CityFocus - Venice
Misty canals, fewer crowds, romantic walks… see a new side to the “serene city” in winter. James Williams pays a visit. Photography by Alexander Short
Charles Ray’s Boy with Frog. The conversation between Venice’s artworks and its landscape has been going on since the times of Tintoretto, yet today you can also see exciting, new contemporary art at spaces like Punta della Dogana. The city is changing, so who knows, maybe you’ll be inspired, too?
AS YOU GLIDE GENTLY DOWN THE GRAND Canal in one of Venice’s elegant black gondolas it’s hard to imagine just how this city of grand palazzos, canals and maze-like streets even came to exist. And it’s this allure that has attracted writers, artists and scores of tourists to its shores for centuries.
Spread across 118 islands in a salt-water lagoon, Venice was first settled back in the 5th century and was built on top of hundreds of oak piles driven deep into the marshy bed below. Overflowing with history, the city is divided into six distinct sestieri (districts), whose central hub is the incredible St Mark’s Square. A staggering 21 million tourists visit Venice each year, so instead of getting caught up in the stampede why not take in some of its less-familiar sights first?
Start off early as the city travels to work along the Grand Canal on vaporetti (public water buses), and barges deliver fresh radicchio and artichokes to the Rialto Market. Here, in the shadow of the famous bridge, the whiff of fresh seafood drifts across from the Pescheria (fish market). The Venetian diet is awash with clams, cuttlefish and squid, so a wander around these historic cloisters should whet your appetite for a mouth-watering dinner later on.
It’s time now to take a ride in a gondola. In winter it’s a magical feeling to be rowed down the narrow canals that criss-cross the city, as mist gathers in the air and hovers around the moss-covered doorways. Prices are steep – about €80 for a 40-minute ride – but it’s an unforgettable experience.
Over at Atelier Marega (11 on map) the costumiers are just opening up shop. Inside you can find everything you need for the world-famous carnival, with colourful masks, hats and ball gowns all available to buy or rent.
Across the square, pay a visit to the Frari (12 on map), one of Venice’s greatest churches. Light from its lofty windows casts a hazy glow over paintings such as Titian’s Assumption, and you’ll find a procession of statues weeping at the tomb of sculptor Canova that holds only his heart. This is the city of romance after all!
Now for St Mark’s Square. Standing proudly at one end is Basilica di San Marco. The exterior is worth the trip alone, yet inside it’s packed to the rafters with shimmering mosaics, gem-laden floors and a treasury holding plunder from the Crusades. Next door, Venice’s rulers lorded it up at the Doge’s Palace, where glorious frescoes and paintings show off the pomp of Venetian high society. Also see the cells where Casanova was held, and book an Itinerari Segreti tour that reveals hidden doors and passageways.
Afterwards, retreat into one of the classic (if expensive) cafés on the piazza. Caffè Florian (16 on map) is arguably the best, serving a delicious gooey hot chocolate – a snip at just €9.
If you want to do Venice in style, the city’s oldest hotel, Luna Hotel Baglioni (1 on map), is bound to impress. This luxury five-star has a timeless quality, and sits at the water’s edge just footsteps from St Mark’s. Rooms are furnished with fine fabrics, chandeliers and antique furniture, and sleek marble bathrooms offering a touch of modern design. Bag one of the suites and you’ll be treated to fantastic views across the lagoon.
After waking up to the sound of bells echoing across St Mark’s Square (the best sleep you’ll ever have), the Marco Polo ballroom is a stunning setting for breakfast with a frescoed ceiling by students of Tiepolo. Downstairs, the acclaimed Canova Restaurant (8 on map) sparkles with its white tablecloths and gleaming cutlery where, come evening, smartly dressed waiters treat you to some five-star cooking from the Veneto and across Italy.
Kick start your day of culture at Punta della Dogana (13 on map) – a 17th-century former “customs point” that opened in June, housing works from the vast contemporary art collection of French businessman François Pinault. After the success of renovating Palazzo Grassi in 2006, Pinault – together with architect Tadao Ando – set his sights on this triangular warehouse, which was sinking slowly into the mud at the mouth of the Grand Canal.
Today, wooden roof trusses and exposed brick walls underline the building’s heritage, while smooth concrete partitions offer glimpses of the Venetian skyline. Over 200 works by 60 artists are on display at the opening exhibition Mapping the Studio, split between here and Palazzo Grassi (runs until 2011). Artists include the likes of Takashi Murakami, whose naked, life-sized anime models will take you by surprise, and Jake and Dinos Chapman’s apocalyptic figurines that examine politics, religion and morality.
Next, set off on Venice’s “art mile” and the palazzos that line the Grand Canal. You may want to see Renaissance legends at Gallerie dell’Accademia (14 on map), 20th-century art at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection (15 on map), or 18th-century Venice at Ca’Rezzonico (Dorsoduro 3136, tel: +39 041 241 0100).
After nourishing your mind it’s time to nourish your belly. Near Punta della Dogana is Riviera (6 on map), a refined seafront eatery adored by locals. Try the fritto misto (fried fish and seafood) or scampi and radicchio risotto with a bottle of Friuli-Venezia Giulia wine. Even closer, along the same stretch, La Piscina’s (7 on map) fresh Mediterranean cooking and superb terrace make it perfect for whiling away an afternoon. If you want to stay longer, bed down in their stylish pensione La Calcina (3 on map).
When it comes to stylish stays, a good four-star choice is Hotel Papadopoli Venezia, formerly the Sofitel (2 on map). Rooms are bright and spacious, complemented by gilded mirrors and luxury Milanese toiletries in the bathrooms. It’s only a short walk to the Frari, and was a favourite haunt of Italian comic book author Hugo Pratt (see City Cents).
For boutique stays, try Ca’ Pisani (4 on map), a hotel full of 1930s furnishings and Futurist artworks – the attention to detail even extends to the fish-shaped room keys.
Drinking is never far away in Venice, and at 6pm “spritz” hour kicks off. The best place to get some of this bitter-sweet cocktail of Aperol, prosecco and sparkling water is on lively Campo Santa Margherita – a hub of bars, pizza joints and gelateria filled with locals and students from the nearby university. You must also try cicchetti – Venetian tapas that includes everything from salami to baby octopus. Wolf some down at buzzing Caffè Rosso (17 on map), then head up to Champagne bar Orange (18 on map) for a great view over the square. If you love fine wines and fine food, then Al Pesador (19 on map) at the Rialto Market is an excellent choice, where you can sit by the water’s edge until the early hours.
For affordable eats, head into the heart of San Polo, where Birraria La Corte (9 on map) prides itself on “slow food at fast food prices”. All the meat here is organic, even on the pizzas – which are arguably the best in town. Warming homemade pastas, fish, steaks, huge fresh salads and German and English beers make this one a winner. Also seek out neighbourhood osterie like Ostaria da Simson (10 on map) – the cicchetti at this Castello eatery are a cut above, and their pasta with clams simply delicious.
Round off your trip with a visit to one of the nearby islands. Murano, Burano or windswept Torcello are all worth seeing, but you could also head over to Giudecca for its peaceful waterfront and views back over to St Mark’s. Take a boat there at dusk and head to the Skyline Bar (20 on map) at the top of the swish Hilton Molino Stucky (5 on map). Watching the sun go down and the stars flickering above the rooftops, you may just fall in love with Venice after all!
A good map is vital if you don’t want to get lost in Venice’s maze of alleys and bridges – Venice, Touring Club Italiano is a good choice. You can also use www.ombra.net to locate addresses by inputting their district and building number (eg, Dorsoduro 780).
Look out for special winter hotel rates, where you may be able to bag a bargain on luxury suites. For instance, Luna Hotel Baglioni is offering a free upgrade to the next room type from November until the end of February. For more details, visit www.baglionihotels.com, and check out their special Christmas, New Year and Carnival parties.
Don’t judge your culinary experience on the infamous tourist traps near St Mark’s Square. Neighbouring districts like Castello and Dorsoduro (across the water) are much better, as are the osterie, small taverns offering simple local cuisine.
If you’re on a budget, cicchetti cost €1–€2 each and can make a pretty full meal.
Acqua alta (high water) is the flooding of low-lying parts of Venice, especially in winter. Influenced by tides and the weather, the flooding is usually minor and forecasts are put up around town. It’s a way of life here, so don’t be surprised to see raised walkways or to hear the occasional siren!
1 / LUNA HOTEL BAGLIONI San Marco 1243, tel: +39 041 528 9840, WWW.BAGLIONIHOTELS.COM
2 / HOTEL PAPADOPOLI VENEZIA Santa Croce 245, Giardini Papadopoli, tel: +39 041 710 400, WWW.HOTEL-PAPADOPOLI-VENICE.COM
3 / PENSIONE LA CALCINA Dorsoduro 780, tel: +39 041 520 6466, WWW.LACALCINA.COM
4 / CA’ PISANI HOTEL Dorsoduro 979, tel: +39 041 240 1411, WWW.CAPISANIHOTEL.IT
5 / HILTON MOLINO STUCKY Giudecca 810, tel: +39 041 272 3311, WWW.MOLINOSTUCKYHILTON.COM
6 / RIVIERA Dorsoduro 1473, tel: +39 041 522 7621, WWW.RISTORANTERIVIERA.IT
7 / LA PISCINA Dorsoduro 780, tel: +39 041 241 3889, WWW.LACALCINA.COM
8 / CANOVA RESTAURANT San Marco 1243, tel: +39 041 528 9840, WWW.BAGLIONIHOTELS.COM
9 / BIRRARIA LA CORTE Campo San Polo 2168, tel: +39 041 275 0570, WWW.BIRRARIALACORTE.IT
10 / OSTARIA DA SIMSON Castello 6316, tel: +39 041 528 9929, WWW.OSTARIASIMSON.IT
11 / ATELIER MAREGA Calle Larga 2940/b, vaporetto San Toma, tel: +39 041 717 966, WWW.MAREGA.IT
12 / FRARI Campo dei Frari, tel: +39 041 272 8611, WWW.BASILICADEIFRARI.IT
13 / PUNTA DELLA DOGANA Dorsoduro, vaporetto Salute, tel: +39 044 523 0313, WWW.PALAZZOGRASSI.IT
14 / GALLERIE DELL’ACCADEMIA Dorsoduro 1050, tel: +39 041 520 0345, WWW.GALLERIEACCADEMIA.ORG
15 / PEGGY GUGGENHEIM COLLECTION Dorsoduro 701, tel: +39 041 240 5411, WWW.GUGGENHEIM-VENICE.IT
16 / CAFFE FLORIAN Piazza San Marco, tel: +39 041 520 5641, WWW.CAFFEFLORIAN.COM
17 / CAFFE ROSSO Campo Santa Margherita, Dorsoduro 2963, tel: +39 041 528 7998
18 / ORANGE Campo Santa Margherita, Dorsoduro 3054/a, tel: +39 041 523 4740, WWW.ORANGEBAR.IT
19 / OSTERIA AL PESADOR San Polo 125/126, tel: +39 041 523 9492, WWW.ALPESADOR.IT
20 / SKYLINE BAR Giudecca 810, tel: +39 041 272 3311, WWW.MOLINOSTUCKYHILTON.COM
1 / VENETIAN MASK CHOCOLATES
The striped mooring pole is a classic symbol of Venice – and in this case filled with locally made chocolates. We bought this at Caffè Poggi (Dorsoduro 855), a tiny shop-cum-coffee bar that stocks a range of foodie gifts and serves its own speciality blends over the marble counter. €7
2 / TRICORNE
Venice Carnival gets the party going on 6–16 February, so it’s time to start planning that outfit. This classic three-cornered hat from Atelier Marega (www.marega.it) will go perfectly with a white, pointy mask and a long, black cloak – whether you’re a man, or a woman looking to dress up! €30
3 / TOY GLASSES
After seeing the works of Picasso and Pollock at the fantastic Peggy Guggenheim Collection (www.guggenheim-venice.it) in Dorsoduro, we felt the urge to try out these kaleidoscopic specs, modelled on the wacky frames worn by the late art collector herself… just don’t fall in the canal. €12.75
4 / MINI GLASSES CASE
Giorgio Fedon started making his world-renowned glasses cases near Treviso in 1919, and today the company is one of the world’s leading brands. Part of its luxury travel and stationery range, this patent leather mini-case is perfect for holding coins, jewellery, or whatever else is rattling around in your bag. €9
5 / BELLINI
A subtle blend of white peaches and prosecco wine, the Bellini was first mixed at Harry’s Bar back in 1948. Try some at the drinking den adored by Hemingway, or new branch Harry’s Dolci on Giudecca. If you’re still thirsty, these take-home bottles produced by Canella can be found just about anywhere in town. €8
6 / WATER
Don’t say you didn’t get something for nothing in Venice! No, not the sludgy stuff in the canals – this water comes from deep underground in the San Benedetto region, famous for its water, and is delivered to citizens free via 122 fountains dotted around town. And we did blow all our money on that hat!
7 / MURANO GLASS
Fears about the risk of fire meant Venice’s glass factories were moved out to the island of Murano in the 13th century, where they still produce their wares to this day. Find the world-famous glass at shops all around town, ranging from the simple to the exquisite – but do watch out for cheaper imitations. €22
8 / CORTO MALTESE POSTCARDS
Italian comic book legend Hugo Pratt was born and grew up in Venice, where he set some of the adventures of fearless explorer Corto Maltese. When the sea captain wasn’t pursuing pirates or meeting mystics, he would roam the city’s darkened alleys encountering all sorts of mischief. €3
9 / FORCOLA BOOKMARK
Craftsmen have been making forcole (oar rests) in Venice for centuries, yet today only a handful continue the trade. Drop by the quiet workshop of Saverio Pastor (Dorsoduro 341), where you can pick up wooden bookmarks, postcards and scale models. Of course, if you need a real one, Saverio will be only too happy to help. €8
Anouk Aspisi, head of communications at new contemporary arts space Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi
“I MOVED TO VENICE IN JUNE 2008 when I was asked to be part of the team that launched François Pinault’s new centre for contemporary arts, Punta della Dogana. I’m French, but had been working in Rome for about nine years, and I love Italy – it is my country, and I feel at home here.
“Venice is the number-one place to see contemporary art in Italy, and I think also Europe. It’s getting bigger and bigger, especially with the Biennale. It’s changing, too – not just because a lot of restoration is on its way, but also because Italian people know that a historic context does not guarantee everything. You have to reinvent yourself.
“If you cross Venice from Piazzale Roma (the bus station) down the length of the Grand Canal – by vaporetto or on foot – you can see all the stages of history and art in one movement, from the beginning of art towards the present and the future here at Punta della Dogana. In what kind of city can you do that?
“The new centre was a huge opening – we had 160,000 visitors in the first 100 days. We also met a lot of important intellectuals and artists. Japanese architect Tadao Ando designed the gallery, and I love this guy! He is a very nice person and from a very ancient culture. I love the respect that he showed to this historic place in his restoration.
“When I’m not working I like to do two things: visit the Rialto Market in the morning to meet friends, then visit a museum I’ve never seen before. My favourite is Palazzo Fortuny – the last owner was a Spanish designer, and it’s a great place filled with his fashion designs and displays of contemporary art. I live on the island of Giudecca, so love to stay there, too. My favourite place is Snack Bar la Palanca, where I can have coffee and watch all kinds of boats sailing by.
“Living in Venice is very surrealistic. You feel inside the world because you can talk English, Spanish and everything – but you are also far from the world, cut off from all the noise you have in a normal city. You are near the sea, but it is not the sea. It is a very special atmosphere. In winter it can be cloudy, windy, even snowy – which is great when you have a lover, because you can’t physically leave the house!”