The great advantage of visiting an iconic city for the second time is that the pressure is off – there’s no longer that urgent impulse to tick off the major must-see tourist attractions within a short time frame.
A few years ago I had the privilege of a romantic trip to Venice, where we made it all happen: San Marco, drinks by the Rialto, the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs, a romantic gondola ride, cocktails at Harry’s bar, exploring the Jewish Ghetto, the Guggenheim – and still had time for wandering into stumbled-upon churches to discover Renaissance art, and to get lost in the back streets.
So for my second visit to Venice my free time was wide open – to revisit favourites, or pick up on recommendations of lesser-known attractions, or simply soak up the atmosphere of a city where the number one attraction is the glamour of being there.
My accommodation was in Dorsoduro, not far from the tourist hot spots – because nowhere in Venice is far from anywhere else – but much of it a world away in terms of peace and quiet.
The Zattere quai is the walkway where it almost feels like being beside the seaside – instead of looking across canals to apartments or palazzos, I look out across the wide expanse of the Giudecca Canal to the residential island of Giudecca; the actual seaside area of the Lido lies beyond. But stopping here for gelato or seafood, the scent is unmistakably of the sea, seaweed populates the water that laps against the quayside, and tiny crabs are nestled among the fronds.
Before long though, the sight of charming bridges and narrow calles makes the prospect of turning off the Zattere to explore further very enticing.
The streets and canals here are characterised by a sense of space that’s impossible to achieve around the Rialto or even in San Marco, where you are never more than a couple of metres from another person. Canals and calles are wider, and there are fewer high buildings, giving a less claustrophobic feel and a welcome lightness to the area.
There are many newer, more functional buildings around here – unsurprising given that this is Venice’s student quarter – the location of the Ca’Foscari University Many of the newer buildings are brick, so very much in keeping with the historic architecture of the city; others are not so ‘Venetian’, and as you pass you could be in any European university town with 1970s add-on classroom buildings. Colourful graffiti and walls patch-worked with posters add to the recognisable studenty feel.
(To think, you could have studied in actual Venice. That’s a thing that people do…)
There are other tourists strolling around, but not many, and we’re outnumbered passing through the small campos by students and older local residents with somewhere to be.
In a small campo near a school, mums have gathered for a chat on the way home while their children scoot around them. It seems like every Venetian child owns a scooter, not surprising since they can delight in the freedom of scooting from campo to calle with no fear of traffic speeding past metres away from them.
I take myself down a narrow maze of calles where a mother and child are walking in front of me. In a few moments they have turned a corner and almost instantly I can’t hear them any more. The noises behind me have receded and there are a few rows of stone buildings between me and the canal, so that for a moment I am in complete silence, with only the light, the city and billows of fragrant wisteria alongside me. I am stilled, and take a moment to bask in the silence, so unique to a city where the nearest car is miles away.
Eventually I reach the destination I’ve been vaguely aiming for – Campo Santa Margherita, the large piazza at the heart of Dorsoduro. It’s a large open space, impressive and welcoming, although there are no grand churches or palazzos staking claim to the space; just shops, bars, apartments with roof terraces perched above the tiles and the usual restaurant tables lining its edges. I choose a table for lunch at a smaller traditional-looking restaurant with guinguette-style red checked tablecloths and napkins charmingly draped over the lampshades. At Ristorante Ai Sportivi students are taking up tables between classes, next to business owners and other tourists. The square is buzzing with a low-key easy energy.
It’s not always easy to tell whether the next person strolling past with a gelato is a tourist, or shopper, someone on their way to class or heading back to work. Children are playing football, their ball skittering across the flagstones while parents watch from bright red benches under the chestnut trees, other students linger around the war memorial with sandwiches. Pigeons are trilling at my feet and pecking at invisible particles in the cracks.
The waiter takes my order. We may be a little off the beaten track, but it’s still Venice, so he speaks English of course. There are no pictures of the food here though; always a consoling sign that you’ve strayed at least a bit from the herd.
After lunch, I stroll to the opposite corner of the campo to continue my exploration – passing market stall holders hosing down the flagstones as they pack up for the day, pausing to watch tourists taking pictures of the ubiquitous colourful laundry strung from one window to another, noticing the arbitrary patter of pot plants dotted across the walls of green-shuttered apartment buildings – and I head back into the peaceful maze of calles that will lead me, perhaps, back in the direction of the Accademia.
Venice can seem like the high-maintenance princess of European cities: la Serenissima simply must be looked at, adored, photographed in all her precarious glamour. But in Dorsoduro you have the sense of a city where live is lived, regardless of the beautiful drama a few crooked blocks away. In fact I’ve learned that its name translates as ‘hard land’, reflecting that this sestiere was settled as an actual area of solid land, rather than being balanced on stilts like the rest of the city. Perhaps that why it’s the place to go to feel grounded in a trip to Venice.
The Hard-Land Lowdown
Where to stay, eat and visit in Dorsoduro:
Dorsoduro is not, however, without its blue-chip attractions. It’s probably the optimum part of Venice to head to if you’re an art lover: the Gallerie dell’Accademia, with its significant collection of renaissance art, is a focal point of the area, next to the landmark bridge across the Grand Canal. (Unlike the Rialto, which seems made for looking at, the Accademia bridge is the one to cross to get great views of Venice, as long as you don’t mind fighting your way through a forest of selfie sticks.) Further along the Grand Canal, modern art fans will love the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, where you can also enjoy a peaceful coffee in the beautiful sculpture garden. The narrow calles between the two galleries form a busy tourist thoroughfare, unsurprisingly lined with small eye-catching galleries, jewellery shops and souvenir shops which fall at the more tasteful end of the market.
A few more recommendations:
There’s more modern art in the Punta Della Dogana, located right at the tip of Dorsoduro at the entrance to the Grand Canal. Along with the Palazzo Grassi on the other side of the Canal, its current exhibition – until December 2017 – is Damien Hirst’s ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’. I’ve always been fairly cynical about Hirst but I found this really fascinating, and even if you’re not sure about the concept it’s an impressive spectacle.
Right behind the Punta Della Dogano is one of the most visible landmarks from that side of the lagoon: Santa Maria della Salute, the church dedicated to Mary after Venice was delivered from the plague in 1630. It’s worth a visit to see the unusual octagonal layout and works of art by Tintoretto and Titian.
By the time you read this, the church of Santa Maria della Visitazione, and its peaceful cloisters, might now be open to the public. They are part of a complex which was a former monastery, and is the centre where our writing retreat was held and accommodated. You can find it at Zattere just near the vaporetto stop. Our group was treated to a private tour of the church and cloisters so I can attest that it is a (so far) hidden gem!
For accommodation, I can recommend the Centro Culturale Don Orione Artigianelli as a more affordable option for staying in hotel-standard accommodation in Venice itself (rather than having to go across the lagoon or downgrading to a hostel, for example). As a former monastery still run by the church, the rooms are simple, without extra amenities, but freshly-decorated, airy, en-suite and generously sized. Many of them overlook the charming courtyards or cloisters that make up the complex. The history of the place is evident at every corner, while the more modern upgrades create a really interesting juxtaposition of old and new.
The attached restaurant was probably my favourite during our stay. Ristorante San Trovaso is just far enough off the beaten track to have you dining alongside locals, with no canal views but in a lovely garden courtyard. Simple decor lets the food be the main attraction. My favourites were the antipasti plate of bresaola, and the traditional Venetian pasta of homemade bigoli (like really thick, chunky spaghetti) with sugo d’Anitra – duck ragu.
There’s also a lovely takeaway (my new American friends: “Takeaway? Does that mean takeout?” Yes, it does, lovely Americans!) just across the street for more budget-conscious possibilities.
Also very popular for writing fuel was the Gelateria Nico on the Zattere, a long-established gelateria where you can sample all sorts of imaginative flavour options. For drinks, we stopped once or twice at Corner Pub, near the Guggenheim, which is not really a pub at all but a traditional bacalo, where you can join the locals in propping up the window ledges of neighbouring galleries and shops while you sip your spritz or beer.
So, do go and find out what news there is at the Rialto, and shell out for your gondola ride, indulge in a Bellini and join the throng at San Marco. But when Princess Venice gets demanding, head for Dorsoduro – and solid ground.
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