Writers from Casanova to Byron and Ezra Pound say you should approach Venice by sea. That’s not always practical but taking a water taxi from Marco Polo airport is also a stunningly beautiful way to arrive. My advice: check in, check out, and wander. Even Venetians get lost in Venice. Around every corner there may be another wondrous vista, another exquisite church. Or bar.
I was asked to write the scenario for a ballet based on my biography of Giacomo Casanova by Northern Ballet choreographer Kenneth Tindall. I took about two seconds to say yes.
Casanova’s story takes you to some of the best views in Venice, from the little campo by San Samuele where he was baptised, to the palazzi – now hotels – where he partied. The Danieli rooftop restaurant, overlooking Casanova’s prison escape route from the Doge’s Palace, is affordable for a coffee or brunch, and the bar of the Gritti has a heart-stopping view and minty green grasshopper cocktails, which were once the tipple of Venetian prostitutes (the barman told me) but are now ordered by the nice girls. Casanova would approve – either way.
My other favourite sundowner spot is the Taverna al Remer, near the Rialto, if you can find it. It’s easy enough by gondola, but the alley labyrinth from the south side of the bridge sets my head spinning even before the first negroni. Remer serves great Venetian bar food, too – raw seafood from the Adriatic, and a sunset view of the bridge.
I ate regularly in Murano’s backstreets where dining out is cheaper. Sarde in saor (sweet and vinegary sardines) is a speciality – it’s a reminder of Venice’s ancient Middle Eastern connections – and there are lots of little bars selling chicchetti, a sort of Venetian tapas. The Cantina do Spade in San Polo claims that Casanova ate there; it might even be true. Its squid-ink risotto fuelled me through long afternoons in the archive, and its creamed salt cod is just like one of Casanova’s recorded recipes.
Of the museums, I came to love Ca’Mocenigo, which has Tiepolos and a superb costume collection, and the Correr on San Marco, which was very helpful, furnishing me with illustrations for my book that have in turn inspired the ballet’s costumes. More to the point, it is up above the Piazza San Marco and the coffee is cheaper than Florian’s down below.
My children were quite small when I was living there and remember the Venetian game of never having the same flavour of ice-cream two days in a row. Venice is great with little ones – though buggies are not easy as the bridges all have steps. Puppet shows, street entertainers – the essential make-believe that is the city-on-stilts – children adore it all … apart from the children’s section of the San Michele cimitero (cemetery), which is about the saddest place on Earth.
The “secret tour” of the Doge’s Palace takes you to the Inquisition’s HQ and its prison. You can visit the prison cell where Casanova was incarcerated after his affair with a Murano nun … and you can even trace the route of his escape over the roof of the palace and beyond – taking him on his long exile to London, Paris, Moscow, Dresden. But to read his memoirs, while sitting in the Campo San Stephano where he played as a child, or to shop early morning in the herb and fish markets by the rialto, as he did, is to know that he was right on many things: what stops us in our tracks in life is beauty, and the sensual moment.
• Ian Kelly’s Casanova: Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy (Hodder & Stoughton, £9.99), is available from the guardian bookshop at £7.99. Northern Ballet’s production Casanova runs at Leeds Grand Theatre 11-18 March, then tours the UK until 13 May