Venice: Faded grandeur

With its treasure trove of artistic masterpieces and eyebrow-raising architecture, Venice stirs the imagination and sweeps you back to a bygone era.

By Lisa Gerard-Sharp
Published 10 Aug 2011, 16:29 BST, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 16:40 BST

Venice can feel like a city of ghosts; of illustrious spectres from its past, whispering for you to follow them — to haggle in the Rialto Market with a latter-day merchant of Venice; roam the world's first ghetto with a wily Shylock in tow; or capture Canaletto's canals with a camera. Perhaps sip a Spritz with Proust's ghost in Caffe Florian, or down a bellini at Harry's Bar, Hemingway's old haunt, or even promenade arm-in-arm along Casanova's canals.  By all means follow these ethereal sirens but also heed the voices of flesh-and-blood Venetians. Battered by mass tourism and priced out of their own city, many increasingly fear they're living in a beleaguered theme park without an entrance fee.

According to the charity Venice in Peril, visitor numbers to the old city in a single day can reach 60,000 — the same as the number of people living there. Two years ago, when the population dipped below 60,000, activists from pressure group Venessia staged a mock funeral for Venice, with a coffin borne down the Grand Canal on a pink gondola. Its leader, Matteo Secchi, insists the group is not opposed to tourism but to vested business interests that don't listen to Venetians' wishes. Michela Scibilia heads 40xVenezia, a more moderate pressure group — the Beatles to Matteo's Rolling Stones, as she wryly puts it. From Michela's sitting room overlooking the lagoon, we see ferries bearing down on us, but sometimes it's hulking cruise ships, which shake the foundations of her ancient palazzo. Michela bemoans the unbridled expansion of cruising and 'passengers unaware they are destroying the destination they've come to see'. It's also the sheer numbers of cruise passengers, all deposited in St Mark's Square, that the city is struggling to cope with. "We're a theme park but we don't have the infrastructure of a theme park," she explains.

Michela perks up when news comes in of a victory for common sense, partly prompted by her campaigning. The huge billboards that disfigure the Doge's Palace are being replaced by soft-focus architectural designs.

At the heart of a sustainable Venice is management of the lagoon. Mose, a controversial mobile barrier due for completion in 2014, will attempt to regulate water at the three entrance points to the lagoon, and to prevent the sporadic flooding of the city that sees citizens and visitors resort to boots and duckboards. Venice in Peril supports the mobile barrier project but warns it doesn't address the chronic issue of rising water levels and the degradation of the lagoon, exacerbated by the digging of deep navigation channels.

Environmental doom-mongers claim that by 2100 Venice could be the most famous fatality of climate change. Others see glimmers of hope. Writer Jonathan Keates, for instance, believes the same never-say-die spirit that has sustained the city will ensure its long-term survival. "Venice's very existence derives from a simple human yearning to make things happen against the odds," he explains.


When Venice was a cosmopolitan trading empire, the Rialto was its hub, and it remains the belly of the beast today. I visit its market with Contessa Enrica Rocca, who runs cookery classes from her apartment within the family palazzo. We browse the stalls for soft-shelled crabs, black squid ink and octopus' tentacles — ingredients for the menu she hopes to teach me. "We're going to cook cuttlefish," she declares. "Cuttlefish cooked in its own ink — with the inky taste of the sea."

The Contessa was brought up with a white-gloved butler but is delightfully earthy: "I never compromise on food or sex, and nor should you," she insists. Luckily, the heady spices we find at our next destination meet with her approval. The Drogheria Màscari, on Ruga del Spezier (Spice Alley) is the last remaining spice emporium in town — a throwback to the days when Venice was a bazaar city on the spice route.

At the time-warp tavern of Do Mori we're introduced to cicchetti (Venetian tapas, ranging from dried slivers of salt cod to meatballs and sweet-and-sour sardines).
The last stop before cooking up a storm in Enrica's funky palazzo is for wine at Millevini, where we students are tutored in the sparkling art of Prosecco. At lunch, the squid is a particular triumph, as is the vivacious countess.

Near the Rialto, Alla Madonna is the quintessential Venetian trattoria, serving scampi, fried squid and spider crab in its shell. Some of the art on the wall was donated by once impoverished artists in return for lunch. Dressed in their 'Sunday best', the local diners at Alla Madonna are a reminder that, away from St Mark's Square, Sunday morning is still very much about going to church, then heading to the trattoria.

Burano boasts some of the lagoon's best restaurants. The convivial Al Gatto Nero is where Jamie Oliver came to learn from Ruggero, 'the risotto king'. Neighbouring Da Romano is bigger, bolder, heartier and artier, but just as good. Over the footbridge on Mazzorbo, Venissa is gastro heaven.


For sustainable shopping, seek out traditional Venetian crafts — from stationery and ceramics to Murano glass and masks — but buy only if the provenance is guaranteed. Craft shopping can be an intimate experience, a secret glimpse into the souls of the Venetians. As local designer and activist Michela Scibilia puts it, "You're not just buying an object but the story behind it." If you seem genuinely interested, then a craftsman may even shut up shop and chat over a crisp Prosecco — a display of good manners not crass salesmanship.

Bookbinder Paolo Olbi is as much a Venetian gem as the bejewelled Miracoli church around the corner from his shop — stuffed with leather-bound notebooks studded with Venetian motifs such as the Lion of St Mark. I sniff the vegetable-tanned Tuscan calfskin and feast my eyes on handcrafted diaries made of marbled paper. The master craftsman smiles appreciatively. "People dismiss us as dinosaurs but we're avant-garde and are revitalising the Venetian craft tradition," he tells me.

You can watch Paolo in his workshop or even enroll on a short bookbinding course. While filming in Venice recently, Johnny Depp dropped by and was drawn to the ancient printing press and Paolo's passion for his craft. Paolo leafs through a tome on Venetian palaces, revealing filigree designs. "This is a magical world where creations are made before your eyes," he says. With that, he goes back to finishing off a leather-bound notebook in a Moorish style, a tribute to Venice's Levantine heritage.

Just off Campo Santa Maria Formosa, one of the city's main squares, is the Papier Mache mask shop. Here, over 30 years ago, Stefano Gottardo helped relaunch the craft of mask decorating. Since then, his distinctive one-off pieces have been sought after as design objects and even featured in the 1999 film Eyes Wide Shut.

Gianni Basso is known as 'the Gutenberg of Venice', in honour of the 15th-century inventor of the printing press. After learning his trade with Armenian monks in Venice, Gianni set up his own print shop. Here, surrounded by copperplate engravings, woodcuts and etchings, he produces stationery on ancient hand-presses. "I live and breathe history but am also part of it," says the printer as he shows me an edition of The Adventures of Pinocchio, printed on wood blocks. Gianni shuns computers and will only deal with clients face-to-face, even if it meant losing business from Buckingham Palace. Such contrariness hasn't deterred his fans, which include Hugh Grant, Brad Pitt and Sam Taylor-Wood. Suddenly serious, Gianni says, "You hear about saving Venice but it's craftsmen like us who need saving."

We go round the corner to Alla Frasca, Gianni's favourite trattoria. Over seafood risotto on a sunny terrace, Gianni warms to his theme: "This is the real Venice, but Venice doesn't value us as much as the palaces, museums and monuments." Stefano, his son and sole apprentice, nods dutifully.


Beware the Bermuda Triangle of St Mark's Square. Many are sucked in and never stray beyond this bedazzling stage set. Anna Somers Cocks, chairman of Save Venice, has even introduced an entry charge for groups entering the city, to help finance further flood defences.

To sense the grandeur of Venice, take the number 1 ferry down the Grand Canal, once a hangout for Venetian nobility. Pass Ca' d'Oro, an ornate Gothic palace. Stop at Ca' Rezzonico, an 18th-century Baroque masterpiece. The sea is a great leveller here, with low tide revealing the slimy foundations of even the grandest buildings. Take in the Accademia, a showcase of Venetian art that reflects a watery world.

When sated with palatial galleries, turn to the homely Venice of stone lions and funnel-shaped chimney pots, familiar from Carpaccio's paintings. Homely Venice is centred on the city's campos (public squares). These usually contain a church or a decrepit palace. The scenery, like the art, reflects a sensibility more poetic and painterly than monumental and sculptural.

When Venetian intensity overwhelms, take to the water. Jane Caporal, an instructor from Row Venice, will introduce you to Venetian-style rowing, standing up. Gondoliera Alex Hai, 'the first female gondolier', plies the beguiling backwaters of the city, while Roberto Boem, of Destination Venice, creates tailor-made tours of the lagoon. From afar, we watch the mobile barrier, billed as the city's saviour, take shape. Guided by bricole, the navigational markers, we weave through sand banks, salt pans and mud flats. We pass islands long abandoned to bird song or the prayers of monks, but see others crowded with sun-worshippers. At low tide the mud flats off Burano are dotted with fishermen seemingly walking on water.

Hemingway once mocked the Burano islanders for having nothing to do but make boats and babies. Hemingway and Venice made an odd pair: the macho man abroad in a feminine city. Bobbing boats, fishing nets piled on the quaysides and 'slow food' inns filled to bursting bode well for sustainable Venice. Beyond is Torcello, the remotest of islands, whose haunting bell tower reminds us this was where Venice began.


Venice swings between grandeur and domesticity. If you hanker after decadence, choose a grand pile on the Grand Canal. If you yearn for a quiet life, chiming bells and secret gardens, slip into the Palazzo Abadessa in the backwaters of Cannaregio. For stripped-back Venice before the interior decorators moved in, retreat to Venissa, a bucolic inn off Burano, the lagoon's friendliest island.

Venice excels at cultural one-upmanship, even in the bedroom. You can sleep in Tchaikovsky's bed or wake up in palaces that once welcomed Doges, Henry James and Hemingway. Londra Palace, where Tchaikovsky composed his Fourth Symphony, is a face-lifted grande-dame next to St Mark's, boasting 100 windows overlooking the lagoon. Here, as elsewhere in Venice, a room with a view will transform your stay. For drama and waterside bustle, command a fourth-floor window box over the dizzying lagoon. I hide out under the eaves on the fifth floor, where room 502 revels in views across the lagoon to San Giorgio.

Maria Luisa Rossi has transformed her romantic home — the 16th-century Palazzo Abadessa, tucked behind Ca d'Oro — into a boutique hotel and kept the homely feel; with breakfast in the walled garden and guests plied with Prosecco on their return from sightseeing. Stuccoed salons are adorned with School of Tintoretto paintings and Murano chandeliers, matched by frescoed, silk-lined bedrooms and sumptuous tester beds. As is traditional, the grandest rooms are on the piano nobile, at the top of the sweeping staircase. My favourites are the rose-tinted retreat overlooking the secret garden and the frescoed, green-damasked grandeur of the junior suite. Simone, Maria-Luisa's son, lives around the corner and enthuses about the authentic inns nearby, especially Vini da Gigio on Fondamenta San Felice, the waterfront Algiubagio, and old-fashioned Alla Vedova.

Locanda Art Deco, close to the Accademia, is charming, while apartments at the Residenza — its superb-value sister hotel — were good enough for Angelina Jolie's babysitters and bodyguards. Both benefit from the services of Alex Hai, the female gondolier.

A 35-minute ferry ride from Venice whisks world-weary visitors to bucolic Venissa. Set on Mazzorbo, linked by a bridge to Burano, Venissa is sustainable tourism at its best. The wine-making Bisol dynasty has reclaimed the lagoon's last walled vineyard and created a model estate encompassing a cosy inn and gourmet restaurant. Framed by a 14th-century bell tower, this pastoral scene takes us back to the origins of Venice. Gianluca Bisol tells me that his aim was to 'celebrate culture and viticulture' and revive a forgotten corner of the lagoon. To that end, he replanted Dorona, the golden grape beloved by the Doges, once widely cultivated on the lagoon but now at risk of extinction. As we sit on the terrace, toasting the sunset with a Bisol Cartizze Prosecco, Gianluca urges me to return next year when the first vintage of Dorona is ready.

For now, the focus is on 'farm to table' food. The seasonal menu, created by gourmet chef Paola Budel, showcases the lagoon, supplemented by figs, peas, baby artichokes and herbs from the Venissa estate. The menu swims with Adriatic scampi, lagoon cuttlefish and roast bream with courgettes. Non-residents can still come for dinner and make the last ferry back to Venice, or fall into a simple but chic room overlooking the vineyard or lagoon. But I fall asleep listening to the mating call of a barn owl flying over the Mazzorbo canal. Casanova also flits into my dreams as his presumed ancestral home stands eerily empty on the waterfront opposite.


Venetian nightlife exists but not as most urbanites know it. Some people here no doubt still meet to the strains of Vivaldi at the fireside of a gilded salon. But
most prefer a prosaic stroll, Prosecco and a meal out. Nightlife is often a stark choice between the voluptuous dowager Venice of time-warp piano bars and shabby-chic tapas dives. Even though Harry's Bar is a legend and Centrale is Manhattan with gondola attached, the slightly more disreputable inns are somehow more beguiling.

In the early evening, Venetians explore the bacari — old-school drinking dens and tapas bars; the best of which are in Cannaregio and the Rialto Market area. Begin with Venetian nibbles and a Spritz in quaint Alla Vedova or funkier Algiubagio before heading to shabby-chic Bancogiro on the Rialto, or to Paradiso Perduto, a boisterous live music haunt.

I end the evening in Remer, my current favourite, with Alex Hai, who draws me in with wonderful stories of ghosts on the Grand Canal. Whether sitting outside beside the water or listening to live music inside, there's nowhere more welcoming on a warm evening. It doesn't feel surreal to be socialising with a gondoliera, dressed in her chic white livery.

Venice is the city we have all been to, if only in our imagination. Yet it risks becoming the city our grandchildren will only ever see in their imagination. Environmentalist Jane da Mosto, wife of broadcaster Francesco, is optimistic, however. "Venice's problems are a microcosm of those affecting many other cities," she explains. "It's not too late to save Venice and the Venetians."





Getting there
British Airways serves Venice's main Marco Polo Airport from Heathrow and Gatwick. EasyJet flies there from Gatwick and East Midlands, while Jet2 offers Edinburgh, Leeds Bradford and Manchester. BMIBaby flies from East Midlands.
If feasible, the best way to arrive in Venice is on board the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.
Average flight time: 2h10m.

Getting around
A seven-minute walk from the Marco Polo Airport terminal takes you to the water taxis. A private transfer (20 minutes) for up to four costs from €95 (£83), while shared boats cost from €6-€13 (£5-11) one-way (1h15m).
Alternatively, take the Alilaguna water transfer from €25 (£22) return: the Blue Line goes to Fondamente Nuove (45 minutes) while the Orange Line runs to San Marco (90 minutes). Pre-book a city ferry pass (including islands): €50 (£45) for seven days; €28 (£25) for two days.

When to go
September, May or June offer lovely weather and cultural events but true Venice fans also love winter, with the lagoon swathed in mist.

Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.13.
International dial code: 00 39.
Time difference: GMT +1.

Algiubagio. Fondamenta Nuove, Cannaregio.
Alla Frasca. Campiello della Carità, Cannaregio. T: 00 39 041 528 5433.
Antiche Carampane. Rialto, San Polo 1911.
Alla Madonna. Calle della Madonna, San Polo.
Al Gatto Nero. Fondamenta della Giudecca (Burano, Ferry LN).
Da Romano. Via Baldassarre Galuppi (Burano).

Paolo Olbi. Campo Santa Maria Nova, Cannaregio. T: 00 39 041 528 5025.
Papiermache. Calle Lunga S Maria Formosa, Castello. T: 00 39 041 522 9995.
Gianni Basso. Calle del Fumo 5306, Cannaregio. T: 00 39 041 523 4681.

Doge's Palace & Ca' Rezzonico. Piazza San Marco.
Ca' d'Oro. Sestiere Cannaregio.
Accademia. Sestiere Dorsoduro,
Alex Hai (gondoliera).
Row Venice.

Venice introduced a €1 per person, per night, hotel bed tax. This should be reduced in low season.
Palazzo Abadessa. Calle Priuli Sestiere Cannaregio.
Londra Palace. Riva degli Schiavoni.
Venissa (inn and restaurant). Isola di Mazzorbo.
Locanda Art Deco. Calle delle Botteghe San Marco.

Remer. Campiello Remer, Cannaregio 5701. T: 00 39 041 522 8789.
Alla Vedova. Ramo Ca' d'Oro, Cannaregio. T: 00 39 041 528 5324.
Paradiso Perduto. Fondamenta della Misricordia. T: 00 39 041 720 581.

More info
Across the River and into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway. RRP: £6.99.

How to do it
Kirker Holidays offers three nights from £644 per person in low season including flights, transfers, boutique hotels, tickets to the Doge's Palace, maps, and opera.
Destination Venice. 

Published in the Sept/Oct 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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