and ‘Bolero’. A crowd of spectators moved from one to the other, cheering and shouting “Bravo!” Poetically, the last song I heard was Andrea Boccelli’s ‘Time to Say Goodbye.’ My eyes filled with tears, not just for the past memories this song evokes, but the thought it was time to leave Venice behind.
I’d read that to get to know Venice, you have to lose yourself in her streets. From acknowledging my fear of getting lost, to my subsequent feeling of frustration, then the realisation that I actually enjoyed being on my own, I also found I had got to know myself a little better. I discovered I didn’t have to be with anyone else to enjoy the romance of this city. I had lost myself in Venice and become captivated by her charm.
This article first appeared on Pink Pangea – a community for women who love to travel.