Lose yourself in the misty magic of Venice in winter

Daisy Shields falls under the spell of Venice in wintertime As dusk falls and the bells of San Marco echo across the lagoon, I find myself in a speedboat returning for one last night in Venice. Like countless lovers and poets before me I seem to find Venice hard to leave: after two days here I have missed my fligh

As dusk falls and the bells of San Marco echo across the lagoon, I find myself in a speedboat returning for one last night in Venice. Like countless lovers and poets before me I seem to find Venice hard to leave: after two days here I have missed my flight home and having spent those two days at the legendary Hotel Danieli I can't help wondering if I might have done it on purpose.

This magnificent Gothic palace has hosted visiting princes, cardinals and ambassadors since the 14th century, followed by literary greats and Hollywood legends from Balzac and Dickens to Fred Astaire and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Our wing is styled by legendary designer Jacques Garcia, sumptuously dressed in red velvet, antiques and Murano glass, with spectacular views of the waterfront.

We start with a glass of Prosecco on our balcony watching the evening mist descend over the Bacino di San Marco.

The secret is to come in winter, when Venice is at her most romantic, braving the floods of the "aqua alta" season over the floods of tourists who drown the city from April onwards. For locals life goes on as normal, so don a pair of boots and enjoy the city's treasures in relative quiet.

The glorious Basilica of San Marco clothed in more than 4,000sqm of gleaming golden mosaics is unforgettable, but at high tide the reflection of the world famous cathedral in the glistening stones of the square has a fragile beauty all of its own.

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Venice needs a lifetime so don't try to see everything in two days but wrap up warm, wander off the tourist trail and lose yourself in atmospheric back streets and jewelled churches.

Dinner at the Terrazza Danieli is a glamorous affair; lobster salad in truffle oil and fritto misto of fish fresh from the lagoon, gazing across the rooftops to the Santa Maria della Salute, is the ultimate in Venetian decadence.

Under crisp morning skies we burn it off with a run along the waterfront to the green spaces of the Giardini and Sant Elena. Commuters pour in on the vaporetti, residents are out walking their dogs and tourists don't surface this early so it's the best time of day to get a feel for real life.

After cappuccinos and pastries on the hotel's panoramic roof terrace, we visit the Palazzo Ducale to admire Tintoretto's grand scale vision of Paradiso and cross the Bridge of Sighs, where Byron imagined prisoners caught their last glimpse of the Venetian skyline before facing their fate.

Feeling doubly fortunate, we catch some midday sun in Zattere, perfect for a panini lunch with the locals overlooking the hip Jewish quarter of Giudecca island.

Don't miss the landmark collection of avant-garde art at the former home of Peggy Guggenheim, the American heiress and artist's muse who discovered Jackson Pollock. Housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni - legend has it lions once roamed the garden - it is thrilling to see masterpieces by Mondrian, Kandinsky, Giacometti, Bacon, Picasso and Dali against the spectacular Gothic backdrop of the Grand Canal. Today Guggenheim's ashes remain with the beloved dogs she buried there, together with the marble throne where she once posed for photographers.

At teatime, skip rip-off coffees under the arcades and follow royalty and heads of state for aperitivos in the resplendent surroundings of Bar Dandolo. Whisper it, but the bellinis are better than Harry's Bar, made with fresh white peach juice and Crede from top Prosecco producers Bisol.

Supper is in the rustic oak-beamed Tavernetta San Maurizio, feasting on antipasti and Spaghetti alle Vongole of chilli and fresh clams. The bill is 70 euros, a bargain in a city that can seriously burn a hole in your pocket. To eat well here avoid the menu turistica, drink the local wine, Fragolini Bianco and order the specials, which unlike the English variety showcase the kitchen's freshest dishes.

Next it's candlelit faded grandeur at the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto and such a divine Barber of Seville that we feel we have stumbled upon a private performance for Venetian nobility. I can't quite decide if this is grand or guerrilla opera but the music is world class and Rossini could only be delighted.

To crown it all, the Russian beauty sitting in a fur coat in the front row, catches the eye of the young baritone playing Figaro, who proceeds to seduce her during the course of the performance (who could resist that voice?) and they disappear together at the end of the night.

Only in Venice.

And if Venice is a city for lovers, affairs don't come any grander than the Danieli, where Aristotle Onassis fell for the great soprano Maria Callas (they met in the ballroom), the scandalous love affair between George Sands and Alfred de Musset unfolded in Room 10, and Doge's suite so seduced Elizabeth Taylor she reportedly honeymooned there not once but twice.

The next morning, as Venetians have done since the 11th century, we visit the colourful Rialto market, buying velvet slippers and glass baubles for the Christmas tree - if you are self-catering try the glorious array of seafood.

On the way back, treat yourself to tiramisu in one of the many patisseries and track down the Santa Maria dei Miracoli, the jewel box church tucked away in Cannaregio's maze of waterways. Our last view of the city is from the top of the Campanile in San Marco. An elevator spoils the fun of the climb but the view of the city emerging from the mist is breathtaking.

In the end, I'm in danger of agreeing with Peggy Guggenheim, who said that to live in Venice or even to visit it, means that you fall in love with the city itself. There is nothing left over in your heart for anything else.

Now all I have to do is miss the next plane...

Best luxury hotel

o Hotel Danieli, www.luxurycollection.com/ danieli

Tel: 041 5226480.

Where to eat and drink

o Bar Dandolo, see above. Don't miss bellinis and afternoon tea.

o Harry's Bar, San Marco 1323 Tel: 041 5285777

o Restaurant Terrazza Danieli, see above. Head Chef Gian Nicola Colucci, formerly of London's Four Seasons, takes inspiration from impressionist masterpieces on show at the Guggenheim Collection.

o Tavernetta San Maurizio, San Marco 2619. Tel: 041 5285240.

Opera and art

o Peggy Guggenheim Collection, www.guggenheim-venice.it

Tel: 041 2405415

o Musica Palazzo, Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto, www.musicapalazzo.com

Tel: 040 9717272

o Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace). Tel: 041 520 9070.


o Hotel Gritti Palace, www. luxurycollection.com/grittipalaceTel: 041 794611. Hemingway stayed at this intimate luxury palace on the Grand Canal.

o Piccola Perla (Little Pearl), www.ourveniceapartment.com Tel: 01242 243693. Tiny but authentic self-catering option in Castello.


o Gatwick Express, www.gatwickexpress.com. Non-stop from Victoria.

o EasyJet, www.easyjet.com. From �55 return to Venice Marco Polo.

o Gatwick Hilton, www.hilton.co.uk/gatwick

Tel: 01293 518 080. The perfect way to avoid the early start. From �109.