Europe | Italy
August 19, 2008
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Venice - Weekend Report

Pounding the pavements to discover Venice's inner-self.

What lies behind Venice's mask?

Mistress of Memories

The boat’s prow noses warily through the slack water as tall wooden poles materialise one at a time out of the murk. Behind us, each channel-marker is swallowed again softly by fogs playing Grandmother’s Footsteps with our stern. We progress in a bubble through the gloom. A cold sweat condenses onto every surface and sound is deadened; my fellow passengers withdraw into themselves and conversation stops. An hour ago I was soaring over the crystal icecaps of the Alps, radiant in brilliant sunshine. Now I’m fumbling blindly through the chill, totally reliant on the boatman’s skill. Somewhere out there, the most beautiful city on Earth clings to a slimy mud bank in the fastness of its lagoon. But all I can see is pewter water circumscribed by blank walls of vapour.

For information on organising your own First Time Venice weekend click here.

Dark Age beginnings

Venice’s unique location suddenly makes perfect sense. As barbarian hordes – Vandals, Goths, Huns, your worst nightmares – ripped apart the carcass of the old Roman Empire, life became very cheap and commerce all but impossible. Driven from their homes, the citizens of one town (Aquileia) were forced to scratch a marginal existence amongst the hidden reed beds and shifting quagmires of the lagoon. Gradually, however, they turned the tables on their tormentors. Without intimate knowledge, the lagoon’s channels were a deadly labyrinth. Intruding vessels sooner or later find themselves grounded. Stuck fast and isolated, the hulks could be picked off at leisure, their crews dead men walking. A brutal birth, but one that served fledgling Venice well: over the coming centuries, the former swamp-rats would extend their rule across the eastern Mediterranean, found a republic to last a thousand years and build themselves a city without equal for opulence and refinement.

Grand Canal

It’s hours later and I’m on another waterbus, but my surroundings couldn’t be more different. My ferry from the airport eventually found its target and strengthening sunshine long since burnt the mists off. Sitting in a plum seat in front of the wheelhouse, I’m overwhelmed by the pomp and circumstance of the Grand Canal. From the gloom and squalor of the Dark Ages I’ve fast-forwarded eight hundred years to the high living of the late medieval era; to a time when, to the wonder of contemporary chroniclers, the city’s shipyards could build a fully-equipped war galley in a day and Venetian merchants lived more grandly than Europe’s kings. Puttering along the canal’s winding course, I gaze at graceful palazzi in a profusion of architectural styles. Byzantine, Gothic, Renaissance and the later Baroque exist happily side by side in arcaded and ornamented testimony to the craft of Venice’s masons. On the water, vessels of all sizes - from lumbering public vaporetti through sleek motoscafi to precariously low-sided tourist gondolas - jostle to make headway. From a boat-borne perspective the canal’s sinuous curves only reveal its secrets slowly - one treasure at a time, measuring out a rhythm of keen anticipation followed by unfailing delight.

Midway down the channel, my boat passes beneath the shadow of the Rialto Bridge, the link between Venice’s marketplace and her seat of power around St. Mark’s Square, Marching across the span, stone-built market stalls remind me that trade was the engine of Venice’s fabulous success – once her arch-rival, Byzantium, had been cut down. For her first five hundred years, Venice had been forced to play vassal to the declining but immensely wealthy imperial power. However, in a masterstroke of ruthless statecraft, Venice struck a deal with Crusaders in 1204. She provided them with sea transport to the Holy Land in return for their sacking her commercial competitor and - in theory at least - sovereign overlord.

Byzantium disposed of, Venice’s financial sophistication and mercantile daring - backed by the iron fist of her navy - secured virtual hegemony over the Eastern Mediterranean. With it came exclusive access to the Orient and the spices of the East. In the years that followed Venetian merchants such as Marco Polo established direct links with China (and, in passing, brought home spaghetti), reinforcing a pre-eminence in European wealth that was to last until the 16th century. This was a period when the palazzi lining the Grand Canal stored a king’s ransom in spices, silks and other luxury items, while there was little that couldn’t be bought in the crowded confines of Rialto market.


Next morning I find myself wandering the self-same stone-flagged space, surrounded by a hubbub of shoppers and market traders. The artfully arranged displays and melodic sing-song cries of the stallholders prove that the city’s instinct for commerce is still in rude health. But in place of sandalwood from Arabia Felix and nutmeg from the Moluccas, the objects being traded are delicious purple artichokes from Venice’s market garden island of Sant’Erasmo and writhing eels fresh from the mudbanks of the lagoon. Parochial these may be compared to wonders past, but the quality and variety leaves my local farmers’ market far behind. It’s a real pleasure to be transported - temporarily at the least - to the everyday preoccupations of a small Italian town, which, strip away the monuments, island Venice truly remains.

With such raw materials to work from, Venetian cuisine is one of the city’s undervalued pleasures (once away from the plastic picture menus of the main thoroughfares). Geography dictates plentiful seafood, while 19th century Austrian rule has left a Central Europe dedication to tummy-lining carbs – step forward risotto and polenta. But what makes Venice’s cooking so distinct is the number of dishes incorporating sweet flavours from the Levant, a further legacy of the millennium of commercial contact. Sarde in saor is one classic – sardines in a sweet-sour marinade of vinegar, onion, pine nuts and raisins, perhaps with a pinch of cumin or saffron.

Enoteca al Volto

With rumbling stomach I hop across the canal on a handy traghetto and burrow through side alleys to emerge at the Enoteca al Volto, a classic backstreet bacaro in business since 1936. It’s a perfect riposte, if one is needed, to the misfounded claim that Venice has been lost to the tourists. Eschewing trays of weird and wonderful chicheti arrayed along the bar, I edge past a scrum of leather jacketed locals and sit down for a more substantial lunch. The small dining room resembles a sleepy country station buffet circa 1950 - rickety wooden furniture and a fading map of Italy in basic halftone colour. A barman recites in quickfire Italian from a scrap of paper. It’s not a menu, but a list of what the cook bought at the Rialto earlier this morning. No squid, but the octopus is apparently especially tender. Fine, I go with that, and am well-rewarded by trenette with succulent pulpo.

Quiet Cannaregio

Fortified, I set forth to explore Cannaregio sestiere (quarter) on foot. Before reaching the serious boondocks I stop by the jewel-like Santa Maria dei Miracoli. A renaissance triumph of harmony and proportion in pastel marble, it’s hands down my favourite Venetian church. Visitors are already here a desultory trickle. After twenty minutes of further meandering I have only old men and stray cats for company.

Cannaregio’s outer limits are marked by a series of quiet canals lined by crumbling old villas and even the odd walled garden. Quite unlike the corkscrew waterways that permeate central San Marco, canyoned into gloom by tall townhouses rising straight from the water, the canals here are broad and light-filled, with room for wide paved walkways running alongside. The watery equivalent of suburban avenues, there’s little or no boat traffic and an aura of somnolent calm. Nevertheless the fabric is just as historic and I’m brought up short by a weathered bas-relief of a laden camel on a venerable wall (that of the Palazzo Mastelli) followed shortly by three turbaned Moors set in time-worn stone into the side of a house.

Into the Ghetto

A melancholic atmosphere pervades the nearby Ghetto (the original after which all others have been named). Hugely important as financiers for Venice’s trade, Jews were nonetheless barely tolerated. For 400 years they were only allowed to live in Cannaregio, on one small island that was subject to a night-time curfew. Over the years, population growth naturally led to intense overcrowding, and to ease the problem, the Ghetto’s inhabitants constructed Europe’s first high-rises. These now stare blankly down on me as I walk across the paved expanse of the central campo.

The Nazis cleared the Ghetto, dispatching its inhabitants to the death camps. Since the war it has been resettled by a handful of Orthodox families - men and boys prominent in their ringlets and black felt hats – and is once again gently resurgent. Nevertheless, it feels no place to linger – too full of ghosts. I move on quickly.

Despite immersing myself in the crowds along the Strada Nuova I’m unable to shake off a certain wistful sadness, which lingers for the rest of the day. Late evening sees me in the plaster-encrusted confection that’s the Caffé Florian on Piazza San Marco. At this time it’s near-deserted and I have a whole gilded compartment to myself and my multiple mirrored reflections. I muse on the nature of things lost and the irretrievable glories of the past. And then it dawns on me that I am not alone in my gentle reverie; I have a whole city for company.

The long goodbye

It’s the fussy period surroundings that give the game away. For Venice, the rococo marks the time when the clocks began to run down. Throughout the 18th century the republic’s coffers emptied as Mediterranean trade routes diverted and the Great Powers reshaped Europe to their liking. Knowing there was no tomorrow, Venice chose to party in a bacchanalian swansong of defiance – and found she was rather good at it. So good in fact that nobles and wannabes from across Europe (but England especially) poured in to fill her brothels, casinos and opera houses, to misbehave themselves at her masked Carnevale, to tour her grand sights, and to buy up paintings by Canaletto to ship to family seats back home (soon to be rebuilt in the Neoclassical Venetian style of Andrea Palladio).

Only at the very end of the century did final disaster fall, when Napoleon snuffed out Venice’s millennium of civic independence almost as an afterthought. (When the time came, Venice surrendered ignominiously without a fight, the last doge exiting with the words “I don’t think I’ll be needing this anymore” as he handed over his cap.) Of course, not all of Napoleon’s enemies were so supine, and following his eventual defeat, Venice found herself parcelled out to Austria without any consultation or choice.

Today the Canalettos may be valued in the millions, but those 18th century dukes and earls and (towards the end) self-made men had still at root been paying tourists like you and me. Reduced to a provincial outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the city ossified, shrunken, and fell back on what she knew best: reviving the tourist trade and seeing to its needs. Glamorous it wasn’t and, after the glory days, more than a little demeaning; but at least it paid the bills. Hotels, theatres and restaurants were carefully maintained - often refurbished in the swaggering Biedermeier style of the victor’s Mitteleuropa. The rest was left to sink back into the swamp. Then, as the years became decades, the clocks stopped ticking at all.

Sipping a caffè corretto fortified against the damp with a shot of grappa, I smile slyly now, realising I’ve got her well and truly fingered. Much as modern Greece plays homage to Classical Athens but lives from day to day as Levantine Byzantium, Venice has for the past two centuries led a double-life. By day, under the piercing brightness of the Mediterranean sun, she grandstands before the crowds still the Gothic glory of her youth: “La Serenissima”, “Mistress of a Quarter and Half a Quarter of the Roman Empire”. But by night, or in midwinter, or when the damp fog creeps across from the Adriatic (as it had done again today at dusk) comfort is more important than pretence. Pulling her cape close to and retreating indoors, she turns in on herself - an aging Central European dowager snug in her velvet, cosy besides her stove.

For information on organising your own First Time Venice weekend click here.

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