|THE VENICE THAT THE VENETIANS LOVE|
by Robert Riche
Venice, Italy, certainly is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. With its vast Piazza San Marco bordered by the triple-domed Basilica, the Campanile Tower, the Palazzo Ducale, the nearby Rialto Bridge and market, the Accademia and other museums, and the canals, small and grand,
crowded with gondolas and power taxis and public transportation vaporettos,
the mysterious little alleyways and elegant shopping -- what more could
anyone ask of a city? It is thrilling to view this spectacle for the first time. It is unique in the world, and a feast for the eyes and senses.
But let's face it, Venice is not calm. Particularly during the summer season which begins really in the spring, even as early as Easter, when the center of the city around Piazza San Marco and even on the opposite side of the Grand Canal in the areas of the Accademia and the Rialto market, it is like a carnival, like a zoo; no, more like an ant farm swarming with thousands of visitors from everywhere in the world -- milling about, gawking, taking photographs, buying junk from the myriad street vendors, feeding the
hordes of pigeons that as in scenes from an Alfred Hitchcock movie are
not reluctant to sit on your head, your shoulder, or eat popcorn from your
hand. It's not a pretty sight.
Yet, every time we go to Europe -- which is as often as possible -- we return to beautiful Venice. And once (or twice) after you have mingled with your fellow tourists and fought your way forward to see the sites you have heard so much about, and even dreamed about, you may find, as we did, that
there is another Venice, and it is, if not as flamboyantly famous, at least
as worthwhile to see as anything else in this glorious ancient city on the
Adriatic. It is where the people of the city live, quite far removed in many
cases from the glamor and attractions of the tourist centers.
If you have ever crossed the Giudecca Canal to the island of Giudecca and
strolled along the fondamenta, (the quai) at sunset, and looked back across
the water at the panorama of the city -- the domed church of Santa Maria
della Salute, the Campanile Tower, the Palace of the Doges, with the sun
setting blood red over this extraordinary scene, it is easy to imagine yourself back in Renaissance times. Along the fondamenta you may find yourself as the only tourist. Little old Italian ladies sit calmly on public benches along the water's edge admiring this scene, and other Venetians pass by with bundles of groceries and bottles of vino da tavola that they have purchased at local wine shops for as little as $2.00 a liter.
Along the Giudecca you are strolling through just one of the many neighborhoods where the Venetians live -- the Italians. Nobody is sure
about it, but the name Giudecca is believed to derive from the time when
the Jews of the city were exiled and isolated there before later being
transported to the Jewish ghetto. If you were to take the Number 82
vaporetto from Piazza San Marco it makes any number of stops on this
island getaway. Step into the Calle Cooperativa, a very unprepossessing
walkway off the fondamenta, and you are in the middle of Venetian public housing, buildings that are not very old, and not very attractive, but it is
where those old ladies on the fondamenta come from. If you turn in off the
fondamenta to take a closer look you notice that in front of the entryways to
the apartments there are little kitchen gardens of tomato plants, lettuce,
raddichio, carrots, and maybe even an olive tree. And from inside the
buildings comes the sound of radios, and outside on the hard stone pavement, the children play calcio, sometimes called football, which we call
soccer. And little fellows on their tricycles race back and forth just as if
they were on a playground in New York's "little Italy."
The island of Giudecca is a relatively narrow strip of land, with the
Giudecca Canal on the one side across which is the central city, and on
the other side the Lido island. As you walk along the Venice waterscape,
you come to the church of the Redentore, (Redemption) and there will be most likely monks walking across the plaza in front of it. It, too, is
unprepossessing, but very meaningful to the Venetians, who once a year,
on the third Sunday of July, carry on a pilgrimage tradition begun by the
Doge and his wife following the end of the plague of 1576. On this
anniversary today both ends of the Giudecca Canal are blocked off for the enjoyment of families who sit in their fishing boats and feast all evening and drink wine, and wait for the fireworks display from a moored barge at
midnight. If you are lucky enough to be in Venice at this time of year, you are in for a spectacle (seen from afar, because you are not Venetian, and you do not have a boat, and you will not be allowed in to the roped-off area).
There are charming sidewalk restaurants along the fondamenta. Way down
at the western end, there is Harry's Dolce, a spin-off from the Harry's Bar
of Venice, which you can reach by taking the Vaporetto Number 82 from
Piazza San Marco. It is upscale dining, and is not inexpensive. There will
be tourists there, but there will be well-heeled Venetians, as well, and you
have that glorious view of the mainland. Before you reach it there is a more
modest little restaurant called Ristorante do Mori, where you probably will
be the only tourists, and you will be treated with elaborate courtesy, and
be served a tender veal chop, if you like, with a light lemon sauce.
On the eastern tip of the Island of Giudecca is the recently opened Cips
Restaurant, which is an adjunct to the famous Hotel Cipriani. It, too, is
situated on the fondamenta under yellow umbrellas and a shade tree, and
it is very upscale, as is the hotel to which it is attached. The Cipriani is,
in fact, our hotel of choice in Venice, precisely because it is over here on
this quiet oasis of an island. It is one of the most famous luxury hotels in
the world, and with a credit card and plenty of Traveler's Checks, you can
enjoy its elegance and friendliness and calm atmosphere far from the
madding crowd across the canal. Its peaceful and beautifully landscaped
gardens, terrace restaurant on the Canal, along with its other calm amenities, are a reminder that Venice is not all hurly burly and crowds.
But, of course, mainland Venice is what we all come to see, and the
Cipriani runs its private speedboat between the hotel and San Marco
Piazza every ten minutes or so. And on our recent visit, landing on the Piazza it was the first time that we found another part of Venice where the
Venetians live, where few outsiders bother to visit, and thus they miss the Venice that the Venetians love.
Alighting at San Marco, we took one look, and it was too much. We
immediately turned aside and headed to the right, along the broad quai
there, here called the Riva Schiavone, making our way through the crowds
peering over the railing of the Ponte della Paglia which crosses the narrow Rio Canonica and provides a view of the infamous Ponte dei Sospire. (Bridge
of sighs). The Ponte dei Sospire was the connection between the Doges
Palace and the dungeons behind it, and those once condemned and taken across, never left there. (Usually they were executed, most often by the garotte, although Casanova, who was condemned, somehow managed to escape, probably by bribery).
Continuing along the fondamenta there is the upscale Hotel Danieli with its
elegant interior, though why any vacationer would ever choose to stay there
with the mobs outside, and the hawkers of their junk is beyond understanding.
It is a Sheraton Luxury hotel, one of a series around the world that we have
found to be filled mostly with businessmen attending seminars and spending
the day in darkened rooms watching slide projections.
But shortly thereafter the crowds begin to thin out. You can see directly across the water the tiny island of San Giorgio Maggiore devoted entirely to the Church of San Giorgio. Along the edge of the quai there are large ferryboats moored that will take you to distant islands of Venice, places such as the Lido or Chioggia, many of these vessels serving lunch or dinner aboard.
And, then! After 20 minutes or so of strolling, you have escaped the crowds altogether, and off to your left at an oblique angle is a broad pedestrian mall, the widest in all of Venice, called the via Garibaldi. Its wide pavement is due to the fact that Napoleon during his occupation filled in the canal with rock. Suddenly you find yourself strolling down this wide avenue bordered by three-story apartment houses, almost all of them with laundry hanging from lines strung from window to window with boxes of flowers at the openings. In the middle of the avenue there is a market with vendors under awnings selling fish and meat and vegetables and fruits. And the shoppers are all Venetians. It is a lively place, but not too crowded, and the language you hear spoken is not English, or German, or French, or Dutch -- but instead, exclusively Italian. My wife turned to me, and quipped, "You know, this place looks like Italy."
You bet it did. There were restful parks along the avenue, and at the end a little bridge that crossed over the Canale di San Pietro to the small island of San Pietro, where looking down from the bridge you see fishermen tying up their boats at its edge. Strolling through narrow alleyways where the people live, we found that some of their doors were open, and -- Oh, these hospitable Italians! -- along rue Castello, a bearded man standing in his entryway beckoned us to enter into his courtyard. His name was Elio Ballarin, and he was a wood carver who showed off the model ships that he
makes -- not to sell, but for his own pleasure. The courtyard was more
extensive than it had appeared from the street, and Elio is able to grow a
substantial amount of grapes there. He makes his own wine, which he
insisted on sharing with us, a semi-sweet sparkling wine chilled in his
refrigerator. We must have dallied there with him and his son for at least a half hour before he recommended to us a small restaurant nearby where we could have lunch.
On the way to the restaurant we passed by the lovely Cathedral of San
Pietro di Castello located in a green and serene park. The church was built
in the ninth century, and once was the center of worship for the whole of
Venice, until in 1807 Napoleon ordered that the ducal chapel of San Marco be the official Venetian Cathedral.
Back across the little bridge we were in the Garibaldi neighborhood again, a great place to stroll around in and absorb the sights and sounds of Italians going about their daily business -- the clack, clack of sturdy high-heeled shoes of no-nonsense young ladies, the sight of older ladies in black making their way slowly along the narrow alleyways with reticules of provisions, groups of men with raspy loud voices and smoking strong cigars. You could walk around this neighborhood, and with or without a map, you would find yourself immediately lost, only to emerge later into a familiar street where you could find your way again. In this neighborhood is located Venice's venerable Naval Arsenal, and sooner or later you find yourself facing its imposing Renaissance gate. Here the citizens of Venice built their vast fleets of merchant ships and warships, at one time employing as many as 16,000 men. Today the arsenal is still carefully guarded against visitors. You can approach it, and enter a small anteroom where there is a window that looks out onto an enormous pool, a staging area for the launching of ships. But that is as far as a visitor is allowed to look in.
Well, you can head back to the fondamenta, and head back to Piazza San
Marco, or if you have the time, and are not too tired, you can wander about a
bit more, until you see signs pointing to the piazza. That way you can
discover other little gems of Italy's Venice, for example, if you are lucky
(consult your guide book) you may come across, as we did, the so-called
Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, a small chapel on the Rio di San
Agostin. Incredibly, inside this unprepossessing chapel the walls are covered completely by frescoes painted by Carpaccio. The pink colors the painter used in his artworks were the inspiration for Arrigo Cipriani (of hotel fame) who invented the dish known throughout the world today as Carpaccio -- thin slices of red beef the same pinkish red color favored by the painter.
If you were to go nowhere else in Venice, you would already have seen the
city where the Venetians live, and the neighborhoods they love. But if there
is time, you might want to visit the sestiere (neighborhood) known as Dorsoduro. This neighborhood is on the opposite bank of the Grand Canal
from the central Piazza San Marco, and is reached either by crossing the
Accademia Bridge, or a bit further along the canal, the Rialto Bridge. We crossed the Accademia, thronging with tourists, and passing the Accademia Museum (which we had visited on another occasion) we threaded our way through the visiting crowds, stopping in at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum (more crowded yet), then on to the tip of land and the Chiesa della Salute, which regardless of the crowds, must be seen. But you can soon quickly slink away to the outer edge of the sestiere to the quai, known here as the zattere, facing the Giudecca Canal. Once again, you have eluded the crowds, and you find yourself walking along massive stone walls behind which you catch a glimpse of gardens and private palaces. This is is a very quiet section of Venice. The painter John Ruskin chose to live here in 1877, and a plaque today marks the spot at the Pensione Calcina. There are some modest hotels along the zattere, most of them offer floating docks in front of them on the canal where patrons dine. If nothing else, it's fun to stop and rest and eat a dish of delicious Italian gelato.
There are several little bridges crossing canals along the zattere. After the third bridge, for no particular reason other than serendipitous curiosity, we turned inward to follow along the canal called Rio San Trovaso. Ah, we were lucky, for shortly we came across a fabbrica where they make the gondolas of Venice. Boats in various stages of completion were visible under sheds and along the bank of the canal.
Dorsoduro, quiet as it is along the zattere, away from the water becomes
noisier with cheerful shouting and laughing voices. This is a student quarter, and many art students behave raucously as students do everywhere. But as far as we could make out these youngsters were exclusively Italians, and since it was lunch-time they seemed headed toward their homes in the
district, or to restaurants. We followed one group, and shortly found ourselves in perhaps the most interesting square in the whole of Venice. Not
as vast, by any means, as the Piazza San Marco, but much larger than
most little open areas, it is called the Campo Santa Margherita. Here a
cross-section of Venetians traverse the open area -- businessmen in their
jackets and ties, students from the nearby schools, housewives shopping
at the various open produce stalls, workmen from nearby construction
projects; it was a vast microcosm of Italian life, at the same time serious,
jolly, vibrant. Around the edges of the campo there are restaurants with
chairs and tables outside for dining al fresco. Mio Dio! these establishments are busy at lunch-time. If you are looking for fast food joints, don't go near
the restaurants of Santa Margherita. Finally, a gruff waiter plops a blackboard
with the day's specialities down in front of you, just as he has done with
the group of construction workers lunching at the next table. Although he
speaks English, the waiter is impatient (because he is so rushed), so it is a
good idea to be able to point at something quickly, hoping it will be what
you want (but, in any case, you know it will be good), then order a glass of
vino, either rosso or bianco, and be quick about it. Taking coffee at an
authentic Italian trattoria is always amusing. It comes strong and only
somewhat hot, and amounts to about as much as you would get in an
eyecup. The Italians throw it back with one gulp like a whiskey, and that's it.
Americans, accustomed to large mugs filled with less hefty brews oftentimes
find they have a bit of adjusting to do.
You can dawdle as long as you like at the restaurant, and then it's time to head back to the center of Venice. We were not too far from the Rialto
Bridge, so we followed the signs pointing in that direction, and soon found
ourselves just like all the other visitors to this extraordinary city back in the hustle and bustle. The Rialto Bridge is beautiful, and the views in both
directions up and down the Grand Canal are glorious, but we were glad to
shuffle slowly among others to the nearby Vaporetto station where a public
boat took us back to the Piazza San Marco where the speedboat from the
Cipriani was waiting for us.
For anyone visiting Venice for the first time, there is no possible way of avoiding the crowds. After all, you must visit San Marco, and the Basilica and the Palazzo Ducale. It is a one-time lifetime opportunity to view the original paintings of Tiepolo, Bellini, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Carpaccio, and Titian, and the others, even though you have to peer around the heads of other art lovers to get a decent view. You may want to take a ride in a gondola (very expensive), and you may even hanker now and then for a McDonald's Big Mac. But once you have all of this out of the way, and if
there is time, you owe it to yourself to see the real Venice, that is, the
Venice where the Venetians live, and the Venice that the Venetians love. It
is truly as satisfying as seeing the other more famous sites. And, there are
always new areas to explore. We can't wait to go back.