I spent one month in a 500-year-old apartment overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy. The time was December. In fact, December is the only time I’ve been in Venice — some nine or more trips to the lagoon city, always in the still of winter’s onset. Tourism is at its lowest.
The air crisp but not biting with the occasional spring-like sun that warms you in its light and leaves you cool in the shadows. Spending an entire month here in Venezia was a different kind of immersion. A wise Venetian told me, “your body must slow down to catch up with your mind,” or was it the other way around? The pace, the livelihood — it’s one of detail.
Now, some year and months later, I still every now and again peek at flights to Venice believing there is going to be a $300.00 transatlantic escape, and I dream of what that weekend nonpareil might be.
Arrive. Rested, energized, and cleaned up in a pair of boots made for walking, the sun is up, which means it is time to drink in Venice.
From my favorite area of the Dorsoduro, I’d wind to the waterfront of Rio de S. Trovaso. It’s just across a square, down an alley, make a left, then right, tell Giacomo ciao then, climb up steps and down steps. The Cantine de Vino già Schiavi is right there, you shouldn’t miss it. At its most basic, it’s a liquor store and snack bar, but really, it’s so much more. A haven of wines and spirits of the Veneto and a scrumptious assortment of cicchetti — whipped this or a spread of that over crostini. It’s a Venetian snack and it’s better than yours.
With the sun still hovering in its golden red glory across the beautiful city of Venice, continue just up the pedestrian quay to Osteria Al Squero. Here the Rio del Ognissanti runs into the Rio de S. Trovaso merging just a few meters beyond into the Grand Canal. Giudecca glows in sienna and ruby beyond the wide waterway, somewhere within reach and out of a dream.
Osteria Al Squero lures what I dare say felt like real Venetians — university types communing amicably, sipping goblets of spritz made with Select and sampling an assortment of Venetian “snacks.” My husband and travel partner, Andrew, and I were delighted to fai come vedrai (“do as you will see”) and take in our prosecco-laden aperitivi looking across to the narrow canal to Squero di San Trovaso. It is here where gondolas were first, and are still made in Venice.
The brilliance of the design of the gondola is that it can be rowed in a straight line from just one side of the rear of the boat thanks to the fórcola: a wood-piece custom-sized to the gondoliere to fit the oar and only produced by four woodworkers in the city. This means that to turn left or go straight, you can steer the boat from just this one area of the boat. Try that in a kayak! Woodworking itself is the source of the gondola’s origin, visible in the Squero by the Tyrolean design of the adjacent building. Individuals from Italy’s Dolomites and the South Tyrol region came to Venice and brought with them their skills, and also the wood on which much of Venice is built. From Osteria Al Squero, sip, snack, and watch the skilled few produce a gondola.
Side note: we were so enamored with the fórcola and its story, one sits on a bookcase in our living room as an art piece, made by the awesomely talented masters at Il Forcolaio Matto.
Dinner might be the thing I look forward to most after watching the sunset over the gondola makers. Antica Locanda Montin is part-inn, part-restaurant, and bar. Inside the restaurant feels like it has welcomed thinkers and artists, debutantes and renegades alike for hundreds of years. As though they’ve been crowding around tables, their backs leaned against wainscoting and walls of photographs and paintings from yesteryear.
I imagine them raising their arms candidly to discuss some issue of the colloquia over a two-liter carafe of Valpolicella.I imagine them raising their arms candidly to discuss some issue of the colloquia over a two-liter carafe of Valpolicella. The place was a favorite of Jimmy Carter and while less persuasive — it is a favorite of mine.
A dear and delightfully jocular Italian friend says, “it’s not the place where you go with your husband. You go with your boyfriend.” He also had honeymoon advice to my new husband: “When it snows, you must kiss in the square in the snow with your girlfriend, not your wife.” I think it was his way of saying, let yourselves fall into romance as before the undertakings that come with marriage: chores, bills, family dealings and the other organizing details that may not add much spark to the flame, while a testament to partnership no less. In Venice, let it go. You’re in the most romantic city in the world.
You’re in the most romantic city in the world.
For Antica Locanda Montin I like to dress for the occasion. Usually a dress, probably black and then order the carafe and a half of red — by far the most economical fermented grapes to be had. Begin with divine ravioli, followed by a local fish dish, and for dessert, I look forward to a sgroppino, a refreshing aphrodisiacal blend of limoncello, prosecco, and lemon sorbet, served in a stemmed flute—if the wine didn’t make you tipsy already.
The tables are large and set far enough from each other that you can delve into your own world, you and your date alone in Venice, only to occasionally peer away and glance at other worlds of their own. Europeans tend to whisper. I swear I think French people when talking on a cell phone have developed tele-lipreading technology. But every now and again, a familiar American or British English line is uttered, sounding confident and assured, and I can’t help but wonder how we ended up in the same hideaway on this evening. Of course, it’s Venice where tourists outnumber the entire population of some 50,000 residents daily, so that’s probably why.
On winter nights, you can glimpse their very large garden behind the dining room and picture how beautiful it must be adorned with fresh flowers and warm air off the Adriatic come Spring.
When we finally finish our meal, always unrushed and spanning some comfortable duration of time, we prepare ourselves to enter back into Venice’s night stage. An after-dinner espresso will sober you up just enough not to fall into a canal.
An after-dinner espresso will sober you up just enough not to fall into a canal.
It’s my chosen time to stroll the narrow dark corridors and empty open squares. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in this square before, it looks different pending the light, blue or white skies and a foggy, ghostly mist that tends to roam the calle come nightfall.
In December, you can be graced with crisp air and bright blue sky or equally still, invited through a dreamy, fog that so obscures the city lights you almost need proof that you are in waking life.
En route or not to a comfortable bed, my midnight destination is San Marco. Empty of tours, tchotchke-sellers tossing some light-up ball several meters into the sky, even its hoard of pigeons, San Marco seems to bathe you in a strange candlelight that can only be described as time travel. It is immensely beautiful and I’m convinced I might run into Carlo Goldoni, Giovan Battista Tiepolo, Truman Capote, even Casanova.
In the morning, we will cross the Grand Canal via the Ponte dell’Accademia. Preceding the early hour of breakfast it shouldn’t be too overwhelmed with tourists and for a moment we can perch at the top, inhale crisp air and gaze out onto a skyline of basilicas and old palaces shimmering into the Prussian blue canals of December.
We pass the Gallerie dell’Accademia and back into Dorsoduro and down a calle, up some steps, down some steps and a right, there are the two breakfast places Andrew and I hunger for side by side. He dives right in for a panino al tonno but for me, breakfast should be sweet. I squeeze into a narrow white marble bar and take an espresso like it’s a shot of tequila. Then, throat scalded, I eat a croissant standing.
It is the Italian way to rush breakfast It is the Italian way to rush breakfast, but you wonder what we’re rushing to as the fastest pace of the day seems to have been exerted before the last bite of flaking pastry.
Our first order of the day will send us back to 18th century Baroque Venice. We wind the streets further still, beneath an overpass that was once a brothel, and just beyond la barca — a vendor selling fresh fruits and vegetables aptly from a small boat at the Campo San Barnaba. We reach Ca’ Rezzonico, a one-time palace lush with rococo decor and paintings by Francesco Guardi and Giambattista Tiepolo.
The beauty of Venice is that history is preserved in the streets as richly as in any museum.
The further into Dorsoduro we go, the more it feels like we’ve found real Venice. Students of the Ca’ Foscari University frequent cafés and bookstores, and enter in and out of the gates to the campus here.
Further still awaits the Santa Croce quarter. Drying laundry hangs across narrow corridor streets and children kick a soccer ball amongst each other. I recall a canal so narrow it seemed you could jump across it and then entering Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio, named for the adjacent ninth century church. When I close my eyes, I see a sea of red awnings and a forest of planted palm-like trees. The campo seems as if it glows in the golden hues of a sunset with hints of purple and pink in the sky. I don’t know if I’ve only dreamed it, but I yearn to walk back to this place to see if the light still shines as beautifully as I remember.
Just a bit further north and east, over the Rio di S. Boldo is Boresso, a wine and beer bar/café with cicchetti. Eat, walk, repeat. To have sustenance for miles is to eat and walk traversing Venice at every waking moment you can, like an ultramarathoner ordering pizza and running with mozzarella dripping down his wrist.
like an ultramarathoner ordering pizza and running with mozzarella dripping down his wrist
In case you haven’t picked up on it, the theme is walking to eat and drink to walk to eat and drink, and do this all day until you must go to sleep. And so, we take the short walk to the Museum of Palazzo Mocenigo, visiting the 17th century home of one of Venice’s influential families and more delightfully, a section of the museum entirely devoted to perfume. The Perfume Museum of Venice is housed inside and dedicated to the history and founding of Venice’s own perfumery, The Merchant of Venice. The brand itself is only a century or so old but the unique scents, oils, and ingredients for concocting arrived in Venice even before Marco Polo returned from China in the late 1200s with fragrant substances. In the museum, you can interact with tens of tiny bottles filled with an individual fragrance. The experience is enriching to the senses.
Now that you’ve smelled all these sensual scents, it’s time for a cocktail. Back by the Ponte di Rialto near the Pescheria — the great fish market, probably wrapped by this point in the afternoon — it’s time for a Spritz at Bancogiro. It is the way of the Venetians to sip a goblet of Select, prosecco, and sparkling water on ice, garnished with a large olive in the crisp December air.
I’ve always loved that European cafes never seem to shy away from the weather. Rather than fear the seasons, patrons simply huddle under an outdoor heat lamp in the January months. Of course, our North American winters can be a bit more brutal.
To cross the Grand Canal one needn’t always be by a bridge or water taxi. There are traghetti which are essentially gondola ferries to shuffle you across. But in any case, we’ll cross the Rialto bridge to Fondaco dei Tedeschi. No, I didn’t come to Venice to go to a department store but the design of this one is exceptional with a gorgeous interior courtyard.
I’m here for the rooftop which has glorious expansive views of the city. I’m also calling that a James Bond film will definitely have a scene where 007 lands on the roof and crashes through the ceiling swinging from 13th-century façcade.
Our next stop is Rosa Salva. Here is a glorious dessert spread; beautiful and carefully curated concoctions to satiate over. It’s somewhat of our tradition to walk in, choose something that looks beautiful and unfamiliar and not even make it out the door until we’ve delighted in every morsel.
I recall on our last stay in Venice, not far from here we grabbed a late lunch at Enoteca Mascareta. A couple at a table next to ours left their empty plates but had only half drunk their bottle of wine. The restaurateur grabbed a glass and poured himself the contents. Here, here, raise a glass to that.
Instead, already fed we’ll head back toward Dorsoduro, but first passing La Fenice, and possibly popping in for an espresso at Bistro Chat Qui Rit.
It’s really the moment to pop into any shops that strike your fancy before evening falls and find a moment to put our feet up before dinner.
Come evening, we’ll pop over to Bacaro Da Fiore for an aperitivo, maybe a simple bowl of Pasta Fagioli if it’s today’s special. Or if we’re very hungry, head over to the cozy Pane Vino e San Daniele or Ai Assassini for a sit-down dinner.
To conclude my weekend nonpareil in Venice, I must dedicate to it the walk of walks featuring the view of views. Behind the hedges of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, meander through the artists she supported and took as her lover.
Imagine the goings on in her marble hideaway off the Grand Canal. From her terrace, we watch the boats pass into the mouth of the heart of Venice.
We’ll digest the art or favor our historic backdrop and cross the Ponte dell’Accademia and stroll along the water, weaving on and off the more crowded thoroughfare but ultimately passing once again into the grandeur of San Marco, its piazza and adjoining doge’s palace.
I recall on our last visit stepping into rooms the size of football fields, or so they seemed, at the home of the doge. We walk past it because we are heading to the other side of the city to admire the Arsenale di Venezia. Built around the Canal de la Galeazze in 1104, this represented strength and power of the Venetian navy. At its entrance are two lions (the lion, being the symbol of Venice) and a large clock, noticeable for its night sky decor and gold hands.
The Arsenale seems to sprout from the water and you’re left to marvel at a rich ancient empire that was risen from the sea.
At the base of the Giardini della Biennale set beyond San Marco’s bustle and before the eerily empty streets of Isola Sant’Elena, Caffè La Serra is a welcoming, light-filled wine and coffee bar offering light fare and sweet cakes.
Its glass walls and high ceilings remove you from Venice and you realize over the past few days how accustomed you’ve grown to inhabiting centuries’ old rooms and corridors. The café looks out onto a great lawn surrounded by trees and you think of how lovely the light must be here in the summer months.
Our amble back, back towards our place of accommodation, back towards the water taxis, parked cars and buses and airplanes is taken at a slow pace, to breathe in every last detail of this magical city.
Perhaps we too, should learn to prepare cicchetti and stay.
Perhaps we too, should learn to prepare cicchetti and stay. But alas, it is time to go and leave the Venetians to enjoy their city peacefully, away from tourists.