After dark, my sweet

Venetian crowds and cliches don't do much for that loving feeling but the city after sunset seduces Jean-Paul Pelosi.

AS OUR gondola emerges from a narrow passage and into the vast lagoon, the notorious Venetian tide stirs. Weary and restless, it slaps the bow repeatedly, rocking us from a glide and into a plough. Despite the jarring waters of the Adriatic, the full moon and sea breeze are suitably romantic. And thank goodness for that.

There's no questioning Venice's beauty: lofty, serene and mysterious. The cliches trickle thick and fast. And yet, its wealth of artistry and unprecedented architecture are far from trite, having lured great composers and famous writers, the interest of noblemen and conquerors and the eye of painters, poets and musicians. Not even the "acqua alta" (high tides) could wash away such a glorious past.

But amid the ancient and exotic splendour that is Venice, man has had to lug an everlasting albatross: forced romance. This tragically sinking island, though captivating in its vulnerability, has also become a Disney-like tourist destination, complete with hawking vendors and overzealous tourists. Experiencing romance among such chaos seems impossible.

We step out from our stylish boutique hotel in Santa Croce, a quiet corner of the city, away from the crowds and the late-night revellers. We weave through tiny passageways, across piazzas and over small iron bridges. It's during these unplanned strolls that you see real Venetians - few of them as there are - playing with their kids, calling out to friends or simply hanging clothes out to dry.

As evening settles in, families gather around fountains and quaint trattorias. A group of young boys knock around a soccer ball, practising chip shots against an old brick wall. It's a picnic atmosphere. We sit down inside an elegant osteria (a small, family-style diner serving regional meals), which is run by a tall, grey-haired gentleman in the front and a chiefly woman organising the kitchen out back.

The interior is a dark wood and faded terracotta tile, while the aromas are standard: tomato, garlic, parsley and onion.

We begin with a simple entree of fagioli - red beans in a light tomato sauce with rosemary. I then order the spaghetti Amatriciana, which is perfectly sweet from the tomato, slightly spicy with chilli and softly flavoured by trimmings of bacon. My wife enjoys the spaghetti pomodoro, equally uncomplicated and heart-warming.

We finish with an exquisitely prepared tiramisu, supposedly Venice's most famous dessert, served with dazzling puffs of whipped cream. It's little wonder this recipe travelled around the world.

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Time to explore the Venetian night, something Casanova did regularly. The great lover once said that he knew he'd lived because he felt. I similarly want the ambience, not the map, to guide us through the evening.

We roll into the nearby alleys and head for San Marco square, a stunning sight due to the glowing porticos surrounding it. Intricate sculptures atop the cathedral stare across the city, seemingly alive in the moonlight.

A couple of orchestras play to strolling tourists, the only ones populating the square now. The melodies of violins echo throughout the space, bringing smiles to all within earshot. It's this picture-perfect moment that prompts my wife to suggest the gondola ride. I point to the traghetto as a compromise but she's not interested in an express taxi across the Grand Canal. She's after the real deal.

The trip through the darkened city is appropriately dreamlike. As we glide over shadowy waters, among ancient stone homes and beneath flowery window sills, the silence is eerie.

Our gondolier starts a little Volare but is sure to keep the volume low, so as not to awaken the locals. "Ooooo-eeee," he calls out as we navigate an impossible bend, while a small barge meets us at the turn.

The only sound now is water splashing against the polished

black boat and the creak of the wooden stern as it trails behind us in the darkness.

Our vessel drifts quietly over Canal dei Barcaroli as we pass the house Mozart once inhabited. The block was surely much noisier back then. We settle back into our seat and enjoy the last few minutes of the ride, the Venetian air well and truly in our lungs now - the city undoubtedly under our skin.

Among the swell of tourists and rows of tacky souvenirs, I imagined it a strain to fall in love with Venice.

And yet, somehow in the ghostly nights, amid strange alcoves and imposing wooden doorways, around the warm people and splendid food, Venice seeps into your soul. And it's a beautiful surprise.

Trip notes

Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies to Rome via Singapore for about $2000 return (economy class). Italy's high-speed trains operate between Rome's Termini station and Venice's Mestre station. A second-class ticket costs $95 one way; first-class seats are about $130.

Staying there

Domina Home Ca' Zusto in the Santa Croce district is the perfect place to escape the crowds.

Double rooms in this quiet boutique hotel go for about $150 a night on hotels.com. Prices vary depending on the season. 1358 Campo Rielo, Santa Croce.

Eating there

Among the many family-run osterias and trattorias in Venice is the simple and elegant Trattoria al Ponte del Megio, near the Megio Bridge. It offers a well-rounded menu that includes meat, fish and vegetarian options and the after-dinner espresso is superb.

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