There’s something about Venice that makes you believe in possibility, in the human capacity to accomplish anything. That people can not only live, but thrive in these marshy lagoons is a testament to our ability to adapt and overcome.
The dynamic struggle between man and the sea plays out in dramatic fashion here on a daily basis in a thousand different ways. It is a city of great contradictions — a place of shifting tides, a place in between land and water, a place that shouldn’t exist. Venice is inexorably sinking, millimeter by millimeter, year after year; yet the city feels more alive than ever.
My wife and I arrived in Venice on the heels of a wonderful weekend celebrating the wedding of some close friends of ours on nearby Lake Garda. We had only a single day before catching our flight back home and had already seen the “must-do’s” on a previous trip, so we resolved to spend the day walking the city, cameras in hand, no agenda in mind.
Sunrise is my favorite part of the day when I travel. Walking through the streets as the rest of the world sleeps is exhilarating; it’s nature’s espresso (I highly recommend drinking actual espresso at some point as well — sunrise is early!). We started our day with St. Mark’s Square, “the drawing room of Europe” as Napoleon famously called it, all to ourselves, relishing the early morning light slowly painting the arches and cobblestones gold.
There was only so much relishing I could do before I decided to take my drone up for a spin. I’m a big proponent of flying a drone in tourist destinations early in the morning when there aren’t other people around. It’s safer and much more stress-free. As I flew over the Grand Canal, I marveled at the layout of the buildings and canals. A bird’s-eye view (in this case either a seagull or pigeon would be the appropriate bird) gave me a wonderful new perspective of the timeless city.
After successfully enjoying Piazza San Marco without the thunderous day-tripping hordes that would soon invade the square, we headed north.
Dead Ends and Canals
As we walked through the alleys, we started to notice signs of life everywhere — boats being prepared, groceries and supplies delivered, laundry hung out, and metal grates lowering as shops and kiosks opened for the day. It was peaceful with little hint of the daily chaos that permeates the streets during “high season.”
Venice is a city of criss-crossing small neighborhoods bundled into six main historic areas or “sestiere,” each its own fully functioning organic community, complete with a church and main square. Peter Ackroyd describes it in his seminal work “Venice: Pure City,” ‘Each neighborhood was a self-contained entity … It was a Venice in miniature … The people of one district may not know the topography of another. There were parts of the city to which many, if not most, Venetians had never been. It was not unknown for a Venetian to live his or her own life without venturing beyond the bounds of the sestiere.’
Venice is certainly insular by nature, any city with natural canal divisions is bound to be so. But that didn’t stop us from passing through neighborhoods from campo to campo. We strolled past parishioners on their way to morning Mass, stopped for cappuccini (“Prendiamo un caffè?”) and drank them standing at the bar as per custom, and took a series of “wrong” turns, each one pleasingly ending at the water’s edge.
We doubled back countless times, engaged in some light window shopping, and ate some the freshest pasta I’ve ever had from a tiny take-away joint called “Dal Moro” in the Castello neighborhood. Sitting on the steps of a nearby bridge and enjoying our delicious lunch, we watched the world slowly float by.
One should always try to immerse themselves in the local rhythms of a new place and chatting with locals is often the best way. Sharing pleasantries with regulars at a cafe after lunch led to a conversation with a gondolier named Marco, a character straight out of a Shakespearean play. A few hours after our frantically paced, half-English half-Italian talk we found ourselves in Canareggio, the northernmost of the sestiere. Children kicked soccer balls back and forth in the street, businessmen headed home, and we were on the hunt for a bar Marco insisted was the best in the city: “Al Timon.”
With only a vague idea of its location, we trekked through the back alleys of Canareggio before happening upon it at the edge of the Ormesini canal. It was a picture-perfect setting with young revelers streaming in and out of the bar with food and drink, and settling in at tables and moored boats out front. The music was loud and the atmosphere was joyous. We shared a table inside with a group of young Venetians toasting the end of another day. They advised us to order a couple of spritz al bitters and cichetti, cheap and delicious appetizers, to go with our drinks. Out came a tiny feast of crostini, mozzarella, calamari, salami, gorgonzola, zucchini, olives, and prosciutto, all wonderfully seasoned and glistening with olive oil.
Back to the Beginning
Next, we found our way to the Ghetto Nuovo, the historic Jewish quarter of the city. Dinner was a delightful platter of Israeli-Italian inspired falafel, hummus, grilled fish, and a variety of salads at Gam Gam, a kosher restaurant canal-side (where else?) at the entrance to the Ghetto Vecchio.
We took the long way back through the San Polo and Dorsoduro neighborhoods with ample vino and gelato breaks before crossing the Ponte dell’Accademia over the Grand Canal.
A quick cliched stop at Harry’s Bar for a Bellini later, we were back where we started, staring at the splendor of St. Mark’s Square. Evening had brought about incredible change to the piazza. Lanterns glowed and tuxedoed orchestras played outside each of the bistros surrounding the square, sending a cacophony of sound into the night air. As we looked around, all we saw were smiles. We were all here in this incredible place together.
It is an undisputed fact that Venice is slowly sinking. The native population is dwindling and is losing its struggle with the sea. But when you sit in St. Mark’s on a beautiful summer evening and gaze at the wonders of the Renaissance, all you can see is an everlasting future.
As it once was, so shall it always be. The sunset faded, casting lovely pinks onto the clouds over the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore and we silently sat, drinking in the timelessness of this amazing city (along with a nightcap). The dancing gondolas in the water spoke of tradition and elegance, of being lost and found again, of ingenuity and hope. They spoke of Venice.