In winter, the city is shrouded in mists, the tourist tide has ebbed, and it’s possible to find rooms and eat in the best restaurants without a hassle.
Visitors can experience La Serenissima as the gorgeous spectacle it is without being jostled by crowds that, in summer, rival those in rush hour Tokyo. Venice generates vast sums from tourism but is shamefully neglectful of its heritage, and seemingly indifferent to the vandalism that is scarring its beauty. It has also prevaricated on installing the flood barriers that would protect vulnerable structures from constant flooding. However, this is Italy, where government has been corrupt and dysfunctional for centuries. Life goes on regardless.
Ignore the blemishes, stay clear of the Piazza San Marco and focus on some of the marvels that lie off the beaten track. A good place to start is the Salute church and vaporetto stop. The Punta della Dogana (customs house) at the tip of the island has been transformed into a gallery for the contemporary art collection of Francois Pinault, a French magnate who also bought the Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal. Pinault has truly appalling taste in art, but he had the good sense to hire Tadao Ando, the Japanese minimalist, to subtly remodel the interiors of historic buildings while preserving their authenticity. Ten minutes walk up the Zattere (a waterfront promenade) is the Vedova Foundation, which has done a similarly imaginative job on the old salt warehouses. Back on the Grand Canal is the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, which occupies the unfinished Palazzo de Leone. This is one of the most romantic places in the city, for it was home to one of America’s greatest collectors before it became a museum and it displays a marvelous collection of modern art that puts Pinault’s ephemeral junk to shame.
Early one morning, you should visit the food market just north of the Rialto Bridge, a cornucopia of produce and fish that appear fresh-caught. Backtrack to the Arsenale, a sprawling shipyard that once sustained the city’s maritime power. Its watergate is guarded by a menagerie of stone lions and its brick towers are encrusted with inscribed plaques. The Italian naval authorities cling to this former strategic base but they allow the public to wander though the decaying brick halls and tranquil waterways during the Art Biennale (June-November). Along the quay, the Venice Naval History Museum is crammed with models of the warships and pleasure boats that were built here.
Close by is one of the best local restaurants, Trattoria Corte Sconta (Calle Pelestrin 3886; 041 522 7024), which specializes in seafood and offers a lavish antipasto of shellfish in a tavern-like interior or a patio across the street. Other good choices on neighboring blocks include the Trattoria da Remigio (Salizada dei Greci 3416; 523 0089) where locals go for the gnocchi alla gorgonzola, and Al Covo (Campiello de la Pescaria 3698; 522 3812), which prepares pasta and local fish in inventive ways.
St George slays a rather unimpressive dragon and does other good works in the paintings that Vittore Carpaccio created for the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. They are as fresh and engaging as when they were created, almost five hundred years ago, for the artist was able to bring miracles down to earth as though they were everyday events in the life of the city. Lions and lap dogs keep company with saints and gondoliers. A few streets further on, in the former monastery of St Apollonia, is a tranquil Romanesque cloister, the only one to survive in this overwhelmingly Gothic city.
Another quiet oasis is the Biblioteca Querini-Stampalia: a Renaissance palace whose noble owner bequeathed it to the city as a public library that stays open until 11pm. You enter by a wooden bridge across a canal and discover that the ground floor and garden have been transformed into a geometrical artwork by Carlo Scarpa, a Venetian architect of the postwar era. Further along are two enchanting discoveries from the pleasure-loving eighteenth century. The Ridotto Venier was a casino that is now occupied by the Alliance Francaise, and the Sala della Musica is located up an oval staircase from the Ospedatto, an old-people’s home adjoining SM Derelitti church. Ask the custodians politely and they’ll let you in to admire the rococo stuccoes and patterned floors. Wander back to the Ospidale to see the finest example of an equestrian sculpture by Verrochio at the Campo del SS. Giovanni e Paolo. A charming place to stop for lunch is at the wisteria-covered Osteria & Trattoria Al Nono Risorto (524 1169) in Santa Croce.
There are too few good eateries in Venice to satisfy the demand, so prices are high and it’s essential to reserve. Three others that offer exemplary seafood at a fair price, friendly service and a welcoming atmosphere include: Lineadombra (241 1881), a stylish, intimate restaurant behind the Salute on the Zattere; Osteria Santa Marina (528 5239) in the small campo of that name, a ten-minute walk from the Rialto; and the tiny, funky Alle Testiere (522 7220) on Calle del Mondo Nuovo. Not far from the Fenice is the famous waterside Ristorante da Raffaele (523 2317), perfect in the summer for watching the hustle and bustle on the canals and also in winter, seated by the large roaring fire place surrounded by an impressive collection of antique weaponry, including a suit of armor. Quirky, but full of charm, this ristorante serves exceptional traditional Italian cuisine.
Accommodation in Venice varies widely from the grandest to the humblest of abodes, but in between are a few affordable gems such as La Residenza on the Campo Bandiera e Moro in Castello–a 15th-century pink marble palace in a quiet neighborhood square, with small rooms opening off a central hall. Another, is La Calcina, an intimate and friendly pensione where John Ruskin stayed when he was writing The Stones of Venice. It is located on the Zattere, which has sweeping views over the Giudecca Canal, and is a cozy retreat in winter. They also have apartments available for rent. The Pensione Accademia in the Dorsoduro is also very popular with simple Spartan rooms but enchanting views of the canal and a delightful garden oasis.
And what would Venice be without its music? Check out what is playing at the Interpreti Veneziana–a fine ensemble of classical musicians who regularly play at the Chiesa San Vidal–but be sure to catch a performance at the restored La Fenice, which was destroyed by arson in 1996 and re-opened in 2004 at a cost of 38 million pounds. Despite the general excitement at the reopening of the iconic theatre there were people who claimed it would have been more practical to build a brand new opera house instead. But as the theatre’s administer said at the time, “This is Venice, we can’t do that! We must respect the past!”
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