A local's secret guide to Venice
In Venice my best friend Christian works in an ancient profession that few know or understand the intricacies of. He has done so since he was 14. This title has been passed down from father to son for centuries. What is interesting is that Christian’s father was a painter but Christian is a Gondolier.
So how did he end up in this closely guarded and prestigious role? Well it turns out that his Gondolier uncle Federico didn’t have a son so at Christian’s birth his uncle was named as the father to ensure that the family linage continued. This all happened in the 1970’s and now times have changed. Recently one of Christian’s cousins became the first female Gondolier in history due to the depleting pool of eligible young men to take up the role.
Housing in Venice is becoming very expensive so Christian now lives on the Mainland and commutes with many other Venetian workers by train across the lagoon to resume his role for the daily hordes of tourists from cruise ships and tour buses. Some cynics liken todays Venice to a theme park with workers trained to play their roles in a charade of historical beauty and culture. But they are wrong.
What not to do
Most visitors to Venice see the usual sites like San Marco Square and the Basilica, they then take a Gondola ride along the Grand Canal, have an overpriced meal and head back with their tour group to a mainland hotel. Many photos are taken and stories will be told of their special adventures in this magical city.
There is nothing wrong with the way these tourists see Venice in a day but they really are missing out getting to know this city of endless wonders. I asked Christian for his ideas on how a visitor could experience Venice in a different way to get a better insight into the daily life of Venice and how he might spend his day off?
What to see
One of Christian’s simple pleasures is a visit to The Venice Giardini. These Gardens were established by Napoleon in the early 1800’s and many Venetians enjoy this space with their families as it is a great way to unwind from the daily hustle and bustle of Venetian life.
As Christian loves the painter Tintorello he often visits The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore which is a 16th-century Benedictine church built in the classical Renaissance style of the late 1500’s. Personally I’ve always marvel at the approaching view of the Church’s impressive white marble façade as it contrasts with the blue summer waters of the lagoon. Within the basilica you will be treated to some inspired paintings by Tintorello and Christian suggests that you take the time to climb the bell tower for some amazing views of Venice over the lagoon and afterwards enjoy a prosecco at the small pub in front of the marina.
What to do
Crossing the Grand Canal is a daily need for Venetians so a Traghetto ride across the Grand Canal isa must. The Traghetti are in fact large gondolas without the decorations or trimmings of a traditional gondola and provide a crossing service at several points along the Grand Canal. Off duty Gondoliers like Christian man the Traghetti under a roster scheme as part of their collective duties. At (Euro)2 for a standing one way trip a Traghetto ride can never replace the romance of a traditional Gondola ride but it is a great way to do as the locals do.
Venice is full of myths and legends and one of Christian’s favourite pastimes is Ghost spotting, Legend has it that near Rialto at the Campiello del Remer is it said that on foggy nights you may sight the Ghost of Fosco Loredan holding the removed head of his wife Elena Grimani. I ‘m still not sure what poor Elena did to lose her head but luckily for me Fosco has never appeared during any of my nocturnal visits to the site. If you are game take a boat ride to the island of Poveglia which was the burial place of thousands of medieval plague victims. In the 20th century it became a mental asylum complete with a Mad Doctor who performed all sorts of evil experiments on the residents. The Doctor later jumped from the bell tower after complaining of hearing voices. Poveglia is an eerie abandoned island that offers some amazing photo opportunities as you wander through the empty buildings, ruins and hospital wards. I am a sceptic but during my visit I never quite felt that we were alone and as we departed the island I couldn’t stop myself from looking back in anticipation of spotting whoever had been watching us.
Some weekends Christian visits his grandmother’s grave on the Island where Venetians sleep. Isola San Michele is located half way between Venice and Murano and while most tourists pass it by it is a great place to enjoy some peace and solitude while taking in the surreal surroundings of a cemetery island. San Michele isn’t one of the great European monument cemeteries like in Paris or Milan but you will have time for reflection before the next Vaparetto arrives to take you on to the bustling Murano and Burano.
On Murano Christian advises to avoid the cheap glass trinkets as you will only be buying fakes made elsewhere and if you visit Burano he recommends that you take the time to cross the bridge to Mazzorbo where the church of Saint Caterina holds the oldest tolling bell on the lagoon.
On occasions he will take his family for a visit the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni which is located just before the Lido. The island is home of a Mechitarist Catholic Monestry and its museum holds some amazing artefacts including an Egyptian mummy and also an extensive library of precious books and manuscripts. Tours are run by members of the order and are well priced to will give a fascinating insight into the islands history and collections.
Where to eat and drink
Eating out in Venice can be notoriously sub-standard but if you explore the back laneways you might just find where the locals meet and eat. I am sworn to secrecy about the exact location of il Diavolo e l'acqua Santi which translates toThe Devil and the Saints Water but I can tell you that this ambient Osteria is located in one of the side streets that run parallel to a market place in the Rialto area. It is here that you will find a small group of Venetians mingling in the street and peculiarly hanging their wine glasses by the base of the glass from the gaps in a brick wall. The food is excellent as is the old school atmosphere. Christian introduced me to 'the Devil' and now it is one of my favourite restaurants where I would eat night after night given the chance. I suggest you try the small daily seafood plates which are always a treat and don’t miss the squid ink pasta as it is simply delicious and will make you long for a plate for many years to come. You may find that initially the service is a little gruff and year round there will be a wait for a table. Have a drink while waiting for a table and amuse yourself by people watching outside with the locals.
For family celebrations Christian often dines at Corte Sconte Trattoria where the house specialties of local seafood will have you coming back time and time again. Their home made sparkling wine is excellent and the homemade desserts are so delicious you wouldn’t share them with your own mother(sorry Mum!).
Venetian Galleon Dinner Cruise is one of the newer ways to enjoy Venice at night from the water. Built in 2001 the cruise offers a candle lit dinner on a replica Venetian Galleon. The dinner cruise is proving popular with Venetians like Christian and also a growing number of tourists who are looking for a romantic evening out on the water.
Harry’s bar is the most famous of the bars in Venice but you won’t find many Venetians enjoying their overpriced Bellini’s. Christian suggested that we should enjoy the more refined surrounds of the ornate Bar Longi at the Gritti Palace.
After spending a lazy sunny afternoon enjoying the views and a Campari on the Grand Canal Terrace I understood why! In the evenings at the bar you are assured of colourful conversations with a range of fascinating characters. Who knows who you may bump into over a cocktail or dinner; Bill Gates was there during the week of my last visit. Staying and playing at the Gritti Palace is definitely an expensive but worthwhile experience. Dining in the elegant Club del Doge Restaurant and then enjoying a night cap or two in the Longi bar is also certainly worth the eye watering bill!
Thanks to Christian I have seen and experienced many unique adventures in Venice. Seen through his eyes Venice is a story book of history and symbols with hidden meanings that most visitors walk unknowingly past. I cherish every visit to this magical city on the water and always perk up as my train crosses the bridge over the lagoon and offers a glimpse of what is to come. Venice is certainly old but it never gets old to me.
Have you been to Venice? What did you enjoy the most?