Instead, it is much quicker to hop into the gondola. From our base at the Palazzina
Grassi, we are fortunate enough to sit at Venice’s very centre. To the north is the Rialto bridge. On the other side
is St Mark’s Square, with its fantastical basilica; and right across the bridge is the alternative neighbourhood of
After breakfast at the Palazzina Grassi, our gondolier took us through a network of
smaller canals, pointing at the palazzos, like the Papadopoli, and singing old tunes that have no doubt been passed
down through generations of his fellow boatmen. “It’s the regatta,” he told us, motioning to the banners on each
balcony and interrupting himself mid-song. Tomorrow, hundreds of boats will parade through the waterways in varying
colours and for different causes. It happens in the same week as the Film Festival. Quite the time to be in
We had heard news of a popular and authentic spot to grab cicchetti—that Venetian
pintxo slice of crusty bread topped with mammoth portions of seafood, cheese, and ham. Osteria al Squero is a
hole-in-the-wall packed with students from the nearby university, as well as the city’s writers and painters. It’s
also—a good sign—a place where the dominant language one hears is Italian, and even better, in the cursive Venice
dialect. We ordered a spritz Select, the original version of the spritz drink, which sits between the sweet and
bitter flavours of Campari and Aperol and slightly boozier, so that after two, the already dreamlike surroundings of
the city become pleasantly deranged.
On the other side of the canal, we spied a boatyard. “That,” our gondolier mentioned
to us, “is where they repair the gondolas. There are two Tyrolean homes, do you see?” In the foreground, wooden-log
buildings, more Alpine than Venetian stand out like flies in a glass of milk. They are not meant to be here, but
their presence among the spires and Moorish windows marks another cultural irregularity in Venice’s architecture.
The story goes that many of the artisans who crafted the gondolas were brought in from the Tyrol region of northern
Italy—setting up shop, they built their own homes to match those of the beloved Alpine villages.
The famous Harry’s Bar was an appropriate port-of-call for a drink after lunch. This
is where the Bellini and the Carpaccio were conceived by founder Giuseppe Cipriani, and the small, honeycomb bar
became increasingly more famous under the stewardship of his son Arrigo (who was meant to be called Harry, but
because of strict rules in the facist Italy of the time, settled with something near enough).
Aside from the Bellini, which is delicate and moreish, they specialise in mixing cod
with polenta, or offering portions of freshly-caught fish. Lunch at Harry’s is a pick-and-mix of dishes that is all
the more satisfying when they are shared. Things are done simply, and with a level of taste so subtle that you
become unaware of its magic until leaving (ask to see the unusual Martini glass, and you’ll recognise Arrigo’s
genius). Hemingway, Guggenheim, and Truman Capote all found a home here. And so we felt as though we were in good
company, even among the storied phantoms of another time.
In good spirits, we departed to shop at the city’s little nooks and shops. Venice is
full of treasures still crafted in the traditional way, and Giberto Glass makes the finest Murano glassware—which is
itself among the best in the world. It is run by Count Giberto Arrivabene, the dashing aristocrat who resides on the
top-floor of the Palazzo Papadopoli. There are also elegant furlane slippers to be found at Piadaterre by the
Rialto: the original address to find the gondolier shoe (which actually looks rather chic when paired with your
cotton or linen tailoring).
Then, there is the most Venetian of gifts: a carnival mask. Ca’ Macana in Dorsoduro
offers classes where one can make their own—or simply choose the various personas, from Harlequin to the sad Pierrot
from the walls. Nearby, we gathered some stationary from the famous Alberto Valese Ebru, who with the traditional
methods of printmaking offers notebooks and photograph albums that are adorned with the facades of the palazzos and
buildings of the Grand Canal. Within these notebooks, we scribbled our plans for the next day and departed for the
Palazzina Grassi, as time—like the waterways themselves—moved on at a rapid pace.
“Tomorrow, we’ll make an effort to see the Tinoretto’s at San Rocco,” we promised.
“Then we’ll sit at Florian’s in San Marco’s Square before exploring Peggy Guggenheim’s collection at the museum.”
Plans must be made in Venice ahead of time. There are so many things to see and to do, and the day disappears as the
endless distraction of the city’s beauty slows one’s pace, and brightly lit restaurants invite one to spend hours
and hours inside eating lagoon crab, clams, or vongole spaghetti.
There was Alla Madonna, tucked into an alleyway by the Rialto. Since the early 50s,
visitors have arrived to try the seafood and their sweet tiramisu (indeed, it is a candidate for the dessert’s
origin). On the Lido, we sat beside the directors and film critics at Trattoria Andri. The dish to order here is the
octopus prepared in its own ink, with a slice of polenta—a must-have when in Venice. “But nothing makes a Venetian
happier than tramezzino!” remarked our gondolier. These small Italian finger sandwiches can be found all over the
city, crammed with prawns, salamis, and eggs; favoured by all walks of life. If you walk into Bar Tiziano, you will
notice off-duty gondoliers resting by the steel bar, picking a selection of tramezzini to enjoy with a draft beer or
a glass of wine.
By then, it had gotten quite late. We had been invited to an event that evening that
was supposed to be gathering the stars of the day with members of Venetian society. This called for us to dig out
our black-tie ensemble, and as we waited patiently for our colleagues, we could not resist the Palazzina Grassi’s
Krug Champagne Lounge, which had a spirit of the old world, but felt contemporary and cool. With the Film Festival
in full motion, chatter about the movies filled the air; about what was worth seeing, what—and this was where people
tittered and lowered their voices—had been less than satisfactory, and the small scandals that met the cinephilia of
the occasion with a sense of celebrity worship. The Festival brings another, quite glamorous mood to Venice, and it
is no way overbearing.
On leaving, one of the city’s biggest charms is how unusually quiet the streets
become when the sun sets. As you join the maze-like alleyways and step through the empty piazzas, a chance for a
night-cap emerges in the bars and rooftop terraces. The Terrezza Danieli and the Sagra Bar offer wonderful views
over Venice at night-time, and from above, it always seems like a place where anything might happen and at any
moment; the water and horizon fading into one another, and the mustard-lights of the vaporetto boats going
to-and-fro, from the sublime of the Festival to the serenity of the Grand Canal.
Couples walk home from their ‘Giro d’ombre’—or wine stroll. The tavern-like bacaros
have a bustling atmosphere, whether you decide to visit the friendly Osteria Al Pugni or the Cantine del Vino gia
Schiavi, where all customers are encouraged to drink and eat standing up; a pit-stop before the next, and then the
one after that. It’s a myth that Venice is a giant tourist-trap. If you scratch the surface, turn away from the
Grand Canal, real and authentic spots become easily accessible. The hip neighbourhood of Cannaregio is all the more
inviting for the canal-sides that are lined with bacari, serving delicious food (our pick is the iconic Paradiso
Perduto—seafood platters aplenty) and flavoursome Veneto wines. But a few short turns away from the Rialto, and the
dusty tavern signs once again invite us in for something to eat or drink.
Venice is a city that mixes its own grand opulence with down-to-earth sensibilities.
Sure, the central streets are flooded with tourists—and consequently, overrun restaurants and gift shops bait the
naive visitor. But as the writer Italo Calvino once wrote about Venice, “...you take delight not in a city’s seven
or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” If you intend to discover the real Venice,
the answer will meet you in the beauty of its museums, canals, and softly-lit trattorias, and the resurgence of a
new creative spirit that resides merely a skip-and-a-hop away from its major attractions.