Venice, La Serenissima, the most serene. Really? Well, in parts yes, but the title refers back to an honorary title giving an impression of grandeur, stateliness and prestige. So does it still deserve the title from a 21st century view?
Depending on the time of year that you visit, and the district (sestriere) that you stay in, yes it can be the most serene. Or, it can be the circle of hell that Dante forgot to write about.
I have now visited Venice on four occasions over the last 18 years or so, twice in August, once in mid-October and once in mid-December. The first couple of times I was with children and we stayed in Mestre on the mainland for a single night and then for 10 days in the Castello district at the western side of the city. The two most recent times we stayed in the northeastern district of Canareggio. What Canareggio and Castello have in common is that these are the areas that are recognised to still have a feel of the authentic city. How long that lasts remains to be seen.
The August stays were, to put it mildly, a tad crowded. The hotspots of St Mark’s, The Rialto and The Bridge of Sighs were no-go areas from 9am until 7pm. Before and after these times the city is quieter as most of the day-trippers have either left or gone back to the cruise ship hulks (spot the giveaway emotive language there). Before 7am the city is almost deserted and is the best time to see the sights – unless you get your perfect photo opportunity ruined by one the previously mentioned “hulks” sneaking into the city first thing in the morning!
So, back to our most recent trip. As I mentioned earlier we stayed in an area that we were familiar with and we soon reconnected with the network of alleyways, courtyards, bridges, canals, cafes, grocers, bars and bus (vaporetto) stops.
We fell in to a daily pattern almost immediately. Up at
6.30am, on with the running kit, out for a 30 minute jog and back for a breakfast of fruit and porridge. 7.30 with a cup of tea, check the instafeed, read The Guardian, take out the rubbish, finalise the travel plans and then off to Caffe Dodo for a cake and cappuccino.
The morning would be filled with either a visit to a gallery such as the Guggenheim or l’Accademia, a longer trip on the waterbus to one of the more remote islands such as Torcello and Burano, or simply a tourist bucket-list visit to one the more iconic sights such as the San Giorgio Maggiore church and campanile.
Each of the morning outings would have to take account of lunch needs. Generally we would be on the lookout for a good cicchetti bar. Cicchetti are Venetian tapas and are simply a thin slice of lightly toasted baguette with the number of toppings only limited by the imagination of the cook (assembler?). By far the best we had were at the Al Bottegon, aka Cantine del Gia Schiavi.
Our favourites include tuna sprinkled with cocoa powder (sounds weird but is actually delicious), gorgonzola dolcelatte with walnuts, aubergine cream with pistachios, fresh ricotta with baked pumpkin and parmesan, pecorino with pesto and sun-dried tomatoes, dried cod creamed with oil, roasted pumpkin on “prima salata” ricotta topped with parmesan and pecorino topped with balsamic onions. All served with an ombra, the 1cl glass of chilled white wine, and eaten standing up leaning against a shelf or the marble slabbed bar.
Lunch was followed by a walk back to the apartment (our digestivo) when we’d do any evening meal shopping on the way. Dining out in the evening can be expensive for the visitor, regardless of the district, so we made the choice to do as much cooking at home as possible.
Once back in the apartment it was time to put our feet up for an hour or so before it was time to haul ourselves back out to look for the best place to have our “Spritz of the Day”. Usually within twenty minutes walk from the apartment we “spritzed” in a range of bars. From the shiny chrome and polished wooden tables of Algiubagio on the Fondamente Nove with views across to the walled cemetery island of San Michele, watching the sunset from the Riva dei Sette Martiri, to the warm homeliness of Al Mariner and Caffe Dodo on Fondamente dei Ormesini. Costing between 6 and 8 euros depending on the class of bar, the two spritzes, one aperol, one campari, always come with a small bowl of crisps to nibble on and this a great opportunity to just sit, people-watch, and practice my slowly returning Italian language.
So, La Serenissima. Is it serene or not? Well, yes it can be, as long as you are prepared to get off the conveyor belts of predefined “ant-trails” that run between the tourist hotspots. For us, it is always pleasantly surprising how deserted it can be just 10 minutes away from either the Rialto or St Mark’s.
As with most of the good things in life, all it takes is a little bit of effort.