A heart in winter

To enjoy the sites of most tourist meccas, patience, time or insider knowledge are the main requirements. Unless it's January in Venice writes Harry Browne

Getting to Venice is almost obscenely cheap and easy. You can now fly from Dublin direct to Marco Polo airport on an Aer Lingus flight that might set you back €100 return including all taxes and charges. At the airport a regular city bus service, the cinque (number 5), will whisk you to Piazzale Roma in 20 minutes for a further €2. Walk down a few steps and you're beside the Canal Grande, and La Serenissima stretches out before you, at no further charge.

It takes considerably more time and money to get yourself to France's Disneyland, the tourist destination to which the improbably fantastical wonderland of Venice is often compared. And Disneyland, though it may get crowded, is certainly in no danger of having any authentic essence killed by mass tourism.

I went to Venice this winter, for the first time in nearly 25 years, in the full knowledge that such cheap 'n' easy access is bringing as many as 20 million visitors every year; that the local population has collapsed by two-thirds in a half-century to 60,000; and that therefore while admiring the city's splendours I would also be mourning its corpse.

Thankfully, however, the black veil wasn't necessary. Yes, of course the assault on Venice by forces natural and unnatural is a major worry for the heritage of Europe and of our species. But by visiting in the off-season and staying off the beaten track, it was possible to enjoy the fragile life of this strange and beautiful place. In fact, in mid-January, even the beaten track was quiet, except for the ordinary daily commerce of Venetians.

It's easy to romanticise. Venice's ordinary commerce is profoundly related to, even dependent upon, tourism. And only a sociological killjoy would want to spend a few days in Venice without sight of the unique artistic glories that make that the case. But the "ordinary" Venice is no less unique, and perhaps even more profoundly fascinating, this place is where modern Europeans still live on water and by foot.

Venice is divided into six sestieri (literally "sixths"), but a third of the population lives in one of them, Cannaregio. In the northwest of the city, it includes some of the touristic main drag, the twisting path that brings walkers from the train station in the west to the mecca of Piazza San Marco in the east. It includes a few churches, plenty of "tourist menu" restaurants and the world's original "ghetto" – one small island in the city where its medieval Jews were forced to live.

But staying there in its more remote northern fringes – by the accident of bedding down with an Irish friend who had rented one of the cheapest apartments she could find on the internet, in a beautiful 16th century house overlooking a canal – meant seeing some of Cannaregio's less obvious qualities too. It meant wandering through the tidy 20th century council flats just across the nearest bridge, seeing the washing strung out over narrow alleys, visiting the local club's football pitch, even being awakened by the morning traffic as barges brought in everything from fruit to refrigerators from the nearby lagoon and along the San Girolamo canal.

Parts of Cannaregio bear signs of gentrification that are almost touchingly familiar in the otherwise implausible Venetian wonderland. One canalside stretch, the Fondamenta della Misericordia, has been redubbed "Misericordia Boulevard" by trendier locals. And here, typically, is the new glass-and-chrome restaurant near the dingy hardware store and the local café that has turned into a jazzy hotspot in the city's notoriously tepid nightlife.

But here too are the physical instruments of gentrification, tools, beams, bags of cement, being dragged off wooden barges. Here are the flood waters of a winter high tide rushing in through the door of the moody high-art printers' shop around the corner, Stamperia Tintoretto. Here are the typically Italian council workers maintaining the bella figura, despite their orange jumpsuits, by wearing sunglasses on top of their slick-backed hair – but they're driving a beat-up old boat. Here are a pair of wizened nuns dragging a huge shopping trolly back to the convent, bump, bump, bump, up and down a little bridge. Here, in other words, is incredible ordinary Venice.

In January, with many hotels and restaurants closed until the Carnevale crowds start arriving, you could almost believe that Venetians like tourists. Away on the edge of Cannaregio, a cold wind whipping in off the lagoon, we pause outside an open restaurant – with no tourist menu – and a local passer-by stops to tell us, in rapid-fire Italian, how well we'll eat inside, that in fact he'll bring us in and tell the owner we're friends of his so we're properly looked after.

In January it's shockingly easy to get, and eat, off the tourist trail. At the Rialto bridge, the fancy gondolas aren't getting much business – this is the season for the traghetti, the commuter gondolas that take you, standing, across the Canal Grande for 50 cent. But you can follow the griping gondoliers up the dark little Calle della Madonna to Osteria Il Diavolo e L'acquasante, where they hang their ribboned hats and dig into the simple, seafoody fare that is the (slightly disappointing) staff of life hereabouts.

Venetians have a longstanding reputation in Italy for being too concerned about making money to really enjoy their food. Sure enough, while the city quietens for afternoon siesta time as elsewhere, the working men who were elbow-to-elbow in the (relatively excellent) Osteria La Patatina have already risen from their brief lunches by about 1pm, leaving the space to more leisurely-looking ladies.

Even in January the city is sheltered enough, buildings jammed together for heat, so that you can wander at leisure without freezing, ducking into the occasional church for relief. In one, a lonely caretaker strikes up a chat; at another, a little early-Renaissance stunner called Santa Maria dei Miracoli, hard to find and loved by locals, an old man hurries us inside before the ticket-seller arrives.

Even more famous sites offer rare, selfish pleasures. In the "Frari", we stand alone before Bellini's 'Madonna'; in the Scuola di San Rocco, we're alone with Tintoretto's 'Crucifixion'; even in Basilica San Marco, having entered by an elevated passarella to get across the flooded portico, we have the golden altar screen to ourselves.

In most other places, to enjoy such peerless works in such perfect solitude, you'd need to know the curator. In Venice, you just need to come in January.