I visited Venice for the first time years ago, in winter, trying to escape from the gloomy period that followed my grandma’s sudden death. Just two hours flying away I discovered a loving city that received me with open arms, solidarizing with my pain. The harsh wind and the low temperatures transformed Venice in a quiet town with its hidden labyrinth of alleys and narrow bridges helping me get lost on each day. The dim lights at each corner in the evenings, the emptiness all around, the casual gondolier blaring at me “hey ragazza, step into my gondola for a free ride”, the random laundry hanged between the buildings walling the canals, they all contributing to making me become and advocate of Venice. During that trip I didn’t really see the city, I just aimless walked around, reaching probably every corner of it but also take part at the mass from San Marco basilica, crying my heart out and lightning a candle for the soul of my grandma. Not that I’m religious but it felt the right thing to do.
Leaving such a memorable print onto my life, I decided to return to Venice to spend my 30th birthday. This time I was coming back with a plan, to discover the city that was so good to me when I needed an escape. I arrived late in the evening and jumped onto the first vaporetto towards my hotel, paying an exorbitant ticket fare (7.5 euros) for just a 10 minutes one way journey. It’s Venice, I told to myself, I knew it was going to be expensive. I didn’t have the energy though to carry my bag around while trying to find my hotel, at midnight, so the comfort of taking the boat won over the budget worries. At the hotel, I had another surprise: the beautiful spacious Venetian style room I have booked was a dump. The tiny bed was occupying about three quarters of the entire space of the room, there was no window or space to leave my bag. I felt trapped, like I just stepped inside an ant’s house. I went downstairs to complain and I received a promise that my room will be changed in the morning. The receptionist also made sure to mention that other guests have paid much more than I did so I shouldn’t be unhappy. I didn’t really understand this part when I booked one thing and received something totally different, but I was too tired to argue so I just agreed to have it changed the following day. If you think the new room was better… I must disappoint you. It was maybe about 10 cm larger. I didn’t want this issue to ruin my holiday so I shrugged my shoulders and accepted that I’ve been scammed.
Venice was however different than in my memories, it was crowded, chaotic, loud, expensive and extremely hot. Was it a mistake to return? I wasn’t ready to give up on it yet though. I came here to discover the city and I wasn’t going to leave without achieving my goal. So, I jumped into my “Venice dress”, covered my head with what I call my “romantic hat” and a put my pink trainers on (I’m afraid I’ll never be a fashionista), took a big breath and headed out left, on the narrow street my hotel was situated on. A few turns to the right, a couple of bridges crossed, another right corner and I found myself on a rather quiet street where I eyed a wine bar. “Time for chicchetti” I thought, so I sat down on the quite uncomfortable high chair and spread my territory all over the barrel which was standing as a table. Soon enough I realised that this was a proper local establishment, when the locals would pass by and pay 2 euros for a glass of wine through the open window, chatting with the bartender in the Venetian dialect. Chicchetti are small snacks served in traditional Venetian bacari (osterie or bars), a little bit like the Spanish tapas. They are cheap, delicious, and the perfect accompaniment for a drink. I chose a few fish dishes, including the sarde in soar, a typical Venetian dish: fresh fried sardine fillets marinated in braised onions, raisins and pine nuts.
As the clock struck six, I asked for the bill and headed over towards Campo Santi Apostoli where I was to meet Beatrice, the Local Guddy who would show me the hidden corners of Venice.
Local Guddy is a website that connects travellers with locals who show them around their city in different unique and exciting tours. Beatrice was already in the square, waiting for me, so we have started our tour straight away. She told me that she was a student at the Venice university and we talked a little bit about life in the city, until we reached our first destination, Libreria Aqua Alta. She told me how Venice is slowly but surely disappearing as a local town: the prices are too high for young people to move in and it is too inaccessible for the locals who grow older year by year due to the numerous bridges and stairs. It was sad to hear this to be honest as I could see the huge difference between the Venice I visited in 2009 and the Venice I was in at that moment.
On the way to Libreria Acqua Alta we passed through this beautiful square with not only one but two churches, united by a wall. Interesting, right? Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo dates from the early 14th century and it is one of the largest churches in the city. After the 15th century all the funerals of Venice’s doges were held here, with 25 having their graves inside. Next to it there’s the church of San Lazzaro dei Medicanti, now the hospital of Venice and in the past a school of arts. You can get inside and admire the beautiful paintings and fescues decorating the walls but you are not allowed to take photos. History says that between 1689 and 1693 the father of Antonio Vivaldi himself has given violin lessons here, at the music school.
The square with the two churches, Campo San Giovanni e Paolo, is also the home of the oldest pastry shop (and gelato parlours) in Venezia. I have returned to Rosa Salva two days later to have a scrumptious breakfast, a coffee and, of course, a pistachio gelato. This café is one of those rare places in Venice where you won’t be overcharged because you are a tourist.
We crossed a few bridges and walked a little bit until we reached Libreria Acqua Alta, a unique tiny library, a wonder of Venice, tucked in on an alley no wider than the length of my arm. Once you step inside you are transposed into a magical world of books, with unusual shelves like gondolas, canoes and boats. There are so many books that some of them have been turned into furniture. I guess Libreria Acqua Alta is probably the only place in the world where you can climb a staircase made out of ancient encyclopaedias. The library even has its own inhabitant, a black cat who didn’t seemed bothered by the tourists and simply continued his sleep, lying outside on a pile of religious prints.
Beatrice told me that this is one of the secrets of Venice, there are not many people who visit the city and venture in this part of the town, Sestiere Castello to try to find it. It you are a book lover I would recommend you to pass by, you never know what limited edition you can find if you start searching through the piles of books.
The next stop of the tour was supposed to be the Fish Market, but as we passed the busy alley towards Rialto Bridge, Beatrice suddenly stopped for a second, then turned around and got into the nearby building. I followed her and after a short question to the doorman, she signed me to join her.
“Today we are lucky, the terrace on the top is open!”.
We took the red carpet covered escalator to the first floor and found a window from where to admire the inside of the building. We were inside the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, an old historical building on the Grand Canal, the former headquarter of the German merchants. Today a luxury store, the building is fort floors high with an inner courtyard in the middle, built in the typical Renaissance style. Beatrice told me that in the past Venice used to be a multicultural trading centre for goods, where a lot of merchants would meet, but each of the nationalities had their own “fondaco” – the market and living quarters of the community. In 1508 the façade of Fondaco dei Tedeschi has been frescoed by Titian and Giorgione but unfortunately due to the humid climate of the lagoon most of the work has been destroyed. The fragments which were able to be saved are now shown in the Ca D’Oro. During the last century, the building has been used by the Italian Post but since 2008 it was transformed into a high end shopping centre. You’ll have to trust my word that it is one of the most impressive shopping centres I have ever been to: imagine casually passing by a Chanel display sitting next to an arch from the 13th century, behind an exposed original brick wall. The top floor is transformed into a modern exhibition space which looks totally sci-fi.
However, probably the best thing about Fondaco dei Tedeschi, from a traveller’s point of view (I told you I was not a fashionista so going shopping for a £500 handbag is not my thing), is the 360-panoramic roof terrace. As the sun was preparing to set, I met again there and then the Venice that I’ve fallen in love with. There were no more crowds, no chaos, no sounds. It was me, the shadows, and the golden light the sky is covered with one hour before sunset. I took a moment to just enjoy the view.
As we passed by Canal Grande, ready to face the crowds again while crossing Rialto Bridge, still inspired by the views from the terrace of Fondaco dei Tedeschi, I spotted a wedding photo shoot so I took advantage of their set to take a snap of probably the most famous monument of Venice. Built out of marble, Rialto Bridge is the oldest bridge across the canal, crossed every day by hundreds of thousands of people. Yes, that’s how busy Venice it is in summer! As a fun fact, did you know that Rialto was never thought to last too long because it has no support in the middle? However, standing up for over 425 years, it proved to be a Renaissance engineering masterpiece.
We crossed Rialto ourselves to head over the Fish Market (well, the location of the fish market as it’s only open in the morning). There was nothing there but some beautiful views of the Grand Canal. However, we did stop in front of San Giacomo di Rialto church, the oldest in the city. The modest church is loved by the Venetians because of its inaccurate clock. Ever since the 15th century, when it has been built, the clock never actually worked properly.
Back in Cannaregio, Beatrice guided me towards Strada Nuova (The New Street), the modern part of Venice, built in 1871. It is the longest street in Venice, very wide, with plenty of shops and restaurants on each side. If you are looking for a supermarket, this is place to go, you will find two or three (one housed by an old theatre building). Please do not stop at McDonalds though, you’re in Italy and it’s a sin!
There are a couple of places to visit alongside Strada Nova and one of them is the Casino of Venezia. I don’t want to repeat myself but Venice does seem to have a lot of “oldest” monuments and the Casino makes no exception: it is the world’s oldest casino, dating all the way from 1638! Beatrice told me that from time to time they organise different parties that you can attend even if you don’t want to gamble. Apparently, the views from inside over the Grand Canal are very beautiful, especially by night.
Out last stop of the day, after around 3 hours of walking, was the Jewish Ghetto of Venice. I was amazed to see that this community has its own “island” connected to the rest of Venice through three bridges, with their own synagogue, museum and art school, all guarded by a police post in the middle of Campo di Ghetto Nuovo. The Jewish community from Venice counts about 450 people which are very cultural active. I found the area to be very peaceful, with a few restaurants but no tourists roaming around.
The tour with Beatrice finished as we reached Ponte della Guglie in time to catch the last glimpses of the sunset. We said thank you and good bye and I ended up my evening at a bacari, having an Aperol Spritz.
Disclaimer: Please note that I was invited to take part in a complimentary tour by Local Guddy. However, all the comments and opinions in the article are my own.