In Motion: Running through the crook-back streets of Venice
Our ongoing series, In Motion, explores cities using movement. We hit the zig-zag streets of Venice, where the narrow lanes and historic buildings make an extraordinary running backdrop
The late, great travel writer Jan Morris arguably found her magnum opus in Venice, published in 1960 and an iconic ode to the Italian city.
She wrote: ‘The mystery, secrecy and romance of the lanes is always a fascination, especially if you learn, as the Venetians do, to andare per le fodere – ‘move amongst the linings’, or poke your way through the little subsidiary passages that creep padded and muffled along the houses, like the runs of city weasels. They used to have running races in the crook-back, zig-zag streets of Venice, and you can make good speed along them if you develop the right techniques of side-step and assault.’
Morris blazed many trails, no less for being one of the first British public figures to undergo gender reassignment surgery in 1974 as for her impressionistic approach to historical travel writing (Venice was in fact penned when she was known as James Morris). Case in point are her biographies of the world’s capitals. Morris follows two rules to dust down the kernel of place: “One is E. M. Forster’s guide to Alexandria; the best way to know Alexandria is to wander aimlessly. The second is from the Psalms; grin like a dog and run about through the city.”
Personally, I feel far from someone who ‘moves amongst the linings’ as I run through Venice. Narrow stone alleyways glimmer dully beneath a sheen of dew in the early morning.
I take off at a hesitant lope down Calle Fiubera, scrutinising the GPS map on my phone, but am almost immediately turned around. At the rear door of a restaurant a leathery proprietress negotiates with a porter delivering produce, ash dropping from her cigarette as she gesticulates. A sharp left, another sharp left, a right, and I arrive at the rusty-railed Pontei dei Dai, straddling one of Venice’s 150 canals.
I ‘side-step and assault’ the gaps between early-rising workers into Piazza San Marco. It’s still caliginous in morning gloom, yet the heights of the Campanile and Basilica gleam in the rising sun. I take a moment to enjoy the scenery, then shoot out for the arcades patrolled by gun-toting carabinieri.
Morris also wrote that “Since Napoleon’s arrival, despite moments of heroism and sacrifice, she [Venice] has been chiefly a museum, through whose clicking turnstiles the armies of tourism endlessly pass.” Like the scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part in which a trio of art thieves race through the Louvre, there’s a subversive joie de vivre running tempo through the piazza’s arcades.
For me, running is a daily form of redemption, bordering on obsession. I started during the pandemic, a period of both stasis and tumultuous change. My career as a travel writer was neatly amputated at the same moment I realised I was to become a father. I needed escape, to release energy, to move.
I would sometimes run for hours at a time, looping larger and larger circuits through London. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the raw, epiphanic state of being physically broken. Running became creative. Ideas began to formulate.
One such idea was writing a series on running through different cities. I began to stay up late, plotting routes on OS maps, fantasising about the way it would feel to discover a city in the emotional, euphoric state that accompanies a good run.
This is how I find myself skirting enormous hand-pushed wagons carting hundreds of cafe chairs as I run past the towering Campanile, beyond the Doge’s Palace and between the Columns of San Todaro and San Marco to emerge onto the Riva degli Schiavoni where painted gondolas bob and clatter in turquoise seawater. Oblique early morning sunbeams make the Adriatic atomic, its surface irradiated with lambent reflection.
Having just arrived from the Appalachian and the Dolomite mountain ranges, it’s been a minute since I’ve run on a flat surface. I’m keen to open it up on the worn paving slabs of the promenade but immediately thwarted by the Ponte delle Paglia footbridge, from which one can see the Ponte dei Sospiri – Bridge of Sighs to English speakers – perhaps the most famous of the city’s 391 bridges. Every time I hit a stride I find myself battling another bridge, vaulting its wide terraced steps, focusing on not losing control.
The waterfront is waking up, from vaporettos plying their trade shuttling tourists from one island to another to liveried crewmembers scuttling over outsized yachts. Stomping over Ponte San Biasio delle Catene, one can see the ramparts of the Arsenal with its frowning tower gates. The shipyard was founded in the 12th century and was responsible for the Venetian republic’s immense naval power. It now hosts the MOSE Project flood defence system and pavilions during the Biennale.
Pedestrians dwindle as the promenade becomes the Riva dei Sette Martiri in the Castello district. Multiple gardens lead into one another. Meticulously manicured stone pines vie with stunning modernist pavilions as the Giardino della Marinessa bleeds into the Giardini delle Biennale and the Parco delle Rimembranze.
I reach an impasse and reverse direction to trace my steps to St Mark’s and home. In total I cover just over 5 kilometres in just over 21 minutes. Tourists trickle into the piazza as I stretch my legs against the Campanile. Venice is a staggeringly strange and beautiful city. Strolling its lanes and crisscrossing its waterways confounds, astonishes, delights and overwhelms in equal measure. These qualities are only heightened when running. The experience is startlingly in line with how I envisioned it a year before in London, and I arrive back at our apartment sweaty, satiated and hungry for more.