The shrillest sound of early morning Venice is no sound at all.
As I slide across the cobblestones, my rubber soles grip the alleys, sticky but silent.
The sun and the moon are invisible, in that tiny wedge of time when dawn is darkest and daytime about to announce itself.
Even the motorized vaporetti boats have taken a break and the only noise on the water is that of waves pummelling the wooden moorings at the edge of Piazza San Marco. Occasionally a chain clanks as a gondola, locked to a wharf, bobs in the wind.
Discreetly, almost unnoticed, the night lights on the piazza dim and disappear, plunging the square into a phantom demi-monde that hangs between dark and light. The salt air is at its sharpest and the rising song of birds announces daybreak can’t be far off.
Now and again I hear a methodical swish as cleaning men propel their straw brooms across the patterned paving stones of the piazza. Left to right, right to left, they nudge last night’s refuse into small mounds of garbage that will be stuffed into bags and collected much later.
Their green wool jackets keep them toasty in the matinal cold, which stiffens my own hands as I try to take a few snapshots of their work.
The gondolas, veiled in royal blue, line the wharf like children napping in a nursery.
Beyond them, across the lagoon, sits the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, its silhouette beginning to cut into the sky.
To my left, the vertical windows of the Doge’s Palace are not yet sharp, as though veiling dark secrets behind a distinguished facade.
Above me the deep azure pales until hints of gold and coral begin to bleed into the blue. Slowly the stars are extinguished, like candles blown out by the wind. The air becomes more alert as birds, having awakened one another with their cries, swoop around in search of breakfast.
A clutch of photographers scatters across the dawn to catch the legendary Venitian golden hour. Tripods are locked into place, viewfinders scrutinized, and feet shuffled forward, backward, maybe a little closer or just an inch this way or that. This dance will continue until the sun finally emerges over the buildings of Castello, one of Venice’s six neighbourhoods.
More photographers straggle in, their eyes still crusted with sleep when suddenly the sky erupts into hot pink and titian fireworks of sunlight that warm the piazza. A few last-day visitors, desperate to catch a perfect sunrise after days of rain, stroll in dazed disbelief, their rolling luggage thumping behind them.
A woman in a wedding gown poses with a besotted husband, her bare arms carpeted in goosebumps. The couple weaves through the columns that flank the palace, pose under Venice’s wrought iron street lamps and scamper in front of the gondola stand. Later I’ll be told this was probably a commercial shoot with models, the sort of thing that happens many times a day.
Other wedding couples drift by, photographer in tow. Perhaps they too are hawking tiaras. Or simply recording their love for posterity.
After the first flash of light, the fuchsia enveloping Venice’s sky reworks itself into gold, a now more muted glow that caresses the uneven rooftops and heats the air. The shadows recede and sharp lines begin to assert themselves, crisply defining the shapes of buildings, windows, statues.
Sleepy tourists compete with sleepy photographers, their yawns audible from afar.
A few unfortunate waiters on dawn duty align tables and chairs outside the piazza’s expensive cafés. At this hour, you can rest there for a moment without being shooed away.
As the sun tumbles out, it impossibly sets the city on fire, reflected a hundred-fold on the surface of the lagoon and the damp floor of the square. Soon, jackets will be unbuttoned and scarves unwrapped.
To me, this is Venice at its finest – vast, intimidating space and endless sky bathed in the morning’s sea air, almost liquid with salt.
The lack of motor sounds and the scarcity of people are somehow freeing, making me almost giddy and allowing me to forget I’ve been up for several hours without a single cup of coffee.
Abruptly, from the corner of my eye I catch a movement. A shape grows, filling my visual periphery, not to be rubbed away like a grain or a flake.
I’m tempted to turn and face it but I’d rather pretend for a few more seconds. The form glides from the edge of my sight towards its center, expanding and spreading until San Giorgio is hidden, the lagoon is obliterated and the view sliced off by an outlandish enormity.
The first of the cruise ships has arrived, casting a long shadow across the piazza.
My perfect hour in Venice is over. But for the passengers on the ship, it is just beginning.
All photos by Anne Sterck.