VENICE -- When travelers seek out her little bed-and-breakfast in the mainly residential Cannaregio neighborhood, Anna Maria Andreola assumes that they want to experience everyday life in this ancient marshland city huddled around its canals.
''Gondolas are too expensive; they're for tourists," she says as she spreads out a map and points out neighborhood landmarks and favorite restaurants. To get around the city, she advises, ''Ride the No. 1 vaporetto."
As the ferry travels the length of the Grand Canal, passengers have the perfect waterside vantage on the crumbling pastel palazzi on the banks, as well as the steady stream of boats. The dance of water traffic is a marvel -- sleek wooden-hulled limousine water taxis, bare-bones skiffs loaded with crates of canned goods, ambulance boats, and, of course, the anachronistic but elegant gondolas poled by men in striped shirts and straw boaters.
With lurching stops and starts and the jostling of commuters, the 70-minute ride is an immersion in the sights, smells, sounds, and pace of Venice. When the ferry reaches the east end of the city, it swings south across the lagoon to the Lido, the long barrier island sheltering Venice from the Adriatic Sea. On the return trip, the marshland metropolis seems to rise from the water as an almost mythical jumble of blocks and spires. The signature bulbous domes of Basilica di San Marco and a towering campanile mark the sweeping Piazza San Marco. Even travelers intent on avoiding the beaten path cannot ignore the city's grandest public space.
Flanked by long, galleried buildings, the piazza is a shifting sea of people and pigeons and people feeding pigeons. The birds have it easy in Venice. They pose for a few photos and gorge on cracked corn that vendors sell in little packets. Indeed, pigeon ecstasy often takes the form of hopping onto cafe tables to strut a mating dance to the amusement of the couples sipping espresso, eating ice cream, or toasting each other with Prosecco.
The lavish 11th-century basilica anchors the east end of the piazza. A sign at the door urges silence, and the quiet is as golden as the mosaics that seem to cover every square inch of the interior. The biblical scenes are so overwhelming that conventional wisdom dictates returning several times to study the church in small doses. But it's equally rewarding to set off into Venice, ostensibly to see out-of-the-way artistic treasures, and count on serendipity. Navigation is less by street sign (there are few) and more a matter of going from campo to campo (the less regal term for every square except Piazza San Marco). Wrong turns can lead to such happy accidents as stumbling on Orseolo Basin, where the gondoliers stretch out on their boats between gigs.
One gets the feeling that Venice's best artists never rested. When they weren't painting for the churches, they were decorating the buildings of various scuole -- charitable religious organizations founded during the city's medieval heyday.
A few blocks northeast of Piazza San Marco, early Renaissance master Vittore Carpaccio (circa 1460-1525/26) filled the Scuola Dalmata di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni with images of guardian saints between 1502 and 1507. His golden-haired St. George bears down grimly on a dragon. The beast, in turn, rises up with wings fully spread, hideous mouth agape, and talons raking the air.
A more immediate threat prompted the construction of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. The saint miraculously recovered from the plague, and this grandly vaulted structure was constructed between 1515 and 1549 to appeal for his intercession against another outbreak. Jacopo Robusti (1518-94), better known as Tintoretto, was a member of the scuola, and spent the peak of his career painting the religious parables that cover the walls and ceilings. The scuola provides visitors with large mirrors to hold in front of them so they can study such ceiling masterpieces as Jonah emerging from the whale or Moses striking water from the rock.
Venice is so compact that it takes about 20 minutes to wander from San Rocco in the geographic center southward past the Accademia art museum to the southern edge of the city, where the Fondamenta Zattere looks over to the island of Giudecca. The path follows narrow streets to pocket squares, including San Trovaso, where the only old-time gondola-making workshop still operates. At Zattere, the narrow streets open into a broad quayside promenade lined with restaurants and cafes. Gelateria Nico is the perfect spot to indulge the twin Venetian passions for watching boats and eating ice cream. The house specialty consists of Gianduja (hazelnut-chocolate) ice cream crammed into a bowl overflowing with whipped cream.
Another promenade, Fondamenta Nuove, forms a band along the north end of the island in the neighborhood of Cannaregio. Facing into the wind, Nuove is a less elegant walkway than Zattere, but it's the embarkation point for many ferries to the lagoon islands. The cemetery island of San Michele is closest, less than 10 minutes aboard the No. 41 or No. 42 vaporetto. Pilgrims leave mementos on the graves of such luminaries as Ezra Pound, Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, and Joseph Brodsky.
Tintoretto, however, lies where he lived, in his neighborhood of Cannaregio. Four centuries later, it remains a haven from the urban bustle of central Venice. Young mothers push strollers as their older children practice riding their bikes without falling into the canals. Small dogs sit alertly outside shop doors. Pigeons sip and splash at the fountains beneath the watchful gaze of cats too fat to pose a threat.
Madonna dell'Orto, the 15th-century Gothic parish church where Tintoretto is laid to rest, spans the ages between his time and now. The faces in his soaring ''The Last Judgment" (1562) are so specific that they must have been his neighbors, and the pigeons roosting high up on the facade coo with contentment. Piazza San Marco couldn't be farther away, yet Venice couldn't be closer.
Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon, Cambridge-based freelance writers, at firstname.lastname@example.org.