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My Perfect Hour in Venice

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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.


  1. Dyanne on April 19, 2016 at 7:30 pm

    Utterly lovely Leyla! I happen to be headed there (brief first touchdown on a month+ explore of the Balkans and Turkey) come September. Thanks for the reminder of the priceless rewards for rising before dawn in one’s travels. Trust that from you photos, I will make a point of it in Venice!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on April 19, 2016 at 7:40 pm

      Thanks Dyanne! Sounds like a wonderful plan you have… as for Venice, that day wasn’t even particularly gorgeous, the first sun after a week of clouds… so you should see something pretty spectacular!

  2. Sheila Archer on April 20, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    Love this story!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on April 20, 2016 at 8:47 pm

      Thank you Sheila!

  3. Diane Macfarlane on April 20, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    I have long yearned to visit Venice, but at the same time avoided it, afraid to be bitterly disappointed in the reality of a crowded tourist trap. After reading your article with the beautiful photos, I long to be one of the cold, sleepy photographers awaiting sunrise. Maybe with a steaming cappuccino. Think I’ll go have one right now, and dream of my trip to Venice! Thanks so much for your realistic portrayl. I can live with that. 🙂

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on April 20, 2016 at 8:47 pm

      I’ll be writing more over the coming weeks – unvarnished. I was apprehensive but I’m glad I chose early April, and once I wandered off the main areas, there was hardly a tourist to be seen. Just get that cappuccino before you reach San Marco or you’ll be daydreaming of coffee instead of watching the sun rise!

  4. Andrea on April 24, 2016 at 1:27 am

    I need to get up earlier when I’m traveling in many of the amazing destinations around the world … Venice needs to be one of them soon!

    • Annabel on April 29, 2016 at 11:01 pm

      One of your best pieces my friend! Took me right back there again!!

  5. Catherine Sweeney on May 2, 2016 at 10:31 pm

    Beautiful, Leyla. I wasn’t up and about Venice quite that early, but experienced a quiet Piazza San Marco twice – late at night and (quite unexpectedly) on a misty early evening. The tranquility of the golden hour would seem magical. Although I had been told about the cruise ships, I didn’t see them during my three days in Venice. I consider myself lucky.

  6. Bri on May 3, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    What a marvelous post. Wish I had been there with you shivering in the early morning light.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 3, 2016 at 5:36 pm

      If you had been, I’m sure you would have had the sense to bring coffee lol!

  7. Kathe B on May 3, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    Loved this! Didn’t get up early on my one morning on this trip but if I get there again I will. Great writing and great pictures Anne.

  8. Marylyn on May 4, 2016 at 9:00 am

    You brought back so many memories Leyla. I so remember the places youmentioned. Love the way you described the atmosphere andyes, it is just like that! Thank you.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 4, 2016 at 9:32 am

      So glad I was able to capture some of that feeling back for you!

  9. jane canapini on May 4, 2016 at 3:19 pm

    Love this. It’s why I advise everyone to spend at the very minimum one night in Venice, so they can see the city before it is literally swarmed with swarms of cruisers and other day-trippers.
    (Is it wrong to agree with the idea of banning cruise ships? Because I think I do.)

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 4, 2016 at 3:46 pm

      I don’t know if that’s wrong or not – what I can say is that I’ve been asking myself the same questions…

  10. Karen Warren on May 4, 2016 at 5:08 pm

    You’ve reminded me how beautiful Venice is. Especially early in the morning before the crowds arrive!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 4, 2016 at 6:37 pm

      It’s the same for many cities, isn’t it… the early morning freshness, the evolution of the day… very mysterious and full of promise!

  11. The GypsyNesters on May 4, 2016 at 6:15 pm

    Very nice! Really put us right there with you.

  12. Michele Peterson on May 5, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    Very nice! I just returned from Venice and share your love for its quiet grace.

  13. Donna Meyer on May 6, 2016 at 7:05 am

    This is beautiful, Leyla. I was right there with you, feeling the cool air, watching the sky lighten and the color change. Feeling the rhythm of the plaza. I am not by any stretch a morning person, but this makes me want to get up early on my next trip and watch wherever I am come awake… watch the early morning mist rise off the canals in Amsterdam, for instance. Thanks for the push. And thanks to Anne for the gorgeous photos.

  14. Carol DeHaven on May 15, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    Leyla, I was in Venice on April 27 and 28th…what a beautiful city. We were on a Globus tour and out and about early so I was able to experience a little of the wonder you discovered. Enjoyed every minute and am ready to return to this wonderful city!

  15. barbara carlson on May 20, 2016 at 3:04 pm

    Evocative and well observed. Almost didn’t need to see the photos, but they were stunning as well. Glad to have “met” you via Sandy Beeman’s absence on his Facebook these past …has it been months?

    Look forward to reading more of your blogging pieces. From this one, admire your knack for seeing the essence of a place: the reason people flock there, but never know why they did when all they see are other flockers.

  16. Elaine on May 22, 2016 at 2:04 am

    Venice seems like a travel dream come true in these pictures. Now if only I could get up at the hours where photography is the best, then I would be able to capture seems like this! 😛

  17. Xplorato on May 30, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    ….beautiful story, i wish to experience such splendor myself. Venice i too shall witness your beauty 🙂

  18. TONI TITUS on July 6, 2016 at 9:18 am

    What an amazing piece of WORD ART!!!!! Absolutely loved every word of it, Leyla. Thanks for taking me with to Venice.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 6, 2016 at 5:15 pm

      Thank YOU for the lovely comment!

  19. Maria Han on July 30, 2016 at 8:09 am

    Adorable post and the photo gallery is wonderful. You have described every minute details and I can see the beautiful painted picture of words in my mind’s canvas.

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