I fell in love with Florence at the age of 10 and have travelled widely since, but somehow I always return to this most magical of cities.
Find a Gondola Repair Shop
Well, my window / looked out on the Square where Ogni Santi / meets San Trovaso / things have ends and beginnings - Ezra Pound, Cantos
From his rooms in Venice, Ezra Pound overlooked a squero (or gondola building yard). Built in the 17th century, the Squero di San Trovaso is the oldest remaining squeri in Venice—at the height of her powers, some ten thousand gondolas served the city.
Although closed to the public, the Squero di San Trovaso sits beside a small canal, (where in Venice doesn't?) so all the comings and goings are easily seen across the Rio San Trovaso from the Fondamenta Nani. (A fondamenta is a street running alongside a canal.) I saw some half-dozen gondolas in various stages of construction and repair. A few were being covered with black lacquer; seven coats are needed to give the boats their famous gloss. (Laws passed in 1562 decreed all gondolas to be black to prevent ostentatious displays of wealth.) There was even a tank gondola, which looked remarkably like a sea-worthy Dalek.
The Tradition of Gondolas and Gondoliers
The arch of Venetian bridges is just high enough to allow a standing gondolier to pass beneath. (I'm not sure if height regulations exist for gondoliers!) Around the end of the 19th century the design of gondolas subtly changed, lengthening the left side by 24 cm to make the boat asymmetrical. With the gondolier standing on the left side and with the oar on the right, this change corrected the tendency of the gondola to veer leftwards which each forward stroke.
Today all manner of craft ply the waters of Venice, from vegetable barges to garbage trucks and even ambulances. Enormous ocean liners pass through the lagoon, their controversial wash flooding into the canals. Yet gondolas and their striped-shirted gondoliers remain part of the city’s mythology, having been part of Venetian life for over one thousand years. Their knowledge of the canals is unequalled, and legend holds they are born with webbed feet, the better for them to walk on water.
A Bocca di Leone
From the Squero San Trovaso a short walk leads to the Zattere, a long quayside looking across the Venetian lagoon to the island of Giudecca. The breeze carries the smell of the sea, while the call of gulls fills the air. Outside the Santa Maria della Visitazione stands a bocca di leone, a letterbox where anonymous denunciations were once made to The Great Council.
The "Lion's Mouth" once stood in every district of Venice (the lion, of course, being the symbol of the city). They first appeared around 1310 after a failed coup, allowing for anonymous denunciations and complaints to be slipped into a sealed box via the mouth. Complaints ranged from tax evasion to simple reports of blasphemy; health infringements to treason. Only a few bocca di leone remain: in the Doge's Palace, the Church of St. Matin (in Castello) and the Church of St Moses (in the San Marco district).
Stand on the Pugilist Bridge
I crossed the Grand Canal into that area of Venice called the Dorsoduro. As I walked bells chimed the hour from a handful of churches, each sounding a few minutes apart (for, like the rest of Italy, churches in Venice run to their own time).
In a few minutes I'd swapped the noise and bustle of tourist-laden Venice for a maze of alleyways and pretty piazzas. Cafes spilt onto the streets and picturesque residences lined the quiet canals. Small shops burst with flowers and vegetable seedlings, supplying all those hidden courtyards and gardens throughout the city.
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The Fondamenta Gherardini, which runs alongside the Rio San Barnaba, is often cited as the prettiest street in Venice. It opens into the quiet canal-side Piazza San Barnaba, complete with a barge selling fruit and vegetables. The square and surrounding streets are filled with antiques and excellent leather shops (at cheaper prices than the more touristy areas of Venice), cafes and restaurants, as well grocery shops and the like for the residents of the area.
The colourful vegetable barge is moored beside the Ponte dei Pugni. On it are two sets of footprints, marking the starting positions for traditional fistfights. Enormously popular, these fights once drew huge crowds as teams from rival areas fought for supremacy. Other bridges used for fist-fighting were the Ponte Diedo at San Marziale, the Ponte della Guerra at Santa Fosca, and the Ponte della Guerra at San Zulien.
These fist-fights were not simply a contest between two pugilists; a champion stood in the spots marked by the footprints, a small army of fighters behind him. The fight finished when all on the opposing team had been thrown into the canal, often awash with blood. (The fights became so violent they were banned in 1705.)
Stay in a Convent
San Marco’s was once the centre of Europe. Our place of abode lay merely two hundred steps away. Our first steps took us along the Mercerie, a string of narrow alleys which link San Marco to the Rialto. Renown for shopping, only the things for sale here have changed down the centuries; not the cobbles, not the buildings, not the throngs of people.
By step forty we’d left the crowds for a world of cobblestones and tiny piazzas. The cobbles led us around a corner and over a limestone to the very door of our place of abode. Like so many buildings in Venice our convent, the Instituto San Giuseppe, had a door opening directly onto the water. As we crossed the bridge a gondola came to a colourful stop outside our convent to collect passengers.
As with all over Italy, many convents and monasteries in Venice offer accommodation. The rooms are spotlessly clean, often in buildings centuries old, and are a cheaper alternative to a hotel. The Instituto San Giuseppe proved a maze of grand staircases and marble halls. Paintings covered the ceilings and walls—in a room large enough to host a masked ball, a fresco peeked out from under the scaffolding of restoration—and everywhere was bathed in peace.
In the Dorsoduro area, I stayed in the Instituto Canossiano San Trovaso. This proved a perfect area to stay, well removed from the crowds of San Marco. The streets around the convent were devoid of tourists, and quite often empty, yet just a stroll away (near the Campo San Margherita) I found more than enough cafes and restaurants to satisfy the most ardent gourmand (not to mention the shopping). My room overlooked a flower-filled courtyard. In the distance a campanile tolled away the hours while towering (at a slight angle) over the other buildings, while next morning I woke to the sound of seagulls, followed shortly by the first bells of the day.
Visit the House of the Snail Shell
Venice is a city to be explored on foot. Chaotic streets suddenly become deserted alleys, which after a few bends empty into a street so crowded it's almost impossible to move. No matter how confusing the winding streets become, there is always a sign pointing either to the Rialto Bridge or to San Marco—usually in a direction which seems counter-intuitive, and in the opposite direction to the last sign. Few streets are straight and many bridges bend, so by late afternoon even space and time seem to curve until reinforced with a double espresso.
Seeking the Palazzo Cantarini del Bovolo, I left the Piazza San Marco and religiously followed the map, only to emerge back on the other side of the piazza. Competing string quartets from the various cafes filled the air with waltzes, and swarms of pigeons flocked around anyone offering food. A second attempt at discovery, and I was rewarded—but only by following other people who had cameras at the ready, rather than relying on the small signs pasted haphazardly on the buildings.
The 15th C Palazzo Cantarini del Bovolo is so called for it boasts a tower with a curving, external stairway, highlighted in white marble against the terracotta building. Bovolo is Italian for snail shell, and this is exactly what the spiral staircase resembles (although I like to think of it as the Cinderella house). The Cantarini family were known as a family of philosophers, and after extensive renovations, the palazzo is now open to the public.
Farewell to Venice
No matter how often I return to Venice, I always find something new. Many buildings may be crumbling, but Venice is definitely a city very much alive. She is a city for walking, discovering what lies hidden down a beckoning alley, promenading through as darkness falls, or simply sipping a prosecco and watching the world wander by.
Resources If You Go
Città di Venezia: Official website of the City of Venice
Booking Monastery: For those interested in a convent stay
© 2015 Anne Harrison