No more than a year ago, I happened to open a folder on my laptop, containing a gazillion films I had downloaded and never watched. The idea was just to randomly press play and fall asleep as quick as possible, but… eventually, I ended up getting hooked on ‘The Venice Syndrome’.
Directed by Andreas Pilcher and released in 2012, the documentary shows what the present day life in Venice is like. Far be it from me to write a synopsis of the film (which is worth watching – click here for the trailer), I’ll just say that the portrait of Venice* that emerges is of a place that is gradually losing its life’s blood; the necessary attributes that, mixed together, contribute to the making of what we call ‘a city’ – most importantly, its residents.
I will go -just a bit more- in depth on the topic further on. For the moment, before introducing our itinerary to help you discover the city like a local, let’s dwell on the undoubtedly glorious times of Venice.
* (Please note that, from here and throughout the whole article, the name ‘Venice’ will be used to define ONLY the historical centre of Venice itself – Venice as a political entity develops on the mainland as well)
In the same way as citizens are now leaving for the mainland, more than fifteen hundred years ago – as the Western Roman Empire was at the verge of collapsing and the barbarians raided the Italian Peninsula – people from the mainland fled their cities and the countryside, seeking refuge on the islands of the marshy lagoon. There they established the first nucleus of what would become the rich city of Venice. Owing a big part of its fortune to its tight links with Constantinople, by the 12th century Venice had become one of the biggest cities in the world. Both a naval power and a thriving commercial centre, the city state had set its rule over the coasts of the Adriatic Sea, part of Northeastern Italy and the Greek islands.
Born from the ashes of a fallen empire, Venice started to decline at the dawn of the fall of Constantinople into the hand of the Ottomans. The subsequent war against the Ottoman Empire and the discovery of the American Continent – and therefore the shift of the trades towards cities in a more privileged geographical location – deprived Venice of the most important sources of its wealth. Nevertheless, the city kept its position as a centre of major cultural importance, its elegance and intellectual nobility hardly rivaled by any other European capital. With the loss of independence at the hand of Napoleon and the annexation to the Kingdom of Italy, Venice followed the same highs and lows of the latter, up till now.
So what is Venice, in the present? A victim of its beauty, earning the city the admiration of the whole word, and penalised by a location that once was its strongest point, Venice is becoming more and more of an open-air museum.
As tourists multiply and the city caters to their short-term needs, the Venetians are either pushed out or subtly forced to leave their houses and head to the frazioni (the equivalent of ‘wards’) of Mestre and Porto Marghera, on the mainland – just to give you an idea of the phenomenon, Venice counts less than half of the population it had a thousand years ago.
Soon or later, while you try to make your way through the groups of visitors in the calli, or wait for your pricey restaurant bill, or stumble into tourist shops that all look the same, you will find yourself thinking of Venice as an antique Disneyland served up in an Italian sauce. Where are the Venetians, with their unique sing-song voices? Where do they gather, where are they hiding: is there anyone left?
As hard as it is, this 48-hour itinerary will try to keep you away from the most touristy spots of ‘La Serenissima’, and guide you through the places where its heart still pulses, proud and unrestrained.
Day 1: 09:00 – 13:00
On the right bank of the Canal Grande, enter the sweet world of Pasticceria Rosa Salva. This family-run confectionery shop has been operating since the 19th century, feeding the Venetians with its delightful treats. The business has three shops in the historical centre of the city; you can sit at their cafe, and sip a cappuccino while sinking your teeth in one of their typical Venetian specialities. The pasticceria is located on the northern edge of San Marco, one of the six sestieri (district) the historical centre of Venice is divided into. Head north, and leave San Marco for Cannaregio, the northernmost sestiere of the city.
Avoid the crowd in Strada Nuova, the main road, and venture into the narrow, picturesque calli. Although rich palaces face the Canal Grande, Cannareggio has historically developed as a working class district; to this day, except for some bits, it’s probably the most ‘genuine and untouched’ among the districts of Venice. To the southeast, discover Campo de L’Albazia, its church and La Scuola, while to the northwest the Jewish Ghetto, the very first ghetto in the whole world, was founded exactly 500 years ago (curious fact: ‘ghetto’ comes from the Venetian dialect ‘geti’, meaning ‘foundry’), Despite accommodating no more than a few hundred descendants of the community, the Ghetto still retains its original characters, antique shops and Jewish delis.
Day 1: 13:00 – 19:00
Fondamenta della Misericordia is among the liveliest ‘streets’ in Venice, with youngsters flocking to its bars and restaurants. Among them, Enrica would recommend Paradiso Perduto. Founded in the 80s by a group of students, this osteria serves traditional Venetian dishes, and frequently hosts jazz events. Proceeding westwards, towards the Ghetto, Fondamenta della Misericordia becomes Fondamenta Ormesini, where Osteria Al Mariner is; don’t come here for the decor – come for the awesome Venetian food at reasonable prices (and the terrace, that faces the canal).
Being a working class area, Cannareggio has always been characterised by a strong manufacturing vocation. To this day there’s still a number of businesses that carry on with the arts-and-crafts traditional activities that, back in the days, contributed to the rise of Venice. Our Spotter Annamaria has recently visited both Orsoni Furnace and Fonderia Valese. The first one, active since 1888, is the only surviving furnace in Venice that still perpetrates the old Byzantine mosaic tradition. Immersed in a beautiful garden, every Wednesday morning (and upon prior booking) Orsoni Furnace organises free guided tours. Adjacent to the furnace, Orsoni’s ‘Colour Library’ archives the countless tones and nuances of colours the family has collected throughout the years. On the other hand, the Fonderia (Italian for ‘foundry’) is a laboratory/shop where workers, still following the traditional techniques and using the old molds, crafts metal ornamental pieces, accessories and ornaments.
Halfway between the two, the Scuola Grafica is an international school of printing that often organises typography exhibitions in its gallery. The limited edition prints and books sold in its shop make for an alternative, sophisticated souvenir. At a stone’s throw, Torrefazione Cannareggio is the only coffee shop in Venice that still holds a roasting license. Let the scent of coffee guide you through the calli. Then, enter, and have a transcendent experience.
Day 1: 19:00 – 23:00
You’re in Italy, merrily embrace the alcoholic tradition of aperitivo! There’s no shortage of bars in Venice – no matter in which area you happen to be. Always in Cannareggio, La Vedova and Osteria Ai Promessi Sposi are two of the best spots for aperitivo – as they both serve amazing fried (NO tomato sauce) meatballs. As a matter of fact, the two have been competing for who has the best ones in town. Who’s the winner? Decide it yourself, try both of them while you wait to head for dinner at… Bentigodi. Domenico, Stacy‘s husband, is a true master of pasta, a meat lover and a genius with fish. Originally from the southern region of Basilicata, Domenico creatively re-elaborates dishes from the local culinary tradition in his own special way.
For later on, picking any place on and in the area of Fondamenta della Misericordia is alway alright – as previously stated, you won’t have any difficulty in finding a bar. However, for a truly local (and punk/rock) experience, you might be interested in visiting Profondo Rosso. As one of the few places in town that features live music events, Profondo Rosso doesn’t stand out for its drinks or its decor – it’s just the last stronghold of the punk movement in Venice; definitely not a place where tourists and their families happen to hang out in.
Day 1: 23:00 – …
Once the last tourists have either left or collapsed in their hotel rooms, Venice wraps itself in a sepulchral silence. You won’t find many venues open after the midnight, but if you’re young enough (ugh…) – and therefore probably still with some energy left – Wednesdays are for the ‘University Wednesday‘ event; taking place at F30 Bar and Restaurant (right opposite the train station), the party attracts both local youngsters and international students, making it a good chance for you to check out the city’s university life.
Day 2: 09:00 – 13:00
Another day, Another sestiere, another mouthwatering confectionery shop: Tonolo is ‘a milestone for Venetians and Ca’ Foscari students’. During the Carnevale they bake some of the best frittelle (fried round doughnuts) in town, but it doesn’t really matter in which period of the year you go: if you miss out on their carnival specialities, your sweet tooth will be delighted by any other classic, genuine Venetian delicacy. Tonolo is situated in the sestriere of San Polo, the smallest in Venice. One of the oldest areas of Venice, San Polo boasts some magnificent religious buildings, such as the Basilica dei Frari. One of the finest example of Venetian Gothic architecture, and the greatest religious complex in Venice after Saint Mark’s Basilica, the church is a must-see for any art lover: inside are paintings by Titian and Bellini, a statue by Donatello, and the funerary monument to famous neoclassical sculptor Antonio Canova.
Right off the Rialto Bridge, once the area where goldsmiths had their workshops, Attombri stands out from the anonymous crowd of tourist shops. The two brothers, and founders of the namesake brand, design ornaments, furniture and, above all, stunning jewellery that combines the traditional Venetian glass tradition with diverse stylistic inspirations – expensive, but surely not banal souvenirs.
Day 2: 13:00 – 19:00
As you exit San Polo and venture into the sestiere of Dorsoduro, have lunch at a bacaro. A typical Venetian establishment, the bacaro is a kind of osteria serving wine by the glass (which the locals refer to as ‘ombra’, Italian for ‘shadow’) and cicchetti (small snacks, the Venetian version of tapas); bacari also make for a good alternative to restaurants, especially if you want to keep it light and don’t want to pay an arm and a leg for your food.
Follow Nicoletta to Cantinone già Schiavi, a real institution in Venice thanks to its creative recipes of appetizers and well-supplied wine cellar (the bottles are on sale, too). Otherwise, try the variety of cicchetti of Osteria Al Squero, while enjoying the sight of the church of San Trovaso and the Squero (the site were gondolas and other boats used in Venice are built and repaired).
Once your appetites have been satiated, stroll along le Zattere, a ‘promenade’ overlooking the Giudecca canal and offering a magnificent view (especially at sunset) over the canal itself and the namesake island. The Giudecca island can be easily reached by water bus from San Basilio Maritime Station, at the western edge of Le Zattere. Because it’s not connected with the rest of the historical centre by any bridge, Giudecca is not a favourite among tourists, and has therefore retained much of its identity and original atmosphere. Not to be missed are Il Redentore, a church designed by Andrea Palladio and among the most beautiful and important in Venice, the Molino Stucky, a former mill converted into a luxury hotel, and the Tre Oci Palace, a 9th-century neo-Gothic building hosting quality photo exhibitions.
Day 2: 19:00 – 23:00
Back in Dorsoduro, it’s time for some rounds of spritz. Now largely diffused everywhere in Italy, this prosecco wine-based cocktail originated in Venice while the city was part of the Austrian Empire. The large square of Campo Stanta Margherita hosts Caffè Rosso. Open since the 19th century, the bar stands as a reminder of the working-class history of Venice, and is one of the noisiest and liveliest gathering places for the university students of the city.
If too many glasses of spritz have taken their toll, Osteria Al Cason is just around the corner; hidden in the maze of the calli, the restaurant is a little gem that specialises in fish dishes. Otherwise not far from, but already in, San Polo, Impronta Cafè distances itself from the usual Venetian options; its clean-cut interior and innovative, yet not expensive, dishes make the spot an excellent alternative for people who are seeking a more contemporary vibe.
Day 2: 23:00 – …
You might have had quite a full day, which nobody can deny. However, in case you’ve had dinner at Osteria Al Cason, you might still be able to walk back to Campo Santa Margherita and… have more prosecco, or another spritz – this time at Osteria Alla Bifora. Once the local butchery, Osteria Alla Bifora is one of the few spots in Venice that stays open until late (late meaning 02:00); if you still have some room in your stomach, ask Franco and his sister Mirella for some special cicchetti.
In San Polo, closer to Impronta, head to Erbaria. Along with student-ridden Campo Santa Margherita and cooler-older Fondamenta della Misericordia, this campo is were you get to see people chatting and drinking. ‘The last resort for singles’, to paraphrase the words of our Spotter Luca, Erbaria doesn’t boast bars or venues that are necessarily worth mentioning. It’s just one of the hangouts among the local Venetians. Another of the few places where its heart is still alive and pulsing. And, you might agree, in a city that is struggling to define itself as such, this is already something quite special.