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Originally published Monday, November 29, 2010 at 8:00 AM

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The peaceful pleasures of Venice in winter

In winter, Venice is peaceful and beguiling, unlike in summer when the city is so packed with tourists that it's like a Disneyland.

New York Times

If You Go

Venice

Where to stay

Once the city of glorious five-star hotels and dismal budget ones, in recent years Venice liberalized its hotel regulations, ushering in a wave of six-room bed-and-breakfasts that fill an important mid-range. Here are two that I have found cozy and friendly:

— La Villeggiatura is a nondescript palazzo, but the rooms here are elegant with warm wood floors. In the winter, rates start at 100 euros a night ($132 at $1.32 to the euro), breakfast and Wi-Fi included. Located at Calle dei Botteri, San Polo. www.lavilleggiatura.it Ca' del Nobile, right around the corner from St. Mark's Square, is a pleasure in the off-season. In winter, rooms start at 80 euros, including breakfast, Wi-Fi and a tour of a glass factory on Murano. Located at San Marco 987; www.cadelnobile.com

Where to eat

— With its paper-covered tables and homey feel, The famous Osteria Ca d'Oro alla Vedova, makes the fluffiest meatballs in Venice and a mean polpo al umido, octopus stewed in a tomato sauce. The restaurant has paper-covered tables and homey feel. Average price per person is about 25 euros. You can stand up at the bar for a drink. At Cannareggio 3912; phone (39-041) 528 5324.

— Since it opened in 1987, Al Covo, run by an Italian and a Texan, has become one of Venice's most reliable and friendly restaurants, specializing in fish. The fritto misto is a standout. The three-course menu is 53 euros; ordering a la carte will run you more. Located at Castello 3968. www.ristorantealcovo.com.

In the run-up to Carnival, the pastry shop Majer sells frittelle, fried dough filled with ricotta, zabaglione or other caloric wonders for 1 euro. There are several locations in Venice. www.majer.it

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I hadn't been back to Venice in years when I found myself there on assignment. It was November; the city's scattered trees had begun to turn brown. The light, as always, was beyond compare and there was a watery chill in the air. I loved it immediately.

Or rather, I remembered how much I loved it. Italy can do strange things to your perspective. Memories of a place become more real than the place itself. I had lived for years with the Venice of my recollections — traveling there at 19, drinking peach iced tea in the July heat, discovering Giorgione — and then last November I was back. I was older, so was Venice.

The visit whetted my appetite, and not long afterward I returned one freezing January weekend, armed with several sweaters, boots and a well-worn copy of "Watermark," Joseph Brodsky's marvelous prose poem about Venice in winter, which would be my guide. It is an emotional guidebook more than a practical one, but, I would argue, just as reliable. In Venice, maps fail. As everyone knows, to be in that floating city is to be forever lost and disoriented, as if in a labyrinth.

On that November foray, I had listened to a group of American college students talking as they wandered around near the Rialto Bridge. "I don't mind if we're, like, lost all day," one told his friends. "Dude," another replied, "I don't think we have a choice."

Shunning summer

In summer, Venice is torrid, stuffed to the gills with the 18 million tourists who overwhelm it each year, clogging its bridges, swelling its vaporetti, vastly outnumbering the famously grouchy residents and making the city seem like one big floating Disneyland — a perverse metaphor for the future of Italy, if not all of Europe, a place that has staked its future on selling an image of its past and may yet be destroying itself in the process.

That season was not for Brodsky. "I would never come here in summer, not even at gunpoint," he wrote in "Watermark." Instead, the Russian-born poet longed for cold. In a series of rented apartments over a series of Januaries toward the end of his too-short life, he came, froze and wrote. (Brodsky, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, died at age 55 in 1996; he is buried in San Michele, Venice's wonderful cemetery island, where, in a joke as playful and deep as his verse, someone has placed a metal letterbox on his grave.)

"In winter you wake up in this city, especially on Sundays, to the chiming of its innumerable bells, as though behind your gauze curtains a gigantic china tea set were vibrating on a silver tray in the pearl-gray sky," Brodsky wrote. "You fling the window open and the room is instantly flooded with this outer, peal-laden haze, which is part damp oxygen, part coffee and prayers."

I read that passage at breakfast, over cappuccinos with dollops of foam that looked like pointed doges' hats, before venturing into the city. The first stop on my loose itinerary was the Palazzo Ducale, home to the doges who ruled Venice for centuries. I had never actually been inside — in summer, the lines stretch well around the block-long building, and I am an impatient tourist.

But that January morning, once I left my cozy pensione and ventured into the damp air, I had no trouble joining a tour, complete with a viewing of the cell where Casanova, the infamous lover and libertine, had been jailed on charges including blasphemy and Freemasonry, before his daring escape — aided, it appears, by guards who hated his inquisitors as much as he did.

High up in the palazzo, the doges' offices were small wooden boxes, surprisingly modest, but pleasantly warm. But in one of the public rooms, where the Council of Ten, which governed Venice for five centuries until nearly 1800, convened in judgment, it was so cold that I could see my breath.

The palazzo was a glorious den of secrets, the setting for any number of intrigues. In one room, the secret service kept its cabinets of traceless poisons. In another, the door to the staircase leading to the hidden prison was disguised as a file cabinet. (In Italy, bureaucracy is always the ultimate means of deception.) In the torture chamber, where the prisoners met their inquisitors, darkness was also part of the torture, the tour guide explained. In this city of resplendent light, how could it not be?

The quiet of winter

On sunny days, the winter light is brilliant and clear; but on gray days, it diffuses, and land and water merge. In "Watermark," Brodsky explains to some of his own skeptical inquisitors in New York why he is drawn to Venice in winter. "I thought of telling them about acqua alta" — the high waters that flood the city when it rains in winter — "about the various shades of gray in the window as one sits at breakfast in one's hotel, enveloped by silence and the mealy morning pall of newlyweds' faces; about pigeons accentuating every curve and cornice of the local Baroque in their dormant affinity for architecture ... about a brave sparrow perching on the bobbing blade of a gondola against the backdrop of a sirocco-roiled damp infinity."

Distorted by light and water, time thickens in Venice. So does sound. What I love best about the city is its glorious quiet, and its strange pace, as if you were living in slow motion. In Venice, hurrying will get you nowhere fast — or perhaps lost faster. Then again, it's best to walk briskly in winter, since the city is so damp, the air off the canals so bone-chillingly cold that you have to keep moving to stay warm.

I traipsed down innumerable alleys, stopping sometimes for coffee, past pockets of gondoliers who bounced on their feet against the cold, checking their text messages as they half-heartedly called out for tourists looking for winter rides. The locals were layered in fur coats and hats. One day, I bought myself a pair of maroon and fuchsia leather gloves in a tiny shop that I may never be able to find again.

Inside St. Mark's Basilica, with its splendid gold mosaics and cow-eyed evangelists, the winter light was dusky. I had missed the one hour each morning when it is illuminated ("The obscure aquarium dimness, the movie-palace dark," as Anthony Hecht describes the space in "The Venetian Vespers," a poem that surely left its mark on "Watermark.")

On winter nights, the lights of every trattoria beckon, little pockets of warmth against the damp. Once inside, my glasses were forever fogged. More than their southern counterparts, Venetians drink. I took to sipping prosecco at lunch, not a warming drink, but one that paired well with strips of fried polenta and crispy fried fish or with sarde in saur, sardines marinated with onion and sugary vinegar. In the weeks before Carnival, the pre-Lent festival when the city becomes a winter zoo, the pastry shops sell frittelle — fantastic fried dough baked with raisins and stuffed with ricotta or zabaglione — a meal in and of itself, and a memorable one.

Life in the square

Late one night in Piazza San Marco, I came upon a group of six German women holding an impromptu party. They had brought their food in Tupperware and were using the acqua alta risers as a makeshift table on a night that, while cold for an Italian, was perhaps nothing special for those accustomed to Nordic climes. Popping open a bottle of prosecco, they sang "Happy Birthday" in German, their out-of-key voices ringing into the clear night air.

At midnight, the bells boomed and echoed across the vast marble expanse Piazza San Marco, which was as flat and cold as a skating rink, and empty, save for an African man selling knockoff handbags, a policeman patrolling the quiet corners and the winged lion of St. Mark's up on its pillar, forever stretching its haunches toward the lagoon.

In winter, by day, even the pigeons in the square seem subdued. In a haunting passage in "Brideshead Revisited" in which the narrator meditates on his life, Evelyn Waugh likens them to memories. "These memories, which are my life — for we possess nothing certainly except the past — were always with me," he begins. "Like the pigeons of St. Mark's, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl."

I had first read those lines at an early age, and they had shaped me somehow, so that when I first visited Venice at 19 — staying in a horrible hostel on the Giudecca run by surly nuns, where I watched the sun set behind Dorsoduro each evening — I felt as if I already knew those pigeons. They were already my memories, too, even if I had only just met them.

On that first visit to Venice and on every single one since, one thing has been the same: I didn't really want to leave. As the end of the Brodsky weekend drew to a close, I found myself melancholy, reluctant to return to the chaotic life that awaited me once the train crossed the narrow bridge to the mainland — to "terra firma," as the locals call it, as if Venice itself were a ship lost at sea.

That afternoon, as I headed back to the train station with my little suitcase, a wet snow began to fall. It landed on the trees in the semi-hidden courtyard gardens and melted into the canals. En route, I took a few wrong turns, but I didn't mind at all. "Anzi," as the Italians say, au contraire. I thought that this might just be true happiness: being semi-lost in Venice on a cold and snowy day.

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