Venice, the Invisible City. A Walk in the Calli and a Book

There’s nothing easier than getting lost in Venice. Forget Google Maps and start walking in the narrow streets of one of the most bizarre, enchanting cities in the world. Follow your instinct. Explore. Take pictures. Listen. Smell. Arriving in Venice is like jumping into a book. And one book pops into my mind while walking in Venice: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. The Italian writer imagines that Marco Polo, the renowned explorer who in 1271 set off on a journey from Venice to China, meets the Emperor Kublai Khan and tells him about the cities he has visited during his long journey. And they all remind of Venice, even though Polo never admits it.


Kublai asked Marco Polo, extending his beringed hand from beneath the silken canopy of the imperial barge, to point to the bridges arching over the canals, the princely palaces whose marble doorsteps were immersed in the water, the bustle of light craft zigzagging, driven by long oars, the boats unloading baskets of vegetables at the market squares, the balconies, platforms, domes, campaniles, island gardens glowing green in the lagoon’s grayness. (I. Calvino, Invisible Cities, English translation by William Weaver)


You can’t find another Venice. Venice seems to rise from the sea like an illusion, with domes, narrow alleys, canals, gondolas, stone arches which lead to hidden gardens, lavish palaces, decorated windows, old shops and bridges. Venice lives in a dream; that’s why it’s an invisible city. And it is so easy to get lost. But getting lost could turn out to be the best way to visit it.

A walk in Venice, the Invisible City

Today we’ll cross ponte degli Scalzi, in front of the train station, and walk along Calle Lunga. On the left there’s Rio Marin, a charming little canal; turn right and follow the water, admiring the old houses, taking photos of the gondolas, discovering hidden corners. It’s a quiet area, never too crowded, and for this reason particularly charming.

Despite my frequent visits to Venice, I had never been here before. I discovered it a couple of years ago, getting lost in the calle. You can sit on the stone steps and eat something by the water, or go to Pasticceria Rio Marin, where you can order a slice of crostata or tiramisù and watch the boats pass by.


This is our chance to visit Dorsoduro, a chic quarter bordering the last stretch of the Grand Canal and home to famous palazzi and art galleries. Our walk starts from Campo Santa Margherita, a large square with cafés and shops, and continues to Ca’ Foscari, the headquarters of Venice’s university, populated by students talking about architecture or archeology classes and by independent art and artisan boutiques and bookshops.


Then we get to Ca’ Rezzonico, which takes us back to the 18th century, and to Campo San Barnaba, often used as a movie set. On the narrow finger of Punta della Dogana, between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal, stands Santa Maria della Salute, an octagonal church linked to one of the most popular festivals in Venice. Look at the sea and at the islands in front of you – the Giudecca, San Giorgio. The view is fascinating.


On our way back, we take Cal del Bastion and walk all the way to Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in the unfinished Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, deigned by the architect Lorenzo Boschetti. The museum includes a beautiful garden with works of art and an elegant, relaxed atmosphere. We’re also close to Palazzo Contarini Polignac, with its splendid Renaissance façade decorated with polychrome marble and rooms frescoed by Tiepolo, and to the Gallerie dell’Accademia, a museum displaying works by painters from Venice and Veneto, from Giorgione to Tintoretto, from Bellini to Canaletto.


And then, across the bridge called Ponte dell’Accademia, there’s Campo Santo Stefano: if we cross the large square and head east, we’ll reach La Fenice theater and Santa Maria del Giglio. Staying at the historical Ala Hotel, with its typical Venetian decorations and 18th century style, allows us to continue our journey back in time. And we’ll be ready to explore another part of this invisible city – which is so visible – in the morning.


Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, English translation by William Weaver