Here, where three canals intersect, I’m stuck in a Venetian traffic jam. There’s a gondola ahead of me, a gondola behind me and a motor boat coming up in the distance. I’m remaining calm – until Rene, my kayaking guide, says, “Watch it, a gondola’s about to come around that corner.”
Can he see around corners? Not as such – he points to a traffic mirror erected on the side of a building.
We pull over to the side of the canal and let the others sort it out among themselves. The gondoliers get right of way, of course: gondoliers always do. Here in Venice, they’re the kings of the watery road.
By contrast, our kayaks are the smallest craft on the water – which is their big advantage. We have access to all areas. There’s nowhere that’s off-limits to a kayak, from the wide open lagoon to the narrow canals well away from the tourist areas of Dorsoduro and Castello.
Near the Arsenale, we paddle down a narrow canal that appears to be a dead end until Rene points out a low bridge we are going to go under. And I do mean low. There’s no room to paddle – there’s not even enough room to sit up straight. Instead, we bend double and scoop the water with our hands.
I quickly realise it’s easier to manoeuvre with my hands on the underside of the bridge, steering and propelling myself along. We come out into another canal, thrilled at our secret shortcut.
The canals of the quiet residential neighbourhoods – many of which don’t even have footpaths – offer us glimpses into everyday Venetian life that most visitors never see.
We peer down walkways into campos where children play or couples argue; pass laundry hanging in rows from balconies; hear children rehearsing their lessons in school buildings; and spot flashes of green behind ornate gates, where Venice’s hidden gardens lie safe from prying eyes.
On sunny canal edges, men sit repairing boat sails by hand. Boats are moored nose to tail along the edge of every canal. Like any other city, Venice has a parking problem, although here it’s boats that battle for space.
Rene points out the iron spikes hammered in dense rows into the wall above the waterline. They’re so slender, they’re hard to spot among the ageing stone: I find them by looking for their long shadows. The spikes function as rudimentary steps, allowing locals to clamber along the wall, spider-fashion, to get to their boats.
Paddling through the still waters of the canals is easy: the tricky part is turning tight corners. The co-ordination required to paddle forwards on the side you want to turn, while paddling backwards on the other, eludes me the first few times.
I scrape perilously close to the walls – close enough to observe the algae and the barnacles that mark the high-water line. After an hour, however, I’m taking corners with ease.
As we glide along the canals, Rene points out the small signs that reveal how the city functions: for instance, the discreet parking signs that ensure there’s enough room for rubbish collection boats to pull up.
Passing a hospital, we pull to one side to let an ambulance glide past. Rene points out an austerely grey boat pulled up at the hospital’s dock. “That’s a hearse,” he says.
Behind it is another hearse, this one painted an incongruous blue. The city’s hearses, Rene informs me, are run by the same organisation that looks after rubbish collection.
Gliding along the water also gives us a unique perspective on many of Venice’s magnificent buildings. We literally pass beneath Santo Stefano church – the church’s apse is a small bridge over the canal.
From the water, we also see at its magnificent best the octagonal Santa Maria della Salute, built to celebrate the city’s deliverance from the plague of 1630.
Seeing the building jut proudly into the water towards us, you realise that many of Venice’s buildings rest largely on water rather than land. According to the records, the church is supported by 100,000 wooden piles, an entire forest buried in the mud of the canal.
Our heart rates go up as we cruise the Grand Canal, darting between the larger boats, returning waves from the tourists lining the Rialto.
The most memorable moment, however, comes when we turn off the Grand Canal into the tiny Rio del Santissimo and are suddenly surrounded by music: a flurry of strings, voices joining in harmony and the tinkling notes of a piano. The canal cuts behind the conservatorium of music.
As the music drifts around us, the light bounces off the canal and dances off the walls of Istrian limestone, off the lions and flying horses projecting above the doorways. It’s magic.