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Winter in Venice

"I found the scoundrel in a café, drinking hot chocolate and flirting with the waitress" - Giacomo Casanova

Winter is a great time to be in Venice. It's an intimate time of year for the city: when footsteps and boat engines are muffled by mist and damp; Venetians reclaim their lanes from tourists; local residents cluster inside steamed-up cafés. Summer's cruise ships, spilling up to 30,000 visitors a day into the town, have vanished from the skyline. From its inescapable slide into a tourist Disneyland, Venice returns to being a local town, where local people stride along alleys, greeting acquaintances as they pass.

There are marvellous sunny winter days, when Venetians promenade along the sun-trap waterfront of the Zattere. And though the weather is often grey, misty, damp and bitingly cold, that adds to the pleasure of the great Venetian winter treat. There is nothing as satisfying, in a Venetian winter, as diving into a cosy café interior and warming up with a cup of rich hot chocolate (cioccolata calda). This is the archetypal Venetian winter activity; a pleasure that makes the cold weather seem worthwhile. Hot chocolate here is rich, thick and nothing like the powdery versions back home. It's been a prized Venetian drink since the eighteenth century, and Casanova swore by hot chocolate for breakfast.

A posh hot chocolate in the frescoed rooms of Caffè Florian, on St. Marks' Square, will set you back €10, but give you access to the ghosts of Goldoni, Casanova and Byron. For a cheaper and authentically Venetian experience, pop into one of the many marvellous pasticcerie - pastry shops with a bar serving hot drinks - that dot Venice's lanes. My favourite is Tonolo (Calle di San Pantalon), in Dorsoduro, where a dainty little hot chocolate in a pretty blue and white china cup and saucer costs only €1, and can be consumed standing by the counter with Venetian firefighters, elderly ladies in furs, and workers popping in for a dose of sugar. Buy a small cake or pastry to eat with your drink, and peep through the doorway to the back room lined with shelves groaning with Tonolo's speciality Venetian version of the Christmas panettone (focaccia da Tonolo).

If hot chocolate is not enough to warm you up, try some roast chestnuts from a street stand, or a take-away glass of mulled wine (vin brulé) , available from cafés and stalls around the shopping lanes.

A walk along Venice's wintry lanes is warmed by bursts of light, heat and the strong scent of coffee as cafe doors swing open. Venetians stride around in furs and puffy coats, accompanied by little dogs in knitwear. Without the summer crowds, curious tourists will come across a wealth of little Venetian vignettes. Walking around in December I passed gondoliers, without much business, joshing around as they returned from a long lunch by the Rialto bridge, stealing each other's hats, and pouncing on a colleague with a mobile phone glued to his ear. Two erect elderly ladies in furs and hats stood gossiping in a little square lined with dilapidated palazzi, while inside the window of a fancy paper shop, I spotted a young man jiving cheerfully on his own.

Eating

In winter some of Venice's restaurants are draughty and empty of atmosphere and clients. But there are good places for a snug lunch or intimate dinner. La Zucca (Santa Croce 1762) - my top Venetian restaurant - has small, wood-lined interiors and very warming food at decent prices. In cold weather, it would be hard to find a better pasta dish than their tagliatelle with gorgonzola and pine nuts. Another cosy spot, with smaller dishes and higher prices, is the Osteria Enoteca Ai Artisti (Fondamenta della Toletta, Dorsoduro 1169/A), where you can perch on a stool or at small tables and watch the busy foot traffic along the canalside through big windows.

Winter 2011 - 2012

An ice rink in Campo San Polo offers some traditional winter fun. Ice-skating is reserved for children in the afternoon, with adults skating in the evening - one local romantic hired the rink out for himself and his girlfriend for a skating session a deux. Alongside the rink are some enticing food stalls selling hot snacks, sweets, cheeses - including straw-covered truckles of cave-matured pecorino - and other speciality food products. The rink is in place from 8th December to 21st February. More about special winter events can be found on the website Inverno Veneziano (see links panel).

A nativity scene by St. Mark's - this year, remarkably ugly - adds a bit of festive spirit to the tourist heart of town. There is a midnight mass in St. Mark's on Christmas Eve, and mass and vespers on Christmas Day.

New Year's Eve in Venice is marked by a big firework display over the Basin of St. Mark - and a mass kiss-in in the Piazza. Health and safety is rarely a consideration in Italy, and all around Venice, families and friends set off little fireworks by their houses and canalsides.

Towards the end of winter, when the cold is wearing down even the most resilient resident, Carnival comes as a burst of colour, excitement and profiteering. In 2012 this takes place from the 4th to 21st February.

Christmas shopping

Venice is a good place to do a spot of Christmas shopping. If you're a collector of intricate Italian pieces for nativity scenes (presepi), you'll find a kiosk selling models alongside the church of San Giovanni Grisostomo, near the Rialto. The shop of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection sells arty and unusual gifts. Luxury chocolates, including special Christmas delicacies, can be found at the marvellous Viziovirtù (Campiello San Tomà). As well as all the shops selling Murano glass and papier mache carnival masks, Venice is also good for more unusual artisan-made gifts such as jewellery made from paper (Carte - San Polo 1731), colourful wooden clocks, puzzles and ornaments (Signor Blum - Dorsoduro 2840), and decorative leather masks and bags (Il Gufo Artigiano - San Polo 299).

Winter trip practicalities

In practical terms, Venice's museums and attractions are open for business all year round - but you will find them much, much emptier in the winter months. Of course there are always a few tour groups, but generally winter is a time for Venice aficionados and repeat visitors, so the tourists who are here are spread through town, exploring out-of-the-way sights and churches.

Some tourist restaurants and bars may close for a couple of weeks in the depths of winter, but not as many as close down in August. You'll find more space on the public vaporetto ferries - and may even be able to grab a seat outside, as long as you wrap up very thoroughly. Gondoliers will be working as normal, even when the weather is cold.

Hotels are a lot cheaper in the winter, though other tourist costs are little different. You may save some money on meals simply because there is less competition for a bargain, and the better-value restaurants are not packed out.

Combine a city and skiing break

If you need any more incentives to visit Venice, it is worth remembering that Venice is only a bus ride or car journey away from the Alps, and the ski slopes of the Dolomites. Cortina d'Ampezzo is one of Italy's smartest and most popular ski resorts and there is a bus service from Venice operated by ATVO, which takes three and a half hours and operates on weekends in winter.

> Where to stay in Venice



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Acqua alta: high tides and flooding

When to visit Venice


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Average temperatures for Venice (BBC)

Inverno Veneziano

Caffè Florian

St. Mark's Basilica

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