I have magical memories of Venice from visiting as a child – feeding pigeons in San Marco Square, dipping my toes in the water of the canals, and watching in wonder as artisans blew glass in Murano. Fifteen years later, Venice still felt like an enchanted city.
I arrived on a late train Friday night and took the 45 minute vaporetto (water bus) through the grand canal. The buildings lining the canal were mostly dark, and with tendrils of fog rolling in, the city had a mysterious feel, as if it were hiding its treasures from the sea.
After getting settled at my hotel, I began the all-important search for dinner. I was staying near San Marco and most of the places I passed looked dismally touristy. Just as I was readying myself for overpriced and nondescript pasta I stumbled upon a tiny trattoria with a line out the door. Perfect. Uncharacteristic in any other context, a line was all the assurance I needed that dinner would be a treat. Sure enough, the bartender began passing glasses of sparkling red wine out to those of us waiting on the street and before too long I was seated at a communal table with the Italian and English-French couples I had been chatting with outside Trattoria Rivetta. I started with what everyone in the place seemed to be ordering: sarde in saor, a dish where local lagoon sardines are brined with onions in vinegar. I dug right in, cutting up my sardines with gusto and chewing my way through the bones determined to eat like a Venetian. When I came up for air, I noticed that my table-mates were delicately filleting their small sardines. This was a much tastier alternative although I was incredibly slow, to the point where the waiter started good naturedly making fun of me. In my continuing pescatarian education, I had sogliolette di laguna fritte or fried sole from the lagoon for my main dish, and painstakingly enjoyed the light flavor and crisp outside while I deboned the flavorful whitefish inside.
I awoke early the next morning ready to explore the city and spent the next eight hours walking around doing just that. More than any other city I've been to, I found that the minute I turned off the jam packed main tourist streets in Venice I had the city to myself. The picturesque narrow alleys were empty; the dead ends opened onto small canals shimmering with colorful reflections and not a soul was around. I think this dichotomy may be because the city is like a maze and you have to be willing to backtrack and to wander if you veer off the well marked routes from Point A to Point B. To me, having a loose plan in mind and them promptly getting lost in vibrant neighborhoods is the best way to experience the city. All I really need is a vague sense of direction, some good walking shoes, and an idea of where to get lunch and I'm happy to wander.
After a few hours of visiting the fish market in Rialto, the back alleys of San Polo, and the Jewish ghetto of Canareggio I was ready to sit down for a bit. I had looked up a bunch of restaurants on Chowhound and I made my way to the one closest to me when I got hungry. La Cantina was lovely – outdoor tables, a verbal menu of either a fish or a salumi plate, and an extensive list of aperativos and wine. Alongside my spritz I ordered the fish plate, which was a mix of grilled local delicacies from the lagoon. The langoustine had a buttery texture that was a mix between lump crab and lobster; the small scallops were served in their shells and were delicate and smoky; the larger scallops exploded with sweetness and held their texture; the squid had the subtle taste of the sea and was pleasantly chewy without being rubbery; the orata (seabream) was flaky and citrusy; and the mackerel was densely flavorful and infused with the smokey peperoncini marinade in which the cherry tomatoes below it had been cooked. I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to the fruits of the lagoon or a more leisurely way to enjoy it.
After a few more hours of walking I stopped for a mandatory late-afternoon gelato, and had a rich pistachio in an unexpectedly amaretto-flavored cone. I stumbled upon an old bookstore in the Chiesa dei Miracoli square and couldn't resist buying a few of the cheap vintage posters of fruits and vegetables that were displayed outside.
I had finally walked my feet off by the time I reached dinner, back on the edges of the Rialto market, where I had begun my morning. The restaurant, Bancojero, was a small candlelit spot with tables on the edge of the grand canal and the food was simple and the atmosphere and staff absolutely lovely. It was also very reasonably priced, especially for its location, which I appreciated as food in Venice is almost double the cost of anywhere else in Italy. I stopped at the piano bar at the historic Hotel Danieli on my way back and made my exit to the strains of “Michelle, My Belle.”
Sunday in Venice has no resemblance to the quiet and sleepy atmosphere Sunday brings in most of the rest of Italy. Shops are open for business and giant cruise ships steam into the city. To avoid the crowds I wandered in and out of multiple Sunday mass services, each church more beautiful than the next, particularly the Chiesa della Salute. Next I made my way over to Peggy Guggenheim's collection, set in her lovely former home overlooking the grand canal near the Accademia. The collection had a much stronger personal mark than most exhibits I've been to, and featured pictures of her at home alongside her eclectic and wonderful collection of pieces by Picasso, Magritte, Braque, Miro, Ernst, Giacometti and many, many others.
As I walked back to my hotel to pick up my bags I had a quick sandwich sitting on the steps of a small canal, gazing at the reflections of the colorful buildings above in the water below. Bringing my lovely visit to a full circle, I took my final vaporetto ride through the grand canal to the train station and left the world of canals for the hills of Tuscany.Additional information:
Cannaregio, Venezia 3689
Tel. 041.522.8258 Gelateria Ca' D'Oro
Cannaregio 4273/B, Venezia
Liberia Miracoli (bookstore_
Cannaregio, Venezia 6062 30131
Tel. 041.523.4060 Osteria Bancojiro
Campo San Giacometto
S. Polo 122-30125 Venezia
http://www.osteriabancogiro.it Hotel Danieli
Riva degli Schiavoni, 4196