The light filters through the curtains, drawing circles on the wall. The air is crisp and smells of wet grass after the night thunderstorm. The road under the window is still quiet; only the chirping birds can be heard. It is an ordinary morning in an ordinary provincial town, sleepy after a busy weekend dedicated to a book festival. At the train station, journalists, authors and editors are waiting for the train together with commuters and students; they can be recognized from the trolleys and cloth bags full of books, from their casual dressing style and the air of someone who feels on holiday after all. And I feel the same as I get on the train, glad that the sky is blue and sun shines over this late summer day. Next stop, Venice.
Venice and the seasons
The sleepy and quiet atmosphere vanishes as soon as we arrive at Santa Lucia station. I think I’ve never got off the train in Venice without feeling engulfed by people. It’s like the city itself held out its arms to squeeze you in a warm embrace, pulling you into the far too crowded alleys marked by the yellow signs indicating two directions only: Rialto/San Marco and Ferrovia/Piazzale Roma.
Having seen Venice in every season, I know there are a few weeks during the winter when the calli are almost empty. You can have it all for yourself, if you’re brave enough to face the fog that makes this floating city so evanescent and mysterious, the mist lifting from the water and the early evening shadows, the wet feet when it’s raining and the bridges which turn into slippery gangways under your boots. But it’s cold. So cold that you can’t really enjoy it.
In autumn though, in those warm days of late sunsets and shimmering sea, tourists pour into the calli and fill the ferries. Yet it’s the best season for a slow walk through the city, finding new details and addresses, buying an ice cream on the go or stopping for a coffee, watching the gondole and taking pictures of Venetian windows, laundry hanging in the sun, floating markets.
Being able to go to Venice whenever you want is a luxury, I know. It means that you can skip museums without regrets, being satisfied with just admiring the astounding Basilica with its five domes, its marbles, statues and mosaics without entering; you can simply stand in Piazza San Marco and move you eyes from the church to the adjacent Palazzo Ducale, so elegant with its pink and white façade.
It means deviating from the usual path to find new routes, which sometimes may even turn out to be disappointing. Like when we followed the indications from San Marco to the Accademia, and after crossing the bridge we walked in the university suburb, among dirty walls and concrete buildings. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that the decadent beauty of Venice, the old artists’ charming works have to live with ugly post-war constructions.
Ordinary life in Cannaregio
That’s why I prefer the area between Cannaregio and Castello and the calli which form the old ghetto. Following an old woman carrying two bags of carrots, zucchini and bread loafs, we crossed a little bridge and found ourselves in an unknown campo (square). I peered into a small courtyard and saw an iron table, two chairs and a lovely pergola.
You can bump into unexpected hotels and B&Bs here, which might be worth a visit. Sleeping in Venice is a challenge. Prices are high and rooms disappointing. Either you’re so lucky as to find a special offer in one of the luxury hotels, or you’d better brace yourself and look for the hidden gems. Which might be very well hidden indeed. Anyways, I’m gonna tell about some places now, which gave meaning to an ordinary walk in an ordinary end-of-summer day in Venice.
From the station, turn left into Lista di Spagna, a narrow lane packed with pastry shops, shoe shops and small hotels. Cross Campo San Geremia and the bridge called Ponte delle Guglie, then walk along Rio Terà San Leonardo with its picturesque stalls selling fruit and vegetables and the pretty balconies.
Eventually you’ll come across Rio della Misericordia, a channel leading into a quiet area. The coloured boats, the old shops with rusty signs, every detail contributes to creating a shabby and therefore charming atmosphere.
On the left, enclosed between Rio della Misericordia and Rio del Ghetto is Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, a large square in the heart of the Jewish suburb. Kosher shops and osterie (traditional restaurants), locals standing on the doorways chatting, the smell of baked bread coming from behind a closed door. It might be a trick of my mind, but I seem to hear the voices of those who once lived in this place, soaked in history, hope and despair. The elegant, wealthy Venice that everyone knows seems so far away.
Moving on towards Rialto you get to the St Apostles’ Church, in a lovely square where you can stop for a while, sit on a bench and watch people come and go. Exploring the calli around the square I found a teashop, Peter’s TeaHouse, which might not be a typical Venetian shop but smells deliciously. I recognized cinnamon, vanilla, licorice and jasmine. Nearby are also few organic little cafés and wine bars. Following Rio dei Santi Apostoli, leaving Canal Grande behind, you’ll come across so many osterie and hidden courtyards, with climbing ivy and pots of ferns.
Rialto Bridge has a particular charm, like all the palaces facing Canal Grande. Each of them has its own artistic past and architectural details. It’s hard to resist the temptation to sit at one of the outdoor tables of the many restaurants and cafés on the channel, to enjoy a lazy lunch, a drink or a coffee with tiramisu. It’s a famous Italian dessert made with coffee, sponge cake and mascarpone.
Lunch break at Vinaria
I discovered, almost by chance, a place where you can sit and eat without spending a fortune or being disappointed by the food. Vinaria has a great location, at the bottom of Riva del Vin and next to the ferry stop of San Silvestro. Here you can enjoy a very Italian pizza and a wonderful view in a relaxing atmosphere, and be happy.
Santa Maria del Giglio
Across the channel, at the ferry stop of Santa Maria del Giglio, there’s a bench right in front of The Gritti Palace Hotel. Sit here for a few minutes with an ice cream cone bought at Suso (in Calle della Bissa; try their salted pistachio and gianduia chocolate) and relax after a long walk. Some gondolieri wearing striped T-shirts are waiting for tourists willing to take a ride on the gondolas, eating their lunch.
I look up at the windows of the houses around us, with their different shapes and style. Scarlet geranium and classic columns embellish the little balconies, green shutters match the warm colours of the façades. At the end of the calle, the church of Santa Maria del Giglio stands in the sunlight. Every detail seems to be there for a reason, like in a music composition to get the perfect harmony. Venice’s secret chord.